Saturday, July 29, 2017


Oceanside Pier; Eric Neitzel


I am always thinking about death —
my own mostly, but this morning

Augustine’s, he who asked to be left alone
at the end, his only company

the six large-lettered penitential psalms
he tacked to his cell walls, a map

even a saint needs, I guess, on the journey
toward death the self keeps trying

to prepare itself for. So often I have prayed,
Teach me the way I should go, and O Lord,

heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror,
as if, in the repetition of those words,

each larval stage of my life might be let go.
But just as often I have been distracted

by dust on the windowsill dimpling with rain
or the yellow shine of afternoon sun

on the grass, by the rush and babble
of voices talking all at once in the next room,

or even a dog’s barking — as Augustine
may have been, looking up now and again

from his prayer, arrested by an ordinary cloud
passing across the face of the sun

and the new shadows pooling on the floor,
the next thing still happening, still arriving,

and being replaced, still restless, all of it
part of a world so hard to finish loving.

~ Robert Cording

This is the main thing modern poets do: they celebrate the inexhaustible beauty of this world, the terrestrial paradise — not the celestial kind (Dante tried to imagine it, with dubious success).

Though I’ve said that this is one of the marks of modernity, it’s not as if it’s a new discovery. After all, the Greeks, the Romans, the ancient Persians, the Moors who created the gardens of Alhambra — they all loved flowers and flowing waters. Only fanatical religions began to depict the earth as the “vale of tears,” with real happiness possible only after death.

But it’s a rare poet who doesn’t love nature, doesn’t love life. Toward the end of his life, Milosz speaks that old age should be a time of detachment, of preparing for departure — and yet the older he grows, the more he loves life and the earth. We can “prepare for departure” in terms of getting rid of excess stuff, for instance — but apparently we can’t — and perhaps shouldn’t — try to detach ourselves from birds and flowers and clouds and their shadows.

Cording tries to remain a believer; it helped him overcome his alcoholism (his early poems speak about it). But in the end his loyalty is to the earth, and he imagine that even Augustine wasn’t immune to loving it:

looking up now and again

from his prayer, arrested by an ordinary cloud
passing across the face of the sun

and the new shadows pooling on the floor,
the next thing still happening, still arriving,

and being replaced, still restless, all of it
part of a world so hard to finish loving.


I'm using the same image as before (Carpaccio: St. Augustine in his Study) because of the little white dog. That dog stands for the love of life. 

OLIVER SACKS (2015, shortly before his death): ~ “A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.” ~


I feel sorry for those who have never seen the “real” sky, away from light pollution caused by artificial lights of a city. What a vertigo of glow the countryside sky is on a clear night, when one can see billions of stars, and the edge of the Milky Way is very distinct.

Milosz also observed that rather than withdrawing from the world as he grows older, feeling more indifferent toward its beauty, he finds the world more and more beautiful and life ever more sweet, every day precious.


It is a beautiful surprise that the fear of death, which used to occasionally torment me when I was younger, has grown much less as I’ve grown older. This is apparently fairly common. Like Milosz, I too find that the world grows more beautiful and precious every day.


 ~ “Mother’s dying almost stunned my spirit… She slipped from our fingers like a flake gathered by the wind, and is now part of the drift called “the infinite.”

    We don’t know where she is, though so many tell us. ~

Even as a child, Emily had come to doubt the immortality so resolutely promised by the Calvinist dogma of her elders. “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me,” she wrote in her twenties to Susan Gilbert — her first great love and lifelong closest friend. Dickinson went on to reject the prescriptive traditional religion of her era, never joined a church, and adopted a view of spirituality kindred to astronomer Maria Mitchell’s. It is with this mindset that she adds in the letter to her cousins:

    I believe we shall in some manner be cherished by our Maker — that the One who gave us this remarkable earth has the power still farther to surprise that which He has caused. Beyond that all is silence…

She adds a sobering reflection on the shock each of us experiences the first time we lose a loved one:

    Till the first friend dies, we think ecstasy impersonal, but then discover that he was the cup from which we drank it, itself as yet unknown. ~

Unicorn by Tony Callendrillo (93 and still painting). 

