Sunday, June 4, 2017


Rain, London; Monika Jakubowska. Tears, tears . . .



These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

~ John Ashbery

This is not the absurdist, disjointed Ashbery of his later poems. It’s the title poem of his first book, and it’s among my favorite Ashbery poems — which are few (I can think of only three, in fact).

These are my favorite lines:

you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

The world is a gift to the lovers, an unearned grace. And the lovers too are a gift to each other “merely being there.” We are back to Heidegger’s insight that we don’t have to try so hard, we don’t have to invent beauty or cleverness; already our being is a gift to others.

Alienation and isolation are said to be among the central themes of modern literature. But this poem is about connection. And it starts with the trees, “each / Joining its neighbor.” This is a prelude to “soon / We may touch, love, explain.”

There is also the sense that when you’re in love, the whole world is smiling. And that certain shyness — “reticence” — that’s the sacred shyness of two people who are about to experience the mystery of each other.


“There is no stupider abuse of emotion than the gung-ho, can-do spirit in deciding to go to war.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Powkett Mowse


~ “Beginning with the solid premise that “Russia was neither as unique nor as exotic as either its admirers or its detractors claimed,” Dominic Lieven seeks to explain the origins of the First World War from Russia’s perspective but within an international context. He correctly reminds us that the challenges faced by the Russian Empire—aggressive nationalism, the emergence of an activist civil society, and the unanticipated toll of modern warfare—were shared by all combatants and that Russia’s three immediate neighbors and principal enemies (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) also succumbed to them. His new analysis offers an original explanation of how the tzarist government really worked. Above all, he provides a remarkable vindication of the role of individual personalities, for better or worse, in making history.

To virtually anyone at the highest level of Russian politics in 1914, war with Germany—a fellow authoritarian monarchy with a much larger economy and in many ways both a natural and historical ally—was “suicidal madness.” As a result, an odd paradox at play among the Russian elite was that the more reactionary an official, the less inclined he was to endorse war. Probably the best expression of this entrenched caution was the high-ranking statesman Peter Durnovo’s distillation of numerous internal discussions in a brief but extraordinarily prescient memorandum circulated in February 1914. One of the era’s most revealing documents, it repeated three essential points about Russia’s likely fate in a general European war: that it would probably lose, that victory would only bring more restive ethnic minorities under already unpopular Russian rule, and that the strains of conflict would cause a massive revolution that would destroy Russia’s state and society. Durnovo was no liberal—in the decades before 1914 he had built a career as a nasty secret police chief and Interior Minister devoted to upholding the tzarist order (his early career in high officialdom was nearly undone when it was discovered that he used police spies to steal his mistress’s letters to a rival). But he was absolutely right about what a general European war would do to the Russia he served.

As Russia’s leaders edged toward their reluctant decision to go to war in the wake of the July Crisis, Old Regime reactionaries filed report after report denouncing the idea. Those who eventually accepted war as unavoidable did so against their better judgment. When one minister veered toward favoring war in the days leading up to mobilization, he and the adamantly pacifist yet arch-reactionary Interior Minister Nikolai Maklakov nearly fought a duel over it. To add irony to insult, the staunchly anti-war Maklakov was one of the first tzarist ministers to meet his end at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Just why did Russia’s leaders end up in a war almost none of them wanted? Lieven presents a much more banal culprit few scholars have ever suspected: civil society. Russia did have one. Particularly after the unrest of Russia’s “first” revolution in 1905, civic activity exploded as legal restrictions on expression and association almost completely vanished.

It may seem surprising that this should have led to a devastating war that claimed millions of Russian lives and ended in an unspeakably violent revolution that claimed millions more. In our relentlessly liberal age, one usually expects that broadening civil society will automatically engender more responsible government. In a mournful irony, Lieven’s study proves that Russia’s war fever was not inflamed by the expected cadre of reactionary lunatic warmongers, but rather by two phenomena that students of modernity are practically inoculated to trust: the independent media and the allied professional meritocracy. Yet at every step in the years leading up to 1914, many of their representatives shamelessly championed war over peace, nationalism over internationalism, and conflict over conciliation.

