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Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Layperson’s Bible: Sexual Behavior Part II - Incest

Among the many strict and well-detailed rules the Old Testament lays down on sexual iniquities, the most complex of which are arguably the incest prohibitions.

“None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:6)

But once again, a seemingly simple subject proves not to be so straightforward, for naturally, “near of kin” must be defined, an argument which, if the Jerry Springer Show is any indication, continues to this very day. In the Bible, incestuous relations are forbidden between a person and their father, mother, father’s wife, sister or half-sister, grandchild, aunt or uncle, daughter-in-law or sister-in-law. (Leviticus 18:6-18)

It is interesting to note that there appears to be no prohibition against sleeping with one’s brother’s daughter (niece), and cousins, of course, appear also to be passable, as they are, if somewhat marginally, even to this day. It is also rather interesting that the incest rules appear to be addressed to men rather than women, although, of course, if one is not permitted to have intercourse with one’s sister, then logically having relations with one’s brother is also forbidden. But consider this intriguing little story in Genesis about what happens when Noah gets drunk and goes uncovered to his tent:

“And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
And Shem and Japeth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
And he said, cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” (Genesis 9:22-25)

Shem and Japeth really go to great lengths to avoid the mere sight of their father’s genitals, which seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it? And is the son really cursed for merely seeing his father naked – which, by the way, appears to have been Noah’s own fault – or are we supposed to assume there’s more to the story? In any case, it certainly suggests that even the admonishment against uncovering one’s father’s nakedness is intended to be directed towards men, not women, which implies that the writers of the Bible believed that men were far more likely to be guilty than women where incest was concerned.

There are certainly scientific reasons why incest between humans should be avoided. As we now know through genetics, children born of closely-related parents run a higher risk of expressing otherwise recessive and often harmful genes, which means that apart from the “icky” aspect of indulging in sexual congress with family members, there are solid biological grounds for shunning intimate relations with those with whom you share a certain level of genealogy.

The Bible, however, seems more greatly concerned with the familial rather than biological aspects of incest. A man is not in any way related by blood to his daughter-in-law or sister-in-law, and prohibiting intercourse between them could only have been intended to preserve the peace and integrity of the family unit. Likewise with the prohibition against having sexual relations with both a woman and her near relations:

“Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, neither shalt thou take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; for they are her near kinswomen: it is wickedness.
Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.” (Leviticus 18:17-18)

Mind you, this was in a time when having multiple wives was acceptable, even encouraged, and the possibility of taking both a woman and her sister or daughter to wife a very real one. Similarly, a man who takes his uncle’s or brother’s wife shall be punished with childlessness (Leviticus 19:20-21). Interestingly, though, it was expected that if a man died leaving no heir that his brothers should take his widow as wife:

“If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her.” (Deuteronomy 25:5)

The idea here is that a brother has an obligation to build up his brother’s house after his death. If a brother refuses, the wife can complain to the elders and then loose his shoe and spit in his face (Deuteronomy 25:6), but God might take a much worse revenge, as in the story of Onan:

“And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.” (Genesis 38:9-10)

In any case, the regulation against having relations with one’s sister-in-law apparently ends with the death of her husband, which lends credence to the idea that the point of that particular prohibition was to preserve family harmony. This is quite different from the purpose of not engaging in incest with a blood relation even if he or she is not part of the family unit; for example, one must not uncover the nakedness of a sister “whether she be born at home, or born abroad.” (Leviticus 18:9)

Such concerns were hardly unique to the culture of the Jews and the later Christians; other ancient societies seem to have been far more focused on incestuous relations than is true of the world today. The Greeks, of course, had famous tales of mortal as well as immortal incest, including not only Oedipus, but also the lesser-known story of Myrrha, who in Ovid’s rendition conceives such a desire for her father that she engages in a tryst with him in darkness and later gives birth to Adonis in the form of a tree. Hailing from classical Roman times, the Emperor Caligula’s sexual relationship with his sister Drusilla is perhaps the best-known example of ancient incest and was a great scandal even in its day, which is particularly fascinating given that both Greek and Roman theology were founded upon gods who were intimately related, even as, if the story of Adam and Eve is to be taken literally, their offspring would have been. Indeed, even with all of the so-and-so begat so-and-sos, the Bible is conspicuously silent on where the sons of Adam and Eve found wives; either they had to marry their own sisters or the story is inconsistent in itself.

Of course, even God seems to accept that incest might occasionally be permissible or even necessary. Consider what happens when Lot and his daughters flee to a cave in the wilderness following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

“And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth;
Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.” (Genesis 19:31-32)

Which they do, on two consecutive nights, apparently without Lot’s knowledge or consent, thus preserving his innocence and righteousness:

“And he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.” (Genesis 19:35)

They must have had some truly magical wine back then, to put a man into such a stupor that he wouldn’t notice his own daughters having sex with him, yet still leave him able to perform.

