Saturday, July 16, 2016


Storm cell over Kopenhagen


Still one more year of preparation
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return,
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.

And that will be the subject, with addenda. Also: armies
Running across frozen plains, shouting a curse
In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank
Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk
Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.

No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, tr Robert Hass


There are many poems about the horrors of war. This one, among many by Milosz, starts with the sentiment that reminds me both of Ecclesiastes and of Auden’s “About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters”:

The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return,
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.

And that will be the subject, with addenda.

Again we are asking if mass slaughter — this time in the form of acts of terrorism — will always be with us. Some are saying that we are in midst of WWIII — this time a war between the culture of secular modernity and a tribal/medieval version of a totalitarian religion hijacked by extremists who would like to restore the 7th century — and also bring about the End Days. Once again the world feels broken.

As Mary Oliver put it,

It is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.

Where do poets turn for consolation? As always, mainly to the beauty of nature. The cycles of nature go on, and the atrocities are merely "addenda." I think Milosz's great love of nature made it possible for him to have enough positive emotion to continue to be a poet. 

And in spite of the last line, he did learn how to speak relatively calmly. As he himself said, the secret of poetry of distance. It’s emotional distance that gives us enough control so that we can create art that, paradoxically, can evoke strong emotion.

The stanza about the mothers (“I still think too much about the mothers”) is particularly moving. It’s not sentimental. Milosz is reporting what he saw. He could have made it more gruesome, but he's actually being restrained.

This, for me, could be the whole poem:

I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.


Speaking about a great book on the subject, it does exist, and thanks to Milosz at that, but it remains relatively unknown. It’s My Century by Aleksander Wat, a transcribed “spoken diary” of his wartime years, with an emphasis on his stay in various Soviet prisons. He started out as a Dadaist  poet and a devout Communist. The prison experiences completely transformed him. The volume was posthumously published in Polish in 1977 (Wat, seriously ill and in chronic pain, committed suicide in 1967.) The book was translated by Richard Lourie and published in English in 1988. It’s dramatic and insightful.

a drawing of Milosz by David Levine

. . .  talking about the ability to speak calmly . . .

“WHITE TRASH” (politeness as the most important marker of class status)

“An Australian writer wrote in 1949 that we don’t have a real democracy; we have what’s called a democracy of manners. Which means that people will accept huge disparities of wealth, but they will vote for someone who pretends to be just like us.”

~ Nancy Isenberg: I became very aware of the importance of how Jefferson talked about the poor. He has this amazing line where, at the same moment that he’s calling for the education of the poor, something the Virginia legislature would reject, he refers to the poor as “rubbish.”

I began to look more closely at how Americans talk about class. There are a long list of slurs and of terms such as waste people, vagrants, rascals, rubbish, lubbers, squatters, crackers, clay-eaters, degenerates, rednecks, and of course, trailer trash. And you’ll see that just by paying attention to the words people use … what comes up over and over again, is the way the discussion of class throughout our history has forced on the centrality of land and land ownership, as well as what I call breeds, or breeding. And both of these big concepts come from the British. For example, the early indentured servants, the poor who the British wanted to dump into British colonial America, they were called waste people. And where does that term come from? It comes from the idea of waste land.

[Interviewer:] Trump appeals to voters who some people might call white trash voters. He embodies this kind of excess that you talk about when writing about Dolly Parton, Tammy Faye Baker. He’s tacky. He’s like a caricature of a rich person that appeals to poor people. 

Nancy Isenberg: Right. And this is one other thing I talk about: the problem of our American democracy. And we can take it back to Andrew Jackson. An Australian writer wrote in 1949 that we don’t have a real democracy, we have what’s called a democracy of manners. Which means that people will accept huge disparities of wealth, but they will vote for someone who pretends to be just like us. And how do politicians do that? In Trump’s case, he steps down from his penthouse, puts on his bubba cap, and yes, he sounds as if he’s someone who could work on the docks, the fact that he refuses to ever be polite – which as we know, in terms of the old measure of social breeding, politeness was the most important marker of class status.