As the reactionary “amateurs” sought to avoid hostilities, they were brutally assailed at every turn by a newly empowered group—a functional middle class—of journalists, editors, academics, parliamentarians, and even professionalized meritocrats who had risen within government circles, all passionately urging them toward war. In an era of mass media in which public opinion truly started to matter, they found their natural caution and reserve broadsided by opinionated critics happy to indulge their lack of government experience with the absence of any practical limitations on what they could say in the public sphere.

The critics also roamed free of the cosmopolitan sensibilities and “Olympian Majesty” for which they derided their stunned betters in the halls of the Foreign Ministry. As the documentary record unambiguously shows, the beleaguered government officials suddenly had no choice but to devote time and energy to the new and unfamiliar concept of “spin”

—reacting to public opinion, shaping policy to accommodate it, and, very often, simply admitting that it lay beyond their control. The deep irresponsibility of the Russian press, Lieven writes, shattered Europe’s peace more assuredly than any tzarist martinet in court dress. In its final decade Imperial Russia emerges not as a divine-right autocracy but as a disturbingly modern society in which media and information elites arrogated unelected and unaccountable power to themselves.

Once they rounded on Russia’s well-known diplomatic reversals in the years beginning with the Bosnian Crisis of 1908, there could be no going back if they felt the country’s prestige had been bruised. Opposing them promised danger at least as great as going along with them. Thus could Nikolai Hartwig, Russia’s self-made middle-class career minister to Serbia, buck up his host government—to the disgust of his nobly born colleagues—with confident assurances that public opinion alone would force Russia to go to war to defend it in its brewing conflict with Austria-Hungary. Hartwig’s allies in the media even relished their corrosive role: “All your arguments will be to no avail,” one Russian popular journalist mocked a diplomat. “Our purpose now is to destroy the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” In sending Russia into a spiral of crisis that toppled its dynasty, unchecked public opinion was as effective as Bolshevik firing squads. As Vladimir Putin cracks down on freedom of expression and association a century later, we might at least credit him with a sardonic ability to learn from history.” ~

Oriana: This is an eye-opening article. We tend to assume the aristocrats wanted war; in fact they tended to be internationalists rather than nationalists. 

Valentin Serov: The Anointing of Tzar Nicholas II 1896

“There’s no official line from the Kremlin – they can’t identify themselves with Lenin, because he was a revolutionary, and they can’t identify with Nicholas II because he was a weak leader.” ~ Mikhail Zygar.


Now, it’s not as if Tzarist Russia didn’t deserve to fall; it’s that ideally it would have been transformed into a democracy. But Kerensky did not have the courage and wisdom it would have taken to withdraw from WWI, against the tremendous pressure of the Allies; and even if he did, the Bolsheviks had cunningly prepared the ground for a coup, and were probably unbeatable at that point.

And let’s not forget Germany’s part in this: transporting Lenin and thirty-five of his fellow revolutionaries in a sealed railway car “like a dangerous bacillus” from Switzerland to Sweden, from where he made his way into Russia. Denounced as a “German agent” by the provisional government that he openly sought to overthrow, he had to flee to Finland, but his motto of “peace, land, and bread” gained wide support. Ultimately he returned to Russia to lead the October Revolution — which he hoped was the beginning of a wider revolution all across Europe. The anti-war, internationalist Tzarist diplomats were hopelessly irrelevant at that point, a minor footnote to history.


Oriana: When I was in an MFA program that turned out to be a huge mistake (not writing per se, but that particular program), I met a man who told me he gave up trying to be a professional actor and instead became a postal employee. He was perfectly happy with that choice: it provided him with a steady income, which in turn led to marriage and two children instead of a life, as he put it, of “living in Los Angeles and going to auditions.” I could barely conceal my outrage that he gave up on his dream. Only later I realized the man’s happiness said it all.

This article points out several important facts. The two I chose to highlight in the excerpt seem critical: 1) not knowing what your passion is when you are young and 2) the importance of luck

~ “High school and college graduation speeches often revolve around some variant of the advice to “Follow your passion.” The theme has enduring popularity because it sounds so liberating and affirming, and also because it is pretty much guaranteed to meet with audience approval. It is a safe way to sound daring.

Unfortunately, the follow-your-passion plea may actually be poor advice, feeding into some destructive tendencies that new graduates should be trying to overcome.

Inexperience. Whose passion is it? The passion of a new high school graduate hopefully will change with age, experience, and maturity. Why would we want to encourage young people to fixate on childhood dreams that are likely to be unrealistic and, by definition, juvenile? Many new graduates have very restricted life experiences, so what career choices can they imagine? Becoming fashion models? Designing video games? Playing in a rock band? Parlaying their enjoyment of student plays into a career in theater or film?

