Joan Miro: Constellation-Awakening at Dawn, 1941
We’re wreathed in robes of seaweed,
air bladders’ amber beads,
the hood of water
over the face of things.
Fish weave in rainbow veils.
Kelp sways like soundless bells.
we cannot tell one day
from a thousand years.
Here are our amulets, good-luck
crystals, diadems and crowns.
Here tilts the headless
statue of our god,
Lord of Mercy in whose name
we killed. Mudworm burrows
in the marble palaces.
Our purses fill up with silt.
We remember pine forests,
resin scent of the wind.
We remember having held
This glitter on the waves
like bent echoes,
those are our last words:
Hold hands. Hold hands.
~ Oriana © 2015
I know that one of the Buddhist masters said, as his final message, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” My own version would be “Affection. Affection. Affection.”
DID YAHWEH HAVE A BODY?
During our first religion lesson, the nun told us about a strange being called Mr. God who lived in the sky. “Why can’t we see him?” one brave child asked (it wasn’t me). “Because,” the nun smiled indulgently, “god is invisible.” Even though we knew fairy-tales in which you could become invisible by holding a magic feather or putting on a magic cloak, the idea that the man in the sky, Mr. God, “could not be seen because he’s invisible” was unsatisfying. “God is invisible because god is a spirit,” the nun finished her explanation. We pretended to know what “spirit” meant. (In Polish, the word is derived from “breath,” but not identical with it.)
The first giveaway that alerted me was that in Eden “god walked in the cool of the day.” Why would “the cool of the day” matter unless you could had a body that could enjoy coolness but suffer in the later oppressive heat of noon and afternoon?
The part with Moses wanting to see god and finally getting to see Yahweh's “backside” is also very telling — and much is made of this being the backside and not the face. If Yahweh is a spirit, then there would be no “backside.” (By the way, is Yahweh naked? Is he anatomically correct?) But assuming that Yahweh can temporarily assume the human form, why the danger — why allow only the view of the backside? Greek heroes got to speak with gods face to face (e.g. Odysseus spoke to Athena and Hermes).
And later Moses is in fact allowed to see god, but by then the reader is used to contradictions. What were the editors thinking? Or was there no thinking going on? The bible warns against relying on “understanding.” Incoherence is next to holiness.
Does the Hebrew bible ever state that Yahweh was a spirit? No. He is called a "living god," which probably implies breathing, and thus having a body. Yahweh was a breathing god. The ancient Hebrews did not believe in the soul apart from the body. And in the early books in particular Yahweh is described in pretty corporeal terms (hands, feet, walking in the cool of the day, looking for Adam and Eve when they are hiding in the bushes, etc)
But then there is the famous passage about the “spirit of god” hovering above the waters — probably meaning his life-giving breath. The Hebrew word for spirit is “ruach,” which means breath (and also wind — more generally, a movement of air). Breath is of tremendous importance in the Hebrew bible. The “breath of life” is mentioned many times. But the Hebrew bible never states that god is a spirit in the sense of not having a body any more than it mentions an immortal soul.
(It’s interesting that the word “spirit” comes from “spirare,” to breathe; cf respiration, inspiration.)
We underestimate how very concrete and body-based the early Hebrew was. There were no mentalistic words like “think”, “believe,” “imagine.” Life starts with the first breath and ends with the last breath. Why else have the resurrection in the body? Because there was no such thing as a soul apart from the body. There was only the body, living (i.e. breathing) or dead.
That lack of dualism is more apparent in the early bible, where for instance you have angels come down and mate with human women (so obviously the angels had genitals, and did Yahweh; considering the active love life of the Greek gods, that was fully consonant with the mentality of the times). Later there is an increase in mentalism, but without the knowledge of brain function and unconscious processing mentalism can easily lead to body/mind dualism. In spite of their beautiful and fully embodied gods, the Greeks, influenced by Egyptian mysticism, fell into it early on, creating a whole sexless theology of the imaginary.
