Saturday, April 30, 2016


Christian Schloe, Metamorphosis

I Have Dreamed Of You So Much

I have dreamed of you so much that you are no longer real.
Is there still time for me to reach your breathing body, to kiss your mouth and make
your dear voice come alive again?

I have dreamed of you so much that my arms, grown used to being crossed on my
chest as I hugged your shadow, would perhaps not bend to the shape of your body.
For faced with the real form of what has haunted me and governed me for so many
days and years, I would surely become a shadow.

O scales of feeling.

I have dreamed of you so much that surely there is no more time for me to wake up.
I sleep on my feet prey to all the forms of life and love, and you, the only one who
counts for me today, I can no more touch your face and lips than touch the lips and
face of some passerby.

I have dreamed of you so much, have walked so much, talked so much, slept so much
with your phantom, that perhaps the only thing left for me is to become a phantom
among phantoms, a shadow a hundred times more shadow than the shadow the
moves and goes on moving, brightly, over the sundial of your life.

~ Robert Desnos

For some years this poem was erroneously labeled “The Last Poem,” allegedly found with  Desnos when he died of typhoid in Theresienstadt after the camp had already been liberated (this was not unusual; some prisoners were so sick they never recovered even after they began to receive medical care). It was assumed to be addressed to the poet’s wife, nicknamed “Youki” (Snow; her real name was Lucie).

It’s a wonderful poem even though it was written at a different time and under different circumstances. Many of us can identify with the experience of having fantasized about a loved person so much that the fantasies become more real than the beloved.

There is another poem by Desnos that I love. It begins “Remote from me and starlike,” and ends:

If only you knew how I love you . . . how
joyous I am, how strong and proud of
going out with your image in my head,
stepping out of the world.

How joyous to the point of death.

If only you knew how the world submits to me.

If only you knew.

~ Robert Desnos (“Remote from me and starlike”)

I think all of us would agree that falling in love involves uncertainty and anxiety. But we’d also agree that being in love is also a source of strength. I don’t mean being loved, which certainly is  a source of strength, but being in love, your mind filled with the image of the beloved. It’s like having a wonderful secret.

With the image of the one we love, we step into the world filled with a private joy. Yet we also step out of the world — the world of mundane cares, of aches and pains and tax returns. All that petty negativity simply ceases to exist. Death ceases to exist. There is only the beloved whose image we carry with us.

Some would say that this is escapist, and that it’s not good to idealize a “mere human.” But there is no denying that being in love — even without return, as long as we are not being actively rejected — is a source of strength. The world submits to us because we are not as dependent on the externals. We have something within.

Of course Desnos says it much better.

Christian Schloe, Woman/Clouds

 I can’t resist sharing one more thing not by Desnos, but about him. The text below is from Wikipedia. Perhaps the story is apocryphal — but what a story!

“One day Desnos and others were taken away from their barracks. The prisoners rode on the back of a flatbed truck; they knew the truck was going to the gas chamber; no one spoke. Soon they arrived and the guards ordered them off the truck. When they began to move toward the gas chamber, suddenly Desnos jumped out of line and grabbed the hand of the woman in front of him. He was animated and he began to read her palm. The forecast was good: a long life, many grandchildren, abundant joy. A person nearby offered his palm to Desnos. Here, too, Desnos foresaw a long life filled with happiness and success. The other prisoners came to life, eagerly thrusting their palms toward Desnos and, in each case, he foresaw long and joyous lives.

The guards became visibly disoriented. Minutes before they were on a routine mission the outcome of which seemed inevitable, but now they became tentative in their movements. Desnos was so effective in creating a new reality that the guards were unable to go through with the executions. They ordered the prisoners back onto the truck and took them back to the barracks. Desnos wasn’t executed. Through the power of imagination, he saved his own life and the lives of others.”