In the ’60s and ’70s, suddenly the middle class is being associated with TV dinners, and all Americans somehow want to rediscover their roots. And this is linked to Alex Haley discovering his African roots, and Jewish writers who looked at the New York Jewish ghetto praised the idea of [as one wrote] of having “a ghetto to look back to.” “But while it’s nice when the ghetto is in the past, or the people coming over on Ellis Island are at a distance, people are still very fearful about living next to someone who isn’t of the same class or the same background.

So, the other thing I talk about is that class has a geography. Not only has our country particularly since the World War II period, where you have the rise of suburbia and the middle class, reinforced racial segregation, we’ve also imposed class zoned neighborhoods. And what could be a better way of ensuring that people are divided, that people measure each other by the value of the land that they own – owning a home is still considered the most important measure of being in the middle class.

It’s actually ironic that working class men would want to embrace the confederacy, because one of the things I highlight about the confederacy is that it very much relied on reinforcing a racial and a class hierarchy, and this is a hangover from the antebellum period. The planter elite saw themselves as very much to the manor born. They assumed that they were the class that should exercise political power and rule. They began to defend the idea that a born to rule elite should control southern states, and particularly South Carolina, and they are very dismissive of poor whites. Not only was it reinforced during the confederacy, it existed before the confederacy.

So the confederacy is one of the most elitist political systems that we’ve had in this country. To assume that somehow the confederacy embraced poor whites, it even goes against the history of how the conscription laws worked. As we know the poor always suffer the worst during wars: they lose their land, they’re the ones who are put on the front lines, and you have high numbers of poor whites who desert from the confederacy because they don’t think it’s fighting for their interests.

In 1790 John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead but they needed someone to disparage. “There must be one,” he wrote, “indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species.” His argument is exactly what Lyndon Johnson said, when he talked about the racism of poor whites: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

People will tolerate having people above them, they’ll defer to an elite class, just as long as they have someone beneath them. We forget the psychological power of that. Americans like the rhetoric of equality but they don’t like it when it’s real, and they don’t really defend it when it comes to how can we create an equal society. When it’s so easy to dismiss different groups, usually in very shallow ways, just as a way for us who are of the middle class to feel that somehow we deserve what we have. We always want to mask it, we always want to rationalize it, but it’s been with us and it’s still with us. Not only are we not a post-racial society, we are certainly not a post-class society.


The first time I saw the term “white trash” I was completely startled. I was trying to learn English by reading “Gone with the Wind.” It was the passage when Scarlett blames her mother’s death on white trash — those worthless people get sick and then spread disease. In this case, Scarlett’s mother, who apparently took Christianity seriously, was trying to help a sick poor family. I was startled because even though there are of course pejorative Polish terms for the social bottom, they are mere chunks of sound — there is none that means “rubbish.”

So true that the coarseness vs softness of language seems to be one of main markers of social class — offhand perhaps the most important one. It's actually beyond class. There's something essential conveyed by how a person expresses themselves — through words, tone of voice, and body language.

Habitual loudness is one of the most annoying social markers. Yet right away it also indicates the person probably grew up in the kind household where it was difficult to be heard above the noise. Not their fault. The positive aspect of it is high energy, exuberance, the colorful slangy expressions. On the negative side: aggressiveness, non-nurturance, ugliness. You lose some, you gain some.

But I come back to the ability to speak calmly. It’s a mark of intelligence and education. A genetic, social, historical privilege. A temperamental trait as well, associated with sensitivity and introspection, with an appreciation of quiet and solitude. Literacy and the habit o f reading have a lot to do with it. Can the habit of reading survive texting and Twitter? Sometimes I am glad that I'm no longer young.


Guido Reni: Bacchus and Ariadne, 1619-1620. Her face seems to say, "Look who's come here now to say Trust me." 

