Institutional Failure

In the United States, our institutions have failed us.

This is most obvious in the recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has progressed to declaring that at least some presidents are kings after having undermined voting rights, taken away women’s rights, and made it impossible for government agencies to do their jobs properly.

But the failure is broader than that. The Republican Party failed us long ago when it hooked up with right wing extremists to try to shore up its small base of rich people. Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt would be appalled. Even Dwight Eisenhower might be appalled. And it still only represents a minority of voters.

Congress hasn’t worked since the 1980s, when the Democratic majority in the House decided it had to work with Ronald Reagan. That wasn’t enough for the extremists, as evidenced by the shutdown games that are now a frequent issue.

The Senate, which should have been restructured decades ago to fix its vast inequality, has been a mess for a long time, but even when the Democrats have power, they avoid fixing the things that make it easy for the extremists to obstruct them.

People complain about polarization, but the problem is extremism enabled by those who’d still like to pretend we’re bipartisan.

The fact that voters turned out en masse to throw out the grifter and his minions in 2020 should have enabled the Democrats to take firm charge and make it impossible for the extremists to ever again be a threat.

Yet here we are. It’s 2020 all over again. Or 2016, with “he’s too old” replacing “but her emails.” The Republicans are putting up an equally old man who is also the convicted felon who came close to destroying the country the last time he got in and yet some polls favor him.

And of course, much of the news media has failed us repeatedly. The major newspapers and television networks want to cover politics like a football game or a horse race. They are not focused on the real problems we face and which would be the best administration to solve them. They’re not even looking at the extremism and absurdity of the Republican candidate.

I mean, all you have to do is compare what happened under each candidate’s term in office. That’s just Reporting 101. You don’t need an inside source to do that.

Continue reading “Institutional Failure”

Jewish King Arthurs

In 1999 I daringly went to a conference (GrailQuest ‘99) and my two worlds collided as they never had before. I went for the Medieval Arthurian stuff (of which I’ve long had a strongly academic interest and about which I’ve written my fair share), but I wasn’t confident enough after all those years outside academic research and didn’t offer a paper. I was more active in the fiction side, and met many people who became long-term friends. I asked a question from the floor of an academic panel and everyone looked across and asked me a question back. They listened, and one of my favourite Aussie writers of the matters of Arthur took me aside and we talked about the subject for a fair while. The write-up of the conference published my answer. I was also asked for a non-academic version of my answer. This is the one I’m giving you this week.

A Jewish King Arthur?

OK, let me admit it up front. As far as I know King Arthur was not Jewish, not in any piece of medieval literature. I have seen him written up as a fairy, as a warlord, as the leader of a very fancy court, but never Jewish. But while he was definitely not Jewish, Jews wrote about him. How do I know the authors were are Jewish? Well, one work is in Hebrew and another in Yiddish. This is a fairly strong indication.

It is hard to say if any other Medieval Arthurian works are Jewish. Most are blatantly Christian. There is, for example, a wonderful prose romance (just amazingly long) where the Grail becomes a very religious object (which it may not have been originally, but that is another story): this is a decidedly Christian affair. And there are some named authors who belong to one court or another and are more likely to be not Jewish. Most Medieval literature is, naturally, by that prolific author anonymous.

One author is borderline. I have seen it argued that Chretien de Troyes (who first introduced the grail into Arthurian romance) was Jewish. He was one of France’s great poets, so I have always wanted it to be proven that he was, indeed Jewish, but the likelihood is that he was not. He may well have Jewish relatives though, or at least Jewish friends – his place of birth was an important Jewish centre, after all -so there is some consolation. Since Chretien as good as invented the verse novel known as the Medieval romance, even a vaguely possible Jewish link is a nice thing.

Most literature written in most medieval languages, sadly, has to be assumed to be Christian unless there is positive proof to the contrary. We are talking, you see, about a Christian society.

But because we are talking about Christian countries in the Christian corner of the world, we can be 100% certain that anything written in Hebrew or Yiddish is very, very unlikely to be written by a Christian. Hebrew was known by scholars of all sorts, but the one Hebrew Arthurian manuscript we have is purely and wholly and gloriously Jewish. There was no reason for clerics to write German texts down in Hebrew characters unless it was for a Jewish audience, so any Christian reader of a Yiddish Arthurian manuscript would have to be the rather bizarre combination of a scholar whose native tongue was German and who preferred to read a translation into a dialect of their vernacular language written in an odd script. Unlikely, I suspect, especially when there is a lovely German version of the same story (Wigalois). So the likelihood is nicely strong for the writer of Widuwilt (the Yiddish tale) to have been Jewish, and probably the copyists and, almost definitely most of the listeners. It was written originally to be declaimed or sung, so most of the audience were listeners rather than readers.

So we are back to the works themselves. What are they? Do we have any idea why they were written? What is their history?

