December 21, 2009

Levantine Adventurer

Category: History :: Permalink

A couple of weeks ago, I read W. H. Lewis’s Levantine Adventurer: The Travels and Missions of the Chevalier d’Arvieux, 1653-1697. W. H. (“Warnie”) Lewis was the brother of C. S. Lewis and his area of expertise was the history of seventeenth century France, a period he referred to as The Splendid Century. Though I have read a lot of C. S. Lewis’s works, I hadn’t read anything by his brother. And so, having discovered that the local library had Levantine Adventurer, I requested and read it.

I knew nothing about this time period nor, I must confess, about the Chevalier d’Arvieux before reading this volume, which is largely a summary of his memoirs. At first, the narrative seemed a bit dry and assumed some knowledge I didn’t have, but before long the story itself began to interest me. D’Arvieux spent most of his adult life in the Levant, both working as a representative of the king and traveling for pleasure. Lewis has read the travel memoirs of d’Arvieux’s contemporaries — Spon, Thevenot, and Lucas — as well as of more recent travelers, and he frequently compares d’Arvieux’s descriptions with theirs, in a way that is sometimes illuminating. Consider this passage:

Kinglake [a 19th century traveler] and d’Arvieux both visited Damascus and I know no more striking example of the gulf which separates the romantic from his predecessors than their respective descriptions of the famous gardens. First Kinglake:

They bring back to your mind the memory of some dark old shrubbery in our isle that has been charmingly unkept for many a day … all through the sweet wilderness a loud rushing stream goes tumbling along till … in the lowest corner of the garden it is tossed up in a fountain by the side of a simple alcove.

Now d’Arvieux:

Although rustic they are delightful. They are surrounded by fruit trees which furnish the town with all kinds of fruit, both for eating in season and for turning into conserves all the year round. Caravans carry these fruits to Seide, Beirut, Tripoli and other places … One cannot imagine how prodigious is the consumption of fruit in Damascus (90-91).

At several points, it becomes obvious that Lewis considers d’Arvieux a better memoirist than these others. As he writes in his “Foreword,”

My own impression is of a man who enjoyed every minute of the business of living, whether he was eating, drinking, money-making, sight-seeing, or engaged in the petty diplomacy of the Council Chamber; though to be fair to him he more than once showed considerable diplomatic skill on a larger stage. With all his gusto d’Arvieux was neither ingenuous nor an enthusiast, but a good-humoured cynic who observed the follies of mankind with an indulgent eye, qualities which stood him in good stead as a memoir writer, where he is crisp, vivid, and generous; not so oppressively archaeological as Spon, Thevenot, or Lucas, and mercifully lacking in the bombast of Nointel…. d’Arvieux’s work has the unmistakeable ring of truth, and I agree with his first editor, Labat, when he says that “one never tires of reading these memoirs because they are a continuous blend of the useful, the instructive, and the pleasing” (8-9).

I suspect that Lewis saw d’Arvieux as a kindred spirit. Lewis’s own good humor shows up frequently in this book. He has a knack for picking out interesting tidbits from d’Arvieux’s account, holding them up for us to wonder about (is it really possible that the lions of a certain area were so timid that the women doing their washing could simply shoo them away?) and, even better, humorous anecdotes.

For instance:

Teonge, chaplain of the English frigate Ginny — by which I suppose he means either Guinea or Jenny — records with gusto their dinner on February 4, 1676, when in the cabin the afterguard demolished “a gallant baked pudding, an excellent legg of porke and colliflours, an excellent dish made of a pigg’s petti-toes, 2 roasted piggs, on (sic) turkey cock, a roasted hogg’s head, three ducks, a dish of Cyprus burds, and pistachioes and dates together and store of good wines.” His diary for February 5 begins with the entry, “Captaine not well this day” (112-113).

