The part is greater than the whole

I spent a while brooding over the 6th chapter of Mark this afternoon, and this is one of the notes I jotted down, regarding the feeding of the 5,000.

They gave their food to J, he blessed and broke it, he returned it to them (still apparently unchanged), and they gave it to the crowd. The fragments returned were more than they originally had. Breaking and distributing is what multiplied it — the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

Later tonight I was reading Valentin Tomberg’s letter on the Hanged Man in Meditations on the Tarot, and I found this.

“It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John xi, 50) — this was Caiaphas’ argument. This argument is based on the logical principle that the part is less than the whole, the part being “one man” and the whole being “the nation”. Being faced with the alternative—”If we let him go, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come to destroy our city and nation”—the decision was taken to sacrifice the part for the whole.

For moral logic, however, the quantitative principle that the part is less than the whole is not valid in a general sense; there are distinctions to be made. For already in a living organism where it is not the size but rather the importance of the vital function which counts, the principle in question would be: “the part is equal to the whole”. Because, for example, the heart, which is only a small part of the whole human organism, cannot be sacrificed without sacrificing the life of the whole organism.

And in the moral and spiritual domain, where it is only quality which counts, one righteous man is worth more than the whole nation, if it is a question not of voluntary sacrifice but rather of the one who must be sacrificed. Thus in the spiritual and moral domain the above logical principle can be transformed into its opposite formula: “the part is greater than the whole“.

Two quite different points, of course, but both make a counterintuitive statement about the relationship between whole and part, and both do so in the context of a commentary on a Gospel passage.

As an ancillary coincidence, Tomberg’s letter on the Hanged Man also includes an extensive discussion of Jesus’ walking on water, an incident which is also related in Mark 6, just after the feeding of the 5,000.

Advertisements

Silent towns (except for birds), dark and cold, stretchers

In my 6:30 English class this evening (Thursday, December 8), I continued the “Do you believe in miracles?” unit in the book American Headway 5 (2nd edition) by Liz and John Soars. We listened to an extract from a radio program in which a London doctor, Raj Persaud, visits Lourdes. The transcript (on page 141) begins as follows.

We’re in the central square of Lourdes, and there’s literally thousands of people, most of them fairly elderly, congregating here. A lot of them have brought their own chairs to sit on. It’s very quiet, given what a large crowd there is here. And people don’t seem to be talking to each other. They seem to be — almost reverential. A lot of them have heads bowed. Very introspective atmosphere. And you feel that when you’re talking, you should really be whispering.

Lourdes must be the strangest tourist destination in the world. A hundred thousand seriously ill people come every year, many in wheelchairs or on stretchers, to mingle with millions of able-bodied pilgrims and camera-carrying tourists. . . .

*

The next class, at 8:00, uses the textbook Brushing Up Your English with American Junior High School Textbooks. We began an article called “Living Things and the Environment.” This is how it begins (page 295).

As the sun rises on a warm summer morning, the Nebraska town is already bustling with activity. Some residents are hard at work building homes for their families. They are building underground, where it is dark and cool. Other inhabitants are collecting seeds for breakfast. Some of the town’s younger residents are at play, chasing each other through the grass.

Suddenly, an adult spots a threatening shadow approaching — an enemy has appeared in the sky! The adult cries out several times, warning the others. Within moments, the town’s residents disappear into their underground homes. The town is silent and still, except for a single hawk circling overhead.

Have you guessed what kind of town this is? It is a prairie dog town on the Nebraska plains. . . .

*

Later, at home, at about 11:00, I read a single page (page 83) from The Oxford Book of Dreams, an anthology compiled by Stephen Brook. The dream account I read, taken from Hugh Walpole’s journal, began thus.

I was in the market-place of a town. It was filled with people, talking, buying and selling, all very happy and busy. Suddenly, as though a cloud came over the sun, the air was cold and the noise died down to the twittering of birds. Men and women looked about them. Everyone was silent. I myself felt a trembling expectant fear. I looked about me, wondering why I was so apprehensive, and found that the place was emptied like a bowl of water. It was dark and cold. Not a sound. Something told me to run for my life but I could not move. Then, from a side street, a little procession came into the square. A woman was carried on a kind of stretcher . . .

