Saturday, September 16, 2017



 . . . I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
. . . and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee.

~ Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

Wordsworth’s last name never ceases to astonish me — words’ worth, the worth of words. Which words have the most worth here? Probably these:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

The Romantics were intoxicated with awe, almost always elicited by nature (for the Romantics, it was Nature with a capital N, suffused with “Spirit”). They were forming a new spirituality. That vague Spirit that “subtly interfused” nature had nothing to do with the vengeful, calamity-sending ‘guy in the sky’ or ‘dude in the clouds with a white beard’ (I'm passing on phrases I’ve run across in our blasphemy-loving times).“Jehovah and his thrones, I pass them unalarmed,” Wordsworth writes. Imagine, no fear of archaic god, still quite alive and scary at the time the poet wrote this. No fear! Imagine a religion — perhaps “spirituality” is a better word here — not based on fear, daring to deny that the fear of god was the beginning of wisdom.

Instead, an alternate, benign theology was emerging, built around the idea of human dignity rather than depravity, and a loving god. “Jehovah and his thrones, I pass them unalarmed” — what is this if not liberal Protestant Christianity? Wordsworth was in effect a “cultural Christian” and an example of what William James would later (quoting Francis W. Newman) describe as the “once-born”: “They see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.”

(Am I obsessed with the theme of a loving, nurturing god versus a punitive one? I'm afraid that to some extent I’ll mourn for the rest of my life the fact that my childhood was poisoned by backward, fear-based Catholicism.)

(For whatever it's worth, note that, except for the title, Wordsworth never mentions the Abbey in the poem.) 

Tintern Abbey, William Turner, 1794

The great Romantics basically created their own unconventional religion of Spirit and Spirit-suffused nature:

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

A motion? What first comes to mind is simply the wind, invisible in itself but visible in its effects.

Coleridge, certainly a believer in the Universal Spirit, came up with the wind harp analogy — each of us, along with all sentient beings, is a kind of wind harp, and the Wind/Spirit/Logos sweeps over the strings:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Romanticism is regarded as a reaction against the Enlightenment’s enthronement of reason and the emergence of deism, which posits a creator who set the universe in motion, and then turned away, never interfering in human affairs (science wasn’t yet advanced enough to get around the need for a “Prime Mover”). It was inconceivable that the deist god would violate the laws of nature. Nor would the Universal Spirit — but then that Spirit “suffused” and animated Nature. And it was possible to sense it and be consoled and inspired by it.

The indifferent deist Prime Mover struck the Romantics as too cold-hearted, but they did not try to go back to the bad old-time religion. They turned to mysticism. Shelley described himself as a mystical atheist precisely to accommodate the feeling of awe as he gazed on Mont Blanc. The American Transcendentalists claimed that the divine resided in nature but also within each human being. They rejected the more Judaic idea of god as the ultimate Other, an alien and incomprehensible presence outside time and space — with occasional incursions, frequent in the first and most mythological books of the Hebrew bible, then, in the later books, dwindling to absence and silence (In “The Disappearance of God,” Richard Friedman shows this gradual withdrawal in meticulous detail).

I think this is Blake's image of Yahweh’s hiding his face.
Shelley, expelled from Oxford for his atheism, wrote these mystical lines in his “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats through unseen among us — visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower —
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance

The Romantics didn’t want an absence of the divine; they wanted more of the divine. They wanted an intimacy with the Universal Spirit (or, more vaguely, “some unseen Power”). In a way, centuries ahead of time, they were basically saying Yes to Einstein’s question: Is the Universe friendly?

Friendly or indifferent, if we can have such beauty on this earth, and a spirit that’s universal rather than tribal, who needs an archaic god? A vengeful and punitive deity is the very opposite of what a sensitive person wants — especially if that sensitive person happens to be a Romantic poet. A radically different idea of the divine is needed.

As Harold Bloom observed in The Visionary Company: “There is no more important point to be made about English Romantic poetry than this one . . .  Though it is a displaced Protestantism, or a Protestantism astonishingly transformed by different kinds of humanism or naturalism, the poetry of English Romantics is a kind of religious poetry.”

A totally loving god, then? (Let us, for the moment, forget about earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters; in England, it was relatively easy to see nature as benign.) If we want to do away with the archaic baggage, a word such as “Spirit” is more agreeable. And ultimately, beauty itself might be enough; beauty itself can nurture us. It’s a kind of love that we receive from the world. This seems to me to be one of the main messages of the Romantics: for the most fulfilling kind of life, open yourself to beauty and awe.

And there is no need to travel to the Alps or the Andes (though it would be wonderful). A single flower in a proverbial crannied nook is an unexpected gift, an answered prayer.

At twilight, nature is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets. ~ Oscar Wilde

Oriana: Wilde said it about the relatively domesticated European landscapes. West Coast has such splendor that words crumble and are blown about like tumbleweeds and dust-devils. The sunsets are too intense, the sheen of water too blinding. We are face to face with the unnamable.

VICTORIAN SOCIALISM WAS CLOSER TO THE ROMANTIC POETS THAN TO KARL MARX (What Marx didn’t seem to realize was that England was the most democratic country in Europe, and the least prone to violent revolution.)

The word 'socialism' was first used in the English language in 1827 in the working-class publication, the Co-operative Magazine, and it meant co-operation as opposed to competition. (Garner et al. 115) In the 1830s, the word socialism was used interchangeably with the word Owenism, and Robert Owen (1771-1858) became the central figure of British socialism in the first half of the 19th century.

Victorian socialists drew heavily not on the works of Karl Marx, but on the legacy of authors who held romantic, radical and even conservative views, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Disraeli, and John Ruskin. However, the roots of British socialism can also be sought in more remote times. Some of the distant forerunners of Victorian socialism include William Langland, John Wycliffe, John Ball [leader of a peasant revolt], and Thomas More.

British socialism emerged in the time when Victorian society began to overcome the principles of classical economics, the laissez-faire system, and was immersed in faith crisis. Traditional British liberalism and radicalism played a far more important role in shaping socialism in Victorian Britain than the works of Karl Marx. Although Marxism had some impact in Britain, it was far less significant than in many other European countries, with thinkers such as David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and John Ruskin having much greater influence. Non-Marxist historians speculate that this was because Britain was amongst the most democratic countries of Europe of the period, where the ballot box provided an instrument for change, so parliamentary reforms seemed a more promising route than revolutionary socialism advocated by Marx. As Sir Ivor Jeggins put it, “British socialism has always been as much British as socialist.”

The first political movement of the working-class was launched by the London Corresponding Society, founded in 1792, by Thomas Hardy (1752-1832), a shoemaker and metropolitan Radical. The Society, consisting mostly of working-class members, agitated among the masses parliamentary reform, universal manhood suffrage and working class representation in Parliament. The Society met openly for six years despite harassment by police magistrates and arrests of its members, but was finally outlawed in 1799 by an act of Parliament as a result of fear that it made a dangerous challenge to the established government.

Robert Owen (1771-1858), who was a textile mill owner, philanthropist, social and labour reformer, is considered as the father of British co-operative socialism. He and his followers founded several co-operative communities in Britain and the United States which offered workers decent living conditions and access to education. Although all Owenite communities eventually failed, the communitarian tradition persisted in Victorian England and elsewhere. Owenism exerted a significant influence on various strands of British socialism, including Christian socialism, ethical socialism, guild socialism, Fabianism, and socialist labour movement. Co-operative socialism was perceived by these organizations as a replacement for the unjust competitive capitalist system.

The British socialist movement re-emerged in the 1880s. A strong critique of capitalism, which was voiced by various groups of social critics, literary figures and working-class militants, led to the formation of three distinct strands of late Victorian socialism.

