Sunday, November 13, 2016


Methuselah tree: a 4845-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of Inyo County in eastern California. I have visited the White Mountains and got to see Methuselah and its ancient siblings, amazing sculptures carved by wind and scarcity. Why did I choose this image? Because the tree says to me: Endure.



When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

~ Cavafy, tr Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Some of you may be familiar with Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra’s Leaving.” It is largely based on Cavafy’s "The God Abandons Antony.” The god of wine and ecstatic song, Dionysos, Antony's protector, is leaving Alexandria while the city is being besieged by Octavian. The story comes from Plutarch: Antony hears the music of an invisible procession leaving the city, and realizes that his god has abandoned him.

Cohen makes it the god of love leaving with a woman lover named Alexandra, but it’s the same main motif: don’t deceive yourself that the vision wasn't real; be brave and say goodbye to Alexandra.

Now in this dark time, the main message might be: don’t mourn uselessly. And don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes. Hold on with renewed intensity to everything of value in your life — every bit of beauty, wisdom, affection. Many of us realize now that they will not live to see the things they were hoping to see still in their lifetime, that Alexandria we were dreaming of. Say goodbye to Alexandria. Don’t deceive yourself — that library burned by the mob of Christian fanatics can never be rebuilt. Say goodbye. Then turn to what you still have, can still do — the love and beauty you can still share.

As for the passing of Leonard Cohen, the epitome of the soulful, sensitive man, a man who loved women and did not demean and assault them — perhaps that too seems like the like the god forsaking us, Dionysos the god of music is abandoning us. A refined, cultivated man, a princely poet has departed — while his very antithesis, the vulgar “vagina is expensive” (to quote the least crude of his pronouncements) predator and bully triumphs now.

But for me, in a way — I say this after much thought — the timing of Cohen's death has been his last gift to us. People are posting favorite songs. Our minds turn from ugliness to moments of beauty. “Dance me to the end of love” sings the man not embarrassed to be seen yearning for softness, tenderness, for the softness of the dove:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love.

The darker the times, the more we need art. Even though we light a million candles and no help comes, even though history really is a nightmare created by the wicked, our final word must still be Hallelujah — because in spite of all odds we are alive on this beautiful earth, and we still have art, and ourselves.

By the rivers dark,
In a wounded dawn,
I live my life
In Babylon.

But even in Babylon, it’s better to sing than to weep. I’ve spent much too much time in my life weeping, so I know.

Piet Mondrian: Farm at Duivendrecht, 1916


~ “There’s something uncanny about this question, which has seen me through several dilemmas since discovering his work. The usual question is “Will this make me happy?” Few of us, if we’re honest, have much of a clue about what will make us, or our loved ones, happiest. Ask whether a choice will make you larger or diminish you, though, and surprisingly often the answer’s obvious.” ~

My choice right now is not to hate back, but to love more intensely the people and things I already love. That’s why I’ve been posting a lot of art. Now I give you Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Bonito, 1941. While I continue to grieve, I still feel a lot of pleasure looking at this painting, and my delight that the parrot's name is Bonito ("Pretty")


~ “In the original version that Shakespeare completed in 1606, the last lines are Albany’s:

    The oldest have borne most. We that are young
    Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Why will the young not live to be old? Because the end of the world is coming. The bad news does not end there. This is not even the Christian apocalypse, in which the bad are damned to Hell and the good ascend into the eternal bliss of Heaven. We’ve just seen a version of that last judgment, with the rather pitiful Albany playing God the Father:

All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings . . .

This assurance of just deserts is immediately undercut by one of the most terrifying images of injustice, Lear’s raging at a universe in which dogs, horses, and even rats have life but his daughter will never have any again, in this world or the next: “Never, never, never.”

King Lear was so unbearable that it was Nahum Tate’s infamous version, with its happy ending for Lear, Cordelia, and Edgar, that held the stage from 1681 to 1843, and a critic as discerning as Samuel Johnson supported Tate’s alterations on the grounds that Shakespeare’s ending violates the natural human desire for justice.

