Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Lilith, 1868



She died in beauty, -- like a rose
  Blown from its parent stem;
She died in beauty, -- like a pearl
  Dropped from some diadem.

She died in beauty, -- like a lay
  Along a moonlit lake;
She died in beauty,-- like the song
  On birds amid the brake.

She died in beauty, -- like the snow
  On flowers dissolved away;
She died in beauty; -- like a star
  Lost on the brow of day.

She lives in glory, -- like night’s gems
  Set round the silver moon;
She lives in glory,-- like the sun
  Amid the blue of June.

~ Charles Doyne Sillery (1807-1837)

The moon/June rhyme came as if to say: here is the essence of 19th century poetry. Poets like Sillery (I wonder about that last name: too good to be true?) wanted to sound oh so pretty, no matter how fake the result.

The problem here is not only clichés. The main problem is the non-stop sweetness. A poem needs the tension of opposites (or, to use the standard term of literary criticism, “dramatic tension”). It shouldn’t be all sweet or all despairing. In that sense, poetry is not all that different from fiction: we don't want a story where all is sweetness and light, and the hero is never challenged, simply going from success to success. Into each life some rain must fall -- we'll return to this later. 

Rossetti: The Blessed Damozel, 1878

How did this poem ever survive to reach me in a century that treasures non-fiction, “what really happened”? We want to know specific details, however unpretty. Imagine, after the sometimes brutal realism of modern poetry, coming across “She Died in Beauty.” Enough anthology editors must have thought it a treasure, so here it was, in another anthology. We moderns seem to have a hunger for reality that is startling after so many centuries where the main function of poetry was the same as that of religion: consolation, never mind the truth.

And the odd thing is, all those "blessed damozels" were dead. I think Poe was right when he said that the best subject for poetry is the death of a beautiful woman. Or at least it's the best subject for the kind of poetry favored in the 19th century.


John Everett Millais: Ophelia, 1851

Sillery also wrote “Eldred of Erin” and “The Rose of Cashmere, an Oriental Opera.” For a quick contrast, let us move on to a poem by Sharon Olds:


When I heard that my mother had stood up after her near
death of toxic shock, at first
I could not get that supine figure in my
mind’s eye to rise, she had been so
flat,  her face shiny as the ironing board’s
gray asbestos cover. Once my
father had gone horizontal, he did
not lift up, again, until he was
fire. But my mother put her fine legs
over the side, got her soles
on the floor, slowly poured her body from the
mattress into the vertical, she
stood between nurse and husband, and they let
go, for a second -- alive, upright,
my primate! When I’d last seen her, she was silver
and semi-liquid, like something ladled
onto the sheet, early form
of shimmering life, amoeba or dazzle of
jism, and she’d tried to speak, like matter
trying to speak. Now she stands by the bed,
gaunt, slightly luminous, the
hospital gown hanging in blue
folds, like the picture of Jesus-come-back
in my choir books. She seemed to feel close to Jesus,
she loved the way he did not give up,
nothing could stop his love, he stood there
teetering beside the stone bed and he
folded his grave-clothes.

~ Sharon Olds, One Secret Thing, 2008

The ending makes me wonder: if Jesus folded his grave clothes (a parallel to swaddling clothes), did he then stand naked? This is a modern inquiry; I don’t expect it to raise any eyebrows (much less start riots in the streets; only now I realize what a blessing it is to live in a country where religious fanatics are too few to inflict serious damage). 

This is not one of Olds’s masterpieces. I chose it because it’s typical of her recent work, and fairly typical as contemporary poems go: the main requirement is specific, realistic details. For an interweave with the transcendent we get the mother’s spirit of a survivor against the background of evolution. She stands up: “My primate!” And, in a surprising turn, we get the Resurrection, but in a new light: Jesus “teetering beside the stone bed” and then folding his shroud (how would he even disentangle himself from it?) The mother’s recovery from near-death is compared to the Resurrection, not in order to elevate and enlarge the subject of mother’s recovery, but in order to makes us think of the risen Jesus in a new, realistic light.

And who doesn’t love that ending? Talk about a fresh perspective:

Now she stands by the bed,
gaunt, slightly luminous, the
hospital gown hanging in blue
folds, like the picture of Jesus-come-back
in my choir books. She seemed to feel close to Jesus,
she loved the way he did not give up,
nothing could stop his love, he stood there
teetering beside the stone bed and he
folded his grave-clothes.

Piero della Francesca: Resurrection, 1463

It’s startling that we get realism in painting as early as the Renaissance, but have to wait so long for realism in poetry -- practically until the twentieth century. 

And even in painting, we get a sudden swerve into the decorative: I’m thinking of the Pre-Raphaelites, who can be thought of as a visual parallel to 19th century poetry -- though they are more interesting by far than most of that poetry. There is a boldness to them, in all that retro. Nobody reads Tennyson’s Arthurian tales any more; but a museum show of Pre-Raphaelite art will draw a crowd and be enjoyable, no matter the damsels, the bosoms, the robes slipping off, the relentless prettiness. 


Rossetti: The Salutation of Beatrice, 1869


Her neck is about three inches too long. It was just too difficult to fix. The colors are great. 


There is eroticism in Pre-Raphaelite painting, a sensuality of flesh and color that will indeed always draw a crowd. A typical 19th century poem is not erotic, in spite of the frequent use of the word “bosom.” Sure, Whitman, yes; but I mean typical.

John Guzlowski:

Ian Watt wrote a great book called The Rise of the Novel in which he talks about realism and how it couldn't have existed before 1700--much of what he says about the fiction can also be applied to poetry.  If I'm remembering correctly, his main argument was that there really wasn't a sense of the deep self in individuals before that--mankind needed to get beyond a survival level of existence (more free time to think and brood) before we could turn inward and before literature could follow us there.



And enough people had to become literate before a novel-reading public could exist. From the start most readers of novels were women (today it’s 80%). In fact the majority of novel writers in the 18th century were women. I think that must have been an influence: women are interested not only in romance, but also, and perhaps primarily, in the psychology of the characters, in their inner lives.

But poetry remained archaic both in terms of language and subject, heavily relying on myth and tales of people of “noble birth.” Wordsworth tried to revolutionize poetry by making the language more simple and writing about  characters such as the leech gatherer. But even his language remained archaic, and later even he shifted to a more “exalted” subject matter. What makes poetry so obstinately old-fashioned until fairly recently is its ELEVATED TONE.

But there are surprises. One of them awaited me in an article on late Victorian poetry

Those poems were often Gothic, full of ghosts. This is my favorite passage in the article:

Sometimes, one must disengage with reality in order to better understand its workings, upon return. To wit: Stephen Phillips’s “The Apparition” (1896), which begins with a flatly expressed statement, as though nothing were amiss. And yet, natural order has been upended:

My dead Love came to me, and said:
     “God gives me one hour’s rest,
To spend upon the earth with thee:
     How shall we spend it best?”

If you’re able to look past the ghoulish conceit, this is very humdrum; she might as well be asking him what he’d like for tea. And then we get a well-turned joke of domestic discord, further emphasized by an off rhyme:

“Why as of old,” I said, and so
     We quarreled as of old.



A sudden touch of realism creeps in, making all the difference. Now I’m amused (in a sad way) and interested.


Frederick Leighton: Flaming June, 1879


The one thing or actually there are many but the one thing I didn’t like about the Victorian age is the flowery poetry. Some of the literature was great, but poetry?


There is a fake feeling about much of Romantic and Victorian poetry, that exalted and archaic language so in contrast with the often-shocking realism of Dickens and Hardy. Maybe the realist prose writers had to prepare the ground for modern poetry. They had to shock the public first; then truth became acceptable in poetry as well.

