Sunday, October 18, 2020

Medusa's Revenge: not exactly a good idea


I don't know what's your impression of this piece of statuary by Luciano Garbati , recently installed across from New York courthouse. In a sense, times were ripe for something like that. Garbati was clearly trying to create a counter image to the one by Benvenuto Cellini still standing in Florence.

Yet, I am not sure that the results are worth of praise. There is something wrong with the newer piece. For one thing, it lacks the plastic movement of Cellini's one. Somehow, Cellini embodied much more in his image than the simple action of butchery of beheading someone. Just think of the eerie fascination of Medusa's head, held by Perseus. This sculpture is the representation of a murder, but there is much more to it: it is a whole mythological story compressed in a single piece. .

Instead, what Garbati's piece looks like is, indeed, a murder and little more. The figure is static, the man's head is meaningless, all what Medusa's expression conveys is a certain degree of anger. Justified, sure, but, well, what's the sense of the whole piece? Personally, I am a big fan of the double X chromosome, but I don't think revenge is a virtue for anyone, not even for women.  

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Mata Hari: the spy who wasn't

More than a century after her execution, in 1917, Mata Hari remains the prototypical figure of female spy. An extreme case of “femme fatale”; she is seen as someone who not only seduced men for money, but also for the greater lust of having them killed by the thousands on the battlefield.

However, Mata Hari’s fame as a spy is usurped. Looking back at the acts of her trial, we can see the absurdity and the inconsistency of the accusations raised against her. There just was no way that she could have caused “the death of hundreds of thousands of French soldiers” as it was said. She was, rather, a scapegoat killed in order to distract the public in a moment when the war was going badly for France. Put simply: she was framed.

Still, even without the glamour and the adventure that go together with the career of a spy, Mata Hari remains a fascinating figure for us. In the present book, all the references to Mata Hari’s story, her trial, and her execution are factual. Born in a small Dutch village in 1876, in 1905 she came back to Europe from what was called at the time the “Dutch Indies”, after having divorced from her husband, a Dutch army officer. Her time in the Indies had been of just a few years, but it was enough for her to invent a kind of sensual “Oriental dances” that she presented for the first time in public in a private museum in Paris.

As a dancer, Mata Hari drew a lot of criticism at her times and it is likely that her dances were little more than strip teases with an Oriental flavor. Still, clearly she was doing something right and she became immensely popular. Her figure became also commonplace in the wave of erotic postcards which exploded in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. As years went by, Mata Hari gradually gave up with stripping naked in public and she became a high level courtesan, seducing the rich and the famous. She seems to have been successful at that, too. During the war, she may have tried her hand at being also a secret agent, but she wasn’t very successful at that. At 41, she was arrested, jailed, and then shot by a firing squad on October 15th, 1917.

It may well be that Mata Hari’s Oriental stance was not just a veneer to ennoble a little her strip teases, but it may also be that she had seriously studied Buddhism and other oriental ways while in the Dutch Indies. Her behavior at her execution, her calm, her evident belief that death was simply a passage, show that her Buddhism was not just a pose but something that she had taken by heart.

With all her originality, however, surely Mata Hari was not an intellectual. Her achievements seem to be more the result of intuition than of reasoning. She had, no doubt, an incredible skill at fascinating men, but her ability to manage her life was less than satisfactory, to say the least. Her lifestyle was always beyond her means. This, and her clumsy defense at the trial give some weight to the claim of Emile Massard that she was not very intelligent (Later on, R. Warren Howe would define her “hare brained”).

But you don’t have to be a genius to have an impact on the world and there is no doubt that Mata Hari had one. She was a very unconventional figure and being so unconventional was, at her time as in ours, dangerous. The deadly mix of nationalism and propaganda that killed Mata Hari was to continue and to explode in later years with the 2nd world war and the holocaust, leading Europe into what were the largest exterminations of innocent people that history has (so far) recorded. Mata Hari was among the first to be engulfed by this wave of senseless killing. She was killed in cold blood by people who were, most likely, perfectly aware that she was innocent but who couldn’t resist the effect of propaganda that makes it impossible to face the onrush of lies that submerge one’s reason and one’s judgment.

