AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


Kenneth Clark
The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art by Kenneth Clark (1956)
Kenneth Clark’s survey of the nude from the Greeks to Picasso foreshadows the critic’s towering claims for humanity in his later seminal work, Civilisation
A review by 

TPrivate Eye, he was, immortally, “Lord Clark of Civilisation”, an accolade that probably made this patrician art historian better known to the British public than any other contemporary critic in any genre, a household name to stand alongside Fry, Gombrich and Pevsner. The epitome of the Great and the Good, equally at home with princes, patrons, and prime ministers, Clark was also a scholar with a showman’s instincts, who kept a beady eye on his audience. He relished provocative observations, and began this controversial study by opposing the naked (“huddled and defenceless”) with the nude (“balanced, prosperous and confident … the body re-formed”). Appropriately, this pioneering history of the depiction of the human body, which began with the 1953 Mellon Lectures, was largely written in the home of Bernard Berenson, the art historical master to whom it is dedicated.
In the context of its time, the mid-1950s, Clark’s account of the nude in the history of art, from the Greeks and the Romans to Picasso and the postimpressionists, is a wide-ranging, secular celebration of an important classical tradition. In ancient times, the nude had been used to express fundamental human needs, for instance, the need for harmony and order (Apollo) versus the need to sublimate sexual desire (Venus). Writing in postwar Europe, Clark’s ambition was to restore the human body in the public mind as an object of myth and wonder, not (as it had become in the 30s) the tool of fascist brutalism.
Clark, the most refined and sophisticated of critics, was also surreptitiously advancing a very British kind of popular paganism through his acknowledgment of the power of Eros. In hindsight, The Nude can be identified as a turning point for the incipient sexual revolution of the 60s.
Probably no one would be more surprised at this suggestion than Clark. His own indifference to what would later be identified by his many critics as “the politics of vision” makes him an unlikely radical. In his writing, the former academic historian aims to celebrate and admire the sensuality of the naked human form, expressing himself elegantly and without over-complication. As it happens, he is only partly successful.
Venus of Giorgione
In The Nude, the transition from the male nudes of Michelangelo, via the great Venuses of Giorgione and Titian, to the female nudes of Rubens and Ingres, sponsors an irruption of excitement into Clark’s narrative. He starts using a kind of language no art historian had explored before:
“The Venus of Giorgione is sleeping, without a thought of her nakedness. Compared with Titian’s Venus of Urbino [see bottom of page], she is like a bud, wrapped in its sheath, each petal folded so firmly as to give us the feeling of inflexible purpose. With Titian, the bud has opened… replaced by renaissance satisfaction in the here and now.”
François Boucher’s portrait of Louise O’Murphy: ‘Freshness of desire has seldom been more delicately expressed.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Having broken the taboo, Clark’s prose becomes decorously, but never deliriously, liberated. Describing François Boucher’s portrait of Miss O’Murphy he writes:
“Freshness of desire has seldom been more delicately expressed than by [her] round young limbs, as they sprawl with undisguised satisfaction on the silken cushions of her sofa. By art Boucher has enabled us to enjoy her with as little shame as she is enjoying herself. One false note and we should be embarrassingly back in the world of sin.”
Throughout the composition of this remarkable monograph, Clark was not merely battling his own inhibitions, he was having to find new ways to sustain his narrative line. As he admits in his preface to The Nude: “I soon discovered, that the subject is extremely difficult to handle. There is difficulty of form; a chronological survey would be long and repetitive, but almost every other pattern is unworkable. And there is a difficulty of scope; no responsible art historian would have attempted to cover both antique and post-medieval art.”
Rubens: Nymphs
Clark’s solution was to devote three long chapters at the heart of The Nude to the themes of energy, pathos and ecstasy, corresponding to classical (athletes and heroes), Christian (crucifixions and pietas) and finally some bacchanalian and gothic nudes. Throughout his narrative, Clark is fully alive to the ironies of his analysis, especially as he probes the depiction of the medieval nude:
“During the long banishment of the body there arose one symbol of pathos more poignant and more compelling than all the others: Our Lord on the Cross. Nothing in our subject shows more decisively the ideal character of the antique nude than that, in spite of the Christian horror of nakedness, it was the undraped figure of Christ which was finally accepted as canonical in representations of the Crucifixion.”
Strangely, for a critic whose work was contemporary with Picasso and Matisse, and especially Henry Moore, Clark has much less of interest to say about the nude in the 20th century. After the chaos and barbarism of the two world wars through which he had lived, the art historian was at pains to renew the classical contract between order, coherence and the human imagination. He concludes his narrative with the suggestion that “The Greeks perfected the nude in order that man might feel like a god, and in a sense this is still its function, for although we no longer suppose that God is like a beautiful man, we still feel close to divinity in those flashes of self-identification when, through our own bodies, we seem to be aware of a universal order.”
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: The Source
An instinctive quest for our civilisation and its towering humanistic values was never far from the core of Clark’s writing. The success of The Nude in the 1950s and 60s, before the sensational success of Civilisation, and before the critics, led by John Berger, turned on him, possibly indicates the deep and unconscious imperatives behind the Anglo-American passion for culture.

A signature sentence:

“In antique sarcophagi the nereids who balance on the tails of tritons must have been studied from nature for they are in exactly the pose adopted by their modern daughters in Italy who occupy an equally precarious seat on the pillions of motor scooters.”
Titian: La Venere d'Urbino

Tuesday, 17 October 2017


Humanity’s survival on this planet seems more uncertain than ever. But what happens when we look at ourselves through other creatures’ eyes?
When I was asked to deliver this lecture,* the prompt I was given was to address the fate of Earth. At first, I thought of focussing on the threat of nuclear annihilation, which Jonathan Schell wrote about so urgently for The New Yorker in the nineteen-eighties, and which now, thanks to Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, seems nearer than ever before. Another possible topic was, of course, climate change, which my colleague Bill McKibben spoke about here last year. Bill’s work, like Schell’s, possesses a fierce moral energy and a remarkable prescience. Whether it is hurricanes or droughts or flooding or wildfires, like the sort raging right now in Northern California, we’re already seeing the destabilizing effects of global warming that he foretold in “The End of Nature,” published in The New Yorker in 1989. Just this week, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, signed an order to initiate the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which was central to the United States’ commitment to the Paris climate accord, which the White House has also decided to abrogate.

All of which is to say that October of 2017 is a scarily opportune moment to talk about nuclear war or to talk about climate change—or to talk about climate change and nuclear war. But I am going to try to do something different. Instead of looking at the fate of Earth from our anxious perspective, from a human perspective, I’d like to try to look at it from the viewpoint of the millions and millions of non-human species with which we share the planet. This represents a different kind of imaginative exercise. It requires us not to imagine events that might happen but to look at events that have happened through different eyes—or even without eyes, since so many of our fellow-creatures lack them. We will always fall short in these exercises, but I think it’s important to try, so I hope you will indulge me.
A Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. Photograph by Brian Gratwicke / Flickr
I want to start off with an individual animal, who went by the name of Toughie. Toughie, as I understand it—and I never had the pleasure of meeting him, though I did meet one of his siblings, or perhaps cousins—was a very charming fellow. He was born in the cloud forest above the town of El Valle, in central Panama, a beautiful, rugged area that’s unusually rich in biodiversity. Specifically, Toughie was born in a tree hole. It was filled with water, the way most things in the cloud forest are filled with water. His mother deposited her eggs there, and then, when Toughie and his siblings were tadpoles, their father took over, and he cared for them. Up in the tree hole, there wasn’t much for the tadpoles to eat, so Toughie and his sisters and brothers sustained themselves by literally eating the skin off their father’s back. Toughie was living in the cloud forest in 2005, when he was found by a group of herpetologists. Eventually, he came to live in the botanical garden in Atlanta.

