Saturday, September 30, 2017

On "Street Map of the Continent" by Gary Lutz (753 words) ****

This story about a man's loss of his wife is one whose very deadness of language seems to hint at the deadness within the man's own life. Slowly, he empties the house of the woman's possessions, just going through motions. Read the story here at Web del Sol.

On "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson *****

It has been well-near two decades since I last read this title, so far as I remember. Why I chose to read it in the first place, I am uncertain. There may have been a certain swagger in Thompson's writing that I appreciated as a twentysomething that was enough to pull me in based on a few lines. At the time when I was working in bookstores, one of Thompson's last books hit the best-seller list, so he was a known quantity.

That I liked the work I can understand so far as the writing itself goes, but the subject matter seems a bit odd for/to me. Reading this as a fortysomething, I find the sheer amount of drugs denoted as taken to be unrealistic and frankly almost a mockery of a kind of culture that existed at the time that Thompson was writing. I think back to the drug jokes that were extent in the early years of SNL--this is that time, those late sixties and early seventies (stretching into the late seventies when SNL started). This is pre-1980s, pre-Nancy Reagan, pre-drug czar.

But could Thompson be at all serious in writing this? I think now there's a kind of satire going on, not only of the "gonzo" hubris that Thompson originated but of various ideas about American culture itself. There's the fascistic side of it, declaring the dangers of people like Thompson, and then there's the people like Thompson (or Raoul Duke, as he calls himself in the text) who are so drug addled that whatever danger they pose is more likely a danger to themselves than to greater society (save in the anarchy and disorder they bring and represent). There is no organized rebellion to occur when these are the foes of societal order.

The last time I read this book would have been shortly before or after the movie came out in 1998. The movie was, as I figured it would be, disappointing. This is not a work that is easily adaptable--or perhaps adaptable at all (and Johnny Depp, I felt, played his role too cornpone to allow viewers to take the film with any gravity). But I remember being surprised by some of the things in the movie, some of the criticism of the idea of the American dream, and I remember going back to the book to find it actually there.

It's also a book I lent out to an unlikely reader. During the last few months I lived in California, I had a roommate some years younger than me, a roommate who spent most nights partying and who had a regular bevy of friends over at the apartment. These were party guys themselves, and also guys in the stereotypical sense that guys often are and that I never was: obsessed chiefly with cars and scoring girls (not as much sports, though). One of these heavy-drinking party dudes perused my books and asked if he could borrow the Thompson volume, and I let him. I got the book back, badly mangled, a few weeks later. What he thought of the work, I don't remember now, but that too is part of the intrigue to me, because the book in a sense is about a constant party, and here this guy was, living it. Did he read the work ironically in any way? Did he see societal criticism in it? Or was this the real stuff, the literal, what life should be? Or was it just a fun read?

In his over-the-top satire, Thompson seems to be critiquing the idea of the American dream as well as the idea that drug people are the kind of danger/menace to society that the media and leadership of the country at the time were taking them to be. However, in presenting the work in presenting the work as a kind of nonfiction expose, there's a level at which his supposed drug taking kind of deconstructs his argument. Sure, in the book, he can drive on an airport runway without danger, but were a drug-addled person to do such and actually knock a plane out, the danger would be clearly manifest. But perhaps, also, Thompson is pointing out that the way to the American dream, the substance of the American dream, is something unobtainable. In the final scene, he pumps himself full of drugs and feels a restoration of confidence: the dream, in a sense, is a drug of its own.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

On "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" by Denis Johnson (about 2000 words) *****

The first story in Johnson's collection Jesus' Son, this one features an unlikely set of flash forwards. It's a technique I'd never seen before, and Johnson makes it work--astoundingly. Read the story here.

On "Jesus' Son" by Denis Johnson *****

Having read this collection for the fourth or maybe sixth time but the first time in at least ten years and possibly eighteen, I am still astounded by it. It's writing that inspires--or at least, inspired. At one time, I wanted to write as well as Johnson does here, but I have come to see I never will. The collection is a work of poetry in short story form, full of beauty amid the squalor that is described.

I won't bother with a recitation of the contents, as the collection is best absorbed afresh with each reading, even if I generally remember the stories even ten years after the last reading. The book as a whole is about addiction, and it doesn't pretty up. It's a book about a misfit, a young man, coming apart and slowly getting things back together.

My first reading was while I was in graduate school. The book had come out maybe a year or two earlier. I'd seen it in the bookstores, been told how great it was. I found a remaindered copy, and I bought it. It probably took me a few months to get around to reading it. I was not pulled toward it by others' love for it. But once I started reading, it was one of those reading experiences that changes the way one sees the story. I read it again soon after. I read pieces of it separately in other collections, astounded by the individual stories.

