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.

 

Masturbation by algorithm

It was self-explanatory, the tag that I appended on August 23 to the new photograph on my Tumblr. Anybody who clicked on the picture would see a form and instantly associate it with mental categories named (inter al.) cat and black. But the idea of clicking is all about working the process in reverse: from the name back to the thing. So I tagged my picture (inter al.) black.

Instantly my Tumblr was hit with a like from somebody (or “somebody”) bearing a name which also turned out to be self-explanatory: “hotebonyvaginas.” Clicking on that brought up a photo album devoted to the gynecology of black women.

Six days later I posted another image of the cat, and again tagged it with the search term black. Once, again, instantly, my site was like-bombed with a collection of black porn. This time, the like function named itself “eroticafrotits.” But though the two names were different, they had been generated by only one rhetorical algorithm.

When people like me teach composition, we call attention to this particular algorithm  by giving it a self-explanatory name: parallelism. Look, we say, writing an example on the board:

and that government
of the people,
by the people,
for the people
shall not perish from the earth.

After we finish writing, we draw lines between the similar parts of speech: preposition preposition preposition, one vertical line; article article article, another; noun noun noun, a third. If the words are arrayed this way in a matrix, you can see that the three lines we drew are parallel, and hence the name. It’s an ancient technology for massing words and bringing them to bear on their subject. The compilers of the Book of Proverbs used it over and over.

Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth;
a stranger, and not thine own lips.

The cyberbot that visited my site was one of those praising strangers. Its programmer had programmed it to do something called “liking,” and the word “like” showed up on my monitor per algorithm, then showed up again in parallel. Hotebonyvaginas, eroticafrotits: sexual adverb sexual adverb, race slang adjective race slang adjective, erogenous zone noun erogenous zone noun.  The machine operates in full auto made, and, entrained in full auto mode, unhappy old men turn off Fox News and unzip.

But here’s the cat: life filled to the exclusion of everything else with nothing but movement and appetite; and black. When you’re granted a choice of elements to like, my suggestion would be that you ignore silicon and choose carbon.


Sources: Proverbs 27. 2 (King James Version); http://jonathanmorse.tumblr.com

Combat journalism: from the front lines of the War on Christmas

He would stand in the Turning of a Street, and calling to those who passed by, would cry to One; Worthy Sir, do me the Honour of a good Slap in the Chaps: To another, Honest Friend, pray, favour me with a handsom Kick on the Arse: Madam, shall I entreat a small Box on the Ear, from your Ladyship’s fair Hands? Noble Captain, Lend a reasonable Thwack, for the Love of God, with that Cane of yours, over these poor Shoulders. And when he had by such earnest Sollicitations, made a shift to procure a Basting sufficient to swell up his Fancy and his Sides, He would return home extremely comforted, and full of terrible Accounts of what he had undergone for the Publick Good. Observe this Stroak, (said he, shewing his bare Shoulders) a plaguy Janisary gave it me this very Morning at seven a Clock, as, with much ado, I was driving off the Great Turk. Neighbours mine, this broken Head deserves a Plaister; had poor Jack been tender of his Noddle, you would have seen the Pope, and the French King, long before this time of Day, among your Wives and your Warehouses. Dear Christians, the Great Mogul was come as far as White-Chappel, and you may thank these poor Sides that he hath not (God bless us) already swallowed up Man, Woman, and Child.

(Section XI)