The term socialism was generally synonymous in Victorian Britain with social reform, collectivism, communitarianism and improvement of living conditions of the working class and it did not bear strong Marxist connotations. In fact, few people were interested in socialist revolution in Victorian Britain, but quite a great number were fascinated by the mystical features of socialism. Unlike Marxism, which criticized liberal democracy and advocated revolutionary class struggle, the main strands of Victorian socialism can be characterized by ethical, non-Marxian, anti-capitalist outlook which combined traditional English radicalism with traditional English respect for democracy.

The statue of Robert Owen in Manchester

MILLENARIANISM: RELIGIOUS ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIAN MOVEMENTS (P.S. Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” lasted only eleven years instead of the predicted one thousand)

~ This happens to throw a light on Trump’s followers: ~ “The most fervent followers [of the medieval millenarian prophets] were the marginalized poor whose place within the social structure and whose very survival were under threat. A prophet, who assumed the role of messiah, offered the poor a chance to be among the select, or the elite.

Norman Cohn's topic is Millenarianism in the Middle Ages, or the recurring emergence of a collective of “faithful” under the leadership of a charismatic prophet or prophets who believe that the world will imminently be transformed into an earthly paradise inhabited by the "select" (i.e., themselves). This Edenic existence will last 1,000 years and then the Last Judgement will forever sort all mankind into the camps of Heaven and Hell. The basis of the millennial paradigm is rooted in the Book of Daniel (Ch. VII: Daniel's Dream) and the Book of Revelation (Ch. XX), as well as the enduring legend that there could be a return to what was wishfully assumed to be mankind's original egalitarian and plentiful existence.” ~

~ from a reader’s review of The Pursuit of the Millennium, by Norman Cohn (first published in 1957, expanded in 1970)

~ “At the end of the first millennium A.D., itinerant preachers crisscrossed Europe warning that the end of the world was nigh. Hundreds of thousands of people took heed, joining religious cults and anti-governmental militias in preparation for the coming war between good and evil. (If this sounds familiar, it is proof only that history is cyclical.) During this heady time, Europe exploded in religious war, peasant revolts and sectarian strife, marked by the first large-scale massacres of Jews and gypsies, the first inklings of inquisitions and holy crusades. Norman Cohn, a masterful writer and interpreter, carefully explores this extraordinary period in European history in a book that bears rereading as our own millennium approaches its end.” ~ capsule review by Amazon

“Absolutely astounding... when people fantasize about ideal worlds and the "end of days", their thinking usually get disjointed rather fast. Never did this form of thinking run more prevalent and have such catastrophic consequences than between the 11th and the 16th centuries. This is a collection of some of the most obscure peasant cults and peasant wars that afflict mankind during the middle ages. The results were usually bloody, such as the rebellion of Thomas Müntzer in early 1500s. But what is more interesting is how such thinking of millenarian societies can be extrapolated into the 20th Century (Hitler & Stalin) and latterly, the an altogether less emphatic form, the Fukuyama thesis that “History has Ended.”

It is interesting that Cohn's book serves as the seminal study of millenarian thinking in general and is often used as a counterpoint in the studies of Marxism, Fascism, and the millennial dreams of the neocons and infantile understanding of the New Agers, and conspiracy theorists... it's all here. A warning what happens when man and women lose their common sense and believe that the ideal is possible.

A good warning for the present times when ideologues and conspiracy theorists and their ignorant ilk seem to be all around us….” ~ a reader’s review

 ~ “The book was triggered by conversations among captured Nazis on which the author had eavesdropped as part of his work in intelligence during the Second World War.

Though they knew their cause was lost, these Nazis took perverse comfort from a kind of negative eschatology. They had failed to create their racist utopia; but through their crimes, they believed, they had brought the old world to an end.
In later books, notably Warrant for Genocide: the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1966) and Europe's Inner Demons (1975), Cohn showed how this kind of eschatological thinking mixed with Christian demonology led to the great witch-hunts of early modern times, and eventually to the supreme crime of the Holocaust.

It is impossible to understand 20th-century politics unless Cohn's insights into the religious origins of totalitarian movements have been fully absorbed, but the importance of his work extends well beyond totalitarianism. Eschatological thinking can have a malign effect in liberal democracies. To take only the most obvious example, an eschatological turn of mind lay behind a good deal of the support for the Iraq War. Sometimes this thinking was explicitly religious, as with the American Christian fundamentalists who supported the war as a prelude to Armageddon; but the same mentality was expressed by neoconservatives who saw regime change as the start of a "global democratic revolution", and by liberal interventionists who imagined that toppling Saddam Hussein would inaugurate a new world order ruled by human rights. In each case, the particularities of Iraq - its status as a composite state, created in colonial times and divided by deep-seated enmities - were ignored, and the risks of civil war and anarchy discounted. The warnings of history were lost in an epiphany of a new world.

Thomas Müntzer


~ “A frequent theme is for millenarian sects to believe that since they were the saved, they could treat the unsaved as the source of wealth and food for their survival. Frequently this meant targeting the established church, for, as Cohn explains, the Church had its own interests too. It was "a powerful and prosperous institution, functioning according to a well-established routine; and the men responsible for governing it had no wish to see Christians clinging to out-dated and inappropriate dreams of a new earthly paradise."

But there was a contradiction, for "In Christian apocalyptic the old phantasy of divine election was preserved and revitalised; it was the body of literature inaugurated by the Book of Revelation which encouraged Christians to see themselves as the Chosen People of the Lord - chosen both to prepare the way for and to inherit the Millennium. And this idea had such enormous attraction that no official condemnation could prevent it from recurring again and again to the minds of the unprivileged, the oppressed, the disoriented and the unbalanced."

The reality of feudal exploitation and oppression coincided with a ideology that meant "For medieval people the stupendous drama of the Last Days was not a fantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfillment.”

The 1251 "Crusades of the Shepherds" began at Easter when three men began to preach a Crusade in Picardy and within days their preaching had reached far beyond France. One of them was Jacob, a renegade monk, who (in common with many similar movements) claimed to have a letter from the Virgin Mary which called on shepherds to make a crusade. Hundreds flocked to the call, and thousands more joined them. A contemporary estimate (that is likely to be exaggerated) suggests 60,000. The army

“was divided into fifty companies; these marched separately, armed with pitchforks, hatchets, daggers, pikes carried aloft as they entered towns and villages, so as to intimidate the authorities. When they ran short of provisions they took what they needed by force; but much was given freely for.. people revered the Pastoureaux as holy men."

According to contemporary reports, it was precisely because the Pastoureaux had a habit of "killing and despoiling" priests that they had much popular support. The movement however over-reached itself. At the town of Bourges, Jacob preached against the Jews, and his army pillaged houses and plundered the churches. Despite having earlier gained the trust and support of the French Queen Mother, she now realized her mistake and the movement was outlawed. This caused a crisis within the ranks and allowed local forces to smash Jacob’s followers. Some escaped and one even made it to England were he continued to preach and gathered a following of hundreds of peasants and shepherds around Shoreham until troops sent by Henry III led to the movement’s final destruction.

One of the interesting aspects to the movements discussed here, is the parallels. For instance, in 1381 a movement in northern France took the form of a popular uprising in a number of towns. Here, "the first objective of these people was always the tax-farmer's office, where they destroyed the files, looted the coffers and murdered the tax-farmers; their next, the Jewish quarter, where they also murdered and looted their fill." Anyone who has read about the 1381 English Uprising will note that the first target of the Rebels over the Channel was to burn records of taxes and serfdom and immigrant laborers from Flanders were also massacred.

Another theme is the way that many movements broke apart traditional notions of sexuality. Take the "Free Spirit" movement. It's doctrine was that the person who has "become God" must use all things.

One expression of this, says Cohn, was a "promiscuous and mystically colored eroticism." Women were created to be used by the "Brethren of the Free Spirit. Indeed by such intimacy a women became chaster than before, so that if she had previously lost her virginity she now regained it.”

In 1476 another mass movement developed around a shepherd Böhm. His vision was of a world turned upside down. One Abbot commented on Böhm's movement: "What would the layman like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master's yoke.” 

