Saturday, January 14, 2017

ASHBERY’S NORTH FARM: LOVE OR THE ANGEL OF DEATH? DALI’S TAROT: THE FOOL; THE ANSWER LIES OUTSIDE; BORGES AND DOTY ON THE PAST; WWI AS A HOLY WAR; SLAUGHTER OF THE EGYPTIAN FIRST-BORN

 
AT NORTH FARM

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

~ John Ashbery

Who’s “traveling furiously toward you”? Who is it who wants you so madly? The suggested answer, the one according to all the critics, I hate to tell you, is not Love but the Angel of Death — or, if we drop “Angel” with all the beauty usually attributed to angels, then it’s death itself. The D word, normally avoided and called by euphemisms such as “passing.”

But is it really the Big D? Surely “he” would know where to find you and how to recognize you. So perhaps it’s the “imperial messenger” from Kafka, traveling from the capital and the dying emperor to deliver a message to you, a unique and supremely important message that somehow, as always in Kafka, keeps coming but never arrives. Still, we think of it “sometimes and always” — and with mixed feelings.

But let me go against the truism that all poems are about mortality, and suggest that the furious rider it is NOT the Big D. I suspect that what is at work is a half-conscious association of

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes

with a typical romantic plot of a lover speeding toward the beloved. It’s the archetype of true love overcoming all obstacles, blizzards and desert heat and so on. (For those who know the famous Russian song: Yedet’, yedet’, yedet’ k’ney, yedet’ k’dyevushkye svoyey — he’s riding, riding, riding to her, riding to his beloved.) And what do we want most? To be loved, deeply loved — to be the great love of the one who’s our great love.)

Jung said that a writer who uses archetypes speaks with a thousand mouths. And what archetype do we have here? That of a man in love, traveling as fast as he can to the woman he loves.

He doesn’t stop to eat or sleep. That’s the energy of love. In a way, that’s what we MUST believe if we are to carry on with all the idiotic chores of living. We must believe that someone somewhere cares enough about us that if called, he’d drop everything and travel toward us at full speed.

Once it was mother on whom we could count like that. Later it’s the romantic partner, the life partner. Or, if we aren’t so lucky, an imaginary lover. But we have to have someone we can imagine riding furiously toward us, through blizzards and narrow passes.

**

Of course that’s just the first three lines. We now have the difficult task of making sense of the rest of the poem.

The second stanza presents images of agricultural abundance, or even excess — even though “hardly anything grows here.” Is something biblical going on here, some mythologizing of a piece of desert as the land of plenty, of milk and honey (since “the streams run with sweetness”)? Don’t ask. Take it in but don’t try to make everything fit.

The milk set out at night invokes the folk custom of leaving an offering to the fairies (or goblins, or “little red people” in Polish folklore) — guardians of the house who perform all kinds of useful tasks while we sleep. Rilke mentions leaving milk to the spirits of the dead. Regardless, it’s meant as a duty — or at least a courtesy toward the unseen world.

Or maybe the poem isn’t meant to be coherent, but to evoke certain emotions and give certain pleasure nevertheless, especially in the first stanza. Ashbery does make use of an archetype, even if he subverts it with uncertainty

But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

~ and then shifting into an assertion of barrenness, and ending on “mixed feelings.” Thus, the romantic archetype is subverted, but its presence in the first three lines has already worked its magic. We are enchanted by the image of someone traveling furiously toward us, bringing a gift. Our secret great longing is to be the beloved.

As Ray Carver put it

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

~ “Late Fragment”

We must imagine Sisyphus as happy not only because he’s striving toward a goal, but because he knows what it’s like to be beloved.


 Barn and clouds, Minor Martin White, 1955

**

“What Is Love? I have met in the streets a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat worn, the water passed through his shoes and the stars through his soul.” ~ Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

DALI’S TAROT: THE FOOL

 
“~ There are two motifs which Dali used throughout the deck: the butterfly and the linear figures. Both motifs can be seen in The Fool, shown above. On the left is the figurative image of a person raising a staff above the Fool's head. The staff reflects the shape of Hebrew letter Shin. The figure is also painted in red which may represent the element associated with this Hebrew letter: Fire. A blue butterfly can be seen over the belly of the rider, and a pattern of butterfly wings can be seen in the blanket which covers the horse. "The intellectual plane is symbolized by butterflies, expressive of irrationality and the alienated soul, the consequence of fickleness and disorder." The Fool himself is not identified, but appears to be a depiction of either a saint or Don Quixote. The "prophetic meaning" given for this card is the expiation of disorder.” ~ Rachel Pollack

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THE PAST IS NEVER COMPLETE

 
“The past is not static, or ever truly complete; as we age we see from new positions, shifting angles. A therapist friend of mine likes to use the metaphor of the kind of spiral stair that winds up inside a lighthouse. As one moves up that stair, the core at the center doesn't change, but one continually sees it from another vantage point; if the past is a core of who we are, then our movement in time always brings us into a new relation to that core.” ~ Mark Doty

Oriana:

Core? What core? Basically I can't quite believe that my past was what it seems to have been. It's not “in character.”   So much was sheer accident and desperation, way too stormy for the quiet life I always wanted. And if I didn't have my poems as testimony, I might just refuse to believe certain things happened because they don't fit my values, my intelligence, etc.

But then -- considering my parents and WWII -- who am I to complain that my circumstances didn’t fit my personality . . .

My two best friends also report being completely astonished by what their lives have been. We like to joke that if at twenty a psychic accurately foretold us what lay ahead, we would have laughed our heads off (or maybe run out of the room screaming). Who knows, maybe it’s true for a great number of people . . . whose lives may seem staid, and yet, for all we know, might have contained all kinds of storms and catastrophes. 


 
BORGES: THE PASSING OF THE PAST

“Events that fill up space and reach their end when someone dies may cause us wonder, but some thing—or an endless number of things—dies with each man’s last breath, unless, as theosophy conjectures, the world has a memory. In the past, there was a day when the last eyes to have seen Christ were closed; the battle of Junín and Helen’s face each died with the death of some one man.

What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or worthless memory will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a brown horse grazing in an empty lot at the comer of Serrano and Charcas, a stick of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?”

~ Borges, “The Witness”

It’s somewhat odd that a famous writer would be asking this, since presumably his most significant (or colorful — I love that brown horse grazing in an empty lot) memories are preserved — be it in a changed form — in his writing. Not that this work will live forever — Homer, Dante, Shakespeare are great exceptions.

But should be really worry about being forgotten, or some precious (or pathetic and worthless — but it’s never worthless if it’s ours) memory being lost to the world when our personal memory ceases? I think for most of us the point is not any kind of “legacy,” or where we stand with the world as witnesses to history. The point is rather to take a little time to ponder which memories first come to mind — right now, in this mood and moment, 

at this stage of life. 

  
It may be very important to Borges to be symbolically "holding hands" with the ancient statue, a symbol of cultural continuity. But we also know that the statue, which might stand here for the "world's memory," doesn't know or care. Yet that's too harsh: what counts is the collective cultural memory of humanity, and Borges was eminent enough, both unique and universal enough, to have added a crumb of richness to that cultural memory. 

 Another image of Borges in Palermo, 1984 — he’s completely blind at this point.
**


Portland Police Bureau: Forensic Evidence Division Criminalist Walker Berg took this amazing photo from the 12th floor of the Justice Center. We're calling it “Crows on Snow.”
 
