Sunday, May 6, 2012


A few days ago I received Joseph Frank’s enormous biography of Dostoyevski – five volumes condensed into one. A thought crossed my mind: if I don’t like the book, I can always use it for weight-lifting exercise. Imagine, instead of meaningless dumbbells, lifting the weight of Dostoyevski’s life!

This morning I opened the book at random, and found the story that Dostoyevski records in his Writer’s Diary: a poor seamstress, in despair over not being able to rise from poverty, jumps to her death, holding an icon in her hands. She knows she’s committing a mortal sin, but still clings to the faith that she will be forgiven and admitted to the “better world.”

This made me think of my own impoverished youth and my frequent impulse to jump:

In my twenties, I could never look
from a high window or a roof 
and not feel a gathering leap.

~ but since I had no hope of a happy afterlife, I always chose my misery over nothingness. Gentle Reader, when I say that atheism saved my life, I am not trying to be witty.  

But the story also reminded me of the desperate prayers of the Auschwitz inmates. My grandmother Veronika told me of one such evening of communal prayer – diminished in horror because it contained some humor. My grandmother always chuckled a bit when quoting the kapo.


One evening in Auschwitz
the women in her barracks began to pray.

Their prayer grows and grows,
a chant, a hymn, a howl –
it carries far

into the searchlight-blinded,
electric wire-razored night.
The Kapo rushes in and shouts,

Not so loud!
God is not hard of hearing!

And my grandmother laughs.
Then she begins to sing:
Many have fallen

in the sleep of death,
but we have still awakened
to praise Thee,

she sings to the God of Auschwitz.
Her voice does not quiver.

~ Oriana © 2012


My grandmother Veronika, first ID photo after Auschwitz


The previous ending to this poem was quite different, but it got trashed at an expensive East Coast workshop. I agree that the current ending is stronger, and the right closure to the sequence about my grandmother and her strength of character (a Victorian expression, isn’t it). But the original ending also had something to offer:

but we have still awakened
to praise Thee,

she sings to the God of Auschwitz.
God is not hard of hearing,
but speaks another language –

replies with the dawn’s
wounded aurora.

I meant that the redness of dawn (with all the metaphoric meanings of both red and dawn) is the divine reply, not understood by humanity. The “language” of nature – its cycles of death and rebirth, its sublime beauty –that’s where we may find a consoling answer.

Recently I found a similar idea in Louise Glück’s poem, “Sunset,” from The Wild Iris. The poem is spoken in the persona of god.


My great happiness
is the sound your voice makes,
calling to me even in despair; my sorrow
that I cannot answer you
in speech you accept as mine.

You have no faith in your own language.
So you invest
authority in signs
you cannot read with any accuracy.

And yet your voice reaches me always.
And I answer constantly,
my anger passing
as winter passes. My tenderness
should be apparent to you
in the breeze of the summer evening
and in the words that become
your own response.

~ Louise Glück, The Wild Iris, 1992

This is basically a naturalistic attitude, equating god with nature, proclaiming that nature is benevolent. A poem like this makes me think that Glück would reply to Einstein’s famous question by saying yes, the universe is friendly.

A Zen poet makes a similar comment:

Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
and endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
how to read the love letters sent
by wind and rain, snow and moon.

~ Ikkyu, from Ikkyu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology, trans. by Sonya Arutzen

On the other hand, those signs and natural wonders are not always aligned with what we wish for. Here Hafiz winks at us, in effect saying “que sera, sera.”

If the way the Milky Way revolves
Ignores your desires for a day or two,
Do not sink into sadness –
All turning goes as it will.

No matter what happens, our brain will automatically interpret it in whatever way makes it easier for us to carry on – even if it’s “this too shall pass.” In any case, we are not responsible for what happens, only for our response to what happens.


Reading the sign language of the universe reminds me of Steve’s comment in the Negative Infinity post: after making a choice, watch if the universe supports your choice. I go by the feeling of serenity (sometimes even a kind of quiet ecstasy) versus agitation. I tend to watch the universe before making a decision. Sometimes I go as far as to say, “I navigate by omens.”

