Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Book Group on Karen Armstrong on the Bible

Karen Armstrong, On the Bible (Atlantic Books UK, Allen & Unwin 2007)

1ob Part of the function of a book group, or at least of mine, is to take you (me) out of your (my) comfort zone. So when On the Bible was proposed as the title for our March meeting, I resisted my urge to reach for a proverbial bargepole.

The urge didn’t come from a Dawkinsian disdain for religion. On the contrary, atheist though I am now, I was a member of the Marist Brothers in my teens and early 20s, and I treasure the memory of a series of lectures by nicotine-stained Brother Flavian, who was supposed to be teaching us Catechetics (whatever that is) but instead shared his passion for biblical studies an hour a week for a whole year. I wasn’t keen on revisiting the subject with what sounded like a dry introductory text.

But I’d seen Karen Armstrong’s TED Talk, Let’s Revive the Golden Rule, and the chap who proposed the book was very keen., so what the hell, archie, I thought, and happily supported the proposal..

It turns out that the stuff I remember from Brother Flavian’s lectures – the story of how the Bible was written and compiled, including the varied cultural and historical contexts – takes up just a fraction of the book. Karen Armstrong doesn’t linger on the poetry so much as sketch the politics, and though I miss the poetry, the politics is often fascinating, especially when there is an implied commentary on 21st century readings. For example, she describes P, the priestly strand of the Torah/Pentateuch, as proclaiming that ‘Israel was not a people because it dwelt in a particular country, but because it lived in the presence of God’; or, something that Brother Flavian could never have said but is glaringly obvious once articulated, ‘A thread of hatred runs through the New Testament.’ (Pharisee to Richard the Third: ‘You call that a hatchet job? This is a hatchet job.’)

The US title, The Bible: A Biography, is not only catchier, it also gives a better sense of what the book is: because once it has told the story of how the books of the Bible were written and assembled, it goes on with the process of canonisation (which happened over centuries, and was still being debated in Luther’s time), and then Armstrong’s real subject: how the way they were read changed over the centuries – by Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Protestants. The Midrash and Talmud, the Platonists, the early Christian Fathers up to St Augustine, the mediaeval exegetes and the Kabbalists all brought different understandings of what the Bible was, and how it should be read, and what one was to make of its many inconsistencies. Then came the Protestant Reformation and capitalism, and Lurianic Kabbalah and tikkun olam, followed by the Enlightenment, which brought Spinoza ‘who studied the historical background and literary genres of the Bible with unprecedented objectivity’ and was the forerunner of the German Higher Criticism. We arrive at last at the mystical reading of the Hasidim, and the extreme literalism of the fundamentalism that came into being in late 19th century USA:

This was an entirely new departure. In the past, some interpreters had favoured the study of the literal sense of the Bible but they had never believed that every single word of scripture was factually true. Many had admitted that, if we confined our attention to the letter, the Bible was an impossible text. The belief in biblical inerrancy … would, however, become crucial to Christian fundamentalism and would involve considerable denial. [The leaders of this approach] were responding to the challenge of modernity but in their desperation were distorting the scriptural tradition they were trying to defend.

And then there’s post-Holocaust Judaic literalism which adopted the until-then secular ideology of Zionism, and came up with a doctrine that was in fact completely novel even while claiming to be based in antiquity:

Unless Jews occupied the whole land of Israel, exactly as this was defined in the Bible, there could be no Redemption.

The blurb tells us Karen Armstrong was a religious sister briefly some decades ago. You can’t tell from this book whether she is still a Catholic or even a believer, but there’s no hostility to religion. What does come through loud and strong is her antagonism to movements that hijack the Bible for political purposes, while disregarding the extraordinary richness of its history.

There are dry stretches, where the treatment of various Kabbalists, say, or different strands of mediaeval Christian hermeneutics amount to little more than annotated lists, potentially useful if one were to go on to further study, but skippable for the drive-by reader. Perhaps, in fact, those dry patches make up most of the book, so that in effect it’s more successful as a reference book than as a narrative. I found the bits that transcended that dryness fascinating, among other things for the way they illustrate that reading, reading anything at all, is a tremendously complex act that can transform the text being read.