Cluelessness. Many young people don’t know what their passion is. Yet they believe they are selling out if they choose paths that aren’t their passion. So they wander through college and post-college unwilling to commit, waiting for the moment when their passion will become clear to them. Some of them wait a long time and never have that epiphany. They spend a lost decade in a twilight state, keeping their options open and rejecting one career path after another because they find some reason to doubt that it is their passion.

Magical Thinking. Let’s not ignore the importance of luck. The graduation speakers encouraging young audiences to find their own path tend to be intelligent, persistent, and lucky. Their less fortunate counterparts rarely get invited to give motivational speeches. I am referring to those whose path ran into a brick wall and who persisted anyway because they didn’t want to waste the time and energy they’d already expended. They found their passion, only to get trapped by it.

Job and life satisfaction may depend less on finding one’s passion than on making contributions and being valued members of worthwhile organizations. Too many graduates live in the purgatory of skeptically examining each career path to gauge whether this is their ideal. They might be better off learning to bloom where they are planted.
Learn to find ways to grow and thrive even if the conditions aren’t perfect. A friend of mine described how, late in his career, he was given an assignment typically reserved for those about to be pushed into retirement. He was disappointed — he wasn’t ready to retire, and he had hoped for additional promotions and challenges. But then he remembered his mother’s admonition to bloom where you are planted. He abandoned hopes for further advancement and plunged into his new work. Without having to worry about supervisor evaluations, he found that he could make some sweeping and necessary changes. He did an outstanding job and, to his surprise, he was promoted.

Still, we don’t want to counsel anyone to stay stuck in a terrible situation, so even the advice to bloom where you are planted needs to be tempered. No one-liner is going to fit all situations. Career choices aren’t simple, which is why they shouldn’t be guided by simplistic slogans.” ~

John Singer Sargent: A Street in Venice, c. 1880-1882

~ “Star Wars rejects the ambiguity and moral uncertainty of post-Vietnam America and instead depicts a universe of moral absolutes. It deploys elements of classic western films: characters Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca resonate with frontier archetypes. The dust up in the saloon and the frequent shoot outs play with the conventions of the genre.

References to American wars in which the US held the moral high ground are another recurring motif. The imagery and iconography of World War II is everywhere in Star Wars. Terms like stormtroopers, the evil empire and super weapons are suggestive. The design of the ships, costumes and weaponry are modeled on examples from World War II. The choreography of the space battles are even based on aerial dogfight sequences from other war movies.

Lucas also employs a range of visual cues from Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, most obviously in the closing medal ceremony.

Moral high ground

In the film’s opening moments, Lucas reminds audiences of another war with mythic implications, America’s Revolutionary War. This conflict ideally suited Lucas’s purpose because it is perhaps the most unambiguous war in American history: the Americans were underdogs fighting a well-equipped empire – but they were victorious. For Lucas it is a compelling and attractive alternative to Vietnam’s moral ambiguities, atrocity and defeat.
Looking at the film through the lens of the Revolutionary War, Lucas’s myth building is fascinating. The opening shot of the small blockade runner being chased down by the massive Star Destroyer perfectly articulates the heroic context and asymmetry of the conflict.

This sense of poorly equipped rebels versus a professional military force is further enhanced when the action comes aboard the smaller ship, where a small force of men awaits combat. These are not traditional soldiers, however: they are not young men at the peak of physical and psychological readiness. Rather they are all older, scared, a volunteer militia, and the coming combat, as historian John Hellman has suggested, resonates with the iconic clash of redcoats and minutemen.

Lucas’s efforts were an attempt to repair and rebuild American confidence and the belief that the United States was a force for good by celebrating the simplicity and certainties of mythic narratives. Star Wars reminds audiences of the qualities of innocence, purity and heroism these stories contain. The “return to childhood” that critic Pauline Kael recognized in her famously negative New Yorker review in 1977 is an acknowledgement of Star Wars’ ability to reconnect audiences with a more innocent time.” ~


~ On April 20, 1970, the poet Paul Celan left his home in Paris, walked to a bridge over the River Seine, and jumped to his death. He left a biography of Hölderlin open on his desk, with the following words underlined: ‘Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart.’

