TAC Bookshelf for the Week of June 24
Scott Beauchamp, contributor: Coming to the end of a long project is always a bittersweet feeling. It’s been many months now, but I’m finally nearing the end of my quest to read all of the Roberto Calasso that’s been translated into English. I have about one hundred pages left to go of Ardor, Calasso’s exegesis of the Vedic texts and culture which sprang out of the Āryan invasion of Northern India, and I’m savoring every sentence. The Vedic people, who lived around three millennia ago, were a unique civilization in that they left behind almost no archeological traces. No “objects, images, or ruins”, as the book explains. What they did leave behind was a “Parthenon of words”: verses, songs, metaphysical tracts, poems, and prayers which suggest a robust and complex apprehension of life. Calasso pays particular attention to the role ritual plays in the Vedic conception of reality and how the ritual/sacrifice is, among other things, an acknowledgement of the excess beyond life which makes life possible. This excess also implies a residue. He writes:
Any kind of order involves eliminating a part of the original material. That part is the residue. What is to be done with it? It can be treated as the principal enemy of order, as the constant threat of a relapse to the status that existed before the order. Or as something that, going beyond order, ensures the permanence of a contact with the continuum that preceded order itself.
“When the yonder world overflows, all gods and all beings subsist on it, and truly the yonder world overflows for he who knows this.” All is possible—even the existence of gods—only because ‘the yonder world’ is superabundant. Its bursting forth into the other world, which is ours, offers that surplus without which there would be no life.
In a way, Ardor can be thought of as a companion piece to Calasso’s Ka: The Mind and Gods of India, only focusing less on the actual myths and God characters themselves and more on a literal analysis of Vedic ideas. It makes me hope that one day he’ll write something like an Occidental version of it for his wonderful The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.
Casey Chalk, contributor: It’s easy to overlook the Gospel of Mark when considering the New Testament. It’s the shortest—John, the next shortest, is five chapters longer, while Matthew, the longest, has twelve more chapters. This means that among the Gospels, Mark possesses in some senses the least amount of data about Jesus. Moreover, there’s not that much in Mark that one cannot find in Matthew or Luke, the other so-called synoptic Gospels. Mark’s use of Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, is also the least refined. Thus many scholars (and Christians) have given less time and effort to studying Mark. Michael Pakaluk’s The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark seeks to rectify that.
There are good reasons to devote serious study to Mark. As the title suggests, there is an important connection between the Gospel and St. Peter, the chief Apostle, and, so claim Catholics (and to a lesser degree the Orthodox), the first leader of the early Church. The historical evidence demonstrating that Mark reflects the words and memories of Peter is quite strong. Church Fathers beginning in the second century were already making this connection. Indeed, the phrase “memoirs of Peter” is a quotation from the early Christian apologist St. Justin Martyr, who employed it around 150 A.D.
Mark’s Gospel also relates a number of incidents from Jesus’ life that only Peter would have been privy to, or depicts Peter quite distinctively. Several stories, including raising a girl from the dead (Mark 5:37-43), the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13), and Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-52) all contain elements found only in Mark’s Gospel. The book also has more details than the others concerning Peter’s denial of Christ. Indeed, Mark more than any other Gospel consistently depicts Peter as thoughtless or foolish.
Pakaluk’s translation and commentary recognizes two others interesting Markan traits. First is the use of the word eutheós, which Pakaluk often translates as the standard “immediately,” but which he sometimes alters to “right away.” In Mark there is a curious, very liberal use of this word, which lends an unparalleled immediacy to it that both pushes the narrative forward and emphasizes the excitement of the story. This seems appropriate when one considers that Jesus is performing miracles including raising people from the dead. Pakaluk adds to this immediacy with his clever translation of the Greek aorist tense, which is not exactly past or present, but relates what it was like to be present during past described events. Pakaluk’s take unfortunately can also be a bit annoying—he often inserts the word “well” into the beginning of sentences where they need not belong (e.g. “Well, after they left the synagogue…”) Nevertheless, it is a welcome, imaginative new take on Mark.