Sunday, November 6, 2016



Moonlight was silvering
the palm tree on my lawn.
It lit up the long arc of one frond.

After many years in California,
my first thought: A weeping birch?
I have a birch tree on my lawn?

And birch groves from a lifetime ago
came to me, bowed and flowed —
cloudy branches of that Celtic night

when the blindfold of time slips loose
and we see behind and to the side —
just as now that I can barely walk,

memories of mountain hikes
alight on my mind: Angel’s Landing,
Mammoth Crest, Red Cones.

Surprised by the brilliant crescent,
I walked on. The last of Halloween
children dressed as flame-red

devilkins or pink ballerina angels
were shooed by mothers into cars.
Only the souls of trees walked with me.

Birches and beeches, maples, pines
joined sycamores and liquidambar.
Silently I whispered to them:

Remember me. They replied:
It’s not important to be remembered —
only to be beautiful.

~ Oriana © 2016

One of my recurrent themes that appeared only as I got older: belonging to the moment and the importance of beauty in the moment.  

In my youth and beyond (what I jokingly called “my advanced youth’), I was very future-oriented. Once I had my vocation, I saw everything in terms of my writing goals. Will this trip serve my writing? Should I go to an art colony to develop connections?

I eagerly imagined my life ten or more years ahead, publications and a teaching job included. All sermons about “being in the now” were lost on me.

And then the hope of gaining recognition was shattered and I felt that my future was “stolen from me.” After a crisis, I came to see that indeed I had “no future” — neither in terms of some glorious and accomplished later years or even past that, a legacy. Suddenly, no more delusions. And for the first time in my life, I came to possess the present. 

What certainly was never stolen from me — what could not be stolen — was my enjoyment of beauty. Beauty only became more vivid. Among the first lines of poetry that I learned in English, at twelve or thirteen, was Keats’s

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

I instantly felt myself saying Yes to it, and never forgot the line.

Mondrian: Row of trees in swampy landscape near Duivendrecht, 1906


~ “The first sinner Dante sees in the ninth pocket is Muhammad, whom Dante, following medieval tradition, erroneously took to be a Christian apostate who instigated a schism within Christianity by founding Islam in the seventh century. As the circles the bolgia Muhammad is hacked open from his chin to his anus by a demon’s sword every time he appears before the demon. When Dante first lays eyes on him, Muhammad’s bowels are spilling out, dangling between his legs. And if that’s not enough, Muhammad then opens his chest with his hands and invites Dante to “see how Muhammad is torn open.”

Ahead of Muhammad walks his cousin and son-in-law Ali, founder of the Shiite sect. He too is cloven, from chin to forehead, completing the vertical gash that runs along Muhammad’s body. The symbolism could hardly be more suggestive for our day and age, when sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites continues to open gaping wounds in the body politic of the Middle East.

After a procession of other mutilated sinners, Inferno 28 ends with Dante fixated on the site of Bertran de Born, the lord of Hautefort who fomented discord between King Henry II and his son. Beltran walks around the ninth pocket holding his severed head in front of him by its hair like a lantern. Stunned by this gruesome sight, Dante fails to notice that some ways away the shade of his relative Geri del Bello, himself a sower of discord, is making angry gestures at him, clamoring for revenge on the Sacchetti — clamoring, that is, for Dante to reenact the law of counter-suffering [contrapasso] on his behalf.

Blake: Muhammad opening his chest in Canto 28. Note Bertran de Born walking down the slope, carrying his severed head.

Why is it precisely in Canto 28 that the punishments strike Dante (and his readers) as unbearably excessive, beyond any measure of equivalence? As the Dante scholar Justin Sternberg speculates, what Dante observes in Inferno 28 is “this very surplus that public authorities demanded from citizens who had violated the symbolic body of the state.”

Whether Dante had such laws in mind or not, another reason for the enormity of the punishment in Canto 28 probably has to do with the internal nature of revenge itself, which, when left to its own inner dynamic, tends quickly to spiral out of control and exceed all norms of equivalence. Hatred does not favor equivalence or proportion. Where it can, it retaliates to excess. This applies to individuals as well as states, and perhaps even to God, or at least a certain kind of God, when they consider themselves the injured party.


