Friday, July 12, 2013


While I do, on some level of ethical considerations, resent being used as a mere humanizing prop in the hands of a mass-murdering messianic maniac," thinks the cat . . . , "ultimately, I don't care. As long as he keeps scratching my back, it's all good. He's just a man, and I'm just a cat, and life is short. ~ Mikhail Iossel, Facebook

A strange thing happened to me as I was reading a biography of Lenin. The biographer’s hostility proved of no avail: despite my “better judgment,” I found myself growing fond of Lenin, even though I wasn’t willing to forgive him his dismissal of freedom and democracy in favor of dictatorship. I hate the very idea of dictatorship, so why wasn’t I able to hate Lenin the man? Not when I was a schoolgirl, and not now?

Lenin’s charisma continues to puzzle me. Before the revolution, Trotsky told Lenin that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” can only mean “dictatorship OVER the proletariat.” Yet Lenin managed to persuade Trotsky to join his side. This stunned me. Lenin’s power of persuasion was legendary. Why? Was it his unwavering dedication? His astonishing courage?

One of my favorite poets, Wallace Stevens, saw Lenin as a “logical lunatic.” Lenin self-discipline was also legendary, whether it came to his writing routine or physical exercise. He was a supreme workaholic. In Zurich, where he was at his poorest, living in one room, he wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, emphasizing the emergence of global finance. He thought that in order to eradicate capitalism one needs to destroy the value of money in the world and abolish the ruling class. Today we can laugh at this “logical lunacy,” but it’s amazing that anyone would even try to go against the immense power of money.

“Among the communists I knew were some of the most attractive people I have ever met,” states Aleksander Wat, a Polish pre-war communist and dadaist poet who became a staunch anti-communist and a lyrical poet after his stay in Soviet prisons, described in hair-raising detail in Wat’s memoir, My Century. I think I understand that attractiveness, that spell of the heroic and exceptional. Living for an ideal can make a person charismatic. My spell was broken only when, in Robert Payne’s biography, I got to the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920, and learned that Lenin expected the Polish workers to greet the Red Army as liberators, and together move on to “liberate” Germany and England. The fact that Poles saw the Red Army as invaders to be fought against took Lenin by surprise. It was then that I saw Lenin as out of touch with reality and going into the imperial over-reach that precedes downfall -- one in a long line of “logical lunatics.”

Lenin could be described as a prisoner of one idea, a utopian vision of the class-free future. In his long poem, “Esthétique du Mal,” Wallace Stevens uses “Konstantinov” (note the “constant” in the name) as a stand-in for Lenin. Victor Serge was an anarchist who later joined the Bolshevik cause, and later yet denounced Stalin. He died in Mexico City. The rumors that he was poisoned on Stalin’s orders have not been substantiated. 

Victor Serge said, “I followed his argument
With the blank uneasiness which one might feel
In the presence of a logical lunatic.
He said it of Konstantinov. Revolution
Is the affair of logical lunatics.
The politics of emotion must appear
To be an intellectual structure. The cause
Creates a logic not to be distinguished
From lunacy . . . One wants to be able to walk
By the lake at Geneva and consider logic:
To think of logicians in their graves
And of the worlds of logic in their tombs.
Lakes are more reasonable than oceans. Hence,
A promenade amid the grandeurs of the mind,
By a lake, with clouds like lights amid great tombs,
Gives one a blank uneasiness, as if
One might meet Konstantinov, who would interrupt
With his lunacy. He would not be aware of the lake.
He would be the lunatic of one idea
In a world of ideas, who would have all people
Live, work, suffer and die in that idea
In a world of ideas. He would not be aware of the clouds
Lighting the martyrs of logic with white fire.
His extreme logic would be illogical.

~ Wallace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal,” XIV

Yes, Lenin was a “lunatic of one idea.” I can’t argue with that:

He would be the lunatic of one idea
In a world of ideas, who would have all people
Live, work, suffer and die in that idea
In a world of ideas.

Where Stevens gets it wrong is in imagining Lenin as so obsessed with his one idea that he doesn’t even notice the lake and the clouds. On the contrary, Lenin was more than just “aware” of the lake. He took great delight in the beauty of Switzerland. He loved the Alps, the lakes and the clouds, just as he loved the beauty of southern Siberia where he was sent into exile. (Yes, Siberia is supposed to be beautiful. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, called Siberia an “enchanted kingdom.”)