Johnson admitted to finding the original ending so upsetting that he did not reread it until his duties as an editor of Shakespeare forced him to do so.

This aversion is not unreasonable. King Lear is not apocalyptic, it is far worse. Instead of deserved damnation and merited salvation, there is merely the big fat O, the nothing that haunts the play, the “O, O, O, O!” with which Lear expires. Even Shakespeare seems to have thought twice about this utter annihilation of hope and justice. When he rewrote the play, probably two or three years after its first performance in 1606, he allowed Lear (and the audience) one little moment of merciful illusion. Instead of that terrible “O, O, O, O!,” Lear is permitted to lapse with his dying breath into the fantasy that Cordelia’s dead lips are moving after all. It is as if even Shakespeare, watching his own play, could not quite bear its unyielding ferocity.


That such a play is possible at all is one of the great wonders of human creation. That it was written by a liveried servant of a Calvinist king who devoutly believed in salvation and damnation, and performed at his court, seems almost inexplicable.

Lear weeping over the dead body of Cordelia; James Barry, 1788

[King James was obsessed with demonic possession.]

The storm scenes of King Lear are like nothing Shakespeare or anyone else ever wrote, with the deranged Lear conducting his mock trial of his absent daughters, the Fool throwing in snatches of sense and nonsense, of songs and proverbs, and Edgar’s Poor Tom performance reaching into the darkest corners of madness to pluck out a terrible poignancy:

‘The foul fiend haunts Poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale. Hoppedance cries in Tom’s belly for two white herring. Croak not, black angel: I have no food for thee.’

What begins as an opportunist keeping an eye out for what will appeal to his new master ends as some of the strangest, most searingly painful language ever spoken on the stage. For James, the state of being possessed is an object of rational inquiry. Shakespeare turns it into a heartbreaking image of the agonies that lie beyond all reason.

King Lear cannot end because authority cannot be restored. In King Lear, it is the old king himself, speaking to the viciously blinded Gloucester, who utters the most savage attack on all authority:

Lear: A man may see how the world goes with no eyes; look with thy ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thy ear: handy-dandy, which is the thief, which is the justice? Thou has’t seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?

Gloucester: Ay, sir.

Lear: An the creature run from the cur, there thou mightst behold the great image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office.

There is no going back from this. If the great image of authority is a cur biting the heels of a beggar, what does it matter who is king? Even the blind can see how the world goes: put a dog on the throne and men will bow before it.

When Albany offers Lear the restoration of his kingdom, the old man does not even hear him. The divine right of kings, so insistently upheld by James, has become a thing of nothing. The King’s Man in his red royal livery plucked his master’s anxiety about the need for unquestioned authority and used it to summon up the deeper fear that, in their most secret selves, must haunt all kings.” ~


Imagine King Lear with a happy ending! Yet the “revised” version with a happy ending was staged until the middle of the 19th century. It was apparently assumed that audiences can take only so much tragedy.

It’s interesting that we in modern times find the tragic ending of Lear perfectly fitting. Is it because the knowledge the knowledge of modern history has made us accustomed to “unjust universe”?


At first glance I thought this was an improvised cross — someone had to be buried quickly in a remote place. It turned out to be a woman carrying a log in a province in northern India. I thought: a crucified woman.

Photo: Mattia Passarini
“When my dad was told my family had to move from one refugee camp to another, he tried to carry the wood he chopped for winter on his back to the next camp.” ~ John Guzlowski


time for a bit of comic relief

Gore Vidal “upon alighting from a cab in New York with his friend Diana Phipps Sternberg responded to the cab driver’s entreaty to “Have a nice day,” with: “No thank you, I’ve made 

other plans.” 

Note that he's leaning on a little stone lion.


~ “William James, who ducked service in the Civil War but who watched it wreck the lives of two of his brothers, concluded that the idealism which had led them to volunteer had been a destroying angel, and that it would be far better to regard ideas as instruments which help people adapt to their circumstances, rather than abstract truths which they allow to govern their actions. In his post-war career at Harvard, James formulated an entirely different way of understanding ideas, which he called pragmatism.