I read it again, I know, right after the movie came out. I suspect I read it sometime since then, but I don't recall at the moment. The movie was, I thought, a good adaptation, not insofar as strictly following a book that could not be easily translated into screen but insofar as changing it smartly as necessary so that it would work on screen. A fine movie. But still a finer book.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On "Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy" by Greg Jackson (8244 words) ****

"Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy" does an odd trick of showing how one-time fame can corrupt a person's life. The narrator heads with his girlfriend to visit one of her old friends, who happens to be married to a former tennis star. The star, however, appears to be going mad. He no longer plays tennis and forbids the family from it. And yet, one day, he takes the narrator out to film a tennis match--the star player's most-famous tennis match--an act that will transform the narrator's life in ways sad and harrowing. Read the story here at VQR.

On "Rome and Jerusalem" by Martin Goodman *****

This is ostensibly an in-depth look at the context in which (and causes of) the rebellion of the Jews against Rome occurred around 70 A.D., resulting in the destruction of Herod's temple. The opener sets up the circumstances, detailing the rebellion itself. Goodman, however, wonders why the rebellion occurred, when other cultural entities taken over by the Roman Empire did not have similar rebellions and when the Jews, in many ways, were so well integrated into the system.

He begins by describing the two cities in the first century. Rome was a cultural and political hegemon. Jerusalem was a religious one. Both were international cities, taking in people from around the empire, though for their varying purposes.

Next, Goodman turns to what living in the Roman Empire was like. He starts by looking in part at how Herod Agrippa came to power (via in-fighting among the Jews, who essentially invited the Romans to take over to settle disputes). Agrippa was appointed as king eventually, being a Jewish convert/outsider of sorts but also a friend of a certain Roman politician in power. Although criticized in the New Testament, he was known for his piety among the Jewish peoples. Maintaining power was a political game, one that often had to do with who was in favor or in charge in Rome.

Goodman then turns to a discussion of diversity in the empire, and as he does so, he rather loses sight of Jerusalem, focusing on various other parts of the empire, in part to help establish how Rome interacted with its various vassals. Of note in this section is how Rome had a certain love for the exotic. Writings often focused on the strange. Our views of the empire largely come from Roman or Greek writers, however (Greece remained the cultural hegemon throughout the eastern empire and Rome adopted many of its customs as its own). One would get the impression that the subject peoples never wrote, but Goodman shows how such peoples did likely write of their own places. Most such writings did not survive, however; in cases where they did, there was usually some reason or advantage for its presentation, such as that of an early Spanish writer. The Jewish people, in this way, were unique, since so much of their writings were preserved.

Next comes a discussion of citizenship. Being Roman initially meant being of the city, then of Italy. But citizenship came to have more and more expansive meanings. One could buy it or be born into a mixed marriage or even be freed as a slave and then granted it. What it meant to be Roman slowly became watered down, until the third century, when all peoples in the empire would declared citizens. Whether people thought of themselves more as Romans or more as Gauls or whatever subject peoples they were depended on the person. Paul was born Roman, for example, but one would hardly see him as typical--for he was a Jew first. Meanwhile, some Greek writers of the time were thoroughly of the empire, serving in the Senate, though they were not of Roman heritage. To be Jewish carried similar quandaries, since one could convert to Judaism, meaning that ethnicity was only part of the Jewish identity--religion also played its part. If one were of mixed marriage, one was likely a Jew if one's father was Jewish . . . or later, one's mother. The shift from patrilineal to matrineal heritage happened between the third century BCE and the third century CE.

Differing concepts of time and history also come up. Rome had little sense of deep time--it did not know much about its origins and had to make up parts of its early history. But recent history was well documented. For the Jewish people, it was just the opposite. The Bible goes back to the origin of humanity, and the early history of the Jewish people, their judges and kings, was written out in full. But coming into the first century, history fairly well dropped off after Ezra. There was a lot less written about the Jewish people in the intertestamental era. Romans were heavily concerned about preserving parts of themselves for posterity--making some kind of monument to themselves in terms of their deeds and what they left behind. Jewish people were less interested in this, their faith focusing instead on God and on doing well for him. That said, Herod's building of the temple certainly was an attempt by him to maintain his name and reputation into posterity.