The Hebrew tale is popularly known as the Melekh Artus, and was written in 1279 by a poor soul in the midst of a very trying time. We know this because he wrote it in his introduction: he was translating the Arthurian tales to cheer himself up, and justified it at great length, citing Rabbinic authority. The author/translator was from northern Italy and bits of Italian have crept in. As he was Jewish, bits of Christianity have crept out. Wherever his source has a mass, he omits it, and he translates concepts into Jewish equivalents. I am not sure that Saints and Tsaddikim are analogous, and I really like the thought of the Holy Grail becoming a dish used to give food to the poor.

Either the text is unfinished or the copyist ran our of steam, because the one manuscript of this amazing text is, alas, incomplete. Very incomplete. It is held in the Vatican, and has been edited and translated and yes, Canberra has a copy (at the National Library). Its literary value is very low, I must admit, and the French sources that were used are much more entertaining (except for the brilliant apologia at the beginning, which is well worth reading) but it is most definitely a Jewish (Italian) version of the Arthurian tales.

The other work is later and exists in several versions in several manuscripts and editions. It was not written down until the very close of the Middle Ages, but made up for this shocking lapse by being popular for centuries. Widuwilt only features Arthur as an aside. It is actually about Gawain and his son. It is from the German that the tale reached Yiddish, hardly surprisingly, from an Old French original. The hero has a different name I the German, though. Unfortunately, we have an early example of Jewish humour (maybe written by an ancestor of Sylvia Deutsch?). Apparently Gawain was not really paying attention when his wife bore him a son (he was just about to desert the poor lady, in point of fact) and so, when she asked him what Gawain wanted to call the baby, Gawain answered “Whatever you want”, so he was called “Whatever you want” or “Widuwilt”. Apart from this, most of the tale follows the German original according to my sources (which is just as well, because the French and the German are relatively available, but the Yiddish is not so none of these comments imply a sighting of the original!) except for some adventures added at the end.

It seems to be a lovely adventure romance, with all the Christian bits left intact (yes, Arthur holds court at Easter, rather than at Pesach!) and lots of good fighting. While the Hebrew tale was a bit more serious (as befitting a scholar suffering form melancholy) Widuwilt is simple entertainment, and very suited to a Spielmann and his audience.

Now for the $64,000 question: why am I interested in these works? Like the writer of the Melekh Artus, it is for sound and moral reasons, although I won’t go so far as to cite Rabbinic authority..

One thing that these Medieval Jews had in common with us was the fact that they were a minority group in a society so very Christian that it took that Christianity for granted. You ask most Australians and they will say that Australia is not a Christian society, that it is secular. Yet Christian holidays, Christian imagery and Christian concepts weigh down the very air we breathe. The relationship between Christianity and society was different in Italy in 1279 to Australia seven hundred years later, and Jews definitely have different status, different acceptance, different problems. But we are still not quite mainstream. We are still outside the norm.

Even in the more restrictive atmosphere of Medieval Europe, Jews could reach out and make sense of the fullness of the outside culture. Unless you translate a romance or read it in its original language, you cannot make any sense of the people who write and read in that style. Widuwilt is evidence that some Jews were enjoying Arthurian romances, and actively coming to terms with all those elements of Western European vernacular culture.

The fact that only two works have been translated or interpreted into Jewish languages, one unfinished and apparently for private use, shows that Jews had very different concerns to Christians. But it also show that there was overlap and a meeting of interests. Not only is this interesting in its own right, but it gives us a neat tool for use in understanding our own society, for understanding the culture we share with others, and those elements that are specifically Jewish.

As Australians we often use the dread phrase “cultural cringe”. It can apply just as much to being Jewish Australians as to being Australians in general. We are neither solely religious nor simple recipients of wider Australian culture. We don’t take the whole of our identity from Chaim Potok, nor from Mary Grant Bruce. King Arthur teaches us that. If there is a Jewish view of King Arthur and even a Jewish grail, then there is a Jewish view of everything.

It’s Been a Hell of a Week

It’s been a hell of a week. Not personally – I’m fine, my partner is back from travels, and even though there’s a heat wave, it’s actually quite pleasant in the shade.

No, what’s making me miserable is the U.S. Supreme Court, which is apparently stocked with the sort of “originalists” who think the American Revolution was a bad mistake, given that they just gave the President (though maybe only the former guy) powers usually reserved for kings. The people who wrote the Constitution had a lot of flaws, but I’ve read enough history to doubt very seriously that they were in favor of kings or anyone else being above the law.

The court also dismantled the administrative side of government – you know, the agencies who deal with air quality, medicines, consumer goods, air travel, workplace safety, and so on. That is, they’re undermining what government actually does.

Combine that with the fact that the Republican candidate for president is a convicted felon and a grifter who is spouting absurd lies and promoting an extremist authoritarian plan for government and yet the coverage of the presidential race treats him as if this is normal.

Despite all this, the news coverage is focused on Joe Biden having a bad debate with the criminal grifter and urging him to drop out.

