Saturday, September 30, 2017


Yves Tanguy: Underwater Landscape

I wish I might find a cave
secret beneath the cliffs
where a god would change me to a bird —
when I would fly with the flocks
far, far away whee the sea breaks
over Adriatic shores,
where the blue Eridanus empires
and the daughters of the Sun
as their father descends beneath the waves
sprinkled those dark-glinting waters
with tears from their amber eyes
in sorrow for Phaëton.

I would fly to the coast of apples
of which many tales are told,
the far Hesperian shore
where the mighty Lord of ocean
forbids all further voyaging
and marks the sacred limits
of heaven, which Atlas holds.
There the immortal streams
flow fresh by the couch of God
where he lies with his lovely ones —
and earth, the mother of life, yields up
blessings of harvest too enrich
a bliss that never ends.

~ from Hippolytus by Euripides, c. 484-406 BC; tr Frederick Morgan

Gjipe beach, Albania, where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian Sea 

Gorgeous lines, to be enjoyed rather than analyzed for any deeper meaning. Anyway, it’s all surface — but what splendid surface! And so eternally human, to imagine a paradise somewhere far away (and if not an actual paradise in space, then the paradise in the past, as reflected in the myth of the Golden Age — or a paradise in the future, as reflected in the Millenarian beliefs of those Protestant sects [e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses] that expect one thousand years of Earthly Paradise. Such myth were also were held by the Bolsheviks (the Radiant Future) and the Nazis (One-Thousand-Year Reich — actually it lasted only eleven years).

There is also a mention of “the coast of apples.” This refers to the Garden of Hesperides, daughters of the Night, nymphs of the West, or Evening. It was located at the outermost edge of the world known to the Ancient Greeks — in one version, near what is now the port of Cadiz. Hesperides guarded the golden apples of immortality. 

The Garden of Hesperides by Frederic Leighton, 1892

The god on the couch with his lovely ones is probably Poseidon. The Greek gods were not celibate, to put it mildly. Sex was not a guilty pleasure. If the gods loved sex, then sex was good — and since the gods were role models, especially male gods to mortal men, sex was to be fully enjoyed.

(The situation was more complex when it comes to goddesses: only Aphrodite seemed to enjoy uninhibited sex life. And there were even virgin goddesses, Athena and Hestia; I don’t think that Artemis can really be classified that way. But since Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty, her joy in the pleasures of love certainly presents a huge contrast with the ascetic Christian ideal.)

Greek gods were about pleasure. They pursued pleasure without guilt or the need to rationalize it by ascribing some lofty purpose to it. It’s interesting that the ancient Hebrews created a very different  concept of god — one who was asexual and had no female spouse. 

The hedonism of the Greek gods seems like an empty existence to us — and actually not just to us. Let’s not forget that Odysseus rejected Calypso’s offer of immortality since it meant he’d have to remain on her “blissful” island, with nothing to do, no challenges to overcome. And Odysseus instantly chose to remain human and mortal, with all the suffering that he knew would still come.

This was one of the first recorded examples of the Eternalist versus Perishable positions.

a real apple orchard — is it not preferable?


I love your choice of photos especially the apple tree so loaded with apples. I remember the stunted orchards of Rhode Island when I lived in rural areas during the Depression. And I liked the “coast of apples.”


This is somewhat tangential, but it reminded me what impressed so much the first time I visited an American grocery market: the great display of produce — and especially the beautiful displays of apples, my favorite fruit. 


Oh that picture of the Garden of Hesperides — so sensual, all those rose and golden colors, and the languor of those nymphs, their loose-limbed sprawl!! And that marvelous snake, so beautifully patterned, wound around the nymph's body--you can almost feel its weight, the dry scales against the soft fabric and the softer flesh. And still, it's a sleepy vision of paradise, and not really tempting — hard to look forward to immortality that is nothing but a long, endless drowse, beautiful to look at, but essentially a bore.


Of course there never was a Golden Age, or Garden of Eden. As Jeremy Sherman says, “We didn’t fall from grace; we rose from slime.” So why the persistent myth, why the longing? I think part of it is the relative carefree freedom of childhood versus the burdens of adulthood that fall on us later. On bad days, we feel crushed — or mired — choose your metaphor. There was suffering in childhood too, but adults took care of the practical stuff, so we didn’t have to think about it and could play. And that’s what we unconsciously choose to remember: we threw the ball. We raced with other children. Even if we didn’t win the race, the got to feel the wind in our hair.

But no, there was no paradise, and we are not returning there. Never, never, never. To cling, with zero evidence, to the hope of return to a place that never was, is Eternalism.


For those who may have missed it, let me present again the brief post on Eternalism versus Perishability

The Eternalists versus the Perishables: Eternal life and truth versus This too shall pass. That’s the core culture war. ~ Jeremy Sherman
This seems so true, and it started thousands of years ago. Everything passes — you'd think that no one would deny that. But Plato-like prophets popped up, and then of course Big Plato himself, an Eternalist who influenced the whole development of the Western culture not always in a positive way.



How often have we heard the saying that “life is a journey”? But if so, what is the destination? After all, journeys usually have a destination. When you say you’re going to Italy, you certainly want to end up in Italy. It’s not about spending time on the plane. Generally, you put up with the stress of travel because the destination is sufficiently attractive — or because you need to get there for some reason other than pleasure.