But his daughters do become impregnated, and produce heirs who become the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites. Which suggests that even in Holy Writ incest might be considered acceptable in a real emergency. I suppose it’s like what happened to the Donner Party. If there’s nothing else available, you take whatever meat you can get.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

On Popular Music: Censorship

I first became interested in popular musical censorship sometime in the early 2000s. I had moved from Western Massachusetts to Northern California, and was riding in my car with a friend when the song “Date Rape” came on the air.

“Here’s that new Sublime song,” I said.

“This isn’t new,” he answered. “It’s been out for a while.”

“Oh,” I answered. “Well, it couldn’t have been that long; I only just started hearing it.”

“It came out years ago,” he assured me.

But I had never heard it, and on consideration I put together a hypothesis as to why. It had to be because the song simply didn’t get airplay in my conservative area of New England. It was evidently not because Sublime was locally unpopular; they were popular enough for me to immediately recognize “Date Rape” as theirs, although I did not own any of their albums. And so it seemed highly likely that the mysterious absence of the song from my northeastern airwaves must have been the result of local censorship.

It was not, of course, the first time I’d heard music censored. Swearing in popular music was still pretty uncommon in the nineties, but there were definitely stations which played kinder, gentler versions of certain music. So, for example, one might hear Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” with the section about the “little red panties” expunged, which undoubtedly made it more palatable when they decided to use it in The Tigger Movie (go figure). Interestingly, though, I never heard the “crystal meth” portion cut out until I got to California. Perhaps the drug was already popular here then; I was barely aware of it at that time myself, so perhaps there was a coastal disparity in its perceived threat. But after that I began to notice regional disparities in popular music and how it’s censored – I heard, for example, the “hash” silenced out of Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” somewhere in the Midwest when it was first released – and more recently it was brought to my attention in a rather startling fashion when I was in a department store in Salinas, and found that the following line from Kashmir’s “Brokenhearted” had been replaced with an instrumental on the store stereo:

Sippin’ on my Patron just to calm my nerves.

Wow, I thought, really? You can’t refer to Patron in department store music? I assumed this was an alcohol and not a brand issue, but given what plays on the radio nowadays, I was amazed. Anyway, so this inspired me to start keeping track of these weird little instances – not the bleeping of ordinary swear words, mind, but the unusual or inconsistent stuff – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it long ago. But here is my list, such as it is, all involving songs I have heard on the radio this year.

Flo Rida ft. Sia, “Wild Ones”: One Northern California station plays a shortened version, eliminating the lines:
Show you another side of me
A side you would never thought you would see
Tear up that body, dominate you till you’ve had enough
I can’t lie, the wilds don’t lie

I have never heard this station shorten any other song, so I have to imagine that it’s a content and not a length issue. The other stations of the same format play the song in full.

Pitbull ft. Ne Yo, Nayer, Afrojack, “Tonight”: In the line “My family’s from Cuba, but I’m an American, I don’t get money like Seacrest,” I heard the word Seacrest bleeped on a Los Angeles radio station in July. Really. The line on Lindsay Lohan remained intact, though. I’m not sure whether that means she outranks him in this station’s eyes or vice versa.

Flo Rida, “Whistle”: One Northern California station – not, incidentally, the same one that plays the short version of “Wild Ones” – censors the “damn” out of the line:

It’s a d**n shame, pulled a d**n hamstring tryin’ to put it on ya.

Now, if you’re familiar with the song, which is incredibly sexually graphic, you know that this cannot have been done for the sake of the children. But I wonder whether there are still people who adhere with particular attention to the idea that “damn,” unlike other swear words, is a blasphemy, for although I don’t recall the song involved, I also heard “goddamn” replaced with “doggone” on an L.A. station this summer. Talking about fellatio, after all, won’t get you sent to hell.

Finally, I’d like to close with two songs which, like my Sublime example, appear to be subject to some form of local bias, for although several months have passed since I first heard them on the radio in the L.A. area, I have yet to hear them on the Northern California airwaves: Cash Out’s “Cashin’ Out” and Young Jeezy’s (ft. Ne Yo) “Leave You Alone.” Now, I don’t know for certain that either of these songs does not, in fact, get airplay here, but if they do, I haven’t heard them, and it does seem to me strange that I have not heard “Cashin’ Out” north of Santa Cruz nor “Leave You Alone” north of Ventura County, particularly considering that I heard both songs down south in the context of a countdown of popular music. It would make more sense if these were artists indigenous to the L.A. area; it did not surprise me, for instance, that I did not hear Kreayshawn’s “Go Hard” while down south, as she is an Oakland artist. It is certainly possible that these tunes are deemed members of a different genre here, and play only on certain stations, but I suspect there are likely other factors at work. The California/Massachusetts thing I can understand, but what possible explanation could there be for such a disparity between two major metropolitan areas in the same state? You tell me.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Layperson’s Bible: Faith is the Force

