AE Reiff


Taking Down the Elder
Saving the Elder: Fact As Artifact. Refinishing the Classics

Elders of all kinds, ancient texts, antiques, mountaintops are like an old oak desk. Worn and pitted, scarred with cigarette burns it could maybe be refinished, taken down to the bare wood or to a factory to be plane sanded. There is a kind of bare wooding of ancient texts and mountains too, of refinishing their tops. Refinished how many times? Minute crinklings in the varnish of the original, Milton’s theology, Blake’s visions, the bending of age, rough skin, imperfections of use, rounded edges, white wood worn in drawers, increased girth, prove it authentic, not a fake.

Literary critics with critical forgeries have cut down the masterpieces, falsely wedded them, making them forgeries of themselves. Forgeries hardly seems accurate, fiveries, sixeries. How much difference is there between amputating a Chippendale, the Taliban blowing up the Afghan Buddhas and the critics arguing Satan the hero of Paradise Lost? Oh but that was Blake, he gets an exemption. He was all peppery about Milton. But when critics got all peppery about Blake he cursed them and gouged his plate (Plate 3 of Jerusalem)! There is so much revision going on one might think none of the elders are what they said they were or seemed to be. But in fact, if fact exists, this is true of the revisionists; they are not what they seem to be. Socrates is not less and less a man and more and more an allegory of Plato.

Saving the elder means conserving the fact as though it were an old table, an artifact. By this analogy, facts need to be protected from the UV radiation, acidic airs, the dust and soot of intellectual commerce in order to see where literary critics, like shoddy antique dealers, have cut down the highboys to fit their low ceiling rooms, cut down high pieces to their idea of proper size, to fit décor, the better to sell them later. They have married pieces they considered alike, Gunkeled the Psalms to fit their defects, but not accurately, even if they are experts that can fool a buyer. If you change the surface, reduce, remove the patina, you destroy the artifact.

The elder has been stretched and refinished to its defamation for purposes of fame or fortune. Such mythmaking pretends to revise or originate history. In these second versions Socrates never existed, Freud doubted Moses was in Egypt and form critics doubted Moses ever wrote at all. In the reinvention of history and the inventions of higher criticism the boundary stones are moved. Thus in the history, the poet’s telling, subsequent retellings, the editing, demythologizing, the editor, the forger and the poet, the only thing left out is the fact. We are short on facts, hardly believe in them.

First in the mind, then in the mountain and dry gulch, these extinction mythologies have preceded the destruction of mountain tops with a big magnifying glass that misses things obvious to the naked eye. They have enabled the implosion, debasement and strip mine of cultural authorities, of Torah, Plato, Psalms, Illiad, New Testament and Lao Tzu. A way of seeing, 19th century gurus demythologized classical texts to substitute their own reconstructs.

These axed texts equal species. As mountaintops in West Virginia are exploded to mine coal, the texts reduced allow the destruction of life forms they would prevent. Remove the mountain top and there is diminished perspective from which to judge the certainty of the modern event. So the demolition of elder texts enabled the biological demolitions, the true destruction of earth. Who the author was and what was said according to these critics was in massive doubt. These demolitions prepared for the biological destruction of the next century. They believed no old work was the product of its traditional author, but an editorial compilation of prior works, with multiple authors, whose identity they inferred from language habits, especially anachronism. Underlying myths undermined texts and extincted species.

Higher critical demolitions began with biblical writings and spread to every ancient literature. Alan Watts has "the nerve to believe that I understand the basic principles of Taoism more thoroughly than some scholars whose interest is narrowly philological" (xviii). He applies to the Tao Te Ching in his consummating work, Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975, xxiii): "when I consider the confused opinions arising from textual criticism of the New Testament, I am in some doubt as to how seriously this debunking of the Lao-tzu legend should be taken. Since the latter years of the + 19th century, scholars of the Western tradition, including many Chinese and Japanese, seem to have established a trend for casting doubt on the historicity of 'legendary' figures of the past-especially if they are of the religious or spiritual type." He concludes that it is not "a compilation of Taoist sayings by several hands." As to how it came about that such thought has continued to the present he says, " please their professors, many successful graduate students affect peppery skepticism and an aura of scientific objectivity as a matter of protocol in submitting acceptable dissertations. Because of this way of looking at texts with a big magnifying glass, one sometimes wonders whether pedants miss features which are obvious to the naked eye." Those obvious features he takes as its "laconic, aphoristic, and enigmatic style" as "consistent throughout the book, as is also the very rhythm of its argument" (xxiv). Such appeal to the unity of voice is also what defeats the "patchwork" critics of Homer.

