Monday, November 28, 2016


Detail of The Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Augustus St. Gaudens, 1900, National Gallery of Art; patinated plaster.

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die —
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year —
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

~ Robert Lowell

As we watch the KKK and the Neo-Nazis celebrate their “victory,” I thought I’d post this famous poem with a bit of commentary from poetry critics. 

For me the best comment on the poem — and on the monument — is contained in this clarification by Paul Doherty:

~ “Though it is true that Shaw's father wanted no cenotaph to his son's memory, it was not he who referred to his son’s troops as “niggers.” According to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the remark was supplied by the Confederate officer who, questioned about the location of Shaw's grave, replied, “We have buried him with his niggers.” The phrase evidently became something of a Union rallying cry. But [Shaw’s father ]wrote, “Since learning of the place of our dear son's burial, we would not remove his body if we could. We can imagine no better place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. My only desire in this respect now is that I may someday be able to erect a monument over him and them. —What a body guard he has.” ~

I teared up reading this. Indeed, Colonel Shaw could have no better guard of honor. 

St. Gaudens: The Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, a bronze relief sculpture created in 1884, stands on the Boston Common

Helen Vendler:

~ “Asked to participate in the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, Lowell delivered "For the Union Dead," a poem about a Civil War hero, Robert Gould Shaw, whose sister Josephine had married one of Lowell's ancestors, Charles Russell Lowell (who, like Robert Gould Shaw, was killed in the war). The poem is thus, though undeclaredly, a family poem; and in it, Lowell quotes from a letter that Charles Russell Lowell wrote home to his wife, Josephine, about her brother's burial: “I am thankful that they buried him with his ‘niggers.’ They were brave men and they were his men.”

"For the Union Dead" honors not only the person of Robert Gould Shaw, but also the stern and beautiful memorial bronze bas-relief b Augustus Saint Gaudens which stands opposite the Boston State House. It represents Colonel Shaw on horseback among the men of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a regiment entirely composed of Negro soldiers. By his own earlier request, Shaw — who had the right, as an officer, to have his body brought home for burial — was buried with his men in a mass grave after the battle of Fort Wagner, in which he and they had fallen. Far from criticizing the Brahmin past from the vantage point of the Catholic present, as he had done in Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell now criticizes Boston's Irish-American present in comparison with the New England past. It is not he, any longer, who illuminates the past; the past, with its noble but fading light, now illuminates the debased present.

Lowell now conceives of the events of public history as existing solely in commemorative art, on the one hand, and metaphysical "immortality," like that of Shaw, on the other. Past deeds of war have vanished into these aesthetic and virtual forms . . . . With the disappearance of history as firm past reality, the poem tails off into the abjectness of a Boston now ruled by the immigrant Irish, who have taken over territory formerly belonging to the Lowells and their kind.

The Irish have defaced the historical Common on which Emerson had his transcendental vision; they have undermined the State House and the Saint Gaudens relief in order to build a parking garage; they have abandoned civic responsibility in letting the Aquarium decline; everywhere, reduced to the synecdoche of their vulgar automobiles, their "savage servility / slides by on grease."

Lowell's anti-Irish statement, though covert here . . . , shows a new commercialized history replacing an old ethical history. The bas-relief shakes, and the statues "grow slimmer and younger each year" so that they will, if the process continues, disappear altogether . . . . Christian language, the "Rock of Ages," is debased to gross advertisement, heartless in its appropriation of Hiroshima for commercial purposes. What saves the poem from Pharisaic superiority is the speaker's own confessed participation in the degradation he so scathingly observes: "When I crouch" — he says as he offers the most startling image in the poem — "When I crouch to my television set / The drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons."

Lowell has now realized that the inner life, even that of a prophet, cannot remain immune from the corruption it describes. The savage servility he observes, if it is that of the Irish politicians turning Boston into one long financial and ethical scandal, is also that of the poet, representing old Boston, servilely crouching to his television set as the savagery of long-standing segregation victimizes Negro children in the white Protestant South — as though Shaw and the men of the Massachusetts 54th had died for nothing.” ~

Thomas Travisano:

~ “Just as Lowell's "For the Union Dead" presents its catalog of losses, so, too, does it present a peculiar, and parallel, catalog of survivors: almost nothing mentioned in the poem quite disappears. The aquarium stands in ruins, but it stands. Its "cowed, compliant fish" may be no more, but a "bronze weathervane cod" still sits atop the roof, even though it "has lost half its scales". Later the fish reappear, in the angry final lines of the poem, having suffered metamorphosis into dynamic, mechanical monsters:

    giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
    a savage servility
    slides by on grease.

These two versions of the fish-as-survivor characterize the two opposing types of survivor in the poem. Survivors appear either as static and attenuated simulacrums of their former selves, or brutal mechanical transformations. Some of the poem's many figures have lost all but a vicarious existence, and live on in the form of monuments, statues, pictures, and other visual objects. These icons are static except in the sense that they suffer physical erosion and a parallel erosion of their dignity, through desecration, displacement, or neglect.

But there is a different order of survivor, like the extinct dinosaurs, who reappear as devouring steam shovels, or the Mosler safe, whose commercial viability overshadows in the minds of its promoters the human losses at Hiroshima, or the new mechanical fish that end the poem. Each of these survivors embodies a new, aggressively commercial, mindless, and mechanistic order.

By contrast, the displaced Saint-Gaudens statue is the central image linking the first group of survivors. It preserves in vicarious stasis its "bronze Negroes," who maintain a curious simulation of life (William James could "almost hear [them] breathe"), a life mirrored by the "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier[s]," who "doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns."

But the Saint-Gaudens statue differs from all the other static monuments in one sense: it "sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat" because it is an uncomfortable survivor, reminiscent of such values as heroism, sacrifice, and racial equality, that no longer seem relevant in downtown Boston. This is true in part because racism and racial tension also survive, as does a replica of the ditch in which Colonel Shaw and his black Massachusetts volunteers were buried without the customary military honors by the Confederate soldiers who mowed them down at Fort Wagner.

The form of that ditch is further replicated in the very "underworld garage" being gouged beneath the Statehouse. The continuing reality of racism reappears in "the drained faces of Negro school-children" whom the narrator observes on television attempting to integrate southern schools. But Colonel Shaw emerges finally as the poem's protagonist, seen largely in terms of the way heroic death is memorialized. His predicament bears more than a passing resemblance to the speaker's long dead "uncle Charles," of "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid” — another Union officer and leader of "colored volunteers," buried on that occasion in Concord and with full military honors, attended by "Phillips Brooks and Grant." 

Colonel Shaw is seen in terms of a culture that is on the verge of utter disappearance. His heroism is of a past order that seems uncomfortable even for an observer who mourns its passing. For this

        Colonel is as lean
    as a compass-needle.

    He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
    a greyhound's gentle tautness;
    he seems to wince at pleasure,
    and suffocate for privacy.

His wincing at pleasure, his erect, and perhaps narrow moral rigidity ("lean / as a compass-needle") is derived from a culture growing from deeply rooted Puritan beliefs in public probity and Election, out of keeping with a pleasure-seeking and profoundly commercialized contemporary culture. He yearns to escape from history's spotlight. Understanding the value of sacrifice for a higher good, he remains inflexible in its pursuit, and this places him on the margins of contemporary culture.

