Sunday, August 7, 2016


I faced a spotted Leopard, all tremor and flow

and gaudy pelt. And it would not pass, but stood
so blocking my every turn that time and again
I was on the verge of turning back to the wood.

This fell at the first widening of the dawn
as the sun was climbing Aries with those stars
that rode with him to light the new creation.

Thus the holy hour and the sweet season
of commemoration did much to arm my fear
of that bright murderous beast with their good omen.

Yet not so much but what I shook with dread
at sight of a great Lion that broke upon me
raging with hunger, its enormous head

held high as if to strike a mortal terror
into the very air. And down his track,
a She-Wolf drove upon me, a starved horror

ravening and wasted beyond all belief.
She seemed a rack for avarice, gaunt and craving.
Oh many the souls she brought to endless grief!

~ Dante, Canto I, tr John Ciardi

The three beasts are mentioned in Jeremiah, and probably refer to three different countries hostile  to ancient Israel.

Mark Musa (regarded as Dante’s best annotator):

“The early critics thought of the three beasts that block the Pilgrim’s path as symbolizing three specific sins: lust, pride, and avarice, but I prefer to see in them the three major divisions Hell. The spotted leopard represents Fraud. The lion symbolizes all forms of Violence. The she-wolf represents the different types of Concupiscence or Incontinence.”

This is Blake, of course. Who else could create such distinctive and endearing, anatomically incorrect human and animal forms? 

Oriana: The she-wolf made me think of the Hungry Ghosts, for whom nothing is ever enough. Maybe “greed” would be the best simple word for this.

However, the she-wolf (lupa) is also a word for prostitute, so lust has been suggested. And wolves have been unjustly accused of meanness in general — and yet a she-wolf can also be a symbol of nurturing, or else we wouldn’t have the myth of infants being adopted and raised by wolves. Animal symbolism can be tricky. There is nothing intrinsic about the wolf to suggest a specific category of sin.

Lions are widely represented in art. They look impressive — but are they any more violent than any other predator? They hunt only when hungry — it’s about the need for food, not any kind of joy in killing, or tendency to violent rage. In the wild, an enraged lion is probably extremely rare. These are cats. They sleep a lot.

They are the only social felines, and they form emotional bonds within the group.


But, in the human mind, here is a possible link between lions and violence. What humans project on lions is PRIDE. And there is indeed a relationship between pride (think of an inflated ego) and the kind of violence that proceeds from wounded pride.

I’ll never forget the lecture on pride at the Los Angeles Jung Institute. It was the first one in the series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride is always listed as the first and greatest deadly sins — all other sins are said to follow from pride in some way. While the connection between pride and lust or gluttony could be questioned, there is indeed a connection — in humans, not among lions — between pride and violence, the lecturer, a former prison psychologist, pointed out. “If you want to see pride, visit a prison,” he said.

I have done some work in prisons, and I can confirm that. That’s where you find huge egos, and the demand for “respect.” Now, outsiders would say that criminals ought to feel shame, not pride — but the fact is that the inmates, having been nearly universally abused in childhood, disvalued and made to feel powerless, have a tremendous need to pretend that they are powerful and important. They’d rather be feared than liked — to be feared is a sign of “respect.” And to enforce that kind of fear-based respect, they are ready to use violence. Scarred from trauma, they are always defending their “honor.”

As for the leopard and fraud, the beauty of that animal’s coat also implies the negative associations of beauty that can be attached to a beautiful person. Their attractiveness implies the power to deceive. I'm reaching here, I know. Let’s face it: there is nothing obvious about seeing a leopard as a symbol of fraud. No wonder even critics are confused, not to mention the average reader.

Using animals to represent “sin” is ridiculous on the face of it. But the Middle Ages saw all living being as “fallen” and ruled by Satan. In the modern times, we are finally beginning to see that even humans are not inherently “sinful” or evil by nature. With rare exceptions (we don’t really understand true psychopathy; it may stem from brain abnormalities), a bad human being, like a “bad” dog, has been abused. They act out of their wounds.

Extreme stress can be another cause of violence. When starved men fight over food, there is no mystery about that.

