Sunday, July 10, 2016


Antonio Allegri da Correggio: Le Tre Grazie, fresco, Camera di San Paolo, Parma


It was the hot money night —
the fake Gypsy fortune-tellers
tugged on sweaty Gypsy scarves.
On every block someone was
performing: a raggae band
with dreadlocks bleached to rust,
a kazoo player, a one-man orchestra
pounding on a washboard
with a foot-strung drum.

Then the fireworks, twice:
the family show at nine,
and the midnight extravaganza.
rockets from an off-shore boat
burst into cartwheels, rings and hearts —
even a wobbly peace sign.
The full moon rose from the ocean,
orange-pink like a salmon.

When fireworks fizzed their last gasp,
we turned toward the casinos:
Caesar’s Palace lined with giant
statues saluting Caesar, and the gilded,
candy-striped Taj Mahal.
High over the sprawling edifice,
in floodlights shifting across the dark,
spiraled an eddy of seagulls.

More than a hundred seagulls, luminous,
soaring three hundred feet up!
At first I thought they too
were only part of the show —
perhaps trained doves,
or a laser fantasy of flight.
But the birds were too high,
and they didn’t
advertise anything.

 A passer-by explained,
“They are attracted by the lights.”
We couldn’t stop watching them:
against that circus night,
the white birds,
incomprehensible as artists,

high above greed.
Over the garish casino,
seagulls spiraled in shifting beams,
their bodies weightless,
as if made of light.

~ Oriana © 2016

photo: Hayley Hyatt


For an interesting contrarian view of the American Revolution as a mistake, click here (I'm not saying I agree, but it’s still a fascinating article — and yes, practically everything is both good and bad, so it’s not the least surprising that the American Revolution would have some dark consequences as well.)


I had this dream more than a year ago, I think, and yet it’s with me still. I am in Italy, in a courtyard of what may be a monastery — and yet I'm not sight-seeing. I don’t know what place this is or what my purpose is — perhaps to study. A sweet-looking dog is wandering about the courtyard, and I “know” that the dog’s name is Correggio. In the dream I assume that the name means “courage.”

After waking, I consulted the dictionary: the Italian name for courage is CORRAGGIO. That’s fairly close, and fits the idea that at this time of transition in my life I need courage. But then at what stage of life we don’t need courage? So at first “courage” seemed a rather trite interpretation — though I liked the idea of a dog named Courage.

Pursuing the matter further, I learned that there is a town named Correggio. It’s in Northern Italy, near the better-known town of Reggio Emilia, in the Emilia-Romagna region. And in that town there is this courtyard of the Palace of the Princes:

Yes, it did look like the courtyard in my dream, but then such courtyards with columns and gentle arches are pretty generic. Still, I was amazed that the name of an Italian town, previously unknown to me, at least on the conscious level, came up in my dream. It reminded about another dream that continues to haunt me, a dream in which I was to move from Rome to Pistoia — from the capital to the provinces, in some ways the irony of losing Warsaw for the American suburbia.

But the main way the name of Correggio is known is for its famous painter, Antonio Allegri da Correggio (1489-1534), generally known as Correggio. He was a master of sensual beauty. It’s likely that before I had the dream, I’d come across this rapturous depiction of Jupiter and Io:

Recently I discovered another painting of Correggio that I like: The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Alexandria. The saint is as fictitious as Jupiter and Io, but so what? It’s the beauty that matters. Beauty and tenderness.

Beauty and tenderness — we always need those, but especially when the daily news brings us ugliness and violence. And it strikes me that my dream confusion of courage and Correggio wasn’t all that confused after all. During violent times, the times of hate-filled rhetoric, it takes courage to stay loyal to the values of beauty and tenderness.

I have often pondered the meaning of courage. With war heroes in my family, and heroic women like my grandmother, mother, and one of my aunts — those “pillars of strength” who certainly paid a price but never needed to doubt what they stood for or their willingness to die for it — I felt like a small, nervous, bumbling little girl. Sure, people think it took courage to come to America by myself at seventeen. It didn’t take courage as much as colossal ignorance.

But look, I didn’t commit suicide. I used to think about it every day, but didn’t do it — until past a certain age, I knew it would be absurd, because now it was too late and you might as well live. It takes courage just to keep on living in a culture that brutally divides people into winners and losers. But then it takes courage to keep on living simply it in the face of mortality. 

