Sunday, March 29, 2020

On "The Descent of Man" by Edith Wharton (7317 words) ****

What if you wrote something you knew was atrocious but that you also knew most people would take seriously (and love)? Would you sell it? Such is the quandary in this tale about a scientist that publishes something that goes against most of his values--its meant as a satire but is not taken as such. That's fine, he thinks, because those who would understand the satire would still understand it. But he finds the attention to his work not easily voided. Read the story here.

On "On Immunity" by Eula Bliss *****

This work received rave reviews, so when I had the opportunity to pick up a copy for free in December, I did. Still, it wasn't one of those books that I was particularly anxious to read, and during an extended break from work, when normally I would have had time for more leisure reading, it still didn't make the cut. And so it has sat here on my shelf for nearly three months, until the spread of covid-19 placed me into social distance. Suddenly, the topic seemed more pertinent to my life, and I finally opted to read the book each night before bed.

Bliss is a poet. The book itself is broken into short essay-like chapters on topics related to vaccination. As such, it doesn't lend itself well to being summarized in a review like this. But each short section is fascinating. One learns not just about Bliss's own fears with regard to mothering and whether or not she should immunize her son but also about the reasons for those fears and the responsibility that motherhood brings with it. One also learns, of course, a bit about the history and science of vaccination.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things that Bliss notes is that it's safer to be a unvaccinated person among a largely vaccinated population than it is to be a vaccinated person in a largely unvaccinated population. In this sense, the vaccination of others ennables the lack of vaccination among the few who claim it to be dangerous or bad in some way. In other words, community matters. And that seems all the more poignant at this time when so many are being asked to stay home to help prevent the spread of a virus for which there is no vaccine. The more who remain home, the more we enable others to beat the virus.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

On "The Rembrandt" by Edith Wharton (5986 words) ****

What makes for great art? That is the question in yet another Wharton story on the same theme. Here, a woman claims to own a Rembrandt that is unsigned. As such, no museum will buy it, though she needs the money. Is it the signature alone that makes us declare a work great? Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity" by Stanley K. Stowers ***

The fifth book in the Library of Early Christianity series, this one discusses standard letters during the first centuries of the Common Era, given that most of the New Testament is made up of letters, and even those books that aren't letters often include letters within them. Most of Stowers's book consists of a discussion of various "genres" of letters and examples of them. In this sense, the textis not unlike the third book in the series, which provides examples of philosophical discussions of morality during the same time period. But where there the focus was on similarities of content, this book seems more interested in similarities of form (though that necessarily ends up including similar content). As such, this book was not nearly as interesting.

What worked best in this book was the first third of the work, where the author discusses letter writing at the time, rather than focusing on generic examples. Here, we see that Christian letters in fact adopted many of the same techniques as those written by non-Christians. Most interesting in these early discussions was Stowers's exploration of who wrote what type of letters--namely, how class and education affected the kind of letters one wrote. Lower classes, if they learned to write at all, learned very basic things about letter writing, while upper classes studied rhetoric and classic/proper letter form. Those who could not write hired professionals to write for them--and to read letters too.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

On "The Recovery" by Edith Wharton (6978 words) ****

What makes for great art? That is the question that Wharton asks in this piece in which a painter benefits from a visit to a museum, where he realizes that his own work can be much improved--and where he also realizes that what he has been producing is not art in the form that is worthy, even if others like it. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "The Myth of a Gentile Galilee" by Mark A. Chauncey ****

The title of this book essentially sums up its thesis. Chauncey takes scholars to task for saying the Galilee was to a large extent inhabited by Gentiles--or a mix of peoples. Rather, Chauncey claims, Galilee at the time of Jesus was primarily inhabited by the Jewish people. To claim this he looks at both written records and archeology. One of his main points is that just because one finds Greek or Roman objects in a location, one cannot conclude that an area was largely inhabited by Greeks and Romans. Rather, Greek culture spread among many peoples, and those peoples adopted Greek things. A modern corollary would be Americans having loads of Korean electronic devices. Such would mean that we use Korean technology, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we are Korean in our thought and culture. Hence, just because there are Greek pots around, or Greek architectural styles, that doesn't mean that the people there are Greek or even that the Jews are so hellinized that they are no longer Jewish. The bigger key is whether one finds evidence of Greek religious items. Such would indicate that the people of the area had likely taken on Greek religion, whether they be Greek or some other peoples.

Arguing from histories and from archelogoy, Chauncey reaches the conclusion that the area was indeed largely emptied--left uninhabited--after the Assyrians disposed of the Israelite people when the nation fell to them. Over time, other nations did enter the area, including Phoenicians, Itureans, Greeks, and Arabs. But the area was not heavily developed, and when the Hasmoneans took it over, as Josephus tells us, the people were converted to Judaism. More likely, however, Chauncey concludes, is that the Jewish people who returned to the area after the Jewish return to Judah remained, while most of those who were of other cultures and told to convert opted instead to leave. This left, therefore, a largely Jewish area.

Many commentators split the country from the city, arguing that the cities were those with the Gentiles, whereas smaller communities were Jewish. Chauncey chips away at that point too, pointing to various sources to show that said cities were largely Jewish as well. Here, his evidence is somewhat less convincing to me. Every Greek item that is found, Chauncey returns to his point about it not necessarily meaning that Greeks dominated the area. In fact, as he looks at individual cities, he mostly concedes that those on the border of the land of Galilee were often less Jewish or, in fact, very much Gentile.

A curious comment is made in Isaiah and repeated in Matthew, calling Galilee "of the Gentiles." Chauncey mostly shows how rare this nomenclature is, but he doesn't really posit a reason for the name, except perhaps to suggest that it means "among the Gentiles," as in surrounded by Gentile nations, which indeed could very well be, given the Gentile border regions. Overall, Chauncey's points seem difficult to argue with.