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NYUAD Institute Talk

By all accounts, the lecture that I gave for the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on Wednesday night went well. The title of the talk was “Cosmopolitanism, Multiculturalism, and the Promise of Literature.” Like Joanna’s lecture on the Silk Road, it took place at the Al Mamoura Auditorium in the building that houses the Abu Dhabi Education Council, which is the group that serves as our sponsor in Abu Dhabi. Here’s the blurb that I’d given them about the lecture:

Originating in the idea of the world citizen and conceived in contradistinction to nationalism, cosmopolitanism can be understood as a way of building community by embracing rather than avoiding difference. This lecture will explore the ways in which a cosmopolitan perspective responds to problems posed by contemporary Western multiculturalism. It will also suggest that literature offers distinctive resources for the cosmopolitan thinker.

In the lecture, which owes much to the work of Kwame Anthony Appiah and David Hollinger, I tried to tie together a number of elements from my recent scholarship and thinking: the problems posed by overly pluralist conceptions of multiculturalism; the problems posed by the desire for “cultural purity,” the power of “emergent writing,” Zoroastrianism, and Melville’s Moby-Dick. In addition to serving as a way of tying together these strands, Moby-Dick was intended to offer a case study in the ways that a text can mobilize cosmopolitan perspectives and finally as an entree to the idea that “literature offers distinctive resources for the cosmopolitan thinker.”

That idea is the least developed in my current work, but potentially the most intriguing. I wanted to get at the idea that great literature promotes a cosmopolitan embrace of difference because it often asks you to do precisely that: embrace a different consciousness than your own. In the case, for example, of reading a novel, what you do if you become immersed in it is to let the consciousness of another take over your own.

If you’re interested, you can download the script that formed the basis of the lecture here.

The talk was also accompanied by PowerPoint that I hoped would make the lecture a little more vivid by presenting images and also the block quotes that I was using. I confess that I was worried that I had included too much material about Moby-Dick, a text that I’d assumed my audience had heard of but not read. I tried to solve the problem by telling stories about the text and anecdotes related to the text (in particular, the sinking of the whaleship Essex in the South Seas and Melville’s reaction to reading Owen Chase’s account of it). I tried to survey the audience: only one or two seemed to be asleep, and I really couldn’t complain about that since I myself had succumbed to jet lag during my colleague Joanna’s talk: apparently at precisely the moment that she made a reference to Zoroastrianism! (Whoops!)

The question and answer session was gratifyingly lively and gave me many things to think about. Indeed, I expect to be meditating on some of these questions more here in the days to come.

I had a question from a colleague at Zayed University about language differences, translation, and whether cosmopolitan conversation was predicated on a shared language. I tried to suggest that language was yet another gulf that the cosmopolitan tried to cross by whatever means he or she could and that one of the opportunities presented by the present moment is the fact that texts were so quickly translated and disseminated. And I suggested that one of the goals of the NYUAD literature program would be to make students aware of both the limitations and opportunities accompany the translation of any text.

Another colleague from Zayed asked whether my suggestion that literature offers an opportunity for cosmopolitan experience was limited to texts that don’t themselves adopt a counter-cosmopolitan or fundamentalist attitude. I tried to suggest that in fact it would have been much more challenging to use exactly such a text as my case study, because I would like to be able to argue that even a counter-cosmopolitan text, insofar as it forces the reader to confront difference of perspective and consciousness, can encourage cosmopolitan thinking. And I talked a little about the way in which learning from the fundamentalist or from the provincial is the hardest thing for cosmopolitans to do today.

NYUAD Vice Chancellor Al Bloom gave me the opportunity to talk a little more about the interplay of sameness and difference, and I had the chance to talk a little about Anthony Appiah’s slogan version of cosmopolitanism — “universality plus difference” — which I’d chosen to omit from the lecture and about my take on the recent history of cosmopolitan theory, including ideas about “rooted cosmopolitanism.” I suggested that what can save  cosmopolitanism from being simply another Western idea imposed on everyone else is the idea that it is a “weak” conception of the good from a philosophical point of view. (Actually, in the event I didn’t use the phrase “W of the good” when responding; I wish I had.) It’s a structure, a container into which different ideas can be poured, so long as the ideas are compatible with the ideas of embracing difference and being willing to engage in dialogue across boundaries. A cosmopolitanism rooted in Abu Dhabi will have structural affinities with  cosmopolitanism rooted in New York, but also salient differences that enhance the cosmopolitan experience!

They put out a nice spread afterward, but I only had one nibble of it because so many people from the audience came up to ask questions and offer insights. I was particularly gratified to meet Alia Yunis, a novelist whose first book, The Night Counter, has been on my list of texts to add to read as part of my final revisions on the NYU Press book on emergent literatures. Now that I’ve met her, I’ve moved it to the top of my list. (She’ll be reading at the conference on the 1001 Nights that Philip Kennedy has organized for the NYUAD Institute this December. Check out her website and you’ll see why.)