    He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
    peculiar power to choose life and die—
    when he leads his black soldiers to death,
    he cannot bend his back

Dream textures weave in and out of the poem, despite its prevailingly gritty, realistic tone, and dream-logic knits the various strands. The poem's logic resembles the subtle, associational logic of dreams, with its many surrealistic images, its curious doublings and transformations. The "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier" may be lost in a dream, as "they doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns," but the central dream-figure is Colonel Shaw himself. When last seen:

    Colonel Shaw
    is riding on his bubble,
    he waits
    for the blessèd break.

The bubble he rides survives, with typical dream logic, from the fish tank, and from the faces of the school children who "rise like balloons." Colonel Shaw yearns to escape the vicarious simulation of life in which he is trapped, to depart a world that has a stable place for him neither in its public environs nor in its collective awareness, and to achieve the "privacy" for which he continually "suffocates." Shaw's final heroism may be the fact that he lingers still, in spite of his yearning to depart.


Carnival in Canon City, Colorado 1925

~ “Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival makes being a linguist look pretty cool—its hero Louise (Amy Adams) gets up close and personal with extraterrestrials and manages to save the entire world with her translation skills (and lives in a chic, glass-walled modernist palace all by herself). But how realistic were her methods?

Betty Birner, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University:

There are two ways of thinking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The weaker version is linguistic relativity, which is the notion that there’s a correlation between language and worldview. “Different language communities experience reality differently.”

The stronger view is called linguistic determinism, and that’s the view that language actually determines the way you see reality, the way you perceive it. That’s a much stronger claim. At one point in the movie, the character Ian [Jeremy Renner] says, “The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that if you immerse yourself in another language, you can rewire your brain.” And that made me laugh out loud, because Whorf never said anything about rewiring your brain. But since this wasn’t the linguist speaking, it’s fine that another character is misunderstanding the Sapir-Whorf.

But the movie accepts that as true! By learning the aliens’ language, Louise completely alters her brain.

Oh yeah, the movie is clearly on board with linguistic determinism, which is funny because most linguists these days would not accept that.

So in real life, learning another language can’t suddenly alter how you perceive time?

No linguist would ever buy into the notion that the minute you understand something about this second language, get sort of a lightbulb going off, and you say, “Oh my gosh, I completely see how the speakers of Swahili view plant life now.” It’s just silly and its false. It makes for a rollicking good story, but I would never want somebody to come away from a movie like this with the notion that that’s actually a power that language can bestow.

Is there anything to the idea at all?

It was funny in this movie to see this notion of the cyclicity of time. That’s really central in Whorf’s writings, that English speakers have a linear view of time, and it’s made up in individually packaged objects, days, hours, and minutes that march along from past to future, while the Hopi have a more cyclical notion that days aren’t separate things but that “day” is something that comes and goes.

So tomorrow isn’t another day. Tomorrow is day returning. You see that concept coming from Whorf into this movie was actually kind of fun. I thought, well they got that right! They took it in a really weird direction, but ...

Someone did their homework.


Arshile Gorky: Garden in Sochi, 1948
In the movie, the experts pretty much dismiss Heptapod A on the grounds that it doesn’t match what’s being said in Heptapod B. Are you familiar with any human languages where there’s no relationship between what’s spoken and what’s written?

Well, I wouldn’t say they’re totally unrelated. What I gathered is that the written form is not encoding the sounds of the spoken form, right? And certain dialects of Chinese are like that. They have these characters and the characters stand for a word or a concept, but a Chinese character isn’t made up of individual symbols that stand for individuals sounds in the way that English does. In English, the word dog has a D and that corresponds to the sound duh. In Chinese, it’s not quite that way. Now I gather there is a phonetic aspect to Chinese, but largely Chinese uses logograms, where the symbol stands for the word. It doesn’t stand for a sound.

Logographic systems on Earth are essentially similar. The Japanese have three different writing systems. One of them, Kanji, is shared with Chinese. The spoken languages are very different. The Japanese speaker and the Chinese speaker can’t talk to each other, but they share a writing system because the writing system doesn’t actually match phonetically onto the sounds of the language.

When you think about it, it’s not that weird because we do the same thing with numerals, right? I pronounce the number 7 very differently than a French speaker—I don’t even know the word for seven in French—but if I write it down, they understand the concept.

. . . It was a nice touch that the circularity of the image mapped onto the cyclicity of their worldview. The past, the future, it’s all just one big cycle that they can see from outside. It would sort of make sense that there’s no need for word order, that there should be this holistic aspect to a sentence in such a world where there’s really no linearity to time. I thought [the filmmakers] put some real thought into making it be not just be a clone of a human language, even though, yeah, you had to give up the word-order issue.

As a linguist, you would have really liked to see the translation process in detail.
Right. In a way, she proceeded the way a linguist would proceed in doing field research. Get very basic concepts, get the person to understand that we want to get individual words. You’ll usually start with things like body parts—okay, point to your arm, what’s their word for arm—and you build up from there. And she did that.

Other governments around the world are also trying to translate the aliens’ language. One thing that really stood out to me is that they say the Chinese government is learning to communicate with the aliens by playing Mahjong. Is that even possible?

It doesn’t sound to me like anything a trained linguist would do. But it does again sit with the movie’s interest in a Whorfian perspective, because Whorf is all about How does a language categorize things? Now, I don’t know how to play Mahjong, but my understanding based on the movie is that it’s a matter of different tiles being in different categories. So if that’s true, then it fits the Whorfian perspective they’re taking, in that, the Chinese approach is to say, How do they categorize aspects of reality? Here’s one way that we categorize it.

And then of course, another major issue that Louise brings up, is that there’s a winner and a loser in Mahjong, which could be dangerous when teaching a language to a potentially threatening species.

Right. So that again is taking a sort of Whorfian view that if you’re dealing with a language that categorizes the world in terms of winners and losers, this was going to superimpose a competitive view of reality on you. That is way more deterministic than I would go, but it makes for a good movie and good linguistic discussion.

Let’s say, just hypothetically, that aliens were to land on Earth right now and that the U.S. government wanted you to go in there and communicate with them. How would you start?

Okay, the first thing that I would need to do would be to determine for sure what modality they’re using for communication: Is this primarily oral, is it primarily via sound, visual, what have you? Beyond that, I would do kind of what [Louise] did, which is establish the very basic vocabulary: This is what I’m called, what are you called? I would identify the parts of the body, try to establish if they have one unit per object, one unit per sentence, whether it’s sound or image, depending on the modality they’re using.

Even in a spoken language, there are languages in which you can encode what for me would be an entire sentence can be one word. “He likes them” can be one word in Swahili, but it’s three words for me. So I need to find out: What are their units and how large a chunk of meaning does each unit convey? And then get those basic words or units. I would try to get the basic correspondences of meanings to units, and then see if there’s an ordering difference—in English, “Kim loves Sally” is quite different from “Sally loves Kim.” So I’d have to see whether ordering makes a difference.

And then I would simply build up, and that’s the part that they sort of skipped in the movie, that slow buildup from I’m called a human to quite abstract words like weapon. That is a very abstract concept, and one wonders how they established that that is the meaning.

It turns out that the word the humans translate as “weapon” could also mean “tool” or “gift.” What did you think about the fact that the aliens came to Earth purely to give us their language?