From the Holy Bible:

“And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,
Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatic, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.
And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.
Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.
And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.
Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could we not cast him out?
And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” (Matthew 17:14-20)

“With God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)

“Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” (Mark 9:23)

“And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God.
For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.” (Matthew 11:22-23)

From The Empire Strikes Back:

“We’ll never get it out now…”
“So certain are you? Always with you what cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”
“Master, moving stones around is one thing, this is…totally different.”
“No! No different. Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.”
“All right… I’ll give it a try.”
“No! Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.”

“I can’t. It’s too big.”
“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you, hm? And well you should not. For my ally is the force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the force around you, here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere… yes, even between the land and the ship.”
“You want the impossible.”

“I don’t believe it.”
“That… is why you fail.”

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Layperson’s Bible: The Israelites Complain

Many Jews are of the opinion that Christians still hold a grudge against them for being responsible for the death of Christ. Not so. If Christians have a biblical cause for disliking the Jews, it has to be because, as portrayed in the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites were a bunch of whiners.

We all know that God came along and instructed Moses on how to deal with Pharaoh, sent down the plagues, and so on, and ultimately freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt. So now they’re on the run, in the wilderness, being pursued by Pharaoh’s men, and are understandably perturbed by their current condition, having fallen, so to speak, out of the frying pan and into the fire.

“Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11). “For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness,” (Exodus 14:12) they cry, unaware that the Lord is on the verge of parting the Red Sea and thus ensuring their escape.

However, this is merely an escape from Pharaoh, not from the harshness of the wilderness, which is woefully incapable of providing bread for the multitude. Being even more of a slave to his belly than to any human master, a man naturally becomes ungrateful when he is hungry, ungrateful even for being rescued from bondage:

“Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)

God’s a good sport, and understanding, and sends down manna from heaven, enough to feed the entire people. Pretty sweet, but still not enough, because now they’re out of water:

“Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3)

Again God heeds the cries of the people, directing Moses to strike a rock to bring forth water, which finally satisfies them:

“All that the Lord hath said we will do, and be obedient.” (Exodus 24:7)

That is, they remain satisfied until we get to the book of Numbers. Now they’re sick of manna; they remember fondly the variety of dishes they enjoyed in Egypt, and now they want meat to eat, too. (Numbers 11:4-6)

At this point, God is starting to get a little testy. He provides the meat, but hits those who eat it with a plague while the flesh is yet between their teeth. (Number 11:33)

Finally the Israelites reach the promised land, and wouldn’t you know? It’s occupied. The heavens again resound with their groaning:

“And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!
And wherefore hath the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?” (Numbers 14:2-3)

Now God is no fool; he’s put a lot of work into this project, and he’s getting pissed.

“And the Lord said unto Moses. How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?” (Numbers 14:11)

It’s up to Moses now to talk him down. He convinces the Lord not to smite the Israelites on the grounds that the Egyptians will hear about it and poo-poo God’s abilities and power:

“Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness.” (Numbers 14:16)

In the end, the Lord heeds Moses’ eloquent plea:

“Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now." (Numbers 14:19)

But matters worsen even further when their travels lead them into the desert of Zin. Again Moses is forced to strike a rock to bring forth water, and again the Israelites begin cursing him for ever even leading them out of Egypt.

“Would God that we had had died when our brethren died before the Lord!
And why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?
And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us into this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.” (Numbers 20:3-5)

Chosen people or no, now God has had enough. The next time the Israelites start complaining, he lets loose his temper.

“And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water: and our soul loatheth this light bread.
And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:5-6)

The Israelites finally learn their lesson, admitting their sin in questioning the ways of the Lord and asking Moses to pray for them. Back on God’s good side, they begin taking possession of the lands which were promised them. Which is potent proof that, in spite of the holy wrath which runs as an undercurrent throughout the Old Testament, that the God of the Hebrews was in fact merciful, patient, and forgiving; a parent with a wayward child who somehow cannot cease to love, even when the little brat sasses and disobeys him at every turn.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

On Film: On Viewing Rhythmus 21

I’d never really thought much about Avant-Garde cinema – I guess it didn’t particularly appeal to me, and I never felt any special desire or calling to study it or seek it out. Oh, I saw the standards they show in the introductory film classes, like Un Chien Andalou, which can’t help but be fascinating, and other classics of the early years such as Ballet Mécanique and Berlin, eine Symphonie der Großstadt. But they never made me feel anything; they were simply there, strings of images, assuredly attached together with some meaning, some relevance which lay unfortunately beyond my ken. Perhaps therein lies the truth behind my lack of interest; the fear that perhaps I simply didn’t – or possibly couldn’t – understand. The musical, the rhythmical, which are so often central, I uncovered with ease, but the cinematic remained out of reach. And why music, why rhythm? Simply to create an experience? What was the purpose for which these works were made? What were the questions to which these films were an answer?