If revenge and reciprocal violence are the essence of God’s justice, Dante’s Inferno despairs of God. It is impossible to read to read the cantos that bring Inferno to a close and not come to the conclusion that “Dieu n’est pas là,” as a French nun said of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it tore itself apart with civil war in the 1990s. The extravagance of the punishments in lower Hell suggests that in those cantos, if not in the canticle as a whole, an infernal rather than divine justice is on display.

When violence enters its cycles of reciprocity, when it spreads like a contagion out of all proportion, it turns into a from of mimetic insanity, drawing everyone, including God, into its vortex. Dante scholars tend to blind themselves to all the indications that Dante — the author as well as his character — is starting to lose his mind at the end of Inferno.

In Inferno 28 the mimetic contagion is such that the pilgrim abuses a sinner with the words, “And death to your clan!” In Canto 33, after Ugolino recounts how he cannibalized his children in the Tower of Hunger, Dante the author succumbs to wild murderous impulses. In his animus against the city of Pisa he bids the Arno River to overflow “so that it may drown every person in you!” Later in the same canto, Dante turns his rage against the city of Genoa: “Ah, men of Genoa, foreign to every decent usage, full of every vice, why have you not been driven from the world?” This is not the character but the author speaking. Even the most astute commentators pass over in silence these genocidal fantasies at the end of Inferno.


In his Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche declares that Dante made a crude blunder when he placed above the Gate of Hell the words “I too was created by eternal love.” He suggests that Dante would have done better to inscribe above the gateway to the Christian Paradise the words “I too was created by eternal hate.” He follows that with a quote from Thomas Aquinas to the effect that souls in heaven “will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be that much greater.”

Nietzsche’s claim about eternal hate would have some merit with respect to Dante if the souls in Dante’s heaven did in fact delight in seeing the damned suffer. Fortunately for him, and for his readers, Dante recovers his sanity once he exits Hell, and by the time he reaches the celestial spheres he is too enraptured to think about the sinners in Hell. Indeed, none of the souls in Paradiso shows the slightest interest in them. The only indication that they are even aware of the damned comes from Beatrice’s last words, in Paradiso 30, when she predicts the damnation of Pope Clement V.

Beatrice take no pleasure in Clement V’s damnation, or in anyone else’s. What she expresses is anger — Dante’s own bitter anger — that those who make history on earth continue to opt for the lacerations of Hell rather than the sanity of justice.

Dante and Beatrice before the eagle of Justice


When I say that there is no divine justice in Hell, I mean that God, in Dante’s vision, has put the human world under human jurisdiction. The freedom of human action is such that we humans choose whether to infernalize the world or render it humanly inhabitable through laws, education, and institutions of government. In the final analysis contrabass is a law of consequences, of consequential counter-effect, built into human choices and actions.” ~
Robert Pogue Harrison

Here is Ciardi’s translation of the Bertran de Born passage:

 I saw it there; I seem to see it still –
a body without a head, that moved along
like all the others in the spew and spill.

It held the severed head by its own hair,
swinging it like a lantern in its hand;
and the head looked at us and wept in despair.

It made itself a lamp of its own head,
and they were two in one and one in two;
how this can be, He knows who so commanded.

And when it stood directly under us
it raised the head at arm’s length toward our bridge
the better to be heard, and swaying thus

it cried: “O living soul in this abyss,
see what a sentence has been passed upon me,
and search all Hell for one to equal this!

When you return to the world remember me:
I am Bertrand de Born, and it was I
who set the young king on to mutiny,

son against father, father against son
as Achitophel set Absalom and David;
and since I parted those who should be one

in duty and in love, I bear my brain
divided from its source within this trunk;
and walk here where my evil turns to pain,

and eye for an eye to all eternity:
thus is the law of Hell observed in me.

Canto 28, tr. John Ciardi

Let me shamelessly quote from an earlier blog:

 “It” is the headless body, no longer a “he.” In Italian, “lantern” is the beautiful word “lucerna.”

