THE SURVIVAL OF THE PAGAN GODS by Jean Seznec

The gods of Olympus died with the advent of Christianity – or so we have been taught to believe. But how are we to account for their tremendous popularity during the Renaissance?  This book offers the general reader a multifaceted look at the far-reaching role played by mythology in Renaissance intellectual and emotional life. After a discussion of mythology in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Jean Seznec traces the fate of the gods from Botticelli and Raphael to their function and appearance in Ronsard’s verses and Ben Jonson’s masques.  [Official blurb.]

This wonderful book was written in 1940, long before Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,  which I talked about here.   The conclusion implicitly, if not explicitly, reached in The Survival of the Pagan Gods is the same as in Gaiman’s work:   they are still around, …. but nobody cares.   Well, no, that is wrong.  It is not that nobody cares, it is that no one actually worships them anymore, the poignant point made in American Gods.

What is clear is that the Ideas which the ancient gods of Olympus represent continue on, and during the middle ages were turned into Virtues and allegories.  The ancient gods changed wardrobe over the ages, appearing as personages in the then modern dress, but during the Renaissance, the wheel of cosmic fortuned made a complete turn, and the gods once again appeared in their original forms.

Seznec has shown that the Olympian gods, and the earlier spirits of field and spring, did not die with the advent of Christianity, but lived on. His work traces the process in which they were already transformed during Late Antiquity, whether embedded within history as transfigured former human beings in the Euhemerist view that was embraced by Christian apologists. or given planetary roles as astral divinities in the worldview of astrology and magic or allegorized as moral emblems. They survive in pictorial and in literary traditions and among the common people went underground to feature in folk culture, took on strange new guises and were transformed in various ways, their myths recast to suit some of the mythic saints of Late Antiquity. Their imagery permeated Medieval intellectual and emotional life. The transformed mythology re-emerged in the iconography of the early Tuscan Renaissance, with new attributes that the ancients had never imagined, and enjoyed tremendous renewed popularity during the Renaissance. [Stolen Copied from Wikipedia.]

I really enjoyed this book.  It is full of illustrations of the works discussed, and makes it easy to follow the transformations of the gods through their various guises and re-emergence again in the Renaissance.

I just wanted to add that the idea of the ancient Pagan deities still living on is delightfully explored in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.  I talked about two of them here and here.  So perhaps these days we are no longer creating sculptures, bas-reliefs and paintings of the ancient gods, but they continue to live on in literature.

 

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PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF TERROR – Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida by Giovanna Borradori

Several weeks after the terrible events of 9/11, Giovanna Borradori, professor of Philosophy at Vassar College and a specialist in Continental philosophy, Aesthetics, and the philosophy of terrorism, conducted a series of separate lengthy interviews with Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas.  After the interviews, she gives us essays in which she recapitulates the main arguments and relates them to the writings and the philosophy of the interviewees.  The skeletal structure around which the conversations revolve is the idea of the Enlightenment and what we can gain from its lessons with regard to the terror attacks of 9/11.

It is a very dense book, and I had to restrain myself from highlighting every single line.  Yeah, it was that good.

Jurgen Habermas is considered to be the most important German philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. A highly influential social and political thinker, Habermas was generally identified with the critical social theory developed from the 1920s by the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, also known as the Frankfurt School.  In his treatises and essays he has created a comprehensive vision of modern society and the possibility of freedom within it.

Jacques Derrida  was  [he died in 2004]a French philosopher best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction.  He is one of the major figures associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy.  He had a significant influence upon the humanities and social sciences, including—in addition to philosophy and literature—law, anthropology, historiography, applied linguistics, ]sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, political theory, religious studies, feminism, and gay and lesbian studies.  In his later writings, Derrida addressed ethical and political themes in his work.

I am having a difficult time — not in condensing this book into something digestible for you,– but in selecting only one or two themes of these two interesting philosophers.  Especially since I have highlighted almost every line, I can’t just go grab a quote.  I would be quoting the entire book.  Let’s see what I can do.

The book tackles the questions:  What exactly is terrorism, and has it a political content? What has 9/11 to do with globalization? Are we facing a clash of civilizations? Are there chances of stimulating or even institutionalizing intercultural communication?