Some might object that this talk about “watching the universe” and “attunement” is just religion in a new guise, one superstition exchanged for another. Yes, we are the children of the universe, but the universe doesn’t care. To steal from Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, trusting the universe is like worshipping in the church of God the Utterly Indifferent. That god isn’t just hard of hearing; he’s deaf and blind.

It doesn’t matter, I reply. The human brain is wired to seek meaningful patterns. Sometimes the greatest blessing is having “fate” choose for us. A further blessing awaits if we then read meaning into fate (call it “circumstances beyond our control”). Or, as Szymborska says, “My apologies to chance for calling it necessity” (“Under One Small Star”).

This brings me to Viktor Frankl, the author of the unforgettable Man’s Search for Meaning. His favorite quotation was from Nietzsche: “He who has a why can endure almost any how.” People may have their why, their central meaning in life, without clearly realizing it. When clients brought him stories of their woes, Frankl would ask them, “Then why don’t you commit suicide?” Cornered, the client would usually come up with a reason s/he had to continue living. It seems that, just as no one ever lacks a reason to commit suicide, so, conversely (except for cases of painful terminal illness), no one lacks a reason for NOT committing suicide.

In my youth I thought of suicide every day. So, why didn’t I end it once and for all? I received one answer in an unforgettable dream. I had decided to commit suicide and was walking around a generic college campus, saying goodbye to strangers (if this scene seems like something out of a novel by Dostoyevski, I can only say that sometimes I feel like a character out of Dostoyevski). Finally I stopped in front of the library, a huge building with floor to ceiling windows. I see the rows of stacks. I stood in awe, saying out loud, “So many books! So many books!”

University of California, San Diego, Geisel Library

Now and then I still ask myself what keeps me alive. Each time I give a different answer. Sometimes I say, “I want to see what happens next.” At other times it might be, “It’s because of the beauty of the sunset – I never get tired of sunsets.” Or, if I’m in a more musical mood, it might be, “So I can listen again to Pollini play the Revolutionary Etude.”

At times I grow more abstract: “There is an elementary pleasure in existing, in having a consciousness.” When I was teaching, I realized that if my students learned that I committed suicide, I’d be a terrible role model for them, and I didn’t want to fail in that way; that’s not how I wanted to be remembered. Now that my chief identity is that of a writer, I may say that I enjoy sharing what I have learned with others – though I’m not too confident in the altruistic glow of that reply. So let me be a shameless hedonist and admit that I love the process of writing prose. I love the way content starts arriving from the most unexpected places, and anything I touch opens up another infinity, to quote Nietzsche again. This is a change from the years when what I wanted most was to grow as a poet, to see how far I could advance in the skill, and how my themes would change (or not change) with time. Or from my intellectually promiscuous twenties when I craved to develop in all directions.

Ultimately, it’s all of the above. I hear many answers. Some have to do with enjoying the beauty of the world, others with being of service in a satisfying way, and still others with my never-ceasing pleasure in having an inexhaustible inner life. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

If I absolutely had to choose, I’d probably say “beauty.” Here is a passage from Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that I instantly identified with:

“If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp [Dachau] as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor – or maybe because of it – we were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

Sure, you may say, the Alps – who could fail to respond, even when starved? But the passage that follows moves me even more:

“One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of the hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds to see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing colors and shapes, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate gray mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”

But I hear you, dear Philosophical Reader: “Oriana, you really can’t start with your grandmother in Auschwitz and then travel with Frankl to Dachau only as a pretext to talk about your favorite things: mountains and sunsets.” I know. The names of the camps stand for the heart of darkness, for ultimate evil. And I need to get more serious about addressing the question of god’s hearing.


In “Treatise on Theology,” Milosz says:

Whoever considers as normal the order of things in which the strong triumph and the weak fail, and life ends with death, accepts the devil’s rule.