The “law of hell” in Dante’s Commedia is contrapasso – “counter-suffering” or maybe “equivalent suffering” or “symbolically correct suffering.” What Bertrand de Born actually says is Cosi s’osserva in me lo contrapasso.

Francesca and Paolo da Rimini were once unlawfully joined; now they are stuck together, unable to separate, tossed by the whirlwind (which reminds me of the song by Charles Aznavour: “Love at last you have found me. Now the storm begins.”)

Below: another example of contrapasso: the circle of fortune-tellers in Canto 20. Now their heads are twisted backwards, so they see only what’s behind them. In life they tried to see into the future. Now their sin is “reversed” – some might say, not reversed but literalized, since now they can’t see what’s immediately before them, compelled to walk backwards for 

all eternity. 

Giovanni Stradano: The Fortune Tellers

Of special interest in Canto 20 is Dante’s show of pity for the sinners and Vergil’s reproach:

Reader . . . ask yourself
how I could check my tears, when near at hand

I saw the image of our humanity
distorted so that the tears that burst from their eyes
ran down the cleft of their buttocks. Certainly

I wept. I leaned against the jagged face
of a rock and wept so that my Guide said: “Still?
Still like the other fools? There is no place

for pity here. Who is more arrogant
within his soul, who is more impious
than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?

The modern reader is of course moved by Dante’s weeping, and dares to feel compassion for those who suffer -- a matter of empathy that is taken for granted in our relatively comfortable and secure age. The Commedia, however, was written during hard-hearted times when public executions by disemboweling, being broken on the wheel, and the like hideous tortures were popular entertainment, the whole town or village gathering at the market square, the on-lookers jeering at the victim. The idea of compassion was centuries in the making; life had to become more secure first and, paradoxically, less overwhelmed with suffering.

Another difference between Dante’s time and ours is that, perhaps of longer life expectancy, we believe in giving people a second chance. We are neither the “seed of Satan” nor “the evil seed of Adam,” as Dante put it in the third Canto of the Inferno, describing the souls gathered for transport to Hell. We believe it’s possible to change, given the right circumstances, guidance, nurturing. Eternal punishment simply doesn’t make sense — especially when we see that the “sinner” has led a life filled with suffering.

It’s only natural that when earthly life is mostly unhappy, people yearn for bliss in heaven. But Christian heaven was never depicted with any specificity. For one thing, humans need variety, and that’s just where images of heaven are deficient. Duration of any mental state is an important determinant of the pleasure it can provide. If pleasure lasts too long, it becomes painful. Unless there is sufficient variety, an eternity of harp-twanging heaven morphs into hell. William Blake spoke about this:

Time is the mercy of Eternity.
Without Time’s swiftness,
Which is the swiftest of all things,
All were eternal torment.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud makes this acute observation:

“One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’. What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is by its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon.

When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Goethe indeed warns us that ‘nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.’ But this may be an exaggeration.”

Not having lived in Southern California, how did Goethe know that endless sunshine is a form of torture? Come to think of it, he lived for a while in Italy. But there is nothing like Southern California if you want to discover how much you love clouds and rain. By the way, Freud really makes a good point about happiness. The most intense kind is based on contrast. Fortunately there is also contentment and a sense of well-being.

 Dante by Giotto


Has it really been a tragedy for the imagination, the loss of Satan and hell for many (perhaps most) of educated readers? Milosz lamented that we lost the metaphysical “second space” – in John Lennon’s famous words, “Above us, only sky.” Heaven and hell are now thought to be states of mind, and not actual places (actually Milton said much the same, noting that the mind can make “heaven of hell, and hell of heaven”). Wallace Stevens lamented it too, though not from a believer’s viewpoint. Yet his lament is even more poignant:

Phantoms, what have you left? What underground?
What place in which to be is not enough
To be? You go, poor phantoms, without place
Like silver in the sheathing of the sight,
As the eye closes . . .  How cold the vacancy
When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist
First sees reality.

~ Walace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal”

Of course for an astrophysicist, and basically for any scientist, this world – the reality of matter and energy – is totally fascinating and rich with mystery, beyond what believing in ghosts and angels and devils could provide. (This is off to the side, but I love what a friend said about religion and politics: “It’s when a politician says Satan that you know he’s crazy.”)

