August 29, 2004

Who designed the Olympic stadium?

Posted by shonk at 01:18 AM in Sports | permalink | 4 comments

I was sitting at home on Saturday night watching the Olympics and, after about the fifth overhead shot of the Olympic Stadium in Athens, I began to wonder if I was the only one that thinks the stadium has a sort of labial aspect to it when viewed from above. Now, admittedly, the fact that I was sitting at home on a Saturday night and had just been subjected to at least an hour of Chinese guys in Speedos may have tilted my brain chemistry into whatever the hormonal equivalent of sexual frustration is, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the Greek Olympic committee hadn’t hired Georgia O’Keefe as an architectural consultant.

(And yes, I’m sure the fact that I haven’t updated in like three weeks means that my readership has all but vanished, but it’s been, shall we say, an interesting couple of weeks in my personal life. Hopefully, some normalcy will be returning soon.)

August 20, 2004

The crusade against the idols

Posted by Curt at 07:26 PM in Literature | permalink | 2 comments

“Gibbon reproached Voltaire for being ‘a bigot, an intolerant bigot,’ implying that, in his relentless crusade against Christianity, Voltaire had jeapordized (rather than, as later commentators imagined, established) his character as a philosophic historian…Individuals and institutions, which [the philosophic historian] could only condemn as in themselves criminal and perverse, at moments contributed positively to human society, while…those he admired or loved may, despite their best endeavors, have exerted a harmful influence.” —David Womersley, author of “The Transformation of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

August 19, 2004

A bygone ethic

Posted by Curt at 01:59 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

The Sultan of the Empty Quarter

When the first drops of rain began to fall
My regrets went marching off, two by two,
For a philsopher in a drizzle
Becomes a madman in a downpour,
And when his hands have become slicked
With soot and mud and high plains grass,
Who could contradict his softly stated longing,
And who would close the door on his imploring?
--Arseny Solokhovsky

August 16, 2004

The roots of, er, humanism

Posted by Curt at 12:18 AM in Sex | permalink | comment

“Few cultures have been quite so shamelessly vain and superficial in their worship of physical perfection as the Greeks.” —Tony Perrottet, author of “The Naked Olympics”

August 15, 2004

The quiet Arabian

Posted by Curt at 10:30 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

The name of Abdul al-Aziz Muq’tanil al-Zizunabayu may be unfamiliar to many, but the body of his writings deserves greater scrutiny, because to some degree they offer a solution to some of the central dilemmas of Islam in a time of greatly increased affluence, when few of the imams and ulama of the Islamic world have provided solace of a sort which can survive in the midst of material effluvia and temptation without rejecting them in the name of austerity.

al-Zizunabayu has not made more of an international name for himself in part because, perhaps, he chose an inauspicious time and set of circumstances in which to be exiled. He originally served as an imam and schoolteacher in Islamic studies in provincial Syria, but was exiled in the mid 1980s. He might have attracted a great deal of attention had his crimes included speaking out against Syrian participation in the Lebanese conflict or at least agitation over democratic reforms, but instead he left under a cloud of codemnation for impurity and immoral pedagogical practices, with dark insinuations on the part of the religious authorities made about his moral and spiritual corruption and possible homosexuality, insinuations, however, which for the most part escaped translation into Western languages.

What really has shaken the miniscule community of emigré Muslim scholars and religious authorities in London, Boston and New York who have responded to his subsequent writings, however, is his attitude to his disgrace and exile, a disgrace unleavened by any redemptory intimations of political martyrdom. But instead of rejecting the charges against him, or repenting of his conduct either privately or publicly, or even abandoning Islam or challenging the religious authorities, al-Zizunabayu has appeared to glory in his own conduct, while continuing to uphold evangelistic Islam, even Islam by the sword. In fact, he goes so far as to say in his Qu’ranic commentary Under the Qu’ranic Tree, a commentary, by the way, almost unprecedented in the extent to which it indulges in personal confession to the point of virtually abandoning accepted forms of scriptural interpretation: “My impurity has in fact been the greatest sacrifice I could have made to future warriors of the faith (mujahideen). I have not undertaken to hoard virtue for myself in the slightest. Just as al-Muwahardi tells us the gift of a loaf of bread to a poor man is that much greater if I deny bread to myself, so have I made my mission to spread the faith and the hope of grace without, however, extending it to myself.”