**

~ “Futterneid = Food-Envy

The feeling when you’re eating with other people and realize that they’ve ordered something better off the menu that you’d be dying to eat yourself. Perhaps you were trying to be abstemious; now you’re just in agony. The word recognizes that we spend most of our lives feeling we’ve ordered the wrong thing. And not just in restaurants.” ~

I have to admit that I often suffer from Futterneid . . .  By the way, “Futter” is a coarse word, more like “feed” for animal (“fodder” sounds like a cognate in English). In any case, looking at the marvelous dishes that others have ordered reveals to us that we just don’t love ourselves enough. On the other hand, we may also be deluding ourselves about all those other dishes — they are not always better than what we ordered. After all, who knows how many others are looking at our plate (not just the literal plate at a restaurant) and thinking they blew it, and should be having what we are having . . .

Heck, I can’t even go to a taco truck without lusting after what others are having. 


 Osias Beert (1580-1624): Still Life with Oysters. That insect (I hope it’s just a fly, not a cockroach) on the bread totally takes away your appetite, doesn’t it? The elegance of the glassware, the luxury of oysters — all annihilated by an insect. 
 
THE ANSWER LIES OUTSIDE (OUTWARD FOCUS)

I was reading the summary of Abraham Maslow’s work over the morning coffee, and this item in the description of self-actualizing people suddenly blazed:

~ “Problem-centeredness (focus on questions or challenges outside themselves — a sense of mission or purpose — resulting in an absence of pettiness, introspection, and ego games)” ~

There is was: “the answer lies outside.” It was one of my crucial discoveries when I analyzed my success ending depression. We are constantly bombarded with “The answer lies within.” I an early blog I dared to propose that “the answer lies without.”

That’s it — having a purpose in life automatically resolves a myriad other problems. When a larger meaning is born, those problems become irrelevant — they are transcended instantly.

I re-read the statement about self-actualizers, simplifying it:

~ Problem-centeredness — focus on questions or challenges outside themselves — a sense of mission or purpose — resulting in an absence of introspection. ~

Yet the therapeutic tradition favors self-centered analysis of one’s childhood and rarely addresses the sense of purpose in life — Viktor Frankl’s “Search for Meaning” is the one exception that springs to mind.


I wish I could find that early blog, but I’d have to comb through a dozen. A quick search yielded this (the writing is my own):

“Be a gazer at the world, not an obsessive gazer within.” I owe this motto to Larry Levis, who pointed out that bad advice was often given to beginning poets, to the effect that the source of poems is introspection. Look at the world, Levis insisted. Not that introspection is forbidden, but that looking at the world is likely to result in richer poems. Likewise, bringing other people into a poem will often enlarge and improve the poem.

Introverts do not need to be told to “look within.” They do that on automatic. The harder part is learning to look at the world. As with so many “good for you” things, it’s a matter of establishing a new habit.

**


Training myself to "gaze at the world" rather than listen to my thoughts — even just daydream while driving instead of really seeing the road, the trees, the sky — was one of the best things I've done in my life. I didn't really try to suppress thoughts about, for instance, a bad relationship I had in my twenties; those thoughts simply didn't occur when I looked with true interest at trees, buildings, people's faces — anything “out there.”

The brain has the so-called default mode network: when we are not focused on a task we begin to daydream and experience drifting thoughts. When the default network becomes highly active and excessively connected, the result can be depression or another mental disorder. Cognitive training involving intense focus on something external acts as a corrective. The brain can rewire to pay attention to the right things.

I keep pondering the wisdom of the statement I heard a long time ago at a science conference: all mental disorders stem from paying attention to the wrong things.

**


Someone familiar with my early writing about conquering depression could easily object to the foregoing: “Wait a moment! Your life-changing insight wasn’t: here is my newfound purpose.”

That true. My insight was: “It’s too late in life to be depressed.” The first step was to realize that I didn’t want to waste what little time remained on idiotic brooding about all the catastrophes of the past.

Then things followed on automatic, i.e. on the unconscious level without conscious clarity. I am now trying to recreate the process on the crude, conscious level — to present a sequence where the process was by no means Step 1, Step 2, etc. But let me try anyway:

Step One was deciding it was too late to be depressed (I also call this “being cornered by mortality” — it’s enough to ask oneself, “How many good years do I still have”?) This led to Step 2: diving into productivity to replace brooding. In my case, productivity meant writing.

I instantly knew — don’t ask — that the new writing could not be introspective. Instead, I could write book reviews and movie reviews. I could search out and analyze poems for the Poetry Salon. I could surf health news and find something at least mildly provocative, e.g. Alzheimer’s is auto-immune. This kind of writing may not sound like a great purpose in life, but it was a modest being of service. At least I wasn’t spending my days brooding and loathing myself.

Perhaps purpose “purpose in life” is too grand a phrase to start with. The healing lay in external focus. And in prose, since prose is more like sketching — a craft. A painter doesn’t need inspiration to start sketching. A poet and writer can always write some good-enough prose — a book review, for instance, especially if she’s done scores of those. 

Step 3 was simply a refinement of Step 2, productivity = writing. I got better at the blog-type writing, and could even start thinking in terms of purpose. I wanted to nourish my readers in a certain way. “Ending on beauty” became very important. Striking images became more important. I stepped up to being unapologetically intellectual in an anti-intellectual culture, and more radical and outspoken. 

At the beginning I had strict “no-thinking zones.” I simply didn’t allow myself any conscious thinking on certain subjects, knowing that a tide of immense sadness might turn into a tsunami. As I grew emotionally stronger, I didn’t have to be on guard against introspection quite as much. Even so, I realized that my insights about my life, my own past included, usually came on their own when the time was ripe. Generally they were not the product of introspection.

I am presenting this strictly as my own process, not as a universal prescription. I was very lucky to have already developed the skills that would serve working with an external focus. Others have reported success throwing themselves into work of a different sort, e.g. volunteer services, animal rescue, or devoting themselves to music. It’s still external focus as I see it — just the details differ.

“Works works” — especially the kind of work you love doing, so love and work are combined. 

 Time spent with cats is never wasted ~ Sigmund Freud (allegedly)

PUTIN’S AND TRUMP’S WAR ON MODERNITY IN THE NAME OF PAST “GREATNESS” AND “TRADITIONAL VALUES” VERSUS HUMAN RIGHTS 


 In the last few years, the Kremlin has framed the battle for global domination as a conflict between a “Western civilization” rooted in the idea of human rights and a “traditional values civilization.” Putin’s “traditional values” campaign has included a virulent antigay offensive, an insistent effort to raise the birth rate in order to save the 145-million Russian nation from extinction, and, most important, a systematic discrediting of any idea that is viewed as connected with contemporary Western culture.

This is where Putin sees a kindred spirit in Trump, with his flailing against political correctness and his defense of Christmas against a fictitious threat. “Traditional values” becomes a catchall term for an imaginary past—which goes a long way toward explaining Trump’s seamless symbiosis with the American Christian Right.

Putin has declared victory in his war on modern culture, which gives him the right to call himself the most powerful man in the world. But, of course, that description has generally been part of the definition of a different job — the one to which Trump has in fact just been elected.

http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/12/28/most-powerful-men-in-the-world-trump-putin/


Oriana:


Not that anyone liked Nixon — but omg, look at the intelligence in that face! OK, call it “cunning” — it’s still a subtype of intelligence. You felt he could outwit the Soviets, masters at their games of manipulation.

