John Gittings: The Glorious Art of Peace

The author of The Glorious Art of Peace says history is usually studied and written from the perspective of war, and can look very different when viewed from the perspective of peace. The author John Gittings was part of the UK’s nuclear disarmament movement and an editor and writer for The Guardian. He’s also associate editor of The Oxford International Encyclopaedia of Peace. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Gittings from The Browser:

Your book tours us through peace “from the Iliad to Iraq.” What core point did you most want to get across with it?

What I wanted to get across is that there is more than one perspective from which one can look at history. A lot of our history has been written from the perspective of war, and the moment you start looking at it from the perspective of peace, you get very different answers. That is why I began with “The Iliad,” because most people would regard it as a tale of war and not of peace.

You wanted to draw particular attention to Book 18 – why?

I would say, first of all, that throughout “The Iliad” there is a counter-narrative of lost opportunities for peace. Obviously, if peace had been achieved there would have been no Trojan war or it would have come to an end sooner. But Homer reminds us from time to time that there were alternatives. There’s a very remarkable scene in book two, near the beginning, when the entire Greek army, misunderstanding a speech by their commander Agamemnon, turns on its heels and runs to the boats, hoping to go back home. Homer is telling us that the rank and file were not bent on fighting to the end. The gods, on that occasion, intervene to stop the Greek army from sailing away. Even the wily Odysseus is unable to stop his men from launching their boats.

Book 18 is significant because it describes the making of a new shield for Achilles, who had withdrawn from battle. His friend Patroclus had borrowed his armor in his place and been killed, and his armor had been seized by the Trojans. So Achilles needed a new suit of armor, which was made for him by the heavenly blacksmith Hephaestus. If you read other accounts of Greek warriors, what you put on your shield is invariably something to frighten the enemy – a Gorgon’s head or a serpent or a wild lion. Homer instead describes a set of images on Achilles’ shield, almost all of which are concerned with peace not war – including young men and women dancing, laborers in the field bringing in the harvest grapes or plowing the fields, and a council in which a case is arbitrated by peaceful means. This assembly of images, in my view, is designed to tell us that there is, or should be, a peaceful alternative to war.

So Homer, or whoever wrote “The Iliad,” had a peace agenda?

This is also an example of the passages in Homer which lead me to believe he was a single individual, because if it was stitched together from epic material then a scene such as the above would not appear – there would be stock images of a much more conventional shield instead. Homer, like Shakespeare, encompassed all humanity in his work, and in “The Iliad” he encompasses peace as well as war. A number of Homeric scholars have pointed out that the text, as we have it, is divided roughly into three thirds. The central third is almost entirely concerned with war and fighting. But the first third, where the plot is developed, is very different, and so is the final third. So the subject matter of “The Iliad” is war, but the feelings and emotions of the people concerned are much more complex.

Read the whole interview.

George Herbert: ‘Love bade me welcome’

In the middle of the night, I was reading the notes in Adrienne Rich’s new poetry collection Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. Rich quotes from Simone Weil’s The Iliad or The Poems of Force. The reference pushed me off to look up collections of Weil’s writings. While reading an article on Weil’s experience reciting the “Pater Noster” in Greek, I came across a reference to her favorite poem: “Love” by George Herbert (1593-1632). I leave it here for you, as an offering of gratitude.

Love
by George Herbert

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here.’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkinde, ungrateful? Ah, my deare,
I cannot look on thee.’

Love took my hand and smiling did reply:
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love; ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My deare, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

‘D’oh! I Thought This Was A Confessional’

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, declared Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, and Maggie (aka The Simpsons) to be a Roman Catholic family.

With more than 20 years of episodes under their belts, the dysfunctional working-class family whose dynamics and perspectives offer biting social critique of American society have found a home under the Vatican wing. L’Osservatore Romano wrote:

…In an article headlined “Homer and Bart are Catholics”, the Vatican newspaper said: “The Simpsons are among the few TV programs for children in which Christian faith, religion, and questions about God are recurrent themes.”

The family “recites prayers before meals and, in their own peculiar way, believes in the life thereafter”. It quoted an analysis by a Jesuit priest, Father Francesco Occhetta, of a 2005 episode of The Simpsons, “The Father, the Son and the Holy Guest Star,” which revolved around Catholicism and was aired a few weeks after the death of Pope John Paul II.

