Saturday, September 9, 2017


Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola): Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself

To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers...
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass”,
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image

Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept

In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission
That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.

But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
We see only postures of the dream,
Riders of the motion that swings the face
Into view under evening skies, with no
False disarray as proof of authenticity.
But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one’s hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex

To hide something, which makes the hand loom large
As it retreats slightly. There is no way
To build it flat like a section of wall:
It must join the segment of a circle,
Roving back to the body of which it seems
So unlikely a part, to fence in and shore up the face
On which the effort of this condition reads
Like a pinpoint of a smile, a spark
Or star one is not sure of having seen
As darkness resumes. A perverse light whose

Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its
Conceit to light up: unimportant but meant.
Francesco, your hand is big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention.
(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale,
Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom
In relation to the tiny, self-important ship
On the surface.) But your eyes proclaim

That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves,
And the window doesn’t matter much, or that
Sliver of window or mirror on the right, even
As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word for time, and which
Follows a course wherein changes are merely
Features of the whole. The whole is stable within
Instability, a globe like ours, resting

On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball
Secure on its jet of water.
And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.

~ John Ashbery (1927-2017), opening of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Ashbery is mostly a poet of limitation. He seems never to miss the opportunity to remind the reader that it will all come to nothing. Vanity of vanities. We are hemmed in by circumstances, doomed to disillusionment and diminishment.

Our knowledge is limited. Our desires and longing may not be, but they are doomed. How different Emily Dickinson feels when she writes:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

~ Dickinson, 632

Dickinson is a poet of infinity. Ashbery is a poet of boundaries. That Emily lived a very constricted life (by our standards) while Ashbery had the freedom to travel, for instance, has little or perhaps even nothing to do with the basic tone their writing.

Ashbery at Villa Madama, Rome, 1963

Nor would Ashbery second Wordsworth’s claim, in Tintern Abbey, that “Natured never did betray / A heart that loved her.” For Ashbery, the human condition is constant betrayal — by lovers, by nature, by life. Or, if betrayal is too strong a word, then at least disappointment. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal — only to be rebuffed again. The soul tries to reach beyond its bubble, only to be reminded that the bubble (or mirror, or surface) is all there is. Sometimes it seems that Ashbery deliberately mocks the Romantics, by reaching for the grand statement, for something transcendent — only to take it back, to say, nah, there is no Universal Spirit, no consoling beauty whose consolation we can always count on. Everything will come to nothing.

Emily sees the brain (or mind) mind as “wider than the sky”; Ashbery sees the soul (arguably a synonym of mind) as trapped (as if in a convex mirror) and “small.”

The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept

In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
. . .
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.

The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.


What mockery: the soul is “treated humanely.” 

But I have to agree: “the soul is not a soul.” It’s not the little person inside that is immortal and leaves the body after death, free at last from the “mortal coils,” ready for its flight into the afterlife. The religious concept of the soul is an archaic fiction.

But while Ashbery would agree that the soul is not immortal and is indeed a fiction (unless defined as a function of the brain, i.e. roughly equivalent to consciousness or mind), for the sake of the poem he goes along with the fiction. The soul is a prisoner because all we can know is the surface, or appearances: there is no escaping the surface.

The most moving part of the poem is indeed this lamentation:

The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.

Note how masterfully Ashbury presents the soul as a captive:

The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept

In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
. . .  The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.

But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.

This, perhaps, is the saving feature of the poem (aside from the occasional beauty of the images and verbal music): it’s not pure negation after all, but a “combination / Of tenderness, amusement and regret.” Negation would be simplistic; we have here some caring for all who are doomed to human complexities. 

I also like these lines, perfect in their rendition of contradictions: 

You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.



The poem goes on and on, for 553 lines (let’s face it: it’s much too long, and overwhelms the reader without conveying any particularly memorable message, especially compared to the painting itself), but I think we get the flavor of it based on the first one hundred lines or so. In summary: there is no “deeper meaning,” only the surface. Whenever we find an affirmation, we will soon find its contradiction. Everything is both a yes and a no, with no seeming to prevail in the end. The most we can have is some lovely fragments, moments, glimpses.

Here is the ending:

. . . The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

Thus, again, we end up with fragments and whispers. And, based on how difficult it is to plod through the entire poem, maybe fragments is all we can deal with anyway? I like fragments, whispers, shadows, and ruins. That’s where poetry can be found — in the smaller and more manageable aspects of the intimidating sublime.