. . . Whoever places his trust in Jesus Christ waits for His coming and the end of the world, when the first heaven and the first earth pass, and death is no more. (Second Space, p. 57-58)

For all his doubts and heresies, Milosz could indeed sound quite orthodox (though it’s important to remember that he admired Dostoyevski’s ideal of presenting a polyphony of voices, e.g. Ivan Karamazov the intellectual and Alyosha the believer). Here is something that can’t be passed over by exulting over the sunrise and sunset.

The idea that “death is no more” has a tremendous appeal. On the other hand, the whole Apocalyptic state of mind expresses a huge rejection of this world as a “vale of tears.” Yet Milosz admitted that modern man can’t accept the  idea that true life begins only after death, the way medieval monks renounced any enjoyment of this life for the sake of the afterlife. Nor does the Western man fully accept Buddha’s most famous saying, “Life is suffering.” Life also contains great joy. And people who enjoy life do NOT want the world to end. The love New York (or San Francisco, or Paris, or Vilnius) and couldn’t care less about the promised New Jerusalem. They love the earth as it is, and life as it is, the joy inseparable from pain, but joy nevertheless.  

Would we even know joy if not for some knowledge of pain? But I’m not arguing on behalf of pain. It’s precisely the diminishment of pain through progress in medicine, technology, and the establishment of social safety nets that has made our earthly life a lot more comfortable and precious to us. The countries where life is most secure have the highest percentage of people who describe themselves as secular.

Likewise, to agree with Milosz that the strong should not triumph means to assume that the strong are synonymous with the wicked. For Milosz, the strong meant the Nazis and the Red Army. But the United States cannot be compared to the Nazi Germany. Questions about ethics arise, but at least they are the subject of a public debate.                        

By the way, the original title of Frankl’s book was Despite Everything to Say Yes to Life. In spite of mortality and suffering to say Yes to life – all else follows.


All of us at a long school desk.
We’re told to tilt back our heads
and slowly say, “Ouch, mother.”
A capsule is dropped down our throats
sometime during the vowels.

I fade out. Yet soon I walk, I love
the trees silver after rain.
The downtown hovers, half-cloud,
the bridge across the bay
spun with beams of light.

This is my world, my pearl,
my kingdom within and without.
And dying in the night, what is it
but another self being born
to help us carry the questions.

I wake up refreshed
in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Since childhood I have climbed
mountains; my sinews and bones
know that going downhill is the killer,

not the drunkenness of heights.
I have died more than once,
and look: I walk, I dream.
Siehe, ich lebe, “See, I live,”
I repeat after Rilke,

in the exquisite, horrifying tongue
of those who were executioners.
How close leben sounds to
lieben, the long liquid notes
of the same song: Siehe, ich liebe, 

See, I love: it’s the story
of my life, of many lives.

~ Oriana © 2012



In your poem I love "god is not hard of hearing."

There is much to admire about the original ending. What was the objection to it? Maybe you could combine some of the lines??

Nature and god seem inseparable and mankind has always worshipped god through nature.

He or she seems more accessible and believable in nature. I have witnessed northern lights, green flash, double rainbows, geysers, icebergs, moons and sunsets to name a few and feel blessed by the sightings. Even Nature at its cruelest is astounding. Man's inhumanity is the exception.



The line you love was actually spoken by a woman kapo in Auschwitz. One friend of mine said, "To me the concentration camps are as unreal as the Middle Ages." For me both are a horrid reality, and I rush to think "in the past, in the past. The past is ashes." Yes, so many bodies to burn.

The objections to the original ending of “God’s Hearing” were not clear to me. It was more the facial expressions, as if people were disappointed with it. It fell flat – perhaps because it departed from grandmother, god not being of much interest any more, an archaic ghost in a secular age. Maybe the “language of nature” ending made me seem religious and defending god's deafness? As if I were saying – and based purely on the text I can see how strangers might assume that – that god exists and is not hard of hearing, just replies in another language . . .  I guess that sounds weak when we contemplate the atrocities of the camps. When the inmates at Dachau watched the spectacular sunset, they didn’t think that god was trying to console them, or convey a message. But they saw how beautiful the world could be if only we eliminated human cruelty.