The best of Browning escapes the fakiness (my spell-checker changed it to "famines"). Browning found a way to deal with the non-consoling aspects of reality, and was criticized--Oscar Wilde: "Mr. Browning uses poetry as a medium for writing prose." His wife's poems were more popular by far during Browning's lifetime.

The poet's clinging to archaic diction and"poetic" imagery has something of the "dying religion" about it. As people could find less and less comfort in religion (Ruskin complained that he heard the clink of a geologist's hammer at the end of each bible verse), as the human animal became perceived as  truly an animal, some people turned to fake ghost-filled poetry for escape.

True, a handful of Victorian poems are justly considered masterpieces, but even those, for all their wisdom, seem to lack freshness. It's mainly the old-fashioned language, I think.

The ghostliness may be related to the fact that even not so long ago people used to be a lot more familiar with death and dying than they are now, and poetry reflected that. Sure, poetry is about mortality regardless of period, but . . . the burials used to be more frequent and burial customs were much more elaborate than these days, when we scatter the ashes (“cremains,” in the lingo of the funeral industry). 



Oriana, I like what you say about the dying religion--a lot of the poetry does sound like that.  But it's not limited to the Brits.  There's so little American poetry from the 19th century that remains.  Whitman, Dickinson?  And who else?  Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow?  I don't think so.  When I teach 20th century poetry, I use Longfellow's “Rainy Day” to talk about everything that's wrong with the typical 19th century American poem, clichéd language, thought, prosody.

Rainy Day

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Longfellow is the priest of a dying religion--telling us the truths are still the truths, even though he knows they're not.



“Into each life some rain must fall” -- I had no idea that this comes from Longfellow! I suspect very few people do, though the expression lives on as a kind of proverb or “folk wisdom.” If any of our words survive, even anonymously, that’s amazing. So before I go on to agree with John, let me say a little thank you to poor Longfellow, now indeed an example of how not to write.

Note that this is the poetry of consolation, especially in that closing stanza.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

~ apparently this is what the poetry audience wanted: uplift, soothing thoughts, the calm that comes with certain soothing, familiar words and familiar verbal music. Old songs used to deliver it too. Today, greeting cards still deliver it. We need certain words to reconcile us with the way life is. In the past, life was more difficult -- a lot of disease, a lot of dying at a young age--the need for consolation was greater. 

Now, those two lines are pretty bad. But "into each life some rain must fall" works for me as consolation. It works for me better than Buddha's "Life is suffering" or Scott Peck's "Life is difficult." That's the power of imagery, the power of metaphor. 

Parenthetically, the lines

My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

~ happen to describe depression with great economy. 

Bad art can console. It can save lives! And I think poets are also trying to console themselves too -- or maybe even primarily. Christian Wiman, the current editor of Poetry magazine and the author of Poetry and Ambition, said something interesting: that poets write out of a sense of wrongness. Here are Wiman’s words:

Poetry arises out of absence, a deep internal sense of wrongness, out of a mind that feels itself to be in some way cracked. An original poem is a descent into and expression of this insufficiency. 

I’m reminded of Baudelaire’s “The Cracked Bell,” in which he states “My soul is cracked.” It seems true that poets write out of “wrongness,” and seek to console themselves for this wrongness. (I used to call it “the gap, the size of Grand Canyon, between the life I wish for and my actual life”). It’s just that modern poets write a different kind of comfort poem than old-time poets, whose typically wrote like this (I quote Wiman again):

   O leaves, O leaves that find no voice
   In the white silence of the snows,
   To bid the crimson woods rejoice,
   Or wake the wonder of the rose!

That kind of emoting is now taboo, but not consolation in a new, less effusive mode. Jack Gilbert comes to mind, consoling himself all the time. But at his best, he tells us “we must risk delight” and that a moment of beauty -- hearing the splash of an oar in the dark -- is worth all the sorrow that is yet to come. Is it? Some find this “consolation” rather bleak and unconvincing, but that’s all we have left now -- the beauty of nature and the affection of others, if we are fortunate enough to have those “affectionate others.” Sharon Olds also writes a lot of poems in which she is consoling herself in her own way. Louise Glück in fact complained that women are always expected to be "in the service of the life force."

Interesting, the evolution of poetry. I do remember a poem by Longfellow that I liked--something about a Jewish cemetery that had some degree of genuine observation in it, an unexpected word here and there . . .  but I know what you mean in general. The two 19th century poets whose work survives are not just  untypical; they are EXTREMELY untypical. Their work survives because they dared to be different, to go against their century’s hunger for consolation. Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died” is the true shocking contrast with Sillery’s “She Died in Beauty.”

The modern breakthrough to more genuine writing, away from consolation  and toward truthfulness, is pretty astonishing. The heroic, rhetorical mode has disappeared; in both fiction and poetry, we write about the ordinary. The didactic mode? It has to be more subtle, couched in clever humor, the way Tony Hoagland does it, for example. It’s not that we lost our need to be consoled; still, we insist on “real life.” And today’s poems deliver a lot of realistic vignettes. How ironic that there used to be a large general audience for the kind of poetry that today we regard as terrible, and now, in this country at least, only poets read contemporary poetry, some of it excellent but doomed to oblivion for lack of sufficient audience.

As for my use of pre-Raphaelite paintings for this post, Pre-Raphaelites strike me as wonderfully escapist. And it’s legitimate, I think, to have some escapist art, some respite from reality. Who wants paintings of the Satanic mills? (of Manchester, I suppose, with Engels in charge of one, and supporting Karl Marx)


I really like your image of alternative Victorian poetry (anti-pre-raphaelist) about the Satanic mills with marxist overtones. Imagine! Oscar Wilde or George Elliot doing for poetry what Dickens did for the novel! But I guess it was impossible. Even Hardy, the guy you'd think would have been a natural, a British sort of Philip Levine, wasn't capable of it. It had to wait for Philip Larkin. And where did he come from? I look around and wonder where a poem like This Be the Verse came from.  With Levine you know, but Larkin's a mystery as great as why 19th century poetry in England is so much posing and masks.

Have you heard Larkin reading the poem?

It's not what you expect.

It's not this reading--with it's working class voice: 


Blake not only mentions the “dark Satanic mills,” but also laments the fate of children exploited as chimney sweeps and the prostitutes spreading venereal disease (“the youthful harlot’s curse / . . . blight with plague the marriage hearse”). But the need for the poetry of consolation prevailed, and Blake remained without successors until the modern era. In America, only Whitman showed an even greater fearlessness. The nineteenth century was simply too early, I suspect: readers wanted consolation and uplift from poetry, even if it meant sacrificing truth to beauty.

(I don’t know how to classify the late Yeats: he certainly moved from Victorian melancholy and Celtic Twilight to the more honest modern vision in poems such as “Among School Children.”)

Consolation is not entirely the business of the poetry of past centuries. Among my contemporaries, especially women, I see a lot of striving for a positive ending, be it at the price of losing authenticity. Even Sharon Olds, for all her scrupulous realism, tries to draw a life-affirming moral from her stories and vignettes. 

This is truly not meant as a negative comment on Olds’s work, who’s uneven but manages to come across as truthful and interesting as long as she stays close to reality without far-fetched similes. The hunger for consolation is real, and is more likely to be satisfied by bad art, which goes straight for affirmation, without dwelling in darkness. But dwell in darkness we must, the better to appreciate a glimpse of light later.

I’ll never forget the personal essay workshop when an older woman protested a portrayal of an abusive mother by saying, “Your mother didn’t really mean what she said. She wouldn’t want to hurt you that way.” The rest of the class and the instructor were upset by the woman’s denial of reality and her attempt to invalidate a young student’s story. But thanks to the media, most of the population is not in denial about abusive mothers. We are not innocent about the “dark side” of anything that used to be idealized: romantic love, marriage, motherhood, patriotism, religion, warfare. We have awakened to the betrayal that sooner or later awaits us. That we can proceed in spite of that foreknowledge sometimes astonishes me.