WORLD WAR I AS A “HOLY” WAR: SPIRITUALISM, SECULARISM, ZIONISM, AND ISLAM

~ "In his masterful book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade,” Philip Jenkins argues that WWI was not only a “thoroughly religious event” but an event which drew the global religious map as we understand it today.

The religious character of WWI has often been seen in the polarization of either extreme secularization or extreme spiritualism. One view sees the Christian church as morally compromised by the conflict — Jenkins himself noting a 1916 poem describing the “church dead or polluted.” Frequently, 1914 is viewed as the tipping point to the secularization of the 20th century.

The other view is ascribed to spiritualist sightings of angels in “No Man’s Land” or in the post-war fascination with séances. Jenkins moderates these extremes through a global examination of religion both before and after the war. While he does not dismiss secularization as a trend within western Christianity, he contextualizes the European response and suggests it was more the exception rather than the rule.

As soldiers rallied to the colors to defend their nations, so did churchmen stand ready to drape those soldiers in religious iconography. Pastors readily painted their enemies as being in league with the devil while also clothing their soldiers in the language of the martyrs. Germany depicted their soldiers as crusaders defending their homeland, while the Allies saw religious significance to their capture of Jerusalem. As the war dragged on and seemed to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, clerics easily saw their figurative specter galloping across the globe as well.

What might be most jarring for American readers, steeped in the Jeffersonian ethos of separation between church and state, was how readily American churches adopted this crusading rhetoric. It was not a militarist or politician who declared that he “would have driven my bayonet into the throat or the eye or stomach of the Huns without the slightest hesitation,” but a Methodist minister. Jenkins traces how these close associations discredited religion. This led to gradual secularization and two wildly different trends. In Germany and Soviet Russia, the religious aspirations and rhetoric became affixed to the new “secular messiahs” of these two regimes in the post-war period. The collapse of the old church-state model, however, laid the groundwork for Christian Democrats and Catholic politicians to chart a future along a non-national path of European identity.

It wasn’t just Christianity but all of the Abrahamic religions that were changed by the war. The religious center of Christianity began to shift towards Asia and Africa. In fact, Africa may become the largest Christian continent in the world by 2030. As much as the Christian map expanded it also contracted during governmental persecution of Armenian and Russian Orthodox religious enclaves.

The war was a double-edged sword for Judaism. Zionism became practicable with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and acquired the enthusiastic support of American evangelicals who, even today, see the state of Israel as fulfilling God’s providential plan. But the war also laid the groundwork for the Holocaust in the establishment of the “stab in the back” myth within Germany and the spread of “Protocols of the Elder of Zion” by Russian émigrés fleeing the Soviet Union.

Lastly, modern Islam is a byproduct of the collapse of the organized caliphate. Separate from an organized state, Islam was refashioned into a force of colonial resistance and political mobilization. This new-fashioned Islam would help create the state of Saudi Arabia and whose legacies extend today to the caliphates proclaimed by ISIS and Boko Haran.

Jenkins writes, “Most Western observers [of the time] viewed affairs in Africa and Asia as colorful irrelevancies, and that was particularly true in matters of religion. Except for a handful of specialized academics, why should anyone care about the fate of Christianity outside its natural home in Europe and North America, or pay the slightest heed to the historical dead end that was Islam?

A century later, such disregard looks very blinkered. So much of the religious history of the subsequent era does in fact focus on those twin facts: Islam, and Christianity outside the Euro-American sphere. So much of that story, in fact, is a continuation and sequel of the turmoil that began in 1914. Those from below would not always remain in the humble places that the empires assigned them.”

Philip Jenkins firmly establishes that WWI did not just reshape the political landscape, but it created the religious world we exist in today.” ~

http://www.visionandvalues.org/2014/11/the-great-and-holy-war-how-world-war-i-became-a-religious-crusade-and-reshaped-the-religious-landscape/

from Amazon:

~ The war was fought by the world's leading Christian nations, who presented the conflict as a holy war. Thanks to the emergence of modern media, a steady stream of patriotic and militaristic rhetoric was given to an unprecedented audience, using language that spoke of holy war and crusade, of apocalypse and Armageddon. But this rhetoric was not mere state propaganda.

Jenkins reveals how the widespread belief in angels and apparitions, visions and the supernatural was a driving force throughout the war and shaped all three of the major religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—paving the way for modern views of religion and violence. The disappointed hopes and moral compromises that followed the war also shaped the political climate of the rest of the century, giving rise to such phenomena as Nazism and communism. ~

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~ “Sounding like a medieval priest galvanizing eleventh-century Crusaders, a twentieth-century Yale theologian urges his countrymen to “buckle on Christian armor and take their place in the fighting ranks” of doughboys up against German heathens. What is more, Jenkins finds such religious rhetoric in the mouths of countless combatants on both sides of the Great War.

In Germany, Russia, Britain, America, and the Ottoman Empire, readers hear fervid sermons urging attacks on devilish foes and promising divine deliverance to righteous warriors. Jenkins recognizes the incongruity between ancient scriptural phrases and modern weaponry—machine guns, mustard gas, tanks, and airplanes. Yet he finds the archaic language of godly violence pervading even officially secular France and infecting even America’s most liberal clergy (one of whom calls for the extermination of the German people!)

Readers see how political and ecclesiastical hierarchies join forces in rallying their followers with holy-war appeals, but they also see how the war incubates apocalyptic and superstitious popular beliefs that fracture the elites’ orthodoxies. Indeed, in what was once Christendom, these fantastic war-born beliefs incubate the pseudo-religious impulses of Nazism and communism, and in the world of Islam, they foster a dangerous new extremism. An astonishing chronicle of intense piety inciting acts of terrible carnage.” ~ Bryce Christensen 


Martin Schongauer, Temptation of St. Anthony, 1475

Oriana:

I agree that if religion disappeared we would still have all kinds of problems. But with religion out of the way, especially the part that justifies violence and supports nationalism, we would have less insanity to deal with, less passionate viciousness, less killing in the hope of being rewarded in paradise — and more mental space for common sense . . . maybe even a shimmer of understanding that we are all human, and can help one another to make this world closer to paradise.

Around 1488, Michelangelo was said to have created a painting based on the Schongauer print (which circulated throughout Europe, including Italy)


GODS AND KINGS (the movie): SLAUGHTER OF THE EGYPTIAN FIRSTBORN (EVEN THE FIRSTBORN CALVES)
 
~  “In the Bible [the killing of the Egyptian firstborn] is presented as a triumph. Indeed, God is supposed to have deliberately hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to ensure that it happened. Exodus 11 reads:

‘So Moses said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.
. . .

The Lord had said to Moses, “Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you — so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.” Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country.’

The film essentially depicts the same story, but shows the impact less as a righteous demonstration of God’s wrath and more from the perspective of those whose children were killed. (Even Moses, in the film, is mortified by God’s plan.) As the implications of this mass killing, like that of the flood and other purportedly righteous slaughters, are often overlooked, it will be interesting to see how religious viewers respond to watching these aspects of the story depicted.

Which isn’t to say the film was dismissive of the Hebrew god.

Scott seemed, for awhile, to try to walk a tightrope between “maybe God is real” and “maybe there’s a rational explanation for it all.” Moses begins as a skeptic to religion entirely; and, after his conversion, attributes his own ideas to God when questioned. Indeed, Moses’ first vision of the messenger of God only comes after taking a tremendous blow to the head.

