LETTER FROM KAFKA
Dear Fräulein K, I can’t believe you ask,
Does God love us? You must joke.
We are the suicidal thoughts of God.
I always have a headache ready,
can easily arrange insomnia.
Today a neighbor coughed twice;
I know tomorrow
he’ll cough even more.
Do I complain too much?
My motto: If we cannot use arms,
let us embrace with complaints.
If only I could be not the nobody I am,
but the nobody I am paid to be.
On a balcony in my mind I leaned
to peony petals rimmed with rain,
when my superior, that good
sober man, asked if we carried
insurance for convicts —
I almost slapped him with both hands.
You see what an impossible
person I am. What strength it takes
to read this letter.
How you must hate me.
But I am unworthy of hate.
My father meanwhile grows and grows,
one colossal leg already in America —
he’s sprawling across the continents.
We have nothing in common, but then
what do I have in common with myself?
I must move away from home:
the sight of my parents’ nightshirts
makes me sick to the stomach.
I think of marriage
even more often than of death.
If only I could spend my life
in a cellar with nothing but paper
and pen, a ribbon of light
seeping in at the edge of the door —
But I won’t torment you by mail;
I’ll save it up until we meet.
If writing is prayer, who am I praying to?
not to the one who hangs
around our neck our daily stone.
Perhaps we shouldn’t meet.
I resent having to talk
when I could be writing you a letter.
You say, I don’t want to make love,
I want to make soul, make art.
Dear Fräulein: there is no art.
There is only the delight of failure.
Kindest Regards, K
~ Oriana © 2017
Years ago, having found myself irritated by hearing “God loves you,” I acutely remembered that I never heard that statement while growing up Catholic. Obviously, if god loved children, he might not be willing to throw them into hell, and the wily priests and nuns of old didn’t want to diminish the threat. But I also got curious: what about Judaism?
So a question was sent to a Reform rabbi, who replied, “God doesn’t love us on an individual basis, but God loves humanity.” I was perversely delighted by the answer, and somehow knew I should have asked Kafka instead — and the Kafka poem got its start.
Kafka’s relentless negativity is in the end comical:
“Now I’ve taken a closer look at my desk and realized that nothing good can be produced on it.” This text breaks off, followed by a note: “Wretched, wretched, and yet well intended. It’s midnight . . . The burning light bulb, the quiet apartment, the darkness outside, the last waking moments entitle me to write, even if it’s the most wretched stuff. And I hastily make use of this right. This is just who I am.” ~ Kafka (quoted by Reiner Stach)
Milena describes him as having had a “sensitivity bordering on the miraculous,” as someone who could “clairvoyantly comprehend an entire person on the basis of a single facial expression. His knowledge of the world was extraordinary and deep. He himself was an extraordinary and deep world.”
Perhaps one reason that Kafka has assumed the role of the contemporary saint is that the instruments of his martyrdom were the quotidian psychic torments — isolation, self-doubt, boredom, and neurosis — familiar in modern life. A German Jew living among Czech-speaking Catholics, he was, from birth, an outsider. He worked, as many of his readers do, at an unrewarding, time-consuming office job. His relationship with his father was a source of deep unhappiness, as were his affairs with women, to whom he wrote letter of raw, unfiltered panic and shame.
The aphorisms that have become well-known — “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us,” “There is infinite hope, but not for us” — reinforce our notions of his pessimism and melancholia, and of the obsessive inner struggles so well documented in his diaries.
For me reading Kafka's letters was exhilarating. Finally here was someone more neurotic than I was! You can hardly imagine how good it made me feel, bursting in happy laughter — especially since I was surrounded by all the “think positive” garbage, with my peers going to the other extreme of trying to convince themselves there were no limits to their ability to fulfill their desires or accomplish anything, or that they “deserved” boundless wealth or infinite love.
“My life is the birth of Franz Kafka” ~ Franz Kafka
To me the saintliness of Kafka lies not so much in his various miseries as in his dedication to writing, his vocation. As Jung noted, it’s the pursuit of a vocation that makes a person extraordinary. It introduces order and meaning into the chaos of daily life, otherwise squandered on ten thousand practical chores.
MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE AND DECREASED EXECUTIVE BRAIN FUNCTION
In their study, they ran brain scans on 116 Vietnam War veterans with head wounds that damaged their brain, as well as 32 healthy controls. They also assessed them on the Mysticism Scale, which measures feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, and joy, as well as a sense of transcending time and space and an intuitive belief that the experience is a source of objective truth about reality.
The vets with brain injury were fairly normal on most psychological tests that they ran, but were much more likely to have had mystical experiences.
They found that damage to the forebrain (strictly, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) was linked to the highest mysticism scores. The supports the idea that damage to the brain’s executive function allows mystical experiences to occur.
They also found that damage to the parietal lobe of the brain also contributed to mystical experiences. Although there weren’t enough patients in their study with this kind of damage for it to be conclusive, this does match with what previous research has found. The parietal lobe is responsible for generating our sense of self and our location in space and time.
What the researchers think is happening is that mystical experiences occur when we fail to identify clear, causal explanations for experiences. Damage to the frontal brain impairs our ability to generate these explanations, so the brain defaults to a cruder, less precise way of understanding the world around us.” ~
It’s striking to read: “The vets with brain injury were fairly normal on most psychological tests that they ran, but were much more likely to have had mystical experiences.” Of course brain injury is not the only way to decrease the executive function. Fasting, sensory deprivation, prolonged meditation, intense emotional experience, certain drugs, high fever — these can all lead to visions and other unusual experiences that are usually labeled mystical.
Jill Taylor's idea, based on her stroke that pretty much disabled her left hemisphere, is that the constant verbal monologue in our head interferes with the more colorful, imagistic, no self-world boundary right-hemisphere input. There's probably something to that too.
As for the claim to the absolute truth, I bear in mind what Nietzsche said: “Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.”
Of course I know I'm invisible.
~ “Our sense of self, Persinger notes, is ordinarily mediated by the brain's left hemisphere—specifically, by the left temporal lobe, which wraps around the side of the head. When the brain is mildly disrupted—by a head injury, psychological trauma, stroke, drugs, or epileptic seizure—our left-brain self may interpret activity within the right hemisphere as another self, or what Persinger calls a "sensed presence." Depending on our circumstances and background, we may perceive a sensed presence as a ghost, angel, demon, extraterrestrial, or God.
Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist in New Mexico, traces spirituality to a single compound, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman proposes that DMT secreted by our own brains plays a profound role in human consciousness. Specifically, he hypothesizes that endogenous DMT triggers mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.
Like the classic psychedelic compounds LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin, DMT resembles neurotransmitters such as serotonin. But what makes DMT unique among the known psychedelics is that trace amounts of it naturally occur in the human body. Scientists first isolated DMT in human blood in 1965, and in 1972 a group led by the Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod of the National Institutes of Health detected the compound in human brain tissue.
These discoveries led to speculation that endogenous DMT—perhaps produced in excess or improperly regulated by the body—contributes to schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. By the early 1980s, the DMT theory of psychosis was largely abandoned when psychedelic research involving humans became too controversial. But in 1990, arguing that DMT merited further investigation, Strassman obtained permission from federal authorities to inject the drug into human volunteers.
A Zen Buddhist, Strassman was intrigued by the possibility that endogenous DMT plays a role in triggering mystical experiences. He suspected that DMT might be produced in the pineal gland, a minute organ nestled deep in the brain. The pineal gland abounds both in chemical precursors of DMT, such as tryptophan, and in beta-carbolines, the same compounds that render DMT orally active in the South American brew ayahuasca by counteracting the enzyme in the gut that breaks down DMT. From 1990 to 1995, Strassman supervised more than 400 DMT sessions involving 60 volunteers at the University of New Mexico. These were the first sanctioned psychedelic experiments involving human subjects in the United States since the mid-1970s.
To a certain extent, the DMT sessions fulfilled Strassman's expectations. Many of his subjects reported quasi-religious sensations of bliss, ineffability, timelessness, and reconciliation of opposites; a certainty that consciousness continues after death of the body; and contact with "a supremely powerful, wise, and loving presence." Others underwent classic near-death experiences, feeling themselves leaving their bodies and moving through a tunnel toward a radiant light.