Or this:

To our ideas all these ships, especially the coaster, must have been abominably uncomfortable, particularly in heavy weather. Lucas, on a two-day passage in a small craft bound from Chios to Smyrna, got no sleep, “being importuned unceasingly by the babble of ninety women passengers.” Who were they, one wonders, and how did they come to be travelling alone? Thevenot took passage in a country ship, a caique, from Chios to Egypt in 1656 where the accommodation was so cramped that though he had the purser’s cabin, when he and his servant were in bed “there was not six inches of room left”; and as a caique “was almost round” and could sail only with the wind dead aft, their progress was leisurely. In this curious craft the unlucky man endured des vomissements horribles and in the intervals “blamed bitterly my own stupidity in quitting my ease to go voyaging”; though he was a trifle comforted by a large dose of opium administered by a sympathetic Turk. d’Arvieux, a much tougher man, caught out in a gale aboard a similar craft, has little to tell us except that he restored the courage of some despondent Moslems with tots of brandy. “Is it wine?” they asked suspiciously. No, no, only brandy, said d’Arvieux soothingly, after which they drank freely. Lucky for them, he concludes, that le bonhomme Mahomet had never heard of brandy (113-114).

Once started, I am tempted to keep looking up passages to quote. One can imagine Warnie Lewis, at work in his researches, regaling his brother or all the Inklings with these sorts of anecdotes.

While the anecdotes make the book particularly enjoyable, though, its value also lies in its illuminating observations. As the contrast with Kinglake above makes clear, he was he not a romantic, loving wild gardens. D’Arvieux preferred his gardens with the trees all in straight rows, and the sight of a garden prompts him not to raptures over sublime nature but to reflections on fruit.

But D’Arvieux is also not at all a contemporary of ours and he doesn’t share our attitudes. Lewis writes:

… no place in the Empire contained a larger population of burglars and highwaymen, a fact which gives d’Arvieux an opportunity to describe in detail the ghastly punishments of impaling and flaying alive. It is this sort of passage which suddenly reveals to us the gulf by which we are separated from a man of the seventeenth century. We jog along with d’Arvieux through the Levant, appreciating his good nature, his dry humour, and feeling that we should have got along famously with him, when all of a sudden we find him watching the infliction of horrible tortures with less emotion than he would show over a Greek inscription or a ruined temple (51-52).

There is more in this volume: descriptions of customs in many lands; the strange story of the battle over which Roman Catholic sect could say mass in the building in which d’Arvieux worked; episodes of amazing incompetence on behalf of the French government’s representatives — none of which, perhaps, may sound particularly interesting in themselves. But there you would be wrong. With good humor and keen insight, Lewis tells a story that overcame my initial ignorance and indifference to that time and place and made me want to read more.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:40 pm | Discuss (1)
December 8, 2009

Who’s Standing Outside?

Category: Bible - NT - Mark :: Permalink

Mark 3:20-35 is one of Mark’s typical sandwiches, in which a story starts, gets interrupted by a second story which relates to it in some way, and then finally comes to its conclusion. Here, we are told that, having heard about Jesus’ behavior, some of “His own people” come to seize him, saying, “He is out of his mind” (3:20-21). Then we have the second story, Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes from Jerusalem who claim that he casts out demons by the ruler of the demons (3:22-30). Finally, we return to the first story, when Jesus’ brothers and mother come and send for Jesus and when Jesus identifies those who are doing God’s will by sitting around him as his brother and sister and mother (3:31-35).

That structure is obvious even in an English translation. But a look at the Greek reveals an interesting play on words. At the beginning, when Jesus’ “own people” say that he is “out of his mind” (3:21), the word used literally (or, rather, etymologically) means “standing outside.” (Perhaps that’s roughly equivalent to our English expression “beside himself.”) But at the end of the story, Jesus’ “own people” turn out to be his brothers and mother, who come and, “standing outside,” call him (3:31; cf. 3:32, which stresses again that they are “outside”).

