Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Essences

The dialectical approach is usually seen as trying to locate the phenomenon-to-be-analyzed in the totality to which it belongs, to bring the wealth of its links to light, and thus to break the spell of fetishizing abstraction: from a dialectical perspective, one should see not just the thing in front of one, but this thing as it is embedded in all the wealth of its concrete historical context. This, however, is the most dangerous trap to be avoided: for Hegel, the true problem is the opposite one, the fact that, when we observe a thing, we see too much of it, we fall under the spell of the wealth of empirical detail, which prevents us from clearly perceiving the notional determination that forms the core of the thing. The problem is thus not that of how to grasp the wealth of determinations, but, precisely, how to abstract from them, how to constrain our gaze and teach it to grasp only the notional determination. We should thus totally reject the pseudo-Hegelian commonplace according to which the Understanding deals with simplified abstractions, while Reason understands things in all their complexity, in the endless intricacy of their mutual relations which only makes them what they are.

Another commonplace tells us that, when engaged in a struggle, we automatically adopt a partial or particular standpoint, while the universal standpoint has to be elevated above the melee of passionate commitments. Hegel's authentic position inverts both these commonplaces: it is the Understanding that insists on the endless complexity of a situation, always pointing out that things are more complicated then they appear ("on the other hand..."), while Reason is the power to simplify, to isolate the essential feature, the one which really matters in a complex situation. Furthermore, this isolation does not emerge out of a distanced"objective" analysis, but through our engaged ("partial") approach to reality. It was Heidegger who elaborated this feature apropos language when, in his reading of "essence or Wessen" as a verb ("essencing"), he provided a de-essentialized notion of essence. Traditionally, "essence" refers to a stable core that guarantees the identity of a thing. For Heidegger, "essence" is something that depends on the historical context, on the epochal disclosure of being that occurs in and through language, the "house of being." His expression "Wessen der Sprache" does not mean the "essence of language" but the "essencing," the making of essences that is the work of language.
language bringing things into their essence, language "moving us" so that things matter to us in a particular kind of way, so that paths are made within which we can move among entities, and so that entities can bear on each other as the entities they are... We share an ordinary language when the world is articulated in the same style for us, when we "listen to language," when we "let it say its saying to us."
For a medieval Christian, say, the "essence" of gold resides in its incorruptibility and sheen, which made it a "divine" metal. For us, it is either a flexible resource to be used for industrial purposes or a metal appropriate for aestheic purposes. For Catholics, similarly, the castrato voice was once the very voice of the angels prior to the Fall. For us today, it is a monstrosity. This change in our sensitivity is sustained by language, hinging on a shift in our symbolic universe. A fundamental violence inhabits this "essencing" ability of language: our world is given a partial twist, it loses its balanced innocence, one partial color gives the tone of the Whole.

Hegel's formulation is very precise here: the reduction to signifying "unary feature" contracts actual;ity to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (Idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to be fully what it is. "Potentiality" is thus not simply the name for the essence of a thing as actualized in the multitude of empirical things of this genre (the idea of a chair as a potentiality actualized in empirical chairs). The multitude of the actual properties of a thing is not simply reduced to the inner core of this thing's "true reality"; what is important is that it accentuates (profiles) the thing's inner potential. When I call someone "my teacher," I thereby outline the horizon of what I expect from him; when I refer to a thing as "a chair," I profile the way I intend to use it. When I observe the world around me through the lenses of a language, I perceive its actuality through the lenses of the potentialities hidden, latently present, within it. In other words, potentiality appears "as such," becomes actual as potentiality, only through language: it is the appellation of a thing that brings to light ("posits") its potentials. In short, impartial observation gets caught up in the "bad infinity" of complex features, without being able to decide on the essentials, and the only way to arrive at true universality is by way of reasoning that is sustained by practical engagement.
- Slavoj Ziziek, "Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism"

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Quantum Knowing

This paradoxical status of the knowledge of the Other enables us to draw out another feature of the distinction between what Badiou calls (hedonist) "democratic" materialism and dialectical materialism. For standard materialism, things exist independently of our knowledge of them; for subjectivist idealism, esse=percipi, i.e., things exist only insofar as they are known or perceived by a mind, as perfectly formulated in the famous Berkeleyan limerick on "God in the Quad" (a courtyard on a campus):
There was a young man who said, "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there's no one about in the quad."

