Sunday, September 18, 2016


The road leading out of Warbende


What I’ve picked up is a letter — tossed
Yesterday into the grass, beside the path.
It has rained: the pages are stained with mud;
Ink overflows from the words, illegible.

And yet the iridescence of these signs,
Decomposed, now is almost light.
The downpour has drenched a promise;
The ink has become a puddle of sky.

Like this, let us love the words of the cloud:
They too were a letter, and our lure;
But light redeems them by passing through.

Shall I try to decipher these phrases? No:
They are more to me by coming undone.
I dream that night is the breaking of day.

~ Yves Bonnefoy, tr Hoyt Rogers

Ah, those first two stanzas — so simple, the very simplest words — especially in the first stanza. And yet we instantly know we are in the presence of a great poem. For one thing, the speaker focuses on a small, ordinary detail: a letter found by the roadside, the pages stained with mud, the words smeared with rain, illegible.

 A commentary that would only dim the luminosity of the words of the poem about the words washed out by the rain:

And yet the iridescence of these signs,
Decomposed, now is almost light.
The downpour has drenched a promise;
The ink has become a puddle of sky.

It takes a poet’s mentality to see something sacred and radiant in the smeared, mud-stained, illegible words. We see here a poet’s worship of words and of nature: “the words of the cloud” . . .

And there is the sacredness of human caring that’s usually (not always, I know, but usually) involved in the effort of writing a letter. People often keep love letters for as long as they live.

And almost any personal letter stands for love. People used to gather in harbors waiting for ships — because ships brought letters.

Those letters were hardly literary masterpieces. The great majority were ordinary news from home, filled with platitudes and trivia — even with little white lies meant to keep the recipient in good cheer. But every word said: “I care. I care if you live or die.” And people live for that, and die for lack of it. We physiologically need to receive the signal that someone cares, that you are important to someone.

The buzzword is “connection.” We need connection as much as much as physical nourishment. Humans are strange enough to be able to have a connection with an imaginary being; if they are isolated enough (hermits), their brain will oblige them with plausible responses from that being.

And people who love books and/or movies can genuinely fall in love with a fictional character, who becomes a part of their psyche. And of course people turn to pets for a reliable source of affection.

This is Bonnefoy’s last known poem. He died this July (1923-2016).

Brief is German for letter (epistle — remember handwritten letters we used to exchange?) and Weg = way, road. My guess is that Bonnefoy came up with that name for path because that was where he found the letter. Warbende is an actual little town in northeastern Germany — more like a village.

Ah, the gift of having found this poem!


A Letter always seemed to me
like Immortality,
for is it not the Mind alone,
without corporeal Friend?

~ that’s how I wrote it down in my notebook many years ago. But it turns out that the accurate quotation is

“A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”

It’s in one of Dickinson’s letter to Higginson — which by the way have an unnerving if delightful quality. How could he possibly respond to those missives? How could anyone? Her gift for language is overwhelming. And her strangeness.

Here is an example:

~ Enough is so vast a sweetness, I suppose it never occurs, only pathetic counterfeits.

Fabulous to me as the men of the Revelations who “shall not hunger any more.” Even the possible has its insoluble particle.

After you went, I took Macbeth and turned to "Birnam Wood." Came twice "To Dunsinane." I thought and went about my work. . . .

The vein cannot thank the artery, but her solemn indebtedness to him, even the stolidest admit, and so of me who try, whose effort leaves no sound.

You ask great questions accidentally. To answer them would be events. I trust that you are safe.

I ask you to forgive me for all the ignorance I had. I find no nomination sweet as your low opinion.

Speak, if but to blame your obedient child.

You told me of Mrs. Lowell's poems. Would you tell me where I could find them, or are they not for sight? An article of yours, too, perhaps the only one you wrote that I never knew. It was about a "Latch." Are you willing to tell me? [Perhaps "A Sketch."]

If I ask too much, you could please refuse. Shortness to live has made me bold.

Abroad is close to-night and I have but to lift my hands to touch the "Heights of Abraham."


(Yes, this is THE Higginson, Emily's hapless would-be mentor, writing in 1891. The Atlantic Monthly goes back to 1857.)

“Enough is so vast a sweetness.” But instead of stopping there, we spoil things by going for more, more! And yet, “we manage best when we manage small.” A perfect poem is usually just a few stanzas. A beautiful home is not filled with stuff. Less is indeed more. But none of these statements have the pull of Dickinson’s “Enough is so vast a sweetness.” The word “sweetness” is unexpected. We have to digest it for a while to realize it’s true, and to feel the delight.

