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Monthly BookPost, August 2013

Troilus and Cressida, by Geoffrey Chaucer
O Love, that dost the earth and sea control,
O Love, that dost command the heavens high,
O Love, of blessed harmony the soul,
All nations rest beneath thy guiding eye!
Thou with whose law societies comply,
Thou in whose virtue loving couples dwell,
O Love, bind this accord of which I tell!

The world that stands so firm on its foundation,
With all its many harmonies diverse;
The elements with all their contentation,
Yet held in bonds that nothing can disperse;
Phoebus that doth the earth in light immerse;
The moon that hath the lordship over night—
All these depend on Love and on his might.

The sea that never falters in its flowing,
Restrains its floods to such a certain end,
However fiercely tempests may be blowing,
To drown the earth it never can ascend;
If aught the bridle from Love’s hand should rend,
All harmonies at once would burst asunder,
And scatter all that Love now holdeth under.


Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a vivid construction of character and a collection of stories ranging from masterful to quite unfortunate, justly has a place in the world’s great literature. Troilus and Cressida, notable mostly as Chaucer’s other big work, and as one of the first examples of emo poetry in English, not so much.

In the midst of the Trojan War, Troilus, one of Hector’s brothers, is in love with the daughter of a man who has deserted to the Greeks. He speaks with his friend Pandar about it, and sniffles. Pandar speaks to Cressida, and they both sniffle. A meeting is arranged, and they fall in love and sniffle some more. The Greeks have Cressida transported to her father as part of hostage ransoming, and they have a sniffling parting during which Cressida vows to always be faithful. Cressida then proves false and marries a Greek after a shamefully brief courtship, which inspires Troilus to finally, finally stop sniffling, gather his weapons, and go out into the war to slay and slay until he is at last himself slain. Nothing about his love becomes him like the leaving of it.

There’s a lot of flowery language but not much else to recommend it. None of the characters are particularly likeable, from the opportunistic father of Cressida, to the Gaston-like Greek she eventually marries. Cressida is faithless, and Troilus bawls and faints so often, even when he gets what he wants, that it’s hard to have much respect for him until maybe the final verses, where his conversion from sissy to hero is more announced than described.

If there’s a character who comes across well, it is Pandar, which is odd because his name has become synonymous with a go-between who helps arrange trysts for lovers. A ‘pander’ has vague dishonorable connotations, and it’s hard to tell why from Chaucer’s poem. He plays a role akin to Juliet’s nurse, advising the young couple to buck up more than anything. There’s a brief implication that he has some feelings for Cressida himself; if so, he does the right thing by stifling them and wooing in Troilus’s name, he’s enough older than Cressida to be potentially creepy. Shakespeare attempted to dramatize this; it was one of his few failures.


Summa Contra Gentiles, by Thomas Aquinas
It is obviously inappropriate for a woman to be able to put away her husband, because a wife is naturally subject to her husband as governor, and it is not within the power of a person subject to another to depart from his rule. So, it would be against the natural order if a wife were able to abandon her husband. Therefore, if a husband were permitted to abandon his wife, the society of husband and wife would not be an association of equals, but, instead, a sort of slavery on the part of the wife.
Besides, there is in men a natural solicitude to know their offspring. This is necessary for this reason: the child requires the father’s direction for a long time. So, wherever there are obstacles to the ascertaining of offspring, they are opposed to the natural instinct of the human species. But, if a husband could put away his wife, or a wife her husband, and have sexual relations with another person, certitude as to offspring would be precluded, for the wife would be united first with one man and later with another. So, it is contrary to the natural instinct of the human species for a wife to be separated from her husband. And thus, the union of male and female in the human species must be not only lasting, but also unbroken.


Another Medieval “great book” that, like Troilus and Cressida, sits in the shadow of its author’s better known work—and yes, I am currently slogging through the gigantic Summa Theologica and expect to have something to say about it before the year is up. That book, at least, is consistent enough to assert that things are true because the Bible says so. Summa Contra Gentiles was apparently specifically designed to Christiansplain Christianity to non-Christians, and to prove the truth of the Catholic Church by reason and logic. It’s almost embarrassing to read the attempt and to reflect that it represents the finest scholarship of the thirteenth century. It reads like a handbook of examples of faulty logic.

