Friday, October 28, 2005

Lost as Godgame

The term godgame is defined by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy as "a tale in which an actual game (which may incorporate broader implications) is being played without the participants' informed consent, and which (in some sense) is being scored by its maker." A key figure in the godgame is the "owner of the game (a Magus, a magister ludi, a god." The author of the entry gives two examples: Shakespeare's Tempest and John Fowles's The Magus. I would add at least two more: the film The Truman Show and the current TV series Lost. (Another example of a godgame without fantastic elements is the film Trading Places, with Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy.)

All four of these works take place on islands, which, by virtue of their isolation, are well suited for the staging of godgames. All of them have their own unique features; for instance, in The Truman Show, although there is one Prospero/Magus figure (played by Ed Harris), everyone on the island is complicit in the game except Truman (Jim Carrey). I am currently in the middle of reading The Magus, so I don't know how it's going to turn out, or who is complicit in the game (not the reader!).

In the first season of Lost, my working hypothesis was that the island was some kind of region of the afterlife — a province of purgatory — and that the castaways somehow had to overcome their faults to "escape." But at this point in the second season, I'm convinced that a godgame of some kind is in progress. Of course, we don't yet know what the game is or who the Prospero/Magus is. One fascinating possibility is that the Magus is, unbeknownst to us, one of the characters we are already familiar with. I don't think Locke (Terry O'Quinn; my favorite character) is the Magus, but I think he might somehow be complicit in the game as a helper of some kind. Anybody else have any thoughts?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: John Clute, "Godgame," Encyclopedia of Fantasy (ed. J. Clute and J. Grant; St. Martin's, 1997), 414-415.

UPDATE (10/31): Some interesting comments below. From Jim Davila's comment, I learned that the word "godgame" is also used for virtual-reality scenarios, whether philosophical (such as the brains-in-vats meme) or fictional (like The Matrix). I must admit that using it this way seems like an extension away from the original concept, but usage is usage. Therefore I would propose two different kinds of godgame: the kind I described above, in which people know they are caught up in some kind of manipulation, but don't know who is doing it or why; and the second kind, in which perception or reality itself is a construct, a fact unknown to all or most of the participants. Let us call the first kind the Labyrinth, or Narratives of Misdirection; the prototype in Western literature is The Book of Job. And the second kind can be called the Matrix, or Narratives of Misperception; its prototype is Plato's "allegory of the cave." As Jim notes, the Matrix type provides interesting parallels to Gnosticism, while the Labyrinth type is more typical, religiously, of mainstream Judaism or Christianity ("God has a wonderful plan for your life" that you are unaware of). (I intend no irreverence.)

Joe surmises below that the island in Lost is itself the Magus. I must admit that I don't understand this suggestion. In what way can the island be thought of as sentient, and what could its motivations be? Locke speaks of the island that way, but I presume that he's speaking out of his own arguably confused preconceptions.

Interestingly, there is at least one theory out there that the castaways are in fact victims of a Matrix type godgame. (Look through the "theories" threads here.) My idea is, however, that a Labyrinth style godgame is going on, and that the island is a real island, not a digital construct. I haven't yet worked out how to integrate my theory with the persistent hints in the script that most of the castaways have some kind of psi Talents: telepathy, precognition, etc. But that's what makes it fun.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Embetter: Perfectly Cromulent

Michael Gilleland objects to GW's use of the word "embetter" in his speech on Oct. 18th:
We're going after criminal organizations and coyotes that traffic in human beings. These people are the worst of the worst. They prey on innocent life. They take advantage of people who want to embetter their own lives....
Personally, I think it's a perfectly cromulent word, created on the [EN + adjective] formation, such as "embiggen": "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." (The EN is realized, at a surface level, as EM because of partial assimilation to the word-initial bilabial in "big" and "better.")

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Leaves from the Neighborhood

The top one is from another street; the bottom one is from our front yard. Autumn has arrived.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Buy This Book Now

The new edition of Wise-Abegg-Cook just arrived; I think it looks pretty nice.

We revised each and every one of the texts in the first edition to reflect the latest readings and scholarly publications, as well as adding new texts (including complete translations of the Qumran witnesses to Enoch, Jubilees and the Targum to Job). It also has running heads and a new index.

For those who loathed our titles for the scrolls — sorry. They're still there, as are the blurbs from Karen Armstrong and Dom Crossan. The paperback costs $24.95, so there's no reason for you not to order one (or two — why not one for each member of your family?) immediately.

The scroll on the cover, by the way, is 4Q109 (4Q Qohelet).

UPDATE: I've been encouraged to add links to online stores. You got it: Order the book here or here. Buy this one as well while you're at it. :)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Yom Kippur

Last night, at sunset, was the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I wish all the Jewish friends of Ralph an easy fast.

