Saturday, November 21, 2015


photo: Channing Tatum


The Sirens sing a different
song to everyone.
True to Homer, they are
half-desire, half-birds,
dark and hidden like nightingales.

To a lover they trill,
“This at last is true love.”
To the ambitious they croon,
“You can have all. The gods
do not require sacrifice.”

To a mystic the Sirens
offer silence, that most
unanswerable of all songs.
Nothing contains everything,
the Sirens sing without a sound.

To a young man I loved they sang
about death’s country of light:
Why suffer in this valley of unfinished souls,
when you could stroll
in meadows of a happy afterlife?

To me the Sirens chant
through my dead lover’s mouth:
Remember only the beauty —
his skin, petal-smooth, when we dozed
in the gardens of dawn and dusk.

I’m not Odysseus; it’s not fame
the Sirens promise me at sunset —
Only the beautiful is real.
Come sing with us about
the marble palaces of clouds.

Evening falls, silhouettes in blue
the mirage of an island.
Copper glow fades from the cliffs.
Flowers gray to shadows of flowers.
Far off, still the ravishing voices.

~ Oriana © 2015


“Black Daesh, white Daesh. The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity’s common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things. The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia.

In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other. This is a mechanism of denial, and denial has a price: preserving the famous strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia at the risk of forgetting that the kingdom also relies on an alliance with a religious clergy that produces, legitimizes, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on.

Wahhabism, a messianic radicalism that arose in the 18th century, hopes to restore a fantasized caliphate centered on a desert, a sacred book, and two holy sites, Mecca and Medina. Born in massacre and blood, it manifests itself in a surreal relationship with women, a prohibition against non-Muslims treading on sacred territory, and ferocious religious laws. That translates into an obsessive hatred of imagery and representation and therefore art, but also of the body, nakedness and freedom. Saudi Arabia is a Daesh that has made it.

The West’s denial regarding Saudi Arabia is striking: It salutes the theocracy as its ally but pretends not to notice that it is the world’s chief ideological sponsor of Islamist culture. The younger generations of radicals in the so-called Arab world were not born jihadists. They were suckled in the bosom of Fatwa Valley, a kind of Islamist Vatican with a vast industry that produces theologians, religious laws, books, and aggressive editorial policies and media campaigns.

One might counter: Isn’t Saudi Arabia itself a possible target of Daesh? Yes, but to focus on that would be to overlook the strength of the ties between the reigning family and the clergy that accounts for its stability — and also, increasingly, for its precariousness. The Saudi royals are caught in a perfect trap: Weakened by succession laws that encourage turnover, they cling to ancestral ties between king and preacher. The Saudi clergy produces Islamism, which both threatens the country and gives legitimacy to the regime.

One has to live in the Muslim world to understand the immense transformative influence of religious television channels on society by accessing its weak links: households, women, rural areas. Islamist culture is widespread in many countries — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania. There are thousands of Islamist newspapers and clergies that impose a unitary vision of the world, tradition and clothing on the public space, on the wording of the government’s laws and on the rituals of a society they deem to be contaminated.

It is worth reading certain Islamist newspapers to see their reactions to the attacks in Paris. The West is cast as a land of “infidels.” The attacks were the result of the onslaught against Islam. Muslims and Arabs have become the enemies of the secular and the Jews. The Palestinian question is invoked along with the rape of Iraq and the memory of colonial trauma, and packaged into a messianic discourse meant to seduce the masses. Such talk spreads in the social spaces below, while up above, political leaders send their condolences to France and denounce a crime against humanity. This totally schizophrenic situation parallels the West’s denial regarding Saudi Arabia.

All of which leaves one skeptical of Western democracies’ thunderous declarations regarding the necessity of fighting terrorism. Their war can only be myopic, for it targets the effect rather than the cause. Since ISIS is first and foremost a culture, not a militia, how do you prevent future generations from turning to jihadism when the influence of Fatwa Valley and its clerics and its culture and its immense editorial industry remains intact?

Is curing the disease therefore a simple matter? Hardly. Saudi Arabia remains an ally of the West in the many chess games playing out in the Middle East. It is preferred to Iran, that gray Daesh. And there’s the trap. Denial creates the illusion of equilibrium. Jihadism is denounced as the scourge of the century but no consideration is given to what created it or supports it. This may allow saving face, but not saving lives.

