Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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August 07, 2009
dead words

A column in last week's Yated Ne'eman newspaper

                [generally & among other things an illuminating source for certain scandal coverage & opinion]
              mentions an amazing story:

The Gemara describes that after R'Eliezer Ben R'Shimon died, his body lay in the attic of his home. Two people who had a financial dispute would bring their case before him, and a voice would emanate from the room and declare a halachic decision.

The column, by one R. Hool, sources the story to the recently studied Daf 84b in the Bava Metzia, and is entitled "Supernatural Solutions."

Supernatural indeed. Some additional details on R. Eliezer are here:
Before he died he told his wife: . . . "You shall leave me in the attic and do not be afraid of me." She followed his wishes and kept him in the attic for 18 to 20 years after his death. . . .

She once found a worm in his ear and was upset, until he appeared to her that night in a dream and told her, "It is nothing to be upset about for this is a punishment for my having allowed a young scholar to be insulted in my presence..."

After his death, whenever two people came to his house for a lawsuit, they would stand at the door and state their cases. A voice would then issue from the attic: "You, ploni, are just/unjust with your claims."

Of the many potentially reflection-worthy aspects here, R. Hoon reflects on only a couple. These aspects revolve around the propriety of relying on otherworldly sources of juridical guidance, with particular regard to the scope of parties bound by the decision, and rulings on fact vs. law.

[update 8/26/09:

It's perhaps a(n ever) timely topic.

e.g., "Amulets and Predictions, for $180 A Pop," here.]

TiR imagines that at least someone might reflect instead on the question of whether the story of R. Eliezer is deeply creepy.

However, maybe that question cannot be answered, or even posed, without giving offense somehow someday to someone, who might read this, who probably doesn't deserve offense.

So instead let's step back, look at the question again, and ask, "What does 'creepy' mean, anyway?"

Here's an oblique way to answer that question: "What does 'everyone' not consider creepy, these days?"

The topic of the current state of the idea of "creepiness" -- its subtle migration, subterranean expansion, the "concept creep" of The Creepy?
[TheoryWatch blog thought about the same notion last autumn, we now see]
-- deserves a blog post here of its own, someday.

For the time being, though, we will note a classic statement by the guy from The Shins, in an early 2007 interview about a 2001 song:
[I]n my circle of friends -- this was my circle of friends, especially in Albuquerque -- you drink and you hang out and you talk and you make jokes and you do all that stuff, but as soon as you start talking about anything real, something that actually moves you or anything like that, it's just f--king awkward.

You know, there's a lot of ways to kill a party -- talking about politics and that sh-t -- but I'm talking about anything that's heartfelt. . . . [S]o "Caring Is Creepy" is where that came from.

Given our zeitgeist's apparent ongoing interest in colonizing new territory for the Creepy, then TiR might perversely ask why the words of a dead person, spoken from his attic, which issue a ruling (if that's technically how we are to understand the voice in the story of R. Eleazar), should be considered to be any creepier than the rule-issuing words of a person, often no less dead, that are codified in a constitution, a bill of rights or even a didactic work of literature. Why are we not skeeved out, in the latter cases, given who's doing the talking?

Why do we not automatically consign the writings of everyone to the flames upon the writer's death, as requested by Kafka and Dickinson? Why does it not seem unnatural to have the deceased "speak" to us in written form, when to hear their voice "in person" would freak most of us (with some exceptions) right out? To think this way about writing becomes easy, if you try it for a few minutes as a thought experiment.

TiR thus wonders about the motivations behind prohibitions (superstitions?) against writing, in certain past civilizational situations.

One imagines how an insistence on an "Oral Law," or on the spoken, could be important in any number of circumstances: if your group placed priority on keepings its rules fresh, flexible, tightly coherent and "living"; if it mistrusted literacy as a kind of elitism or sorcery; or rather if it valued the power of the sophistical and golden tongued.

Caesar observed that the Druids were one society with a prohibition against writing:

They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing . . .

That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory.

They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded.
(Gallic Wars, Book 6, Chap. 14)

[but see the words of this deceased fellow:

To be a poet is to know how to leave speech. To let it speak alone, which it can do only in its written form.


Arche-speech is writing because it is a law. A natural law. The beginning word is understood, in the intimacy of self-presence, as the voice of the other and as commandment.

. . . whatever these mean.]

TiR appreciates the Druidical implication that, each time one writes, a little bit of one's soul leaks out, leaving less for survival into any possible afterlife.

(The belief that to leave a written record is the very opposite of immortality seems itself to be the very opposite of modernity's belief.)

The same probably goes for blogging. Which is probably why the Druids so rarely blogged.