That things went out of control with Mata Hari is shown also in the cruel and harsh way she was treated. The pictures that we have of her at the time of the trial show us a woman physically destroyed by months of life in jail (so much for Massard’s fancy stories about her “dancing” in prison, or even requesting a “milk bath”). Seeing these photos we may, in a way, understand how Mata Hari may have considered her execution as a true liberation.

Mata Hari received also the ultimate insult, that of being denied a decent burial, of having her dead body desecrated by dissecting it on a hospital table. She was denied the status of human being. Rather, she was treated as a sort of giant insect to be disposed of. The transformation of human beings into insects and their subsequent extermination is something that Kafka had already described in his prophetic story “the metamorphosis”. Kafka died in 1924, in later times the anthropologist Roy Rappaport defined as “diabolical lies” those lies that “tamper with the very fabric of reality”. Causing people to believe that “they” are less human than “us” is one of these diabolic lies.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

It is a Lion! It is a Goat! It is a Snake! No! It is a Holobiont!



Maybe 25 years ago, my friend Susan came from California to visit me in Florence. She saw the statuary piece of the Chimera of Arezzo and asked me what that was supposed to mean. I said, "I don't know for sure, but I'll find out." 

That involved much research, papers written, a blog created, and an entire book in Italian. And yet, I can tell you that I was yesterday night that understood what a Chimera really is. Just before falling asleep, I had this flash: here is it: A holobiont! (*) So obvious!

And that's no mere definition: it opens up a whole new layer of interpretation of the chimera as a horizontal contamination of memes. Memes do replicate horizontally, just like bacteria do. Truly mind-blowing, I am still shocked by what I was thinking yesterday night. 

There will be more on this, but for the moment I just wanted to mention this discovery to you. Life is beautiful when you can think of such things!


(*) you may not know what a holobiont is, but there is an entire blog of mine about that

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Destiny of Women Spies


Laura D'Oriano 1911-1943


On this blog, I discussed several times the case of Margaretha Zelle, AKA Mata Hari, executed in 1917 on the accusation of being a spy for the Germans. But, of course, there have been several cases of women accused of espionage and then executed. Some were real spies, others were victims of a new version of the "witch hunt" that had bloodied Europe during the 17th century. 

While Mata Hari was surely an innocent victim, the case of Laura D'Oriano is different and it seems clear that she was a real spy for the allies during WW2. But the reasons that led her into troubles were the same as those that doomed Mata Hari. According to Brian Sullivan, "there are three reason that lead people to become spies. The first, the rarest, is ideology. The second is money, the third is blackmail."

There is no doubt that neither Mata Hari nor Laura D'Oriano had any interest in the ideology of the conflicts they were witnessing. They were just swept away by a situation of personal problems, lack of money, and just the impossibility, at times, to resist to evil. 

Laura D'Oriano's story reads in many ways like that of Mata Hari. Both were cosmopolitan women who had lived in foreign countries and spoke several languages. Both were escaping from a marriage with an abusive husband who searched an artistic career to make a living. Mata Hari was more successful and achieved world fame. Laura D'Oriano failed. She was, no doubt, a beautiful woman from the pictures we have of her. But that's not enough to guarantee a career of performer.

It seems that Laura D'Oriano had serious problems of money, she tried various odd jobs until she was was framed into a low-level espionage job for the Allies. She moved to Bordeaux, where she was supposed to provide information about the movements of the Italian submarines stationed there. That seems to have involved seducing some of the Italian officers manning the base. We will never know whether some of the officers she obtained information from died as a result of that information being transmitted to the British. But that is the job of female spies operating as seductresses. 

That of the spy is a dangerous job, no matter what is your role. It is probably not glamorous at all and it doesn't even pay well. So, Laura D'Oriano was identified, arrested in Italy, and sentenced to death. She was shot in Rome on January 13, 1943. Curiously, in one last detail that made her similar to Mata Hari, she wanted to die looking at the firing squad. Roba da Donne

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Empathy and Epic Fiction: A reflection on the day of the Ashura of 2020

 The day of Ashura, 2020, inspired me these notes about empathy and epic fiction

Is it still possible to produce epic fiction in our world? It is extremely difficult in a world where everything seems to be tainted with decadence and decline, but there is a chance. And we saw truly epic moments in Russel Crowe's movie "The Water Deviner" (2014). 