And he loved Paris and London too, and Italy as well. And music and literature -- Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev. He would not be the exceptional and charismatic man he was if he didn’t come across as brilliant and well-read, human and passionate, a soul on fire. He lived for his great cause and was fierce in debate, but would mellow listening to music.

(A shameless digression: “Esthétique du Mal” contains many lines I love. Here are the ones I simply can’t resist sharing:

His firm stanzas hang like hives in hell
Or what hell was, since now both heaven and hell
Are one, and here, O terra infidel.


The death of Satan was a tragedy
For the imagination.


The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair.)

Lenin definitely lived in a physical world, and, despite moments of despair, was confident that his desire for a new social order would be fulfilled.

Alas, distractible reader, now that I have distracted you with metaphysics, let me note one more eruption of Lenin in another poem by Stevens, “Description Without a Place”:

Lenin on a bench beside a lake disturbed
The swans. He was not the man for swans.

The slouch of his body and his look were not
In suavest keeping. The shoes, the clothes, the hat

Suited the decadence of those silences,
In which he sat. All chariots were drowned.


The last line of this section ends with the phrase “apocalyptic legions.”

Again, though I agree about the apocalypse, I question the notion that Lenin “was not the man for swans.” He loved nature, having spent his childhood summers on his grandparents’ estate near Kazan. Much as we may condemn Lenin’s politics, he was not indifferent to swans or the opera.

A drawing of Lenin in his famous worker’s cap. Note the tie.

Was he sensitive, or was he ruthless to the point of cruelty? He was both. And that’s why he remains fascinating: he was a cultivated, well-read man with whom a typical cultivated person of his times would have much in common. If his older brother, Sasha, whom he adored, had not been executed for taking part in a foolish, juvenile anti-Tzarist plot, who knows if Lenin would have become a revolutionary at all. One can easily imagine him as a jovial lawyer in a pleasant little town on the Volga, playing piano duets and hunting in the woods. He’d be known for his mastery of chess. As for the revolution, well, it would never have happened without him. 

Four-year-old Lenin and his sister Olga.

The “logical lunatic” type of person certainly exists. I’ve met a couple of men who erected whole complex philosophical systems to justify their self-destructive behaviors. On a larger and more deadly scale, Sergey Nechayev, an anarchist leader in mid-nineteenth century, was an example of a logical lunatic. His “Revolutionary Catechism” opens with these words:

The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no property and no name. Everything in him is absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.

It may seem perverse of me, but this reminds me of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says about how to survive as a prisoner. I quote from memory: You must think of yourself as already dead. Stop trying to save your life. If you see yourself as a dead man, they will have no power over your spirit. Only then you won’t lose your human dignity.


Dostoyevski presented the anarchists in a very unflattering way in The Devils. Lenin thought the novel was a work of genius, but was unhappy that it presented a Nechayev-like figure in such negative light. According to Lenin, Nechayev discovered the need for a small number of utterly dedicated revolutionaries, the elite who will insure the success of the revolution -- at least in its destructive phase.

But for Lenin, being utterly dedicated to the destruction of the old regime didn’t mean that he should sacrifice his beloved late afternoon walk.


Yes, I hear the predictable comment: if only the Vienna Fine Arts Academy had accepted Hitler, he might have become a harmless landscape painter. We don’t know and we’ll never know. What if the two had not had such devoted mothers who infused them with great self-confidence. What if each had a charismatic teacher who’d point him in a different direction. What if . . . It’s startling to think that history would have been different if just one variable happened to be the opposite of what it was.

Speaking of the role of seemingly minor factors, Hitler’s father’s original name was Schicklgrubber. Alois Schickgrubber disliked the name and had it legally changed to Hitler -- according to one source, a name he picked off a tombstone. The joke that “Heil Shicklgrubber” would never have worked rings true.

The windows of the Zurich apartment rented by Lenin and his wife

Adolph Kammerer, Lenin’s Zurich landlord and a shoemaker, had fond memories of the Russian revolutionary. Robert Payne quotes Kammerer: “[Lenin] was always buying bottles of hair oil to cure his baldness, and he forgot to turn off the gas jets, but he was a good fellow.” Human, all too human.

Payne writes that Lenin was delighted with the beauty of Lake Zurich and often walked on the strand. The drawback of living on Spiegelgasse (Mirror Street) was the stench of the sausage factory, so the windows had to be kept shut. And the borders and the eyes.


