Matthew

Dear Eloise,

If someone were to ask me whether they should become an anarchist or philologist, I would tell them, “No. Save yourself the heartache and don’t do it.” But in not becoming an anarchist or philologist, one cannot leave either behind and exist in the space opened by leaving without renunciation. (Renunciation cleaves one to the renounced and makes leaving impossible; those who renounce their past maintain a neurotic attachment to it. Whatever the formal legal definition might be, divorce makes marriage permanent.)

I am interested in commitments that cannot be broken.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Christ’s midrash on Genesis remakes marriage as man’s connection to creation (as Melville does with whaling).

vale bene,
D

Bemidbar

Dear Jen,

Why do you assume that the set of natural numbers is infinite?

You are a Christian, so you believe in the beginning and the end of time. Let’s say that all possible computational power went about counting natural numbers. At the end of time, there would be the largest number, and no other larger number would ever be counted after it. Who’s to say that such a number – let’s call it the Ω number – is not the largest possible number? The end of the line?

Don’t say anything about Knuth’s up-arrow notation. Those arrow notations are not numbers but steps or functions to arrive at numbers. But even if they were, the same end of time problem would arise.

The best rejoinder is to say that these computational limits don’t matter because God is the actual infinite and can calculate and conceive any number or set, including so-called infinite sets. Maybe so. That’s a mystery man cannot grasp, and it doesn’t answer the first question. God’s numbers are not natural numbers.

The infinitude of God insists on the finitude of man and his numbers.

Utter failure in other projects and no sign of the surrealists. Enjoy your cave.

vale bene,
D

Bereshit

Dear Anna,

Agnon attempted to make his books canonical – that is, part of the Hebrew Bible. He wrote a modern Hebrew literature that was an extension and addition to the Bible in the same way that Virgil wrote an addition to Homer (and Dante to Virgil, &c). And he pulled it off. More than anyone, he connected the Israel of today to the Israel of David and Solomon.

Canon comes from κανών, the carpenter’s measure. Patristic writers used the word to describe the texts included in the New Testament (a story about a carpenter!), and that’s more or less how we use it today (though not how Helen uses it – don’t tell her I brought up an etymology!).

When I read the so-called Great Books, I have no doubt that they’ve become Biblical, i.e. true and perfect. The novels and poems and histories are all part of the one Book that begins with Genesis. As of yet there is no final chapter, though I gather that chapter is what the underground surrealists are writing down in their caves. When it’s finished, the world will end.

vale bene,
D

Bereshit

Dear Anna,

César Aira says the most important thing there is to say about Genesis: “If all conditions can be reduced to a single condition, it is this: Adam and Eve were real.” One of the unstated reasons for my translating Genesis as verse is that it’s true – and simply true, without qualification or testy theories of metaphor or symbolism (which is not to say that there are no metaphors). It is startling to read Genesis 16:12, for example.

Someone said the Israeli statesman Menachem Begin had a Biblical view of history. I don’t know or care if that’s true, as I’m not in the political business, but I think often about this idea of history and what it might mean.

When I think about a ‘Biblical view of history’, I recall a funeral address in honor of the classicist Seth Benardete. Sometimes small and forgotten bits of writing like this one are the most illuminating:

He was not simply learned. The gods and heroes and men, the texts and the arguments about which he kept thinking and writing, were his companions. He and they inhabited one world. He did not so much think and write about them, as he allowed us to listen in on his thinking and talking with them… He sought to see what human things might look like from the perspective of the demiurge or of the gods; from the perspective which Job ultimately adopts… He aimed high, and he reached high. Sometimes he judged people from on high, as if from a very great distance. He was perhaps less driven than any of the rest of us by moral concerns.

I wrote to Helen yesterday about the Bialik poem you showed me in which a walk in the suburbs becomes Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isaac. To be poets, the stories of Genesis must be as true – i.e. alive – for us, as they were for Bialik. The possibilities and dangers in Genesis, like those in Aeschylus and Sophocles, are always present, even if we’d prefer them not to be, and we have to learn to feel that presence in the marrow of our bones.

vale bene,
D

Tehillim

Dear Helen,

My favorite opening to a poem are the first three words of the first Psalm: (אַשְֽׁרֵי־הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר). No translation can capture the wonder of these words because their beauty is all in the sound. Ashrei ha-ish asher, blessed is the man who…

Psalms are the longest living poetic tradition. They’ve been recited and sung in prayer and celebration and mourning since time immemorial. When all other public poetic traditions disappeared, they remain.