It’s interesting that Bacchus and Ariadne was such a popular theme in painting for a while, only to disappear later, while Orpheus and Narcissus, say, persisted. And it's interesting that Ariadne starts out as a female savior to Theseus, is betrayed by him, and is in turn rescued by a male savior, though not a typical one -- not a hero, but the god of wine and ecstasy and arguably of the arts. Here the god is a symbol of the true marriage, true fulfillment.

I identify with that myth. Ariadne’s saw as goal as helping Theseus to greatness — just as a woman (both in the past and even in the modern times) may project her own talent and ambition onto a man. But the man is almost certain to let her down. It’s only when she discovers her own artistic vocation that she is “saved.”

I think it was only when I became a dedicated poet that I became the “real me.” Of course you can “find yourself” more than once in life, or not at all. Guido Reni presents Ariadne as very young, as the convention demanded. But I can’t help but think of her as older than that, having had the time to prepare for the beginning of her new “real life.” The lucky individuals have enough autonomy to implement that new self, the new life — sometimes only after retirement, or in widowhood. 

time makes pebbles of us all, smooth and rounded to perfection
though we once were hard-edged, angry chunks of rock

~ Magdalena Pasnikowska


A sharp dissonance emerges between Churchill as the jovial bulldog of popular American imagination and the somber reality of a life marred by bitterness and tragedy. In all, suicides  close to Churchill included a brother-in-law, a former stepfather, a daughter’s estranged lover, a former daughter-in-law, and a daughter.

His rather weird return to office in 1951 was not what was needed by the country, or Clementine [Churchill’s wife], or Churchill himself if truth be told, and his last ten years after he finally retired from office in 1955 at the age of eighty are sorry to contemplate. There were more screaming fits from Randolph [the alcoholic son], still convinced that his parents had connived in his cuckolding (and he might have been right), and more trouble with the elder daughters. Their lives were blighted by alcoholic and amorous turmoil, culminating in Diana’s suicide in 1963. It’s no surprise that Clementine was hospitalized for depression.

You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life. ~ Winston Churchill

[T]here was a real sense of prophetic mission among a lot of people who answered this call for Crusade. You can’t have a normal war for Jerusalem. That seems to me as true today as it would have been in the 11th century. Jerusalem, from the medieval Christian perspective, was both a city on earth and a city of heaven, and these two places were linked. The idea that the Jerusalem on earth was being dominated by an unbelieving, infidel — in their terminology “pagan” — group was unacceptable.

The rhetoric that was associated with the people holding Jerusalem is pretty shocking: Christian men are being circumcised in baptismal fonts, and the blood is being collected! They’re yanking people’s innards out by their belly buttons! This is not normal talk. Hatreds and passions were stirred up. The heart of it, and why it was so successful, was that the call to Jerusalem was felt so strongly.

On why the slaughter stood out, even for medieval times:

Warfare on this scale, with this level of brutality, with the end of cleansing the streets of Jerusalem with the bodies of the people you have killed — that’s not typical of the medieval experience. What I’ve tried to bring to the table is the apocalyptic element of thought: the idea that we are entering into the battle of the Last Days here, we’re moving in prophetic times. …

[F]rom the perspective not just of medieval Christians but even of a lot of the modern evangelical Christians I grew up around, the end of the world is something you look to with hope and excitement — maybe even more so in the Middle Ages, because the end of the world was going to be a military event, and soldiers were going to be involved in it. You’re recruiting people to fight in the grandest epic of all time. That sort of sense of apocalyptic, history-making, epoch-ending excitement is what’s missing from the other [academic] explanations [of the crusades].

On other scholars overlooking the fact that religious wars differ from political ones:
Their argument is the Crusades were just an example of the realities of war. It was understood, for example, that if you laid siege to a city and the city did not surrender, if you subsequently took that city by force, the population and all of the goods in the city were forfeit. My response to this is, I’ve never found an instance of medieval Christians defeating a city of medieval Christians and when they took the city they killed everyone inside. Never happened.