Gustave Doré: Forest of the Suicides, the Harpies


That the preoccupation with the afterlife was primary in Dante’s world goes without saying. There was little point trying to improve this short life — not too many people survived until sixty or so; eighty was what a hundred is now. Real life began at the moment of death.

What is not so obvious is that, in spite of the appearance of piety and consequently the commandment against killing, it was also a so-called “culture of honor.” Men were very thin-skinned about real or imagined insults to their “honor”; such insults had to be avenged, no matter how ferociously. Blood feuds went on for centuries. Italy was notorious for its petty and never-ending “vendettas.”

Dante found himself a victim of false rumors that ruined his public career and doomed him to exile. The Commedia, and particularly the Inferno, where he places his political enemies in various circles of hell undergoing humiliating punishments, can be seen as his literary vendetta and a long, persistent attempt to restore the “honor” of his family name. That a masterpiece was a result is astonishing. And even so, it’s a bit boring and annoying having to read the notes explaining the who was who in the Florentine politics. But it’s essential — without the notes, the text is obscure. A culture of honor is the culture of revenge.

Gustave Doré, The Punishment of the Bad Popes 
I will never forget the lecture of the deadly sin of pride at the Los Angeles Jung Institute. It was given by a former prison psychologist, who said, “If you want to see pride, you need to visit a prison.” He meant the inflated, insecure ego of the typical male inmate, always quick to see the slightest sign of “disrespect.” The inmate tried to compensate for an abused childhood of not feeling valued with demands for exaggerated “respect.” Those failing to acknowledge the person as big, powerful, and important would be punished — and punished severely.

The American Wild West was a culture of honor. Urban gangs are also examples of cultures of honor.

Much of the world is still imprisoned in the culture of honor. Retaliation leads to an ever-escalating retaliation. It is a culture of machismo, of bullying and insult and never-ending revenge. Only relatively recently, thanks to less hardship and less abusive child rearing, have we begun to turn away from “honor” and toward “dignity.”

As Jonathan Haidt puts it: “The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.”

“Honor” is a positive word, and it seems strange at first that an exaggerated notion of “honor” can be so devastating in its consequences (for women too — note “honor killings”). But the more a culture advances, the more it demands that we cease to have inflated egos and take offense at any slight. In a culture of dignity, you do not “take justice into your own hands.” Above all, you cultivate kindness and treat others with respect.

This may seem obvious, but what a long journey it has been! Nor is it finished — and maybe it will never quite be. There are still bullies, strongmen, dictators. But it’s enough to read the novels of Dickens, for instance, to see that we have made progress. Or, indeed, to read Dante and see the deepening insanity of vengeful punishment as we spiral down and down the fetid paths of the Interno.


The Austrian government says it plans to tear down the house where Adolf Hitler was born to prevent the property from being a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis.

This comes after a long fight with the current owner, who for years has rejected the government's attempts to purchase the property located in Braunau, near the German border. Now, the government intends to confiscate it, reporter Kerry Skyring in Vienna tells our Newscast unit.

"Neo-Nazis sometimes gather outside the yellow three-story structure," Skyring says.

A memorial stone outside the house does not mention Hitler's name; instead, it reads "For Peace, Freedom and Democracy" and "Never Again Fascism."

But the plan won't please everyone. Some members of the community "wanted it to become a refugee centre, others a museum dedicated to Austria's liberation from Nazi rule," as the BBC reports. Others simply thought it should remain standing for historical reasons: "a number of cultural organizations previously opposed the building's demolition because it is part of the historic city centre and therefore under heritage protection.”


