paranoid theories of obscurity vs very numerous alternati

Thu, 7 Apr 1994 19:59:34 EDT

/* this post was the result of simply amazing stereotypes combined with */
/* ignorance of histories of religions which some posts from this group */
/* on dead languages as a tool to be used, and such, have exhibited. */
The word "Paranoid" in the Subject: line is perhaps infelicitously chosen
for the main text, if quite "fitting" given the limited character-string
length afforded for entry by mailer on this system. One should, rather,
employ a usage such as "premeditatedly obscurantized"; if even that is
excessive. The general question is, how to sacred or ceremonial texts
become "obscure"?

We have previously problematized this usage by reference to works and
authors whose writings are construed by readers as having been, *from
readers' own comparative experiences in scanning printed text whilst
absorbing the material*, "obscure" or "difficult." My inference is, there
is a preference for the simultaneously reading-absorbing; and the texts
are preferred read once only (or, more accurately, the number of rereadings
for comprehension should be minimized wherever and whenever possible). With
exceptions: The "intellectual Everest-climber" - at least one representative
is present - takes glowing pride in having surmounted the most agonizingly
difficult, ponderous, unabashedly abstraction-laden materials; and thereby
ascends to emotional peaks of illumination. Remaining silent have been, and
they exist, those who fear broken bindings; others who abhor darker, more
wrinkled pages marring the pallid uniformity of dead cellulose seen edge-on;
margin-scrawlers and the odd postgraduate yellowliner, preferring to mark
passages and make notes to the fullest relative to the actual scrutiny of
the print; and those insisting upon "a real page-turner, a great read!" in
utter disregard of content. This suggests that relativism is in order, even
for works difficult of interpretation in our own time; hence most certainly
for those of other peoples' Antiquities as well as the Antiquity perhaps
spuriously alleged to have been "our own."

For the present, specifically, the charge has been raised, implicitly
or even explicitly, that "premeditated obscurantizing" has been (mis)used,
irrationally, by the author(s) or those whose dissemination of the text did
not maximize circulation, as is proper good business; but restricted it on
an *eyes only*, *need to know* basis. Which is hardly fair; all illiterates
have become dyslexics in our time. Only those born poor, attending inferior
neighborhood schools as they deserve, are exempt from noblesse oblige of
refined cultural consumption. The specificity of this [spoken] charge or
[sullen] resentment to the humanities and most of the social sciences was
mentioned and accounted for in "explanation industries in information
economy," Tue, 5 Apr 1994 01:16:10 EDT. Rarely or never is this complaint
made of accepted-sciences, which are a priori difficult: It says *hard*
on the label, doesn't it? There accordingly proliferates an Explanation
Industry for hard-science which caters to those for whom it is beyond their
capacities, as reported by others for whom it is beyond their capacities.

For the sciences, no charge of self-seeking clandestinity is ever raised,
even where a state apparatus of surveillance, loyalty oaths, interrogations
or taking hostage those near and dear to a suspected "risk," and making or
breaking careers by granting, withholding, and lifting security clearances
is pervasive. Even where scientific-technical secrets are objectively real,
the presumption lingers that scientific Knowledge is, axiomatically, made
available to all Knowers cognitively equipped to Know it. In times of Trade
War, withheld Knowledge is brandished against an Enemy nation, though "Our"
businesses are Trading With The Enemy, Them owning Us, Us Them, in complex
exchanges of imaginary paper property-ish certificates in virtual storage.

The humanities and social sciences are blamed for theories unnecessarily
difficult, "jargon" unstandardized for the discomfiture of the unwary - the
other week I bought a book whose title began with 'Cultural Materialism'(*),
nevertheless a work of comparative literature and criticism, wherein Marvin
Harris is unheard of, unmentioned, unindexed. Which was my fault; it was my
responsibility to take off reading glasses, discern Literary Criticism, not
Soc/Anth, above the shelf, use my head. Which however was confiscated in 1978
when they cancelled my card. [(*) Actually: Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cul-
tural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading, University of
California Press, 1992.]

Note plese that, while in the Humanities and most of the social sciences,
the scholar is required to take the role of the Ultimate Explainer, whose
further Explanation including what the scholar Explains, is situated at the
*font et origo* of the Explanation Chain in what Hammerz called "the cultural
apparatus," and that the Humanities include Literary Criticism, this rule
does not extend to the Arts including Literature which the Literary Critic
(or Art Critic) criticizes. Artists, authors of fiction, and poets are *not*
subject to complaints of lack of clarity of meaning. This is why I have come
to my decision, to be announced in another, very brief, post.