It almost goes without stating that one encounters but rarely a parallel to the bodhisattva tradition in Islam, the idea of religious virtue as a divideable substance rather than a unitary whole, which can be fostered in another without accruing to oneself, indeed at one’s own expense. But al-Zizunabayu goes further. In his work The Inner Caliphate, he writes: “My own decadence has brought me material pleasures for a day, but my conduct and the rot that it brings forth inspires my students with abhorrence and pushes them down the path of righteousness that my words and teaching has already suggested to them.”

Perhaps this is another reason that al-Zizunabayu has attracted little attention in the West and little response among Islamic scholars other than bafflement at his apparent insanity. For his behavior, intended as it apparently is to violate specifically Islamic standards of conduct, generally provokes little censure in the West, and his notion of virtue is so repellant to most Muslims that it might as well be known as jahiliyya. But his words bespeak but very little of derangement. In A Call to the Faithful, he writes: “An invocation, a call to virtue can only be freed from the illegitimate influence of considerations of authority by the incineration of the reputation of the bearer of the message, so that from the ashes of himself he can call forth the words which can by their purity alone inspire the believer to good deeds and good faith.”

The influence of tradition is at least disputable, but this principle seems to contain the possibility of the nearly infinite transmissability of righteousness. In a life seemingly undistinguished by holiness, and rather plentiful in hypocrisy, al-Zizunabayu would seem to have wrought a veritable revolution in embryonic form, which stands a fair chance of winning back through forgiveness that which was lost by vice.

p.s. One other relation in which the concept of virtue as divideable and finite often appears is the love affair. It is not always mere fatuousness when girls say earnestly, as they sometimes do, “you’re too good to me.”

August 11, 2004

That which goes unspoken

Posted by Curt at 05:24 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

Just thinking about race today, how stupid and silly the concept itself is, and even more so the vast ocean of debate surrounding it. I was thinking about racism and the persistence of it, in my own mind and, I would venture to wager, to a greater or lesser degree near universally in our country, if not the world. I used to consider this a societal failure, that our worldview is so saturated with ideas about race that it remains virtually impossible for twisted views on the matter to not take root in the mind. However, it occurs to me now that perhaps the real error lies not in how we actually do view race (as opposed to what we say in public), but rather in what is regarded as the proper attitude towards race.

Remember that the civil rights movement in this country was originally NOT about racism per se, i.e. the holding of prejudiced racial views. It was about legal and social, and to a lesser extent economic, equality. The existence of racism is relevant to this insofar as it shapes the actions of those with racist views but, in a society like ours today, in which the strictures on discrimination are so draconian, social as well as legal, where the mere accusation of racism is enough, almost anywhere, to cause the loss of a career and social ostracism for life, it seems to me that we have entered an age in which the undeniable persistence of racism is largely devoid of significant outward symptoms. Do not misunderstand me: I have several non-white friends who constantly regale me with stories of unnumerable little injustices and humiliations they suffer, but for the most part they seem to me about equal in magnitude, if greater in frequency, to the slights that I occaisonally have suffered as a male, or as a teenager (until two months ago), or as an American abroad, etc. I have heard the stories of police beatings and racial profiling, so I certainly do not presume to extrapolate my own experience too far, but to be quite honest, knowing what I do about the general environment of the ghetto, just as young Arab men (usually wealthy) are pretty clearly by far the most prominent group in the current wave of international terrorism, I don’t think that the general police fixation in America with young black men is necessarily unwarranted. In any case, now we are back in the realm of action, not of thought. But racism is, ultimately, thought not action. The oft-cited call to “eradicate racism,” then, is implicitly a call to manipulate and reform thought. Viewed in this light, the failure of the civil rights crusaders, in which so many in our society have been complicit, may be perhaps not that they have been unable to surmount the boundless narrow-mindedness of Americans but rather that they have set themselves an absurd and, if I may say, a totalitarian goal, not that of reforming the outward conditions of life but rather of transforming people’s minds.