Kinship ideas among the two peoples had similarities and differences as well. The father was largely the head of the household for both. The Jewish people historically had maintained extended families, but by this time the focus was more on the nuclear family, as in Roman society. And yet, in Roman society, this focus was complex. The paterfamilia maintained, in many respects, control over the family to multiple generations. You could be a son or grandson, married and out on one's own, but you were still legally under the paterfamilia's jurisdiction. What mitigated this was that fact that lifespans were typically short(er): fortysomething.

Divorce was fairly common in both societies. Roman marriages were essentially "living together" arrangements and rarely lasted a lifetime. Stepfamilies were the norm, both because of divorce and the shorter lifespans. The Jewish peoples had contractual marriage, but a man could fairly easily divorce his wife (not so easily the wife her husband, as under the law she technically could not).

Friendship among Romans was generally a tit-for-tat sort of thing. If one did someone a favor, then one was a friend. One generally did not do favors for nonfriends, and favors were used to cultivate friendship. Among the Jewish people, there was more of a culture of charity (based on religion), which meant that they had a reputation as a people among whom there were many beggars.

Another chapter focuses on common beliefs. Romans celebrated birthdays; Jewish people generally did not. Romans practiced birth control and considered abortion and infanticide as means toward that. Until a baby was formally recognized by its father, it was not considered a real human; often newborn babies were left out (exposed) when not wanted, allowed to die. A common device in Roman plays was that of the abandoned baby taken in by another family and then reunited as an adult with its biological family. While birth control was practiced among the Jewish people, abortion was generally frowned upon, especially once the fetus took on human features, and infanticide was strictly forbidden.

Ideas of the afterlife varied among both peoples. Historically, Romans had focused mostly on the here-and-now, while the Jewish peoples had a notion of a spiritual realm and a possible afterlife (the resurrection being an item of dispute). Both eventually were heavily influenced by the Greeks and took on Greek beliefs about the eternal soul.

Burial practices among the peoples also differed. Romans burned bodies and preserved the ashes in cemetaries. Poor people were buried together, but as Rome grew better off, they too took to the upper-class way of cremation. Jewish peoples buried bodies whole, often in caverns or in holes covered with stone.

The Jewish peoples had the creation story and one God; the Romans had a pantheon of gods who were not necessarily seen as being intimately involved in human affairs (some were, some not). History started with the foundation of Rome or with the gods, not so much with creation. Astrology was common among both peoples, but mostly later on--probably adopted from Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians. Jewish teaching, however, discouraged its practice, and some writers claimed that Abraham had once practiced the art but gave it up when he realized that God created all and had control over all.

The relationship of humans to animals differed quite a bit. Jewish people believed in treating animals with kindness, but also looked at them mostly as creatures for work and food. There doesn't seem to be much of a record of them using animals as pets. Romans, by contrast, were much more affectionate to animals but also much more cruel. Records of animals as pets exist, and some buried animals, like dogs, with epitaphs much as some do today. A dog, among Jewish people, would have largely been for tending sheep or guarding a home. However, Romans also engaged in sport with animals much more--hunting or fighting and killing them in front of an audience, as at the sports arena. Herod's love for hunting is placed, by historians, within a Roman context: it was hunting for sport not food, since the creatures killed were not kosher.

Of particular interest to me was a short section on moral philosophies. Goodman summarizes three Roman systems: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Cynicalism. Epicureanism has a reputation of being one in which anything goes so far as the pleasures of this life are concerned, for it taught that pleasure is the be all and end all of living. But what this really meant wasn't so much hedonism as it meant avoiding pain. Because seeking one's own pleasure can result in pain, ascetism could be the means by which Epicureans pursued pleasure--avoid difficult situations by avoiding things that would bring them about, such as a public life or politics. Stoicism, by contrast, taught that virtue was the highest thing to be sought, and it was by virtue that happiness was to be gained. Other "goods" (pleasure, riches, and fame) were counterfeits. If attained via virtue, that was fine, but they were not to be sought for their own sake.

Cynicism taught "that life should be 'lived according to nature'"; they rejected cultural norms, materialism, and strivings after wealth, power, fame, and intellectual high thinking. Concerns about race, sex, and class were all pointless. They were, in a sense, anarchists.

Religion paid little role in these means of deciphering morality. By contrast, for the Jews, religion was, of course, the center of one's moral thinking, and what was right and wrong was laid out in the scriptures. Thinking often focused on gray areas, delineating things the scriptures hadn't outright answered. Ideas of about guilt, sin, and repentence, common in Jewish thinking, had no part in Roman thoughts about morality.