And so it is with some trepidation that I am introduced to Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21. I learn a little about art, a little about Richter and his connection to Eggling; I learn that despite the title the film was not made until 1926. Is this significant, perhaps a clue? I am asked to watch. I comply. I see boxes. Not even real boxes; something more like cardboard cut-outs which resemble on screen the wooden blocks I used to play with as a child. Even to my amateur eyes it appears crude; not primitive, but simplistic. Shapes simply move across the screen – left and right, screen forward and screen back. I am reminded of Meliès who so long ago created the impression of camera movement by moving his moon closer to the camera. Why do it here? I search mentally, desperately, through every narrative analogy I know. Perhaps that is my mistake, for still it lacks significance; still it means nothing.

The movements are mechanical; most of the shapes square or rectangular. I think of the machine in Germany in the twenties; I think of Metropolis. I think of modernity and industrialization, but there is no image of the machine such as we see in Ballet Mécanique, no pistons pumping or metal grinding, detached from the guidance of human hands. A greater abstraction? For the human is missing here as well. And the movement is non-productive, too; makes no pretense of utility; portrays only useless linear shapes on a dulled screen. But the pattern is perhaps not entirely linear. There is a third dimension; it exists coming toward and moving away from the onlooker. In this way it almost seems to become a part of the viewer, an extension, perhaps, of the viewing eye or body…

And then I do have a vision, a perception; I see something in it to which I have been blind. There is a meaning – and it may not be the “right” one, but that hardly matters, because it’s mine. I have given it to the film; have endowed it with life, for me, and perhaps for me alone, but at least I have not walked away with nothing. In the last few minutes of the film, the screen is occupied by two blocks: one small, the other larger, both rectangular. They move in alternation, forward and back, so that they seem to grow and shrink, in a peculiar rhythm, to a beat which I recognize, for it moves within me as well, within all of us. It is the beating of the human heart. And perhaps it was the progression, the slow coming to life of LIFE in those mechanical wooden squares, that constituted the Rhythmus of 21. And perhaps the question the film sought to answer was how to find that heartbeat residing within the abstracted concrete forms of modern life.   

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Layperson's Bible: Crime and Punishment Part III - Murder

In Biblical times, much like today, murder was an offense punishable by death. But also much like today, there were certain exceptions. In the Old Testament, the Lord directs the designation of cities of refuge for those who have committed justifiable or unintentional homicides. Qualifying offenders who are not legally subject to the death penalty may flee to these cities in order to escape the blood-vengeance of their victim’s families (Numbers 35:15).

Take, for example, the case of accidental homicide or manslaughter:

“And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past;
As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbor, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live:
Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worth of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.” (Deuteronomy 19:4-6)

The presence of malice aforethought is therefore key in determining the defendant’s guilt. Accidents may happen, and one whose temper flares suddenly and without warning is not held to the same level of culpability as one who plans a murder:

“But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait,
Or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm:
Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood, and . . . restore him to the city of his refuge.” (Numbers 35:22-25)

Interestingly, the Old Testament also provides for extradition from the cities of refuge in the case of murder in the first degree:

“But if any man hate his neighbor, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities:
Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.” (Deuteronomy 19:10-12)

The Bible also advises caution when judging capital offenses, requiring the confirmation of multiple witnesses before a defendant may be condemned to death:

“One witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.” (Numbers 35:30)

“At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.” (Deuteronomy 17:6)

As we know, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is the Ninth Commandment, which I believe has its roots in the politics of its time. According to Claudius, in ancient Rome, persons accused of certain offenses could have their property confiscated by the state. Less honorable and more extravagant Emperors (Caligula, for example) were suspected of hiring witnesses to make false accusations against more prosperous citizens, thus boosting their coffers at the expense of the heirs. Of considerably less relevance today, this historical practice is likely the reason why that particular commandment was included among the original ten.

