Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.

Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

A journey of disease and discovery, a look at scurvy with Jonathan Lamb

lambInternal bleeding, black gums, morbidly sensitive skin, even “scorbutic nostalgia,” in which victims imagined mirages of food, water, or home—these are just some of the symptoms of the disease associated with maritime travel: scurvy. Jonathan Lamb traces the cultural impact of scurvy and details the medical knowledge surrounding the disease, which stems from a vitamin deficiency and is still found today. Drawing on historical accounts from scientists and voyagers as well as major literary works, the book charts a unique eighteenth-century journey of discovery. Jonathan Lamb recently took the time to answer some questions about the book.


Why did you write a book about a disease that doesn’t trouble us anymore?

JL: Actually it does. On a trip to Easter Island I met a woman who got scurvy from dieting. A survey of North American college students discovered that 40% had levels of vitamin C below the minimum level required for good health. War veterans, recent widowers, children addicted to food lacking vitamins A, B, C and D, people caught in sieges like the citizens of Aleppo in Syria or Mount Sinjar in Iraq, they are all vulnerable. Like goiter, rickets, pellagra and beriberi, scurvy is a nutritional disease. That is to say, you don’t catch it, like ebola or bubonic plague, it lies in wait for an interruption in the ingestion of fresh food, and then inevitably (if the interruption is long enough) it makes its fatal appearance. True there are no great outbreaks such as those that killed two-thirds of the complement of George Anson’s naval squadron in the 1740s, but it does to remember that it was rife, for instance, in the penal settlements of early Australia, and on Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctic, and among the South Asian regiments of the British Army in Iraq during the First World War. Eric Newby got it sailing on a windjammer to South Australia in 1939. The symptoms of scurvy’s cousin pellagra, a staggering walk and a distracted mind, are evident in Primo Levi’s account of the so-called Muselmaenner of Auschwitz in his memoir If this is a Man.

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

JL: They are divided between purely physical effects and alterations in the nervous structure of the brain. Generally scurvy begins with sensitive gums, aching joints, blood-spots and bruising of the skin that eventually ulcerate. When this happens in the mouth, the gums turn black and swell. Sailors used to call it `bullocks’ liver.’ Teeth fall out, old fractures open up, cartilage disappears from the bones, artery walls weaken, the tendons shrink, and internal bleeding begins. Soon after this breathing becomes stertorous, the heart is under pressure, brain haemorrhages will occur, and death is not far away. While this is happening the mind is affected either with stupor or with powerful hallucinations and dreams. It was generally agreed by close observers of the disease that the imagination of scorbutic patients was desperately signaling to the body to get hold of the right kind of food: chiefly green vegetables, fish and meat. Of course dreams so vivid raised powerful expectations, and when the poor sailors awoke to find none of what they needed, they were prone to weep uncontrollably. The physical symptoms were owing to loss of collagen which the body cannot restore without an adequate supply of vitamin C: basically the scaffold and hydraulic system of the body collapse. The psychological symptoms were the result of free radicals, normally scavenged by the vitamin, clogging the synapses, resulting either in extreme lethargy or a morbid sensitivity to light, texture, smells and sounds.

Since we all know now that scurvy is cured by oranges and lemons, what was going to be new about your book?

JL: The thing is everybody always knew the cure of scurvy. If you could get hold of fresh fruit, kale, onions or potatoes you would soon recover. The problem was that at sea no fresh food was available, only salt meat, flour, dried peas, raisins, oil or butter and oatmeal. You needed a medicine capable of preventing or alleviating the symptoms of eating nothing but preserved food. But of course the medicine itself had to be preserved too. Ever since the days of Hawkins and Drake it was known that the juice of lemons, limes and oranges was a powerful antiscorbutic, the trouble was how to preserve it. Boiling got rid of the vitamin; sometimes the fruit (West Indian limes for instance) was naturally low in ascorbic acid; sometimes extremes of heat and cold ruined what virtue the juice had; and sometimes wicked contractors used imperfect fruit, or blended and diluted the juice to the point where it was useless. Besides these obstacles there was no agreement among surgeons and physicians as to whether a cure for scurvy was the same as a preventive. James Lind, famous for a clinical trial proving beyond doubt that citrus juice cured scurvy, had no faith in its value as a preventive, for like many other naval physicians he believed that scurvy was caused by defective food, not by food deficient in some vital principle. That is to say he thought the disease was caught from the environment, not from a genetic mutation in humans that prevents them from synthesizing a chemical crucial to life.

