What A Swell Party

Last night I led Evensong and joined Orielenses who matriculated about ten years ago at their Gaudy. it was a lovely evening; I saw my former students Olivia and Emily, Benjy and Hugh, and dined with Jenna, Jessie, Zizzy, and Alice (a theology fellow-traveller from Classics) — all lovely exemplars of Oriel’s positive effects.

This morning I ran my 1.7said Morning Prayer, went to Mass, cooked breakfast, fixed the shower, printed some mocked-up paing-in slips since we‘rte out of the official ones from our bank, and now am turning to marking….

How Do You Like It

So, I didn’t get much marking done yesterday. Friday is ‘new posts announcement’ day, and I spent some time looking over alternatives, and also time on emails, and had difficulty focusing on marking, and, well, you get the picture. Then in the afternoon I got ready and headed in to Oriel, where I assisted the chaplain at Evensong and chatted with old members — alumni/æ — at an Alumni Weekend.

Then this morning I ran my 1.7, cooked my hot breakfast, and will (surprise!) do some marking. I also have my COVID booster jab, so I’ll be somewhat more resistant to the pandemic that has laid Margaret low. Some more marking, and back to Oriel tonight for a Gaudy, with some of my beloved students from ten years ago, or thereabouts.

More, More, More

I’m eager to resume reading, tenderising my faculties for longer and more comfortable sessions with, you know, actual books, but for now reading is out till I finish marking. Ran this morning, out prowling Headington cafés (would prefer an indie café, but the chains are more likely to have electrical outlets and wifi, alas) and marking. I have remembered to put Sleep’s Jerusalem/Dopesmoker album on, and am trying to listen with a Sandersian ear (he says, ‘Just pretend it’s Gregorian Chant arranged for Football Stadium’).

Is Seth the first Sanders in biblical studies after the generation in which you couldn’t throw a stone at a conference without hitting a Sanders (E. P., Jack, others I’m not remembering)?

Avinu Malkeinu, Seth, and Me

I don’t have time to pick apart the convergence and occasional quibble that connect Seth Sanders’s essay ‘Dead Words and Haunting Melody’ in the ace online journal Ancient Jew Review, but I read it with joy and intellectual excitement. Seth gets at one of the vital aspect-problems in our (broad) field, namely, the role and texture of imagination in interpretive labour. Inb what follows I’m just riffing, and delighting, and cheering, and asking, and surely getting some things wrong.

Seth’s narrative of his experience of learning a particular traditional setting of the Avina Malkeinu prayer of Yom Kippur — learning in the sense of ‘learning to play on a musical instrument’ but also ‘learning the innards, the constitution of’ — resonates with my longstanding attachment to figurative interpretation. Seth cites the evocative power of Sleep’s album ‘Jerusalem’/‘Dopesmoker’ (intended to be titled ‘Dopesmoker’, released under the title ‘Jerusalem’ in 1999, rereleased under it’s first intended title in 2003, but more or less the same album with eleven more minutes of music); he had put me onto Sleep back in May, and I’ve still listened to the album only once or twice. Seth says,

In this loud, stupid thought experiment, Jerusalem — now restored to its original title of Dopesmoker — is a Dungeons and Dragons version of prayer that can help train our imaginations by blowing our minds, or at least our eardrums. Like D&D, it lets us roleplay liturgical experience in an exaggerated form. Its larger-than-life dimensions may help illuminate some minute, faded aspects of religious texts as events.

Whatever one may think of Dopesmoker (and I’m still learning it, learning from it), Seth’s mining gold in the paragraph above. Whereas academic study of ancient texts typically focuses on translation, on technical matters of lexis and syntax, contemporaneous history, presumed patterns of influence, the vast secondary literature, and correct answers (Seth: ‘There is a melancholy that sets in once we have narrowed everything down to data. Seeing only the words, the precise textual data makes for solvable problems…’), the unspoken conductor of convincing interpretation is the imagination by which one weaves together the varied elements of an interpretation (‘… what you could call the music.’). What might be possible, and under what conditions? What might be convincing, and to whom? What gives us delight to contemplate?