Life is like a journey in that we move from one stage to another, and we may have short-term destinations, e.g. to graduate from high school, and then from college, and so on. But ultimately, no one likes to ponder that “no one gets out of life alive” and we cease to be. It sounds grim to say that the destination of our “journey of life” is to return to non-being.

This is where we find the great divide between Eternalists and Perishables, to use Jeremy Sherman’s terms. The Eternalists posit an eternal afterlife — in never-ending bliss, if we practiced the right religion; or, according to those who believe in reincarnation, just spending time in the “spirit world” before we enter another body. The Perishables say we simply cease to be, the way a candle flame ceases to be when the fuel is spent. (The Frisbeetarians believe the soul tries to ascend to heaven, but gets stuck on the roof.)

Alan Watts doesn’t come out right out and say it, but he seems to belong with the Perishables. Or, if your true nature is divine, then god is playing at being you — for a while. Note the word “playing.” For Watts, this is perhaps the most important word of all. As he puts it, “You play the piano. You don’t WORK the piano; you PLAY it.”

Watts protests that whole idea that life is a journey — that its point is to move from one stage to the next — and then: the end. What Watts insists on is playfulness and enjoyment, and the importance of each stage in itself, not as a milestone on the “journey.” 

I remember a New Yorker cartoon in which someone says, “Sex is nice, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.” Let’s forget gold-diggers for a moment, or those who use sex for professional advancement (Hollywood’s notorious “casting couch”). For the average ambitious New York intellectual — or for any ambitious person, for that matter — sex is indeed a waste of time. At best, it may be good for health, but oh, the time and energy it takes! Time should be spent working, advancing toward professional goals. And once those are reached, new goals can always be found.

But eventually . . .  as Watts points out, people who count on retirement to start enjoying life forget about poor health and diminished energy that may prevent them from traveling or doing much of anything. For every “spry” elderly person there are many who are anything but.

Of course as more people become secular and thus move away from Eternalism to Perishability, we may have more interest in preserving fitness even in old age — we are already witnessing this. People undergo painful joint replacement so they can continue to hike, dance, ride a bicycle, or just take long walks. While their parents thought of retirement as “rest,” baby boomers and the generations that came after understand the need to “stay active.” But neither kale nor yoga will make us immortal.

I wish the message of this video came my way a long time ago, when I was ridiculously future-oriented. But perhaps there was no other way back then. Young people have the luxury of planning for many years ahead — or think they do, since circumstances often change and the best-laid plans etc etc. The basic rule is that nothing turns out as we expected it.

The older people get, the shorter their “time horizon.” As Maggie Smith said in the Amazing Marigold Hotel, “I don’t even buy green bananas.” In the end you live in the moment because you are forced to. But it turns out that that is indeed a happy way to live. Nothing is a stepping stone to anything else. Everything has to be enjoyed for its own sake.



On seeing life as a journey — something almost impossible to avoid. We are storytellers and story lovers, we tend to see everything in terms of the stories we know and the stories we make. Whenever there is chaos, just a bunch of stuff, or a series of events, we insist on shaping and ordering them, organizing them until they make sense as a sequence, a chain, a movement from beginning to conclusion, that makes sense to us. If no one's listening, we tell our stories to ourselves, or write them down. I think it has a lot to do with how we experience time, and how we are creatures with a defined beginning, middle and end — we are born, we grow and change and age, and we die. Our lives are shaped like a story, and that form insists we make sense of it, inject it with values, learning, meaningful rather than random sequences. It would be amazing if we did not make everything into a story.

The other part of life as a journey is that we want our stories to Go Somewhere, to reach a satisfying conclusion, a good ending, show either clear success or failure. So we frame them in terms of journeys, of movement towards achieving personal and/or socially sanctioned goals. To be without goals, "aimless," is not socially acceptable — we must always be aimed like arrows, to the future, must keep our "eyes on the prize."

When I thought about it, which I must confess was not often, I felt it was a particular fault in myself that I never set myself goals, never thought in terms of a "career," never had a Plan. I never saw what I was doing as a stepping stone to something else, I was just enjoying it as it was — tests were not challenges, but games and puzzles, school and learning was exciting and enjoyable. I went to graduate school because it was an idea that came up, an opportunity to do what I liked, but I had no goal or desire to climb the academic ladder or be a permanent part of that world. I really was going nowhere, but didn't find that upsetting or frightening.

When the academic world staled for me, when I knew I really didn't want to stay there, to do what you had to do to stay there, I made the first really practical decision of my life, and went to nursing school. With that skill I knew I could earn an honest living, and do something I thought good and worthwhile. Of course it was also incredibly interesting. But even then I had no "career model" in mind, no ladder of achievement to climb. I love work, I'm good at it, but I have no ambition. In that way I'm a failure in this world, I suppose. It's not the normal. But in all of it, aimless and without a plan, I was very very happy. Interested, engaged, enjoying whatever came.


First, I agree that story-telling is our way of coping with the chaos and randomness that weigh heavily on anyone’s life. Not that our life is a story — it’s an infinity of POTENTIAL STORIES all mixed together, stories we keep making up and changing with each telling.

And it is a journey in the sense of PROGRESSION. Franz Wright called it “from crimson thread to toe tag.” The crimson thread is an allusion to the thread that the midwife tied around the hand of Esau as that tiny newborn hand emerged, and then pulled back. Though symbolic of the strife between two brothers, the crimson thread is pure joy next to the grisly toe tag of the morgue.