There is no denying that “life is an accident waiting to unhappen” and that we live on borrowed time — just so many decades before non-being. To know that and not to sink into bitterness — that is the courage of any typical human being. Even people who profess to believe in some kind of afterlife are not too sure about it, and in no rush to enter the “better place.” To be one of the chosen few sitting at the side of the Lord — an eternity of that sitting — an eternity of anything, for that matter — has a limited appeal at best.

So if even heaven is no solution, how do we cope? Again my answer is beauty and tenderness. Against the white-out of death, we summon the most splendid colors. Against nothing happening, we tell the wildest stories, never mind how made-up those are. And Correggio comes to me in a dream, and leads me to discover those colors and those stories. Instead of despair, delight. Thank you, Antonio Allegri da Correggio.

a close-up of Io

~ In 1610, Galileo shattered the prevalent cosmic view with his telescope. One of his most remarkable discoveries was that Jupiter had moons (he could see only the four largest), something that flew on the face of the then dominant Aristotelian worldview, where the Earth was the center of the cosmos and everything revolved around it. If Jupiter, a planet, could have moons, Earth wasn't that special.

Historians write about the strong emotions Galileo must have felt when he realized he was the first human to see something new about the universe. The result, after his work was combined with that of Johannes Kepler in Isaac Newton's universal law of gravitation, was a completely new way to look at the cosmos and, as a consequence, at ourselves. Only 400 years later, we are actually sending probes directly to that distant world, to get a closer look.

Some of the scientists in Juno's mission will be the first ones to see things about Jupiter no one has ever seen before. In the brief moments before they make their discoveries public, as the new torch bearers of our enduring search for knowledge, they will share a silent bond with the Italian pioneer. And yet it moves!

Given the planet's gaseous composition, scientists hope to be able to "see" features in the magnetic field that here remain buried under Earth's thick rocky crust. In particular, the goal is to understand the "dynamo" mechanism that generates Jupiter's magnetic field, that must share many properties with our own. But there are many unknowns, and the sheer violence of the local conditions can be deadly to the mission. Juno is the most heavily shielded spacecraft ever launched, so that it can — hopefully — sustain the bombardment of radiation and particles that it's sure to encounter. ~


~ The Catholic church and the Communist party in formal terms are very much alike. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church said outside the church there was no salvation. The Communist party said the exact same thing. ~

(Oriana: This reminded me of a self-made Chinese woman billionaire who was used to work in Western high finance, but decided to go back to China: “I missed the idealism.” I also love the way that Jowitt sees an essential similarity between St. Augustine and Stalin, and Aquinas and Khrushchev. The Catholic church is a perfect example of a totalitarian institution that used to be charismatic but then went into decline.)

~ From one perspective that's neglected, Leninism and Nazism were each, in different ways, perverse attempts to sustain and restore a heroic ethos and life in opposition to a liberal bourgeois individualistic system, which I obviously prefer. But if you look at the Bolshevik cadre and you look at the Nazi SS, both of whom were perversely murderous in the course of their histories, what one sees is an attempt to co-opt features of the industrial, urban, educated, scientific, technologically advanced world, while rejecting the liberal notion of individual liberty, of rational methodical acquisition, of the bourgeois, the entrepreneur, of law as procedure, of merit defined in terms of achievement, in favor of a fundamentally irrational, charismatic, ecstatic sense of being able to overcome the necessities of life. And in that sense they were attempted substitutes.

Nazism did not demand much in the way of intellectual conversion and intellectual commitment. It was fairly easy to join. Leninism intrigued me because it was, in a sense, a sociological discipline. It formally tried to understand what was happening in history. It had an empirical orientation. It had an intellectual corpus to it in Marx. And what fascinated me was that these modern elements were systematically subordinated to, not related to, but subordinated to this charismatic, heroic notion, not in an individual. I'm aware of Stalin and Mao and Ho Chi Minh and all the rest of them, but the defining principle of Leninism is to do what is illogical, and that is to make the impersonal charismatic.