In the case of merely attempted manslaughter, the guilty party must recompense the other for his lost wages and medical bills:

“And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:
If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only shall he pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.” (Exodus 21:18-19)

However, in accordance with popular legend, you are permitted to kill someone caught breaking and entering:

“If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.” (Exodus 22:2)

In other words, even in Holy Writ, not all murders or murderers are alike. It’s not purely eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life; extenuating circumstances can and must be taken into account. Thus even the simplest system of justice must expand beyond mere right and wrong, sin and good; even an omnipotent God requires a myriad of rules to govern adequately the countless subtle nuances of human behavior. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Layperson’s Bible: God Rules It’s OK to Snack in the Produce Aisle

"When thou comest into thy neighbor’s vineyard, and thou mayest eats grapes thy fill at thine own pleasure; but thou shalt not put any in thy vessel.
When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbor, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbour’s standing corn." (Deuteronomy 23:24-25)

This finally explains it: why my Mom never thought it was stealing to eat grapes from the bin while at the grocery store.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

On Books: Anatole France’s Penguin Island

France, Anatole, Penguin Island, New York: Bantam Books, 1958

This is one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. The initial premise concerns a fictional Saint Mael, an avid proselytizer whose travelling boat one day through the work of the devil is carried off to a distant frozen tundra. The good but aged and impossibly near-sighted Saint, finding himself surrounded by quiet, well-behaved men of short stature, proceeds to lecture and then baptize his newest batch of converts, unaware that they are not men, but penguins. This naturally creates an uproar in heaven over what to do with the poor creatures, for although the baptism, being proper in form if not in function, is decided over objections to be valid (“But by this reasoning… one might baptize…not only a bird or a quadruped, but also an inanimate object…that table would be Christian!” p. 17), the penguins lack the capacity to achieve salvation and will thus be condemned to eternal hellfire if left alone, which hardly seems fair. And after considerable argument among the Lord and the Saints, it is decided to change the penguins into men.

That, to me, was the only disappointing part of the book. I had imagined that the penguins would, upon becoming civilized, retain some of their original appearance and character, and be examined in that light. But as humans with a very short history, instead they are as an isolated aboriginal tribe which is plunged unexpectedly into modernity, discovering for the first time clothing, personal property, government, and so on, and then experiencing the main phases of human history, described in satirical and unflattering fashion. France’s portrait of these new citizens is amazingly well-done, very humorous and surprisingly undated for a century-old work. I personally found the first few chapters the most amusing, particularly when the Lord is discussing his own character. In responding to the suggestion that the current generation of penguins be allowed to burn, that the problem may resolve of its own accord with their unbaptized offspring, God says:

“You propose a…solution…that accords with my wisdom. But it does not satisfy my mercy. And, although in my essence I am immutable, the longer I endure, the more I incline to mildness. This change of character is evident to anyone who reads my two Testaments…” (p. 22)

“But my foreknowledge must not encroach upon their free will. In order not to impair human liberty, I will be ignorant of what I know, I will thicken upon my eyes the veils I have pierced, and in my blind clear-sightedness I will let myself be surprised by what I have foreseen.” (p. 26)

France’s political observations are as entertaining as his religious ones. One of his characters suggests sarcastically that the rich must not be taxed because “The poor live on the wealth of the rich and that is the reason why that wealth is sacred.” (p. 40) Furthermore, throughout the centuries, the wealthy object to taxation because it is deemed ignoble: “Since the rich refused to pay their just share of the taxes, the poor, as in the past, paid for them.” (p. 179) Instead a flat tax or a sales tax is suggested:

“If you ask a little from each inhabitant without regard to his wealth, you will collect enough for the public necessities and you will have no need to enquire into each citizen’s resources, a thing that would be regarded by all as a most vexatious measure…” (p. 40)

“What is certain is that everyone eats and drinks. Tax people according to what they consume.” (p. 41)

It’s really amazing – trickle-down economics and a cumbersome tax code were perceived to be a problem before they even existed. As the nation of Penguinia survives the centuries, it acquires other problems of human civilization:

“Peoples who have neither commerce nor industry are not obliged to make war, but a business people is forced to adopt a policy of conquest. The number of wars necessarily increases with our productive activity. As soon as one of our industries fails to find a market for its products a war is necessary to open new outlets.” (p. 104)

Government is equally as ludicrous as business. Describing a minister who is driven to distraction by the unfaithfulness of his wife, he writes:

“If he had been in the employment of a private administration this would have been noticed immediately, but it is much more difficult to discover insanity or frenzy in the conduct of affairs of State.” (p. 208)

Nor does France shy away from the subject of sexuality, discussing at length liaisons occurring with and without ulterior motive, both in practice and in theory. Thus one of his characters declares on the subject of virginity:

“The obligation imposed on a girl that she should bring her virginity to her husband comes from the times when girls were married immediately they were of a marriageable age. It is ridiculous that a girl who marries at twenty-five or thirty should be subject to that obligation. You will, perhaps, say that it is a present with which her husband, if she gets one at last, will be gratified; but every moment we see men wooing married women and showing themselves perfectly satisfied to take them as they find them.” (p. 184)

