Friday, December 30, 2022

New! More! Ralphies!


Almost let the Ralphies slip this year; we can't have that! It's been a year with a lot of ups and downs. But let's get to the awards …

Movies: Are they still making movies? I didn't see any in the theater. If I have to pick one for the Ralphie, I guess it would be The Blue Dahlia, which I watched online.

TV: In the nature of things, I can only remember the most recent shows watched.  For drama, I would pick Under the Banner of Heaven, very intense and historically interesting.  For comedy, I will agree with the vox populi and pick Wednesday; much better than Stranger Things 4 (which I watched while in Israel),  entertaining but incoherent.  The critical favorite Andor  I didn't enjoy particularly; there was almost no sci-fi element in it at all (although festooned with sci-fi signifiers, like spaceships, they played almost no role in the story itself).

Books: I gave the Wheel of Time umptilogy a try, but petered out after the 4th book. The Ralphie goes to All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, vol. 1 of the Murderbot Diaries. Well done. 

For non-fiction, the Ralphie goes to The Constitution of Knowledge, by Jonathan Rauch. Who would have thought a book about social epistemology would be so engrossing? But a special tip of Ralph's hat also goes to J. F. Collins's Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin, which was a helpful vade mecum to my re-entry into the world of Latin. I'm going to need Latin for my next project. Also I had a book published, which is gratifying.

Music:  The Ralphie for Album of the Year goes to Big Thief's Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, which is among the best I've ever heard and probably my favorite since Sufjan Stevens's Illinois (although very different in style and genre). I can't pick just one song for you, but here's the title track. I love the way Adrianne sings the word "recoil." For songs, there were too many to pick just one; some of the ones I particularly liked: "Speeding 72," Momma; "PBR," Bel; "Billy Toppy," Men I Trust; "Seasons Change," MorMor; "Higher," Sault; "Blue Bones," Billy Nomates.  For covers, "Fourth Time Around," by Yo La Tengo.

OK, pilgrims, that's it for another year. I'll see you at this same corner next year around the same time. 


Thursday, September 29, 2022

A Knot in a Rush and Nehemiah 2:1

 I’ve been reviewing Latin, with a view to reading some old commentaries and works of scholarship. I can’t say I’m a fluent reader (yet!), but I’m enjoying the process. Speaking of which …

Reading a book of commentary extracts on Nehemiah, I came across a Latin  expression that puzzled me. C. F. Houbigant (18th century Biblicist)  is commenting on Neh. 2:1וְלֹא־הָיִיתִי רַע לְפָנָיו, “Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence” (KJV) – “him” being the Persian emperor. Houbigant translates et non ei displicui, “and I had not displeased him.” His comment is Nihil erat tam obvium, quam ut sic interpretaremur. Et prorsus me fugit, quare nodum in sirpo quaesierint plerique interpretes. “Nothing was more obvious, than that we should interpret  it so. And it utterly escapes me, why many interpreters have sought a knot in a bulrush.”

That last expression, nodum in sirpo, made little sense to me and was obviously an idiom. The Internet, however, was soon able to point me to a useful source. In a book entitled Letters and Exercises of the Elizabethan Schoolmaster John Conybeare (1905), the teacher is commenting on Latin idioms,, and we find the following: “Nodum in sirpo quaerere : To seeke a knot in a rushe. A proverbe where one maketh a thinge difficulte or doutfull, which is verie playne to be understode, or ys scrupulouse in a thinge without cause.” Eureka! But where does the idiom come from? Apparently it is classical and Plautus is cited as the earliest user of it.

The meaning, I assume, derives from the fact that a rush (or bulrush) is a straight stem, without complication or articulation; to seek for a "knot" in it is to overlook the plain in a search for the complex. 

The default gloss of the key word in the Nehemiah passage is "bad," with the exact sense varying by context. If most English versions choose "sad," it is because of the conversation that follows, in which the emperor notices that Nehemiah is gloomy or downcast. Houbigant's translation is certainly not obvious.

(Also, by the way, apparently John Conybeare was a forebear of the early 20th century Orientalist F. C. Conybeare.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

All His Furniture

 Following up on the last post, note also the word furniture in KJV Exodus 39:33: "And they brought the tabernacle unto Moses, the tent, and all his furniture." This word also, unexpectedly to modern ears, translates Hebrew kelim. Today furniture refers to the large furnishings of a house – the tables, chairs, rugs, lamps, and so forth – but in 1611 it meant equipment. In Exodus it refers to the dishes, cups, jars, bowls, pans, trowels, etc. used in the sacrificial worship. (The word his, by the way, refers to the tent, not to Moses.)

