Saturday, July 22, 2017


“The Sunken Church,” the belfry on an island in the Volga, Kalyazin


Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

~ Seamus Heaney


Note the wonderful musicality of the first section. Without trying to, I memorized the first stanza:

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

Ah, the rhythm. Rhythm works directly on emotions. And here, oddly enough given the content, because of the rhythm I feel delight.

Then we learn that the body preserved in the bog was that of a man given to the Earth Mother as a ritual sacrifice. But it’s also possible (my own guess) that the goddess was was Hel, the Norse goddess of the Underworld; in some versions of the myth, her womb is the fiery cauldron of regeneration.

(In Poland there is a skinny peninsula between the Baltic and the Gdańsk Bay. The Vikings named it Hel, and that's what its name remains to this day, though the fishermen native to the place, the Kaszubs, are of the Western Slavic group and know nothing of that goddess — or rather, they don't know her by that name. Think also of Helsinki.)


The second section jars us with the abrupt shift to modern times and the reminder of the murders during the time of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. How wonderful and amazing that this is in the past  . . .  and both the Protestants and the Catholics seem to have realized that  revenge feeds on revenge; revenge never ends except if enough people of good will decide to stop the cycle, and refuse to make human sacrifices to the cruel archaic ideas (nationalism being an extension of tribal loyalties).

The speaker does not count on any quick resolution of violence. He knows that he will feel “at home” in Jutland (the northern part of Denmark), in “the old man-killing parishes.”

Today the locus of violence is elsewhere, and fertility rites are not involved, but the idea of killing and dying for a cause is very much alive. “When will they ever learn?”


By the way, when Jung and Freud traveled to America together in 1909, Jung talked and talked about the peat-bog mummies. Freud accused Jung of wishing him dead, and fainted. There were to be more of those fainting episodes. But that’s a separate story. Freud was no sacrifice to the goddess — if anything, he tried to replace the goddess with the “primal father.” But all we have from very ancient times are statues of the goddess, the Great Mother, and none of the “Great Father.”

But one way or another, humanity had long accepted the idea of sacrificing a living being, including one’s own son (think of Abraham and Isaac, and, ultimately, Jesus as a sacrifice to his own divine father) to a fictional entity that stood for the collective. One person dies — with or without his consent — so that others may survive and prosper — we’ve taken this for granted for thousands of years. Once the practice of religious sacrifice declined, there was still human sacrifice, but now it was dying — and killing — for a cause, such as one’s country or a particular ideology.

And it’s rather recently that we’ve begun to question this. 

Tollund Man

~ “Tollund Man, discovered in a bog in 1950 near Silkeborg, Denmark, initially was thought to be the victim of a recent murder. A wooden post was planted to mark the spot where two brothers, Viggo and Emil Hojgaard, along with Viggo’s wife, Grethe, all from the nearby village of Tollund, struck the body of an adult man while they cut peat with their spades on May 6, 1950. The dead man wore a belt and an odd cap made of skin, but nothing else. Oh yes, there was also a plaited leather thong wrapped tightly around his neck. This is the thing that killed him. His skin was tanned a deep chestnut, and his body appeared rubbery and deflated. Otherwise, Tollund Man, as he would be called, looked pretty much like you and me, which is astonishing considering he lived some 2,300 years ago.

Much of what we know about bog bodies amounts to little more than guesswork and informed conjecture. The Bronze and Iron Age communities from which they come had no written language. There’s one thing we do know about them, because it is written on their flesh. Nearly all appear to have been killed, many with such savagery that it lends an air of grim purposefulness to their deaths. They’ve been strangled, hanged, stabbed, sliced and clobbered on the head. Some victims may have been murdered more than once in several different ways. Scholars have come to call this overkilling, and it understandably provokes no end of speculation. “Why would you stab someone in the throat and then strangle them?” wonders Vincent van Vilsteren, curator of archaeology at Drents Museum in Assen, the Netherlands, home of the bog body known as Yde Girl.