Frequently those at the heart of these events would be so convinced of their divine inspiration that their actions led to their own deaths and the destruction of their followers. But it would be wrong to suggest that this means these self-declared messiahs were insane. Whether it was the small scale sects, or the mass followings of Thomas Müntzer or the extraordinary tale of Jan Bockelson and the Münster Rebellion, their ideas and preaching inspired tens of thousands and frequently shook the medieval world to its foundations.” ~


Fascinating: “The book was triggered by conversations among captured Nazis on which the author had eavesdropped as part of his work in intelligence during the Second World War. Though they knew their cause was lost, these Nazis took perverse comfort from a kind of negative eschatology. They had failed to create their racist utopia; but through their crimes, they believed, they had brought the old world to an end.”

Eschatology = the theology of the "last days" — the final stage of history, or End Times. It often includes the doctrine of the Thousand Years of Earthly Paradise. More loosely, it’s a belief in a future Golden Age of peace and prosperity.

Interesting, how the Antiquity’s myth of the Golden Age in the remote past got transformed into the myth of the Golden Age in the future, and how the roots of that transformation lie in the Book of Revelation and Daniel 11. To think that such ancient ravings have inspired mass murder through so many centuries . . .

Jehova's Witnesses are an example of Millenarians — fortunately non-violent. But there is an uncanny echo among the Neo-Nazis (Steve Bannon, let's face it) who want a restoration of the "traditional" world order through an apocalyptic slaughter first (e.g. war with North Korea).

It now strikes me as almost uncanny that I took a huge interest in the Reformation back in high school — including Thomas Müntzer's Peasant Uprising, and how this radical egalitarianism was condemned by Martin Luther, even though Luther believed the Second Coming was imminent.

~ “A man who is unable to despair has no need to be alive,” Goethe wrote; and that may very well be true, at least from the standpoint of people like most of us, who believe (without quite knowing so, perhaps) that one needs to have a need to be alive; but is unlikely anyone unable to despair has ever felt the need to read a single line of Goethe.” ~ M. Iossel


But I wonder, psychopaths aside, if any human being is unable to despair . . . if anyone is spared. Having done a lot of despairing myself, I’ve concluded that in my case it's ungracious. I am a child of intellectual privilege, I've read some Goethe in the original (mesmerizing music), I have access to great literature, great music, great visual art — and I live near the Pacific ocean, yes, with those sunsets. Next to such blessings, to complain about what life has not given to me would be petty. If only I had this perception earlier in life . . .

M. Iossel’s reply:

~  ... no, of course it is not possible for any sentient human being to go through life without despairing at least just as frequently as one would be feeling happy; that's just the essence of human condition: if you are capable of rejoicing, you should be familiar with despair as well. But then again, it's true too that extremely stupid people often are irrepressibly upbeat, and idiots tend to laugh a lot. ~

Oriana: Yes, it’s a common finding that higher IQ correlates with less happiness and more depression. But the chief reason may be that it also correlates with ambition and the struggle for achievement, which brings its inevitable strains and disappointments. Despair? I’ve never met an intelligent person who wasn’t well-acquainted with despair, even suicidal despair. “It’s just an intelligent person’s response to the realities of adult life,” a friend said. One of my favorite quotations is that genius is how we invent ourselves out of despair (a paraphrase).

orange oakleaf butterfly

It’s not the humidity, it’s the self-hate. ~ Michael Andre

~ to which one person replied: I prefer self-hate to humidity. 

saguaro; photo: Jack Dykinga


“The first few passages of Genesis weren’t written to explain the mechanics of how the world was made. They were written as a polemic against neighboring cultures (and perhaps against its own earlier forbears) in order to posit that one single God, rather than many, was responsible for creating the world.”

~ “. . . But this word for God — ELOHIM —  is strange because its form is plural. In ancient Hebrew, nouns that end in the suffix -im are typically plural. If we didn’t know any better, we would conclude this religion at one point in time believed in multiple gods, not just one.

    In the beginning, gods created the heavens and the earth…

That would certainly comport with the Ancient Near Eastern context out of which the Abrahamic religion originally emerged. Other religions of the region were polytheistic, and taught that universe was formed out of a cosmic battle between competing gods. Many of those religions taught that each competing god ruled over a particular sphere or category of the world (sky, ocean, crops, weather, fertility, the sun, etc).

What makes this religion unique among its competitors is that it ascribes authority for each and every one of those spheres to the same god. In a way, that’s the whole point of this creation narrative. It wasn’t told and retold (and later written) in order to lay out a technical description for how the world was made. It was a reworking of a very old (but, to them, very familiar) genre of origins with a polemical twist that set them apart from their neighbors: They had one single god in charge of everything, not just one particular category. This god was in charge of the sky, and the water, and the land…in other words, pretty much everything that they knew there was.


Despite the monotheistic innovation of Abrahamic religions, we still see signs of earlier influences all over the Old Testament. For one thing, right here in the first chapter of Genesis, we read God speaking to, presumably, himself.

    Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

Evidently being “in the image of God” means ruling over everything the same way that God rules over everything (the sea, the sky, the ground). That will become relevant in later passages in the Bible, but for now I have to stop and point out the obvious: It says let US.

When I was a kid, I was taught to read this as a prooftext for the doctrine of the Trinity. Christian theology teaches that God is somehow one “being” but still three different “persons” (as if that makes sense in any way, shape, or form). But that aside, it strains credibility to maintain that the ancient Hebrews, who were decidedly monotheistic, told and retold this story for centuries with a trinitarian reference woven into the text.

I’m still just marveling that traces of an earlier polytheism are preserved right there in the text for us.

There is even evidence that earlier iterations of the God of Abraham had a wife (or at least a consort) named Asherah. From time to time the prophets had to get onto the people of Israel for setting up “Asherah poles” alongside their officially approved worship paraphernalia. When I was a younger reader (and still committed to a belief in divine inspiration), I assumed the Israelites absorbed this perversion of their religion through osmosis, as it were, by virtue of their mixing and mingling with the surrounding Canaanite cultures.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that most of the stories of early Israel were completely made up, and that prior to their emergence from Canaanite culture, there was no Israel to speak of.

I am a thoroughgoing mythicist where pre-Canaanite Israel is concerned, and I do not believe anyone resembling Moses ever existed. The reality is that the Hebrew people seem to have first emerged from Canaanite culture in the tenth or eleventh century B.C.E., quite a number of centuries after the supposed Egyptian captivity, wilderness wanderings, and conquest of Canaan. We find no evidence of violent conquest, nor do we see any historical support for their existence as a people prior to their gradual cultural differentiation at that time.

[The monotheistic religion] took from the stories around it and refashioned them into a separate identity in which one god in particular, Yahweh (who was likely a god of war), ruled over them all. This god (or God) wasn’t in charge of just one arena or sphere, he was in charge of all of them. And more to the point, everyone else’s gods have to bow to this one, even if it means killing off anyone who disagrees. Bonus points if they happen to live on farmable soil, because that really belongs to Yahweh as well. Isn’t that convenient?

    “As long as there has been one true God, there has been killing in his name.” –The DaVinci Code


As an atheist, I no longer subscribe to a belief in supernatural books. Letting that go was a freeing development for me. Now I am able to consider so many competing viewpoints and perspectives on religion and on the Bible without feeling so emotionally invested in protecting the book from, well, itself.

But even a supernaturalist can appreciate that the Bible, even if it were inspired by God, should be taken on its own terms. And as such, it doesn’t really do a service to the Bible to superimpose onto it an expectation about which questions it should answer. It doesn’t really help anybody to try forcing the Bible into addressing questions it was never designed to answer.

The first few passages of Genesis weren’t written to explain the mechanics of how the world was made. They were written as a polemic against neighboring cultures (and perhaps against its own earlier forbears) in order to posit that one single God, rather than many, was responsible for creating the world (however it was that he did it). It was also borrowing heavily from its own temple cultus in order to structure the narrative development, laying out each phase of creation according to the design of the temple itself.

