Thor’s Helmet Nebula
LISTENING TO GABRIELA READ IN SPANISH
La noche es infinita, she begins.
What is born in her mouth
slides out slippery like moonlight.
Infinidad, she says because
we’re infinite, but we are not
finished: the Universe is mostly
dark laced with dark,
pierced by the cry of the beginning.
I pour infinity
into my native tongue,
let it create another world:
The night’s not finished.
The night’s not finished, it waits
behind the unfinished trees.
The unfinished, infinite night
makes the dogs bark,
makes coyotes laugh.
What do they hear
that we cannot hear?
There’s a space like a lover
that opens only once. Gabriela
waits, a lily burns in her hand.
What will you say to her?
Can you utter such a total Yes?
Do not ask if the angel
is real. Who wants a heaven
that is always day? We need
la noche, our native land,
black leche of the soul,
white of stars.
~ Oriana © 2015
To a rare religious reader of mine, this poem is about the Annunciation. To others, it’s simply “cosmic.” To yet others, it’s about the ability to make a commitment. Still others single out the line: “We are infinite, but we are not finished.” Continuing on the theme of human nature, we need both night and day.
To me, the poem is mainly “about” language, and the ability of language to create a world. But should my emphasis be privileged over someone else’s reading? No. The poem belongs to the reader.
What was that unforgettable line? ~ Samuel Beckett
CAMUS: “WE MUST IMAGINE THAT SISYPHUS IS HAPPY”
In one of his poems written before the Nobel Prize, when he was more prone to bitterness, Milosz ponders human striving, then asks, “And for what, since we will be forgotten anyway?” Camus is one of the few thinkers who engage with this question, the first one I encountered who had a secular answer.
“In his most famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus made the point that Sisyphus stands for all humanity, ceaselessly pushing our rock up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again. Over and over, ceaselessly, remorselessly, always striving but never succeeding — if only because ultimately everyone dies and his or her personal boulder rolls back down. Gravity always wins.
Camus nonetheless concludes his essay with the stunning announcement that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” because he accepts this reality, defining himself — achieving meaning —within its constraints. Camus’ stance is that meaning is not conveyed by life itself but must be imposed upon it.
Denying our nothingness isn’t what Camus proposed; rather, he urged something closer to accepting our nothingness and pushing on nonetheless, achieving meaning via meaningful behavior, even though — or rather, especially because — in the long run any action is meaningless. Probably the greatest such account of people achieving meaning through their deeds is found in Camus’ novel The Plague, which describes events in the Algerian city of Oran during a typhoid epidemic.
The Plague is a “chronicle” compiled by the heroic Dr. Rieux, in order to “bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
Camus is the existential thinker most associated with the “life is absurd” characterization of the human condition. Often misunderstood, he felt that this absurdity didn’t reside in life itself, but in something uniquely human, namely the peculiar relationship (which he called a “divorce”) between the human need for ultimate meaning and the “unreasonable silence” of the world. For Camus, neither human existence nor the universe is inherently absurd, but rather the relationship between the two, whereby people seek something of the universe that it fails to deliver.
Ruminating on Sisyphus, Camus wrote that “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” And at the conclusion of The Plague, while the citizens of Oran are celebrating their “deliverance,” Dr. Rieux knows better, that the plague bacillus will some day return. But at the same time, his commitment to the struggle, to what defines human beings in an otherwise uncaring universe, is undiminished.”
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” We don’t expect such statements to come to us from the twentieth century, in many ways an era of disillusionment (though also of startling progress in technology, and more slow but significant progress in human rights). The pursuit of excellence characterized ancient Greece. The ambitious strove for arete. But when it comes to the pursuit of ideals, the twentieth century taught us caution — extreme idealism tends to end up in catastrophe. We need here another piece of Greek wisdom: moderation in all things.
Intuitively, though, I know what Camus means: it’s the work itself that makes us happy, not the results. “We must imagine that Sisyphus is happy” is in line with Rilke’s “To work is to live without dying.” It doesn’t matter that what we accomplish will almost certainly be forgotten; we’ll be lucky if some small portion will persist in an anonymous fashion even for a while. But even if eventually it’s forgotten entirely, that’s not a reason to cease working. Work is its own reward — particularly if we are performing at the level of excellence.