But, in the end (mainly due to the killing of the firstborn, where no rational explanation can be provided), you are left to conclude that God is real. Petty, mercurial, tyrannical even; but real. Fair enough, as it’s a religion-based movie; but I doubt the depiction will appeal to religious viewers. The implication that God was real, but a real monster, was not particularly satisfying to me, either.

The movie seemed to get tangled between two threads, ending up half-way between being a secular take on religious mythology and a full-blown religious movie. I can’t say that I liked it, but it’s progress at least to see decent screen time given to the less savory aspects of these cherished Bible stories.” ~

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/12/13/an-atheists-take-on-exodus-gods-and-kings/#ixzz3LzNzaXCN


Oriana: 

Eventually we'll have a fully secular take on religious mythology rendered in the movies. I marvel that I am witnessing this trend. Decades ago, practically no one dared to refer the bible as mythology (esp the first five books). Certainly no movie makers, even if they themselves were atheists or agnostics. And now we are witnessing a quiet revolution. Oddly enough, this is happening at the same time as religious wars in the Middle East.

Yes, I can see that OT was needed at the beginning, and I also agree that some stories are fascinating, but to be constantly dragged down by retaining a cruel god? At some point, OT could have been gradually mentioned less and less . . . I realize that what motivates my willingness to part with OT, no matter the literary treasures, is that in childhood I suffered so much because to me the real god, the one with power, was actually the mean old man. Not for a moment did I entertain the notion that god was good. God was evil but we had to praise him, constantly praise him -- Hitler, Stalin, North Korea. Godzilla as The Beloved Leader. It just seemed awfully close to home.

Julian Jaynes was ahead of his times with his explanation of the origins of religion in thoughts being interpreted as hearing the voices of the gods. Neuroscience has yet to truly catch up with the whole realm of “hearing voices.” It’s possible that Jaynes was a genius, dismissed because his neurological explanation was too destructive to religion. That the brain can generate just about anything is well known, but with billions caught in the delusions of wishful thinking, and atrocities committed in the name of inerrancy first of the bible, and now of the Koran and the Prophet, it may take another century before it becomes common thinking that all religions are man-made. (Imagine if religions came with labels: 

Made in China; Made in Pakistan.)

Bernhard Strigel: Saint Mary Salome and Her Family, c. 1520/1528. I can't resist the hat worn by Salomas, Mary Salome's father to her left. I guess such hats were fashionable in the 1520s.
 
UNHAPPY MARRIAGE AND HEART DISEASE (ESPECIALLY IN WOMEN)

 
~ “We’ve all heard that 50% of marriages end in divorce, but we’ve all heard wrong. Justin Wolfers of Michigan State points out that the divorce rate has steadily dropped since the '80s and estimates that roughly two-thirds of today’s marriages will survive.

That sounds like a good thing, but is it really?

Despite plummeting divorce rates, only 17% of marriages are happy ones, according to Dana Adam Shapiro, in a survey cited in You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married): Looking for Love in the Age of Divorce. More than half of the therapists who commented on Shapiro’s survey agreed that estimate is more or less accurate.

Together, Wolfers' and Shapiro’s findings suggest that more people than ever find themselves in unhappy marriages, but are sticking with them.

Some good will come of this tenacity: Fewer kids will live in broken homes. Fewer singles will struggle with their finances. Fewer men will die prematurely from bad eating habits and poor lifestyle choices (married men live longer, healthier lives than single men). And these benefits of married life might partially explain why people are staying together despite being dissatisfied with their mates.

But individuals might think twice about toughing it out if they were fully aware of the consequences of living in stressful marriages—at least, for the female half of each couple.

It turns out that the health benefits of staying married—even when unhappy—fall disproportionately to men. Sociologists Hui Liu and Linda Waite discovered that marital stress, particularly in older couples, correlated with greater incidence of cardiovascular disease in both men and women. But the correlation was much stronger in women. The researchers speculate that women bottle up negative feelings more than men, producing more stress and more damage to their cardiovascular systems.

Liu and Waite go on to point out that health effects of negative marriage quality increase steadily with age, indicating that cardiovascular damage from chronic martial stress may be cumulative. It may progress steadily as the unhappy marriage continues.

For the (apparently) growing number of women who find themselves in stressful marriages, these findings have a profound implication: The sooner women leave stressful marriages, the less cumulative damage they will do to their bodies. (Single women, it turns out, do not suffer from being alone nearly as much as men.)

On top of that, by leaving an unhealthy marriage, women have the opportunity to get into relationships that will improve, rather than degrade their health. According to recent research in psychoneuroimmunology, loving relationships promote stronger immune systems, lower levels of depression and anxiety, and lower heart rate and blood pressure. In other words, leaving a bad marriage—at least for women—can take away a negative while adding a positive.

This doesn’t mean that unhappy women should immediately call a divorce lawyer. Reaching out first to a marriage counselor who might help turn a stressful marriage into a supportive one is usually a better idea. But the sad truth is that more than half of all couples who go into counseling eventually split up, and even after “successful" counseling, marital stress often does not go away. Neither do the cumulative negative health effects of stress." ~

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/long-fuse-big-bang/201512/the-surprising-truth-about-couples-the-edge?collection=1083642


Portrait of a close-knit couple



Ford Madox Brown: The Last of England, 1855

 
Note how the husband and wife are firmly holding hands — they are in it together; they will help each other survive. The woman is also holding the baby’s tiny hand — it’s all we see of the baby, hidden under the shawl against the cold.

ending on beauty

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece,   
  Where burning Sappho loved and sung,   
Where grew the arts of war and peace,   
  Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!   
Eternal summer gilds them yet,            
But all, except their sun, is set.


~ Byron

Delos: The Terrace of the Lions

Sunday, January 8, 2017

CAN MEDITATION BE HARMFUL? DID LUKE GO OVER TO THE DARK SIDE? MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES AND BRAIN DAMAGE; MANCHESTER BY THE SEA ESCHEWS REDEMPTION

Frozen shore of Lake Superior; Ernie Vater

*
LETTER FROM KAFKA

Dear Fräulein K, I can’t believe you ask,
Does God love us? You must joke.
We are the suicidal thoughts of God.
I always have a headache ready,
can easily arrange insomnia.
Today a neighbor coughed twice;

I know tomorrow
he’ll cough even more.
Do I complain too much?
My motto: If we cannot use arms,
let us embrace with complaints.

If only I could be not the nobody I am,
but the nobody I am paid to be.
On a balcony in my mind I leaned
to peony petals rimmed with rain,
when my superior, that good
sober man, asked if we carried

insurance for convicts —
I almost slapped him with both hands.
You see what an impossible
person I am. What strength it takes
to read this letter.
How you must hate me.

But I am unworthy of hate.
My father meanwhile grows and grows,
one colossal leg already in America —
he’s sprawling across the continents.
We have nothing in common, but then
what do I have in common with myself?

I must move away from home:
the sight of my parents’ nightshirts
makes me sick to the stomach.
I think of marriage
even more often than of death.

If only I could spend my life
in a cellar with nothing but paper
and pen, a ribbon of light
seeping in at the edge of the door —
But I won’t torment you by mail;
I’ll save it up until we meet.

If writing is prayer, who am I praying to?
not to the one who hangs
around our neck our daily stone.
Perhaps we shouldn’t meet.
I resent having to talk
when I could be writing you a letter.

