Many geese form a gaggle, many rabbits form a fluffle, and a group of unicorns forms a blessing. As we gear up for the long weekend, here are this week’s unusual unicorn-worthy reads, coming to you on a Friday instead of the usual Saturday, because of said long weekend, plus I had a book deadline yesterday, so today I’m taking a break from anything other than keeping children alive and eating pie.
Brief overview of the aforementioned book. Priceless examines parallels between the pre-Christian and post-Christian views of human life, which are oriented around economic value. It seems like so much contemporary discourse around issues of life, advertently or inadvertently, prices human life, and it all starts with the cost of children and motherhood. How much are you worth to society or even your family? Who decides and when? What is the cost of motherhood for individual women, their families, society? These are utilitarian questions of the sort that existed in the pre-Christian pagan world, just as they exist today. By contrast, the early church, while not always following Jesus perfectly, was utterly revolutionary in seeing every human being as unconditionally priceless, made in God’s image. Anyway, Priceless is now off to IVP Academic, into the capable hands of Jon Boyd, Keeper of Current‘s Book Marks! In the meanwhile, if you are interested in reading more about this project, you can get further short glimpses here and here. Or you can even read the Current essay that was my first foray into thinking about pricing human life.
On to the unicorns.
To begin with, Jeroen Wijnendaele wrote the brilliant essay I have been hoping someone would write in light of Prigozhin’s attempted coup and then death, on the comparisons between the Wagner mercenary group and the fall of Rome. A taste:
Earlier in July, Prigozhin shocked the Kremlin and the world after he captured Rostov-on-Don and staged a march on Moscow, and it wasn’t long before his mutiny inspired commentators to draw parallels with episodes from Ancient Rome.
Western Roman warlordism started as an experiment, to counter or take over military leadership at the Imperial court. It was never intentionally meant to destabilise the Imperial government. But in the end, it did so permanently… certainly Weber would have regarded the semi-privatisation of a state’s armed forces, able to a march on its capital, and the inability of its central government to dispose of commanders of questionable loyalty by non-violent measures, as pointing towards the same phenomenon: Vladimir Putin’s Russia is losing its monopoly on violence, and thus is at risk of becoming a failed state. If it hasn’t already.
Meanwhile, this week at LARB, Yelena Furman reviews a fascinating book with relevance for the on-going book bans in the US and also makes me think back to what my parents were reading during my own Soviet Jewish childhood: Marat Grinberg’s The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf. A taste:
The prohibition on religion and systemic antisemitism in the Soviet Union meant rigid restrictions on the expression of Jewish identity and culture. Soviet censors, carrying out the regime’s orders, were immune to public opinion or financial considerations, leaving Soviet Jews powerless to affect the public sphere. Grinberg’s thought-provoking claim is that they circumvented this state of affairs privately, through a calculated approach to the books they read and collected for their home libraries. In chapters moving from the Stalinist 1930s to the late Soviet period (1970s–1980s), Grinberg demonstrates how, despite the heavy censorship of Jewish content and the difficulty of procuring books by Jewish writers, Soviet Jews consciously built up Soviet Jewish bookshelves, maintaining their Jewish identity through their “reading practices” that, in an atmosphere of repression, often hinged on reading between the lines. In a novel approach to identity, Grinberg proposes “the Soviet Jewish bookshelf as the basis of Soviet Jews’ improbably defiant and necessarily makeshift Jewish heritage and knowledge.”
Acquiring this knowledge from books was an active attempt to resist the regime’s repression of Jewishness.
Historian Chris Gehrz, who is writing a book on helping Christian parents think through college decisions for their children, makes some predictions this week on his substack, as he begins his 21st year of teaching: “3 Things I Expect for My Next 20 Years of Teaching.”
Chris is one of the contributors to Current’s upcoming forum on the state of higher education, so stay tuned for that, as well as more brief reflections in “A Letter to My Freshman Self” series here at the Arena (a series that Jon D. Schaff inspired and kicked off this week).
Carla Galdo has a stunning essay debut at Front Porch Republic, reflecting on how/why to put down roots, stemming from her own rootless childhood and the quest for deep roots as an adult. A taste from her conclusion:
Yes, it is a place I’ve come to from elsewhere, but there’s something about staying here that sets me straight, that reminds me of my provenance from God. This place cups me in its green hollows and roots me in the reality that this one life I’ve been given is a gratuitous gift, made only to be given again.
The Homer translation wars got extra heated on Twitter/X, when someone called Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Iliad “woke” and blamed corporate interests for promoting her work. He also admitted that he has only had one year of Greek in college and was a middling student, before proceeding to criticize some portions of the translation in detail. Honestly, reading through that craziness required more popcorn than we had on hand in the house, and my children could not understand why mom couldn’t stop laughing for a full hour.
As someone who loved Wilson’s Odyssey translation, naturally I must share this fabulous interview with her from a few years ago about her methodology and approach. Spoiler alert: translating Homeric poetry (or any poetry) is not easy. All translators have to make difficult decisions that not everyone will agree with. Just think how acrimonious the Bible translation wars are! A taste from Wilson’s piece about her process:
So I thought I might need either to use more lines than the original, or use a longer line. I’ve tried using dactylic hexameter in English; for a long time I thought that wouldn’t work, but after rereading Arthur Hugh Clough, I decided to give it another go. But I wasn’t really satisfied with the results; it felt unnatural, however hard I tried to create fluent English. I tried with iambic hexameters or Alexandrines, which seemed rhythmically more possible, but I found it hard not to make the lines feel too long, or to make the caesura feel too marked. I tried using a mix, of pentameter with a few hexameter couplets to round out a scene; but that felt arbitrary, even though Dryden and Shakespeare do it sometimes; it felt like too much end-stopping. Here is the same line done three ways:
Dactylic hexameter: “Let no forgetfulness take you when honey-heart sleep has released you.”
Iambic hexameter, Alexandrines: “Do not forget when honeyed sleep lets go of you.”
Iambic pentameter: “Keep all this in your mind, do not forget / when honey-hearted sleep lets go of you.”
Wilson’s reflections here show an incredible level of thought, experimentation, and knowledge of how poetry works in both Greek and English. Translating anything is an art as much as a science, and exponentially more so when it comes to translating poetry.
Some of Emily Wilson’s critics have complained that her translations of Homer are not “masculine” enough; that she doesn’t bring out sufficiently the heroic virtues these particular readers are seeking. On a related note, Matthew Loftus has a timely essay this week in Christianity Today, recommending that older men in the church provide role models of healthy masculinity that young men need. Listen, I’m all for everyone reading more Homer, whether in the original or in translation (really, any translation!), but Loftus’s recommendations are probably healthier than embracing Odysseus as one’s role model of proper masculinity.
Wishing you a restful Labor Day weekend, friends! The Arena will be back on Tuesday.