But even without that “struggle toward the heights,” work is a blessing. That’s why Ecclesiastes, after concluding that all is vanity, advises the reader: “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”
And one of the bleakest poems in the English language, Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” ends with
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
I have yet another answer:
WE ARE OF THE MOMENT, AND BELONG TO THE MOMENT.
Many writers deluded themselves that they will be remembered. “You are writing for posterity,” friends are forever assuring those who don’t have much recognition. Milosz does not kid himself. He realizes that even eminent writers are forgotten after a while and meet the common fate of all of us: oblivion. What shall remain of us will be some anonymous particles, a few words that strangers may repeat, without attribution. Borges was another poet and writer who fully understood this.
So, again, why write if it will all be forgotten? Why build if it will all be demolished, and replaced with other buildings? Why plant even trees, if trees don’t live forever? Or, if we plant those trees that live longer than we do, we won’t be around to enjoy them at their most magnificent? And let’s not even talk about flowers . . .
On the contrary, let us talk about flowers. They teach us a great lesson: beauty is a joy even if it doesn’t last. Ultimately nothing lasts. But WHILE it lasts, the beauty can nourish and delight us.
So I live by two answers:
1. To work is to live without dying. ~ Rilke
2. We are of the moment, and should fully devote ourselves to that moment.
Only a moment? Yes. And that is enough.
And that’s why Sisyphus the Everyman can be happy.
LESZEK KOŁAKOWSKI: IS GOD HAPPY?
“Is a person in the state of Nirvana aware of the world around him? If not — if he is completely detached from life on earth — what kind of reality is he a part of? And if he is aware of the world of our experience, he must also be aware of evil, and of suffering. But is it possible to be aware of evil and suffering and still be perfectly happy?
The same question arises with regard to the happy residents of the Christian heaven. Do they live in total isolation from our world? If not — if they are aware of the wretchedness of earthly existence, of the dreadful things that happen in the world, its diabolical sides, its evil and pain and suffering — how can they be happy in any recognizable sense of the word?
Both Buddhism and Christianity suggest that the ultimate liberation of the soul is also perfect serenity: total peace of the spirit. And perfect serenity is tantamount to perfect immutability. But if my spirit is in a state of immutability, so that nothing can influence it, my happiness will be like the happiness of a stone. Do we really want to say that a stone is the perfect embodiment of salvation and Nirvana?
Since being truly human involves the ability to feel compassion, to participate in the pain and joy of others, the young Siddhartha could have been happy, or rather could have enjoyed his illusion of happiness, only as a result of his ignorance. In our world that kind of happiness is possible only for children, and then only for some children: for a child under five, say, in a loving family, with no experience of great pain or death among those close to him. Perhaps such a child can be happy in the sense that I am considering here. Above the age of five we are probably too old for happiness.
Is God happy? If He is not indifferent, but subject to emotion like us, He must live in a constant state of sorrow when He witnesses human suffering. He did not cause it or want it, but He is helpless in the face of all the misery, the horrors and atrocities that nature brings down on people or people inflict on each other.
If, on the other hand, He is perfectly immutable, He cannot be perturbed by our misery; He must therefore be indifferent. But if He is indifferent, how can He be a loving father? And if He is not immutable, then He takes part in our suffering, and feels sorrow. In either case, God is not happy in any sense we can understand.
The true God of the Christians, Jesus Christ, was not happy in any recognizable sense. He was embodied and suffered pain, he shared the suffering of his fellow men, and he died on the cross.
In short, the word “happiness” does not seem applicable to divine life. But nor is it applicable to human beings. This is not just because we experience suffering. It is also because, even if we are not suffering at a given moment, even if we are able to experience physical and spiritual pleasure and moments beyond time, in the “eternal present” of love, we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition. We participate in the suffering of others; we cannot eliminate the anticipation of death or the sorrows of life.
Basically the title is just provocation, reader-bait. Yahweh’s happiness is not the real issue. Who cares about the archaic old fart with his gorilla-like alpha-male displays. His goal has never been happiness, not his own nor that of “his” people. I speak of the projections of human needs here, of course, mainly the macho ego. The issue is rather whether long-term happiness is possible for humans. LK leans to “no.” Moments of happiness are possible, however, and that makes all the difference.
