Proof

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein
Odysseus and Penelope, 1802
Oil on canvas

In a much-studied sequence of Homer’s Odysseythe old maid Eurýkleia bathes a beggar’s feet only to discover the precise scar that she knows to be of her lord, Odysseus. She responds, in a loud whisper:

“Oh yes! You are Odysseus! Ah, dear child! I could not see you until now — not till I knew my master’s very body with my hands!” (Homer, The Odyssey; trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

Famously, this passage has been discussed by the literary scholar Erich Auerbach as an example of proto-realism in Western literature, of the relationship between historicity, psychology, and text. This, of course, is in contrast (in Auerbach’s argument) to the Old Testament narrative, which has a different sort of relationship with history, psychology, and text. For Auerbach, Homer’s narrative forms the type of literature that aims at “mimesis,” the description of life in all its varied forms, whereas the Old Testament narrative forms the type of literature that aims at transformative truth.

However one feels about Auerbach’s famous argument, what strikes me about Eurýkleia’s exclamation and the sequence of Odysseus’ scar is how the precise moment of her recognition betrays The Odyssey‘s epistemology and its complex network regarding terms of knowledge and truth. This, perhaps, marks a far more significant distinction between the Old Testament and The Odyssey than Auerbach’s narratology. The former views Truth as the kind of thing that ought not be “tested” (cf. Dt. 6:16), while the latter, ever unsure of terms like “Truth,” views it as the kind of thing that must be tested. In short, what Auerbach sensed as a distinction primarily of genre and narrative form, I, instead, will suggest is a distinction primarily of epistemology and faith.

 

All throughout The Odyssey, both mortals and immortals go hidden or on secret purposes, and respond to events with an eye towards the secret purposes of the gods. For instance, whenever Odysseus wanders about in the guise of an old beggar, there is a common refrain of how sometimes the gods wander about disguised as beggars, and, thus, men ought to treat them well. The suggestion is one grounded on an unknown: one does not know whether the beggar before you is or is not, in reality, a god; thus, treat him well. This claim requires no moral argument — no rationalizing to the level of “human rights” of modern secular ethics. There is a level of skeptical pragmatism to it.

The distinction between Greco-Roman (if we can take The Odyssey as broadly representative of Greco-Roman thought) and Old Testament epistemology, then, lands on whether Truth can be accessed with or without mediation. In The Odyssey, Truth must be tested, providing some level of proof. Penélopê, for instance, tests Odysseus by suggesting that she move her bed, which he states is impossible since the bed is made of a tree still rooted into the ground. Likewise, Eurýkleia discovers Odysseus’ identity through the scar on his leg, and most other characters only discover Odysseus’ identity either through his testing of their faithfulness (in particular, his servants) or through his passing a test (e.g., defeating Penélopê’s trial and then slaying Antínoös immediately thereafter). In all The Odyssey, it is only Argos who recognizes Odysseus without any mediation; and most of the interactions between various characters (mortal and immortal) requires testing / proving in order for Truth to be revealed.

By comparison, the Old Testament operates from the assumption that Truth, while requiring mediation from person to person, can be transmitted directly, unmediated, from God to the human being. This is the significance of, for instance, Moses and the burning bush, Abraham’s call into Canaan, or Ezekiel’s vision of the one “like a son of man” on high. The Old Testament’s epistemology does not suspend the need for proof in certain relationships (especially from human-to-human) or for certain kinds of knowledge (war, science, politics, etc.), but it makes clear that the nature of Truth is the kind of thing that can be directly communicated without mediation from the Lord to His people. Thus, the First Commandment is “I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2); this is not a matter of proof or testing, but a declaration of a direct, revelatory Truth.

The Apostle and the Rhetorician

Cesare Maccari
Cicero Denouncing Catiline, 1888
Fresco

A few months ago, I found myself reading (for no explicit purpose other than reading leisure) some of the speeches of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous Roman orator. There I discovered a surprising turn-of-phrase in one of his famous denunciations of Catiline. Cicero is here referring to how they were able to uncover the Catilinian conspiracy:

… not on the basis of intelligence or of any human wisdom, but as a result of many unambiguous signs from the immortal gods… (Cicero, In Catilinam II)

Continue reading “The Apostle and the Rhetorician”

The Eye of Mordor

David Day
The Dark Tower of Mordor (detail), 1979
Illustration

As Frodo and Sam cross the Dead Marches, lead by the converted Smeagol, Sam observes that his master is feeling a heavier weight. The Ring is a heavy, terrible burden, and the closer it is brought to its maker, the heavier it weighs upon the Ring-Bearer. But even moreso than the Ring, Frodo begins to feel the weight of the Eye: Continue reading “The Eye of Mordor”

The Kingdom against Hegemony

Henryk Siemiradzki
Nero’s Torches, 1876
Oil on canvas

In approximately 94-95 A.D., an elderly man exiled to Patmos wrote a vision that he had received from God. How we ought to be interlocutors with his mode of composition (i.e. whether the written text is all visionary or partially visionary and partially literary) is unimportant for observing the heaviness of the content of his work: that is, the Book of Revelation as a text primarily concerned with the critique of Imperial power and the Christian answer to the problem of Empire. For the purposes of this post, I will be using the academic definition of Empire, as a political-social order that aims for hegemony over its subjects. Continue reading “The Kingdom against Hegemony”