My mind condemns him. My mind understands that even a serial killer is a mere petty criminal next to an idealist who lives for a Great Cause, willing to die and kill for it. Willing to kill hundreds of thousands, and what’s a million or two? As a Chinese physician from Taiwan -- and thus no fan of Mao, I foolishly assumed -- told me, “Perhaps those people needed to be killed.”

The mind condemns, but the heart is naive and sentimental. You might as well expect an American to turn against George Washington and his wooden teeth. Not as much as the Russian children, the little boys saluting, but we too were taught to love Lenin.

Odd that the church didn’t succeed with Jesus half as well. I suspect it was the crucifixion. You couldn’t love the kind of god who wanted to have his crucifixion and eat it too.

There were two Lenins, if you drew a line down the middle of his face. The right side was Mongolian, the left European -- or maybe the left eye was rounded with astonishment and sadness at the collision of the ideal and the real? That sadness at the dawn of my life, that death cry.

From a poem of mine:

I know I’ll never meet anyone
who’s had my childhood,
surrounded by portraits of Karl Marx,
Lenin, Friedrich Engels. Engels tossed in

only for the sake of Trinity.
We all knew who God the Father was,
who the Son with a slant Siberian eye,
and Engels the long-suffering Holy Ghost.

I’ll never meet anyone
who’s heard about the Tzar’s
Winter Palace, the salvo from the battleship
Aurora, the Finland Station, Smolny Institute.

Those were family names;
it didn’t matter that they stood for
humanity’s shattered dreams.
You love things because they are yours.

You love what you grew up with:
not the moronic regime
but the blossoming banners of springtime,
the lilacs of ideals, the enormous width

of The International. When you sang it,
you sang with a million mouths.
Aren’t all poems about forbidden love?

The swooning lilacs instead of suicide

after seeing the Ikea sign
from my old window in Warsaw?


When I returned for a visit, soon after the fall of communism, the portraits of Lenin were gone. Nowhere, that face more familiar than the faces of my relatives. The country was no longer his, and no longer mine.

Why didn’t I grow to dislike Lenin? Maybe there is something indelible about a childhood affection, the stories of how he worked into the night, the only one awake, the light of his solitary lamp seeping out through through the door. Or how he loved the mountains, including the High Tatras in what was then Austrian Galicia. I saw the little bronze stars marking the trails he’d hiked.

Or maybe it was the feeling that he wasn’t evil so much as naive about human nature. How could anyone imagine that he could abolish the power of money and create a class-free society? A society with no need for a standing army, police, or bureaucracy? Any idealist can understand and weep.

But that’s rationalizing. For me it was enough that he loved to read and write and take long walks. He was ascetic and compulsive. Any writer can understand that.

He thought he lived for a great cause, but I suspect it was his love of reading and writing that kept him alive. His excessive love of ideas. He loved ideas more than people. Any intellectual can understand that.

I was also astonished and impressed by the victory of the revolution, which had the air of the miraculous about it. The White Army with its professional Tzarist officers and the troops and supplies sent by the Western powers could not stop the Red Army, which had an ideal and charismatic leadership.

(Of course not everyone was persuaded. A factory worker in Paris said to Lenin’s wife [mercilessly described by Lenin’s sister Anna as looking like a herring], “God created the rich and the poor, and all is right in the world.”)

But perhaps it wasn’t so much a matter of personal charisma. Here is one historian’s view:

Charisma is typically associated with a saint or with a knight, some personal attribution, and what Lenin did was remarkable. He did exactly what he claimed to do: he created a party of a new type. He made the party charismatic. People died for the party. It’s as if people would die for the DMV. Most people don’t get too excited about the Department of Motor Vehicles because it's a bureaucracy. What Lenin did was combine the attributes of personal heroism and the efficiency of impersonal organization, and created a charismatic organization. That's been done before. It's been done by Benedictines, it’s been done by Jesuits, but it’s never been done by a political party before. ~ Ken Jowitt

The ideal, the great cause -- and the wild daring to try to put a utopian vision into reality. It had to end badly, but that someone had the daring! It seems that the experiment simply had to be performed so that humanity could learn about idealism pushed to the extreme. The greater the cause, the greater the ultimate evil that results. The steady repetition of that irony is like the fall of empires: they never learn.

But all this is pale, rational excuses next to the primordial fact that found its voice in the poem: the love of the familiar. The trinity of Marx, Lenin, and Engels above the blackboard in every classroom. The power of the familiar.


