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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Serendipity

My cable was out over the weekend and I had to have a repairman come by yesterday morning to check it out. Because the cable company gave me a window of 10-noon to expect him, I was at home still scrambling to prep for my 1pm class when he arrived.

My cable repair guy was a black man, in his early 50's I would guess. After the standard "good morning" niceties on the porch, I explained what was wrong and invited him in. He walked in and noticed that I had materials about the "Jena 6" strewn all over the table and he asked why I have all that stuff. I told him that I teach a Philosophy and Race class at Rhodes, and I wanted my class to realize that a lot of the things they are reading are still relevant today. He said, "Boy, I could tell them some stories..."

And then he told me some stories.

Turns out, Mr. Wilkins (that's his name) was one of the first groups of schoolkids "bussed" to the white schools in Helena, Arkansas as a part of the Freedom of Choice desegregation plans. The recent stories of the Jena 6, in Mr. Wilkins mind, immediately transported him back to that time. He said until he was in high school, he really thought "nigger" was just a part of his name. He said that he distinctly remembers wondering what the difference between the water in the "white" fountain and the water in the "colored" fountain was, and whether or not that was something that he could ask in science class. He said that before the school integration, his neighborhood was a model of a thriving black economy, and after integration, it was a mess. We talked for a long time.

At some point in the conversation, Mr. Wilkins noticed my guitars sitting around and asked if I played. I said "not very well" and then we talked about music for a while. Mr. Wilkins always wanted to play guitar, but he's left-handed and said he could never figure out the upside-down guitar playing. He said his mother was a pianist (and a piano teacher) and she used to play a lot in Memphis and the surrounding Delta. She was actually pretty famous, he said. So, I asked, "what was her name?"

"Muriel."

For a second, I thought to myself, "no way, it can't be that Muriel." But then I asked him, "did she ever play at a small place in Mississippi called the Hollywood?" And Mr. Wilkins told me what I had already suspected but couldn't quite believe: yes, she's the Muriel from the song "Walking in Memphis."

For those of you who don't know, there's a part in the Marc Cohn song "Walking in Memphis" that goes:

Muriel plays piano every Friday at the Hollywood/ and they brought me down to see her, and she asked me if I would/ do a little number, so I sang with all my might./ She said "Tell me are you a Christian child?"/ I said "Ma'am I am tonight"

Here's the whole song:


Before he left, we exchanged numbers and agreed to have lunch sometime soon. I invited him to come talk to my class whenever he had the time.

After he left, I thought to myself, I really love this city.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Who's keeping the brothers?

We've moved on to the story of Cain and Abel, which is actually one of my favorites in the Bible. There are so many unexplained details in that story. Why didn't God like Cain's offering? (I mean, Cain and Abel were only the 2nd and 3rd human beings ever... it's not like there was an established protocol for ritual sacrifice already!) Why did Cain kill Abel? (Most people assume that it was out of jealousy, but we aren't really told that in the story.) How did Cain kill Abel? (Whatever it was, we know it was bloody, since Cain's hands are dripping with Abel's blood later when Cain is talking to God.) And why did God, who is supposed to know everything, have to ask Cain where is brother was?

Of course, the real "punch" of this story comes in Cain's response to God's question. Cain says: "I don't know [where Abel is]. Am I my brother's keeper?"

I asked my students to think about the broader significance of Cain's question. And then I asked them whether or not they were, by their own reckoning, their brothers' keepers. And then a darkness fell over my world...

Very few (and by "very few" I mean "almost none") of my students answered an unqualified "yes" to the generic question, "Are you your brothers' keeper?" They wanted to know what I meant by "brother." They wanted to know what I meant by "keeper." They wanted to distingush between a convenient sense of responsibility (like helping an old lady across the street) and the kind of reponsibility that requires effort (like aiding starving people on some other continent). They wanted to attach a utilitarian value to any act of "keeping" worth considering, and toss out the rest. Yuck. Yuck. YUCK!

"Where are my humanitarians?" I asked. "Where are my WWJD peoples?" I implored. "Where is there someone among you who actually has a brother?" I wondered. There were a few meek detractors who tried to step up to the plate of beatitudes, but I think it was only to get the beatitudes.

You know, when I was first-year student in college, as all the students in this class are, the default position was to be the idealist. It was only after being there for a while that you grew that jaded, cynical, self-interested chip on your shoulder. Now, in a depressing turn of events, it's the professor who has to play the Pollyanna role.

Oh, the humanity.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Revisionist Etiology

[Note to readers: Please keep reading. I promise there is a payoff at the end of this entry!]

Now that I've finished up the Iliad, we're moving on to a three-week study of the Bible. Although I actually began college as a theology student (and I am a preacher's kid), I've never actually taught the Bible in any of my courses. So, I was at a bit of a loss as to how this should be done.

Thankfully, one of my colleagues alerted me to an absolutely fantastic way to begin questioning the various etiologies presented in the Book of Genesis. I'm having my students read a short essay by Scott Gilbert (Dept. of Biology, Swarthmore College) and Ziony Zevit (Dept. of Biblical Literature, American Jewish University), entitled "Congenital Human Baculum Deficiency: The Generative Bone of Genesis 2:21-23." Unfortunately, you can't read the article online, so I will summarize.

Gilbert and Zevit note that there are certain genetic diseases that affect 100% of the human population; for example, gulonolactone oxidase deficiency, a disease that distinguishes us from our otherwise closely-related primates. Another genetic condition, extending to 100% percent of human males, is the congenital lack of a baculum. That's a penis bone, for those who don't know. Humans and spider monkeys are the only male mammals that don't have a penis bone. So, what does this have to do with Genesis, you might ask? Oh, just wait...