Here, I’ll include John Hollander’s ‘The Widener Burying-Ground’, which I seem never to have mentioned here before, despite it being a constant refrain in my hermeneutical deliberation. It’s not relevant to one specific aspect of this topic, but it’s powerfully relevant to Seth’s narrative of imagination, liturgical invocation, memory, participation, and so many more things.

I’d presume to suggest only a few alternative angles, and angles that diverge from Seth’s only by slight degrees. First, Seth flirts with the music-as-language trope, though I think that he never trips over it; but the power of that trope is so strong, I’d wish he more explicitly disavowed it. Perhaps the essay is stronger as is, perhaps a candid refusal of that analogy/equation would itself draw resistance to the premise Seth is pursuing, but I’m inclined to press for an full-on exorcism of that elusive spectre.

Second, Seth orients his essay (both by invocation and disavowal) by the original reader/listener’s experience: absent and impossible (‘I still do not think we can get inside the heads of our subjects, between the dead listeners’ ears’), but nonetheless longed-for and to some extent authoritative (‘We can play the melodies they did, and if we are attentive enough, imagine what these past listeners heard’). This, too, is a human-made satellite posing as a pole star. Music and language signify, systematically, but isomorphically or (forgive me) iso-experientially. That’s Seth’s point, if I read him well. But as long as we allow the absent desired to make its ghastly absent presence felt, we vitiate the force of the principle that significance is something we make with texts, not the texts’ property. And here’s where Seth’s imagination steps forward and shines, fiercely; plays, deafeningly. Nobody governs the interpretive imagination, especially not haunting authority figures who lay down rules.

Something we don’t know bothers us, so we do things with it. We turn it, repeat it, analyse it, compare it to other similar and different things, we add context (historical, lexical-syntactic, anthropological, musical, literary, graphical, textural, gustatory, olfactory, personal, cultural) to find a way of fitting the initial provocation into our inhabited sensorium and imaginarium. Sharing agreed contexts helps us get on with neighbours, often especially joyfully, but there’s never a hermeneutical cop issuing tickets for interpretive jaywalking. In the hermeneutical field, we may walk along pathways paved by academic-political-cultural leaders, but we may also explore desire lines worn by other wanderers (human and non-human), or even strike out where no visible traces give clues of someone having preceded us. ‘Our vows are no longer vows, what we forbade was not forbidden, our oaths are hereby ungiven.’ And let’s sit down to listen to Avinu Malkeinu, to Jerusalem, to Seth thrashing and (if you’re indulgent) AKMA reading aloud, and let’s see what our imaginations dream up.

Good Morning, Singapore

First, greetings to readers from Singapore! For a reason obscure to me, a wave of readers from your fair city visited yesterday. Since I don’t know what brought you here, I can’t promise more of it — but I’m gratified that you stopped in. Feel free to come by any time.

Ran my 1.7, said my prayers, and now it’s time for me to begin more marking (which is going very slowly, as has been the trend sa I have gotten older and more frustrated with assessment). It must be done, though, so I will press on.

Neti Neti

I ran both Saturday and Sunday mornings, but today it was raining and I gave it a miss.

Saturday I went in to London to take part in the annual Sodality Day of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests at St Mary’s, Kilburn. We had a fine day talking over topics of relevance (urgence) (yes, it’s a word): concelebration of the Mass, the policies of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, and the seal of the confessional. Discussion was refreshingly open, patient, and respectful. Three cheers for us! The weather was warm, but the church kept us cooler than the direct sunlight would have been, and my waalking (and running to catch buses) was not too unpleasant.

Yesterday was church, mostly, and some reading. My capacity to just sit still and read has been burned away after years of over-stress (arguably overwork and under-accommodation, but the point isn’t to moan); as I have fewer obligations for the time being, I will be working gently to spin up my reading capacity again.

And as I said, today I have not left the flat, first because of the rain, then because Margaret set out to spend the morning with a friend (so I stayed with the dogs), then because it was already early afternoon and Margaret needed a nap, so I sat with the dogs to keep them calm. I’ll get out tomorrow.