The presumption of a pattern of premeditated obscurantism, even in its
weak or *functionalist* form, is invalid for the present. And quite as much
so for the past. Here, even more, the functionalist argument, that it so
happened that literate clergy and state apparatus enjoyed the material
advantages and less material status honour from its monopoly of sacred
writings and their interpretation into the vernacular; consequently sought
to perpetuate the system; ignores the fact that suchlike differentials
emerged in history.

In Jewish religious services, certain prayers notably the "Mourner's
Kaddish," as well as the sixth-century Gemara (elaborating upon the second-
century Hebrew Mishna) or major portions of the central text of the Talmud
(appearing that is to say in the middle of the page surrounded by the tiny
scripts of commentators) are in Aramaic, a long-dead language surviving for
liturgical purposes, also, in Christian sects (Nestorians, Mandeans) whose
sacred literature is in that language, but in the Greek alphabet; hence,
the name "Syriac" used for it in preference to Aramaic. This was in no
way by design, specifically, to reinforce the entrenched privileges of
those steeped in the esoteric literature of Aramaic-Syriac.

Quite the contrary. The Syriac-rite churches themselves originated in
Late Antiquity, when foreign occupation by Roman, later Byzantine, imperial
regimes, whose popularity among the mass of inhabitants of the Near East
was never overwhelming, developed a "significant interaction term" with
resistance to Catholic Orthodox doctrines. The latter were formulated and
and forcibly imposed by Greek-speaking clergy, themselves forcibly imposed
by Emperors and their pliant Patriarchs in Constantinople, buttressed by
Church Councils conducting business in Greek at the behest of the state
and its appointee Church. Aramaic was at that time a "living" language in
the Near East, much as its close relative, Arabic, is today.

For the same reason, Jews required the recitation in Aramaic of those
prayers for which it was absolutely essential for the ordinary believers
to have comprehension as they uttered the words of the ritual. Likewise,
the Gemara of the Babylonian Talmud, intended as a codification of Jewish
law specifically for the benefit of the most numerous Jewish community of
any country in the Near East (and while under Sassanid Persian rule had
an Aramaic-speaking population, Christian and Jewish alike, where Persian
was spoken further west, in provinces where Farsi is spoken today).

The quotation marks around "dead" reflect the long tenure of Aramaic as
the Near Eastern lingua franca: from the invasions of the then-barbarian
and sterotypically nomadic Arameans from the eleventh century BC into
contemporary Iraq, including the Chaldeans, as well as the people called
Aram in the Old Testament Book of Kings (arriving in or about the tenth
century BC with their capital in Damascus and ruled by kings with Hebrew-
sounding names like Ben-Hadad, son of the storm-god, and Hazael). Over time,
not by any process easily foreseen by those devoted to whatever heritage in
the Hebrew language is authentic (see below), the latter died out; the
spoken language became Aramaic.

There are few things in history more readily fabricated than a heritage,
and our only access to the "career of the past" is sloppy editing. We are
perhaps fortunate that the active agency which pulled off the Creation is
plural: "In the first-of-all, *the gods* made a start of the Heavens and
Earth." Tinkering couldn't be permitted for whatever reasons whose importance
transcended monotheist orthodoxy. Likewise, changes in demography and
political geography dictated updating texts, perhaps fragments of texts,
to help out later generations who'd otherwise have been clueless as to what
or where the places mentioned in foundation myths or legends were, should
they have been, a risky assumption: Ur, birthplace of Abraham, the fictitious
character credited with Patriarching the entire Children of Israel (grandson
of Abraham and likewise fictitious as you must call your eponymous ancestor
*something*, Somali and Oduduwa having since been taken), that is, the Ur
of the Empire of the Third Dynasty of Ur, was destroyed circa 1900 BC, 800
years before the Chaldeans, a branch of the Arameans, arrived in the Shatt-
al-Arab salt marsh region. To jog the imagination of someone trying to guess
the place's onetime location, it was called "Ur of the Chaldeans." Abraham
took the safer albeit longer caravan route via Harran, not yet built in
the suppositious Abraham's lifetime, although the great city of Ebla,
recently excavated and not far from Harran, was probably formidable ruins
after conquest by Sargon of Akkad and his grandson, Naram-Sin. Abraham,
reaching now-notorious Hebron, purchased a cemetery plot from a Hittite,
who could not possibly have been there, where he was buried fictitiously.
Notwithstnading the invention of Abraham from necessity, the belief in
this fiction in turn necessitated the gathering at the spot of those dozens
of Palestinian Muslims massacred by the psychotic gunman from Brooklyn, our
great armenian gun-crazed urban free fire zone.