So, did Yahweh have a body? I suppose the most accurate answer is yes, at the beginning — but there was no complete clarity on this matter. Yahweh was corporeal, but with special Superman powers he could assume a different form, as Zeus could shape shift into a swan or a bull — though with Yahweh it's not as explicit as that, and he stays away from animal incarnations (Ezekiel's chariot vision is perhaps a throwback, three of the four faces being animal). There is a vagueness — deliberate, I think, but also stemming from lack of clarity and trying to make Yahweh different from other gods, less limited by being a kind of Superman who’s actually visible to his favorites for many generations after Adam and Eve and strolling through Eden in the cool of the day.
In summary, the more I think about the early books, the more it seems that Yahweh does have a body that looks and works like the human body. But he can also speak from a burning bush and from a whirlwind, so there is an ambiguity.
Still, the frequent references to feet, hands, face, walking and talking, coming down a mountain to see what’s up with the Tower of Babel, drawing in the smell of sacrifices into his nostrils, etc., do seem to imply a body. When he allows Moses to see his backside, is he mooning Moses under the pretext that it would be dangerous to see the face of a “living god”? — though later he lets Moses see his face anyway.
The main mode of worship was animal sacrifice — this should give us a pause right there. Of course it was practiced in other cultures too, but what kind of god does that presume? Not the kind who is a spirit. Would a spirit draw in with pleasure the smell of Noah’s first sacrifice after the Flood? Or, much later, complain that the stench of sacrifices prickles his nostrils?
Greek gods also had bodies — perfect and immortal, but bodies nevertheless. They could choose to be in a different form, e.g. Zeus as lightning (that's why Semele was “consumed"). It makes perfect sense to me that Yahweh was imagined as having a body (never mind that people were not suppose to try to imagine him).
Conclusion: the Hebrew bible does not say that god is a spirit, anymore than it says that there is such a thing as an immortal soul. God is a living, breathing body, just as people are (allegedly made in his image).
Eventually god becomes more and more abstract. He is seen and heard less and less. He hardly does anything and finally he pretty much disappears from the late books of the Hebrew bible. This was splendidly demonstrated by the bible scholar Richard Friedman in his Disappearance of God. But let’s not forget the beginning, where Yahweh walks and talks, quite in the image of man.
I think that the reason God was so anthropomorphic in earlier writings is because the Israelites needed an image they could understand. It would be too drastic all of a sudden to have God be the spirit without a body.
I’ve heard this countless times, starting in religion lessons: “god is described in those terms so that the people of the time could understand.” But I don’t think that the emotional part of the human mentality has changed all that much over the centuries. We can have a real relationship with others, and also with our pets, because the creatures have a certain appearance, they do things and are responsive to us. A god that’s not human is not a god we can relate to.
We can ask, “What would Jesus do?” and give some kind of answer. But if we ask, “What would Yahweh do?” things break down. Answer from the whirlwind to the effect, who are you to bother me? ~ “Where were you when I laid down the four corners of the earth? Can you draw the leviathan with a hook?” Or command you to stone the disobedient child? This is not a god who knows what it’s like to be human — or at least you are forbidden to think along those lines.
So it’s not just back then that people needed to have an anthropomorphic god — even today, that’s the only god they can relate to. But the clergy and the theologians announce that this is too primitive, and we need to “grow beyond” the image of a parent in the sky, or, in the case of Jesus, perhaps a dear friend (“Are you running with me, Jesus?”)
I say forget it. We just can’t. We can have a great loving relationship with our dog, but not with the god of the theologians — whether it’s a person without a body, or not even a person but some kind of cosmic consciousness.
Once I gave outrage by speculating that Yahweh began as an actual person, a Middle Eastern warrior-god. ~ Harold Bloom, “The Daemon Knows”
THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS
Overcoming the monster (Beowolf, Jaws)
Rags to Riches (Aladdin, Oliver Twist)
The Quest (Odyssey, Watership Down)
Comedy (Aristophanes, The Marx Brothers)
Tragedy (Oedipus, Macbeth)
Rebirth (Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol)
Voyage and Return (Peter Rabbit, Brideshead Revisited)
Christopher Booker says that a few works even combine all seven basic plots, and the one example he gives is The Lord of the Rings.
