European paternalism is totally justified.

This is my conclusion approximately two hours after I stepped off a plane in Germany.

Let’s start with the flight here on British Airways. It is 1) on time, and 2) there is no fuss with “boarding zones” or any similar efficiency bullshit. Upon arriving at your coach-class seat, you find 3) complimentary headphones, a toothbrush, a blanket, and a pillow. You get 4) a complimentary meal which 5) is actually half decent and 6) comes with complimentary wine. Then, another trolley comes by with 7) more complimentary beer or wine, followed by 8) coffee or tea.

What is this, air travel in 1990?

Four hours later, you’re an hour out of London, so you get 9) a complementary breakfast. Upon boarding your small regional jet for the hop from London to Stuttgart (2 hours), you get 10) another complementary breakfast.

Upon arriving in Germany, I hand the nice man at the immigration counter my passport I am 11) not quizzed on where I am going and why; my passport is stamped and returned without a word.

Having claimed my luggage, which 12) arrived with my flight, I board the subway which is 13) conveniently located directly under the airport. This subway is 14) clean, 15) spacious, 16) fast, and 17) dead silent. I mean it – you can barely tell you’re moving. Without windows, you’d be hard pressed to tell anything is happening at all.

My hotel is 18) two blocks from the main train station. Although I arrive at noon, I am 19) allowed to check in without any fuss. Despite the fact that this hotel is only around 150 € per night, I am 20) escorted up to my room and shown all the features. The room has 21) a real key, so there’s no futzing with stupid cards. Additionally, the room has 22) an inexpensive minibar, 23) electronic black-out shades, and 24) is stylishly and tastefully decorated. I am told the complementary breakfast tomorrow morning goes 25) till 10.

Oh, and the room has a shower with 26) side nozzles which also 27) doubles as a one-person sauna with 28) eucalyptus aromatherapy.

Oh, and there’s a bed with clean sheets, which is nice too.

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A translation: Coplas a la muerte de su padre

Coplas a la muerte de su padre – por Jorge Manrique

I

Recuerde el alma dormida,
abiue el seso e despierte
contemplando
cómo se passa la vida,
cómo se viene la muerte
tan callando,
quánd presto se va el plazer,
cómo después de acordado
da dolor,
cómo, a nuestro parescer,
qualquiere tiempo passado
fue mejor.

II

Y pues vemos lo presente
cómo en vno punto s’es ido
e acabado,
si juzgamos sabiamente,
daremos lo non venido
por passado.
Non se engañe nadi, no,
pensando que a de durar
lo que espera
más que duró lo que vio,
pues que todo ha de passar
por tal manera.

III

Nuestras vidas son los ríos
que van a dar en la mar
qu’es el morir:
allí van los señoríos
derechos a se acabar
e consumir;
allí los ríos caudales,
allí los otros medianos
e más chicos,
allegados son yguales
los que biuen por sus manos
e los ricos.

Continue reading

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Ivy Covered Walls

Harvard is a strange place. It seems benign enough – it’s just brick walls, strangely more or less devoid of actual ivy,  and amazingly resilient lawns which have survived the trampling feet of more tour groups than you could ever really imagine existing. I actually don’t really understand what they’re here for – the Yard isn’t particularly interesting or impressive to look at. I certainly wouldn’t travel around the world to see it.

However, those rather unassuming bricks have a way of warping reality itself. When I first enrolled, there was an undeniable rush – I was here, of all places. It was incredibly motivational – I wanted to go Be Smart. That’s the first level. For me, it faded fast, but it’s never actually disappeared completely.

Tied up in this, there’s the professors. That person over there literally wrote the book on the subject you study. Oh hey, that’s a Nobel laureate. Look, an eminent professor from another university is coming to give a lecture on his new idea.

This is, in and of itself, relatively unproblematic – in fact, it’s amazing and inspirational. The weirdness comes when you come to a moment of self-realization months or years later that you no longer think this is unusual. That person who literally wrote the book? You have lunch with her regularly. The Nobel laureate knows you by your first name. Ugh, another guest lecture? I can’t, I have a project to finish! I already saw two this week!