Next comes a discussion of the varying lifestyles of the two peoples, which can be clearly seen in their attitudes toward the body. Romans thought little of nudity, and muscled nude male sculptures, some in actual states of arousal, were common. Genders mixed in the public baths, and lust prevailed. Sex outside of formal marriage, it is implied, was fairly common, even if private (though displays of sex in artwork were not uncommon). Homesexuality was permitted, especially between men of power and weaker men. Jewish peoples, by contrast, had strictures against any sex outside of marriage. Bodies--let alone people or animals--were rarely displayed in art. The emphasis was on purity. When Jewish people engaged in bathing it was in large part often for purification, more so than pleasure or even cleanliness.

For spectator events, the Romans had plays, singing, mime troops, gladiatorial bouts, and chariot races. Jewish life was comparatively staid. Among the spectator (and participatory) events among them was dancing.

Both Jewish and Roman societies had a heavy emphasis on law, with extensive codes. But their attitudes toward war were a bit different. Rome used war as a means of extending power, collecting taxes, and consolidating power (for the emperor). It was heroic. The Jewish nation's attitude toward war was more ambivalent. It could be used for similar things for which Rome used war (extending power over other nations and gaining tributary), but warriors were not typically glamorized in the same sense (and often that glamour went to God, with the warrior himself disparaged for the taking of life). Roman war was vicious, with looting, rape, and other horrors common for the victors, which is one reason it was best to surrender. Romans were also perserverant: a battle might be lost, but Rome would return over and over until it won the war. Jewish credo often emphasized mercy: give the enemy the opportunity to surrender, don't cut down the fruit trees, and so on. Battle rules were written out even in the Bible. Some genocide was mandated (for peoples of Canaan), but rules for other peoples were less total in mandated destruction.

As for who had status and power in each society, Goodman sums it up nicely: "In Rome, political status derived primarily from wealth, noble ancestry, age, and (above all) military glory. In Jerusalem, what mattered was lineage (priestly or royal), learning in the law and (occasionally) a claim to divine inspiration." Romans showed off their power by showing off wealth--paying for people to enjoy the "bread and circus." Emperors often derived from the same family (or adopted family). Wisdom was accorded to age, though they put forth an effort to appease young folk with activities. And of course, success on the battlefield accorded with political power. For the Jewish peoples older generally meant wiser too, but after age fifty, priests were forced to retire. Little was done to "appease" youths, so it seems those in the middle ages were those accorded the most power. More important was being of Levitical heritage and being a scholar. Showing off one's wealth was not generally seen as a necessarily good thing, and one could be a "poor" scholar and have a modicum of respect from among the people.

Jewish people were spread throughout the empire, and their Sabbath and many of their ways came to be known among the Romans. For the most part, the two existed in relative harmony. A large Jewish population lived in Rome itself, and although they were kicked out in 19 and 49, these appear to have been temporary dismissals and perhaps not even in total. In 19, the dismissal may have had to do with various Roman rites and a turn back toward the gods and symbolic purifying of the city in preparing for the change in emperor. In 49, there apparently had been an uprising by one Christus, but it's also possible that it was simply another purifying of the city. This dismissal is the context in which Paul finds Aquilla and Priscilla in Corinth in Acts, them having left Rome (but later to return, as denoted in the letter to the Romans). At this time, gatherings of Jews weren't allowed, but continuing practice of the Jewish religion could be completed discreetly.

The time from 6 to 66 CE in Jerusalem was one mostly of peace. Goodman recounts the various uprisings that occurred during this time but notes that they were likely minor, since they are barely mentioned (if at all) in Roman records. More often, these accounts come from Josephus (sometimes they're mentioned in the Gospels or Acts). Many such conflicts had to do with Jewish issues and power more than with insurrections against the Roman authorities. And even among the Jewish people, the diaspora Jews did not typically side against Rome in putting down Jerusalem, and the royal family actually supported Rome.

The question arises, then, why the Romans put the Jewish rebellion down so hard and destroyed the Temple. Goodman sees this as largely a fluke. In the quest to consolidate power, the aspiring emperor Vespasian needed a military victory, which his son Titus afforded him, through the conquest of the Jerusalem rebels. (Nero had recently died and various men took the spot as emperor in a short span, fighting among each other.) This demanded swift and heavy action. Even then, according to Goodman's interpretation, there was no plan to destroy the Temple (the Romans did not generally mess with local gods), but the military accidentally laid it on fire, and that was that. (Accounts differ as to the motive, with Josephus claiming accident, but Sulpicius Severus claiming intent.) There was also the issue that the priests had recently begun refusing to offer a sacrifice to God in honor of the emperor. With the Temple gone, the best way to pass off its destruction was to pass it off as purposeful.

