I posted a note about what then appeared to be the impending construction of a great astronomical telescope atop Hawaii’s 14,000-foot Mauna Kea. The construction was opposed with chants and picket lines by native Hawaiian shamans and University of Hawaii theoreticians interested in laying cultural groundwork for the dictatorship of the proletariat, but Barack Obama was President and I was optimistic. Optimistically, I illustrated my note with this fantasy of the telescope towering over the Black Forest ski hut where Martin Heidegger dressed up in peasant garb and went shrooming for the Authentic.
Two years later, it’s obvious that my Photoshopped optimism was incoherent. I had appropriated an architect’s rendering of the telescope in its rightful elemental night, but during the hours of his waking Martin Heidegger oversaw from the windows of his squat sturdy hut a mountain landscape brimming with illumined fog. Because I had left the night unmodified as a single layer of dark around the telescope, the image I manipulated couldn’t withstand the next two years. Image-fogging light overspread, innuendos of divinity took effect, and as of 2017 the sky has repopulated itself with horoscopic cartoons and there is a real possibility that the telescope never will be built.
But Photoshop offers everyone who sees an image the opportunity to resee it. Accepting the second chance, I will try to reimagine the telescope as if seen at sunset, when the shamans retire to watch Fox News. As dark flows up the flank of the mountain, the dome beginning its nightly labor of vision may serve thought as an emblem of hope: an eye opening to receive light from a not yet visible star.
Can anticipating sight and a star help us navigate a way of our own through the dark?
“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 excommunicationfrom 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.
* Yes, the modest polymath did write “all.”
** But isn’t a dogmatic skeptic a contradiction in terms?
1. Get through to denotes communication, but its originating metaphor connotes forcing, piercing, penetrating. To get through to is one way of communicating; to be gotten through to is another. The difference is a bloody matter of the difference between prey and predator.
2. The communication channel of getting through to is fear. In fear of being gotten through to, some people calm their pounding hearts by remembering that they believe in their gun and their Bible. Others choose to mask their susceptibility to communication behind deflecting layers of irony. The warehouse full of Basquiats, check; the Russian passport, check.
3. Getting through to can also be thought of as a speech act like voting or naming: a way of doing things with words. Under the control of speech-act technologists like Frank Luntz and Roger Ailes, language is a symbol system used by the people with the Basquiats to get through to people whose symbols are at pre-ironic stages of development.
I changed the channel, but the sound of that analysis was still affecting me. I picked up my copy of the Chronicle, held it to the mirror beside my face, and checked. No, there couldn’t be any doubt. Mr. Stossel was entirely right: I am grand.
So thanks for everything on Fox News, Roger Ailes! Have a Pooh-Bah song!