I found the discussion on what is terrorism to be instructive, as it made it clear that terrorism is not a state activity, but an individual one, and that it would seem that terrorism always has to do with religion — fundamentalism or extremism — in some form.  Both philosophers contend that terrorism is an elusive, ambiguous, reversible concept, a social construction – Derrida reminds the reader that the French “resistants” were labeled “terrorists” by the Germans during World War Two – but analyze it from a different perspective : Habermas “reconstructs” terrorism as manifested on September 11, in order to show that this terrorism, in opposition to national liberation movements, is deprived from any political content. Consequently, Habermas fervently denounces the current American “war against terrorism” designation, because it gives political legitimation to terrorism and, at the same time, reflects an “overreaction” against an unknown enemy. Derrida, on the other hand, claims that the deconstruction of the “concept” terrorism is the only politically responsible approach to terrorism, since the media, the officials and public use of the concept as a self-evident notion, manifests the democracies’ vulnerability and perversely serves the terrorist cause, by giving it “visibility”.

Derrida agrees  with Habermas in defense of the Enlightenment principles and even sides with cosmopolitanism as theorized by Kant himself. Both Habermas and Derrida refer to Kant’s Perpetual Peace, which anticipated the possibility of transforming classical international law into a new cosmopolitan order.  But, in order to achieve the full transition to cosmopolitanism, both thinkers agree that international law and the decisions taken by the international community should be respected. In this respect, Habermas and Derrida strongly denounced the American serious failings with regard to these commitments and especially during the deliberations prior their decision to wage a war against Iraq.

There was some really intriguing discussion of the concepts of tolerance, hospitality and forgiveness,  with the idea being that tolerance is bestowed by someone or some institution which considers itself superior to those people or situations to which it grants tolerance, while hospitality can be considered in two forms:  invited guests and unexpected guests.  I found this particularly apt in today’s current political climate of non-welcoming of immigrants and refugees.

I found it necessary to read this in small readings.  It was too much to absorb in  big chunks.   I highly recommend it if you like contemplating the larger, meta ideas.

 

 

 

PHILOSOPHY IN CLASSICAL INDIA: An Introduction and Analysis by Jonardon Ganeri

Lest you think that all I read are mid-twentieth century noir detective stories, I bring you…. ta-da ….. philosophy.  I read a while ago an article which I now cannot find, the gist of which was our idea of philosophy is western-centric.  It is all about Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Kant, etc. etc. with nothing about Eastern philosophy, which we tend to dismiss as ‘religion’, or ‘mysticism’,  not ‘philosophy’.

Gameri, a Fellow of the British Academy,  has set out to set us straight on this by way of this original work which focuses on the rational principles of Indian philosophical theory, rather than the mysticism more usually associated with it. Ganeri explores the philosophical projects of a number of major Indian philosophers and looks into the methods of rational inquiry deployed within these projects. In so doing, he illuminates a network of mutual reference, criticism, influence and response, in which reason is used to call itself into question. This fresh perspective on classical Indian thought unravels new philosophical paradigms, and points towards new applications for the concept of reason.

Some of that is from the official blurb, and it explains it very well.  This was certainly interesting reading, a lot of it concerning how to think about how to think.  Consciousness, ideation,  and what makes a rational thought.  Made me think of AI and how possibly we are approaching the task of trying to teach a robot to think when we don’t ourselves know how we think.

Just one quote for you, should you be in the mood for some mind bending:

… a sophisticated theory of content.  It is alleged that a person witnessing a mirage does not see the refracted sun’s rays, even if in the right sort of physical connection with them.  Neither does he see water, for there is none to be seen.  Someone witnessing a mirage does not see anything, but only seems to see water.  And a person who witnesses a ball of dust in the distance does not see the dust if he is uncertain whether it is dust or smoke.  An object is not seen if it is not seen distinctly.

So when you ‘see’ a mirage of water, you are not seeing the water, because there is no water to see, and you are not seeing the defracted particles, because they have been converted into the ‘water’.  What exactly are you ‘seeing’?

How do you teach an AI about mirages?

THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE by Bessel A. van der Kolk

I bet you thought this was another mystery, right?  Fooled you.  It is a treatise on trauma and its effect on the brain by a noted  trauma expert. Bessel van der Kolk has spent over three decades working with survivors of trauma.  He transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring—specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. He shows how these areas can be reactivated through innovative treatments including neurofeedback, mindfulness techniques, play, yoga, and other therapies. Based on Dr. van der Kolk’s own research and that of other leading specialists, The Body Keeps the Score offers proven alternatives to drugs and talk therapy—and a way to reclaim lives.