To which God replies:

Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Your faithfully God.
Note here the formal similarity with quantum physics, in which some kind of perception (or registration)_ is needed to bring about the collapse of the wave function, i.e., the emergence of reality. However, this similarity masks the fundamental difference: the agency which registers the collapse of the wave function is not in any sense "creating" the observed reality, it is registering an outcome that remains fully contingent. Furthermore, the whole point of quantum physics is that many things go on before registration: in this shadowy space, the "normal" laws of nature are continuously suspended. The theological implications of this gap between virtual proto-reality and the fully constituted form are of a special interest. Insofar as "God" is the agent who creates things by observing them, quantum indeterminancy compels us to posit a god who is omnipotent, but not omniscient: "If God collapses the wave functions of large things to reality by His observation, quantuum experiments indicate that He is not observing the small." The ontological cheating with virtual particles (an electron casn create a proton and thereby violate the principle of constant energy, on condition that it reabsorbs it before its environs "take note" of the discrepancy) is a way to cheat God Himself, the ultimate agency taking note of everything that goes on: God Himself does not control the quantum processes; therein resides the atheist lesson of quantum physics. Einstein was right with his famous claim "God doesn't cheat" - but what he forgot to add is that "God is unconscious" (God does not know), quantum physics is indeed materialist: there are micro-processes (quantum oscillations) which are not registered by the God-system.
- Slavoj Zizek, "Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism"

Monday, June 26, 2017

Slavoj Žižek, "About Peter Sloterdijk: The revolution takes place, only differently "

from the Zizek Times
Peter Sloterdijk is one of the most accurate diagnosticians of our time. In his work "Wrath and Time", he offers an alternative history of the West as a starting point from the distinction between Eros (desire, ie, the desire to possess, ie the possession of objects) and thymos (pride, thus giving-will) History of anger administration. The "Iliad", its founding text, begins in fact with the word "anger." Homer calls the goddess to stand by him when he sing the song of the anger of Achilles. Although the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon concerns a woman - Agamemnon robbed Achilles of his slave girl Briseis - it is not about the loss of an erotic object, but about injured pride. And that is Sloterdijk's point.

While anger can explode in ancient Greece, he experiences a profound change, a sublimation, a postponement in the Jewish-Christian tradition. No longer we, but God is keeping a record of our transgressions, and decides on the Day of Judgment. The Christian prohibition of revenge is the exact counterpart to the apocalyptic scene of the last days. The idea of ​​a Last Judgment, in which all the accumulated debts are paid off and a world out of joint is corrected, lives in secularized form in modern leftist projects.

Now the judge is no longer God but the people. Left political movements in fact act like anger banks. They collect collective anger investment and, in turn, promise the people long-term revenge interest, thus establishing a more just world. Because, after the revolutionary anger explosion, the ultimate payment never takes place, and inequality and hierarchy always reappear, there is always an urge for the second - true, total - revolution. It is only to satisfy the disappointed and to bring the liberation to an end: in 1792 after 1789, October after February 1917.

And the revolution?

This leads us to the great problem of Western Marxism today: the absence of a revolutionary subject. Who can take the role of the proletarians? In the Third World, students and intellectuals, the excluded are presented. In the meantime, the refugees are to revive the European left, free according to the motto: If there is no real proletariat at this stage, the revolution is just being transferred to imported substitute subjects. This way of thinking is cynical through and through. It bears witness to a leftist paternalism, quite apart from the fact that it gives new impetus to the violence against immigrants.

The problem is that there is simply never enough spontaneous anger capital - so the leaders have been borrowed from other anger banks by the nation and the culture. In Fascism, the national anger prevailed, Mao mobilized in China's communism the cultural anger of the exploited peasants. In our time there are two main types of anger left: the anger of the Islamic modernist losers against capitalism as a decadent system, and the wrath of the right-wing populists, which is aimed at immigrants. In addition to this, Latin American populists, consumerists and other representatives are less resentful of the resentment that refuses to recognize globalization. The only thing that is clear here is: the situation is confusing, all the different forms of anger do not come together.

Sloterdijk now recommends overcoming resentment and renouncing a revolution, which never happens anyway. He is concerned to delegitimize the connection between intelligence and resentment in all its forms, including feminism and post-colonialism. In capitalism, he sees not only the problem, but also the solution - Sloterdijk pleads for a turn of capitalism against itself: Instead of accumulating still more wealth and consequently fearing the loss of the wealthy lifestyle, the inhabitants of the Western Crystal Palace As proud beings who rather give than take. This would be, so to speak, Sloterdijk's cultural revolution without a revolution. But is she really realistic - and more than a philosophical imagination?