But here is the likely core reason of my “Lenin envy”: his life in Switzerland, except for the sausage factory in Zurich, is my idea of heaven: every day, quiet work and long walks with marvelous vistas. 

Nigel Barber observes:

For people who are really involved in their job, working hard and meeting objectives comes naturally. It requires effort, of course, but they are not fighting themselves every step of the way. Instead, they feel calm and focused and their day passes in a blur of pleasantly stimulating activity.

Such people tend to be workaholics and many feel far happier, calmer, more stimulated, and in control of their lives when they are working than on their days off. Working can be an avenue to peak experiences and such experiences are potentially addictive which is why some people work compulsively and go far beyond the call of duty.


I don’t think it takes peak experiences. Just maintaining calm focus is so pleasant to an introvert that leaving one’s study in order to, ahem, engage with the world, seems like leaving paradise for bedlam. 


Growing up I knew that Lenin’s wife was devoted to him, and never imagined that a different woman was the great love of his life. Once I learned about Inessa Armand, I wondered what it was about Lenin that attracted her most. She was a beauty with striking large eyes and full lips, an Olympian goddess next to the small, bald, corpulent man.
(He was completely bald by the age of twenty-three, when he became a sought-after speaker in the Marxist circles. The joke about him was that his brains were so big, they pushed out his hair.)

Inessa was allegedly the one who initiated the relationship after hearing Lenin speak in a meeting. She loved the way his face lit up when he spoke. Above all, she loved him for his intellect. Intellectual men don’t always realize how irresistible they are to women.
Lenin’s wife was actually fond of Inessa and the two children that Inessa brought with her to Paris (she left the other three with their father in Russia). Nadezhda wrote, “The house grew brighter when Inessa entered it.” 

Bertram Wolfe writes, “She had a wider culture than any other woman in Lenin's circle, . . . a deep love of music, above all of Beethoven, who became Lenin's favorite too. She played the piano like a virtuoso, was fluent in five languages, was enormously serious about Bolshevism and work among women, and possessed personal charm and an intense love of life to which almost all who wrote of her testify.” 

Yet she too became a “logical lunatic.” The love of beauty does not protect one against the lure of a heroic life, be it ultimately for the wrong cause (and every cause becomes wrong if pushed to the extreme). Perhaps the emotional intensity that often goes with mental giftedness and the love of beauty makes one even more susceptible. 


Inessa Armand, 1890

In 1920, Inessa died of cholera (and malnutrition and overwork. She was only forty-six. One witness described Lenin at her funeral: “Lenin was utterly broken by her death... He was plunged in despair, his cap down over his eyes; small as he was, he seemed to shrink and grow smaller. He looked pitiful and broken in spirit. I never saw him look like that before.” Olga Kollontai wrote: “He was not able to go on living after Inessa Armand. The death of Inessa hastened the development of the sickness which was to destroy him.”


(the village of Poronin, Tatra Mountains)

Dear Friend, My Red Angel: I long
to give you the voluptuous green
of the deep Tatra valleys, blueberries,
Five Black Ponds pure and dark
as your eyes. To think you have a husband
yet never speak of him, nor of 

anything as bourgeois as divorce.

The night I escaped, a corpse-like full moon
glazed the frozen Finnish Channel.
Halfway to the ship bound for Sweden,
the ice began to crack.
I was ready to die – life hadn’t denied
me anything except great love. Then 

you, Inessa, in the darkest time –
the Lafargues slumped in their chairs,
self-injected with cyanide
(Marx’s daughter! she could still be of use);
Russian exiles babbling about balalaikas,
carted off to insane asylums;
my wife dozing with her glasses on –
“So I can see where I’m sleeping.”

Remember when you played
the Appassionata for me?
I could listen to it all day, but I 

mustn’t: music makes me want
to stroke people on the head.

Imagine, Emma Goldman writes,
“If I can’t dance to it,
it’s not my revolution.”
Anarchists are such children.
Yet they too can be used:
what the Italians call utili idioti.

Then that madwoman Rosa Luxemburg
with her “freedom for the one
who thinks differently.”
I’m tired of repeating and repeating,
Liberty is a form
of bourgeois dictatorship.

The masses have no need of liberty.

Democracy -- what’s the point?
The ruling class remains the same.
I’m sorry, dearest – I should rather say
I remember our first New Year’s Eve
when you stood by the fireplace,
your red hair a shroud of flame –
I thought of the fox I saw

in the snow in Siberian woods:
so beautiful that I couldn’t kill it.

