Saturday, September 16, 2017



 . . . I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
. . . and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee.

~ Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

Wordsworth’s last name never ceases to astonish me — words’ worth, the worth of words. Which words have the most worth here? Probably these:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

The Romantics were intoxicated with awe, almost always elicited by nature (for the Romantics, it was Nature with a capital N, suffused with “Spirit”). They were forming a new spirituality. That vague Spirit that “subtly interfused” nature had nothing to do with the vengeful, calamity-sending ‘guy in the sky’ or ‘dude in the clouds with a white beard’ (I'm passing on phrases I’ve run across in our blasphemy-loving times).“Jehovah and his thrones, I pass them unalarmed,” Wordsworth writes. Imagine, no fear of archaic god, still quite alive and scary at the time the poet wrote this. No fear! Imagine a religion — perhaps “spirituality” is a better word here — not based on fear, daring to deny that the fear of god was the beginning of wisdom.

Instead, an alternate, benign theology was emerging, built around the idea of human dignity rather than depravity, and a loving god. “Jehovah and his thrones, I pass them unalarmed” — what is this if not liberal Protestant Christianity? Wordsworth was in effect a “cultural Christian” and an example of what William James would later (quoting Francis W. Newman) describe as the “once-born”: “They see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.”

(Am I obsessed with the theme of a loving, nurturing god versus a punitive one? I'm afraid that to some extent I’ll mourn for the rest of my life the fact that my childhood was poisoned by backward, fear-based Catholicism.)

(For whatever it's worth, note that, except for the title, Wordsworth never mentions the Abbey in the poem.) 

Tintern Abbey, William Turner, 1794

The great Romantics basically created their own unconventional religion of Spirit and Spirit-suffused nature:

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

A motion? What first comes to mind is simply the wind, invisible in itself but visible in its effects.

Coleridge, certainly a believer in the Universal Spirit, came up with the wind harp analogy — each of us, along with all sentient beings, is a kind of wind harp, and the Wind/Spirit/Logos sweeps over the strings:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Romanticism is regarded as a reaction against the Enlightenment’s enthronement of reason and the emergence of deism, which posits a creator who set the universe in motion, and then turned away, never interfering in human affairs (science wasn’t yet advanced enough to get around the need for a “Prime Mover”). It was inconceivable that the deist god would violate the laws of nature. Nor would the Universal Spirit — but then that Spirit “suffused” and animated Nature. And it was possible to sense it and be consoled and inspired by it.

The indifferent deist Prime Mover struck the Romantics as too cold-hearted, but they did not try to go back to the bad old-time religion. They turned to mysticism. Shelley described himself as a mystical atheist precisely to accommodate the feeling of awe as he gazed on Mont Blanc. The American Transcendentalists claimed that the divine resided in nature but also within each human being. They rejected the more Judaic idea of god as the ultimate Other, an alien and incomprehensible presence outside time and space — with occasional incursions, frequent in the first and most mythological books of the Hebrew bible, then, in the later books, dwindling to absence and silence (In “The Disappearance of God,” Richard Friedman shows this gradual withdrawal in meticulous detail).

I think this is Blake's image of Yahweh’s hiding his face.
Shelley, expelled from Oxford for his atheism, wrote these mystical lines in his “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats through unseen among us — visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower —
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance

The Romantics didn’t want an absence of the divine; they wanted more of the divine. They wanted an intimacy with the Universal Spirit (or, more vaguely, “some unseen Power”). In a way, centuries ahead of time, they were basically saying Yes to Einstein’s question: Is the Universe friendly?

Friendly or indifferent, if we can have such beauty on this earth, and a spirit that’s universal rather than tribal, who needs an archaic god? A vengeful and punitive deity is the very opposite of what a sensitive person wants — especially if that sensitive person happens to be a Romantic poet. A radically different idea of the divine is needed.

As Harold Bloom observed in The Visionary Company: “There is no more important point to be made about English Romantic poetry than this one . . .  Though it is a displaced Protestantism, or a Protestantism astonishingly transformed by different kinds of humanism or naturalism, the poetry of English Romantics is a kind of religious poetry.”