As a linguist, I loved that the movie revolved around their giving up this gift, even though it’s only a gift on the quite silly deterministic reading where the minute you have their language, you have the ability to see the future. That just made me laugh. But it’s the logical extreme of a Whorfian worldview, right? Like, oh my goodness, by understanding their language, you suddenly have nonlinear time and can therefore see the future. But I loved that it all hinged on them giving this gift of language and hence this gift of an improved worldview.

Do you think a movie like Arrival will push people to become interested in linguistics?

I actually do, and that is a great thing. It’s funny that very early on, Ian says, “You approach language like a mathematician.” I get that from my students in the department of English a lot, because they’re people who are used to looking at themes in great literature, and then they come to linguistics and it feels very much like math to them. Because it is a science. So to see a character, a linguist, portrayed as doing something that is really fun and very much like puzzle-solving, I think that’s a plus. We need more linguists as electronic communication becomes more and more important.

Not to mention in case of alien invasion.

You know, maybe someday. ~

Cyclops, William Baziotes, 1947

~ “Like so many other revolutionary leaders—César Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua, both Eva and Juan Perón in Argentina, among others—Fidel Castro was born out of wedlock to a poor woman and her wealthy and lighter-skinned lover or attacker.

The monstrous Latin American class divide split these children in two even when, as in Fidel’s case, the father loved the washerwoman Lina Ruz—the future revolutionary’s mother—eventually married her, and favored Lina’s children over his legitimate ones. What this meant was that, although Fidel Castro grew up in comfortable circumstances, he was socially unacceptable. Fidel does not mention this directly to Frei Betto, but we know from other sources that the “good families” of Cuba always saw the brilliant, athletic, tall, and handsome Castro boy as “the bastard,” “the upstart,” the gallego’s son. He was un cualquiera—an “anybody.” What Fidel does mention several times is that because he was not baptized until he was six—probably because his parents did not get married until then—he was also known as a “Jew,” a term that was fully intended to be offensive.

Small wonder that Fidel soon developed the underdog’s obsession with honor and dignity. And also an obsession with the strategic first strike. As a child, his brother Raúl says, he picked fights constantly. And he did so again once he found politics. As a young university student he carried a gun, joined in street brawls, signed up for a failed expedition against the dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and, during a visit to Bogotá in 1949, raced to change into a borrowed police uniform in order to join the fighting when the popular leader Jorge Gaitán’s assassination set off a national revolt.

He also learned the first rule of the pugnacious: never acknowledge when you’re beaten. Although he has been defeated, knocked down, and forced to backtrack in tests of will against a broad array of enemies (particularly against his principal one, the United States), he has said so in public only rarely. More importantly, he has in fact refused to back down or acknowledge defeat in circumstances that threatened not only his survival but—as in the Cuban missile crisis—the very survival of civilized life. (It was the Soviets who backed down then, not he.) Era cuestión de dignidad, he has said over and over to explain these moments of breathtaking defiance. It is a particularly Latin American, Spanish-inspired vision of what dignity consists of and it comes out of the twinned obsessions with virility and with being condemned by the gods to the loser's fate.

Romantic this posture may be, and unreasonable, but it would be a mistake to consider it foolish. From the reasonable perspective of those with less deeply riven histories, the smart premise is that it is virtually impossible for the poor worker to win the millionaire’s daughter (a favorite Latin romantic conceit), or for Fidel Castro to overthrow the United States. Therefore, it is better not to try. But if one must reach for such a goal, the logic goes, then a gradualist and conciliatory policy is the safest option. As Fidel has shown, however, in a confrontation where the underdog’s chances are virtually nil, reasonableness may not be the best option at all. Better to tip the scales in your favor by knocking them over. Sometime the policy will have to work, and when it doesn’t, the element of dignidad provides a better aesthetic than the middle-of-the-road alternative. Who is more beautiful: the poor man who elopes with the rich man’s daughter, or the poor sucker who slaves away as an accountant under the rich man’s scorn, saving up his pennies toward a small purchase of respect? Fidel knew the answer: Socialismo o muerte!

 The heroic compulsion does not alone account for the dreamlike trance that Fidel’s exhortations in the Plaza have produced in so many Cubans for so many years. Nor is the revolt against itself that colonial capitalism seems to breed in its entrails enough to explain how socialism should have come to establish its most enduring outpost on a tropical island. (And on a tropical island which was by no means the poorest or most backward nation in Latin America when Fidel took power.) Anti-imperialist sentiment, that gelatinous explosive, had an enormous role, of course, all the more so because in Latin America, and in Cuba particularly, the most radical haters of the United States were often young men who, like Fidel, chose el gigante del norte as their honeymoon site (it was New York he took his young bride to in 1948). There is also the extreme allure of young men—Che, Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel—who have gone up to the mountains to fight for the nation and then descended again, gaunt, branded with fire and sacrifice and the glory of combat, and cloaked in victory.

Castro and Hemingway

But in the end, it is Fidel alone who accounts for Fidel, Fidel who, with his supernatural will, historic sense of moment and of mission, quick trigger finger and massive ego, has single-handedly led Cuba into its encounter with history and kept it there. Never, during the forty years of alleged plots and power plays and desperate efforts to finally be rid of him, has anyone claimed that he could substitute for Fidel or be his equal, and that is why, of course, he endures.” ~  [this was written before Fidel’s death, though “endures” can also be taken to mean historical importance.]

“Covert CIA plot to wait until Fidel Castro dies of old age successful” ~ headline in The Onion

The first, happy year with M, he said to me, “If I had to die right now, I wouldn't mind. I could just go anytime. “ I knew what he meant: life had finally granted him the fulfillment he wanted. He was so sated with happiness that he felt calm and accepting — and willing to let go of life with gratitude.

Isn’t there an expression: I feel so happy I could die? Die and not resent it, that is, because somehow what is most important has been granted to me.

Even at a very unhappy time in my youth I experienced a similar serenity and a similar perception of being ready to die, even though I was only 28. Just before my most serious surgery, I realized (an unforgettable minute when it all flowed to me) that, for all the misery I’d also experienced, life had given me great gifts and blessings. I had known great love; I didn’t know motherhood, but I didn’t resent it because now I didn’t have to worry about leaving an orphan. I had had the best of literature, art, and music; I’d seen gorgeous scenery; my Polish summers were a paradise of nature, even the time I got chased by hissing geese that nipped my shins.

I felt reconciled to the possibility of dying, even though I hadn’t yet “done” anything to speak of. That was irrelevant somehow. I felt peaceful and accepting: life had been generous to me; I didn’t feel cheated.

Occasionally this theme appears in poetry: in Keats’s “Ode to the Nightingale” Sexton’s “Starry Night,” Hölderlin’s “To the Fates.” Hölderlin says he’ll enter the world of shadows content after he’s had his fill of singing: “Once I lived as the gods; more is not needed.” Keats and Sexton want to die sated with beauty: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die”; “Oh starry, starry night! This is how I want to die.”

And there is Jack Gilbert’s wonderful title: “We Have Already Lived In the Real Paradise.” It’s all in the title; more is not needed.

It’s not dying we dread, but not having lived.

 Van Gogh: Starry Night on the Rhône
The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy — it is synonymous with existence. ~ Hafiz


“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that's just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part I

So already in the 19th century we had a warning that we aren't very good at telling reality from entertainment . . . And of course what we want is entertainment.