The sentence does not end there. Celan chose not to underline the rest: ‘but mostly his apocalyptic star glitters wondrously.’ ~ Maggie Nelson, from The Red Parts

Celan is known mainly for the great poem Todesfuge — The Fugue of Death — an elegy for Holocaust victims (strange how “elegy” seems too shallow a word for that poem).

As for not underlining the positive part of the sentence — possibly not even noticing it, or, even if noticing, not remembering it — anyone who knows from experience how depression distorts perception and memory would not be surprised.

The grave of Paul Celan near Paris


~ "In the vast literature about Stalin and Hitler during World War II, little is said about their being allies for twenty-two months. That is more than an odd chapter in the history of that war, and its meaning deserves more attention than it has received.

Two factors were involved in this neglect. One was that after Hitler chose to conquer Russia he did not succeed; Stalin emerged as one of the supreme victors of World War II. The other was the Western Powers’ relative lack of interest in Eastern Europe. Yet the war broke out in 1939 because of Eastern Europe, as a result of the British (and French) decision to oppose the German conquest of Poland. The political earthquake of the Nazi–Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, nine days before the outbreak of war on September 1, did not deter Britain and France from declaring war on Germany upon its invasion of Poland. This is one of the few—very few—decisions in their favor at the time. That they were reluctant in the months that followed to wage war seriously against Germany is another story.

[Before the Nazi-Soviet pact] Nazism and communism were outright enemies. From the very beginning of his political rise Hitler described Judaism and communism as his principal enemies. Stalin, by that time, was less of an ideologue. Like Hitler, he was a nationalist; he had little interest in international communism.

What was more important than the Non-Aggression Pact was its addendum, a Secret Protocol, that called for nothing less than a division of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, part of which was to be taken over by the Soviets. In addition, Germany recognized Russia’s “sphere of interest” in Estonia, Latvia, Finland, some of Lithuania, and the Romanian province of Bessarabia. Moscow denied the very existence of this Secret Protocol for a long time, well beyond World War II. But it existed in the German archives; and in 1939 it became a somber and dreadful reality. As late as 1986 the aged Molotov (then over ninety) denied its very existence to a Russian journalist. In fact, many of its conditions survived both the world war and the succeeding conflicts until 1989.

Poland, its army and its people, fought the Germans bravely for a month in 1939 (almost as long as France, with its considerable army, in 1940). But seventeen days after the German invasion Stalin’s armies invaded Poland from the east. A few days later in Brest, a meeting place then just on the Russian side of the new partition of Poland, there was a small joint military parade of Nazi and Soviet soldiers and military vehicles. Just over two months later, less than three months after the outbreak of World War II, the only fighting on land in Europe was between Russians and Finns, who would not accept Russian control of their country. The British were aghast. They (and the French) even considered, briefly, intervening, but this did not come about. Soon Hitler’s armies conquered Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium—and then France. Churchill and Britain stood alone, for more than a year to come.

At the end of September 1939 Ribbentrop flew to Moscow once more to arrange some border deals that would carry out the Secret Protocol. Throughout the war, of all Germany’s high officials, he was the most inclined to seek and keep agreements with the Russians. (His counterpart among the Russians, Molotov, had often reciprocal inclinations.) In this respect we may also notice the reciprocal tendencies of Hitler and Stalin. Hitler thought it necessary to carry out the terms of the alliance with Stalin; Stalin, for his part, was more enthusiastic about it than Hitler. One example is his perhaps unnecessary toast to Hitler after the signing of their pact on August 24, 1939: “I know how much the German nation loves its Führer, I should therefore like to drink to his health.” More telling for the historical record and more consequential for the peoples of Eastern Europe were the Soviets’ intentions and their aggressive behavior soon after the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact.

Two months later the Winter War with Finland began. The small Finnish army fought well and courageously, a fact that even Stalin had to accept; the result was a treaty that gave up pieces of territory to the Soviet Union but for the most part maintained Finnish independence.

Far more ominous and horrible was the situation in Poland. There the Soviet occupation was at least as brutal and murderous—if not more so—than in the parts of Poland subjugated by the Germans. The Russians deported at least one million people—including entire families, without any of their belongings—to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Russian far north, with very few ever seeing their homelands again. In April and May 1940, some 22,000 Polish officers were shot to death near Katyn. More than a million Polish prisoners and workers were deported to Germany for forced labor during the war.

