Sunday, March 26, 2017


The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And in the narrow rent, at every turn,
Winds thwarting winds bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

~ Wordsworth, Simplon Pass, The Prelude

I remember how much I loved this passage back in college, when I first encountered it. I kept re-reading it, blissing out on “The immeasurable height / Of woods decaying, never to be decayed” and “Winds thwarting winds bewildered and forlorn,” and the rest of the vivid description and verbal music.

“Woods decaying, never to be decayed” — what a gorgeous oxymoron! It made me remember a term in mathematics: asymptote — a condition of ever approaching but never reaching. And that’s as good an approximation of eternity as any.

Milosz might call the Simplon Pass passage an example of the “poetry of vitality,” the imaginative poetry we write in youth — imagistic, intuitive, daring. Then comes a period of the “poetry of the mind” that tends more toward ideas and moderate viewpoints; it reads more like an essay. On the whole, this fits Milosz’s development — though even in his old age he wrote several wonderfully imaginative poems that are among his best. But when it comes to Wordsworth, critics keep bewailing the loss of the vivid genius he had in his youth and his turn toward more abstract and didactic writing.

Yet the Prelude is peculiar in that it is a mix of images and ideas, a product of much maturation and revision. These days, having myself taken a turn toward essay writing, the prose (mostly) of the mind, my immediate reaction to this familiar passage was, “Ah, those Romantics! Having turned away from conventional religion, how they keep on searching for signs of some Universal Mind, or Great Spirit, that animates all.” And where better to find such signs than in the sublime grandeur of the Alps (“sublime” in the Kantian sense: the kind of overwhelming beauty and energy that almost frightens us — “for beauty is but the beginning of terror” ~ Rilke)

Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.


Simplon Pass; Rolf Nagel

It seems that all major Romantics were Transcendentalists by any other name. The winds, the clouds,

Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree

That “one mind” goes back to ancient Greece and Heraclitus, and the idea of the universal Logos, a kind of cosmic intelligence in which we share.

The Romantics sought the signs of the Universal Mind or Spirit in the splendor of nature. (Here “Apocalypse” stands for “revelation,” not the end of the world.) In fact for them it was Nature, with a capital N. They taught us to love nature — even to worship it. They celebrated its beauty as it has never been celebrated before. And note that, important as the “one mind” is to Wordsworth, after mentioning the human — “the features / Of the same face” — he turns again to what we commonly classify as nature — “blossoms upon one tree.”

We have learned a great deal from the Romantics. Modernity is in many ways a continuation of the Romantic revolution. But as for the Great Spirit, so essential to Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Shelley (whom critics classify as a “mystical atheist”), I think at least some of us don’t feel we need it.

We’ve searched for it — went to Buddhist meditation retreats and shamanic drumming sessions, in a quest to find the “real god,” not the crude and flawed man-made deities — and found none. We’ve read and talked about Cosmic Consciousness, about the Universe with a capital U — and discovered that yes, we adore the Universe and the fact that every atom in us was once inside a star, but — the Immortal Beloved and Friend and ever-available Companion we yearn for not out there, but only within us, as our inner life, and among us, when we find kindred minds.

Nature is still as splendid to us as it was to the Romantics. But we know more about science, and see nature working according to its laws — and the more we know about these laws, the more awe-inspiring and astonishing nature appears (“Science is the poetry of reality,” as Dawkins put it). And then there are the marvelous workings of the human brain — perceptions, thoughts, trying to grasp the wilderness of astrophysics and the equally great wilderness of consciousness. The awe never ceases — but without the “one mind” or “great spirit” supernaturalism that sometimes seems to pervade Romantic poetry (cf Shelley’s Mont Blanc or Coleridge’s Eolian Harp). 

I have to admit, however, that the “One Mind” gives Romantic poets that extra layer of meaning that works quite well. The One Mind, the Universal Spirit — those in themselves are poetic concepts.

But do I feel nostalgic for this kind of “transcendentalism”? At moments, but not very often. In the past secularism was seen as a loss of the sacred, a wound from which humanity could never heal. But now, some have noted, we live in the era of the “happy atheist.” The happy atheist does have a sense of the sacred (nature, the universe) and freely admits to being in awe — of nature, great art, the collective human genius. He or she does feel connected to both the universe and humanity. And that is sufficient connection, and sufficient delight.

