Weekly Round-Up, 3-24-17

What’s shakin’, scholars? This week is jam-packed with news and articles on Gilgamesh, St. Augustine, Walt Whitman, and more. Read on:

  • A cylinder clay seal hailing from the Akkadian period (2000 BC) of Mesopotamia and depicting a scene from the Epic of Gilgamesh, along with 40 other antiquities from Iraq, will find its way to the 57th Venice Biennale this May to November.
  • Suzanne M. Wolfe concocts a tale based on the love life of St. Augustine in her novel The Confessions of X. Meanwhile, we are extremely concerned that the image in the corresponding article features St. Monica, Augustine’s mother.
  • Soprano Julia Bullock appears as the soloist in the New York premiere of “Rime Sparse” (Scattered Rhymes), a soprano, violin, cello, and piano piece by Jonathan Berger in a program called “Love Sonnets”. A “mysterious and hazy 22-minute work,” “Rime Sparse” is composed of seven poems by Petrarch.

Soprano Julia Bullock with pianist Wu Han.  (Credit: Emon Hassan for The New York Times)

Soprano Julia Bullock with pianist Wu Han. (Credit: Emon Hassan for The New York Times)

Biko Eisen-Martin in No Sisters, video monitor visible in the background. (Credit: Teresa Wood)

Biko Eisen-Martin in No Sisters, video monitor visible in the background. (Credit: Teresa Wood)

Well, that should tide you overfor one week. Come back soon!

Left Augustinianism: Original Sin for a Secular Age

Many thanks to Prof. Rabinovitch for bringing this to our attention!

“Accurst Pelagius,” from a 17th-century Calvinist print. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

We know from our readings of Augustine’s City of God that the saint believed in a world of souls stained by original sin. Over in Britain, however, fifth-century ascetic Pelagius denied that nagging evil lurking within souls, pointing instead to a world born to innocence that may be retained throughout a person’s lifetime. In other words, for Pelagius, we are born sinless, and we could live and die sinless if we have a mind to do so. As we can imagine, the two thinkers, Augustine and Pelagius, butted heads more often than not, leading to the latter’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church for his heresy regarding original sin. Yet the lifestyles of the two (or past lifestyles, in the case of Augustine) were an “ironic inverse,” Ed Simon writes in his article “Why Sin is Good.” Moreover, at first glance, reformed Augustine and ascetic Pelagius seem to resemble the same ideologies they preached. Yet the most striking difference was who brought about salvation: for Augustine, it is God–only the power of God could have brought about his reform–but for Pelagius, it is the efforts of the individual that determine salvation, not the mercy of God.

But this isn’t an article about a fifth-century argument. Instead, Ed Simon translates the debate into 21st-century terms:

In modern parlance, liberals assume that everyone is good and rational but just hasn’t read the right Mother Jones article or heard the right NPR broadcast yet. Conservatives adopt a more pessimistic attitude, however, for they assume everyone to be bad –everyone but themselves. Indeed for as much as the exuberant fundamentalist likes to blame the liberal relativist or the New Age pluralist for the abolition of belief in sin, it is the reactionary himself who is arguably most responsible for incubating our new world, where the charge to responsibility is treated as anathema. I have in mind the anarcho-capitalist, the libertarian, those who idolize the myth of the “self-made man” when the only Man who can make Himself is not of this world. These ethical pip-squeaks have erroneously imagined that anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps, or by his jackboots as the case increasingly seems to be. Let us not pretend that there is anything “Christian”in a worldview that lets children without insurance die or that is fine with men and women starving to death in the richest nation in history.

St. Augustine by Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435-c. 1495)

St. Augustine by Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435-c. 1495)

Simon doesn’t say that one side represents Pelagius and the other Augustine; it is far more complex than that. Instead, he says, “belief in original sin keeps one honest, because you know you at least share a propensity to error with everyone, no matter how low.” When a person believes that it is through one’s own volition that one can achieve salvation, or become a “self-made man,” to use contemporary terms, that sort of ideology breeds arrogance and resentment. After all, what need is there for humility in a faultless human being? For Simon, “I’d rather have someone with an awareness of his own inborn shortcomings occupying the highest position of power than someone who believes he never makes mistakes.” Yet we’re all guilty of Pelagianism, so much that it is “unofficially the central heresy of our modern age.” (Even Pelagius’s own teaching that “it is possible to do anything which one really wants to do” recalls many a Facebook post.)