It wasn’t written as a scientific or technical explanation for how the universe or the planet earth or the plants and animals and people on it came to be. That interpretive grid only showed up a few decades ago in response to the rise of Darwinian thought among the sciences, and it has produced some laughably absurd results.

Blake: The creation of Adam

Monotheism had a hard struggle not only against competing religions, but against its own roots -- that's the fascinating part.

Of course once you declare that your tribal god is the only real god and all the other gods are made-up, you've opened wider the gates of hell of us-them.


“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” ~ Plato

“We don’t need no edoocayshon” — the motto of one of the states of the Union (that, pre-Trump, loved to threatened to secede, but they never secede when you want them to).

(I just realized this can be sung to the tune of "I can't get no satisfaction":

We don’t need no edoocayshon,
We don't need no teacher action.
Who needs spelling? Not this nation.
Who needs ammo? Check my suction.)

OK, the last word is dubious, but I needed a rhyme, and don't happen to possess a rhyming dictionary (though I've been secretly lusting after one for years). 


~ “It seems the list of animals that menstruate is quite short: humans, apes, monkeys, bats and elephant shrews. What do these seemingly disparate animals have in common?

It all comes down to how much control the mother animal has over her own womb, according to Deena Emera of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In a paper published in 2011, Emera and her colleagues pointed out that in menstruating animals, the transformation of the womb wall is entirely controlled by the mother, using the hormone progesterone.

Embryos can only implant in the womb wall if it is thick and has specialised large cells, so this means the female is effectively controlling whether or not she can get pregnant. This ability is called "spontaneous decidualization”.

In most other mammals, these changes to the womb are triggered by signals from the embryo. In effect, the womb lining thickens in response to pregnancy.

"There's a nice correlation between species that menstruate and species that exhibit spontaneous decidualization," says Emera.

"We argue that spontaneous decidualization likely evolved because of the conflict between the mother and the foetus," Emera says.

"We put forward two possibilities, especially in primates." The first is that spontaneous decidualisation may have evolved to protect the mother from an aggressive fetus.

All fetuses burrow into the linings of their mothers' wombs, in search of nourishment. But some do this more than others.

In horses, cows and pigs, the embryo simply sits on the surface of the womb lining. In dogs and cats, the fetuses dig in a little more. But in humans and other primates, a fetus will dig through all the womb lining to directly bathe in its mother's blood.

That's because mothers and babies are engaged in an "evolutionary tug-of-war", says Elizabeth Rowe of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The mother wants to ration how much nutrients she gives to each baby, so she has some left and can have more babies. On the other hand, the developing baby wants to get as much energy from its mother as it can.

"As the fetus became more aggressive, the mother responded by putting up her defenses before the invasion actually began," says Emera.

The second possibility is that spontaneous decidualization evolved to get rid of bad embryos.

Human embryos are very prone to genetic abnormalities, which is why so many pregnancies fail in the first few weeks. This might because of our unusual sexual habits, says Emera.

"Humans can copulate anytime during the reproductive cycle, unlike many other mammals that copulate right around ovulation," says Emera. This is called "extended copulation". Other menstruating primates, some of the menstruating bat species, and the elephant shrew all engage in extended copulation.

As a result, an egg may be several days old by the time it gets fertilized, says Emera. Aging eggs may result in abnormal embryos.

Once the womb lining has thickened and changed, its cells develop the ability to recognize and respond to defective embryos. So spontaneous decidualization may be a way for the mother to save her resources, says Emera. "It prevents her from investing in a bad embryo, lets her get rid of it right away, and primes her body for another successful pregnancy.”

In line with this idea, a study published in 2008 found that rhesus macaque embryos are also prone to genetic abnormalities. But we don't have similar data for many other species, says Emera, so this idea can't be properly tested.” ~

from Wiki:

~ Decidualization is a process that results in significant changes to cells of the endometrium in preparation for, and during, pregnancy. This includes morphological and functional changes to endometrial stromal cells (ESCs), the presence of decidual white blood cells (leukocytes), and vascular changes to maternal arteries.

In humans, decidualization occurs after ovulation during the menstrual cycle. After implantation of the embryo, the decidua further develops to mediate the process of placentation. In the event no embryo is implanted, the decidualized endometrial lining is shed or, as is the case with species that follow the estrous cycle, absorbed. ~


Let’s face it, this is not intelligent design. Decidualization? No thanks. Who profits? The makers of “feminine hygiene” products and blood stain removers and anti-cramp meds. But no, I'm not implying that they had anything to do with creating this mess — this is where evolution has failed women, big time. Well, at least women get to live past the mess. 

I think there comes an age when a woman just doesn't care what she looks like. Just to be alive is ecstatic. (I think. I hope.) Photo: Donato di Camillo
Ending on beauty:

“The wind came with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” ~ Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola): Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself

To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers...
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass”,
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image

Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept

In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission
That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.

But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
We see only postures of the dream,
Riders of the motion that swings the face
Into view under evening skies, with no
False disarray as proof of authenticity.
But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one’s hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex

To hide something, which makes the hand loom large
As it retreats slightly. There is no way
To build it flat like a section of wall:
It must join the segment of a circle,
Roving back to the body of which it seems
So unlikely a part, to fence in and shore up the face
On which the effort of this condition reads
Like a pinpoint of a smile, a spark
Or star one is not sure of having seen
As darkness resumes. A perverse light whose

Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its
Conceit to light up: unimportant but meant.
Francesco, your hand is big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention.
(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale,
Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom
In relation to the tiny, self-important ship
On the surface.) But your eyes proclaim

That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves,
And the window doesn’t matter much, or that
Sliver of window or mirror on the right, even
As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word for time, and which
Follows a course wherein changes are merely
Features of the whole. The whole is stable within
Instability, a globe like ours, resting

On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball
Secure on its jet of water.
And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.

~ John Ashbery (1927-2017), opening of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Ashbery is mostly a poet of limitation. He seems never to miss the opportunity to remind the reader that it will all come to nothing. Vanity of vanities. We are hemmed in by circumstances, doomed to disillusionment and diminishment.

Our knowledge is limited. Our desires and longing may not be, but they are doomed. How different Emily Dickinson feels when she writes:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

~ Dickinson, 632

Dickinson is a poet of infinity. Ashbery is a poet of boundaries. That Emily lived a very constricted life (by our standards) while Ashbery had the freedom to travel, for instance, has little or perhaps even nothing to do with the basic tone their writing.

Ashbery at Villa Madama, Rome, 1963

Nor would Ashbery second Wordsworth’s claim, in Tintern Abbey, that “Natured never did betray / A heart that loved her.” For Ashbery, the human condition is constant betrayal — by lovers, by nature, by life. Or, if betrayal is too strong a word, then at least disappointment. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal — only to be rebuffed again. The soul tries to reach beyond its bubble, only to be reminded that the bubble (or mirror, or surface) is all there is. Sometimes it seems that Ashbery deliberately mocks the Romantics, by reaching for the grand statement, for something transcendent — only to take it back, to say, nah, there is no Universal Spirit, no consoling beauty whose consolation we can always count on. Everything will come to nothing.

Emily sees the brain (or mind) mind as “wider than the sky”; Ashbery sees the soul (arguably a synonym of mind) as trapped (as if in a convex mirror) and “small.”

The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept

In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
. . .
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.

The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.


What mockery: the soul is “treated humanely.” 

But I have to agree: “the soul is not a soul.” It’s not the little person inside that is immortal and leaves the body after death, free at last from the “mortal coils,” ready for its flight into the afterlife. The religious concept of the soul is an archaic fiction.

But while Ashbery would agree that the soul is not immortal and is indeed a fiction (unless defined as a function of the brain, i.e. roughly equivalent to consciousness or mind), for the sake of the poem he goes along with the fiction. The soul is a prisoner because all we can know is the surface, or appearances: there is no escaping the surface.

The most moving part of the poem is indeed this lamentation:

The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.

Note how masterfully Ashbury presents the soul as a captive:

The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept

In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
. . .  The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.