Then, there is simply the sheer wealth. The conference is fully catered, and there’s a dinner afterwards. After the guest lecture, you all go out to dinner for further discussions over drinks, and the meal is covered. This person is going to spend a few months in Germany, he’s going to do archival research in Spain – that’s what you do in the summer.

I really don’t know how to describe it. It’s a world unto itself, but not one you get to on a space ship, but rather as if you walked from one side of a field to another, and found yourself on the other side of the galaxy.

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The Historical-Critical approach to the Bible has some Problems

Which I shall now explain.

            Current scholarship on the introduction to the Apocalypse of John (ie. chapters 1-3) seems to be mainly concerned with two areas: the situation of the text within traditional religious categories,[1] and the analysis of the intent and purpose behind the so-called ‘letters to the seven communites’ which constitute the introduction. The first concern has been more or less put to rest by David Frankfurter’s conclusive demonstration as to “how anachronistic this term [‘Christian’] is as an historical category and how confusing its use can be when one is tackling the perspective of a figure like John of Patmos,” a statement easily extended in the same context to the term ‘Jewish’.[2] The second is significantly more complicated, with a variety of different interpretations being offered by scholars. However, these interpretations seem to fit two basic molds, describing the relevant chapters as pertaining to either internal or external disputes. Paul Duff, for example, argues that they represent an internal dispute framed through the language of witchcraft and the unusual forms of othering such a medium allows,[3] while Stephen Friesen, noting the generally positive tone John takes towards his recipients, constructs the chapters as part of a rhetorical attempt to unite against an external opponent.[4] While these arguments and others like them are well-constructed, offering unusual insights into the text from diverse perspectives, they both suffer from being placed on an insecure foundation, one which applies to the historical-critical approach to the apocalyptic genre in general: there is no evidence that the chapters in question refer to a historical reality.

            As apocalyptic literature is often vague, talking in metaphor and allegory, there are few instances where scholars might identify apparently concrete references to historical fact, a problem which varies in scope with different texts.[5] This relative scarcity of references within the text, combined with the relative scarcity of such texts from Antiquity in general, has resulted in the uncritical acceptance of what appear to be obvious ties to historical certainty. The seven letters that constitute Revelations 1-3 have universally been interpreted in such a way, despite the fact that there has been little to no discussion as to why this might be the case, particularly considering their location in a textual genre known for stating things obliquely. The concrete naming of places and plausible descriptions of apparent events has led scholars to run in and fight among themselves, like starved animals at scraps, without considering what precisely they were fighting over.

            With the first three chapters of Revelations, the need to justify a historical interpretation of the text as opposed to a metaphoric or allegorical one is particularly great, as there are indications that the text was not meant to be read literally. An often overlooked fact is that the seven letters are not, contrary to common usage, actually sent to the seven communities in the seven cities. Rather, they are sent “To the angel of the community” in the relevant location,[6] and the text explicitly rejects any conflation of the angel with the community. After John receives the vision of the seven stars and seven lampstands,[7] the vision is explained to him: “This is the secret meaning of the seven stars you saw in my right hand, and of the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven communities, and the seven lampstands are the seven communities.”[8] The seven letters in these three chapters must therefore be understood as not being sent to the communities themselves, but to the angels of those communities. The standard use of angels in apocalyptic literature as we see them in both Enoch and Daniel is as judgmental observers, guardians, or as interpreters of divine revelation. It is thus it is well within the realm of possibility that the seven letters would require interpretation in order to be properly received by the community, and it consequently borders on impossible to convincingly assert that any part of these letters must be understood literally as pointing to a concrete historical reality.

            The only defense which might be raised in objection to this reading within the context of the first chapters of Revelations is the instruction to John that he is to “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven communities.”[9] However, this passage cannot in fact be related to the seven letters. The passage specifically says “what you see,” and the figure in John’s vision does not give him the contents of the letters as a vision, but rather as a dictation, beginning each with the command “write this.”[10] The command to “write on a scroll what you see” must therefore be understood as referring to the main revelation only, and not the prefatory letters. Therefore, the visions which John sees are to be sent to the communities, but what he hears, namely the seven letters, is to be sent to their angels.

