alternative facts

Odysseus Resting (I)

battle_of_quingua

Kurtz & Allison chromolithograph, “The Battle of Quingua, April 23, 1899.”

Talking about Homer is tricky.  There’s the wonderful story: the spellbinding yarns of old soldiers and lost sailors, spinning out tales of battles that shine with the forces of the gods and cunning escapes with clever lessons for us about how to be at home in the world.  But even in Athens, by the 5th century BCE, there were serious doubts about the ability of narratives to accurately convey the facts.  Even epics as marvelous and apparently comprehensive as the Iliad and the Odyssey might distort our understanding of what happened in the past and how it continues to shape events around us.  Thucydides, in particular, worried about the way that, in a democracy, Homeric poetry and other sinuous forms of persuasive rhetoric, could give rise to a world of “alternative facts.”  The historian of the Peloponnesian War was deeply suspicious about a democracy’s susceptibility to the flowery words of would-be tyrants.  Josiah Ober points out how Thucydides repeatedly distinguishes between mere rhetoric and the foundations of actual power:

[W]e have no need of a Homer to sing our praises, nor of any suchlike whose fine words please only for the moment, since the truth (alētheia) will show that in comparison with the facts (erga), [the verbal depiction] is an underestimate.  (Qtd. in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, 85.)

Ober argues that the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles, as related to us by Thucydides, is a complex, “self-subversive,” demonstration of the dangers of Athenian exceptionalism.  Pericles makes an elegant defense of democratic knowledge, of the idea “of making policy on the basis of logoi” and “reject[ing] the existence of a hierarchy between logoi and erga,” but, as Thucydides presents him, Pericles undercuts his own logos as manifested in words rather than in more durable monuments of architecture — or verifiable historical narrative (88).  Thucydides, Ober writes, “considers untested and competing logoi to be a dubious basis for understanding reality” (88).

The OED tells me that the earliest instance of “tricky” in English having the colloquial sense of containing “unexpected difficulties” and requiring “cautious action or handling” is surprisingly recent.  Their earliest instance is from Charles Locke Eastwood’s Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, and Other Details, published in London in 1868:

Chromo-lithography […] accustoms the eye to easily rendered and therefore tricky effects of color which falsify rather than illustrate nature.

Does Homer also “accustom the eye” to false colors?  Does the flash and resonance of the conflict among the gods trick hearers into thinking that an analogous conflict of reasons and frank speech will lead to stable government?

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Three themes for (nonviolent) study and play

Folio_from_a_Qur'an_(8th-9th_century)

Folio from an early Qur’an (8th-9th c. BCE)

At a time when the delegate leader for the nomination of one the major political parties in the United States is blatantly and falsely tarring Muslims as violent extremists and social media is making it easier and easier to thoughtlessly advocate genocide, it seems worth remembering the bewildering range of ways that the Qur’an is present in our world.

Here are three examples.  First, I have no idea what to make of the progress of Dubai’s Holy Qur’an Theme Park.  Immersive faith experience?  Blasphemy?  Fun Fundamentalism?  (Would it fit in some strange subgenus with the kids’ activities at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky?)

Second: admittedly, I have a professional bias for books brimming with footnotes and scholarly commentary, but just hefting the weight of the new “Study Qur’an” (described breathlessly here by CNN and in more detail by Muslim Matters) belies reductive characterizations of Islam.  The commentary tradition itself, aside from its relation to worldwide practice, contains multitudes.  Fragments of one of the oldest manuscripts of the Qur’an were discovered just last year, stowed away, safely misclassified, in the collections of a British university library.  Even the complicitous orientalisms of Anglophone scholarship exist in multiple streams, fanning out into criss-crossing rivulets of appropriation, collection, dissemination, and–often overlooked–mutual transformation.

And, third, here’s a 2013 NPR interview with the author of Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.  As I read about what Jefferson may have learned about pluralism through his encounters with Islam (even as he may have owned Muslim slaves), I wonder how many of our public officials today would be willing to abide by Jefferson’s response to a would-be biographer who was attempting to pry a late confession from the Sage of Monticello.  In an 1817 letter to Adams, Jefferson writes (surely with one eye on posterity and one eye on Adams’ own pieties):

[…] say nothing of my religion.  It is known to my god and myself alone.  Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life.  If that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”  (The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester Cappon, 506)