24 September 2009

Quotation of the Day

The people who are attending rallies while crying out that President Obama was not born in the United States, shouting “We want out country back”, even packing loaded weapons while at a Presidential appearance, are not anti-socialist (as they claim); they are antisocial.

09 September 2009

Passing Notes

Okay, I'm still here, still alive, still breathing, still connected with the web world. As far as I know this is going to be another placeholder entry, something to try to keep the blog alive while I scurry about looking for acorns, or something equally productive.

Well, let's see... My family has returned from visiting my mother (their grandmother) at the coast; my niece is in a foul mood, but as far as I can tell from talking with my mother things went well there, and they got her yard in good shape and the new wall on the house painted, so I'm putting it down to exhaustion.

I'd hoped to have something more solid to include, but I will note a couple of recent blog entries I've read with enjoyment. John J. McKay (archy) has a fascinating piece entitled "Zombies of the mammoth steppes" involving an interesting piece of fake history: the 1846 discovery of a complete mammoth specimen—a discovery that never happened. Although some of the details seem to be a bit fuzzy, the story originated in an 1859 children's book by Philipp Körber, entitled Kosmos für die Jugend. The discovery soon made its way into the scientific literature, and "By the end of the century, some of the details were so well established that they had could stand up against newer, and more correct, data." While certain details of the story were especially appealing to crackpots (see for example its use here at Creationscience.com), legitimate scientists also have continued to cite the nonexistent discovery. McKay attributes this to three elements:

First, the original story was well told, filled with many plausible details, and included the solutions to some outstanding mysteries about mammoths. Probably because of the verisimilitude and answers, the story was adopted and retold in considerable detail by some very influential scientists. Their credibility led to many retellings in both the popular and scientific press. Finally, debunkings of the story have been weak, made by not credible writers, or located in hard to find places.

One of the "not credible" debunkers was Henry Hoyle Howorth, a champion of the Flood and an opponent of the concept of ice ages, who wrote in The Mammoth and the Flood:

It is very strange that if genuine no accounts of this discovery should have reached the ears of Baer or Brandt, Schmidt or Schrenck, who none of them mention it, and that it should be first heard of in a popular book for boys in 1862. Until some proof to the contrary is forthcoming, I shall treat this tale as a mere romance constructed out of what we know about the Mammoth from other sources as an amusing story for boys.

Not that Howorth was the only one; still, given his biases, he didn't help matters much. Anyway, the piece is a great follow-up to McKay's earlier Mammoth on Ice (also very much worth reading, if you haven't seen it already).

On a completely different note this piece (h/t James McGrath) took me back a good many years to Dr. James M. Robinson's class in Q when the subject of the western non-interpolations came up—why, I don't remember. (The western non-interpolations are a group of passages, mainly in Luke, that don't appear in the western text, but do appear in most new testament manuscripts.) Most of the class was unfamiliar with the term, and Dr. Robinson pointed out that it wasn't exactly a neutral term for the group, as it basically presupposed that these passages had been interpolated into the Alexandrian (and Byzantine?) texts, and that the Western text preserved the original readings. If I'm remembering correctly Dr. Robinson felt they should be considered on a case-by-case basis, rather than making sweeping pronouncements—though I would point out that getting his own views on anything was always tricky. He was great at clarifying the positions of other scholars, and at showing what the consequences of those views might be; he was amazing at picking up suggestions thrown out in class and presenting how they might fit in with the larger body of knowledge; getting him to pronounce on what he thought was another matter altogether.

Anyway, to get back to the matter at hand, James D. Tabor muses over the restoration of these passages to certain modern translations, based largely on the testimony of P75, which, though an early representative of the Alexandrian text, is still, when all is said and done, just another representative of the Alexandrian text. There may well be good reasons to restore these passages to the text of Luke, but in the end the matter should not rest exclusively on the age of a particular exemplar of a text.

Recovering the original text of any ancient document requires a number of related approaches, and one is clearly the careful dating of the sequence of manuscript witnesses and variants. But the “older” is surely not the more original, and judgments of content and substance must finally prevail. I remain convinced, after all these years, that my initial judgment that Wescott and Hort’s position on the Western non-interpolations was self-evident remains the case.

Personally I've veered on that topic over the years, but the secondary nature of some of these passages (at least) seems manifest, whether supported by textual evidence or no. I mean, is it really likely that the original author of Luke-Acts would have had Jesus twice rise up into the sky (Lk 24:51 and Acts 1:9)? I mean, I can understand if he did why some scribe might remove the first reference in the interest of harmonization, but isn't it easier by far to suppose that some scribe added it to the end of Luke after Luke's separation from Acts? I mean, come on people, just because it was ancient times doesn't mean that everybody was batshit insane.