A totally loving god, then? (Let us, for the moment, forget about earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters; in England, it was relatively easy to see nature as benign.) If we want to do away with the archaic baggage, a word such as “Spirit” is more agreeable. And ultimately, beauty itself might be enough; beauty itself can nurture us. It’s a kind of love that we receive from the world. This seems to me to be one of the main messages of the Romantics: for the most fulfilling kind of life, open yourself to beauty and awe.

And there is no need to travel to the Alps or the Andes (though it would be wonderful). A single flower in a proverbial crannied nook is an unexpected gift, an answered prayer.


Trying to settle down after the hurricane scare and our flight and return to home (luckily finding only minor damage, but I am mourning the loss of our river docks, which will be replaced). With these current storms in mind it would be difficult to see nature as benign: the indifference of these enormous forces is here for all to see. Some spent their time praying, and, surviving, felt those prayers answered. What does that say then about those who did not survive, or whose homes were destroyed? They were not worthy? They did not pray enough, or use the right words?

Those thanking God for their own deliverance don't want to go that far, but also don't want to admit survival and destruction may be purely luck, disorganized, indifferent, undirected, a crap shoot without universal meaning or intent. Although always sustained by the natural world's variety and beauty I don’t think I ever had much of that romantic vision. I could see, and sometimes intensely feel the integrity and continuity, the almost overwhelming beauty of the physical world, and at times felt an almost ecstatic connection running through all things, but I never felt it was personal, in the way people speak of a personal God. I never saw myself, or humanity, as the center of any focus in or beyond the universe. We are not the apple of any spiritual eye, the culmination or strategy of any supernatural plan.

Oddly, there may not be much romance in such vision, but there is magic. The old rules of magic say “as above, so below.” And what do we find in science as we uncover more and more of the basic structures of the universe — ordered and measured sequences and patterns: the fibonacci ratio, fractals, musical intervals, the geometry and mathematical order we find not only present throughout nature, but aesthetically pleasing, whether observed in ice crystals and the chambers of a nautilus shell, or in a painting by Leonardo. Do these orders define and produce beauty, or do we find them beautiful because we recognize in them the kinds of order we share in the organization of our own atoms, cells, tissues and chemistry?

Oriana, I hope I have not become too fuzzily mystical here. In many ways I feel science is the most sublime poetry, the periodic table and the Krebs cycle as beautiful and satisfying as a Mozart concerto or a perfect sonnet.


Wordsworth, an educated man, no doubt knew that hurricanes happened, but his knowledge was purely theoretical. I have never experienced a hurricane, but these days the media saturate us with images and reports. It’s no longer possible, that Romantic kind of innocence, almost, about how randomly destructive nature can be. And I wonder how different poetry might be if most of Europe didn’t happen to be so relatively free of natural disasters. Would a benevolent Universal Spirit still be perceived as permeating and governing nature? 

So your hurricane comment goes straight to the heart of things, i.e. that notorious indifference of nature so amply evident these days. And the argument that it’s our fault because we have messed up nature (or because we legalized gay marriage) doesn’t seem to address past natural disasters. If Spirit cares for us, hurricanes should never happen, or any other “acts of God” (a legal term still to this day!)

But that random destruction may only increase some people’s religiosity. It’s the poorest countries, the ones with the most natural disasters, that show the highest religiosity. You are absolutely right: randomness is hard to accept, so many tend to believe that the people who got wiped out probably deserved it (people are always making excuses for god or the “just universe”).

At the very least, they didn’t pray hard enough. And if not that, it’s all part of the divine plan to provide us with objects of compassion. And, once the belief in hell declined, but the belief in heaven has remained at a pretty high level (talk about wishful thinking), there is this unanswerable argument: “Don’t forget that those who got killed are now in a better place” — or, if the victims are alive but in bad shape, “God never sends us more suffering than we can endure.” (Really? Is that why we have so much suicide and stress disorders of all kinds?)

It’s randomness that we find very hard to endure — perhaps hardest of all. We evolved to seek patterns, and will find them even where there are none. We see faces and shapes in clouds and the bark of trees — or in ink blots, for that matter. Not only that, it’s been shown that a human can’t even produce a table of random numbers — it takes a computer.

And there are certainly patterns that strike us as beautiful — such as all those spirals, including hurricanes. But beauty is not a proof that a “Universal Spirit” exists. The existence of beauty proves only the existence of beauty — and the human ability to be delighted by beauty. A dog, alas, can’t appreciate a sunset. And neither can a toddler — the brain has to develop that capacity.