Capitalism, according to Sloterdijk, is therefore capable of effecting a change from Eros to Thymos, from the perverse erotic logic of accumulation to public recognition and honor. If you think so, you must inevitably praise figures like Soros or Gates. In this optic, their charity is not merely a personal idiosyncracy; On the contrary, the new capitalists are supposed to work towards a new balance of welfare through their willingness to donate, without obeying the destructive logic of resentment and forced state redistribution. We must, therefore, learn to live in a meritocracy which respects civilized norms and personal rights, in a balance between elitism and egalitarianism.

But is Sloterdijk really a reason for his denunciation of any global emancipatory project as a case of envy and resentment? What if his urge to sense revenge and anger behind every form of solidarity is itself an expression of revenge and resentment? His envy dims the view that there is indeed a position of ethical universality that applies to all people. And which exerts its own fascination on more and more young people.

Corbyn shall judge

Jeremy Corbyn, this dry, impish British labor leader, represents precisely such an attitude - with success. From the establishment, he is regarded as an idiot, a jihadist, an anti-Semitic, in short, as an unseemable, but this does not touch him, he remains faithful to himself. Of course, Corbyn is a nuisance - and yes, with his position of global solidarity and justice, he will prevent Labor in the foreseeable future from winning the majority in Great Britain. But that is not the point. For Corbyn represents the actor of a radical social change for the boys beyond the British Isles. Corbyn is an eminent representative of those who are serious about an ethical turn in politics - and the vulgarization of political speech in public turn. Propriety and argument were once bourgeois virtues, but these were long ago betrayed by the populist bourgeoisie. Now it seems to be on the left, to demand exactly these virtues by the fact that they live the same way.

Corbyn, however desperate and naive he appears, speaks of the important problems that ordinary people deal with, from economic necessities to the threat of terrorists. He is politically incorrect, not self-righteous, not off-hand, no blender - and above all, he speaks without anger and resentment. His performances are worthy, he preserves a basic decree. It is precisely because he acts like a politician from another time, that he is well received by the boys. Would Sloterdijk be prepared to recognize, in the success of figures like Jeremy Corbyn, the expression of a new social force that is not just beyond capitalist logic, but also beyond anger and resentment? We older men should remain attentive. I wish Peter Sloterdijk all the best for his 70th birthday.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Does Capitalism Depend Upon Envy?

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; ...
- Thomas Jefferson, "U.S. Declaration of Independence" (rough draft)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Opening Iris...

Philip Hermogenes Calderon, "Broken Vows" (1857)
The title of this painting suggests that the woman has recently discovered that her lover, whose initials are carved in the fence, has been unfaithful. Further details, including the discarded necklace and dying flowers, indicate her unhappy situation. The ivy-covered wall may symbolise her previous belief that their love was everlasting. Disappointed love was a popular theme in Victorian painting, and viewers were expected to unravel the situation from the symbols and expressions of the characters.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sunday, June 18, 2017

From Tragedy to Farce...

Nationalists Versus Communists

The brawls (Berkely) seem like a half-hearted, semi-play-acting reenactment of the street fights of Germany’s Spartacist uprising of 1919. The “Spartacists” were Marxist insurgents who sought to overthrow the new Weimar government, take power themselves, and expropriate the bourgeoisie. The government, which itself was made up of milder Marxists, relied on nationalist militias called Freikorps to crush the uprising. Then, as yesterday, nationalists trounced communists in the streets. Yet this did not yield a happy ending.

As Ludwig von Mises points out in Omnipotent Government, when the Freikorps first arose, they were modeled after the armed bands of communist revolutionaries that they would later suppress.
“The November Revolution brought a resurgence of a phenomenon that had long before disappeared from German history. Military adventurers formed armed bands or Freikorps and acted on their own behalf. The communist revolutionaries had inaugurated this method, but soon the nationalists adopted and perfected it. Dismissed officers of the old army called together demobilized soldiers and maladjusted boys and offered their protection to the peasants menaced by raids of starving townsfolk and to the population of the eastern frontiers suffering from Polish and Lithuanian guerrilla invasions. The landlords and the farmers provided them in return for their services with food and shelter.”
The Freikorps, like today’s budding right-wing street militias, arose in response to leftist aggression. That didn’t make them any less dangerous. Mises continued:
“When the condition which had made their interference appear useful changed these gangs began to blackmail and to extort money from landowners, businessmen, and other wealthy people. They became a public calamity. The government did not dare to dissolve them. Some of the bands had fought bravely against the communists. Others had successfully defended the eastern provinces against the Poles and Lithuanians. They boasted of these achievements, and the nationalist youth did not conceal their sympathy for them.”
The Road to Nuremberg