~ “A team at the University of Copenhagen has presented remarkable new research that shows that people with blue eyes have a single common ancestor. Researchers  have tracked down a genetic mutation which took place 6-10,000 years ago and is the cause of the eye color of all blue-eyed humans alive on the planet today. “Originally, we all had brown eyes,” said Professor Hans Eiberg from the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. “But a genetic mutation affecting the OCA2 gene in our chromosomes resulted in the creation of a “switch,” which literally “turned off” the ability to produce brown eyes.” The OCA2 gene codes for the so-called P protein, which is involved in the production of melanin, the pigment that gives color to our hair, eyes and skin. The “switch,” which is located in the gene adjacent to OCA2 does not, however, turn off the gene entirely, but rather limits its action to reducing the production of melanin in the iris — effectively “diluting” brown eyes to blue. The switch’s effect on OCA2 is very specific therefore. If the OCA2 gene had been completely destroyed or turned off, human beings would be without melanin in their hair, eyes or skin color — a condition known as albinism.” ~


An interesting fact: “Originally, we all had brown eyes.” Only an estimated 8% of the world’s population have blue eyes. Eye color depends on the amount of melanin in the iris; those with blue eyes have the least melanin, meaning they have less protection against UV radiation.

As for the Aryan ancestors that the Nazis so valued, here is a member of the tribe in India that is supposed to be the descendants of the original Aryans — not quite, I think, what Hitler imagined: 


~ “The Republican Party figured out decades ago that the Christian faith was founded on a belief that the world would come to an end at any second, and it turns out you can get an awful lot of mileage out of that, because fear sells. It’s made quite a lot of people filthy rich, in fact.

Whatever you think of Jesus, the New Testament indicates he was a man driven by an apocalyptic expectation. He seemed to believe the world was going to end at any minute, and his famous call to abandon everything (even family responsibilities) to follow him was firmly situated within this ominous expectation. The apostle Paul was arguably more central to the founding of the Christian faith than Jesus, and he was so convinced the world would end during his own lifetime that he encouraged people to remain single if at all possible so that they wouldn’t become distracted by family life. The time was short and the days were evil, he said.

The Christian faith never did shake that expectation, even after twenty centuries, and that makes them ripe for the picking.

The Republican Party figured this out a generation ago, and in 1980 this enabled them to replace an evangelical president with a nominal believer who better understood how to pander to a conservative religious audience.

Apocalyptic thinking is central to the worldview of evangelicals. Indeed, it’s what principally distinguishes them from mainstream Christians. “The one thing that affects how they live their daily lives,” writes historian of religion Matthew Avery Sutton, “is that they believe we are moving towards the End Times, the rise of the Antichrist, towards a great tribulation and a horrific human holocaust.”

The forecasted words and deeds of national leaders don’t even have to sound like anything they’ve ever said or done before because in “the Last Days” a totally different reality would have set in. In the Great Tribulation, the devil can take over pretty much anyone he wants, even the president of the United States. We learn in school that most social and cultural changes happen slowly and incrementally, but this way of thinking cuts against that grain. In the mind of the devout evangelical Christian, history is punctuated by a series of divine judgments—sudden starts and stops without explanatory precursors, because supernatural acts of God wouldn’t require any, would they?

The same goes for demonic possession, I suppose. The moment you’ve accepted the idea that a public figure can be possessed by the devil, you will believe pretty much any claim that’s made about him or her. Nothing would sound unrealistic to you at that point. Trump knows this well, and he instinctively seizes on such ideas like a seasoned salesman ready to close the deal.

When the Donald says that Hillary is “the devil” and America’s going to hell, this constituency — steeped in Biblical prophecy, survivalist ideology, and racist conspiracies — takes him literally. America is on the verge of (take your pick): the Rapture, an end-of-days contest between American patriots and UN invaders, or an all-out race war to the finish.
The man himself couldn’t care less for biblical prophecy or the end times madness that fuels these people’s fears. He only knows that he can use them for his own purposes, and he has no scruples whatsoever about taking advantage of this vulnerability. He doesn’t even care what kind of damage his reckless undermining of the democratic process produces because all he really cares about is advancing his own brand. John Feffer over at The Nation puts it this way:

At heart, Trump is an arsonist. At some level, he’s ready to pour that gasoline and strike that match. His apocalyptic approach to everyday politics is what puts fear into the hearts of liberals and conservatives alike—and what puts fire in the belly of the whitest of America’s insurgents.

In this environment, you can say pretty much anything you want about our nation’s leaders and people will eat it up. Nothing is too unrealistic.