In the end, however, I think the power remains with the painting. Ashbery’s poem is almost a perverse illustration of the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.


As for Parmigianino, I like even better another self-portrait of his, in a red hat, 1540. This is the older and wiser Parmigianino. He painted this self-portrait the year he died, at only 37. There is a sadness in his face, but we also have the marvelous curl-like wave in his beard, and of course that marvelous hat.


How different from Ashbery’s incessant word games is the earnestness of Tolstoy’s search for answers:

~ “Can it be that I have not lived as one should?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?” ~ Lev Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Emil Alzamora: Afterlife afterthought, 2006

I’ve been trying and trying to find a certain late poem by Milosz, but without success. “It’s the malice of things,” my father would have joked. “They don’t want to be found.”

It’s a minor poem, never, to my knowledge, anthologized or commented on. But I remember the gist of it. The speaker confesses that a thousand times he has prayed for a sign that god exists — but he knows with certainty that a statue in a church will never nod to him. The wooden saint’s carved hand will never lift to bless, no matter how fervent the prayer. The poet knows he will never receive a supernatural sign that would strengthen his faith, so filled with doubt, so undermined by the problem by evil.

Yet just before the poem (or is it an essay?) ends, the speaker leaves the dusky, empty church where the statue has again remained immobile, and starts mingling with the small crowd outside, where he experiences an insight: god is not to be found in church, among the still and silent statues. God can be found among people: in a handshake, in a stranger’s kind smile.

Of course it’s not strictly Milosz’s discovery, this idea that the divine dwells in positive human interactions — in kindness and respect for the other. The famous Jewish theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965) is generally credited with it. It was Buber who introduced the idea of “I-Thou” relationships as opposed to the “I-It” relationships. In German, his famous 1923 essays is entitled “Ich und Du.”

First, a linguistic quibble which points to the larger problem: “Ich und Du” translates as “I and You.” Like other German speakers, Buber addressed god as “Du,” meaning “You”; he spoke of god as “the eternal You.” I realize that in English the translator wanted the singular you since strictly speaking the English “you” is a plural pronoun like the French “vous” — but that’s long forgotten, and not a valid reason to reach for the archaic. But as soon as I typed “archaic,” I realized: this is it! By speaking of theology at all, WE ARE TRYING TO SALVAGE THE ARCHAIC. Funny that this became apparent in the English translation, and not in German (not in this blatant way).

Sure, for theology it’s a bold step forward to say god is neither in heaven nor on earth, but only in the respectful I-You (or “I-Thou” for those who insist) interactions between people (and perhaps between humans and animals). I am all for the kind of respect that makes us celebrate the value of another living being. I want gentle, affectionate, respectful interactions. But what is the benefit of inserting a deity into any respectful interaction? I want to see the person I’m talking to as a human being. When I talk to my friend Andrea, I want to fully concentrate on Andrea. I don’t need anything inserted between us. It would only be a hindrance. And if I perform an act of kindness for Andrea, I’m doing it for Andrea and not for any deity.

When I give money to a poor person, I am doing it for that person, not for Jesus.

When I'm feeling grateful for the deeply mutually supportive relationship I'm privileged to have at this stage of my life, I also realize that for neither him or me this happened because of putting Jesus at the center of our partnership. We put “wanting that which is the best for him/her” at the center. And that deep and absolute respect, yes. Not because we see the “divine spark” in the other. Because we see a human being, both the flaws and the greatness.

Giovanni di Paolo: Paradise, 1445. Note that this is the paradise of human affection. Even in times of medieval cruelty, people could imagine what paradise it would be if we treated one another with "I-You" equality and total respect.

A man jumping into the rushing flood waters to save a stranger’s child is doing it as a human being acting supremely human, and not to please god. A soldier running under fire to save a wounded buddy is not doing it for Jesus. In fact, people have been known to risk their lives to save a dog. We know that’s insane — but also beautiful.

It’s time to jettison the archaic story and relate to people directly — never putting a god ahead of another human being (and of course “god” can mean things like money or an ideology). We need a new story about our connection to others and to the universe. As Laplace said about god in relation to planetary motion, “I had no need for that hypothesis.”

The idiomatic translation of the German “du” is “you.” “You” implies equality. Modern English is the language of equality. Unlike many other languages, it’s not burdened with formal, ceremonial modes of address that introduce hierarchy and distance.