Aquinas begins by “proving” the existence of God using Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’ argument, and by asserting that there used to be nothing and now there is stuff, and so therefore someone must have created it. He continues by giving out Catholic interpretations of god, the creation, divine providence and the Last Judgment that follow from question-begging, non-Biblical authorities such as Aristotle, bold assertions of ‘the nature of things’ (see the pulled quote above, to the effect that wives are inferior to husbands because Duh), and—YES, eventually he resorts to citing the Bible as authority and extrapolating utter, utter craziness from it. Damnation in Hell is eternal, says Aquinas, because Bible. Therefore, the damned in Hell are necessarily deprived of free will and will always and forever curse God instead of turning toward repentance, because there will be no salvation, which is incompatible with justice unless there can never be repentance. Is it any wonder that my head started spinning here?


The Widow of Jerusalem, by Alan Gordon. Satan’s Fire; A Tournament of Murders; A Cup of Ghosts, by PC Doherty

”I’m going to get drunk along with you,” said Scarlet. “But I’m giving you a head start. You’re a great, lumbering lummox of a man. It’s going to take a few to have any effect. But I’m just a dwarf. If I have more than two, then I’ll be dead to the world, and I’ll wake to find myself having a game of catch with drunken soldiers. With me as the ball. So drink up, brother Fool. I’ll join you in oblivion soon.”
I still couldn’t make out his features. All I could see were his eyes, the pupils reflecting the candle. No, they shone of their own accord, I’m sure of it. And might have wondered about that, but there was a cup of wine to be drunk, and another, and yet another after that. On the fifth cup, Scarlet poured one for himself, and held it aloft.
“To forgetting,” he said softly, and he drank.
And I can’t remember the rest of that evening.

--from The Widow of Jerusalem

Guido took a tinder from his pouch and lit the three squat yellow candles which stood in their iron spigots on the steps before the cross. He moved his knees away from the pools which had formed amongst the pebbles and watched the flames of the candle flicker in the dawn breeze. He stared up at the crucifix.
“Just like Acre,” he whispered. “A grey dawn, flames flickering.
Guido narrowed his eyes; even the smell of that damned burning city seemed to haunt him. The candle flame grew stronger, suddenly there was fire all around him. Guido opened his mouth to scream just as a sheet of flame engulfed his body.

--from Satan’s Fire

For a while Chaucer and the landlord watched as the pardoner and the miller, not too steady on their feet, helped the summoner back to his stool.
‘He’s never sober,’ Chaucer remarked.
‘He likes his drink,’ Mine Host replied. ‘Though he’s not the fool he pretends to be.’
‘That’, Chaucer commented, ‘could apply to everyone in this room, Mine Host. Have you noticed,’ he continued, ‘how they all seem to know one another? The knight is wary of the monk. Ever since Sir Godfrey’s story about the Strigori, the blood-drinkers of Oxford, the monk constantly watches him but never dares draw him into conversation.’
‘Aye,’ Mine Host replied, ‘And whenever the monk comes near the knight, the squire’s hand falls to his dagger.’
‘Then there’s the prioress,’ Chaucer declared.’A lady of the Church, though very aware of her rights and privileges. Prim and proper she is, pert as a peacock, except where that lawyer is concerned.’ Chaucer nodded to the far corner where the man of law was talking in grave, hushed tones to the franklin and the merchant. ‘When she looks at him, the prioress becomes all coy and hot-eyed.’ Chaucer supped from his cup. ‘God knows but I’d wager they were lovers many years ago. I have seen them both whispering together.’
‘The man of law told a grand tale,’ Mine Host replied, ‘of secret passions and long lost love. Sir Geoffrey, you may well be right. I wonder if people only came on this pilgrimage because others were present?’

