Snippets from the paper I read at Tea with the Sphinx Conference in Birmingham last month. The paper discusses George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede, and the author’s attempt to create a new creation story by combining ancient Egyptian motifs with the Genesis story. George Eliot renounced Christianity in her youth and in her first novel she was attempting to create her own gnostic gospel, or alternative to Anglican Victorian Christianity. The paper is scheduled for publication as a chapter contribution in a collected essays volume by Manchester University Press.
The article is out now in the current issue of Nile Magazine. I discuss in it snake worship in ancient Egypt within the context of an old struggle between monotheism (the Abrahamic faiths in particular) and its ancient rival, polytheism (pagan religions).
Written in the spirit of the ancient wisdom!
Further details on the article and the issue in the link https://www.nilemagazine.com.au/
Whenever Egypt is mentioned today in conversation, it is often with an assumed Islamic identity in mind. A minority of Christian Copts sometimes creeps into the discussion later on as an afterthought. This assumption is often accompanied by the rather unconscious or indirect presumption that there are few Jews in Egypt today, if any. This is not true.
It is easy to understand however why this is the mainstream account. The Second Exodus from Egypt occurred in 1956, under Colonel Nasser’s orders, stripping all Jews of their Egyptian citizenship and expelling them from Egypt. The vast majority of Egyptian Jews fled to one of three destinations of refuge: Israel, Mediterranean Europe (mainly France and Italy) and the Americas (primarily Argentina). This was, however, neither the beginning of trouble for Egyptian Jews in modern times, nor its end.
Read more here
Article published in History Today on 8 May 2017.
The atrocities committed by ISIS are known to the vast majority of people. In the UK we have recently been exposed to yet another terrorist attack which ISIS claimed ‘responsibility’ for. We have seen it on the news, we have read numerous analyses of it in the papers and listened to radio reports on security measures in and around Westminister Palace. Nevertheless, none of ISIS’ atrocities are new to us, their crimes against humanity are well observed by media outlets. Yet not many of us realise that ISIS is a name we made up, that unlike al-Qaeda which is a direct transliteration of the older terrorist organisation’s name, ISIS is something unrelated to this relatively new monstrosity.
Their name is Daesh, which we in the Anglophone world, translated into the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ then created the acronym ISIS out of this translation. Some poeple would shrug their shoulders at this and say we call them whatever we call them, it doesn’t matter. But as a matter of fact it matters, because by making up an incorrect name we have also created a confusion between two entirely unrelated entities. Isis is the goddess of fertility and motherhood in ancient Egypt. Her iconography alongside her son Horus has a direct influence on the development of the iconography of Mary and Jesus. ISIS, or Daesh as we should appropriately call it, on the other hand, claim themselves to be Muslim (though many Muslims would disagree with this) and if they could they would destroy all traces of ancient Egyptian heritage as they have done and continue to do with world heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, needless to mention their recent attacks in Egypt.
Mislabelling anything is misleading enough, but mislabelling evil can lead to bigger horrors by allowing it to disguise itself in forms we revere and cherish.
So once again… We are sorry Isis, goddess and mother of mothers!
Today is the first day of Spring and it happens also to be World Poetry Day and Mother’s Day (in Egypt and the US and several other places in the world, in the UK, however it falls on Sunday 26/03). For this triple occasion, I chose three short but potent poems, which are Victorian in the broader sense of the word. The first two poems are Ionic and Anna Dalassini by the renowned Alexandrian Poet, C. P. Cavafy, whose birth and death were in the Springs of 1863 and 1933. The third poem is by Ann Mary Evans (1819-1880), whose pen name is George Eliot. Evans is an internationally-renowned Victorian novelist but she is less known for her poetry. Her poem Roses is such a delightful one and well-fitted for a sunny Spring day like today.
That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.
(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated from Modern Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)
In the royal decree that Alexios Komninos
put out especially to honor his mother—
the very intelligent Lady Anna Dalassini,
noteworthy in both her works and her manners—
much is said in praise of her.
Here let me offer one phrase only,
a phrase that is beautiful, sublime:
“She never uttered those cold words ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’ ”
(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated from Modern Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)
You love the roses – so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
And soft to tread on. They would fall as light
As feathers, smelling sweet; and it would be
Like sleeping and like waking, all at once!
(George Eliot, 1819-1880, The complete poetical works of George Eliot. New York, F.A. Stokes & brother, 1888)
I have not posted much lately, but couldn’t miss the occasion of Darwin’s birthday to briefly remind my readers of his main achievements and his racial views.
On this day, in 1809, Charles Darwin was born. His evolutionary theory of natural selection has been the cause of great controversy since its publication in his On the Origin of Species in 1859. Despite Darwin’s large body of evidence which is based on years of gathering data and analysing various species, his ideas were as hard for many to accept in Victorian times as they are ironically hard for many to accept today (it would be superfluous to even mention the recent US presidential campaign here and a similar argument could be easily drawn on Climate Change).
