Sunday, August 11, 2013

Making Travellers Fit the Bed: Sodom or Attica?

Rabbinic legends about Sodom describe an area of unusual natural resources, precious stones, silver and gold. Every path in Sodom, say the sages, was lined with seven rows of fruit trees. Eager to keep their great wealth for themselves, and suspicious of outsiders’ desires to share in it, the residents of Sodom agreed to overturn the ancient law of hospitality to wayfarers. The legislation later prohibited giving charity to anyone. One legend claims that when a beggar would wander into Sodom, the people would mark their names on their coins and give him a dinar. However, no one would sell him bread. When he perished of hunger, everyone would come and claim his coin. There was once a maiden who secretly carried bread out to a poor person in the street in her water pitcher. After three days passed and the man didn’t die, the maiden was discovered. They covered the girl with honey and put her atop the city walls, leaving her there until bees came and ate her. Hers was the cry that came up to God, the cry that inaugurated the angelic visit and its consequences.
Another famous rabbinic tale mirrors the Greek myth of Procrustes. Both the Jewish and Greek stories are about beds that invert the ethic of hospitality. In Sodom, they had a bed for weary guests upon which they might rest. However, when the wayfarer would lie down, they made sure that he fit the bed perfectly. A short man was stretched to fit it and a tall man was cut to size. The Midrash tells us that Eliezer, Abraham’s loyal servant, was once offered to lie upon it but he declined, claiming that since his mother died he pledged not to have a pleasant night’s sleep on a comfortable bed. In the Greek myth, Procrustes (meaning “he who stretches”) kept a house by the side of the road for passing strangers. He offered them a warm meal and a bed that always fit whomever lay upon it. Once laying upon it, he would likewise cut off the legs of those too long or stretch those too short. Theseus, the hero of the Greek tale, turns the tables on Procrustes and fatally adjusts him to his own bed.
The people of Sodom are not only protective of their wealth and punishing of acts of charity; they are also desperate to force everyone to fit a single measure. They have a well-to-do gated community that makes sure no beggars disturb their luxury and peace. They have zoned out poverty. But what makes Sodom the “right” kind of neighborhood is that no difference is tolerated. “Our kind” of folk are welcomed and protected, while all the rest are excluded or eliminated. It can hardly be incidental that the locus of this one-size-fits-all violence is a bed that serves as a guillotine and a rack. The place of sleep, comfort, and sexual pleasure in Sodom has been transformed into a place of threat and malice, a device of torture for strangers.
Eliezer saves himself from being amputated or stretched by the mourning of his mother. Mourning the dead is a particularly selfless expression of relationship and love. The people of Sodom treat all who are not inside the walls as being as good as dead; Eliezer treats the dead with an honor and presence that makes their memory a living reality. Sodom is a place where compassion is punished brutally, as the story of the young maiden suggests. Eliezer is saved from Sodom’s evil not by his sword or cunning, as is Theseus in the Greek myth, but by his own loving beyond all boundaries or benefit-by a loving which, like a mother’s love, has no reasons.
Procrustes, also called Polypemon, Damastes, or Procoptas, in Greek legend, a robber dwelling somewhere in Attica—in some versions, in the neighbourhood of Eleusis. His father was said to be Poseidon. Procrustes had an iron bed (or, according to some accounts, two beds) on which he compelled his victims to lie. Here, if a victim was shorter than the bed, he stretched him by hammering or racking the body to fit. Alternatively, if the victim was longer than the bed, he cut off the legs to make the body fit the bed’s length. In either event the victim died. Ultimately Procrustes was slain by his own method by the young Attic hero Theseus, who as a young man slayed robbers and monsters whom he encountered while traveling from Trozen to Athens.
The “bed of Procrustes,” or “Procrustean bed,” has become proverbial for arbitrarily—and perhaps ruthlessly—forcing someone or something to fit into an unnatural scheme or pattern.
Gavin Ardley has brilliantly applied the notion of the Procrustean bed to his philosophy of science in Aquinas and Kant. E.g.:
Aquinas and Kant, Gavin Ardley, Longmans Green & Co., London, 1950.
Pp. x + 256. 18s,
THE author of this book is greatly perturbed about the ultimate basis of our
knowledge of the universe, and the conflicting character of modern thought
in philosophy and physics. And well he may be. The rise of Neo-
Thomism in one form or another is a feature of our generation. No
less marked, however, is the advance of theoretical physics associated
with the names of Poincari, Eddington, and one or two others of comparable
calibre. Again, as Mr Ardley remarks, St Thomas Aquinas and Kant seem
strange bedfellows indeed, as Aristotle and the Fathers were aforetime.
Observing that the latter pair were eventually ' reconciled,' he believes
that a corresponding state of bliss for the former couple is only a matter
of time. Kant's idea of a physicist was that of an extremely active person,
by no means content to receive laws from nature, but perpetually engaged
in the task of formulating laws of his own which he ' fastened ' upon
nature, and to which she was obliged to conform. All that is said about
the Procrustean bed and the chopper is most apt, and indeed on this view,
deserved. Nevertheless, according to Mr Ardley, it is a grave error to
imagine that this coercive technique is intrinsically necessary ; it is merely
a device to secure power for mankind.
Over against this stands metaphysics in serene detachment, ready
as always to admit the practical advantages o f saving appearances,' whether
in classical physics or in modern metrical technology, but claiming the
absolute title to the possession of philosophical truth. Seldom has the
precept' between us and you there is a great gulf fixed . . .' been restated
in starker form. Why, therefore, it is asked, are we in fact confronted
with physics heaping triumph upon triumph in almost every department
of twentieth-century life ? Mr Ardley replies in efiect that had a divergent
system of ' categorisation' been set up, things might have worked out
differently. This riposte is very disappointing, being nothing short of
wholly irrelevant, since what we want to know is why physics, as commonly
understood, should be any good at all.
No reasonable person has anything but reverence for the philosophia
paennis, yet this book cannot be said to have helped to bring the natural
sciences of to-day within its broad and generous frontiers. Unfortunately,
too, Mr Ardley's style lacks attractiveness ; it is rather that of a school-teacher
admonishing an unwilling class, and underlining for them, as he goes along,
what they are meant to learn by heart.

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