Now, there are those who claim that the universe is conscious — that “consciousness” is all around us, and we just partake of it. Again, unless we exclude benevolence, that doesn’t explain hurricanes.


At twilight, nature is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets. ~ Oscar Wilde

Oriana: Wilde said it about the relatively domesticated European landscapes. West Coast has such splendor that words crumble and are blown about like tumbleweeds and dust-devils. The sunsets are too intense, the sheen of water too blinding. We are face to face with the unnamable.

VICTORIAN SOCIALISM WAS CLOSER TO THE ROMANTIC POETS THAN TO KARL MARX (What Marx didn’t seem to realize was that England was the most democratic country in Europe, and the least prone to violent revolution.)

The word 'socialism' was first used in the English language in 1827 in the working-class publication, the Co-operative Magazine, and it meant co-operation as opposed to competition. (Garner et al. 115) In the 1830s, the word socialism was used interchangeably with the word Owenism, and Robert Owen (1771-1858) became the central figure of British socialism in the first half of the 19th century.

Victorian socialists drew heavily not on the works of Karl Marx, but on the legacy of authors who held romantic, radical and even conservative views, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Disraeli, and John Ruskin. However, the roots of British socialism can also be sought in more remote times. Some of the distant forerunners of Victorian socialism include William Langland, John Wycliffe, John Ball [leader of a peasant revolt], and Thomas More.

British socialism emerged in the time when Victorian society began to overcome the principles of classical economics, the laissez-faire system, and was immersed in faith crisis. Traditional British liberalism and radicalism played a far more important role in shaping socialism in Victorian Britain than the works of Karl Marx. Although Marxism had some impact in Britain, it was far less significant than in many other European countries, with thinkers such as David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and John Ruskin having much greater influence. Non-Marxist historians speculate that this was because Britain was amongst the most democratic countries of Europe of the period, where the ballot box provided an instrument for change, so parliamentary reforms seemed a more promising route than revolutionary socialism advocated by Marx. As Sir Ivor Jeggins put it, “British socialism has always been as much British as socialist.”

The first political movement of the working-class was launched by the London Corresponding Society, founded in 1792, by Thomas Hardy (1752-1832), a shoemaker and metropolitan Radical. The Society, consisting mostly of working-class members, agitated among the masses parliamentary reform, universal manhood suffrage and working class representation in Parliament. The Society met openly for six years despite harassment by police magistrates and arrests of its members, but was finally outlawed in 1799 by an act of Parliament as a result of fear that it made a dangerous challenge to the established government.

Robert Owen (1771-1858), who was a textile mill owner, philanthropist, social and labour reformer, is considered as the father of British co-operative socialism. He and his followers founded several co-operative communities in Britain and the United States which offered workers decent living conditions and access to education. Although all Owenite communities eventually failed, the communitarian tradition persisted in Victorian England and elsewhere. Owenism exerted a significant influence on various strands of British socialism, including Christian socialism, ethical socialism, guild socialism, Fabianism, and socialist labour movement. Co-operative socialism was perceived by these organizations as a replacement for the unjust competitive capitalist system.

The British socialist movement re-emerged in the 1880s. A strong critique of capitalism, which was voiced by various groups of social critics, literary figures and working-class militants, led to the formation of three distinct strands of late Victorian socialism.

The term socialism was generally synonymous in Victorian Britain with social reform, collectivism, communitarianism and improvement of living conditions of the working class and it did not bear strong Marxist connotations. In fact, few people were interested in socialist revolution in Victorian Britain, but quite a great number were fascinated by the mystical features of socialism. Unlike Marxism, which criticized liberal democracy and advocated revolutionary class struggle, the main strands of Victorian socialism can be characterized by ethical, non-Marxian, anti-capitalist outlook which combined traditional English radicalism with traditional English respect for democracy.

The statue of Robert Owen in Manchester

MILLENARIANISM: RELIGIOUS ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIAN MOVEMENTS (P.S. Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” lasted only eleven years instead of the predicted one thousand)

~ This happens to throw a light on Trump’s followers: ~ “The most fervent followers [of the medieval millenarian prophets] were the marginalized poor whose place within the social structure and whose very survival were under threat. A prophet, who assumed the role of messiah, offered the poor a chance to be among the select, or the elite.