We may never get a clear answer, and it now seems unlikely that a single explanation can ever fit all the victims. But the question keeps gnawing at us and gives bog bodies their clammy grip on the imagination. For some strange reason, we identify. They are so alarmingly normal, these bog folk. You think, there but for the grace of the goddess went I.

That’s critically important for Nielsen. Every new tidbit unravels another thread in the deeply human mystery of these bog bodies. “It will never end. There will always be new questions,” he says. “Tollund Man doesn’t care. He’s dead. This is all about you and me.” ~

Aarhus, Denmark. I wonder if those who profess a nostalgia for the past would truly prefer to live in the ancient rural Aarhus


~ “Our propaganda was based on a clear insight into the psychology of the masses. Our opponents appealed to reason, lived under the delusion that through political education the masses will become discerning and made immune to our poison. I’ve never had these illusions. I knew the utter lack of critical spirit in the masses, which doesn’t allow them to see contradictions. I knew that the masses will follow more easily the appeal to hatred and national honor, to rash action and excitement, than the call for insight and reason, that habituation and conditioning will stir it towards anything, even to war, for which we had to win them.” ~ Joseph Goebbels

THE POWER OF “OR” —  A DIFFERENT VISION OF THE FUTURE ( I think this is a repost; regardless, it’s one of the greatest insights I’ve ever had and one of the most important brief essays I’ve ever written)

Sometimes I wonder if I could have been helped — saving myself years of suffering — by a competent cognitive therapist. What if I said, “I am a total failure,” and s/he responded with “What’s your evidence?” And my evidence wouldn't hold. The Witness, the Observer in me always knew that my fear and loathing, my impotent rages and crying fits, were based on false propositions. All my delusional statements that served as a portal to enter depression could be refuted. I always realized that.

Perhaps someone’s asking me “What’s the evidence?” would have worked. But what ultimately had a life-transforming effect on me was presenting myself with a choice, an “or.” One stepping stone toward it was learning the story of Stephen Hawking. After receiving his ALS diagnosis, he was in despair and started drinking. One of his professors said something like, “You have a few years left. Do you want to spend them drinking yourself to death — OR do you want to try to make a contribution to physics?

This story was a brief burst of electricity. Then, on the conscious level, I pretty much forgot it. I did not yet see brooding over my misfortunes as equivalent to drinking, so that was just a wonderful story about a completely exceptional individual. It took mortality to corner me into a choice: do I want to waste the rest of my life on brooding, or do I want to do something productive? Not that I thought my writing would be a significant contribution . . . but perhaps a tiny contribution. I could touch a few lives — just as, at a poetry reading, there tends to be a person, just one person in the room, who responds to a particular poem at a deep level, or maybe just one line in that poem — and that is enough.

Do I want to spend what years remain brooding and weeping, or do I want to work and make a tiny contribution?

It was the question (not even explicit, but implied) that did the work. The choice. I didn’t have to delve into being or not being a complete failure. I didn’t have to figure out which life mistake led to all other mistakes. Debunking various old perceptions became irrelevant. Even if they were true, it didn’t matter. There was some writing that needed to be done, some tiny contribution to be made.

 This also connects with the movie “A Dangerous Method,” when Sabina Spielrein says that the essence of healing lies in the patient’s forming a new idea of the future, a vision of a future self. It’s not about solving old problems or reworking all that went wrong in childhood. When a new life and a new self starts being born, it’s so exciting and overwhelming, the deluded thinking of the past is forgotten in an instant. It’s simply of no use and no interest.

You can practice falling apart, or you can practice being strong” also had a profound impact. Sure, the word “strong” was attractive, but just the word OR had power. So another option existed!

Don’t ask me why I never thought of it on my own. That’s just how it happened. I had to come across an OR statement.

I saw the power of “or” — of being presented with another option —work in a different situation that also proved life-transforming. All my life I was good at saving money. Spending money hurt so much that I had to be getting a terrific bargain or exceptional quality for the reward to be stronger than the pain of parting with money. About three years ago, soon after becoming single and financially independent, I found myself face to face with a banker at my branch of Morgan Chase. He noticed I had saved up a certain sum — nothing spectacular, but enough to interest him. He asked me, “What do you want to do with this money — do you want to invest it?” If he stopped right there, he’d have had his way, but he made the mistake (from the bank’s point of view) of continuing: “Or do you want to spend it?”