Destruction of the traditional and removal of its epic perspective was necessary to remove the spiritual from the physical, which meant that things were never just merely things in themselves alone. Reduction of heaven, earth and under earth to one level was prerequisite to demythologizing the forest too, the forest and every other sanctity of life, the implicit argument being that if the authority of a scripture were compromised we might just all do as we please in exploiting resources. Free market capitalism of forest and mountain came with the same sensational revelations of the textual destructions. One multi-lateral size fit all.

Analogy between the destruction of the natural and the demythology of texts holds demolition in common. The texts are like the mountain tops removed in surface mining in Appalachia. "Forests are clear cut and holes drilled to blast apart rock. Massive machines, some with buckets big enough to hold 24 compact cars, scoop coal from the exposed seams. The rock and dirt left behind is dumped into adjacent valleys, lowering the height of the mountain and covering streams." But the substance mined, whether coal or uranium feeds the needs of energy of the massive Moloch, the never-satisfied. There is not life, blood, water, or earth enough to fill it. It must consume all. Putting the spiritual back in the physical posits that human greed is either symbolic of Moloch or some greater ill is at work corrupting human greed. Things can always get worse. Human science and business would dismiss this idea by any and all means, charge the dementia of conspiracy. With pretended astonishment comes the rhetorical mockery: is Moloch behind the deconstruction of Lao Tzu? The answer to their exaggerated dramas of themselves is always yes. The texts have been removed from their place of prominence and brought down to the level of the milieu of grad students. The destruction of epic, removal of the spiritual from the physical, the reduction of heaven, earth and under earth to one level allows the harvest of the destruction of forest and mountain without question. The rule is, first take out the authorities, then remove being itself. So if we seek the epic view now solely identified with the primitive we are pushed into the very wilderness where it is being destroyed, a process unheralded in library and lab. One day it will seem to the lab that the destruction of the earth is the destruction of the lab.

While mountain tops are shorn in the east, whole mesas are mined in the west. Black Mesa of the Navajo, surface mining to feed the Energy Moloch, endangers water and human life, but that is what Moloch does when life-of-mine permit[s] are extended to join "Peabody Energy's Kayenta and the now closed Black Mesa mines." The epic view is the only means at hand to judge the universal destruction of the earth, a view expressed by the Navajo. Epic is the only means to understand the destruction. Enei Begaye, says that "Black Mesa is a female and the coal is her liver. This is not just symbolic. It's a real representation of the spiritual, cultural relationship that the people have with the area." (See

So if it sheds light on the background causes of the destruction of the earth there is some motive to explore the demolition of the classics which have suffered so many quaint reductions and expansions under the multiple hand of critics. Talk about coal mines! These are undermines of integrity. They think authors were editors who wrote serially, but out of order so that other editors (themselves) had to put them in their real order, clumped thematically together as to please the editor's mind. So it went with Plato:

"The result, with Plato's dialogues as with so many other texts, was to challenge Plato's authorship of most of the dialogues at some time or other. But, in many cases, the criteria used to do so had more to do with the understanding the author had of Platonism as a doctrine, and what he deemed "fit" of Plato's assumed style and ideas than with "objective" features of the dialogues independent of the understanding one may have of them. In other words, these studies led to stressing the apparent contradictions there might be between dialogues, and, after each author had chosen what he thought was true Platonism, to his rejection of what would contradict it as inauthentic." (Bernard Suzanne)

This fitting of style to the critic's apriori conclusion, that Alan Watts found above as the corruption of the writing of Lao Tzu, the affectation of peppery grad students, Herman Wouk more deeply finds in the higher criticism of so-called Old Testament forgeries, "the self-portrait of a European desk scholar" (318) that set out to create a fabrication of the text: "Its general effect, when it was believed, was to discredit most of the Old Testament, and especially the books of Moses, as chopped-up conglomerations of very late forgeries, rather than authentic documents of antiquity" (This Is My God, 312). This early pattern of cultural demolition precedes experience of the natural one, but the biblical demolitions began the process: "variations of style, repeated passages, chronological discrepancies, oddities of grammar and vocabulary" had "new corrosive interpretations." (313). Because the need to disestablish the biblical had the greatest urgency, the desk scholar, (Wellhausen) "extended the range of [alleged] forgers to cover practically all Scripture." but "they really performed a work of massive manufacture with one end in view: to shore up their own claims to power and money" (314). Wouk shows the pervasive dishonesty of this demolition that swept down a generation and more "like nine-pins." So the desk scholar, "whatever passages of scripture support his thesis, or at least do not oppose it, are authentic. Wherever the text contradicts him the verses are spurious" (315). Tobacco companies! Even as late as the 1930's this "moonshine" held credence and still does in the venues of Time and Newsweek. Under the combined weight of archaeological dating and the realization of the subjectivity of literary analysis the biblical demolition comes to rest near the presumption of multiple authorship of Lao Tzu. Talk about conspiracy, whenever Wellhausen found evidence contrary to his delusions he blamed it upon an "Interpolater" who inserted passages with the express intent of disproving the theory. He was as paranoid as the tobacco companies and the power plants on the Navajo res. The ghost, the interpolater, was mockingly later called (317) "interpretatio europeica moderna" or in other words, peppery grad student, the European desk scholar, "moiling patiently through Scripture to construct a nineteenth-century hypothesis, and then projecting his own image backward into the environment of the fifth century" (318).

