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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.