You say, I don’t want to make love,
I want to make soul, make art.
Dear Fräulein: there is no art.
There is only the delight of failure.
Kindest Regards, K


~ Oriana © 2017

Years ago, having found myself irritated by hearing “God loves you,” I acutely remembered that I never heard that statement while growing up Catholic. Obviously, if god loved children, he might not be willing to throw them into hell, and the wily priests and nuns of old didn’t want to diminish the threat. But I also got curious: what about Judaism?

So a question was sent to a Reform rabbi, who replied, “God doesn’t love us on an individual basis, but God loves humanity.” I was perversely delighted by the answer, and somehow knew I should have asked Kafka instead — and the Kafka poem got its start.

Kafka’s relentless negativity is in the end comical:

“Now I’ve taken a closer look at my desk and realized that nothing good can be produced on it.” This text breaks off, followed by a note: “Wretched, wretched, and yet well intended. It’s midnight . . . The burning light bulb, the quiet apartment, the darkness outside, the last waking moments entitle me to write, even if it’s the most wretched stuff. And I hastily make use of this right. This is just who I am.” ~ Kafka (quoted by Reiner Stach)

Milena describes him as having had a “sensitivity bordering on the miraculous,” as someone who could “clairvoyantly comprehend an entire person on the basis of a single facial expression. His knowledge of the world was extraordinary and deep. He himself was an extraordinary and deep world.”

Perhaps one reason that Kafka has assumed the role of the contemporary saint is that the instruments of his martyrdom were the quotidian psychic torments — isolation, self-doubt, boredom, and neurosis — familiar in modern life. A German Jew living among Czech-speaking Catholics, he was, from birth, an outsider. He worked, as many of his readers do, at an unrewarding, time-consuming office job. His relationship with his father was a source of deep unhappiness, as were his affairs with women, to whom he wrote letter of raw, unfiltered panic and shame.

The aphorisms that have become well-known — “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us,” “There is infinite hope, but not for us” — reinforce our notions of his pessimism and melancholia, and of the obsessive inner struggles so well documented in his diaries.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/cult-of-saint-franz-kafka/


For me reading Kafka's letters was exhilarating. Finally here was someone more neurotic than I was! You can hardly imagine how good it made me feel, bursting in happy laughter — especially  since I was surrounded by all the “think positive” garbage, with my peers going to the other extreme of trying to convince themselves there were no limits to their ability to fulfill their desires or accomplish anything, or that they “deserved” boundless wealth or infinite love.

“My life is the birth of Franz Kafka” ~ Franz Kafka

Agostino Arrivabene
 
To me the saintliness of Kafka lies not so much in his various miseries as in his dedication to writing, his vocation. As Jung noted, it’s the pursuit of a vocation that makes a person extraordinary. It introduces order and meaning into the chaos of daily life, otherwise squandered on ten thousand practical chores.

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE AND DECREASED EXECUTIVE BRAIN FUNCTION


 ~ “Irene Cristofori (Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) and colleagues wanted to test two competing theories of how mystical experiences are generated in the brain. They may result either from from increased activity in regions of the brain associated with emotion, abstract ideas and imagery. Alternatively, they result from reduced activity in the brain’s frontal lobe, a region associated with what’s called ‘executive function’. Executive function has been described as ‘the CEO of the brain‘.

In their study, they ran brain scans on 116 Vietnam War veterans with head wounds that damaged their brain, as well as 32 healthy controls. They also assessed them on the Mysticism Scale, which measures feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, and joy, as well as a sense of transcending time and space and an intuitive belief that the experience is a source of objective truth about reality.

The vets with brain injury were fairly normal on most psychological tests that they ran, but were much more likely to have had mystical experiences.

They found that damage to the forebrain (strictly, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) was linked to the highest mysticism scores. The supports the idea that damage to the brain’s executive function allows mystical experiences to occur.

They also found that damage to the parietal lobe of the brain also contributed to mystical experiences. Although there weren’t enough patients in their study with this kind of damage for it to be conclusive, this does match with what previous research has found. The parietal lobe is responsible for generating our sense of self and our location in space and time.

What the researchers think is happening is that mystical experiences occur when we fail to identify clear, causal explanations for experiences. Damage to the frontal brain impairs our ability to generate these explanations, so the brain defaults to a cruder, less precise way of understanding the world around us.” ~

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/epiphenom/2016/01/a-sense-of-mystery-results-from-the-brain-failing-to-shut-down-flights-of-fancy.html?ref_widget=trending&ref_blog=camelswithhammers&ref_post=revisiting-the-stoics-towards-revising-stoicism#sthash.TfYUDPnO.dpuf


Oriana:

It’s striking to read: “The vets with brain injury were fairly normal on most psychological tests that they ran, but were much more likely to have had mystical experiences.” Of course brain injury is not the only way to decrease the executive function. Fasting, sensory deprivation, prolonged meditation, intense emotional experience, certain drugs, high fever — these can all lead to visions and other unusual experiences that are usually labeled mystical.

Jill Taylor's idea, based on her stroke that pretty much disabled her left hemisphere, is that the constant verbal monologue in our head interferes with the more colorful, imagistic, no self-world boundary right-hemisphere input. There's probably something to that too.

As for the claim to the absolute truth, I bear in mind what Nietzsche said: “Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.”

Of course I know I'm invisible.

“SENSED PRESENCE”, NDEs, AND OTHER “EXOTIC COGNITIVE PHENOMENA”
 
~ “Our sense of self, Persinger notes, is ordinarily mediated by the brain's left hemisphere—specifically, by the left temporal lobe, which wraps around the side of the head. When the brain is mildly disrupted—by a head injury, psychological trauma, stroke, drugs, or epileptic seizure—our left-brain self may interpret activity within the right hemisphere as another self, or what Persinger calls a "sensed presence." Depending on our circumstances and background, we may perceive a sensed presence as a ghost, angel, demon, extraterrestrial, or God.

Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist in New Mexico, traces spirituality to a single compound, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman proposes that DMT secreted by our own brains plays a profound role in human consciousness. Specifically, he hypothesizes that endogenous DMT triggers mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.

Like the classic psychedelic compounds LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin, DMT resembles neurotransmitters such as serotonin. But what makes DMT unique among the known psychedelics is that trace amounts of it naturally occur in the human body. Scientists first isolated DMT in human blood in 1965, and in 1972 a group led by the Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod of the National Institutes of Health detected the compound in human brain tissue.

These discoveries led to speculation that endogenous DMT—perhaps produced in excess or improperly regulated by the body—contributes to schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. By the early 1980s, the DMT theory of psychosis was largely abandoned when psychedelic research involving humans became too controversial. But in 1990, arguing that DMT merited further investigation, Strassman obtained permission from federal authorities to inject the drug into human volunteers.

A Zen Buddhist, Strassman was intrigued by the possibility that endogenous DMT plays a role in triggering mystical experiences. He suspected that DMT might be produced in the pineal gland, a minute organ nestled deep in the brain. The pineal gland abounds both in chemical precursors of DMT, such as tryptophan, and in beta-carbolines, the same compounds that render DMT orally active in the South American brew ayahuasca by counteracting the enzyme in the gut that breaks down DMT. From 1990 to 1995, Strassman supervised more than 400 DMT sessions involving 60 volunteers at the University of New Mexico. These were the first sanctioned psychedelic experiments involving human subjects in the United States since the mid-1970s.

To a certain extent, the DMT sessions fulfilled Strassman's expectations. Many of his subjects reported quasi-religious sensations of bliss, ineffability, timelessness, and reconciliation of opposites; a certainty that consciousness continues after death of the body; and contact with "a supremely powerful, wise, and loving presence." Others underwent classic near-death experiences, feeling themselves leaving their bodies and moving through a tunnel toward a radiant light.