Toughie was, presumably, a pretty typical representative of his species, the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. This species was discovered only in 2005, and named only in 2008. The reason it was discovered, which is the same reason that Toughie came to live in the botanical garden in Atlanta, is that biologists were desperately trying to catalogue the amphibian life in central Panama before it disappeared. They had watched in horror as a plague had swept through the western part of the country, wiping out frogs and toads, and they could see that this wave of death was moving east, toward the central part of the country, which is home to some really spectacular amphibian species, including the Panamanian golden frog.
A Panamanian golden frog.
So these biologists—some were American, some were Panamanian—were, as I said, trying to catalogue what was out there before it was lost. And they were also collecting live animals, with the idea that, if they could save breeding pairs, they could create a sort of ark. In the case of the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, only a handful of animals were caught before the scourge hit. Researchers had managed to collect a few females and a few males, including Toughie, but, although they were brought together in various configurations, they never produced viable offspring. Meanwhile, efforts to collect more members of the species were unsuccessful; the frog has a distinctive call that sounds like a dog’s bark, and though many man-hours were spent listening for it, it has not been heard in the forest since 2007. The last female Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog died in 2009, the second-to-last male in 2012. This left just Toughie. And when he died, in September of 2016, it is likely that the species went extinct. A notice of Toughie’s death ran in the Times, under the headline, “A Frog Dies in Atlanta, and a World Vanishes With It.”

The cause of this extinction, the cause of the amphibian plague, was a chytrid fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd. No one knows exactly where the disease originated, or how it moved around the world, but it showed up on different continents almost simultaneously, which means that, almost certainly, it was transported by people. One theory is that it was carried across the globe on African clawed frogs, which were exported from Africa in the nineteen-forties and fifties for use as pregnancy tests; the frogs would be injected with a woman’s urine, and if by the next day they’d produced eggs, then this showed that the woman was pregnant. African clawed frogs, it turns out, can carry Bd but are not affected by it. They may account for the spread, but this is still an active subject of research.
Photograph by The National Museum of Health and Medicine / Flickr
Seen through the eyes of Toughie and his ilk—and frogs have very interesting eyes; they can see colors in the dark, something humans certainly can’t do, and it’s possible no other animals can do—Bd looks a lot like germ warfare, like a biological weapon designed to spread and inflict maximum damage. One of the most disturbing sections of Schell’s book about nuclear war, “The Fate of the Earth,” is the chapter titled “Second Death.” In that chapter, Schell writes, “We have always been able to send people to their death, but only now has it become possible to prevent all birth and so doom all future human beings to uncreation.” This is what the spread of Bd has done to the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog: all future generations have been doomed to uncreation. And it’s not just this one species. Many other frogs and toads have been doomed by this same pathogen. Gastric brooding frogs were remarkable animals that gestated their young in their stomachs and gave birth through their mouths. There were two species that lived in Australia, until Bd swept through. Both are now extinct. The same goes for the sharp-snouted day frog, also native to Australia, and the golden toad (no relation to the golden frog), which was native to Costa Rica. Many, many populations of frogs in North America have crashed owing to Bd. All in all, the fungus has been implicated in the extinction or catastrophic decline of at least two hundred species.
In the southern gastric-brooding frog, now extinct, tadpoles developed in the female’s stomach and emerged as fully formed froglets.
Bd is just one of several pathogens that we can be pretty confident have been moved around the world by people and that are now having devastating, biological-weapons-scale impacts. Another is what’s become known as white-nose syndrome. You’ve probably heard about this disease. It was first detected in upstate New York in 2007, near Albany, and it has since killed millions and millions and millions of bats. White nose is also a fungal infection. It comes from Europe—genetic analysis is pretty clear about that—and it was probably brought to New York on the shoes or backpack of some unsuspecting tourist. Over the past decade, it has spread to thirty-one U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. And the problem with white-nose syndrome, as with Bd, is that, once it gets into the environment, it can spread on its own, by putting out spores, or it can be spread by other animals or by people.
Photo courtesy Elizabeth Kolbert
This is is a photo of me and an official of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, Scott Darling, in a cave. Something like three hundred thousand bats used to spend the winter hibernating here, but because of white-nose syndrome that number has dropped by about ninety per cent in the past decade. Darling and I are standing on a carpet several inches thick, made up entirely of dead bats.

Of course, it’s not just microorganisms that people are moving around the globe. We move plants; we move animals. Sometimes we do this purposefully, but much more often we do it by accident. It’s estimated that, on any given day, ten thousand species are being moved around the world just in the ballast water of our supertankers. Mostly, the results go unnoticed; the species that’s being moved to a new place can’t survive there, or doesn’t reproduce. But sometimes the results are so world-altering that we can’t help but attend to them. And the more species we move around the planet, through global trade and global travel, the more of these impossible-to-overlook events we’re going to get.

There are thousands of examples—in fact, whole databases full of them. Hawaii used to have about a hundred species of native tree snails, which were found nowhere else on Earth. Now, because of competition from non-native snails introduced by people, there are only about twenty-five species left, most of them highly endangered. The Guam flycatcher (a bird) and the Guam flying fox (a bat) were both driven to extinction by the introduction of the brown tree snake, which was probably a stowaway in military cargo brought to the island during the Second World War. In New Zealand, the huia and the Stephens Island wren are two of a whole slate of bird species that were killed off with the introduction of European predators such as rats and weasels.
A pair of huias—male on the left, female on the right—from the Canterbury Museum, in New Zealand.Photograph by Frans Lanting Studio / Alamy
The list could go on and on. We humans think of moving organisms around the globe as very ordinary; many of the plants in our back yards come from other continents, as do many of the crops and the domesticated animals that we consume. But when we look at this from the perspective of other creatures, from the perspective of a Hawaiian snail, say, or a Guam flycatcher, or a huia, the process looks very different, very out of the ordinary. Over most of evolutionary history, plants and animals didn’t just show up on new continents or in new ocean basins, or, if they did, they did so only very rarely, perhaps as a result of a tsunami or some other violent event. Without a lot of help, a land animal can’t cross an ocean, and a marine creature can’t cross a continent.

Two hundred and fifty million years ago, toward the end of the Paleozoic era, all the world’s landmasses were squished together into one giant supercontinent, Pangaea. Today, biologists point out, we are, in effect, creating a new Pangaea by bringing all the world’s flora and fauna together. And this reshuffling of the biosphere, this creation of a new supercontinent, is a development that’s unprecedented in Earth’s history. It took many millions of years to form the original Pangaea, and here we are putting the new one together in a matter of centuries. We are running geologic history backward, and at warp speed.

This rearrangement of the biosphere is one reason that scientists argue we no longer live in the Holocene epoch but have entered the Anthropocene, the age of man. Whether this new nomenclature should be formally adopted is still a matter of debate, but the term has already been adopted informally, and it appears all the time now in popular and scientific publications. And this represents a really basic and disorienting shift in how we think about ourselves.

