Friday, December 02, 2005


We feel much more powerful in our complaining than we do in proposing better schemes.

That asymmetry is at the heart of politics in the small. It is the snake that is in the grass of every field where leaders could emerge. And it begets a nasty feedback or perhaps it is not so much two different feelings as much as two faces of one aspect of our natures: few have innate confidence to go it alone with their ideas, everyone knows what's wrong with the other guys ideas. Politics in the large is all about changing what the crowd is saying to itself. Leadership is a better idea, which must come from some place where a person feels free to mention it and unafraid both to champion it and let it be tossed around, polished and finally carry many with it. Complaining is politics in the small. We see it conducted in barrooms and sloppy minded pandering of talk shows: complaining feels so good it need have no legitimate basis. Politics in the small offers ideas from behind closed doors. A people who can encourage each other to think are setting stone on stone but a people who regard belittling as the highest exercise of free speach are only throwing stones.

If that is my complaint, what is my proposal?


Shokai said...

A Translation With Commentary.
By Robert Alter. 1,064 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $39.95.

Reviewed by Edward Rothstein
The New York Times: December 29, 2004

The King James Bible puts it too neatly: "In the beginning" could mean that the creation was God's first act, or that the creation was itself the beginning, but wasn't something there before? The sentence also reads like a topic sentence, bluntly introducing that account that follows.

Things are actually far more mysterious and inchoate, as Robert Alter keeps reminding us in his astonishing translation of the original Hebrew text of the first five books of the Bible. There are so many accretions of meaning and assumption layered over the Biblical text, so many commentaries, so many doctrines; even the English language has been influenced by the glories (and errors) of the 17th-century King James translation.

Return, then, to the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch - the Torah - where pronouns are often ambiguous, words are compacted with multiple meanings and clauses can begin to make sense not in the ordinary sequence of reading but only in the course of doubling back and rereading. Here is how Mr. Alter renders that first sentence of Genesis:

"When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, 'Let there be light.' "

That sentence unsettles. The creation is not a completed act, but part of a process. The act of speaking is the focus of attention, coming after an almost breathless catalog of elements in a world "without form and void" (as the King James version puts it), in which "welter and waste and darkness over the deep" and "God's breath" are components of a primordial earth.

It isn't likely that this rendering will soon replace the old. It doesn't easily scan. But it is so weirdly convincing, and so evocative of matters beyond conventional understanding, that it anticipates not just the story of Creation but the epic enterprise of translation and commentary into which Mr. Alter leads us.

GreenSmile said...

Yes. My study group in particular and liberal Jews with much inclination to study value Alter's translation highly.

Alter's assessment of Fox's translation: "Fox's translation has the rare virtue of making constantly visible in English the distinctive Hebraic quality of the original, challenging preconsceptions of what the Bible is really like. A bracing protest against the bland modernity of all the recent English version of the Bible."

So Alter and Fox may have produced the best of the breed but I find myself more tuned to a different species. The amazon link you provided puts many choices before me and I am a fitful and ineffective reader. Ignoring Amazon's offer to sell me "red maple trees and red pine gloves" [;)], I am slightly drawn to two of the titles. (1)
The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma : A Bilingual Edition
because it promises both the language and the message of basic teachings I have not experienced. (2)Lao-tzu's Taoteching : with Selected Commentaries of the Past 2000 Years because it is of a text I have already studied in one form, allowing me to calibrate the two translators against each other and thus perhaps get a feel for how much I would "trust" and benefit from Red Pine's other work.


Gerry said...

If we are not allowed to complain without also offering a solution to the problem, most of us are thereby silenced.

I suspect snobbery in such a premise.

Surely it is evident that the complainant does not necessarily have an answer but should not by this lack be silenced?

Are we really saying here that only those "elevated souls" who might have the wherewithall to formulate a solution should be allowed to voice complaints?


Am I stupid? Have I failed to understand something elementary?

Let's have it!! Grrrrrrrr....

GreenSmile said...

An elegant complaint about a problem is to just pose a solution...the complaint, though muted by being implicit, is stronger because it shows the solver has the courage of his convictions.

The most elegant complaint is a solution that a majority of the quorum will adopt or that others will imitate or use without much further persuasion.

Complaint alone is still a benefit to your fellow creatures if they themselves have not yet woken up to the merde in which they are mired. The complaint that can cause change is not entirely a complaint. Cindy Sheehan's protest is seen purely as negativity by the wrongwingers but as leadership by the anti-war movement. I think you are off the hook by this perspective, Gerry.

and, to be honest, I complain all the time and there are some ills so big and so slippery [like trying to get electoral reform in the US] that nobody knows where to begin proposing fixes though only the winners of the last election are without complaint.

A high standard is implied by this post: I want to avoid cheap talk and and I want to encourage constructive politics. I also like a collegial respect between any parties that are taking steps to make changes.
[If my standard of living was as high as the aspirations of my political ethics, I'd be too rich to give a damn about anything. But high standards will snare the rightwingers before they even slow us little people down.]

Gerry said...

Well put. I'm mollified...

Shokai said...

As for book recommendations, I would suggest Bohdidharma over Lao Tzu, not due to philosophical reasons, but if you've read one and not the other, your mind may be more receptive to the new text, not being conditioned by "knowing" what it "should" say. But then again, Red Pine is good at breathing new life into ancient texts, so either way you can't lose.

GreenSmile said...

Thanks. Bohdidharma it is. That will be my first Red Pine book. I does not have to be my last.