But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.

This, perhaps, is the saving feature of the poem (aside from the occasional beauty of the images and verbal music): it’s not pure negation after all, but a “combination / Of tenderness, amusement and regret.” Negation would be simplistic; we have here some caring for all who are doomed to human complexities. 

I also like these lines, perfect in their rendition of contradictions: 

You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.



The poem goes on and on, for 553 lines (let’s face it: it’s much too long, and overwhelms the reader without conveying any particularly memorable message, especially compared to the painting itself), but I think we get the flavor of it based on the first one hundred lines or so. In summary: there is no “deeper meaning,” only the surface. Whenever we find an affirmation, we will soon find its contradiction. Everything is both a yes and a no, with no seeming to prevail in the end. The most we can have is some lovely fragments, moments, glimpses.

Here is the ending:

. . . The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

Thus, again, we end up with fragments and whispers. And, based on how difficult it is to plod through the entire poem, maybe fragments is all we can deal with anyway? I like fragments, whispers, shadows, and ruins. That’s where poetry can be found — in the smaller and more manageable aspects of the intimidating sublime.

In the end, however, I think the power remains with the painting. Ashbery’s poem is almost a perverse illustration of the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.


As for Parmigianino, I like even better another self-portrait of his, in a red hat, 1540. This is the older and wiser Parmigianino. He painted this self-portrait the year he died, at only 37. There is a sadness in his face, but we also have the marvelous curl-like wave in his beard, and of course that marvelous hat.


How different from Ashbery’s incessant word games is the earnestness of Tolstoy’s search for answers:

~ “Can it be that I have not lived as one should?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?” ~ Lev Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Emil Alzamora: Afterlife afterthought, 2006

I’ve been trying and trying to find a certain late poem by Milosz, but without success. “It’s the malice of things,” my father would have joked. “They don’t want to be found.”

It’s a minor poem, never, to my knowledge, anthologized or commented on. But I remember the gist of it. The speaker confesses that a thousand times he has prayed for a sign that god exists — but he knows with certainty that a statue in a church will never nod to him. The wooden saint’s carved hand will never lift to bless, no matter how fervent the prayer. The poet knows he will never receive a supernatural sign that would strengthen his faith, so filled with doubt, so undermined by the problem by evil.

Yet just before the poem (or is it an essay?) ends, the speaker leaves the dusky, empty church where the statue has again remained immobile, and starts mingling with the small crowd outside, where he experiences an insight: god is not to be found in church, among the still and silent statues. God can be found among people: in a handshake, in a stranger’s kind smile.

Of course it’s not strictly Milosz’s discovery, this idea that the divine dwells in positive human interactions — in kindness and respect for the other. The famous Jewish theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965) is generally credited with it. It was Buber who introduced the idea of “I-Thou” relationships as opposed to the “I-It” relationships. In German, his famous 1923 essays is entitled “Ich und Du.”

First, a linguistic quibble which points to the larger problem: “Ich und Du” translates as “I and You.” Like other German speakers, Buber addressed god as “Du,” meaning “You”; he spoke of god as “the eternal You.” I realize that in English the translator wanted the singular you since strictly speaking the English “you” is a plural pronoun like the French “vous” — but that’s long forgotten, and not a valid reason to reach for the archaic. But as soon as I typed “archaic,” I realized: this is it! By speaking of theology at all, WE ARE TRYING TO SALVAGE THE ARCHAIC. Funny that this became apparent in the English translation, and not in German (not in this blatant way).

Sure, for theology it’s a bold step forward to say god is neither in heaven nor on earth, but only in the respectful I-You (or “I-Thou” for those who insist) interactions between people (and perhaps between humans and animals). I am all for the kind of respect that makes us celebrate the value of another living being. I want gentle, affectionate, respectful interactions. But what is the benefit of inserting a deity into any respectful interaction? I want to see the person I’m talking to as a human being. When I talk to my friend Andrea, I want to fully concentrate on Andrea. I don’t need anything inserted between us. It would only be a hindrance. And if I perform an act of kindness for Andrea, I’m doing it for Andrea and not for any deity.

When I give money to a poor person, I am doing it for that person, not for Jesus.

When I'm feeling grateful for the deeply mutually supportive relationship I'm privileged to have at this stage of my life, I also realize that for neither him or me this happened because of putting Jesus at the center of our partnership. We put “wanting that which is the best for him/her” at the center. And that deep and absolute respect, yes. Not because we see the “divine spark” in the other. Because we see a human being, both the flaws and the greatness.

Giovanni di Paolo: Paradise, 1445. Note that this is the paradise of human affection. Even in times of medieval cruelty, people could imagine what paradise it would be if we treated one another with "I-You" equality and total respect.

A man jumping into the rushing flood waters to save a stranger’s child is doing it as a human being acting supremely human, and not to please god. A soldier running under fire to save a wounded buddy is not doing it for Jesus. In fact, people have been known to risk their lives to save a dog. We know that’s insane — but also beautiful.

It’s time to jettison the archaic story and relate to people directly — never putting a god ahead of another human being (and of course “god” can mean things like money or an ideology). We need a new story about our connection to others and to the universe. As Laplace said about god in relation to planetary motion, “I had no need for that hypothesis.”

The idiomatic translation of the German “du” is “you.” “You” implies equality. Modern English is the language of equality. Unlike many other languages, it’s not burdened with formal, ceremonial modes of address that introduce hierarchy and distance.

A cat may look at the Queen, and even the janitor can address the Big Boss as “you.” This is revolutionary. Never mind that originally the “you” was a more formal plural, like the French “vous.” With centuries of usage, it became singular. I say “you” to a child, but the child also says “you” to me, a Big Adult. In more hierarchical cultures, that would be a sign of disrespect; not in the English-speaking countries.

“Thou” is archaic. The egalitarian attitude that Buber tried to promote is expressed by “you.” “You” is a way the essence of modernity, the hallmark of English, the language of equality. How ironic that Buber’s first English translator, who became normative, chose a pronoun from the hierarchical past.


It’s interesting that even in the more formal languages, god is addressed in the second person. Thus it’s “Tu” rather than Vous in French, Du rather than Sie in German, Tu rather than Usted in Spanish, and so on. There is a special intimacy to the use of “you,” and reaching for an archaic pronoun is a mistake.

Perhaps Buber’s first translator felt that “you” was too egalitarian, too humanizing — that the archaic pronoun was somehow the vessel of the sacred. Yet the whole point of the Buber’s “I-You” terminology is to remove the distance, to introduce closeness and empathy in ALL significant relationships. That’s the wisdom of religious tradition: god is presented as all-powerful, and yet is not addressed the way a social superior would be addressed. And for Buber, this is where god is present: in egalitarian I-You relationships.

By the way, Mary and the saints are also “you” when prayed to. There is a whole crowd of invisible beings whom the faithful are supposed to address as intimates, without “standing on ceremony.” In extremely inegalitarian cultures, this is radical.

Walter Kaufmann did his own translation of Buber, in which he used “I-You.” Unfortunately, hardly anyone is even aware that an alternate translation exists. And thus Buber’s idea of the sacredness of radical equality had hardly any impact on the English-speaking world. The respect and empathy that Buber saw contained in the “you” — an insight based on a mere pronoun! — were lost in the “Thou,” which is almost as unreal to us as the Middle Ages.

Still, correcting the “Thou” to “You” does not solve the problem created by theism. Addressing an imaginary all-powerful “you” in preference to interacting in a respectful, egalitarian way with an actual you, a living person, is an even greater mistake. Abraham became guilty of killing Isaac the moment he agreed to do it — the moment he put blindly following orders from an alleged deity ahead of ethics in relation to an actual human being.

And in real, unedited life, Abraham probably did go ahead and kill Isaac — according to the archaic custom of the times.


I had to think about the “I—You” for awhile, for where to look for or find god. What interests me is that projection outside the self of what are essentially human attributes and ideas. Good and evil are potentials in us, but have been cast out and personified as eternal supernatural persons, God and Satan, reigning over their respective spiritual landscapes, sparring with each other for our souls.