Normalizing Crazy Talk

Michelle Bachmann can insist that Obama wants to arm our enemies so that they can turn around and attack us, ushering in the “End of Days.” She and others for some time have been pushing the narrative which says that Obama’s end game is to control the United Nations in order to dissolve the United States government and rule the world from a global throne.

“I believe without a shadow of a doubt this is the last election. This is it. This is the last election.” —Michelle Bachmann

Ben Carson made a splash early on when he suggested that a coming burst of anarchy would empower the president to postpone any future elections so that he could impose martial law. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council echoes each of them by repeatedly saying this election may be our last because Democrats are going to tear the country apart somehow. The sky is falling, it would seem. No hyperbole is too far-fetched.

In the end all they really care about is recovering the lost position of social privilege they once enjoyed, even if it means selling their souls to get it back. I’m quite convinced that one way or another this Faustian bargain will bite them in the rump, but they’ll still find a way to blame everyone but themselves because nothing in their theology teaches them to take responsibility for anything that happens. It’s all either the Lord’s doing or else it’s the devil." ~

Hieronymus Bosch: Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos, 1505
On a related theme: the belief in extreme wickedness of human beings


~ “If you ask a white evangelical Christian where they think their liberal enemies go wrong, they will likely respond that liberals have too positive a view of human nature. Liberals are understood to be “humanists,” which means they believe that people are basically good, that the world keeps on getting better as science and technology advance, that government agencies can be trusted to behave rationally, that people who do bad things are just acting out of pain and fear.

There are plenty of legitimate things to critique about the naivete of liberalism. But the assumption that liberals are trying to write God out of the universe is what makes them mortal adversaries whose existence is an existential threat to Christianity.

According to white evangelicalism, humanity is totally depraved, which may have a technical theological meaning but on a popular level means utterly nihilistically wicked to the point of deserving eternal torture in hell. If other people appear to be reasonable and basically good, that is because our perception of them is distorted by our own sin. If we saw them with the eyes of God, we would see why God wants to torture them forever. This means that presumably the closer we get to God, the more repugnant the wickedness of humanity will look to us, which is why Christian preachers are said to be more “biblical” the more emphatically they denounce humanity’s sin.

Under this nihilistic view of human nature, people should not trust their intuitions or experiences (especially if they soften our view of humanity’s wickedness). The Bible is the only truth that can be trusted. In addition, people cannot be trusted to read the Bible on their own because their wicked feelings will evoke twisted, watered-down interpretations of “hard truths” (which is why it’s so important to have some “hard truths” in your ideology to prove that you’re authentically “biblical”). Most importantly, a wise, self-certain patriarch (a.k.a. megachurch pastor) is needed to explain what the Bible says.

But here’s where the ideological sleight of hand happens. If you’re living under the guidance of a wise, self-certain patriarch in a “biblical” church, then your human nature is no longer totally depraved because you’re “walking in the light.” I mean, sure, you’ll say that you’re the greatest of sinners to be theologically correct, but functionally, your membership in a “biblical” church means that you’re right and other people are wrong. The doctrine of total depravity becomes the total depravity of everyone else, especially the “humanists” who claim that people are basically good.

What has made this ideology so potent over the past thirty years is the way that it dovetails perfectly with the resentment of working class whites against “liberal urban elites.” Rich people are fine as long as they’re not “elitist” (i.e. as long as they wear cowboy hats, own a ranch, and talk “blue-collar”). And it’s easy to transfer your trust of the wise, self-certain patriarch at your church who emphatically denounces sin to an anti-intellectual billionaire whose entire campaign is built on the total depravity of everyone else. If you’re talking about how bad sin is, you’re being “honest,” which is why Donald Trump can tell lies till he’s blue in the face, but he will never lose his “honesty.”

James 4:4 says, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God.” For early church fathers like St. Basil, “friendship with the world” meant attachment to wealth, power, and other worldly idols that get in the way of our connection with God. But for many white evangelicals today, being addicted to wealth and power is not a problem as long as you don’t associate with liberals. Because progressive secularism is the “world” you’re not supposed to be friends with. This is just one example of the many Bible verses whose meaning is utterly distorted by a culture war lens. When zero-compromise nihilism is the measure of your Christian faith, then you really don’t have to go to church anymore as long as you don’t vote Democrat.