Here the KJV translators appear to have followed the Bishops' Bible, which also has furniture, while the Geneva Bible has instruments and the Tyndale Bible apparel — another word with a different modern meaning! The NRSV and ESV translate "utensils."

So  we have seen the KJV use three words in three different verses to translate a single Hebrew word. This illustrates the obvious point that there is no one-to-one relationship between the words of one language and the words of another – a point that is sometimes obscured by the hankering for a "literal" translation. A second point is that these three words – artillery, carriage, furniture – have changed their meaning in the 400+ years between King James and ourselves. The KJV is a monument of English literature, but its archaic language renders it liable to misinterpretation.  

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Jonathan's Artillery and David's Carriage

 "Jonathan gave his artillery unto his lad." Such is the translation of 1 Sam 20:40 in the KJV, a reminder that the word artillery used to mean any shooting weapons, not necessarily those with shells. The translations that preceded the KJV didn't use this term; the Bishops' Bible (a major source for the KJV) used " instrumetes" (sic) and the Geneva Bible just has " bowe and arrowes." The Hebrew term thus translated is kelim, plural of kli, a term with a broad range of application. Other words used to translate it in the KJV in various contexts are "jewels," "stuff," "vessels," "furniture," "thing," "instruments," "weapons," "armour," and "bag." There is no single English word that covers the same range; kli basically refers to any thing useful that can be carried by a single person.

Another interesting KJV rendering of the same word is in 1 Sam 17:22: " David left his carriage in the hand of the keeper of the carriage," a sentence that is liable to be misunderstood. Here "carriage" is again Hebrew kelim, referring to what we would call today "baggage." The Bishops' Bible for the same verse reads " Dauid left the thinges which he bare, vnder the handes of the keper of the vessels," the italicized words rendering kelim. Geneva has " Dauid left the things, which hee bare, vnder the handes of the keeper of the cariage."

Modern translations of 1 Sam 17:22 are generally like the NRSV: "David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage" (also ESV). I'm not sure why there is a tendency to translate kelim by two different English words. JPS (1985), like KJV, does not: " David left his baggage with the man in charge of the baggage."

Friday, December 31, 2021

Ralphies 2021

A year where things happened. The appalling 6th of January.  The rise and fall and rise of the pestilence. Things change, and they don't.

I was on sabbatical, and finished a book.  I was supposed to go to Israel, but that didn't happen. I was supposed to go to California, and that did happen. I returned to the classroom in the fall, but I'm betting I'll be back teaching via Zoom next month. 

Yeah. Well. 

Shall I give Ralphies? I shall.

TV: We're still in the golden age of TV, which has shifted to streaming. In the spring, I finished watching every episode of Deep Space Nine, and by the end I felt like all those people were my friends. In the fall I started The Expanse, with The Mandalorian in between.  But the Ralphie goes to a Netflix show with a title not safe for a family blog.  Also a Lifetime Achievement Ralphie to the Beatles for the compulsively watchable Get Back.

MOVIES: We didn't go to a theater this year, but there were (was?) an abundance of movies on (once again) streaming channels.  I'll give the Ralphie to an obvious but well-deserving winner: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RIngs, with a special mention of Morris, who reminds me of our visitation of rabbits. 

BOOKS: For fiction, I read for the first time Little Women, because I needed a novel and it was in the house.  I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, so a special Lifetime Achievement Ralphie to Louisa May Alcott.  But the best novel award goes to Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. Couldn't put it down.  For non-fiction, no award; I read a lot of articles, but few (no?) complete books. I wrote one, though. 

SPORTS: A year best forgotten.

MUSIC: There was music, a lot of good stuff.  I'll give big thumbs up to "Serotonin," by Girl in Red; "Bunny is a Rider," by Caroline Polachek; "Be Sweet," by Japanese Breakfast.  But I became a real fan of Big Thief, the band headed by Adrianne Lenker.  Right now, everything else by comparison seems cheesy and shallow.  I could link so many of their songs, but I'll give the Ralphie to "Little Things" and a second-place Ralphie to "Change." I was also lucky enough to see live music for the first time since the advent of COVID, a solo show by Adrianne. Can't resist another link to the song she did as an encore, "Anything."

Is that it? That's it. Thanks for reading, you guys are swell!

Friday, December 18, 2020

Something Something Ralphies

 The first Ralphies were awarded in 2004.  I'll let you guys figure out how many years that's been.

Speaking of years ... 2020, amirite? A global pandemic that just won't quit, and internal strife in the US the likes of which I've never seen before -- and I survived the '60s. I and my loved ones are lucky to have so far escaped being affected by either one of these viruses, although I had a brush with cancel culture in the spring, which did not shake my commitment to the more liberal side of things.  So you know where I stand, but I can't help thinking that it doesn't conduce to the common good to keep harping on all the ways we differ from others. Our illness is not just that the two sides are hostile, but that we want the other side to know just how much we despise them and disagree with them. Nothing good can come of this.