---from A Tournament of Murders

I was so absorbed with myself, I tripped over the halberd deliberately placed across the threshold. As I tumbled forward, a piece of coarse sacking, reeking of tar, was thrown over my head, and an arm, tight as a noose, went round my throat. The voice was slurred, nothing more than a hoarse whisper:
"Mahtilde, Mahtilde, tell your mistress not to pry! Keep to your chambers and your embroidery!"

--from The Cup of Ghosts

The Fools’ Guild mysteries just keep getting better. The Widow of Jerusalem is based on real crusade history, and is largely told in the form of a story Feste relates to his wife, of what he saw in Acre and Tyre during Richard’s crusade. The King of Tyre makes enemies out of just about everyone in the story, from Richard to Philip of France to the bishopd to the Man of the Mountain, to the point where you’re practically screaming for him to get killed already. The real treasure of the book, though, is Scarlet the Dwarf, a marvelously complex character who would probably outdo even Tyrion Lannister for subtlety and dry wit, if only Peter Dinklage can juggle.

If there is a flaw in Gordon’s mysteries it is that reading them parallel to PC Doherty’s various serieses may lead to disappointment in Doherty by comparison. The next in Doherty’s Hugh Corbett (investigator for Edward I) series, Satan’s Fire, involves the improbable assassination of several Templars in York, several years after an incident in Acre during the Third Crusade—possibly while Feste was there in The Widow of Jerusalem. The murders are improbable; the tendency of Doherty to include possible demons as suspects and witchcraft and Satanism as possible explanations for the crimes before giving the rational solution after all is getting tiring and adding an unintentionally comic Scooby Doo quality to what should be eerie murder tales; and the method of murder—mysterious “Satanic” fire that can’t be put out by water—is obvious to anyone who knows even a little about Mediterranean warfare in the Byzantine era. Satan’s Fire is not one of Doherty’s best.

A Tournament of Murders, however, is. The Canterbury Tale format, in which Chaucer’s company tells mystery stories, details of which seem to be known to other members, is a stroke of genius, as it combines the best parts of a series with familiar characters and those of a stand-alone crime tale in which anybody can be the culprit. In this story, the franklin takes center stage with a story that starts out as more of an adventure-thriller than a whodunnit, and gradually evolves into a situation where the protagonist with the mysterious past must discover which of five of his father’s retainers is the one who betrayed him. Very high recommendations.

Finally, Cup of Ghostsis the first in a completely different PC Doherty series, this time in the court of Edward II (After Hugh Corbett and maybe contemporaneous or a little before the Canterbury murders) and featuring as detective Mathilde of Westminster, raised by Templars in France, forced to flee when King Philip has her Order massacred, and eventually installed as lady-in-waiting to Isabelle, the French Princess given to Edward in an arranged marriage (Braveheart fans may remember Sophie Marceau as Isabella, as well as the plot device also used by Doherty, that Edward is more interested in Gaveston than in any woman). Cup of Ghosts acts as something of a pilot episode, defining the various players, sidekicks and nemeses in what promises to be a game of royal intrigues where no one can trust anyone else. Almost as an afterthought to the exposition is the mystery involving the killing of Edward’s advisers (I counted six deaths; it might as well have been three, or twenty. They act as an excuse to showcase one gruseome murder tableau after another). Mathilde’s special schtick is that everyone thinks of her as a mere female servant and contemptuously ignores her, little suspecting that the Templars taught her skills with blades, helpful and harmful herbs, and observation and treachery. A rocky start to a set of circumstances that has promise.


The Age of the Cathedrals, by Georges Duby
Compared with Byzantium, compared with Cordoba, it seems rustic, very poor and defenseless. A wild world, ringed around by hunger. Its meager population is in fact too large. The people struggle almost barehanded, slaves to intractable nature and to a soil that is unproductive because it is poorly worked. No peasant, when he sows one grain of wheat, expects to harvest much more than three—if it is not too bad a year; that means enough bread to eat until Easter time. Then he will have to manage on herbs, roots and makeshift food that can be gleaned from forest and riverbank and, on an empty belly, he will do the heavy summer tasks and wither with fatigue while he awaits the harvest. When—as more often happens—the weather is not good, the grain supply runs out even earlier and the bishops must waive prohibitions and upset ritual to permit the eating of meat during Lent. Sometimes, when too heavy rains have soaked into the ground and hampered the autumn ploughing, when storms have pummeled and spoiled the crops, the customary food shortage becomes a famine, a great death-dealing wave of starvation. The chroniclers of the times all described such famines, not without a certain satisfaction. “People pursued one another in order to eat each other up, and many cut the throats of their fellow men so as to feed on human flesh, just like wolves.”

