Which is more real: the robot or the ghost? And what kind of existence does Homer confer upon them through making their pictures in words? What are the bodies of gods and angels made of? When a lover kisses the image of a beloved in a portrait or a photograph, what kind of materiality does the picture possess? When figures haunt you in your dreams, what are these thoughts made of? Is "picture-flesh"--Merleau-Ponty's phrase for images--real? When viewers write in to soaps to complain about the actors' behavior, in what dimension of reality do they think the characters live? These are the kinds of puzzles about existence that Daniel Tiffany's "Toy Medium," a complex, remarkably original and challenging study, sets stirring.
and International Terrorism
By John K. Cooley
Pluto Press: 276 pp., $19.95 paper
John K. Cooley's important and timely book examines "a strange love-affair that went disastrously wrong," the alliance between America and "some of the most conservative and fanatical followers of Islam." To our knowledge, it is the first on this theme. "Unholy Wars" asks salient questions and draws on an impressive body of sources.
VERSES FROM THE CENTER
A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime
By Stephen Batchelor
Riverhead Books: 186 pp., $22.95
A Buddhist scholar and former monk, Stephen Batchelor is well known to American readers as the author of the best-selling "Buddhism Without Beliefs." Now comes "Verses From the Center," his version of the poetic legacy of Nagarjuna, a visionary monk who lived in India in the 2nd century and who is, Batchelor writes, "arguably the most important figure in Buddhism after the Buddha himself." The original Sanskrit collection of poems, comprising 448 verses in 27 chapters, is a profound reflection on insight and awareness, on our attachment to the contingencies of what we perceive to be real, and on the possibility of awakening to the sublime.
Those who need to reach after fact or reason will have a hard time with this book, whose central theme is the paradox that faces us everywhere we look in search of answers to the core questions of human existence. "I treat [the text]," writes Batchelor in his preface, "in the spirit of a Zen koan, which provokes intuitions of the sublime by forcibly challenging entrenched opinions about ourselves and the world." At its best, his translation approaches the rich, authentic voice of Rilke's "Duino Elegies," exploring the mystery of being human with anguished amazement, and with quiet acceptance.
"Verses From the Center" is a book to spend time with, to dip into at leisure, rather than to be read from cover to cover. Like a collection of "a hundred Zen koans," it's a paradox in itself, and will easily make a mockery of the eager reader who is used to turning pages anxiously in the expectation that the answer will finally reveal itself. This is a book about wisdom, not understanding; it invites us to acknowledge paradox with equanimity, and to dwell without question among the questions that it poses.
THE VIEW FROM NEBO
How Archeology is Rewriting the Bible
and Reshaping the Middle East
By Amy Dockser Marcus
Little, Brown: 284 pp., $25.95
"One of the central paradoxes of the Bible is that, while it tells readers everything they need to know, they always want to know more," writes Amy Dockser Marcus in "The View From Nebo," a wholly fascinating study of what scientists actually find when they go in search of archeological evidence to corroborate Holy Writ. "They want to see Nebo for themselves, to climb to the top of the mountain, look out at Canaan, and see what Moses saw."
A former Tel Aviv correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Marcus has been a witness to the role that archeology plays in politics in the modern Middle East, where it is invoked in support of the rival territorial claims of Jews and Arabs. So hot are the controversies that have attached themselves to archeology in Israel and Palestine that the head of Bir Zeit University's Institute of Archeology--Albert Glock, an American archeologist who sought to "document the Arab contribution to Palestine's cultural past"--was assassinated in 1992.
"The View From Nebo" explores all the stresses and strains of Bible scholarship and exposes the white-hot controversies surrounding archeology in the Holy Land. Marcus also insists that the very experience of venturing into the biblical landscape and digging into the soil with one's own hands can be an illuminating, even redemptive, experience.
Kosovo and Beyond
By Michael Ignatieff
Metropolitan Books: 246 pp., $23