What about the future happiness of Jesus, for Kolakowski “the real god of Christianity” (not for me; I felt Yahweh had the real power; that kind of father has to die before the son comes into his own)? Suffering is what Jesus is supposed to do: it’s his definition. Maybe after the Last Judgment Jesus will finally be allowed to be happy — assuming he has no compassion for those in hell (Christianity seems to consist of contradictions).
To his credit, Dante grappled with the dilemma of compassion for the damned; to his shame, he grew to perceive moral progress as the loss of that compassion. Those in heaven do not feel the pain of those in hell, even when it comes to people they once used to love. That capacity is simply taken away from them. They may pray for those on earth or in the Purgatory, but the ability to feel distress or any other negative emotion has been taken away from them. Problem solved! (Ah, religions create so many unreal problems . . . )
Another reason we can't be constantly happy is that we require change and variety, and challenging stimulation. But a portion of Alzheimer's patients are happy, cherubic: without memory, they truly live in the now.
In the main, though, I return to my main answer: we have the ability to enjoy happy moments, and that is enough.
Vesuvius seen from the Space Station. Photo by Chris Hadfield
WHY EVERYONE FEELS DIFFERENT FROM EVERYONE ELSE
I've always had an easy and obvious explanation for the feeling that I'm "from another planet": I come from a different culture. I had a different childhood, read different books, saw different movies, heard different songs. Every bit of connection was precious, say someone who was familiar with Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien" or Dante's Inferno. Then I realized that even within the same culture, others too feel a certain irredeemable aloneness and realize no one can fully understand them. (Another somewhat related phenomenon is that a significant percentage of those who lose their life memories -- usually due to Alzheimer's -- become quite happy. Hence perhaps the idea that heaven means no memory: every moment is an ever-new experience of bliss.) This article explains why apparently all of us feel puzzled over how different we are from others.
“You really are different, because your brain wired itself from your unique life experience. They are different because their brains wired from their experiences. We're the same in some ways, of course. We all have the same urge to do things that trigger our happy chemicals and avoid unhappy chemicals. But our triggers vary widely.
We're born with a lot of neurons but very few connections between them. Our neurons connect from experience — early experience, because young brains built the neural infrastructure that later experience relies on.
The brain creates another layer of neural circuits during the teen years. Of course you are an erudite adult who is not ruled by teen schemas. But puberty floods the brain with hormones that facilitate new connections between neurons. This makes evolutionary sense because our ancestors often moved to new tribes at puberty. Our animal ancestors moved to new troops at puberty, which prevented in-breeding. In new surroundings, you need to store new survival information, and natural selection created a brain that's ready to do the job.”
Yes, we are doomed to uniqueness. Maybe not identical twins — but I never wanted to have an identical twin! And for all my longing for someone similar to myself, I am suddenly grateful and almost want to say, Vive la différence! Yes, it does make things more interesting, and then — the joy when there is a true moment of connection, of feeling the sameness in some precious little thing.
And in adulthood we continue to be shaped by the experiences we find either rewarding or painful. But we finally get the idea that it's possible to shape ourselves to some degree. In childhood it seems we internalize mainly punishment. In adulthood we learn how to reward ourselves — or we should learn it if we don't want to feel like a helpless, adult-pleasing five-year-old forever.
Meanwhile, speaking of coming from a different culture, here is a unique summary of Russian literature:
WHAT MAKES THE CONSERVATIVES SO CONSERVATIVE? THE NEGATIVITY BIAS
“John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues argue that political conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including their own experiments using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of “a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it,” as one of their papers put it).
In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets — centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns — would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.
The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. “One possibility,” they write, “is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene,” when it would have been super-helpful in preventing you from getting killed. (The Pleistocene epoch lasted from roughly 2.5 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.)
All of this matters because we still operate in politics and in media as if minds can be changed by the best honed arguments, the most compelling facts. And yet if our political opponents are simply perceiving the world differently, that idea starts to crumble.