Yet another cause is indoctrination with hate speech. Again, it’s the most emotionally damaged individuals who will be most susceptible. 


The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. ~ Samuel Beckett, Murphy, 1938

This Black Iris by O'Keefe is less well known

Speaking of nothing new, there is also the sorrow of re-reading something you wrote in youth, thinking it was wisdom, while it was merely youth:



“We don’t know what love is.

Why in our heads we love
someone quite different
from the one we say we love.

If we love the same person
in different guises
every time.

If that person is really

Is it all an illusion.

Is it only dressed-up sex,
as Tolstoy said —
how come we don’t fall in love
with a brilliant 80-year-old
who happens to share our spiritual interests?

Is it worth it.

Why is it so easy to love
a dog or a cat.


Because a dog or a cat will never criticize you.

One day you realize that Prince Charming would be a nightmare.

You come to agree with Kurt Vonnegut’s: “You learn to love whoever is there to be loved.”

And you feel blessed. 

Chagall The Song of Songs


When marrying, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this person into your old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

My parents had that kind of marriage. got married at 35, after they have already “found themselves” and knew they wanted a companion with the same or very similar interests. They were lifelong best friends. They liked to take long walks, during which they talked, talked, talked.

My mother's birthday was August 4, and my father's, November 4 -- so she was 3 months older. He liked to joke that he liked older women.

 Diane Arbus, 1962


~ “LeDoux began his career in science working under the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, well-known for his research on “split brain” patients, that is, patients whose left and right hemisphere are disconnected from one another in a surgical procedure designed to help control severe epilepsy. These individuals’ brains are unable to integrate information from both sides in the usual way — in experiments with split brain patients, it was possible to present information to only one half of the brain (by flashing it to only eye, and not the other) and watch as the other half struggled to create an elaborate story to explain away the behaviors it had no conscious awareness of having performed. For instance, if a humorous prompt were shown to the right hemisphere of the brain, the patient would burst out laughing, yet not know why. Instead of confessing their confusion, they would rush to say something like, “You guys are so funny.” LeDoux saw firsthand in these studies the brain’s tenacious need to cook up narratives to explain itself to itself. “The idea is that what’s consciousness does,” LeDoux says. “It creates these explanations or ideas about behavior.”

That early observation is foundational to what LeDoux now believes about why we experience emotions like fear and anxiety. In the face of danger, the brain kicks into defense mode, detecting the threat faster than our conscious awareness can ever operate, and sending a host of marching orders throughout the brain and the body, readying all systems to take action. It’s only after this process has begun that the emotions of fear and anxiety rise into consciousness — and only if, LeDoux says, “you have a brain that can be conscious of its own activity,” a brain with the “ability to conceptualize all of that, to label it linguistically, and to integrate it with thoughts and memories.” In other words, fear and anxiety are not wired into the brain as basic responses to the world around us — rather, the responses that lead to them are, and they only coalesce into fear when the brain interprets them as such.

To feel afraid is to be conscious of fear — so the question of where exactly feelings like fear and anxiety arise in the brain is intimately tied to nothing less than the ongoing mystery of how our brains pull off the great feat of consciousness itself.

LeDoux argues that the activities of this basic neural defense system do not account for the actual experience of fear, even though it has become commonplace in neuroscientific research to act as if they do, using, for instance, the instinctive, defensive behaviors of animals like fleeing or freezing to stand in for the larger, more complex phenomenon of being afraid. Rather, anxiety and fear arise only after the brain’s threat system has unconsciously picked up and responded to the first scent of danger — and not from any one single part of the brain, but from many.

Because there are both conscious and unconscious processes at work when anxiety spirals out of control, LeDoux believes that effective treatments would have to engage differently on each level — the whirling subliminal, automatic circuitry that patients aren’t even aware of needs to be subdued before the second-step project of addressing the higher level of conscious thoughts and feelings can begin.