I do not feel impoverished because of being secular. On the contrary, I feel the richer for it, fully appreciating the wonders of nature and the human mind. And the latter means that I am also fascinated by religious thinking and what it inspired — such as monastic orders. Below is the Simplon Hospice (here “hospice” means shelter, or mountain lodging for travelers) owned by the Bernardines. 

Speaking of no beginning or end:

“There was a reviewer who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment.” ~ Jackson Pollock

One of the interesting (in an odd way) things about Pollock is that his main teacher was Thomas Hart Benton, who painted in this manner: 

Benton: Hay

But then it took a while before Pollock became Pollock, i.e. developed his unique style and method of working. And Benton’s “rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence” did have a lasting impact.


~ “[One] reason atheists might hesitate to say they know there is no God is because of a long standing, deeply confusing, and insidious equivocation the major monotheisms have foisted on us for centuries. They conflate the metaphysical concept of a “ground of all being” principle with the personal, interventionist gods of their religious traditions.

Now a metaphysical principle that explains why everything exists might be intelligible and defensible and so I am agnostic about that. But even if such a thing exists, it is incoherent to think of it as a personal being given everything we have ever experienced about personality, which shows it clearly to be a spatio-temporal experience of complex organisms and not at all the kind of thing that can exist outside of space and time.

In fact the problems with talking about God as personal were known all the way back to the ancients and have always been known and acknowledged by the most sophisticated theistic philosophers, even as the latter have engaged in all sorts of unconvincing ad hoc explanations about how the impersonal god of philosophy can somehow be reconciled with their faith traditions’ baseless and anthropomorphic beliefs about gods who act in history.

It’s as absurd to say that the “ground of all being”, if it is an intelligible thing at all, is personal as it is to say “gravity” is personal. It’s sheer confusion. And an impersonal ground of all being is so profoundly irrelevant to all the things that people want from a “god” that if that’s all you mean by the kind of “God” that could exist, and if you know a personal God can’t? You essentially are an atheist who knows there is no God of the only socially relevant kind.

So just join me already in calling yourself a gnostic atheist, an atheist who knows there is no God.” ~


Once I had my “It’s just another mythology” perception shift about Judeo-Christianity, there was no way I could literalize a personal, interventionist god. I knew 100% that there is no god and no afterlife, but I wasn’t sure how to deal with the “ground of being” or “outside of time and space” ideas. This essay helps: an impersonal ‘ground of being’ cannot be conflated with the kind of interventionist god that people want. And if god can’t act against a person’s free will and can’t violate the laws of nature, then it’s the human free will and the laws of nature that are in charge, not god.

(I deliberately refrain from discussing “free will” at this point. If there is no free will, then everything is due to the laws of nature, and we are back to the non-interventionist god — not the kind that people want.)

Chagall: Hour between Wolf and Dog 1938-43

Asher Susser: “Western societies see themselves as societies of individuals. The rights of the individual are at the core of political debate, guaranteed by the state. People organize politically as individuals.

[In the Middle East, you] belong to a group—that is, your family, your extended family, your tribe, and perhaps above all else, your religious denomination. So, you are first and foremost a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Christian—and some kind of Christian at that, either Maronite, or Greek Orthodox, or Greek Catholic; and these differences matter.

Why do we keep getting this wrong? Well, in the West, one unfortunate by-product of Edward Said’s influence is the unwillingness to recognize the otherness of the “Other.” . . . [W]hen [someone] from the U.S. and other Western states looks at the Middle East, he or she explains Middle Easterners not as Other, but as [just like] us! That’s why we got this whole story about Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring. It was a way of saying, “They’re just like we are!”

Westerners saw Facebook and Twitter, but didn’t see the Muslim Brotherhood. . . . And then the commentators were shocked when the Muslim Brotherhood walked all over everybody. But they were obviously going to walk all over everybody! The only people who are going to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from walking all over everybody is the military—not the secular liberals. The secular liberals, to kick the Muslim Brotherhood out of power in Egypt, had to use the military—nobody else could do it.”

Muslim praying in the street in India


The West, too, used to be a lot more “collectivist” in the past, and religion, understood chiefly as collective worship, played a greater role than it does now.

And rural areas, even in developed countries, are closer to the past in being more religious and more oriented toward group identity. The city-country rift is globalism versus nationalism on a local scale. And the American South is more embedded in the past than other regions.