I know you will forgive me.
Yours, Vladimir Ilich.

~ Oriana © 2013


Lenin's house in Poronin. The statue was taken down in 1990.


I like the story of Lenin and the fox. He had a tender side.


Or at least a “human” and beauty-loving side. I wrote this blog to grapple with my own confusion about this man whose face was in every classroom as I was growing up. That face in the bookstores, in public offices. I wanted to say “everywhere,” but that would be a hyperbole. Still, I did see it every day for many years, always the same portrait, his slanted eyes looking to the side, not at the viewer.

The story of the fox was told by his wife in her memoirs. She says (and others have confirmed this) that Lenin often walked with his hunting rifle, but would come home with nothing. He wasn’t really interested in hunting. The fox suddenly appeared just a few yards in front of him. Asked why he didn’t shoot the fox, Lenin replied, “Because it was so beautiful.”

One more story that shows his human side: he’d play cards with his mother-in-law and usually let her win. She’d shake her head and say, “How could an intelligent man like you play so badly against a weak old woman like me?”

But I don’t mean to say that would should forget about the evil he helped to bring about, ruthlessly pursuing his vision of the ultimate good. Perhaps his greatest fault was having absolute certainty -- yes, the very trait that was essential to his success as a leader. With so much history behind us, with its sadly repetitious lessons, we need to develop a deep respect for the humility of uncertainty. 


Love how you humanized Lenin with interesting anecdotes and photographs. So interesting to think that if there was one variable in Lenin's or Hitler's life the world would be different.

My favorite line in blog is: "You couldn’t love the kind of god who wanted to have his crucifixion and eat it too."

I also love this: "The greater the cause, the greater the evil. The steady repetition of that irony is like the fall of empires: they never learn."

And this: "He thought that in order to eradicate capitalism one needs to destroy the value of money in the world and abolish the ruling class."

Love the way you segued to LENIN TO HIS MISTRESS, INESSA ARMAND.


Anecdotes are antidotes to abstraction. This is especially important if a person has been either idealized or demonized. 

Lenin needs to be "humanized." As his shoe-maker landlord in Zurich said, he was a "good fellow." Intellectuals can easily recognize at least parts of themselves in him. In me he arouses the longing to give myself to a cause utterly,  and the envy that he was able to. Talk about a “purpose-driven life”! And then, the instant warning that this can lead to evil. I’m relieved that there is no blood on my hands, even through association. The love of ideas is a dangerous thing.

(Atheism -- no. Nobody would die -- or kill -- for atheism. I like being an example of “good without god,” but a more comprehensive and life-affirming vision needs to be worked out, with ideals that don’t kill.)

Yes, it's amazing to think that a single variable would have changed history. Maternal rejection, for example, would have made self-confidence difficult or impossible. A leader needs to radiate self-confidence, and that doesn’t come from having been put down and ridiculed and shamed. Extraordinary people often have extraordinary mothers, both loving and ambitious for their children. Or if it's not the mother, then another exceptional and inspiring person has "manifested" early in life. One way or another, there was a feeling of security and being greatly valued.

Lenin seems to have had a pretty wonderful childhood until the trauma of his older brother's execution by hanging for taking part in a failed (and ridiculously incompetent) anarchist plot. Imagine how the mother must have suffered. Of course all the children suffered too. But Lenin was already 17, so that didn't wreck his childhood. It did, however, ruin his chances for a professional career in Russia.

Yet another factor was Lenin's power of persuasion: he managed to recruit Trotsky, formerly a moderate who favored democracy. Without Trotsky, the revolution would not have succeeded. So yes: change one or two factors, and world history would have been different.

And yes, idealism pushed to the extreme leads to evil. The promise of workers’ paradise crumbles into communal apartments and food shortages. True, a devout liberal might say, but the extreme poverty at the social bottom was rapidly eliminated.The large land owners, the parasitic aristocracy, were gone (most of them left Russia). Literacy spread quickly. We need to acknowledge this too. History is very complex. Let's be less judgmental, but more complex in our thinking. Let’s be willing to say, “I don’t know.”



Monday, July 1, 2013


Los Cabos, Baja California


Jasmine like blossoming moonlight
has taken captive the blue dusk.
I am fourteen, fifteen, sixteen –
the radio sings Malagueña.

Years later at a wedding,
a middle-aged mariachio
sings Malagueña with such passion,
the guests fall silent as in a cathedral.