These Freikorps were then integrated into the army, and the problem of rival armed bands subsided for a while, although it did not disappear. As Mises wrote:
“War and civil war, and the revolutionary mentality of the Marxians and of the nationalists, had created such a spirit of brutality that the political parties gave their organizations a military character. Both the nationalist Right and the Marxian Left had their armed forces. These party troops were, of course, entirely different “from the free corps formed by nationalist hotspurs and by communist radicals. Their members were people who had their regular jobs and were busy from Monday to Saturday noon. On weekends they would don their uniforms and parade with brass bands, flags, and often with their firearms. They were proud of their membership in these associations but they were not eager to fight; they were not animated by a spirit of aggression. Their existence, their parades, their boasting, and the challenging speeches of their chiefs were a nuisance but not a serious menace to domestic peace.

After the failure of the revolutionary attempts of Kapp in March, 1920, that of Hitler and Ludendorff in November, 1923, and of various communist uprisings, of which the most important was the Holz riot in March, 1921, Germany was on the way back to normal conditions. The free corps and the communist gangs began slowly to disappear from the political stage. They still waged some guerrilla warfare with each other and against the police. But these fights degenerated more and more into gangsterism and rowdyism. Such riots and the plots of a few adventurers could not endanger the stability of the social order.”
But then, feeling threatened by the continued existence and activity of nationalist armed bands, the embattled socialist government created a new armed force consisting of loyal Marxists. As Mises explains, this caused many in the public to throw their support behind Adolf Hitler’s personal militia, the Nazi Storm Troopers.
“But these Storm Troopers were very different from the other armed party forces both of the Left and of the Right. Their members were not elderly men who had fought in the first World War and who now were eager to hold their jobs in order to support their families. The Nazi Storm Troopers were, as the free corps had been, jobless boys who made a living from their fighting. They were available at every hour of every day, not merely on weekends and holidays. It was doubtful whether the party forces—either of “the Left or the Right—would be ready to fight when seriously attacked. It was certain that they would never be ready to wage a campaign of aggression. But Hitler’s troops were pugnacious; they were professional brawlers. They would have fought for their Führer in a bloody civil war if the opponents of Nazism had not yielded without resistance in 1933.”
And the rest is History Channel programming. Once in power, the nationalist brawlers proved to be just as deadly foes to liberty as the communists they trounced in the streets and drove from power.
Source

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Birth of a Backlash...

How Deplorable!
from Wikipedia
The Gamergate controversy concerns issues of sexism and progressivism in video game culture, stemming from a harassment campaign conducted primarily through the use of the hashtag #GamerGate. Gamergate is used as a blanket term for the controversy, the harassment campaign and actions of those participating in it, and the loosely organized movement that emerged around the hashtag.

Beginning in August 2014, supporters of the Gamergate movement targeted several women in the video game industry, including game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, as well as feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian. After Eron Gjoni, Quinn's former boyfriend, wrote a disparaging blog post about her, #gamergate hashtag users falsely accused Quinn of an unethical relationship with journalist Nathan Grayson. Harassment campaigns against Quinn and others included doxing, threats of rape, and death threats. Gamergate supporters claimed unethical collusion between the press and feminists, progressives, and social critics. These concerns have been dismissed by commentators as trivial, conspiracy theories, groundless, or unrelated to actual issues of ethics.

Gamergate supporters typically organized on online platforms which allow anonymous or pseudonymous communication; these platforms include 4chan, Internet Relay Chat, Twitter and Reddit. Gamergate has no official leaders, spokespeople, or manifesto. Statements claiming to represent Gamergate have been inconsistent and contradictory, making it difficult for commentators to identify goals and motives. As a result, Gamergate has often been defined by the harassment its supporters committed. Gamergate supporters have frequently responded to this by denying that the harassment took place or by falsely claiming that it was manufactured by the victims.

The controversy has been described as a manifestation of a culture war over cultural diversification, artistic recognition, and social criticism in video games, and over the social identity of gamers. Many supporters of Gamergate oppose what they view as the increasing influence of feminism on video game culture; as a result, Gamergate is often viewed as a right-wing backlash against progressivism.