But is Dickinson speaking out of emotional starvation? The next sentence mentions the promise that men shall not hunger any more. Yet I can’t quite decide. Because Dickinson never married, some assume that there was no love in her life. I think there was a wealth of love in her life. For one thing, had a close relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan — much of it by letter, though Susan lived next door. Again, the joy of receiving a letter is very special: it’s the joy of connection.

And yes, perhaps there is a sense of immortality. “To work is to live without dying,” Rilke said. The very act of being absorbed in work is beneficial. But when the work happens to be writing, there is the additional pleasure of engaging in human connection — even though it’s the “mind alone, without corporeal friend.” 


Dickinson, who often signed off “Your Scholar” in her letters to Higginson, continues to dazzle and bewilder not only most readers, but also literary scholars. I simply must quote from Adrienne Rich’s poem, at least briefly:

“Half-cracked” to Higginson, living,
afterward famous in garbled versions,
your hoard of dazzling scraps a battlefield,
now your old snood

mothballed at Harvard
and you in your variorum monument
equivocal to the end —
who are you?

from “I am in danger — Sir — ”

 Another view of Warbende. Note the elderberry bush in blossom near the stone wall.


“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” ~ Colette


I can’t tell you which wise person, sadly; the internet attributes it in roughly equal measure to Confucius and Tom Hiddleston. (It’s not a very Confucian sentiment, so I’m going with Hiddleston.) But it hardly matters. It’s an aphorism, and like all the best ones, it feels as if it always existed, and only needed someone to discover it. Or rediscover it: judging by various new books and essays, this oldest of philosophical forms is making a comeback.

My favorites are the ones that land at first like a bucket of cold water, issuing a bleak assessment of life, yet turn out to contain a liberating truth. Take Rilke, translated by the Jungian psychologist James Hollis: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by ever greater things.” The economist Thomas Sowell: “There are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs.” (You’ll never solve all your problems. So which ones are worth putting up with, to solve the others?) A line attributed to Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to let go of the life we had planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Or the therapist Sheldon Kopp: “You are free to do whatever you like. You need only face the consequences.”

But a good aphorism never really draws a line under things. Instead, it keeps on giving, unfolding further meanings. I’m convinced that Earle Hitchner’s quip – “Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way” – explains more about transatlantic relations than you’d think. And the whole of human happiness may be encapsulated in Carl Rogers’s line: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” There are whole books – lots of them – that don’t contain nearly that much wisdom." ~

“There are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs” — it takes maturity to discover this. “When you change partners, you change problems” is a subset of this.


~ “While philosophers debate if everything is predetermined, psychologists have basically established something only slightly less disturbing: a large proportion of your decisions aren’t independently made by you. In his new book, Invisible Influence, Jonah Berger puts the figure at 99.9%: that’s how many of your choices are significantly influenced by forces of which you’re unaware. We choose music and novels, clothes and careers, because others did. Or we choose the opposite, to show we’re not like them – a phenomenon marketers call “snob effects”. You probably named your child in order to sound similar, but not identical, to names that were in the air at the time: after Hurricane Katrina, fewer American kids got named Katrina, but girls’ names starting with a hard K shot up, Berger writes. We choose our politics partly to mimic or rebel against our parents; and we’ll support or reject the exact same policy, research suggests, depending on whether it’s described as right- or leftwing.

Taken individually, these effects aren’t surprising. What is striking is the volume. Pop psychology tends to present these “hidden persuaders” as anomalies, as if we usually make up our own minds, and only occasionally get blown off course. But, reading Berger, you get the feeling it’s the other way round: we’re mainly robots, acting out the influences of our environments, lucky if we manage a tiny sliver of independent thought. Even the decision to kill yourself is heavily influenced by the immediate availability of the means to do so. When you remove people’s access to those means, they often don’t just “find another way”; rather, a suicide is prevented.

Is this lack of autonomy a cause for alarm or relief? When it comes to ordinary daily decisions, probably the latter. If my choices are my own, I’ll be constantly anxious about choosing well. But if every “choice” I make is inevitably shaped by countless unseen pressures, I can relax a bit. If I ever write my autobiography, I have the first line: “Due to circumstances beyond my control…”


Speaking of choice — it’s misleading to imply that Mother Teresa could have built suffering-relieving hospitals staffed with trained medical personnel. She didn’t have a choice — not because she didn’t have the funds. She didn’t have the psychological choice because she was indoctrinated (as I was) with the idea that SUFFERING IS GOOD FOR YOU. So of course you don’t relieve it! You increase it! You flagellate yourself, you fast, you wear coarse, itchy clothes or s spiky metal belt (with spikes toward the body — if they draw blood, all the better; infection? don’t treat it). This is the sadomasochistic pathology that religious asceticism easily leads to.