Norman Cohn's topic is Millenarianism in the Middle Ages, or the recurring emergence of a collective of “faithful” under the leadership of a charismatic prophet or prophets who believe that the world will imminently be transformed into an earthly paradise inhabited by the "select" (i.e., themselves). This Edenic existence will last 1,000 years and then the Last Judgement will forever sort all mankind into the camps of Heaven and Hell. The basis of the millennial paradigm is rooted in the Book of Daniel (Ch. VII: Daniel's Dream) and the Book of Revelation (Ch. XX), as well as the enduring legend that there could be a return to what was wishfully assumed to be mankind's original egalitarian and plentiful existence.” ~

~ from a reader’s review of The Pursuit of the Millennium, by Norman Cohn (first published in 1957, expanded in 1970)

~ “At the end of the first millennium A.D., itinerant preachers crisscrossed Europe warning that the end of the world was nigh. Hundreds of thousands of people took heed, joining religious cults and anti-governmental militias in preparation for the coming war between good and evil. (If this sounds familiar, it is proof only that history is cyclical.) During this heady time, Europe exploded in religious war, peasant revolts and sectarian strife, marked by the first large-scale massacres of Jews and gypsies, the first inklings of inquisitions and holy crusades. Norman Cohn, a masterful writer and interpreter, carefully explores this extraordinary period in European history in a book that bears rereading as our own millennium approaches its end.” ~ capsule review by Amazon

“Absolutely astounding... when people fantasize about ideal worlds and the "end of days", their thinking usually get disjointed rather fast. Never did this form of thinking run more prevalent and have such catastrophic consequences than between the 11th and the 16th centuries. This is a collection of some of the most obscure peasant cults and peasant wars that afflict mankind during the middle ages. The results were usually bloody, such as the rebellion of Thomas Müntzer in early 1500s. But what is more interesting is how such thinking of millenarian societies can be extrapolated into the 20th Century (Hitler & Stalin) and latterly, the an altogether less emphatic form, the Fukuyama thesis that “History has Ended.”

It is interesting that Cohn's book serves as the seminal study of millenarian thinking in general and is often used as a counterpoint in the studies of Marxism, Fascism, and the millennial dreams of the neocons and infantile understanding of the New Agers, and conspiracy theorists... it's all here. A warning what happens when man and women lose their common sense and believe that the ideal is possible.

A good warning for the present times when ideologues and conspiracy theorists and their ignorant ilk seem to be all around us….” ~ a reader’s review

 ~ “The book was triggered by conversations among captured Nazis on which the author had eavesdropped as part of his work in intelligence during the Second World War.

Though they knew their cause was lost, these Nazis took perverse comfort from a kind of negative eschatology. They had failed to create their racist utopia; but through their crimes, they believed, they had brought the old world to an end.
In later books, notably Warrant for Genocide: the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1966) and Europe's Inner Demons (1975), Cohn showed how this kind of eschatological thinking mixed with Christian demonology led to the great witch-hunts of early modern times, and eventually to the supreme crime of the Holocaust.

It is impossible to understand 20th-century politics unless Cohn's insights into the religious origins of totalitarian movements have been fully absorbed, but the importance of his work extends well beyond totalitarianism. Eschatological thinking can have a malign effect in liberal democracies. To take only the most obvious example, an eschatological turn of mind lay behind a good deal of the support for the Iraq War. Sometimes this thinking was explicitly religious, as with the American Christian fundamentalists who supported the war as a prelude to Armageddon; but the same mentality was expressed by neoconservatives who saw regime change as the start of a "global democratic revolution", and by liberal interventionists who imagined that toppling Saddam Hussein would inaugurate a new world order ruled by human rights. In each case, the particularities of Iraq - its status as a composite state, created in colonial times and divided by deep-seated enmities - were ignored, and the risks of civil war and anarchy discounted. The warnings of history were lost in an epiphany of a new world.

Thomas Müntzer


~ “A frequent theme is for millenarian sects to believe that since they were the saved, they could treat the unsaved as the source of wealth and food for their survival. Frequently this meant targeting the established church, for, as Cohn explains, the Church had its own interests too. It was "a powerful and prosperous institution, functioning according to a well-established routine; and the men responsible for governing it had no wish to see Christians clinging to out-dated and inappropriate dreams of a new earthly paradise."