Volunteers also reported visions that did not fit neatly into Strassman's scientific or spiritual worldview, however. Forty-seven percent encountered otherworldly beings, variously described as clowns, elves, robots, insects, E.T.-style humanoids, or "entities" that defied description. These bizarre beings were not always friendly. One of Strassman's subjects claimed to have been eaten alive by insectoid creatures. In part out of concern about this negative experience, Strassman discontinued his research.
A crumbling statue of Jesus in an abandoned theme park, Holy Land USA, in Waterbury, Connecticut
PRIMACY OF THE BODY: A LESSON FROM AN IMMERSION IN A SENSORY DEPRIVATION TANK
Lying in a supersaturated solution of magnesium sulfate — better known as Epsom salts — cranked up to body temperature, I pulled the top down over me and pushed the button to extinguish the violet light illuminating the pod.
Cut off from the world of sensory stimuli, my brain had free rein to invent any experience it had up its sleeve. So I floated in pitch blackness and waited for a profound experience to wash over me. This is what adherents paid $89 a pop to feel. I’d heard it was better than meditation, yoga and drugs — perhaps because it promised nirvana without any effort or side effects.
But I felt nothing. After some time, I became acutely aware that I could not feel my body, which I suppose was the whole point of depriving the brain of any connection to the physical world. I started to slowly move my hands and legs to reassure myself they were still there. Check. I had a vivid image of my phantom body; I knew intellectually that it was present, but couldn’t detect it in the normal sense.
Just then, I made the error of letting my head drop too low in the salt broth and got some into my eyes. The sting was immediate and distinctly unpleasant. The brief period of nothingness had ended, and over the next few minutes, my mental state moved from curiosity to boredom to annoyance. I blinked and rubbed my eyes. My stomach rumbled. My brain was bombarded with all kinds of physical sensations. I was beginning to feel sympathy for pickled fish.
Instead of a transcendent excursion into an altered consciousness, sensory deprivation had hilariously underscored the primacy of my body; it was almost a purely physical experience from start to finish. It was like being at a meditation retreat with a runny nose. My brain was simply incapable of escaping the signals my body was sending it.
When the hour was up, I showered and came down to the receptionist to pay. There were three women there who were first-timers like me, and they all looked blissful. “How was it?” one of them dreamily asked me. Not wanting to be a downer, I replied that it was lovely and interesting. At least it was half true.
The experience made me wonder about a question that has never let go of me: Are you more than your brain? Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without an enthusiastic report in the popular media about intriguing neuroscience research linking some human behavior to the function of a particular brain circuit. So you might hear that the insula lights up when you’re sad, another region when you’re happy and still another when you’re enjoying a drink or an orgasm.
For some reason we love to hear our mental experiences described in the language of neuroscience, yet what does it actually add to our understanding of ourselves to learn that our brain shows activity when we think and feel one thing or another? By itself, not a lot, except to encourage the erroneous and simplistic idea that the brain is an independent sovereign, calling all the shots.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a neuroscience junkie. But we are not just a brain in a jar; we are also bodies, and what we do with those bodies can influence the brain. You can easily alter your thinking and mood by manipulating your body: by, for example, injecting your forehead with Botox, shining light into your eye, exercising — or floating in an isolation tank.
In the end, whether or not we are more than our brain is less important and less interesting than the fact that our brain does not just give orders; it takes them, too. An isolation tank can turn the body weightless and invisible, but your brain knows better.
It seems that most people find the experience relaxing. But whether it’s more calming than simply lying down and watching your breath is another question. Or taking a walk. Or a nap.
And this brings us to another issue and more relevant issue:
CAN MEDITATION BE HARMFUL?
~ “When I finally gave up on seeking enlightenment in the late 1970s and returned to worldly life, I also gave up meditating — except for the occasional sitting still for a few minutes here and there, watching my breath in the Vipassana way. However, over the years I would beat myself up about my laziness: “You should meditate,” my inner critic would harp. “Every day, for at least half an hour.”
But why? I now ask. Did it really do me any good? I manage my life perfectly well without it. If I want peace and relaxation, I have a massage, or soak in a hot bath or swim twenty laps at the local pool. Or I go for a long leisurely walk. Or I just sit in a chair and do nothing. Is meditation really as beneficial as its proponents claim?