Few comprehend the lyrics,
but the meaning soars
in the arches of the vowels, held
so long they span constellations.

Maybe it never really ends –
life driven by desire
for a different life.  

You never stop waiting, 

never, a famous actress 
said in her old age –
she who we thought possessed
all we ever wanted to have.

The music cannot be undone. 

It casts the human voice beyond
blue, into pure indigo –
not star jasmine, sparse petals, 

but the full narcotic flower – 

as the lights on the bay
sink shimmering shafts
into the ocean’s dark love.

~ Oriana © 2013


“That’s not important,” my mother would say countless times during her last years. She wanted “what wakefulness remains” reserved for the essence. That included the daily walks where she could look at trees, dogs, children, squirrels. A bird hopping on the pavement was important. The sale at Sears was not important. Neither was meeting the tax deadline, even if the IRS seemed to differ.

What, then, IS important? The answer depends on the person and on the stage of life. Right now, amid medical difficulties, holding on to the bliss of slow reading and slow writing has become primary. And beauty and tenderness, but much has been written about those -- so let me highlight slow reading and slow writing.

Primary? Yes. Because that way I hold on to the essence of what I am, of what makes my life worth living. Once I had my big awakening about mortality and how I don’t have unlimited time anymore, but must make the most of “what wakefulness remains,” I saw what I treasure most: “mind sex.”



Once I got to know what I truly want, what works for me and what doesn’t, I began to buy fewer things, but the things I do buy are of better quality. Like Cinderella finally claiming her glass slipper, I want the best.

I have also finally understood what Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn meant when they said, “Wear black and white, and you’ll always be elegant and never have to wonder what to wear.” On the verge of buying a “royal blue” blouse I don’t need, I stopped -- I’d like to say “in mid-air,” but it was “mid-screen.” It’s not too bad, being in the same minimalist closet with Marlene Dietrich (though I have a certain fondness for burgundy that I’ll keep).

In reading and creative work, I know that when I limit variety, I gain depth. I build on what I’ve already acquired (and even that has too much variety --  oh my foolish insatiable mind when I was young and wanted everything, everything). Some people say they no longer read new books -- they give themselves to the pleasure of re-reading. Slow reading and re-reading: mind-sex. Voluptuous.

I’ve learned that reading (and re-reading) ten great poets in depth will yield more satisfaction than reading a hundred poets superficially.

If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all. ~ Oscar Wilde

How do I choose those ten? I follow my bliss.

Ten is already borderline too many. When I was twenty-seven, I took one year just to read Rilke. I’d browse in the library’s poetry section, I’d glance at this or that poet -- but basically, my serious poetry reading was Rilke. And it was Rilke who taught me seriousness. 

Rilke at Muzot, 1923


I still remember my shock when a boyfriend I had in my twenties calmly asked, “Why don’t you use your intelligence to improve your life?” I was startled. My intelligence was Platonic, not Aristotelian. I used it to get high grades in college; that was what intelligence was for. Intelligence = intellect = useless in “real life.”

And, mind you, I already knew and admired the director of UCLA Brain Research Institute. I marveled at what he once said, “I owe my career success to the decision I made in my youth never to raise my voice.” He was using his intelligence and self-control, two traits found by studies to be the most important predictors of “good outcomes in life.” Alas, I didn’t realize that the way I gained near-perfect reading knowledge of English by reading Gone with the Wind for one hour every day gave me a tool that combined intelligence with self-control, a tool I could continue using -- if not for career success, then as a source of reliable happiness.

I didn’t realize it because back in my late teens and twenties I assumed the power lay not in the doing, but in having a goal.


I used to think: I am happy whenever I'm working hard toward a goal. But having a goal wasn't always possible, or the old goal “ran out” or stopped making sense. I felt bereft without a goal. I remembered my last year in Warsaw and the happiness brought by my daily reading practice, whose goal couldn’t be more clear: I wanted to to master English. That’s why for many years I thought that for me the secret of happiness was working toward a clear goal. No goal = no practice = no happiness.

I nodded my head when I read Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (note the pig-sty near the church and the graveyard)

It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.

That’s the semi-bad news: it’s a rare life that can be called “purpose driven.” The splendid news is that we don't have to have a goal. I’ve learned that it's better if my goal is fuzzy at best, so achieving or not achieving it doesn't enter the equation. Then there is no “failure” -- none of that useless suffering. No goal, none, just the activity itself! The process, not the outcome. It’s the activity itself that’s fulfilling. In a sense, you are making love.