A cat may look at the Queen, and even the janitor can address the Big Boss as “you.” This is revolutionary. Never mind that originally the “you” was a more formal plural, like the French “vous.” With centuries of usage, it became singular. I say “you” to a child, but the child also says “you” to me, a Big Adult. In more hierarchical cultures, that would be a sign of disrespect; not in the English-speaking countries.

“Thou” is archaic. The egalitarian attitude that Buber tried to promote is expressed by “you.” “You” is a way the essence of modernity, the hallmark of English, the language of equality. How ironic that Buber’s first English translator, who became normative, chose a pronoun from the hierarchical past.


It’s interesting that even in the more formal languages, god is addressed in the second person. Thus it’s “Tu” rather than Vous in French, Du rather than Sie in German, Tu rather than Usted in Spanish, and so on. There is a special intimacy to the use of “you,” and reaching for an archaic pronoun is a mistake.

Perhaps Buber’s first translator felt that “you” was too egalitarian, too humanizing — that the archaic pronoun was somehow the vessel of the sacred. Yet the whole point of the Buber’s “I-You” terminology is to remove the distance, to introduce closeness and empathy in ALL significant relationships. That’s the wisdom of religious tradition: god is presented as all-powerful, and yet is not addressed the way a social superior would be addressed. And for Buber, this is where god is present: in egalitarian I-You relationships.

By the way, Mary and the saints are also “you” when prayed to. There is a whole crowd of invisible beings whom the faithful are supposed to address as intimates, without “standing on ceremony.” In extremely inegalitarian cultures, this is radical.

Walter Kaufmann did his own translation of Buber, in which he used “I-You.” Unfortunately, hardly anyone is even aware that an alternate translation exists. And thus Buber’s idea of the sacredness of radical equality had hardly any impact on the English-speaking world. The respect and empathy that Buber saw contained in the “you” — an insight based on a mere pronoun! — were lost in the “Thou,” which is almost as unreal to us as the Middle Ages.

Still, correcting the “Thou” to “You” does not solve the problem created by theism. Addressing an imaginary all-powerful “you” in preference to interacting in a respectful, egalitarian way with an actual you, a living person, is an even greater mistake. Abraham became guilty of killing Isaac the moment he agreed to do it — the moment he put blindly following orders from an alleged deity ahead of ethics in relation to an actual human being.

And in real, unedited life, Abraham probably did go ahead and kill Isaac — according to the archaic custom of the times.


I had to think about the “I—You” for awhile, for where to look for or find god. What interests me is that projection outside the self of what are essentially human attributes and ideas. Good and evil are potentials in us, but have been cast out and personified as eternal supernatural persons, God and Satan, reigning over their respective spiritual landscapes, sparring with each other for our souls.

This certainly is an archaic way of seeing the universe and our place in it — the all-powerful King/Father/originator, making the rules, rewarding and punishing, caring for and preserving his children. And for a solution to the question of evil — the devil, opposer, denier, liar and thief, trying to snatch us away from the father’s grace. Buber’s “I-You” is an advance on this conception, the external projection returned to it’s place of origin, in human relations and interactions.

I would go further and say both goodness (the sacred) and evil (the infernal) exist in us, belong to us, are our creation, our choice. This is not the most comfortable idea, placing the responsibility of good and evil in our hands. Heaven or hell, it’s what we made. This is also the source of all hope for us, recognizing our potential, the god in us, the way to love, and that beautiful vision of paradise in the painting [by Giovanni di Paulo]. Choices we make. Every day.


I totally agree: god and Satan are projections. It’s “human, all too human.” No one up there/out there — just we humans here on this earth. The odd thing is that humans — or maybe it was just male priests — projected mainly power and violence on the early deities — my god can beat up your god. It was all about dominance, combat. Nurturing qualities took a long time to appear in a male deity — and at first it was just favoritism toward one family, say Noah or Lot, or Abraham and Sarah (she has to be included, because Ishamael ended up being pretty much excluded as the son of the wrong mother — talk about ethno-narcissism).

A friend is in heaven on his way to Connecticut (photo: Chris Vannoy)
“In writing a novel, the writer must be able to identify emotionally and intellectually with two or three or four contradictory perspectives and give each of them a convincing voice. It’s like playing tennis with yourself and you have to be on both sides of the yard. You have to be on both sides, or all sides if there are more than two sides.” ~ Amos Oz



~ "Westerners flocked to see Gorbachev as an oracle of democracy. But Russians despised Gorbachev as the destroyer of their empire and supported Putin as its restorer. Gorbachev lived then, as now, in a dual reality — admired and feted in Washington, London and Berlin, reviled and ostracized in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.

