Saturday, April 9, 2016


Rodin: Orpheus and Eurydice


all suffering ceased. The flaming wheel
stood still; no longer grasping the air
in hunger and thirst, Tantalus unbent;
and Sisyphus sat down on his boulder.

Cerberus lay down his three
heads and whimpered.
The Furies forgot how to hate,
their faces wet with tears.

In my own years of hell, home after a day
of running the mimeo machine,
choking on the sour stench,
a staple driven through my finger,

I turned on my stereo, and the slow
movement of the Italian Symphony
took me in its arms.
Adagios of rivers and meadows

swayed in the room’s dusk
like a calm faraway light —
and suddenly I couldn’t see,
the world glimmering through tears:

their salty sting on my face,
the moon of my breath
on the cold pane of the night.
In that moment I understood

I had the best, the first-rate:
when Orpheus sang in Hades I had
the song that made any boulder
a pebble in the stream of stars.

~ Oriana © 2016

Orpheus before Hades and Persephone, 1685


“Forty years later, George Orwell responded to Tolstoy’s 1906 attack [on Shakespeare as inartistic and evil] in an essay titled “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” (1947). His answer? Tolstoy’s objections “to the raggedness of Shakespeare’s plays, the irrelevancies, the incredible plots, the exaggerated language,” are at bottom an objection to Shakespeare’s earthy humanism, his “exuberance,” or—to use another psychoanalytic term—his juissance. “Tolstoy,” writes Orwell, “is not simply trying to rob others of a pleasure he does not share. He is doing that, but his quarrel with Shakespeare goes further. It is the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life.”

But why, Orwell asks, does Tolstoy pick on Lear, specifically? Because of the character’s strong resemblance to Tolstoy himself. “Lear renounces his throne,” he writes, “but expects everyone to continue treating him as a king.”

~ But is it not also curiously similar to the history of Tolstoy himself? There is a general resemblance which one can hardly avoid seeing, because the most impressive event in Tolstoy’s life, as in Lear’s, was a huge and gratuitous act of renunciation. In his old age, he renounced his estate, his title and his copyrights, and made an attempt — a sincere attempt, though it was not successful — to escape from his privileged position and live the life of a peasant.

But the deeper resemblance lies in the fact that Tolstoy, like Lear, acted on mistaken motives and failed to get the results he had hoped for. According to Tolstoy, the aim of every human being is happiness, and happiness can only be attained by doing the will of God. But doing the will of God means casting off all earthly pleasures and ambitions, and living only for others. Ultimately, therefore, Tolstoy renounced the world under the expectation that this would make him happier. But if there is one thing certain about his later years, it is that he was NOT happy. ~

Orwell draws an even larger point from the philosophical differences Tolstoy has with Shakespeare: “Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic,” he writes, “since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana…. Often there is a seeming truce between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and the next.” 

On this last point, no doubt, Tolstoy and Orwell would agree. In Orwell’s analysis, Tolstoy’s polemic against Shakespeare’s humanism further “sharpens the contradictions,” we might say, between the two attitudes, and between his own former humanism and the fervent, if unhappy, religiosity of his later years.”

Derek Jacobi as King Lear


The irony was that in the end Tolstoy decided there was no personal god after all. Having rejected the Russian Orthodox church, he tried to construct a personal spirituality. He went through the trouble of combining the four gospels into one in an attempt to arrive at a coherent story of Christ, but even his own version failed him in the end. He thought that faith, no matter how irrational, is needed to make suffering and mortality endurable, but was careful not to connect this “faith” to any specific religion.

He still tried to defend a system of utopian social justice, however. Basically he was profoundly miserable. He became depressed in mid-life, after completing Anna Karenina, and never quite shook off his depression (which no doubt had a lot to do with his ever-worsening marriage). His religious and philosophic quest brought no healing (and no wonder — introspective overthinking was the last thing he needed). In particular, he rejected the epicurean position of enjoying life without asking about ultimate meaning — and Shakespeare stood for life in its richness without much interest in metaphysics.

Orwell is right: Tolstoy managed to retain the life-rejecting religious mentality even if he couldn’t quite swallow the Trinity, creation in six days, the devils and the angels and similar nonsense.