But hey! We're here to give out awards, not to kvetch! So herewith we get down to business

TV: The pandemic produced a Golden Age of TV, aided by the streaming revolution. After some years of idly watching not much TV, I watched a ton of streaming shows this year, on platforms which are no doubt cleaning up. I love The Mandalorian, and went back and watched all the other Star Wars-related content, with a particular liking for Rebels. Also enjoyed Daredevil. The Boys.  Lots of fun stuff.  My favorite, though, would have to be Queen's Gambit. I swore that it would not make me take up chess (again), but ... 

MOVIES: What movies?

MUSIC:  Since after March I was not commuting to work every day, I wasn't listening to Sirius XMU, my main source for encountering new music. I did find some good things by Soccer Mommy ("Circle the Drain"), Phoebe Bridger ("Kyoto"), Arlo Parks ("Black Dog"). Of cover songs, "How Will I know" by the Lemonheads. But my #1 jam was the album "St. Cloud" by Waxahatchee (Katie Crutchfield), which was my pandemic theme record.  Superb mix of Americana sounds and indie sensibility. Listen to "Fire."

Also I have to mention the column by Tom Breihan at Stereogum, The Number Ones, wherein he discusses every #1 Billboard Hot 100 hit, from 1958 onward.  (He's up to 1986 currently.) Some of the best music writing around, even when he's talking about songs I don't care for. 

Also a fruit of the pandemic is my own rejuvenated interest in playing.  I picked up the guitar again back in March, shook off the rust, and ... we'll see. 

BOOKS: Drawing kind of a blank here with fiction. Mostly I read old favorites (comfort books).  Of non-fiction, aside from things I read for work, I enjoyed Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow by David L. Chappell (2004); very enlightening and a great piece of historical writing, especially pertinent now. Not at all along the same lines was Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, a helpful pseudepigraphon. 

SPORTS: What sports? There were (and are) games, but games without live fans are depotentiated. We'll see what happens in 2021.

POLITICS: Who says 2020 was all bad? The election results are something to cheer, and the current bag of bile occupying the Oval Office will be turned out next month. 

OK, folks, that's it for another year. Let's drink to unforgettable 2020 and greet the new year with hope and a hangover.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Mike Pence and the Spider

 After the vice-presidential debate with Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, all anyone could talk about was the fly that landed on Pence's head.  Arguably of more consequence is Mike Pence's spider.  The following occurs in Bob Woodward's Rage:

"Pence recounted [to Dan Coats] the Old Testament story of David, who was hiding from King Saul in a cave when God sent a spider to weave a web across the cave opening.  On seeing the web, Saul did not enter the cave.  The spider had concealed David's presence and saved his life. The story showed that even a spider might be an instrument of great salvation in the hand of God. 

   "Marsha Coats [Dan's wife], whose grandparents were ministers, had never heard a sermon as serious and deep. The story raised obvious questions. Could a spider, normally a cause for fear, bring salvation?"

I don't know if this story influenced Pence or Dan Coats to support Trump; Woodward does not say so. But the important thing to note is that this story is not in the Bible at all.  It is found in the late Jewish midrash the Alphabet of Ben Sira:

וכשנחבא במערה מפני שאול המלך שלח הקב״ה עכביש וארגה על פי המערה וסגרה אותו, בא שאול וראה ארוג אמר בודאי לא נכנס אדם הנה שאם נכנס היה קורע הארוג לקרעים והלך ולא נכנס לשם, וכשיצא דוד וראה העכביש נשקה ואמר לה ברוך בוראיך וברוכה את

When David hid in a cave from King Saul, the Holy One, blessed be he, sent a spider, and she wove a web at the mouth of the cave and closed it. Saul came and saw a web, and said, "Certainly no man has entered here, for if he had, he would have torn the web to pieces." So he left and did not enter. And when David came out, he saw the spider and kissed her and said, "Blessed is thy creator and blessed art thou!"

My experience has been that, in general, Catholics, growing up, do not acquire the same degree of biblical literacy as Protestant evangelicals.  Not a criticism, just an observable fact.  So it is completely possible that Pence believed this story was found in the Bible.  I am surprised that Wheaton grad Dan Coats bought this as a biblical citation, though (if he did).  And beyond all this, I am wondering where Pence heard this story.  Does it have some currency among conservative Christians?  Inquiring minds want to know.

By the way, the same story is told in Islamic legend of the prophet Mohammed.  Good stories have a way of getting around.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late Fr. Bill Gartig, Ph.D., on what would have been his 68th birthday.