Well, even if Lind got it wrong, Cook got it right and there was no more serious scurvy after they got rid of it in his voyages of discovery, was there?

JL: That is the story that is generally told, but it is not quite true. On his three voyages to the Pacific scurvy occurred, but never fatally. Cook ran his ships with exemplary care for hygiene, warmth, dry clothes, clean air and regular stops for refreshment, and on top of that he was carrying a host of preserved dietary supplements that he hoped would keep scurvy at bay, including lime juice. He had a low opinion of the juice, privately favouring sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and spruce beer (fermented malt sharpened with pine needles and bark). But nutritional politics played a large part in his official endorsement of malt wort, the brainchild of a physician called David MacBride who was patronized by powerful people. Malt was easily concentrated, and it was a lot cheaper than citrus juice, and so it received official backing and was used well into the 19th century, even though it had no antiscorbutic value whatsoever. Many historians think Cook contributed to postponing the reforms of Nelson’s navy by forty years. From 1795 onwards Gilbert Blane saw to it that every sailor in the British Fleet drank an ounce of concentrated lime-juice per day, to which was owing the health of British seamen during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Hence `limeys,’ the derogatory name applied by American sailors to their British cousins.

So that was that, end of story?

JL: Not really. You see these were all either theoretical or empirical solutions to the problem of scurvy. MacBride for instance considered that scurvy was a shortage of air in the body, and he believed that malt released carbon dioxide into the organs, ventilating them. Thomas Beddoes had a similar theory about oxygen. Thomas Trotter on the other hand, physician to the Channel Fleet in the early 1790s, said the only treatment of scurvy worthy the name was based on observation and experience, and strongly advocated lime-juice as both a preventive and a cure, although he thought its acidic qualities might corrode the mucus tissue and the stomach lining. But none of these men knew for sure what it was in air or lime-juice that caused them to prevent or cure scurvy. However they were agreed that the body needed more from food than carbohydrates and protein.

They were getting closer to the truth, weren’t they?

JL: Yes, in a way, although the best investigators of scurvy in the 17th century had reached the same conclusion. Those who had a theory of deficient food were on the right track, while those who thought scurvy was caused poisoned by spoilt supplies were wrong. However, it was the latter school that was destined to triumph in the latter part of the 19th century. A series of disastrous expeditions to the Arctic were to blame, beginning with Franklin’s where the evidence pointed to tainted cans of meat as responsible for the first stage of the tragedy. A few years later Nares’s expedition was afflicted with scurvy even though a copious amount of preserved lime juice was distributed among the crew. It was even observed that the symptoms of scurvy worsened as more of the juice was consumed. It was not long before an influential physician, Sir Almoth Wright, instituted a germ theory of scurvy that dominated medical thinking until the discovery of vitamin C in 1933. Captain Scott referred to sealmeat as an `antidote’ to the ptomaine poisoning he believed damaged cans of meat were causing among his men.

And that is the story, right?

JL: I wasn’t sure it was. Scurvy was regarded as a shameful disease, associated with dirt and malingering and horrid to watch and smell. The French historian of smell, Alain Corbin, says that in the catalogue of noisome diseases, scurvy was far and away the worst. The most frequent testimony coming out of the experience of scurvy is that it was hard to say what it was like to have it, and that it was impossible to describe the condition of those suffering from it. So you will often find commanders and doctors trying to cover up its presence, usually by calling it something else, such as rheumatism, dysentery, typhus or erysipelas. It is common to find surgeons reporting that their scorbutic patients recovered nicely after they had been dosed with malt—either a mistake or a lie. In 1834 at the penal settlement of Port Arthur half the convicts were showing signs of the disease, 19 were in the last stages of scorbutic decline in the hospital, yet only a single death from scurvy was reported for the whole year. It is hard to find pictures of scorbutic bodies and with the exception of Thomas Trotter’s books on naval medicine, there are very few closely observed accounts of its progress. Since Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said scurvy was a matter for `shocking calculation’ why were accounts of it so coy or misleading? Here there was truly a `secret history’ to uncover.

You are a professor literature. Has scurvy anything to do with your specialism?