Jerusalem itself was torn apart, the Jewish people killed in great numbers (over a million, according to Josephus), with the leftover one hundred thousand or so dispersed throughout the empire after enduring torture, selling into slavery, and so forth. Land in Jerusalem was taken from the Jewish people and handed to others (Gentiles); the priestly class itself disappeared.

Another thing that followed was a tax on being Jewish. The tax was equal to the temple tax; now that there was no temple, Rome claimed the same amount of money and used it to pay for a temple to Jupiter. Over the years, anti-Jewish feelings in Rome grew in part because Vespacian, Titus, and Domitian used the victory over Israel as a way to prop up their power, to emphasize their greatness. Domitian had no victories of his own--he was simply related to the other two emperors--so victory over Judaism was particularly important. Trajan, the next emperor, even invaded Parthia, taking over Mesopotamia, to which many Jews had fled.

The tax was done away with under the emperor Nerva, who was more kindly to the Jewish people, but any hope that the Temple would be rebuilt ended after Hadrian came to power. He reinstituted the tax. Although his emphasis was on peace and stability within the empire--thus he built Hadrian's wall on the border with Scotland and ended the Parthian campaign--he saw the Jewish peoples as adding instability. As such, he built a new city atop the ruins of Jerusalem and put a temple to Jupiter near the site of the former Jewish Temple. This, according to Goodman, sparked the Bar Khokhba revolt of 132-35. (Some scholars say that it was the revolt itself that sparked Hadrian to build over Jerusalem, but Goodman comes down on the other side of this debate. What sparked Hadrian to build over Jerusalem, however, was unclear to me in Goodman's text--perhaps, simply memories of the revolt of 115.)

In the third century, emperors finally took an easier hand with the Jewish peoples, removing the tax and allowing them to live by their customs without interference. They did not return to Jerusalem, however, though many still lived in the land of Palestine (Rome had renamed the region). Julian, just after Constantine, even made plans to rebuild the Temple, though not out of sympathy for the Jews but rather because he was against Christianity and thought sacrifices to be more in line with paganism.

The destruction of the temple in 66 also helped to separate the Jewish people from the sect of Christianity, which had initially been a sect of the Jewish religion. Christians were seen as atheists by Rome, since they did not align themselves with any god to whom sacrifices were owed. By going along with Jewish customs, they were subject to the tax on Jews; by not doing so, they were not subject to the tax, but then they were subject to persecution for not participating in Roman religious/civic rites. That said, Goodman sees persecution as coming mostly from local sources rather than from the empire itself, with a few brief exceptions.

By the time that Constantine made Christianity the official religion, it was a good deal different than its Jewish roots. Gone were many of the Jewish practices: dietary restrictions, the Sabbath, circumcision, concerns with purity. However, there was still a reliance on Scripture (if only metaphorically), a much more prudish attitude toward sex, a hate of abortion, a disdain for the worship of other gods, and an emphasis on charity. Constantine tried to settle various theological disputes to help shore up the unity of the church and the empire. He built Christian churches, where before there had been only house churches, often at the supposed site of martyrdoms. In Rome, this involved just two churches within the city walls in relatively quiet spots and a host of new buildings outside. But he was still in charge of the pagan religion of Rome until his death (and many of the Roman customs, with regard to gladiator spectacles and the like, were slow to die), and because the city was so built up, he chose to move his capital to Byzantium, where he could more easily build a new Christian capital for a new Christian empire.

His conversion also changed Jerusalem, where pagan, and Jewish, sites were taken down and Christian churches put up at places of supposed significance. Jews continued to be banned from the city, though the degree to which this ban applied is somewhat uncertain (they couldn't live in the city, but some evidence indicates that they visited it--and the site of the temple). In essence, Jerusalem was renewed as well, this time as a Christian city. But interestingly, Constantine actually made an edict that all peoples could choose their religion. There was, thus, no enforced decree that all people must become Christian, and the Jewish people themselves were more easily able to practice their beliefs.

That said, the non-rebuilding of the temple became a kind of Christian priority, for in the Christian view, it had been superseded. Likewise, Christians to some extent often looked down on Jews as people who had rejected Christ. This, in turn, led to the continuation of antisemitic views that hold in many respects to this day, all because back in 66 A.D. bad local government led a group of Jews in Jerusalem to rebel, and politics in the empire at that time and in the immediate years succeeding demanded that Rome blow up the putting down of the rebellion into a major victory to be celebrated for centuries thereafter.