With any luck, a number of  the people who said that they would e-mail me with further thoughts actually will! Meanwhile, i recorded the entire session and hopefully will have the courage to listen to the Q & A again soon. (You’re never quite as good as you thought you were when you listen to the actual tape!) I’d like to keep the conversation that I started at Al Mamoura going, even if only (for now) here in the ether.

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Zoroastrianism and Cosmopolitanism

Zoroastrianism was mentioned in John McCain’s interview last week on the ABC morning television show The View. (It happens at 2:10 in the YouTube clip above.) Trying to get McCain to talk about the implications of his choice of Sarah Palin to be running mate, Whoopi Goldberg asks McCain whether he believes in the separation of church and state:

Yes, we have Christian-Judeo beliefs, but we also have Muslims in this country, we have Zoroastrians in this country, we have wiccans in this country . . . [scattered applause]

The camera then turns to McCain, who’s looking into the audience and pointing and then says, “Zoroastrian . . . yes . . . thank you . . . good to see you.” Clearly, someone was standing up in the audience and identifying himself or herself as a Zoroastrian — if you happen to read this and it was you, let me know who you are! But I think Joy Behar may have been  mistaken when she said, “That’s one vote.” I suspect rather that the Zoroastrian in the audience was so flabbergasted to hear the religion mentioned in the same breath with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, that he or she had to stand up and be counted.

Zoroastrianism, you see, is a dying religion: a survey conducted in 2004 by the Fezana Journal, published quarterly by the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America estimated the number of Zoroastrians worldwide to be fewer than 190,000 and perhaps as few as 124,000. Zoroastrianism can only be passed down patrilineally, and it doesn’t accept converts. And, apparently, more and more young Zoroastrian women are marrying outside the faith.

The applause by the audience at The View suggested not only the audience-members agreed with the point that Goldberg was trying to make, but also that they were far more familiar with “wiccans” than “Zoroastrians.” Most of them, I am sure, would not know that Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world, that it predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that it influenced all of them and the ancient Greeks as well. The religion evolved from the pagan fire-worship that Zarathushtra encountered throughout Persia, and in Moby-Dick, Ishmael refers to Persia as “the home of the fire-worshippers.”

My students in Con West are going to know this. They’ve been reading Paul Kriwaczek’s In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World’s First Prophet (2003), a journalistic account of the influence of Zarathushtra that moves backward in time. (Kriwaczek adopts Nietzsche’s spelling of “Zarathushtra,” dropping the second “h.”) They’ve also read some excerpts from scholarly studies by Mary Boyce (Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices) and S. A. Nigosian (The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research).

One of the things I’m planning to stress this year more than last is the cosmopolitan nature of Zoroastrianism as practiced by Cyrus the Great and Darius I. The Persian Empire (which at its height rivalled ancient Rome and the Chinese Han dynasty) encompassed not only Persians and Medes, but also Babylonians, Bactrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, and Scythians. The Old Testament Book of Ezra relates that it was Cyrus who ordered the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and who ended the Jews’ Babylonian captivity.

This year I will show a picture of the famous “Cyrus Cylinder,” which was placed in the walls of Babylon in 539 BCE and discovered there in 1879.


The Cyrus Cylinder, ca. 539 BCE (British Museum)

Now housed in the British Museum, the Cylinder bears inscriptions written in Babylonian that promise a just and peaceful rule by the Persians. The text relates that Cyrus has promised to restore the gods of Babylon, especially Marduk, the patron god of the city, who had been rejected by the previous king, Nabonidus. The Cylinder claims that Cyrus has restored temples in neighboring countries and has allowed the return of their exiled peoples and and their gods.

As a further emblem of the Persian’s propensity for toleration, I’ll be using the story that Kriwacwzek relates from Herodotus about how Cyrus came to power by overthrowing his grandfather Astyages, the king of the Medes. After dreaming that his daughter’s loins would produce a vine that would overshadow all of Asia, Astyages was told by his soothsayers that his daughter’s son one one day rule in his place. So he ordered his nobleman Hapargus to murder the boy, but Hapargus could not bring himself to do it, instead leaving the boy with a poor herdsman. Cyrus eventually came to the king’s notice, and when the story of his childhood was revealed, Astyages exacted revenge on Hapargus by killing Hapargus’s thirteen-year-old son and serving the boy to his father at dinner. When Hapargus discovered what Astyages had done, he chose not to seek immediate revenge but to bide his time. Eventually, he helped Cyrus to the throne. Cyrus, however, chose not to kill Asytages: instead, he let the old man remain in court for the rest of his life (where, I suppose, Cyrus could keep an eye on him). According to Herodotus, Cyrus showed similar restraint toward other conquered rulers.