I’m not saying that conservatism is innately toxic. I’m saying that the nihilism of a hyperbolic understanding of human wickedness makes Christians into toxic trolls and saboteurs whose scornful sanctimony has almost destroyed our democracy. True conservatism is very wary of itself because it studies history and values integrity. True conservatism is anal retentive about its nuanced precision because true conservatism loves the truth more than it loves defeating its enemies.” ~

abandoned St. Bonaventure’s church in Philadelphia


(The person with the higher status uses the word "I" less; people with less power and depressed people use it more)

~ “Pennebaker recorded and transcribed conversations that took place between people on speed dates. He fed these conversations into his program along with information about how the people themselves were perceiving the dates. What he found surprised him.

"We can predict by analyzing their language, who will go on a date — who will match — at rates better than the people themselves," he says.

Pennebaker found that when the language style of two people matched, when they used pronouns, prepositions, articles and so forth in similar ways at similar rates, they were much more likely to end up on a date.

"The more similar [they were] across all of these function words, the higher the probability that [they] would go on a date in a speed dating context," Pennebaker says. "And this is even cooler: We can even look at ... a young dating couple... [and] the more similar [they] are ... using this language style matching metric, the more likely [they] will still be dating three months from now."

This is not because similar people are attracted to each other, Pennebaker says; people can be very different. It's that when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts.

"When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way," he says. "And it's one of these things that humans do automatically.”

They aren't aware of it, but if you look closely at their language, count up their use of "I," and "the," and "and," you can see it. It's right there.

Pennebaker has counted words to better understand lots of things. He's looked at lying, at leadership, at who will recover from trauma.

But some of his most interesting work has to do with power dynamics. He says that by analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status.

"It's amazingly simple," Pennebaker says, "Listen to the relative use of the word "I."

What you find is completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word "I" less.

We use "I" more when we talk to someone with power because we're more self-conscious. We are focused on ourselves — how we're coming across — and our language reflects that.

So could we use these insights to change ourselves? Like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, could we bend our personalities by bending the words we use? Could we become stronger? More powerful? Healthier?

After 20 years of looking at this stuff, Pennebaker doubts it.

"The words reflect who we are more than [they] drive who we are," he says.

You can't, he believes, change who you are by changing your language; you can only change your language by changing who you are. He says that's what his research indicates.

And he published an entire paper on the use of the filler words — um, like, uh, I mean and you know. One of the things that he found was that the use of these words — in addition to their function of annoying older people — was associated with conscientiousness.

Pennebaker has collected some of this research in a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns, but he says he feels the practice of using computers to count and categorize language is really just a beginning.

abandoned factory: “steam punk in the raw”

(meditation on depression)

With a bunch of stuff coming at me from all directions I’ve confirmed a discovery that I more or less made soon after becoming a widow: it’s not happiness that keeps you from becoming depressed, it’s not having a meaning in life or anything lofty etc. It’s having to deal with crap. There is simply no time to brood. A pipe is leaking. The car needs repairs. Each week’s mail means a small or large tsunami of bills. You are FORCED to be in the now.

The way most people are immersed in practical matters, in just coping and surviving, they are certainly “living in the now.” The now doesn’t have to be happy. That’s irrelevant. It only needs to be the urgent “now.” Constant practical problems, constant need for action.

With a new crisis always on the horizon, new chores, new expenses, who has the luxury of getting depressed? Possibly those who aren't under the yoke of all kinds of responsibilities, e.g. those with a partner willing to deal with 90% of the practical crap. That used to be my privileged situation, which I should have used strictly to benefit my creative work. I did that, but not enough. I didn’t have the wisdom that came later.