Daesh has a mother: the invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex. Until that point is understood, battles may be won, but the war will be lost. Jihadists will be killed, only to be reborn again in future generations and raised on the same books.

The attacks in Paris have exposed this contradiction again, but as happened after 9/11, it risks being erased from our analyses and our consciousness.”


In my childhood I’ve experienced two kinds of propaganda: the Communist propaganda and the Catholic propaganda. It may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that the Catholic church had considerable freedom in Communist Poland — to the point, eventually, of religion classes in public schools. It had its printing press and its own degree-granting university.

At this point in history — an achievement of many centuries, the Reformation and above all the Enlightentenment — Catholicism is indeed a religion of peace. Medieval Catholicism can be compared to Wahhabist Islam (even then, the subjugation of women wasn’t as terrible), but not modern Catholicism. It is still fundamentalist in some ways, totalitarian, anti-human, anti-life and anti-democratic — but between a lunch with the most fire-breathing Catholics and a lunch with Islamists, there is no question which invitation a Westerner could accept without fear. My point is rather the power of propaganda.

Having experienced both kinds of propaganda, I state with zero hesitation that the Catholic propaganda was by far more powerful. When you claim to control eternity, when you can make people agonized with the fear of hell, while rewarding obedience with very attractive promises, how can the government compete with that? During my childhood and teens, the political repression in Poland was mild and nothing like the Stalinist rule during the thirties. The economic promises were shabby. The living standard, except for Party members, was the source of constant complaining. Meanwhile the church offered the splendor of its churches — never sparing money to make them beautiful  and full of flowers, even in winter — and the great organ music and the ornate rituals that made something like the May 1 parade look  . . .  again, “shabby” almost forces itself as the best description, along with “ridiculous.” 

As for the holy icons compared with portraits of Marx and Lenin, there was a certain similarity, but need I say which had a greater appeal? And there were of course ten thousand times (likely an underestimate) more statues of Mary, Jesus, and various saints than the statues of revolutionary leaders.

Among the publications, I remember especially the glossy Catholic Weekly. It concentrated on the attractive promises rather than hellfire. It presented a lovable Jesus, not the one who’s come to bring the sword, and who will come again to separate the saved from the damned. No, the Catholic Weekly dripped the heavy, sweet syrup of piety. It used a simple vocabulary and homey stories of ordinary families. It was produced by master manipulators, not clumsy government amateurs.

The church was — and is — very rich, but its wealth is nothing to compared to that of Saudi Arabia. Now there is a country that has almost unlimited resources to produce propaganda. It owns not just printing presses but radio and TV stations. I operates religious schools at every level, including countries all over the world. I shudder to think how far-reaching its propaganda is, spewing the poison of Wahhabism everywhere.

Cartoon by Peter Brookes

There is one more kind of very effective propaganda: commercial advertising. Unfortunately, it’s geared toward creating artificial demand, making us want to buy the toys and clothes we don’t really need. But imagine if that power were harnessed toward nobler goals.

To some extent that is so when we look at education — real education: an enterprise too complex to be called propaganda.
To detox, let’s enjoy this image of the beauty of THIS world. No need for pie in the sky when we can have this:

photo: Asen Asenov


The first, happy year with M, he said to me, “If I had to die right now, I wouldn't mind. I could just go anytime. “ I knew what he meant: life had finally granted him the fulfillment he wanted. He was so sated with happiness that he felt calm and accepting — and willing to let go of life with gratitude.

I knew, because even at a very unhappy time in my youth I experienced a similar serenity and a similar perception of being ready to die, even though I was only 28. Just before my most serious surgery, I realized (an unforgettable minute when it all flowed to me) that, for all the misery I’d also experienced, life had given me great gifts and blessings. I had known great love; I didn’t know motherhood, but I didn’t resent it because now I didn’t have to worry about leaving an orphan. I had had the best of literature, art, and music; I’d seen gorgeous scenery; my Polish summers were a paradise of nature, even the time I got chased by hissing geese that nipped my shins.

I felt reconciled to the possibility of dying, even though I hadn’t yet “done” anything to speak of. That was irrelevant somehow. I felt peaceful and accepting: life had been generous to me; I didn’t feel cheated.