Arthur Chappell, a former devotee of Guru Maharaj (also known as Prem Rawat), points out that meditation starves the mind of stimulus (sensory deprivation) and he wonders whether desensitizing the mind to stimuli may actually “affect one’s ability to react properly with the level of fear, love, and other emotions required in any given social situation.” Chappell says minds can atrophy — just like limbs do — if they aren’t used for a wide range of purposes:
‘Many meditation practitioners have complained of difficulty doing simple arithmetic and remembering names of close friends after prolonged meditation. The effect is rather like that of Newspeak’s obliteration of the English language in George Orwell’s 1984.’
Dr. Solomon Snyder, head of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, warns that during meditation the brain releases serotonin. This may help those with mild depression but too much serotonin can cause, in some, a paradoxical relaxation-induced anxiety. Instead of relaxing during meditation, these people become distressed and may even have panic attacks. Snyder says that in some cases of schizophrenia, meditation can launch a person straight into psychosis.
Dr. Lorin Roche, a meditation teacher, says a major problem arises from the way meditators interpret Buddhist and Hindu teachings. He points out that meditation techniques that encourage detachment from the world were intended only for monks and nuns. He has spent thirty years doing interviews with people who meditate regularly and says many were depressed. He says they have tried to detach themselves from their desires, their loves, and their passion. “Depression is a natural result of loss, and if you internalize teachings that poison you against the world, then of course you will become depressed.”
If one isn’t after enlightenment or spiritual experiences, then I can’t help thinking that exercise may be better for physical and mental well being than meditation. I just love my morning swims in the local pool.
After my Indian odyssey and my return to worldly life in 1979, I’ve found being back in the world not such a bad thing after all. I no longer regard the world as a place from which to escape or detach myself. My mind is no longer something to conquer or to cleanse of impurities. In fact, my life is immeasurably richer without meditation, as was that of India’s great poet Rabindranath Tagore, exemplified in his poem “Against Meditative Knowledge”:
Those who wish to sit, shut their eyes,
and meditate to know if the world’s true or lies,
may do so. It’s their choice. But I meanwhile
with hungry eyes that can’t be satisfied
shall take a look at the world in broad daylight. (1896)
Sunrise at Shiprock Pinnacle, New Mexico
It’s not that I am against meditation and want to warn against the “dark side of meditation.” But the completely uncritical embrace of it, and especially the peer pressure and the general cultural pressure to keep on trying, even if it’s not your cup of herb tea, have been somewhat disturbing. Just as Yoga is not the best exercise for everyone, and can lead to injuries, long meditation retreats may not be for everyone — and should probably not be attempted by beginners.
Of course chanting Ohm for a few minutes is not what the author is talking about. But there is a question of excess. I’ve often wondered about people who spend a lot of time meditating — is that life? During the Middle Ages, they’d be praying and flagellating themselves, but now that’s unacceptable . . . so the Eastern practices have filled in the vacuum.
Personally I’d love more engagement with the world, not less. For each person there is a certain optimum amount of sensory input that makes us thrive — and there can too little, or too much. Introverts, with their rich inner life, don’t need as much external input. But even for introverts, too little external input, especially social interaction, may be related to depression and a greater risk of dementia later in life.
If you try meditation and find it a source of distress rather than pleasure — if you feel better after simply taking a walk, petting your dog, or talking with a friend — you certainly shouldn’t feel guilty. Yes, meditation has been shown to have various benefits — but so has physical exercise (latest finding: the more different types of exercise you do, the better the results). There are proven benefits of socializing, taking art classes, Italian classes, cooking classes, hiking, gardening, learning to play a musical instrument, or simply listening to favorite music. Do what you love doing; engage in activities that you find interesting. Live.
Of course if you enjoy meditating and it’s helping you de-stress, wonderful. But if you’re trying and trying because of peer pressure, and feeling guilty about your failure to achieve emptiness, there is no need to beat yourself up about it. It’s OK not to meditate. It really is.
THE STAR WARS TRINITY OF FATHER-SON-HOLY GHOST
I came across this entertaining review by Steve Colbert, based on . . . the Vatican's review of the movie The Force Awakens (the Vatican gave a higher rating to Spotlight!). Perhaps the most striking remark is that the original Star Wars had a Father-Son-Holy Ghost trinity.