The problem that Watts sees with the journey as a metaphor for life is that journeys include a “destination.” In that sense, our destination (if we must see it as that) is not something the average person can contemplate. For many, the thought is absolute terror. I keep repeating to myself the famous formula of Epicurus: “Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.” And each birthday the idea where “old” begins gets pushed forward. (Besides, I’ve had my various rebirths — it feels like several lifetimes in just this one life.)

Seeing how “the best-laid plans of mice and men” tend to fizzle out, how “man tries, god laughs” (a German proverb; in place of god insert “fate” or “circumstances”) — it’s enviable that you were not a prisoner of ambition. For a while I wasn’t either, but then I was — and then the crash, and finally a new philosophy of life, one based on living in the present, pardon the worn phrase. Only now I understand that you can’t predict a darn thing so being without a plan (unless quite short-term) is just basic sanity.

I agree with all of it, but I'm particularly cheered by the first part: nobody figures out what life is about. I incline to the view that life simply IS. It’s not ABOUT anything in particular: neither happiness nor sorrow, achievement, learning wisdom, service to others — although all of these are a part of life and make it rich and interesting. Freud may have come close when he said “Love and work.” But some people never find a vocation, or may miss out on loving relationships, and yet I wouldn’t judge anyone’s life as having no value or meaning.

Nietzsche observed that anywhere you look in depth, an infinity opens up. We simplify because we have to — otherwise reality is too overwhelming. In art (including writing, of course) the great challenge is to be simple without being simplistic. That infinity of riches everywhere we look threatens to bury us — it’s one of the paradoxes of reality.


Two wonderful Picasso watercolors. Jacqueline Picasso, the painter's last love and second wife, was the model. The Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev handed them over to the French authorities, saying he was unaware that they were stolen from Picasso's step-daughter. (Not a new story but worth recalling — so heart-warming)


Ian Watt wrote a great book called The Rise of the Novel in which he talks about realism and how it couldn't have existed before 1700 — much of what he says about the fiction can also be applied to poetry. If I'm remembering correctly, his main argument was that there really wasn’t a sense of the deep self in individuals before that — mankind needed to get beyond a survival level of existence (more free time to think and brood) before we could turn inward and before literature could follow us there. ~ John Guzlowski


I think one could argue that some of Shakespeare is an exception, but in the main, yes, humankind cannot endure too much reality especially when that reality is insufferable — hence literature as escapist entertainment rather than any quest for truth, especially as we go into the past with its huge hardships (old age began at 40). Hence also the attractiveness of all myths of paradise.


My dissertation was built on Watts' book. I argued that in the post modern society had rejected the deep self and enjoyed mocking the pretensions of those who believed there was a deep self. The only self left was the shallow self, the self of super hero movies and football. All of this of course influenced literary works that were increasingly shallow and self-less.


It's not easy to deal in writing with the self, deep or not, as a process, a verb, constantly shifting. Not that po-mo helps us understand . . . Only Szymborska, not a po-mo poet, but an ironist, has some poems that convey the elusiveness of the mental realm.

But to shift away from that elusiveness: it could certainly be argued that we have a much more developed sense of self than did our remote (or even not so remote) ancestors — and that people in the West have a more developed sense of self than the more “communitarian” people elsewhere in the world, where family clan and tribe still mean more than the individual.

Now, some would critique the “emergence of the modern self” as basically “self-absorption.” To be sure, it can be excessive. But would we be willing to go back to the pre-self times of collective mentality, blind faith, blind patriotism etc? Seems like it was awfully easy back then to make people willing to kill and die for all kinds of causes we find dubious now. And even now, when we look at Islamic suicide bombers, well, maybe they do have a different sense of self, not our closed, relatively isolated self that is very precious to us, and that we would be most unwilling to sacrifice?

Speaking about the emergence of the self, of individualism, there is a new book by James Kugel, The Great Shift. He asks the question, “Why can't we hear God talking anymore?” It seems his answer (not having read the book, I rely on reviews) is that the modern self has emerged, and it's a “closed” self, a relatively isolated unit of consciousness, so that, hallucinations aside, we can experience something we can label the voice of god inside our heads, as basically our own thoughts that are maybe a result of “guidance” — but god is not an objective, external presence even to believers. And this shift can be traced already in the Old Testament itself.

Richard Friedman came up with a similar thesis in The Disappearance of God, though he didn't put his finger so precisely on the emergence of individualism. Scholars who disagree with Kugel say that individuals like Moses and other prophets were indeed prone to hallucinations — but that doesn't quite explain why others accepted those hallucinations as absolute truth. So ultimately we are back to speculation, but I think there is something to the more collective self versus the individuated, more modern self busy with his/her rich inner life, not as preoccupied with community and sheer survival, and daring to question.


Julia Shaw, a Canadian now living in London, was in Toronto to promote her new book, The Memory Illusion. In it, she describes how false memories can be deliberately placed in people's brains—leading to false police confessions that could send the wrong person to jail, or detailed accounts of alien abductions that (almost certainly) never happened.

"A memory is a network of brain cells," Shaw explained to me. That network, which stretches across different regions of the brain, is constantly being updated. It's an important function that allows us humans to learn new things and to problem-solve, among other skills. But as a result, it "can be manipulated," she continued. "Each time you tell a story, you change the memory," maybe dropping in new details, weaving in tidbits you really heard from somebody else, or forging new, and possibly inaccurate or misleading, connections.