~ “One of my biggest pet peeves about many story villains is that they walk around twisting the ends of their mustaches and declaring that they are the bad guys. In reality, most people involved in evil behavior don’t see that behavior as evil.

In a conflict, each side sees itself as good and justified and the enemy as evil. In fact, you can argue that the only real thing that differentiates a protagonist from an antagonist is that the author is taking the protagonist’s side and showing his or her justifications rather than the justifications of the antagonist.

In a conflict, the enemy is painted to seem horrible. WWII propaganda fascinates me because each side is vilifying the other. American propaganda shows a swastika-bearing boot crushing a church, or a swastika-bearing arm stabbing a dagger through the Bible. Meanwhile, the Nazis were painting Hitler as a Christ-like figure wearing a cross and bearing a sword to vanquish the evil dragons representing Germany’s enemies.

“The face of evil is no one’s face,” writes Roy Baumeister in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. “It is always a false image that is imposed or projected on the opponent.” And philosopher Hannah Arendt said, “The most horrifying things about the Nazis was not that they were so deviant but that they were terrifyingly normal.”

Pure evil, argues Baumeister, is just a myth.

Psychologist Albert Bandura would probably agree. He theorized that people who do evil have justified the morality of their actions to themselves in some way. By convincing themselves their behavior is moral, these people can separate and disengage themselves from immoral behavior and its consequences.

Minimizing, distorting, or disregarding the pain one’s actions create for others certainly reduces feelings of guilt for harming others. When I was collecting propaganda to talk about stereotyping, prejudice, and hatred for my classes, I discovered Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (the goal of which is to teach tolerance). I was astonished by the number of images of slaves looking—or even saying—they were happy to be in the positions they were in.

In many cases, the propaganda identifies the happy-looking slaves mentioned with the n word. Epithets like this are used to dehumanize people who are being mistreated. As Roy Fox writes in his article Salespeak (printed in the book Common Culture: Reading and Writing about American Popular Culture, 5th ed), “Names [are] sacred: they communicate the essence of our identity, not just to others but to ourselves as well. To rob someone of her name was to appropriate her identity, to deny her existence.”

Rather than taking personal blame for evil, many people blame a larger group or organization. Over and over in history, people who have committed atrocities blame the orders they were given, and because they believe that following orders was the greater good, they feel little or no guilt for their actions.

So when you create your story villains, don't show your villain twisting his mustache ... show him arguing that his evil behavior was all for the good.” ~

 “Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism” ~ Slavoy Žižek

 ~ “Atheism can claim there is no God and so on, but nonetheless it retains a certain trust into the Big Other. This Big Other can be called natural necessity, evolution, or whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within the harmonious whole of evolution, whatever, but the difficult thing to accept is again that there is no Big Other, no point of reference which guarantees meaning.”

“The death of Christ,” says Žižek, “is not any kind of redemption… it’s simply the disintegration of the God which guarantees the meaning of our lives.”

Oriana: I think already the Book of Job does that, showing that suffering happens for no reason -- it’s not divine punishment -- it’s not “justice” (“justice” is just a more respectable word for revenge). If Christianity is atheist, in my view it’s because there is an essential incompatibility between the OT god of vengeance (never called “father”) and Christ’s message of non-judgment and compassion.

I don’t have a Big Other (unless, to some extent, the genius of humanity; the goodness of most, the endurance). In writing I sometimes invoke that Big Other, realizing that there are endless complications and limitations. And nature is also the Big Other. But for daily use I have a Small Other -- the cognitive unconscious (not to be confused with Freud’s concept of the unconscious). I know that my “back-burner” brain is smarter than my consciousness. The smarter neural processors will communicate the answer to consciousness when that answer is ready. I call it “email from my other self.”


~ "Without Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), we probably wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving today. It was due to her efforts that the holiday became an established tradition in all of the United States, reaching far beyond its origins in New England. Hale was a truly remarkable woman and doesn’t get near the credit she deserves. She had a tremendous impact on American life, and even wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb.

As the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular monthly periodical in America up until the Civil War, Hale campaigned tirelessly for the adoption of Thanksgiving as a true national holiday. Godey’s provided her with a huge platform and she used it to popularize the holiday she loved so much. While she never saw the day recognized as an official federal holiday in her lifetime, it was eventually proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln and subsequent Presidents largely due to her influence). Instead of Pilgrims, we should be decorating with pictures of Sarah Hale.

Sarah Josepha Hale never wrote a word about the Pilgrims. In her magazine Godey’s Ladies Book Hale mentions Boston and not Plymouth when writing about the history of the holiday in 1870:

    “To the Colony of Massachusetts belongs the honor of introducing this holiday, soon after the settlement of Boston, though the exact date is not known. From that Colony the observances of Thanksgiving became the custom in all New England, then advanced slowly but steadily to the Middle States and the West. This first Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania was held in the year 1843.”

Even though writers like Hale occasionally made references to a “first Thanksgiving,” the holiday did not originally commemorate any particular event in American history. It wasn’t the Puritan settlers that were important to early adopters of Thanksgiving, but the day its self. In fact, one historian couldn’t find any references to the Pilgrims in any colonial or state Thanksgiving proclamations from 1676 to 1840. That’s just how inconsequential Plymouth was though to be in early America.


For several centuries New England Thanksgiving celebrations were more like Christmas than today’s Turkey Day. Because the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas, they turned Thanksgiving into their de facto Winter Holiday. It was also the most popular holiday in that part of the country as a result. If Christmas hadn’t re-emerged in the 19th Century it’s possible that most of our Thanksgiving decorations would be a little less Autumn-like and a lot more wintry.

The events of 1621 only became the “first Thanksgiving” centuries after their occurrence, and largely because America had begun to lionize the the Pilgrims and see them as part of a broader a national origin story. It became especially popular in public schools seeking to “Americanize” recent immigrants. In a lot of ways the story its self served as a piece of American-propaganda, an attempt to teach the values of hard work, tolerance, and religious freedom.


Many people think of Thanksgiving as a harvest festival and it’s easy to see why. The decorative motifs of Thanksgiving are all rather harvesty: pumpkins, fallen leaves, corn, even the colors associated with it are all rather muted and Autumn-like. However, Thanksgiving was not always a harvest festival, and some of its origins lie outside of the farmstead.

The Pilgrims of Massachusetts were Puritans, and Puritans tended to celebrate a thanksgiving only when circumstances warranted a celebration. With that in mind the first real official Thanksgiving on the record books took place in July of 1623 after a long period without rain that threatened to kill off all the Pilgrims’ crops. By the 1660′s most of the New England colonies in North America were celebrating an annual Thanksgiving in the late Fall, though sometimes Thanksgiving wouldn’t be proclaimed until December.

The first national Thanksgiving day also took place in December. In 1777 the Continental Congress of the fledging United States of America proclaimed December 18 a day of Thanksgiving to commemorate an American victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Thanksgiving was proclaimed again in December of the following year, but was moved back to December 30, this time in honor of America’s newest ally, France. After the conclusion of the War for Independence the Continental Congress got out of the Thanksgiving business and left such celebrations to the states.

President George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1789 to celebrate the adoption of the US Constitution. Six years later he would proclaim another Thanksgiving holiday, this one on February 19. Abraham Lincoln is credited with turning Thanksgiving into something of a fixed holiday, but even then there were bumps on the road. His first Thanksgiving declaration celebrated the day on April 13, 1862. The next year he issued two Thanksgiving proclamations, one in August, and one (finally) on the last Thursday of November. This would become the standard for nearly 80 years, though President (Andrew) Johnson did once move Thanksgiving to the first Thursday in December.