What Lenin did was remarkable. He did exactly what he claimed to do: he created a party of a new type. He made the party charismatic. People died for the party. It's as if people would die for the DMV. Most people don't get too excited about the Department of Motor Vehicles because it's a bureaucracy. What Lenin did was combine the attributes of personal heroism and the efficiency of impersonal organization, and created a charismatic organization. That's been done before. It's been done by Benedictines, it's been done by Jesuits, but it's never been done by a political party before. That intrigued me. When things that logically don't go together practically work, I'm intrigued.

Furthermore, what it did was compel the allegiance of people all the way from Peru to Kenya to Brooklyn. That's extraordinary, by definition. History, for the most part, is protestant. It is diverse. People are diverse, cultures are diverse. When you get an Islam or Roman Catholicism, or Leninism or a British liberalism, that, in effect, in some real way standardizes book cover diverse cultures over time, that's one of the remarkable moments in history, and I wanted to study this remarkable moment. ~

Ken Jowitt, author of New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, argues that Lenin created a charismatic political party that gave people a heroic ideal. He compared it to monastic orders: the Benedictines and the Jesuits. I think the Marines are another charismatic organization, looking for “superior” men capable of total dedication. No one joins the Marines to get rich. It’s about being a hero.

That’s also why fundamentalist religions that make extreme demands keep attracting followers while the toothless, non-demanding churches lose membership. Charismatic organizations actually negate the individual: the group is everything. Forget your inner life, your individualism. You get your identity from the group to which you give yourself totally: “Totus tuus.” Idealism pushed to an extreme (being willing to die and kill for the cause) results in evil, but I don’t think we can ever rid human nature of the longing to live for a great cause and be a hero.

Renunciation, asceticism, total dedication, the heroic ethos — nothing could be more opposite of consumerism.

Jowitt also makes a point that sooner or later a charismatic organization loses its charisma. This is reflected in attempts to reform the system (Vatican II comes to my mind), but the more you reform, the less you demand of the faithful, the lesser the opportunity to be a hero and the greater the loss of the organization’s charisma. It doesn’t matter if it’s a right-wing or left-wing organization: both kinds feed the emotional hunger for heroism.

Jowitt: “I think in every ideology you'll find an Augustine and an Aquinas. The Augustines are those who argue that they represent the superior and that the rest of the world is inferior; you have to attack the inferior, maintain the cohesiveness and the bounded quality of the superior. The city of God versus the city of man. Now, I'm not arguing Stalin was a Roman Catholic or an Augustinian, but in analogous terms they were the same.

As soon as you dissolve the tension between that superior group and the society, unless the group is willing to allow those people in society to be equal as individuals, there's only one thing that can happen to that group: it becomes corrupt. Aquinas, in effect, tried to revise the church to deal with the fact that the society had become more Christian. Khrushchev was Communism's Aquinas, but neither Aquinas nor Khrushchev allowed for the individual to become the major figure. Rather, the church stayed superior, even under Aquinas; the party stayed superior. What happened in the church? You got a Luther. What happened in the Communist Party? You got a Lech Walesa and an Adam Michnik. And what did they stand for? They stood for the appearance of the individual against the domination of that group.”

There is also a need for an enemy: “You have to have a combat quality, there has to an enemy to sustain your need to convert the world. If you've converted the world, charismatics go out of business.”

Jowitt says that Gorbachev really thought he could reform the system; he didn’t realize he was dismantling the Soviet Union. ~

Luther throwing an inkpot at the devil

One can argue that the early communists exhibited a tragic version of heroism. They were fighting for the wrong cause, but they were heroic nevertheless. Aleksander Watt, a Polish poet and an ex-Communist ("My Century" is his fascinating tale of Soviet prisons, which cured him of both Communism and dadaist poetry) remarked that the most attractive individuals he’d ever known were pre-war Polish Communists, a fairly small and persecuted group. Their courage and devotion were total. When the party was embattled it was not corrupt. It took coming into power to corrupt it — just one more variation on the eternal theme.

This is a reprise of an article I found in 2013, and find all the more fascinating on re-reading. The similarities between the Roman Catholic Church and Islam were of course very interesting to me. Currently the most charismatic organization seems to be ISIS, alas.

The hunger for a cause can lead to what seems very strange to most, e.g. certain white people want to pass as black. When a group is seen as an underdog, it will attract its champions. 