Volunteers also reported visions that did not fit neatly into Strassman's scientific or spiritual worldview, however. Forty-seven percent encountered otherworldly beings, variously described as clowns, elves, robots, insects, E.T.-style humanoids, or "entities" that defied description. These bizarre beings were not always friendly. One of Strassman's subjects claimed to have been eaten alive by insectoid creatures. In part out of concern about this negative experience, Strassman discontinued his research.

http://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/god-experiments/


A crumbling statue of Jesus in an abandoned theme park, Holy Land USA, in Waterbury, Connecticut

PRIMACY OF THE BODY: A LESSON FROM AN IMMERSION IN A SENSORY DEPRIVATION TANK

 
Lying in a supersaturated solution of magnesium sulfate — better known as Epsom salts — cranked up to body temperature, I pulled the top down over me and pushed the button to extinguish the violet light illuminating the pod.

Cut off from the world of sensory stimuli, my brain had free rein to invent any experience it had up its sleeve. So I floated in pitch blackness and waited for a profound experience to wash over me. This is what adherents paid $89 a pop to feel. I’d heard it was better than meditation, yoga and drugs — perhaps because it promised nirvana without any effort or side effects.

But I felt nothing. After some time, I became acutely aware that I could not feel my body, which I suppose was the whole point of depriving the brain of any connection to the physical world. I started to slowly move my hands and legs to reassure myself they were still there. Check. I had a vivid image of my phantom body; I knew intellectually that it was present, but couldn’t detect it in the normal sense.

Just then, I made the error of letting my head drop too low in the salt broth and got some into my eyes. The sting was immediate and distinctly unpleasant. The brief period of nothingness had ended, and over the next few minutes, my mental state moved from curiosity to boredom to annoyance. I blinked and rubbed my eyes. My stomach rumbled. My brain was bombarded with all kinds of physical sensations. I was beginning to feel sympathy for pickled fish.

Instead of a transcendent excursion into an altered consciousness, sensory deprivation had hilariously underscored the primacy of my body; it was almost a purely physical experience from start to finish. It was like being at a meditation retreat with a runny nose. My brain was simply incapable of escaping the signals my body was sending it.

 
When the hour was up, I showered and came down to the receptionist to pay. There were three women there who were first-timers like me, and they all looked blissful. “How was it?” one of them dreamily asked me. Not wanting to be a downer, I replied that it was lovely and interesting. At least it was half true.

The experience made me wonder about a question that has never let go of me: Are you more than your brain? Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without an enthusiastic report in the popular media about intriguing neuroscience research linking some human behavior to the function of a particular brain circuit. So you might hear that the insula lights up when you’re sad, another region when you’re happy and still another when you’re enjoying a drink or an orgasm.

For some reason we love to hear our mental experiences described in the language of neuroscience, yet what does it actually add to our understanding of ourselves to learn that our brain shows activity when we think and feel one thing or another? By itself, not a lot, except to encourage the erroneous and simplistic idea that the brain is an independent sovereign, calling all the shots.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m a neuroscience junkie. But we are not just a brain in a jar; we are also bodies, and what we do with those bodies can influence the brain. You can easily alter your thinking and mood by manipulating your body: by, for example, injecting your forehead with Botox, shining light into your eye, exercising — or floating in an isolation tank.

In the end, whether or not we are more than our brain is less important and less interesting than the fact that our brain does not just give orders; it takes them, too. An isolation tank can turn the body weightless and invisible, but your brain knows better.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/opinion/sunday/whos-in-charge-the-body-or-the-brain.html?mabReward=A6&recp=9&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&region=CColumn&module=Recommendation&src=rechp&WT.nav=RecEngine&_r=0


Oriana: 


It seems that most people find the experience relaxing. But whether it’s more calming than simply lying down and watching your breath is another question. Or taking a walk. Or a nap.


And this brings us to another issue and more relevant issue:

CAN MEDITATION BE HARMFUL?

~ “When I finally gave up on seeking enlightenment in the late 1970s and returned to worldly life, I also gave up meditating — except for the occasional sitting still for a few minutes here and there, watching my breath in the Vipassana way. However, over the years I would beat myself up about my laziness: “You should meditate,” my inner critic would harp. “Every day, for at least half an hour.”

But why? I now ask. Did it really do me any good? I manage my life perfectly well without it. If I want peace and relaxation, I have a massage, or soak in a hot bath or swim twenty laps at the local pool. Or I go for a long leisurely walk. Or I just sit in a chair and do nothing. Is meditation really as beneficial as its proponents claim?

Arthur Chappell, a former devotee of Guru Maharaj (also known as Prem Rawat), points out that meditation starves the mind of stimulus (sensory deprivation) and he wonders whether desensitizing the mind to stimuli may actually “affect one’s ability to react properly with the level of fear, love, and other emotions required in any given social situation.” Chappell says minds can atrophy — just like limbs do — if they aren’t used for a wide range of purposes:

        ‘Many meditation practitioners have complained of difficulty doing simple arithmetic and remembering names of close friends after prolonged meditation. The effect is rather like that of Newspeak’s obliteration of the English language in George Orwell’s 1984.’

Dr. Solomon Snyder, head of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, warns that during meditation the brain releases serotonin. This may help those with mild depression but too much serotonin can cause, in some, a paradoxical relaxation-induced anxiety. Instead of relaxing during meditation, these people become distressed and may even have panic attacks. Snyder says that in some cases of schizophrenia, meditation can launch a person straight into psychosis.

Dr. Lorin Roche, a meditation teacher, says a major problem arises from the way meditators interpret Buddhist and Hindu teachings. He points out that meditation techniques that encourage detachment from the world were intended only for monks and nuns. He has spent thirty years doing interviews with people who meditate regularly and says many were depressed. He says they have tried to detach themselves from their desires, their loves, and their passion. “Depression is a natural result of loss, and if you internalize teachings that poison you against the world, then of course you will become depressed.”

If one isn’t after enlightenment or spiritual experiences, then I can’t help thinking that exercise may be better for physical and mental well being than meditation. I just love my morning swims in the local pool.

After my Indian odyssey and my return to worldly life in 1979, I’ve found being back in the world not such a bad thing after all. I no longer regard the world as a place from which to escape or detach myself. My mind is no longer something to conquer or to cleanse of impurities. In fact, my life is immeasurably richer without meditation, as was that of India’s great poet Rabindranath Tagore, exemplified in his poem “Against Meditative Knowledge”:

        Those who wish to sit, shut their eyes,
and meditate to know if the world’s true or lies,
may do so. It’s their choice. But I meanwhile
with hungry eyes that can’t be satisfied
shall take a look at the world in broad daylight. (1896)

https://thehumanist.com/magazine/september-october-2007/features/can-meditation-be-bad-for-you


Sunrise at Shiprock Pinnacle, New Mexico

Oriana:

It’s not that I am against meditation and want to warn against the “dark side of meditation.” But the completely uncritical embrace of it, and especially the peer pressure and the general cultural pressure to keep on trying, even if it’s not your cup of herb tea, have been somewhat disturbing. Just as Yoga is not the best exercise for everyone, and can lead to injuries, long meditation retreats may not be for everyone — and should probably not be attempted by beginners.