The episode starts with Bart being expelled from Springfield Elementary School and being enrolled in a Catholic school where he meets a sympathetic priest, voiced by the actor Liam Neeson, who draws him into Catholicism with his kindness. Homer then decides to convert to Catholicism, to the horror of his wife Marge, the Rev Lovejoy and Ned Flanders. The episode touches on issues such as religious conflict, interfaith dialogue, homosexuality and stem cell research.

“Few people know it, and he does everything he can to hide it, but it is true: Homer J Simpson is a Catholic,” insists L’Osservatore Romano.

The Simpsons even skewers its own success. See below U.K. graffiti artist Banksy’s dark satire of the sweat shops that produce Simpsons paraphernalia.

One could call it an animated reflection on Rerum Novarum: On Capital and Labor (Pope Leo XIII, 1891) and “the right of workers and dignity of work.”

Van Gogh: ‘It is Good to Love Thorns’

For the first time all the letters of Vincent Van Gogh have been collected and published in a 6-volume set. I’ve been interested in Van Gogh since my parents lived for a year in Nuenen, Netherlands, where Van Gogh painted The Potato Eaters. Below is an excerpt from one of Van Gogh’s letters and an article by Mary Tompkins Lewis from The Wall Street Journal on the new release of letters.

The Potato Eaters
The Potato Eaters

When one eats a crust of black rye bread it’s certainly good to think of the words ‘Tunc justi fulgebunt ut sol in regnum Patris sui’ (Then shall the righteous shine forth as the Sun in the Kingdom of their Father), or also when one very often has muddy boots or wet, dirty clothes. May we all at sometime enter into that kingdom which is not of this world, where they do not marry and are not given in marriage, where the sun shall be no more thy light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee, but the Lord shall be an Everlasting Light, and God our glory, where the sun shall no more go down, neither shall the moon withdraw itself, for the Lord shall be thine Everlasting Light, and the days of mourning shall be ended and God shall wipe away all tears from the eyes.

And so we can be leavened with the leaven of ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’, being what we are through God’s grace, having in the secret recesses of the heart the words ‘I never despair’ because we have faith in God. And then ‘Set your face as a flint’ are really good words in many circumstances, and also ‘be like an iron pillar or like an old oak tree’. It’s also good to love thorns, such as the thorn-hedges around the little English church or the roses in the cemetery, they’re so beautiful these days, yes, if one could make oneself a crown of the thorns of life, not for the people but with which one is seen by God, then one would do well.–Vincent Van Gogh

vangoghletter

Over 800 letters written by van Gogh have survived, most of them addressed to his younger brother, Theo, an art dealer and an indefatigable source of support, and 80 others received from friends and family were saved by the artist. But while many of these letters had been published over the years, they hadn’t been approached in their entirety as the illustrious literary monument they are, or with the fullest sense of their import for his art and career. This has now become possible with the publication of all of the artist’s extant correspondence in Vincent van Gogh—The Letters, a richly annotated and illustrated six-volume compendium, and the launch of a related, scholarly and eminently searchable Web edition (www.vangoghletters.org). In tandem and in time, they will undoubtedly reshape the landscape of van Gogh scholarship and the image of the artist long held by the public.

In both versions of the text—the culmination of 15 years of research and edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker—each letter is newly transcribed (the originals are also captured in facsimile on the Web site), painstakingly retranslated without adornment or amendment, and in some cases redated in accordance with new research. A few letters, previously unknown or fragmented, are also added to the lot. They are accompanied by thumbnail reproductions, many in color, of every work of art van Gogh discussed in his incessant musings on painting, including his own. Brief sketches introduce each haunt of his short, peripatetic career, and every person, place or event mentioned even in passing is likewise explained in copious notes. Van Gogh was a voracious reader, and epistolary exhortations to friends to read his favorite authors peppered his writings. His countless literary references, which ranged from Homer to Zola, are also enumerated here in depth. Though no new attempt is made to interpret his work (a massive bibliography invites others to the task), one comes away astonished at the ardor and depth of van Gogh’s immersion into a cultural world we have long thought he knew only from a distance.–Mary Tompkins Lewis

Read Mary Tompkins Lewis’ whole article here. There’s also a lovely online slide show.