William Taubman, whose brilliant 2003 biography of Nikita S. Khrushchev won the Pulitzer Prize, delivers another richly layered portrait of a Russian leader determined to reform a thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional society, only to be swept away by forces he could not control.

That this book should come out now is fortuitous as Americans debate Russia’s role in the world — and in our own political system. To understand today’s Russia, it is necessary to understand what happened during Gorbachev’s time, how he opened up a hermetically sealed society after 70 years of stifling Communist rule but was unable to solve its deeper problems and was ultimately pushed aside by the ambitious and mercurial Boris Yeltsin. A populist democrat more interested in breaking apart the sclerotic system than reforming it, Yeltsin introduced a raucous version of democracy and a crony version of capitalism that ended up discrediting both in the eyes of Russians who lost their savings while oligarchs snatched up lucrative state assets.

By the time Putin, the cold-eyed former K.G.B. lieutenant colonel, came along, many Russians were eager for a strong hand, willing to trade some of their newfound freedom for a leader promising order and a return to national greatness. When Putin lamented that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he was met with cheers, not jeers. Gorbachev begat Yeltsin and Yeltsin begat Putin.

But Gorbachev, now 86 and still living in Moscow, remains celebrated in the West and it is hard to think of many figures who shaped the last half-century of world history more than he did. He put an end to the totalitarian system created by Lenin and Stalin. He freed Russians to speak their minds without fear, ended the Communist monopoly on power and held competitive elections. He paved the way for Eastern Europe to leave Moscow’s orbit, largely without violence. And he made peace with the West.

“Gorbachev was a visionary who changed his country and the world — though neither as much as he wished,” Taubman writes. Gorbachev’s problem, he says, was that Russia had no real experience with the freedom it was being offered. “It is more the fault of the raw material he worked with than of his own real shortcomings and mistakes that Russian democracy will take much longer to build than he thought.”

Born in 1931 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Gorbachev was close to his father, who fought in World War II, but had a more complex relationship with his mother, who was severe and whipped him with a belt. He worked five summers helping his father operate a combine harvester, earning the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, signed by Stalin himself, and wore it proudly throughout his first year at college. At Moscow State University, he was a country boy who did not even know what the ballet was.

But he was a quick study and became a master of the system he would later destroy, rising through the ranks as a provincial official in Stavropol. His real break was getting to know Yuri Andropov, another son of Stavropol, who became K.G.B. director and later general secretary of the Communist Party. The two were close enough that they vacationed together. Andropov brought Gorbachev to Moscow and into the Politburo, setting him up as an eventual successor in 1985.

From the inside, Gorbachev understood the system was rotting away. A turning point for him was the government’s knee-jerk cover-up of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “Chernobyl really opened my eyes,” Gorbachev said later. His life, he said, could be divided into two parts — before Chernobyl and after. His programs of glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, economic restructuring, changed Russian society. But his was a gradual, stutter-start revolution, a “revolution by evolutionary means,” as he put it.

Through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the summit meetings with Ronald Reagan and the changes in Soviet society, Gorbachev’s efforts to straddle between reformers and hard-liners satisfied neither side. His personal feud with Yeltsin sowed the seeds for his fall. Gorbachev, Taubman writes, may have recognized his own “arrogance, vanity, pride” in Yeltsin. “Gorbachev’s anger may have been aimed at least partly at himself.”

When the end came, as it inevitably would, the hard-liners turned against him first, mounting an amateurish coup attempt in 1991 that quickly fell in the face of popular resistance led by Yeltsin. But it was the reformers who finally did him in, as Yeltsin then shoved Gorbachev aside. Gorbachev’s final attempt at a comeback, a tragicomic run against Yeltsin, who was seeking re-election in 1996, yielded a humiliating 0.5 percent of the vote. That was the Russians’ judgment on the man who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the West.

