Sunday, February 23, 2020

On "A Cup of Cold Water" by Edith Wharton (10,262 words) ****

Woburn loves a woman with expensive tastes. What this means is his spent out his savings, his year's salary, and has "borrowed" generously from his employer. The end is near. Men can be pretty dumb when it comes to ladies. Tomorrow, there's an inspection at the job; Woburn will be found out. The story focuses on his last night, his plans to run to some other place, and the sorrow of losing the gal for whom he's gotten himself in so much trouble. At some point in the story, as he's staying in a hotel room instead of the boat he's to flee on, having locked himself out of his apartment, he hears woman crying and . . . a click, of a gun. It's this last item that the story revolves around and, alas, the least believable. Were it not for this one plot point, the story would be quite an achievement. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "Galilee" by Richard A. Horsley ***

This study of the history and culture of the land of Galilee claims that the land was one that was one made up of hill people who generally eschewed political alignment. That is, when Israel first ruled the land, the people who settled in the hills of Galilee tried hard to avoid coming too heavily under the influence of the Israelite kings (in fact, largely ignoring them). The situation continued to be the case as others took over the land. When Assyria invaded and deported the northern kingdom of Israel, Horsley claims, the Galilean hill people largely remained. When Greeks and Romans invaded, they didn't bother too much with Galilean hill people. And when the Jews took over the land, again, the Galilean hill people remained intransigent--not so interested in the Jewish temple culture. That said, because so many were Zebulonites and Asherites, they had a certain common heritage, which meant that they didn't have too much of a hard time fitting in with the Jewish overseers, save that they didn't want to pay taxes to help support the temple or to fall in line with Pharisaic rules. Increasing taxes--not only to the Romans but also to the client Herods--led to eventual rebellion in Galilee.

The rural people differed, in this respect, from those in the cities, which were much more Gentile in their orientation, as they were founded for and/or by Gentiles. 

After the destruction of Jerusalem, Pharisaical Jewish elements moved into Galilee, and it became the center for rabbinic Judaism. But Horsley notes that this was a later phenomenon, one that we tend to let color our views of earlier Galilee.

The study is an interesting one, but I'm not sure Horsley's views are shared by that many. I've started reading another book, where the author argues that Galilee was largely Jewish in New Testament times, but he, too, is arguing against yet others who have argued that the area was to a large extent a mix of peoples, including many Gentiles.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

On "Souls Belated" by Edith Wharton (10,669 words) ****

Much has changed about divorce and relationships since Wharton wrote this story, and yet in some ways, not really. The woman in this story has run off with another man, and her husband has thus, unsurprisingly, filed for divorce. Scandal shall ensue. But really, will it? The couple have no desire to live according to societal standards, which they feel are inauthentic and lend themselves to fighting against what real love is all about--you don't need paper and laws for love. But they also feel the pull toward such, toward marriage. After the initial scandal, if they marry, after a few years, they'll be like any other couple and will be accepted back into mainstream high society (the first marriage forgotten). In the sense that divorce still brings with it a certain scandal and that marriage to another, after a time, essentially erases earlier history, these ideas seem as applicable today as one hundred years ago. The difference now would be in the scandal of not marrying--something that is fairly common now. While I can see the point, as raised in the story, that laws and pieces of paper and taboos are in a sense not true emblems of love, especially if we conform to them only to fit in; at the same time, the laws and pieces of paper, I would contend, do much to shelter and confirm that love. I can't help but think how uncertain one might feel if a "spouse" could run off at any moment without any consequences; the law makes such a break more difficult and lends to furthering one's commitment, which, in the end, is actually showing more love. Read the story here.

On "The First Apology" and "The Second Apology" by Justin Martyr ***

The last complete works by Justin Martyr on my list to read, the First Apology I actually listened to on Librivox. The reading was enough to keep me engaged, which is more than I can say for many such recordings (I think only the stories of H. Beam Piper have previously been very compelling--and those like listening to old sci-fi radio shows, they were so good). Part of my engagement here likely had to do with my interest in the subject, so I'm not how well the listening my translate to others.

As for the text itself, it falls in line with Justin's second apology. What struck me of particular interest in this particular apology were Justin's angeology (his idea that demons are the pagan gods), his concepts about the Holy Spririt (contradictory--worshipping it in chapter 6 but seeming to claim it more like a power of God elsewhere), early worship practices, and his ideas about eternal punishment. One sees, to some extent, how by Justin's time many of the doctrines of the later Christian church were already forged--and different to some extent from New Testament writings.

The much shorter "Second Apology" I read on my phone over the course of a few days. It too includes some interesting ideas about angels and eternal punishment. Both apologies focus much on trying to get the Roman rulers to not afflict Christians with punishment for their mere declaration of belief. They can be read here.

Monday, February 10, 2020

On "The Letters" by Edith Wharton (14,438 words) *****

This story is many things and one that seems, at first, particularly timely in a nation focused on the #MeToo movement. It's a tale of a man taking advantage of a naive young woman. Or at least, that's what it seems at the beginning, when Mr. Dearing first takes a pass at his nanny, an older single gal whose life has not turned out so well. Disadvantaged, with few good marriage prospects, she's falls hard for the married man. And then . . . the story takes a strange turn. Mr. Dearing's wife dies. The two might actually be able to settle down together. Does the man really want her, however? It seems so--and then, maybe not, and then maybe so, and then maybe not. The middle portion of this long piece reads like many a real-life romance, the way we never know someone's heart or true motives. But in the end, the story becomes something other than that, something about the will, about how sometimes truth is less important than willing one's self into happiness. Read the story here.

On "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Edward Gibbon ****

It's hard not to be astounded by Gibbon's accomplishment--a six-volume work on the history of Roman Empire from the time that the first emperors come on the scene through the final desperate acts as the eastern empire falls to the Turks and into the start of the Italian Renaissance. I listened to this book on a Librivox recording, rather than reading it. Eighteenth-century writing is difficult to read, and in many ways it's even more difficult to listen to. Gibbon, like most writers of the time, is flowery to excess. Worse, many of the readers are not terribly good--some I could barely understand, and others could easily put one to sleep. I often zoned out while listening, and when I finally finished some six months later, I was overjoyed.

Still, I found some sections of the book very compelling, even in audio form. These were mostly sections that I was interested in for my own reasons and thus felt more inclined to put forth the effort to really pay attention.

An exception to that would be Gibbon's account of the emperor Commodus, whose antics were actually fairly comic--he considered himself a sportsman and participated in gladiator events, much to the shock and horror of his patrons.

Otherwise, the portions I found most entertaining had to do mostly with early Christian history, Justinian's restoration of the empire, and Islamic history. In fact, I was rather floored by how much there was about the Muslims, the Mongols, and the Huns, but that's what Gibbon chose to do--not just to write about Rome but to write about the history of Europe, which in many ways is Rome and all that have had interactions with the empire's various iterations throughout its history. The first volume of Librivox recordings are available here.