Beliefs had to be judged by their consequences, James insisted, by whether they had “cash value in experiential terms” and could be converted into useful practical conduct. Giving abstractions like abolition and freedom some absolute status as truth made them into the lethal and uncompromising tyrants which decimated James’s generation. But without the status of truth, religion degenerated into therapy—which, from James’s perspective, was not necessarily a bad thing.” ~

Oriana: Before I quote from the rest of the article, let me comment on this.

I didn't know that the Civil War played a role in the development of James's pragmatism: never mind if X is true; what are the “fruits” (results) of believing that X is true? His approach to religion simply blew my mind: never mind if god exists, or which religion is “true”; what kind of belief works for you?

There was an element of Nietzschean perspectivism here, but with a much greater emphasis on subjective experience. If a certain set of beliefs helps you live a happy and productive life, James argued, don't worry about an objective validation of those beliefs. Go by what works for you. As the article points out, James would not be upset by the argument that by divorcing religion from its claims to objective truth he was reducing it to therapy; that, for him, was not a reduction but rather an enhancement.

James Hollis asked, “What fiction shall be my truth?” Since our truths are always partial, we might as well take a more pragmatic approach. “I believe only in those things that make me happy,” a woman I once knew said. At the time, it seemed one of the most ridiculous things I ever heard. Now I feel almost indulgent toward her, poor lonely thing who dedicated her MFA thesis to her dead canary.

Leonard Cohen at home, Los Angeles, September 2016

~ “What kept the nation feeding an entire generation into the Civil War’s meat grinder, especially if the war’s endgame prospects were so unclear? The answer, in Stout’s version, was American religion. A war which began as a fairly colorless constitutional dispute over secession was transformed by a tidal wave of “millennial nationalism” into a crusade with no off switch. Faust flips the causal equation. If religion did not exactly drive Americans to war, then war drove Americans to religion as the justification for its lethally expensive costs.

Even a man of such modest religious visibility as Abraham Lincoln, who never belonged to a church and never professed more than a deistic concept of God, nevertheless felt compelled, during his run for Congress in 1846, to still the anxieties of a Christian electorate by protesting that “I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures.”

By “presenting the Union in absolutist moral terms,” Northerners gave themselves permission to wage a war of holy devastation. “Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war,” explained Colonel James Montgomery, a one-time ally of John Brown, “and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old.” Or at least offered no alternative but unconditional surrender.

But Southern preachers and theologians chimed in with fully as much fervor, in claiming that God was on their side. A writer for the Southern quarterly, DeBow’s Review, insisted that since “the institution of slavery accords with the injunctions and morality of the Bible,” the Confederate nation could therefore expect a divine blessing “in this great struggle.” The aged Episcopal bishop of Virginia, Richard Meade, gave Robert E. Lee his dying blessing: “You are engaged in a holy cause.”

For every Northern divine claiming God’s favor for the Union, and every Southern one claiming God’s favor for the Confederacy, there were far more who could not make up their minds what to say about slavery. And taken together, they created a popular perception that religion had nothing reliable or coherent to say about the greatest American issue of the 19th century.

Instead of American religion corrupting the Civil War with absolutism, it is more possible to say that the Civil War corrupted American religion. An Iowa sergeant, shocked at the carnage at Shiloh, wondered, “Oh my God! Can there be anything in the future that compensates for this slaughter?” Religious discourse would become plagued more and more by incessant questioning, by decaying faith, and an increasing appeal to feeling and imagination.

For Southerners, the war laid an even heavier burden on religion. Edward Porter Alexander, who ended the war as a brigadier general in Robert E. Lee’s army, thought that religion had paralyzed Southerners more than energized them. “I think it was a serious incubus upon us that during the whole war our president & many of our generals really & actually believed that there was this mysterious Providence always hovering over the field & ready to interfere on one side or the other, & that prayers & piety might win its favor from day to day.”


~ “From his perch as a linguist eavesdropping on Soviet-backed forces in Eastern Europe, [Jeffrey Carney] knew that Washington’s portrayal of the other side was a lie. The enemy wasn’t an unstoppable juggernaut preparing to invade the West. Its combat units were barely functional. And it was the U.S. that was trying to provoke the Soviets into an incident that could lead to war.