So Jesus’ “own people” think Jesus is the one “standing outside” (in the sense of “crazy”). But Jesus’ family members turn out to be the ones literally “standing outside,” while Jesus identifies those who are sitting inside as his true family, those who, in obedience to God’s will, are “sitting around him” (3:32, 34). To be his true family — his true mother and brothers — his natural mother and brothers must come inside instead of calling him out.

Jesus does indeed belong with his family. But at this point, in spite of their natural relationship with Jesus, Mary and his brothers are not that family. They are seeking to take him away from the ones who sit around him in obedience to God, away from the ones he identifies as his mother and brothers and sisters, in order to take him into their protective custody, as if Jesus would be safe with them instead of they themselves being safe with him. And therefore, though they did later trust in Jesus, they are acting at this moment in unbelief. For Mary to become Jesus’ “mother and brother and sister” now, she must join those who are with Jesus; she must come inside. Otherwise, she will be left outside his family.

Furthermore, in a sandwich story, the middle story also relates to the story that frames it. And so here it is not just the frame story that involves standing (and sitting). In 3:24-25, Jesus says that a divided kingdom or a divided household cannot “stand.” And in 3:26, he speaks of “the satan” as “standing up” against himself.

The reference to the divided household that doesn’t “stand” might resonate with the frame story: Jesus’ natural household won’t stand if his mother and brothers are divided against Jesus. While Mary and Jesus’ brothers are not saying, with the scribes from Jerusalem, that Jesus is in league with the ruler of the demons, they are still opposed to him, still acting in unbelief, and therefore still in danger. Their natural family relationship to Jesus will not keep them safe. Mary is not saved through giving birth to Jesus, and she is not blessed apart from her faith. If Mary and Jesus’ brothers continue to “stand outside” instead of “sitting around him,” then their household won’t stay standing.

What about the reference to Satan’s “standing up” (a term for both resurrection and insurrection) against himself (3:26)? I’m not sure how — or if — it relates to the frame story, though it does provide one more verbal echo in this passage. For that matter, Mark’s Gospel is full of references to “standing”: in every healing, people “stand up,” until at the end the same terms are used for Jesus’ resurrection.

But the repetition of the word “stand” and especially of words having to do with “standing outside” sets up this question: Who is really “standing outside”? If Jesus’ family thinks Jesus is “standing outside” in the sense of being insane, then their household won’t “stand.” And if you think Jesus is “standing outside” in that sense, then you end up “standing outside” yourself, here literally but, as Jesus’ words make clear, also in a deeper sense.

The family is sitting inside, sitting around Jesus and with Jesus. While not everyone has to be crowded into the room where Jesus is sitting, everyone must be with him and not against him. That’s God’s will. Only Jesus’ family is safe, only the mother and brothers and sisters who stick with him. You’d have to be insane to be “standing outside.”

Posted by John Barach @ 4:44 pm | Discuss (2)
December 4, 2009

Psalm 63

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

A psalm.
By David,
When he was in the wilderness of Judah.

God, my Mighty One you are.
Early I will seek you.
For you thirsts my soul,
For you longs my flesh
In a dry land,
Weary without water.

Thus in the holy place I have perceived you,
To see your strength and your glory.
Because better is your loyalty than life,
My lips will praise you.

Thus I will bless you in my life;
In your name I will lift up my palms.
When with fat and grease my soul is satisfied,
With joyous lips my mouth will praise.

When I remember you upon my bed,
In the night-watches I will meditate upon you,
Because you are a help to me,
And in the shadow of your wings I will shout joyously.
My soul clings after you;
On me your right hand holds fast.

And they, to ruin, are seeking my soul;
They will go into the depths of the earth.
They would give him over to the power of the sword;
The prey of jackals they will be.
But the king will rejoice in God;
Everyone who swears by him will boast,
Because the mouth of the speakers of falsehood will be shut.

A few comments on the translation of this psalm:

(1) In line 2, there isn’t a separate word for “early” and another for “seek.”  Rather, the word for seeking is related to the word for early dawn, so the word has the sense of seeking at early dawn, just before daybreak, which indicates extremely urgent, eager seeking.  “Dawn-seeking” isn’t really a word in English, though it’s tempting to use it here.