So what use does original sin have today, after so many ideologically utopian children of the Enlightenment have rejected Augustine in favor of the perfectibility of society and man through reason, whether through socialism or libertarianism or fascism? What use do we have for the arguments between Augustine and Pelagius? … For them, the universe contracted in on itself, Pelagius’ Britain separated from Europe. To make the parallels any more obvious would be heavy-handed (and we mustn’t be that). … To be heavy-handed may not be a sin, but what is, is the absurd avarice which leads to the denial of evidence that an Antarctic ice shelf bigger than Rhode Island is about to break off into the ocean due to human-generated climate change, even as the former CEO of Exxon and the current Secretary of State, as well as his boss, the leader of the “free” world, both deny that global warming is real. Sinful is that the eight richest men in the world have a combined wealth equal to the bottom half of the entire planet. Sinful is that black mothers and fathers have to wonder if their children will be murdered, and the knowledge that the perpetrators of those murders will often not be brought to justice. Sinful is that for a shamefully large percentage of the Republic the assertion that Black Lives Matter is somehow debatable.

And so on. The problem remains, however, that people simply don’t like to be accused of sin. This fact doesn’t make the realities of the world any less true, Simon retorts. The solution, he says, is “left Augustinianism,” an ideology that addresses the “consumption beyond reason” and the immense immorality that “can influence politics.” It means an acknowledgement of sin, of avarice, of selfishness, even in a secular world, not only in the world but in ourselves. After all, “sin”–or evil, if that word strikes you better–“like life, is not our fault –but it is our responsibility.”

Read the rest of Ed Simon’s article on Marginalia here.

From The New York Times: Books Can Take You Places…

“Donald Trump doesn’t want you to go,” the title goes on, reminding us that it is actually not going where he wants some to go that is the real problem for those people. Hisham Matar at the New York Times shares an imaginative column with us in which he describes reading as getting to know others by knowing oneself. It’s an old maxim, often having to do with truth: “be true to yourself and you’ll be true to others,” found in Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Matar:

Antoine Maillard

Antoine Maillard

All great art allows us this: a glimpse across the limits of our self. These occurrences arent merely amusing or disorientating or interesting experiments in virtual reality. They are moments of genuine expansion. They are at the heart of our humanity. Our future depends on them. We couldnt have gotten here without them.

Just as a river leads to the sea and from Jane Austens vernacular social order to William Faulkners American South, from Naguib Mahfouzs Cairo to Tayeb Salihs village in Sudan the particular in great literature has always flowed to the universal.

That is perhaps what the author of the iconic novel The House of Hunger, the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, meant when he said, If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then he had no use for you. What he was resisting was narrow provincialism, the sort of identitarianism that has invaded our academies and public discourse, and which sees individual life as, first and foremost, representative of a racial, religious or cultural category.

In his review, Matar, at one with himself, manages to reach us also by expressing atruth about literature and politics that is urgently in need of recognition: diversity is about unity and not division.

Know thyself at The New York Times

From The Guardian: Ozymandias statue found in mud

A joint Egyptian-German expedition has recently unearthed several missing pieces of the statue of Ramses II, the Egyptian pharaoh who was the subject for another masterpiece, of which the Core students who have done their homework will remember at least a fragment–“Ozymandias,” by P.B. Shelley. The discovery is therefore literally out of this world, and, in literature, figuratively.

Egyptian workers with the head of the statue. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian workers with the head of the statue. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

The pharaoh, also known as Ramses the Great or Ozymandias, was the third of the 19th dynasty of Egypt and ruled for 66 years, from 1279BC to 1213BC.

He led several military expeditions and expanded the Egyptian empire to stretch from Syria in the east to Nubia (northern Sudan) in the south. His successors called him the Great Ancestor.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 sonnet Ozymandias which contained the line Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! was written soon after the British Museum acquired a large fragment of a statue of Ramses II from the 13th century BC.

A nice felicity would have been if at least one of the archaeologists was sufficiently well-versed to have recited those majestic lines upon discovery, but that would be a burlesque, more jest than majesty, so, on that note, some parodies: Necromancyneverpays, Brozymandias, Universitas

Read on his works at The Guardian

Weekly Round-Up, 3-16-17

Welcome back, scholars! Sometimes we like to think of the weekly links as the Core gossip page. We’ve got celebrities, gross diseases, controversy… Well, you’ll see. Read on!

  • Palpatine–er, Ian McDiarmid–plays the titular character in Faust x2, a musical and condensed version of Goethe’s poem, adapted by the actor himself and directed by Lisa Blair. Runs from March 2 to March 25 at the Watermill Theatre in Bagnor, Newbury, UK.

“You sounds of heaven, powerful and gentle, / why do you seek me in the dust?” Credit: Philip Tull.