Depressed and looking for an escape, Carney bolted for Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway to Communist East Berlin, near midnight on April 22, 1983, and asked for political asylum. It didn’t work out as planned; within hours, East German intelligence agents blackmailed him into returning to his unit as their spy. If he refused, they made clear, they’d leak his planned “defection” to his bosses.

[The “Able Archer” military exercise] “This situation could have been extremely dangerous if during the exercise—perhaps through a series of ill-timed coincidences or because of faulty intelligence—the Soviets had mis­perceived U.S. actions as preparations for a real attack.”

That was exactly what worried Carney—that one shot would lead to another, and maybe even a nuclear war. “We underestimated the Russian psyche,” Carney says. “They were institutionally paranoid. The average American would not launch a rocket and shoot a plane out of the air. But they don’t think like we do.”

As Able Archer unfolded in the summer of 1983, Soviet state-controlled radio started making announcements “several times a day” suggesting a U.S. attack was imminent, the study notes. New street signs went up in Moscow and other cities showing the locations of air raid shelters. A Soviet air force unit in Poland began carrying out drills to speed up the transfer of nuclear weapons from storage to aircraft. Some in the Ronald Reagan administration worried that the Soviets were preparing for an invasion of Europe. In response to a Western attack, Moscow’s war doctrine called for the destruction of most European cities and ports using nuclear weapons, followed by a massive ground invasion that would put Soviet troops on the Atlantic in 14 days.

“One misstep,” Reagan recalled years later, “could trigger a great war.”

Carney had no idea what he was getting into when he crossed into East Berlin in the spring of 1983. His access to some of the Pentagon’s most sensitive electronic-spying operations had driven him to reconsider his initial enthusiasm for the election of Reagan, who had dubbed the Soviet Union “an evil empire” bent on crushing the West. Newspaper reports at the time described the Russians as unstoppable. “Perhaps the first moment I realized there was a problem, a big discrepancy, was while I was waiting for the bus to go to work one day,” Carney recalls. “Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, had an article about Soviet superiority in the European theater. I remember laughing with a friend, a Russian linguist, about the numbers and technical information cited in the report. It stood at complete odds with what we saw in our intel reports every day.”

The truth, he says, was that Communist-allied units were hampered by fuel and food shortages, alcoholism and even cholera, picked up by soldiers rotating into East Germany from the Soviet Far East. Soldiers were siphoning off brake fluid to get high. He doubted many were battle-ready. “Ronald Reagan,” Carney began to think, “was intent on making Russia an evil empire, whether it was evil enough on its own or not.”

Beginning in May 1983, Carney started looking for “important” documents to steal. The more he read, the more he was concerned about Washington’s electronic warfare programs and weapons, which could fry the Soviets’ command-and-control telecommunications. “[They] were mind-boggling in their reach and ability,” he says. “Many of them were purely offensive, and...would have only found use in a first-strike scenario.”

Later that year, Carney learned that U.S. warplanes were about to fly into Soviet airspace to simulate an attack on a sensitive military site and measure how the enemy responded. War jitters were already high with the impending deployment of U.S. Pershing ballistic missiles in West Germany. In September, the Russians shot down a Korean airliner that wandered over its missile testing area on the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Soviet Far East. Fearing a similar result, Carney rushed to tell his Stasi East German handler what was coming.

He says another incident in particular, in the fall of 1983, drove him from an “unwilling to a very willing spy.” Since it’s still classified, he refuses to divulge it further, for fear it could land him back in prison. “It was an intentional, aggressive provocation of the Soviet Union in a very sensitive area,” he says, “that would have made [Russian radar monitors] flip out.”

He adds, “When it was explained to me, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You are going to push their buttons. People are going to be shot down.’”

Acting on a hunch, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov saves the world

That fall, Russia and the United States nearly stumbled into a nuclear exchange. On the night of September 26, 1983, alarms went off inside a Soviet radar station 90 miles southwest of Moscow, indicating that an American Minuteman intercontinental nuclear missile was incoming. Then the klaxon went off, signaling another was en route, then another and then another—five in total. The unit had only minutes to verify the attack. Panicky air defense operators were screaming that it was real. Moscow had to unleash a counterstrike, they said, or lose its missile forces.