This certainly is an archaic way of seeing the universe and our place in it — the all-powerful King/Father/originator, making the rules, rewarding and punishing, caring for and preserving his children. And for a solution to the question of evil — the devil, opposer, denier, liar and thief, trying to snatch us away from the father’s grace. Buber’s “I-You” is an advance on this conception, the external projection returned to it’s place of origin, in human relations and interactions.

I would go further and say both goodness (the sacred) and evil (the infernal) exist in us, belong to us, are our creation, our choice. This is not the most comfortable idea, placing the responsibility of good and evil in our hands. Heaven or hell, it’s what we made. This is also the source of all hope for us, recognizing our potential, the god in us, the way to love, and that beautiful vision of paradise in the painting [by Giovanni di Paulo]. Choices we make. Every day.


I totally agree: god and Satan are projections. It’s “human, all too human.” No one up there/out there — just we humans here on this earth. The odd thing is that humans — or maybe it was just male priests — projected mainly power and violence on the early deities — my god can beat up your god. It was all about dominance, combat. Nurturing qualities took a long time to appear in a male deity — and at first it was just favoritism toward one family, say Noah or Lot, or Abraham and Sarah (she has to be included, because Ishamael ended up being pretty much excluded as the son of the wrong mother — talk about ethno-narcissism).

A friend is in heaven on his way to Connecticut (photo: Chris Vannoy)
“In writing a novel, the writer must be able to identify emotionally and intellectually with two or three or four contradictory perspectives and give each of them a convincing voice. It’s like playing tennis with yourself and you have to be on both sides of the yard. You have to be on both sides, or all sides if there are more than two sides.” ~ Amos Oz



~ "Westerners flocked to see Gorbachev as an oracle of democracy. But Russians despised Gorbachev as the destroyer of their empire and supported Putin as its restorer. Gorbachev lived then, as now, in a dual reality — admired and feted in Washington, London and Berlin, reviled and ostracized in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.

William Taubman, whose brilliant 2003 biography of Nikita S. Khrushchev won the Pulitzer Prize, delivers another richly layered portrait of a Russian leader determined to reform a thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional society, only to be swept away by forces he could not control.

That this book should come out now is fortuitous as Americans debate Russia’s role in the world — and in our own political system. To understand today’s Russia, it is necessary to understand what happened during Gorbachev’s time, how he opened up a hermetically sealed society after 70 years of stifling Communist rule but was unable to solve its deeper problems and was ultimately pushed aside by the ambitious and mercurial Boris Yeltsin. A populist democrat more interested in breaking apart the sclerotic system than reforming it, Yeltsin introduced a raucous version of democracy and a crony version of capitalism that ended up discrediting both in the eyes of Russians who lost their savings while oligarchs snatched up lucrative state assets.

By the time Putin, the cold-eyed former K.G.B. lieutenant colonel, came along, many Russians were eager for a strong hand, willing to trade some of their newfound freedom for a leader promising order and a return to national greatness. When Putin lamented that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he was met with cheers, not jeers. Gorbachev begat Yeltsin and Yeltsin begat Putin.

But Gorbachev, now 86 and still living in Moscow, remains celebrated in the West and it is hard to think of many figures who shaped the last half-century of world history more than he did. He put an end to the totalitarian system created by Lenin and Stalin. He freed Russians to speak their minds without fear, ended the Communist monopoly on power and held competitive elections. He paved the way for Eastern Europe to leave Moscow’s orbit, largely without violence. And he made peace with the West.

“Gorbachev was a visionary who changed his country and the world — though neither as much as he wished,” Taubman writes. Gorbachev’s problem, he says, was that Russia had no real experience with the freedom it was being offered. “It is more the fault of the raw material he worked with than of his own real shortcomings and mistakes that Russian democracy will take much longer to build than he thought.”

Born in 1931 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Gorbachev was close to his father, who fought in World War II, but had a more complex relationship with his mother, who was severe and whipped him with a belt. He worked five summers helping his father operate a combine harvester, earning the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, signed by Stalin himself, and wore it proudly throughout his first year at college. At Moscow State University, he was a country boy who did not even know what the ballet was.

But he was a quick study and became a master of the system he would later destroy, rising through the ranks as a provincial official in Stavropol. His real break was getting to know Yuri Andropov, another son of Stavropol, who became K.G.B. director and later general secretary of the Communist Party. The two were close enough that they vacationed together. Andropov brought Gorbachev to Moscow and into the Politburo, setting him up as an eventual successor in 1985.

From the inside, Gorbachev understood the system was rotting away. A turning point for him was the government’s knee-jerk cover-up of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “Chernobyl really opened my eyes,” Gorbachev said later. His life, he said, could be divided into two parts — before Chernobyl and after. His programs of glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, economic restructuring, changed Russian society. But his was a gradual, stutter-start revolution, a “revolution by evolutionary means,” as he put it.

Through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the summit meetings with Ronald Reagan and the changes in Soviet society, Gorbachev’s efforts to straddle between reformers and hard-liners satisfied neither side. His personal feud with Yeltsin sowed the seeds for his fall. Gorbachev, Taubman writes, may have recognized his own “arrogance, vanity, pride” in Yeltsin. “Gorbachev’s anger may have been aimed at least partly at himself.”

When the end came, as it inevitably would, the hard-liners turned against him first, mounting an amateurish coup attempt in 1991 that quickly fell in the face of popular resistance led by Yeltsin. But it was the reformers who finally did him in, as Yeltsin then shoved Gorbachev aside. Gorbachev’s final attempt at a comeback, a tragicomic run against Yeltsin, who was seeking re-election in 1996, yielded a humiliating 0.5 percent of the vote. That was the Russians’ judgment on the man who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the West.

When Yeltsin gave way to Putin at the start of 2000, Russia had changed, imperfectly, Gorbachev insisted, but still for the better. But it was turning again. “The truth is that Russia under Vladimir Putin largely abandoned Gorbachev’s path at home and abroad and returned to its traditional, authoritarian, anti-Western norm,” Taubman writes. “But that only underlines how exceptional Gorbachev was as a Russian ruler and world statesman.” ~


I think Putin's belief that the fall of the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century" is the key to his empire-centered vision. His greatest dream is the restoration of the Soviet Empire, just without "Soviet" in the name (but with the old Soviet policies of dictatorial rule and ruthless suppression of opposition). Militarism, interventionism, hostility toward the West, trying to undermine democratic governments — it's all in place.

from another source:

~ Gorbachev was a remarkably decent man . . .  When he returned to Moscow from his dacha in Crimea after the August 1991 coup attempt collapsed, the logical next step would have been to head downtown to rally his supporters. Gorbachev did not. He was far more concerned about Raisa, who remained traumatized from the family’s house arrest. Here is a moment where Gorbachev’s decency prevailed over considerations of power.

When [he and Raisa] traveled to France in 1977, it “shook [their] a priori belief in the superiority of socialist over bourgeois democracy.” Gorbachev valued his wife’s counsel as he attempted to withdraw from Afghanistan while reinvigorating Soviet life at home — beginning with an ill-fated anti-alcoholism campaign in 1985. “We can’t go on like this,” he confided in her that March. From their travels to Western Europe, they grasped how people in industrialized societies ought to be living in the 1980s. Few Soviet citizens shared such experiences or expected much accountability from their leaders.

There was no popular clamor for reform in the Soviet Union — notwithstanding demographic changes within a multiethnic empire embroiled in an unwinnable economic competition with the United States and bogged down in a hopeless war in Afghanistan. When economic reforms failed to yield clear and immediate results, Gorbachev doubled down on political reforms. He launched Glasnost (or, “giving voice”) in 1987. In 1989, he presided over televised sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies, where he argued with elected member and nuclear scientist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov, whose internal exile Gorbachev had lifted a few years earlier.