Of course chanting Ohm for a few minutes is not what the author is talking about. But there is a question of excess. I’ve often wondered about people who spend a lot of time meditating — is that life? During the Middle Ages, they’d be praying and flagellating themselves, but now that’s unacceptable . . . so the Eastern practices have filled in the vacuum.

Personally I’d love more engagement with the world, not less. For each person there is a certain optimum amount of sensory input that makes us thrive — and there can too little, or too much. Introverts, with their rich inner life, don’t need as much external input. But even for introverts, too little external input, especially social interaction, may be related to depression and a greater risk of dementia later in life.

If you try meditation and find it a source of distress rather than pleasure — if you feel better after simply taking a walk, petting your dog, or talking with a friend — you certainly shouldn’t feel guilty. Yes, meditation has been shown to have various benefits — but so has physical exercise (latest finding: the more different types of exercise you do, the better the results). There are proven benefits of socializing, taking art classes, Italian classes, cooking classes, hiking, gardening, learning to play a musical instrument, or simply listening to favorite music. Do what you love doing; engage in activities that you find interesting. Live.

Of course if you enjoy meditating and it’s helping you de-stress, wonderful. But if you’re trying and trying because of peer pressure, and feeling guilty about your failure to achieve emptiness, there is no need to beat yourself up about it. It’s OK not to meditate. It really is.


THE STAR WARS TRINITY OF FATHER-SON-HOLY GHOST

I came across this entertaining review by Steve Colbert, based on . . . the Vatican's review of the movie The Force Awakens (the Vatican gave a higher rating to Spotlight!). Perhaps the most striking remark is that the original Star Wars had a Father-Son-Holy Ghost trinity.

And there is something to it — not just that Obi-Wan Kanobi posthumously becomes a Holy Ghost, but that the Father (Darth Vader) and the Son (Luke) are on opposite sides. The Father stands for power and wrath, the Son for not giving in to hatred (to oversimplify matters). (But then the article that follows has an interesting theory about the son emulating the father.)

"Vader" is close to the German Vater, which is of course very close to the English “father.”

The Force can also be seen as Tao, or as Cosmic Consciousness. It's hard to get away from religion when it comes to Star Wars.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kD4xfJyuR0

DID LUKE SKYWALKER GO OVER TO THE DARK SIDE? 


 ~ “Yoda knew the whole time that Luke was on the same path as his Anakin. He was reluctant to train him and said flatly that Luke would give in to the dark side if he left Dagobah to save his friends. The most striking part of this whole sequence (Luke’s training with Yoda) is the cave.

Many people (my friends included) put it off as foreshadowing Luke’s discovery that Vader is his father. I think it’s foreshadowing that Luke will become his father. Of course, you don’t know Vader’s his dad at this point — but at the end of the film, when I thought back to the cave... it made perfect sense. It’s good, solid plot juice. Becoming your parents (or trying not to) is a huge motivator.

And Luke failed, according to Yoda. More than that — Yoda issued this warning which Luke completely ignored:

‘Only a fully trained Jedi Knight, with the Force as his ally, will conquer Vader and his emperor. If you end your training now... if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did... you will become an agent of evil.’
There it is: Yoda said it point blank. How many times has Yoda been wrong in the first six films? It’s almost like he can see the future sometimes! He knew Luke was on a path to become his father and, by leaving, he failed at preventing it.

This is the start of Luke’s slide.

Luke thought he was doing good by racing to rescue his friends. Anakin thought he was doing good by confronting the Jedi Council and destroying the Order itself. A very blurred matter of perspective: trying to do good can be incredibly destructive.

Indeed, there is a clear change of character as we move from Empire to Return of the Jedi. Luke becomes more serious, a little more sinister, and rocks the uniform pretty well:

‘Nevertheless, I’m taking Captain Solo and his friends. You can either profit by this or be destroyed. It’s your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate my power.’

Was that a threat? A touch of arrogance perhaps? No — Luke would never!

‘As a token of my gratitude, I present to you these two droids. Both are hard working, and will serve you well…’

One second. Hold on here — was that a lie? Why yes, it was. Luke is giving in, he’s drawn to the dark side. Wow... Luke lies. Keep that in mind.

You might be thinking nah, no way. Why would he do that? The answer is that he is destructively trying to do good and his training is not enough to allow him to see this. As Yoda warned, he is becoming an agent of evil.

Which actually comes in handy later on, because the only way he could beat his dad in a fight is ...

Luke Turned, We All Watched It

The emperor was working Luke pretty hard, and croaked in his guttural monotone:

‘Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete.’

And guess what? Luke tried.

He quite clearly doesn’t have any motivation to stay a good guy. He’s just seen what he could do with his dark powers (defeat the bad guys, save people).

“Your Hate Has Made You Powerful”

Luke confronted and defeated his father only by giving in to his fear and hatred — driven by a desire to protect his sister, whom he loved dearly and who (basically) set him on this whole damn deal to begin with (help me Obi Wan Kenobi...). You can see this clearly as he swings away at Vader violently, beating on him with all the fear and rage that is swelling up in him... fired by a desire to protect his sister and friends.

The emperor sees this as well. He thinks he has won Luke over — he even gloats a bit:

‘Good.... Now, fulfill your destiny... and take your father’s place at my side.’

From the emperor’s perspective it seems like this is all wrapped up, no? Vader is lying there on the floor, Luke just turned, let’s close the deal! But…

You can watch what happens next in two very different ways. The first, most obvious, is that Luke looks at his mechanical fist and then at his dad’s severed hand and realizes what could happen — oh no! Let’s make sure we come back from this ledge and stay on the Good side. This makes no sense in terms of Luke’s motivations.

Or, what I think, is that Luke looked at his fist and realized the effectiveness of his new power. Soaked in the revenge (the movie was entitled Revenge of the Jedi originally, I think this is why) and let the hatred indeed fill him... indeed make him powerful.

Now, watch as he turns, rises, and faces the emperor full of arrogance and brimming with dark power. I think Hamill played this scene brilliantly:

‘Never. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed your highness, I am a Jedi, like my father before me…’

The emperor tries to destroy him with the old shock treatment in the same way we saw in Revenge of the Sith (facing off against Mace Windu). In that scene, Palpatine played on the sympathies of Anakin to cut Windu’s hands off so he could toss Windu out the window.

In this scene, Luke plays his dad in the exact same way to toss the emperor into the abyss. Ahh symbolism.

That shock treatment? He basically brushed it off. Luke is a badass. It’s the only way this whole scene makes any sense at all.” ~

 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rob-conery/luke-skywalker-theory-destroys-everything-star-wars_b_8392698.html?utm_hp_ref=entertainment&ir=Entertainment&utm_source=zergnet.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=zergnet_1171664&

Oriana:

This is a very provocative view of Luke Skywalker, and I mean “very” — well argued, too. But then how can a human being not ever, not once in his life, give in to hatred? Especially when we’re young and easily hurt . . .  and also have the kind of energy without which hatred is nothing (who cares if an elderly person “hates” X or Y? The energy just isn’t there. It might as well be an infant).

Also, just because you do feel hatred now and then, and maybe even act on it — again, once in a while — doesn’t mean that you are truly evil as a predominant trait. Except for the extremes — saints and true monsters — we are all a mix of the good and the bad.

But realism is beside the point when discussing fantasy-based movies. There is an excellent phrase in this article: “to destructively do Good.” Only in movies does it ever turn out well.