For several centuries Thanksgiving was celebrated by Presidential or Gubernatorial proclamation and was not an official holiday. Governors and later Presidents were expected to proclaim the last Thursday of November a Thanksgiving holiday, but they weren’t actually obligated to do so. In 1939 then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week, enraging his critics but lengthening the holiday shopping season. Two years later the holiday was officially moved to the fourth Thursday of November where it’s been ever since.

A turkey painted by the court painter Ustad Mansur, 1612, India, the Moghul period


“Dr. Donald Stein began working with traumatic brain injury patients in the early 70's. There was anecdotal evidence that women were recovering better than men. But, during the height of the feminist movement, few people wanted to look for brain differences in men and women.

But he persisted. Systematic work with rats documented the difference, but it was, as most things are, more complicated than a simple difference between male and female. Female rats' ability to heal depends on where they are in their estrus cycle: it was hormone dependent. When female rats were injured when their progesterone peaked, their recovery was much better. The highest level of progesterone present led to the fastest recovery of brain injury in these mice.

When [both male and female rats were] injected with progesterone, swelling in the brains of injured rats the brain was reduced and the males healed as well as the females. More importantly than how their brains looked, was how they healed. Cognitive impairment was markedly reduced.

In an initial study of the effects of progesterone in 100 patients, 40 percent of those given the placebo died within 30 days, compared with 13 percent who received progesterone. Not bad for an initial test. And the first major breakthrough in the treatment of traumatic brain injury in 30 years.” ~

This is a huge difference in mortality. Let us have a moment for silence for those who could have recovered if treated with progesterone, but died because they ended up in the placebo group (not blaming anyone; that’s how research works).

"And it turns out it works for all sorts of brain injuries—not just car accidents.  Surgery, strokes, and brain lesions, too,” the author of the article casually remarks.

Strokes? Progesterone has been shown to help the brain heal after a stroke, but basically it’s never used? Aren’t we talking about millions of people?

(Don’t hold your breath. There isn’t much money in progesterone, so there isn’t much interest.)

By the way, estrogens (it’s a whole family of hormones) also help in general tissue healing, but progesterone is specific for the nervous system.

And it seems that it might also shrink brain tumors.

Progesterone is regarded as the safest of all hormones. It’s the only hormone approved for use in pregnant women. It’s safe for men as well (it’s actually an androgen).

It also appears to help reduce and even eliminate symptoms of auto-immune diseases — but that’s a separate topic.


The article starts in a casual manner, two sisters talking. One of them remarks, “People treated with progesterone during the first hours after a traumatic brain injury are 1/3 as likely to die in the first 30 days. I read about it in the New York Times.” Yes, we read about such miracles once, and then never again. That’s where the issue of profitability comes in. Never mind that people suffer and die needlessly. If no one can get really rich off helping them recover, then they are out of luck.

ending on beauty:

It was when I said,
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.

You . . . You said,
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,

Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.

~ Wallace Stevens, “On the Road Home”

Sunday, November 20, 2016


an agate “thunder egg” from New Mexico


The only philosophical
question left,
a French writer said,
is whether to kill yourself.

But that is the question of youth.
In my twenties, I could never look
from a high window or a roof 
and not feel a gathering leap.

Middle age asks two questions:
How much time left? and
How to spend what wakefulness
remains? Now I look

out the window, and the deep
magnolia gives two answers:
the morning light
glistening in the crown,

and the wreath of shadow.
And the layered wind
does not rustle To be or not to be —
Each leaf silvers Hamlet’s

forgotten reply: Let be.
It’s too late to renounce
the privilege of surprise;
centuries, it seems,

since my father told me
not to worry about the universe.
“That’s Aldebaran,”
he pointed to an amber star.

When the universe asks
the final question, I too
will point: Aldebaran.
Great light seen only in the dark.

~ Oriana © 2016

The “French writer” mentioned in the first stanza is Albert Camus.

Something struck me as I thought about my past suicidal imagery in general, mostly jumping from high places. I knew I’d fall, but actually I wanted to fly. That was the frustrated wish underlying the despair.

Not to fall, but to fly — to live out of my greatness rather than out my wounds. And, unwillingly at first, I realized that it is a choice: regardless of circumstances, we can still make that choice and it will make a huge difference. It took the pressure of mortality to give up on escaping life, escaping backward into past trauma. Instead, I decided to open myself to the choice outlined already in Ecclesiastes: “whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

Or, to put it less grandly, working hard was the only thing I knew how to do. I didn’t know how to be happy, but I knew how to write. At first I had to do it blindly: blind work like “blind faith.” I couldn’t afford to ponder why I was writing, or for whom (my depressive vision was zero audience, now and forever ). I couldn’t afford to think about purpose and meaning — that way lay brooding and crying fits. And those would be no more. It was too late in life to be wasting life.

And the question changed from “to be or not to be” to how best to spend what little time remains.  There is no single correct answer, but it’s not a matter of an answer, which has to be individual and may change over time. It’s a matter of finally asking the right question. And knowing the right question has been a great light to me. I saw it clearly during the darkest time.


In one of his poems written before the Nobel Prize, when he was more prone to bitterness, Milosz ponders human striving, then asks, “And for what, since we will be forgotten anyway?” Camus is one of the thinkers who engage with this question, the first one I encountered who had a secular answer.

~ “In his most famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus made the point that Sisyphus stands for all humanity, ceaselessly pushing our rock up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again. Over and over, ceaselessly, remorselessly, always striving but never succeeding, if only because ultimately everyone dies and his or her personal boulder rolls back down. Gravity always wins.

Camus nonetheless concludes his essay with the stunning announcement that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Sisyphus is happy because he accepts this reality, defining himself—achieving meaning—within its constraints. Camus’ stance is that meaning is not conveyed by life itself but must be imposed upon it.

“The greatest mystery,” according to André Malraux, whose work Camus greatly admired, “is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.”

Denying our nothingness isn’t what Camus proposed; rather, he urged something closer to accepting our nothingness and pushing on nonetheless, achieving meaning via meaningful behavior, even though—or rather, especially because—in the long run any action is meaningless. Probably the greatest such account of people achieving meaning through their deeds is found in Camus’ novel The Plague, which describes events in the Algerian city of Oran during a typhoid epidemic.

Camus’ plague stands for many things: the German occupation of France during World War II, the inevitability of death, and, of course, the plague itself. The struggle against cruelty, against death and disease, against an uncaring universe, must ultimately fail. But it isn’t a fool’s errand, since what gives life meaning is how one chooses to live, knowing this. (Had Sisyphus anticipated, each time he heaved his boulder to the summit, that maybe this time it would stay there, he would have been a ridiculous figure, rather than the existential hero of Camus’ analysis.)

The Plague is a “chronicle” compiled by the heroic Dr. Rieux, in order to “bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Camus is the existential thinker most associated with the “life is absurd” characterization of the human condition. Often misunderstood, he felt that this absurdity didn’t reside in life itself, but in something uniquely human, namely the peculiar relationship (which he called a “divorce”) between the human need for ultimate meaning and the “unreasonable silence” of the world. For Camus, neither human existence nor the universe is inherently absurd, but rather the relationship between the two, whereby people seek something of the universe that it fails to deliver.