JL: Yes it does. There is a genre of utopian fiction that weaves stories around outbreaks of scurvy. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis begins with scorbutic English sailors being cured with blood oranges; Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville uses Bougainville’s experience of the same thing at Tahiti as the basis of fantasy about an island of free love, very similar in its outline to Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines. Gabriel Francois Coyer wrote a supplement to Anson’s voyage, turning a tale of a stricken crew landing at a verdant island into the discovery of a civilization devoted to idle forms of artifice, breeding horses too delicate to ride, growing fruits that are beautifully coloured but inedible, and amusing themselves with operas and romances. Bernardin de St Pierre’s famous novel, Paul et Virginie, is an exquisite pastoral tale set on Mauritius which the author first reached when his nerves were so disordered by scurvy he found every shrub, tree, animal and bird on the island repellent. A fascinating story to come out of Cook’s second voyage is called The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman, and tells the story of the alleged eleventh man in the Adventure’s cutter whose crew were cut off by Maori while in search of antiscorbutic herbs, then killed and eaten. Bowman’s travels take him to nations that each cultivate a sense well beyond the degree of gross normality: one whose citizens can see in the dark, another where they enjoy extraordinarily sensitive hearing, and lastly one where responsiveness to touch is so exquisite it has carried sexual pleasure to a new height. There is a unique pattern in this fiction, for each story is fashioned out of two versions of the same story, modeled on the succumbing to scurvy and the recovery from it, where inexpressible pains are transformed into wonderful delights. So there you are, scorbutic fiction—a newly discovered genre.

Jonathan Lamb is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. His many books include The Things Things Say (Princeton) and The Evolution of Sympathy in the Long Eighteenth Century. His most recent book is Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery.

Donald Lopez on the Lotus Sutra

Lopez, Jr. In The Lotus Sutra: A Biography, Donald Lopez traces the many roles of what is perhaps the most famous of Buddhist historical texts, the Lotus Sutra.  Examining the history of the famous scripture that was composed in India in the first centuries of the Common Era, Lopez’s biography provides an engaging background to the enduring classic. Lopez recently took the time to answer some questions about his own early encounters with the text, and why its proclamations remain so important today.

What is the Lotus Sutra?

DL: The Lotus Sutra is arguably the most famous of all Buddhist texts.  It is one of only three Buddhist works, among a vast canon, that is well known in the West by its English title (the other two being the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra). The Lotus Sutra was composed in India, and in the Sanskrit language, where its title is Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra. This might be translated as the Discourse on the White Lotus of the True Doctrine. As I explain in the book, this title is rather “loaded” from a Buddhist perspective. It is not just a lotus (the traditional flower of Buddhism), but the white lotus, the best of lotuses. It does not just teach the dharma, the doctrine, but the true doctrine. As a sutra, or “discourse,” it is traditionally attributed to the Buddha himself.

Why is it so famous?

DL: Although composed in India, the Lotus Sutra became particularly important in China and Japan.  In terms of Buddhist doctrine, it is renowned for two powerful proclamations by the Buddha.  The first is that there are not three vehicles to enlightenment but one, that all beings in the universe will one day become buddhas. The second is that the Buddha did not die and pass into nirvana; in fact, his lifespan is immeasurable. The sutra is also famous for its parables, like the Parable of the Burning House and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It was because of these parables that the Lotus Sutra became the first Buddhist text to be translated from Sanskrit into a European language (French). The Lotus Sutra has several dramatic scenes; perhaps the most famous is when a giant bejeweled stupa (a tomb of a buddha) emerges from the earth and a living buddha is found inside. Such scenes inspired hundreds of works of art across East Asia.  At the Dunhuang cave complex in China, scenes from the Lotus Sutra are found in some seventy-five caves.

What was your first encounter with the Lotus Sutra?

DL: When I was in college in the 1970s, a friend invited me over for a meeting with a Buddhist teacher. I was surprised to find not a monk in saffron robes but a white guy in a business suit. After a brief talk, he knelt down in front of a small altar that he had brought with him and started chanting something that I couldn’t understand. In retrospect, I realize that he was chanting in Japanese, saying Namu myoho renge kyo, “Homage to the Lotus Sutra.” He was likely a member of Nichiren Shoshu of America, the “Orthodox Nichiren School of America.” The Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222-1282) was the most famous of the many devotees of the Lotus Sutra in Japan. He is a central figure in the book.

This is the second book you have contributed to PUP’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.  How did you choose the Lotus Sutra and what is it about the text that lends itself to a reception history?

DL: My first book for the series was about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The famous version, first published in 1927, is an odd work. For example, it is not called the “book of the dead” in Tibetan; it is called Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing. It is not a translation of the entire work, and it includes all manner of rather eccentric prefaces, appendices, addenda, and notes by the editor, the American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz. Because of its strange history, it was a perfect candidate for Lives of Great Religious Books, but it would have been unfortunate had it been the only Buddhist work in the series. The series editor, Fred Appel, thus agreed to include a second Buddhist text, and I chose the Lotus Sutra.