The pace of reform alienated erstwhile supporters in the Central Committee — too fast for Yegor Ligachev; too slow for Boris Yeltsin. Yet it was very deliberate. “One thing Gorbachev rejected from the start was any attempt to recast the Soviet system by means of force and violence,” as Taubman puts it. “Whatever changes he introduced had to be ‘gradual,’ [Gorbachev] wrote later, since ‘revolutionism leads to chaos, destruction and often to a new kind of unfreedom.’” Taubman’s next line is crucial for Gorbachev’s placement in history:

    This was Gorbachev’s sharpest break of all with tradition – not only with the Bolsheviks’ bloody way of doing things but with other Russians’ belief, both before 1917 and after 1991, that glorious ends justify the most repugnant means.

From the moment he became general secretary, Gorbachev attempted to adapt communism to make the Soviet system work. This led him to jettison the mantra of “international class conflict,” aspire to eliminate nuclear weapons, accept political experimentation in Poland and Hungary, and tolerate outright anti-government protest movements in East Germany and elsewhere. The fall of the Berlin Wall and revolutions of 1989 to 1990 would not have occurred without him.

Disinclined toward violence, tolerant of German and Polish nationalism, Gorbachev nevertheless regarded Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — which Stalin had forcibly annexed during World War II — as part of a post-Soviet union. Disunion, he anticipated, would usher in even more violence — something the world watched play out in former Yugoslavia a few years later. “Yes, absolutely,” the union between Russia and its neighbors could have been preserved, he wrote in one of several book-length reflections on this period, had not the August 1991 coup disrupted his momentum toward producing a new union treaty.


It’s so ironic that the Russians who hate him see him as the man responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, while he did his best to salvage it. There seems to be a complete blindness about who really did it: Boris Yeltsin. Of course the conditions had to be completely ripe for it. 

~ As Gorbachev prepares to leave his office for the last time, his press spokesman Andrei Grachev "showed him the front page of a Moscow newspaper with a headline from Pushkin: 'No, I shall not die completely.' Smiling, Gorbachev completed the stanza: 'My soul, my lyre, will survive me and escape corruption.’" ~


and from the Washington Post:

~ “Gorbachev, from his youth, saw the giant gap between Communist Party slogans and the poor living conditions and repressive environment of everyday life. His freshman classmates at Moscow State University may have sneered at the country bumpkin who wore on his lapel the coveted “Order of the Red Banner of Labor” he earned in five summers of helping his father run a mammoth combine harvester, but Gorbachev also knew, better than they, that Stalin’s collectivization had left the countryside a disaster.

Later, in his first party job, he wrote to his future wife that local bosses were “disgusting” in the way they behaved: arrogant, impudent and conventional. As a regional party boss himself, he was shocked by the sight of a remote village, Gorkaya Balka, or Bitter Hollow, made up of “low, smoke-belching huts, blackened dilapidated fences” and asked, “How is it possible, how can anyone live like that?” Still later, Gorbachev joined a Soviet delegation visiting Czechoslovakia after Soviet troops crushed the Prague Spring in 1968. In Brno, factory workers turned their backs on him, and the lesson he drew was that Moscow’s use of force had solved nothing. Gorbachev began to question the massive over-centralization of the Soviet system. The doubts spilled over, too, during a visit to Canada in 1983, when Gorbachev threw caution to the wind and, during a break, strolled in an orchard with Alexander Yakovlev, then the Soviet ambassador to Canada, sharing his deepening concerns. Yakovlev would become an architect of Gorbachev’s new thinking.

At home, Gorbachev opened the stale, closed Soviet system. In 1989, a new legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies, was chosen in the first relatively free elections since the Bolshevik Revolution. Gorbachev ordered the parliament’s proceedings to be televised, and the nation was transfixed by open debate and criticism. But Gorbachev’s breathtaking changes let loose all kinds of centrifugal forces beyond his control, including a yearning for independence among some Soviet republics. Taubman also shows the debilitating effect of Gorbachev’s rivalry with the brash Boris Yeltsin. In retrospect, Gorbachev did not go far enough. He should have broken with the party, abandoned the old guard, and independently set out to build a social democracy. His unwillingness to do so left him on the deck of a sinking ship.

The core of the rot in the Soviet system was the economy, but Gorbachev mustered only half-measures and could not make the leap to capitalism, backing away from Grigory Yavlinsky’s “500 Days” plan for a transition to market. Taubman does not dwell on it, but one of the most remarkable changes of the Gorbachev era, still recalled today, were the cooperatives, the first private businesses, from which the Yeltsin-era oligarchs got their early taste of profit.

In his superb summary, Taubman asserts, “The Soviet Union fell apart when Gorbachev weakened the state in an attempt to strengthen the individual.”


Are we really surprised that nationalism proved stronger than any desire for democracy? That the nostalgia for the empire and for the superpower status would have greater appeal than, say, freedom of expression?

Nor is the empire a necessary part of the equation. When I think of the rise of fascism in Poland and Hungary, I see that nationalism is sufficient. Just dress it up as “patriotism”; without a strong tradition of checks and balances, most of the population won’t mind a dictator. In fact many people will adore him. Let’s not forget that many worshiped Hitler and Stalin as living gods. Democratic leaders, with their limited power and always exposed to criticism, can inspire affection and admiration, but what is that next to religious fervor?


In the summer of 1894, some 3,000 railroad workers on Chicago’s South Side went rogue, staging an unauthorized walkout to protest shrinking paychecks.

The ensuing showdown between the American Railway Union (ARU) and the Pullman Company not only gave Americans a much-appreciated day off but also, more importantly, legitimized unionism as the primary means of protecting and advancing worker rights.

The Pullman Strike, as it would come to be called, emerged from one of the country’s most devastating economic crises, the Panic of 1893. Thousands of businesses shut down, and unemployment cracked 20%. To cope with plummeting demand and revenue, the Pullman Company, a premier railroad manufacturer, slashed its workforce by half and worker wages by a quarter, financially crippling its employees and their families under the weight of unsubsidized rents and living expenses.

From June to August, half a million workers across America joined the boycott, so incapacitating railroad traffic that President Grover Cleveland’s administration sought an injunction against the union — the first in US history — and dispatched troops to end the strike.

The immediate aftermath was not pretty. Although Cleveland, as a peace offering, christened Labor Day a national holiday, wages stayed stagnant, unions suffered significant losses, and Eugene Debs went to jail for violating a court injunction.

Even so, the Pullman Strike ushered in an era of widespread unionization, heightened awareness of class and wealth inequality and, subsequently, progressive ideals like a minimum wage and overtime pay.

Americans are still reaping the rewards of unionism today: the gender pay gap has halved since 1980, and in five years time, 17% of the populace will live in a city or state with a $15 minimum wage. Yet as automation continues its assault on the most heavily-unionized industries, the formidable labor movement that has converted ideals into laws is starting to look like the relic of a bygone era. Union membership slumped to an all-time low this year — a dismal 10.7 percent. Anti-collective-bargaining laws have gathered steam in states like Wisconsin, ostensibly as a productivity booster but actually a corporate-backed effort to swat aside annoyances like paid sick days and extended maternity leave.

It’s important to remember that decades of organized labor protests, not bouts of compassion from white-collar executives, are the reason Americans get to sleep in on Labor Day morning — and enjoy many other benefits.


Born in 1706, Emilie had three pieces of great good fortune in her life. The first was to be born with a remarkable brain. Her greatest work was to translate the “Principia”, the path-breaking work on physics by the secretive Cambridge brainbox, Isaac Newton, who died when Emilie was 20. She did not just translate his writing from Latin to French; she also expressed Newton's obscure geometric proofs using the more accessible language of calculus. And she teased out of his convoluted web of theorems the crucial implications for the study of gravity and energy. That laid the foundation for the next century's discoveries in theoretical physics. The use of the square of the speed of light, c², in Einstein's most famous equation, E=mc² is directly traceable to her work.

