paleo Ideofact

Saturday, October 26, 2002
Museum quality
This seems to be a pattern with me now -- I discover a blog I like, read posts with which I either agree or, because I know too little about a topic to come to my own conclusion, find informative, but only mention it when I come across something with which I disagree. So I hope Alexandra of Out of Lascaux won't be too offended when I disagree with her on the subject of the desire of collectors to own antiquities relative to the "retentionist" bias of archaeologists. I come down on the side of the latter.

At issue is the illegal trade in antiquities (although there are also questions posed by the art looted by Nazis in World War Two -- I'll pass over that because I'm not so familiar with the subject, although it seems to me that if someone had their property confiscated by war criminals, there is no legal basis for not returning it, just as I'd have to return a hot car no matter how far removed my purchase was from the criminal who stole it). You can't have "new" antiquities come onto the market without talking about archaeological sites they come from. Archaeological sites are protected by various national and international conventions, and the reasons for this are fairly clear: Once a site is dug up (whether by trained professionals eager to preserve every detail of the find, or looters looking for only the "good stuff" they can sell to collectors), that's it -- it's destroyed. The context can never be recreated.

I think this is better illustrated by example than explanation. Take the recently revealed discovery of an ossuary bearing an inscription which may allude to Jesus of Nazareth. The ossuary, which is consistent with Jewish burial practices until about 70 A.D., would have the earliest known textual reference to Jesus, and describes his relationship to James, his brother and one of the apostles, and Joseph, the husband of Mary. In other words, if it could be verified, it would have tremendous historical significance. Yet it is impossible to verify it, because of the way it was discovered. The Washington Post reported:
Was the Aramaic inscription as old as the box, or had it been etched in later to enhance its value? Did the cursive lettering used in the inscription match characters used in contemporary scripts?

And even if these questions were answered satisfactorily, could scholars ever overcome the ossuary's mongrel pedigree? Probably not.

"If it's looted, archaeologists would say it's useless, because we have no idea where it came from, and it has no context," said Near Eastern studies specialist Glenn M. Schwartz, of Johns Hopkins University. "Also, the object, if real, would be hugely valuable, so anybody interested in forging it would make it as believable as possible."
Dug up in context by archaeologists, there would be no doubt as to its authenticity in terms of its dating; nor would there be any question as to the presence of inscriptions. Appearing in a collector's collection 15 years after its alleged discovery, it becomes far more problematic.

The desire of collectors to own valuable things, priceless things even, fuels incidents like this one. Because there is a market for antiquities, anyone digging up the box -- even by mistake -- would be faced with two possibilities: inform the authorities, and get nothing for the discovery, or sell it on the open market, and get something (I think the article says the ossuary sold for somewhere between $200 and $700).

The ossuary is an extreme example -- most finds don't have the same significance. But every archaeological site has irreplaceable information; looters destroy this information, and collectors provide them with the financial incentive to do so.

Thursday, October 24, 2002
Coming attractions
Sorry, nothing new tonight. I don't have the energy, and I still have a heap of work to do. I'm way behind on my personal correspondence too.

There's any number of things I've been meaning to get around to -- the next Qutb segment, a post on something that Trotsky said that actually is starting to seem reasonable to me (although it probably wouldn't have even two months ago -- well, his supporters always argued that the prescience of his vision was proven by the fact that none of his predictions had yet come true; don't worry, they're not starting to as far as I can tell), some ruminations inspired by Frances Yates' excellent book on Giordano Bruno, a short essay on Qabala, Qur'an and Qelippots (which is more than an excuse for me to string three Q's together), some thoughts on the excellent Cinderella Blogger Feller's site (I might just leave these in comments on the posts there), and assorted odds and ends and other nonsense. Oh, and one of these days I'd like to get back to Jean Gimpel, although I can't seem to find the book that leads to my conclusion, and it's exorbitantly expensive on Amazon.

Despite my fatigue, I'm of good cheer. Now, back to actual work...

Wednesday, October 23, 2002
Bosnia again
I still find it a little bizarre that Diane E., to justify her conjecture that the D.C. sniper is a Bosnian Muslim (which she later backed off from), writes:
I feel a bit guilty that I simply jumped to the conclusion that this awol Yugoslav, whatever his connection--or non-connection--with the sniper shootings, is of Bosnian origin. I only thought that because it's a sad fact that fundamentalism has reared its ugly head there, despite the fact that we saved them from genocide, as Glenn Reynolds correctly points out.
Well, I'm not sure what to make of this, since her link goes to a story about how the police of the Bosnian Muslim government investigated a Saudi charity operating in Bosnia, arrested those with links to terror, and turned them over to the United States. If that's ingratitude, we could use a lot more of it. There is no mention in the piece of Bosnian Muslim fundamentalists, only Saudi fundamentalists operating in Bosnia. They also operated in the United States -- the Bosnian police investigated the charity's links to a U.S.-based Saudi charity. (I'd quote from the article itself, but as of this writing, the link doesn't seem to be working.)