I chose it in part because of its great fame in the Buddhist world. I also chose it because it is obsessed with the question of how its teachings are received, making it an ideal candidate for a reception history. That obsession derives from the fact that although the Lotus Sutra purports to be the words of the historical Buddha, it is not. It was composed some four centuries after the Buddha’s death. It is thus the most famous of the Mahayana sutras, or “Great Vehicle” sutras, works that set forth a different vision of the Buddhist path. In order to have authority, however, they must claim to have been taught by the Buddha himself.

In researching the book, what did you find that was unexpected?

DL: The anonymous authors of the Lotus Sutra presented a radical re-vision of both the Buddhist path and of the person of the Buddha. They did this with remarkable skill; they were clearly monks who were deeply versed in traditional Buddhist doctrine but were also deeply dissatisfied with the state of the Buddhist tradition as it existed around the beginning of the Common Era. One of the things that I saw again and again in the text was a concern with legitimation. The authors were determined to portray their work as the words of the Buddha and thus have the Buddha constantly praise the Lotus Sutra, promising rewards to those who embrace it and punishments to those who reject it.

If you could write a second book about the Lotus Sutra, what would it be?

DL: Funny you should ask. One of the attractive features of the titles in the Lives of Great Religious Books series is their beautiful production and their compact size, only about 60,000 words. In researching the book, I found that there was much more that I wanted to say about the content of the sutra. Each of the twenty-eight chapters is fascinating in its own right; the Lotus Sutra is a masterpiece of Buddhist literature, but the mastery of its authors is not fully evident without knowing something of the historical and doctrinal background. Professor Jacqueline Stone of Princeton (a leading expert on the Lotus Sutra in Japan) and I will be writing a guide to the Lotus Sutra (also to be published by Princeton University Press). The goal of both books is to bring this remarkable text, already so famous in the Buddhist world, to a wider readership.

Donald Lopez is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He has contributed other books to the PUP Lives of Religious Book series with titles such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Princeton). He is also the author of the book The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (with Robert E. Buswell, Jr.). Lopez currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.




Offer and Söderberg on the real-world consequences of economics–and the Nobel Prize

Offer and SoderbergThe Nobel Prize in Economics arose during a changing time for the world’s markets. Was this a coincidence? Avner Offer and Gabriel Söderberg say no. In  The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn, Offer and Söderberg detail  how the prize, which was first awarded to economists Jan Tinbergen and Ragnar Frisch in 1969, was created by the Swedish central bank to enhance the central bank authority and the prestige of market-friendly economics. Offer and Söderberg have taken some time to answer questions about the origins of this esteemed prize and how it emerged from a conflict between central bank orthodoxy and social democracy.

What is the core argument of this book?

AO & GS: Since the 1970s, academic economics and social democracy have disputed how society should be managed. The challenge is those parts of the life cycle when people have little market power, the contingencies of motherhood, education, illness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Economics claims that it is best to buy protection in financial markets, by means of saving, borrowing and insurance. This is backed up by the supposed authority of science, symbolized by the Nobel Prize in Economics. It is also the objective of business and finance in their quest to capture profit from everybody’s income streams. Social democracy deals with dependency by means of transfers from producers to dependents, providing education, healthcare, pensions, physical infrastructure and culture, and pooling the individual risks by means of taxation and transfers. We question the claims of economics to impartiality and superior reason.

Why does the Prize in Economics matter?

AO & GS: Nobel prize-winners provide a high-quality sample of economics. The prize has a halo that makes economics credible to the wider public, for policies which are often inimical to the public interest. It arose out of the long conflict between the interests of the wealthy in stable prices, and of everyone else in social and material improvement. Between the wars, this conflict became focused in central banks, which became a brake on social democracy. After the Second World War, the Swedish Central Bank clashed repeatedly with the social democratic government over financing the welfare state, and extracted the prize as a concession. The prize was then captured by conservative Swedish economists, who used it to provide credibility for sustained resistance to social democracy. This story shows how ideas and arguments work through society and politics, and how the prestige of science has been mobilised for political ends.

Who is this book for?

AO & GS: It enlarges understanding of economic and social development with a wealth of new findings that will engage students and academics in economics, social science, and history. This includes the two-thirds of economists who hold onto social-democratic values, at odds with their professional indoctrination. Policy makers in government, business, finance, and voluntary organizations may find that the concepts on which they rely are not well founded. The argument is written to be attractive to read for anyone interested in current affairs, economic policy, and the future of society, all over the world.

