3. Clark Kent

Dr. Kent began the first class with a photoshopped image of an early cuneiform tablet he had engraved with Roman letters. He told the students, "On this tablet I have engraved ten definitions of Canada." The students were puzzled. He took a deep breath before continuing to address his audience, which he knew to be more or less 100% Catholic.

"I call my two tablets The Ten Commandments. I have engraved them with a stylus, much as Hammurabi might have done four thousand years ago. That is, thousands of years before any historical mention of Moses and his ten commandments. My point is that humans have made rules for their societies ever since the Sumerians, ever since Gilgamesh ruled Uruk and destroyed the sacred forest of the gods. But you probably haven’t heard that story." 

Dr. Kent looked briefly upward, as if to catch the sharp ray of light that struck his lectern. Deep within the microcosmic specks that darted from the sun, a million angels crashed onto the smoothly-planed wood.

"Unlike the Ten Commandments of Moses, the Code of Hammurabi can be verified." Tapping the track pad on his laptop, he projected onto the screen two photos.

"On the left is the most famous version of Hammurabi's Code, inscribed on a diorite stele from the 18th Century BC. Unlike the Shroud of Turin, it stands in the Louvre, for anyone to see. On the right is another photo I took in the Louvre -- two cones from the city of Lagash, dating to about 2350 BC. The cuneiform writing on them urges the leaders to reduce taxes, to stop usury and theft, and to limit the control of the rich and the powerful."

"We have only been able to read these codes, written in cuneiform, since the middle of the 19th Century AD. By this time, Europeans had lived for two thousand years as if cuneiform, and the civilizations that used it, had never existed. The Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians were seen as footnotes to history -- or , more often, as the ungodly enemies of the Hebrews and their One True God. Three thousand years of culture reduced to crude stereotypes such as the Whore of Babylon..."

He then projected three images in succession onto the screen.

A detail from the Ishtar Gate (604-562 BC) in Berlin's Pergamon Museum

A detail from the Ishtar Gate (604-562 BC) in Berlin's Pergamon Museum

The Whore of Babylon , by Bruno Goldschmitt (woodcut, 1923)

The Whore of Babylon, by Bruno Goldschmitt (woodcut, 1923)

Whore of Babylon , by William Blake, 1809

Whore of Babylon, by William Blake, 1809

"For two thousand years we built our ideas on the borrowed foundation of Jewish law and culture, imagining that divine commands came down to us from Mount Sinai and from the blue sky above. Our most basic concepts -- 60 seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, 360 degrees in a circle -- appear to come from the Mesopotamians. Yet we act as if the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans invented everything."

Half of his students felt that Dr. Kent was belabouring his point -- a point they didn’t fully grasp yet didn’t fully want to. Some of them, horrified by the recent killings in the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, and by the truck driven into the July 14 crowds in Nice, felt they had nothing to learn from desert terrorists, no matter how outdated their language might be. Others were curious about where all of this was going. Dr. Kent noticed one pretty blonde in particular. She was sitting in the third row. Her large breasts were rising and falling, slowly and deeply. He locked his eyes on hers as on the pole star in a tempest.

He didn’t want to lose his students in the first class. He was sure they could follow his train of thought. All he needed to do was tell them where the terminal was.

"One of the biggest differences between the United States and Canada is that the US has a set of principles that they think about in much the same way they think about the Ten Commandments. Canada, on the other hand, has altered its constitution on a regular basis. The last time was in 1982. Canadians are practical people, perhaps even pedestrian people. One might say that Canadians lack the imagination required to turn politics into religion. But they are also, relative to the Americans, a liberal people -- that is, in the terms of John Stuart Mill, who argues that culture needs a centre, yet that centre may shift. "

Claudia thought to herself, When did Monsignor Ferretti ever mention shifting centres or Hammurabi’s code during Sunday mass? Her mother's Bible study group never once discussed the Mesopotamians in earnest. 'Babylonian' was just a byword for 'corruption and debauchery.'

Dr. Kent read out his first two commandments:  

1. Canadians must not engrave definitions of themselves on tablets -- whether these be of stone or of microchips and glass.

2. Canadians must not worship vague concepts like life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. 

Dr. Kent explained that Canadians were told to believe in Peace, Order, and Good Government -- a national slogan almost as exciting as the Zurich city government code of conduct. Almost as elegant as its acronym, POGG.

He decided to skip commandments 3 to 6, adding, "I mean, what's the point?" The final commandments were even less serious, as if to underscore the absurdity of boiling the collective life of 35 million people down to a list of ten laws. 

7.  Canadians are -- but must not be -- like Americans, yet with reservations and apologies.  

8.  Canadians, like Italians, like Italians. 

9.  Canadians are interested in American definitions of Canada.

10.  Americans are not interested in Canadian definitions of America.

Dr. Kent looked for a minute at his audience. He could tell that they were following what he was saying. Perhaps they even felt they understood how Canadian thinking worked and how Canadian politics might be shaped as a result. Ah, les pauvres!

He tapped his track pad and up popped the same list, but not the same list at all. He started with the first commandment, Canadians must not worship vague concepts like life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, yet it wasn't the same first commandment at all. Life had turned into a female, and liberty looked like Marie Antoinette walking up a flight of stairs. The pursuit of happiness stumbled into a bar and ordered un cidre de glace, and peace looked out over the Plains of Abraham and se souviened defeat. Order yelled like an English boss, and good government shuffled back and forth, from the Quebec national assembly to the national parliament in Ottawa. Dr. Kent observed: "Seen through the prisms of language and ethnicity, the clear light of political definition fractures into a hundred colours."

The poetry students understood this. Claudia looked upward into the shaft of golden light that had been beating upon his lectern. She felt a puff of air enter her chest. The business students on the other hand were confused. They were even more confused when he added, "In considering each of my ten definitions, you must also consider that Canada is 1. a unified state, 2. a bi-national state, and 3. a multi-national state composed of English, French, 634 First Nations, and immigrants from every nation on Earth."

He then gave an eleventh commandment: "All possible Canadas exist within a state of continual redefinition."

Claudia wrote this final commandment down. At home, she substituted Claudia for Canada, and pinned it to her bedroom wall. It was the best description she could imagine for her elusive, confounded identity. 

Dr. Kent’s second lecture was called “Operation Warka Vase: The Bush Years.” He started the lecture by projecting onto the screen a photo of the first sculpted narrative work of art in world history.

He commented: "The Warka Vase is a gorgeous light brown alabaster. It is carved in bas-relief and dates to the 4th millennium BC. Its lustrous, honey-coloured surface skillfully depicts layers of civilization. At the bottom we have vegetation and cultivation. Above that we have domesticated animals. Next, manual labour. Finally, at the top we have the wider scene of a procession leading to the gates of Ishtar in the great city of Uruk." 

"The vase predates the Greek founding of Syracuse by over 2000 years."

He paused, to let the students appreciate the beauty and the antiquity involved. He continued: "Several months after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the vase found its way back to the Baghdad Museum. It had been snapped from its base and smuggled around the country in the chaos that followed the American invasion -- and their decision to eliminate the civilian and military structure that held the country together. The vase was brought back to the museum in a red Toyota, wrapped in a blanket, smashed into twenty pieces."

 

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