From Above the Frozen Potomac

We are standing on a flood-scoured tongue of rock that juts down from the banks of the Potomac River, a mile or so below the mouth of the river’s great gorge, a gorge headed by the mighty Great Falls. The cries of geese settling down into an open basin of water within the ice-choked river overwhelm the distant hum of the interstate. That hum is the only indication of how close we are to ‘civilization,’ and to the very seat of the American imperium. The sprawling organs of that state are but a few miles downstream, but here—here the broad river is silent under sheets of ice, melt-water pooling here and there as the temperature has risen a bit above freezing the last couple of days. Beneath the ice the river is strong, is pure power and energy, surging towards the sea. It bubbles up from under the ice in the oval basin where the geese have found refuge, and here and there in riffles and surges. I scan the sprawling sheets of ice, multicoloured, sinuous, maps to other worlds that intertwine with ours but will always lie out of our grasping reach. Near the river’s right bank—the Maryland side, though this is a designation that lies so lightly on the land, and will one day pass away—my eyes fall upon a scuttling, flapping black mass. A circle of black vultures, gathered around some victim of the river’s ice, stark and brilliant against the pale grays, blues, and whites. Overhead, a grey sky hangs heavy and cold, reaching down into the ghostly limbs of the sycamores that rise above the river’s banks, seeps into the ancient stone.

I shift upon the river-scoured stone, witness to the last great age of ice, when the decaying continental ice sheets unleashed world-shaking floods on this stretch of river, and cut across and down into the incredibly ancient metamorphic rock that jaggedly breaks upon the earth’s surface here. The cold rises up from the frozen river’s surface. I check to make sure my little son—tomorrow is his tenth month birthday—is warm, his face turned inwards to my chest, snuggled and asleep for now. Later, by the lively river rapids further down he will wake back up and take in the mighty beauty, but at the moment he sleeps against me, warm and peaceful. There are no other humans in sight from here. At points along the river, outside of the Park Service domains, mansions of the rich leer down, but from where we are standing they are invisible, cloaked by hill and stone and tree.

For a moment I think of the halls of power downstream. The river’s waters will flow past them soon, but they will pay the halls and the mighty men and women and the monuments and the sprawling buildings and high-rises no heed. I think: one day, perhaps soon, perhaps in the far distant future if the Eschaton tarries, the monuments will crumble, the detritus of empire will accumulate out in the Potomac’s outflow into the Chesapeake. The river will still be here. The ice will spread across the river, the vultures will gather and enact their age-old somber and joyous dance, turning death back into life. Perhaps the ravens and bears will have come down from the mountains by then, adding their gronks to the cold air, their tracks over the snow. The works of men will perish, thank God. There is a strange comfort in the thought, and comfort in our sharing in this moment and space of the wild, the sublime and the beautiful, so close to so much that is not beautiful, that is destructive and terrible and which lays waste to the earth, to the soul, to the good. I cannot dislodge the systems and powers downstream, and I do not love to think that my son will inherit a world marked by the same or similar ones. I do not know what the ecologies and landscapes that I love and that I hope he will love, too, will be like in ten or twenty years. But while nothing is certain, I am hopeful that places like this, moments like this, will remain, that one day he can stand above a frozen river in the depths of January, perhaps with a germ of memory of this very day, and breath in the wild, feel the charge of—yes—holiness, of the grandeur of God, and the impermanence of the works of man, good and bad, and listen to the silence of the ice, the faint rustle of the river oats, the power of the river in motion, and to be present in it.

Sense Can Come Only From the Sacred

‘The omnipresent Nietzschean or Sartrean chimera which proclaims that man can liberate himself totally, from everything, can free himself of tradition and of all pre-existing sense, and that all sense can be decreed by arbitrary whim, far from unfurling before us the prospect of divine self-creation, leaves us suspended in darkness. And in this darkness, where all things are equally good, all things are also equally indifferent. Once I believe that I am the all-powerful creator of all possible sense, I also believe that I have no reason to create anything whatsoever. But this is a belief that cannot be accepted in good faith and can only give rise to a desperate flight from nothingness to nothingness.

‘To be totally free with respect to sense, free of all pressure from tradition, is to situate oneself in a void and thus, quite simply, to disintegrate. And sense can come only from the sacred; it cannot be produced by empirical research. The utopia of man’s autonomy and the hope of unlimited perfection may be the most efficient instruments of suicide ever to have been invented by human culture.’


« La chimère nietzschéenne ou sartrienne, tellement répandue parmi nous, selon laquelle l’homme peut se libérer totalement, se libérer de tout – de toute la tradition et de tout sens préexistant– et qui proclame que tout sens se laisse décréter selon une volonté ou un caprice arbitraires, cette chimère, loin d’ouvrir à l’homme la perspective de l’autoconstitution divine, le suspend dans la nuit. Or dans cette nuit où tout est également bon, tout est, aussi bien, également indifférent. Croire que je suis le créateur tout-puissant de tout sens possible, c’est croire que je n’ai aucune raison pour créer quoi que ce soit. Mais c’est une croyance qui ne se laisse pas admettre de bonne foi, et qui ne peut que produire une fuite enragée du néant vers le néant.