There is another Psalm I love, 133. I think it is the first “modernist poem” (forgive the anachronism):

שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד הִנֵּה מַה טּוֹב וּמַה נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם יָחַד
כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב עַל הָרֹאשׁ יֹרֵד עַל הַזָּקָן זְקַן אַהֲרֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו
כְּטַל חֶרְמוֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהֹוָה אֶת הַבְּרָכָה חַיִּים עַד הָעוֹלָם

The old Greek translation:

ᾠδὴ τῶν ἀναβαθμῶν τῷ Δαυιδ
ἰδοὺ δὴ τί καλὸν ἢ τί τερπνὸν ἀλλ᾽ ἢ τὸ κατοικεῖν ἀδελφοὺς ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό
ὡς μύρον ἐπὶ κεφαλῆς τὸ καταβαῖνον ἐπὶ πώγωνα τὸν πώγωνα τὸν Ααρων τὸ καταβαῖνον ἐπὶ τὴν ᾤαν τοῦ ἐνδύματος αὐτοῦ
ὡς δρόσος Αερμων ἡ καταβαίνουσα ἐπὶ τὰ ὄρη Σιων
ὅτι ἐκεῖ ἐνετείλατο κύριος τὴν εὐλογίαν καὶ ζωὴν ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος

A modern translation:

A song of assents. Of David.
How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.
It is like fine oil on the head running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down over the collar of his robe, like the dew of Hermon that falls upon the mountains of Zion.
There the Lord ordained blessing, everlasting life.

At first glance, it seems like a typical Psalm, but the details of it are strange. Unlike classical Latin and Greek poetry, which were distinguished from prose by meter, the poetry of the Bible lacks a clear mark of separation from prose; it has patterns and literary devices, but debates continue over whether such and such Biblical passage is poetry or not. The most important pattern and literary device that distinguishes Biblical poetry is parallelism, a device that allowed the ancient Hebrew poets to construct coherent, beautiful poetry without meter or rhyme.

Psalm 133 does not contain parallelism, but it is undoubtedly a poem. Much as the modernist poets abandoned rhyme and meter in the English tradition while continuing to produce writing that was unmistakably poetry, the Psalmist here abandons the traditional parallelism of Biblical Hebrew poetry in favor of alternative literary techniques (simile, imagery, and anadiplosis) that are nonetheless poetic.

The images and similes in the Psalm are bizarre. How is dwelling together like fine oil? Is it the dwelling or the oil that is like dew? How does the drew of Hermon fall on the mountains of Zion? Hermon and Zion are a long way apart from one another. And what are ‘the mountains of Zion’ anyway? The phrase (הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן) appears nowhere else in the Bible. My favorite moment in the poem is the anadiplosis of beard/beard of Aaron (עַל הַזָּקָן זְקַן אַהֲרֹן), which none of the translators retain. (In Arabic, Aaron becomes Harun.)

It’s a poem of katabasis, as its sister poem (Psalm 134) is a poem of anabasis. A beautiful mystery in the heart of the Psalter.

I’m very interested in the ‘turn’ of a poem. This Psalm has two turns: from the brothers dwelling to the oil and from the oil to the dew. Strange turns. Hayim Bialik has a poem that turns from a walk in the suburbs to the Akedah. I dream of writing a poem with such a turn. To write one memorable poem. One worthy poem.

When the wind fails, the sailor turns to oars.

vale bene,
D

Samuel

Dear Margaret,

It’s not that I think anatomy and medicine are wrong. There must be something to the former or painters wouldn’t bother with it. For all I know, the current conclusions of natural science are true, but I choose to believe that the body functions as it does by magic. The intestines defy reason, never mind the brain (what’s called neuroscience is a pagan superstition – men worshiping machines and flashing lights). I’m not so sure that what we are is the same sort of creature as earlier men. Can you imagine an autopsy of Achilles?

Sometimes I imagine all of intellectual history is a struggle against Leucippus (ἔσχατ᾽ ἐσχάτων κακά) – and that it is my duty to stand against them, whatever the cost. (Aristotle turns out to be an ally in this struggle, however much it pains me to say it. There are a lot of unlikely allies.) The Marxist uxoricide Louis Althusser writes about a ‘hidden history of materialism’ as if the followers of Leucippus were a persecuted few, rather than continual victors. What Althusser means is that their victories are never total. The few opponents of materialism carry on through the centuries, despite every defeat and failure. If ever we are to prevail, we will look back in wonder at how people still believed in things like atoms more than two millennia after the death of Democritus.

Which brings me to the political question in your letter. What about a king? I have nothing to say. Suppose you’re right? Where would we find a suitable monarch? And for what country? They still have a king in Thailand, I think, and Leucippus holds sway there just as well as he does in Maryland or Kent. The sort of thing you’re talking about cannot be achieved by man.

Be patient and write to Helen. She’s written a long poem that touches on all of this. You used to write poems once. I’d say the time is right to begin again.

vale basilice,
D

Vayikra

Dear Esther,

I’m not interested in the reactionaries because I agree with their political programme. I’m interested in them because – as Weil, Taubes, and Benjamin discovered – they offer a route to escape from the closed circuit of leftist thinking, in which the state is the solution to every problem (leftists of the anarchist variety imagine a diffuse state – but a state nonetheless). Dupont said something like this ages ago: “It’s possible to have a conversation with a monarchist but not a Trotskyite.”

The curious thing about reactionaries is that their own thinking seems to foreclose on any possibility of a successful politics. This is most clear in Spengler, whose big book demonstrates that the defense or reconstitution of Western Culture is an absurdity. One might as well try to recreate ancient Egyptian civilization.