Academic self portraits have been much foisted upon the elder poets, always to their detriment. Somewhere the bookish Eliot declares that only poets can be appropriate critics of poetry. Critic-like government officials burying radioactive waste in our neighborhoods, licensing lead plants downwind and putting carcinogenic oils on our highways are like critics and editors who think they could have improved the quality if not the efficiency of the creation, but feel inadequate in the face of the afflatus of the poetic word. Their defensiveness allows such statements that the Illiad is a so-called "wretched patchwork" (Wilamowitz). Cedric Whitman revised Wilamowitz on the Illiad (and by extension Gunkel (1926) on the Psalms) with the statement that "the fixed notion that repeated lines, or echoing phrases offer evidence of tamperings and interpolations was simply out of place in dealing with Homer." The summary is pertinent to Lao Tzu, Plato, Homer and David: "His formal structure shows a dazzling complexity, his imagery clusters into inevitable symbolic schemes of profoundest meaning, and above all, his basic and most central vision...imposes an ineradicable unity of ethos upon the whole design" (2).

Taking down the classics is just like taking down the sequoias. First remove the big trees, then clear cut the rest, changing the whole ecology with erosion. The cycle of destruction in the analogy is plain enough once you understand what part the big tree classics play in the environment of the human. That is, the big trees are the elders, the elder compositions done under the "work of one hand" as Watts puts it (xxiv) from which unity and creative power are deduced with a powerful respect of the elder. This notion of the “work of one hand” is one of power. Skeptics have alleged possible inconsistencies they think they have found in the single hands of older poets. To take down a renowned artifact takes some doing. Western demolition teams must be implicitly jealous of the Taliban when they had such an easy time to dynamite the Afghan Buddhas. You can demo the outer elder, but demoing the inner takes more time, but inertia is on their side, as Watts complains, once they got going on the Testaments they got to all other works of the "religious and spiritual type." In their place they erected dramas and fantasies of themselves.

And we welcome the good professor Tolkien in this fray when he says that critics seem to think Beowulf was written by Anglo-Saxons over beer. (Drout, Beowulf and the Critics, 116).

As I was wording this proposition my companion was reading Isaiah, "the earth is defiled by the inhabitants thereof." Without investigation of an ontology at work in the event, analysis seems naive to a fault. We are in the middle of a mass extinction.

Taking Down The Tree

Anybody can take down their tree. Early settlers planted Aleppo Pines in some neighborhoods in the Sonoran desert a hundred years ago. The Homestead Neighborhood for several blocks along Pinchot in Phoenix is lined on both sides with these giants 80, 100 feet high, desirable for cooling, birds, scent and ambiance. Aleppos in other neighborhoods are not planted together. They tower over the mulberry and chinaberry. Down the street a new neighbor takes down his Aleppo. No reason. The cause isn’t in the trees but in ourselves. It was big, but half gone when noticed. What could have been done to ransom the tree? Call the city? Futile. We loaded a pickup with three trips of sectioned trunk and hauled them to a back yard. It will not revive from these “cuttings.” Forty feet of trunk remained standing. Next morning there was none. The severed limbs line the curb as a kind of wood fence. Some of the sections split and hollowed now make homes for desert tortoises. The rest tilt at odd angles like gravestones. Look at them yourself. There may be a mirror.

This is what comes of the elders. Tree Yggdrasil and laments for lost species become parables for what you never saw, the elder flights of birds, hillsides inundated with robins, Glen Canyon, light shining from the herb, belief in a principle of virtue. If we care, and the list could be made long, we should care about the tree. One generation could lay it down. It helps to understand Andrew Mack’s quotation, “if they do this in a green tree, what shall do in a dry.”


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