In spite of the apparent novelty of Darwin’s ideas at the time, Darwin’s findings were the culmination of accumulative research and a steady rise in atheism across Europe since the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, evolution was known outside Europe 600 years before Darwin’s publication. A Persian scientist called Nasir Tusi (1201-74), who was in the fashion of his day a Renaissance man even before the Renaissance, arrived at the same conclusion, acknowledging that Humans have evolved from superior primates in Africa, such as apes. Tusi’s evolutionary theories, revolutionary as they were, did not induce as much change as Darwin’s. The Mongol invasion of West Asia brought a halt to the scientific and cultural boom of his age, and vast quantities of manuscripts were destroyed and/or forgotten in the turmoil.
Between 1959 and the publication of The Descent of Man in 1971, Darwin embraced racist theories which claimed the racial superiority of White Europeans over the rest of Humankind. How ironic for a six-hundred-year-old late new-comer to the evolutionary debate!
Retro Me Sathana (1848) or Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, was initially a painting project which Dante Gabriel Rossetti started in 1947 and later had to abandon. The curator of the National Gallery, Charles Eastlake, did not favour the project, perhaps due to its Satanic invocations. It is worth mentioning here that ‘Retro Me Sathana’ is a latin quotation from the Gospel of St Luke; it’s English translation is from King James’ Bible. Somehow the unfinished painting has been transformed into this beautiful Sonnet XLII, first published in the House of Life (1869).
Get thee behind me. Even as, heavy-curled,
Stooping against the wind, a charioteer
Is snatched from out his chariot by the hair,
So shall Time be; and as the void car, hurled
Abroad by reinless steeds, even so the world:
Yea, even as chariot-dust upon the air,
It shall be sought and not found anywhere.
Get thee behind me, Satan. Oft unfurled,
Thy perilous wings can beat and break like lath
Much mightiness of men to win thee praise.
Leave these weak feet to tread in narrow ways.
Thou still, upon the broad vine-sheltered path,
Mayst wait the turning of the phials of wrath
For certain years, for certain months and days.
18th Century Translations
The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1706-21) is the very first translation in English of A Thousand and One Nights. It was translated from Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704-17) by an anonymous ‘Grub Street’ translator. Antoine Galland, a French scholar well-read in languages, is generally considered the European discoverer of the Arabic manuscript which was itself a translation of combined tales in Persian, Indian and other languages.
The English translator, despite producing a superb translation lasting unchallenged for over a century, remains anonymous to this day. His choice of title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, rather than A Thousand and One Nights, is very significant as it from the start represented the book as something very different from what it really was. This also began a naming tradition of the book that all succeeding nineteenth-century translators have preserved even though each of them claimed…
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The two volumes of The World as Will and Representation are Schopenhauer’s most important work and his complete philosophy. Surprisingly written in his twenties, this comprehensive work covers all aspects of life and known fields of knowledge to civilisation in the early nineteenth-century; from his critique of Hegel and hailing of Kant to supporting his argument with elements from Buddhism and neuroscience. His philosophy can be summed up in this quote: ‘The will-to-live does not appear in consequence of the world, but the world appears in consequence of the will-to-live (V.II, 360).
Schopenhauer talks about two kinds of will, one includes the other: the will of the world and the will of the individual which is also part of the will of the world. The will of the world represents itself in all forms of life on earth, including human beings. In other words, all forms of existence are a demonstration of the world to be or of matter to live. To Schopenhauer, this is the prime causer of conscious existence (human beings) as well as non-conscious existence, and continues to be the prime mover of all living organisms and their ultimate instinct: survival. The second will Schopenhauer assesses is the will of the human being which is both an individual will by itself and also the universe’s most successful attempt at representing its will: being a conscious form of life. Unlike the will which is always subjective to the universe and/or the individual, representation can be objective as well as subjective; Objective in being an object existing by itself (though still in representation of the will) and independent from conception, and subjective when perceived by the human mind or other living organisms (animals) which can perceive but are incapable of forming concepts. Other forms of the subjectivity of representation could be argued as Schopenhauer himself mentions, such as the secondary representation of the individual’s conception of the universe, but these infinite replications of the Platonic ideal are not Schopenhauer’s concern.
Schopenhauer’s is the most logical fundamental philosophy I have come across and one that has from the beginning gained my attention and agreement with its argument. Having said that, there are several issues I am having with it. One of which is his soft spot towards what he perceived as genuine Indian religions, namely Hinduism, Brahmanism and Buddhism as opposed to his unjustified aggressiveness toward Islam and disliking of Judaism. At one occasion he mentions, ‘atheistic Buddhism is much more closely akin to Christianity than are optimistic Judaism and its variety, Islam (V. II, 444).’ The named above Indian religions have, without doubt, contributed heavily to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, especially when linking concepts such as reincarnation to the infinite cycle of representation. Nevertheless, at times Schopenhauer enthusiastically praises India and gives it credit for groundless achievements. For instance he asserts that Christianity as a doctrine ‘is Indian in spirit, and therefore, more than probably, Indian in Origin, although only indirectly, through Egypt (V.II, 488).’ Not only does this claim an incorrect and unsupported history of Christianity, but it also claims bizarrely that Egypt, the oldest known civilisation in the world, is Indian or India-influenced at the least. On the other hand, Schopenhauer aligns himself with Christianity in a way that undermines the independent superiority of his philosophy.