Do you have a favorite plot?
The one forbidden thing!
Yes! Excellent! Thanks for reminding us of this, so abundant in mythological tales.
When I was a kid I loved end of the world stories. Asteroids heaving for earth. Plagues. Zombies. Aliens. Recently I saw a film called "seeking a friend for the end of the world." It grabbed me the way those old films grabbed me. Where does a story like that fit in? Tragedy? Probably. Or maybe overcoming the monster. But what if the end isn't overcome, and finally there is just death. Maybe the 8th basic plot should be: an old guy's story, a story that ends in silence and nothing. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1307068/
Yes, that's another recognizable plot pattern: the apocalypse, but without the religious element. I was told that having dreams about the end of the world typical of being a victim (I was indeed going through a very stressful period when I had a lot of dreams about nuclear missiles on their way or the post-apocalyptic world with only women, children, and old people, weeds growing through cracks of the freeways). And no, there is no happy ending: either imminent destruction, or adjustment to a very sad kind of existence.
It’s tragedy, but a pattern of strength and survival can be a major sub-theme. As for the old person, the only “happy ending” is “death with dignity”: the person realizes that his/her life made a difference.
In movies where an old person dies, there is sometimes a symbolic rebirth: for instance, we see a child water a newly planted tree.
ALWAYS EXPECTING TO BE PUNISHED: a pattern in the first half of my life
In the New York Review of Books, an article about a woman who had not bothered to have an amniocentesis (these days there is a blood test) and ended up having a child with Down Syndrome. The paragraphs on the “medical freak show” interested me only slightly. Mainly I thought about my youth and the recurring thought that just because I valued the life of the mind so much, I’d end up having a “mentally handicapped” child (apologies for not knowing the current politically correct word). It would be my punishment for loving books and ideas. It would be life’s corrective action, humbling me, saying See? You wanted your child to be a genius. What a laugh!
No man expects to be “punished” by life or society for loving books and ideas. Perhaps there is some notion that reading books is unmanly, but women’s attraction to intellectual men would be a corrective. A man who can talk about literature realizes that he “speaks woman.” Tony Hoagland carried a copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies for seduction purposes. I know it not only because of his poem where he confesses to using this ploy, but also because I remember how we met at the Yaddo Arts Colony, lined up for dinner. He was holding a red-cover copy of The Duino Elegies in his left hand (the side that showed).
Why on earth did I expect to be punished, humbled, “corrected”? I grew up in a milieu where reading and intellectual achievement were encouraged -- not that I needed to be encouraged, being a compulsive reader. Nor can I point to the slightest streak of sexism in this regard. True, I overheard my parish priest saying, “Girls . . . They are so stupid.” But I can’t claim that this harmed me in any significant way; even as a ten-year-old, I realized that the comment said something about the priest and nothing about me. (Nor did I retaliate by sending him a note: “Priests . . . They are so stupid.” No, I was a nice quiet girl. Anyway, I was too busy reading.)
So I don’t really know why I expected to be punished for being who I was. Perhaps it had something to do with the way life kept shattering my dreams. Perhaps I picked up sexist judgment from the larger culture. Or perhaps it’s more universal than that, more “female.” My mother said, more than once, that she had terrible nightmares during her pregnancy about giving birth to an abnormal child. Such nightmares, I read, are perfectly normal. Nor do I think that my brave and resourceful mother would not have managed to cope somehow. Fortunately she didn’t have to.
And for all her ability to cope (the child would probably end up in an institution), her life would have been blighted. My father, too, would have suffered terribly.
And it has crossed my mind that with my mother’s access to anesthetics, perhaps she would at least have considered euthanizing the child. Nor would I have blamed her. Nor am I horrified that my own fantasies in that situation would be to smother the child with a pillow or otherwise cause a quick death . . . not that I’d act on such fantasies. I’d certainly explore other solutions. But that I’d have such fantasies, of that I have no doubt.