And Tolstoy’s bizarre dismissal of Shakespeare as “inartistic”? The answer is surprisingly easy. To fully appreciate Shakespeare’s genius, you have to read him in the original. Then the poetry is simply overwhelming. But I remember, in high school, first watching Romeo and Juliet in a mediocre Polish translation and thinking, “What’s so great about this play? The plot is terrible. The two lovers have nothing profound to say. Why is this work regarded as a masterpiece?”

At the same time, even in my teens I realized that there had to be a reason why Shakespeare was universally celebrated as a genius. I was eager to master English well enough so I could read Shakespeare. Happily, I did reach my goal. And I was not disappointed. The great lines were there, and great scenes — think, for instance, how good Shakespeare is at mad scenes. Or the graveyard scene in Hamlet — it’s hard to think of anything that compares — unless another famous scene out of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s ability to create powerful, unforgettable characters is also one of the traits of his genius. Not that we have to choose . . . and of course there is no denying the greatness of the best of Tolstoy, but if pressed to the wall and told I could have only one, I’d pick Lady Macbeth over Anna Karenina, Rosalind or Portia over Natasha, or Hamlet or indeed even Lear, poor flawed deluded Lear, or almost any interesting Shakespearean character — even Caliban! — over any of Tolstoy's characters. Not that Tolstoy’s characters are not memorable, but — when it comes to Shakespeare, there is a quantum leap. Lear is timeless. Count Vronsky? Hmmm . . .

Overall, Orwell’s point is right on: the world of Shakespeare’s plays is basically secular, with an occasional religious figure like a friar being completely minor. Shakespeare is not concerned with metaphysics, compared to his interest in the politics of kingship, for instance, and the consequences of evil actions right here on earth. Like Dostoyevski, Shakespeare is a great psychologist. What happens psychologically to Dostoyevski's Raskolnikov is fascinating to watch — just as the unraveling of Macbeth's mind is.

Tolstoy’s great mistake was to seek a one-size-fits-all universal “meaning of life.” Shakespeare might reply that there are no answers; there are only stories. And there is language in which to tell these stories — and language has its own collective wisdom. Add to this the kind of ability to use language that a writer of genius has — and that is quite enough. Life is enough, and humanity is enough. Add to this the beauty of nature, and it would be ungracious to complain. 

Tolstoy with his daughter Tatyana, 1902

THE FIRST TIME I STOOD UP TO A PRIEST was just after I turned 14, a month or so after I'd left the church. The beauty of it unfolded when I suddenly realized I didn't have to stand there and listen to him practically yell at me in the street. It was a major, crowded street (Grójecka, in the Ochota district of Warsaw). The priest was having a combined rage and anxiety attack. He was red in the face and shaking. “Have you stopped going to church?” he asked sharply. Then, with unmistakable fear in his voice, “Have you stopped believing in god?”

His fear startled me. I didn’t answer. My silence was the answer. And this seemingly tiny fact — that a young girl had decided god didn’t exist — seemed to unnerve him to the core, to threaten his whole worldview. It was the first time in my life that I felt I was threatening to someone — a middle-aged man at that! Yet I was only a teenager, a “girl from a good home” who’d never be impolite to an adult. No need to fear that I’d say, “Fuck Jesus” or "Fuck god" or “give the priest a fig” with the fingers of my right hand. No.

I merely stood in the middle of the sidewalk, small next to this massive man, a sparrow against a crow — “little sparrows,” as our literature teacher called me now and then — a mere girl but suddenly with a mind that had obviously done something other than regurgitate catechism. He, red in the face and screaming; me, cool and silent, just staring at him.

After five minutes or so of listening to his frantic scolding, I turned around without a word and walked away. First the realization that god had no power to punish me, then the realization that my parish priest had no power to punish me. He continued to speak in a loud voice, getting even redder in his face, gasping. Without a word, I turned my back on him and resumed walking to wherever I was going.

But at that point it was no longer real courage. I wish I'd had courage back when hell was terribly real for me, and oh, how I hated going to confession! I might have stayed longer in a liberal Protestant church . . . or perhaps not as long because who knows at what point reading the bible would make me question the more revolting stories . . .

It was fascinating, though, to see a priest throw a tantrum in public, pedestrians in a quick staccato walking by us with with barely a glance at the spectacle — the usual human wave of faces lost in their own preoccupations. I threatened his worldview, while he did not threaten my new clarity. He, a suddenly scared priest of a dead god; I, suddenly filled with courage, my life ahead of me, the future, the new world.