Forget it, Walter: that’s much too demanding. Ecstasy cannot be maintained for very long.  Reality is more like this twig woman sculpture by Bea Van Den Steen

A work of art which didn't begin in emotion is not art. ~ Paul Cezanne

Cezanne: Self-Portrait


~ “Mucus, along with skin and tears, makes up our first line of defense against disease. They form a physical barrier against invading germs. And, as it turns out, crucial proteins in mucus called salivary mucins protect our teeth from a type of bacteria that’s responsible for causing cavities, known as Streptococcus mutans, according to a study published this year in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Unlike toothpaste and mouthwash, which kill bacteria, mucins prevent bacteria from latching onto teeth and secreting acid that bores holes through a tooth’s hard outer surface, or enamel. Now, researchers who led the study are engineering synthetic mucus that could be added to toothpaste or chewing gum.

Synthetic mucus might go well beyond preventing cavities. Studies suggest that mucins might also defend against respiratory infection, stomach ulcers and even HIV, for example. Since mucins don’t kill bacteria (they merely prevent bacteria from inflicting damage), they’re seen by some as a better alternative to antibiotics, which may kill not only harmful bacteria, but also certain helpful bacteria, possibly allowing more dangerous strains to take their place. That means synthetic mucin might offer a less intrusive alternative, used “not necessarily to resolve infections but to stabilize or prevent infection,” says Katharina Ribbeck, an assistant professor in the department of biological engineering at MIT, who co-authored the study with Erica Shapiro Frenkel, a Ph.D. student in her lab.

Cavities form when bacteria like S. mutans cling to our teeth, forming an intricate, meshlike arrangement known as a biofilm. The bacteria that make up the biofilm feed on sugars from the food we eat to produce acid that can then dissolve the tooth enamel. To investigate how mucus might guard against this process, Ribbeck’s group got down to the molecular level and homed in on a mucin known as MUC5B. While that sounds like a covert government agency, it’s actually the most commonly found mucin in the mouth.

It’s possible that MUC5B encases S. mutans in “a 3-D spiderweb” that traps the acid they secrete, Ribbeck says. MUC5B might also form a bacteria-repellent coating over the tooth surface, or even turn off S. mutans genes involved in attachment and biofilm formation. Ribbeck and Frenkel are still teasing out the most likely mechanism, though they also suspect that mucins might maintain bacterial diversity in the mouth by not only keeping S. mutans alive, but also neutralizing the toxins or other molecules that different bacterial strains release to outcompete each other.

Benefits of synthetic mucus could extend far beyond human health and be used to prevent, say, food spoilage or the accumulation of bacteria on ship hulls and other surfaces, a process known as biofouling. “The applications are enormous,” Ribbeck says.


Saliva production decreases after menopause. Fortunately, hormone replacement quickly restores the full function of the salivary glands. Chewing gum flavored with xylitol is also supposed to be effective.

ending on beauty

Only sound, Thomas, slips,
specter-like, from the body.
Speech is an orphan sound.
Push the lampshade aside,
and by staring straight ahead
you’ll see air en face:
swarms of those who have stained it
with their lips before us.

~ Yosip Brodsky,  from “Lithuanian Nocturne”

Diego Rivera: Day of the Dead, 1944


The last stanza of Halloween Birches was shockingly beautiful. It came unexpected. It has indeed been the biggest lesson of life: let it be beautiful in the moment.

So glad you elaborated on it.

Doré’s headless Bertran de Born is truly a great image.

I found an etching by Blake of Muhammed opening up his chest.

Giotto made Dante look feminine, with red lips.

I think that Hitler’s house should remain a historical monument.

Re: the mucus article. My periodontist told me that I had a lot of saliva and that protected me from more cavities.


At some point it became obvious to me that it’s pointless to worry about being remembered or not remembered. We need to pay full attention to the present. I am so glad that my Halloween vision of the trees helped me express this theme through poetry.

Thanks for the image of Blake’s Muhammad opening his split chest. Naturally I added it to the trove.

Muhammad’s (and Ali’s) horrible tortures in the Inferno explain while Dante remains essentially unknown in the Islamic world. Only an inadequate prose translation of the Inferno exists, and not surprisingly it omits Canto 28 (and 29 and 30).

You are right about Giotto: he idealized Dante’s face, and that meant feminizing it — we can see a similar phenomenon with the face of Jesus in art.

Dante's face was rather craggy, with a large nose. We do happen to have his death mask.

Boticelli's portrait seems so accurate that I suspect Boticelli must have used the death mask as his model. 


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