Thinking scientifically about man’s place in the world used to mean acknowledging our insignificance. Charles Darwin’s mentor, Charles Lyell, taught us that the time in which we live is not in any way special. Earth has been around for eons, and the same processes of change—erosion, for instance, or volcanism—that shape the planet today were shaping it in the days of the dinosaurs. Darwin taught us that our species was just another species. Like every other living creature, it had evolved slowly, from more ancient forebears. Even the qualities that seem to set humans apart—love, say, or a sense of right and wrong—must have arisen just as other adaptive traits did, through the process of natural selection.

The Anthropocene forces us to see ourselves differently, as remarkable, even unique. No other creature in the history of life on Earth—and this history goes back at least 3.8 billion years, maybe longer—ever dominated the planet as we do now. No creature has ever changed it at the rate that we are changing it right now. This is true whatever we do, whether we start a nuclear war or don’t start one, whether we replace our coal plants with wind turbines, or our gas-powered cars with electric ones.
Acropora millepora coral
This, as I’m sure you recognize, is a coral. Specifically, it’s a colony of Acropora millepora, which is a very common coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Corals are animals, colonial animals, that resemble humans in one respect: they’re great engineers. Corals construct reefs by excreting calcium carbonate. Hundreds of billions of individual corals working at this project, generation after generation, create these enormous structures. And these structures are crucial to marine life. In the tropics, the oceans tend to be very low in nutrients, because the water doesn’t turn over very much. And water that’s low in nutrients should be, and generally is, low in life. But coral reefs are full of life; the density and diversity of life on a healthy reef may be greater even than in a rain forest. And the reason for that, it seems, is that reefs are like bazaars, where all sorts of creatures congregate and swap with each other what they need to survive. Corals themselves are models of coöperation; they house single-celled plants—tiny algae—that use the nutrients the corals excrete. And, in return, these algae provide a lot of the corals’ food.

Even though corals are relatively simple creatures, or perhaps because they are simple creatures, they are very sensitive to changes in their surroundings. And there are all sorts of ways that, in the Anthropocene, they are suffering. Corals thrive in clear water. If the water becomes turbid or gets silted up—as a result, say, of deforestation—they can’t cope. Overfishing is also a problem. Grazing fish eat algae that compete with corals for space, so if the grazers are gone the algae take over. Agricultural runoff, too, is a danger. It contains a lot of nutrients, and corals, as I mentioned, thrive in nutrient-poor waters. Runoff favors algae growth, and corals lose out.

These are some of the local threats that affect individual coral reefs. Then there are the global threats. One of the hallmarks of the Anthropocene is that we are changing the conditions of life everywhere at once, and in many different ways. Corals like warm water, but they don’t like very warm water. When water temperatures rise beyond a certain range, their plant symbionts go into a sort of frenzy and produce dangerous quantities of oxygen radicals. So the corals expel them and, as a result, turn white. This is the phenomenon that’s become known as coral bleaching. Without their plant symbionts, the corals don’t get enough food and essentially start to starve. Sometimes they bounce back, and sometimes they don’t. Ocean temperatures are rising very quickly, so bleaching events are becoming more frequent and more severe. Here is a video of an Australian scientist, Terry Hughes, flying over bleached sections of the Great Barrier Reef. It gives you a sense of how extensive the damage can be.
When we burn coal and oil and gas, we are taking carbon that was sequestered in the course of hundreds of millions of years and throwing it back into the atmosphere in a matter of centuries, or even decades, as carbon dioxide. This is not just warming the planet; it’s also changing the chemistry of the oceans. A lot of the CO2 gets absorbed in seawater, where it dissolves and forms carbonic acid. Acidified water makes it more difficult for corals to complete their construction projects. At a certain point, it makes it impossible. If Bd looks to frogs like a kind of biological warfare, ocean acidification looks to corals like chemical warfare. Scientists who have examined this issue very carefully, both in lab experiments and field experiments, predict that the whole reef-building project, which has been going on for millions and millions of years, may be coming to an end. Instead of reefs, we’re going to have what one scientific team described as “rapidly eroding rubble banks.”

It’s estimated that a quarter of all marine species spend at least part of their lives on a reef. Something like fifty thousand reef-dwelling species have been described, but probably there are another million—and perhaps several million—waiting to be catalogued. All these species are put at risk by the destruction of the world’s reefs, which is starting to look all but inevitable; already close to eighty per cent of the coral cover in the Caribbean has disappeared. The casualties will range from very tiny creatures, like the newly discovered Leucothoe eltoni, an Indonesian shrimp named for Elton John, up to larger, more charismatic species, like the Australian butterfly fish.
Blue Marble Earth (Apollo 17, 1972)
Everyone here, I’m sure, has seen this photo before. It’s the famous “blue marble” shot, the first complete image of Earth, taken in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17, and it’s often said to have marked a turning point in our relationship to our home planet. As Neil de Grasse Tyson has said, “The space program’s unprecedented images of Earth compelled us all to think deeply about our dependence on nature and the fate of our civilization.” Seeing our world as small and lonely is one of those shifts in perspective that rattles us out of our complacency.

But the blue-marble perspective, looking down at Earth from an altitude of more than twenty thousand miles, is, of course, not a coral’s or a shrimp’s or a frog’s. It seems safe to say that, shown this image, not even our very closest relatives, chimpanzees, would have any idea what they were looking at. To appreciate something so abstracted from lived experience is a singularly human talent. So is posing a question like “What is the fate of Earth?” But if Toughie, say, or a huia or a Stephens Island wren or a butterfly fish or a kiwi or an elephant or a wolf or a Leucothoe eltoni could ask that question, I think I know what their answer would be. It’s not nuclear war, exactly. Nor is it climate change, exactly. It’s us. We are the fate of Earth.

Today, the biomass of Earth’s human population is estimated to be ten times greater than the combined biomass of all the planet’s wild mammals. (I use the term “wild” here advisedly.) Meanwhile, if we look at the weight of our domesticated animals—cows and goats and pigs—the situation is even more extreme. Their biomass is roughly twenty-five times greater than that of wild mammals. And if you add us and our beasts together the ratio is thirty-five to one. In numerical terms, we are a hugely successful species—an astonishingly successful species—and our success has come at the expense of other living things.

In October of 2017, it’s easy to worry that the human project is in danger. From the perspective of other species, though, what’s scary is not the fragility of human life but its remorseless vigor. We should attend to the fate of Earth for our own reasons. The greatest threats that we face—nuclear war, climate change—are almost easier to accomplish these days than they are to envision. But as important as we are to ourselves, we’re not all there is on this blue marble. And if we are just thinking about ourselves, then we are failing as ethical agents, which is to say as human beings.

Yesterday evening (October 11, 2017), at Manhattan’s New School, the New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert delivered the second annual Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth, an event established by the Nation Institute in honor of the late Jonathan Schell, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, and named for “The Fate of the Earth,” a series of articles that Schell wrote for the magazine in 1982 and later published as a book. Kolbert’s remarks have been edited for length. Kolbert won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
On Kolbert's Pulitzer Prize book The Sixth Extinction, see my page NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL.
"Her indictment of humanity is remorseless, and compelling."

Monday, 16 October 2017


Oliver Sacks: "The brain is the most incredible thing in the universe."
Oliver Sacks (2007) and the brain
Awakenings by Oliver Sacks (1973)
Oliver Sacks’s moving account of how, as a doctor in the late 1960s, he revived patients who had been neurologically ‘frozen’ by sleeping sickness reverberates to this day

Among the great books that address the human condition, Awakenings stands out as a profoundly influential medical classic from the 1970s, whose extraordinary narrative continues to reverberate.