The fact that memories are so changeable has important implications for, among other things, the criminal justice system, Shaw pointed out—and that's the focus of much of her work. "In the lab, I convince people through memory hacking that they committed crimes that never happened," said Shaw, senior lecturer and researcher in the Department of Law and Social Sciences at London South Bank University. "I do it to show that the interrogation process can really distort memories, in consistent ways."

To implant a false memory, "you try to get someone to confuse their imagination with their memory," she said. "That's it: Get them to repeatedly picture it happening."

She'll start off by letting them know they committed a crime, and then claim to have insider information. For example: "Your parents told me that, when you were 14, you stole something, and the police were involved," she said, adding that she'll say she called the parents, and give details of their talk, "and then you believe me. You know I contacted your parents, and you trust them," she continued. That gives her credibility.

She'll keep going and layer in detail—the person's age, hometown, the name of their childhood best friend, and get them to repeatedly imagine the crime happening, over and over again, even if they never did it. Over the course of a couple of weeks, maybe even a shorter timespan than that, "it gets harder to decipher imagination, versus a memory coming back," Shaw said. "By the end, it's easy to think, this actually happened.”

Of course, false memories produce disastrous consequences within the criminal justice system, sending innocent people to jail. But they could also help explain so-called "impossible memories," Shaw said, like someone who's certain they were taken by aliens. Once mental illness or another explanation has been ruled out, "it's possible that some have false memories," she said. "They've pictured it repeatedly, or it's been suggested to them. Or they watched a movie, and dreamt about it," and then start believing it's true.

So, if our memories are so easy to manipulate, and constantly in flux, pulling in new details and dropping others, is anything we remember really a true record of the past?

"I think that reality is purely your perception. And it's a completely personal experience. The world as you know it only exists to you, [as you are] right now. Every day you wake up a new person," with a different brain, and a different set of memories to guide you.

"I like to say that all memories are essentially false," Shaw said. "They're either a little bit false, or entirely false. There are entire experiences that never happened.”

io moth caterpillar in a former lifetime


Re: the idea of creating false memories. I found that actually terrifying, and the idea of deliberately doing this to someone as profoundly disturbing. She describes the steps involved in planting such false memories, of experimenting with it, and I think doing this is a manipulation close to criminal. What are we, what is our sense of identity, if not our memories??

I am sure we modify them ourselves, re tell our own stories as we shape and re shape our sense of personal history and identity — but to have someone else do this to/for us is a violation as damaging as rape. In the course of my "treatment" for severe depression I went through three separate series of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). The principal effect of these treatments is that they erase memories. Sometimes less, sometimes more, different for different people, and they are always quick to assure you this is temporary. But it is not. For many the losses are huge and permanent. These treatments are again popular and often resorted to when various medications have failed. Some people even feel they are lifesaving and beneficial, as Carrie Fisher did. I felt they were a catastrophic destruction of my sense of self and my integrity as a human being.

      After So Much ECT

My memory is pleated
Like a fan or curtain
So much lost
In the folds between
One sharp crease and the next
At best an uneven hopscotch
A tattered fabric
I wear with shame
Talking to you
I skate over the cracks
Fast so I won’t fall in
I sing So I don’t stutter
And you won’t get lost
In my interruptions
The worst is knowing
I was once continuous
A long book
With no pages missing
A story anyone could read
Without losing their way
Even once

Erasing, stealing, or changing someone's memory is to do them harm. I can't see it any other way.


I come from a country that certainly had a brush with Stalinist interrogation techniques, and I had a kind of “Oh yeah” recognition response.

People who come from large families are often confused about childhood memories — certain stories get repeated and repeated, and the whole thing that’s such a big part of their childhood and which they believe happened to them may in fact have happened to a sibling — and at some point they may start questioning what “really” happened, and can’t be sure — their brain took personal possession of the story.

And you know of course the common saying that people come to believe their own lies. It’s a matter of simple repetition! That’s how “brain-washing” works, and religious indoctrination. You say things that are hard to believe, even absurd — but the only trick, really, is to just repeat them over and over. 



~ "People talk about the mind-matter problem – it’s not a problem for me: mind is matter. That’s not being reductionist. It is actually elevating matter. We don’t even begin to understand how electrochemistry and nerve cells generate thought and feeling. We have not the first idea. The relation of neurosurgery to neuroscience is a bit like the relationship between plumbing and quantum mechanics.

~ It seems, reading the book, you have become more emotional about your vocation as you have got older.

Surgeons on the whole do not talk about the emotional side of the work. It’s rather like if you are applying for medical school – the one thing you can’t say is “I want to help people”. But that is why most of us do become doctors.

I think we have a very complicated relationships with patients. That is because as soon as we have any interaction with patients, we start lying. We have to. There is nothing more frightening for a patient than an anxious or doubtful doctor. And of course the best way of deceiving others is to deceive oneself. We develop a split consciousness.

All neurosurgeons get more conservative as they get older. That is because the disasters slowly accumulate. A 1 or 2% chance of failure doesn’t sound much in theory, but when you have operated for many years, you experience that 1 or 2% for yourself. And when you do, it changes how you think about those risks.

~ I guess religion still partly gets in the way of that idea [of doctor-assisted suicide]

It seems to me that the only rational case for theism is that God is a complete bastard. I have seen a lot of children die with inoperable brain tumors, particularly one horrible one called a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, for which there is no treatment. When I go out to Ukraine their parents are lining up to see me in the hope of a miracle. It just seems the proof for God is so very thin. “There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky.” I mean, really?