It is interesting to note that the expression yom kippur as such is not found in the oldest Jewish literature. In the Bible, Mishnah, Dead Sea Scrolls, Talmudim and Midrashim, the phrase denoting the Day of Atonement is yom ha-kippurim, or, in Aramaic, yoma de-kippurei. The earliest use I can find of the later, short expression is in the Tosafists (glossators) to the Babylonian Talmud, which would place its origin in the early medieval period.

Kippurim is a tantum plurale ("only plural") in Biblical Hebrew, a word occurring only in the plural. Pluralia tantum are often used in Hebrew to denote abstract notions, like "atonement," alumim, "youth," tanhumim, "consolation." etc. They are less frequent in later forms of the language, which might account for the eventual changeover to the singular in yom kippur.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Surviving the Annual Meeting

As noted in previous posts, the annual meeting of the AAR-SBL is coming up soon (Nov. 19-22) in Philadelphia. As always, I am beginning to give some thought about how to survive the meeting.

Usually, when I arrive, I am in a gung-ho mood to attend as many papers, have as many discussions, and buy as many books as possible. After about a day or so — by about Sunday afternoon — when I've endured any number of dull recitations and gone around the book exhibit about a dozen times — I start feeling like this: I've gotta get out of here. Please, no more cerebral discussions. No more eggheads. No more tweed coats, natty beards, or ostentatiously brandished credentials. I feel like Dolly Parton, because everyone you meet at the annual meeting looks at your chest (where your name badge is) before they look at your face. That's when I hunger for "real" people wearing jeans and T-shirts and for talk that concerns football, what the kids are up to, trading one-liners from Family Guy or theories about Lost.

Through trial and error, I've discovered that the best way to head off "meeting burnout" — the desire to run back to the real world (I know — a concept that bristles with problems) — is to take a short vacation from the annual meeting in the midst of it. Lately I've taken off one night to go and listen to live music at a local club. If that's not available, I take an entire afternoon (or morning) off, dress in mufti, and walk around the local downtown, window shopping, drinking coffee (or a few Cold Ones), or sitting on a park bench. Most of the time, when I get back to the Land of Brainiacs, I'm tanned, rested, and ready to be smart again.

Is this a common experience, or is it just me? How do you survive the annual meeting?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Hair of the Ugaritic Dog

I've been reading some Ugaritic lately, in connection with various duties, and I finally got around to working through the text KTU 1.114, the famous one where El, the head of the pantheon, gets drunk at a banquet (marzeah) and has to be helped home while slipping in his own waste; lovely.

The real point of this text is found in the last few lines, which contains, by common interpretation, a recipe for hangover: "On his brow one should put hairs of a dog, the top of a pqq-plant and its stem. Mix it with the juice of virgin oil" (trans. T. J. Lewis).

I laughed when I read that. Hair of the dog, indeed! Could it be that the old expression for a morning-after shot of spirits, "hair of the dog," has its origin in the Ancient Near East? If so, I'm not the first one to discover it. Dennis Pardee writes:

This atypical myth [KTU 1.114] is followed by a prose recipe for alcoholic collapse that features the first known connection between drunkenness and the "hair of the dog": "What is to be put on his forehead: hairs of a dog. And the head of the PQQ (a type of plant) and its shoot he is to drink mixed together with fresh olive oil."

The same thing is suggested in the Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, s.v. "Drunkenness":
The "morning-after" symptoms were treated with various substances, including "the hair of the dog," as described in an Ugaritic text where the god El suffers from the effects of excessive consumption.
But it won't do. "Hair of the dog" as a hangover remedy is derived from the longer expression "hair of the dog that bit you." The origin lies in an Anglo-American folkloric remedy, not for hangover, but for rabies: if bitten by a dog, one was to take some of the dog's hair and either eat it or otherwise apply it to the wound:
[Remedies for rabies] have included eating grass from a churchyard, consuming some of the "hair of the dog that bit you" fried in oil with a little rosemary, and even eating parts of the dog itself (typically the heart or the liver). (Cassell's Dictionary of Superstitions)
The concept of homeopathic cure, along with the expression itself, was transferred to the hangover remedy — which is not literal dog hair, but a glass of something alcoholic (in my experience, a Bloody Mary is usually recommended).

So the idea that KTU 1.114 is the earliest use of "hair of the dog" for hangover can't be correct. In fact, the idea that the Ugaritic recipe is intended for hangover is itself an inference; it is nowhere stated in the text.