On the idea that the Crusades constituted an “ethical revolution”:

What the Crusade introduced into medieval thought was the notion that war was not just a necessary evil, it was a positive good. Not only did it not count against you, it was actually a moral good to massacre the enemy.

And finally, on what the Crusades helped unleash:

[On] the Islamic side, the notion of jihad was dying out [before the Crusade]. Holy war was something that had happened in the past, and there had been this steady state reached in the Middle East. I’m not sure that the Turks saw what they were doing when they were engaging the Byzantines as engaging in jihad. After the First Crusade, within 10 years of it, you get Islamic voices like Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami … saying we need to revive jihad. He says: The Franks [a catch-all name for the Crusading forces] have been waging jihad against us; now we have to get the jihad going back up again.

It also seems to me that the new model of jihad borrowed from what the Crusaders brought. You get the idea of martyrdom — the idea that if you died you would go straight to heaven. You get mythical holy figures appearing in battles that Muslims were fighting against Christians. You get a more poisonous relationship between religion and warfare than existed before.

Mind-boggling: Almost a millennium later, we’re still dealing with the fallout. ~

St. Louis leading a crusade


~ The strength of neuroscience, Churchland suggests, lies not so much in what it explains as in the older explanations it dissolves. She gives a lovely example of the panic that we feel in dreams when our legs refuse to move as we flee the monster. This turns out to be a straightforward neurological phenomenon: when we’re asleep, we turn off our motor controls, but when we dream we still send out signals to them. We really are trying to run, and can’t. If you feel this, and also have the not infrequent problem of being unable to distinguish waking and dreaming states, you might think that you have been paralyzed and kidnapped by aliens. ~ Adam Gopnik, “Mindless”

Interesting: in my nightmares, on the contrary, I run faster than I ever could in real life (well, at seventeen I was a great sprinter — just months before I shattered my knee). But those are nightmares. I am running for my life, and no speed is great enough. I wake up, my heart pounding.

In waking life, I can’t even WALK fast. I could maybe sustain two minutes of slow running if my life depended on it. Maybe the knee replacement will change this, but as of now I'm handicapped. And since I'm incapable of running, you can’t imagine how strange it feels to run in my dreams! Now if only the Nazis stopped shooting at me (in the same dreams, that is). 

Assyrian lion hunt 7th century bc


Something strange is going on in medicine. Major diseases, like colon cancer, dementia and heart disease, are waning in wealthy countries, and improved diagnosis and treatment cannot fully explain it.

Of course, these diseases are far from gone. They still cause enormous suffering and kill millions each year.

But it looks as if people in the United States and some other wealthy countries are, unexpectedly, starting to beat back the diseases of aging. The leading killers are still the leading killers — cancer, heart disease, stroke — but they are occurring later in life, and people in general are living longer in good health.

Colon cancer is the latest conundrum. While the overall cancer death rate has been declining since the early 1990s, the plunge in colon cancer deaths is especially perplexing: The rate has fallen by nearly 50 percent since its peak in the 1980s, noted Dr. H. Gilbert Welch and Dr. Douglas J. Robertson of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., in a recent paper.

Screening, they say, is only part of the story. “The magnitude of the changes alone suggests that other factors must be involved,” they wrote. None of the studies showing the effect of increased screening for colon cancer have indicated a 50 percent reduction in mortality, they wrote, “nor have trials for screening for any type of cancer.”

Then there are hip fractures, whose rates have been dropping by 15 to 20 percent a decade over the past 30 years. Although the change occurred when there were drugs to slow bone loss in people with osteoporosis, too few patients took them to account for the effect — for instance, fewer than 10 percent of women over 65 take the drugs.

Perhaps it is because people have gotten fatter? Heavier people have stronger bones.

Heavier bodies, though, can account for at most half of the effect, said Dr. Steven R. Cummings of the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute and the University of California at San Francisco. When asked what else was at play, he laughed and said, “I don’t know.”