            An allegorical reading of the seven letters helps to solve another problem which has been quietly swept under the rug, namely how John was to have acquired a rather impressive degree of localized knowledge of each of the seven communities while theoretically remaining on Patmos. Such a reading also serves as a basis to approach the broader critique of the historical-critical approach to apocalyptic literature, specifically in terms of its functionalist approach to the texts. There is the underlying assumption that there is an equation involved in the creation of apocalyptic texts, such that a judaic community plus stress equals the production of an apocalypse, and so if an apocalypse exists there must be a judaic community plus stress. From this premise we the quite easily arrive at the assumption that any fact that seems to be a nugget of historical reality is thus a product of this stress, and interpret it as reflecting historical truth rather than having an allegorical intent, almost by default. As this short analysis of the first chapters of Revelations shows, this approach is profoundly problematic on a fundamental structural level.


[1] Most notably in: John W. Marshall, Parables of War: Reading John’s Jewish Apocalypse, Studies in Christianity and Judaism 10 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001). Marshal seeks to redefine the Apocalypse as a fundamentally Jewish text.

[2] David Frankfurter, “Jews or Not? Reconstructing the ‘Other’ in Rev 2:9 and 3:9,” The Harvard Theological Review 94, no. 4 (October 1, 2001): 424. Indeed, Frankfurter only uses Judaism “in a tentative sense,” (ibid) thereby rightly raising the issue, more or less ignored in a great deal of scholarship, that such definitions have little to offer as analytical tools for the historical reality they supposedly describe, and have, perhaps, been seen as ends in and of themselves by ideologically invested parties.

[3] Paul B. Duff, “‘I Will Give to Each of You as Your Works Deserve’: Witchcraft Accusations and the Fiery-Eyed Son of God in Rev 2.18–23,” New Testament Studies 43, no. 01 (1997): 116–133, doi:10.1017/S0028688500022529.

[4] Steven J. Friesen, “Satan’s Throne, Imperial Cults and the Social Settings of Revelation,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27, no. 3 (March 1, 2005): 351–373, doi:10.1177/0142064X05052510.

[5] A problem which is perhaps most acute in the Book of Enoch, as has been noted in: T. M. Erho, “Internal Dating Methodologies and the Problem Posed by the Similitudes of Enoch,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 20, no. 2 (November 23, 2010): 83–103, doi:10.1177/0951820710391229.

[6] cfr Apoc. 2,1, etc.

[7] Apoc. 1,12-16

[8] Apoc. 1,20

[9] Apoc. 1,11

[10] cfr Apoc. 2,1, etc.

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How to ask good historical questions

I was asked the other day how a non-historian might go about asking good historical questions, specifically in the context of the subreddit /r/AskHistorians, which I frequent. I kinda liked my response, so I thought I’d share it here.

This is a question which is best answered by negative as well as positive examples, and there are several types of poor question which are quite common. An incomplete list (ie. my pet peeves) would certainly include:

  • Anything involving Hitler.
  • Homework questions. If the question title is shockingly specific and sounds like something from an AP exam – “How did Lincoln’s assassination change Reconstruction?” – it’s probably going to be ignored, particularly if it comes with no further discussion by the OP.
  • /r/atheism bait. “Did Jesus actually exist?” “Has anything good ever come from religion?” etc. This can be generally expanded to any sort of leading question. The idea that one of my responses will probably be used out of context to defend some point I won’t agree with in another sub gives me a squicky feeling.
  • Questions that ask why something didn’t happen. An example of this, and my own reply, can be found here. These are almost universally unanswerable.
  • Questions which seek facts.

This last one requires a bit of explanation, and provides a great segue out of negativity land.

Your primary and secondary education probably taught you that history is about facts, and from the very beginning you were forced to memorize facts. “The American Revolution began in 1775,” things like that. Dates, information. Everything you learned provided a simple, neat answer in factual form, with little ambiguity.

This is not history. Facts are the building blocks of history, its skeleton, but they do not give it life or purpose, because the practice of history is the practice of understanding someone who is not you. It is is an act of sympathy, of apology in the most fundamental and original meaning of both words. Correctly done, it is the full and unbiased understanding of the people of the past as they were and as they saw themselves. We are, to borrow the brilliant phrase of a terrible bigot, speakers for the dead, and our essential purpose is to cultivate a mental approach to those who are not ourselves which seeks to understand, rather than to categorize and judge.