My parish church in Warsaw. The brick used to be much darker. This photo was taken after a clean-up. I'm glad: it must have been the gloomiest church in the city.


“Many Biblical stories have their "elephant in the room": An obvious, slap-in-the-face question that is so basic and so deeply troubling that until you find a way to deal with it, you really can't claim to have any understanding at all f the story you are reading. Is there a question of this sort -- a question of this magnitude -- that we need to deal with when reading the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

I think there is.

Let's talk a little bit about this mysterious tree in the Garden, the one that God places off-limits. It has a name. It is known as "the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil". By any measure, that's a pretty strange name for a tree -- but if that's what the Bible calls it, then that's presumably what it is: It somehow conveys a "knowledge of Good and Evil," an ability to distinguish right from wrong to those who partake of its fruits.

But there's a big problem with this. In a sentence, it is this:

"Why would God want to deny this knowledge to people?"

Think about it. Are human beings better or worse off, for their knowledge of "good and evil"? Is knowing right from wrong an asset or a liability for humanity?

Imagine a world in which people were pretty much the same as they are now — they were smart, they could walk, they could talk, they could drive cars and become investment bankers. They were missing only one thing. They didn't know right from wrong.

We have a word for people like that. We call them sociopaths.

A tempting way out of the problem would be to suggest that somehow, it was all a set-up: God really did want people to have the knowledge the tree would give them, and was in fact "glad" when they ate from it. But this approach is deeply problematic. For the way the Torah tells the story, the Almighty seems pretty disappointed with Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree; he in fact punishes them severely. How are we to understand this disappointment? It seems a little perverse to imagine the Almighty secretly chuckling with pleasure that Adam and Eve finally ate the fruit he put off limits — but hiding His joy behind a mask of displeasure and anger.

Clearly, God really did want Adam and Eve to avoid the Tree of Knowledge. But that brings us back to our question: Why would the Lord want to deny humanity an understanding of good and evil?

Catch-22 in the garden

The truth is, the question is really even a little deeper than this. It's not simply that it seems strange for God to have put a "tree of knowledge" off-limits to Adam and Eve. Rather, the very existence of such a tree seems to create a basic contradiction in the story as a whole. Here's why:

What happens immediately after Adam and Eve eat from the tree whose mysterious fruits confer knowledge of "good and evil"? The Almighty becomes angry with them and punishes them. But if Adam and Eve were punished for what they did, this presupposes that they knew they did something wrong. You don't punish people who are unaware that they did something bad. So Adam and Eve evidently had some knowledge of good and evil before eating from the tree. At the very least, they knew it was right to obey God when He told them not to eat, and it was wrong to disobey Him.

But now we're really stuck. For if Adam and Eve already understood good and evil before reaching for the fruit, well then, they already possessed what the tree was supposed to give them. And that would mean that the tree was useless, nothing but an empty farce.

My source didn't identify the painter, but the style points to the school of Claude Lorraine, especially for the landscape. 


“Did the person know right from wrong?” remains the foremost legal question. The insane and the mentally handicapped are not held responsible for their action because we assume they don't know right from wrong. And Adam and Eve presumably did not know right from wrong until they ate the fruit. But maybe they knew it was wrong to disobey? This is the Catch-22 in the story. Even a metaphorical reading is not exactly easy.

I suspect Cardinal Ratzinger, the Grand Inquisitor under Pope JP2 and later Pope Benedict, will come to be acknowledged as a revolutionary figure in the history of the church. It was a public secret that Ratzinger and JP2 both believed in evolution. Ratzinger was the author of the doctrine that heaven and hell were not actual places. He’s also on record as having said that Genesis was a mishmash of “pagan fables.” Without the charisma of either JP2 or Pope Francis, for now he gets no respect, but in the future, I predict, that will change.

This is Poussin's Adam and Eve (1639), with someone in the clouds appearing to wave hello. But Eve isn't waving back. She's looking at Adam, pointing her finger upward in an abstract way.

Maybe she’s only saying, “I think it's going to rain.” But given the nature of such paintings, we know that’s not the case. They are meant to be pictorial sermons. At first I enjoyed the gender reversal: it's Eve doing the preaching. Then a friend said the obvious: Eve is pointing out the Forbidden Tree to Adam, encouraging him. Yes, of course. I was so distracted by the pale figure in the sky I didn’t even notice the fruit-laden trees.