“There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.” ~ Mother Teresa

Oh really? And it’s only now that we question the saintliness of such statements? It’s only now that we see the dubiousness of wanting to perpetuate poverty and suffering? Apparently. And Mother Teresa’s apologists still vastly outnumber the questioners. 

This is not about “throwing stones at saint.” There is a larger issue here, concerning the nature of religious charities. Those charities never support medical research aimed at curing disease, nor do anything that would effectively diminish poverty, for instance empower women through access to contraception. Religions’s secret wish is to perpetuate chronic poverty and disease. The more people suffer, the better for the nuns and priests. 

Mother Teresa received her own health care at the UCLA Hospital. She flew to Los Angeles first class, but then she always flew first class.

By the way, it turns out the toxic view that suffering is good for you has an enormous number of defenders, both religious and secular, bolstered by Nietzsche's wrong-headed pronouncement about suffering making you stronger. It took me forever to discover that it took something very different to make me stronger: being loved. Being loved and happiness (having a reliable source of happiness to return to), rather than suffering, made me it much easier for me to endure all kinds of stress and ordeals.

Love sculpture by Robert Indiana


“YHVH is the ruler of the entire universe, but he reveals Himself and His commandments only to Israel. It is this same tension which [Yehezkel] Kaufmann traces to the more modern phenomenon of exile and ghettoization.” ~

I think that's Blake on the cover, and probably it's Yahweh hiding his face — another puzzling thing is how the Old Testament progresses from a very active, visible (in some form), talking god to a silent, withdrawn, hidden, and ultimately absent god.

Note that Yahweh, even though we can’t see his face here, seems deeply unhappy. Other religions generally had happy gods — the Hebrew god was usually either angry or sulking. Of course other gods typically had lots of sex. It was part of the divine dolce vita.


“ – groups of people in the ancient southern Levant came to worship a storm/thunder god named Yhwh (or another close variant of that name);

– the peoples of ancient Israel and Judah worshiped Yhwh, El, and a goddess named Asherah, among other deities;

– these same peoples gradually made Yhwh their tutelary or national deity and attributed to him many of the characteristics and functions of these other deities;

– in sanctuaries at Bethel, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, ancient Israelites built and worshiped boviform and anthropomorophic statues of Yhwh;

– in the wake of the northern kingdom’s conquest, reforms under King Josiah insisted that Judeans should worship Yhwh alone;

– during the Persian period that followed the Babylonian exile, the priests and scribes at Jerusalem further asserted that Yhwh was the sole God of the universe. Also, they insisted that there should be no statue of Yhwh in the rebuilt Jerusalem temple.

Römer’s basic reconstruction of the emergence of Jewish monotheism out of the rubble (so to speak) of ancient Israelite religion is not new, as the centrality of the post-exilic period for the redaction of the Torah and the creation of Judaism is well known. The Invention of God, however, is original in many of its details, meticulous in its discussion of a wide variety of biblical and extrabiblical sources, and refreshingly candid at many points.

Römer suggests that the ancient Israelite and then early Jewish ideas about Yhwh changed dramatically over a long period of time and that one can find textual evidence of those evolving conceptions:

“We should not imagine … that a group of Bedouins met one day and huddled around an oasis to create a God for themselves, or that some scribes, much later, invented Yahweh out of whole cloth, so to speak, as their tutelary god. Rather this “invention” should be understood as a progressive construction arising out of a particular tradition.”

In his discussion of the United Kingdom, of Josiah’s reforms, and of the exile — to name a few examples — Römer does allow that biblical texts contain “traces of historical events.” Most non-specialists will find those traces, however, to be rather minimal. Thus, despite the way Römer positions himself, general readers will find The Invention of God rather minimalist in its use of the Bible as a source for reconstructing the history of the ancient Israelites.” ~

angel statue by Raffaello de Montelupo, 16th century, Castel Sant'Angelo -- military looking -- the military-religious complex

from the Harvard Press summary:

 “The god of Jephthah is considered to be the tutelary deity of a tribe or people, in the same way in which Chemosh is the tutelary god of Sihon. If we read on in the Hebrew Bible, we discover further curious texts. The audience for which the book of Deuteronomy was originally written and to which it is addressed, for instance, is often exhorted not to follow after other gods, without it ever being asserted that these gods did not exist or were not real. So the Bible itself retains traces of the fact that a plurality of gods existed in the Levant, which means also in Israel, and that the god of Israel, whose name was pronounced Yahweh or Yahu, was far from being the only god worshipped by the Israelites.