Let me say first that whoever wrote the script for this movie should be cursed by the muse Calliope and receive at least a bad stomachache as punishment. Really, modern scripting is almost always bad, but this one is terrible. We see an improbable war-widow who looks like a movie star, completely out of place in a hotel in Istanbul. Flashbacks aplenty, and of the worse kind (against the basic rule of all fiction: never use flashbacks). An especially horrible scene is when the filmmaker insists for at least five minutes on showing us one of the three sons of the protagonist having to kill his wounded brother. I mean, what do you think you are allowed to do in order to try to extract a cheap tears from your viewers? Don't you have a drop of shame left in your nearly empty brain? And the script for the last 10 minutes of the film were handled by the same writer who writes the scripts for the Tom and Jerry cartoons.

But the film has this redeeming feature: it is epic. Truly. It is because the theme is epic and we can't miss that point. "The Water Deviner" tells us of a father looking for the bodies of his dead sons. That's something that resonates with all of us. You can't forget the scene, in the Iliad, when King Priam goes to see Achilles, asking him to give back to him his dead son. And Achilles weeps together with the father of the man he killed. This is possibly the highest moment of poetry ever produced in human literature. And it is epic. 

What is epic, after all? It is conflict and a good cause. There is a hero who fights for a good cause. He may be defeated, it doesn't matter. Heroism is doing one's duty in difficult circumstances. Not by chance I am writing these note in the day of the Ashura of 2020, commemorating when the Imam Hoseyn (AS) fought and died at Karbala. He fought for justice and died for justice, that's the basis of all epic stories.

So, epic can appear everywhere, in different circumstances. Even in a decadent society that seems to be bent to destroying everything that's good and decent, like ours, occasionally epic resurfaces. Think of how Virgil resurrected the epic stories of the Iliad and the Odissey in his Aeneid. Like us, Virgil lived in an age of decadence, and his attempt to glorify the birth of the Roman Empire could have turned into the worst apologetic trash that the Empire was already producing at the time. And yet, Virgil turned his story into an epic masterpiece. This is because epic is always around us, it is up to us to recognize it. 

Back to The Water Deviner, despite all the narrative disasters that plague it, the epic vein never really disappears. It is deep, and it is made especially alive by the figure of Hassan Bey, the Turkish officer who is the co-protagonist (and perhaps the true protagonist) of the movie. It is in the gradual discovery by Joshua, the protagonist, of the soul of a nation: ordinary people, the Turkish soldiers defeated in the war, who feel that they have something to fight for: to defend their land. This is epic -- truly epic. 

Of course, I know that wars are bad. In this case, after the end of the 1st world war, a lot of horrible things happened and all the sides involved have their faults: Turks, Greek, British, all alike. It is part of the human destiny to be like this. But one day we'll transcend the need of the kind of epic that involves killing people. It will be a different, and higher, form of empathy that we will reach. But we won't get anywhere if we don't develop empathy even in the simplest forms. And we have to start from the level we are: the level of feeling something for our fellow human beings. Yes, like when we are told of a father who is looking for the bodies of his dead sons. It may be Priam in the Iliad, or Joshua in "The Water Deviner" -- it is the same thing. It is the magic of empathy that makes us be them, and takes us to their world and their feeling.

The words below are attributed to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and to have been addressed to the mothers of the Australian soldiers who died in Gallipoli during the WW1. It is not certain that Ataturk ever said these words, they may be fiction. But, then, so are the words that Achilles and Priam exchanged as told in the Iliad. And, I dare to say, that this piece of fiction by an anonymous writer of the 1930s is not inferior to the words told by Homer. Words are our link to the real world. Worlds make us see, dream, and feel. And words make us feel for something higher than ourselves -- this is empathy in its purest form. The epic in everyone of us.

Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives…
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly Country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears,
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land
They have become our sons as well


There is a point that I hadn't noticed when I published this text and that came up in the discussion on Facebook. I wrote that in the Iliad, "Achille weeps together with the father of the man he had killed." Which is true, but note the subtlety, Achilles doesn't weep for Hector or Priam. He just notices the similarity of the destiny of his own father and his friend Patroclus. And he weeps for them only. It is a kind of empathy, but I'd say a notch lower than that of someone who really can put himself inside the person he faces. It seems to fit with Julian Jaynes interpretation of the mind of the people at the time of the Iliad: their level of empathy was not so high.