That’s how he handed me a different future — contrary to his plans. Funny: his last name was Contreras, which makes me think of “contrary.” He planted a contrary idea in my mind, and that was it. He uttered the word “or.”

Sabina Spielrein

One problem is that we often don’t realize that there is an OR — that another option exists. This is where the input of others (including the wisdom we can find in books) can be like a bolt of lightning. And that’s why the need not to coast on what we’re used to (“the most important thing to do with money is to save it”), but to stop and ask, “What are my other options?”

If you blank out, ask yourself what the opposite of the customary behavior would be. 

And it needs to be a true opposite. Investing is not really an opposite of saving money -- it's another form of holding on to the money. But spending is the opposite of saving. And what a world opens up! So many things that could make life easier or more pleasant or more interesting!

To be depressed, or not to be depressed — to fall apart, or to be strong” — no, we are generally not presented with “or statements” as plain as that. But discovering such “or statements” can be life-transforming. The answer is contained right in what follows the “or.” 

No man is an island because each of us is a peninsula. Halfway we are connected with the mainland: family, society, nation. The other half should be left alone, free to develop individually. I hate regimes that want a person to be nothing more than a part of a continent or a nation. But I also despise the regimes who would like us all to be lonely islands. You can't live in a state of perpetual darwinistic war with the rest of the people.” ~ Amos Oz


This doesn’t have Donne’s grand poetry, but it’s a thought-provoking variation on the world-famous passage (I got to know it in my teens thanks to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls). Amos Oz says something very important about the dilemma of connectedness versus individualism. I think he has found the perfect image: no one is an island, everyone is a peninsula. We must be connected, but a part of us should be free to “individuate” — to develop out uniqueness. Then we can both contribute to the mainland and enjoy our lives, both when we are with others and when we are alone.

A peninsula seems such a wonderful metaphor for the human condition. A peninsula is a "part of the Main" — but a large part of it is unattached, free to sprout its fractals of coastline.


~ “Memories Trigger Emotional Pain But Not Physical Pain: Recalling the time you broke your leg will not make your leg hurt but recalling the time you felt rejected by your high-school crush will cause you substantial emotional pain. Our ability to evoke emotional pain by merely remembering distressing events is profound and stands in stark contrast to our total inability (thankfully) to re-experience physical pain.

Emotional pain leaves numerous reminders, associations and triggers that reactivate our pain when we encounter them.

Physical Pain Garners Far More Empathy from Others Than Emotional Pain: When we see a stranger get hit by a car we wince, gasp, or even scream and run to see if they’re okay. But when we see a stranger get bullied or taunted we are unlikely to do any of those things. Studies found we consistently underestimate others’ emotional pain but not their physical pain. Further, these empathy gaps for emotional pain are reduced only if we’ve experienced a similar emotional pain very recently ourselves.

Physical pain has to be quite extreme to affect our personalities and damage our mental health (unless the circumstances are emotionally traumatic as well) but even single episodes of emotional pain can damage our emotional health. For example, failing an exam in college can create anxiety and a fear of failure, a single painful rejection can lead to years of avoidance and loneliness, bullying in middle school can make us shy and introverted as adults, and a critical boss can damage our self-esteem for years to come.” ~


We’ve learned a lot about taking care of our physical health. The speaker says it’s time we learned about emotional self-care. He leaves it us to imagine how much better the world would be if people’s emotional health improved — if people learned better ways to cope with failure, rejection, loneliness — or how to stop brooding in just two minutes, relying on distraction.


Right now I'm undergoing a lot of non-stop physical pain: my “summer of pain.” But will I remember it as such once it’s over — even though right now it feels that it will never be over? And of course there are drugs, there is icing. In the worst-case scenario, there is medical help.