In fact, the media may have gone too far in presenting evil. I have noticed how famished young college students are for positive portrayals of love and work -- life in general.

Thanks for the videos. I especially loved hearing Larkin do the reading himself. His being single and “child-free” probably helped him honestly say what he thought. (On the good side, I’ve noticed (and studies confirm) that child rearing is not as abusive as it used to be. It may be the “dignitarian revolution.” Human rights are finally being applied to children.

In poetry, it was a huge leap from King Arthur to ordinary people living ordinary lives. In novelistic prose it happened much sooner, but poetry kept clinging to the elevated tone and subject matter for a long, long time. It took WWI, for one thing, to make people more honest about admitting the dark side. Less religiosity probably helped too.

And here is a little treat -- thanks to John's bringing up that poem by Longfellow:


Yes. In fact I want to end with a poem that seems to work precisely in that way: Victoria White’s “Elephant Grave”:


After an elephant dies,

the herd may carry its bones for miles.

Did you know that? Hefting them over

the flatland ebb and flow, as

years ago we trekked

the backwoods of late November,

New England burned out like candlewick.

White light parted maples then,

found me chasing your footsteps

as you led us home.

Last fall the hills blazed red— 

I wonder if you tasted smoke, oceans away

as the first shells hit and
you couldn’t run.

Did you think of the leaves

we used to bring home and tape up,

the way they all withered in the end?

Even the best, the brightest

come to nothing, I learned,

because there wasn’t a body

even though you promised to come back.

I broke when I heard you were lying

alone in scrub grass,

no one to lift you up, knowing

you were precious.

Brother, I would have carried you

on my shoulders ’til the horizon bent for us

and our forest dawned along its edge.

Imagine, and the maples stoop to greet you,

saying welcome back,

welcome home.

~ Victoria White, The Kenyon Review


Here we have death in a war (I can’t help it if what immediately comes to my mind is “When will they ever learn?”). The soldier’s sister mourns his death. What hurts is its anonymity:

I broke when I heard you were lying

alone in scrub grass,
no one to lift you up, knowing

you were precious.

And she imagines undoing the damage:

Brother, I would have carried you

on my shoulders ’til the horizon bent for us

and our forest dawned along its edge.

Imagine, and the maples stoop to greet you,

saying welcome back,

welcome home.


This is lovely without sacrificing truth to beauty. We know it’s only a compensating fantasy, this grieving sister carrying her dead brother all the way home, where he dreamed to be. And the knowledge that this is only a fantasy makes it all the more poignant. There is no glorious afterlife mentioned here, but the glory of human love illumines the lines. 


Melville indeed would have found much to discuss in your last two postings as faith and poetry were two of his great passions. It's been often remarked by scholars of 'Moby Dick' how the novel was steeped in Melville's grappling with belief; between Ishmael's soliloquies on philosophy to mate Starbuck's simple Quaker faith, the whole work is full of Biblical and moral ponderings. For us here in the 21st century it is no less a issue; how I wish some Quaker, Sufi and Zen leaders could meet in Jerusalem and hash all this current Middle East turmoil out! I am sure I have mentioned this before but it's struck me how many British, Australian, New Zealand and American poets were Catholic converts and how their faith changed their lives and verse and how many found great comfort in it. I'm sure as one brought up in Catholicism it must be hard to fathom how such men with no background in the faith could come to embrace it so wholeheartedly. I'm struck too by Tolkien( a writer who, like Melville, was a good poet but could have been a great one had he devoted more energy to it; his 'Voyage of Earendel' is incredibly good) and how his Catholic faith colored all he did; he truly had a happier home than Tolstoy or Melville, both who suffered with coming to a sure belief. I know most all thinking people must struggle at one time or another with matters of faith, belief and a deity; poets perhaps more than most.


Thank you, Scott, for bringing up this important point: great literature is indeed full of what one might call the “struggle with god.” But a writer typically develops his own version of whatever religion they might profess in public. Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Milosz -- they were all “heretics” who grappled with doubt. Milosz explicitly stated that a thinking man must indeed be a heretic. Blind faith, without questioning, without an individual emphasis, is not possible for a real writer (who is per se a “real thinker,” never mind the church’s anti-rational stance).

Just this morning I was wondering how my life would be different if I were to return to Catholicism. My first thought was that it would be a “living death.” For me Catholicism meant being hobbled with fear of hell, especially with my despair over my sinful thoughts. And fear of hell is already hell.

But I also know that intuition can deceive us, and I may be overly given to the dramatic. But then a lukewarm belief is not possible for me; I’m afraid I’d tilt from atheism into religious fanaticism with no middle ground. There is a pejorative word in Polish, devotka, to denote a woman who spends a lot of time in church, on her knees, praying the rosary rather than engaging with others, with life. Not even acts of charity have an attraction for her; she wants to commune with her imaginary beloved.

Now we say’d about such a woman: “She has no life.” Her various “devotions” (let’s not forget favorite saints) become an outlet for the love that is otherwise lacking. Rilke’s mother was a devotka, who forced her little boy to kiss Christ’s wounds on the crucifix.

Writers do have a life, and that makes all the difference. Any faith can provide a useful system of life philosophy and metaphors. Catholicism in particular has a beautiful liturgical vocabulary. Being brought up in a religion and then leaving it is also useful to a writer, especially if one grapples with the tradition and forges one’s own non-toxic, life-affirming philosophy -- something I am trying to accomplish.

This morning I wondered if I’d be a kinder person with the encouragement of faith, so to speak. I remember performing “good deeds” as a child, earning my entries on the right side of the great ledger of sins and good deeds, the balance of which would decide eternal bliss versus eternal suffering. I truly believed this at an age where the brain isn’t developed enough to forge one’s own version of religion (I think every adult has his own version, his own god, toxic or supportive). I was counting my “good deeds” and didn’t yet know the pleasure of generosity, of giving. There is no need of religion for anyone to perform acts of kindness. It’s more pure to help someone without counting on a reward in heaven.

On the other hand, if someone gets guidance from pondering “what would Jesus do?” and does something kind as a result, that’s great! Whatever works. What I am against is toxic religion, the kind of destroys self-esteem and peace of mind. I’ve come to see the banal truth that what counts is conduct. How I wish the church taught me that, instead of all the talk about “sinning in thought” and eternal punishment.

To make matters worse, the sin of despair was the “sin against the Holy Ghost,” and that was the one sin which would not be forgiven. You could commit murder, then go to confession and be absolved; but if you despaired, seeing yourself as a wretched sinner doomed to hellfire, that was the sin that would not be forgiven. This was a trap from which I saw no escape. As someone said, all religions are about guilt, just with different holidays. 


I think that Moby Dick is in many ways a novel of consolation. Ishmael's befriending of Queequeg, a stranger from another culture, speaks volumes of his compassion and acceptance. The numerous outright funny episodes, the stalwartness of Starbuck, whom Primo Levi (and I concur) thought the true hero of the novel, and the deep philosophical probings all point to 'a mind awake'. Even Ahab, we are told, 'has his humanities.'

And the ending is not “the end”; do we not all one day end this voyage? Ishmael survives and returns home a better person for the voyage; look at all he's learned. The novel shows us the fate of those who are obsessed with revenge; the kindness of cannibals; and again, the purity and frankness of Starbuck. I am one who is not all dismayed by the book's ending. I am much like Sylvia Plath: “my one wish (coward that I am): to see a monster turned to heat and light.” Of course, I don't consider whales monsters nor would I wish to see them hunted and killed today -- but as Hoagland's poem “Reading Moby Dick at 30,000 feet” ends:

Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now?


Yes, fiction too can be a source of consolation. I think masterpieces tend to be affirmative in the end, though in a complex way, with much darkness woven in.

