Saturday, August 09, 2003

Make It So

I don’t doubt there are things that are what they are because of the way we think about them, which is to say, because of the will or whim of a sovereign community. Famously, it is consensus not connubium that makes a marriage; and imaginary medical facts can send you off to real jails and madhouses or, thanks to a show of hands at some hotel in Toronto, turn a disease into a life style choice or vice versa. There is nothing new about such astonishing feats of creation from nothing. We read in the Talmud that the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disputed for two and a half years whether the creation of man had been a good thing. Eventually they took a vote. I guess that settled that. But even admitting that it is indeed possible to do things with words, one has to ask why anybody is especially impressed with these somewhat less than earth-shattering miracles, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” he asked earnestly. “Yes, I’ve seen it done.”

May I suggest that what has been novel and remarkable about the last couple of centuries is a partial escape from the tyranny of the illocutionary? In the near total absence of reliable knowledge, truth was bound to be an act of social will, a set of sacred, obligatory clich├ęs. These days, having figured out how to let reality get a word in edgewise, we actually do understand a thing or two including our location relative to the Sun and the other stars, the nature of the chemical bond, and how living things work. Even granting that the objectivity of the various sciences is to some extent inversely proportional to their human relevance, you’d think we’d be impressed if not relieved to encounter at least a few examples of facts that remain the case whether or not you believe in them. But, of course, it is quite possible that the obsession of retail Postmodernism with the relativity of knowledge is actually an indirect recognition of the new state of affairs, just as the Fundamentalist’s newly found interest in radical skepticism is pretty obviously a response to the practical impossibility of doubting the reality of the evolution of life.

Friday, August 08, 2003

Going Ted Postol

The trouble is, the evil part is so much easier than the genius part. Every three-year old dreams of conquest and empire, but then they kick the wrong uncle in the shins. Unfortunately, the current crop of would-be masters of the universe disposes of a lot more firepower than a toddler and their comeuppance is likely to involve blood rather than tears. In either case, however, wishful thinking leads to a drastic overestimation of real capabilities.

In theory, disciplined but unscrupulous individuals can exploit the power of fantasy to move masses of people without falling for their own line. In practice, even technically sophisticated people don’t seem to be able to keep the two sets of books straight. Back in the 80s, for example, the rational reason to promote antiballistic missile defense was to outmaneuver the Soviets. In the context of that strategy, it made sense to tout the prospects of a successful system even in the face of a near-total scientific consensus that the whole idea was nonsense. The Reds are long gone and the prospects of a working system remain essentially zero, but the dream of perfect safety lives on, recruiting new threats—North Korea, terrorists, perhaps China—to justify what is really a childish and extremely aggressive dream of irresponsible power. By now, it is pretty clear that many in the current regime actually believe in ABMs despite the simultaneous recognition that tests results must be faked to keep the project going.

This sort of thing has happened a lot in the last hundred years. Alfred von Schlieffen could never make his famous plan work even in a map exercise, and the grand dreams of the even more feckless Austrian Franz Conrad von Huetzendorff were similarly dead before arrival. The logistical experts of Hitler’s Wehrmacht calculated that the panzers would run out of gas before they reached Moscow. That didn’t matter to the high command for whom, as usual, hope was indeed the plan. Similarly, the Japanese discounted the results of the war games they conducted in the run up to the Battle of Midway. The umpires ruled that the result of the simulation, the loss of four aircraft carriers, was simply impossible. Authoritarian regimes appear to be especially prone to this pathology. The absence of a free press and serious political opposition makes it easy to fool the populace and therefore yourself. As America becomes steadily more authoritarian, we can expect its leaders to believe their own propaganda more and more.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Unmodern Library

I know a biology professor who draws a chemical structure in front of his class and asks what it is. The students are always familiar with that one, and immediately tell him it’s DNA. “No!” he thunders—well, I imagine he thunders—“It’s chalk on blackboard!” thus producing a new cover of the Buddhist number about the finger and the moon, though as far as I know Ralph hasn’t cut off anybody’s finger yet. There is a philological version of this riff.