It seems to me that if you're going to say that fundamentalism has reared its ugly head in Bosnia, and cite as your example Bosnian Muslims cracking down on Saudis -- well, I don't know -- what exactly is the point? Is fundamentalist Islam also raising its ugly head in the United States? It seems to me that the Bosnian Muslims acquit themselves fairly well in this instance.

I would go on here pointing out that there are over one billion Muslims in the world, and they can't all be members of al Qaeda or Hamas or Hezbollah; that one of the freedoms we cherish in this country is the right to worship God (or not believe at all) in our own way, which had long been the tradition of Sarajevo -- where Mosques, Churches, Cathedrals and Synagogues co-existed peacefully within a stone's throw of one another; that the bloodiest theology in the history of humanity was secular (Communism); but I fear I would end up writing tendentiously. I'm trying to avoid that these days. So instead, let me quote from a book I've quoted from before, Sarajevo, Exodus of a City, by the Bosnian Muslim writer Dzevad Karahasan. In this particular passage, he writes about the exodus of the Jews from Sarajevo, whom, he notes,
...came to Sarajevo in the beginning of the sixteenth century, after Ferdinand and Isabella had banished them from the newly conquered Spanish lands. These were our Sephardim, who brought with them the Spanish language and Ladino, as well as the Hebrew faith and culture, their memories of the long centuries of wandering, and a feeling -- far deeper than consciousness, because it presupposes a readiness, a perfect promptitude to act -- that migration is the genuine human condition of this world. Besides all that, they brought some practical skills that were scarce in Sarajevo before their arrival.
In his work, Karahasan celebrated the city of Sarajevo, including the Jewish graveyard whose tombstones bore the names of men with several buildings -- part and parcel of the city's landscape -- to their credit. He also notes that the city's old Jewish cemetery, like its Muslim counterparts, was a place where young lovers met for some privacy, where they exchanged their first kisses (I don't know -- perhaps Karahasan exchanged his first kiss with his Serb wife there). The year 1992 was the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the exiled Spanish Jews in Sarajevo; it was also a time when the city was under siege. Karahasan writes:
In April 1992 the Jewish graveyard became involved in our deaths as well. The snipers of the Yugoslav People's Army opened precise and deadly fire upon Sarajevo's citizens from the graveyard hill. Is that proper and just? And in accordance with what principles, if it is?

I know that it happened in accordance with the same principles that caused the attack on Sarajevo to begin precisely in the year of our Jewish community's observance of its 500th anniversary of their exile from Spain. Half a millennium of common life was observed in the encircled city, semi-destroyed and surrounded by heavy artillery, so that not even a bird could enter. Yet it was commemorated decorously and sadly, in the only way the anniversary of an exile can be observed.

I was thinking -- during those days when all of us were deeply shaken, moving around the city with tears in our eyes, less watchcul of the cannon shells than normally -- that even in normal conditions the "celebration" of such a jubilee necessarily contains something hollow. But now, I thought, my God, why does it cast such shadows on our future? Why do we all suspect and feel acutely -- in flashes at least -- that this observance bears something portentous and all too powerful?

I would have liked it better if we had commemorated this year less well, even if that commemoration had turned out to be less beautiful and less dear to us all. We commemorated as we did, however -- in a semi-destroyed city caught up, beseiged so tightly that not even a bird could fly in our out -- in a city caught up in such a fate because its inhabitants wanted to live together, with all their differences in fatihs, languages, and cultures.
The commemoration included another exodus; the Jewish population of Sarajevo -- a large percentage of it anyway -- fled the city. One of the two photos on the cover of the book shows hands pressed against the windows of the bus -- some of Sarajevo's Sephardim leaving the beseiged city.

I don't know what else to write. Diane E. is perfectly free, of course, to suggest that Bosnia is tainted by Islamic fundamentalism despite our having saved them from genocide. I'd just like to see her provide something more substantive to back up the argument than Bosnian Muslims arresting Saudis with links to terrorism.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002
Okay, one last post, since I hadn't seen this anywhere else. I haven't paid much attention to Arab News lately, but today, I noted this piece, in which Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, the former Saudi ambassador to Great Britain who penned an ode to suicide bombers, argues that his new appointment running the Saudi sewer system had nothing to do with any remarks he made or poems he published, but rather was made on the merits. Indeed, and congratulations, Dr. Al-Gosaibi, on finding a job worthy of your talents.

Two new blogs added to the permalinks on the left. I'll write more about them tomorrow, but I'm embarrassed that I hadn't linked Cinderall Blogger Feller before. If you've linked me, feel free to let me know. I'm happy to reciprocate.