This one is pretty much what it says; it’s about how the public experience of the middle ages affected the art of the times. People were miserable and turning to religion for comfort, and so they built a lot of cathedrals. When they were cowering in fear of an angry God, they built big, stark, imposing Gothic edifices that instilled fear and obedience. When they saw God as a being of light and love, they built buildings and made art with a softer look. When Thomism made scholarship fashionable, they added intellectual details, and when the clergy became fat and indolent, they made it more comfortable and used more gold and gems in their decorated objects. Not too silly a hypothesis.

Duby is readable and does a good job of capturing the various zeitgeists and collective feelings of the age. I had a hard time swallowing descriptions of the 13th Century as an ‘age of reason’, but compared to the centuries immediately preceding it, it probably was.


From the Fifteenth District, by Mavis Gallant
Dr. Chalmeton, who was angry at having been kept waiting, declared he would not be responsible for the safety of his patient in a room filled with mold. Miss Fohrenbach retorted that the District could not resettle a family of fourteen persons who were foreign born when there was a long list of native citizens waiting for accommodation. Mrs. Ibrahim had in any case relinquished her right to a domicile in the Fifteenth District the day she lost consciousness in the road and allowed an ambulance to transport her to a hospital in the Seventh. It was up to the hospital to look after her now. Dr. Chalmeton pointed out that the housing of patients is not the business of hospitals. It was well known that the foreign poor preferred to crowd together in the Fifteenth, where they could sing and dance in the streets and attend one another’s weddings. Miss fohrenbach declared that Mrs. Ibrahim could easily have moved her bed into the kitchen, which was somewhat warmer and boasted a window. When Mrs. Ibrahim died, the children would be placed in foster homes, eliminating the need for a larger apartment. Dr. Chalmeton remembers Miss Fohrenbach then crying, “Oh, why do all these people come here, where nobody wants them?” While he was trying to think of an answer, Mrs. Ibrahim died.

This collection of stories is described as satirical; I just found them depressing. It’s the kind of satire you find in tales by Checkov and Gogol, where illogical bureaucratic errors at the Department of red Tape cause large amounts of misery to helpless people as they try to get the error corrected. The latest of these stories is from the 1970s; today, we have banks and credit card companies that really do proudly claim the right to charge illogical fees, and to charge interest on the fees while you try to prove that you don’t really owe them. And people who live paycheck to paycheck really are driven to bankruptcy because of this. Why was it ever considered funny? Because you have to laugh or you’ll cry?

Also inherent in gallant’s stories is the gloomy Samuel Beckettish sense of people going nowhere. A peasant woman in Italy is hired as a servant to an English family that bumbles around for a few years before fleeing as WWII breaks out, with the result that the servant has pretty much wasted these years. An Englishman takes his family to a foreign resort while he awaits death by cancer. Because he takes longer than expected to die, the family wastes time. A German soldier spends more time as a prisoner of war in France than he should because they forgot to include his name; he stays under guard for years after the war ends, and is eventually returned to Germany too late to qualify for veterans’ benefits, and so he continues to trudge towards nowhere. Somewhere, Vonnegut is saying, “So it goes.”