Compare to that the collective emotional emotional shock and pain many of us experienced on November 9, 2016. I sat motionless in front of the computer for an hour or more, feeling shattered, destroyed. Then I took to posting the most beautiful art images I had: Monet, the old masters. I wasn’t yet able to cry.

I wasn’t thinking about Dostoyevski’s “Beauty will save the world.” Nor was I thinking, less grandly, “Nevertheless, this is what still remains.” I wasn’t yet able to think. I was instinctively clinging to what I loved, and to what made life living before, in spite of everything.


The neural pathways of emotional pain coincide with the pathways of physical pain. Thus — and this will amaze a lot of people — taking a Tylenol will help ease pain and lift mood after an emotional injury. Of course on 11/9 I didn’t remember that. I was too overwhelmed with suffering to think.

I’ve experienced physical pain so intense that my only desire was to die. And yet I'm tempted to say: that was only pain. That wasn’t real suffering. My world was not destroyed. My beliefs were not destroyed. It was “dying pain,” but it was only pain.

Still, for less catastrophic instances of emotional suffering, it’s good to remember: anti-inflammatories tend to act as anti-depressants. Conversely, inflammation lowers the mood and makes us prone to depressive brooding. 

Dali: Anthropomorphic Cabinet, 1936


“Suddenly” — Tbilisi, 2017; M. Iossel. The photo made me tear up with delight. It doesn’t matter that I never managed to make it through the novel. No, it's not about any particular work, or a particular writer — it’s the meaning. Third-world electrical wiring, and suddenly — this.

It reminded me of another beautiful “suddenly” moment. I was staying at the Twin Lakes campground near Mammoth Lakes. It was a summer of grace: fewer people at the campground, much less noise, hardly any stench of campfires. Suddenly an amazing rendition of Beethoven’s “For Elise” on a fine mouth harmonica. I loved the tune since childhood, but never as much as then. 

time for a comic break: spontaneous combustion 

“Midnight finally struck, and they descended the stairs. Walking through Mr. Krook’s shop — crammed with rags, bottles, bones, and other trash — was unpleasant even during the daytime. Tonight they sensed something positively evil. Outside Krook’s bedroom near the back of the shop, a black cat leaped out and hissed. Grease stained the walls and ceiling inside the bedroom as if painted on. Krook’s coat and cap lay on a chair; a bottle of gin sat on the table. But the only sign of life was the cat, still hissing. They swung their lantern around, searching for Krook.

They finally spotted a pile of ash on the floor. They stared stupidly for a moment — before turning and running. They burst onto the street and shouted for help, help! But it was too late. Old Krook was dead, a victim of spontaneous combustion.” ~ Dickens, Bleak House


Most Victorians believed in spontaneous combustion: people suddenly bursting into flame, for no apparent reason. Stories of this existed — and that was enough. Victorian physicians regarded alcoholism as the main cause of spontaneous combustion.

Of course there are still believers in spontaneous combustion, since people will believe even greater absurdities. “Old Krook” bursting into flames? A minor incident next to what’s catalogued in various holy books — or, worse, what’s standard medical practice until at some point it becomes debunked. Nor is science exempt from firmly held false beliefs — but at least in science there is a tradition of asking for evidence.

Here we have also the magic of Dickens — how can we not fall under the spell of Dickens? Krook’s cat is still hissing — no doubt the animal had just witnessed a spontaneous combustion. Still, I like even better the sign in a Stockton motel that said
(at least if we believe Leonard Gardner, author of Fat City): “Smoking in bed? Please tell the front desk where to send your ashes.”


“From its beginnings as the emerging, dominant class structure in 18th century England, capitalism concentrated production geographically in what were or became urban areas. This persisted as capitalism spread through Western Europe, North America and Japan. Capitalist growth in urban areas not only drew food, raw materials and laborers from the surrounding countryside, it also generated deepening divisions between town and country. The workers who gathered in industrial towns eventually mobilized and fought successfully for rising wages rarely matched by rural incomes. Urban laborers became an organized, disciplined, productive and relatively well-paid working class.