LeDoux is well aware that in his struggle for precision and clarity, he’s taking on a serious challenge. It’s no easy task to undo decades of common usage. “Not everyone is happy with this,” he says, but “as a scientist you have some obligation to get as close to the truth as you can, and nothing gets in the way of truth as much as language does.” ~


William James was the first to promote an interpretation theory of emotions. According to James, body responses come first, e.g. a lump in the throat. Then we call it sadness. Consciousness lags behind the body. “You feel sad because there are tears in your eyes,” my first psychology instructor explained — and we found it a very strange, “backwards” explanation. Now neuroscience seems to be bearing it out: the automatic physiological response precedes the conscious interpretation. Block the adrenaline, and calm will persist.

The survival responses are faster than consciousness because they are ruled mainly by the brain stem, the oldest neural structure in terms of evolution. Consciousness comes after, with its “stories” and justifications. Suppose there is a sudden noise. We “jump” first — the startle response — then, primed with adrenaline for “fight or flight,” we look around to see if the danger is real.

Not that the stories we make up, the post-hoc explanations, are not important. We need to make sense of what is happening. We also need a “story of me.” Alzheimer’s victims lose that partly fictitious but nevertheless crucial “story of me” along with the ability to interpret their life and their environment. It’s striking how anyone with dementia starts making up stories — because stories are so essential to us.

But the story comes second. William James was brilliant — and totally ahead of his times.

DID ZEUS EXIST? WHY THE GREEKS BELIEVED IN THEIR GODS (the argument from personal experience, e.g. miracles)

~ “Why did belief in the gods persist in spite of critical challenges? What evidence seemed decisive to the ancient Greeks? Robert Parker, in his “On Greek Religion,” emphasizes the role of what the Greeks saw as experiences of divine actions in their lives. ”The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster,” with by far the most emphasis given to the perils of ignoring the gods.

There were also rituals, associated with the many cults of specific gods, that for some worshipers “created a sense of contact with the divine. One knows that the gods exist because one feels their presence during the drama of the mysteries or the elation of the choral dance.” More broadly, there were “epiphanies” that could “indicate not merely a visible or audible epiphany (whether in the light of day or through a dream . . .) but also any clear expression of a god’s favor such as weather conditions hampering an enemy, a miraculous escape, or a cure; it may also be used of the continuing disposition of a god or goddess to offer manifest assistance.

Most of us do not find our world so filled with the divine, and we may be inclined to dismiss the Greeks’ “experiences” as over-interpretations. But the people who worshiped Zeus claimed to experience his presence in their everyday lives and, especially, in their religious ceremonies.”

From a comment: (this article elicited 744 comments)

Dionysos — the Zeus of Turkey's Mount Nysa — died each fall, was buried in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, which he would abandon until Dionysos’ rebirth in the spring. “He is risen,” his believers cried out on the appropriate Sunday sunrise, and Apollo had returned.

The great advances of Greek civilization in the fifth and fourth centuries began quite suddenly when the sophists, whom Plato and Socrates despised, stripped the gods out of the myths. That left them with only the natural phenomena the gods were thought to personify and control. So much for the supernatural. The pagan Greeks made no sharp distinction between nature and any hyper-nature, though it is easy for us to see them edging towards it. Christianity defined the boundary.

And another comment:

If you believe in god, does it bother you that all gods that have even been created/worshiped have all acted in the same way as yours does? As though they don’t exist at all. And the reasons that you believe in your god, personal experience, believing that prayer or sacrifice actually work, filling your unanswered questions about the world with a god etc are the same reasons that people gave for believing in past gods. And are the same reasons given for believing in other current gods. The supernatural doesn’t exist, only questions do. And those questions won’t be answered until evidence leads us there. If you jump to supernatural conclusions every time you don't understand something you have a primitive mind and are thinking like people who lived thousands of years ago.

And another:

Does God cease to exist when there are no humans that believe in him? if so, how many does it take to sustain his reality? A million? A thousand? One?

And the inevitable one:

Amazing intellectual acrobatics to avoid the obvious conclusion that there is no more reason to believe in a Judeo-Christian god than there is to believe in Zeus.