Thus commenced the ancestry of the Children of Israel, who in later times
comprised for the most part the Canaanites already living there, and not, for
purposes of the story, the ancestry of the Canaanites already living there,
descendants of Ham. For this reason there is a hard and fast, yet imaginary,
distinction between Hebrew and Canaanite. Fortunately, the ancestral language,
Ugaritic, is plentifully attested for 1400-1200 BC. After the formation of
the Children of Israel, whose nucleus, never in Egypt in the first place, was
according to the boast of Merneptah of XIX Dynasty, c. 1220 BC, wiped out by
a military campaign which was sheer propaganda, but importantly *occurred
prior to the propitious occasion for the Exodus (c. 1214-1202 BC), due to
breakdown of organized government in Egypt in bloody civil war, hence used
by historians to dayte the Exodus, which never could have happened. Neither
did the conquest of Canaan, commencing with the Battle of Jericho, impossible
because Thothmesse III had destroyed Jericho circa 1450 BC. There is no good
reason for Joshua to have existed, either.

That is why Hebrew, not Canaanite, which is what it might have been called,
became and remained a sacred language. And continued to be, as the language
of the urban elite, finally diappearing except for liturgical purposes. The
peasantry, who'd remained behind during the exile, were linguistically
estranged from the returned-exile Hebrew-preserving Persian puppet government
of the third-rank satrapy of Judea. By the by, the peasants increasingly
spoke Aramaic. Galilee, forcibly converted by the Jewish King Alexander
Jannaeus, 103-72 BC, upon its conquest, already spoke Aramaic. Thus it was
that Jesus was both fanatically Jewish and a native speaker of Aramaic whose
utterances, in the first-century Aramaic dialect of Galilee, are filled
with idioms from that language, translated into Greek, whose reconstruction
back to the original Aramaic is problematic and tricky. The interpretation
of the meaning, notably the idiomatic or slang connotations, is even more
so: Joseph, a "carpenter," was by trade someone who built abstract stuctures,
that is, the village "smart guy," schoolteacher-intellectual. (See Fejto.)

That Greek ousted Aramaic in Near Eastern Christianity reflected the
victory of Paul in his power struggle with James over whether Christianity
was to minister to Jews only, or to everyone; and the decision for the
latter entailed discarding Jewish law and Hebrew, adopting Greek, the
language of Eastern Mediterranean civilization, for communicating with
Gentile converts. The earliest versions of the Gospels are accordingly
in Greek, as is the rest of the New Testament, and the vast bulk of the
Patristic literature.

The emergence of Latin Christianity, consolidated thanks to the accidents
of war and the social and demographic effects of the Bubonic Plague of the
sixth century (called the Plague of Justinian, which broke out in 542 in
Constantinople, spread to Britain by 549), which included the defeat of
Justinian's grand design to reunify the Mediterranean, and the decimation
of the populations of the Near East and the Balkans into which "demographic
sink" poured migrants or armed forces from healthier climates, facilitating
momentous historic events known as The Rise of Islam and the Slavicizing
of the Balkans, secured Latin over Greek. In fact, those Churches whose
rites were Grreek were for many centuries in hostile relation with the
Latin Church headquartered in Rome. (Recall that this could not have
occurred had the Byzantines, who conquered the Goths decisively by 551,
and utterly by 555, not been debilitated economically and militarily by
the Plague, and in this condition could not defend Italy against the
Lombards in 568. Whereafter the invaders became entrenched in the peninsula,
which their feeble government notwithstanding, was able to slowly subdue the
remaining pockets of Greek resistance; ending in the fall of Ravenna in 750.
That the Church adhered to the Vulgate of St Jerome, died about 397, to the
neglect of the vernacular, was entirely consistent with conviction that the
Latin language was alive and widely spoken. That there were vernaculars, as
*separate languages*, as opposed to *vulgarized debasements of correct
Latin*, was not clear and was not yet true. The poor quality of the Vulgate's
translation was acceptable given the low level of scholarship in a Western
Europe of "fierce and warlike tribes." That's how the Romans found it, the
Wild West of Europe; and that's how they left it, concentrating the political
core and the economic core of the empire, for a change, in the same region,
where they coincided. (Western Civilization would be an oxymoron for some
centuries to come.)

There are other great religions in this world, of course, but that's a
big enough pile of hot stinking factoids to sully the facile generalizations
and prejudices I've seen from this crowd so far.

Daniel A. Foss