In the words of his son-in-law, John Guzlowski: “Yes 93 next week. He paints about everyday. He gets up exactly at 8:30 every morning, has breakfast and coffee, and then he does an hour of exercise and then he goes downstairs to his basement studio to paint. A couple of days a week he goes to a local college and helps young art students with their work.

He's been doing this since he retired in 1980 as a graphic designer for various cloth and curtain companies. He's got a basement full of art. I just wish he would keep his dehumidifier on. He doesn't think it's necessary and you can't argue with him."

But there is also this:

~ There may be no suffering more miserable than human death, not because it hurts more than it does for other living beings, but because we alone among known species have the capacity to take the long view, dreaming of doing all manner of things, dreams dashed by our own demise. ~ Jeremy Sherman

Oriana: For me it’s not even my own dreams and plans so much as my curiosity about what happens next. Just the thought of not being able to know about future scientific and technological developments fills me with sadness.

Somewhat counteracting this is the thought that on some fronts things are getting worse: climate, environmental destruction, the growth of fascist hate groups. Sometimes the thought of not being here to witness this worsening (and possible self-destruction) is a comfort. And yet, if I had a choice, I’d still choose to live. I may be naive, but I think the collective human genius will prevail and we’ll find a way to clean up the ocean, for instance, and take methane and excess carbon dioxide out of the air.

Fearless girl (at an older age); Kalmar Zoltan

~ “We don’t need to worry so much, according to new research comparing our perception of what it’s like to die with the accounts people facing imminent death. Researchers analysed the writing of regular bloggers with either terminal cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) who all died over the course of the study, and compared it to blog posts written by a group of participants who were told to imagine they had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and only had only a few months to live. They looked for general feelings of positivity and negativity, and words describing positive and negative emotions including happiness, fear and terror.

Blog posts from the terminally ill were found to have considerably more positive words and fewer negative ones than those imagining they were dying – and their use of positive language increased as they got close to death.

Kurt Gray, one of the study’s researchers, said, “I imagine this is because they know things are getting more serious, and there’s some kind of acceptance and focusing on the positive because they know they don’t have a lot of time left.”

The researchers also compared the last words and poetry of inmates on death row with a group of people tasked with imagining they were about to face execution. Again, there were fewer negative words from the prisoners. Overall, those facing death focused more on what makes life meaningful, including family and religion.

“We talk all the time about how physically adaptable we are, but we’re also mentally adaptable. We can be happy in prison, in hospital, and we can be happy at the edge of death as well,” Gray said.

Havi Carel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol, agrees with the study’s findings on how adaptable we are. “I think you get used to the idea of dying, like we get accustomed to many things. The initial shock after receiving a poor prognosis is horrific, but after months or years of living with this knowledge, the dread subsides,” she said.

However, Carel also pointed out that there’s an important distinction between positive responses and pleasantness, and that there are some unpleasant and painful events we’d still be positive about, such as childbirth.

“Blogs are written for public consumption and they remain there after people’s death. Using blogs and poetry may reveal only the outward-facing emotions people are willing to share, or even simply created to fashion how they want to be remembered. Do people really tell the truth in their blogs? Perhaps, to an extent, but these are very public media,” Carel said.

“Perhaps they are ‘putting on a brave face’. It is impossible to tell, but blogs are clearly not the most intimate mode of communication. It may have been better to use diaries, recorded conversations with loved ones, or even personal letters.” ~

Surfing with Sartre, by Aaron James (book promo) 

In the two years before he died [at age 53], Lenin had three debilitating strokes. Prominent European doctors were consulted and proposed a variety of diagnoses: nervous exhaustion, chronic lead intoxication from the two bullets lodged in his body, cerebral arteriosclerosis and “endarteritis luetica.”