After the financial crisis many new books have criticized mainstream economics. How is this book different?

AO & GS: One rebuttal by economists is that critics have no alternative to offer. But economics is not in fact hegemonic: public policy is dominated by a pervasive, pragmatic and effective system of social democracy which allocates about 30 percent of GDP in most advanced countries (lower in the USA due to a private health system). ‘It works in practice, but will it work in theory?’ is the challenge of economics. It imagines a world of self-interested, rational persons whose choices scale up to a benign equilibrium, as if by an invisible hand. But this vision is arbitrary, difficult to apply, and not even consistent. Economics has turned its back to social democracy, and has also missed the buildup to the recent financial crisis.

Many Americans regard social democracy as something exclusively European. Why should Americans be interested?

AO & GS: This is delusive, like the tea party member who asked the government to take its hands off his medicare. The United States deploys a broad range of social democratic arrangements: free public schools up to eighteen, a public higher education system; health services for the indigent, the old, and military veterans; unemployment benefits, some income and disability support, and a reasonable system of old-age pensions (social security). Much of its other spending (fiscal and other subsidies, especially the mortgage interest offset against tax) is regressive and misdirected. Americans are becoming aware of the cost of their dysfunctional and expensive medical system. Educational debt is a crisis in the making. Private retirement arrangements are failing. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, has mounted a formidable challenge in the Democratic primaries. The other candidates have joined him in advocating more social security and free higher education; like the tea party member, the supporters of Trump are also responding to the weakness of American social democracy.

Many commentators in Europe are discussing the crisis of social democracy in terms of lack of vision and declining support. What do you think is the future of social democracy and how must it adapt to survive and flourish in the future?

AO & GS: The problems of social democracy arise partly from its success. It developed as a one-size-fits-all solution for male manual wage-earners, and was difficult to adapt to a more diverse, educated, and affluent society, and to service economies that employ men and women in almost equal proportions. Social democracy is still the bedrock of personal security. Its objectives and methods are not fully understood by its practitioners and advocates, and hardly at all by those who benefit. Centre-left politicians, beguiled by market rhetoric, have not served it well. The values of reciprocity and solidarity underpin social democracy: they are more attractive ethically than unbridled greed, but also more effective and efficient. The ‘market turn’ held out the prospect of moving beyond social democracy to private ‘nest egg’ provision for economic security. Home ownership promised wealth for everybody. Driven by easy credit and mounting debt, this seemed to work for a while but has now built up inequality, social exclusion and financial crisis. The advocates of self-regulating markets did not anticipate such a precarious outcome.

Avner Offer is Chichele Professor Emeritus of Economic History at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. He is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and the British Academy.  His books include The Challenge of AffluenceGabriel Söderberg is a researcher in the Department of Economic History at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden. The two recently collaborated on the book The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn.

Q&A with Konrad H. Jarausch, author of Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century

Konrad H. Jarausch, eminent historian and Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is the author of the sweeping new history, Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century, which Publisher’s Weekly notes is “bound to become the standard work on its subject”. Recently, Jarausch took the time to discuss with us how the impact of history itself influenced his own decision to become a historian, the key lessons of the 20th century, and why the tendency to view the last century in Europe as “one gigantic catastrophe” is reductive to the larger picture’s nuanced stories of humanity, prosperity and promise.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be posting installments in a new blog series called Out of Ashes – Scenes from 20th Century Europe. Through a series of vignettes highlighting the major episodes covered by Jarausch’s book—from the descent into totalitarianism, to the growth of modernism and the arts—we hope to offer a sense of the scope and range of events that shaped the war-torn, and, as Jarausch writes, “spectacularly recovered” continent.

Out of Ashes jacketWhy do we need a new history of 20th century Europe?

KJ: The development of Europe during the last century is a fantastic story which no screen-writer could have invented, because its extremes offer an incredible mixture of suffering and pleasure. The war-torn continent has now spectacularly recovered from its prior disasters and overcome the division between East and West. Though written by eminent historians, the previous efforts are too incomplete in temporal treatment, too unbalanced in geographic coverage and too partisan in ideological interpretation in order to do justice to the complexity of events. Written after the overthrow of Communism, this new book presents a more comprehensive and balanced account.

What inspired you to get into your field?