Priam finished. His words roused in Achilles
a desire to weep for his own father. Taking Priam’s hand,
he gently moved him back. So the two men there
both remembered warriors who’d been slaughtered.
Priam, lying at Achilles’ feet, wept aloud
for man-killing Hector, and Achilles also wept
for his own father and once more for Patroclus.
The sound of their lamenting filled the house.

h/t Maurizio Tron




Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Theology as the Queen of Sciences: Can we Stop the Collapse of Truth?


Years ago, I was walking along a narrow path along a steep mountain slope. Suddenly the rocks under my feet started slipping down. I don't know what I exactly risked at that moment but I had a horrible feeling that the whole mountain was sliding down and that it was taking me with it, all the way down to the bottom of the valley. Maybe some God, somewhere, was rolling dice for me and the bad number didn't come up. But if I rethink of that moment, I can still feel the impression of everything collapsing around me. The same sensation I have nowadays, not about a rockslide, but about truth slinding down and being lost forever. 


First of all, a disclaimer: I am trained in physics and I know that the worst sin that you can make as a scientist is that of mixing data with opinions. In other words, you don't do science by analogies. That's not just a sin, it is treason. If you do that, you are three times a traitor: to yourself, to your teachers, to science. 

And yet, I recognize that something is rotten in the citadel of science. Maybe we scientists are still able to do good science, but what we are doing is becoming more and more irrelevant. We painstakingly find data, evaluate them, compare them, before arriving to a conclusion. But data are becoming irrelevant in the discussion.

An example: A few days ago, I found the results of a poll on how people perceive the damage made by the Covid epidemic. Impressive: in a group of Western countries, people estimated that the fraction of people killed by the virus was way higher than the real data. For instance, people in the US estimated that the Americans killed by the virus were 9% of the total. Now, do you realize that it would mean 30 million victims? Compare that with reality: the count of covid deaths now stands at 173,000 and the real mortality in the US so far is about 0.05%. The average estimate is off of more than a factor of 200.

And think that the "9%" is an average of the answers given. Some people must have known the real number and that means a lot of people must be thinking that the number of victims must have been well over 10%, maybe 15% or 20%, Think about that: if you believe that your chance to die of covid is around 15%, then it is the same as that of rolling a "6" on a die. Imagine that: you roll your die, you get a "six" and -- bang --  you are dead. 

And that's the reason of the tsunami of pure terror that has invaded people's lives. I know people who are still in voluntary lockdown in Italy, even though the compulsory lockdown has been over for three months. And they are living a miserable life, not wanting to see anybody, go anywhere, meet anyone. When they must go out -- because they must -- they do that wearing their face masks tight and looking at the people they happen to cross in the street as if they were lepers or worse.

This wave of madness explains some of the reactions I had to my comments on that poll. Some people seemed to be truly offended by the numbers I presented and they responded in kind (you are a denialist, a spreader of fake news, a conspiracy theorist, etc.). Others seemed to be genuinely unable to understand the point I was making. The reaction was something like, "But, Ugo, don't you understand that we had 35,000 deaths of coronavirus in Italy? You think that's not enough? How can you be so callous in saying that these deaths do not count? You want to do nothing to stop the coronavirus to spread and cause more victims? Are you evil, heartless, or just someone who doesn't live in the real world?"

We can say many things about this story. That school has not made its job of teaching even a little mathematics to people, that the government propaganda turns out to be very effective, that we need to explain things better if we want people to understand reality, that Internet tribalization is causing all sorts of troubles. All that is correct, but my impression is that there is more here, there is much more. 

I have been thinking a lot about truth. And I still believe that science, the way we understand it today, is a step toward truth. But it is not enough, and a lot of what we are doing is counterproductive. What's truth, really? How can it be that truth is so difficult to recognize? How can it be that we keep fighting so hard against truth? How can it be that truth is so fragile that the lowliest internet troll can destroy it? How is it that people trust so evidently unreliable sources of information and become angry at the mere thought that they might be lied to?