On prostitution and chastity:
“An excellent moral theologian, and a man who in the decadence of the Church has preserved his principles, was very right to teach, in conformity with the doctrine of the Fathers, that while a woman commits a great sin by giving herself for money, she commits a much greater one by giving herself for nothing.” (p. 204)

And finally, quoting a Professor who argues why urban women are more adulterous than their rural counterparts:

“ ‘A woman attracts a civilized man in proportion as her feet make an angle with the ground. If this angle is as much as thirty-five degrees, the attraction becomes acute. For the position of the feet upon the ground determines the whole carriage of the body, and it results that provincial women, since they wear low heels, are not very attractive, and preserve their virtue.’ These conclusions were not generally accepted.” (p. 215)

Accepted or no, such conclusions are pretty entertaining, and if this is a representative sample of Anatole France’s work, I will certainly be reading more of it.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Layperson’s Bible: Crime and Punishment Part II - In Which God Says Leash Your Dog

This is my personal favorite. In general, if an ox kills a person, the owner is absolved of responsibility and only the ox is stoned. Except in the following circumstance:

"But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death." (Exodus 21:29)

Maybe reviving that clause would get people to keep better control over their attack dogs, eh?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Layperson’s Bible: In Which God Prohibits Spandex

"Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woolen and linen together." (Deuteronomy 22:11)

That’s right. Blended fabrics are prohibited. God must have foreseen the invention of polyester, and tried to head it off, but thou art a stiff-necked people. Don’t feel too bad, though, because apparently only some Native American Indian tribes (and perhaps some cowboys) were getting it right, anyhow:

"Thou shalt make thee fringes upon the four quarters of thy vesture, wherewith thou coverest thyself." (Deuteronomy 22:12)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

On Popular Music: Katy Perry’s E.T.

Normally I am not a fan of Katy Perry; in fact, every time I hear “Wide Awake” come on the radio, I wish I was fast asleep. But this one I actually like. Not only do I not turn it off the second I hear it playing, I crank up my stereo to its maximum, no matter how old or large the crowd waiting at the stoplight with me. It’s fortunate that it’s got a funky backbeat, though, because lyrically, it’s conceptually strange. The singer appears to be describing her desire to have a sexual encounter with an alien life form. We have a term in English to describe the unusual kink of performing sex acts with members of another species. It’s called bestiality. Personally, I think it’s nice that the general public gets to hear about a perversion so taboo that all but the most hardcore pornographers shy away from it.  

Anyway, in addition to the standard version, I've also heard an alternate version of the song, featuring an introduction and later a vocal interlude by Kanye West, the latter part of which goes like this:

First, I’ma disrobe you,
Then I’ma probe you,
See, I abducted you,
So I tell you what to do, I tell you what to do, what to do. . .

An odd interjection, harshly delivered, and what is most intriguing about it is how it completely alters the character of the song. Without the interlude, the piece arguably centers on feminine desire; the singer perceives the extraterrestrial as a being who is “hypnotizing” and “magnetizing” and whose “kiss is cosmic.” The refrain further reflects her desire: “Kiss me” and “Take me” are its main features. However, the additional verse switches the focus of desire from the female to the male; the alien is not only now in charge, but has proclaimed his right as the kidnapper to subject his victim to his will. In short, we now have a rape story. 

But perhaps this was the underlying nature of the “kink” under discussion, after all. Consider the lines “Want to be a victim; ready for abduction,” and “Inject me with your love then fill me with your poison.” Although these words indicate submission rather than aggression, they are nonetheless suggestive of a submission that the performer finds desirable. In other words, it is being subject to the will of the alien that arouses sexual desire in the female; her sexual empowerment is derived from willingly submitting herself to it. It's a convoluted combination of power and powerlessness, one that makes me uncertain whether I, as a woman, ought to be flattered or offended.

Of course, the bizarre concept of being “probed” by aliens, often with an implied (or even overt) sexual component, has been around as long as there have been abduction stories. This is perhaps a mark of human arrogance, for the notion that creatures from another planet would find us sexually desirable makes roughly as much sense as the idea that humans might be attracted to chimps or orangutans. All I can say is, if the aliens ever do come to call, we had better hope that they have Star Trek-quality devices at their disposal for their probing needs, for, if not, they are likely to attempt to unlock the secrets of our bodies in much the same way that we investigate the inner workings of the animals on our own planet. Not through penetration, but through dissection.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Layperson’s Bible: Crime and Punishment Part I – Capital Punishment

Is The Bible a religious text or a codebook of law? Read the following, and judge for yourself.