When Yeltsin gave way to Putin at the start of 2000, Russia had changed, imperfectly, Gorbachev insisted, but still for the better. But it was turning again. “The truth is that Russia under Vladimir Putin largely abandoned Gorbachev’s path at home and abroad and returned to its traditional, authoritarian, anti-Western norm,” Taubman writes. “But that only underlines how exceptional Gorbachev was as a Russian ruler and world statesman.” ~


I think Putin's belief that the fall of the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century" is the key to his empire-centered vision. His greatest dream is the restoration of the Soviet Empire, just without "Soviet" in the name (but with the old Soviet policies of dictatorial rule and ruthless suppression of opposition). Militarism, interventionism, hostility toward the West, trying to undermine democratic governments — it's all in place.

from another source:

~ Gorbachev was a remarkably decent man . . .  When he returned to Moscow from his dacha in Crimea after the August 1991 coup attempt collapsed, the logical next step would have been to head downtown to rally his supporters. Gorbachev did not. He was far more concerned about Raisa, who remained traumatized from the family’s house arrest. Here is a moment where Gorbachev’s decency prevailed over considerations of power.

When [he and Raisa] traveled to France in 1977, it “shook [their] a priori belief in the superiority of socialist over bourgeois democracy.” Gorbachev valued his wife’s counsel as he attempted to withdraw from Afghanistan while reinvigorating Soviet life at home — beginning with an ill-fated anti-alcoholism campaign in 1985. “We can’t go on like this,” he confided in her that March. From their travels to Western Europe, they grasped how people in industrialized societies ought to be living in the 1980s. Few Soviet citizens shared such experiences or expected much accountability from their leaders.

There was no popular clamor for reform in the Soviet Union — notwithstanding demographic changes within a multiethnic empire embroiled in an unwinnable economic competition with the United States and bogged down in a hopeless war in Afghanistan. When economic reforms failed to yield clear and immediate results, Gorbachev doubled down on political reforms. He launched Glasnost (or, “giving voice”) in 1987. In 1989, he presided over televised sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies, where he argued with elected member and nuclear scientist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov, whose internal exile Gorbachev had lifted a few years earlier.

The pace of reform alienated erstwhile supporters in the Central Committee — too fast for Yegor Ligachev; too slow for Boris Yeltsin. Yet it was very deliberate. “One thing Gorbachev rejected from the start was any attempt to recast the Soviet system by means of force and violence,” as Taubman puts it. “Whatever changes he introduced had to be ‘gradual,’ [Gorbachev] wrote later, since ‘revolutionism leads to chaos, destruction and often to a new kind of unfreedom.’” Taubman’s next line is crucial for Gorbachev’s placement in history:

    This was Gorbachev’s sharpest break of all with tradition – not only with the Bolsheviks’ bloody way of doing things but with other Russians’ belief, both before 1917 and after 1991, that glorious ends justify the most repugnant means.

From the moment he became general secretary, Gorbachev attempted to adapt communism to make the Soviet system work. This led him to jettison the mantra of “international class conflict,” aspire to eliminate nuclear weapons, accept political experimentation in Poland and Hungary, and tolerate outright anti-government protest movements in East Germany and elsewhere. The fall of the Berlin Wall and revolutions of 1989 to 1990 would not have occurred without him.

Disinclined toward violence, tolerant of German and Polish nationalism, Gorbachev nevertheless regarded Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — which Stalin had forcibly annexed during World War II — as part of a post-Soviet union. Disunion, he anticipated, would usher in even more violence — something the world watched play out in former Yugoslavia a few years later. “Yes, absolutely,” the union between Russia and its neighbors could have been preserved, he wrote in one of several book-length reflections on this period, had not the August 1991 coup disrupted his momentum toward producing a new union treaty.


It’s so ironic that the Russians who hate him see him as the man responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, while he did his best to salvage it. There seems to be a complete blindness about who really did it: Boris Yeltsin. Of course the conditions had to be completely ripe for it. 

~ As Gorbachev prepares to leave his office for the last time, his press spokesman Andrei Grachev "showed him the front page of a Moscow newspaper with a headline from Pushkin: 'No, I shall not die completely.' Smiling, Gorbachev completed the stanza: 'My soul, my lyre, will survive me and escape corruption.’" ~


and from the Washington Post:

~ “Gorbachev, from his youth, saw the giant gap between Communist Party slogans and the poor living conditions and repressive environment of everyday life. His freshman classmates at Moscow State University may have sneered at the country bumpkin who wore on his lapel the coveted “Order of the Red Banner of Labor” he earned in five summers of helping his father run a mammoth combine harvester, but Gorbachev also knew, better than they, that Stalin’s collectivization had left the countryside a disaster.