Humanity worshipped nature for thousands of years, but monotheism put an end to it. Nature was no longer sacred; man was to have “dominion” over it. The Romantics and Transcendentalists tried to restore the sacredness of nature, but what could they do against industrial capitalism and the kind of fundamentalist religion that sees environmental protection as contrary to the bible (think of Senator Santorum’s attack on environmentalism as a religion not based on the bible).

The insufficiency of nature as an object of worship was noted by Robert Frost in “The Most of It”:

. . . all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried

Nevertheless, the only notion of god that still makes some sense to me is simply equating god with the universe. Nature is amazing, and beyond good and evil. Alternately, I might entertain the possibility of a meta-cosmos, something inherent in the universe that has some attributes that humanity traditionally bestowed on its gods. New Age people speak about “cosmic laws” and “cosmic intelligence” and “the Light” in this manner, and try to cobble together various world religions so that only the best is preserved. But it’s still wishful thinking with no supporting evidence, The Secret as its best-selling bible (outselling Frankl’s book: no surprise).

Nevertheless, that “fusion of the East and West” approach had a lot of appeal for me until I went to a lecture on karma and saw the old idea of justice as vengeance, and the old dogmatism (during the Q&A period, questions about the validity of the concept of karma were not permitted), along with blaming the victim. The speaker (an American Jungian psychologist who’d lived in India for a while) seemed taken aback by how much the audience treasured THIS life, rather than being eager to die and experience the wonders of the astral world (I’ll never forget his saying, “The flowers here on earth are nothing compared to how beautiful astral flowers are”).

Re: Viktor Frankl. Is meaning necessary for survival? It helps a lot and it can work wonders (e.g. when I knew why I was working so hard to master English, and could see how exceptional effort leads to outstanding results). But then for almost 20 years I had only a weak and shifting sense of meaning -- and a haunting memory of how wonderful it was to have a strong sense of purpose, a powerful goal.

When I had my perception shift re: depression, I threw myself into work even though it had no meaning for me – practically none. I wanted to be productive rather than stagnate in despair. Productive for what purpose? I had no answer. I decided to do it blindly (e.g. write the blog), without allowing myself to wonder why I'm doing it (and a friend didn’t help by saying, “Enjoy writing your blog. That’s all it’s good for”). Normally people are sustained by meaning, but at that point I did not have a sense of meaning. Meaning emerged later. 

That first months after closing the door on depression were very exhausting. It was work, work, work. Nothing gave me much pleasure, and my memories of positive experiences were still blocked. But working hard was the only thing I knew how to do. That particular summer was very rich and brought me much writing material, though I couldn't afford to think if anyone would ever want to read what I wrote. I said to myself, work blindly; don't ask why am I doing this, don't ask where am I going. Even though I’m extremely introverted, I managed to established my no-thinking zones. I had to stop thinking, except in terms of what to do or write next.

So I both agree and disagree with Frankl: it's wonderful to have a meaning, but based on my experience I say that it's possible to survive without a meaning in life, at least for a time, if you throw yourself into work simply to be doing something and kill self-centered cogitation – the answer lies outside. When I focused on what lay outside the suffocating labyrinths of my psyche, I could function quite well. Even such "blind work" (maybe analogous to "blind faith") can be salvation. Meaning doesn't have to precede activity, but can emerge from it, and/or from the healthier state of mind brought about by being active.

Of course I was very lucky to have had the skill and to have forged my own venue. And to have the intelligence and the talent, both mostly genetic. Luck all around!

And that has been one of my life's great surprises: after having regarded myself as unlucky almost as long as I can remember (with two magnificent exceptions: the last year in Warsaw, and the last year in Los Angeles – the beauty of it before loss), I came to perceive myself as exceptionally lucky.

No comments:

Post a Comment