Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Sheep, Goats

Vill Ex (1)

At the beginning of this year there were six million sheep in America. The decline has been almost steady since the peak year, which was 1942, when there were fifty-six million. (Almost steady; there was an odd upward glitch at the end of the fifties.) There are a few more than a million goats.

"Sheep" and "goats" usually occur together in Judaeo-Christian scripture as an equal, uninvidious choice of victims: "if his offering be of the flocks, namely, of the sheep, or of the goats, for a burnt sacrifice; he shall bring it a male without blemish" (Leviticus 1:10), etc. Our common phrase is an innovation introduced in Matthew 25:31-32. It doesn't come up in Revelation, but sure prefigures it: the Son of Man, enthroned at last, with the nations gathered before him, "shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left."

Christianity, though, probably didn't infuse judgment into the distinction out of thin air; there's that matter of the scapegoat, which comes from fully as early as the take-your-sheep-or-goat-to-the-altar passage in Leviticus. Just two verses earlier, Aaron is told to "cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat." From the goat's point of view, this counts as a Trick Question. The Lord's goat gets offered "as a sin offering," which presumably entails some throat-slitting and selective incineration. The other "shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness." Ah rapture!

As a practical matter, "when you can't tell the sheep from the goats by their coat," a helpful website advises*, since Angora Goats are pretty woolly, "you can look at their tails. Sheep generally carry their tails hanging down, and don't tend to wriggle them very often while goats have ver[y] mobile tails which they often hold erect." Just so.

* http://www.fortunecity.com/marina/bounty/170/goats.html

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Sinking Ark (1)

Those of us who teach habitually complain that college students don't know any history. The Middle Ages are the Dark Ages; World War II is vaguely before or after the American Civil War; "Hey, did you know Paul McCartney was in this other group before Wings?"

From Lawrence Wechsler's Vermeer in Bosnia, p. 22 (a piece first published in 1995): "David Rieff tells a story about visiting a recent battlefield at one point during the war in the company of a small band of fellow journalists: Muslim corpses strewn across the muddy meadow, a Serb soldier grimly standing guard. '"So," we asked the soldier, this young kid,' Rieff recalls, '"What happened here?" At which point the soldier took a drag on his cigarette and began, "Well, in 1385 . . ."'" Saki (H. H. Monro) says somewhere that "the Balkans have always produced more history than can be consumed locally." In parts of Greece it remains true that people won't do anything chancy, such as get married, on Tuesdays, because May 29, 1453, the day Constantinople fell (to the Ottomans, not to the Latins; that was on April 12, 1204, a Monday), was a Tuesday.

George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As if that weren't enough he adds, "This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience." He says this in a book entitled The Life of Reason. It's published in 1905, the year during which work on H.M.S. Dreadnought begins, Mata Hari has her debut, Norway secedes from Sweden, Las Vegas is founded, Ayn Rand and Albert Speer are born, Tagore and Verne die, and in January demonstrators are massacred in St. Petersburg's Bloody Sunday. The phrase "Bloody Sunday" refers to dates in 1887, 1900, 1905, 1920, 1939, 1965, and 1972.

True, 1905 is also the year a Technical Assistant Examiner in the Swiss patent office published four papers, including one on special relativity and one on the quantum basis of the photoelectric effect. The following year he was promoted to Technical Examiner Second Class.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Annuit Coeptis

Except to Be (2)

The first commercial mantra I remember noticing — at around 10, a bit before 1960 — stared out in what I remember as small white block print from the green glass bottles 7-Up came in. Rightly or not I recall the spelling as U LIKE IT IT LIKES U. It (or IT) baffled me intensely. It also threatened me in a way I relate to my fear of the eye over the pyramid, plus cryptic lettering (Cœptis!), on the back of the dollar bill.

In fact I did not like 7-Up. I doubt that I feared being disliked in return. No, the idea of this cloying, pallid liquid entertaining any notice of me, let alone an attitude, through that green glass always already in imagination scattered in shards over the blacktop beside any summer gas station, gave the thought of its approval at least as much anxious weight as the possibility of judgment.

How strange to have connected these. I can't imagine that I could have heard even the conventional translation of the dollar's motto: "Fortune favors our endeavors." I know I didn't know that one of those dodgy Masonic Founding Fathers had altered Virgil's entreaty Jupiter, annue cœptis ("Jupiter, favor my undertakings") to a third-person declaration in which the grammatical subject has absconded to the same impenetrable mysterium as the IT on the soda bottle. Dollar, dollar, who favors them? The nearest antecedent is that eye, glaring through its triangular window — window into what? — in the sky over a lopped, unfinished tomb.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

COH on Aigina

from ISLAND (Ahsahta Press 2004): "Though Honda makes one too, I sing the Yamaha Mate 50. The engine is a thirtieth the size of a freeway hawg's but geared to climb like a squirrel. If it won't go everywhere feet could, it enjoys paths no sane person would attempt in a car, though I have seen cars on them. It will carry a Greek family of four plus a hatrack. It keeps running in rain too thick to see through, fits neatly inside the hatch of a ferry, likes a sip of gasoline every few days, creates refreshing breezes out of thin air, knows its way home in the dark."
—photo by Wendy Battin

To Begin in the Middle

Could it begin anywhere else? Yes; as Romans had a term for the right way to tell a story — in medias res — they had one for ungainlily beginning from pure scratch: ab ovo, from the egg. I've heard two exegeses. One says that Roman feasts began with eggs and ended with salads. The other makes it ab ovo Ledae. Told that way, the Trojan War starts with the abduction of Helen, shellmate then sister-in-law of Clytemnestra (Castor and Pollux nestled in the next ovum over), conceived in their mother Leda's rape by the usual Zeus in the unusual getup of a swan. And that happened because . . . No beginning, though endless beginnings. This one grows tedious already, as I knew it would. As a child I doted on new notebooks but dreaded sullying that first page. Luckily or not, I ignored the high drama long enough to get something written, and never quit. Or rather I quit again and again, but have never stayed stopped.

A story, then. London, June 2004. On the Tube, a late-middle-age Japanese couple, retirees, broadcast absurdity and delight. They talk to absolutely everybody, devoting much of their thousand-watt attention to engaging an English family (blond, blonde, and blond) in ecstatic scrutiny of the route map, intermittently in turn stroking the cheeks of the youngest. I miss overhearing their destination — Temple Street, some magic kingdom near Soma-setta Housa. As they leave the car they actually wave, in unison, at a blank-faced woman to whom they have not spoken simply because she just boarded — wave twice, once from the doorway and again from the platform. If contempt shadows the smiles around them, all up and down the car, it costs them nothing. I would like to remember this.