Across the 19th and 20th centuries, expanding populations eventually required capitalism’s concentrated industrial centers to draw raw materials, foods and laborers from beyond their original national boundaries. Accordingly, formal and informal colonialism transformed large parts of Europe and much of Asia, Latin America and Africa. They became the “underdeveloped” global countryside for the “advanced” industrial capitalist centers.

In the 20th century, these underdeveloped areas variously mixed anti-imperialism, socialism and communism as they tried to break out of the unwanted roles imposed on them by capitalism’s world economic order. Newly independent nations charted different paths of economic development often depicted as anti- or non-capitalist. That usually meant assigning the state (rather than private citizens) a major role in owning and operating enterprises. Typically, the state would also plan the distributions of resources and products rather (or more) than relying on private market exchanges to do the job. Instead of democratizing their economies by bringing democracy inside enterprises, they shifted from a private to a state capitalism.

Marie-Antoinette with an Aigrette, 1755

Ultimately, the efforts of so many nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe to sustain anti- or non-capitalist development paths failed. An inability to shake off continuing subordination — especially economic — to the old capitalist centers (western Europe, North America and Japan) played major roles in those failures. For most, formal political independence merely changed the trappings more than the substance of their situations.

In the 1970s, the rapid spread of jet air travel and global telecommunications enabled old-center capitalists to consider relocating their production facilities to lower wage areas (since monitoring and control could be accomplished at a distance). Old-center capitalists seeking to relocate to the former colonial territories encountered there local partners eager to make and profit from deals with them. Hundreds of millions of new, much cheaper workers thereby became available to old-center capitalist employers. Globalization meant above all a sudden increase in the global supply of labor power, yielding an historically unprecedented buyers’ market for labor.

By relocating production facilities out of their old centers, capitalists drastically cut labor costs. They could escape the higher real wages and welfare state services won by generations of old-center workers. The profit possibilities were stupendous. Competition from those who first successfully relocated then forced even reluctant old-center capitalists to follow.

Many of the firms formed in, nurtured (and variously subsidized) by the old capitalist centers abandoned them. Detroit, Cleveland and so many other capitalist centers – in the US but also in Europe and Japan – have thus been declining, often for decades, with tragic human as well as economic costs. Loss of jobs, incomes, benefits and public services shaped ever more individuals’ lives. Capitalism’s globalization produced more enemies as the gaps between its beneficiaries and victims widened. Growing skepticism and then rejection confronted the euphemisms used to obscure globalization’s goals and effects (“deindustrialization,” “post-industrialism,” “outsourcing,” “world-class competition,” “free-trade associations,” “declining middle class,” and “austerity,” among others).

Capitalists’ profits grew sharply as they relocated production to lower waged workers in what became the new centers of capitalist growth (especially China, India, Brazil and so on). At the same time, such shifting of production provoked unemployment in the old centers, loss of higher-paying jobs that moved abroad and increasingly, the descent of workers into lower-paid, largely service-sector jobs. Old-center economies thus exhibited stagnant or falling real wages alongside soaring profits. The gap between rich and poor – between those whose incomes depend chiefly on profits and those who depend chiefly on wage work – starkly widened.

At the same time, wealth rose rapidly for the new-center partners of the old-center capitalists. Those partners who enabled old-center capital to flow into their societies and those who most successfully sold the resulting outputs back into old-center markets became wildly wealthy. Yet the mass of their fellow citizens remained mired in the poverty of their long-term economic underdevelopment. While new-center wages sometimes rose, their absolute levels remained low.

Sharply rising income and wealth inequalities thus characterized the new centers of capitalism as well as the old. Globalization distributed capitalism’s deepening inequality throughout the world. It likewise spread the usual effects of such inequality: speculation, real-estate bubbles, gross conspicuous consumption by the rich, political corruption and so on.

Today’s extremes produced by a globalizing capitalism — Detroit versus San Francisco, Manhattan versus the Bronx, Germany versus Greece, China’s new billionaires versus many millions of poor workers and peasants — where might they be leading us?