Industry responses to Gamergate have been predominantly negative. Gamergate has led figures both inside and outside the industry to focus on better methods of tackling online harassment
.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Message from the Sh*t Lord to All Sh*t Posters...

from Catholic On-line
LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) -- Pope Francis has made a statement, criticizing the media for its obsession with fake news and smut, all intended to generate clicks, and ad revenues. The problem with the obsession is that the public is starved of the truth and accurate information.

Pope Francis criticized the media for having "the disease of coprophilia: constantly looking to communicate scandal, communicate ugly things, even if they are true... And since people have a tendency towards coprophagy, it can be very damaging,"

Coprophilia is the love of feces, usually to the point of consumption.

If the term is revolting, it's intentional. The practice is revolting.

By removing a portion of the truth, the media is able to misdirect the public and inflame scandal. Lies can be destroyed as the media peddles divorce, adultery and infidelity, and every other kind of smut.

How many publications sell because they publish pictures of women's mostly nude bodies? Even teenage girls are vulnerable to this kind of exploitation. Many celebrities cannot enjoy a day at the beach without becoming the object of a photographer's lust. At the same time, mature individuals become objects of revulsion as the media hypes their weight, or their illnesses, or some other aspect of their life. All while ignoring the person's better character, and worse, ignoring the real news of the day.

With limited time for people to consume headlines, every story about Kanye West is less space for reporting on government scandals that deprive taxpayers of billions of dollars. There's less room for reporting facts and providing the public with the information they require to make smart decisions.

So much money is wasted by our government that if it were saved, it could end both homelessness ($20 billion, and hunger ($30 billion) overnight. The most conservative estimate of government waste is about $125 billion per year.

Public anger is often wasted on celebrity scandals and political slander. The real issues are lost.

Pope Francis criticized media 'calumny', which is to tell a lie about another person.

He said this of people's pasts, and it's very important because many people have made mistakes: "every person has the right to a good name, but perhaps in their previous life, or in their past life, or 10 years ago, had a problem with the law or in his family life...so, bringing this into the spotlight is grave, it damages, it cancels a person."

He spoke about the habit of bringing out what people did in their past to damage them, even after they have repented and paid their debt.

"Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus encouraging coprophagia," he said. "Which is a sin that taints all men and women, that is, the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive aspects."

Of course, the media alone is not to blame. While Pope Francis focused on the media, we too share culpability. Our choice to read smut over real news is a major reason why media outlets continue to degrade and publish garbage instead of real news. We have an obligation to consume media intelligently, and to insist upon accurate news, not smut. Otherwise, we become consumers of our own excrement.
The Internet was designed for sh*t posting!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Afterimages

Władysław Strzemiński , "Pejzaz Lodzki (Paysage of Lodz)" (1931-2)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Falling

I hear a storm is coming in tonight
and they say it's going to be the worst
so pack your bags and try to leave
or hold on to what is dear and make amends

The sun will finally turn away
as if she's given up her hopes for us
after all the chances that we've thrown
for the diamonds that we long to own

Now all the rain is gonna sober up our drunken minds
and the winds are gonna bring us closer though all too late
and the fire's gonna take away everything that has brought us here
When we fall

I hope that time is on our side,
that the prophets have been wrong from the start,
that war's an oddity,
and that you and I are here to stay

But nations rise and fall all the time
it seems to be the conqueror's fate
still we believe we are the ones
who will outlive all the others who have not.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Timshel 2

1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. #Cain: that is, Gotten, or, Acquired

2 And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. #Abel: Heb. Hebel#a keeper: Heb. a feeder

3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. #in process…: Heb. at the end of days

4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: #flock: Heb. sheep, or, goats

5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

6 And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?

7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. #be accepted: or, have the excellency #unto…: or, subject unto thee

8 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

9 And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.#blood: Heb. bloods

11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;

12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

13 And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.#My…: or, Mine iniquity is greater than that it may be forgiven

14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

15 And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

16 And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.
Genesis, Chapter 4
---
“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”

“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”

“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”

Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.

Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”

Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”

Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”

“You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”

“Yes. I can talk better with it.”

“Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.

While Lee went to the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”

“No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”

Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”

Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.

“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”

“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”

“I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”

“I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”

“I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”

“I have heard of them,” said Samuel.

“You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”

“I guess so.”

“It’s a little different from that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.

“They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”

Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”

Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”

“And you?” said Samuel.

“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking.

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”

Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”

Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”

Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”

“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”
- John Steinbeck, "East of Eden"

Friday, June 2, 2017