Awakenings has inspired short stories, poems, novels and plays, notably Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska. Its central themes – falling asleep, being turned to stone, being awakened, decades later, to a world no longer one’s own – grip the imagination like the best drama, with this difference: the events described by the late Oliver Sacks (1933–2015) actually happened.

The “sleepy sickness” pandemic of 1916-17, which persisted into the 1920s, ravaged the lives of nearly 5 million people before it disappeared, as mysteriously and suddenly as it had appeared, in 1927. A third of those afflicted by encephalitis lethargica died in its acute stages, in advanced states of coma or sleeplessness. Other patients who suffered an extremely severe somnolent/insomnia attack often failed ever to recover their original vitality and lived out their days, cut off from humanity, in a deeply strange, inaccessible, frozen state (“a kind of Alaska”), oblivious to the passage of time or what had befallen them. These survivors were described by the doctor who first identified encephalitis lethargica as “extinct volcanoes”. They would sit motionless and speechless all day in their chairs, totally lacking energy, impetus, initiative, motive, appetite or desire.

In the majority of cases, these patients had their thoughts and feelings unchangingly fixed at the point at which their long “sleep” had closed in on them. For many survivors, this was the 1920s, a time that would remain more real to them than any subsequent decade. Their minds, however, remained clear and unclouded. And yet, unable to work or see to their needs, frequently abandoned by their friends and families, these patients were put away in hospitals, nursing homes and lunatic asylums and forgotten, like lepers of the 20th century. Yet some lived on, getting older and frailer, inmates of institutions, profoundly isolated, deprived of experience, half-forgetting, half-dreaming of the world they had once lived in.

In 1969, after more than 40 years of lives as insubstantial as ghosts and as passive as zombies, these “extinct volcanoes”, scattered in hospitals for chronic neurological disability in Britain, Europe and the US, erupted into life through the intervention of a remarkable new “awakening” drug, L-Dopa (laevodihydroxyphenylalanine). In one hospital in particular – the Beth Abraham in the Bronx – some 80 patients, long regarded as effectively moribund, returned explosively to life.

Oliver Sacks was the brilliant young neurologist who administered the wonder drug, keeping meticulous notes on his patients’ recovery. Awakenings became his account of a unique experience, the return to humanity of men and women whose personalities had become immured in post-encephalitic torpor. This could be a rollercoaster ride. Some of L-Dopa’s side-effects had a frightening intensity: in one patient’s words: “I can no more control it than I could control a spring tide. I just ride it out and wait for the storm to clear… That L-Dopa, that stuff should be given its proper name – Hell-Dopa!”

While such cerebral storms raged, Sacks took notes. “I cannot think back on this time without profound emotion,” he wrote later. “It was the most significant and extraordinary moment in my life, no less than in the lives of our patients. All of us at Mount Carmel [Beth Abraham] were caught up with the emotion, the excitement, with something akin to enchantment, even awe.”

Young Dr Sacks was not just a gifted neurologist blessed with a brilliant idea for a revolutionary treatment – he was also a passionate writer, committed to reporting an extraordinary story that was unfolding before him from day to day. In the spring of 1969, he writes: “I moved to an apartment a hundred yards from the hospital and would sometimes spend 12 or 15 hours a day with our patients – observing them, talking with them, getting them to keep notebooks, and keeping voluminous notes myself, thousands of words each day. And if I had a pen in one hand, I had a camera in the other: I was seeing such things as had never, perhaps, been seen before – and which, in all probability, would never be seen again.” It was, said Sacks, his duty and his joy “to record and bear witness”. The upshot was Awakenings.

The tales Sacks tells of the lives of Frances D, Rolando P, Lucy K and George W are deeply moving, often shocking and sometimes tragic. Through these case studies, Sacks explores the questions of illness and wellness, suffering, isolation and the psycho-drama of lives renewed by L-Dopa. The strangeness of life in Sacks’s Mount Carmel is captured in the concluding moments of the life of Magda B, who had “a sudden premonition of death”. In Sacks’s account, “her tone was quite sober and factual, wholly unexcited… In the evening Mrs B went round the ward, with a laughter-silencing dignity, shaking hands and saying ‘Goodbye’ to everyone there. She went to bed,” Sacks continues, “and she died in the night.” Awakenings, which pitches the reader into the drama of many such moments, is a voyage into the strange and often disturbing mystery of the human brain.

Sacks’s stories become a kind of memoir, a neurological romance and a profoundly sympathetic essay on the human condition. Readers who watch Duncan Dallas’s TV documentary Awakenings, in conjunction with the book, will have an unforgettable insight into a unique neurological experiment.

A signature sentence
“Almost half of these patients were immersed in states of pathological ‘sleep’, virtually speechless and motionless, and requiring total nursing care; the remainder were less disabled, less dependent, less isolated, and less depressed, could look after many of their own basic needs, and maintain a modicum of personal and social life. Sexuality, of course, was forbidden in Mount Carmel.”
Oliver Sacks in 1986
Oliver Sacks in 1986. His books ranged over many subjects, but his work
always remained rooted in his fascination with the brain.

Sunday, 15 October 2017


Portrait of David Hume
A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume (1739)
This is widely seen as philosopher David Hume’s most important work, but its first publication was a disaster
(The Guardian, October 2017)

The career of the Scottish philosopher David Hume is a parable of the writing life that speaks with eloquence about the strange and inexplicable progress of ideas in the marketplace of free debate. His career, moreover, is one that runs almost to the day he died, in 1776, just after the outbreak of the American revolution.

Hume was born and educated in Edinburgh, the son of a successful lawyer, and acquired a fierce appetite for philosophy at a precociously young age. After a mental breakdown as a student, and despite limited personal means, he spent three years of private study in France. Thereafter, he worked for four years on A Treatise of Human Nature. It was his first major work as a philosopher, and it bore the unwieldy subtitle “Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects”. Hume completed Treatise in 1738, aged 28, and published it anonymously in two volumes the following year.

His ambitious intention was to construct a pragmatic science of man, a wholesale system of thought by which to appraise the psychological basis of human nature. In opposition to the rationalists of the day, Hume argued that it was passion rather than reason that moderates human behaviour: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

From this position, Hume advanced the idea that human knowledge must ultimately be located in mankind’s quotidian experience. “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger,” he wrote.

The publication of Hume’s Treatise was a disaster. Its wit and clarity (“Poets… though liars by profession, always endeavour to give an air of truth to their fictions”) were overlooked; his majestic philosophical rigour misunderstood. He himself later observed that it “fell dead-born from the press”. Today, however, Treatise is widely considered to be Hume’s most important work, one of the keystone books of western philosophy, in the words of one commentator, “the founding document of cognitive science” and possibly the “most important philosophical work” in the English language.

In 1740, however, the critics were savage, describing his work as “abstract and unintelligible”. It’s not hard to see why. Even today, the Treatise is notably dry, and makes few concessions to the reader.

Organised in three parts (Of the Understanding, Of the Passions and Of Morals), with many sub-sections such as “Of Ideas, Their Origin, Composition, Connexion, Abstraction, Etc.”; “Of the Ideas of Space and Time”; “Of Knowledge and Probability” and “Of the Sceptical and Other Systems of Philosophy Etc”, it concludes with a recapitulation with Hume’s reasoning for his thesis that “sympathy is the chief source of moral distinctions”.