Maybe we need something bigger, higher, deeper than just listing "the data" and hope that people will find truth in them. What could that be, I don't know, but I know that the problem is not new. Aldeady during the 3rd century AD, a man named Augustine was asking himself this question and he would find truth in the divine revelation. Today, Michael Dowd has put together a view that I see as the next step after Augustine: the truth is not in the words that the prophets related to us, although in part it may well be. The truth is in everything that surrounds us, the word of God is not in a book, it is in the creation itself. And the virtue we need to recognize truth is humility in front of the greatness of the creation

So, maybe theology really is the queen of the sciences and we badly need it to give a sense to our poor "science," so proud of itself and so lost in a universe too big for it to understand. This post by Dominey Jenner is a good example of a different view. I won't say that I agree on every single point she makes, but it reads like a breath of fresh air after having come out of a smoke-filled crypt.

Dominey Jenner: Restoring the Queen of the Sciences

This is an article by Dominey Jenner.

We have all heard rather a lot about ‘the science’ these last few months. Its elevation has been clear through its impact on government policy, with the ever present SAGE and influential scientists such as Neil Ferguson. The consequence has been catastrophic both socially and economically. It would seem that, in fact, science does not have all the answers.

Perhaps it is time to return to a broader understanding of the sciences. Theology was once considered ‘the queen of the sciences’ – the study of God presumed to be the most fundamental way to understand the world that He has made. I would suggest that only through this lens can we really understand why lockdown and its associated policies were always going to be bad for the human experience.

Social Distancing

In C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Great Divorce’, Hell is depicted as a socially distanced realm. Its inhabitants move further and further away from each other as time goes on; “they’ve been moving on and on… getting further apart…every now and then they move further still”. Isolation pains us because we are instrinsically relational beings. The Bible holds that we are made in the image of God – a God who by nature is relational. Whilst the Trinity is perhaps one of the most headache-inducing doctrines, it is not hard to understand that One God made of Three Persons is going to involve relationship. Throughout the Bible we see Father, Son and Holy Spirit in perfect and constant relationship with each other. As God’s image-bearers, relationship is what we’re about too.

If being prohibited from seeing your family, your friends and your work colleagues was hard to bear, that is because it went against your human nature. If being required to stand two metres apart from your fellow citizens feels alien, that’s because it is. If you missed just bumping into people at Tesco’s, on the train, or in the park, that’s because we are relational beings. A people required to socially distance are a people required to work against their own nature.


It was early into lockdown that I saw her. An elderly woman, hunched up, face mask pulled up, eyes darting around, aghast at the sight of fellow human being, nothing but fear in her eyes. I wanted to cry.

The fear induced by our government and the media is perhaps one of the most lamentable aspects of this whole Covid episode. The warning given, early on, to the government by a SAGE sub-group that, “the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased…using hard-hitting emotional messaging” did not go unheeded with government messages such as “if you go out, you can spread it, people will die”, plastered everywhere.

Even now, four months on, YouGov’s fear tracker (yes, it’s a thing) has only fallen by 11 percentage points since its peak, the day after lockdown began. 49% of those most recently surveyed still feel, “very or somewhat scared” of catching the virus. Covid has virtually left these shores and yet the fear remains. The terrorisation of our general population has been wholesale.

“Do not be afraid” is one of the most oft-repeated encouragements in the Bible, expressed over a hundred times. What a sweet counter those words are. They are based on the idea that, whilst not promising an easy life, God is ultimately in control and can be trusted to do the right thing by those who put their trust in Him. With our lives in His hands and Death conquered, we have nothing, ultimately, to fear. Biblically, the opposite of fear is not courage, but rather faith.

Fear is the devil’s currency. He seeks to sow it in human hearts for it is one of the best ways to undermine faith. It is hardly surprising then, that a nation saturated with fear is a nation approximating Hell.

Face masks

Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation. Made on the sixth day, just before God rested, we are created in His image and entrusted with the stewardship of the Earth: “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1: 28). Human beings are sacrosanct.

Just let that sink in for a moment, because it runs against the grain of so much of current popular thinking. The neo-Malthusian revival, perhaps most apparent in the climate change movement, would have us believe that, in fact, humans are the scourge of the Earth. Consider David Attenborough’s view that, ‘we are a plague on the Earth’. His solution, of course, is population control. I can’t think of anything more contrary to God’s command to Adam and Eve to “fill the Earth and subdue it”.

But what has this to do with face masks? There seems to me to be something fundamentally sacrilegious in the blotting out of half a human being’s face. The face is more than just its physical features – it is part of the essence of a man. Animals have faces but we know it’s not the same.