And there is something to it — not just that Obi-Wan Kanobi posthumously becomes a Holy Ghost, but that the Father (Darth Vader) and the Son (Luke) are on opposite sides. The Father stands for power and wrath, the Son for not giving in to hatred (to oversimplify matters). (But then the article that follows has an interesting theory about the son emulating the father.)
"Vader" is close to the German Vater, which is of course very close to the English “father.”
The Force can also be seen as Tao, or as Cosmic Consciousness. It's hard to get away from religion when it comes to Star Wars.
DID LUKE SKYWALKER GO OVER TO THE DARK SIDE?
Many people (my friends included) put it off as foreshadowing Luke’s discovery that Vader is his father. I think it’s foreshadowing that Luke will become his father. Of course, you don’t know Vader’s his dad at this point — but at the end of the film, when I thought back to the cave... it made perfect sense. It’s good, solid plot juice. Becoming your parents (or trying not to) is a huge motivator.
And Luke failed, according to Yoda. More than that — Yoda issued this warning which Luke completely ignored:
‘Only a fully trained Jedi Knight, with the Force as his ally, will conquer Vader and his emperor. If you end your training now... if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did... you will become an agent of evil.’
There it is: Yoda said it point blank. How many times has Yoda been wrong in the first six films? It’s almost like he can see the future sometimes! He knew Luke was on a path to become his father and, by leaving, he failed at preventing it.
This is the start of Luke’s slide.
Luke thought he was doing good by racing to rescue his friends. Anakin thought he was doing good by confronting the Jedi Council and destroying the Order itself. A very blurred matter of perspective: trying to do good can be incredibly destructive.
Indeed, there is a clear change of character as we move from Empire to Return of the Jedi. Luke becomes more serious, a little more sinister, and rocks the uniform pretty well:
‘Nevertheless, I’m taking Captain Solo and his friends. You can either profit by this or be destroyed. It’s your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate my power.’
Was that a threat? A touch of arrogance perhaps? No — Luke would never!
‘As a token of my gratitude, I present to you these two droids. Both are hard working, and will serve you well…’
One second. Hold on here — was that a lie? Why yes, it was. Luke is giving in, he’s drawn to the dark side. Wow... Luke lies. Keep that in mind.
You might be thinking nah, no way. Why would he do that? The answer is that he is destructively trying to do good and his training is not enough to allow him to see this. As Yoda warned, he is becoming an agent of evil.
Which actually comes in handy later on, because the only way he could beat his dad in a fight is ...
Luke Turned, We All Watched It
‘Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete.’
And guess what? Luke tried.
He quite clearly doesn’t have any motivation to stay a good guy. He’s just seen what he could do with his dark powers (defeat the bad guys, save people).
“Your Hate Has Made You Powerful”
Luke confronted and defeated his father only by giving in to his fear and hatred — driven by a desire to protect his sister, whom he loved dearly and who (basically) set him on this whole damn deal to begin with (help me Obi Wan Kenobi...). You can see this clearly as he swings away at Vader violently, beating on him with all the fear and rage that is swelling up in him... fired by a desire to protect his sister and friends.
The emperor sees this as well. He thinks he has won Luke over — he even gloats a bit:
‘Good.... Now, fulfill your destiny... and take your father’s place at my side.’
From the emperor’s perspective it seems like this is all wrapped up, no? Vader is lying there on the floor, Luke just turned, let’s close the deal! But…
You can watch what happens next in two very different ways. The first, most obvious, is that Luke looks at his mechanical fist and then at his dad’s severed hand and realizes what could happen — oh no! Let’s make sure we come back from this ledge and stay on the Good side. This makes no sense in terms of Luke’s motivations.
Or, what I think, is that Luke looked at his fist and realized the effectiveness of his new power. Soaked in the revenge (the movie was entitled Revenge of the Jedi originally, I think this is why) and let the hatred indeed fill him... indeed make him powerful.