Of course Evangelical Christianity is so bizarrely warped now that if Jesus ran against Trump, Jesus would lose. But that’s a different matter. Group identity versus individualism — this is the crux of it. The rest is details.

Still, now that I’ve mentioned evangelical Christianity, I am struck by certain similarities with Islam, which is also an apocalyptic religion. Humanity is not headed for progress; it’s headed for annihilation and the Last Judgment.

But mainstream Christianity is much more advanced on its road to becoming a secularized “cultural Christianity.” For instance, we rarely use the expression, “God willing” anymore. In Islam everything is the will of god, and the equivalent expression is used all the time. And there are religious regulations for every aspect of life. Compared to that, it’s easy to see even Christianity as part of the greater freedom that prevails in the West. 

I don’t really know how to interpret this photo. Does it show an act of impiety?


Selika Lazevski, a 19th century equestrian was photographed here by Felix Nadar in 1891 in Paris, France. She was an écuyère who performed haute école – which means she was an equestrian who rode high school dressage in French circuses in the 19th century.

“Selika Lazevski was an écuyère (horsewoman) who performed high level dressage. The écuyères rode side saddle in circuses and hippodromes, and were widely respected for their skills as horsewomen.”

Sometimes, when psychoanalysts begin treatment with a new patient, they quickly find themselves feeling that they can’t make sense of what is going on. The patient’s statements and behavior simply don’t add up, and the flurry of dissociated statements and actions can quickly begin to produce something like a disorienting fog.

Most seasoned clinicians will have learned that they shouldn’t attribute this confusion, which is typically accompanied by a distinct form of anxiety, to their lack of skill. Instead, adept clinicians take the experience itself and the accompanying anxiety as significant data, indicating that they are dealing with, if not psychosis in the strict diagnostic sense, at the very least something in the vicinity of psychotic-like phenomena.

Because psychotic individuals tend to find reality as a whole too painful to bear, they break with it globally, and construct an alternative, delusional, “magical” reality of their own. This alternate relation to reality, manifesting itself in the initial meetings with the patient, is at the root of the clinician’s confusion.

Just as disorientation and bewilderment tell analysts something significant about what they are experiencing in the clinical setting, so too our confusion and anxiety in the face of Trumpism can tell us something important about ours. I am suggesting, in other words, that Trumpism as a social experience can be understood as a psychotic-like phenomenon.
This is not a question of Donald Trump’s personal psychopathology, alarming as that question may be. The point is, rather, that Trumpism as a social-psychological phenomenon has aspects reminiscent of psychosis, in that it entails a systematic — and it seems likely intentional — attack on our relation to reality.

Much has been written about “post-truth” politics in the context of the recent presidential election, and rightly so, as Trump’s relationship with the truth is not the same old conservative legerdemain.

Anti-fact campaigns, such as the effort led by archconservatives like the Koch brothers to discredit scientific research on climate change, remained within the register of truth. They were forced to act as if facts and reality were still in place, even if only to subvert them. For example, when they attempted to undermine the findings of legitimate scientists, they often utilized rational arguments concerning certainty, probability and proof. The collective social experience of this propaganda may have led to greater ignorance about the science of climate change, but it didn’t substantially alter our experience of truth as such.

As opposed to the Soviet Union or contemporary North Korea, Surkov, as Peter Pomerantsev observed in The London Review of Books, does not seek to generate and maintain the regime’s power exclusively through the exercise of overt terror (though there is plenty of that). On the contrary, his “fusion of despotism and postmodernism” comprises “a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused,” creating “a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” To keep his opponents off-balanced and powerless, he might, for example, sponsor “nationalist skinheads one moment” and “human rights groups the next.” In a similar vein, Surkov could have provided the seating arrangements for the N.S.C., where Bannon, a right-wing white nationalist who has provided a platform for anti-Semites, sits on one side of Trump, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an orthodox Jew, sits on the other.

After observing Donald Trump for all these exhausting months, it is clear that, whether he is as calculating as a puppet master like Surkov or simply functioning on a showman’s intuition, the law of noncontradiction does not apply in his universe.