There isn’t a human being who has never been terrified of dying. It’s only normal, especially in a dangerous situation, e.g. being in midst of tornado, or being shot at. But I know that the question isn’t about the times of danger when we are on automatic; even the most deranged schizophrenics have been observed to evacuate a building on fire with great efficiency. Never mind philosophy: we seem to have a huge interest in existing.

But this is not about running out of a burning building. It’s more about waking up in the wee hours, safe in our comfortable bed yet suddenly seized with mortal dread.

I'm not sure if those moments are universal, but I have no trouble admitting that they have happened to me, and the intensity of the terror is unforgettable. But the interesting part is that I can’t remember the last time I experienced such a moment. What I do remember is that those moments used to happen with some regularity when I was young.

Ah, wistful words: “when I was young.” The unavoidable past tense. There were some very good things about being young, but . . .  there were some bad things too. And the worst period of youth was before I found my vocation.

In my twenties and even into my early thirties, I felt lost. I had no idea how to use my intelligence and intellectual skills, and what scattered but considerable knowledge I had. A wise counselor said, “You don’t fit into any category. You will have to create your own career.” But how? I did show an early interest in writing, but it was derailed by the verdict of “no talent” from an instructor (some people could be called “anti-mentors”). I’d throw myself into this or that field, only to see my interest die within a year or two. My jobs didn’t really engage my mind. My life was “not working.” And . . . I was experiencing occasional panic attacks about dying. It didn’t matter if I was miserable — the thought of not ceasing to exist was unbearable.

To summarize a long and complicated journey, in my mid-thirties I did gain a sense of vocation and my life’s work. I was busy with that work, and have been ever since — except for a period of mid-life depression, when I lost the sense of my vocation. I eventually regained it, in a changed form. Being cornered by mortality was a big part of that story, which I told many times. The gist of it is, again: work, vocation.

When I came upon Rilke’s “To work is to live without dying,” it made perfect sense to me. My experience exactly.

St. Augustine said something like (I quote from memory): “The key to immortality is to lead a life worth remembering.” I translate that as not literal immortality, but simply as not thinking about dying except once in a while — with some sadness, but without terror. The feeling of gratitude has long ago become dominant. I am grateful for having been able to make my modest contribution. I continue to share beauty and what I hope is some wisdom — or at least depth and honesty in my writing.

And yes, there is Epicurus, and that could be the answer right there. But personally speaking, my answer isn’t based on philosophy or logic. I’m simply too busy living.

What if I lost my ability to contribute? I'm beginning to suspect that simply enjoying life at a receptive level might be enough. It wouldn’t have been enough in my younger years, when I intensely needed to be productive. I realize that it’s not just my work experiences that I’ve come to regard as a “life worth remembering,” but all kinds of rich and beautiful experiences — and some painful but important experiences — even if they did not result in essays or poems. I’ve certainly been “mellowing.”

I don’t believe we “go anywhere” once the brain ceases to function. The consciousness ceases to happen (consciousness is a process, not a thing) the way a flame ceases when whatever sustained it is exhausted. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the lovely light. 

But what about the dying itself? Won’t that be terrifying?

Probably not. Experienced nurses tell us that practically everyone dies peacefully. Brain function diminishes; a special neurochemistry of natural dying comes into play, and it’s gentle: nature's last mercy. Dennis Nurske wrote a lovely short poem about it:

Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes

Ignorance will carry me through the last days,
the blistering cities, over briny rivers
swarming with jellyfish, as once my father
carried me from the car up the tacked carpet
to the white bed, and if I woke, I never knew it.


(For many years now I've been reading stories to the effect that fat people have different gut bacteria than lean people, but this one is the most specific yet).

“The logic behind weight-loss surgery seems simple: rearrange the digestive tract so the stomach can hold less food and the food bypasses part of the small intestine, allowing fewer of a meal's calories to be absorbed. Bye-bye, obesity.

A study of lab mice, published on Wednesday, begs to differ. It concludes that one of the most common and effective forms of bariatric surgery, called Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, melts away pounds not — or not only — by re-routing the digestive tract, as long thought, but by changing the bacteria in the gut.

Or, in non-scientific terms, the surgery somehow replaces fattening microbes with slimming ones.