Ruminating on Sisyphus, Camus wrote that “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” And at the conclusion of The Plague, while the citizens of Oran are celebrating their “deliverance,” Dr. Rieux knows better, that the plague bacillus will some day return. But at the same time, his commitment to the struggle, to what defines human beings in an otherwise uncaring universe, is undiminished.

Dr. Rieux understood that all human victories are temporary, which renders his perseverance all the more grand: “He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record or what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilence, strive their utmost to be healers.”

Part of that healing, according to Camus, was a commitment to be “neither victims nor executioners,” and his refusal to countenance revolutionary violence was a major factor in his break with Jean-Paul Sartre. Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, Camus—born in Algeria and sympathetic to Algerian independence—was heckled for his condemnation of murder in any form. “People are now planting bombs on the streetcars of Algiers,” he famously responded. “My mother might be on one of those streetcars. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

With strident voices calling for violence and destruction, generating false hopes and destructive acts, many of us would prefer the healing, humane wisdom of Albert Camus.” ~

Tibetan Kapala Skull


My answer is more along the lines of “We are of the moment. We belong to our moment, and should make the best of it.” Taking the long-term view is indeed depressing: eventually we will be gone and forgotten, and so will be the house and the garden we put so much care into, and all our brave struggles, insights, accomplishments — they will be gone and forgotten.

But — and it’s a huge “but” — we are not required to take the long-term perspective, and perhaps we shouldn’t take it. We don't belong to a hundred years from now, much less five hundred or a thousand. We belong to our time — our limited but very real “moment.” And in that moment it does matter whether we cope or fall apart, whether we make our garden beautiful or let it fill with weeds. In that moment — not a hundred years from now — it does matter that we make an effort and touch the lives of others rather than just watch TV or cat videos. It matters that we vote out a corrupt politician, even though it will not end corruption in politics once and for all. Nothing is “ once and for all.” But for the sake of the moment, our moment, for ourselves and for others who share the moment with us, good things are still worth doing.


“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” We don’t expect such statements to come to us from the twentieth century, in many ways an era of disillusionment (though also of startling progress in technology, and more slow but significant progress in human rights). The pursuit of excellence characterized ancient Greece. The ambitious strove for arete. But when it comes to the pursuit of ideals, the twentieth century taught us caution — extreme idealism tends to end up in catastrophe. We need here another piece of Greek wisdom: moderation in all things. 

Intuitively, though, I know what Camus means: it’s the work itself that makes us happy, not the results. “We must imagine that Sisyphus is happy” is in line with Rilke’s “To work is to live without dying.” It doesn’t matter that what we accomplish will almost certainly be forgotten; we’ll be lucky if some small portion will persist in an anonymous fashion even for a while. But even if eventually it’s forgotten entirely, that’s not a reason to cease working. Work is its own reward — particularly if we are performing at the level of excellence.

But even without that “struggle toward the heights,” work is a blessing. That’s why Ecclesiastes, after concluding that all is vanity, advises the reader: “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

And one of the bleakest poems in the English language, Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” ends with

Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.



There is a remarkable movie still playing in the theaters: “Arrival.” Let me warn you that the movie is quite flawed: the plot is illogical and difficult to follow. More than one critic called it a “puzzle movie.” The absurd antics of the paranoid military, the non-communication among world scientists, and small things like carrying a caged canary into the alien vessel are downright ludicrous.

And no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine writing the way the aliens (the mysterious octopus-but-not-quite heptapods) do — as if with both hands, writing both the beginning and the end of the sentence at once. “Linear” has become a strangely negative word, but I refuse to apologize for being human and linear.

But linear doesn’t mean totally ignorant of the future, especially when it comes to the typical course of human life. “Arrival” is, among other things, an existentialist movie, presenting the same question as “Gravity” did at one point: Since we know that life is going to end badly — that we are doomed to die — why proceed with the journey? Why live? Why do anything?

Oddly enough, both movies feature a dead daughter as the emblem of the heroine’s greatest trauma, a reminder of the inevitability of suffering and death, and a source of inspiration and motivation to live on. “Arrival,” with less noise and migraine-inducing non-stop “action,” presents the existential question with greater power and purity. Louise, a brilliant linguist who also appears to be free from the constraints of time, is chosen by the aliens to be the savior of humanity. “Louise sees the future,” the heptapods write in their inky logogram.

Louise knows that her daughter will die, and yet she decides to have a child “because every moment of the journey is meaningful.” She answers Yes to Nietzsche’s Eternal Return: Let it be. Let everything happen, the joy and the sorrow. But Louise’s alleged psychic powers only muddy the issue, which is surely that of everyone’s mortality and how we deal with it. Do we escape into denial or fantasies of an afterlife? Or do we stare into the abyss, fold up in terror and refuse to engage with life? Or throw ourselves into living with all the more intensity?

The book that inspired the movie is Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Everyone’s life. We don’t have to be clairvoyant to know that we’ll experience both joy and suffering — and suffering may outweigh the joy. We are going to age, and ultimately we are going to die, most likely after a nasty illness. No wonder Camus said that the only philosophical question left is whether to kill yourself.

In my poem I reply: “But that is the question of youth.” When we grow older and can no longer deny mortality, when we truly stare into the abyss, there are two possibilities. We can either fall into despair or come to realize that, with little time left, life becomes ever more precious. Erik Erikson describes the last stage of life as the struggle between despair and wisdom. 

Interestingly, study after study has found that happiness — or at least contentment — increases with age. People in their sixties are on the whole happier than people in their fifties, and people in their seventies tend to be happier than people in their sixties. Knowing that there isn’t much time left can make us paradoxically free of time, and make us savor what sweetness we can find now.

(Shameless digression: I think the idea of the Eternal Return violates the probabilistic laws of nature. It would never be the same the second or third time — cloning experiments clearly showed us that. Everything changes. You can’t step into the river of time twice.)

(Another shameless digression: The “rare genetic disease” of Louise’s daughter again muddies a universal question. It might make ethical sense not to have a child if we knew for sure that the child is doomed to die early after great suffering. The universal question is whether to have a child at all — a normal, healthy child who will nevertheless at some point learn about death and have to live with that knowledge, as we all do. Do we have the right to bring into being a new consciousness that will have to suffer and may never quite figure out how to cope with mortality?)

It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then ~ Alice in Wonderland

Salvador Dali, Alice’s Evidence


That’s not to dismiss the importance of the past and the kind of personal meaning we find in memory. Memory actually has no past tense.

As Milosz puts it:

I think that I am here, on this earth,
To present a report on it, but to whom I don’t know.
As if i were sent so that whatever takes place
Has meaning because it changes into memory.

~ Milosz, “Consciousness”

My quick response to the first two lines: “to your readers, silly.” But then two lines of sheer wisdom, and the reason I keep reading Milosz. Changing events into memory is also Keats’s “soul-making.” And memory is perhaps the closest we get to the Eternal Return — except that memory keeps changing according to the meaning we perceive in the present (that’s how “the present changes the past”)

Vladimir Kush: Sunrise by the Ocean


Many writers deluded themselves that they will be remembered. “You are writing for posterity,” friends are forever assuring those who don’t have much recognition. Milosz does not kid himself.   He realizes that even eminent writers are forgotten after a while and meet the common fate of all of us: oblivion. What shall remain of us will be some anonymous particles, a few words that strangers may repeat, without attribution. Borges was another poet and writer who fully understood this.