Here's another possibility. In an earlier section of the text, while El is being carried home, a mysterious figure named Habayu appears: "Habayu then berates (?) (נגשׁ) him, he of two horns and a tail." What exactly is Habayu doing to El? The word translated "berates" has also been taken to mean "press, drive," but none of these makes much sense. I am wondering if נגשׁ simply means here "gore," as it does in Palestinian Aramaic. The translation then would be: "Habayu gores him, the one with two horns and a tail." And that would explain why in the next lines El "collapses like one dead, like those who descend to the underworld," and it would explain why Habayu's horns are mentioned: Habayu is some kind of ox or ram.

So maybe this recipe is not for hangover at all, but for the much more serious condition of having been gored or butted by a horned animal. But I would not recommend it in either case.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Text and translation of KTU 1.114: "El's divine feast," trans. T. J. Lewis, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (Scholars Press, 1997), pp. 193ff.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Metafembiblioblogging, and a Dream

In my post "What Should We Talk About?" I asked, in passing, "Why are there so few female bibliobloggers?" and this casual question actually ignited more responses than the rest of the post. Mark Goodacre suggests that the answer lies in a lethal "combination between the male-dominated academy and the nerdy, geeky male electronic world." Loren Rosson suggests that one component is that blogging feeds the male ego. A commenter on Loren's site suggests that in fact it is because "blogging itself is ambivalently recieved [sic] by the academic community ... Putatively, if women must work harder to get jobs and tenure in the academcy [sic], why would a (hypothetical) academic female 'waste' time writing a blog instead of a peer-reviewed article when the latter will likely advance her career more readily?" An anonymous female commenter on Mark's site asks, "I am confused about why you think the world needs more female bibliobloggers though. What is the significance of the female aspect? Is it just to make the stats look better? So there is someone there to cover feminism?" Several commenters (male and female) have suggested that females are too busy doing other useful things to waste time blogging, which begs a lot of questions.

My answer? Beats me. The answer probably lies in a combination of factors that "over-determine" the relative dearth of female bibliobloggers. I think this could be an interesting topic to explore at SBL though, and as we've already seen, the topic leads into many other useful topics such as "why blog?" and the role of blogging in academia in general. Hopefully opinions will be forthcoming from the audience as well as from the dead-white-male panel. Oh, wait, we're not dead. OK, just white male.

Speaking of female bloggers, I recommend to you this post from the Pilgrim. It may or may not be relevant to this topic but her experience is worth pondering.

And speaking of bloggers in general and Mark Goodacre in particular, Mark had the temerity to make an appearance last night in a long and complicated dream of mine. At one point I was suddenly sharing the back of a taxicab with Mark (whom I've never met) as we drove down Oxford's High Street (where I've never been).

I asked Mark, "So why did you take the job at Duke instead of taking a job at Oxford?"

He took a long drag on his cigarette and regarded me coolly from behind his dark glasses. "Because," he said, "only the chef is allowed to enter the kitchen."

Which makes a whole lot of sense, when you think about it.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Stanislav Segert (1921-2005)

Yesterday Bill Schniedewind of UCLA emailed with the sad news that UCLA's Prof. Stanislav Segert, the great scholar of the North-West Semitic languages, and my own venerated teacher and Doktorvater, died yesterday after a short hospitalization. He was 84.

Segert was the last great grammarian of the Semitic languages in the polymathic European tradition of Dillmann, Brockelmann, and Noeldeke. He is perhaps best known in the US for his textbook Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language (1984), but in my opinion his finest work is his Altaramäische Grammatik (1975). He also wrote a fundamental Grammar of Phoenician and Punic (1976). Besides these works he wrote still unpublished grammars of Syriac and Biblical Aramaic for classroom use.

His hundreds of articles include many on the Qumran texts, and dozens more on aspects of Ugaritic studies. His study of the language of the Moabite stone ("Die Sprache der moabitischen Königinschrift," Archiv Orientalni, 1961) is still the best survey of that dialect.

Not only was Segert a great scholar, he was a great gentleman. His erudition was exceeded only by his courtesy, and any suggestion of scholarly hostility or odium theologicum caused him great pain. When someone in class once mentioned to him the falling out that had taken place between two European archaeologists, his only comment was, "Ah! Let us hope that no very great time will pass until they will once again be friends." His epitaph might well be: He died without enemies.

After Samuel Johnson died in 1784, William Hamilton wrote, "He has made a chasm which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best. There is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson."

The same is true of Segert. He is gone, and he is irreplaceable. His books and articles remain for those to learn from who will; I will continue to study them, but even more than these, I will treasure the memory of his kindness and gentleness. As both a scholar and a man, he was a giant.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Further biographical details and a full bibliography through 1989 can be found in the Festschrift Sopher Mahir: Northwest Semitic Studies Presented to Stanislav Segert (Eisenbrauns, 1990).

UPDATE (10/3): Jim Davila has added a personal tribute to Prof. Segert.