Fulminating at Job

Class assignment for Book of Job: “On Friday, we will spend the class thinking about God’s response from the whirlwind. In fact, I am going to ask you to imagine yourself as God— the all-powerful and all-knowing creator of the heavens and earth—dealing with this whiny pipsqueak. You will bring to class a few verses written from the perspective of God in the style of the Book of Job, and will recite them in a loud and thundering voice.”


Where were you when I made the wolf, with its ravenous appetite, hunts the deer in packs, or chases down the rabbit to its hole? Where were you when I made the dog, with its abiding loyalty, who chases the squirrel without success and lies on the couch to watch TV with you, a faithful companion to people and fierce to thieves and the Fedex deliveryman?

Student examples:

Explain energy,

tell me how the bear knows to hibernate,

how the blind man can see?
How does your suffering surpass,

the birth of another human being?
Be grateful that I’ve chosen

to spare thee.

For death may have been,

a better choice for you.
Maybe your silence would,

let me re-think your punishment,

that your punishment has gone long enough.

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Arabic letters as Rorschach test

A few articles in recent months on Arabic letters as a sort of Rorschach test–the visual equivalent of the mondegreen, though far more malevolent.

  1. June 2015

“CNN mistaking dildos and buttplugs for Arabic script is arguably the most apt metaphor for political discourse in America.”


There’s something akin here to Maggie Thatcher’s equivalence of the miners and the Argentinians during the 80s: We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.

2. October 2015

NYT Arts Beat, Oct. 15, 2015:  “‘Homeland,’ Graffiti and the Problem of Only Seeing Squibbly

In a 2004 episode of “Arrested Development” — a dysfunctional family sitcom and one of TV’s best satirical responses to the war in Iraq — Gob Bluth (Will Arnett) tells his brother Michael (Jason Bateman) that he’s found a contract their real-estate developer father signed to build houses for Saddam Hussein. “I’ve got the thingy!” he says, excitedly. “Half in English, half in squibbly!”

I thought about this scene after hearing the news that a group of graffiti artists had punked the makers of Showtime’s “Homeland,” who had hired them to paint a Berlin set meant to depict a camp of Syrian refugees, with graffiti in Arabic. They did the job, and how; as they revealed online, they tagged the set, which appeared in Sunday’s episode, with messages including “ ‘Homeland’ is racist” and “ ‘Homeland’ is a joke.”

Arguably, this kind of small detail is the greater problem with “Homeland” and other American dramas set in the region: the tendency to use the signifiers of a culture — clothes, music, street urchins, unfamiliar writing — as a kind of spicy Orientalist soup of otherness. Even in a well-intended drama, if you approach another culture as set decoration, in which the alien appearance matters more than the content, you risk sending a subtle but strong message: this is a terrifying, unknowable land where everything goes squibbly.


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Solinus review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review published my review of Kai Brodersen’s edited collection, Solinus: New Studies. The editor and a few others have been in touch with kind remarks.



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Dead Armadillo

It was easier to see in the morning than it had been last night, when I swerved a little to avoid hitting it, the face-up dead armadillo on the street. The dogs and I walked by early today, and it took all my strength to keep them from the intimate investigation they so badly wanted to do. Car after car drove by, as they do on Saturday mornings in the fall, rushing to get kids to the soccer fields, but each slowed down to go around the dead armadillo. Certainly he is evidence of the armadillo invasion of East Tennessee I’ve read about, and sure, I’m unnecessarily worried about leprosy like everybody else is. But soon the authorities will take his corpse away, and the cars will speed up again, and the dogs will calm down.


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Introduction for Wilfred McClay

I have known Wilfred McClay for some time, and for a decade and a half or so, I have had the good fortune to call him my friend. It’s always an awkward thing, to introduce a friend, especially one who is as big a deal as Bill is. Certainly, some of you already might know him as a graduate of Saint John’s College—the famous Great Books school,—with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, who formerly taught at Tulane and the University of Dallas, and used to hold the Royden B. Davis Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown, the Sun Trust Bank Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at UT Chattanooga, and now holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. Still others will recall his name as an essayist, with pieces that regularly appear in First Things, The New Atlantis, Wilson Quarterly, Christian Post, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, and a dozen or two other venues. Tonight he comes to speak to us on the topic of topos, the subject of place, of which his work is now required reading among academics and amateurs alike.

With credentials as impressive and as varied as these, you might ask yourself, Well, what place is it that Bill himself occupies? On the one hand, he sounds like a high-powered academic—and sometimes, Bill, I wonder whether universities are engaged in a sort of arms race to see who can give you the longest title for a named chair—but on the other hand, he sounds a lot like a journalist. Where should we locate him? The answer, I think, is to be found in his book, The Masterless, a masterful study of the self and society in modern America. As Bill notes in his introduction, he is writing in [quote] “the division between professional culture and popular culture … [between] highbrows and lowbrows. … The middle ground far from being the ground of compromise or sellout, may be the most intellectueal fertile, because it must take seriously the genuinely public obligations of the disciplined intellect. If mind is to have a place of authority in the unfolding drama of our lives and our institutions, it must speak in a resoundingly public voice.” [endquote] And it is with his inimitable and resoundingly public voice that he will speak to us tonight on the topic of Why Place Matters.

FYP Program talk, Guerry Auditorium, Sewanee, September 16, 2015


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Panel on the Destruction of the Ancient City of Palmyra

This past Tuesday, my friend Jeff Thompson in the Art History department put together a panel entitled “Sewanee Responds: A Panel Discussion on the Destruction of the Ancient City of Palmyra.” Panelists included Sara Nimis (Mellon Globalization Fund), Nick Roberts (History), Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons (Classical Archaeology) and yours truly. I learned a lot from my colleagues about the situation in Palmyra–the sale of antiquities by ISIS, their ideological commitments, the lack of good options for the West, etc.–and was especially impressed by questions from students and others.