We all know about The Ten Commandments, of course, but a rather large portion of the first several books of the Old Testament goes further than merely “Thou shalt not.” In fact, it not only differentiates right from wrong, but also prescribes sentences for wrongdoers, and it is difficult not to admire the simplicity with which it addresses the issue of crime and punishment, particularly when one calculates the legal expenses which might be saved if our courts abided by a more Biblically-styled system. Unfortunately, it appears that the writers of The Bible lacked the foresight to divine that in two thousand years few human legal disputes would revolve around oxen, sheep, and the treatment of slaves. And so we have been left to derive our own applicable punishments for modern crimes which are entirely absent from the code of Moses’ time, perhaps the most conspicuous of which is fraud, that bane of contemporary society which is either incredibly profitable or incredibly expensive, depending upon whether you are its perpetrator or its victim, and what degree of success you enjoy as either.  

But, concerning the major crimes, Biblical law, which, no doubt, itself carries forward from more ancient traditions, resonates remarkably with our own, in conceptual theory if not always in practical application. Except, perhaps, that the ancients appeared to believe much more strongly in capital punishment. According to the King James Bible, the following offenses are punishable by death:

Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man. (Genesis 9:6)
The land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. (Numbers 35:33)

Well, death to murderers fits within our own system, at least in some states. Certainly everyone would agree that if we have to have capital punishment, that murder would be an offense to be punished with it. But the reasoning here is interesting. A murderer should be killed for two reasons: one, because if he kills a man, he kills an image of God, and that’s a big no-no, and two, because it is necessary to avenge the dead in order to cleanse the land of the crime. In other words, murder is an offense against both God and the land on which it occurs. Modern people, I think, see it more as an offense against the person murdered. Of course, we get our whole “eye for an eye” thing from the Bible, too, but very few of our crimes are punished in that manner. Although, come to think of it, personally I feel it would be very entertaining if I got to egg the kids who keep egging my car, and might even discourage others from following suit, especially if the eggs were rotten.

Interestingly, The Bible also provides a number of caveats even in the case of murderers, exceptions which are still very much present in the American law of today, but that is a subject for another post.

On to capital crimes numbers two and three:
Smiting one’s mother or father. (Exodus 21:15)
Cursing one’s mother or father. (Exodus 21:17)
You can be put to death for either smiting or cursing your parents. That’d get teenagers to honor their folks, eh? Or would we simply run out of teenagers?
Stealing a man:
If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him, then that thief shall die (Deuteronomy 24:7)

Interesting. The Lord seems to frown upon slavery. Or at least, of making slaves of your own people.

Working on the Sabbath:
Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death. (Exodus 35:2)

God is really serious about this one. In Numbers 15:35, he even orders a stranger, a non-Jew, stoned to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Of course, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees, Jesus went a little soft on the whole Sabbath thing himself, arguing that it was okay to heal the lame or pick corn if your men were hungry, but as Lord of the Sabbath, he couldn’t really be faulted anyway. Which is really fortunate for us – I’m sure you can imagine the carnage which would ensue at the mall on Sundays if we still adhered to this no-working thing. Of course, the real fundamentalists stay home and watch football and thus avoid trouble either way.

Worshipping other gods:
He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed. (Exodus 22:20)

The Lord spends a lot of the Old Testament trying to make this point. The Jews seem to have some trouble getting it.

Being mean to those who have lost husbands and fathers:
Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. (Exodus 22:22)
I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:24)
This really surprised me. I’d be really curious to know why that was so important. I’m inclined to suspect that it had to do with war. You want your soldiers to be reassured insofar as possible that their loved ones won’t be mistreated in the event of their death.

Numerous sexual offenses also require capital punishment, including committing adultery, lying with one’s father’s wife, one’s daughter-in-law, or a woman and her mother (Leviticus 20:10-14; Sorry, fans of Stacy’s mom; that fantasy is strictly forbidden). For a man to lie with another man is an offense punishable by death, and also for a man to lay with a beast, although I’m not sure why the beast is called onto the carpet for it:

And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast. (Leviticus 20:15)
But these are only the capital offenses: fear not, there’s lots and lots more crime and punishment to come.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Layperson's Bible: Sexual Behavior Part I - Homosexuality

Apart from the Gospels, Genesis is arguably the best known book in The Bible. It’s got the creation, the fall, the flood, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his coat of many colors, and so on, all tied nicely together with the occasional so-and-so begat so-and-so. Now, until last month, I had not read Genesis since I was about twelve, at which time, not having formal religious guidance, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah went completely over my head. Later in life, it seemed obvious that the derivation of the word sodomy could be traced to the biblical story, and I assumed that this must have had something to do with the “wickedness” of the towns in question, but I admit that I was shocked when I recently read the actual account.

