A martyr’s metaphors

“Here’s the thing,” Rabbi Avi Shafran chummily confides to the Jewish magazine Tablet. Then, summoning his reserves of charm, he proceeds to confess:

“Here’s the thing: I’m a Jewish heretic. I don’t mean forsaking (as some famously have done) traditional Orthodox Jewish belief and practice for a libertine life [. . .] Instead, I refer to a real heresy: my reluctance to accept an orthodoxy so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that its rejection summons a hearty hail of derision and ridicule, and results in effective excommunication from polite society. What I can’t bring myself to maintain belief in is . . . evolution.

“There, I’ve written it.”

If, like me, you grew up in a small town in the days of prayer in the schools, you’ll recognize Rabbi Shafran’s tone from sixty years ago. It’s “Hey, kids! You know who’s really cool? Jesus!” But this recent history also has a prehistory, and embedded in that are some actually interesting bits. Those are the vestiges within the fossil: traces of classical rhetoric retroactively assimilated into the stone-age dialect of theology. Consider, from the same essay:

“[. . .] the high priests of scientism (and the masses that venerate them) [. . .]”

“Yet it is unassailable dogma among the enlightened these days that non-living matter generated living matter [. . .]”

“I don’t reject science, only speculations and assumptions made in its name. And I’ve read and pondered all the ‘answers’ to my questions.* My skepticism remains unbudged.** [. . .]

High priests, venerate, dogma, the enlightened: here Rabbi Shafran employs irony, or rather irony’s shabby cousin, sarcasm, in the service of his heretical persona. But with these days the mask comes off (in Latin, persona means “mask”) and the rabbinical beard springs back into view. It is a seriously long beard, too. No more “Hey, kids” noises surface from its depths. Instead there comes a piercing and utterly sincere cry de profundis:

“In the meantime, lead me to the stocks, if you must. And as I’m pilloried, I will proclaim [. . .]”

Well, we’re all familiar with this vocabulary of martyrdom. It’s ecumenical. In the United States as of 2015, it’s the property not just of Rabbi Shafran but of the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Fox News. It’s also long established. As far back as 1704 Jonathan Swift was taking an interested view of it in A Tale of a Tub.

Meanwhile, in 2015, in Syria and Pakistan and West Africa, Christians actually are being martyred. The tools of their martyrdom aren’t figurative stocks or pillories, either, or even copies of The Origin of Species. No; they’re non-literary, actually literal agents like slavery and murder.

On the scale of the suffering inflicted by those physical things, Rabbi Shafran’s own effective excommunication from polite society may seem to score low. But effective excommunication from polite society does command a reserve of pain that mere slavery and murder don’t have. Unlike slavery or murder, after all, the agents that torture Rabbi Shafran have an aesthetic power. They give pain a form shaped by the concept called metaphor, which works by evoking an analogy between something that doesn’t exist and something that does. Twinned by metaphor with an image of the real, the name of something imaginary (pillory, proclaim) begins to seem real itself. It communicates not pain but an idea of pain from the body (somebody else’s nameless, featureless, who-cares body) to the mind (Rabbi Shafran’s own, uniquely self-treasured mind).

In the mind, of course, it still isn’t real. But now (or rather these days) any language that might have been able to say so lies buried under institutional rock. Look, there, at the strata of language that have been laid down to hold reality’s mute remains still! They shape a tomb whose Hic jacet translates as “Here’s the thing.”

Of course the thing isn’t there. Technically, it never was there. It was a vehicle whose tenor never did exist. The metaphors that built its tomb covered its non-existence with words, spoke more words to make it seem to have disappeared, and then set men happily howling, “I am a martyr” at what they would no longer have to know. No more science commanding, “Know the world”; no more Delphic Oracle commanding, “Know yourself.” Only the howl, the happy wordy howl howling effective excommunication from polite society.

Among its echoes, nothing need remain standing except the tomb. Word-bearing but silent, it is stone all the way to its center; but stone artistically made to appear formerly alive and capable of meaning.

Duomo, Milan

 

* Yes, the modest polymath did write “all.”

** But isn’t a dogmatic skeptic a contradiction in terms?

 

Source: Avi Shafran, “Skeptical About Evolution — And Not Because of Religion.” Tablet 20 July 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/192334/skeptical-about-evolution-and-not-because-of-religion. Accessed 23 July 2015.

 

Mistah Tennyson — he dead

Ten years ago, Wikipedia’s article about Emily Dickinson read like a high school project full of beginner’s mistakes. That’s the Wikipedia problem in general, I would tell my students during the last days of the floppy disc. Sure, Wikipedia is handy. Sure, I use it myself. But you can’t trust it.

But Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing algorithm has kept on doing its relentless eugenic good. Now, in the tablet era, Wikipedia’s article about Dickinson has become as useful an introduction as you’d find in a reputable print encyclopedia. The entire process of reference is evolving through a sequence of change as earnestly, unidrectionally Victorian as the project of “Locksley Hall”:

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new;
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do.

But about those men . . .

Early in 2013, the writer Amanda Filipacchi discovered that her Wikipedia entry had been moved from the category “American novelists” to a brand new category, “American women novelists.” The change seemed to have been the unexamined idea of a single Wikipedia editor (male), and after Filipacchi complained in print she was joined in protest by a number of other writers, female and male. Immediately after that, her Wikipedia article was re-edited in an apparent attempt to trash her into oblivion.

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/apr/29/wikipedia-women-problem

The news brought me back to this memory.

A few years ago I was surprised and gratified to find an article of mine cited in Wikipedia’s article about Ezra Pound. The next time I looked, however, my article was gone. Some time later it was put back, and then it disappeared again. Puzzled, I went searching through the pages reserved for Wikipedia’s editorial use, and that’s when I discovered what men they were who had taken charge of my online reputation.

Well, not exactly men, or at least not men yet. One of the Pound boys had given himself the modest nom de guerre of “Truthtalker” and another, no doubt in the spirit of the Master himself, wrote for the Wikisource as Malleus Fatuorum, “the hammer of fools.” A third boy wanted to call the others’ attention to something interesting from his own experience. He had met several people named Ezra, this boy said, and every one of them without exception was Jewish. So could it be, asked the boy, that Ezra Pound was a Jew?

Well, you know along what river of knowledge these young belated Victorians steam. No, it isn’t the Congo. This is still one of the dark places on the earth, and Mistah Kurtz — he dead. The River Wikipedia is a comment stream, and on its banks its bands of savages still shriek and gesticulate. The only difference is that the old savages lived in grass huts and the new savages live in their mothers’ basements.