Only the cool patience of the Soviet unit commander, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, prevented a full nuclear exchange, according to an account by Washington Post reporter David Hoffman in his 1999 book, The Dead Hand. Petrov decided that the data, relayed by a Soviet satellite, combined with the absence of any other incoming missiles, was false. He told Moscow to stand down. "I had a funny feeling in my gut," Petrov told Hoffman. "I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it." But as he told the BBC in 2013, “They were lucky it was me on shift that night.” [Petrov was only 50-50 sure, but it seemed to him that a true attack on the Soviet Union would involve a lot more missiles than just five — which had not been confirmed by ground radar.]

But Carney has few regrets. “I regret the pain I caused people, I regret the fact that I was in a position where I didn't have the whole picture and I made decisions where I ended up hurting people,” he says. “Unintentionally, though, I think what I did—and there are hundreds and hundreds of people who did what I did, on both sides: American spies, Russian spies, German spies—all of us together made it basically impossible for a war to break out. And I think that's where the focus should be.” ~


So the top people must have known that the Soviet Union had no capacity to attack the US, but they kept on putting out the fear-mongering propaganda about the Soviet "military superiority.” In Poland we had no doubt as to American superiority.

It’s scary to realize that we survived the years of the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) games of chicken mainly due to luck — what if a nervous, trigger-happy commander happened to be on duty instead of Petrov. What if, earlier, instead of JFK — an intelligent, well-read man who was deeply influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” about the outbreak of WWI — we happened to have someone more like W. Bush. Very scary.

The American scientific community knew that the alleged Soviet military superiority and the “missile gap” were myths, but realized that the military-industrial complex was insatiable for their lethal toys. 


Detoxing from MAD with Monet

Monet Bend in the Epte River near Giverny 1888

~ “Even more remarkable [than the plural of Elohim] is the Genesis account of God as walking in the garden during the cool of the day within earshot of Adam and Even. This raises the question of God’s corporeality, because no one without a body can easily stroll in the garden and converse with two humans who are trying to hide themselves. If God made man in His image, it might be thought that God had a human body.

It is to this complex and much-discussed topic that Christoph Markschies has devoted a long book in German. In Gottes Körper, he explores the arguments for and against a body of God across a vast spectrum of ancient and early medieval thought. He looks at representations of God in Jewish, Christian, and pagan texts.

Markschies knows well that Jews and Christians in medieval and modern times have found ways to explain biblical references to God’s body as metaphorical and to postulate a difference between a heavenly body and an earthly one. This was the solution of the great twelfth-century scholar Maimonides, who was no more inclined to equip God with a body than Spinoza. What we have to realize that this apparent absurdity was taken seriously in antiquity, and that is why Markschies’s uncommonly big picture proves to be as unsettling as it is wide-ranging.

The problem of God’s body was clearly recognized already in the Ptolemaic age by the Christian translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek as Septuagint. When they read in Numbers 12.8 that Moses saw the image or form of God, which appears in the King James version as “the similitude of the Lord,” the translators of the Septuagint were impelled to change the meaning to “the glory of the Lord.” The translation of this verse into Aramaic for the Babylonian Bible similarly avoided the implications of the original by rendering the word for “image” as “honor.”

This issue festered throughout the Roman imperial period, and both Melito of Sardis and Tertullian argued for the corporeality of God. The argument led ultimately to its espousal among the monks of Egypt, who proclaimed what became known as “anthropomorphitism,” the belief that God had a human form.

The Mediterranean world in which rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity took shape provides an almost Braudelian perspective on the the idea of a body for God. This was a world in which the Greeks and the Romans had for centuries celebrated their gods with statues in temples that left no doubt about their corporeality. But this was also a world in which Platonism leached imperceptibly into the thought of the monotheists, and so it was not surprising that sooner or later the appearances of a physical God in the Bible should be represented as a phantasma, a substitute for the real God, whose body could therefore be relegated to metaphor.