Occasionally this theme appears in poetry: in Keats’s “Ode to the Nightingale” Sexton’s “Starry Night,” Hölderlin’s “To the Fates.” Hölderlin says he’ll enter the world of shadows content after he’s had his fill of singing: “Once I lived as the gods; more is not needed.” Keats and Sexton want to die sated with beauty: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die”; “Oh starry, starry night! This is how I want to die.”

And there is Jack Gilbert’s wonderful title: “We Have Already Lived In the Real Paradise.” It’s all in the title; more is not needed.

It’s not dying we dread, but not having lived.

“A FEAR OF CULTURAL ANNIHILATION MAY HELP FUEL TERRORIST SENTIMENTS, says psychologist and terrorism expert Fathali Moghaddam, of Georgetown University's department of psychology. In "How Globalization Spurs Terrorism: The Lopsided Benefits of One World and Why That Fuels Violence," Moghaddam argues that rapid globalization has forced disparate cultures into contact with one another and is threatening the domination or disappearance of some groups—a cultural version of "survival of the fittest." "You can interpret Islamic terrorism as one form of reaction to the perception that the fundamentalist way of life is under attack and is about to become extinct," he says.”
The rest of the article is not especially new: the insecurity and vulnerability of male adolescents, their yearning for belonging, etc. But this part — the fear of cultural annihilation as other cultures show themselves to be more creative and attractive — has not been explored.

The solution, it seems to me, is cultural fusion: all cultures have something to contribute, whether cuisine or music (two realms where this fusion has already been most apparent). Anyone with sufficient intelligence can become a scientist, a medical worker, or a teacher, to name just a few professions, and be of great use to humanity at large.

As I see it, there is no need to cling to one’s particular culture. It would be ridiculous if I started wearing a Polish folk costume and otherwise demonstrating how Polish I am. I prefer to contribute to the culture at large. To make even a tiny contribution is a great privilege.

Here, tangentially, is a paragraph about nationalism:

“Do you know the saddest things that’s happened to the Kurdish people?” he asked. I shrugged; chemical bombings? Having their language banned and being denied a country? No. “We’ve lost all our love songs,” he said. When we got political, we changed all our the songs. Instead of ‘I love you’, ‘I want you’, we sing ‘I love you Kurdistan’, ‘I want you Kurdistan’. It’s impossible, he said, gazing at me, for a man to say to a woman, “I love you.” I thought he was doing fine. ~ Samantha Ellis, How to Be a Heroine

This is what I disliked most about the Polish literature of the Romantic era — Poles, like the Kurds, were fighting for statehood, and nationalism permeated the culture. When that meant Polish folk songs and dances as motifs in the music of Chopin, that was charming, it worked; in poetry, it got tiresome (at least for me).


While driving I was listening to public radio, and ant and bee behaviors were discussed: how their behavior stems from interaction, the way neurons interact to produce thought (the phenomenon of EMERGENCE; bird migration is another frequent example). You can’t isolate a single neuron and expect to find a “fragment of a thought” inside it. It’s all in the interaction.

An older commentator said, “To me that implies an author.” A younger journalist replied, “You’ve just taken out the magic out of it.” The older man: “So the beautiful world you wake up to every morning has no meaning, no purpose? Are you comfortable with that?” The younger man: “Yes, I’m comfortable with that. That makes it even more magical.”

I agree. Without the invisible man in the sky, it’s even more awesome. We can stop being childlike and imagine that everything that happens is produced by some deity, the way primeval man thought that waves are produced by the god of the ocean, rather than the ocean itself, in interaction with the shape of the bottom (this is not a putdown of early humanity; before scientific investigation, how were they to know?). Of course early humans, seeing the world in terms of human emotions, saw a storm of the anger of a god. Of course it was Zeus or Yahweh tossing lightning, or angry Poseidon causing an earthquake by hitting his trident against the bottom of the sea.

Now that we understand more about the causes of natural phenomena, there is no need for an “author.” Note that I said “more” rather than “everything.” Of course there is still plenty of mystery, but the existence of yet unexplained (and phenomena that will perhaps never be explained) does not prove the existence of the prime mover.