Later, in his first party job, he wrote to his future wife that local bosses were “disgusting” in the way they behaved: arrogant, impudent and conventional. As a regional party boss himself, he was shocked by the sight of a remote village, Gorkaya Balka, or Bitter Hollow, made up of “low, smoke-belching huts, blackened dilapidated fences” and asked, “How is it possible, how can anyone live like that?” Still later, Gorbachev joined a Soviet delegation visiting Czechoslovakia after Soviet troops crushed the Prague Spring in 1968. In Brno, factory workers turned their backs on him, and the lesson he drew was that Moscow’s use of force had solved nothing. Gorbachev began to question the massive over-centralization of the Soviet system. The doubts spilled over, too, during a visit to Canada in 1983, when Gorbachev threw caution to the wind and, during a break, strolled in an orchard with Alexander Yakovlev, then the Soviet ambassador to Canada, sharing his deepening concerns. Yakovlev would become an architect of Gorbachev’s new thinking.

At home, Gorbachev opened the stale, closed Soviet system. In 1989, a new legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies, was chosen in the first relatively free elections since the Bolshevik Revolution. Gorbachev ordered the parliament’s proceedings to be televised, and the nation was transfixed by open debate and criticism. But Gorbachev’s breathtaking changes let loose all kinds of centrifugal forces beyond his control, including a yearning for independence among some Soviet republics. Taubman also shows the debilitating effect of Gorbachev’s rivalry with the brash Boris Yeltsin. In retrospect, Gorbachev did not go far enough. He should have broken with the party, abandoned the old guard, and independently set out to build a social democracy. His unwillingness to do so left him on the deck of a sinking ship.

The core of the rot in the Soviet system was the economy, but Gorbachev mustered only half-measures and could not make the leap to capitalism, backing away from Grigory Yavlinsky’s “500 Days” plan for a transition to market. Taubman does not dwell on it, but one of the most remarkable changes of the Gorbachev era, still recalled today, were the cooperatives, the first private businesses, from which the Yeltsin-era oligarchs got their early taste of profit.

In his superb summary, Taubman asserts, “The Soviet Union fell apart when Gorbachev weakened the state in an attempt to strengthen the individual.”


Are we really surprised that nationalism proved stronger than any desire for democracy? That the nostalgia for the empire and for the superpower status would have greater appeal than, say, freedom of expression?

Nor is the empire a necessary part of the equation. When I think of the rise of fascism in Poland and Hungary, I see that nationalism is sufficient. Just dress it up as “patriotism”; without a strong tradition of checks and balances, most of the population won’t mind a dictator. In fact many people will adore him. Let’s not forget that many worshiped Hitler and Stalin as living gods. Democratic leaders, with their limited power and always exposed to criticism, can inspire affection and admiration, but what is that next to religious fervor?


In the summer of 1894, some 3,000 railroad workers on Chicago’s South Side went rogue, staging an unauthorized walkout to protest shrinking paychecks.

The ensuing showdown between the American Railway Union (ARU) and the Pullman Company not only gave Americans a much-appreciated day off but also, more importantly, legitimized unionism as the primary means of protecting and advancing worker rights.

The Pullman Strike, as it would come to be called, emerged from one of the country’s most devastating economic crises, the Panic of 1893. Thousands of businesses shut down, and unemployment cracked 20%. To cope with plummeting demand and revenue, the Pullman Company, a premier railroad manufacturer, slashed its workforce by half and worker wages by a quarter, financially crippling its employees and their families under the weight of unsubsidized rents and living expenses.

From June to August, half a million workers across America joined the boycott, so incapacitating railroad traffic that President Grover Cleveland’s administration sought an injunction against the union — the first in US history — and dispatched troops to end the strike.

The immediate aftermath was not pretty. Although Cleveland, as a peace offering, christened Labor Day a national holiday, wages stayed stagnant, unions suffered significant losses, and Eugene Debs went to jail for violating a court injunction.

Even so, the Pullman Strike ushered in an era of widespread unionization, heightened awareness of class and wealth inequality and, subsequently, progressive ideals like a minimum wage and overtime pay.

Americans are still reaping the rewards of unionism today: the gender pay gap has halved since 1980, and in five years time, 17% of the populace will live in a city or state with a $15 minimum wage. Yet as automation continues its assault on the most heavily-unionized industries, the formidable labor movement that has converted ideals into laws is starting to look like the relic of a bygone era. Union membership slumped to an all-time low this year — a dismal 10.7 percent. Anti-collective-bargaining laws have gathered steam in states like Wisconsin, ostensibly as a productivity booster but actually a corporate-backed effort to swat aside annoyances like paid sick days and extended maternity leave.