As the first reviews suggest, the Treatise is not for the faint-hearted. This passage is typical: “After the most accurate examination of which I am capable, I venture to affirm that the rule here holds without any exception, and that every simple idea has a simple impression, which resembles it, and every simple impression a correspondent idea.”

Hume did not repine. He had devoted most of his savings to the long gestation of the work, and he would not give up. Addressing his restricted circumstances, he declared that he would dedicate himself to literature. He would, he wrote, “make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency”. With stoic self-belief he pronounced “every object contemptible except the improvements of my talents in literature”. And so, despite his bad press, and the frustration of his youthful ambition, Hume concluded: “Being naturally of a cheerful temper, I soon recovered from the blow and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country.”

With impressive sang froid, having determined that the problem with the Treatise was one of style not content, Hume reworked his material into two rather more accessible essays entitled An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). These, Hume wrote, with typical brio, were “of all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best”. Next, in 1752, he published his Political Discourses, which was translated into French and made Hume famous throughout Europe. Now on a roll, in 1754 he published the brilliant first volume of his History of Great Britain, a narrative largely devoted to the early Stuart kings followed by further volumes in 1757, 1759, and 1762.

Always a great stylist, Hume was now established as one of the great intellects of his time, a cultural icon, renowned as much in London as in Scotland. Forever in search of new kinds of self-expression, at the end of his life, and conscious that he was dying, Hume published a short autobiographical essay on “My Own Life” in which he summarised his entire life in “fewer than 5 pages” – a genre that almost amounts to a private joke, being notably short on personal anecdote and standard autobiographical data. Dry as ever, he writes dispassionately of his imminent decease: “I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder, and what is more strange, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits.”

However, Hume did confess that a “love of literary fame” had served as his “ruling passion” in life. With his usual self-confidence, he claimed that this ambition “never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments”. The reception of the Treatise was one of these, he admitted, but the success of his subsequent Essays had preserved his good spirits. “That work was favourably received, and soon made me entirely forget my former disappointment,” he said.

In a line that many contemporary writers might profitably take to heart, he observed, of the Treatise, that his philosophical debut’s immediate failure “had proceeded more from the manner than the matter”. Hume explained his meaning thus: “I had been guilty of a very usual indiscretion, in going to the press too early.”
A caricature of David Hume

A signature sentence
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a god, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized [sic] to find that instead of the usual copulations of proposition, is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not; this change is imperceptible, but it is, however, of the last consequence.”

  • Full text of A Treatise of Human Nature...
    "Nothing is more usual and more natural for those, who pretend to discover any thing new to the world in philosophy and the sciences, than to insinuate the praises of their own systems, by decrying all those, which have been advanced before them."

Saturday, 14 October 2017


The brain's amygdala
Sarah Knapton, science editor
(The Telegraph, October 2017)

The poet WH Auden coined the word topophilia in 1948 to describe the sense of belonging people experience when returning to an important place from their past.
Now, for the first time, scientists have recorded that nostalgic reaction in the brain using MRI scans.
Whether it is wandering through woodland where we once played as children, or paddling in the same seas as past summer holidays, going back to meaningful places sparks significant mental and emotional changes which boosts wellbeing, the research suggests.
The study by TheNational Trust and The University of Surrey showed a far greater boost of activity in the amygdala - a key area for processing emotion - when volunteers were shown pictures of personal sites, compared to important objects.
It suggests, for example, that the place where a person gets married carries a far greater emotional importance than the ring they receive on the day, or photographs from the wedding.
"For the first time we have been able to prove the physical and emotional benefits of place, far beyond any research that has been done before,” said Dr Andy Myers, of Surrey University.
"MRI opens a window into the brain allowing us to explore automatic emotional responses, scientifically demonstrating a tangible link between people and places that is often difficult to verbally describe.
"With meaningful places generating a significant response in areas of the brain known to process emotion, it's exciting to understand how deep rooted this connection truly is."
The study involved 20 people who were asked to bring photographs of ten important objects and ten meaningful places to the lab, where their brains were scanned when looking at each.
Meaningful places not only triggered a far stronger response than common places in the amygdala, but also in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex which is responsible for activating positive emotions and memories. There was also a boost in activity in the Parahippocampal Place Area, a part of the brain linked to feelings of self.
A separate survey involving 2,000 people was also carried out to find out how important places were.
Two thirds of those surveyed said their special place makes them feel calm and provided an escape from everyday life while almost half said it helped them to re-evaluate stress and worries.
Nine out 10 people said they would be upset if their meaningful place was lost.
Nino Strachey, Head of Research and Specialist Advice for The National Trust, said: "The National Trust exists because our forward thinking founder Octavia Hill intrinsically knew the importance of places for people. Now, 122 years later, science has proven her mission is still as relevant and important today.
"This research confirms places we love not only shape who we are, but offer deep physical and psychological benefits making it even more vital that we look after them for future generations.

Friday, 13 October 2017


I must confess that, from time to time, I do read trashy pulp, such as Lee Child, DeMille, le Carré, etc., whenever I wish to relax my mind from serious literature. But there's a limit to everything, and Dan Brown is my limit. Can't stomach him...
Below is an article by Peter Conrad reviewing the latest Dan Brown's  
Dan Brown

Origin by Dan Brown – a Nostradamus for our muddled times
Machines with synthetic brains pose a danger to mankind in Brown’s latest dotty apocalyptic thriller
(The Guardian, 8 October 2017)

I used to think Dan Brown was merely a crackpot. Now I wonder if he might not be a prophet. What once seemed to be his deranged fantasy increasingly looks like our daily reality. In our myth-maddened world, we are befuddled by bloggers peddling conspiracy theories and menaced by transactions on the dark web; we can’t cross a road without dreading some runaway act of messianic terror, and we experience an implosion of identity if we lose our smartphones or forget our passwords. In listing those perils I have summed up the plot of Brown’s new novel Origin: whether or not we read his apocalyptic thrillers, we are living inside them.

Origin stirs up again the witches’ brew that Brown first concocted in The Da Vinci Code. Scientific enlightenment engages in another battle with religious fundamentalism, fought out in glassy labs, glossy luxury hotels and devilish cathedrals, with Gulfstream jets and Tesla self-driving cars to ferry the characters between locations. In Inferno Brown threatened mankind with extinction by reactivating the bubonic plague; here the human race is warned of its imminent redundancy, as machines with synthetic brains prepare to take control of us.

A personified supercomputer with a British accent manages the plot of Origin by issuing instructions from an iPhone. Brown’s hero, the professorial brainbox Robert Langdon, is not much more human: he has a head full of electronic files and copes with emergencies by consulting his “eidetic memory”. The heroine, a future Spanish queen, could be Amazon’s Alexa equipped with a “slender figure” and squeezed into a “form-fitting dress”. Brown’s dialogue makes all his characters, whether or not they have bodies, sound like cybernauts. “Tonight’s crisis impacts us far more deeply than you can imagine,” says one of the plot’s functionaries. “Roger that. Keep us apprised,” she adds. This isn’t speech: it’s vocalised word processing.