Fear, as in “fear vote,” is a big factor in conservatism. But the negativity bias is not the entire story. Intolerance of uncertainty and complexity may be just as important for becoming a conservative, and possibly growing up as an insider as opposed to outsider. And, not surprisingly, educational level: questioning and awareness of complexity increase with the amount of education. I am very sensitive to threats and yet on the whole I can’t stand conservative positions, especially those of the religious right. I favor a strong government that does good things for the people: free education, free medical care, a solid social safety net.
I have always identified with the poor, the outsider. It’s long been observed that the American Jews, the richest ethnic group in the country, are also the least conservative (only 19% as opposed to 38% of the general public). Historically, they have been the most likely to lean to socialist and humanitarian views. Could it be, above all, education? Or religiosity? (Orthodox Jews are politically conservative, as are of course fundamentalist Christians.)
But aren’t religious people also less educated and less tolerant of risk, uncertainty, and complexity? Perhaps we’ll never quite disentangle all the factors involved. We do know that one’s political orientation is fairly stable.
BUT WASN’T THE WORLD SUPPOSED TO END AFTER THE BLOOD MOON?
Several Religious Right pundits jumped on a nonsensical and convoluted tale about how blood moons and the Shemitah, a biblical day of debt relief, would lead to some sort of disaster in America on September 13. The far-right website WorldNetDaily marked the arrival of the Shemitah with articles titled “Mark This Date For Potential Disaster,” “Get Ready: Biblical ‘Shemitah’ Begins This Week” and “Countdown To Disaster.” One of the leading propagators of this theory was Messianic rabbi and Religious Right fixture Jonathan Cahn, who even wrote a book on the matter.
Essentially, Cahn claimed that prophecies pertaining to biblical Israel can now apply to the U.S. because the founding fathers, like ancient Hebrews, made a covenant with God. As a result of the country breaking that covenant due to national “sins” like gay marriage and legal abortion, he forecasted that September 13 would be the date that America faced divine punishment.
Contrary to Cahn’s predictions nothing catastrophic happened on that day in the U.S. Cahn defended his prophecy by pointing to an earthquake off the Gulf of California, a body of water which he conveniently forgot to mention borders Mexico, not the U.S. He also claimed that a stock market selloff on August 18 was close enough to his doomsday date, so he was right all along! (The Dow Jones has since rebounded since the August correction). He went on to insist thatanything bad that happens between September 2015 and September 2016 would also validate his prophecy.
Cahn’s prophecy caught on with commentators like Rick Wiles of “Trunews,” who said that between September 13 and October 9, there would be a major “financial plunge of the Dow Jones stock index, possibly 30 percent or more” as God sent a “big attitude adjustment” to America. The Dow Jones actually went up during that time.
Televangelist John Hagee went even further, claiming that there could be “a 50 percent correction in the stock market” in the fall due to the Shemitah and blood moon prophecies. “I believe, in the fall of this year, America and the world will face another economic crisis, perhaps as a result of war in the Middle East or an economic crash,” he declared…
After blowing his September prophecy, Cahn saw a biblical threat from Hurricane Joaquin. He said that the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling and the White House’s LGBT Pride Month celebration with rainbow lights had provoked God’s judgment, and now, Hurricane Joaquin would strike Washington, D.C. Cahn wasn’t alone, as Wiles too said that God was using Hurricane Joaquin to punish the U.S. by striking Washington, D.C., and New York. (It didn’t hit either city).
Cahn and Wiles were far from alone in making wild predictions about the effects of gay marriage.
One month before the Supreme Court issued its ruling, American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer warned that if the Supreme Court struck down state bans on marriage equality, then we would see violence in the streets: “If the Supreme Court continues to overreach and they aren’t checked, we are headed towards civil unrest, I don’t think there is any other way around it. If it’s not stopped and reversed, the tyrannical overreach of the Supreme Court, we are to have social dislocation and I believe we are going to have violence as a result.”
WorldNetDaily editor Joseph Farah predicted that “millions of Americans” would flee the country to evade gay marriage, televangelist Pat Robertson warned of financial calamities as a sign of God’s judgment for the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling and Massachusetts-based pastor Scott Lively said the Antichrist could emerge around September 23…
The Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theory, which was cynically fueled by GOP politicians, centered around fears that a military training exercise taking place between July 15 and September 15 of this year would produce grave consequences, such as a federal takeover of Texas, the declaration of martial law and the transformation of closed Walmart stores into FEMA camps. Others thought that Jade Helm 15 was a deliberate attempt to stoke chaos, which would justify military rule in the future.