Most fears don’t come true. It’s what we didn’t think of fearing that tends to happen -- IF anything happens. And then it’s not the end of the world.
Also, I realize that I had that “doomed” feeling that I would be punished no matter what —probably the legacy of my Catholic upbringing. I expected to be punished simply for being me.
For women, it's often being kind toward themselves that's the hardest. Most of them received the message during childhood that they are of lesser worth, and don't deserve good things (e.g. a good salary, a meal at a nice restaurant rather than McDonald's, etc -- both the big things and the small). I don't generally recommend anything New Age, but Louise Hay's YOU CAN HEAL YOUR LIFE can be a life-saver, especially for women. Louise definitely confronts the “I will be punished” mindset.
I’m also happy to report that I don't seem to have the belief anymore. I know I’ll suffer because we all suffer, but not because I’m being punished. No one is being punished by god, life, fate etc. I've seen too much innocent suffering to believe in that kind of "justice" (usually a euphemism for "revenge"). That humanity ever came up with the god of punishment (GOP) is a real shame.
But I don’t really need to analyze the possible sources of those long-ago fears. It’s in the past, irrelevant now. Onward. There are real bridges to cross.
THE SURPRISING MAGIC WORD FOR DISSOLVING ANXIETY
“Dr. Stanley Hibbs, an anxiety expert, shared at a conference, an innovative strategy involving a powerful, anxiety dissolving word. As Dr. Hibb's puts it, "This magic word helps combat discouragement and turns potentially disastrous days into productive ones. It's good for your health, your self-esteem, and can make you a more productive, better person." The magic word is NEVERTHELESS. Here are some examples of how he uses it:
"I'm tired and I've earned the right to goof off. Nevertheless, I can get a few more things done and then relax."
"It's very cold outside and I don't feel like walking today. Nevertheless, it's very important so I'm going to do it anyway."
"I'm upset and ice cream is my comfort food. Nevertheless, I will find a better way to deal with my feelings."
"I think I will fail this test; nevertheless, I am going to start studying and give it my best.”
If you try using this word in earnest you'll likely see its power. Dr. Hibb's states that "Nevertheless" allows us to pause and realize that we have choices. There are always reasons (or excuses) to succumb to anxiety and to do what's unhealthy, unproductive, or morally questionable. Nevertheless, we can still choose to do the right thing.
If “nevertheless” seems an awkward mouthful, you can substitute HOWEVER.
I also used the mantra “May the best outcome manifest itself.” This reminds me that I don’t know that the “best outcome” would be, so it’s best to relax and not try too hard (or at all).
Nevertheless — a word of victory. Nevertheless — what triumph!
My first “nevertheless” came at 18, when I was reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog, the first novel I got to read in the US. Herzog lists his many flaws, then concludes, “Nevertheless, how charming we remain.” It stayed in my memory forever, that saving bit of narcissism.
MY OWN ‘NEVERTHELESS’: “THINK SMALL”
Would you rather be pretty good at many things, or extremely good at one thing? This question kept battering me over the years.
Instantly I chose the second option. Of course I’d rather be fantastic doing just one thing — anything, just as long as I could learn to do it supremely well. But what exactly was the one thing I could devote my life to? This question kept returning — except for the respite I enjoyed in my mid and late thirties and early forties when I was a poet and just that. I felt I had found my calling. The siren call of all the other “fun” things was drowned out by the adventure of writing yet another poem and the rapid initial progress. A poet’s life is full of surprises: you never know where the next poem will come from. A poem is found more so than made, and that’s exhilarating as hardly anything else.
Then, unfortunately, I started publishing. This meant 99% rejection rate, which eventually — success! — went down to 95%, perhaps even 93% in my best year. I was told that was not a bad rate, and in fact I was doing great! Nevertheless, the time and energy siphoned off into “marketing”, combined with exhausting my central subject matter, did cause the predictable burn-out. Maybe it was a question of starting too late and/or living in the wrong place to find a mentor. The unthinkable happened: after finding my vocation, I lost it.