I wish perhaps to try to resolve the deepest mystery of Christianity, namely that o the Trinity, into the fundamental conceptions of my philosophy […]. The Holy Ghost is the decided denial of the will-to-live; the person in whom this exhibits itself in concerto is the Son. He is identical with the will that affirms life, and thereby produces the phenomenon of this world of perception, i.e., with the Father, in so far as affirmation and denial are opposite acts of the same will (V. II, 629).
Not only is he aligning his philosophy with Christianity here to add to its weight, but in doing so he is also saving Christianity from its opaque mysticism. The Trinity are translated into direct and simple symbols to the essence of life: Will and its consequences.
Schopenhauer’s style is akin to the classical fathers in its simplicity and directness; something which he consciously achieves being opposed to the verbosity of many German philosophers known in his time and particularly Hegel. This makes him one of the easiest modern philosophers to read. His philosophy though borrows from religions and science, carrying over some mistakes from both, stands high and aloof above any faith or philosophy. Its fundamental achievement is in regarding the world comprehensively and logically without superfluous complexity, and spiritually without mystery or mysticism.
The Reviewed translations from German are:
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, VI. Trans. by Alistair Welchman and Christopher Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
This is a superb translation with a lot of explanations, commentary and footnotes; very helpful in understanding the context of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and his multifarious references to all fields of knowledge. This translation is also sufficient for getting a basic grasp on Schopenhauer’s philosophy and comes with a supplementary consisting of his critique of Kant’s philosophy. I look forward to the publication of the Cambridge translation of volume II.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, VII. Trans. by E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1966) – a reprint of The Falcon’s Wing Press edition of 1958.
This translation is equally excellent though it lacks the commentary of the newer translation and its fluidity. Having said that, this remains a masterpiece from its time and currently the best published second volume translation available. I particularly like the italicising of the conceptual phrases; something which the newer translation has adopted. I also like the use of Schopenhauer’s references and quotes in their original languages within the translated text, while translating them in the footnotes.
Note on my use of quotes:
To the critical reader, it may seem inadequate that I have quoted Schopenhauer only from his second volume. I only did so as he goes over many of the topics he discusses in the first volume in his second. It seemed to me more appropriate to quote him from his latest and most developed work while I was writing this review.
This was the title of one of the workshops I attended last weekend during the Southwell Poetry Festival. I went to the workshop completely blank on John Clare. The only thing I hardly knew about him was that he was a poet from the Victorian era.
I walked into the workshop room, the Powerpoint was switched on, and a colourful portrait of the pale red-haired poet was projected on the wall. The presenter was standing next to it in a semi anxious waiting pose, looking at a half-empty room. I asked, ‘Is this John Clare?’ She smiled and said, ‘It is.’ I realised instantaneously that she thought I was talking about the portrait not the workshop, and I sat on the second nearest seat from where I stood, trying to deflect any unnecessary attention I brought upon myself by fondling with the survey card that was on my seat. A minute later a woman in her fifties walked into the room and sat next to me. ‘So you didn’t strain any muscles with your heavy lifting this morning.’ I was still self-absorbed in my embarrassment and for a second I didn’t get what she meant. Then I remembered my helping with the chairs in the workshop I attended earlier. She must have been there too. ‘Ahh! I see what you mean.’ She smiled and got out a sandwich from her handbag. ‘There is just not enough time between sessions.’ ‘No there isn’t’ I humoured her thinking that I didn’t know what to do with myself to waste the 45 minutes in-between. ‘Brilliant poet John Clare!’ She said, ‘Do you know that he wrote prose too.’ I shook my head.’Unfortunately most of it is inaccessible because someone called Eric Robinson has claimed copyright to it.’ She said before drawing her attention back to her sandwich.
Soon the room filled in, and the presenter closed the door and introduced herself as a poet and a member of the John Clare Trust and the rest was brilliance. The pictures she used of the village where he grew up, the stories she told of his struggles to get published and his mental issues brought the dead poet to life to me. Apparently he is viewed as the first British ecological poet and the father of environmentalism. One of the things she spoke of was how growing up as an agricultural labourer has shaped his work. Clare loved walking in the communal fields and often found inspiration there and the ban of access to these fields came as a big blow to him and the other agricultural labourers of the area. The ban was something he opposed strongly in his writings.
This piece of fact, along with what the lady sitting next to me had told me before the workshop started struck a major irony in my mind. Here is a poet who promoted communality and open access of property in his work and yet his own work after his death was copyrighted by a non-Clare who prevented the reprinting of it and public access to it. How outrageous Clare would have found such claims had he been still alive!