This follows on the end of 2014, when we were supposed to have all died from Ebola, which Obama was deliberately bringing to the United States so he could close down churches and round up “patriots” into FEMA concentration camps. Always remember that there is no bottom here, no extreme too extreme, no claim too ridiculous, for the right wing. Ever.
Photo: George Takei
DON’T COOK MEAT AT HIGH TEMPERATURES (FORGET GRILLING)
“A new study published in the journal Cancer finds that high-temperature cooking methods may increase the risk of kidney cancer if you consume a lot of meat.
And other studies have found that high consumption of well-done, fried or charred meats is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, pancreatic and prostate cancer.
"The lower-risk methods are baking and broiling," says Stephanie Melkonian, a post-doctoral fellow at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and a co-author of the new study in Cancer.
How many hot dogs are safe to eat? We tackle your questions about an expert panel's conclusion that processed meats are carcinogenic.
Other lower-temperature cooking techniques include sous-vide — which is used in some professional kitchens – and preparing meat in a Crock Pot or some other type of slow cooker. Or you can make a traditional pot roast, which skips the high-temperature searing process in favor of lower-temperature browning.
If you listen to my story on Morning Edition, you'll hear chemistry professor Matthew Hartings of American University use a steak and a blowtorch to explain the chemical reactions that take place as meat is browned. Remember the Maillard Reaction?
Basically, as the outside of the meat browns up, and the temperature heats up, the chemical reaction creates lots of aroma and flavor compounds, some of which are molecules called cyclic amines. Harting says we evolved to like those flavor compounds. Think of it as an evolutionary nudge from our ancestors, who came to associate these smells as a sign that all nasty bacteria were cooked out.
But here's the potential downside: If you cook the meat too long, at too high a temperature, the chemical reaction keeps going, creating other compounds. Some of them, known as heterocyclic amines (or HCAs), can be carcinogenic when we consume them in high-enough concentrations.
As the National Cancer Institute explains, HCAs "have been found to be mutagenic — that is, they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.”
The study documented a nearly two-fold increase in the risk of kidney cancer associated with the intake of one particular type of HCA, known as MelQx, which is — according to the paper — "one of the most abundant HCAs commonly created in the grilling, barbecuing, and pan-frying of meats at high temperatures.”
It's important to point out that other possible mechanisms may explain the link between high consumption of red meat and increased cancer risks.
For instance, as the authors point out, "heme iron and N-nitroso compounds exposures, which were not measured in the current study, also may play a role." In other words: It's complicated.”
I love the fist image and also the title of the first poem. Of course I am partial to Infinidad.
The poem belongs to the reader afterwards. It becomes a noun after it is created as a verb.
Before I knew the story of Sisyphus I saw my life as an artist digging a hole, crawling out of it, taking a breath and then digging a deeper hole for myself and crawling out of it again ad infinitum.
But the most important thing is finding joy in the process of digging. That’s where happiness lies.
Love Vesuvius. She looks like a nipple.
Vesuvius is like a breast with an inverted nipple. I'm surprised by volcanoes with masculine names — there is a feminine look to volcanoes.
My image of myself as Ms. Sisyphus has actually been more like sculpting: chipping away, sometimes in an inspired fury, at other times with painful slowness; then refining, walking away, chipping some more . . . And though compliments on finished pieces are always welcome, there is also a misplaced element to them, because old work doesn’t count for much . . . as if the stone has indeed rolled down, now that a new block of stone awaits.
Getting an acceptance is nice, but the publication itself feels empty. The piece is no longer relevant by then. The joy of the words rolling out of the unconscious just right, that’s the reward. The work itself. Wanting to share it is an afterthought.
And this is strange since if there was no audience, if we were absolutely sure that no one would ever read our work, would we write? Well, 99% of writers can be absolutely sure that even if they have readers now, after a while their work will be totally forgotten. But, as I said, we belong to the moment, and must embrace the moment as if it were eternity.