A POST-ELECTION DREAM (yes, yet another one . . . )

Trump is having foot surgery — removal of the sixth toe on his left foot. I seem to be part of a group of reporters assigned to cover the story. We are shown the before and after photos, but the “before” image is flashed only briefly. Then we are told by a Trump staff member that it’s not going to be used in the story. Only the “normalized” foot will be displayed, starting in mid-calf, then the toes, and the hazy view of an expensive ski resort out the big window.

I feel helpless, and sense general frustration among all the reporters — that “post-truth” sense of being fed whatever serves PR.

I know what triggered this dream — a completely non-political story of an actual toe-removal surgery. The dream seemed to be about the “normalization” of Trump.

(By the way, I am not happy to be having these “current affairs” dreams. Where are my dreams of yesteryear? I used to dream about Warsaw streetcars — here, in the land of the automobile, I used to dream about the lost paradise of streetcars! But then the tracks began to disappear into the void . . . ) 



“plunder into philanthropy, slander into truth” — it's just uncanny how well these words apply. But then it’s not rare for writers to prove prophetic. 

**
~ “Back in late Soviet Union, there was no more despised category of individuals — not only among the intelligentsia, but generally across the spectrum of the society — than the KGB: deeply amoral, inherently cruel, coldly manipulative people with no heart and no conscience, no sense of decency and starkly negative capacity for compassion with others. After the USSR fell apart, amid the widespread panic and round-the-clock burning of incriminating paperwork inside the Lubyanka, Yeltsin had whimsically decided to pass up on the seemingly natural opportunity to declare the KGB a criminal organization. The rest is history. The "organs" had managed to survive, to repair and regenerate themselves — and in 1999, in due course of perverse historical developments, an unrepentant, committed lifelong "kagebeshnik" became the ruler of Russia — and some 17 more years later, in a recruiting triumph of unprecedented proportions, the latter was able to succeed, almost against his own most halcyon expectations, in helping the retrograde segment of the US electorate to make his virtual transatlantic kindred spirit a president of America.” ~ Mikhail Iossel

Oriana: What really worries me is that Putin seems a lot smarter in the “shrewd” and nasty sense — like a really competent Mafia boss. Trump, on the other hand, appears to have a problem with his brain function — and that’s on top of his personality disorder. Think of the idiot faces he makes. And aside from that, just look at the lack of intelligence in those eyes. It’s like waiting for a train wreck to happen.

Of course even if the US loses its empire, its dominance in the world, we are still very lucky to be here. Think of the fate of the Baltic republics — Trump will certainly not interfere with Putin’s plans regarding Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. I think Putin will try to avoid bloodshed — puppet governments will do just fine. He tried that in Ukraine, but the people rose up . . .  Not something he expect in Estonia. The fate of the helpless, now unprotected 

by the US, is pretty much sealed.  

 “I am awash in a sea of blood” ~ Lenin (allegedly) on his deathbed. Image transformed by Bob Boldt

*
The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. ~ Bertrand Russell


An East German border guard tosses a ball back over the Wall after a West German child mistakenly threw it over, Berlin, 1962; photo by Paul Schutzer

“MANCHESTER BY THE SEA” — ESCHEWING REDEMPTION

 
I liked the opening scenes of the handyman's interactions with tenants — their habitual whining, their failed seductions of the handsome janitor — but it was downhill from then on. 2.5 hours of a flat, cliché, inarticulate movie. Neither I nor my companion could relate to a single character. By the way, I loved Cake, which is relentlessly sad, so it's not that I can't take sadness. I loved Nebraska, so it’s not that I can’t take flat dialog.

The movie has some good moments, e.g. the encounter with the boy's mother now married to an evangelical Christian, with a painting showing Jesus not really walking on water but rather wading — but on the whole, I was considering walking out. Too many characters, for one thing, so it was difficult to become focused and emotionally engaged. Humor not funny. Maybe if the reviews weren't so full of praise, I wouldn't have been so deeply disappointed. The classical score was intrusive and seemed to belong in another movie, a European “art film.”

Here is an "audience review" that is honest about the flaws:

“Avoiding the immensely high praise for Manchester was difficult, so I went in with high expectations. Casey Affleck is in the lead in one of his better performances, and he and Michelle Williams shine in a particularly memorable scene which is one of the best showcasings of acting this year. Dialogue is often humorous, but underlined with deep depression- and this is what the film is about, not being able to overcome sadness. Where character development should be included, it's nowhere to be found which makes Manchester one of the most unique films of the year.

With that being said, that uniqueness comes at a price: the movie somehow manages to feel thoroughly flat. Clocking in at 2.5 hours, it drags in certain areas, and like Affleck's character, the film drifts along, without a clear sense of direction. His co-star, Lucas Hedges, does a great job of being extremely unlikeable. In fact, very few, if any of these characters are likable or even relatable. What the film does succeed in is its effort to show you the life of someone who's lost it all. Even though I can say some great things about Manchester, its dialogue, moments of quality acting, and its sense of humor, its flaws really drag it down. Coupled with several knockout scenes scattered throughout, it just didn't come together as a whole for me.”



Oriana: 

The so-called "knock-out" scenes failed to knock me out.

I think for some people boring = artistic. The heavy-handed use of classic music in the score was also a big clue about this ambition — and mind you, this movie is about working class people (the protagonist is a handyman; the nephew wants to be a commercial fisherman like his prematurely dead father).

The relentless non-verbal maleness (the teen nephew is a jock stereotype) smothers the movie. On top of this, the movie just pulled in too many directions. I’d have loved to see the mother theme developed. Maternal abandonment in early childhood is a serious trauma — it had to affect the boy. Then the mother ends up being dominated by a religious nut — now *that* was funny in a tragic way. “Dinner with mother” was the best part of the movie for me — Dickensian — over much too soon.

There is some emotional “progress” in the movie. The morose uncle and the cocky jock nephew move toward being able to show feelings; more important, they bond. This could easily have been a movie that starts with alienation and ends with redemption through human connection. There are certainly examples of this both in real life and in literature and film. The maker of this movie didn’t want to give us the pleasure that such a resolution brings. We have to settle for a little progress.

Nevertheless, we could all profit from examples of how people can rise above tragedy. No story is just one person’s story; it’s also part of the great story of humanity. I agree that some people do get stuck and don't recover, or not much, but on the whole life has an interesting way of unfolding so that even though we say "forever," pretty much nothing is forever. It's constant change and development — and often enough, recovery from even dire misfortune.



PICASSO’S STAGES OF LIFE

Painters’ self-portraits at various stages of life fascinate me. No one approaches Rembrandt in the number of self-portraits. Van Gogh also created many, but he didn't live that long, and was actually a late bloomer. Picasso at 15 was a wunderkind — he really was good.

I like the first self-portrait a lot, and then at 56 — and the self-portraits of old age. Very striking, unafraid of the death-mask he was becoming.


At 15: 

~~~~

 At 56:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I think in this one, at 83, he's in some way 15 again.


 ~ ~ ~ ~

Picasso at 90


For more of Picasso’s self-portraits, please go to

http://twistedsifter.com/2016/12/picasso-self-portraits-at-different-ages/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Twistedsifter+%28TwistedSifter+%29&utm_content=Google+UK

ending on beauty:

 
James Joyce's famous short story “The Dead” is set at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany. Here is the last paragraph:

“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”


Joyce also gave us a secular meaning of “epiphany,” using the word to mean the “revelation of the whatness of a thing,” the moment when “the soul of the commonest object [...] seems to us radiant.” ~ Writer’s Almanac