For me, alas, poetry was trauma-driven. When I was sufficiently recovered from personal wounds — not 100%, but that's neither possible nor necessary — my life as a poet was over, and I switched to prose. If I ran out of my own trauma, I wrote persona poems that still turned around similar themes, e.g. Moses being denied entry into the Promised Land, like Kafka's K. "All poetry is about loss" — you'd think that's inexhaustible, but after I ran out of the loss of homeland, the loss of great love, and the loss of the promises of youth, only mortality was left, and the celebration of life and beauty. Maybe that should have been enough, but it wasn't. After the nostalgia poems, and the suicide poems — one of my lovers had committed suicide — it was blah.
Ah, the strangeness of life! After discovering poetry and developing great love for it, suddenly I didn’t even like reading poetry all that much. And, frankly, most poetry is not worth reading. It’s instantly forgettable. I preferred quality non-fiction. Fortunately being a writer is multi-potential, so it’s not as if I had to take up working with stained glass just to have a creative outlet — any kind of creative outlet (which seems an absolute necessity for me).
Hence my blog and a variety of micro-musings. There is no ambition to become a great non-fiction writer. When writing a blog, I want to write a good blog. That’s all. I'm no trying to be a superb blog writer. Whatever wells up from the accumulated riches of my mentality is fine. One revision is enough. I know I'm not writing for the ages, but it doesn’t bother me to be writing for the moment to which I belong. There’s no long-term goal.
Having said this, I still think I owe whatever depth and skills I have to have stuck with one thing long ago. The very first thing to have come into my life was the project of mastering English. The second was of course poetry. That was my foundation in self-discipline and learning how to write in a crisp and vivid manner. Having gained the foundation, I could afford some “butterfly” behavior, delving into all kinds of flowers. I could trust my unconscious to integrate this wild collage somehow.
I no longer feel I must achieve anything. I don’t have to prove myself in any way. But I can still enjoy my microprojects. And the great thing is that when you think small, success is guaranteed.
I still think that everyone should have at last one thing they are very good at rather than go off into all the directions at once. The latter can be done recreationally, but it better not be the center of one's life. Again, the wonderful thing about writing is that with an agile mind, you can pick up what’s vivid and is likely to interest the reader. Or you an go off into a reverie and produce an atmospheric piece that takes off from a poem, or a pebble found in the woods. And I suspect the process is not all that different for other creatives, be they carpenters or gourmet chefs.
Note that I dropped words like “fantastic” and “supreme.” Just getting to be very good is challenging enough. And even that hinges on some factors not completely under our control.
GRATITUDE FOR THE PAST
Sometimes I look at an old poem of mine and I can hardly believe that I wrote it. I couldn’t produce anything that imaginative now, that beautiful. It takes peak brain function, on top of all kinds of other circumstances all coming together at once.
But it’s amazing that I did produce such poems, even if that’s in the past. What a privilege. So I am grateful for the past, its misery notwithstanding.
And I still am moved to tears when a stranger comes up to me and remembers a poem s/he heard or read twenty years ago. To have touched someone’s life with words is a great privilege.
Other writing? Only the poems count, really. Only they can provide sufficient delight.
Prose is craft. Poetry is art.
Poetry — that which lasts. The news that stays news.
JOY IN THE PRESENT
What fascinates me is the growing perception of the beauty of life the more “posthumous” it becomes. It’s ironic that we grow to love all the more intensely that which must be left behind. I love beauty more than ever — now un-distracted by career, romantic drama, etc. Those immense intensities, passions, and driving goals of the past — how unimportant they seem next to everyday beauty.
I loved having one overwhelming, obsessive vocation as long as it lasted, but in time I discovered that I also enjoy being post-poetry. For instance, I’m a cloud-watcher again, as in childhood — and as in childhood, I don’t feel compelled to describe the clouds. It’s pure, useless joy.