(2) In line 13, “fat and grease” is my attempt to translate two words that really both mean “fat.”  To us “grease” sounds a bit bad, not like something that satisfies our heart, but think of good greasy fries or the greasy drippings in the bottom of the roast pan.

(3) In line 19, “clings after” sounds awkward.  “Clings” is the same word that’s used in Genesis 2 for the man clinging to his wife.  But David is not saying just that his soul is clinging to God but also that, while clinging to God, he is also following after him.

(4) Line 23 is tough to translate.  The verb seems to mean “pour out.”  Here it’s a man being poured out, and literally that’s “upon the hand of the sword,” but “hand” often is used for power.  My translation here is the best paraphrase I can come up with.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:30 pm | Discuss (0)
December 3, 2009

Turning Back the Clock

Category: Miscellaneous :: Permalink

We’ve all heard it said that “you can’t turn back the clock.” Obviously, that’s true. Even if you regret what you did in the past, you can’t go back in time and do things over differently. But that’s not what people mean when they trot out this tired old line. What they mean is that we’re all doing things a new way now and we have to keep up with the times . You can’t go back and do things the way they used to be done. Don’t you believe in progress?

Here’s C. S. Lewis’s response:

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from the whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on — Mere Christianity, 36-37.

Yogi Berra, the master of funny (and unintentional) aphorisms, captures the spirit of these “progressives” perfectly: “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”

Posted by John Barach @ 4:22 pm | Discuss (1)
December 1, 2009

Psalm 62

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
On Jeduthun.
A psalm.
By David.

Only toward God is my soul silent.
From him is my salvation.
Only he is my rock and my salvation,
My refuge; I will not be greatly shaken.

How long will you attack a man?
Will you murder,
Like a leaning wall,
A pulled-down fence?

Only from his elevation they plot to lure him down;
They take pleasure in a lie;
With their mouth they bless,
But in their inward part they belittle. Selah.

Only before God be silent, my soul,
Because from him comes my hope.
Only he is my rock and my salvation,
My refuge; I will not be shaken.
With God is my salvation and my glory;
The rock of my strength, my hiding-place is in God.

Trust in him at every time, people!
Pour out before him your hearts!
God is a hiding-place for us. Selah.

Only vapor are the sons of Adam,
A lie, the sons of man.
In the scales they go up,
They themselves together, from a vapor.

Do not trust in oppression,
And in robbery do not become vapor.
When wealth flourishes,
Do not set your heart on it.

One thing God has spoken;
These two things I have heard:
That strength belongs to God.
And to you, Lord, belongs loyalty,
Because you yourself render to a man according to his deed.

A few comments about the translation of this rather difficult psalm:

(1) All through this psalm, the word translated “only” might perhaps be rendered “surely.” But “only” makes sense and seems to be the basic meaning of the word. So the psalm says that only when he looks toward God is his soul silent (lines 1, 13), that He alone is rock and salvation (lines 3, 15), that the only thing the wicked want is to bring him down (line 9), that the sons of Adam are only vapor (line 22).

(2) In line 5, the verb may be “attack” or “strike terror into,” depending on what root the word comes from.

(3) In line 11: “Their mouth” is actually singular: “his mouth.” I’m not sure what to do with that.

(4) In lines 22-23, “sons of Adam” and “sons of a man” can sometimes refer to men of low degree and of high degree (as in the NKJV).

(5) In lines 24-25, the idea seems to be that if all of these men were together on one side of the scales, a mere vapor on the other side would outweigh them. The side with the vapor on it would go down, and the side with all the wicked on it would go up. They aren’t just vapor; in fact, they are lighter than vapor.

(6) In line 26, the word translated “oppression” may mean extortion. It often seems to have something to do with thievery.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:31 pm | Discuss (0)