  • According to medical historian Dr. Howard Markel, tuberculosis is disgusting, and by extension, John Keats, which we already knew. Just kidding, we love Keats and think he was beautiful, but we also agree that TB is not a poetic or romantic disease in the least.
  • Speaking of Keats: here on the Core blog, we love anniversaries, and we certainly have celebrated a lot in the past year. 2017 is the 200-year anniversary of Keats’ first book of poems, which alarmingly received “terrible reviews.” Undeterred, actress Ruth Rosen of Hampstead, UK, held a tribute to the poet earlier this month on March 2, at the National Theatre in London.
  • Guess who else is celebrating an anniversary soon? If you guessed Karl Marx, go get a Snickers from the Core candy basket (provided the basket hasn’t been raided by ravenous Corelings). That’s right, the Father of Communism is celebrating his 200th birthday next year, and a giant statute–statue, rather (read the article, you’ll understand)–gifted by China to the thinker’s birthplace of Trier is stirring great controversy.

An image from December detailing Chinese artist Wu Weishan's planned work. (Via EPA)

An image from December detailing Chinese artist Wu Weishan’s planned work. (Via EPA)

Hope that satiates your thirst for literary gossip. We’ll see you next week with a new batch!

Did Jane Austen Die from Arsenic Poisoning? Probably Not

Things that may or may not have belonged to Jane Austen: a portable writing desk and three pairs of glasses. (Via British Library Board)

Things that may or may not have belonged to Jane Austen: a portable writing desk and three pairs of glasses. (Via British Library Board)

What killed Jane Austen? Over at Pictorial (via Jezebel), Kelly Faircloth investigates the untimely death of Jane Austen at the age of 41. There are a number of theories to choose from–among them Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Addison’s disease, and death by cow (er, that is, tuberculosis caught from cows)–but a new assertion from the New York Times suggests that arsenic poisoning may have played a role, and the proof lies in Jane Austen’s eyeglasses.

According to the British Library, the last three pairs of glasses reportedly belonging to the author “show evidence that her vision severely deteriorated in her final years,” pointing to a case of cataracts. Arsenic poisoning is a potential cause, says Dr. Sandra Tuppen, a curator at the British Library. Nonetheless, co-director of cataract and primary eye care at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, Dr. Mark Blecher, shoots down Dr. Tuppen’s theory as “pure speculation,” citing genetics, eye trauma, and other causes as more likely in an interview with Live Science.

Moreover, the majority of cataracts dont cause prescription changes. When they do, they usually increase the need for minus prescription glasses (to see far away), Blecher said, but its unclear whether Austen went from a low prescription to a high prescription, or vice versa, he said.

In the New York Times article, British independent critic Deirdre Le Faye also expresses some skepticism.

The trouble is, Jane Austen lived such a quiet, placid life that there isn’t a great deal of drama in it. You just cant find it. So the trouble is, people start to invent drama.

Read more about the debate on Pictorial here.

Walt Whitman and the Many Revisions of Leaves of Grass

Special thanks to Prof. Kyna Hamill for bringing this to our attention!

Turns out Leaves of Grass has more editions than your textbook, and the only thing that stopped Walt Whitman from releasing more than nine was his death (probably).

Leaves of Grass (fifth edition). Frontispiece: W.J. Hennessey engraving. Washington: 1872

“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” (Preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition) Frontispiece: W.J. Hennessey engraving for the fifth edition. Washington: 1872

Unlike your textbook, however, each edition of Leaves of Grass introduced a variety of new content, including but not limited to: progressively older portraits of the author decorating the frontispiece, further works (the “deathbed” edition featured 400 poems compared to the initial 12) and the revisions of the old, and even altered typography and punctuation. (Interestingly, hearkening back to classical portraiture, Whitman opts for a younger version of himself in the final iteration of his magnum opus. Nonetheless, the Walt Whitman that we know and love today takes the form of an older, bearded gentleman wearing a wide-brimmed hat, thus proving that, despite our efforts, our legacy may not always go according to plan.)

As we know from past Core lectures, Whitman was his own greatest promoter. With the release of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 came a number of anonymous newspaper reviews lauding the work–reviews that had been, in fact, written by the poet himself. Nonetheless, actual readers, among them popular newspaper columnist Fanny Fern, applauded the publication. But the praise was not undeserved. Whitman spent a great amount of time not only revising his poems over the years but also constructing the book itself. His deliberation in choosing typography and decorative motifs is most visible in the 1860 edition, published by Thayer and Eldridge here in Boston, in which he held more creative control than he had in past editions.

Read about more about the production and perfecting of Leaves of Grass over on the Library of Congress website here.