The biblical narrative, however, contains other surprises. When Yahweh reveals himself to Moses in Egypt, he appears as a previously unknown god. After all, he himself tells Moses that this is the first time he has manifested himself under his real name. Is this a trace of the historical fact that this god was not always the god of Israel? Why, after all, does he reveal himself in Egypt or in the wilderness? Does he have some special connection to these places, and if so, what connection?

An examination of [extra-biblical] documentation allows us to retrace the path of a god who probably had his origin somewhere in the “South,” between the Negev and Egypt. Originally he was a god of the wilderness, of war and storms, but gradually through a series of small steps he became the god of Israel and Jerusalem. Then eventually, after a major catastrophe—the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah—he established himself as the one god, creator of heaven and earth, invisible and transcendent, who nevertheless loudly proclaimed his special relationship with Judaism. How did one god among others become God? Despite what certain theologians continue to assert, it is now beyond doubt that the god of the Bible was not always “unique,” the one-and-only God.

If we try, then, to understand how the discourse about this god developed and how he eventually became the “one God,” we can observe a kind of “collective invention,” a process in which the conception was continually revised in the light of particular, changing social and historical contexts.”

Blake: Abraham and Isaac


The layers of former myths go back thousands and thousands of years — but the narrative has been changed to accommodate the new concept of a single god who rules the universe. But when we look at the story of the Garden of Eden, for instance, we see the sacred trees, the fruit of immortality, the goddess (Eve), and the snake — all familiar elements. But now they become radically reshuffled.

The Hebrew scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann objects that Jewish monotheism had unique features from the start, began earlier than scholars currently assert, and with fewer “foreign” influences.

Yet Kaufmann’s insistence on Jewish “exceptionalism” could be wrong. Incidents like the Golden Calf and the Brazen Serpent (especially the brazen serpent) show how vital the old magical ideas still were. The emerging monotheistic Judaism was a cauldron of influences (Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite, and more) and ongoing reinterpretation and rewriting of all the stories that survived to our day (let us remember that the majority did not even survive).

I suspect that it was only with the Diaspora and the cessation of animal sacrifice that more solid monotheistic dogma emerged, and not before, when the features of observance were so pagan-like.

Yet Kaufmann is pleading “exceptionalism.” Cultural evolution doesn't apply to us! It’s nationalism in yet another disguise.

But that’s pretty much an argument for scholars: in what era did monotheism REALLY emerge? And how? Obviously it wasn’t overnight, and the process had to be complex. What excites me is a personal fantasy: what if I didn’t have a Catholic childhood.

Imagine: instead of indoctrination, history of religion! The evolution of the concept of god depending on the culture, the historical era, and the place.

How different and fascinating it would have been if my religion instructor (I don’t think it would have been a nun — would convents exist in that alternate, enlightened reality?) said, “There was a tiny tribal nation whose people worshipped Yahweh (perhaps pronounced as Yahu), the god of storms and war, and El, the chief of the gods, and the mother goddess Asherah — and other minor deities. Here is what probably led to the emergence of the belief in Yahweh as the sole god, the creator of the universe. Here are the stories that got conflated and changed to end up as the scripture.”

And the creation myths of other cultures would be discussed as well. I don’t know at what age the child’s brain is developed enough to absorb even part of that kind of complexity — but since we were taught history and that was deemed accessible even at the age of nine and ten, this would be simply the history of religion. I think age 15-16 would probably probably perfect.

Blake: The Creation of Adam


 ~ “In the 1960s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed the risks of sugar and highlighted the hazards of fat, according to a newly published article in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The article draws on internal documents to show that an industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation wanted to "refute" concerns about sugar's possible role in heart disease. The SRF then sponsored research by Harvard scientists that did just that. The result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding.

The sugar-funded project in question was a literature review, examining a variety of studies and experiments. It suggested there were major problems with all the studies that implicated sugar, and concluded that cutting fat out of American diets was the best way to address coronary heart disease.

The authors of the new article say that for the past five decades, the sugar industry has been attempting to influence the scientific debate over the relative risks of sugar and fat.

"It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion," co-author Stanton Glantz told The New York Times.