Dr. Vinters speculates that the last term referred to meningovascular syphilis, inflammation of the walls of blood vessels mainly around the brain, resulting in a thickening of the interior of the vessel. But there was no evidence of this on autopsy, and Lenin’s syphilis test was said to have been negative. He had been treated anyway with injections of a solution containing arsenic, the prevailing syphilis remedy.

Then, in his last hours and days of his life, Lenin experienced severe seizures.

An autopsy revealed a near total obstruction of the arteries leading to the brain, some of which were narrowed to tiny slits. 

But Lenin did not have some of the traditional risk factors for strokes.

He did not have untreated high blood pressure — had that been his problem, the left side of his heart would have been enlarged. He did not smoke and would not tolerate smoking in his presence. He drank only occasionally and exercised regularly. He did not have symptoms of a brain infection, nor did he have a brain tumor.

So what brought on the stroke that killed Lenin?

The clues lie in Lenin’s family history, Dr. Vinters said. The three siblings who survived beyond their 20s had evidence of cardiovascular disease, and Lenin’s father died of a disease that was described as being very much like Lenin’s. Dr. Vinters said Lenin might have inherited a tendency to develop extremely high cholesterol, causing the severe blockage of his blood vessels that led to his stroke.

Compounding that was the stress Lenin experienced, which can precipitate a stroke in someone whose blood vessels are already blocked.

But Lenin’s seizures in the hours and days before he died are a puzzle and perhaps historically significant. Severe seizures, Dr. Vinters said in an interview before the conference, are “quite unusual in a stroke patient.”

But, he added, “almost any poison can cause seizures.”

Dr. Lurie concurred on Friday, telling the conference that poison was in his opinion the most likely immediate cause of Lenin’s death. The most likely perpetrator? Stalin, who saw Lenin as his main obstacle to taking over the Soviet Union and wanted to get rid of him.

Communist Russia in the early 1920s, Dr. Lurie told the conference, was a place of “Mafia-like intrigue.”

In 1921 Lenin started complaining that he was ill. From then until his death in 1924, Lenin “began to feel worse and worse,” Dr. Lurie said.

He complained that he couldn’t sleep and that he had terrible headaches. He could not write, he did not want to work,” Dr. Lurie said. He wrote to Alexei Maximovich Gorky, “I am so tired, I do not want to do anything at all.”

But he nonetheless was planning a political attack on Stalin, Dr. Lurie said. And Stalin, well aware of Lenin’s intentions, sent a top-secret note to the Politburo in 1923 claiming that Lenin himself asked to be put out of his misery.

The note said: “On Saturday, March 17th in the strictest secrecy Comrade Krupskaya told me of ‘Vladimir Ilyich’s request to Stalin,’ namely that I, Stalin, should take the responsibility for finding and administering to Lenin a dose of potassium cyanide. I felt it impossible to refuse him, and declared: ‘I would like Vladimir Ilyich to be reassured and to believe that when it is necessary I will fulfill his demand without hesitation.’”

Stalin added that he just could not do it: “I do not have the strength to carry out Ilyich’s request and I have to decline this mission, however humane and necessary it might be, and I therefore report this to the members of the Politburo.”

Dr. Lurie said Stalin might have poisoned Lenin despite this assurance, as Stalin was “absolutely ruthless.”

Dr. Vinters believes that sky-high cholesterol leading to a stroke was the main cause of Lenin’s death. But he said there is one other puzzling aspect of the story. Although toxicology studies were done on others in Russia, there was an order that no toxicology be done on Lenin’s tissues.

So the mystery remains.

But if Lenin had lived today, or if today’s cholesterol-lowering drugs had been available 100 years ago, might he have been spared those strokes?

“Yes,” Dr. Vinters said. “Lenin could have gone on for another 20 or 25 years, assuming he wasn’t assassinated. History would have been totally different.”