Anyway, James D. Tabor's piece is both interesting and relevant and is well worth reading. I enjoyed it, anyway.

05 September 2009

Quotation of the Day

Don't talk to me about government-instituted "death panels". The real death panels are the ones in that building in downtown Philadelphia, and similar ones belonging to other health insurance companies around the nation. The ones who attempt to stymie you at every turn in your efforts to access your "covered benefits". The ones who hope you will give up, go away, or die before they ever have to get around to paying anything on any of your claims.

04 September 2009

Mark Twain's Literary Afterlife

One of the books I mentioned as influencing my life, certainly my literary preoccupations, was a 1962 Mark Twain collection entitled Letters from the Earth. The story behind it is an odd one, and takes us down some bizarre pathways of history.

In his own time Mark Twain was known as a comic writer and lecturer. There were a lot of them around then, most of them forgotten. They were very roughly the equivalent of present-day stand-up comedians, and for the most part were relatively harmless. One of my favorites—and certainly a more typical example than Mark Twain—was an Oregon lecturer named Elisha Applegate. His most famous routine was on the topic of "Mohammed and the Koreish". The lecture was so popular in Oregon that when Applegate was appointed to be a sort of cultural ambassador for the state in 1873, Portland's leading citizens urged him to deliver the lecture one last time before departing for the nation's capital. The content of the lecture is not apparently available, but we do know that he took a somewhat tolerant view of Islam, sometimes comparing it favorably to Christianity. One much quoted bon-mot regarding Islamic polygamy vs. Christian infidelity was to the effect that Islam had the harem system, while Christianity had the harum-scarum system.

Humorous lecturers were, well, not uncommon, and not especially respected, and it was to this class that Mark Twain was seen to belong. The genius of, say, Huckleberry Finn was recognized in Europe long before it was recognized in the United States. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of Mark Twain's success in the United States was as a harmless necessary comedian.

But funnyman Mark Twain was a creation of Samuel Clemens—and Clemens was a much more complicated fellow than the comic lecturer. As a child young Samuel had trembled at each thunderstorm, fearing the wrath of God. And as he grew up he more and more came to lose his childlike faith in the god he had learned about in Sunday school. The mindless workings of nature—the young spiders who preyed on their mother, the parasitic wasp who laid its eggs in a living but paralyzed host—convinced him more and more that God was not merely wrathful, but downright malevolent. Tormented by visions of the worthy being punished while the unrighteous prospered, of the unworthy motives behind even the most seemingly altruistic actions—in short, by the way the world actually worked, he relived these images in a series of works destined to remain unpublished in his lifetime. Some of them—The Chronicle of Young Satan, for example, or "Letter from the Recording Angel," are among his best work.

One of these was something he called "Letters from the Earth." In it a supernatural being visits our planet and writes back to his fellow super-beings about the religion he finds there—specifically about Christianity as it was practiced in nineteenth-century America. Naive views of heaven, prayer, and the nature of God are satirized freely. He wrote to a correspondent (Elizabeth Wallace) on 13 November 1909 about it:

I've been writing "Letters from the Earth," and if you will come here and see us I will— what? Put the MS in your hands, with the places to skip marked? No. I won't trust you quite that far. I'll read messages to you. This book will never be published—in fact it couldn't be, because it would be felony to soil the mails with it, for it has much Holy Scripture in it of the kind that . . . can't properly be read aloud, except from the pulpit and in family worship. Paine enjoys it, but Paine is going to be damned one of these days, I suppose.

Albert B. Paine was Twain's biographer, and he certainly seems to have enjoyed "Letters from the Earth." He made no serious attempt to get the work published, however, though he did include one short passage (with unmentioned excisions) in his biography. Other than that the work remained unknown for decades. Several of Twain's unpublished pieces made their way into print, often with rather dubious editorial emendations (see my piece on The Mysterious Stranger for an example), but not that one.

In 1939 literary critic Bernard Devoto made a determined effort to get it out. He put together a collection of unpublished Twain fragments and provided it with notes and explanations. But Samuel Clemens' daughter Clara objected to it strongly, and the volume didn't appear. She felt it presented a distorted reflection of her father's views. She may well have been right—but Samuel Clemens did write these pieces, and they by no means stand alone.