I was reminded of Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll’s powerful history of anti-Jewish oppression in Christianity, especially Catholicism, which could almost read as an elaboration of one thread of this book..

The meeting:
In the days leading up to the meeting there was a flurry of emails saying their writers had up after a hundred pages or less, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the conversation last night had sputtered and died before moving on to the media’s nastiness about Julia Gillard. In fact, we stayed roughly on topic most of the evening – helped by a couple of the chaps having been to Seders the night before. Googling was banned for the evening, so there were interestingly speculative conversations about, among other things, the meaning of the orange on the Seder plate, and the colour and species of the animal that Jesus rode into Jerusalem.

Not many of us had read the whole thing. One had bought his copy of the US edition online from Able Books for 10 cents, no postage. The blurb on that edition referred to the book’s ‘cracking pace’, which we could all agree on, though it may have been precisely the ‘pace’ that made it hard going at times: the historical Jesus is dealt with in a single sentence, and I’m not sure if the historical books of the Hebrew Bible get even that. While a cracking pace is a good thing in a thriller, in an overview of a major element of western culture it tends to be either compacted or superficial. Still, I think there was a general respect for the book’s achievement in indicating the complexity of its subject without being impenetrable. Several of us remembered little, apparently casual observations that opened doors in our minds.

But there seemed to be a general thirst for some fiction as our next book

Alan Moore Unearthing Lost Girls

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls (Knockabout / Top Shelf Productions 2012)
Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins, Unearthing (Top Shelf Productions 2013)

You know what I was saying the other day about superheroes? Well, same for pornography and illegible typographic design.

1lg One of my sons gave me Lost Girls for my birthday. I knew enough about it to say as I tore the protective wrapping from the deluxe hardcover, ‘This is a rude book.’ I opened it at random and after a cursory glance showed the spread to my yum cha companions. ‘That’s not rude,’ someone said. ‘It’s pornographic.’ She was right. And there aren’t many spreads in the book that that’s not true of.

The eponymous lost girls are Wendy (as in Peter Pan and Wendy), Dorothy (as in The Wizard of Oz) and Alice (as in Alice in Wonderland), all grown up. They meet in a decadent European hotel just before the first World War and tell each other pornographic versions of their respective classic tales, then go on a seemingly endless series of sexual adventures. It’s a bit like a cartoon I remember from my early 20s that shows a crowd of Disney characters having an orgy. Only this goes on for, oh, 180 pages.

I can’t say I read it all, or looked at every image. I don’t know who would want to. I don’t understand why the brilliant story-teller Alan Moore and the fabulously talented artist Melinda Gebbie made the book in the first place. Evidently they married each other during the making of the series, so it can’t have been as off-putting for them as it was for me. If you want a proper discussion of the book, Tim Callahan discussed it as part of his Great Alan Moore Re-read on

1603091513At the risk of incurring the wrath of truly hip commenters, I am now going to say that Unearthing also left me fairly cold. According to the back cover it began life as part of an anthology about London, and ‘evolved through a series of live performances and recordings’, before being published as this book. It’s a kind of biography of Steve Moore, a friend but no relation of Alan Moore, enmeshed with an account of Shooters Hill in South London, Alan Moore’s text and Mitch Jenkins’s photographs combined in a design phantasmagoria. I did read some bits: Steve Moore is an occultist who seems to use a lot of recreational drugs and have shared hallucinations with Alan on at least one occasion. The prose is overwrought, and in order to read it one has to variously read tiny print, decipher weird Gothic fonts, follow text presented in a spiral, distinguish pale type from an only slightly paler background, etc. And when the physical effort comes up with, for example,

The bookshelves there behind him are the hexagram with six unbroken lines, Chi’en,the Creative, are a doorway where the brilliance bleeds through from a next room that’s not there, a warren of such rooms stretching away above, below, on every side, a Hyper-London, an eternal fourfold town of lights. This is it, this is real, this lamp-glow that’s inside the world like torchlight through a choirboy’s cheeks, the mystical experience as Gilbert Chesterton’s absurd good news and it goes on for hours, goes on forever

I’m afraid I just lose the will to continue.