Marie-Antoinette in Coronation Robes, Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty, 1775

A remarkable historical parallel to this latest stage of capitalism suggests where it is leading us. After the 16th century, the contradictions of European feudalism led it to transform a centuries-old localized, decentralized manor system. Force served as midwife in amalgamating many feudal manors and gave birth to a few nation-states organized around highly centralized, absolute feudal monarchies (such as Britain, France, Spain and Prussia). That centralization process gave feudalism more decades of life. But it also generated those extremes of wealth and poverty exemplified by the palace at Versailles versus the abject slums of pre-revolutionary Paris.

Marie-Antoinette’s prison garb; Lenny Lianne


At the same time, we have to recognize that nowadays “the masses” don’t organize as they used to; people are glued to electronics. There is a lot more private isolation and inertia.

Religion, the “opium of the people,” may have played a part in keeping the oppressed from rebelling; now actual opiates do it more efficiently.

Also, the looming climate disaster is part of the equation that didn't exist back when feudalism started to crumble.



Through the development of a crypto-fascist ideology that combines ferocious ethnic chauvinism and revanchism, economic corporatism, a dash of religious traditionalism, and a personality cult, Putin is the model for aspiring autocrats everywhere, from Hungary to Turkey to the Philippines.

And through Russia Today and other direct or indirect arms of Kremlin propaganda, Putin makes common cause with his old comrades on the far left. In the main, the goal is to undermine the West every way they can, from exposing military and diplomatic secrets via WikiLeaks, to intervening in and calling into question the legitimacy of the democratic process, to raising the bogus specter of a “deep state” that suppresses the popular will.
No wonder the best book yet written about Putin’s Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev, is titled “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.” Relativism greases the skids for illiberalism. That’s why we NeverTrumpers believe there is a connection between Donald Trump’s compulsive lying and his undisguised personal affinity for Putin that goes beyond the question of who said what at last year’s Russia meeting in the Trump Tower. The connection is philosophical.

To be indifferent to every claim of truth or fact is the ultimate assertion of power. It is to say: Nothing restrains me, not what I promised yesterday, not what I am saying to you now, not what I might do tomorrow. That’s how Putin operates in his sphere. That’s how Trump operates in ours. What’s worse is to see so many conservatives who should know better excuse one president and line up behind the other.


~ "The archaic story of the naked man and woman, the talking snake, and the magical trees was something of an embarrassment. It was Augustine who rescued it from the decorous oblivion to which it seemed to be heading. He bears principal responsibility for its prominence, including the fact that four in ten Americans today profess to believe in its literal truth. During the more than forty years that succeeded his momentous conversion—years of endless controversy and the wielding of power and feverish writing—he persuaded himself that it was no mere fable or myth. It was the key to everything.

He brought to his interpretation not only his philosophical acumen but also memories that reached back decades—to the signs of inquieta adulescentia that made his father babble excitedly to his wife about grandchildren. Through a sustained reflection on Adam and Eve, Augustine came to understand that what was crucial in his experience was not the budding of sexual maturity but, rather, its unquiet, involuntary character. More than fifty years later, he was still brooding on this fact. Other parts of the body are in our power, if we are healthy, to move or not to move as we wish. “But when it must come to man’s great function of the procreation of children,” he writes, “the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them.”

Augustine’s tortured recognition that involuntary arousal was an inescapable presence—not only in conjugal lovemaking but also in what he calls the “very movements which it causes, to our sorrow, even in sleep, and even in the bodies of chaste men”—shaped his most influential idea, one that transformed the story of Adam and Eve and weighed down the centuries that followed: originale peccatum, original sin.

This idea became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy—but not before decades of dispute. Chief among those who found it both absurd and repulsive was a British-born monk, Pelagius. Almost exactly Augustine’s contemporary, he was in a certain sense his secret sharer: an upstart from the margins of the Roman world who by force of intellect, charisma, and ambition made his way to the great capital and had a significant impact upon the empire’s spiritual life.