Red Herring Watch

Ran my 1.7 this morning (12°, decent pace), Morning Prayer, correspondence, travel planning for tomorrow morning’s meeting of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests, and (here’s the red herring bit) resumed my eager consumption of Brian Vickers’s In Defence of Rhetoric, a feast for the mind. I was impressed to learn that Sir Brian is alive — nowadays, I’m impressed that anybody of who’s not younger than me is alive — and I have had the persistent feeling that I had read other of his books or essays, but it seems I haven’t. But this will contribute materially to the hermeneutics essay on which I’m working. (See, I’m working on it <— this is in case Scott is reading this.) Oh, and the red herring part arises because the topic covers so much fascinating terrain that I’ll be sore tempted to allow my attention to wander.

Another Morning

Another 1.7 miles. Down to 11° this morning, much more seasonable, though we didn’t get a fair share of warmth in July and August. Minke came out of the bedroom earlier than her friend, so I attached her lead, opened the door, and led her to the side of the flat where she and Flora, ahem, water the garden. As she was examining possible spots, I glanced back at the door, and Flora had come out the door and was standing there (with no lead). They’re a little groggy when they wake, so I just ducked back in, fetched her lead and attached it, and she stood still for the whole process. If it had been later in the day, either of them might have bolted to chase a squirrel or pigeon or, alas, neighbour — but at 7:15, they just wanted to do what they needed to do and then go back to sleep.

Next Horizon

Next on my menu of overdue obligations are two essays, one about half finished and one entirely unbegun. Luckily, they’re on (tangentially) related topics. The first is on Anglican biblical hermeneutics. In that essay I’ll be arguing that the vital heart of Anglican biblical hermeneutics in the interval at which people look back with nostalgia — the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries — was characterised by apparently unified hermeneutical practice not so much because of any unifying ideology as by a combination of contingent cultural and political factors.
Remember that these centuries include the English Reformation, the Scottish Reformation, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (the British Civil Wars), the Monmouth Rebellion, the so-called Glorious Revolution, and the Jacobite resistance; while these were not necessarily determined by theology or biblical interpretation, the Bible certainly figured in these conflicts, conflicts that cost roughly a half million lives (perhaps 10% of the population of England). In this atmosphere, theologians who inclined either toward the rigorous Reformation or toward the more conformist or Laudian side will all still be reading the Bible in mostly the same hermeneutical way — just with divergent investments. (The right answer, bei mir, is ‘the same’ (that is, ‘effectively similar’) Prayerbook and translated Bible; the same, geographically small political entity (‘England-and-Wales’); the same educational system (Oxford and Cambridge plus schools), and a cultural outlook that favours literature and rhetoric over empirical sciences. Rhetoric evaporates through the nineteenth century; the colonies begin pushing back against the homeland; translations and adaptations of both Bible and Prayerbook/liturgy begin to destabilise their influence on biblical interpretation; education begins to extend to a wider populace, through more diverse institutions, and evolves to include further areas of study — no wonder biblical interpretation is less centred from the ineteenth century onward.

Oh, and I ran my 1.6 this morning in 12° (suddenly feels very chilly), and have been working on my study of rhetoric. And I’ll write about interdisciplinarity to take breaks.

This Is the Dawning of a New Era

Got up, ran my ? miles (15°, 94% humidity, actually a good, steady pace), said Morning prayer, watched the clip of the Postal Service that Nate sent me from the concert he saw, and now I begin the rest of my day without a thought about the epistle of James. It’s been so long that I’ve been struggling with that piece that I have lost touch with what it might feel like to have moved past it. Of course, I have a significant backlog of research and writing to tackle, but one item, at least, is off the list. (Now all I need to do is finish ‘Anglican Hermeneutics (part one),’ ‘Interdisciplinarity,’ a short book introducing readers to the epistle of James, and my summing-up book about differential hermeneutics. Plus whatever other responsibilities I turn out to have, assuming I ever have a job again (apart from tutoring at Oriel, which I love).