Emilie's second piece of luck was that her father allowed her to use her brain: not much, admittedly, but certainly far more than most bright girls of her time and country. She was not sent to a convent. He was wealthy and liberal-minded enough to buy her books and talk to her about astronomy. He married her to Florent-Claude, Marquis du Châtelet-Lomont, who was a touch dull but decent—and unbothered by his brainy wife's intellectual and amorous adventures. Indeed, he liked and admired Voltaire.

Her third great good fortune was her array of mind-expanding, appreciative lovers. They may have been unsatisfactory mates by today's standards, but they were rarities in an age when few men looked for intellectual companionship from women. Emilie started by bedding the Duc de Richelieu, the “most sought-after man in France”. He bolstered her intellectual confidence, dented by an isolated childhood and early marriage. Even when she dumped him, they remained friends. Then came Voltaire, needy, self-indulgent, unreliable and self-centered—but still the love of her life and its great intellectual and cultural stimulus. Even when passion cooled, they remained great companions.

Finally, she fell in love with Jean-François, Marquis de Saint-Lambert, a much younger poet. He filled the emotional and physical gap left by Voltaire. But he also proved careless in what passed for contraception in those days. That led to pregnancy and the infection that killed Emilie when she was only 42.

It is tempting to speculate what heights of discovery Emilie might have achieved in a healthier and more open-minded age. But that would be to miss the point. The remarkable thing is that she managed so much, and with such good humor and reflective self-knowledge.

It is her biographer's good fortune that there is a great deal of accessible material about her life. Voltaire was spied on energetically; a thicket of secret police reports remains. So too do many of her letters, both sent and received.

from Wikipedia:

~ “As a teenager, short of money for books, she used her mathematical skills to devise highly successful strategies for gambling.

Her commentary [on Newton’s Principia, which she translated] includes a profound contribution to Newtonian mechanics—the postulate of an additional conservation law for total energy, of which kinetic energy of motion is one element.” ~

Voltaire looks so full of himself, Emilie so resigned.


What strikes me most about Emilie du Chatelet's story is her death. For almost all of history the greatest limitation on women's freedom and potential has been the limits and dangers of her body and it's reproductive function. Without control over her own body, and not only the right to choose, but the ability to chose if, when and how often she will be pregnant, and without the medical knowledge to make that process one that is safe far more often than it is fatal, any talk of freedom and equality is trumped by the body itself. For so much of history “biology was destiny”  for women — the dangers of incessant pregnancies matched by the dangers of death in the process of giving birth. There were not many ways to avoid this unhappy destiny until historically very recent times, and conservative forces would like to see any advance in woman's control of her own biology rolled back.


Religions seem obsessed with controlling women’s bodies. I can’t think of a religion that doesn’t have some pathology in this regard, some sheer insanity concerning the need to cover up the hair, or a menstrual taboo.

But what is even more crazy is that despite being oppressed by religion women all over the world are more likely to truly religious. Perhaps Marx’s insight can be helpful here, at least in part: those who suffer need a drug to dull the pain, and religion may indeed act as an opiate.


~ “Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination — the logical end point — of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a very long time. That greed is good. That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate and the one percent deserve their golden towers. That anything public or commonly held is sinister and not worth protecting. That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this.

Underneath all these pathologies is a dominance-based logic that treats so many people, and the earth itself, as disposable, which gives rise to a system based on limitless taking and extracting, on maximum grabbing, that treats people and the earth either like resources to be mined to their limits or as garbage to be disposed of far out of sight, whether deep in the ocean or deep in a prison cell.” ~ Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough


To have a sustainable world, we’d need a much smaller population, maybe 1/3  or 1/4 of what it is now.

John F. Kennedy visits Mexico, 1962; photograph by Robert Knudsen. What a different era that was. 


I had a funny dream: my mother and I were candidates in some local election. The woman in the dream didn’t look one bit like my mother; I merely chose to label her that. I guess my dream saw her as the “go-getter,” the doer, the achiever — thus: “my mother.”

“My mother” won. But I placed third out of seven! My only platform was a recipe. That’s what I offered to the voters — and I did well.

(My real mother would understand that. “Food is primary,” she always said.)


On further thought, perhaps the most bizarre part of that dream was that I chose to perceive to perceive a woman as “my mother” simply because she had some of the same personality traits. That my political platform was a recipe — that was the charming part.


Speaking of dreams and my mother: a few weeks before she died, my mother recounted an interesting dream or vision. She spoke of it as if the incident really happened — but that was typical of her state of mind in those last two months, when she mostly dozed and didn’t know where she was. Dreams seemed to be her main mode of consciousness, her own reality.

“A beautiful dog was here just a while ago,” she told me. “A large dog, very intelligent.” I'm not sure if said a “German shepherd,” but both of us were most familiar with that breed, and regarded those dogs as the most beautiful and intelligent canines. “I was holding my hands over my eyes . . . because I was tired . . . and the dog gently pulled my hands away from my face.”

“Such an intelligent animal,” she added. I said nothing, but the dream stayed with me.

It’s been argued that a dream is not complete until it is interpreted, but I feel an interpretation might be excessive here, e.g. anything along the lines of the “Good Shepherd,” or even that it’s OK to look: don’t be afraid. Still, it can be said that the gesture of covering one’s eyes with one’s hands, of “burying one’s face one’s hands” usually goes not with tiredness but with sadness, even despair. My mother rarely admitted to feeling despair, but the dog seemed to sense it. Dogs have great empathy and can both read human emotions and console those in need of consolation. German shepherds with their large soulful eyes can do it beautifully.

So what stays with me is that my dying mother was consoled by an animal giving her affection and empathy. She was in need of unconditional love, and her brain created a healing vision. That it was a dog doesn’t surprise me.


Your dream, and your mother's dream are both lovely. Your platform was a recipe, something shared with others out of love and generosity. The rules of hospitality universally involve sharing food and drink, welcoming the guest into the family circle, at the hearth or the table, something as old as any culture we can remember, and still true. Almost always greeting guests includes offering some refreshment,  and we never invite guests without having something ready for them. And sharing a recipe is a gesture of love and friendship, as keeping one secret is a bid for power and advantage.

So much study lately on the relationship between humans and dogs. Some have concluded the process of domestication was mutual, that dogs changed us as we changed them,  in ways advantageous to both species. Dogs look us in the eye, read our expressions and react to our emotions. They improve our health and well being simply by being part of our lives. They are comfort, reassurance, acceptance,  love.

I miss my dog terribly still.


What you say about food, hospitality, and dogs is ever so true.

Dogs arouse some ambivalence in me. I do know what it’s like to be very attached to a dog. At the same time, a dog’s subordinate status in a household seems an injustice — the whole problem  of keeping pets. Would we want to be a pet, even a truly loved one, of someone belonging to a dominant species?

At the same time I agree with Anatole France that until we’ve loved an animal, a part of our soul remains unawakened.

On a biochemical level, the secret of our pleasure when we interact with a pet appears to be connected with the release of oxytocin, the “love-and-trust hormone.” Oxytocin is a feel-good neurotransmitter that increases empathy and generosity.


“The Bomb will never go off, I speak as an expert in explosives."
~ Admiral William Leahy , US Atomic Bomb Project

"There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom."
~ Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."
~ Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
~ Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."
~ The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

"But what is it good for?"
~ Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."
~ Bill Gates, 1981

This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
~ Western Union internal memo, 1876.

 "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
~ David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible".
~ A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

"I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper"
~ Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in "Gone With The Wind."

"We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out"
-- Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible"
~ Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.

 "If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this"
~ Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M "Post-It" Notepads .

"Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You're crazy."
~ Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

"Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."
~Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University , 1929.

"Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value"
~ Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre , France .

"Everything that can be invented has been invented"
~ Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.

 "The super computer is technologically impossible. It would take all of the water that flows over Niagara Falls to cool the heat generated by the number of vacuum tubes required."
~ Professor of Electrical Engineering, New York University

"I don't know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn't be a feasible business by itself."
~ the head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox.

"The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon,"
~ Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
~ Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

ending on beauty