Official Transition

I’ll stop by Regent’s Park College this afternoon for farewell cake with [soon to be ex-] colleagues; this is the last working day of my contract. I have only great things to say about Regent’s: everyone here has welcomed me, treated me with appreciation and respect, and has conveyed regret about my necessary departure. (It really is necessary; that’s the way their staffing model goes, and I’ve known that from the moment the post was advertised.) I in turn reciprocate their best wishes: Omnia probate quod bonum tenete!

Luckily (with a view to my future consumption of cakey kilocalories), I ran my 1.7 this morning, said my prayers, and am ready to face the world. Floreat Oriel, and perhaps another future employer as well!

Better Late Than

I forgot to check in this morning, but the day didn’t really comprise anything out of the ordinary. I ran and said my prayers in the morning, picked up some groceries in the afternoon, and tried to be productive in between. Made fajitas for Margaret for dinner — that’s about it.

Brooks Robinson, 1937–2023

When I was too young to exercise any judgement about the important things in life, I received from my dad the sense that my baseball hero ought to be Brooks Robinson. I do not remember ever having been in any doubt on the matter, at any point in my life.

I should explain that we lived in Rochester, New York, which had just begun an affiliation with the Baltimore Orioles, so although Robinson never played for the Red Wings, my allegiance to the Red Wings warranted a baseball hero who might play for the Orioles. That will have been a time when Robinson was just settling into his career; he might easily have slumped, succumbed to injury, been traded to the Kansas City A’s, or any of a thousand developments that would have complicated my admiration of Robinson, but instead he blossomed into being a steady (if not fearsome) batter, a loyal Baltimorean, and the best defensive third baseman to pick up a glove. All the obits report that he had various outlandish nicknames; those weren’t proper nicknames at all, but the sort of epithet that sportswriters and broadcasters dream up to attach themselves to greater men’s glory.

I’ve read a lot about Brooks, and as a theologian I’m amply aware of human frailty, but I’ve never heard a negative report about him. Many of his generation will have imbibed racism growing up, many of his contemporaries revelled in the libertinism that stardom afforded, many retirees complain about subsequent generations’ salaries or fame or style, many people are just plain mean in one way or another — but so far as I’ve heard, Brooks Robinson was simply a good, kind, man. I know that I won’t ever have an achievement to compare to his; I hope that I may at least be found to have shared in his goodness.

In this year when the O’s are at last back in postseason baseball (and have done it the Oriole Way, by building a team from the minors up), many will feel his death especially acutely. Vale, Brooks Robinson — one old priest in England is sadder this season.

Mostly Harmless

I had a very peculiar experience this morning. After I ran and prayed and brought Margaret her morning tea, I prepared for my shower with a degree of anticipation since my repairs improved the shower experience noticeably. But I had a strong feeling that I had enjoyed several showers since the repairs — when that was only Sunday morning (after my Sunday shower), so it can only have been yesterday’s shower that gave me the positive impression. I had to rehearse in my memory the timing of obtaining the rubber washers (Saturday morning, after my COVID/flu jab), of repairing the shower (Sunday, while M. was at church), and the days of the week (verily, today is only Tuesday) to convince myself that I’d had only one (new-mode) shower before today. It still feels as though it must have been longer ago, even though I’m utterly certain of the sequence of events by now. Very odd, indeed.

Oh, and I stumped Margaret by referring to the ‘Beware of the Leopard’ sign from Hitchhiker’s Guide, which she doesn’t remember having read or heard.

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 1.7, said Morning Prayer, went to Mass, cooked breakfast, fixed the shower, printed some mocked-up paying-in slips since we’re 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.