This is not the natural state of the human mind. To quote the late, great David Foster Wallace:

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

The promotion and indoctrination in a historical mode of thought is thus the indoctrination in a way of approaching the world that attempts to separate us from that basic impulse to understand the world based on our own preconceptions. Teaching this is what historians do. All that stuff with dates is just a side hobby.

So, coming back to an answer: a good question is one which seeks understanding. They are ones which provoke complex answers which increase the understanding of what it means to be human. They seek answers, not facts.

That seems like a tall order, and it is. The ability to ask good historical questions is one which requires substantial training, and that is training most schools do not provide. All is not lost, however. We’re quite good here at shaping and responding to questions asked by people who are not experts. If you give us some material, we can work with it. Some tips for this include:

  • Ask about things which seem to be contradictory, ideas that people held simultaneously that seemed to be opposed to each other.
  • Ask about processes, not events.
  • Don’t ask a question to which you want a specific answer which reaffirms your worldview (see: atheism bait, above).
  • Frame your questions positively.
  • Always be open to feedback – in fact, seek it out! – and refine your questions based on the answers you receive.

Good luck!

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Not dead yet

Man, it’s been a long time. I have no particular excuses, but dear God, the last couple months have been busy. “Winter Break” is a funny concept in academia. It should be re-named “Winter Try-to-cram-as-much-work-into-three-weeks-with-the-libraries-closed”. That would probably be more accurate.

I have been doing many things! Things which I am almost sure will bore the pants off you! I gave a talk at a graduate conference, put in a fellowship application for this summer, and did some other paid work as well. I also discovered the /r/AskHistorians subreddit, which is actually a degree of fun, forcing me to think of subjects in totally new ways. Sometimes, questions from total ignorance can be the best questions, and being forced to think why you think something is always a good mental exercise.

Unfortunately, I’m not writing this in a lull. I still have two (three?) RA jobs, a full course load, a term paper, a museum exhibit, and two conference presentations on my desk, all due before the second week of May.

Writing things NOT for academic purposes, however, is pretty cathartic, and the most important thing in this kind of a situation is remembering self-care.

This blog, for me, is a form of self-care. So, I’m going to make a more concerted effort to get back into a regular update habit. Probably not every two days like last semester, but I’m shooting for twice a week, which may get whacked down to once a week in April.

Let’s do this.

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When Positive is Negative

Finally, I’m finished with my first semester of graduate school. It doesn’t feel like much; usually I’m exhausted by the end of finals week. Now, I feel invigorated. All my final papers were written on topics I care about. I’m doing what I love to do. This feels good.

I’ve also found and started answering questions on /r/askhistorians. Boy is that a time sink. Fun, though. It’s basically a way for me to get out all those little lectures I think are super interesting but are objectively boring as all hell.

All that answering of some good and many bad questions has got me thinking about Positivism. For those who don’t know, Positivism is the idea that there is a real and fundamental truth which can be uncovered on a subject. The hard sciences are inherently positivist – they seek to find out the basic principles on which everything operates – and all scholarly pursuits have been in the past. Just look at Harvard’s motto, veritas, Truth. See: the pursuit of the.

Historians abandoned this sort of approach in the twentieth century as part of the modernist realization that history is inherently based on perspective, both of the subject and of the historian. Everything is complex, and must be viewed complexly.

There is a problem when people begin to assert Truths, and even more so when they center a worldview around them. I’m often drawn back to something that Franz Stangl, the camp commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka, a man directly responsible for the murder of over a million people, said in his interviews with Gitta Sereny, recorded in her book Into that Darkness. “Do you have any idea what a man can do, when he has a  goal which he calls God?”

We all seek Truths, we all seek Facts. When we start to adopt those Truths uncritically, when we call them God, that is when things start to go wrong. We no longer consider the broader perspective of what we are doing because we are justified and we are made righteous by those Truths.

This is not restricted to religion or to science, and was as much a factor in the creation of the atomic bomb as it was in the Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials.

What unexamined Truths do you call God?

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