Now, watch as he turns, rises, and faces the emperor full of arrogance and brimming with dark power. I think Hamill played this scene brilliantly:
‘Never. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed your highness, I am a Jedi, like my father before me…’
The emperor tries to destroy him with the old shock treatment in the same way we saw in Revenge of the Sith (facing off against Mace Windu). In that scene, Palpatine played on the sympathies of Anakin to cut Windu’s hands off so he could toss Windu out the window.
In this scene, Luke plays his dad in the exact same way to toss the emperor into the abyss. Ahh symbolism.
That shock treatment? He basically brushed it off. Luke is a badass. It’s the only way this whole scene makes any sense at all.” ~
This is a very provocative view of Luke Skywalker, and I mean “very” — well argued, too. But then how can a human being not ever, not once in his life, give in to hatred? Especially when we’re young and easily hurt . . . and also have the kind of energy without which hatred is nothing (who cares if an elderly person “hates” X or Y? The energy just isn’t there. It might as well be an infant).
Also, just because you do feel hatred now and then, and maybe even act on it — again, once in a while — doesn’t mean that you are truly evil as a predominant trait. Except for the extremes — saints and true monsters — we are all a mix of the good and the bad.
But realism is beside the point when discussing fantasy-based movies. There is an excellent phrase in this article: “to destructively do Good.” Only in movies does it ever turn out well.
A POST-ELECTION DREAM (yes, yet another one . . . )
Trump is having foot surgery — removal of the sixth toe on his left foot. I seem to be part of a group of reporters assigned to cover the story. We are shown the before and after photos, but the “before” image is flashed only briefly. Then we are told by a Trump staff member that it’s not going to be used in the story. Only the “normalized” foot will be displayed, starting in mid-calf, then the toes, and the hazy view of an expensive ski resort out the big window.
I feel helpless, and sense general frustration among all the reporters — that “post-truth” sense of being fed whatever serves PR.
I know what triggered this dream — a completely non-political story of an actual toe-removal surgery. The dream seemed to be about the “normalization” of Trump.
(By the way, I am not happy to be having these “current affairs” dreams. Where are my dreams of yesteryear? I used to dream about Warsaw streetcars — here, in the land of the automobile, I used to dream about the lost paradise of streetcars! But then the tracks began to disappear into the void . . . )
“plunder into philanthropy, slander into truth” — it's just uncanny how well these words apply. But then it’s not rare for writers to prove prophetic.
~ “Back in late Soviet Union, there was no more despised category of individuals — not only among the intelligentsia, but generally across the spectrum of the society — than the KGB: deeply amoral, inherently cruel, coldly manipulative people with no heart and no conscience, no sense of decency and starkly negative capacity for compassion with others. After the USSR fell apart, amid the widespread panic and round-the-clock burning of incriminating paperwork inside the Lubyanka, Yeltsin had whimsically decided to pass up on the seemingly natural opportunity to declare the KGB a criminal organization. The rest is history. The "organs" had managed to survive, to repair and regenerate themselves — and in 1999, in due course of perverse historical developments, an unrepentant, committed lifelong "kagebeshnik" became the ruler of Russia — and some 17 more years later, in a recruiting triumph of unprecedented proportions, the latter was able to succeed, almost against his own most halcyon expectations, in helping the retrograde segment of the US electorate to make his virtual transatlantic kindred spirit a president of America.” ~ Mikhail Iossel
Oriana: What really worries me is that Putin seems a lot smarter in the “shrewd” and nasty sense — like a really competent Mafia boss. Trump, on the other hand, appears to have a problem with his brain function — and that’s on top of his personality disorder. Think of the idiot faces he makes. And aside from that, just look at the lack of intelligence in those eyes. It’s like waiting for a train wreck to happen.
Of course even if the US loses its empire, its dominance in the world, we are still very lucky to be here. Think of the fate of the Baltic republics — Trump will certainly not interfere with Putin’s plans regarding Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. I think Putin will try to avoid bloodshed — puppet governments will do just fine. He tried that in Ukraine, but the people rose up . . . Not something he expect in Estonia. The fate of the helpless, now unprotected
by the US, is pretty much sealed.