Lenin appeared to be recovering from his third stroke. He was more and more active, both mentally and physically. While recuperating, he’d trained himself to write with his left hand. He was doing so well that his death came as an unexpected shock.

There is no question that the main cause of Lenin’s death was the final stroke. True, he didn’t have high blood pressure, he never smoked, he wasn’t overweight or diabetic. But Lenin’s cerebral arteries were found to be quite calcified (“hardened”). It’s the convulsions that don’t fit with “stroke only” explanation.

Who had anything to gain by Lenin’s death coming sooner rather than later? Historians agree that Lenin was beginning to turn against Stalin. If Lenin happened to live long enough to address the upcoming party congress, he would likely make the recommendation that Stalin be removed from the top circle of power. Lenin’s “Testament,” written not long before his death, contains this statement:

“Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.” A day later, Lenin wrote: “Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest the comrades think about a way of removing Staling from that post.”

Stalin was no doubt aware of Lenin’s growing distrust. The text of Lenin’s testament became known in the West; in the Soviet Union, only after the “thaw” of 1956.

All this aside, here is the crucial statement: “Although toxicology studies were done on others in Russia, there was an order that no toxicology be done on Lenin’s tissues.”

Who gave this order? It had to be someone very high up, someone with “unlimited authority.”


a still from the movie The Gaze of Ulysses

So long as men worship Caesars and Napoleons, Caesars and Napoleons will duly rise and make them miserable. ~ Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, 1937
~ except that we are not looking at a Caesar or Napoleon. What we have is closer to Caligula, as Jeremy Sherman pointed out. He clarified that no, Trump is NOT Caligula — but that he’d love to be Caligula if he could get away with it. So many boundaries are being crossed every day, it seems — vulgar insults were just the beginning — that it’s a comforting thought that some still remain. But for how long?

(“Learn something every day” — the name Caligula is a diminutive “caliga,” a type of ancient Roman military footwear)


~ “It goes back to German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach. In his work in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Blumenbach divided Homo sapiens into five distinct races based on their physical characteristics. There was the Mongolian, or “yellow,” race, the red American race, the brown Malayan race, the black Ethiopian race, and the white Caucasian race.

While he looked at a lot of physical traits to carve out his categories, Blumenbach thought characteristics of the skull—the size and angle of the forehead, jawbone, teeth, eye sockets, etc.—were especially important. He thought that the skulls of Georgians were exemplary of the characteristics of his white race and named the group after the Caucasus Mountain Range that runs along Georgia’s northern border.

All this makes Blumenbach sound like a forerunner of phrenology, and “scientific” attempts to justify discrimination, but while he categorized the races, Blumenbach didn’t put them in a hierarchy and protested any attempts to misuse his groupings to divide people or paint one group as inferior to another. “Blumenbach wrote forcefully of the kindredness of the human races…he opposed the stress on racial hierarchies of worth by more conservative colleagues in his own university and elsewhere in Europe,” historian Nell Irvin Painter writes. “Throughout his work, and especially in the definitive 1795 edition of De generis humani varietate nativa (On the Natural Variety of Mankind), Blumenbach rejected racial hierarchy and emphasized the unity of mankind.”

Blumenbach’s Caucasians weren’t even strictly white or European, as the term is commonly used today. “To this variety belong the inhabitants of Europe (except the Lapps and the remaining descendants of the Finns) and those of Eastern Asia, as far as the river Obi, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges; and lastly, those of Northern Africa.”

Today “Caucasian” lacks any real scientific meaning (though its cousin “Caucasoid” is still used in some disciplines), but hangs on in common usage as a blanket term for white/European people.” ~


In Babylonian mythology, the flat earth was surrounded by a river named “Ocean.” That was the Earthly Ocean, or Bitter River. Above the solid (metal?) firmament was the Heavenly Ocean, with stars in it. Hence Genesis 1:7, separating the waters of the earth from the waters of heaven. The nun explaining this to us 8-year-old shocked me by actually using the word “myth.” Seeing our puzzled faces, she said, “This came from a Babylonian myth.” Then she moved on as if nothing subversive had just been uttered. But I always remembered those two words which I understood only vaguely at the time: “Babylonian myth.”

