Gay marriage in the Supreme Court: an item for Justices Ginsburg and Kagan

For Justice Ginsburg, who seems distressed that the Supreme Court’s decision to rule on the issue of abortion in Roe v. Wade has led to social turmoil,

and for Justice Kagan, who I hope was expressing disapproval of the prolongation of evil when she said, “We let issues percolate, and so we let racial segregation percolate for 50 years from 1898 to 1954,”

this item.

It comes from a letter from John W. Wilson of Leesburg, Florida, to the editor of a liberal magazine, The Nation, where it was published on p. 75 of the issue of January 17, 1934. The topic was the then socially acceptable practice of lynching, and about that Mr. Wilson took a long, judicious view, this way.

Perhaps it may be necessary to spell out that if lynching had been put to a popular vote in 1934, or if segregation had been put to a popular vote in 1954, strange fruit would still be hanging from the trees.

Moments of unchange


Flaps down, wheels down, its blurred outline communicating airspeed as it hurtles from right to left across the image frame, a Mitsubishi Ki-57 in wartime camouflage is about to reestablish contact with the earth. The photograph predicts that its flight, from ground to air to ground again, will have been successful. The airplane’s shadow is already on the ground, darkening as its source of darkness descends.

Outside the frame, in textual space, there will be words to fill in the parts of the image that we can’t see. After we have visualized the landfall, we can read its story. The landing strip, these words will say, was in Zhijiang, Hunan, China. The shadow of the airplane was cast there on August 21, 1945, and a short time after it stopped moving, the airplane’s door opened and Major General Takeo Imai stepped out to receive the Allied Forces’ instructions for the surrender of Japan’s million-man army in China.

We read that history in language and as language, but the image prior to the words you’ve just read shows us history in the form it takes when the sky passes over a sundial. It can’t be a propositional history, a history in words, because the words a sundial offers us to read can be only those that were there before the sun struck. They are words off to the side of what actually happened, in the margin of the light. Jacques Derrida, who thought about that prior language, passed his childhood under the sun of Algeria, and there, after some Ki-57s had landed in China and some Ju-52s had landed in France, nobody would speak to him. He was alone in the darkfall.


Of course there are ways of requesting a shadow image to step into the light and explain itself. After is has vanished, we can reimagine it with the help of history’s functions of generalization and exemplification. If it is inserted into a curriculum, we can even translate its into the language of computer-assisted design and read it on a glowing screen like the one where you’re now reading these words. Look, the screen can say. Look at:

But to read an image under those educational circumstances is to abstract it from the history which engendered the desire to read. After all, why should we care to see this schematic? There’s only one reason, and it isn’t pictured. It’s off to the side, written down in an unillustrated, unillustrable language that has the power to evoke nightmare after we have stopped reading and closed our eyes for the night. The dream of reason, wrote a Spanish artist into one of his pictures, brings forth monsters. The true monstrosities are the ones we dare only to imagine, not to see.


But El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz depicts monstrosity. Unlike the photograph of the airplane which for a moment concealed within itself, pregnant before the eye of history, the defeated body of General Imai, this sky picture had a purpose which existed before history delivered it to view. Its creator followed a curriculum as he worked, and the educational labor of inserting the curriculum’s words into the image can only help us to see the image more clearly.  Pedagogy will demonstrate what was there in the picture’s conception before the picture itself came into existence, and it will also send us to the dictionary to read up on what pedagogy is putting us through. There in the dictionary, we’ll discover that the words “demonstrate”  and “monster” both come from a Latin root signifying portent and warning. That etymological exercise will teach us that we knew all along what was going to be on this canvas before El Greco picked up his brush to make the first stroke. It was all horror, too: the horror of historiography, the horror of birth into the terrible instant in which transfiguration begins its henceforth endless cycle of reproduction. Reproducing, moving within time, the moment of change always becomes without ever passing into the stillness of being.

As long as an image comes before us in the glow of the moment of unchange, the shadow of General Imai’s airplane will not yet have come to rest. Elsewhere under the sky of China, the dying will continue. China is all. El Greco picks up his laser pointer to make the demonstration.

“Literature is news that STAYS news.”


you’ll find an analytic piece by Larry Kotlikoff about a banking crisis in the little nation of Cyprus which as of March 23, 2013, threatens the financial security of the euro zone. But don’t bother to read the article — not if you’re interested in evidence that there’s a different kind of communication which has a chance of outliving the current events of March 23, 2013. That evidence isn’t in the article; it’s in the comment stream.

“Gold,” you’ll read there.

“Federal Reserve.”


And of course “Jews.”

No, certain themes don’t die. Transmuting the words of which they’re composed into myth, they live on through the vocabularies of their continuators. There, words and their writers mutually immortalize, forever.

As Mr. Pound says, in the eternal present tense of certain poems that can’t die,

What thou lov’st well remains.


Collective covenants, certified self-purifying

In his New York Times column for March 7, 2013, David Brooks reports that an upscale grocery store in Brooklyn is so very kosher that its dish sponges drain themselves to obviate the labor of wringing on the Sabbath. After touring this emporium of holiness under the guidance of a celebrity rabbi, Mr. Brooks walks back out the door and explains to his eagerly waiting readers:

Pomegranate [the store] looks like any island of upscale consumerism, but deep down it is based on a countercultural understanding of how life should work.

Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.

For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order.

The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.

One week later, the Forward reports that a dean at Yeshiva University has expressed his concern with the burgeoning sex-abuse scandal in the Orthodox community in this language.

[Rabbi Herschel Schachter, the dean,] went on to say that federal prisons are acceptable for Jewish convicts because they offer needed services, such as glatt kosher food.

But, he added, Jews must be more careful where state prisons — to which the majority of sex offenders are sent — are concerned.

Schachter told his audience that in state prisons “the warden in the prison can kill you. They can put you in a cell together with a shvartze, with a . . . black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.”

A spokesman for YU said: “As with all universities, our faculty members are afforded freedom of speech and expression. Not all statements made by faculty members are consistent with the views of the University.

“Any offensive or derogatory comments about any people or groups are inconsistent with the values or mission of Yeshiva University.”

The Yiddish word shvartze is to be translated as “nigger.”

Tell me again, Mr. Justice Scalia, that the Voting Rights Act is an anachronism. Tell me again, Mr. Brooks, about the decent moderation of spiritual commitments made in Kandahar or the Yearning for Zion Ranch or the vicinity of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.