But there was a contradiction, for "In Christian apocalyptic the old phantasy of divine election was preserved and revitalised; it was the body of literature inaugurated by the Book of Revelation which encouraged Christians to see themselves as the Chosen People of the Lord - chosen both to prepare the way for and to inherit the Millennium. And this idea had such enormous attraction that no official condemnation could prevent it from recurring again and again to the minds of the unprivileged, the oppressed, the disoriented and the unbalanced."

The reality of feudal exploitation and oppression coincided with a ideology that meant "For medieval people the stupendous drama of the Last Days was not a fantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfillment.”

The 1251 "Crusades of the Shepherds" began at Easter when three men began to preach a Crusade in Picardy and within days their preaching had reached far beyond France. One of them was Jacob, a renegade monk, who (in common with many similar movements) claimed to have a letter from the Virgin Mary which called on shepherds to make a crusade. Hundreds flocked to the call, and thousands more joined them. A contemporary estimate (that is likely to be exaggerated) suggests 60,000. The army

“was divided into fifty companies; these marched separately, armed with pitchforks, hatchets, daggers, pikes carried aloft as they entered towns and villages, so as to intimidate the authorities. When they ran short of provisions they took what they needed by force; but much was given freely for.. people revered the Pastoureaux as holy men."

According to contemporary reports, it was precisely because the Pastoureaux had a habit of "killing and despoiling" priests that they had much popular support. The movement however over-reached itself. At the town of Bourges, Jacob preached against the Jews, and his army pillaged houses and plundered the churches. Despite having earlier gained the trust and support of the French Queen Mother, she now realized her mistake and the movement was outlawed. This caused a crisis within the ranks and allowed local forces to smash Jacob’s followers. Some escaped and one even made it to England were he continued to preach and gathered a following of hundreds of peasants and shepherds around Shoreham until troops sent by Henry III led to the movement’s final destruction.

One of the interesting aspects to the movements discussed here, is the parallels. For instance, in 1381 a movement in northern France took the form of a popular uprising in a number of towns. Here, "the first objective of these people was always the tax-farmer's office, where they destroyed the files, looted the coffers and murdered the tax-farmers; their next, the Jewish quarter, where they also murdered and looted their fill." Anyone who has read about the 1381 English Uprising will note that the first target of the Rebels over the Channel was to burn records of taxes and serfdom and immigrant laborers from Flanders were also massacred.

Another theme is the way that many movements broke apart traditional notions of sexuality. Take the "Free Spirit" movement. It's doctrine was that the person who has "become God" must use all things.

One expression of this, says Cohn, was a "promiscuous and mystically colored eroticism." Women were created to be used by the "Brethren of the Free Spirit. Indeed by such intimacy a women became chaster than before, so that if she had previously lost her virginity she now regained it.”

In 1476 another mass movement developed around a shepherd Böhm. His vision was of a world turned upside down. One Abbot commented on Böhm's movement: "What would the layman like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master's yoke.” 

Frequently those at the heart of these events would be so convinced of their divine inspiration that their actions led to their own deaths and the destruction of their followers. But it would be wrong to suggest that this means these self-declared messiahs were insane. Whether it was the small scale sects, or the mass followings of Thomas Müntzer or the extraordinary tale of Jan Bockelson and the Münster Rebellion, their ideas and preaching inspired tens of thousands and frequently shook the medieval world to its foundations.” ~


Fascinating: “The book was triggered by conversations among captured Nazis on which the author had eavesdropped as part of his work in intelligence during the Second World War. Though they knew their cause was lost, these Nazis took perverse comfort from a kind of negative eschatology. They had failed to create their racist utopia; but through their crimes, they believed, they had brought the old world to an end.”

Eschatology = the theology of the "last days" — the final stage of history, or End Times. It often includes the doctrine of the Thousand Years of Earthly Paradise. More loosely, it’s a belief in a future Golden Age of peace and prosperity.

Interesting, how the Antiquity’s myth of the Golden Age in the remote past got transformed into the myth of the Golden Age in the future, and how the roots of that transformation lie in the Book of Revelation and Daniel 11. To think that such ancient ravings have inspired mass murder through so many centuries . . .