(and besides, piglets are delightful)

I’m back from Coronado Library, an exquisite temple of the mind (oh the quiet old-money elegance, with busts of Aristotle). For two and a half hours I shamelessly indulged in mind sex, reading The New York Book Review. And I wasn’t making detailed notes, once a compulsive habit of mine -- intellectual hoarding. I was reading for the bliss of bathing in the intellectual grace of those semi-scholarly articles.

The first article (not counting a quick glance at Oprah’s “Change Your Hair, Change Your Life”) was a review of the best-selling book by Garry Wills, “Why Priests?” Wills argues that the Catholic church would be better off without its clergy. And no, he doesn’t mean the pedophile priests -- that pathology doesn’t require a book to indite it. Wills discusses the very institution of priesthood, and finds it obsolete. An ordained priest is needed to work the miracle of transubstantiation. But transubstantiation does not happen (Protestants reached that conclusion already centuries ago). Thus, in principle, anyone could lead a religious service.

(A shameless digression: this reminded me of my asking an ex-Jesuit, “But isn’t it time for women to be allowed to say the mass?” He replied, “Why should anyone say the mass? Perhaps we should stop it for three years, and see if anyone misses it.”)

“Transubstantiation does not happen.” The simplicity of the statement thrilled me. I had not thought of it in those few words because when I silently declared “It’s just another mythology,” the whole “mystery” disappeared. Besides, a Jewish rabbi, no matter how “reform,” could not possibly say, “This is my blood; drink it.” That was Dionysus. Divine cannibalism, the eating of the gods -- it was coming back to me, and it was delicious.


Raphael, Dispute over Transubstantiation
(I love the shelf clouds on which the Celestials are seated)

Next, the article on Marx. The Catholic Church and the Reds -- I’m addicted to these topics, and yes, that ease born of familiarity goes back to my childhood and teens, being caught up between two dictatorships, two totalitarian systems. The church, of course, was ahead, having had many centuries of practice at inducing guilt in us wretched sinners, and the carrot and stick of heaven and hell. The carrot wasn’t much (does anyone really want to live in a city with sidewalks of gold?), but the stick was overwhelming. Even after decades, hellfire is still burning in some of my neural circuits. The poison of being told that you will burn for eternity is so venomous that there is no 100% antidote.

Karl did look like a biblical prophet; he was, in fact, a descendant of eminent rabbis. But did I really need to be told that some of Marx’s ideas are by now completely obsolete, while other insights remain strikingly relevant? No, but it was an inexplicable pleasure to read about it. I can’t help it -- my heart leaps up when I read a sentence like “Late in his life, Marx replaced one utopian vision of total abolition of alienated labor with another, that of humanity devoted to artistic and scholarly pursuits.”

Oscar Wilde, of all people, beautifully summarized that other utopia, in a little-known essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. “It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought . . . Charity creates a multitude of sins,” Wilde wrote with his famous flair. But I don’t insist on flair; a merely intelligent sentence will do.

Marx and his youngest daughter Jenny. Jenny is wearing the cross in solidarity with the 1863 Polish uprising against the Tzarist oppression. Actually the cross should be black; Polish noblewomen began to wear black jewelry to symbolize mourning for the lost independence.

The sentence about Marx’s two utopias constitutes the entire “notes” I took during my orgy at the patrician Coronado Library. My reading wasn’t meant to lead anywhere. When you are posthumous (that lovely state of non-striving), nothing is meant to lead to anything else. You don’t think in terms of “stepping stones” or a “ticket to the future.” You are not climbing up any ladder. You are walking down a soft level road through a wonderful forest; you are listening to the birds, watching the deer that are watching you. You are “following your bliss.”

Nevertheless, I admit that decades of being goal-oriented, and feeling bereft when I had no goal, sometimes still make it difficult to do something for its own sake -- just to enjoy it. In that case, here is my justification for going to the library: over two hours of brain healing. My personal kind of meditation. No goal is needed. It’s the activity that creates a feeling of happiness.


Ronald Dworkin, that’s who. But before I get to his ideas about non-theist religion, let me reveal something from the time I was eighteen. True, back then youth was an excuse for all manner of ignorance, but this strikes me as  being particularly blind (and funny now, but not funny then).

As a freshman at UCLA, I took a lengthy test that was supposed to guide me toward the most suitable major (first of all, I was clueless about what the word meant, aside from the military rank). The counselor took a while pondering my results, reminding me of the Gypsy in Warsaw who studied the cards in a long, deep silence before saying, “You are going on a great journey.”