Still thinking about the church/party similarities and opposites: both required blind obedience. But the party (in its heroic, persecuted stage) made the members feel they were heroic and wonderful. The church chose to make the members feel worthless, rotten. Maybe the Jesuit priests — the elite — felt they were heroic and wonderful, but not the average devout Catholic. I understand the need to make people feel guilty and ashamed of themselves, but I wonder if making people feel wonderful about themselves might not work even better? I guess the doctrine of sin and salvation stands in the way. And it's hard growing up when you get the message of being worthless. Not just “unworthy," but completely bad, a reject, hellfire fodder.

It’s different in countries where there is no competition from other churches. The Catholic church knows that many Protestant churches offer a more pleasant prospect — you go to heaven without needing to suffer in Purgatory, your fare has been prepaid, and you don’t have to go through the unpleasantness of confession (by the way, it’s been pointed out that the communist parties developed sessions of “self-criticism” as a parallel with confession). In Protestant countries, the Catholic church has to try harder to be attractive, and to insist on its monopoly to being the sole true religion. But all of this is crumbling. The real world is beginning to win against the imaginary world.

~ [During this period there was] almost universal expectation of the imminent end of all things, of the Last Days and Final Judgment predicted by Jesus and accepted throughout the early church. About every thirty years from the tenth century onward, this fear took possession of various, sometimes large bodies of men and women and inspired them to form mass movements. Collective penance, pentecostal enthusiasm, irregular crusades, unauthorized pilgrimages, messianic mobbing—all these engaged Christians who feared it might soon be too late.

This was a recurrent electrical charge both in politics and in religion, and Fried does it justice although it sits ill with his insistence on the period as an Age of Reason. He seems reluctant to concede that hysteria kept pace and outstripped the achievement of the thought collective. By 1500 art, printing, theater, and song had enriched the West with a vivid backdrop on which the presence of Antichrist, the Last Judgment, the Devil, Hell’s Mouth, and torments were made clearer than ever before. Individual consciousness of sin was so intense that the attempted reformation of the church would turn into hell on earth.

Of course, the longing for peace and quiet deserves equal treatment. Limitations on war and restrictions on violence took on new forms in the Middle Ages, and the rejection of gross materialism inspired both the contemplative orders of monks and the bare-foot friars who went among secular men and women. This was the time of peacekeeping associations of all kinds, of hermits, and of the benevolent ladies called beguines; of places set apart for refuge and asylum, of hospices and leper houses; of quite long silences, which cannot play much part in the story of dynamism, innovation, and cupidity that Fried tells.

“De-hierarchization” began to predominate in many fields during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Popes and emperors still claimed universal authority, but with decreasing success. Marsilius of Padua was arguing that sovereignty lay with bodies of virtuous citizens. Other clerics held that in spiritual matters the whole church in council trumped the authority of its now duplicated heads at Rome and Avignon. ~

Eric Christiansen, from

medieval couple, 15th century


I used to hold mostly the “hell on earth” view of the Middle Ages: filth, disease, cruelty, constant warfare and other violence, theocracy (including the burning of “witches” and heretics), illiteracy. Sure, over so many centuries there are bound to be positive developments as well, but what with outbreaks of religious-apocalyptic hysteria (and no wonder, life being so horrible it could easily make one think those were the Last Days), it’s amazing Europe survived . . .

AND YET. Yes, there were those positive developments, and we mustn’t forget that (some extreme instances aside) nothing is all bad or all good. Each historical era is so complex that its impossible to apply a single label. The twentieth century, with its unprecedented mass slaughter, also gave us unprecedented progress not only in technology, but also, paradoxically, in human rights.

And the paradoxes continue in the twenty-first century. When the new millennium was still ahead, predictions about the year 2000 tended to focus on on space exploration and the victory over cancer and other dreadful diseases. War and poverty would be no more, and nations would cooperate in turning this earth into paradise. Who could have ever predicted that the twenty-first century would start with . . . religious wars? That radical Islam would try in earnest to return to the Middle Ages? Let’s hope that these are the last vicious attacks of a cornered beast — but then all predictions of the future have usually proved ridiculous. Once more we are not sure if humanity can survive — though this time the horror of the Last Days would most likely be along the lines of a climate disaster. But another scenario has a madman with a finger on the nuclear button. Either way, this time it won’t have anything to do with the invisible man in the sky.