I recently read a book by a Polish conservative who argued that liberal democracy is functionally the same as Communism. He points out that anti-communists have had a much harder time finding their way than have their old opponents, who found positions in the EU and so on. The historical and philosophical arguments of the book were not interesting, but he managed to capture something true about our unwritten rules of speech and political conduct. Just as in the Communist states everyone had to begin statements with prefaces about ‘building socialism’ or whatever, now even far-right politicians begin their statements with assurances that they believe in diversity and are not homophobic. It’s hard not to notice the similarities – and to notice that our erstwhile comrades serve as a sort of extralegal police force to attack people who don’t abide by the rules.

What a world!

On the bright side, I’ve been reading novels again.

vale bene,
D

Bereshit

Dear Anna,

Forgive this addendum to the last letter being on a separate postcard – I’d already put the first in the mail. I had to write because I just noticed that Peter Gente’s note in the Taubes book ends with a quotation from Heraclitus: παλίντροπος ἁρμονία.

Divine providence!

vale bene,
D

Bereshit

Dear Anna,

The current epoch, now ending, began in the 17th century with the apocalyptic ideas of Bacon and Newton, who both wrote commentaries on Daniel and Revelation. The emerging epoch, whose character remains unclear, if it even is to have a character, will begin at the only place there is to begin after the apocalypse: Genesis.

I’ve been translating בראשית. At first I thought it was only a literary exercise. I was trying to express the concision of the Hebrew prose, which is lost in other English translations (almost all of which are variations on the wordy KJV). Now I understand my translation in broader terms as a political and poetic project at the heart of founding or discovering new regimes of truth, a parallel task to the hunt for the missing surrealists. Or, perhaps, the same task.

Have you read Jacob Taubes’ letter to Armin Mohler? Of the highest importance now, along with Augustine’s Confessions, which of course end with instructions on how to read Genesis. What makes Taubes so vital is that he made sense of Schmitt and Mohler but knew Hebrew. (You agree that nothing new can be done in German.)

ευ πραττειν,
D

ps. I’ve enclosed the beginning of my translation and eagerly await your notes. When my choices are confusing, consult the old Greek. It is just as alive for me as the “original.” I reject proximity to origin as a criterion for truth.

pps. Please send updates on your canal research, if you can. And pass along my regards to your husband.

Ephesians

Dear Rebecca,

There are a lot of stories about the so-called “pre-Socratics.” Most of the stories come from their late critics like the Epicurean biographer Diogenes Laertius or from the apocryphal Epistle to the Ephesians (actual author, Clement of Alexandria, who is also one of the primary sources for Heraclitean aphorisms), when it’s read the right way. The stories don’t add up to me. I’ve been piecing together the fragments of Heraclitus myself to come up with something plausible. Here’s a first draft.

Heraclitus was an Ephesian author of scholia on Homer’s Iliad. His commentaries primarily concerned Homeric descriptions of death and criticisms of later (and, in his view, defective) descriptions of death by the tragedians. In his view, the tragedians populated their dramas with the same characters who appear in Homer but did not do so properly. Thus Heraclitus wrote, “Let us not throw together at random anything concerning the greatest ones [i.e., the characters of Homer].” Further, he argued that all Homeric poetry is contained in the so-called ‘catalogue of the ships’ – indeed, that everything is contained therein. All lives and heavenly motions, all generation and corruption, is described and predicted in those lines of poetry. So he says, “We live their death and they live our death.” His most famous fragment (“Homer was an astronomer”) inspired the North Syrian School of Applied Homeric commentary in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD. The Syrian School attempted to predict the appearance of comets using only the text of the Iliad and large reflective pools lined with silver. The School dissolved at the end of the 4th Century when their comet predictions came true and the members retreated to the mountains to dig their own reflective pools and await immortality in solitude (no word on the mountain hermits since the start of the Syrian civil war). Their idea of immortality was inspired by a Heraclitan fragment (“For souls it is joy or death to become wet…”), which they understood to mean that souls can become immortal (“joy”) only in the ‘water of solitude’.

Contrary to the Syrians, the local Ephesian followers of Heracltus read his scholia not as commentaries on Homer but as thinly-veiled philosophical treatises in which ideas and propositions are revealed to be not ‘true’ or ‘false’ but rather ‘liquid’, ‘solid’, or ‘in-between’. The central activity of the Ephesians was determining the relative wetness of the soul. Their means for such determination are now lost to the sands of time. It is these followers who formed the bulk of the early Ephesian church and whose correspondence with Clement, along with Diogenes’ Epicurean hatchet job, is responsible for the popular idea of Heraclitus (see, for example, the 15th C. portrait by Donato Bramante).

Heraclitus himself led a quiet life and never lived to know any of his followers. He is said to have memorized the Iliad at a young age. He never left Ephesus. I visited his grave, and like the crossroads where Oedipus killed Laius, it really is uncanny, ominous.

Thank you for the poems.

vale pancratice,
D