paleo Ideofact

Saturday, May 31, 2003
 
Tolerance
Zack Ajmal of Procrastination has weighed in on the question of Islamic tolerance; I found these bits particularly worth quoting:
Quite a few Muslims, especially modern puritan ones (Wahabi is a misleading term due to a number of reasons which I’ll go into later), consider Islam to be a perfect religion not in the sense of a living, growing part of society but more like fixed in time and space to the early Islamic era in Arabia. They think that everything, like human rights, political systems, minority rights, judicial system, etc. were completely defined 1400 years ago and that was the ideal which we can’t improve on.

...

Most Muslim scholars from the middle ages would be really surprised to hear that. It’s also wrong in the sense that it freezes society in time. If Islam is universal, it has to cater to people everywhere for all time. So there has to be progress in society. Most scholars and philosophers in the heyday of Muslim world recognized it, but the puritans today don’t.
Indeed. This also reminds me that it's probably worth considering the social order in the heyday of Muslim society -- the relationship between, say, jurists, who had temporal authority, and religious scholars, who didn't. But that's a subject for another time...

 
When books attack
The four year old was rummaging through a pile of my books today, and was fascinated by the cover of Norman Cohn's Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In many ways this was an odd choice -- the pile also contained books with vivid illustrations of tall ships, knights in armor, World War I soldiers wearing gas masks, and much else. But it was the Cohn book that interested him most, and he was rather persistent in asking what the book was about. I tried to explain: "The book is about another book, a terrible book full of lies, that, believe it or not, actually killed millions of people." The idea of a book that could kill millions of people did not strike him as beyond the bounds of possibility.

"Do you have that other book?" he asked.

"No," I told him.

"Good," he said, with evident relief.

Thursday, May 29, 2003
 
Stevenson and surprise
The delightful four year old, who is interested in all things monstrous, did not know who Jekyl and Hyde are when I asked him this evening. A month or two ago, we saw a cartoon together (I believe it was an episode of Scooby Doo, though it might have been Bugs Bunny, and possibly both) with the Jekyl and Hyde theme. The kindly doctor drinks the potion, and is transformed into a large, hideous monster.

My son is quite aware of all the attributes of Dracula and vampires (changing into bats, drinking blood, the power of sunlight and wooden stakes); my mother-in-law taught him that the real monster is not the creature, but the good Dr. Frankenstein who creates him; the name Imhotep roles off his tongue with ease; yet Jekyl and Hyde have yet to make an impression on him. Sadly, long before he can appreciate Robert Louis Stevenson's text, that archetype -- or pair of archetypes -- will be firmly ingrained in his consciousness. Those characters have become part of our cultural vocabulary.

Unless I am very much mistaken, Stevenson would probably have regarded the fame of his characters as detrimental to the pleasure of reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Unravelling the relationship between the two -- the single identity of the two -- is the basis of the story. Hyde is initially conjectured to be blackmailing Jekyl. Later, Jekyll assures his lawyer that Hyde is a young man in whom he has taken an interest, and nothing more. When the dwarfish, purely evil Hyde commits a horrible murder -- beating a man to death in the middle of the street -- Jekyll claims to have broken with him completely. A letter that Jekyll says was written by Hyde after the murder, in which Hyde announced he had means to escape punishment, and that his benefactor [Jekyll], whose generosity he had so badly abused, need not worry for his safety, proves, upon inspection, to be written in Jekyll's hand. The suspicion is that the Doctor is not entirely free of the malevolent Hyde merely because the latter is wanted for murder.

It is only in the final pages -- the 66th of 88, in my edition, that we learn the terrible truth -- the shared identity of Jekyll and Hyde.

Stevenson employs five separate characters to unravel that truth (including Jekyll himself); the allegory unfolds like a detective novel. Yet the popularity of Stevenson's characters -- the good Jekyll transforming into the evil Hyde (although Jekyll was not a saint, but a man who was mostly good but flawed; Hyde was purely evil) -- have made the pleasure of surprise at arriving at the solution impossible. I may be wrong, but I can think of few works of literature sharing such a singular ending have shared this fate (perhaps Oedipus Rex is one).

For the time being, reading it without an awareness of its ending remains a potential pleasure for my son, but one unlikely to be realized.

 
Where do I sign up
Just got an email saying I could increase revenues from Ideofact by 150 percent. Let's see, 150 percent of nothing is...

Wednesday, May 28, 2003
 
Medieval misconceptions
David of Cronaca has a post on one of my favorite themes: the relative merits of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. David notes some Medieval innovations and borrowings (I would add a few others -- gunpowder and firearms; the heavy plow drawn by a horse instead of oxen; the mechanical clock).

I'd add something about how the Renaissance took as its starting point a Hellenistic forgery, but I've already gone into all that here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003
 
Heterodoxy
I probably shouldn't re-open this can of worms, but I meant to note it in last night's post, but forgot about sometime in between going off on a lengthy tangent on Napoleon and deleting same.

Xavier wrote,
In any case, with the exception of the assassins, Moslem society appeared to have been fortunate in not having to deal with religious heterodoxy.
Actually, Islam appears to have been robustly heterodox -- beginning with the Shi'a. Where Islam differed from Latin Christianity was the absence of a strong, centralized ecclesiastical organization to enforce orthodoxy. The assassins -- the Isma'ilis, actually -- differed from traditional Sunni Muslims on several theological points; they were only suppressed by other Muslims (I read Bernard Lewis' account of the sect some time ago, so I may be sketchy on the details) only when one of their leaders, a charismatic, declared the millennium at hand, and offered a new dispensation. Only then did he cross the line into heresy.

In any case, the assassins were not finally suppressed until the Mongols stormed Alamut, and the Isma'ili sect survives to this day (and, as far as I know, they do not make a specialty of assassination).

Monday, May 26, 2003
 
A universal history of terror
Xavier is too kind when he writes (on May 24, in case blogger's archives go haywire again):
I don't- and I'll presume that our respective readers don't- regard him as an amateur hack. On the contrary, I enjoy regularly visiting his site; dropping off a quick comment and engaging in the occasional exchanges.
Apropos of our discussion -- which wasn't so much about tolerance, but rather about slaughter -- I wonder if a universal history of terror could be written, or a universal theory developed. It would have to take into account, on the one hand, longstanding pathological hatreds that simmer below the surface in times of relative calm or prosperity -- I'm thinking of anti-Semitism, although there are other hatreds that share, if not in equal measure of duration, the longevity of that particular prejudice -- and the manufactured hatreds that sprung up in Ukraine between Ukrainian neighbors, some of whom were arbitrarily labelled kulaks by the state. That is a volume I would be interested in reading.