It’s important to remember that decades of organized labor protests, not bouts of compassion from white-collar executives, are the reason Americans get to sleep in on Labor Day morning — and enjoy many other benefits.


Born in 1706, Emilie had three pieces of great good fortune in her life. The first was to be born with a remarkable brain. Her greatest work was to translate the “Principia”, the path-breaking work on physics by the secretive Cambridge brainbox, Isaac Newton, who died when Emilie was 20. She did not just translate his writing from Latin to French; she also expressed Newton's obscure geometric proofs using the more accessible language of calculus. And she teased out of his convoluted web of theorems the crucial implications for the study of gravity and energy. That laid the foundation for the next century's discoveries in theoretical physics. The use of the square of the speed of light, c², in Einstein's most famous equation, E=mc² is directly traceable to her work.

Emilie's second piece of luck was that her father allowed her to use her brain: not much, admittedly, but certainly far more than most bright girls of her time and country. She was not sent to a convent. He was wealthy and liberal-minded enough to buy her books and talk to her about astronomy. He married her to Florent-Claude, Marquis du Châtelet-Lomont, who was a touch dull but decent—and unbothered by his brainy wife's intellectual and amorous adventures. Indeed, he liked and admired Voltaire.

Her third great good fortune was her array of mind-expanding, appreciative lovers. They may have been unsatisfactory mates by today's standards, but they were rarities in an age when few men looked for intellectual companionship from women. Emilie started by bedding the Duc de Richelieu, the “most sought-after man in France”. He bolstered her intellectual confidence, dented by an isolated childhood and early marriage. Even when she dumped him, they remained friends. Then came Voltaire, needy, self-indulgent, unreliable and self-centered—but still the love of her life and its great intellectual and cultural stimulus. Even when passion cooled, they remained great companions.

Finally, she fell in love with Jean-François, Marquis de Saint-Lambert, a much younger poet. He filled the emotional and physical gap left by Voltaire. But he also proved careless in what passed for contraception in those days. That led to pregnancy and the infection that killed Emilie when she was only 42.

It is tempting to speculate what heights of discovery Emilie might have achieved in a healthier and more open-minded age. But that would be to miss the point. The remarkable thing is that she managed so much, and with such good humor and reflective self-knowledge.

It is her biographer's good fortune that there is a great deal of accessible material about her life. Voltaire was spied on energetically; a thicket of secret police reports remains. So too do many of her letters, both sent and received.

from Wikipedia:

~ “As a teenager, short of money for books, she used her mathematical skills to devise highly successful strategies for gambling.

Her commentary [on Newton’s Principia, which she translated] includes a profound contribution to Newtonian mechanics—the postulate of an additional conservation law for total energy, of which kinetic energy of motion is one element.” ~

Voltaire looks so full of himself, Emilie so resigned.


What strikes me most about Emilie du Chatelet's story is her death. For almost all of history the greatest limitation on women's freedom and potential has been the limits and dangers of her body and it's reproductive function. Without control over her own body, and not only the right to choose, but the ability to chose if, when and how often she will be pregnant, and without the medical knowledge to make that process one that is safe far more often than it is fatal, any talk of freedom and equality is trumped by the body itself. For so much of history “biology was destiny”  for women — the dangers of incessant pregnancies matched by the dangers of death in the process of giving birth. There were not many ways to avoid this unhappy destiny until historically very recent times, and conservative forces would like to see any advance in woman's control of her own biology rolled back.


Religions seem obsessed with controlling women’s bodies. I can’t think of a religion that doesn’t have some pathology in this regard, some sheer insanity concerning the need to cover up the hair, or a menstrual taboo.

But what is even more crazy is that despite being oppressed by religion women all over the world are more likely to truly religious. Perhaps Marx’s insight can be helpful here, at least in part: those who suffer need a drug to dull the pain, and religion may indeed act as an opiate.


~ “Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination — the logical end point — of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a very long time. That greed is good. That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate and the one percent deserve their golden towers. That anything public or commonly held is sinister and not worth protecting. That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this.

Underneath all these pathologies is a dominance-based logic that treats so many people, and the earth itself, as disposable, which gives rise to a system based on limitless taking and extracting, on maximum grabbing, that treats people and the earth either like resources to be mined to their limits or as garbage to be disposed of far out of sight, whether deep in the ocean or deep in a prison cell.” ~ Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough


To have a sustainable world, we’d need a much smaller population, maybe 1/3  or 1/4 of what it is now.