As usual with Brown, the end of history approaches at high speed. An Elon Musk-like futurist – who happens, in a quick commercial endorsement, to be wearing “a sleek Kiton K50 suit and Barker ostrich shoes” – is murdered while announcing a scientific discovery that will update Darwin and foretell our next evolutionary phase. The “reveal”, as they call it in Hollywood, is delayed for 400 pages, but I doubt that I’ll spoil anyone’s enjoyment if I disclose that it turns out to consist of gobbledegook about “nucleotides” and “obligate endosymbiosis”.

Despite the chemical jargon and technical data, Brown remains a gothic novelist who is best when sending his characters to grope through mazy architectural spaces, his personal versions of Northanger Abbey or Hogwarts Academy. The action here hurtles from the titanium-scaled leviathan that is Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao to the skeletal carcass of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, with a detour to the fascist mausoleum built by Franco in the Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid. Such caves of occult unreason are where Brown feels at home.

Though his denouement piously drones on about the scientific amelioration of human ills and the need to replace warring religions with an all-purpose spirituality, Brown’s true aims are more devious and deviant. His cryptic hints about malevolent global forces ratchet up our anxiety; blending the testimony of actual scientists such as Hawking and Dawkins with his own dotty or loony inventions, he produces a mentally corrosive mixture of truth and falsehood. Why should we trust a writer who thinks that Spain has a president not a prime minister, and who spells one of his favourite adjectives “collosal”?

Here, to set beside the fake news that warps election results in what’s left of the real world, is a specimen of phoney fiction, expertly designed to confuse the credulous. Yes, Brown is a prophet, and a false one – a Nostradamus for our muddled, crazed and probably terminal times.

Thursday, 12 October 2017


The second day of God’s creation of the world, the separation of terrestrial and celestial waters. Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 1860
by Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler
(, 2017)

The story of creation at the beginning of Genesis is an occasion to reflect on general questions in the Torah and even the Bible as a whole, including the Bible’s understanding of God’s gender.

God as Above Gender

Some biblical scholars suggest that YHWH is above gender, because YHWH is so fundamentally different from humans, and it is inappropriate to use any human terminology of God.  This was voiced frequently in medieval Jewish philosophy, and as a result, this viewpoint is influential today. It is most closely associated with Maimonides and his theory of negative attributes or apopathic theology that suggests that we may only describe God in terms of what God is not.

This perspective resonates strongly in modern theology; one of the most influential books in the history or theory of religion is The Idea of the Holy, by Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), a German Lutheran philosopher and theologian, best known for his development of the concept of “the numinous” within the field of comparative religious studies.  Otto defines holiness, the intrinsic feature of God, as “the wholly other.”[2]

Otto’s influence has been far-reaching.  For example, Brevard Childs (1923-2007), one of the major biblical scholars in the second half of the twentieth century, who taught at Yale University and Yale Divinity School for several decades, claimed:
The major thrust of the entire biblical witness is in portraying the God of Israel as different in kind from his creation, which he brings into being and sustains by grace. …  He watches over Israel without slumber…. God … [is] worshipped in the conventions of a language which believers have always understood as inadequate for rendering the full divine reality.[3]
This is an assertion, not an argument; the Bible often, and in many different ways, depicts God in very human terms.[4] Indeed, although some biblical texts decry the notion that God sleeps,[5] others suggest that God slumbers, and like human, needs to be awakened into activity. This is especially evident in Psalm 44:24:
עוּרָה לָמָּה תִישַׁן אֲדֹנָי הָקִיצָה אַל תִּזְנַח לָנֶצַח.
Rouse Yourself; why do You sleep, O Lord?  Awaken, do not reject us forever!
Nothing, other than (some ancient Greek and) medieval and modern assumptions about deities being fundamentally different than humans and the assumption that all biblical texts must speak with one voice, would suggest that this is anything but literal!

Many biblical texts imply that YHWH has a body,[6] but what kind of body is it?  Is God male, female, or neither?  Before exploring this issue, it is important to explain the important distinction made in the academy over the last decades between two terms: “sex” and “gender.”

Sex versus Gender

Sex is a biological term—based on an individual’s genitalia and chromosomes, a person is either male or female.  Of course determining sex is complicated in cases where sexual features are inconsistent, or when genetics and physical features do not match.

Rabbinic texts recognize that there are more than two sexes in their use of terms such as androgynous and tumtum, but the Bible never does, assuming instead a dichotomous world of males and females.[7] 

Gender, in contrast, is a social construct—it refers to masculinity or femininity, and refers to a role that an individual enacts or performs.  As we know from our travels, readings, and from National Geographic,[8] different societies have different notions or of how to enact these roles.[9]  And different societies have different expectations of the extent to which males need to behave in a masculine fashion, and females in a feminine one.

It is clear that the Bible had such expectations as well.  In 1 Kings 2:2, the dying David can tell his son Solomon,
 וְחָזַקְתָּ וְהָיִיתָ לְאִישׁ
Be strong, and show yourself a man.
Thus, David’s advice highlights how gender is enacted. The same idea is conveyed by the LXX’s translation of Moses’ instruction to Joshua to “be strong and valiant” (חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ; Deut 31:7) as “be a man and valiant” (ἀνδρίζου καὶ ἴσχυε).

The prohibition of crossdressing (Deut 22:5) shows Deuteronomy’s concern to maintain “proper” gender boundaries:
לֹא יִהְיֶ֤ה כְלִי גֶ֙בֶר֙ עַל אִשָּׁ֔ה וְלֹא יִלְבַּ֥שׁ גֶּ֖בֶר שִׂמְלַ֣ת אִשָּׁ֑ה כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ כָּל עֹ֥שֵׂה אֵֽלֶּה׃
A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to YHWH your God,
This shows that some in ancient Israel felt significant anxiety about keeping gender roles “straight.”  This is also likely reflected in the biblical prohibition against male-male anal intercourse in Lev 18:22 and 20:13, which states that a man may not lie with another man מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה, “as one lies with a woman.”  Males should act and be treated like men.

Given the difference between (biological) sex and (social) gender, it would seem that we actually need to ask two questions:
  1. Was YHWH understood as male or female (or neither—or some combination of these)?
  2. Was YHWH understood as masculine or feminine (or neither—or some combination of these)?
However, because in ancient Israel, as I just noted, men were expected to be masculine, and women were expected to be feminine, issues of masculinity and maleness and of femininity and femaleness may, to a large extent, be conflated.

God as a Man

The Bible often uses explicit male imagery to describe God. For example, the Song of the Sea declares (Exod 15:3):
יְ-הוָה אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה יְ-הוָה שְׁמוֹ.
YHWH is a man of war; YHWH is his name.
Similarly, God is explicitly called a king in many biblical verses:
Isa 44:6
כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְגֹאֲלוֹ יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת…
Thus said YHWH, the King of Israel, Their Redeemer, YHWH of Hosts
Ps 24:10
מִי הוּא זֶה מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת הוּא מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד סֶלָה.
Who is the King of glory? – YHWH of hosts, He is the King of glory! Selah.[10]
Other biblical texts have more subtle ways of expressing God’s maleness.

The Implications of Grammatical Gender

As a Semitic language, Hebrew verbs are typically conjugated with respect to gender,[11] and Hebrew nouns all have masculine or feminine grammatical gender, which, where relevant, are matched with the appropriately gendered verb or adjective.  Thus, by looking or listening, it is clear whether “you (singular) wrote” refers to a male or a female writer; the former would be כָּתַבְתָּ (katavta), while the latter would be כָּתַבְתְּ and (katavt). A female cow is automatically distinguished from its male counterpart—she is a פָּרָה (parah) rather than a פַּר (par), and will be modified by adjectives marked as feminine (e.g. שְׁמֵנָה, “fat”).