It’s enough to make one run screaming for the woods, except that I don’t think I’ll be safe there. It’s not the bears; I’m just not sure it’s possible to get far enough away from the disasters of this world.

(I forgot to mention climate change. A category 5 hurricane – unheard of this early – just devastated several places in the Caribbean. And there’s a nasty heat wave in California. Plus fires.)

My response to all of this – outside of ranting and feeling unsettled at all times – has been my go-to response since I was five years old: I read. Continue reading “It’s Been a Hell of a Week”

Learning Needs a Joyful Reason

I just started learning Italian on Duolingo. Because I’ve already studied French and Spanish (I would not go so far as to say I’ve learned them) I have something of a leg up: Italian doesn’t seem terribly different in many ways from those other two Romance languages, and I know enough about language learning to notice where my weak spots are and work on them (prepositions, how I hate thee). I’m slugging away. I not only like the language, I’m enjoying the process of learning it. My goal is to learn enough to be able to embarrass myself if/when I go to Italy. I wrote an entire book set in Italy; it seems to me I should go and see it for myself. So I’ve got a reason. That helps.

But not all reasons are helpful. Because I’m contemplating self-publishing some of my backlist, I was counseled that I should work on promotion: viz, a newsletter. Which has led me to learning of the sort that makes me want to lie down and howl. I researched newsletter management software–the stuff that will keep your mailing list and provide templates for newsletters. Based on cost, the size of my current mailing list, and various reviews, I signed up for a trial of one. I’ve done newsletters before at the museum where I worked. I was not fearful.

Silly me.

Let’s dive right in, right? I click the button labeled “CREATE YOUR NEWSLETTER.” Before you can design a template or write anything, you have to make the underpinnings of the program talk to the underpinnings of your website.  I created my website more than a decade ago, my recollection of the process is fuzzy at best, and I don’t go wandering the basement looking at the wiring for fun, because I just don’t. But I dig in. Shortly I find myself mired in the sort of technical backstage stuff in which I have no training, outdated information, and zero interest. 

After two hours of trying to fix the SPF and DKIM on my website so that the newsletter manager will accept it as a “sender”–each time coming up with a new and different way to not quite do it, and each time being terrified I would break my perfectly functional website–I gave up, cancelled my trial, and tried not to throw a tantrum.

Today, filled with renewed optimism (who am I kidding?) I will seek out a different newsletter manager and see what I can make of it. But there is nothing about this kind of learning that gives me joy. The best I can expect (aside from a working newsletter) is a kind of bitter triumph of the HAH! TAKE THAT variety. 

Part of the problem is simply that this is a kind of learning that doesn’t come easy for me. And an equal part is that my reason for doing it is of the hold-your-nose-and-just-do-it variety which provides no joy. When I think of  learning Italian, I think of wandering in a city I don’t know, asking directions, having adventures, ordering food and drink and making fun of how dreadful my Italian is, but trying anyway. It’s a joyful imagining. That’s my payoff.

The payoff for figuring out newsletter software is (theoretically anyway) being able to create a newsletter* and send it out with relative ease. That’s it. I appreciate the benefit that will provide. But there’s no joy in the process, and no prospective joy in that benefit, and at this point in my life I suspect I kind of need some joy to grease the wheels and make it easier to persevere.

If y’all will excuse me, I’m going to practice Italian for a while.
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*The thought of sending out a newsletter makes me feel rather… squishy? Awkward? Send out regular bulletins about ME! What’s going on with ME! And my work! I have no problem writing ab out what’s going on with me and my work in a “you can read this if you want to” venue like Facebook or Threads, but there, I can just throw something up and people can read it if they want to. When you send a newsletter out you’re assuming that someone will want to see it (yes, I know: you send newsletters to people who have already indicated an interest). It just feels colossally pushy to me. Which may, in fact, be what is required for a self-published author. And yet.

Back in time (again)

Time to delve further into the past. Not a single year, for the end of this series, but a few years. I was writing pretty much fulltime as a public servant until 1998, but everything was published under the names of other people. I was paid, and they were given the rewards for the writing. Such is the life of a policy wonk who can write. I can’t give you any of this writing, and I wouldn’t want to. It was Terribly Important and rather dull, and is all long forgotten. I do find it amusing, however, that I spent a whole decade writing documents that no-one will ever read.

Instead, over the next few weeks, I’ll give you a small number of miscellaneous bits of writing from the 1990s. I’ll be finished my thesis at the end of this sequence and then you may be back to writing from me, now, or I may have to delay a bit longer. This is a consequential year, full of an enormous amount of work. I’m emerging from being rather ill and have paid work and writing (paid and unpaid) and a whole heap of conferences and events: I want to get everything done. The last few months and the next couple of months are an example of how I do this. I juggle.

Now I’m curious – do you juggle? And what challenges did you face in the 1990s?