The stigmatization of racial views in America now seems to me an at least equal, if not far graver, injustice than the minor forms of outward discrimination that still exist, now that the mere holding of racist (or more generally “discriminatory”) views, much less espousing them, is more or less generally considered a crime. But this is itself a greater crime against the intellectual openness of our society, where most any view, no matter how perverse or frightening, usually is, and certainly should be, tolerated, on the grounds that all ideas are legitimate and freely held, that they do not incur moral force or liability until they translate into action. Of course, determining to what extent ideas shape action is no easy matter, but I believe that I can demonstrate that in this matter the ideas themselves are being targeted, not the the actions that might ensue from them. To wit: imagine to yourself a party or some other social function, in which a guest said something to this effect: “I believe that, given the problems associated with the over-proliferation of humanity, the sanctity of life is a load of shit and, furthermore, that a certain percentage of the infants born each year in the world ought to be slaughtered.” Now imagine that another guest were to say (presumably in a different context): “I believe that black people are generally lazy and stupid.” Now imagine, in virtually any social setting, which view would face more immediate opprobium and hostility. Now I grant that a certain perverse rationality lies in the first statement, and that it could perhaps be stated more psychopathically, but no matter how the core sentiments in each case were phrased, I don’t think it would even be a close contest. Talking about baby-killing would probably cause some embarassment in almost any setting, probably some real hostility if it happened to be a particularly religious gathering, but in the case of the second, I venture to say that almost anyone saying such a thing would be almost assured of losing a friend or two before the night was over; if his boss or co-workers happened to be there, he would likely lose a job and maybe a career. I could even see a lawsuit or two erupting.

This scenario may be somewhat exaggerated, but it surely indicates the fundamental disjunction that seems to exist in the realm of anything considered “discriminatory.” It is an evil that has resulted from the attempt to coerce peoples’ ideas. Not only the principal of intellectual freedom dictates that we should attempt no such thing; prudence dictates this course as well, for prejudice will always exist. In the the sense that prejudice represents an ignorant and generalized view towards something or someone(s), most ideas are inherently prejudicial. So really it is not even prejudice itself that is being quarantined, but merely a particular class of discrete ideas. And this is pure authoritarian nonsense. No society can ever be free when ideas are subject to persecution.

August 09, 2004


Posted by Curt at 02:15 AM in Literature | permalink | comment


"In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms."
--Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
--William Butler Yeats, 1939

August 07, 2004

Geek ink

Posted by shonk at 02:48 AM in Geek Talk | permalink | 3 comments

So the other day I’m walking down the street behind a girl in a sundress and gigantic sunglasses (ironically, it wasn’t a particularly sunny day), when I happen to look down at her feet and notice she has an unusual tattoo across the back of her left ankle. It’s very small, but as I’m about to pass her I finally realize that it’s the quadratic formula, tattooed right across her Achilles tendon. Which was a bit of a shock. I mean, lame Celtic scrollwork, flames, barbed wire strands, Chinese characters and various other designs are pretty standard for people to permanently etch on their skin these days, but the quadratic equation?

Being the geek that I am, I admit it posed a bit of a quandary; I mean, that’s a dedication to geekiness that I can admire, but, at the same time, the quadratic equation is sort of, well, middle-schoolish, don’t you think? Let’s just say I would have been more impressed if it had been the Gauss-Bonnet Formula or the Riemann Zeta Function or something.