Whilst I’ll admit to not having a fully developed theology of ‘the face’, I do believe the Bible has something to say about its significance. When Moses asks to see God’s glory, He agrees but says, “you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live” (Exodus 33: 20). God’s face is inextricably linked with his Person. So Moses has to settle for God’s back: “I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen”. Clearly, the face is more than just its constituent parts. When believers are encouraged by the Lord to “seek my face” we know it’s not his literal face but all that the face stands for. The face is symbolic, it expresses the Person. To cover it is, I believe, to dehumanise.


“Ah yes, singing – of course singing will be banned”. This was my first thought when I heard of a church choir in America, that became infected with Covid, following a single rehearsal. It was at this point that my suspicions were confirmed – there was something uniquely wicked about this virus and the way it would be responded to.

Singing is part of what we are made for. Many will be familiar with the opening statement of The Westminster Shorter Catechism; “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Singing is one of the ways by which we are enjoined to do this. “Sing to the Lord” is a regular refrain: “Sing to the Lord, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day” (1 Chronicles 16:23).

It is no coincidence that the Bible has a whole songbook, the Psalms, incorporated into it. The apostle Paul encourages believers to “sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). Proclamation through the sung word was held dear by the likes of Martin Luther. It is reported that, “many of Luther’s enemies feared his hymns more than the man himself”. We are created to worship and the prohibition of congregational singing denies us this fundamental means of grace.

Furthermore, as if to add insult to injury, there is talk of humming being considered as a substitute for singing. This is like some cruel joke. It is to entirely miss the point of singing. Nothing can be proclaimed with lips firmly closed. I would rather be silent than hum. Imagine John’s revelation of heaven with humming in the place of singing: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth, and all that is in them, humming…” And of course they can’t go on to express what they would have otherwise sung: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13). No, we are diminished without the opportunity to sing together.


It has been difficult not to detect a certain malevolence towards children through many aspects of lockdown. Who can forgot the chalked playground squares that French nursery children were confined to? Or pictures of teachers, covered head to toe in PPE, welcoming littles ones back to school by pointing a temperature gun at their heads. Or, more recently, the perverse suggestion from a trusted CBeebies doctor, that children might like to cover their little faces with an old sock. There is so much in the way children have been treated during lockdown that I have found, frankly, dark and sinister.

In the Bible, children are considered to be a gift from God: “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him” (Psalm 127:3). The way we treat children matters. Those who felt license to express their otherwise latent contempt for children, during the censorious atmosphere of lockdown, should have thought twice. Perhaps they were not familiar with Jesus’ strong warning, “if anyone causes one of these little ones those who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”.


There is so much more that could be said on this subject: the treatment of our elderly; the decent into madness; our government’s attempt to play God; the idolisation of the NHS; the crippling fear of death. Suffice to say that, from a Christian perspective, these too are great evils.

An elderly preacher who I love and respect once said that the thing that convinced him that Christianity was true was the sense it made of the human condition. You may disagree but it’s at least worth considering. Thanks to our weak national church and the abdication of responsibility by its leaders (with a few notable exceptions), to teach anything approaching biblical Christianity, the majority of people will have no idea why their natural instincts may in fact be correct. It would seem that the queen of sciences has been in exile for far too long.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Julian Jaynes and the Biblical Story of Tamar and Judah


 The Story of Tamar and Judah as told in the book of Genesis of the Bible is especially interesting for the way it describes how the characters. They move as if they had no feelings, like automatons. It is a kind of view of reality that Julian Jaynes explored in his search for human consciousness. It was a long journey from the time of Tamar and Judah to our times, but the trip is continuing. Where are we going? Will we hear again God's words as told by Google?

All we do is the result of how we perceive the world, and the way we perceive the world depends on how our mind works. It is, actually, a two-way relationship (as we relate, so we think). And it is a story that started long, long ago, when our ancestors started developing what we call today "self-consciousness," a way of modeling oneself, just as they would model the external world. Julian Jaynes was a great pioneer in this field with his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,  (1976)

Now, it seems to me that our so-much cherished self-consciousness is failing us, leading us to believe that, "the world is what we think it is." It is what Donald Rumsfeld noted when he said, "now we create our own reality." That's a consciousness jump comparable to the one that changed our bronze age ancestors into what we are today. But not all changes are good and we may be destined to a harsh rediscovery that the world, out there, is not the same as what we think it is.