Last photograph of Desnos, 1945


Beauty is its own excuse for being. ~ Emerson

Ruskin was one of the first environmentalists, but he interests me primarily because he said that work should be a pleasure. A craftsman is happy and loves his work, in contrast to an assembly-line worker. Ruskin imagined a society of satisfied craftsmen producing things of excellence and beauty.

“John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the most ambitious and impassioned English social reformers of the 19th century. He was also – at first sight – a deeply improbable reformer, because he seemed to care mostly about one thing – beauty – which has a reputation for being eminently apolitical and removed from ‘real life’. And yet the more Ruskin thought about beauty – the beauty of things humans make, ranging from buildings to chairs, paintings to clothes – the more he realized that the quest to make a more beautiful world is inseparable from the need to remake it politically, economically and socially.

When Ruskin had begun his career as an art critic, his ambition had been to open his audience’s eyes to the beauty of certain paintings and buildings. But in middle age, a more direct and urgent goal came into view. He realized that the ugliness of most things in Britain (from the factories to the railway stations, the pubs to the workers’ housing) was the clearest indication of the decadence, cruel economic ideology and rotten moral foundations of his society.

Throughout his life, Ruskin contrasted the general beauty of nature with the ugliness of the man-made world. He set up a useful criterion for any man-made thing: was it in any way the equal of something one might find in nature? This was the case with Venice, with Chartres Cathedral, with the chairs of William Morris… but not with most things being turned out by the factories of the modern world.

So Ruskin thought it helpful for us to observe and be inspired by nature (he was a great believer that everyone in the country should learn to draw things in nature). He wrote with astonishing seriousness about the importance of looking at the light in the morning, of taking care to see the different kinds of cloud in the sky and of looking properly at how the branches of a tree intertwine and spread. He took immense delight in the beautiful structures of nests and beavers’ dams. And he loved feathers with a passion.

There was an urgent message here. Nature sets the standard. It provides us with particularly intense examples of beauty and grace. The plumage of a bird, the clouds over the mountains at sunset, the great trees bending in the wind – nature is ordered, beautiful, simple, effective. It is only with us that things seem to go wrong. Why can we not be as it is? There is a humiliating contrast between the natural loveliness of trees by a stream and the bleak, griminess of an average street; between the ever-changing interest of the sky and the monotony and dreariness of so much of our lives. Ruskin felt that this painful comparison was instructive. Because we are part of nature we have the capacity to live up to its standard. We should use the emotion we feel at the beauty of nature to energize us to equal its works. The goal of human society is to honor the dignity and grandeur of the natural world.

Ruskin’s approach to politics was to hold resolutely on to a vision of what a really sane, reasonable, decent and good life would look like – and then to ask rigorously just how a society would need to be set up for that to be the average life, for an ordinary person, and not a rare piece of luck only for the very privileged. For this he deserves our, and posterity’s, ongoing interest and gratitude.”

Ruskin, Northwest Porch, St. Mark


“The episode [in The Origins of Christianity] we remember best is Paul’s arrival in Athens to preach the Christian gospel and his outcry against the Greek statues. ‘O chaste and lovely images’, Renan cries out in his turn, ‘of the true gods and goddesses! — this ugly little Jew has stigmatized you with the name of idols!” ~ Edmund Wilson

Renan had his own peculiar brand of ant-Semitism, but it’s something else that interests me about this passage. I'm still pondering how best to interpret Renan’s strange statement about the TRUE gods and goddesses. Having left the Catholic church in his early twenties, he allegedly remained a “quasi-Christian,” as one source put it. Wilson considers The Origins of Christianity to be a masterpiece in the study of ideas, showing how ”the Christianity of the Apostles is no longer the Christianity of Jesus, the Christianity of the Scriptures is modified as it is attracted to the Greeks or the Jews; the Christianity of the Rome of Nero is something entirely different from the primitive Christianity of Judea.” But I digress: how are we to understand the outcry against Paul and his condemnation as idols of the lovely images of the TRUE gods and goddesses?