I love that poem by Toni Hoagland. It laments a passionless, rushed, distracted life that modern culture often thrusts on people. Let me quote the ending of the poem at greater length:

Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be

to hear someone in the crew
cry out like a gull,
Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now?



Cannot wait to get this book by that obscure Dutch poet, Slauerhoff, and his book on Camoes, The Forbidden Kingdom. The first chapter mentions Camoes reading a copy of the Odyssey, a gift from his father. He is told by him to stay at home and work on his poetry as “voyages only show that the world is the same everywhere.” That brings to mind a passage from Moby Dick where Ishmael says to the Quaker owners that he wants to see the world. “Can't ye see the world where you stand?” one replies. And another passage from Moby Dick is akin to it: “It's a wicked world in all meridians.” Slauerhoff appears to have been your classic poète maudit. He stated My poems are my only home.


This hits close to home, since the dream underlying my coming to America was “I want to see the world.” And I became so exhausted from seeing America, and so spoiled by the beauty of California, that the dream ceased to be -- also because of health problems. If I couldn’t roam through the streets of an unknown city, getting delightfully lost, then finding my church tower like a compass again -- if I couldn’t roam but only sit in the tour bus, then the mystery was lost.

Once I said to Hyacinth: "Poetry is my homeland." But eventually poetry ceased to provide that sense of home. After a period of great "lostness," I have found a new and more vast homeland in literature in general, in any good writing. That’s the country of the mind. Ideas need to be embodied in everyday details, which become mysterious when slowed down to the speed of writing.


I agree with the philosophy in Scott's comment about the world is right where we are standing. Isn't that Zen like? My philosophy prof said the only part of the world you can change is your own, and I think that's true of everything-- this is all we really have and so much is tucked into every moment if we are aware. I loved traveling to other places and seeing other cultures but as Lucille Clifton said we are more alike than we are different.


To anyone who wonders about traveling: If you have the health and money to travel, by all means do! It’s always an adventure, especially if you go abroad. There is a price in stress, and young people do a lot better. If only I had had money in my youth, when I still had my health . . .  Well, we don’t get everything we want, it gets to be too late, and I live with that. I’ve been lucky in other ways. And I console myself thinking of Emily Dickinson and her non-traveling -- except in books and her wonderful mind.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Lvov: Polish graves. Photo: Jan Pieklo.

The kingdom of heaven is within you.


No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven's glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life -- that in me has rest,
As I -- undying Life -- have power in thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou -- THOU art Being and Breath,
And what THOU art may never be destroyed.

~ Emily Brontë, 1846

This poem, widely regarded as one of the finest in the English language, has always astonished me. That a parson’s daughter could so fearlessly and absolutely dismiss organized religion was already amazing:

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

~ this is not Christopher Hitchens, this is Emily Brontë, a clergyman’s daughter, dismissing all creeds as vain and worthless. The true god was the “god within [her] breast.” I wonder what her father thought of this poem. It’s possible that he agreed, but he had his “pastoral duties” to perform, and wasn’t about to tell his “flock” (it’s interesting that the faithful didn’t object to being called sheep) that their creed was “worthless as withered weeds.”

Another astonishing thing is the cosmic sweep of the poem. Long before astrophysicists started speculating about the “multiverse,” consisting of many universes, this 28-year-old daughter of an obscure Yorkshire parson uses the plural, universes:

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

~ this is stated in terms that in no way allude to the Last Judgment or anything that might relate to Judeo-Christian concepts of the end of the world. It’s closer to the notion of Akashic Records (from Sanscrit akasha, space) -- a non-physical repository of all knowledge, nowadays analogized to a “cosmic super-computer.” Milosz, devastated by all the destruction he'd witnessed during the war, also yearned for that kind of cosmic storage where everything -- absolutely everything, down to every insect and blade of grass -- would have eternal existence.

Of course I’m not suggesting that Emily Brontë had any knowledge of modern astrophysics or computers. What she could imagine was a cosmic being who was the “real god” (for lack of a better term) and not a human invention, one of the multitude of gods created and worshipped by humanity, a petty sky god presiding over the earth rather than the multiverse. That "real god" was more like the "Hidden Power" that Shelley and Wordworth saw, governing both nature and the human mind. And let us not forget Coleridge's idea that we are all Aeolian harps "diversely framed," the music of humanity depending on how the Hidden Power, like the wind, happened to sweep across our . . . ahem, strings of the heart? Let's just say the mind. It's too early yet for neuroscience.

Like the great Romantics, Brontë comes across as a mystic. She has her personal faith, her “God within my breast.” Social convention forced her to attend church service, but, as the “creeds/weeds” rhyme suggests, her true worship was a solitary communion. She probably experienced it most during her long walks on the moors. A neighbor recalled seeing Emily return from her walk, her face “lit up by a divine light.”

Emily Brontë is one of the most puzzling figures in literary history. She left us a magnificent poem about her imaginary Beloved. She died at thirty. It’s possible that she had Asperger’s syndrome. She had no friends; there is no evidence of her ever having been in love. 


Harold Bloom, in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, says that this is his favorite sentence in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”:

As men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.

Just as it’s startling that a parson’s daughter would dismiss all creeds, so it is at least somewhat surprising that a former minister would call religion “a disease of the intellect.” Given the American religiosity, it is a shock. But then Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, in spite of belonging to the nineteenth-century, still shock today’s readers.

Emerson left the ministry because he could not accept the conventional beliefs. Like Emily Brontë, he believed in the “god within,” who was also his highest self. Bloom quotes Emerson:

That is always best which me me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, obey thyself. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being.

(I had to look up the meaning of “wen.” It’s a “sebaceous cyst,” or a plugged up oil gland. Imagine comparing yourself to a wart and a cyst!)

In an unpublished early poem (or a poem of sorts), again quoted by Bloom, Emerson says,

I find [God] in the bottom of my heart
I hear continually his Voice therein
And books and priests and worlds I less esteem.
Who says the heart’s a blind guide? It is not.
My heart did never counsel me to sin . . .
The little needle always knows the north.

This is wonderful self-trust, or call it self-reliance: “The little needle always knows the north.” It reminds me of a sign on a T shirt: “God yes, church no.” It seems that people increasingly want a personal god, not the official one; they don’t want to be told what they should believe.

Emerson believed in self-creation, which reminds me of my own Kabala-inspired poem, “The Twenty-Second Name of God”:

God breaks our hearts
so we can create ourselves.

It also reminds me of Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in Hirsch’s under-appreciated volume On Love:

Love is a bright foreigner, a foreign self
that must recognize me for what I truly am;
only my lover can understand me as I am
when I am struggling to create myself.

Emerson could also be called a “process theologian.” “God is, not was.” Conventional Christianity, Emerson observes, “proceeds as if God were dead.” He also famously said, “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.” Sounding very much like Nietzsche, he summons us to greatness when he laments, “Man is the dwarf of himself.”

Nietzsche could also be called a prophet of self-reliance, and his rejection of religion was the most extreme: “All religions are at the deepest level systems of cruelties.” 

[I have asked Professor John Guzlowski to comment on the Emerson section. He also composed the heading of this section.]

John Guzlowski:

It’s hard to get to the core of Emerson on any of this ideas but I think you can make a start at getting at what he thinks about self-reliance and religion and the spiritual within the self by tracking what he says about Jesus in his Divinity School Address (the speech that got him into a lot of trouble).

There are about a half dozen references to Jesus, and they suggest that Jesus is a man who embodies in himself the sense that he is divine and that he should display this divinity by sharing it with others who have basically forgotten that they contain sparks of the universal divinity.

Here’s the one central paragraph I think in the Divinity School Address that embodies this idea and talks about how Christianity has betrayed it.  (By the way, when Emerson refers in this paragraph to the Reason he means the sort of intuitive/spiritual sense of things that we associate with the Romantic impulse. The Understanding is its opposite):

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, "I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think." 