Babylonian! Myth! The first inkling that the bible reflected the era and the region in which it was written. The seeds of the end of my Catholicism were planted right at the beginning.

Vladimir Kush: Crusaders

By the way, early Greek mythology also included a river around the world (Okeanos, also the name of a Titan deity). But as the Greek sailors started venturing farther and farther, discovering more and more of the salt-water sea, the idea that there was fresh water surrounding all land surface fell into doubt.

Okeanos, the Titan god of the great river encircled the earth

WHATABOUTISM (more on the “tu quoque” logical fallacy)
Whataboutism is a form of propaganda technique formerly used by the Soviet Union in its dealings with the Western world, and subsequently used as a form of propaganda in post-Soviet Russia. When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union, the Soviet response would be “What about . . . ” followed by an event in the Western world. It is a variant of tu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy), a logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. “ ~ Wikipedia

. . . I didn’t know about the Soviet connection here: an attempt to make the West look just as bad, creating a false equivalence. The Gulag? “What about your own prisons” etc. A bit of extra enlightenment about what has become the favorite right-wing response to any challenge.

This is also the way young children often argue — but now we see that a lot of adults have never developed beyond that level. 

monkey, the breviary of Mary of Savoy, 1465 — a precursor of Rodin's Thinker
~ and here is another thought-provoking insight from Jeremy:


~ “I like a challenge implied by Jonathan Haidt's book "The Righteous Mind." He suggests that tribal loyalty (a primary value on the Right) is an exotic newfangled human evolutionary trait, not readily extended to loyalty to all humankind (a primary value for the Left). He argues that the left keeps shooting itself in the foot by putting all world's creatures above the tribe.

I also think that there's layer upon layer of complication that yields paradoxes like the left's "My tribe is exceptional because we alone realize that no tribe is exceptional," or "there are two kinds of people, those who realize we are all one and those that don’t."

And though there's no precedent for one-world tribalism (an intentional oxymoron), that's what's demanded of us these days, with climate change in particular.

Among the most sobering news in my lifetime is the recognition that all the people I know who embrace universalism are as tribal as the next of us.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Oriana: We appear to be wired for the us/them bias, and will always prefer “our kind.” At best we can expand the “us” and indeed we have — for instance, we are much more revolted by cruelty in general. But we know from history how easy it is to demonize a group of people, even these days.

It’s widely acknowledged that the greatest current divide is between globalists and nationalists. Vegans have included animals as “us,” but that’s still seen as a marginal position — except for pets, now often outcompeting human offspring and companions in terms of affection and expense lavished on them. But whatever the labels and stated principles, in the main I agree with Jeremy: we are all tribal in the sense of being highly selective about who is us (and therefore all is forgiven) and who is them (and therefore deplorable). Liberals are just as tribal, in spite of trying to come across as “universalists.”

LIFE IS MADE UP OF BEAUTIFUL DETAILS” (including the liturgy and ritual side of religion)

~ “I think there’s far more to [the death of god] than evolution versus god! We’ve got to get used to the idea that there’s no big answer, no one answer. There’s no unifying idea.

I have a scientific background. I think that evolution is the most important idea [in science], so I’m in agreement with people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett on that. But for me an equally important idea is the insight of phenomenology—that life is made up of beautiful details. We need a dual vision. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. But I was mainly concerned to show that there’s far more to the argument than the evolutionary people suggest.

: What about the account of religion itself that one finds in Dawkins or Dennett? Dawkins, for example, does seem to see religion exclusively as a matter of holding certain beliefs about the origins and ultimate nature of the universe, rather than, say, as a way of life, a moral vision or as practice and ritual.