It is beautifully readable, and although fairly long, so interesting so that the reader keeps turning pages.  Yeah, it’s that good.  It is a  thorough exploration of trauma and its effects, written for both practitioners and laypeople.  I have been interested in PTSD for some time, and when I have the opportunity, like to read on the subject.

If trauma and its effects interest you, I highly recommend this book.

THE DEEP STATE by Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren’s cogent and frightening jeremiad against the forces which are chiseling away at the country and at democracy strikes a warning bell for us all to open our eyes and see what is really going on.  The strapline is The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, and he proceeds to show us just how this is happening, and how it started back during the Reagan years.

He says  that the political theater that is endlessly tweeted and blogged about has nothing to do with actual decision making. The real work gets done behind the scenes by invisible bureaucrats working for the vast web of agencies that actually dictate our foreign policy, defense posture, and security decisions.

Actual power lies in the Deep State, Washington’s shadowy power elite, in the pockets of corporate interests and dependent on the moguls of Silicon Valley, whose data-collecting systems enable the U.S. government to spy on our every move, swipe, and click.

He laments the rise of corporate profiteering in the “War on Terror,” calling back to warnings from decades’ past about the U.S. military industrial complex, which warnings go back as far as Eisenhower. Corporate and political actors profit from hundreds of billions a year spent on a bloated “national security” state, at the expense of social spending on education, health care, and infrastructural needs. In an era of record inequality, the fixation of U.S. political and economic elites on militarism exacts a huge cost, draining much needed financial resources that could be allocated toward rebuilding the country and providing for the basic needs of the citizenry.

He focuses on the dangers of the growing national security state, coordinated largely through the NSA and other agencies, and to condemn their assault on citizens’ privacy rights.

He voices his concern about  the rise of Wall Street power,  stating that financial deregulation is one of the greatest threats to our economy, and the failure of both political parties to limit the power of financial elites is one of the great tragedies of modern times. The American banking system has historically been a parasitic force in the American economy. Wall Street’s speculation on vital goods such as oil, housing, internet stocks, and other goods has fed stock market bubbles, the collapse of which wreak havoc on the economy and American workers, draining their retirement savings, and fueling the rise of unemployment and underemployment. Financialization undermines the economy – which is now largely driven by speculators and characterized by anemic to non-existent economic growth. What profit gains exist are now largely captured by financial and other corporate elites. Meanwhile, the masses of Americans find themselves working longer hours, with increased productivity, for stagnating to declining wages, amidst huge increases in cost-of-living via out-of-control health care and education costs.

What he says is scary and he has the references to back it all up. I found it a very hard book to read, because of the bleak picture it presents not only of our present time, but of the future as well.

Lofgren is well qualified to address these issues.  He is an insider, he knows the principal players.  He was military legislative assistant to Republican former House representative John Kasich in 1983. In 1994 he was a professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee. From 1995 to 2004, he was budget analyst for national security on the majority staff of the House Budget Committee. From 2005 until his 2011 retirement, Lofgren was the chief analyst for military spending on the Senate Budget Committee.

In September 2011, Lofgren published an essay entitled Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult on the website Truthout. In it he explains why he retired when he did, writing that he was “appalled at the headlong rush of Republicans to embrace policies that are deeply damaging to this country’s future; and contemptuous of the feckless, craven incompetence of Democrats in their half-hearted attempts to stop them.” He charged that both major American political parties are “rotten captives to corporate loot,” but that while Democrats are merely weak and out of touch, the Republican Party is “becoming more like an apocalyptic cult.” He particularly described Republicans as caring exclusively about their rich donors; being psychologically predisposed toward war; and pandering to the anti-intellectual, science-hostile, religious fundamentalist fringe.

 

WAITING – Edited by Ghassan Hage

waitingThis is a collection of essays by academics across the fields of political science, philosophy, anthropology and sociology for an examination into the experience of waiting. What is it to wait? What do we wait for? And how is waiting connected to the social worlds in which we live?