Unlike, e.g., German or Greek, Hebrew has no grammatical neuter gender, so all items must have a grammatical gender of masculine or feminine.  Thus, every item must be assigned either a masculine or feminine grammatical gender—and the particular assignment often seems arbitrary to us.  Thus, for reasons we can no longer understand, a table, שֻׁלְחָן (shulkhan) is masculine, while a bow, קֶשֶׁת (qeshet) is feminine.

Within this framework, YHWH in the Bible is masculine.  Most scholars believe that this is irrelevant, claiming, e.g.:
The grammatical forms for God are masculine and the representations of God are mostly masculine. Although God does use a comparison to a woman in childbirth (Isa 42:14), nonetheless there is a strong scholarly consensus that God is regarded as nonsexual. “If sex must be applied to Israel’s deity, it would be monosex, and this is either an incompleteness or a contradiction in terms.”[12]
In other words, most scholars suggest that the fact that God is grammatically masculine has no more bearing on the actual gender of God than the fact that table is masculine meant that ancient Israelites viewed tables as masculine and bows as feminine.

Recent linguistic studies, however, show that this is incorrect; grammatical gender does spill over to understandings of real gender.  The same object—let’s say a table, may be marked as masculine and feminine in different languages.  And depending on the language you speak, you will then view tables as either more masculine or feminine![13] 

Thus, it is far from trivial that when YHWH was referred to in the Bible, YHWH always governs a masculine verb and is described by a masculine adjective.  This grammatical fact derives from a view of YHWH as masculine, and would have reinforced that view.[14]

The God of the First Creation Story

This masculine view of God as king, which we saw explicitly stated in Isaiah and Psalms, is implied throughout the first creation story, in Gen 1:1-2:4a.[15] The Bible does nothing there to suggest that the powerful deity who is the protagonist of the story, of whom the story uses masculine grammatical forms, is anything other than masculine and male—as would be expected of any powerful creator deity in the ancient Near Eastern world.  In fact, two details suggest that the protagonist is male.

This story narrates God’s massive building project, the creation of the world.[16] In the ANE, kings are in charge of significant building projects, and this story which imagines God creating the world is thus a sub-metaphor of the larger metaphor God is king—and thus male.  This would have been obvious to the ancient reader, familiar with the king and his roles. Furthermore, Gen 1:26, נַֽעֲשֶׂה אָדָם, “let us make human,” refers to God as king consulting the members of his royal court—as only kings (but not queens) might.[17]  That this text depicts God as king consulting with his royal counselors is implicit in a midrash in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b):
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: בשעה שבקש הקדוש ברוך הוא לבראות את האדם, ברא כת אחת של מלאכי השרת, אמר להם: רצונכם, נעשה אדם בצלמנו?…
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “When the Holy One, blessed be he, decided to create humanity, he [first] created a group of ministering angels and said to them: ‘Do you wish for us to make humanity in our image?’…”
Thus, this phrase as well, coming toward the end of the unit, makes it very clear that the story’s main image is of God as king—and thus as male (and masculine).

An Androgynous God?

It would seem that the immediately following verse contradicts this point.  Genesis 1:27 reads:
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ
בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ
זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
God created person in His image;
in the image of God did He create him/it
male and female did he create them.[18]
For many readers, this verse suggests that God is male and/or female since people, who are male and female, are created in God’s image.[19] This interpretation is possible, but far from certain.[20] Genesis 1:27 is an unusual poetic verse in the Bible.  The basic structure of biblical poetry is the two-part verse (bicolon) where the halves parallel each other.[21]  Well over 95% of Hebrew poetic verses have this structure—and in it, the two verse-parts are tightly connected (or parallel).[22]  Gen 1:27, on the other hand, is an infrequent biblical tricolon, and in tricola all three verse parts need not be tightly connected.  Thus, some tricola may be read as a bicolon plus an additional thought.  If this is so here, then the verse may be read as:

God created person in His image = in the image of God did He create him/it; 
and, in addition, male and female did he create them. 

This verse would then have no bearing on God’s gender or sex. Given what we know of the structure of biblical poetry, such a reading is certainly possible, and therefore this verse may not be used to prove that God is both male and female.[23]  Thus, the constant reference to God using masculine grammatical forms, and the depiction of God as king in the chapter, suggest that this deity was viewed as male and masculine.

God the Father in the Second Creation Story

But what of the second creation story, focusing on the Garden of Eden? This story does not contain as clear images as the first story of YHWH as male, though as in the rest of the Bible, it uses masculine pronouns of YHWH God.  The immediate aftermath of the Garden story, however, a continuation of the J narrative, explicitly identifies YHWH as male and masculine, indeed, as a father. Gen 4:1 describes Eve’s conception of Cain.  His Hebrew name is etymologized in the text:
קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת יְ-הוָֽה
I have created a child with YHWH.
One recent scholar reads the verse as suggesting that Yahweh is the father of Cain.[24]  It is hard to be more masculine and male than that!

God the Mother in the Haftarah of Bereshit

The haftarah or prophetic reading is typically thematically related to the Torah reading in a variety of ways. The reading for Genesis, from Isaiah 42:5-43:10 is likely chosen for its opening words, which recall the first creation story; indeed, the anonymous prophet we call Deutero-Isaiah often cites and polemicizes against certain aspects of the Priestly creation story in Gen 1:1-2:4a.[25]  It should not be surprising that he deviates as well here, and in other places, from the male and masculine depictions of God that typify the rest of the Bible.

Isaiah 42:14 explicitly depicts God as female—as a woman giving birth:
הֶחֱשֵׁ֙יתִי֙ מֵֽעוֹלָ֔ם
אַחֲרִ֖ישׁ אֶתְאַפָּ֑ק
כַּיּוֹלֵדָ֣ה אֶפְעֶ֔ה
אֶשֹּׁ֥ם וְאֶשְׁאַ֖ף יָֽחַד׃
“I have kept silent far too long,
Kept still and restrained Myself;
Now I will scream like a woman in labor,
I will pant and I will gasp.
God is depicted, in part, as a panting woman in labor, whose breath has such force that it can wreak havoc on the world (Isa 42:15):[26] 
אַחֲרִ֤יב הָרִים֙ וּגְבָע֔וֹת
וְכָל עֶשְׂבָּ֖ם אוֹבִ֑ישׁ
וְשַׂמְתִּ֤י נְהָרוֹת֙ לָֽאִיִּ֔ים
וַאֲגַמִּ֖ים אוֹבִֽישׁ׃
Hills and heights will I scorch,
Cause all their green to wither;
I will turn rivers into isles,
And dry the marshes up.
This is one of several passages, all in Isaiah 40-66, which imagine God as a woman.[27] The anonymous prophet(s) of Isaiah 40-66, living in and beyond the Babylonian exile, created, to use the formula of the first George Bush, a “kinder gentler” God, and thus sometimes depicted that God as a woman.[28] These motherly images of God certainly complicate our picture of the gender of God in the Bible!

So What Is God’s Gender in the Bible?