I am so glad there is now an open discussion of these matters. As Ginette Paris said, “It’s still early after the death of god.” It’s still early in the transition to the post-religious world (at least in the West), and we are just beginning to shape a positive secular philosophy and a new understanding of the world.


“There is a further level to this eros, deeper than its contrast to angelic disembodiment. The devils of my childhood, on TV commercials and, weirdly, even in church scenes and religious iconography, laugh. In church, they're the only ones who do. You won't watch an angel cracking a joke or poking under the mantle of an assumed truth, but those in red are the very definition of "irreverent." They go unhobbled by piety, certainty or received truth. There is in the devilish an eros or élan of argument, a delight in undercutting the given, mocking the president or the professor or the priest.

Milton, famously, makes Satan a grand psychological antihero, whether he intends to or not; it's just that the devil's the most interesting character in the story, and there is nothing the Puritan poet can do about this except to honestly portray the glittering skin of the snake and the fiercely driven will of Lucifer. Even Milton (who William Blake, almost equally famously, said was of the Devil's party without knowing it) can't make an all-knowing God, for whom the fate of each of his subjects is a foregone conclusion, dramatic.

It was Blake himself, a century and a half or so later, who was the first poet to conceive of the infernal troupes as having less to do with good and evil than with states of mind. "All deities," he tells us, "reside in the human breast." It is a particularly modern intuition; he blurs the lines between the holy and the unholy by casting angels, prophets and demons as characters in the grand theatre of the human psyche. Here he is, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, early in his career but already causing problems for Christian orthodoxy:


As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs; thinking that as sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell show the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings and garments. When I came home: on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat sided steep frowns over the present world, I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of the rock, with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence now perceived by the minds of men, & read by them on earth:

How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?


A great current of energy becomes available for poetry in that passage, and in the wildly brilliant proverbs that follow it, a new wind blowing off the revolutions of Europe and the further edges of the Enlightenment. It has nothing to do with evil, really, in the usual sense of the word, though it certainly represents a huge challenge to conventional morality and received thinking. It is the assertion of a temperament that favors inquiry and uncertainty, distrusts sanctimony of any sort, and piousness and rule-making. It expresses delight in instability and paradox, and favors the uncontainable, that which isn't readily circumscribed. What can be shut within the chapel is clearly not large enough to serve as a description of reality; what I will call, for convenience's sake, a diabolic perspective, prefers the unsettled, the disorder that leaks out of systems, the darkness that looms beneath the altar.

The Biblical and literary scholar Elaine Pagels writes that the Greek word diabolos
the origin of our devil — means "one who puts an obstacle in the path." The devilish, in this sense, confounds our expectations of ease, keeps us from going easily where we thought we were going, undercuts expectations. The diabolic eschews the straight path, the easy progression.

But to be halted, to be confounded, is to be instructed. In writing, as in living, isn't it the troublesome, knotty thing that winds up having the most of opportunity in it? A friend of mine is fond of quoting a provocative Zen proverb: "The obstacle in the path is the path." What gets in the way, in other words, is what there is to be done; we learn not from the way we thought we were going, but from the actual interruptions, frustrations, all that stops us short, refuses ready apprehension.

INFERNAL SYMPATHIES ~ Mark Doty, Lodestar Quarterly, Winter 2004

I want to call your attention especially to this part:

“Blake was the first poet to conceive of the infernal troupes as having less to do with good and evil than with states of mind. "All deities," he tells us, "reside in the human breast." It is a particularly modern intuition; he blurs the lines between the holy and the unholy by casting angels, prophets and demons as characters in the grand theater of the human psyche.”

Already Thomas Aquinas hinted that heaven and hell are not places. Pope JP2, on 21 July 1999, officially (I guess that means infallibly) stated that “Heaven is neither an abstraction not a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity.”

The church certainly didn’t speak of a “personal relationship with the Holy Trinity” in my day! In fact, a direct, personal relationship with any person of the Trinity would be considered heretical. Only the saints were grudgingly granted the privilege. The church wanted obedience, not any fraternizing with the Trinity.

But times have changed. In place of “the Holy Trinity” one can of course insert whatever is the highest and most important in one’s life. For an artist, it’s art.

Detoxing with music (Rachmaninoff's Third)


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