In Cyrus’s day, Zoroastrians were far more cosmopolitan those around them. Today, that cosmopolitanism seems likely to ensure the demise of the faith. In article called “Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling” (September 6, 2006), the New York Times wrote that “Zoroastrians’ mobility and adaptability has contributed to their demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures.”

Kriwacwzek’s book, however, suggests that the influence of Zoroastrianism remains strong throughout the Western religious tradition. One Islamist politician from Tajikistan tells Kriwaczek:

[The] faith lives on into the present. Zoroastrianism is the ideology of the future. Do you know what Zoroastrians believe? That the world is a battleground between good and evil and it is the duty of eveyrone to foster good and fight evil. Zoroastrianism failed in the end because it came to early in history. It is an idea for now. . . .

The world has become a very small place. For the first time we really can speak of a world community. To secure our future we must find a humanist philosophy. And Islam, supported by the message of Zoroaster, offers that philosophy.

Tomorrow’s playlist comes from songs that I used last year: the opening of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (of course), Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire.”

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The Crypto-History of the Historic Collapse of the New York Mets

nypost_front100107.jpg“The greatest late September collapse in the history of major league baseball is now complete.” That’s what Mets’ announcer Gary Cohen said after Luis Castillo struck out to end the team’s 162nd game, an 8-1 loss in which the Mets trailed 7-0 after the first half inning. Minutes later the Phillies defeated the Washington Nationals to win the Eastern Division, a division the Mets had led for over four months but lost on the final day of the season. Never before had a team with a seven-game lead and only 17 games left to play failed to finish in first place.

All around the city, Mets fans were asking themselves, “How could this have happened?”

I’m afraid I know. And only I know.

In spring training, the Phillie’s shortstop, Jimmy Rollins proclaimed that the Phillies were the team to beat. Mets fans laughed, particularly when the Phillies stumbled out of the gate. Rollins, now a likely frontrunner for the NL MPV award, finished with a rare 20-20-20-20 season (20 stolen bases, 20 homers, 20 triples and 20 doubles). Some people may want to add another 20-20 for vision in predicting that the Phillies would be the team to beat in the East. But that was only true for two days. For almost all of the season, the Mets were the team to beat. The irony is that the team that finally beat them wasn’t the Phillies, but the Mets themselves.

How did it happen? I know, and I wish I didn’t.

How could the Mets let themselves get swept not once but twice by the Phillies in the final five weeks of the season? How could the Mets go 1-6 in the final week of the season at home, playing against the fourth- and fifth-place teams in their division and a St. Louis team that had to fly in to Shea for a one-game make-up series? How could the Mets lose a game that they had led 5-0 on the final Wednesday of the season, and what was a rookie doing starting that game anyway? How could 300-game winner Tom Glavine give up seven runs in a third of an inning of work in the final game of the year after John Maine had pitched a near no-hitter the day before to give the Mets control of their destiny once again?

If you want to know why, read on. If you’re a Mets fan, read it and weep.

What follows is the crypto-history of the New York Mets for the past 21 years. It begins on October 25, 1986.

Here’s the short version: it was all my fault.

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Bush-League America

On the eve of the 2006 World Series, with an important national midterm election looming soon afterward, it’s worth reconsidering what the literary scholar Jacques Barzun wrote half a century ago: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game.” After all, a lot of Americans have taken this idea seriously, including the man who currently sits in the Oval Office.

Bush owes a lot to baseball. His public life really began with his stint as managing partner of the Texas Rangers, and as a politician, talking baseball has helped him to promote himself as a man of the people. He and his speechwriters know how to use baseball imagery to make the values associated with his politics seem to be natural, timeless, and distinctively “American.” Was it any surprise that the video biography shown before his address to the Republican Convention in 2004 was called “The Pitch” and climaxed with his appearance at the World Series in New York shortly after 9/11? History may well remember that moment as the finest of Bush’s presidency.

As the baseball season winds to a close, I find myself thinking back to its beginning – indeed to the pre-season and the inaugural World Baseball Classic. The U.S. team was a disappointment, and Japan defeated Cuba to win the title. I remember wondering at the time whether George W. Bush had taken any interest in the tournament. I remembering thinking that he should have, because it might have led him to rethink the way he invokes the so-called national pastime. It might even have taught him a political lesson or two.

At the start of each game of the World Baseball Classic, a television announcer would intone: “The game that means ‘America,’ now means so much to the world.” But this is nothing new. The Japanese have been playing organized baseball since 1873. Baseball is now cherished in Japan and Korea and across the Caribbean and Latin America. As far as exporting our cultural traditions goes, we’ve been much more successful with baseball than we have been with democracy. Fidel Castro doesn’t love the U.S., but he sure loves el béisbol.

There’s an allegory about both American power and the American character be found in the Classic somewhere. Team USA may have entered as the nominal favorite, but it didn’t make the semi-finals after losses to Canada, Korea, and Mexico. Mission not accomplished.

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