From The New York Times: ‘How Propaganda Works’ Is a Timely Reminder

Michiko Kakutani reviews a book that is timely because it comes likes an alarm clock, How Propaganda Works, by Professor Jason Stanley. It is not boring, so promise you will not be needing to hit the snooze button; but, in fact, the book will keep you engaged while serving as a prophylaxis against the opposing problem, zealously rallying behind the slogans of a demagogue. Donald Trump’s propaganda campaign evidently began (with a name like that) from the day he was born.

James Nieves/The New York Times.

James Nieves/The New York Times.

Mr. Stanley begins by offering a definition of propaganda that extends beyond dictionary descriptions of biased or misleading information used to promote a particular political cause or point of view. Propaganda is characteristically part of the mechanism, he writes, by which people become deceived about how best to realize their goals, and hence deceived from seeing what is in their own best interests. This is achieved by various time-tested means by appealing to the emotions in such a way that rational debate is sidelined or short-circuited; by promoting an insider/outsider dynamic that pollutes the broader conversation with negative stereotypes of out-of-favor groups; and by eroding community standards of reasonableness that depend on norms of mutual respect and mutual accountability.

This might illumine both the successes and failures of the Sanders campaign, puzzling because it appealed to many of the same grievances that propelled Trump to the Oval Office, while providing solutions that would have actually helped to alleviate them.’Feel the Bern’ might have been clever, but what herd of sheep might that help to mobilize (which aren’t already) other than stoners? ‘Make America Great Again’, as propaganda, is more effective, which goes to show that propaganda doesn’t have to be clever. In fact, it should never be too clever since then the sheep might get suspicious. It should sound not like a baby’s first word, but first complaint. And it should say succinctly what people already feel an inkling of. If there was a God it would be a nice sort of surprise to think he looked like me.

Read his full post at The New York Times

From The TLS: Women Swooned

“Anxiousness reminds us of existence; happiness momentarily forgets it existed.” The power of ‘it’ in that wonderful bit of existentialism comes in the ambiguity of its reference, and so reminding us of the closeness between ‘anxiety’ and ‘existence’, almost anagrams. One of the appeals of the existentialists, then, comes in their trying to work out the tension between these two; a tension which, unsolved, pulses with an anxiety of its own. Professor Shahidha Bari, writing for the TLS, recites some of the questions raised during a panel at the London School of Economics to open discussion about the ways in which these thinkers are not only relevant but needed. Serious problems sometimes ask for solutions that give us not only gravity but levity:


Its true that existentialism isn’t always easy, but it helps that many of the existentialists themselves were irresistible. As a young man, Sartre hurled water bombs from classroom windows, yelling Thus pissed Zarathustra! Simone de Beauvoir improvised elegant solutions to the straitened circumstances of life in Nazi-occupied Paris, wearing turbans when she could not secure a haircut, and sleeping in ski-wear to save on heating. Albert Camus, who was investigated by the FBI at the request of J. Edgar Hoover (the file was mislabelled Canus), could sit in the street in the snow, lamenting his love life, until two in the morning. He adored his cat, a creature blessed with the perfect moniker: Cigarette. Tell me whats not to love about these existentialists.

Professor Bari goes on to list many of the virtues of the philosophy and its thinkers. Besides charming anecdotes about Sartre’s scatological therapy for eschatological problems, Bari writes about the contentious friendship he shared with Camus, which persisted even when the latter ceased to exist.

Read her full post at The TLS

Weekly Round-Up, 3-10-17

Greetings, scholars! We hope spring break is treating you well. Here on the blog, we couldn’t rest until we had compiled the choicest links for your perusal. Or something like that.

Wolfert at work on his one-man show. Via Sara Krulwich for the New York Times.

  • The MFA is hosting a lecture at the end of this month called “The Benaki Museum and the Greek Narrative: The Role of Culture in Crisis.” Lecturer Pavlos Geroulanos, former Minister of Culture and Tourism in Greece, will be focusing on the extensive collection of Greek art and artifacts located at the Benaki Museum and its connections to Greece’s economic crisis.
  • Seventeen years late, the movie The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally in the works, with Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame at the helm.
  • In other Don Quixote news, the 1910 opera Don Quichotte is being performed by the Island City Opera of Alameda, California through March 12. The opera is loosely adapted from the Cervantes text (as in, we’ve spotted DQ, Sancho Panza, and the windmill incident, but composer Jules Massenet has added something about a quest for a stolen necklace and now we’re confused and flipping through multiple translations of Don Quixote for an explanation).

For the first Paris production in 1910.  (Public Domain)

For the first Paris production in 1910. (Public Domain)

That’s all for this week. We’ll see you next week for more exciting adventures in the world of Core.