Today's talks were by James Hegarty - "Telling the World: Exploring the Cultural and Intellectual Agenda of the Sanskrit Mahabharata " (blurb) - and Benny Morris - "Israel and Palestine - Is it too late for the Two States Solution?".
Hegarty provided a little bit of general context (good for someone like me whose knowledge of the Mahabharata comes from Southeast Asian reworkings and a hugely abridged popular translation). One of his themes was the balance between Brahminical orthodoxy and critical perspectives on that; his case study was the "truculent mongoose" who appears towards the end of the Mahabharata and attacks the merits of sacrifice.
The talk was based on a forthcoming book, Religion, Narrative and Public Imagination in South Asia: Past and Place in the Sanskrit Mahabharata (Amazon, Amazon UK) which might be tempting if it wasn't so insanely expensive.
The comments from the audience (there were only twelve of us) afterwards were also really interesting. One mentioned that Indian soldiers on the Western Front in the First World War used the Mahabharata as a guide to understanding their experiences (it was apparently significant here that King George had five sons and a daughter, and that it was possible to count 12 kings involved in the war). Another discussed possible Greek influence on the Mahabharata. And the absence of Buddhism from the epic can be interpreted in several ways.
I had dinner with Camilla in Wagamama.
Over at Lincoln, it was much more crowded - we moved to a larger room but some people were still standing. There were a few skullcaps and a fair bit of Hebrew was being spoken. Benny Morris gave a nice history of one and two state solutions and then gave arguments that neither is possible, leaving the future bleak. This was a kind of summary of his book One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Amazon, Amazon UK).
Some of his ideas were frankly racist - or at least combined prejudice with a naive essentialist perspective on race and peoples. So we had generalising stereotypes about e.g. Arabs not respecting human life, nothing having changed for three hundred years, and so forth.
It was good to see some of the audience questions pulled him up on this, though perhaps not as as directly as I'd have liked. One commenter pointed out that Jews and Arabs seemed to be closer to one another than they were to him. Another explained that the WikiLeaks documents undermine the idea that the Palestinians were unwilling to compromise in the peace process and showed that it was actually the Israelis who were intransigent. And someone suggested the internal divisions within Israeli society (Tel-Aviv versus Jerusalem, as he put it) were a model for how a binational state might cope with religious and social diversity. Several people also pushed him on some kind of prediction for the future, at which point he fell back on being a historian.
I remain much more impressed by Ilan Pappe, though Morris is still essential reading if you want to understand "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem" (as he puts it).