These were complex debates in antiquity, much more lively than they were to be later after the systematic onslaughts of medieval theologians such as Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas, on surviving arguments for divine corporeality.

Creation of Adam and Eve, Flemish

And here is a link to another blog in which I discuss Yahweh's body, with emphasis on the matter of breathing 


As children narcissists were either ignored by their caretakers, constantly criticized by them, or held to unrealistically high standards they couldn’t meet. In consequence, they needed to develop really potent defenses against the loneliness, rejection, hurt and humiliation so inextricably linked to such abusive parenting. However unconsciously, over time they contrived to “pump up” their deflated ego through at least cultivating the illusion that they were actually far superior to the detrimental messages repeatedly received in growing up. They needed—and with as much psychological vigor as possible—to combat the unfavorable assumptions about self they earlier imbibed from their parents (who were woefully insensitive as to how their words could so deeply wound their offspring).

And this is the well-known “narcissistic injury,” which has provided the focal point for many writers seeking to characterize the remarkable phenomenon of pathological narcissism. Having had parents incapable of supplying the nurturing that they (like everybody else) required, narcissists are compelled to cajole or coerce others to function as “surrogate narcissistic supplies.” Doing so is a constituent element in their notorious habit of not simply using others but “objectifying” them—which, in this sense, almost has a certain childlike “innocence” to it.

Derek Jacobi as Lear
Such derogative objectification also serves the purpose of lessening their vulnerability by reducing any power that, alternatively, others might have over them. (Not to mention its deep-rooted connection to their pronounced lack of empathy.) Having learned earlier not to trust anyone — the outcome of the emotional pain inflicted on them by insufficiently caring, non-approving parents — they refuse to accept the risks associated with allowing another to get really close to them.

So if they’re to feel safe in the context of an intimate relationship, they need to keep their partner at a distance. And the exorbitant cost of avoiding any emotional hazards by acting in this radically self-protective way is that true intimacy with another remains forever beyond their reach. And the grave misfortune in their decision to safeguard their (actually false) self should by now be obvious.

For in refusing (or being unable) to open up their heart to others, they prevent themselves from ever getting what — deep, deep down and totally out of their awareness — they most desire. . . . And oh-so-desperately need.

ending on beauty:

Never again will I kneel in my small country, by a river,
So that what is stone in me could be dissolved,
So that nothing would remain but my tears, tears.

~ Milosz, “From the Rising of the Sun



  1. I wonder if there is an ideal ratio of tragedy to comedy. How many Lears should Shakespeare have written in relation to All's Well that Ends Wells? Survaing the contemporary entertainment scene there seems to be about one dark/tragic song writer (Leonard Cohen?) for every 3000 comic writers (Mylie Cyrus?). Likewise, one tragic film (Manchester by the Sea) for every 5000 superman, batman, secret life of pets movies? It seems to me that there are fewer tragic narratives and more and more comic ones. I remember when I was still teaching things like The Great Gatsby and the Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises and students would ask me if we could read something lighter and happier instead. I always found that funny. There are "light" "comic" narratives I like a lot, bnut I don't see much point in talking about them. You don't need to discuss why something is funny, you don't have to explain why we laugh or smile. It seems pretty obvious. But why we cry and what we should do when we cry and how we should respond to other people's crying and woe, that seems important to talk about, and hard to talk about.

  2. Yes, excellent points. And the comic/tragic ratio notwithstanding, tragedy is regarded as the dominant Western genre. Not the "hero's journey." The greatest acknowledged masterpieces of literature and film tend to be tragedies, or, if mixed-genre, have a strong tragic element. We can feel the pain of others because the brains of social species are wired for it, whether it's mirror neurons and some other neural mechanism yet undiscovered. People differ in the amount of empathy they feel, and I strongly suspect that the amount of nurture they receive in childhood is an important factor. Harsh upbringing means you can't really "afford" to be "soft." Exposure to the right literature and movies is believed to increase empathy -- Dickens and Victor Hugo had a huge social impact.