But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding. The understanding caught this high chant from the poet's lips, and said, in the next age, "This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man." The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.


This is so enlightening: the roots of Whitman’s ideas about being divine (“Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from. The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer”). Of course he saw others as divine as well, which leads to an egalitarian attitude. 

What Emerson says reminds me of “Tat tvam asi”: You are that. According to a Hindu tradition, our deepest self is god, who is experiencing himself/herself by assuming human disguises. 

And of course Jesus said, “The Kingdom of heaven is within you.”

Not counting New Age fans, I think the modern secular stance is on the whole rather different from the "god within."Most of my friends say they believe that "there is something out there." If so, then it (“it” seems the most fitting pronoun) is a cosmic deity or force or energy, completely unlike humans, and not concerned about humans (though perhaps we are connected to this energy through some quantum entanglement). This is pretty much what the Founding Fathers and other Enlightenment thinkers believed: god created the world and then left it alone. God would never violate the laws of nature. 

(Speaking of being connected to some sort of cosmic energy, Emerson speaks of needing to be like those circus acrobats who can ride two horses at once, standing with one foot on each. We need to be present in our daily reality, but also gave at the universe and have a cosmic perspective.)


Wallace Stevens has poems about the impersonal god (if there must be a god to begin with). Let me quote from “Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit”:

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato’s ghost

Or Aristotle’s skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly . . .

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak


And yes, I can see how Emerson’s Divinity speech could get him into huge trouble. Are our times an improvement when we consider that a minister preaching this would get death threats from fundamentalists? Maybe using "Mythus" rather than "Myth" would protect him, but I guess the first sentence which calls Jesus a prophet rather than the Divine Savior would be enough for those who put their passion into signs like "Accept Jesus or burn in hell."

Of course Christianity is mythology, precariously affixed on top of the Judaic mythology. Once I grasped that, I reached the point of no return. It wasn't that much about science: I could see ways to reconcile Darwin with creationism. It wasn't the problem of evil: the Catholic explanation in terms of free will is quite appealing, if we don't insist that a horrible atrocity like the Holocaust (I mean the more general term, beyond the Jewish Holocaust) would merit an exception and some action. But once I saw the Judaic deity as a tribal god of thunder, pretty much equivalent to Zeus and Wotan, and also knew that there were other death-and-resurrection stories in other mythologies, that was it.

As I explain later, in my reply to Hyacinth, in the past great thinkers such as Dante and Milton accepted classical mythology as real; it was just that now the worship of the old gods was forbidden. I wonder if they had at least some vague notion of how dangerous it is to dismiss any mythology as not literally true. If one mythology can be dismissed as "not true," what's there to stop the downfall of all mythologies (not as profound literature to be understood metaphorically, but as literal truth)?

To question the literal truth of one mythology is to question all mythologies. And let me quote Joseph Campbell here: What is mythology? - Other people's religion. ~ What is religion? - Our own mythology. 

I suspect the word "Understanding" is a clumsy translation from German. It should be intuition vs the rational mind (not that intuition is irrational; that's a misunderstanding of how the brain works "behind the scenes").


I recalled Brontë’s poem after reading the interview with Stephen Mitchell, the celebrated translator of Rilke as well as Genesis, the Psalms, and Tao Te Ching. The god of Genesis, Mitchell concludes, is a human invention and not the real god, who corresponds more to the Tao. I also recalled that the Gnostics did not regard Yahweh as the true god, but only as a demiurge, a “half-maker,” who made a flawed world and arrogantly demanded that only he be worshipped. Christ, however, was a messenger from the true god, the ultimate source of being, also known as Pleroma (fullness) and Bythos (depth).

Gnosticism did not speak of salvation from sin, but of release from ignorance. Christ did not die for our sins; he came to impart knowledge of the true god (it is striking that he keeps calling god “father”; heretofore the deity was never called father, but rather “the Lord”). Deep understanding of the Love Commandment and communion with the “god within” make sinning virtually impossible: that’s why the Love Commandment supersedes a multitude of religious regulations. The Christian Gnostics rejected the Old Testament.

But Gnosticism has its unpleasant aspects as well. It’s quite hierarchical. A small minority of people are the Pneumatics, the “spiritual.” They possess Gnosis and are ready for paradise. Most people, however, are the Hyletics: they are materialistic and superficial. Finally, there are the Psychics -- those who live largely in their psyche. If the Psychics are open to the message from a messenger of light, they can undergo a transformation that makes them ready for paradise. In fact, according to Gnosticism, each person has the proverbial “divine spark” in them and an “angelic twin,” or higher self, waiting for a reunion.

This sounds pretty much like standard New Age lore; the trouble starts when we start reading about the Gnostic contempt for the world and the body. Since the body is evil, sex is of course evil, creating more bodies. The world is a prison and the body is a prison of the soul.

Some writers disagree and claim that the Gnostics believed that sex was a sacrament. To be sure, there were various schools of Gnosticism, but given the foundational belief that the world was created by not by the true god but by a morally deficient demiurge, rejection of the world, body, and sex makes sense. This is also the typical tendency of all major religions. The spirit is good, matter is bad. Celibacy is a hard sell these days, so New Age writers try to slant Gnosticism toward the Tantra.

In my eyes, the most attractive quality of Gnosticism is its rejection of blood sacrifice as necessary for entry to paradise, and its more sophisticated emphasis not on sin and the need for salvation, but on release from ignorance. 

One who knows, who has access to the “god within,” is not interested in doing evil. This contrasts with the Catholic obsession with sin and human depravity. There is more paradise in Gnosticism, more emphasis on “the god within” (“The kingdom of God is within you”). Communion with the inner god seems to indicate that paradise is available now, and not necessarily only after death. Maybe that’s why Emily Brontë’s face looked to her neighbor “as if lit by a divine light.”

Much of this sounds good and “spiritually correct.” Its harmony with New Age beliefs likely accounts for the current rise of interest in Gnosticism. In place of the toxic, vengeful god of fundamentalist Christianity, we get an all-embracing cosmic god who is also the “god within my breast.” Nevertheless, we must not forget that the Gnostics did not regard Yahweh as a human invention. For Gnostics, Yahweh did exist and did create the world -- it’s just that he was a deficient deity, a “half-maker.” He was not a false, invented god; he was just the wrong god, not worthy of worship.


The true god of the Gnostics does not suffer. It (this seems to be the most fitting pronoun) dwells apart, happy and serene. And that in turn reminds me of the mystical experience that a fascinating Polish poet (a dadaist in his youth) and writer, Aleksander Wat, had in a Soviet prison in Saratov, in the south of Russia on the Volga (after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, at Stalin's order the so-called Volga Germans were deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan).

Wat came down with dysentery and was running a high fever. One night, when a patrol boat on the Volga sailed back and forth, sounding the anti-aircraft alarm, Wat couldn’t sleep. Feverish and half-starved, he had a vision:

I heard laughter, a flourish of laughter that kept approaching and receding. A vulgar laugh, actually. I didn’t like opera, but my brothers and sisters did. And so I had seen Faust as a child and I knew Mephistopheles’ laugh from it. It came in flourishes. Ha haha ha! Ha haha ha! It kept receding and approaching. It was then that I had a vision of the devil. I won’t even try to reconstruct that night because I wouldn’t succeed. But it was then that the breakthrough occurred. Evidently, there had been something missing. There had been some obstacle, some last partition, and then it broke with that laughter of the vulgar, the most vulgar devil of all, flourishes of vulgar laughter that kept approaching, then receding far away fora long time, a very long time. I saw the devil. Well, I saw a devil with hooves, the devil from the opera. I really did see him -- it must have been a hallucination from hunger, but not only did I see him, but I could almost smell the brimstone. My mind was working at terribly high revolutions. It was the devil in history.