The counselor finally looked at me and said, “The score indicates that you are an artist.” “No, I’m not!” I exclaimed. I felt insulted; I defined myself as an intellectual. As the Tao warns, she who defines herself cannot know who she really is.

“Are you interested in the visual arts?” the counselor asked. “Not particularly,” I replied. She patiently combed field after field, while I was growing impatient. The test was actually a questionnaire about values; since my highest values were beauty and creative work, I happened to fit in with the artists. The counselor, exhausted, ended by pointing out that ballet and modern dance criticism was a new field in which I could become an expert and not have to face much competition. That, I thought, was the most ludicrous piece of advice since a Polish-American priest “playfully” (oh yeah?) slapped me across the bottom and said, “Just marry a nice Polish boy.”

Then I read an article which casually mentioned that creative people tend to  have unusual and colorful dreams. And talk about the deluge of unusual dreams I was having . . .

And now comes Dworkin with his idea that religion is not restricted to theism. One can be deeply religious without believing in an invisible man in the sky, the earth his mere footstool. Or believing in any kind of god or gods. (The gods wanted blood. Wasn’t it peculiar, sacrificing a lamb to Yahweh? And wasn’t it the priests who got to eat the lamb? A high-protein diet millennia before Atkins?)

“Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious,” Dworkin argues. Albert Einstein, for instance, said that though an atheist he was a deeply religious man. He was in awe of the universe, its sublime mystery and mathematical order. It could be argued that he was overly Platonic in his outlook, but that was before the view favoring probability, and of course long before chaos theory. Still, his reverence and his enchantment with mystery can indeed qualify him as religious (most would argue that “spiritual” is a better label for the sense of the transcendent without a personal god).

Dworkin refers to Rudolf Otto’s influential work, The Idea of the Holy:

When scientists confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles they have an emotional reaction that matches Otto’s description surprisingly well. Indeed many of them use the very term “numinous” to describe what they feel. They find the universe awe-inspiring and deserving of a kind of emotional response that at least borders on trembling.

I can become ecstatic just looking at the clouds. It doesn’t have to be sunset in full peacock display. The late afternoon clouds, those silver-gray harmonicas and schools of fish and angel wings -- and I’m thinking of fractals, Mandelbrot -- the clouds on their great journey.


Shelley, expelled from Oxford for his atheism, wrote these mystical lines in his “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats through unseen among us -- visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower --
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening --
Like clouds in starlight widely spread --
Like memory of music fled --
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

Mont Blanc


Dickinson, too, is an ecstatic without always being a theist (sometimes she is, sometimes not).

Come slowly, Eden!
Lips unused to thee,
Bashful, sip thy jessamines,
As the fainting bee,

Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums,
Counts his nectars -- enters,
And is lost in balms!

~ Emily Dickinson, 211

We too can count those nectars; we too can enter and be “lost in balms.” We are the children of the universe, interconnected in more ways than we can even conceive of, part of a thrilling mystery. If being religious means being in awe of nature’s mystery and beauty, as well as a strong commitment to moral values (which derive from our capacity for empathy), then yes, all my adult life I’ve been religious without knowing it.

(for Dworkin’s article, go to

Hello fractal animula!


For me mind sex means chiefly (though not exclusively) slow reading. Slow reading could also be called “deep reading,” or “studying.” Slow reading  is the practice that can sustain me day after day, rain or shine (and in this climate zone it's that merciless "shine" that’s an ordeal). All I need is a book and a pencil. By the way, asked what his spiritual practice was, Joseph Campbell answered, “I sit with a book and a pencil and underline words.”

And that was his main source of reliable happiness.

Along with performing the Apollonian task of organizing your world, attention enables you to have the kind of Dionysian experience beautifully described by the old-fashioned term rapt—completely absorbed, engrossed, fascinated, perhaps even “carried away”—that underlies life’s deepest pleasures, from the scholar’s study to the carpenter’s craft to the lover’s obsession. ~ Winifred Gallagher, Rapt

The best advice I ever got? ATTEMPT BUT LITTLE AT A TIME. Then you can do it slowly, at the level of excellence (or at least you will be able to reach the level of excellence) -- and reap the most pleasure. LESS = NO STRESS. When you do anything for the joy of it, without stress, the brain heals from the ravages of stress. Joy is a wonderful therapy.