As you may remember from VBS, Genesis tells the story of God's creation of Eve. In that account, Eve is created from the "rib" of Adam. Of course, every grade-schooler knows that both women and men have an equal (and even) number of ribs, so the etiological myth is a bit strange, not to mention at odds with basic biological facts of human anatomy that even ancient Israelites would have known. Gilbert and Zevit point out that the Hebrew noun translated as "rib" (tzade, lamed, ayin) is an ambiguous term, that could mean "rib", but also could mean the "the side chambers enclosing the temple," "the supporting columns of trees," or "the planks in buildings or doors." Thus, the authors conclude that it is not only possible, but likely, that the Biblical passage refers to some bone other than a rib that was taken from Adam to make Eve. What bone do the descendants of Adam actually lack? You guessed it, the baculum.

Biblical Hebrew, unlike later rabbinic Hebrew, had no technical term for the penis, and often referred to it through many circumlocutions. (It wasn't until around the 2nd C. BCE, when the Bible was translated into Greek, that the Genesis bone came to be unambiguously enshrined as a "rib.") But there is even more textual evidence for the interpretation of this "bone" as the baculum. The Genesis account contains another, often-overlooked, etiological detail: "The Lord God closed up the flesh." (Genesis 2:21) If, in fact, God took Adam's baculum to make Eve, this second verse would explain one peculiarly visible sign on the human male's penis and scrotum-- the raphé. The origin of this "seam" on the human penis would be "explained" by the story of the closing of Adam's flesh. Again, there is no such congenital "wound" consistent with the reading the "rib" version of Genesis, but only with some connection to Adam's penis.

That's the biology of the argument... but here's the real hermeneutic force. Gilbert and Zevit's last paragraph reads:

A rib has no particular potency nor is it associated mythologically or symbolically with any human generative act. Needless to say, the penis has always been associated with generation, in practice, in mythology, and in the popular imagination. Therefore, the literal, metaphorical, and euphemistic use of the word tzela make the baculum a good candidate for the singular bone taken from Adam to generate Eve.

There are a lot of ways to read this hypothesis that I find interesting, not the least of which is that it combines the etiology of human beings with the etiology of lust or sexual desire. (Men want their bones back!) Unfortunately, my students won't have read Plato's Symposium yet, but at least some congruency with Aristophanes' account therein is undeniable, or so it seems to me. Anyway, I'm really glad to have been clued in to the Gilbert and Zevit article. Any thoughts?

Monday, September 10, 2007

For my "Celebrity" friends....

When I was in grad school, we used to regularly play a game called "Celebrity" at parties. It's a fairly standard name-guessing game with three rounds in which the clue-giver is allowed fewer and fewer words to decsribe the "celebrity" whose name his/her teammates must guess. There aren't many rules to "Celebrity." However, the game somehow managed (without fail, I kid you not) to break into World War III everytime we played it at Villanova. People would argue over the finer nuances of the game as if we were reading the Torah. It was hilarious fun.

Today, in preparation for an upcoming exam in my class, I let my students play a modified game of "Celebrity" with all of the Trojans', Greeks', gods' and godesses' names of the Iliad. Now, in the first round, players are allowed to use as many words as necessary to clue their teammates in. As the rounds progress, and fewer words are allowed, smart players will often reference the key terms in earlier descriptions in order to make it easier for their teammates to guess. And here is where the hilarity ensues...

One of the names in the hat was "Glaucus" (one of the leaders of the Lycian forces allied to the Trojan cause). The first student to draw Glaucus out of the hat clearly couldn't remember who the character was, and so began trying to help his teammates by breaking down and trying to describe the name (instead of the character). This was his clue:

"The first syllable of this person's name sounds like the eye disease that people get where the doctor lets you smoke marijuana."

Needless to say, in subsequent rounds, anytime "Glaucus" was pulled, the clue-giver only needed one word: marijuana.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

No, you CAN'T just watch the movie!

I am, again, inadvertantly competing with a couple of (bad) film versions of texts that I am teaching in my classes this semester. First, there's the mega-blockbuster Troy, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. Now, I haven't seen Troy (though I have recently resolved to do so ASAP), but my understanding of it was that the filmmakers did not make any claims to suggest this was an exact rendering of Homer's Iliad. Nevertheless, most of my students have seen it already and their attitudes toward the text-- and, in particular, toward certain characters-- are already shaped by the film version.

I'm also working against The Human Stain (starring Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins). Although that film stays pretty close to the text of Philip Roth's novel, it involves some of the worst casting in the history of film, in my humble opinion. Stunningly beautiful Nicole Kidman is cast in the role of a down-and-out working class janitor, who becomes the love interest of the main character, in large part, because of her outcast status. And the very-white and very-British Anthony Hopkins is cast in the leading role of an ambiguously-raced professor and former boxer from New Jersey. Philip Roth, as many of you know, is one of the quintessential "American" authors of the "American" experience. And The Human Stain is, even more than some of his other novels, really about the "American" experience of race, politics, class, etc. Not to sound overly-nationalistic, but the decision to cast an Australian and an Englishman in the two leading roles was a bad call.

I don't think all film versions of literature are bad. I thought the 1992 version of Of Mice and Men was fantastic, as was the 1998 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I'm sure there are plenty of other fine films out there. But when you are working against a bad one, it's really tough to overcome. For one thing, it is extremely difficult for students to let go of the specific images/people presented in the screen-versions, and I think that seriously handicaps their imagination, if not also their critical capacities. (I'll have to defer to my eminently insightful friends, Professors Grady and Vaught to comment more on the relationship between thought and image.) The problem, in the end, is that if your students have already seen these films, there is little you can do to effectively "correct" those impressions.

As the old saying goes, you can't unring a bell.