By continually contradicting himself and not seeming to care, Trump generates confusion in the members of the media and political opposition that has often rendered them ineffectual, especially in speaking to those outside the liberal base. They were slow to realize that he was playing by a different set of rules. This is why they, like Hillary Clinton before them, have had such difficulty gaining traction against him via appeals to facts and other cherished norms of liberal democracy. He has proved adept at deflecting well-intentioned fact-checking, regardless of how often it has caught him in a contradiction, and rational counterarguments, which can bounce off him like rubber. As long as Steve Bannon and his colleagues continue to destabilize our sense of reality, and their opponents fail to recognize how these techniques work, those who oppose him will continue to stumble.
In the psychiatric setting, it only becomes possible to treat a patient in the psychotic range of the diagnostic spectrum when an analyst does not focus on the “manifest content” — on what actually happens on the surface — but finds a way to address the underlying dynamics in order to work them through and establish, first in the analytic setting, and then hopefully in the patient’s life, a less compromised relation to reality.

On the hopeful side, there has recently been a robust and energetic attempt not only by members of the press, but also of the legal profession and by average citizens to call out and counter Trumpism’s attack on reality.

But on the less encouraging side, clinical experience teaches us that work with more disturbed patients can be time-consuming, exhausting and has been known to lead to burnout. The fear here is that if the 45th president can maintain this manic pace, he may wear down the resistance and Trump-exhaustion will set in, causing the disoriented experience of reality he has created to grow ever stronger and more insidious.


This is a tremendously important article. “Gas-lighting” is a loose term; to those who haven’t seen the movie, and that’s probably most of us, the phrase means little or anything. This article is based on the author’s clinical experience. Having witnessed a friend’s psychotic breakdown, I agree as to just how confusing the experience is — even after you know the person is mentally ill and should “know better” than to freak out when she starts the crazy talk. 

The same goes for dealing with a demented parent. Speaking from my personal experience, pure gibberish is easier to deal with. It’s much worse when the person is mostly lucid and is carrying on a rational conversation — and then suddenly inserts a piece of nonsense. That’s what throws you off balance. It’s terribly draining to deal with a person who does it, even if it's unintentional. If we suspect it's intentional, it's even more exhausting to try to defend our rationality, be it the simple knowledge that no, the microwave isn't watching. 


Men’s hairstyles back when America was great — I lean to the forward-combed booggie
Ah, the era when America was still industrializing rather than becoming de-industrialized . . .  Here is Thomas Hart Benton’s mural “America Today,” 1931


~ “Compare two people, one of whom has been crippled by an accident, the other by an early environmental history which makes him lazy and, when criticized, mean. Both cause great inconvenience to others, but one dies a martyr, the other a scoundrel.” ~ B.F. Skinner
It wouldn't surprise me if ultimately Skinner became acknowledged as a greater thinker than Freud.


~ “In THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, Steven Pinker... very carefully describes how language is rich in redundancy. We don't need to say half the things we do. We consistently say a great deal more than need requires.

[Here the author gives examples of text with the vowels left out in order to illustrate the text can still be read without the vowels. I have left that out as it is lengthy and most are familiar with that. ~ Gwyn Henry, to whom I owe this passage]

The natural human manner is voluble, assertive, open-mouthed, vowelly, and over-supplied with signals. That communicative generosity is a sign of humanity itself, a form of biophilia, the love of vitality itself. The ever-present but strictly unnecessary vowels are, as it turns out, symptoms of a much more general phenomenon. We surround ourselves with a thick meaning blanket, a pelt of significance. We don't spit sharp little pellets of pre-digested information at each other like sharp-beaked owls. We lounge together in the same meaning bath. Redundancy, an over supply of meaning, and a certain inefficiency are the defining qualities of a humane life.” ~ Adam Nicolson, “Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History” 

Look at that diving dinosaur! Photo: John Collins

"The Book of Revelation is war literature," Pagels explained. John of Patmos was a war refugee, writing sixty years after the death of Jesus and twenty years after 60,000 Roman troops crushed the Jewish rebellion in Judea and destroyed Jerusalem.
In the nightmarish visions of John’s prophecy, Rome is Babylon, the embodiment of monstrous power and decadence. That power was expressed by Rome as religious. John would have seen in nearby Ephesus massive propaganda sculptures depicting the contemporary emperors as gods slaughtering female slaves identified as Rome’s subject nations. And so in the prophecy the ascending violence reaches a crescendo of war in heaven. Finally, summarized Pagels, "Jesus judges the whole world; and all who have worshipped other gods, committed murder, magic, or illicit sexual acts are thrown down to be tormented forever in a lake of fire, while God’s faithful are invited to enter a new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven, where Christ and his people reign in triumph for 1000 years."