In my own remarks, I make reference to three articles:

  • Heather Pringle, “ISIS Cashing in on Looted Antiquities to Fuel Iraq Insurgency,” National Geographic, June 27, 2014, who notes: “Listed among ISIS’s key financial transactions were records of illicit antiquity trafficking. In one region of Syria alone, the group reportedly netted up to $36 million from activities that included the smuggling of plundered artifacts.”
  • Gary Vikan, “The Case For Buying Antiquities To Save ThemWall Street Journal, August 19, 2015, who says: “In times of extraordinary risk, we should be open to dealing with bad guys to create a safe harbor for works of art. This is an act of rescue and stewardship—and should be done with the explicit understanding that eventually, when the time is right, the objects will be repatriated to the country of their origin.”
  • Leon Wieseltier, “The Rubble of Palmyra,” The Atlantic, September 4, 2015, who writes: “But there are different reasons for admiring ruins. We need not dwell on them only to vindicate ourselves. We can dwell on them also to vindicate a notion of humanity. We preserve them to illustrate not divine purposes but human purposes. They are proof of the astonishing multiplicity of answers to life’s questions that have been created by our tirelessly self-interpreting kind. We restore them and we display them as a cosmopolitan way of regarding particularities, as an expression of our humane respect for the resourcefulness of the spirit over time. We imbue them with meanings that their makers could not have grasped, except perhaps in places such as Palmyra. Where others saw truth, we see beauty—but the beauty is not merely formal. What a spiritual accomplishment it is, to cherish—and in the case of Khaled al-Assad, to die for—the vestiges of a faith in which one does not believe.”

Postscript, September 27. The Sewanee Purple has a write-up and an editorial on the panel.

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On not finding Hercules

It’s not especially hard to get to Lago di Vico, if you don’t mind getting lost a few times on the state roads leading up the mountain in far northern Lazio. The sun was beginning to set as I arrived and though I still wasn’t sure exactly where the B&B was, I got out to take a few photos.

From Classical Journal 98 (2002)

From Classical Journal 98 (2002)

Why have I come here? It’s a lovely local vacation spot, but my interest is scholarly–a few years ago, I had written an article about the mythical origins of Lago di Vico, supposedly created by Hercules himself.  I argued that the Etruscan mirror to the left was an illustration of the lacus Ciminius, the ancient name of the lake. I spent a lot of time a decade and a half ago thinking about this lake and its legends–I figured it was about time I went to go see it for myself.

The nearby town is called Ronciglione, but the town on the water is called Punta del Lago. After a few wrong turns, I arrived to my B&B around 8 pm–the sunset was moving from orange to purple by this point, and under this beautiful sky the painful truth was crashing in that I could not get into Nostra Senora del Lago.  Ring the bell, bang the door, yell  all I might, nobody was there. Some neighbors walking by could speak English, and let me know that the owner was at the tennis club down the street. We talked in broken French to each other, and eventually I settled in– it was hard to stay mad, I have to say, in a hotel as charming as this one.

I walked over to a restaurant on the lake, down the Via della Selva Ciminia– the road of the Ciminian Forest, a dire omen. The Romans hated this forest: Silua erat Ciminia magis tum inuia atque horrenda quam nuper fuere Germanici saltus … Eam intrare haud fere quisquam praeter ducem ipsum audebat, “The Ciminian forest was more fearsome and pathless than recently were the German groves. … To enter it was a thing nobody but the gneral dared to do,” writes Livy (9.36). With dauntless courage I sally forth to the touristy fish restaurant just beyond.

Kids are running around, parents and grandparents are enjoying glasses of the excellent local white wine.  Alas, the food is not so excellent. My server is a young man for whom this is summer job–let’s just say that waitering doesn’t seem to be in his blood. In America his name would be Chip, I think to myself. His English is not so bad, better by far than my Italian, but neither of us can translate the names of the fish on the menu into English. There’s no wifi reception here, so I can’t access an online dictionary.  “Well, what do you like on the menu?” I ask.  “Nothing,” he replies. “I don’t like fish.”

10378159_539451502831506_4237772195019662659_nAt tables all along the lakefront, there are large groups of men celebrating. Chip explains that today was the Palio delle Barche, a race across the lake. “That group way over there is singing because they won,” he tells me. “The ones down this way are singing because they lost.” My meals, some fried fish (what kind? who can say?) comes out. It’s terrible, as is the singing, but the wine is very good and very cheap. I do believe I’ll have another.

Do you know any myths about the lake, I ask Chip. “It is an old volcano,” he tells me.  Yes, yes, but myths?  Any old gods or heroes? He points to Monte Venere across the lake, noting its connection with the goddess of love. Yes, yes, but what about male heroes? Perhaps Hercules?  “Who is that?” he asks.  Never mind.  Ah well.  The wine is fine here, I think, and the restaurant has a pretty view, and the singing has grown louder as both groups try to outdo one another. Tomorrow, I may drive over to Caprarola to see the frescos of Hercules at the Palazzo Farnese before heading to Tivoli. But perhaps I will sleep in instead. 

Postscript. The next day, in fact, I went into Ronciglione instead of Caprarola–I just couldn’t bear another palazzo. It’s a small city picturesquely poised along a ravine. A toothless old man I ask tells me that there is a museum in town, but it isn’t very interesting. Am I an American? he wants to know, and then recalls for me the Allied bombing in the Second World War. He points out the areas that were most devastated.  Later I see signs for the Via Francigena, on which Ronciglione is a waystation. It would be nice to pass through here again someday, I think, though I doubt I ever will.

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