It’s interesting that the arguments the ancient Greeks used to “prove” the existence of the gods are the same are those used today: prayer (and animal sacrifice) works, while lack of prayer brings on disaster; believers experience the god’s presence and receive signs and miracles . . . same stuff, pointing to human psychology rather than external reality. It’s known as the “argument from personal experience.”

“I sacrificed a bullock to Zeus, and my son came back from the war alive” — who could fail to be persuaded by that?

Here is an interesting exercise: replace the word “god” with “Zeus”:

Zeus works in mysterious ways.

Zeus sends suffering to those he loves.

Zeus never sends you more suffering than you can bear.

Man was created to serve Zeus.


Whether it’s Yahweh or Zeus, as long as an imaginary invisible Superman is put ahead of human beings and the principle of kindness, evil is inevitable. And the same goes for ideologies and institutions, whether it’s the Catholic church or the communist party.

~ “The researchers concluded that men are much more likely than women to engage in friendly physical contact—such as pats on the back, hugs, and interlocking handshakes—following athletic competition. The duration and frequency of affectionate physical contact after competing against a rival served as a benchmark for rating the strength of someone's pro-social intentions.

Benenson believes these findings give credence to what evolutionary psychologists refer to as the "male warrior hypothesis." This is the notion that males purposely nurture warm feelings after conflict to increase their odds of having allies to help defend their group in the future. In a statement, Benenson said,

    “Our results indicate that unrelated human males are more predisposed than females to invest in a behavior, post-conflict affiliation, that is expected to facilitate future intragroup cooperation. This finding feels very counterintuitive because we have social science and evolutionary biology models that tell us males are much more competitive and aggressive."

Throughout our evolution, prevailing in competitions has been a keystone of the survival of the fittest. The importance of post-conflict reconciliation between fierce opponents is often underestimated. This research suggest that making conciliatory physical gestures immediately after the dust has settled, might prevent someone from holding a grudge or being a sore loser. 

Conclusion: Why Would Women Be Less Willing to Reconcile After a Conflict?

In today's world, sportsmanlike displays of affection after an athletic competition have the power to facilitate future cooperation and friendship when athletes become comrades off the court. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in both chimpanzees and humans. Typically, whomever invests more in post-conflict resolution by being physically affectionate fosters future cooperation more effectively.

The male warrior hypothesis proposes that the overall success of our ancestors’ in-groups relied on the ability of men to triumph in one-on-one conflicts—while maintaining cooperation within the group and solidarity with outside groups.

The whole community benefits when unrelated men triumph over threatening external groups. On the flip side, women gain more by sticking close to family members and having one or two close friends who can share the burden of raising children.

From an evolutionary perspective, the researchers believe these factors drive women to reconcile with fewer individuals, while men strive to keep the peace with a larger number of unrelated same-sex peers. Could this explain why the "old boys' club" is such a formidable and widespread fraternity?” ~


In the 1960s, more than 40 percent of Americans smoked. Now, that's down to 18% . Not only are fewer people smoking, heavy smokers are consuming fewer cigarettes.

Smoking is far more common among those living below the poverty level, those with GED-level education, and among American Indian or Alaskan Natives. Rates are also much higher in the lesbian, gay and transgender community.

The Midwest has a higher smoking rate than other areas and nearly double the rate in the West.

West Virginia has the highest rate in the country.

Only 6% of those with post-graduate education smoke.

(From a different source:) Surprisingly, few studies have addressed the association between smoking and drinking despite the fact that 80 to 95% of alcoholics smoke cigarettes. NIAAA estimates that alcoholism is 10 to 14 times more prevalent among smokers than non-smokers. Other studies estimate that roughly 70% of alcoholics are classified as "heavy smokers", smoking more than one pack a day.

Approximately 85% of people who have schizophrenia are also heavy cigarette smokers, and 60% to 70% of people with bipolar disorder. It’s been suggested that it’s self-medication, and it makes some sense: the long exhale is soothing.

ending on beauty:

“If God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I have seen—I guess that He would think His Paradise superfluous” ~ Emily Dickinson Letters, 1856.

This reminds me of Jack Gilbert's title, "We have already lived in the real paradise." An imperfect paradise, to be sure, but still a paradise.

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