These books made wonderful birthday presents – beautiful, luxury objects, that took me well out of my comfort zone. I don’t know if either of them actually expanded my world, but they did make me wonder if pornography and occultism don’t have a function in common: to provide distractions from real issues in the real world. Lost Girls could even be read as saying as much in its last pages where (SPOILER ALERT) the motif of the poppy is transformed from a symbol of dreamy erotic surrender to an emblem of the carnage of war.

Books I didn’t finish

This post is a sop to the obsessive being that occupies part of my mind and insists that if I’m going to blog about my reading I should Leave Nothing Out. So here they are, the books I didn’t finish:

A C Grayling, Descartes: The life of René Descartes and its place in his times (2005, Pocket Books 2006)

1416522638 We started this as a read-aloud on a medium-length car trip, perhaps Sydney to Canberra, after hearing A C Grayling speak at a Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Art Student had previously read his polemical Against All Gods, and regaled me with some of the good bits. Neither of us knew all that much about Descartes: the AS had come across him in her Art History course and wanted to know more, and all I had was dim memories from second-year University French: ‘Je pense, donc je suis,’ a long night sitting in a stove, etc. And the cover blurb offered us revelations involving a spy story.

It’s not that the book wasn’t interesting, but the combination of philosophical seriousness and careful assembly of evidence for the hypothesis that Descartes was a spy was far from riveting. We hadn’t got much further than 50 pages (again) when we agreed that conversation or the radio would be a better option, and later neither of us felt any urge to read on solo.

Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What dogs see, smell, and know (Scribner 2009)

1iadThis was read-aloud for a relatively short drive, discontinued because the book was a loan rather than because of any failure on its part to hold our attention. We knew we weren’t going to read the whole thing, so as reader-aloud I was given licence to pick and choose. I read the chapters towards the end about dogs’ theory of mind – asking the question whether dogs have versions in their minds of what is going on in our minds. It’s lively, fascinating stuff. Just as interesting as the dogs are the people who construct meticulous experiments to determine what dogs are actually doing when we project so much onto them.

Manuel Puig, Pubis Angelical (1979, translation by Elena Brunet, Random House 1986)

1paThis book begins with a woman waking up alone in sumptuous surroundings the night after her wedding, having been drugged and subjected to sexual violence by her bridegroom. In the following chapters, written variously as diary entries and unannotated dialogue, a woman – not, it turns out, the same one – is in a hospital recovering from cancer surgery. Manuel Puig wrote The Kiss of the Spider Woman, and this novel has some kinship with that and the movies of Pedro Almodóvar. Evidently this style of febrile introspective suffering doesn’t do it for me in a novel, but I struggled on joylessly to page 50, where an arms dealer entertains some nasty images of brutally humiliating and killing his wife. Then I I gave up.

This post is about books I have no intention of returning to each of them when the urge strikes. There are others where my reading has stalled – Byron’s Don Juan, Grayling’s The Good Book, the Lehmann and Gray anthology of Australian poetry – but I’ll return to each of them in the fulness of time.

‘pose of powerlessness’

Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic reflects on what he was thinking ten years ago:

Back then I was seized with a deep feeling that what I thought did not matter much. …

I was skeptical of war, but if the U.S. was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object? And more, who were you to object? I remember being out during one of the big anti-war protests and watching the crowds stream down Broadway. I remember thinking, ‘You fools believe that you matter? You think what you’re saying means anything?’