Dementia rates, too, have been plunging. It took a few reports and more than a decade before many people believed it, but data from the United States and Europe are becoming hard to wave off. The latest report finds a 20 percent decline in dementia incidence per decade, starting in 1977.

A recent American study, for example, reports that the incidence among people over age 60 was 3.6 per 100 in the years 1986-1991, but in the years 2004-2008 it had fallen to 2.0 per 100 over age 60. With more older people in the population every year, there may be more cases in total, but an individual’s chance of getting dementia has gotten lower and lower.

There are reasons that make sense. Ministrokes result from vascular disease and can cause dementia, and cardiovascular risk factors are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. So the improved control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels should have an effect. Better education has also been linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, although it is not known why. But the full explanation for the declining rates is anyone’s guess. And the future of this trend remains a contested unknown.

The exemplar for declining rates is heart disease. Its death rate has been falling for so long — more than half a century — that it’s no longer news. The news now is that the rate of decline seems to have slowed recently, although it is still falling. While heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, killing more than 300,000 people a year, deaths have fallen 60 percent from their peak. The usual suspects: Better treatment, better prevention with drugs like statins and drugs for blood pressure, and less smoking, are, of course, helping drive the trend. But they are not enough, heart researchers say, to account fully for the decades-long decline.

The heart disease effect has been examined by scientist after scientist. Was it a result of better prevention, treatment, lifestyle changes?

All three played a role, researchers said.

In the 19th century, experts tried to explain why tuberculosis was a leading killer. That’s what happens when people live in cities, doctors said, and there is little to be done. By the start of the 20th century, one out of every 170 Americans lived in a tuberculosis sanitarium.

Then, even before the eventual development of drugs effective against it, TB started to go away in the United States and Western Europe. But experts disagree about why. Some say it was improvements in public health and sanitation. Others say it was changes in medical care. Others split the difference and say it was both.

The tuberculosis surprise was eclipsed in the 1930s as heart disease became ascendant. It would kill us all, the experts said.

And sure enough, by 1960, a third of all American deaths were from heart disease. Now, cardiologists are predicting it will soon fall from its perch as the No. 1 killer of Americans, replaced by cancer, which itself has a falling death rate.

Dr. Cummings, intrigued by the waning of disease, has a provocative idea for further investigation. He starts with two observations: Rates of disease after disease are dropping. Even the rate of “all-cause mortality,” which lumps together chronic diseases, is falling. And every one of those diseases at issue is linked to aging.

Perhaps, he said, all these degenerative diseases share something in common, something inside aging cells themselves. The cellular process of aging may be changing, in humans’ favor. For too long, he said, researchers have looked under the lamppost at things they can measure.


Wonderful news. So perhaps the dramatic decline in smoking, less air pollution (remember when lead was added to gasoline?), and better nutrition (at least the educated are aware of the need to consume vegetables; some people are even juicing) have been having an effect.

Of course there are still huge differences between the richest and the poorest, the most educated and the least educated. If you walk into a market in a poor neighborhood (or a little town in a depressed area of Vermont, say), you see practically no fresh produce — or fresh as opposed to processed meat and seafood. The poor are the most likely to smoke and be obese.

The future is likely to bring us major advances in regenerative medicine. Some will no doubt be related to a more sophisticated use of stem cells and hormone replacement. Various anti-aging proteins and other chemicals in the plasma of young people are finally being studied. This makes me acutely aware of having been born too late. But it could have been worse.

And my best friend is 90, and doing amazingly well. Individual differences will always be with us, and intangibles such as having something to live for. 


ending on beauty:

My power animal is prehistoric, so far
undiscovered. I wait for its bones
to be found. I’m not hopeful;
it was drawn to bright lights
and may have stood directly under the meteor,
blue head cocked like a microphone.

~ “Red Sugar Blue Smoke” by Brendon Constantine

Black cat in the Old Jewish Quarter, Alfama, Lisbon; photo: M. Iossel

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