On June 14, 1940, the very day the German army marched into Paris, Moscow finally decided to implement the Secret Protocol. Within a day or two it declared the total incorporation of Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union. Their governments were imprisoned or exiled. Many of their former officers were executed, and at least 25,000 of the Baltic peoples were deported to the Soviet Union. Hitler transported the German minorities in the Baltics to Germany on German ships.
Stalin ordered many friendly gestures toward Germany, including speeding up the deliveries of Soviet products there. He did not in the least react to a warning from Churchill about a prospective German attack against the Soviet Union. During the ten days before the Nazi invasion—all kinds of information about the German threat notwithstanding—Stalin did his best or, rather, his worst, to affirm his faith in Hitler and in Germany. I do not know of a single instance of such abject behavior (for that is what it was) by a statesman of a great power.

The German attack shocked Stalin into silence at first. (Molotov’s words after the German declaration of war were also telling: “Did we deserve this?”) Stalin’s first orders for the Soviet army were not to respond at all. It took him hours after the invasion—until noon—before he ordered the army to resist.

There is still a controversy about how shaken he was during the first days of the Nazi onslaught. Eventually he pulled himself together. On July 3, 1941—eleven days after the German invasion—he addressed the peoples of the Soviet Union as a patriot. By that time some Nazi troops were more than one hundred miles inside the western Soviet Union and advancing toward Moscow.

Nazi and Soviet officers at Brest-Litovsk, September 22, 1939


“Wanna-be tyrants in a democracy are just comical figures on soapboxes when they have no following. So the real…threat lay coiled in parts of the population itself…ready someday to catapult the next Hitler to power with their votes.” ~ Bob Altemeyer, 1998

~ “Research indicates that a bed rock 20-25% of the adults in North America is highly vulnerable to a demagogue who would incite hatred of various minorities to gain power. 25% of the American population is always ready to vote for a dictator. These people are constantly waiting for a tough “law and order” “man on horseback” who will supposedly solve all our problems through the ruthless application of force. When such a person gains prominence, you can expect the authoritarian followers to mate devotedly with the authoritarian leader, because each gives the other something they desperately want: the feeling of safety for the followers, and the tremendous power of the modern state for the leader.

We know a lot about authoritarian followers. Compared with most people:

They are highly ethnocentric, highly inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. Because they are so committed to their in-group, they are very zealous in its cause. They will trust their leaders no matter what they say, and distrust whomever the leader says to distrust.

They are highly fearful of a dangerous world. Their parents taught them, more than parents usually do, that the world is dangerous. They may also be genetically predisposed to experience stronger fear than people skilled at “keeping their heads while others are losing theirs.”

They are highly self-righteous. They believe they are the “good people” and this unlocks a lot of hostile impulses against those they consider bad.

They are aggressive. Given the chance to attack someone with the approval of an authority, they will lower the boom.

They are highly prejudiced against racial and ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals, and women in general.

They will support their authorities, and even help them, persecute almost any identifiable group in the country.

Their beliefs are a mass of contradictions. They have highly compartmentalized minds, in which opposite beliefs live independent lives in separate boxes. As a result, their thinking is full of double-standards.

They reason poorly. If they like the conclusion of an argument, they don’t pay much attention to whether the evidence is valid or the argument is consistent. They especially have trouble realizing a conclusion is invalid.

They are highly dogmatic. Because they have mainly gotten their beliefs from the authorities in their lives, rather than think things out for themselves, they have no real defense when facts or events indicate they are wrong. So they just dig in their heels and refuse to change.

They are very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know and listen to tells them they are. That happens because they screen out sources that will suggest that they are wrong.

Because they severely limit their exposure to different people and ideas, they vastly overestimate the extent to which other people agree with them. And thinking they are “the moral majority” supports their attacks on the “evil minorities” they see in the country.

They believe strongly in group cohesiveness, and being loyal. They are highly energized when surrounded by a crowd of fellow-believers because it makes them feel powerful and supports their belief that “all the good people” agree with them.

They are easily duped by manipulators who pretend to espouse their causes when all the con-artists really want is personal gain.

They are largely blind to themselves. They have little self-understanding and insight into why they think and do what they do. They are heavily into denial.

I hasten to add that studies find examples of all these things in lots of others, not just authoritarian followers. But not as consistently, and not nearly as much.