There is a wonderful examination of Beckett’s comic play Waiting for Godot, a discussion of the perpetual waiting of refugees to return home or to moments of intense anticipation such as falling in love or the birth of a baby.  There are are  many ways in which we wait.
Think about it.  Waiting can be passive, or active.  It can be waiting ON someone or something, or waiting FOR someone or something.  It is an amazing group of essays that approach the idea of waiting in so many ways that may never have occurred to you.   It contains what for me is the best think piece on Waiting for Godot that I have read.
If ideas of a philosophical and academic bent appeal to you,  I highly recommend the book.  I am not going to review each essay, because (a) I am lazy, and (2) I don’t want to.  BTW, I am working on being more consistent.
Ghassan Hage is Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne. He has held many visiting professorships around the world including at Harvard and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He is the author of many publications on the comparative anthropology of nationalism, migration and inter-cultural relations.

GOD AND GENERAL LONGSTREET -The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind by Thomas L. Connelly & Barbara L. Bellows

God and GeneralDid you know that over 600,000 people died in the American Civil War?  Demographic historian David Hacker now says there were 750,000 casualties.   This is probably more accurate.  The book was written in 1982 and Hacker’s analysis is much more recent.   There were  more or less over 300,000 lost on each side.  But the difference was that the Confederacy lost one out of every 19 men, whereas the Union lost one out of over 3,000.   The South was almost annihilated, its cities destroyed, its railroads, its farms and fields despoiled.

Thomas D. Clark of Indiana University writes of

the shortsightedness of a region going to war while hopelessly incapable of sustaining itself in a long and devastating struggle, or with the enormously human and spiritual loss of approximately 300,000 young men, or with the all but incalculable loss of property and momentum in advancing the region beyond its undeveloped frontier conditions. Historians themselves have been caught up in what the authors intriguingly call the “Lost Cause” mentality.

Connelly and Bellows compassionately yet clear-sightedly examine with interest the mind and the culture  that made the war possible, and in its aftermath, what is called The Lost Cause.

An antebellum South embroiled in a power struggle with the “churlish Saxons” of Yankeedom could identify with a heroic Ivanhoe.  Small wonder it was that the Rebel battleflag adopted the design of the Scottish St. Andrew’s cross, or that Dixie writers during the Reconstruction era attempted to link the ancestry of Robert E. Lee with that of Robert the Bruce.    The Lost Cause phrase developed soon after Appomattox as a byword for the perpetuation of the the Confederate ideal.

I found this extremely interesting, being a Yankee myself.  The book’s main author is a southern gentlemen, a professor at University of South Carolina, so it is not a condescending, superior look at the conquered by the victor.  Connelly is a historian specializing in Civil War issues  and personages of that time.

I believe that all regions of the country have their own mindsets, their own outlooks, so I was interested to see what these authors had to say about the ‘Southern mind’.   They say that the Southern mind is one of ambivalence and paradox,

those eternal southern opposites, such as a longing for order and a penchant for evasion of the law, deeply embedded religious fundamentalism and hedonistic behavior, Dixie braggadocio and insecurity.

The religion of the Lost Cause generation was man-centered.  The southern concept of the Trinity was not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but God, man, and Satan.

He quotes Robert Penn Warren’s observation that the southern mind does not grasp abstractions well, but demands a sense of the concrete. the authors say

the cultural isolation of the Old South allowed the populace to exist within a fantasy world of utter contempt for the Yankee and absolute confidence in southern might.

The antebellum South remained the most puritan of all American regions, and was an exaggeration of that general American faith that there is a correlation between Jehovah’s grace and success.  The belief that God was on the side of the Confederacy was universal south of the Potomac.

The title of the book comes from the deification of General Robert E. Lee at the expense of General James Longstreet, whom Lee called ‘his old War Horse’.   He was at odds with Lee about the strategies and tactics at the Battle of Gettysburg, and his detractors pilloried him claiming he was the reason for the Confederate loss at that battle.  Perhaps no Confederate officer is surrounded by more controversy than Longstreet. He was Lee’s trusted advisor and friend.  But, after the war, Longstreet became the target of many “Lost Cause” attacks.  His letters to the New Orleans Times, his support of the Republican Party, and his memoirs served to alienate many Southerners.

The book talks about how ‘Virginia Won The War’,  the state’s role in the conflict and its image-building of reluctant virgin, if you will, being against secession, but being a slave state, forced into the war.

Of course, there is so, so much more in the book, and if you have in interest in such things, I urge you to read it.

Beautifully researched,  it is a fascinating read, and I would be interested to know how southern readers feel about the conclusions in it.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

 General James Longstreet

General James Longstreet