And I felt something else, that the majesty of God was spread over history, over all this, a God distant but real. I can’t decipher it fully, I can’t remember it all, but it was so actual, so sensual, as if the devil was in my cell, the ceiling of the cell was lifted away, and God was above it all. It was all straight from commonplace religious folk art. I don’t know. I didn’t see God because God did not even actually show himself to Moses. God is blinding, but I did see that God -- now I can say it -- had a beard. The God of iconography. And a devil with hooves.

. . .  It was then that I began to be a believer.  . . . Everything was one that night. The main feeling was the feeling of the oneness of the experience and my oneness with it. Before then I had felt mostly discord within myself, but that night I had such a feeling of monolithic unity, of a sort I was never to experience again in my life.

. . . That night certainly transformed me and also the way I acted in prison. I have the impression that it was only after that night that I became human and was able to live in society with people. I changed my attitude toward my fellow prisoners, and I thought less about myself. Though I still thought constantly of Ola and Andrzej [his wife and his son] . . . that too had changed a lot because belief in the immortality of the soul had come to me with that experience. My relationship to my cell mates changed. I had learned to live with people, and it had come suddenly. Something had turned around and, for all my grief, I had peace.

. . . I had dysentery. By then I was a Christian. I had a temperature of almost 106, but the hallucinations did not return, even during the fever.
(My Century, 291-293).

Later, out of prison, in Alma Ata (the capital of Kazakhstan), Wat wore a cross on a string around his neck and freely spoke of his conversion experience. Mikhail Zoshchenko, a satirical writer, challenged Wat:

“All right, we’re sitting in this room. Close your eyes and ask yourself if you believe in the divinity of Christ. Do you believe in the resurrection of the body, in the immortality of the soul, and so on?” I was a bit taken aback by that question, which was asked very seriously . . . I didn’t close my eyes, but I tried to sound myself out. I really couldn’t answer his question.

I told him that I didn’t think it mattered if I believed at this very minute or not (after reflecting on it) but I assumed that once you had real faith, it was totally yours and you could not become a disbeliever, because you were in a place without any fundamental contradictions, where all the counterarguments were meaningless. That if you had been in that place once, you could find the path that led back to it. But it’s like a fairy tale: the place is there but the path is lost (p.325)

Aside from the “human, all too human” detail of God’s beard, Wat’s vision of the deity also seems close to Gnosticism: a remote, serene god, “distant but real.” The devil ruled over history, full as it was of hatred, fanaticism, and violence. But above it spread divine majesty and peace, and all was harmony and oneness -- perhaps akin to the pleroma (fullness) of the Gnostics. There was no contradiction and no room for doubt.

God’s beard and the devil’s hooves aside (oh, the power of images!), the god of Wat’s vision seems to be the god of deists. America’s Founding Fathers, for instance, believed that god created the world and the laws of nature, but afterwards he never concerned himself with the universe. He only set it in motion. As Shelley put it in “Mont Blanc”:

Power dwells apart in its tranquility,
Remote, serene, and inaccessible.

an abandoned locomotive in a site of a former gulag in Siberia



I have discovered that atheism is a journey and has various depths, just like stages of religious belief. From the perspective of time, it seems somewhat funny that my own journey started with the complete skepticism of a child who felt (but didn’t dare admit out loud) that the Bible stories were fairy tales, except much more disturbing. Then followed a period of devout faith (after reading Terese of Lisieux Story of a Soul I did, of course, want to be a Carmelite nun). That faith began crumbling as I grew older and couldn’t quite resist the impression that it was all nonsense.

I always hated the choking smell of incense, even before I knew that originally, in the Jerusalem temple sacrifice ritual on which the Catholic mass was based, it was meant to cover up the smell of the blood of the sacrificed animals. The smoke of incense grew more and more irritating. It seemed so primitive and discordant with the liturgy that evolved later. It was when the smoke created a bluish curtain around the altar and my eyes teared from the pollutants that I couldn’t help intuiting what was being hidden from us: not only was it all nonsense, but sheer archaic nonsense, millennia behind the times.

At first I was very upset over my growing doubts -- a sin! I was sinning in thought! I tried to redouble my zeal. Finally, at fourteen, I had my “de-conversion experience,” if I may coin a term. In a second, the thought “It’s just another mythology” reversed years of Catholic indoctrination. And the thought itself was irreversible.

I thought I was done forever not just with Catholicism, but with any form of theism. Soon after my arrival in America, I was severely warned never to describe myself as an atheist because I would shock and offend people. I labeled myself an agnostic.

It’s amazing what a word can do. “Agnostic” precluded the possibility of knowledge, but not the possibility that a deity might actually exist. Agnosticism seemed intellectually superior to atheism. Theistic doubt began encroaching on my atheism. What if god did exist? Not the god according to the Catholic church, but  . . .  a true god, a cosmic god, beyond human comprehension but perhaps able to manifest itself and communicate through signs such as natural phenomena and synchronicities.

This seemed pretty attractive: a friendly universe. The churches were corrupt human institutions and could not be trusted; not so the universe. The stars shone with a pure light, unclouded by the stench of incense. The New Age movement was in full bloom all around me, and the word “spiritual” was in the air. Almost everyone I met kept saying, “I am not religious, but I’m spiritual.” And it was not unusual for me to hear, “I think you are a deeply spiritual person.” My poetry was praised as spiritual.

I didn’t know why people perceived me as spiritual -- I didn’t meditate  or practice yoga. I didn’t even keep a journal, though all my women friends did. Perhaps it was enough that I wasn’t interested in money, but rather in ideas and meaning. And perhaps some of my vague longing for the “real god” did show, especially in my poems (but was it really my own creative unconscious that I was coming to trust?). I offer the one below as a bit of comic relief:


“Now the weather for Greater Los Angeles,”
the announcer would announce. I was thrilled

by those words, thrilled to live 

in Greater Los Angeles – as if beyond reality

rose a greater, magnificent city,
not of suburbs and shopping malls,

but of
towers, temples, and aerial bridges.
The downtown had its moments of grandeur:

the pyramid-hatted City Hall, the sprawling
post office, its two tiled domes,

the Egyptian tomb of the Central Library,
the Union Station inlaid with rare marble;

above traffic signs, a
billboard like blue flame:

Greater Los Angeles! It sounded like a promise
that greater everything existed: a luminous sky

beyond this pallid and polluted one; a greener
green, not this parched beige-gray. Watching over,

not the jealous god of wrath, not the tribal warlord
who sayeth, Vengeance is mine, but a greater

unknown god of whom Thomas Hardy wrote,
and Emily Brontë – for whom they wrote.

“Who is your audience?” teachers always
asked, but I wasn’t going to tell them.

~ Oriana © 2012   


Hardy wrote the poem “Agnostoi Theoi” -- “To the Unknown God.” It’s not a very good poem, but the title -- the best part -- made a great impression on me when I was in my twenties and not ruling out some degree of return to religion later in life. As I already mentioned, I started to be haunted by theist doubts.

It wasn’t the kind of torment that trying to believe was, being beset by atheist doubts; I felt that the only god worth worshipping would not throw people into the burning lake for not having adhered to the right doctrine. It (that still seemed the most fitting, cosmic pronoun) would consider only kindness, and even then, would take a compassionate, psychological approach: for instance, an abused child  might come to identify with his tormentors and later find it difficult to be kind -- those extenuating circumstances would be considered. There’d be understanding and consolation, not punishment.

I still believe that kindness is very important. Imagine if the only religion in the world was what the Dalai Lama said: “My religion is kindness.”

My adolescent de-conversion experience did not change my ethical values. I still take great delight in beauty and affection. People I have known for a long time continue to grow ever more dear to me. Being alive is precious and amazing; having consciousness is a gift, a feast, a miracle almost. But the hunger for the “real god” seems to have faded away. The universe does not need a ruler any more than the ocean needs an ocean deity. The cosmos is self-evolving.