So, again, why write if it will all be forgotten? Why build anything if it will all be demolished, and replaced with something else? Why plant trees, if even trees don’t live forever? Or, if we plant those trees that live longer than we do, why do it if we won’t be around to enjoy them at their most magnificent? Why have a pet, knowing that cats and dogs don’t live all that long? And let’s not even talk about flowers . . .

On the contrary, let us talk about flowers. They teach us a great lesson: beauty is a joy even if it doesn’t last. Ultimately nothing lasts. But WHILE it lasts, the beauty can nourish and delight us — just as we can nourish and delight others whose lives we touch.

So I live by two answers:

To work is to live without dying. ~ Rilke

and, again: We are of the moment, and should fully devote ourselves to that moment.

Only a moment? Yes. And that is enough.

And that’s why Sisyphus the Everyman can be happy.

Titian: Sisyphus, 1549

(Please note: This is an updated and greatly expanded version of my earlier blog post on Camus and the myth of Sisyphus)



Today I woke up in the wee hours, sweaty, remembering a dream. In the dream my mother was telling me, “They came for Father. But again he managed to escape.” There followed some confused details. I woke up, knowing the dream was based on a conflation of several stories of my father’s narrow escapes during WWII. My mother had her own narrow escapes as well. I lay in the dark, repeating in my mind, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” 

My nightmares often feature the Nazis, but usually I am the target. Only in childhood I had nightmares involving the Nazis and my mother. This was the first dream that I can remember involving my father in this way. By the way, it was “local,” and “they" were not the old-time Nazis but apparently the new regime in the U.S. That's why I was so completely freaked out when I woke up.


~ “In a way, we were survivors too, holding the trauma of our parents’ memory. Marianne Hirsch coined the term postmemory—recollections of traumatic events which are imprinted on the lives of offspring like shadows, following them around: “Children of survivors and their contemporaries inherit catastrophic histories not through direct recollection but through haunting postmemories.” Both of us had grown up with an altered perception of the world around us. And we mostly lived with our secret fears, placing importance on self-reliance, as our parents did. To seek help was to admit we were weak. Feeling too happy was an insult to our parents’ histories, yet feeling depressed was worse—what was our suffering compared to theirs?” ~

November in Kraków. Photo: Jan Pieklo. Kraków was once the last train stop before Auschwitz.


One of interchanges in Arrival (a flawed but a thought-provoking movie) concerns the basis of civilization. Is language, or, more broadly, communication, the basis of civilization? Or is it science, again in the broadest sense — the drive to know?

Or maybe it’s something else. I started thinking about this after what would otherwise be a very trivial and forgettable incident at the public library. Another woman and I both approached a narrow passage. She smiled and let me go first. I smiled back.

That’s it. End of story. One of thousands of brief encounters of this sort where one person lets the other go first. A smile, sometimes a “thank you.” We take it for granted that this is how it happens — that no one will shout, “I go first, bitch!” Of course not. One time you go first, another time you go second. No big deal. But — perhaps that’s the basis of civilization.

I felt so moved that I described this tiny commonplace courtesy to the librarian who was checking out my books and videos. “Normally I wouldn’t mention such a thing. But with so much hate out there . . .” “It all counts. Even the smallest thing counts,” the librarian commented. 

I left, still thinking about it: a stranger let me pass first, and we smiled at each other. And suddenly I had tears in my eyes.

This is probably the first time ever that I gave any thought to a minor, common courtesy — much less teared up over it. But with photos of swastikas spray-painted over cars and buildings and even a children’s playground, “even the smallest thing counts.”

Respect for the other — that, I think, is the basis of civilization.

Raphael: The School of Athens, detail: Plato and Aristotle


 “What use are you? In your writings there is nothing 

except immense amazement.”
~ Milosz, “Consciousness”

In Hamlet there is a little-noticed moment when Horatio expresses worry that Hamlet does not have sufficient skill at fencing to stand a chance in a sword fight. Hamlet replies, “I have been in continual practice.” It’s not a famous line, but for some reason it touches me to the core. I too have been in continual practice, the practice of paying attention and being astonished. I can’t quite say for what purpose, or have faith that a grand occasion to exercise those skills will ever arise. But purpose may be beside the point. At least once a day, I reflect on the paradoxes of the world and instantly I am in “immense amazement.”

And thus I remain if not in continual practice, then in continual astonishment.

PS. Practice is its own reward. It's like a visual artist sketching. We don't ask, “What for?” The sketch may develop into something bigger, but it's fine just being a sketch. We are of the moment. The ladybug is not asking where the dandelion seed is taking her.


~ “Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

1. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? - Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan, Jim” ~


“Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.” ~ Nietzsche

It still takes Nietzsche to say something as politically incorrect as this, and as exhilarating. Do we need “mystical” explanations of the universe, or is that another cover for wishful thinking (eternal bliss awaits me; not sure about you)? The greatest mysteries lie all around us, in the nature of reality. Have you tried to nibble, at least, at quantum physics? chaos theory and emergence? Next to these, mystical imaginings (presented as knowledge) about extraterrestrials, Atlantis, the Cosmic Starfish, and so forth seem downright childish.

We are hard-wired to seek patterns and meaning. On the whole this is a good thing, but it can result in the mistake of manufacturing supernatural explanations. Once enshrined in "holy scriptures," thousand-year-old absurdities continue to weigh us down.

As Matt said, “Mysticism throws everything back in the formless cauldron so it can be endlessly prated about without logical restrictions.”

The good news is that we can enjoy the thrill of the mysterious without multiplying useless metaphysics. Once you delve into science, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the true mystery is all around us. As Nietzsche also said, every time you look at something in sufficient depth, an infinity opens up.

Correggio: Jupiter and Io
~ “And reincarnation? Really? If that were real, wouldn’t there be some proof by now? A raccoon spelling out in acorns, “My name is Herb Zoller and I’m an accountant.” ~ Bill Maher


Also, why does Jesus show himself (if he does) on grilled cheese sandwiches and bathroom doors? Surely there are more respectable venues.

Perhaps the saddest thing is those couples, usually deeply loving, who had a kind of contract that whoever goes first would give the bereaved spouse a sign that an afterlife existed -- often an agreed-on special sign, but sometimes just any sign, even the slightest — whatever might be possible. Houdini was one of those who kept waiting — and going to various mediums, only to discover they were all frauds.



~ “It was through participation in one of these [interfaith] groups that I learned just how futile and egocentric Pascal’s wager really is. I learned this when a Muslim scolded me for not honoring Muhammed, warning me that I would be punished for eternity if I did not capitulate. He cited Pascal’s wager and told me that the downside to not believing in Allah and Muhammed was so great that if there is even a slight possibility that I am wrong, it behooves me to go ahead and believe in him just in case.

I found this deeply amusing, since I had been told exactly the same thing about believing in Jesus. Evidently I’m screwed either way. If I reject Muhammed then I go to Muslim Hell, but if I reject Jesus then I go to Christian Hell. It is, quite literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” ~

The article goes on to discuss something else — the futility of arguing with believers. And it uses the example of a movie about a schizophrenic Nobel Prize-winner to make its point:

“In the movie A Beautiful Mind, the protagonist spends decades relating to three people who he later discovers are figments of his own imagination. But he experienced them as if they were real. No amount of argumentation or explanation could help him see that these three people only existed in his imagination.

