I have lost count of the number of good scholarly books I’ve read which have offered praise (or at least positive citation) of Persecution and the Art of Writing. It was on my list of books to read for about five years, which is impressive in itself, and even more peculiar in light of the fact that it’s only about 200 pages long.
Although well and carefully written, Persecution and the Art of Writing is no easy read. The larger part of the volume is taken up with case studies from the writings of Maimonides, Halevi, and Spinoza, and readers unfamiliar with the the medieval and early modern Jewish intellectual traditions will benefit from reading a good encyclopedia article on each before approaching their respective treatments by Strauss, who assumes an informed, even elite reader for his exploration of the hermeneutical methods to be used with these writers.
Strauss proposes that prior to the liberal regimes of modernity, the greatest and most careful philosophers necessarily wrote in an apparently incoherent fashion, so that their true conclusions could remain “between the lines,” cloaked by statements of permissible but dissimulating opinion. His notion of the “exoteric text” is one that is not merely accessible to the vulgar public—those whom Maimonides called “people of the earth”—but which conceals heterodox lures for “potential philosophers” under the cover of more conventional positions.
The admiration of certain Neoconservative pundits for Strauss has contributed to a posthumous view of him as a political reactionary favoring domination by rulers who deceive the populace. My own reading of Persecution and the Art of Writing does not support this claim; Strauss consistently represents his dissembling philosophers as seeking to perpetuate their ideas in the face of bigoted tradition. But given his insistence on the method of textual ambiguity, and the justification of answering fools according to their folly, my confidence in having interpreted his genuine thoughts is far from full. [via]
Readers should heed the word origins in the subtitle of Eliade’s monograph on alchemy. In fact, the first two-thirds of the book is given over to discussions of the religious and mythic dimensions of metallurgy in ancient and “primitive” cultures. The next few chapters perform a cross-cultural survey of alchemical traditions, moving west from China, through India and the Near East, to Europe. Eliade makes a reasonably persuasive case for the existence of similar conceptual mechanisms in the alchemy of various different societies, and he uses a presentation of Indian alchemy as a basis for explaining European alchemy.
Eranos-participant Eliade references Jung as the authority on the psychological interpretation of alchemy, and he attributes validity to Jung’s approach, but he doesn’t claim to share it–being interested in the history of religions rather than individual psychology. He also cites Julius Evola as an expositor of alchemy as a “traditional science.”
This book suffers as much as any of Eliade’s work (with the stand-out exception of The Myth of the Eternal Return, which must be hands-down the worst) from a nostalgic conception of the primitive. He insists, “Modern man is incapable of experiencing the sacred in his dealings with matter; at most he can achieve an aesthetic experience.” (143) At every turn, he identifies the objects of his greatest scholarly care and concern with an earlier, more sacralized period of human awareness. And yet he attempts to disavow it: “These considerations are no more a criticism of the modern world than they are a eulogy of other, primitive or exotic societies.” (177)
Aside from its comparativism, The Forge and the Crucible has the most to offer those who are interested in ideas of great dispensations of human consciousness, whether they are construed as magical aeons or Foulcauldian discursive epistemes. Eliade proposes that alchemical culture was a precondition for modern science and industrialization, which is poised to transform human society as dramatically as did the first introduction of agriculture. [via]
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by Ioan P Couliano, translated by Margaret Cook, with a foreword by Mircea Eliade, from University of Chicago Press.
In this invaluable treatment of its topic, Couliano exposes some of the principal rationales underlying magic in early modernity, and explains how those now-antedated forms of sorcery became incomprehensible to moderns. Read alongside D.P. Walker’s Spiritual and Demonic Magic, this book does more to illuminate traditional Western occult science than 99 percent of the historical works on the topic that have appeared since it was first published in the 1980s. [via]
“Although the troubadours flourished at the height of the Middle Ages in southern France, their songs of romantic love, with pleasing melodies and intricate stanzaic patterns, have inspired poets and song writers ever since, from Dante to Chaucer, from Renaissance sonneteers to the Romantics, and from Verlaine and Rimbaud to modern rock lyricists. Yet despite the incontrovertible influence of the troubadours on the development of both poetry and music in the West, there existed no comprehensive anthology of troubadour lyrics that respected the verse form of the originals until now.