But perhaps my emphasis is wrong; perhaps the critical word is LOVELY. It’s reasonable to think that Renan worshiped beauty. He adored the Greco-Roman civilization — “the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome” — finding it superior to that of the ancient Israel for a variety of reasons, including the legal system and precisely the cult of beauty, including the beauty of the human body. Perhaps the meaning of “true gods” is closer to “true values” — the humanistic values typical of the educated elite in France and other European countries.

Note also that Renan calls the Greek statues “chaste.” This is his reply to those who’d call theme obscene — the enemies of beauty, the enemies of the body with its unsettling sexuality. And yet, because of their beauty, the statues are the opposite of pornography. They draw us to the ideal. Rilke’s response was: “You must change your life.”

To be sure, Christianity is also a call to the ideal. Alas, it’s so warped by its obsession with death and the afterlife, with sin and punishment, that it could hardly be said to serve life. At its worst, it’s anti-life.

It could also be argued that perhaps Renan wasn’t even a quasi-Christian — he just wasn’t daring enough to reject Christianity in a more direct manner. Nevertheless, this passage betrays his real feelings. He loved the classical Antiquity; he did not love Paul’s teachings. To say that Paul’s teachings were false would have ruined Renan’s career. This outcry is perhaps the closest he comes to saying what he really thought. 


In retrospect I think that it wasn't only Greek mythology that deeply affected me — it was also those naked statues that said that human body wasn't evil. And it was also a couple plays that we studied in school, Oedipus and Antigone. It was the literary quality of that writing, so vastly superior to the Catholic propaganda, whether the Catholic Weekly or the Sunday sermons. Here was a culture in which the Catholic drivel and crucifixes simply didn't exist, and what a culture!

So yes, simply being exposed to something wider, to the richness of culture and the world beyond the Catholic prison — and ultimately to novels and movies where religion was merely a footnote, if that — had an effect on my mental development that I wasn't even aware of.  I couldn’t help seeing that the church was the domain chiefly of old women, not of any kind of vitality. Good minds were not drawn to it.

There were some attractions — the old time liturgy  (ignorance was bliss — I didn’t realize that the mass was derived from the Jerusalem temple ritual of animal sacrifice, and "hostia" meant “victim") —  and the music. But it wasn’t enough.

The more I think about it, the more clear it becomes: the culture wars were won by the secular side, starting with the classical Greek culture: they had better sculpture and better literature. I saw that the secular world offered better art in the broad sense, including a lot more beyond sculpture and theater. It offered a vision of moral and philosophical complexity that wasn't obsessed with sin and punishment, that both celebrated and lamented, that raised questions rather than force-fed catechism answers.

Later I discovered that the church had a more advanced, intellectual side as well, but that was for the elite, especially the Jesuits — not for a mere stupid girl (I overheard my parish priest saying: "Girls — they are so stupid"), part of the lay riffraff. In any case, even that more intellectual side did not fare well compared to the best secular writers and intellectuals. Dogma existed (e.g. Marxism), but it had to compete with other schools of thought, or with literature that simply ignored that particular dogma and instead said: Look, this is life. 

 Bernini, Rape of Proserpina

"Why do the rich have so much influence in politics?" asks Duke University Prof Nicholas Carnes in a Talking Points Memo piece.

Is it because the poor and working class don't vote? Is it too much outside money pouring into political campaigns and causes?

No, Prof Carnes writes, there's another "big reason" why the wealthy dominate US politics: "Wealthy people are the ones in office themselves."

"If millionaires in the United States formed their own political party, that party would make up just 3% of the country," he says, "but it would have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House."

A working-class party, by contrast, would comprise less than 2% of Congress.

Unfortunately, he argues, the US political system is generally a contest between the rich and the rich.

"By the time most Americans get to the polls, the only options on their ballots are wealthy, white-collar professionals," he writes. "Do you want to vote for a millionaire lawyer or a millionaire business owner?"

He concludes:

Those of us who care about making our government more responsive to middle- and working-class Americans need to keep working to get the money out of our political institutions. But they also need to start asking what we can do to get more working-class people into them.