In fact it meant a lot. It meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, ‘No. Not in my name.’ It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it. It also meant pragmatism. …

And finally it meant the election of the country’s first black president whose ascent began at an anti-war rally in Chicago.

I say all this to say that if I regret anything it is my pose of powerlessness — my lack of faith in American democracy, my belief that the war didn’t deserve my hard thinking or hard acting … I am not a radical. But more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every ‘sensible’ and ‘serious’ person you knew – left or right – was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right.

Going Down Swinging 33

Going Down Swinging 33 (edited Geoff Lemon and Bhakthi Puvananthiran 2012)

20130222-211751.jpgGeoff Lemon, co-editor, was surely tempting fate and the critics when, as soon as the 32nd issue of GDS was complete, he nicknamed the impending No 33 the Jesus Issue. Wasn’t that like predicting the journal’s death, or at least inviting a crucifixion? Well, maybe, but after all it’s Going Down Swinging we’re talking about, whose title has been cheerfully proclaiming its imminent demise from the very start. Perhaps, then, the nickname was intimating that the physical object made of ink and dead trees was about to be resurrected, transformed into an incorporeal, wholly digital being. But no, though there is The Blue Corner online and a CD comes as part of the thing itself, the fabulous design of No 33, by Elise Santangelo and Stuart Hall, draws dramatic attention to its materiality, with tabs, die-cuts, a range of stocks, and clever use of showthrough – without, I say with heartfelt appreciation, detracting from legibility.

It looks as if the only actual consequence of the nickname was a number of Jesus-related submissions, enough of which made the cut to constitute a 38-page Jesus section. Like the rest of the magazine, these are predominantly hip inner-city Melbourne, the one surprise being ‘Out of the Kitchen Since 30 AD’, Elizabeth Redman’s straightforward personal essay reclaiming Christian faith from the reactionary fundamentalism and dubious institutional politics that tends to dominate public discussion of it.

Two other pieces stood out for me as admirably plain-speaking. André Dao’s ‘Out of Our Bodies’ is a memoir about Catholicism, atheism and mortality. He could have been describing a scene from Michael Haneke’s Amour in his final image of his grandparents singing together at his grandfather’s deathbed:

… My grandfather seemed finally to hear her, and then they were both singing, falling in and out of tune. For a moment they seemed lifted out of their slumped, brittle bodies, and their wrinkled faces were crumpled in concentration and remembered pleasure.

And Fiona Wright’s short poem ‘Consider the Camel’ feels as if it should always have been there, and manages to use the word ‘platyclades’ without missing a beat.

For the rest, there’s hardly a dud in the lot of them. ‘Atlas Dharma’, a commissioned by Cate Kennedy with watercolour illustrations by Simon MacEwan, recalls and recreates a childhood fascination with the Reader’s Digest atlas. Eric Yoshiaki Dando’s The Novel Teacher has fictional (I hope) fun with creative writing courses. Una Cruickshank gives us some memorable travel writing in ‘Varanasi’. I skipped an essay that begins with a quote from Lacan and a story that starts out, ‘Long, long ago, afore a-coming of the dust, the mani-lands were a-crowdening with mani-folk’, but that tells you more about me than them.

When I mentioned an inner-Melbourne sensibility, I wasn’t implying parochialism – quite the contrary, the feel is urbane, cosmopolitan. But I was struck by the way a number of pieces from oversea, and even interstate, stood out. You’d expect that of the stories from Russia and India (one each). It was contributions from the USA that prompted me, in the absence of an ‘About the Contributors’ section, to go Googling the authors – not because of a proofreaderish irritation at US spellings, though there was that, but because the voices were noticeably different in ways that are hard to specify – louder, more confident of their own centrality, something like that. When I think of the gigantic magazine that downloads to my RSS feeder, I’d guess that most of what I read there is from the US, and increasingly I live in a global culture. Here, where the proportion is roughly reversed, I’m surprised and reassured to feel a sense that local minds are engaging in locally inflected ways with issues that range from the intensely local to the cosmic.