KJ: My becoming a historian was determined by the impact of history itself: I was born in Germany on the day on which the Atlantic Charter of fundamental rights was proclaimed by FDR and Churchill, August 14, 1941. I survived the Allied bombardments of Magdeburg as infant, but my mother evacuated both of us to a farm in lower Bavaria in order to escape the danger from the air. My father, who was serving on the Eastern Front in charge of a kitchen for Russian POWs, passed away in January 1942  from typhoid fever, because he was trying to keep the Soviet prisoners from starving. As a result we never saw each other. At the end of the war my mother started teaching school in some private institutions until she finally got a state position in Krefeld in the Rhineland. I grew up playing in the rubble, being confronted with the devastating impact of the war almost every day.  It was therefore only natural for a curious teenager to want to find out what had happened in the Third Reich that destroyed his family and divided his country. Six decades later, having moved to the US as a student, I am still wrestling with questions of dictatorship and war.

Is the European record of the past century just one gigantic catastrophe?

KJ: It is true that the first half of the 20th century was full of internecine warfare, economic depression, ethnic cleansing and racist genocide that killed tens of millions of people, more than any other period in human history. But looking only at the disasters creates an incomplete perception, because the second half of the century witnessed a much more positive development in spite of the Cold War. After the defeat of Fascism in 1945, the peaceful revolution of 1989/90 also liberated the East from Communist control in a quite unexpected fashion. As a result, Europeans generally live more free, prosperous and healthy lives than ever before.

What is the central theme of the new perspective offered by this book?

KJ: Drawing on the conception of multiple pathways towards modernization, the book explores the fundamental ambivalences of modernity. The dynamism of change which Europeans unleashed in the 19th century held enormous potential for progress, but it also created an unparalleled destructive force. During the First World War, the broad coalition advocating change fractured into three competing ideological blueprints: Bolshevik social revolution, Wilsonian capitalist democracy and Fascist racial imperialism. It took World War Two to defeat the Nazi version and the Cold War to overcome the Communist variant.

Which role did Germany play in the conflicts over control of Europe?

KJ: In these ideological struggles, the new nation state of Germany played a key role as the source of problems during the first half of the century due to its authoritarian and dictatorial drives for hegemony. The country was both too large to fit into the European order and too small to dominate the continent all alone. But double defeat and loss of territories forced a drastic rethinking that re-civilized the country in the West. With the overthrow of Communism in the East, Germany became part of the solution, ending the division of the continent through reunification. In both respects Germany, located at the center of the continent, is at the heart of the story.

How does the newly emerging Europe differ from US politics, economics and society?

KJ: Both transatlantic partners share basic values such as liberty and equality, but since the Reagan revolution in the United States, the trend towards convergence has been reversed. The Europeans interpret the common legacy in a different way that makes life more livable there. For instance, the memory of the terrible bloodshed of the two World Wars has made them less willing to use war as means of politics; putting a higher value on social solidarity has created more equality on the continent; tight control of firearms has reduced homicide to one-third of the rate in the US; higher investments in mass transit have made Europe more ecological. In these questions the American public can actually learn from its European partner.

What are some of the key lessons of the twentieth century?

KJ: The loss of life and human suffering during the first half of the century were so appalling that European leaders made strenuous efforts to prevent their recurrence. Both sides of the Iron Curtain understood the need to tame the dynamism of modernity lest it become self-destructive. Concretely that meant no longer engaging in war on the continent, allowing nations the chance for self-determination, providing possibilities for self-government and creating more social equality. The overriding lessons have therefore been the need for a peaceful world order and the importance of human rights.

Does the Old Continent have a promising future?

KJ: Contrary to American pundits emphasizing the Euro crisis and to Tea Party denunciations of European socialism, the future of the old continent looks very promising indeed. The transnational effort at European integration is not just directed to overcoming the hostilities of the past, but also to meeting the globalization challenges of the future. The EU comprises a multinational realm of almost 500 million people, growing together by economic trade, unrestricted travel, civil society contacts and public debate. While the precise shape of the EU’s inter-governmental structure is still vigorously disputed, the Europeans have created an attractive alternative to the American Way.

Konrad H. Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His many books include Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front (Princeton) and After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945–1995. He lives in Chapel Hill.

Book trailer for Atlas of Cities edited by Paul Knox

Princeton University Press senior designer Jason Alejandro created this book trailer for Atlas of Cities edited by Paul Knox. (The catchy song in the background is the aptly named “Weekend in the City” by Silent Partner.)

8-7 Atlas of Cities Atlas of Cities
Edited by Paul Knox