I can’t point to the exact moment when I gained what I call “atheist clarity.” Perhaps it was when I was talking about medical advances yet to come and my listener said, “Oh but I do want to die. I want to experience living in the spirit world.” Once more I realized that I did not believe in any spirit world. I did not believe in ghosts, including the inner little ghost that would survive physical death. “Soul,” for all the Jungian attempts to revivify that word, to make it non-denominational and acceptable to the educated, was simply psyche, the activity of the brain (and no, to me the brain could never be “a kind of radio,” receiving signals from the astral world).

And synchronicity, that new holy of holies and supposed manifestation of the spirit, was due to selective attention and selective memory. As for personal “destiny” and meaning in life, we both discover and create those ourselves. I definitely don’t believe that a pre-existing, brain-free “soul” chooses its parents and its task in life, but the memory of its choice is erased before birth so that we would start out clueless and confused in the dark woods of life -- just a divine game that results in much suffering, but so what? Just learn to navigate by omens. I used to do precisely that, and actually still often do, as part of the creative process -- but with the understanding that it’s not the universe trying to guide me, but my brain trying to find pattern and coherence.

The fear that life would seem very bleak as a result of dropping “spirituality” has proved fruitless. Oddly enough, just as people report greater appreciation of others after a conversion experience, the  more I acknowledged being a hard-core atheist, the more I saw how amazingly heroic and kind people can be, what a hard struggle many lives are, how impressive the things that can be accomplished not only by individuals, but especially as a result of cooperation. To the question, “Don’t you wish there was someone to say thank-you to?” I reply, “But of course there is: the people around me.”


And yet I have to admit that there used to a persistent fantasy of “someone.” A mind, a voice -- “face to face” was hoping for too much, and besides, isn’t the starry sky face enough? But for lack of a better word, yes, someone to greet me at the end of the journey, like a loved one waiting for me at a train station. Someone who’d just answer my questions: Why was I born? Was there a special task I was supposed to accomplish? Like Dostoyevski’s Ivan Karamazov, I did not want paradise, but answers to my questions.

Now I know that those were the wrong questions. I was born, period. Not “born for” any special purpose. I have to discover and shape my own purpose, different at different stages of my life. I alone can answer my questions, not so much at the end of the journey but all along.

Of course no man or woman is an island; our logos is part of the collective logos. Among the people to whom I want to say thank you, I single out Jesse Bering, the author The Belief Instinct. His book brilliantly dispelled any lingering nostalgia for the “real god.” The exposition of why god is a cognitive illusion is empirical rather than merely philosophical, and beautifully non-shrill.

Bering even wonders if shattering the illusion of god is good for humanity. I can’t speak for humanity, only for myself. Unexpectedly, I became a happier person as an unblinking atheist. I felt more clarity than I’d ever dared hope for. Closing the “spiritual” door focused my attention on how best to live this life, without wasting time on speculating about the afterlife.

But remembering that no so long ago I too entertained some hope that a “real god” might exist helps to keep me tolerant -- at least as long as no one threatens me with hellfire. For me heaven and hell are states of mind. By choosing the peacefulness of “heaven,” I too can have my mini-experience of Emily Brontë walking on the moors, the Gnostics contemplating the blissful union with “fullness,” or Aleksander Wat’s vision of serenity even in wartime.  And -- what a gift! -- I’ve come across a quotation from Rilke: “To work is to live without dying.”

In my youth I half-suspected that the fear of death and a longing for an afterlife would in the end prevail over the voice of reason. What could poor reason do as it got closer to the abyss? Who knew that quiet voice had such power . . . 

And imagine the joy of discovering: no coward soul is mine.


Have you seen Vincent Bugliosi’s article on Huffington Post?

Let me quote the last two paragraphs:

I believe that the question of the existence of God is an impenetrable mystery and beyond human comprehension. As Einstein, who was an agnostic (so was Darwin), put it: "The problem is too vast for our limited minds." But even if it were not, doubt is divine in that it impels a search for the truth, thereby opening the door to knowledge. Faith puts a lock on the door. And as knowledge increases, faith recedes. Even though I don't feel that a belief in God (theism) or disbelief in him (atheism) is unintelligent, I do feel that a certitude about either of these two positions, even a strong belief in them, which is so extremely common, is, perforce, unintelligent. Put another way, since the depth of a belief should be in proportion to the evidence, no sensible person should be dogmatic about whether there is or is not a God. I have always liked Clarence Darrow's observation about the existence vis-à-vis non-existence of God: "I do not pretend to know what ignorant men are sure of."

The whole matter of God can perhaps be distilled down to this. Is there a God who created the world? Or is God a word we use to explain the world? In either event, God should only be a question.


Yes, I’ve read the article. I love it: God should only be a question. I realize that intellectually agnosticism cannot be touched -- unless by statisticians who might argue that if the probability that god doesn't exist is 99.9999%, that's as good as non-existence. 

But maybe there is an emotional element in my relatively recent preference for clear-cut atheism: I love mystery, but in some matters I prefer the cold light of clarity. Keeping options open in the “I don’t know” position is somewhat stressful. Closing an option lets me move on. I’m happier now than when I saw myself as a “spiritual seeker” -- though I realize that “happier” is not intellectually respectable. For intellectual respectability, I refer everyone, including myself, to Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct and its very satisfying demonstration that god is a cognitive illusion based on our brain’s hardwired tendency to see pattern and purpose, and an agent behind that purpose. It's been argued that it's more natural for us to believe in the supernatural.

I’m indebted to Bugliosi for pointing out that there is no scriptural validation of either immortality of the soul (the idea comes from Plato) or free will (all that happens is the will of god; furthermore, god leads us into temptation).

But Bugliosi misrepresents the argument that Dawkins makes about the complexity of god. Dawkins argues that, based on evidence we have, we conclude that evolution proceeds from the simple to the complex. To assume that a deity of unimaginable complexity would precede and create the simple (but with evolution toward complexity somehow predestined) strains belief. 

But all is forgiven for the sake of the quotation by Gertrude Stein that this article provides, and on which I’m willing to fall back in those situations where to confess to atheism would be social suicide:

There ain't no answer. There ain't going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer.


Emily Brontë's poem gets more pertinent every time I read it, especially that third stanza: "Vain are the thousand creeds / that move men's  hearts, unutterably vain." The choice of the word vain. She voices the conclusions I have come to.

And yet I do not begrudge the years I spent in the church. Better to have had beliefs and change them than to have nothing at all, no foundation. It's the Judeo-Christian god I disbelieve but not that there is a presence (god within). By “presence” I mean the feeling of harmony and being one with everything, an experience I have when I am in nature and take delight in watching the moon rise, for instance.

Walking the moors as Emily Brontë did feels the equivalent of my long walks on the beach. The ocean helps me override the daily stuff.

I would recommend the course I took, or rather sat in on, called the Bible as Literature. I gained from it even though it has taken years to give up God with capitol G and accept that god is everywhere and in everything, and is not vindictive or  jealous.

I'm working on a poem right now questioning "soul” -- what is it, or who. I agree with Bugliosi: "god should only be a question. "

I like the Dalai Lama's  "my religion is kindness." It should be a motto for the world.

The blog is exceptional and the choice of art always adds so much. Thank you.


I’m all for Bible as Literature. “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (no wonder that the new conservative students reject Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman . . . I'm not sure about Dickinson, but she wasn't exactly orthodox . . . )

Do I regret having been indoctrinated? Yes and no. No only because without knowing the bible stories and the whole religious mentality one can't understand the literature of past centuries. Or art right up to the Dutch art -- so much art before then is religious; imagine not understanding what a pietà is about, and all the crucifixes. So for the Western cultural heritage, the religious grounding is needed. 