Pelagius and his followers were moral optimists. They believed that human beings were born innocent. Infants do not enter the world with a special endowment of virtue, but neither do they carry the innate stain of vice. True, we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, and we live in a world rife with the consequences of their primordial act of disobedience. But that act in the distant past does not condemn us inescapably to sinfulness. How could it? What would be the mechanism of infection? Why would a benevolent God permit something so monstrous? We are at liberty to shape our own lives, whether to serve God or to serve Satan.

Augustine countered that we are all marked, in our very origins, with evil. It is not a matter of particular acts of cruelty or violence, specific forms of social pathology, or this or that person who has made a disastrous choice. It is hopelessly shallow and naïve to think, as the Pelagians do, that we begin with a blank slate or that most of us are reasonably decent or that we have it in our power to choose good. There is something deeply, essentially wrong with us. Our whole species is what Augustine called a massa peccati, a mass of sin.

The Pelagians said that Augustine was simply reverting to the old Manichaean belief that the flesh was the creation and the possession of a wicked force. Surely this was a betrayal of Christianity, with its faith in a Messiah who became flesh. Not so, Augustine responded. It is true that God chose to become man, but he did this “of a virgin, whose conception, not flesh but spirit, not lust but faith, preceded.” Jesus’ existence, in other words, did not depend upon the minutest touch of that ardor through which all other human beings are generated: “Holy virginity became pregnant, not by conjugal intercourse, but by faith—lust being utterly absent—so that that which was born from the root of the first man might derive only the origin of race, not also of guilt.”

The crucial word here is “guilt,” crimen. That we are not untouched by lust is our fault—not the result of God’s will but the consequence of something that we have done. It is here, when Augustine must produce evidence of our individual and collective perfidy, that he called in witness Adam and Eve. For the original sin that stains every one of us is not only a sin that inheres in our individual origins—that is, in the sexual arousal that enabled our parents to conceive us—but also a sin that may be traced back to the couple in whom our whole race originates.

The key to this understanding had been hidden all along in Augustine’s own experience. The inquieta adulescentia [signs of puberty] that delighted the adolescent’s father and horrified his mother could now be traced all the way back to the original moment when Adam and Eve felt both lust and shame. They saw for the first time what they had never seen before, and, if the sight aroused them, it also impelled them to reach for the fig leaves to cover as with a veil “that which was put into motion without the will of those who wished it.” Until this moment, they had possessed—for the only time, Augustine thought, in the whole history of the human race—perfect freedom. Now, because they had spontaneously, inexplicably, and proudly chosen to live not for God but for themselves, they had lost their freedom. And they were ashamed.

But what was the alternative that they—and we—lost forever? How, specifically, were they meant to reproduce, if it was not in the way that all humans have done for as long as anyone can remember? In Paradise, Augustine argued, Adam and Eve would have had sex without involuntary arousal: “They would not have had the activity of turbulent lust in their flesh, however, but only the movement of peaceful will by which we command the other members of the body.” Without feeling any passion—without sensing that strange goad—“the husband would have relaxed on his wife’s bosom in tranquility of mind.”

This was how it was all meant to be for Adam and Eve. But, Augustine concludes, it never happened, not even once. Their sin happened first, “and they incurred the penalty of exile from paradise before they could unite in the task of propagation as a deliberate act undisturbed by passion.” So what was the point of this whole exercise of trying to imagine their sex life? It was bound up with Christian polemic and Christian doctrine—with an attempt to refute the Manichaeans and the Pelagians and with a vision of Jesus as the miraculous child of a virgin who became pregnant without the experience of ardor. Along with these doctrinal purposes, Augustine’s obsessive engagement with the story of Adam and Eve spoke to something in his life. What he discovered—or, more truthfully, invented—about sex in Paradise proved to him that humans were not originally meant to feel whatever it was that he experienced as an adolescent and afterward. It proved to him that he was not meant to feel the impulses that drew him to the fleshpots of Carthage. Above all, it proved to him that he, at least in the redeemed state for which he longed, was not meant to feel what he had felt again and again with his mistress: the mother of his only child; the woman he sent away at his mother’s behest; the one who declared that she would never be with another man, as he would never be with another woman; the one whose separation from him felt, he wrote, like something ripped from his side.