A wannabe dictator is all about dominance. He wants to dominate everyone and he will do whatever he can get away with to become “Number One.” Often the movement he leads becomes a personality clique, because ultimately it is really just about, only about, him. Trump appears every bit as narcissistic as he is aggressive and constantly striving for dominance.

The most remarkable thing about Donald Trump as an authoritarian leader, in my mind, is that he’s so obvious about it. Look at his comments about Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-un. While he has some negative evaluation of each, he praises all three for becoming autocrats and using their power to dominate their countries.

The authoritarian followers’ connection with their leader is not rational but emotional. It’s based on fear that he fans and anger that he channels. That’s why Trump can contradict himself so often, and say so many outrageous things, with no effect on his followers’ support. He is likely more vulnerable to emotional backlash among his followers when he does something horrendous than to intellectual rejection when he lies or says something stupid.” ~ Bob Altemeyer


This stands out for me: authoritarian followers tend to see the reality in terms of their in-group versus everyone else. Their in-group is the “good people”; anyone different is bad. The world is a dangerous, alien place. They are dogmatic and dismiss evidence. If their leader says something is true, it’s true. They severely limit their exposure to different people and different ideas and assume they are the “moral majority.”

Naturally those are the nationalists rather than the internationalists, people who can say “Pittsburgh not Paris” without the slightest inkling that anyone might find it ludicrous. And it’s an easy guess that they aren’t familiar with Casablanca, never mind that it’s an American movie classic — but with an international flavor. 

To some extent the description of authoritarians fits most of us — we all prefer our “in-group.” There is, however, a question of degree. Some people have had much more exposure to other cultures and are more curious about the world — which they don’t see mainly as a bad, dangerous place, populated by evil minorities who worship the wrong god.

This may seem trivial, but I find this clue to be quite useful: a preference for ethnic restaurants usually indicates a less authoritarian person. Having tasted snails, frog’s legs, unusual kinds of seafood, odd Chinese fruit and so forth is an excellent sign of openness to experience. I hope I don’t sound like a hopeless foodie, but this has never failed me.

(By the way, this article was written before the election.)

I find comfort in my perception that Trump doesn’t have the vitality and charisma that Hitler and Stalin had, nor their cunning at playing the game of politics. He’s old and fat and in mental decline. Still, laugh as we may at “covfefe” and other twitter nonsense, there is no denying the damage.

“Trump is always reaching for a stronger and better word . . . and not finding it.” ~ Alec Baldwin

“Turns out that the Trump era isn’t ‘1984.’ It’s ‘King Lear.’ Turns out there is no monolithic power — there is just one man’s erratic personality.” ~ Washington Post
“Every authoritarian follower I know is on an urgent crusade against other authoritarians” ~ Jeremy Sherman (thus the right wing opposes Marxists, for instance)

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” ~ Oscar Wilde


~ “May you live to a ripe old age, and may the only people who come visit you be Mormon missionaries.

May your insurance company decide constipation is a pre-existing condition.

May you find yourself insisting to a roomful of skeptics that your great-grandmother was “legitimately” raped by Cossacks.

May the state of Arizona expand their definition of “suspected illegal immigrants” to “anyone who doesn’t hunt.”

May you be reunited in the world to come with your ancestors, who were all socialist garment workers.” ~

“OK, sure, but what's the point, other than venting your personal anger and frustration? Why bother, knowing that your words will change nothing?”

“Not so. Everything changes something in some way. Every spoken or written word does. Silence does, too. Silence is no less interpretable than speech, and no less of a statement.” ~ M. Iossel

  St. Sebastian (note the arrows — apparently even his soul is a permanent pincushion — or, as Charles commented, this is an example of medieval acupuncture) interceding for the plague-stricken at Pavia; Josse Lieferinxe (Netherlandish), ca 1500. Note also the angel and the devil flying above the city. Ah, the good old days.

THE FIRST TIME I STOOD UP TO A PRIEST was just after I turned 14, a month or so after I'd left the church. The beauty of it unfolded when I suddenly realized I didn't have to stand there and listen to him practically yell at me in the street. It was a major, crowded street (Grójecka, in the Ochota district of Warsaw). The priest was having a combined rage and anxiety attack. He was red in the face and shaking. “Have you stopped going to church?” he asked sharply. Then, with unmistakable fear in his voice, “Have you stopped believing in god?”