And do you know why argumentation didn’t help? It’s because when you yourself are doing the work of creating a person in your own mind, nobody else but you can change your mind. Nobody. And it doesn’t do any good for someone else to argue that the person you’re experiencing doesn’t exist because to you, he does exist. He exists because you make him exist.

In the end, the protagonist of the movie had to finally come to a realization himself that the three people he had grown to love and need were not aging in any perceivable way. One day it finally occurred to him that something didn’t add up about that. Real people age. These people didn’t. That finally did it for him. Nobody else but him could make him come to that realization. It had to be him.” ~


Yes, something has to happen within the mind of the believer. But at this point I also remembered Nietzsche’s little-known remark that there is no need to discuss the existence of god; what’s needed is the discussion of how the concept evolved over the centuries. That, of course, points to the overall cultural evolution and the human, all too human origins of all religions.

But I wonder about “preparing the ground.” Though my own insight at 14 that Christianity is just another mythology might appear sudden, there was a slow erosion of belief and an accumulation of not just doubt, but also of knowledge about the world. I had to learn about other mythologies and the evolution of human culture.

During history lessons I learned about medieval Christianity, among other things. I read about the Reformation and was seized with admiration for Martin Luther’s world-changing courage. I learned some basic science, and so on. I wish I had my “It’s just another mythology” insight sooner. But the journey to adulthood and daring to think for yourself takes time. There are many layers of clarity that wait to be discovered, just as the beauty of the world seems greater by the year.

The tomb of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Doesn’t he look like an ancient god — Yahweh, to be specific?

Neil Carter, the author of Godless in Dixie, is arguing for a subjective neurological reality of whatever deity the believer worships. Rilke said this too: you create god every time you pray. And many ancient Greeks (and other “pagans”) claimed they could sense the presence of this or that deity while performing various rituals. The Eleusinian Mysteries were famous for inducing mystical experiences.

Funny that the answer to Pascal's Wager turns out to be so simple — simpler by far than, for instance, saying that if god knows everything, he could see who’s only pretending to believe just in case hell exists.

I confess that Pascal's wager used to scare me — and has been used by others to scare me and other non-believers, or “incorrect believers.” Going to church has even been described as “fire insurance.” Of course Pascal's Wager relies entirely on the probability (even if it’s low) of eternal torment. Hell has to appear real enough rather than imaginary, blatantly made up to manipulate people into obedience. Actually Pope JP2 said there is no such place! Yet even now people are still using the inane wager to try to frighten someone into belief . . .

Of course the “many religions” argument doesn't entirely refute Pascal's Wager as long as someone believes, as Pascal did, that you can rationally figure out which religion is true.

Pyracantha berries; photo: M. Iossel (Sure, the logical image would present the flames of hell; but I've decided to choose beauty.)


The question seems absurd on the face of it. Non-Muslim never ask themselves that. But I've certainly gotten asked, “But what if Christianity is true?” by Christians who didn't seem to realize that their question is equally absurd.

A woman on Facebook remarked that all of a sudden she's aware she has the notion of god only because she’s been told that in childhood. If not for the childhood indoctrination, she'd never give it another thought. Nor do billions of non-Muslims ever lose any sleep over the claim that Islam is the one true religion. Unless you were indoctrinated, the claim sounds bizarre. But the Christian claim sounds equally bizarre to the non-Christians. Sam Harris explains this in this exhilarating take on Pascal’s wager.

The scary thing is that an ancient mythology can still inspire atrocities — I wonder for how much longer. Some say forever, and think I’m naive to think that in just 3-4 decades or so only the lunatic fringe will still cling to dogmatic Christianity, especially the kind that assumes we are living in the End Days and only a small group of the faithful will be “caught up” (or “raptured”) to meet Jesus up in the clouds, while the earth is destroyed and everyone else ends up being tortured in hell forever.

It may take a century or longer for Islam to cease being what it is now — but then, who knows, the decline could be unexpectedly rapid. Let’s not forget that the main secularizing force is technology, including access to information via the Internet. And we can’t even imagine what further technological developments may unfold. The more control people gain over their lives, the less the hardship and suffering, the less need for religion.

In the best-case scenario, the big problem will be explaining to children, during history lessons, why horrible wars were waged over a fictional character — a kind of Iron Age Superman. 

a newly discovered Egyptian temple, 4200 years old

ending on beauty

“The uglier, older, meaner, sicker, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent.” ~ Vincent Van Gogh



Read your blog before bed last night . . . liked “we are of the moment” and started a poem using those words.

Something else you wrote made me think of a song that keeps going around in my head  based on Elliot’s “Cats”: “has the moon lost her memory.” I remember loving that song and once when I walked into my son’s improv dance studio he had just put on that recording. I could dance alone  and do my thing and loved it.

The world is truly a continual astonishment . . .

I love the photos you share — the raccoon in the levis, and always VanGogh. He was so prolific. They tell us to write every day. I have a friend who is an artist who does just that and I try to write every day too. Van Gogh painted everything he saw; he produced hundreds of paintings. I brought him up on goggle and it was stunning to see so many paintings. He really is an inspiration . . . as are you.


I love hearing that something I wrote inspired a new poem, and got a song going around in your head. I wish I had more feedback. We are indeed of the moment, but also part of the greater social context. We need to be needed. It’s a privilege to be useful in some way.

I may have told you: I discovered the power of doing something every day when I got serious about learning English. It has never failed. Of course no one would be so rash as to suggest that daily practice is everything; you don’t become Mozart just through daily practice. But that argument shouldn’t blind us to the fact that daily practice can get us very nice results that can be quite worthwhile without needing to be splendid.

For instance, you can pick a Pilates exercise to do every day — just minutes of spare times. You won’t become an athlete, but you’ll strengthen your back muscles and improve your posture. Part of my “wisdom of age” is microambition: tiny steps, tiny improvements. We don’t have to pursue great goals, with all the attendant anguish. We do this one small exercise every day, and we’ll discover that the results can be very satisfying.


In a way I relate to Sisyphus. Instead of pushing a rock up a hill I get great joy out of simply chasing a ball, like a dog: definitely in the moment.

Vladimir Kush’s Sunrise by the Ocean is my favorite image in the blog. At first I thought Dali painted it.

The blog ends with my favorite quote by Van Gogh. And this time my favorite quote by Oriana is "Great light seen only in the dark.” You also picked a real winner from Ecclesiastes: “whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

“To work is to live without dying.” ~ Rilke. So many great quotes in this blog. Just the quotes are amazing.

“Respect for the other — that, I think, is the basis of civilization.” Yes.

“Practice is its own reward” — another pearl.


I absolutely love the idea that perhaps we are not Sisyphus pushing a boulder but a dog chasing a ball. Why not go with the joy of it. And dogs and cats are such great role models. This is what we discover as we grow older. This is part of the “wisdom of age”: the cats and the dogs are indeed the best philosophers. They know best how to live. Perhaps we have more to learn from them than from, say, Marcus Aurelius.

The point is not to be brooding about some great goal or the meaning of it all. Practice is indeed its own reward.

Kush is often called the “Russian Dali.” He was inspired by Dali, no question. Below is one of my favorites by Kush, the logo of our Poetry Salon.