The Monk, by Matthew G. Lewis
”What!” she exclaimed suddenly, shaking off their hold with distracted gestures, “is all hope then lost? Already do you drag me to punishment? Where are you, Raymond? Oh! Save me, save me!” casting upon the abbot a frantic look, “Hear me!” she continued, “man of a hard heart! Hear me proud, stern and cruel! You could have saved me; you could have restored me to happiness and virtue, but would not; you are the destroyer of my soul; you are my murderer, and on you fall the curse of my death and my unborn infant’s! Insolent in your yet-unshaken virtue, you disdained the prayers of a penitent, but God will shew mercy, though you shew none! And where is the merit of your boasted virtue? What temptations have you vanquished? Coward! You have fled from it, not opposed seduction. But the day of trial will arrive. Oh! Then, when you yield to impetuous passions; when you feel that man is weak, and born to err; when, shuddering, you look back upon your crimes, and solicit, with terror, the mercy of your God, oh! In that fearful moment, think upon me! Think upon your cruelty! Think upon Agnes, and despair of pardon!”

I have a thing for 18th/19th century novels written when the novel was still being defined. Authors put together huge convoluted plots, long stories within stories, chapters and occasionally whole books told in the form of letters between the characters, and supernatural horrors, all the while seizing on flimsy excuses to throw in moral lessons, jabs at the author’s actual enemies, and poems the author couldn’t or wouldn’t get published by other means.

The Monk is one such tale, heavy on the superfluous inclusion of poetry. It’s the kind of gothic horror story Jane Austen made fun of in Northanger Abbey. The part quoted above shows one of the intersections of two distinct plots. Agnes is trying to escape from a convent with the help of her lover, Raymond, who has a lengthy back story and tells it to his companion Lorenzo, who is also trying to extract a lover out of religion-based difficulties. Ambrosio, the “monk” of the title, is a nasty, judgmental fire and brimstone head of a church, who is naturally loved and respected by everyone in town, and who naturally piles one nasty crime on top of another throughout the story. His crime wave is depicted as the ‘fall’ of a good man into escalating sin; really, he was never all that good to begin with. People familiar with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure have seen his kind before. And yes, he sexually assaults women under the assurance that no one will believe them over him, so trigger warnings apply.

Unlike, say, Anne Radcliffe, Lewis sprinkles actual supernatural elements into the plot and the several subplots. There is a ‘wandering Jew’ (a mostly good guy) with a burning cross on his forehead and supernatural exorcism powers; a legend of a betrayed ‘bleeding nun’ whose ghost haunts a castle; other ghosts unconnected with the main story who simply appear so that more ghost stories can be told and their spirits laid to rest with simple rituals; and the implication that the abbot is being seduced into his bad behavior by demons. Considering the large numbers of holy people in the book, it’s a little conspicuous that no Christian miracles on behalf of the many innocent sufferers are performed. They just fight The Evil under their own powers.

For all its kinks and cliches, the plot is a good, suspenseful plot, and highly recommended to anyone with a higher than usual capacity for suspending disbelief. I recommend sticking through to the end, as the final pages involving Ambrosio’s eventual comeuppance are the most powerful catharsis in the book. Cliched, yes, but cliches become that way because they make great stories.


1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings
Therefore David arose and went, he and his men, and killed two hundred men of the Philistines. And David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full count to the king, that he might become the king’s son in law. Then Saul gave him Michal his daughter as a wife.
--1 Samuel 18:27

Then Elijah went to Bethel, and as he was going up the road some children came from the city, and mocked him, and called out to him, “Hey Baldy! Hey Ballll-deee! Ha-Ha, look at Uncle Fester!” And so Elijah turned around and looked at them and cursed them in the name of The Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and killed forty two of the children.
--2 Kings 2: 23-24

Outside of Genesis (Bookpost, January 2013), the books of Samuel and Kings contain some of the more interesting personal stories in the Old Testament, not least because there is at least some historical basis for believing they actually happened. The four books correspond roughly to the reigns over Judea of Saul, David, Solomon and...some miscellaneous rulers who followed. (Samuel is a prophet who takes a decidedly supporting role in the Saul/David conflict, and it’s not clear to me why the first two books are not called 1 & 2 David, because it’s really David’s story that’s being told here).