Two major contributions of critical biblical scholarship are:
  1. Recognizing the Bible as an ANE document; and
  2. Recognizing that the Bible is composite and speaks in many voices.
Both of these contributions are crucial for understanding the gender of God in the Bible.  In the biblical period God was not viewed as “wholly other,” but as largely human—better than most people, larger than most people[29]—but humanish.  This is why the Bible is full of anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms, such as that found in the opening of the Noah story: 
בראשית ו:ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ-הוָה כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ. 
Gen 6:6 And YHWH regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.
These are not, as some post-biblical philosophers would suggest, concessions – this was how God was actually viewed.

Within this conceptual structure, most saw this male God as a man with manly habits, while some exceptions existed on the fringes.[30] But we should not conflate or flatten all biblical texts, and conclude that the biblical God was beyond gender or of dual gender,[31] but instead recognize that the Bible speaks with multiple voices and holds differing conceptions of God.

The Bible and Politics

These thoughts are an attempt to outline what the Bible, in its original context, thought about God. As a scholar, this is my primary interest and I do not believe that this is a futile venture—though I am never positive that I am correct. As both a scholar and as a Jew, however, I recognize that the Bible interpreted has been central to Jewish tradition, and that often what it meansin a later period is not identical to what it once meant.[32] 

To me, this is part of the beauty of the Bible within Judaism—the manner in which, through interpretation, it takes on ever-new meanings, remaining ever-relevant.  But it is crucial for scholarship to recognize the difference, and frequently the distance, between means and meant—and, for those of us who are both scholars and committed Jews, between meant and what I wish it meant.

Speaking for myself, I wish the Bible depicted YHWH as gender-neutral, gender inclusive or genderless.  But from my perspective as a scholar, this simply is not so, so I must search other avenues—within and outside of Judaism—to support my views, without misrepresenting what the Torah and the larger Bible meant.

Professor Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer, all published by Oxford University Press. He is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) -

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[1] I would like to thank Cody David, Lara Haft, Professor Mark Smith, and of course my co-workers at who helped sharpen the focus of this essay.
[2] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (2nd ed.; trans. John W. Harvey; London: Oxford University Press, 1950), 25-31.  The first German edition was published in 1917.
[3] Brevard Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 40.
[4] See Mark S. Smith, How Human is God?  Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2014).
[5] See esp. Ps 121:4 and (the implication of) 1 Kings 18:27.
[6] See, for example, Exod 24:10:
שמות כד:י וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר.
Exod 24:10 And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.
[7] For more on this, see “‘Happy is the Man Who Fills His Quiver with Them’ (Ps. 127:5): Constructions of Masculinities in the Psalms,” in Being a Man: Negotiating Ancient Constructs of Masculinity, ed. Ilona Zsolnay (New York: Routledge, 2015), 198–220.
[9] This crucial insight is especially associated with Judith Butler, Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (NY: Routledge, 2006; f.p. 1990).
[10] For more on this, see my, God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor (The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 76; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989); “God’s Coronation on Rosh Hashanah: What Kind of King?” (2014). 
[11] The exception is the first-person which is unmarked for gender.
[12] Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), §6.5.3b. 
[13] See Lera Boroditsky, Lauren A. Schmidt, and Webb Phillips, “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics,” in Language in Mind, eds. Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 61-79; Lera Boroditsky, “Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?” in What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science: Original Essays from A New Generation of Scientists, ed. Max Brockman (NY: Vintage, 2009), 116-129 and the popular summary of her work at .
[15] For a discussion of the two creation stories in Genesis, and God’s role in each, see my, “Differing Conceptions of the Divine Creator,” (2013). 
[16]  The image of God as builder is especially clear in the fashioning of the firmament (רקיע) in 1:7.   In addition, like a king, God speaks and his command is fulfilled. For additional details, see Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Mesopotamia and Israel” in Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel (ed. Richard J. Clifford; Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 67-90.  For additional details, Jeremy Morrison, “Renovating a Deity: The Formation of Biblical Craftsmanship Metaphors and the Artisanal God-Talk of Deutero-Isaiah” (Dissertation; Brandies University, 2017).
[17] The frequent explanation that this plural is a plural of majesty just does not work—Hebrew does not use plurals of majesty for verbs. See Paul Joüon and Tamitsu Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (3rd reprint of 2nd ed. with corrections; Subsidia Biblica 27; Roma: G&B press, 2011), §114 n. 7; the word חכמות is likely a nominal plural of majesty; see ibid. §88Mk.
[18] This translation is trying to bring out the poetic nature of this verse.
[19] In fact, this verse led to the Rabbinic interpretation of Adam and Eve as a dual creature, male on one side and female on the other. See the discussion in Malka Simkovich, “The Making of Adam,” (2013).
[20] This interpretation is strongly advocated by Thomas Gudbergsen, “God Consists of Both the Male and the Female Genders: A Short Note on Genesis 1:27,” VT 62 (2012): 450-453, though throughout he confuses gender and sex; after all, זכר and  נקבה are sex, not gender terms.
[21] For more on parallelism, see Jason Gaines, “Poetic Laws,” (2017).
[22] This is the term coined and popularized by Bishop Robert Lowth (1710-1787).
[23] This reading of Gen 1:27 as a||b + c is elegantly presented and defended in Phyllis A. Bird, “’Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” HTR 74 (1981):  129-59, which is reprinted as pp. 123-154 of her Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities—Phyllis A. Bird, “’Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” in Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997): 123-154.
[24] See David E. Bokovoy, “Did Eve Acquire, Create, or Procreate with Yahweh? A Grammatical and Contextual Reassessment of קנה in Genesis 4:1,” VT 63 (2013): 21.
[25] See Benjamin D. Sommer, A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40-66 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998): 142-144.
[26] See Marc Brettler, “Incompatible Metaphors for YHWH in Isaiah 40-66,” JSOT 78 (1998): 115-118.
[27] These were first collected and discussed by Meyer Gruber, “The Motherhood of God in Second Isaiah,” RB 90 (1983): 351-359 and elaborated upon in Hanne Løland, Silent or Salient Gender?: The Interpretation of Gendered God-Language in the Hebrew Bible, Exemplified in Isaiah 42, 46, and 49 (FAT 32; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008). Images of God as female would develop later in Jewish culture, e.g. the use of the feminine term שׁכינה, shekinah of God, but it is difficult to draw a straight line from the uses in Deutero-Isaiah to the presence of this term, predominantly in the Jewish mystical tradition.
[28] Psalm 103:13 also uses parental imagery to request God to be kind and gentle, but it uses the image of a father not a mother:
כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים רִחַם יְ-הוָה עַל יְרֵאָיו.
As a father has compassion for his children, so YHWH has compassion for those who fear Him.
[29] See Stephen D. Moore, “Gigantic God: Yahweh’s Body,” JSOT 21 (1996): 87-115.
[30] For this reason, when translating biblical texts with an eye toward a historical-critical perspective, it is largely safe to use pronouns such as He and Him of YHWH, though we may—even should—find this problematic from the perspective of contemporary theological beliefs. For more on gender and the Bible, see my “Gender in the Bible,” in The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (second edition; NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), 2177-2184.
[31] A highly problematic op-ed from the New York Times in 2016 went as far as to suggest that the God of creation could be transgender: Mark Sameth,  “Is God Transgender?” The New York Times (Aug 13, 2016).  This entire piece is deeply problematic, showing only basic understanding of Hebrew grammar and its implications; see, e.g., the critique in Robert A.G. Gagnon, No God Isn’t Transgender,” First Things (Aug 15, 2016).
[32] On this distinction between what the Bible “means” vs. “meant,” see esp. Krister Stendahl, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 1.418-32, esp. 419.