~ You teach young doctors now; is that one of the lessons you try to convey [to spend more time with the patient]?

I spend most of my time trying to get them to think, not narrowly about scans but about the patient’s whole situation: “If that was your father what would you do?’ It is difficult because really engaging with patients is emotionally exhausting. As my career went on I tried to see fewer patients and spend longer with them and do all the follow-up myself. I had the same secretary for 30 years who helped with that, so we really tried to run an old-fashioned practice.

~ You created a garden for your patients at St George’s – why?

Because these big hospitals are horrible places really — the very last thing you get in an English hospital is peace, rest or quiet, which are the things you need most. The unique thing about the garden at St George’s is that it was directly outside the ward. In the summer I tried to get all the patients outside, with their families. It is probably the thing I am proudest of." ~

Van Gogh: The Sower


~ “[It wasn’t new to me] how stark the dualism really is, in Paul’s letters and elsewhere in the New Testament, between “flesh” and “spirit,” or how greatly formulations that seem to imply universal salvation outnumber those that appear to threaten an ultimate damnation for the wicked. None of that surprised me; it merely roused me from my complacent assumption that, simply by virtue of having read the text in Greek for many years, I had a natural feel for its tone.

What did surprise me, however, was the degree to which the whole experience left me with a deeply melancholy, almost Kierkegaardian sense that most of us who go by the name of “Christians” ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian—at least, if by that word one means not simply someone who is baptized or who adheres to a particular set of religious observances and beliefs, but more or less what Nietzsche meant when he said that there has been only one Christian in human history and that he had died on the cross. In that sense, I think it reasonable to ask not whether we are Christians (by that standard, all fall short), but whether in our wildest imaginings we could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ. And I think the fairly obvious answer is that we could not.

I do not mean merely that most of us find the moral requirements laid out in Christian scripture a little onerous, though of course we do. Therein lies the deep comfort provided by the magisterial Protestant fantasy that the apostle Paul inveighed against something called “works-righteousness” in favor of a purely extrinsic “justification” by grace—which, alas, he did not. He rejected only the notion that one might be “shown righteous” by works of the Law—ritual observances like circumcision or keeping kosher—but he also quite clearly insisted, as did Christ, that all will be judged in the end according their deeds (Romans 2:1–16 and 4:10–12, 1 Corinthians 3:12–15, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Philippians 2:16, and so on). Rather, I mean that most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.

Perhaps my melancholy was deepened by an accident of timing. The final stage of my work on the translation coincided with my involvement in a series of public debates that I initiated by writing a short column for First Things praising Pope Francis and his recent encyclical Laudato si’, and that I prolonged when I contributed another article to the same journal arguing for the essential incompatibility of Christianity and capitalist culture. My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values.

Not everyone concurred. The most representative statements of the contrary position were two earnest articles in the Public Interest by Samuel Gregg, neither of which addressed my actual arguments, but both of which correctly identified my hostility to libertarian apologetics. And on at least one point Gregg did have me dead to rights: I did indeed say that the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. No, he rejoined with calm certainty, it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it (the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained); riches in and of themselves, he insisted, are neither good not bad. This seems an eminently reasonable argument, I suppose. Certainly we have all heard it before, almost as a truism.

Here, however, my more than two years laboring in the vineyards of the koine Greek had rendered me immune to the reasonable view of things. For, while Gregg had common sense on his side, I had the actual biblical texts on mine, and they are so unambiguous that it is almost comical that anyone can doubt their import. Admittedly, many translations down the centuries have had an emollient effect on a few of the New Testament’s severer pronouncements. But this is an old story. Clement of Alexandria may have been the first—back when the faith had just begun to spread widely among the more comfortably situated classes in the empire—to apply a reassuring gloss to the raw rhetoric of scripture on wealth and poverty. He distinguished the poverty that matters (humility, renunciation, spiritual purity, generosity) from the poverty that does not (actual material indigence), and assured propertied Christians that, so long as they cultivated the former, they need never submit to the latter.

And throughout Christian history, even among the few who bothered to consult scripture on the matter, this has generally been the tacit interpretation of Christ’s (and Paul’s and James’s) condemnations of the wealthy and acquisitive. In the early modern period came the Reformation, and this—whatever else it may have been—was a movement toward a form of Christianity well suited to the needs of the emerging middle class, and to the spiritual complacency that a culture of increasing material security dearly required of its religion. Now all moral anxiety became a kind of spiritual pathology, the heresy of “works righteousness,” sheer Pelagianism. Grace set us free not only from works of the Law, but from the spiritual agony of seeking to become holy by our deeds. In a sense, the good news announced by Scripture was that Christ had come to save us from the burden of Christianity.

But if, as its proponents insist, it is indeed a genuine unfolding of some logic implicit in the Gospel, it was a logic utterly invisible to those who wrote the Christian scriptures. Because one thing in remarkably short supply in the New Testament is common sense. The Gospels, the epistles, Acts, Revelation—all of them are relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism: commands to become as perfect as God in his heaven and to live as insouciantly as lilies in their field; condemnations of a roving eye as equivalent to adultery and of evil thoughts toward another as equivalent to murder; injunctions to sell all one’s possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor, and demands that one hate one’s parents for the Kingdom’s sake and leave the dead to bury the dead. This extremism is not merely an occasional hyperbolic presence in the texts; it is their entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere. The New Testament emerges from a cosmos ruled by malign celestial principalities (conquered by Christ but powerful to the end) and torn between spirit and flesh (the one, according to Paul, longing for God, the other opposing him utterly). There are no comfortable medians in these latitudes, no areas of shade. Everything is cast in the harsh light of final judgment, and that judgment is absolute. In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, common-sense interpretation is always false.