~ I think we have to distinguish here between religion and theology. There’s something profoundly silly and empty about a lot of theology. When people accuse Dawkins of being simplistic theologically, I just shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, a lot of theology is simplistic.” But there’s also the Durkheimian idea of religion—that it’s about rituals, liturgy, and that these things have given enormous satisfaction to people. So maybe Dawkins and Dennett are deaf to that side of things.

A reader’s comment:

Actually, Dawkins does state near the beginning of his book, "The God Delusion," that he is not debating or attacking Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, or other 'religions' that do not posit a supreme being in the same way as the monotheistic ones do, or which can be construed as "a way of life, a moral vision or as practice and ritual." He's not deaf; he's defining what he is attacking and what he is not. It's careless readers who are extending his attacks to include areas (or even 'phenomenologies') he never intended.

Durham Cathedral 


I agree about rituals and liturgy — I don’t miss them to the point that I’d be willing to believe in a lot of barbarous nonsense just to have them, but at least some of the liturgy was the best part. I used to hope that one denomination or another (not necessarily Christian -- this way we won't have to deal with the revolting Christian "salvation") will remove all the bad stuff but retain whatever is beautiful. It could be argued that liberal Protestantism has moved toward that — but it still retains the barbarism of “Jesus died for our sins.” And besides, liberal Protestantism, like liberal Judaism, is dying out. We need to let go — and redirect intellectual effort into the development of secular philosophies of life, which cherish the “beautiful details” of existence.

To quote Peter Watson:   ~ If you must have a transcendent idea then make it a search for “the good” or “the beautiful” or “the useful”, always realizing that your answers will be personal, finite and never final. ~

And of course we’ll always have the biblical stories as mythology — they are an interesting historical document, and we can certainly preserve whatever is poetic and/or perennially wise in the bible.

ending on beauty

And pity, like a naked newborn babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

~ Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7, 21-25


  1. I will right away grab your rss as I can't find your email subscription link or e-newsletter service.
    Do you have any? Kindly let me know so that I may just subscribe.

  2. Alas, I am clueless about cyber-mysteries such as rss . . . my apologies. But this blog is pretty regular: every Saturday evening or Sunday evening at the latest. So if you check on Monday, you'll see the newest. Thanks for your interest.

  3. Oriana, do you want me to help you set up a followers widget so people can sign up for updates?

    1. Sure! Bless your kindness. Thank you.

  4. Why Do We Age?

    Is it the moon, the sun,
    the pull of Mars or Jupiter,
    the movement of the great whales
    as they migrate beneath the waves?
    Not even Walt Whitman could tell us
    although he could tell us more
    about youth and living and loving
    than anyone else with just a couplet.

    Remember “Unscrew the locks from the doors,
    Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs”?

    And what can I tell you about growing old?
    That I’ve been to the circus and I’ve seen
    the big top from the inside and know
    that the sky of stars inside the tent is the circus?

    That there are things I am giving up
    as I move toward my 69th birthday:
    things like worrying about silence and flatulence,
    the reworking of old puzzles,
    the problems God sets before all of us?

    That my mother loved to hold my hand
    when we were walking to the park
    and it broke her heart when I told her
    I was too old to do that?

    And what else can I tell you about aging?

    That my father loved to listen to me
    talk to him in English even though
    he didn’t understand a word?

    That once I sat next to a dying friend
    who kept weeping and whispering something
    about sand and water that didn’t make sense?

    That all I could do for him was sing a song
    that I hoped he remembered, something
    about hoping that all his rambling
    had brought him love and joy?

    That you can smell the human gases
    coming off of dead bodies: hydrogen sulfide,
    methane, and yes, cadaverine,
    sweet, sweet cadaverine?
    And still there’s always the same question:

    Why do we age?

    At night you cannot see the dust
    Or the paint chipping.
    It is all hidden behind the stars.

    Keys are worthless, locks can’t be
    Unlocked, and still you have to walk
    through the door. There is nowhere else.

    You have to walk through the door.

    1. Ah! Not an articulate comment, but I'm reduced to simply sighing . . .