As usual, the key of the future lies in the past and we can learn a lot on how our mind works by examining how it evolved over the past millennia. Julian Jaynes explored many ancient documents in support of his idea that our ancestors were not really conscious but acted on the basis of "voices" that they heard in their mind. His interpretation of the Iliad and the Odyssey is especially impressive. Jaynes didn't pay as much attention to the Bible, probably a more modern book than the Iliad, but even there we can find examples of how differently the ancient thought.

I recently commented on the story of Tamar and Judah, as told in the Genesis about the significance for women to wear face veils. But there is much more than that in the story than the creative use of the veil made by Tamar. What's impressive is how the author writes the story in a way that never gives us any hint of what the characters were thinking while they were doing what they were doing. It was especially impressive to think of this after reading a modern rendition of the story written by Francine Rivers in 2009. The story is the same, but the way of telling it has changed enormously in some 3000 years. Let's make a little comparison. 

This is Francine Rivers describing how Tamar came to marry Judah's son, Er. (just skim through this especially bad example of prose)

“Why must it be this way, Mother? Have I no choice in what’s to become of me?”“No more choice than any other girl. I know how you’re feeling. I was no older than you when I came into your father’s house. It is the way of things, Tamar. Haven’t I prepared you for this day from the time you were a little girl? I have told you what you were born to do. Struggling against your fate is like wrestling the wind.” She gripped Tamar’s shoulders. “Be a good daughter and obey without quibbling. Be a good wife and bear many sons. Do these things, and you’ll bring honor upon yourself. And if you’re fortunate, your husband will come to love you. If not, your future will still be secure in the hands of sons. When you’re old, they’ll take care of you just as your brothers will take care of me. The only satisfaction a woman has in this life is knowing she has built up the household of her husband.”“But this is Judah’s son, Mother. Judah’s son Er.”Her mother’s eyes flickered, but she remained firm. “Find a way to fulfill your duty and bear sons. You must be strong, Tamar. These people are fierce and unpredictable. And they are proud.”Tamar turned her face away. “I don’t want to marry Er. I can’t marry him—”Her mother grasped her hair and yanked her head back. “Would you destroy our family by humiliating such a man as this Hebrew? Do you think your father would let you live if you went into that room and begged to be spared marriage to Er? Do you think Judah would take such an insult lightly? I tell you this. I would join your father in stoning you if you dare risk the lives of my sons. Do you hear me? Your father decides whom and when you marry. Not you!” She let go of her roughly and stepped away, trembling. “Do not act like a fool!”Tamar closed her eyes. The silence in the room was heavy. She felt her sisters and nurse staring at her. “ I’m sorry.” Her lip quivered. “ I’m sorry. I’ll do what I must.”“As we all must.” Sighing, her mother took her hand and rubbed it with scented oil. “Be wise as a serpent, Tamar. Judah has shown wisdom in considering you. You are strong, stronger than these others. You have quick wits and strength you don’t even realize yet. This Hebrew has taken an interest in you. For all our sakes, you must please him. Be a good wife to his son. Build a bridge between our people. Keep the peace between us.”The weight of responsibility being given her made her bow her head. “I will try.”“You will do more than try. You will succeed.” Her mother leaned down and kissed her cheek briskly. “Now sit quietly and collect yourself while I send word to your father that you’re ready.”
 And this is how the Bible describes the same story:

And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar

Isn't it impressive? Let me show you another example, this one about Er. Here is how Ms. Rivers describes him.

Er was tall like his father and held the promise of great physical strength. He had his mother’s thick curling mass of black hair, which he had drawn back in Canaanite fashion. The brass band he wore around his forehead made him look like a young Canaanite prince. Tamar was awed by her husband’s handsome appearance but filled quickly with misgivings when she looked into his eyes. They were cold and dark and devoid of mercy. There was pride in the tilt of his head, cruelty in the curve of his lips, and indifference in his manner.

And here is what the Bible says

But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of God and God put him to death.

You see the difference. 