The best paragraph here is "By the time most Americans get to the polls, the only options on their ballots are wealthy, white-collar professionals," he writes. "Do you want to vote for a millionaire lawyer or a millionaire business owner?”

It's the government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. Some say it's always been that way, and always will be. So maybe just tiny improvements here and there, tiny victories, is what we should celebrate.

No one represents the interests of the non-rich, for all the pious rhetoric about the middle class. Alas, I don’t think any substantial change is doable in the coming decades. The system is indeed rigged, but the rich have such an overwhelming advantage that I don’t see any way out. A grassroots movement? We’re seeing something of this sort now, but it’s already being beaten down by the establishment money machine.

My only hope is a bit of a lasting reform here and there. The labor movement won more decent working conditions. The unions have mostly gotten suppressed, but many of the reforms have proved lasting, and no, we no longer have child labor in the West. We don’t? I hear the skeptics say in a mocking tone. Definitely not the way it used to be. It takes a long, long time, but progress does happen. 

Child miners, 1911


Scientists at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) gave mice Nicotinamide riboside (NR), which proved to have a positive effect on the functioning of stem cells. Their research is published today in the journal Science.

No negative side effects were observed in the mice given NR, even at high doses. NR, which is a form of vitamin B3, has not been scientifically tested on humans but is already available in certain nutritional supplements found in the U.S.

The EPFL researchers said caution should be observed when it comes to branding NR an elixir of youth, as further studies are required. One avenue of study would be to make sure the vitamin does not also boost the functioning of pathological cells, such as those found in cancerous tissue.

Johan Auwerx, who led the team, says the study is a breakthrough for regenerative medicine and could have profound implications for treating diseases like muscular dystrophy. According to the scientists’ data, the muscular power of mice taking NR did improve.

“This work could have very important implications in the field of regenerative medicine,” Auwerx says.

“We are not talking about introducing foreign substances into the body, but rather restoring the body’s ability to repair itself with a product that can be taken with food.

From Science Daily:

“Hongbo Zhang wanted to understand how the regeneration process deteriorated with age. To do so, he teamed up with colleagues from ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and universities in Canada and Brazil. Through the use of several markers, he was able to identify the molecular chain that regulates how mitochondria -- the "powerhouse" of the cell -- function and how they change with age. The role that mitochondria play in metabolism has already been amply demonstrated, "but we were able to show for the first time that their ability to function properly was important for stem cells," said Auwerx.

Under normal conditions, these stem cells, reacting to signals sent by the body, regenerate damaged organs by producing new specific cells. At least in young bodies. "We demonstrated that fatigue in stem cells was one of the main causes of poor regeneration or even degeneration in certain tissues or organs," said Hongbo Zhang.

This is why the researchers wanted to "revitalize" stem cells in the muscles of elderly mice. And they did so by precisely targeting the molecules that help the mitochondria to function properly. "We gave nicotinamide riboside to 2-year-old mice, which is an advanced age for them," said the researcher. "This substance, which is close to vitamin B3, is a precursor of NAD+, a molecule that plays a key role in mitochondrial activity. And our results are extremely promising: muscular regeneration is much better in mice that received NR, and they lived longer than the mice that didn't get it.”

But then I remember the great hopes that we used to have for resveratrol. NR, however, is involved in the mitochondrial energy production, so it’s more promising. Note the absence of human trials at this point. Humans are a naturally long-lived species, and some treatments that work in mice have been found ineffective in humans. 

Bruegel, Maypole

ending on beauty

Of all the stringed instruments I like the best
the harp stretched from hand to hand,
from blood to blood. From disaster to deliverance,
From error to perfection.

~ Miroslav Holub

A harpist from Ur, that unimaginably old city in Mesopotamia: Sumerian, going back almost 6,000 years. How hard life was then, “short and brutish” for most. Yet music already existed, bringing us the news of peace and beauty. Someone was not a soldier; someone was a musician instead, practicing long hours “from error to perfection.”

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