“I am awash in a sea of blood” ~ Lenin (allegedly) on his deathbed. Image transformed by Bob Boldt
The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. ~ Bertrand Russell
An East German border guard tosses a ball back over the Wall after a West German child mistakenly threw it over, Berlin, 1962; photo by Paul Schutzer
“MANCHESTER BY THE SEA” — ESCHEWING REDEMPTION
I liked the opening scenes of the handyman's interactions with tenants — their habitual whining, their failed seductions of the handsome janitor — but it was downhill from then on. 2.5 hours of a flat, cliché, inarticulate movie. Neither I nor my companion could relate to a single character. By the way, I loved Cake, which is relentlessly sad, so it's not that I can't take sadness. I loved Nebraska, so it’s not that I can’t take flat dialog.
The movie has some good moments, e.g. the encounter with the boy's mother now married to an evangelical Christian, with a painting showing Jesus not really walking on water but rather wading — but on the whole, I was considering walking out. Too many characters, for one thing, so it was difficult to become focused and emotionally engaged. Humor not funny. Maybe if the reviews weren't so full of praise, I wouldn't have been so deeply disappointed. The classical score was intrusive and seemed to belong in another movie, a European “art film.”
Here is an "audience review" that is honest about the flaws:
“Avoiding the immensely high praise for Manchester was difficult, so I went in with high expectations. Casey Affleck is in the lead in one of his better performances, and he and Michelle Williams shine in a particularly memorable scene which is one of the best showcasings of acting this year. Dialogue is often humorous, but underlined with deep depression- and this is what the film is about, not being able to overcome sadness. Where character development should be included, it's nowhere to be found which makes Manchester one of the most unique films of the year.
With that being said, that uniqueness comes at a price: the movie somehow manages to feel thoroughly flat. Clocking in at 2.5 hours, it drags in certain areas, and like Affleck's character, the film drifts along, without a clear sense of direction. His co-star, Lucas Hedges, does a great job of being extremely unlikeable. In fact, very few, if any of these characters are likable or even relatable. What the film does succeed in is its effort to show you the life of someone who's lost it all. Even though I can say some great things about Manchester, its dialogue, moments of quality acting, and its sense of humor, its flaws really drag it down. Coupled with several knockout scenes scattered throughout, it just didn't come together as a whole for me.”
The so-called "knock-out" scenes failed to knock me out.
I think for some people boring = artistic. The heavy-handed use of classic music in the score was also a big clue about this ambition — and mind you, this movie is about working class people (the protagonist is a handyman; the nephew wants to be a commercial fisherman like his prematurely dead father).
The relentless non-verbal maleness (the teen nephew is a jock stereotype) smothers the movie. On top of this, the movie just pulled in too many directions. I’d have loved to see the mother theme developed. Maternal abandonment in early childhood is a serious trauma — it had to affect the boy. Then the mother ends up being dominated by a religious nut — now *that* was funny in a tragic way. “Dinner with mother” was the best part of the movie for me — Dickensian — over much too soon.
There is some emotional “progress” in the movie. The morose uncle and the cocky jock nephew move toward being able to show feelings; more important, they bond. This could easily have been a movie that starts with alienation and ends with redemption through human connection. There are certainly examples of this both in real life and in literature and film. The maker of this movie didn’t want to give us the pleasure that such a resolution brings. We have to settle for a little progress.
Nevertheless, we could all profit from examples of how people can rise above tragedy. No story is just one person’s story; it’s also part of the great story of humanity. I agree that some people do get stuck and don't recover, or not much, but on the whole life has an interesting way of unfolding so that even though we say "forever," pretty much nothing is forever. It's constant change and development — and often enough, recovery from even dire misfortune.
PICASSO’S STAGES OF LIFE
Painters’ self-portraits at various stages of life fascinate me. No one approaches Rembrandt in the number of self-portraits. Van Gogh also created many, but he didn't live that long, and was actually a late bloomer. Picasso at 15 was a wunderkind — he really was good.
I like the first self-portrait a lot, and then at 56 — and the self-portraits of old age. Very striking, unafraid of the death-mask he was becoming.
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I think in this one, at 83, he's in some way 15 again.
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Picasso at 90
For more of Picasso’s self-portraits, please go to
ending on beauty:
James Joyce's famous short story “The Dead” is set at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany. Here is the last paragraph:
“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”