If that occurs in people, too, then the same bacteria-changing legerdemain achieved by gastric bypass might be accomplished without putting obese patients under the knife in an expensive and risky operation.

"These elegant experiments show that you can mimic the action of surgery with something less invasive," said Dr. Francesco Rubino of Catholic University in Rome and a pioneer in gastric-bypass surgery. "For instance, you might transfer bacteria or even manipulate the diet" to encourage slimming bacteria and squelch fattening kinds, said Rubino, who was not involved in the study.

Fattening bugs, slimming bugs

For many obese patients, particularly those with type 2 diabetes, gastric bypass has succeeded where nothing else has. Severely obese patients routinely lose 65 to 75 percent of their excess weight and fat after the operation, studies show, and leave their diabetes behind.

Oddly, however, the diabetes remission often occurs before significant weight loss. That has made bypass surgeons and weight-loss experts suspect that Roux-en-Y changes not only anatomy but also metabolism or the endocrine system. In other words, the surgery does something besides re-plumb the gut.

That "something," according to previous studies, includes altering the mix of trillions of microbes in the digestive tract. Not only are the "gut microbiota" different in lean people and obese people, but the mix of microbes changes after an obese patient undergoes gastric bypass and becomes more like the microbiota in lean people.

Researchers did not know, however, whether the microbial change was the cause or the effect of post-bypass weight loss.

That is what the new study, by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, set out to answer.

They first performed Roux-en-Y on obese mice. As expected, the animals quickly slimmed down, losing 29 percent of their weight and keeping it off, the researchers report in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

To make sure there was not something about the general experience of surgery, rather than gastric bypass specifically, that affected the animals, the scientists performed "sham" Roux-en-Y on other obese mice. In this procedure, the researchers made incisions as if they were going to do a gastric bypass, but instead connected everything up as nature had it.

The researchers then transferred gut microbiota from the Roux-en-Y mice to microbe-free obese mice. Result: the recipient mice lost weight and fat - no surgery required. Crucially, obese mice that received gut bugs from mice that had received sham Roux-en-Y, not the real thing, did not slim down.

It is the first experimental evidence that changes in the gut microbiota cause the weight loss after gastric bypass, and that the new, post-bypass mix of microbes can cause weight loss in animals that did not have surgery.

In particular, just a week after surgery the Roux-en-Y mice harbored relatively more of the same types of bacteria that become more abundant in people after gastric bypass and that lean people have naturally.

"The effects of gastric bypass are not just anatomical, as we thought," said Dr. Lee Kaplan, senior author of the study and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "They're also physiological. Now we need to learn more about how the microbiota exert their effects."

Slimming bacteria work their magic in either of two ways, studies of gut microbiota show. They seem to raise metabolism, allowing people to burn off a 630-calorie chocolate chip muffin more easily.

They also extract fewer calories from the muffin in the first place. In contrast, fattening bacteria wrest every last calorie from food.

Transferring slimming bacteria into obese people might be one way to give them the benefits of weight-loss surgery without an operation. It might also be possible to devise a menu that encourages the proliferation of slimming bacteria and reduces the population of fattening bacteria.

Another new study found that figuring out whether you have slimming microbiota or fattening ones might be as easy as breathing.

In a study published in the online edition of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles report that people whose breath has high concentrations of both hydrogen and methane gases are more likely to have a higher body mass index and higher percentage of body fat.

Methane is associated with bacteria called Methanobrevibacter smithii, which in overabundance may cause weight gain by extracting calories from food super-efficiently, Cedars' Ruchi Mathur, who led the study, said: "It could allow a person to harvest more calories from their food."

The breath test could provide a warning that someone is at risk of obesity because he harbors fattening microbiota.

It could also validate what many overweight people have long suspected: if their slim friends eat two slices of bacon-cheeseburger pizza the 600 calories go through them like celery, but if the overweight person indulges then every calorie seems to turn into more fat. People absorb different quantities of calories from the exact same food, thanks to their gut microbiota.”

Sea lions in La Jolla Cove. Photo: Gwyn Henry

ending on beauty

I looked into the waters
seeing not only
my reflected face
but the great sky
that framed my lonely figure . . .
and I allowed myself
to be
by the great everywhere
calling to me
like an old,
invisible and unspoken

~ David Whyte, from “Twice Blessed”

photo: David Whyte

No comments:

Post a Comment