Idols: An Introduction

Nicolas Poussin
The Adoration of the Golden Calf, 1634
Oil on canvas

The precise understanding of what constitutes an idol has been a matter of intense discussion for a long time. For some, an idol is any image that represents or stands on the behalf of God or gods. For others, for instance most modern evangelicals, an idol is any thing (broadly considered) that replaces or supplants the Lord God in a hierarchy of values, beliefs, or desires. Still others hold more nuanced views, such that the Eastern Orthodox do not hold icons of Christ to be either idols or transgressions of the Second Commandment, while most Presbyterians, on the other hand, would hold that images of Christ are transgressions of that commandment and, thus, also idols.

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Reconsidering: Untamable Words

Mary Cassatt
Baby on Mother’s Arm, 1891
Oil on canvas

“Reconsidering” is a series of posts written in the spirit of the Magic: the Gathering Time Spiral block. If you don’t get the reference, that’s okay. Some of the special cards in Time Spiral were just reprints of old cards packaged with the new ones. Some of them were old cards with new twists (mainly color changes). And some were cards that represented where the game was going in the future, with fun references to the game’s past. Here I’ll resurrect my old posts and ideas from my previous blogs, my MAPH notebooks, and various other collections from my past. Some I’ll leave as they are, others I’ll breathe new life into, and yet others I’ll reconfigure as future engagements that still touch on the old notions. This practice is both an act of remembrance — engaging with my own intellectual past — and an act of growing — learning to learn from old mistakes, or rediscover old masterpieces.

From an original post on my old blog dated April 4th, 2017.

Words arise without any history. One does not need to be an anthropologist-linguist to chart this particular mystery. One simply needs to be a parent, or an older sibling, or an aunt or uncle. Watch a child fumble with sounds that have no meaning, and he will begin to communicate whole lines of thought that are wholly and utterly incoherent yet not pointless. Every tumble of the lip, every tremble of the tongue, every throated yell, every “bah” on the mouth is the fundamental elements from whence speech comes. And, at some juncture, to the parents’ delight, that “bah” becomes “Dah dah dah,” “Mah mah mah,” sometimes “Bah bah bah” or “Kah kah kah,” which soon transforms into “Dadda,” Mamma,” “Babba” (bottle), and “Kaakaa” (kitty-cat). Continue reading “Reconsidering: Untamable Words”

Terrible Love

Thomas Satterwhite Noble
The Modern Medea, 1867
Oil on canvas

Spoiler warning ahead. I am going to discuss central plot details of the Toni Morrison novel Beloved, including information that the reader is not made aware of until the end of the first major division of the story. To be fair, in my edition of Beloved, Morrison herself spoils the plot detail in her Foreword, and she gives no spoiler warning. But she is the master, and I am not.

In her masterpiece Beloved, Toni Morrison depicts for us the complex reality of motherhood amidst freed (and escaped) slaves in antebellum America. Time and again, for instance, Baby Suggs — the mother-in-law of the main character, Sethe — wonders if she truly had any children beside the one she herself raised. We are told that she birthed many children, of course, but in her mind only Halle (Sethe’s husband) really counts as her son. There’s something about the structure of chattel slavery that not only dehumanizes and destroys individuals but also dehumanizes and destroys family units, societies, and cultures. Drawing upon Morrison’s language (though expanding it using the work of Frantz Fanon and the like) Hortense Spillers, in her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” observes that chattel slavery did more than transform people into bodies, but, even further, it deformed bodies into flesh. Bodies could, perhaps, have familial relations with one another, but pieces of flesh, ripped at will, cannot.

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(Not) Defining Violence

James Ensor
Death of Jezebel, 1880
Charcoal on tan wove paper

In view of various types of bombs and military actions, of the ever-increasing militarization of the police forces, and even of the rapacious bloodthirsty-ness of certain Christians and Christian leaders, it strikes me as necessary to address the term “violence.”

The problem is, of course, that unlike Peter Leithart’s assertion in his work on the topic, there are no clear-cut descriptions in the Bible regarding the lines between Violence, that chaos of suffering that humans unleash upon humans, and what Leithart glosses as “godly retribution,” such as when the Lord brings a siege upon Jerusalem such that women are eating their children.

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Introduction: The Poet in Babylon

Briton Rivière
Daniel’s Answer to the King, 1890
Oil on canvas

Not too long ago, I put together a blog dedicated to “Christian mythopoetics.” The work I had aimed to do was to write in the spirit of the Christian humanists of the mid-20th Century (Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, Sayers, Underhill, even their forebears: Eliot, MacDonald, and Chesterton), engaging literature from the view of Christianity. I wrote about Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the problem of power, about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and the terror of knowledge, and about Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and the crisis of the modern family. Continue reading “Introduction: The Poet in Babylon”