Rembrandt: St. Paul, 1657

IT IS UNDENIABLY true that there are texts that condemn an idolatrous obsession with wealth, and that might be taken as saying nothing more than that. At least, 1 Timothy 6:17–19 is often cited as an example of this—though (see below) it probably should not be. Perhaps, to avoid trying to serve both God and Mammon, one need only have the right attitude toward riches. But if this were all the New Testament had to say on the matter, then one would expect those texts to be balanced out by others affirming the essential benignity of riches honestly procured and well-used. Yet this is precisely what we do not find. Instead, they are balanced out by still more uncompromising comminations of wealth in and of itself. Certainly Christ condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such. The most obvious citation from all three synoptic Gospels would be the story of the rich young ruler who could not bring himself to part with his fortune for the sake of the Kingdom, and of Christ’s astonishing remark about camels passing through needles’ eyes more easily than rich men through the Kingdom’s gate. As for the question the disciples then put to Christ, it should probably be translated not as “Who then can be saved?” or “Can anyone be saved?” but rather “Then can any [of them, the rich] be saved?” To which the sobering reply is that it is humanly impossible, but that by divine power even a rich man might be spared.

But one can look everywhere in the gospels for confirmation of the message. Christ clearly means what he says when quoting the prophet: he has been anointed by God’s Spirit to preach good tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18). To the prosperous, the tidings he bears are decidedly grim. “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full; woe to you who are full fed, for you shall hunger; woe to you who are now laughing, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24–25). Again, perhaps many of the practices Christ condemns in the rulers of his time are merely misuses of power and property; but that does not begin to exhaust the rhetorical force of his teachings as a whole. He not only demands that we give freely to all who ask from us (Matthew 5:42), and to do so with such prodigality that one hand is ignorant of the other’s largesse (Matthew 6:3); he explicitly forbids storing up earthly wealth—not merely storing it up too obsessively—and allows instead only the hoarding of the treasures of heaven (Matthew 6:19–20). It is truly amazing how rarely Christians seem to notice that these counsels are stated, quite decidedly, as commands. After all, as Mary says, part of the saving promise of the gospel is that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away starving” (Luke 1:53).

Of the compilation of pericopes, however, there is no end. What is most important to recognize is that all these pronouncements on wealth and poverty belong to a moral sensibility that saturates the pages of the New Testament. It is there, for instance, in Paul’s condemnations of pleonektia (often translated as “greed,” but really meaning all acquisitive desire), or in the Pastoral Epistles’ condemnation of aischrokerdes (often translated as “greed for base gain,” but really referring to the sordidness of seeking financial profit for oneself). James perhaps states the matter most clearly:

    Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling at the miseries coming upon you; your riches are corrupted and moths have consumed your clothes; your gold and silver have corroded, and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. You have stored up treasure in the Last Days! See, the wages you have given so late to the laborers who have harvested your fields cry aloud, and the cries of those who have harvested your fields have entered the ear of the Lord Sabaoth. You have lived in luxury, and lived upon the earth in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned—have murdered—the upright; he did not stand against you. (James 5:1–6)

Now, we can read this, if we wish, as a dire warning issued only to those wealthy persons who have acted unjustly toward their employees, and who live too self-indulgently. But if we do so, we are in fact inverting the text. Earlier in the epistle, James has already asserted that, while the “poor brother” should exult in how God has lifted him up, the “rich man” (who, it seems, scarcely merits the name of “brother”) should rejoice in being “made low” or “impoverished,” as otherwise he will wither and vanish away like a wildflower scorched by the sun (1:9–11). He has also gone on to remind his readers that “God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and to inherit the Kingdom,” and that the rich, by contrast, must be recognized as oppressors and persecutors and blasphemers of Christ’s holy name (2:5–7). James even warns his readers against the presumptuousness of planning to gain profits from business ventures in the city (4:13–14). And this whole leitmotif merely reaches its crescendo in those later verses quoted above, which plainly condemn not only those whose wealth is gotten unjustly, but all who are rich as oppressors of workers and lovers of luxury. Property is theft, it seems. Fair or not, the text does not distinguish good wealth from bad—any more than Christ did.

I imagine this is why the early Christians were communists, as the book of Acts quite explicitly states. If these are indeed the Last Days, as James says—if everything is now seen in the light of final judgment—then storing up possessions for ourselves is the height of imprudence. And I imagine this is also why subsequent generations of Christians have not, as a rule, been communists: the Last Days seem to be taking quite some time to elapse, and we have families to raise in the meantime. But at the dawn of the faith little thought was given to providing a decent life in this world for the long term. Thus the first converts in Jerusalem after the resurrection, as the price of becoming Christians, sold all their property and possessions and distributed the proceeds to those in need, and then fed themselves by sharing their resources in common meals (Acts 2:43–46). To be a follower of the Way was to renounce every claim to private property and to consent to communal ownership of everything (Acts 4:32). Barnabas, on becoming a Christian, sold his field and handed over all the money to the Apostles (Acts 4:35)—though Ananias and Sapphira did not, with somewhat unfortunate consequences.