We have the famous David v. Goliath battle; the witch of Endor; Bathsheba, together with Nathan’s “Thou art the man” parable; Absalom, the Temple of Solomon; the justice of Solomon ordering the baby to be cut in half; Ahab; Jezebel; Jehosophat (who does not jump, to my disappointment); and, of course, the prophet Elijah, whose sensitivity about his Sinead O’Connor pate has made grumpy old child-hating patriarchs feel warm and fuzzy for millennia.

Setting an example for behavior in the Middle East that would last to this very day, they had one unnecessary war after another, which was about as wonderful as life ever got for the Jewish people as a whole—apparently the one time in history that a Jewish nation geographically larger than modern Israel existed, and after that: Babylon and slavery; Persia and slavery; the Roman empire, with limited autonomy around Jerusalem; Jesus, followed by genocide; Mohammed, followed by more genocide; arab caliphates and limited autonomy again; Turks, and more limited autonomy; century upon century of Popes and Emirs waging holy antisemitic war while kings and aristocrats turned to them for loans they had no intention of repaying; and finally, Hitler and more genocide than ever, followed by the creation of Israel, which has been under siege inside and outside its borders since the day it came into existence. And through all that, for close to 3,000 years of misery, they have continued to exist against the odds, to keep faith, and to believe that one day their tears will be wiped away and they will be revealed as the favorites of a creator that has done THIS for all of recorded history.

I mean, how can anyone NOT be affected by that story?


A Rose for Winter, by Laurie Lee
At the cafe tables around me four students, their heads together like card players, were reciting poems to each other. At another table two girls were painfully composing a letter. At a third sat a young man all alone, weeping softly and eating nuts.
But such is the open market of Mediterranean life that I was not long left in doubt about any of them. The students, raising their voices in a climax of rhetorical extravagance, proved to be engaged in creating extemporaneous odes in honour of the local football team. The girls, catching my eye, said I looked like a scholar and would I help them with their letter, which was a declaration of love to a soldier in Morocco. And the solitary young man, looking at no-one, suddenly struck the table and cried out to all the world: ‘I have no taste to get married! And why should I? I promised her nothing. I only took her to a pastry shop...’
And he continued to weep, not hiding his grief at all.


This is the type of travel journal that presents a series of encounters with local people in an atmosphere of near-magic, with the implication that the way these “other” people live has a sense of rightness that the reader’s environment does not. When done right, it can be my favorite form of nonfiction about other places. When done wrong, it easily slips into offense and condescenscion (imagine white people writing about their tour of an Indian reservation in a ‘noble savage’ style, and you’ll notice some of the minefields to be avoided). Fortunately, Laurie Lee, best known for poetry, knows how to do it right.

It’s all peasants and customs in Andalusia (South Spain) several years after the Spanish civil war. There are broken-hearted former revolutionaries, young lovers, street urchins and criminals. Among the scenes of near-pastoral existence far from the madding crowd are some vivid descriptions of lives that emphatically do NOT have a sense of mystical rightness. Among them are bullfights, depicted by Leee as degrading to matador, bull and spectator alike; a village’s most powerful landowner, who gushes to Lee about how much a pig he’s about to kill allaegedly loves him, while the pig is squealing in terror and trying to avoid his petting; and numerous scenes of degraded poverty interacting with drunk, wealthy tourists. Lee’s amazing achievement is that an undercurrent of beauty manages to run through even this.


A Clue for the Puzzle Lady, by Parnell Hall

"Is that her?" Aaron Grant asked. "Put her on."
Sherry frowned, looked at her aunt. Cora Felton had gotten home, changed out of her clothes, and put on what Sherry referred to as her Wicked Witch of the West dress, a long, loose, flowing, black pullover shift that had seen better days. Stained, tattered, ripped and freckled with cigarette burns, it was her favorite dress, the one she always wore lounging around at home. To the many battle scars, Sherry noticed, now had been added the stain of whatever was in the glass Aunt Cora had just broken.
Holding the phone, Sherry became aware of the fact that she had not answered Aaron Grant, particularly when he said, "Hello? You still there?"
Her face began to redden. "Sorry. Aunt Cora isn't available at the moment."