Adam had fallen, Augustine wrote in “The City of God,” not because the serpent had deceived him. He chose to sin, and, in doing so, he lost Paradise, because he could not endure being severed from his sole companion. Augustine had, as best he could within the limits of his fallen condition, undone Adam’s fatal choice. With the help of his sainted mother, he had severed himself from his companion and had tried to flee from ardor, from arousal. He had fashioned himself, to the best of his extraordinary abilities, on the model of the unfallen Adam, a model he had struggled for many years to understand and to explicate. True, he still had those involuntary dreams, those unwelcome stirrings, but what he knew about Adam and Eve in their state of innocence reassured him that someday, with Jesus’ help, he would have total control over his own body. He would be free." ~

Vittore Carpaccio: St. Augustine in his Study. 


Comment of a visitor on meeting Gibbon: “Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Gibbon?” The way I heard or read it the first time made it even more juicy -- though it's probably apocryphal: that it was the king of England who addressed him that way.


It only takes a simple compass to demonstrate that Earth has a magnetic field -- but it is quite difficult to explain how exactly it is created. Without any doubt, our planet's hot core, consisting mainly of iron, plays an important part. In combination with Earth's rotation, it builds up a powerful "dynamo effect," which creates a magnetic field.

But with iron alone, this effect cannot be explained. A team of researchers, led by Prof. Alessandro Toschi and Prof. Karsten Held (TU Wien) and Prof. Giorgio Sangiovanni (Würzburg University) has now published calculations in the journal "Nature Communications," which show that the theory of the geodynamo has to be revised. As it turns out, it is crucial for the dynamo effect that Earth's core contains up to 20% nickel -- a metal, which under extreme conditions behaves quite differently from iron.

Extreme Heat and Pressure

Earth's core is about as big as the moon and as hot as the surface of the sun. There is a pressure of hundreds of gigapascals -- that is comparable to the pressure which several railway locomotives would exert if they could be balanced on one square millimetre. "Under these extreme conditions, materials behave in a way which may be quite different from what we are used to," says Karsten Held. "It is hardly possible to recreate these conditions in a lab, but with sophisticated computer simulations, we are able to calculate the behaviour of metals in Earth's core on a quantum mechanical level.”

The heat of Earth's core has to find a way to escape. Hot material rises up to the outer layers of the globe, creating convection currents. At the same time, Earth's rotation leads to strong Coriolis forces. In combination these effects produce a complicated spiralling flow of hot material. "When electrical currents are created in such a system of flows, they can cause a magnetic field which in turn increases the electrical current and so forth -- and finally the magnetic field becomes so strong that we can measure it on the surface of Earth," says Alessandro Toschi.

Conducting Heat

Up until now, however, nobody could really explain how these convection currents emerge in the first place: iron is a very good heat conductor and at high pressure its thermal conductivity increases even more. "If Earth's core consisted only of iron, the free electrons in the iron could handle the heat transport by themselves, without the need for any convection currents," says Karsten Held. "Then, earth would not have a magnetic field at all."

However, our planet's core also contains almost 20% nickel. For a long time, this fact was not considered to be particularly important. But as it turns out, nickel plays a crucial role: "Under pressure, nickel behaves differently from iron," says Alessandro Toschi. "At high pressure, the electrons in nickel tend to scatter much more than the electrons in iron. As a consequence, the thermal conductivity of nickel and, thus, the thermal conductivity of Earth's core is much lower than it would be in a core consisting only of iron." Due to the significant proportion of nickel, the heat of the high-temperature earth core cannot flow towards the planet's surface by means of the motion of the electrons alone. As a result, convection currents have to emerge, which eventually build up Earth's magnetic field.

ending on beauty:

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!

Let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of a flower

Down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness,

Down the way Persephone goes, just now, in first-frosted September

To the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
And Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with a passion of dense gloom,
among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness
on the lost bride and her groom.

~ D.H. Lawrence, Bavarian Gentians 

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