If Americans could be persuaded to eat a lower-fat diet — for the sake of their health — they would need to replace that fat with something else. America's per capita sugar consumption could go up by a third.

But in the '60s, the SRF became aware of "flowing reports that sugar is a less desirable dietary source of calories than other carbohydrates," as John Hickson, SRF vice president and director of research, put it in one document.

The next year, after several scientific articles were published suggesting a link between sucrose and coronary heart disease, the SRF approved the literature-review project. It wound up paying approximately $50,000 in today's dollars for the research.

One of the researchers was the chairman of Harvard's Public Health Nutrition Department — and an ad hoc member of SRF's board.

Glantz, Kearns and Schmidt say many of the articles examined in the review were hand-selected by SRF, and it was implied that the sugar industry would expect them to be critiqued.

The project wound up taking longer than expected, because more and more studies were being released that suggested sugar might be linked to coronary heart disease. But it was finally published in 1967.

The review minimized the significance of research that suggested sugar could play a role in coronary heart disease. In some cases the scientists alleged investigator incompetence or flawed methodology.

"It is always appropriate to question the validity of individual studies," Kearns told Bloomberg via email. But, she says, "the authors applied a different standard" to different studies — looking very critically at research that implicated sugar, and ignoring problems with studies that found dangers in fat.

Epidemiological studies of sugar consumption — which look at patterns of health and disease in the real world — were dismissed for having too many possible factors getting in the way. Experimental studies were dismissed for being too dissimilar to real life.

One study that found a health benefit when people ate less sugar and more vegetables was dismissed because that dietary change was not feasible.

Another study, in which rats were given a diet low in fat and high in sugar, was rejected because "such diets are rarely consumed by man."

The Harvard researchers then turned to studies that examined risks of fat — which included the same kind of epidemiological studies they had dismissed when it came to sugar.

Citing "few study characteristics and no quantitative results," as Kearns, Glantz and Schmidt put it, they concluded that cutting out fat was "no doubt" the best dietary intervention to prevent coronary heart disease.

The documents in question are five decades old, but the larger issue is of the moment, as Marion Nestle notes in a commentary in the same issue of JAMA Internal Medicine:

    "Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor? Yes, it is, and the practice continues. In 2015, the New York Times obtained emails revealing Coca-Cola's cozy relationships with sponsored researchers who were conducting studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity. Even more recently, the Associated Press obtained emails showing how a candy trade association funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not."


This is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The food industry continues to fund a lot of nutrition research.

~ “Nutrition scholar Marion Nestle of New York University spent a year informally tracking industry-funded studies on food. "Roughly 90% of nearly 170 studies favored the sponsor's interest," Nestle tells us via email. Other, systematic reviews support her conclusions.” ~


At least these days there are laws requiring disclosure. Not so in the past.

By the way, since fructose is the sugar mainly responsible for the damage to arteries, obesity, and more, we have to watch for the so-called “healthy” sources of fructose. I agree that it’s hard to overeat on whole fruit: after you’ve done all the work of chewing one apple, you don’t feel like having a second one. Just stay away from apple juice, which is loaded with fructose but devoid of fiber. This goes for all fruit juices except unsweetened cranberries and grapefruit (you’re still better off eating the grapefruit in its natural form).

What about fruit smoothies? While they contain fiber, by mashing the fruit to a pulp they make the fiber less effective, and make it easier to over-consume.  It would be rare for someone to eat an apple, a banana, a cup of strawberries, some mango and pineapple slices all in one sitting. But some health food nuts are also secret sugar junkies, and get their sweet fix by drinking fruit smoothies. Nor will adding a bit of kale make it OK. Beware of too much fructose. It will do very ugly things to your arteries. 


Adriaen Coorte: A Sprig of Gooseberries on a Stone Plinth, 1699

Gooseberries! Not that they really tasted all that great, but that they were a part of my childhood . . . funny how that is enough to enshrine them, to make me long for them, to remember them in compotes as dessert . . . even though they weren't even a fraction as good as red currants, or even white currants. Slimy, sour things, it it only now that I love you — in memory.

ending on beauty

~ “The Realmonte Salt Mine, Sicily: These salt deposits were formed during the “Messinian Salinity Crisis”, a geological event during which the Mediterranean Sea was cut off from the Atlantic Ocean and dried up (or mostly dried up), creating massive deposits of previously dissolved salts. This occurred at the end of the Messinian age of the Miocene epoch, from 5.96 to 5.33 million years ago, ending when the Atlantic again flowed into the basin.” ~


No comments:

Post a Comment