donderdag 26 maart 2015


Recently the book Isabella. The Warrior Queen appeared, written by Kirstin Downey, about Queen Isabella of Spain. She was the wife of King Ferdinand and together they at the end of the fifteenth century managed to expulse the Muslims and Jews from Spain.

The book was recently discussed by Nina Weijers. In doing so she made use of a certain cliché that gradually has become implausible, and which therefore I think it is better not to use any longer.

I refer to the following passage (about Isabella): “Although she was fond of the New Testament, her mentality was more Old Testament in nature. As Downey concludes: ‘She was always more inclined to claim an eye for an eye than to turn the other cheeck.’”.

I object to the misguided nature of a suchlike passage, including the presented quote. Because what happens in the passage is paradoxical:
- It starts uncritically from a specific cliché, namely, the association of the New Testament with love and rejection of the principle of an eye for an eye.
- Then it notes that a supporter of the New Testament simply employs the principle of an eye for an eye.
- In the last sentence it restores the association of the New Testament with  turning the other cheek.

I do object to this because - in spite of the factual reality - the labels of New Testament and Old Testament remain intact: Old Testament = violence, New Testament = love.

This is correct to the extent to which the New Testament is another book with a different content. But I think that, once a book has gone along for thousands of years, our associations must be determined not only by the content. The actual intercourse with it by authority figures and its cultural integration must weigh in the associations we attach to them. From that point of view Isabella’s performance would well be exemplary of the action of many other New Testament lovers. If so then that, in my opinion, should affect the automatic associations we attribute to the New Testament.

My suggestion would therefore be to permanently wipe from our minds those clichéd associations. Because the clichés continue to produce misunderstandings and subcutaneously keep playing their dark role. When erasing them we can let us help by recognizing the reality of nuclear deterrence strategy of the Christian West, which has been based for decades on the principle: if you’ll hit, I will hit you first. Or by the position taken by leaders from the New Testament Eastern European culture as Putin and Poroshenko. The latter recently told us: “Do not think that we turn the other cheek when we are attacked”.

Maybe there is not much difference between the Old and New Testament. And is the real difference where people start murdering or beheading out of the blue, rather than in people who use rules of equal retribution for their own defense. The latter may be quite human. Turning the other cheek seems to me rarely an option anyway.

Also see Holy fire and Landmarks

zondag 15 maart 2015

The pedantic novel

There is a number of things in our society that are surrounded with an aura of loftiness. I think of the prestige of getting to know other cultures, distant travel, and reading novels. In itself there is nothing wrong with that, because these are all venerable activities.

But there is one recurring aspect of that prestige that bothers me, and that’s the moral pretension that is (too) often linked to it. By traveling and reading you’d become a better human being, because you learn to enter into the world of others.

Let me premise: any insight into a different way of thinking is a broadening of the mind. Therefore, travel, cultural exchanges and novels certainly have an added value. What I object to is the pretentious claim that may go therewith.

Take reading novels. Recently Beatrice de Graaf said to believe that the novel is an irreplaceable source of knowledge, because it is the only way to get into someone else’s head. “Only the novel does justice to the complexity of feelings, thoughts and motives that guide our behavior”.

That’s simply not true, because there is at least one other way, which is that of the confronting real-life encounter with another human being, a phenomenon that in my workshops I extensively explore with participants. It indeed háppens that a person, in conversation with someone else, is convinced that his interlocutor will think so and so about a certain matter. And that then the sobering surprise appears that the interlocutor thinks totally differently. If that happens to you, you have for one moment been right in the other’s head.

So it is not true that reading novels would be the royal or even only way to that end. Therefore that pretension bothers me, but perhaps even more because of the underlying scheme leading to that pretension. Namely that the real life confrontations are ignored, in favor of a spectator’s confrontation. Priority is given to the situation in which you sit down into your armchair and have chosen a particular story; over the situation in which life itself, in the person of another human being, confronts you with another universe.

In the end, we intend to retain control. We draw back, decide when and how and how far to be confronted. That’s legitimate, and broadening of our horizons will certainly occur. But please let’s not pretend that it is the only way, nor that it enables you to know the world. In ordinary daily life, even of non-readers, often more world enlarging confrontations occur than we would like to have it.

Also see Sacred imagination and Levinas and Empathy