John F. Kennedy visits Mexico, 1962; photograph by Robert Knudsen. What a different era that was. 


I had a funny dream: my mother and I were candidates in some local election. The woman in the dream didn’t look one bit like my mother; I merely chose to label her that. I guess my dream saw her as the “go-getter,” the doer, the achiever — thus: “my mother.”

“My mother” won. But I placed third out of seven! My only platform was a recipe. That’s what I offered to the voters — and I did well.

(My real mother would understand that. “Food is primary,” she always said.)


On further thought, perhaps the most bizarre part of that dream was that I chose to perceive to perceive a woman as “my mother” simply because she had some of the same personality traits. That my political platform was a recipe — that was the charming part.


Speaking of dreams and my mother: a few weeks before she died, my mother recounted an interesting dream or vision. She spoke of it as if the incident really happened — but that was typical of her state of mind in those last two months, when she mostly dozed and didn’t know where she was. Dreams seemed to be her main mode of consciousness, her own reality.

“A beautiful dog was here just a while ago,” she told me. “A large dog, very intelligent.” I'm not sure if said a “German shepherd,” but both of us were most familiar with that breed, and regarded those dogs as the most beautiful and intelligent canines. “I was holding my hands over my eyes . . . because I was tired . . . and the dog gently pulled my hands away from my face.”

“Such an intelligent animal,” she added. I said nothing, but the dream stayed with me.

It’s been argued that a dream is not complete until it is interpreted, but I feel an interpretation might be excessive here, e.g. anything along the lines of the “Good Shepherd,” or even that it’s OK to look: don’t be afraid. Still, it can be said that the gesture of covering one’s eyes with one’s hands, of “burying one’s face one’s hands” usually goes not with tiredness but with sadness, even despair. My mother rarely admitted to feeling despair, but the dog seemed to sense it. Dogs have great empathy and can both read human emotions and console those in need of consolation. German shepherds with their large soulful eyes can do it beautifully.

So what stays with me is that my dying mother was consoled by an animal giving her affection and empathy. She was in need of unconditional love, and her brain created a healing vision. That it was a dog doesn’t surprise me.


Your dream, and your mother's dream are both lovely. Your platform was a recipe, something shared with others out of love and generosity. The rules of hospitality universally involve sharing food and drink, welcoming the guest into the family circle, at the hearth or the table, something as old as any culture we can remember, and still true. Almost always greeting guests includes offering some refreshment,  and we never invite guests without having something ready for them. And sharing a recipe is a gesture of love and friendship, as keeping one secret is a bid for power and advantage.

So much study lately on the relationship between humans and dogs. Some have concluded the process of domestication was mutual, that dogs changed us as we changed them,  in ways advantageous to both species. Dogs look us in the eye, read our expressions and react to our emotions. They improve our health and well being simply by being part of our lives. They are comfort, reassurance, acceptance,  love.

I miss my dog terribly still.


What you say about food, hospitality, and dogs is ever so true.

Dogs arouse some ambivalence in me. I do know what it’s like to be very attached to a dog. At the same time, a dog’s subordinate status in a household seems an injustice — the whole problem  of keeping pets. Would we want to be a pet, even a truly loved one, of someone belonging to a dominant species?

At the same time I agree with Anatole France that until we’ve loved an animal, a part of our soul remains unawakened.

On a biochemical level, the secret of our pleasure when we interact with a pet appears to be connected with the release of oxytocin, the “love-and-trust hormone.” Oxytocin is a feel-good neurotransmitter that increases empathy and generosity.


“The Bomb will never go off, I speak as an expert in explosives."
~ Admiral William Leahy , US Atomic Bomb Project

"There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom."
~ Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."
~ Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
~ Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."
~ The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

"But what is it good for?"
~ Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."
~ Bill Gates, 1981

This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
~ Western Union internal memo, 1876.

 "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
~ David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible".
~ A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

"I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper"
~ Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in "Gone With The Wind."

"We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out"
-- Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible"
~ Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.

 "If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this"
~ Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M "Post-It" Notepads .

"Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You're crazy."
~ Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

"Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."
~Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University , 1929.

"Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value"
~ Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre , France .

"Everything that can be invented has been invented"
~ Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.

 "The super computer is technologically impossible. It would take all of the water that flows over Niagara Falls to cool the heat generated by the number of vacuum tubes required."
~ Professor of Electrical Engineering, New York University

"I don't know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn't be a feasible business by itself."
~ the head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox.

"The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon,"
~ Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
~ Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

ending on beauty

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