The schtick here is that the mystery comes with a crossword puzzle. Not a part of the plot, like where a crazy millionaire put it in his will and they have to solve it to find where the money is, or where the killer is The Riddler leaving puzzles at the scene of the crime...oh, wait. There ARE puzzling written clues left at the scene of the crime, but the crossword itself is not in the story. It's just in the front of the book, with a warning not to solve it until after reading it because it has spoilers, and you can't solve it anyway because many of the clues depend on knowing the story, Hall says.

Oh, can't I? Challenge accepted. I solved the fairly easy puzzle in half an hour, story-dependent clues or no story-dependent clues, and then read the book. Yes, the puzzle reveals the killer, but I'm pretty sure I would have gotten it anyhow. It's about as puzzling as the average episode of Murder, She Wrote, if the Angela Lansbury lady was a half-drunk, cantankerous old bat with a clever niece-sidekick instead of 25 cats. Cora is a nationally syndicated maker of crossword puzzles, known as "The Puzzle Lady" with a wholesome grandma persona in the media. The crossword and the mystery are forgettable, but the book works mostly because of the fun in seeing the vice-ridden, unstoppable force of nature behind the mask, and the reaction shots of the always-embarrassed niece.

A friend brought the Puzzle Lady to my attention and assured me that the puzzles become more interesting and various and integral with the story as the series commences. This is just the first try at an experiment by Hall. Based on that representation, I'm willing to try another one or two and see how the experiment progresses.


Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides

When reading my present treatise, bear in mind that by "faith" we do not understand merely that which is uttered with the lips, but also that which is apprehended by the soul, the conviction that the object of belief is exactly as it is apprehended. If, as regards real or supposed truths, you content yourself with giving utterance to them in words, without apprehending them or believing in them, especially if you do not seek real truth, you have a very easy task, as, in fact, you will find many ignorant people professing articles of faith without connecting any idea with them.
If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz, that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatsoever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is one, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips and assume plurality in their thoughts.This is like the doctrine of the Christians, who say that He is three and that the three are one.


This medieval classic is one of the most successful attempts to reconcile theological doctrine (Jewish, so centered on the Old Testament) with the philosophy and science of the time. Unlike Aquinas, Maimonides addresses most of the reasons I’ve had trouble taking the idea of God seriously, and his view makes a lot more sense to me than what passes for ‘proof’ from modern theologians insisting on a literal interpretation of every word in the Bible.

It’s a tad hard to read, especially in the beginning. In order to support a metaphorical interpretation of scripture, Maimonides starts with lexicographic anaylses of many old Hebrew words preliminary to an argument that these words as used in the original Old Testament do not really refer to God as that giant old man we see in all the paintings, or indeed as any corporeal entity that takes up a specific space in the universe. God is more like the “one” meant in Plotinus (Bookpost, November 2012).

Maimonides further refutes many of the ‘stump the minister’ conundrums that kids in Sunday school put forward to this very day. No, God can’t make a triangle with four sides or a stone so big that He can’t lift it, but so what? We don’t call the strongest human weak for being unable to lift nine hundred tons without a lever; similarly, God is not imperfect for lack of interest in suspending the laws of physics or paradox. Honestly, much of Maimonides has long since passed into common thought (scripture as metaphorical, not literal), but this was the first time I’d seen the ‘stone so big he can’t lift it’ paradox actually addressed with any sense, and I found it refreshing.

Similarly, farther on, Maimonides gives justifications for withholding ‘mysteries’ from the laity, and reason-based justifications for some of the arbitrary rules and rituals in Biblical law (again, many of these we’ve come to accept over the centuries. Maimonides had never heard of trichinosis or the cause thereof, but he knew what commonly happened to people who ate undercooked pork, which was a much more plausible reason for that part of kosher law than ‘because God says so’). Not that he sold me on all of it, but I recommend the Guide warts and all as a better alternative to most of what the Catholics were putting out during the same epoch.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here: http://admnaismith.livejournal.com/tag/bookposts