His fear startled me. I did not answer. My silence was the answer. And this seemingly tiny fact — that a young girl had decided that the invisible god in the sky wasn’t real — seemed to unnerve him to the core, to threaten his whole worldview. It was the first time in my life that I felt I was threatening to someone — a middle-aged man at that!

Yet I was only a teenager, a “girl from a good home” who’d never be impolite to an adult. No need to fear that I’d say some equivalent of “Fuck Jesus” or "Fuck god" or “give the priest a fig” (like “giving him the finger”). That was simply unimaginable. (I say “equivalent” since I was too innocent to even know the f-word in Polish — I am not kidding. In six weeks in Milwaukee I learned all the bad words in English; two-thirds or more I wouldn’t have been able to translate into Polish.)

I merely stood in the middle of the sidewalk, small next to this massive man in his voluminous black “sutanna” (‘soutane, a priestly cassock’), a sparrow against a crow — “little sparrows,” as our literature teacher called me now and then, strangely using the plural, as if I were a collectivity of smallness — a mere girl but suddenly with a mind that had obviously done something other than regurgitate catechism. He, red in the face and screaming; me, cool and silent, just staring at him.

After about seven or eight minutes of listening to his frantic scolding, I suddenly realized that he had no power over me. Other than rant, what could he do? Nothing. It was centuries too late for burning atheists at the stake. So, first the beautiful realization that god had no power to punish me — then the realization that my parish priest had no power to punish me. He continued to speak in a loud voice, getting even redder in his face, gasping. Without a word, I turned my back on him and resumed walking to wherever I was going.

But at that point it was no longer real courage. I wish I'd had courage back when hell was terribly real for me, and oh, how I hated going to confession! But I didn’t rebel as long as I though god actually existed, an invisible man in the sky who was all-powerful and could read everyone’s thoughts.

I might have stayed longer in a liberal Protestant church, the kind where they tell you you don’t have to worry about going to hell because you’re already saved . . . (“You don’t have to worry about your sins. Nothing can separate you from the Lamb,” Martin Luther said — but I learned that only decades later). Or perhaps not as long because who knows at what point reading the bible (forbidden to Catholics) would make me question the more revolting stories . . . I'm pretty sure that even in a supportive “everyone goes to heaven; your dog too will be waiting there for you” congregation, I would sooner or later come to question the truth of the teachings. Even in a church so advanced that it held that Jesus died for everyone, even the extraterrestrials! (this I learned of course only in the U.S.)

It was fascinating, though, to see a priest throw a tantrum in public, pedestrians in a quick staccato walking by us with with barely a glance at the spectacle — the usual human wave of faces lost in their own preoccupations. I threatened his worldview, while he did not threaten my new clarity. He, a suddenly frightened priest of a dead god; I, suddenly filled with courage, my life ahead of me, the future, the new world.

Post-script: In retrospect I'm astonished that he didn’t threaten me with hell, the most prevalent spiritual terrorism the church used. Was his own belief in hell wavering? Or did he by any chance sense that to threaten me with hell would have been even more abusive than hitting me, and that would have been ignoble, a big man hitting a small young girl? Finally, I wonder if he understood that the sole power he used to have over me relied totally on my belief in all kinds of invisible nonsense. A person who doesn’t believe in hell will not be manipulated by being threatened by it. Lack of belief reduces the church to impotence — now that it can’t burn heretics and apostates at the stake.

By the way, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: some people keep saying that god is a good guy; it’s religion that’s bad. Religion is divisive, and at its worst leads to suicide bombings and other atrocities. Let’s get rid of religion, but keep god!

But god is a social construct; without a social structure (e.g childhood indoctrination, places of worship, ritual) to support the idea that god exists, the idea — and a particular god — would vanish. Does anyone believe in Zeus anymore? Yet at one time true believers in Zeus swore that the god guided them and answered their prayers. They even claimed they could sense the god’s presence. Yet as soon as the worship of Zeus ended, it was as if he had never existed — except for the myths, the broken up statues, and the ruins of temples. And for those we are eternally grateful — not only for their beauty, but also for having provided an example of how quickly and totally an unworshiped deity can die.

ending on beauty

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

~ Wendell Berry, To Know the Dark

photo: Connie Peterson

1 comment:

  1. Saved as a favorite, I really like your blog!