*

The three passages are obviously quite different, but they are linked to one another by numerous shared details, marked in bold.

People flying into the sky for no reason

As I mentioned in the previous post, in my English class last night I began teaching a unit entitled “Do you believe in miracles?” As part of the class, I asked the students if they had ever heard any miracle stories. Most people mentioned Bible stories or Chinese myths. One told a story about the “Little Girl in Red” (紅衣小女孩), a malevolent spirit in local folklore who leads hikers astray. A few had family stories about “miraculous” medical recoveries.

But then one of the students, a respectable, conservative teacher of Chinese literature who goes by “Jason” in English, came out with this: “One of my friends says he was sitting in the living room with his family one day, and his mother suddenly flew up into the sky.”

“Wait,” I said. “Say that again.”

He obliged.

“Do you mean she flew around the living room? We wouldn’t really say ‘into the sky’ if it’s inside a room.”

“No, he said she flew up out of the living room and into the sky. And she never came back.”

“So she just flew right through the ceiling and the roof?”

“I guess so.”

“I mean, his mom was alive at the time, right? He didn’t mean that his mother’s ghost appeared in the living room and then flew away?”

“No, she was alive, and she just flew away. The police looked for her, but they never found her.”

“And that’s what the family told the police? That she just flew up into the sky for no reason?”

“Yes. Of course the police didn’t believe him. No one believes him. But he swears it really happened.”

“Okay, Jason, you win. That is definitely the most miraculous miracle story we’ve heard today.”

*

I tend to make a note of inexplicable stories like that (my own contribution to the discussion was a story about an otherwise normal, intelligent guy I met in Moab who swore he could make light bulbs get brighter and brighter and explode just by concentrating on them), so I scribbled something quick in my notebook, a reminder to write it all down later. I wrote: “Jason’s friend’s mom flew from keting [Chinese for ‘living room’] into sky, never returned.

*

The next day — today, that is, Wednesday the 7th — I tutored a young boy called Ryan. Every week I give him some simple writing assignments to practice the grammar and vocabulary he’s learned, and he’s always quite creative about doing them. Last time we’d read a short article about a Polish-American couple who always speak Polish at home, read Polish newspapers, eat Polish food, etc. — but their son prefers to speak English, read English newspapers, eat American food, etc. They feel a little sad about their son’s losing his heritage. I asked him to write his own article modeled on that one, which he did. He showed it to me today. It was about Poseidon, who likes to carry a trident, eat seafood, and listen to the sound of the sea waves — but his son Jack prefers to carry a sword, eat steak, and listen to pop music. Finally, they quarrel, and Poseidon banishes Jack from the Pacific Ocean, telling him to go live in the Atlantic Ocean instead.

So, anyway, that’s the kind of stuff he writes. After I’d checked it and corrected a few grammatical and spelling mistakes, I told him to put it in his folder with his other writing.

He got the folder out and said, “Wow, I’ve really written a lot of crazy things, haven’t I?” As an example of this, he took out an old assignment from months ago and said, “See, look at this one.” The paper had a drawing of a stick figure up in the sky among the clouds, under which was written, “Today is a strange day. Suddenly Mark is flying into the sky. No one knows the reason.

He’d written that months ago, but it’s quite a coincidence that he chose to show me that old assignment — and only that one — just the day after I’d heard another story about someone flying into the sky for no reason.

Continuing miracles

In my evening English class (6:30-8:00), we started a unit in the textbook called “Do you believe in miracles?” and listened to a radio program about a London psychiatrist who had visited Lourdes. He talked about how well-known the site is and how many people from all over the world come there every year seeking miraculous healings, which began over occurring there over 100 years ago and reportedly continue to this day.

When I got home, a little after 10:00, I opened up the Good News Bible, which I have been reading straight through from the beginning. The very first verse I read was Jeremiah 32:20:

Long ago you performed miracles and wonders in Egypt, and you have continued to perform them to this day, both in Israel and among all the other nations, so that you are now known everywhere.