When Christianity arrived in Edessa, for instance, its adherents promptly became a kind of mendicant order, apparently owning nothing much at all. In the words of that very early manual of Christian life, the Didache, a Christian must never claim that anything is his own property, but must own all things communally with his brethren (4:9–12).

The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble. They lightly cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, even family. In fact, far from teaching “family values,” Christ was remarkably dismissive of the family. And decent civic order, like social respectability, was apparently of no importance to him. Not only did he not promise his followers worldly success (even success in making things better for others); he told them to hope for a Kingdom not of this world, and promised them that in this world they would win only rejection, persecution, tribulation, and failure. Yet he instructed them also to take no thought for the morrow.

This was the pattern of life the early Christians believed had been given them by Christ. As I say, I doubt we would think highly of their kind if we met them today. Fortunately for us, those who have tried to be like them have always been few. Clement of Alexandria may have been making an honest attempt to accommodate the gospel to the realities of a Christian empire, but it was those other Egyptians, the Desert Fathers, who took the Gospel at its word. But how many of us can live like that? Who can imitate that obstinacy and perversity? To live as the New Testament requires, we should have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world.


I've “excerpted” practically the whole article. It's just so fascinating and so startlingly honest, e.g. the statement that we've always tried to rationalize the New Testament and bring some common sense to its extreme commands (especially the apocalyptic ones) — and yet the New Testament is singularly devoid of common sense. The early Christians were extremists, called by Tacitus “haters of humanity.”

And of course the Prosperity Gospel is the very opposite of early Christianity.

Somewhat tangential to this is the advice to seniors that's still considered radical: don't store up wealth to pass on to your children, but use it to make your own life better — while you still can (i.e. before truly old age makes it too difficult to travel, etc). That would be the secular argument in line of so treasuring this life, this moment, that thought of the "afterlife" (i.e. bettering the material circumstances of your progeny) should be abandoned. Naturally the younger generation is quite opposed to this notion. But with an unprecedented percentage of seniors being childless, this is indeed a shift of attitude that they were not brought up with: don't save, don't invest, but spend in ways that will make your life better.



It's abundantly clear that Jesus has no use for wealth and the wealthy, and holds no place for them in his father's kingdom. There's that eye of the needle they won't get through, and "blessed are the poor." It may have been Catholic school, but there was also the fact of our own working class world — we knew rich people could not also be “good," could not share our sense of values, justice and injustice, the worth of individuals, the rights of all to freedom and opportunity, because — well, they were rich. Useless parasites living off wealth essentially created by and stolen from everybody else.


Christianity, especially the Catholic version, where the emphasis is on the New Testament (Protestants began favoring the Old, precisely because it doesn’t condemn riches), is utterly incompatible with the pursuit of wealth. I know, the wealth of the Catholic church, bishops living in luxury — but it’s all a violation of the essential teachings; the ideal is clear.


I wonder what Jesus’ teachings on wealth and poverty would be if didn’t think the world would end in the near future?


But that’s just it: certain crucial teachings don’t make sense except in the light of Jesus’ belief in the imminent end of the world (“Some standing here will not taste death” — Matthew 16:28). And the earliest Christian communities lived in the same expectation, so any holding on to private wealth was an explicit violation of the command to disburden oneself of possessions.

What is even more interesting to me personally is that according to Pew surveys, 41% of Americans believe that Jesus will return by the year 2050 — but that doesn’t motivate seem to motivate anyone to sell their belongings and give money to the poor (nor to “let the dead bury the dead”). I suspect that this lackadaisical attitude comes from the Protestant belief that they are already saved, so their actions are irrelevant (a total distortion of Paul’s teachings, as the article points out).

Funny that once people thought that “heaven” was actually not that high up — in many languages, “sky” and “heaven” are the same word (in Polish it’s “Our Father who are in the sky”). It's also interesting that when airplanes started flying at higher altitudes, the location of heaven was moved from the clouds to just above the atmosphere, and then way out into interplanetary space altogether. Then, after manned space flights and the moon landing, Pope JP2 and his Grand Inquisitor, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, wisely decided that heaven was not a place but a state of mind — and the person of god himself. Hell likewise was not a place, but the absence of god. If you don’t understand, well, we are supposed to be like little children — and like sheep — and not even try to understand. But as Milosz likes to remind us, heaven and hell used to be places — very real places, one above and one below — and now those places are gone, and the souls of the dead presumably don’t  “go” anywhere — it’s about a state of mind. 



~ “A fantasy has arisen among the followers of Parisian philosophy professor Michel Foucault that traditional societies viewed the mentally ill benignly, permitting them to drink red wine on the village commons all afternoon as the neighbors looked on smilingly. In the Foucauldian version of history, the downward slide of the mentally ill begins with 'capitalism' and the modern state, as the former benignly neglected denizens of the village commons were now 'confined' in barrack-like asylums.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Around 1800, proper mental hospitals were founded. These were intended to be, and originally were, humane institutions — the well-ordered routines of a hospital would restore a sense of order and normalcy; its high walls would grant a sense of safety; and medical reassurance constituted an early form of psychotherapy.

The wheels started to come off the wagon when these praiseworthy intentions were overwhelmed by the sheer press of numbers. Yet a core reality remained: For many, the asylum was a place of safety.