The whole concept of god is not one I'd have ever figured out for myself -- as a child, I felt no need for such a being. Smelled rat as soon as the nun said "He's invisible because he’s a ghost" (in Polish, as in German, the word is “ghost” -- there is no distinction between “spirit” and “ghost”). I still remember how her voice hushed up with reverence when she said “ghost.” I never believed in ghosts, witches, Santa Claus, etc. God was a strange ghost, though, not the white shape but a middle-aged (or old) man with a beard. Robes and other things varied, but the beard had to be there.

Speaking of the beard: Michelangelo seems to have fixed its length, so it wasn’t the waist-long white beard that you see in early icons. Michelangelo based his god directly on Zeus. And that reminds me: to understand literature, especially the literature of the past, one also needs to know classical mythology -- at least the major myths. And it’s fascinating to ponder the fact that Dante and Milton, to mention just the giants, wrote about Greco-Roman mythology as factual. No mythology was to be questioned; it’s just that you were forbidden to worship the old gods. 

And that made sense: if you say that any mythology is a human invention, that Wotan or Zeus never existed, then what’s to stop exactly the thought that I had at fourteen: that the Judeo-Christian tradition is just another mythology. The creation myth, the flood and Noah’s Ark, the three magi, the savior born of a virgin and a god -- that’s so obviously mythological. I’m all in favor of studying these stories as literature and mythology. Then we can really take delight in them, just as we enjoy sacred music -- no belief required. As for the nasty stories, they can be skipped, perhaps? Or maybe de-emphasized? I realize the magnitude of the problem, with so much sex and violence in the bible.

What I regret is the enormous anguish the religious indoctrination caused. I felt I was a dreadful sinner and would certainly go to hell. I despaired of ever being able not to sin in thought. My actions weren’t too bad, but my thoughts, so sinful! For instance, I'd look at another girl's pretty dress, and wish I had this dress -- right away the sin of envy! Or was it "coveting"? To be on the safe side, I confessed to both. What nonsense all that was. So much suffering in the world, and here priests and nuns worked to torment children in this manner -- thinking it was a saintly thing, of course.

And the Judeo-Christian god had a huge ego. I was always put off by all the required praise, praise, praise. As an adult I saw that that was a primitive form of appeasement. Early in the history of humanity, all deities were mostly cruel, but if you praised them loud enough and long enough, morning noon and night, and offered sacrifices (eaten by the priests, but that was OK for some reason), the god in question was less likely to hit you with lightning, earthquake, flood, etc. Praise was prophylactic. It didn’t always work, but you didn’t dare stop praising (a similar phenomenon occurred with the cult of Stalin and Hitler -- you had to praise them. On a minor scale, employees are likely to flatter the boss).

I’ve never felt the “presence,” no matter how defined, but I’ve felt tremendous love for trees, birds, squirrels, a bear seen at a safe distance -- for nature. And cats and dogs, even fish and turtles. It used to worry me somewhat, this not “feeling the presence.” I didn’t feel the presence of god in nature -- I just felt that nature was magnificent, amazing. But in the end kindness means so much more than subjective feelings.

I’ve felt awe, of course, and other intense positive feelings. But divine presence, never. Divine love for me, never. That was OK, in a way, since I did not love god -- how can you love someone you fear? If you fear someone, the normal reaction is
to hate him. My inability to love the god of wrath worried me, another reason I expected to go to hell. I would be damned to be tortured for eternity because I could not force myself to love  this nightmarish monster that spied on me and wrote down my sins. (The nuns at least created the impression that all sins are written down on one side of the ledger, and “good deeds” on the other side -- maybe not in the case of non-Catholics, who were going to hell anyway, so why keep records.)

Christ said “no judgment,” and yet he was to come the second time as the judge presiding over the Last Judgment, separating the saved from the damned. Note the innumerable paintings of the Last Judgment -- a favorite subject. Even that church in our Little Italy -- Our Lady of the Rosary -- has a huge, horrific fresco of the Last Judgment (facing the fresco of the Crucifixion). And that church isn’t that old -- it was built in 1928. Keep them scared -- the foundation of old-time Catholicism was psychological terror. Knowing that, it’s all the more remarkable that the mystics (in all religions) all seemed to experience a loving deity. But mystical visions generally arise in situations we’d call abnormal: epilepsy, starvation, high fever. The clergy wanted blind obedience from their “flock of sheep,” and not mystical visions that were typically contrary to the teachings, with benevolence instead of hellfire.


The angel is so lovely. Sad that her arm is broken. Tied to the tree she could be Joan of Arc, such a gentle loving expression.


I'm amazed that someone cared enough to tie the angel to the tree -- and she is beautiful -- rather than just let the statue lie on the ground and decay. These are the untended Polish graves -- untended because at the end of WWII the Polish population of Lvov got expelled and resettled either in Poland (the lucky ones, including Zagajewski's family) or in the remote Asian regions of Russia.

I think I read (Zagajewski?) that a handful of Poles did manage to stay in Lvov somehow. Maybe one of them cd not bear to see the lovely angel "die." An even more touching possibility is that someone Ukrainian fell in love with this loveliest of cemetery angels, and wanted to save it. 


It's hard to be around believers.  Yesterday, I went to a local writers' group.  It's been a while since I attended, and there were some new members.  One woman, a hospice volunteer, a new member, introduced her prose piece by talking about how it was written as a response to a prompt.  All the workers and volunteers at the hospice were writing about how they saw heaven.  She talked about how what she wrote was just that, her personal vision of what heaven is.

Listening to her intro, I felt this will be interesting.  I thought about my daughter's childhood vision of heaven as a place where she would meet her favorite book characters.

The woman's piece was a disappointment. Her vision of heaven was the thing I least wanted: rainbows, 12 pearly gates, people walking around in long white robes with gold trim and talking about how beautiful the gates are. There was nothing of her in the vision. Nothing personal. Not a single reference to "I." No real comfort finally.

When she was finished, one of the other new members talked about how much he liked the piece and the great rewards that come to us even here on earth if we believe in Jesus. He talked too about the punishment that comes to people if they don't believe. Misery, poverty, and sudden terrible death, tsunamis and earthquakes, mudslides and tornados.

I was thinking about the two of them as I wrote you that note about Emerson.

There's something sad about the vision of heaven and monstrous in the vision of life and punishment.


Thanks for sharing this. I suspect that for some people there has been a mental regression -- literacy has ebbed, and they are simply less intelligent as result of not reading anything the least bit challenging, and maybe even more so as result of not having read books in childhood when the brain was developing. Televangelists who say that Sandy Hook happened because there is no prayer in school make things worse. But essentially it's the lack of education that makes part of the American population primitive in their worldview, and religious in that stick-and-carrot way.

I know you live in a small town, and as you said, that’s in many ways like the 19th century. Small towns can be so backward, with their fundamentalism and their love of guns, their paranoid hatreds and alcoholism. It all somehow goes together with believing in a monstrous god of wrath. Apart from campus town, large cities seem to me oases where educated people live, with their broader outlook and more modern, secular worldview. Or maybe they are New Age, which may be silly but at least it let go of eternal punishment. Step outside these academic or metropolitan oases, and you are in enemy territory. 



Many years after the war, my mother went back to her home town west of Lvov looking for the graves of her mother and her sister and her sister's baby.  She asked at the churches in the area, and she asked the people who were her neighbors.  No one knew anything about her graves or what happened to the bodies of her mother and sister and the baby.  She and my father finally bought a plot at the local cemetery and placed a stone on it with the names of my mother's dead.  


This salvaged angel seems the perfect memento of those who never got a proper burial.

I am glad your deceased relatives got a commemoration. Three of my relatives (an aunt and two cousins) died in the camps and they have no graves. The older cousin fought with the resistance and his name is on the monument to war heroes in his hometown. The other two were simply innocents who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Peace, peace.