Just one among the dozens of revelations of the time (Ezra’s, Zostrianos’, Peter’s, a different John’s), the vision of John of Patmos became popular among the oppressed of Rome. Three centuries later, in 367CE, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria confirmed it as the concluding book in the Christian canon that became the New Testament.

As a tale of conflict where one side is wholly righteous and the other wholly evil, the Book of Revelation keeps being evoked century after century. Martin Luther declared the Pope to be the Whore of Babylon. Both sides of the American Civil War declared the opposing cause to be Bestial, though the North had the better music---"He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword." African-American slaves echoed John’s lament: "How long before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?"

But like many Christians through the years, Pagels wishes that John’s divisive vision had not become part of the Biblical canon. Among the better choices from that time, she quoted from the so-called "Secret Revelation of John": "Jesus says to John, ‘The souls of everyone will live in the pure light, because if you did not have God’s spirit, you could not even stand up.’

“The other revelations are universal, instead of being about the saved versus the damned.”
   ~ Stewart Brand

Dali: The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1946

Diego Rivera: The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1947

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride" (you could say this is grandmother's wisdom against the magical thinking of "The Secret")



Wells and his colleagues suspect childbirth might even have been a relatively minor problem in our species — at least to begin with. There are very few newborn baby skeletons among the human remains from early hunter-gatherer groups, which might hint that death rates among newborns were relatively low.

This situation changed a few thousand years ago. People began farming, and newborn baby skeletons became a far more common feature of the archaeological record, at least in some places.

Wells and his colleagues suspect a shift to farming also led to developmental changes that made childbirth far more difficult. A rise in infant mortality at the dawn of farming might be due in part to a raised risk of death during childbirth.

There is one striking feature archaeologists have noticed when comparing the skeletons of early farmers with their hunter-gatherer ancestors. The farmers were noticeably shorter in stature, probably because their carbohydrate-rich diet was not particularly nutritious compared to the protein-rich hunter-gatherer diet.

This is a telling observation for those who study childbirth, says Wells, because there is evidence of a link between a woman's height and the size and shape of her pelvis. In general, the shorter a woman, the narrower her hips. In other words, the shift to farming almost certainly made childbirth more challenging.

On top of that, the carbohydrate-rich diets that became more common with farming can cause a developing foetus to grow larger and fatter. That makes the baby harder to deliver.
Combine these two factors and human childbirth – which might have been relatively easy for millions of years – suddenly became more difficult about 10,000 years ago.

Something rather like this "farming revolution effect" replays whenever human diets become poorly nutritious – particularly if those diets also contain a lot of carbohydrates and sugars, which encourage foetal growth.

"We can make a simple prediction that the nutritional status of mothers should be associated with a local prevalence of maternal mortality and difficulties with giving birth," says Wells. The statistics clearly follow such a pattern, suggesting that improving nutrition might be a fairly easy way to reduce maternal mortality.

[But that’s not the end of the story.] Fischer and Mitteroecker investigated whether there is any correlation between female head size and pelvis size. Head size is heritable, at least to some extent, so women would benefit during childbirth if those with larger heads also naturally had a wider pelvis.

The researchers' analysis of 99 skeletons suggested such a link does indeed exist. They concluded that a woman's head size and her pelvic dimensions must somehow be linked at the genetic level.

And there is another complication: women's bodies change as they get older.

The data suggest that a woman's pelvis takes on a shape more conducive to childbirth in her late teens — when she reaches peak fertility. It then stays that way until around her 40th birthday, when it then gradually changes shape to become less suitable for childbirth, ready for the menopause.

But many babies are now born by Caesarean section, an operation in which the baby is taken out of the mother's abdomen without ever entering the birth canal. Fischer and Mitteroecker suggested that, in societies where C-sections have become more common, foetuses can now grow "too large" and still have a reasonable chance of survival.

In theory, as a consequence the number of women giving birth to babies that are too big to fit through their pelvis might have risen by 10 or 20% in just a few decades, at least in some parts of the world. Or, to put it in cruder terms, people in these societies might be evolving to have larger babies.

For now this is only an idea and there is no hard evidence that it is really happening. But it is an intriguing thought.


Ending on beauty:

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring?

~ D.H. Lawrence, The Enkindled Spring

Sand verbena, Death Valley, March 2017


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