Perhaps every century is like that: it’s both hell on earth and paradise on earth, almost side by side. Hence the need for a more balanced view. I’ve noticed that some people (and this includes not just the religious right but those who’d call themselves liberal and progressive) hold a very dark view of human nature. Things can only get worse because humans are inherently evil. Others, a minority, point to the achievements of the collective human genius and dare to be optimistic.

I dream of a world where everyone would be try to be kind. I think if people had more access to giving and getting affection and doing creative work and useful service work, we could have such world. Remnant aggression could go into sports. And that would be as close to heaven as we can get. When life is fulfilling, we don’t need the lie of a paradise in the beyond, that “pie in the sky after you die.”

Even the Middle Ages somehow understood that you can’t just wait for heaven to begin after you die. You have to actively create sacred spaces here on earth. Hence the splendid cathedrals and the peaceful monastery courtyards, always neatly swept. The streets might be filthy and violent; but there were places of order and quiet.

It’s fashionable to say that it’s ALWAYS the worst of times and the best of times. But during the Middle Ages the worst was really horrific, the levels of daily cruelty astonishing. I already hear a chorus of voices reminding me of the Nazis. The Nazis shock because they were the exception, not the rule. The world was becoming more humanitarian. And now, after even more progress toward universal human rights, we have ISIS. Yet somehow we are still here. Somehow we have made it . . . 

An Italian medicinal garden, recreated in New York


A study of 38-year-olds in New Zealand found their "biological age" — the state of their organs, immune system, heart health and chromosomes — ranged from as young as 30 to as old as 60.

And the older their biological age, the older they looked, the researchers added.

The study team focused on 954 men and women who had been participating in an ongoing New Zealand study since their birth in 1972-1973.

In 2011, the participants, then 38, underwent tests of kidney function, liver function, lung capacity and metabolic and immune system strength. Cholesterol, blood pressure, dental status, eye structure and heart health were also assessed, as was the length of chromosomal caps known as telomeres. Telomeres are known to shorten with age.

The researchers found a variance of up to 30 years in the different participants' biological age, although all were still free of any age-related disease.

The team conducted a secondary analysis, comparing biomarker information collected in 2011 with information gathered six and 12 years earlier.

That showed that between ages 26 and 38 *most* participants aged at an equal biological pace. But some were gaining three biological years for every one chronological year. Still others had essentially stopped getting older, as their biological age was essentially on "pause."

What's more, the older [the fast-agers’] biological age, the worse they fared on physical and mental acuity tests.

The fast-agers showed worse balance and poorer motor coordination, and reported having more trouble with tasks such as climbing stairs or carrying groceries. They had a weaker grip.

"This showed that already early in life we can see symptoms of advanced age in young people, symptoms that correspond to declining physical and cognitive function, long before age-related disease actually develops," Belsky said.

Dr. Rosanne Leipzig, a professor of geriatric and palliative medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, described the investigation as a "landmark" effort to better understand the aging process.

"If we can identify why some people have more rapid biological aging, it may be possible to intervene and reduce the risks of complications and diseases related to aging," said Leipzig, who was not involved in the study.

Belsky said the findings might propel scientists in a new direction. "This can help us as we start to come around to the idea that instead of trying to prevent individual illnesses like heart disease or cancer," he said, "we need to try to find ways to treat the common cause of all these things: aging.”


Note that most people are “average agers.” But most information about aging may come from the fast-agers and slow-agers. It won't be easy to separate out genetic vs environmental influences, given that environment certainly affects gene expression. Still, we already know that longevity runs in the family — just as certain cancers can run in the family.

ending on beauty

My room and this vastness as one
wake over a darkening land.
I am a string, stretched tight
over wide resonances.

Things are violin-bodies
filled with murmuring darkness:
the weeping of women dreams in it,
the resentment of whole generations
stirs in its sleep.

~ Rilke, “At the Shore of the Night”

I immediately thought of Coleridge’s “Aeolian Harp”:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Both Rilke and Coleridge hold a similar idea, a kind of collective consciousness sweeping over all that lives. Coleridge has in mind a kind of universal spirit, while Rilke seems to imagine collective human experience, including the weeping of women and the resentment of whole generations — since we are far from achieving paradise on earth, though arguably closer than previous centuries (in spite of the news, statistics bear that out). To Rilke, a human being is never just an isolated person, but part of the vast human story, and part of nature as well. 


No comments:

Post a Comment