Encountering some nice modern translation of an old book or, more likely, a few well-chosen paragraphs from a translation, it is very easy to think you are encountering the word of Dante or Sophocles instead of a thoroughly synthetic surrogate for the postulated original. I recently encountered a photo of a crumbling Babylonian tablet of an episode from the Gilgamesh epic along with a transliteration of its contents (Introduction to Gilgamesh, A Reader, edited by John Meier). What we read as “Why, Enkidu, do you curse the love priestess, the woman?” was vocalized, leaving out the diacritical marks and brackets for conjectures, as “am-me-ni en-ki-du ha-rim-ti sam-hat ta-na-an-za-ar.” Except the tablet is in pretty bad shape, in several pieces in fact, and the scribe’s handwriting, though rather better than mine, is not perfect. And the text is in Akkadian, a Semitic language, but the epic was originally in Sumerian so a literate Mesopotamian would actually have read the characters for Enkidu as something like Heabani. (Apparently, it’s just a convention to call the hero by his Sumerian name Gilgamesh [Bilgamesh?] since the Akkadian is something like Izdubar and everyone knew him as Nancy.) There are other difficulties also. For example, George Smith, who originally translated the passage back in the 1870s, didn’t realize that Samhat means sacred prostitute. He thought it was a proper name for a lady called “Delightful.” It goes on.

I don’t mean to belabor the point, both because it is preposterous for me to talk about the finer points of Assyriology at all granted my well-known imbecility with languages but also because you don’t have to go back to the Dawn of History to find examples of the illusion of transparency. Anyhow, my point is not so much a matter of instances as generalities. Everything we read from other languages, indeed most of what we read in our own language, is highly mediated. Like baby sea gulls we never feed on an actual herring, though in the human case, mommy chews our food for us our whole life long. Intellectually speaking, we subsist on pasteurized, homogenized, and bowdlerized texts, a processed cheese product but one without nutrition information on the label. That’s why I like very literal translations and even more bilingual editions of books. You don’t learn how to make conversation in Assyrian, but at least you preserve some sense of the distance between yourself and the past and the sheer difficulty of understanding.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Hiring the Handicapped

Integrity in a politician is like the tail of the peacock, an extravagance that advertises that its possessor is so vigorous he can afford a superfluous expense. That’s why I usually support the better man even when, as a practical matter, what is most needed is the better politician.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Sunday School

I’ve frequently cited the Book of Daniel for polemical purposes as an example of prophesy after the fact (ex eventu). Obviously put together around 165 BC during the despotic reign of Antilochus IV Epiphanes, the book represents the legendary Daniel as “foretelling” history that had long sense taken place—until very recently Daniel was seven times more fraudulent than any other document ever forged in the land of Mesopotamia. The fortunetelling doesn’t occupy the entire text, however; and I still fondly remember its tales of the handwriting on the wall and the fiery furnace from a picture book I had as a child. Both for old time sake and to see if I had been representing the historical status of the book accurately all these years, I reread Daniel this weekend with the help of the translation and commentary of Hartman and Di Lella. I still like the folkloric parts, and the apocalyptic predictions are still a transparent fiction; but I did learn a few things.

1. The pious commentators treat “the book’s supposed historical setting and dates as merely literary conventions and nothing more,” but they educe no evidence that Daniel’s authors are winking at the reader. It is true, however, that the rabbis, who in this as in other matters demonstrate considerable integrity, eventually put the Book of Daniel in the third part of Scripture, Kehuvim or writings, instead of in the second part, Nevi’im or prophets. The writings contain a number of works such as Job, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes that are of considerable literary merit but theologically problematic. The Christians were less cautious. St. Jerome followed the Hellenistic Greek translation of the Jewish Bible in placing Daniel among the prophets.

2. The clumsiness of a fraud is no evidence of the innocence of the perpetrators, but it does testify to the remarkable credulity of the faithful. One speaks of a will to believe, but that’s surely a misnomer if the word “will” implies a process of deliberation leading to a decision instead of automatism, group think, and wishful thinking. One believes in the good news much as one believes that it’s you can eat awesome blossoms on a regular basis without bad consequences. One hardly needs to sift the archaeological evidence or to become an expert on Oriental languages to notice that the accounts in the Book of Daniel are incoherent and self-contradictory—on internal evidence alone, the pagan philosopher Porphyry correctly dated the composition of the book back in the 3rd Century.

3. The prophesies in Daniel are indeed ex eventu, but they are also erroneous despite the advantage of predicting the past. The authors of the work simply didn’t understand the history of the Near East—not surprising when you recall that they were talking about things that had happened four hundred years before their own time. How many people today would get the wars and rulers of 16th Century right? Thus the famous allegory of the statue with feet of clay confuses Medes and Persians and generally makes a hash of chronology and king’s names.