Now Devoto made some interesting choices in several of the items. "Papers of the Adams Family" for example are somewhat unrelated sketches written many years apart, having in common only that they were attributed to various antediluvian figures. It's not exactly bogus (and Devoto was straightforward about what he was doing)—but it's not exactly Twain either. "The Damned Human Race" is likewise made up of fragments—various vaguely philosophical notes Clemens wrote late in his life—assembled in their present form by Devoto. "Cooper's Prose Style" is made up of two manuscripts—an unfinished lecture and the original ending to "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."

Which takes us back to "Letters from the Earth." To provide the letters with a prolog, Devoto turned to another earlier MS of Twain's—an unfinished piece called "The Creation of Man." This describes the Creator's invention of the universe and the reactions of Gabriel, Michael, and Satan to it. At the end of it Satan heads off to earth and starts a letter back to Gabriel and Michael about what he finds there. The MS breaks off in mid-sentence.

Paine wrote about the two pieces that "Letters from the Earth" was suggested by "The Creation of Man," but was "not a continuation of it." Devoto overruled Paine, however, commenting "Nevertheless the transition is direct and the continuation unmistakable"; he therefore omitted the final lines of "The Creation of Man" and attached it to "Letters from the Earth." In point of fact it is nowhere stated in "Letters from the Earth" who exactly is writing to whom; the focus is on mankind as seen from a supernatural perspective. The author only becomes Satan as a result of Devoto's combination of the two MSS.

Some of the material slated for the book, also entitled Letters from the Earth, made it into print during the next couple of decades. (Should you be interested, and I feel quite certain that you are not, they were "The Gorky Incident" (1944), "Cooper's Prose Style" (1946), "Letter from the Recording Angel" (1946), and "A Cat-Tale" (1959).) Nothing of "Letters from the Earth" itself seems to have escaped.

Oddly enough it was cold war politics that at last allowed the appearance of "Letters from the Earth." Mark Twain was something of a hero in the old Soviet Union, and charges of censorship stung in America, the land where free speech was a valued right. Not willing to give the Soviets a talking-point, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch finally relented, and the book at last appeared.

It made ripples, but it was by no means as shocking in 1962 as it would have been in 1939. I read it with considerable interest as an eleven-year-old; it was a side of Mark Twain I'd never seen before, though people who had read more of Twain than appeared in The Little Golden Library (or whatever the real name of the series was) would not have seen much that was new. In an earlier entry I wrote about the effect the book had on me; especially the violence and injustice recorded in the Bible about the conquest of Canaan. The effect on more sophisticated (or at least more adult) readers was not so striking. One reviewer parodied The Screwtape Letters (1942) to express his disappointment that this book was not really the devilish concoction the demonic realm had been hoping for. And many reviewers observed that the naive views of religion and the afterlife attacked in it were not the views of sophisticated theologians—as if those views were actually shared by the majority of the American people. Certainly the delay helped blunt the effect of the work—though in point of fact, it may never have been as unpublishable as Twain thought it was.

One of the oddities of this publishing history is that this piece, "Letters from the Earth", a hundred years old this year, is still in copyright in the United States. It will be in copyright in the United States until 2057—a fact that would please Mark Twain no end, as he was a great believer in perpetual copyright. Samuel Clemens has been dead for nearly a century now, and most of his works have quite properly entered the land of public domain, but not this tiny handful. Clemens' dead hand will hold these works with an iron grip for more than a century and a half before they become part of the general heritage of the American people. It's interesting—but tough.

Things Continue

Okay, I'm going to be honest here (not that I'm usually dishonest here)—I don't know when I'm going to get back to making regular entries here again. Things are hectic around me, and I may be moving on soon—or not. I feel the need for a break, and I want to get back to something resembling normal for me. I'm trying to get back to having a laptop—writing at my desk is never that comfortable, to be honest. I need new glasses; I can't see with the ones I've got without zooming in so far the text barely fits on the screen. And I've got to seriously reduce the amount of stuff in my life to something a bit more portable. I've lost the bulk of my library, so that's taken care of—though not in a good way. I've lost an unknown portion of my files, including works in progress (my Dubious Documents project for one) and many notes I need in order to write these things. I've been trying to limp on, but it isn't working, and I'm more or less reaching the end of my rope.

I'm going to try to sell of some of my remaining collections, and maybe find homes for other material that I don't particularly want to sell. Times are tough, though, and I don't know how feasible any of that is. We'll just have to see.

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