Monday, October 21, 2002
Choosing not to choose
I've been thinking about the Eco essay I wrote about in the post immediately below, in which I meant to, but did not, compare the difference between Borges' reaction to the liberation of Paris (perhaps the key line is, "the discovery that a collective emotion can be noble") to Eco's reaction to the liberation of Kuwait City (I'm paraphrasing, but his argument essentially is that this success is unfortunate, because it undercuts his thesis that war can never be a reasonable alternative). I do not want anyone to think I am misstating his arguments on war, so let me offer Eco's conclusion in his own words:
War cannot be justified, because -- in terms of the rights of the species -- it is worse than a crime. It is a waste.
Eco compares war to incest, which, he argues, became taboo only after generation after generation of genetic defect in the offspring of brothers and sisters or parent and offspring became rooted in an almost physical revulsion to the idea; I can't help wondering whether the explanation for the incest taboo isn't simpler -- perhaps it's one of those instinctual behaviors that does not have to be learned -- but I digress. Eco says that war must provoke in us the same aversion that sexual relations with a close relative do. This is an interesting conjecture, but it reminds me a little of the scene in the Godfather when Tom Hagen tells Sonny that no one will stand for prolonged mob warfare. "This is 1946," he says, as if the year is a definitive argument. At present, there are still remote pockets of the world where cultures still practice a neolithic economy. A quick survey of the world's governments reveal democracies of various degrees, a transnational quasi-government in Europe, monarchies, dictatorships of left and right, theocracies, and gangster governments of every description. While I believe individual men and women, by and large, long ago figured out that war isn't a good thing for one's life expectancy, in much of the world they have little ability to influence the tyrants that govern them.

It is perhaps instructive to recall that we are only 68 years removed from the end of Hitler and his death camps, 69 years from end of Mussolini, 13 years from the military occupation of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union -- the great prison house of nations -- a few decades from Pol Pot and the massacres in Cambodia, eight years from the genocide in Rwanda, seven years from ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia. The horrors of war, in other words, are still very much a part of our lives, and waging war in a just cause is still a necessary function of civilized states. Eco would prefer to ignore this, ",,,one is always duty-bound to deny this," and posture instead with arguments like this one: cannot make war because the existence of a society based on instant information, rapid transport, and continuous intercontinental migration, allied to the nature of the new technologies of war, has made war impossible and irrational. War is in contradiction with the very reasons for which it is waged.
This presupposes that no threat to a society based on instant information, rapid transport, and continuous intercontinental migration is possible, but, as we saw on September 11, such a threat is possible. It was also possible for Kuwaitis when Iraq invaded their country; it was possible for Sarajevans -- Muslim, Croat, and Serb -- when Serb nationalists surrounded the city and shelled it, when snipers gunned down women and children and the elderly, in the indiscriminate slaughter of a civilized people by those who had given in to those who were, to quote Borges, playing "the game of energetic barbarism, ... at being a Viking, a Tartar, a sixteenth-century conquistador." The great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert put it this way: "As though the dull march of barbarism had never before destroyed, never before extinguished our bright visions of the future."

Eco has nothing to say to Herbert or Borges, no council to offer the intellectual, whose function he defines this way:
...the intellectual function lies in delving into ambiguities and bringing them to light. The first duty of the intellectual is to criticize his own traveling companions ("to think" means to play the voice of conscience).
I'm going to pause here a moment, because I do not think Eco is so far off the mark here. Herbert in Communist Poland saw for himself what the party was up to, and, at great personal risk, resigned from the writers' union and, as he put it, "went down to the bottom." Borges signed petitions opposing the fascist Peron regime in Argentina; the reward for this intellectual was to be promoted from the National Library to inspector of poultry and rabbits in the municipal markets. Eco has the advantage of living neither in People's Poland or Peron's Argentina, so we should not judge him too harshly for not making a bold political stand. But with whom has he broken? What has he personally risked in the name of truth? What moral position has he staked out that might result in fewer invitations to fashionable parties or prestigious seminars?

Back to the quote. Eco next writes,
It may happen that the intellectual opts to keep silent because he fears betraying those with whom he identifies, thinking that, despite their contingent errors, their goal is the basically the maximum good for all.
Obviously, we are in the company of those worthy intellectuals who assured us that Hitler (Heidegger) or Stalin (let's pick on Sartre here) represented the maximum good for all, and never mind those death camps and gulags -- the surest way to get sent to one is to inconveniently point out their existence. (So keep your mouth shut, Mr. Camus.) Eco never notes that these intellectuals backed the wrong horse; he only says that it's tragic that many of them died for so choosing.

Ultimately, he chooses not to choose, preferring instead to prefer a world in which war is inconceivable. This is not, as perhaps he imagines, a brave moral statement, but rather the abdication of moral seriousness.