Since deinstitutionalization and the death of the asylum, the care of very ill psychiatric patients has gotten much worse. Psychiatry’s dirty secret is that if you had a severe mental illness requiring hospital care in 1900, you’d be better looked after than you are today. Despite a flurry of media handwaving about new technologies in psychiatry, the average hospital patient probably does less well now, despite the new drugs, than the average hospital patient a century ago.

How can this be? Above all, the old asylums were committed to keeping the patients safe. A major source of mortality (aside from tuberculosis) was suicide, and the best way to preserve patients from suicide is to hold onto them until they are better. As David Healy’s research group has determined, in one British mental hospital around 1900, the average stay was 302 days, versus 41 days in the same hospital today. Suicide rates within ten years of discharge are much higher now despite the availability of drugs. In 1900, among patients with schizophrenia, four had killed themselves within ten years of discharge; today in a roughly similar population, it was 29. Note that most psychiatric inpatient units in the US now have a length of stay that has been shortened to an incredible seven days — far too short to stabilize patients and keep them safe.

I am not trashing today’s psychopharmaceutical palette. Many patients are clearly better off with drugs than without them. Yet the crucial factor here is length of stay. The stays then were long (sometimes far too long); the stays now are ultra-brief and patients are discharged well before they are able to cope, especially since so few services are available in the community and adequate housing is in such short supply.

The old institutions were not wonderful. They were overcrowded, noisy, and often had a distinctive odor. Patients were neglected and mistreated. Yet those problems have been replaced with a different set: Patients today are far too often relegated to jails and prisons, where their vulnerability leads to frequent solitary confinement and physical and sexual abuse. Patients used to work at productive jobs within the institutions, which are no longer available now that we’ve abolished the shelter the hospitals provided.

Many patients today, booted from the former security of the asylum, find themselves on the street with no care at all or in prison. This is a national scandal and the term 'progress in psychiatry' turns out to be cruelly ironic.”
The money is there if we only we allocated resources rationally. Housing the mentally ill in prisons is not only cruel, it is terribly expensive. States would actually save money by investing in adequately funded community programs and housing. We need to identify the hundreds of thousands of prisoners who have been incarcerated for nuisance crimes that could have been avoided if they had enjoyed adequate community care. We need now belatedly to provide them with that care, to keep them out of jail and off the streets.

This is the worst of times and places for many people with severe mental illness. It need not be if only we put our hearts and minds and pocketbooks behind providing cost effective and compassionate treatment. We owe it to them and to ourselves. If a civilized society is judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable, we now deserve an F grade. Let's learn from our shameful history instead of mindlessly repeating it." ~


I have a lot to say about the treatment of the mentally ill in our society. From personal experience, and yes, the hospital was a place of asylum, a protective refuge when I needed protection from my own potential acts. The whole deinstitutionalization came out of a defense of the individual's rights for as much freedom and as little confinement as possible — but that quickly devolved into “let's not waste any more money on these folks”, dumping them onto the streets and ultimately into the prison system, which is at least as oppressive as the worst of the old institutions, and probably much more damaging. We have decided these people are simply trash, and shuttle them over to the massive and profitable prison industry.


I remember the beginning of this dumping onto the streets, and the mentally ill roaming about shouting at their voices like village idiots. What a setback. I’ll never forgive Reagan — who didn’t care one bit about individual liberty, only about making the rich richer — so indeed, why spend money on this unpromising category of people? They have no “right” to be treated — never mind the ultimate greater price. Don’t give them treatment, but give them the right to own guns — here I can’t bear to go on . . .


A church portal in the Polish (need I say?) town of Szczebrzeszyn (the dwelling of the proverbial chrzaszcz — an inside joke that would take too long to explain). The original door is perhaps being renovated — or maybe whoever decides about these matters has decided to modernize the door once and for all?

By the way, the pink building reflected in the door is the former synagogue, now a community center. (My thanks to Ania Stepień)


This "modernized" door is the ugliest church entrance I ever saw and the ugliest image in your blogs ever. 


Let's hope that this door is only temporary. This is obviously a historical church that deserves a loving restoration. 


~ “Nero (emperor from 54 AD – 68 AD) is famous for allegedly singing and playing the fiddle while much of Rome burned to the ground during the Great Fire of Rome.

It was later speculated that this account was false, and that it was propaganda created by the next emperor. A key piece of evidence: the fiddle wasn’t invented yet, and Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the fire.” ~

The accounts vary. If he played anything, it would be the lyre. But quite likely the fire was an accident. It broke out while Nero was at Antium.

The Great Fire of Rome. If Nero did play an instrument, it was most likely the lute.


Love this painting. It reminds me of Turner's Parliament Fire of 1834 

Oriana: A wonderful painting. Thank you, Charles, for sharing it with the blog readers.

ending on beauty


To the river in your name Jordan
to the river willows in your eyes
to flowing we don’t know where
the sea is only a pretext

to your running away with a newborn
driving a a truck through a blizzard
through the blinding storm of your youth

to taking long walks by yourself
to the deer that stare at you
to the clouds in your hair Jordan
to the wind that pours through your hands

to your saying “I always knew
I would be a mother of sons”
to your dumping a tub of cold water
on the head of the younger one

to teaching in a max-security prison
walking past the electric fence

to the ravens
to the mountain lions
that circle you from afar

to the lioness in you

to life

~ Oriana, in memory of a friend, a fearless, amazing woman who unexpectedly died this September, at only 60

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