« Être totalement libre à l’égard du sens, être libre de toute pression de la tradition, c’est se situer dans le vide, donc éclater tout simplement. Et le sens ne vient que du sacré, parce qu’aucune recherche empirique ne peut le produire. L’utopie de l’autonomie parfaite de l’homme et l’espoir de la perfectibilité illimitée sont peut-être les outils de suicide les plus efficaces que la culture humaine ait inventés. »

Leszek Kolakowski, ‘La revanche du sacré dans la culture profane,’ translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska, in Le besoin religieux, 1973

Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self

A Visual Essay

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as any pilgrim or tourist visiting it quickly discovers, is a massive, maze-like structure, or, really, assemblage of structures, including the Tomb of Christ and of Golgotha but also numerous other chapels, rooms, and other elements. Somewhat closer investigation starts to reveal the multiple layers of construction and use, going all the way back the first century AD (and probably further, since the Tomb was located in the side of an already old quarry outside of the Herodian walls of the city). While the names of prominent men and women are often attached to these various architectural layers, beginning with Constantine and his mother Helena, the traces of far humbler pilgrims to the great church are also visible, if one knows where to look. Yet, as I observed on my visits to the church earlier this year, the steady streams of pilgrims and tourists, clergy and tour guides, pass right by these fascinating reminders of the centuries of pious visitors who have traveled- often over great distances and in difficult circumstances- to venerate the empty Tomb of Christ.

The largely Crusader-era main entrance to the church, with entrance and front facade giving little indication of the size of the church’s sprawling interior. The pious graffiti is most abundant around the doors near the center of the picture.

Covering the columned framing of the great doors to the main entrance to the church are perhaps hundreds of instances of ‘pious graffiti’- prayers, names, dates, and short texts carved into the stone by pilgrims. Deeper inside the church, in a stairwell leading down to the Chapel of St. Helena, sunk within the living rock, are hundreds of neatly carved crosses left by Crusaders, also as pious graffiti marking and memorializing their pilgrimage. While in the modern world such defacement is looked down on and even seen as criminal, Continue reading “Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self”

A Mad Saint, a Dervish, and a Flash-Flood

The following is a pair of Muslim saints’ lives, included in a biographical compilation (Luṭf al-samar wa qaṭf al-thaman) by an early 17th century Ottoman author from Damascus, Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, the scion of a prominent family of ‘ulama, and one of the more prolific Damascene authors of the first part of the 17th century. His biographical histories include many saints’ lives, with a special emphasis on holy men with whom he or his saintly brother Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ghazzī had contact. Perusing the pages of these collected lives, a veritable ecosystem of sainthood and sanctity comes to life, populated by individuals of striking piety and of often controversial actions and behavior. Sainthood was and is a deeply social phenomenon, particularly in the Ottoman world wherein no ecclesial or political authority offered canonical guidance in the question of who was and was not a ‘true’ friend of God. Rather, something of a consensus among devotees would emerge, often alongside challenges from other directions, concerning a given person’s sanctity and closeness to God.

In the first life which I have translated here, we meet an enigmatic majdhūb, or possessed saint, who displayed seemingly erratic and irrational behavior, interpreted by those around him as the manifestation of jadhb, or divine attraction. Like many such majadhīb, he seems to have come from a rural environment, and in lieu of complex doctrinal teachings, he manifested his sainthood through strange, even shocking actions. And like many such possessed saints, he deliberately transgressed social boundaries, in particular, strictures on gender segregation and contact. His companion, Dervish Ḥusayn, was also marked by his transgressing of social norms, in his case, through living for a time an extremely hermetical life, even refusing to speak directly to most pious visitors. Yet before we imagine a gulf between such ‘transgressive’ forms of sanctity and the scholarly ‘ulama class from which our author hailed, al-Ghazzī also describes the ties of members of the ‘ulama with these two saints. Dervish Ḥusayn, for instance, made an exception to his hermit’s life to discuss religious matters with al-Ghazzī and his shaykh.

Finally, these two lives, Continue reading “A Mad Saint, a Dervish, and a Flash-Flood”

Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives

A symbolic depiction of Ukrainian nationalism, c. 1920

While the world probably doesn’t need any more commentary on the recent American election, I’d like to offer some anyway, though in a way that looks at happenings beyond the US to the rest of the world, where we see related patterns unfolding according to local particularities and conditions. While the US is its own case, it is also part of an interconnected world, the ties of global capitalism, human movement, globalized classes, elites, and political structures, and other things working to move American realities in directions broadly congruent with other, often quite different, parts of the world. My thoughts here—which are reflective of the halting directions my political thought have been taking as of late, but should not be interpreted as final or fully coherent—are springing off an article by Jonathan Haidt from back in the summer, but which is rather prescient and worth reading in its own right. What follows here, then, are three interlinking thoughts precipitated by, but in some cases sharply diverging from, Haidt’s article.