Lark in the Morning honors the meter, word play, punning, and sound effects in the troubadours’ works while celebrating the often playful, bawdy, and biting nature of the material. Here, Robert Kehew augments his own verse translations with those of two seminal twentieth-century poets—Ezra Pound and W. D. Snodgrass—to provide a collection that captures both the poetic pyrotechnics of the original verse and the astonishing variety of troubadour voices.” — back cover
“Now when I see the skylark lift
His wings for joy in dawn’s first ray
Then let himself, oblivious, drift
For all his heart is glad and gay,
Ay! such great envies seize my thought
To see the rapture others find,
I marvel that desire does not
Consume away this heart of mine.”
—from “The Skylark” by Bernart de Ventadorn, trans. W D Snodgrass
“Cuneiform records made some three thousand years ago are the basis for this essay on the ideas of death and the afterlife and the story of the flood which were current among the ancient people of the Tigro-Euphrates Valley. With the same careful scholarship shown in his previous volume, The Babylonian Genesis, Heidel interprets the famous Gilgamesh Epic and other related Babylonian and Assyrian documents. He compares them with corresponding portions of the Old Testament in order to determine the inherent historical relationship of Hebrew and Mesopotamian ideas.” — back cover
“Here is a complete translation of all the published cuneiform tablets of the various Babylonian creation stories, of both the Semitic Babylonian and the Sumerian material. each creation account is preceded by a brief introduction dealing with the age and provenance of the tablets, the aim and purpose of the story, etc. Also included is a translation and discussion of two Babylonian creation versions written in Greek. The final chapter presents a detailed examination of the Babylonian creation accounts in their relation to our Old Testament literature.” — back cover
The “place” of the title and of Smith’s theory is not merely location, but also the “place” in sequence and the “place” in rank or value. He theorizes ritual as a “mode of paying attention,” which creates and affirms distinctions and differences, rather than contents or essences. He thus draws comparisons between the “places” established by Tjilpa dreamtime narratives, ancient near eastern temple architecture, the system of the Mishnah, and the Christian liturgical year.
As always, Smith is rigorous and thorough in his treatment of his illustrative cases, and he applies a critical sensibility to the history of the scholarship of religion. Not only does he take Eliade to task over the universality of the “sacred axis,” he dissects and addresses the abiding legacy of Protestant anti-Catholic polemics underlying the conception of “ritual” in academic discourse. [via]
Akenson’s book is a lively and substantial exploration of the process of religious canonization of texts in the Biblical tradition. The author is an historian by trade, and has no preexisting partisan status in the interminable feuds of biblical origins scholarship. In particular, he spurns the entire “source critical” procedure of reifying postulated proto-texts, preferring to focus on the inseparable literary and ideological motives of the compiler/author(s) of the texts that we do have.
Akenson recognizes that the Temple scheme, along with its metaphoric precursors and its supplementary successors, is the core of the tradition: “a concentric architecture of holiness, one that is also a genealogy of legitimacy.”
Although the word “invention” may be a little alarming to those who fear that the book will treat the Bible as fiction, it instead denotes the creative element in composing historical text, the divine creativity that was expressed in the human effort to contribute these texts to posterity. But Akenson neither coddles nor argues with Biblical inerrantists and their fundamentalist kindred. In his only condescension to acknowledge that intellectual position, he remarks: “This sort of thing cannot be fought, so it is best ignored.”
There is a fairly happy amount of invention in Surpassing Wonder itself, and the reader may be swept up in the fascination of the meta-historical narrative to the point where there is an expectation for some grand resolution of the story. But all that Akenson offers in closing is some ecumenist sentiments regarding commonality between Jews and Christians. To my mind, a compelling “conclusion” would emphasize the journey, rather than a destination. There is no reason to suppose that what the author terms the “Re-Invention of the Species” of sacred literature has come to a halt. Some nods to the Quran and The Book of Mormon could demonstrate how the old foundations of Hebrew scripture continue to serve as a rule and guide in the development of texts which inscribe an ongoing relationship between the human and the divine. [via]