The fact is that the character in the Bible story behave in ways that would make us describe them as robots or automata. Another example is Abraham who blindly obeys when God tells him that he must sacrifice is firstborn Isaac. Not that they are stupid, not at all. The ruse that Tamar devises in order to bend the Levirate law in her favor is clever by all means. But there is not a trace of feelings or of consciousness in their behavior. Nor there is a hint of compassion for the death of Er and Onan, nor for the distress of Tamar. And when Judah orders Tamar to be burned at the stake, he seems to be no more concerned about that than if he were ordering a sheep to be roasted. These people are all autistic or what?

The book of Genesis was probably written around the 6th century BC, but the stories it tells about the patriarchal age are certainly older, quite possibly their core lies in the bronze age, more or less when the Acheans were besieging the city of Troy on the Western border of Anatolia. So, it makes sense to apply the considerations that Jaynes had developed for the Iliad also to this section of the Bible. Indeed, in the story of Abraham, we read of how he received from God the command to kill his son, Isaac -- probably heard as a voice in his head just like it happens to the heroes of the Iliad. That raises an interesting questions, were the characters of the patriarchal age just portrayed as automatons, or were they automatons? That's a question we cannot answer: we cannot enter the minds of people who lived some three thousand years ago -- we cannot even enter the minds of the people who are alive today. But one things is sure: the human mind has changed a lot in a few thousand years.

The Bible may actually gives us some idea of this gradual evolution. While Abraham obeys God's orders that he hears in his mind, in the case of Tamar and Judah, we are not told that anyone heard voices. God enters the story only as a mischievous element, smiting Judah's sons without paying any attention, apparently to the results of his actions. It doesn't seem that God cares at all about Tamar or about anyone else and nobody in the story asks God's advice. 

It may well be that the story of Tamar and Judah is about the transition phase from the bicameral age to the modern way of thinking. Indeed, just as an example, there is another Tamar in the Bible, the son of David, who is raped by her brother Amnon, whose feeling are clearly described in the Book of Samuel as "Amnon hated her with a very great hatred; for the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her."

So, it is a long journey that we made from Abraham to Ms. Francine Rivers. And perhaps the most interesting part of it is that it is continuing. Just examine any on-line discussion on the Web, don't you have the impression that some people have gone too far in their travel to self-consciousness? They are so self-conscious that they tend to think that the world has to adapt to the way they see it, rather than the opposite. Do you note the knee-jerk reaction when you tell them something that doesn't fit with their internal model of the world? 

Imagine that the story of Tamar and Judah were told today: would you believe what this woman said? What proof do we have that the objects she showed were really Judah's ones? Was it all a ruse by Judah to have sex with her daughter-in-law? Besides, who killed Onan and why? Who is this Tamar, anyway? Is she a Canaanite agent spying on the good Hebrews? Maybe Tamar is all part of a conspiracy by the Canaanite king to invade us because they are envious of our freedom?

In those times, truth was somehow solid, enshrined in a story. Now, truth has become fluid, as you think you hold it, it flows away from your hands. In a way, even truth has been marketed, just like many other commodities. And once it is marketed it becomes a product that comes in various gradation, from extra-value to run-of-the-mill. It is even overproduced, like candies or toys. 

The book by Ms. Francine Rivers is a good example of this over-production of a supposed truth. It is no more about truth, but about a version of the truth for the cheap end of the market. Among other things, you can note how Rivers has slashed away from her story all the potentially upsetting elements found in the Bible. The core of the story, that Tamar prostitutes herself to force his father in law to respect the Levirate law, is just not there. Zero: not even mentioned. Truly amazing: it is like writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln and never mention that he was President of the United States. Apparently, Ms. Rivers thinks that this part of the story would be hard to digest for modern Christians. So, what is left is something like a TV soap opera of the 1960s. Which is, after all, our current way of interpreting reality. 

Yet, for everything that exists, there has to be a reason for it to exist. If we moved from being automatons to being "self-conscious," it means that there was a reason for moving in that direction. There must have been advantages for people who were self conscious in comparison to those who weren't. Maybe being able to model oneself led to better relations with one's social group. 

But the most fascinating thing is that the journey of consciousness is continuing. Where are we going? If we continue building up models of reality in our minds, we risk detaching ourselves from reality, "we create our own reality" as Donald Rumsfeld notes. But that's not a good thing: we risk losing track of the real world and that may be bad. Very bad. Maybe the direction of the travel will be reversed and one day we'll hear again God's voice in our heads, although maybe by then God's name may well be "Google."