EMERSON’S NEVERTHELESS: THE AFFIRMATION OF A “SECOND BEST”
Though Melville and Henry James thought Emerson knew too little of loss, they were mistaken. The three people he loved best died early: his first wife, Ellen; his brother Charles; his little son Waldo. We all know suffering and evil: Emerson had the wisdom not to let himself be darkened prematurely. Stephen Whicher is the best guide:
“His later thought is characteristically an affirmation of a second best. If a perfect freedom was clearly out of reach, man’s fate as he found it still turned out to allow him adequate means to free himself. The two chief second-best mans of freedom that Emerson found were “obedience to his genius” and “the habit of the observer” — Vocation and Intellect.” ~ Harold Bloom
Emerson managed to avoid depression. He turned to his work. If only that precise kind of wisdom had visited me earlier in life, the useless suffering I would have avoided . . . But it would be useless and ungracious to complain rather than celebrate the fact that the wisdom of turning to productivity visited me at all, no matter how late.
As for affection rather than passion, I don’t see affection as “second best.” Together with vocation, it’s a secure foundation for contentment. We need not yearn for happiness. It is a great blessing to have contentment. And I wouldn’t call contentment “second best” either.
COULD IBUPROFEN AND OTHER NSAIDS HELP PREVENT AND TREAT SCHIZOPHRENIA?
~ Schizophrenia could be treated with cheap, accessible anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, according to new research.
The study, published on Friday in the American Journal of Psychiatry, concluded that people at risk of developing schizophrenia showed high levels of inflammation in their brains, which was also true of patients already suffering from the disorder. They also discovered that higher inflammation levels resulted in a greater severity of symptoms in persons likely to develop the disorder.
The findings mean that, if detected early enough through brain scans, schizophrenia could potentially be prevented or at least mitigated in at-risk patients using simple anti-inflammatory drugs.
Peter Bloomfield, a doctoral student at the Medical Research Council's (MRC) Clinical Sciences Centre and the paper's lead author, says that the findings could change the way schizophrenia is diagnosed and treated. "There's potential for us to treat very early and also this is a completely new type of theory of schizophrenia, so a whole new range of medication could be produced based on this research," says Bloomfield.
He adds that over-the-counter medication could be used to treat the mental disorder in the future, subject to clinical trials. "It could be something as simple as [ibuprofen]. It would need to be tried and tested...but something like ibuprofen or just any anti-inflammatory."
The study assessed the levels of activity of immune cells in the brain—known as microglia—of 56 patients in total, including current sufferers of schizophrenia as well as those at risk of the disease and those showing symptoms of the disorder. Researchers injected the subjects with a chemical dye which sticks to microglia, which they then used to record the activity levels of the cells.
Microglial cells are the primary immune cells of the brain and spinal cord (or the central nervous system), where their function is to destroy pathogens and clean up debris. The cells also prune connections between brain cells, known as synapses.
Bloomfield explains that abnormal activity levels in microglia can lead to patients developing the symptoms of schizophrenia—including hallucinations (hearing voices) and delusional thoughts—by changing the way in which the brain is hard-wired. "If they're over or under active or active in an inappropriate way, then you would end up with the wrong number of synapses or inappropriate connections between different parts of the brain, which would fit very well with our hypothesis of how schizophrenia is actually manifesting," says Bloomfield.
Oliver Howes, head of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre's psychiatric imaging group and the paper's senior author, told Sky News that the advance was the most significant in schizophrenia research for decades. "We're still using treatments that were essentially first developed in the 1950s and we desperately need new avenues and new approaches," said Howes. ~
ending on beauty
Why do I remember a strange village
Like a secret I knew long ago,
Where a crowded flock of branded sheep
Filled the lane, now forever gone?
Why do I watch them so in memory today?
Recreate every movement, proven in a dream?
Time was passing. They strayed into the ignorance of time,
And, suddenly breaking rank, disappeared past the bend.
Why do I feel within a choked, divine weeping
That I will never hear the wind murmur in those fields,
Never see the distant dawn fill with light,
The shrubs littered with the lost wool of the sheep.
~ Boleslaw Leśmian, tr. Oriana Ivy
Rafał Borcz: February