Now, bear in mind that God has already been planning to destroy the city, but Abraham talks him into sparing it if ten righteous men can be found within its walls. That evening, his nephew Lot accepts two angels disguised as men into his house. And here is how the King James Bible describes what happens next:

"But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter:
And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them.
And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him,
And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly.
Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes; only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof." (Genesis 19:4-8)

If one were unfamiliar with the Biblical sense of the verb “to know,” one might believe merely that the men of the town were being friendly, and wished to become acquainted with the strangers. In fact, in a Gideon’s Bible, which I found in a hotel room, to my neverending surprise, the word “carnally” had been added to the passage in order to clarify its meaning. So how are we to interpret this particular story? Since the angels whisk Lot away from the city before it is destroyed with brimstone and fire, it must be presumed that his acts are righteous. Speaking to the very strict code of hospitality to which the ancients generally adhered, he protects the strangers under his roof, if necessary, even at the expense of sacrificing the virginity of his own daughters, which leads one to suspect that perhaps chastity was of less value in biblical times than previously believed. (Of course, afterwards, he goes on to impregnate his two daughters himself, but that is a subject for another post.) By contrast, in their “unrighteousness,” every single man of Sodom turns out to barge in Lot’s door in order “know” the men within, an orgy of homosexual indulgence which even the gayest of men could hardly be expected to endure. 

If we wonder at the veracity or import of this account, we must acknowledge that nearly the same story is told again in a different setting in the Book of Judges. A certain Levite and his concubine are taken in by an old man, when “certain sons of Belial beset the house round about, and beat at the door . . . saying ‘Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him,’ ” (Judges 19:22) to which the master of the house replies,

". . .Seeing that this man is come into mine house, do not this folly. Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing." (Judges 19:24)
Well, the Levite brings forth his concubine, and after the men have “abused her all the night until the morning,” (Judges 19:25) she dies on the doorstep, after which her man divides her corpse into twelve pieces and sends them to all of the coasts of Israel. What lesson are we to learn from this? That it is better to rape a woman than a man seems obvious; for a man to lie with another man is an “abomination” which leads the Lord to destroy entire cities, whereas to rape a woman is a crime which, in the Biblical context, may or may not be punished. And the intense fear of male homosexuals revealed in such stories may have been a reaction to the homosexuality openly practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who often focused their attentions upon young and relatively helpless boys.

But what is particularly fascinating about the Biblical depiction of homosexuality is the manner in which it seems to have carried over into modern-day homophobia. The gay men of today are more often stereotyped as effeminate or weak; their masculinity is questionable and therefore, not intimidating. Yet the Biblical homosexual is not only uncontrollably promiscuous, but aggressive in the extreme, and it is perhaps this attitude which has led to the widespread yet unfounded perception of the predatory nature of the homosexual community, even in the current day, and even in spite of the characterization of homosexual men as fairies, queens, and other feminine creatures. Granted, I do not have statistical information at my fingertips to support this assertion, but to my knowledge, outside of prison and other all-male environments, which contain many more opportunistic than natural homosexuals, it is rare for a man to find himself with a penis in his posterior merely because he bent over in the presence of a gay man. In fact, isn’t it straight men who typically gang up on homosexuals and not the other way around? If heterosexual men are supposed to be tough and manly, it certainly makes little sense for them to fear a gay man, much less to require the assistance of a crowd to take one down. Then why the attitude?

Current wisdom in the non-homophobic community contends that homophobes fear homosexuals and homosexuality because it speaks to their own hidden inner tendencies. In some cases, yes, this is probably true, but in most, I would disagree. I now believe that it is far more likely to derive from The Bible and the issues of its own time which it has carried forth through the centuries. If your first impression of homosexuals is that they will cluster about your house en masse and then beat down the door in order to defile you, of course you will fear them; it’s natural to go on believing what you’re taught when you’re young – that’s how most of us get religion in the first place. It would also tend to explain why female homosexuals are so much more readily accepted than males; again, except in certain special contexts, women are generally perceived as non-threatening, and even people who are disgusted by lesbians in principle are much less likely to be afraid of them. And, interestingly enough, although The Bible laments male homosexuality on countless occasions, the sole oblique reference to lesbianism that I have located is in the epistle of Paul to the Romans:

"For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature." (Romans 1:26)
Of course, if you read Paul’s epistles, you get the distinct and sometimes overt impression that he’s supplementing a good portion of his given faith with his own  beliefs (also a subject for another post), and perhaps that is why his remark seems so particularly out of place given that female homosexuality is mentioned nowhere else in two massive testaments. In any case, although the homosexuality of today encompasses members of both sexes, it appears that, in biblical times, this was apparently not so, and one wonders whether it was because lesbianism was so uncommon, so clandestine, or so unoffensive in a way that male homosexuality never could be. Indeed, it makes one wonder whether it is the concept of homosexuality that the Biblical God finds so abhorrent or merely some of the forms in which it is practiced.