One, while right now the dominant options are either liberal ‘cosmopolitan’ globalism or some form of nationalism, within the framework of nation-states (whether more autonomous or more directed from supra-national entities being at question) and of some form of globalized (if not globalist) capitalism, those are not in fact the only options. To give but one example, Continue reading “Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives”

Some Reflections on the Aftermath of the American Election

Political ideologies are deeply toxic, psychologically destructive things. Their function is fairly simple: they allow people to navigate the contours of states and industrial economies, and they offer the surest routes into the ‘core’ of such entities. They map the terrain. But in so doing, they also preclude all other terrain. Modern ideologies, even when they incorporate ‘extraneous’ elements, reduce all other forms of identity and meaning and value into a homogenized, internally bound whole. When these ideologies encounter insurmountable incongruity, or outright collapse, the damage to individual psyches and emotional well being is enormous, as all the erasures of identity and personality come to light in the gaping wound left by epistemic collapse. The subject is left confused and troubled, anxious to rediscover the surety that was there before.

In the American context, liberalism—here understood in the American vernacular rendering, though the broader sense should be kept in mind—is the primary, or perhaps, strongest vehicle of this totalizing effect, of this subsumption of all else into one overriding, all-structuring political and ideological identity and generator of meaning and social value. Conservatism by its very nature lacks systematization, and requires the existence of other values, other traditions, other forms of life, to give it meaning—even if all those other things are themselves deeply deformed and distorted by the effects of modernity (and in the American case this is especially true). Over time, it is true, many of the identities and traditions and forms of life which flow into conservatism have themselves become artefacts of ideology, integrated into the logics of the state and its political, value, and linguistic systems, albeit in often erratic and unpredictable ways (the current political disruption being one such effect). But the multiplicity of identity and meaning among conservatives remains, if only in tatters—not necessarily healthier or less damaging psychologically, but perhaps with slightly more openings out. Perhaps.

For liberals, however, everything tends to be reduced to political identity, Continue reading “Some Reflections on the Aftermath of the American Election”

Notes Towards a Theory of Modernity, and Other Things

The following are some thoughts and outlines of theory that aim at encapusalating some of my developing thought on human social order, the dynamics of historical change (particularly in the modern world, as we call it), and so on, which do not really ‘fit’ into my own academic work, but which lie behind how I think about the pre-modern world and my role as an observer and shaper of historical knowledge, which is always knowledge intimately tied up with the present. These are quickly assembled thoughts-out-loud, but I hope they prove of interest and use to the reader who takes the effort to navigate them.

1. On Discontinuities and Disorder: One of the problems that particularly marks our age—by which I mean the last half century or so, though with extensions backwards through the era of Western industrialization—is the problem (which is also a potent problématique) of radically discontinuous time scales within conjunctive social, political, economic, and ecological systems and processes. While technical advances and developments, be they in socio-political organization, economic systems, or actual technology, have moved many aspects of life on this earth into incredibly high-speed trajectories, they have been unable—and are most likely necessarily unable—to effect such transformations across the board. In fact, many of the most salient and vital processes, systems, and exigencies remain on time scales similar to or the same as during any period of post-agricultural revolution human history, and in some cases—particularly ecological and geological aspects—pre-human time scales. If our technics allow, for instance, for rapid, unpredictable socio-political disintegration, it is not clear that they encourage symmetrical forms of re-integration and re-formation, processes which are slow and unsteady, and which tend to require periods of relative stability and, crucially, extended time scales. One of the results of these discontinuities, I think, has been the rapid cyclical processing of global history, with periods of incredibly rapid formation and development along many metrics, followed by equally incredible periods of collapse and destruction. The succeeding periods of re-integration and re-building tend to automatically have the seeds of their dissolution built into them, accelerating the cycle. Of course, different societies have had very different responses to this process due to vastly differing historical circumstances and contingencies, but all societies have been subject to it, and it is possible that we are seeing, in this very historical moment, convergences towards a single unitary period of dissolution, with no clear route forward afterwards. Technics are growing more and more integrated and rapid, obliterating many quotidian time scales, yet proving incapable of shoring up or replacing many of the social systems, ecological processes, and interpersonal relationships that they are helping to either obliterate or destabilize. We are faced with a situation in which stable, resilient systems are necessary more than ever, but the tools and exigencies at our disposal increasingly trend in the very opposite direction.

2. What I am Trying to Do: The sort of theoretical position, the philosophical-political vantage point I am seeking in what I think and write, is a stance that seeks, Continue reading “Notes Towards a Theory of Modernity, and Other Things”