Jehova's Witnesses are an example of Millenarians — fortunately non-violent. But there is an uncanny echo among the Neo-Nazis (Steve Bannon, let's face it) who want a restoration of the "traditional" world order through an apocalyptic slaughter first (e.g. war with North Korea).

It now strikes me as almost uncanny that I took a huge interest in the Reformation back in high school — including Thomas Müntzer's Peasant Uprising, and how this radical egalitarianism was condemned by Martin Luther, even though Luther believed the Second Coming was imminent.

~ “A man who is unable to despair has no need to be alive,” Goethe wrote; and that may very well be true, at least from the standpoint of people like most of us, who believe (without quite knowing so, perhaps) that one needs to have a need to be alive; but is unlikely anyone unable to despair has ever felt the need to read a single line of Goethe.” ~ M. Iossel


But I wonder, psychopaths aside, if any human being is unable to despair . . . if anyone is spared. Having done a lot of despairing myself, I’ve concluded that in my case it's ungracious. I am a child of intellectual privilege, I've read some Goethe in the original (mesmerizing music), I have access to great literature, great music, great visual art — and I live near the Pacific ocean, yes, with those sunsets. Next to such blessings, to complain about what life has not given to me would be petty. If only I had this perception earlier in life . . .

M. Iossel’s reply:

~  ... no, of course it is not possible for any sentient human being to go through life without despairing at least just as frequently as one would be feeling happy; that's just the essence of human condition: if you are capable of rejoicing, you should be familiar with despair as well. But then again, it's true too that extremely stupid people often are irrepressibly upbeat, and idiots tend to laugh a lot. ~

Oriana: Yes, it’s a common finding that higher IQ correlates with less happiness and more depression. But the chief reason may be that it also correlates with ambition and the struggle for achievement, which brings its inevitable strains and disappointments. Despair? I’ve never met an intelligent person who wasn’t well-acquainted with despair, even suicidal despair. “It’s just an intelligent person’s response to the realities of adult life,” a friend said. One of my favorite quotations is that genius is how we invent ourselves out of despair (a paraphrase).

orange oakleaf butterfly

It’s not the humidity, it’s the self-hate. ~ Michael Andre

~ to which one person replied: I prefer self-hate to humidity. 

saguaro; photo: Jack Dykinga


“The first few passages of Genesis weren’t written to explain the mechanics of how the world was made. They were written as a polemic against neighboring cultures (and perhaps against its own earlier forbears) in order to posit that one single God, rather than many, was responsible for creating the world.”

~ “. . . But this word for God — ELOHIM —  is strange because its form is plural. In ancient Hebrew, nouns that end in the suffix -im are typically plural. If we didn’t know any better, we would conclude this religion at one point in time believed in multiple gods, not just one.

    In the beginning, gods created the heavens and the earth…

That would certainly comport with the Ancient Near Eastern context out of which the Abrahamic religion originally emerged. Other religions of the region were polytheistic, and taught that universe was formed out of a cosmic battle between competing gods. Many of those religions taught that each competing god ruled over a particular sphere or category of the world (sky, ocean, crops, weather, fertility, the sun, etc).

What makes this religion unique among its competitors is that it ascribes authority for each and every one of those spheres to the same god. In a way, that’s the whole point of this creation narrative. It wasn’t told and retold (and later written) in order to lay out a technical description for how the world was made. It was a reworking of a very old (but, to them, very familiar) genre of origins with a polemical twist that set them apart from their neighbors: They had one single god in charge of everything, not just one particular category. This god was in charge of the sky, and the water, and the land…in other words, pretty much everything that they knew there was.


Despite the monotheistic innovation of Abrahamic religions, we still see signs of earlier influences all over the Old Testament. For one thing, right here in the first chapter of Genesis, we read God speaking to, presumably, himself.

    Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

Evidently being “in the image of God” means ruling over everything the same way that God rules over everything (the sea, the sky, the ground). That will become relevant in later passages in the Bible, but for now I have to stop and point out the obvious: It says let US.

When I was a kid, I was taught to read this as a prooftext for the doctrine of the Trinity. Christian theology teaches that God is somehow one “being” but still three different “persons” (as if that makes sense in any way, shape, or form). But that aside, it strains credibility to maintain that the ancient Hebrews, who were decidedly monotheistic, told and retold this story for centuries with a trinitarian reference woven into the text.

I’m still just marveling that traces of an earlier polytheism are preserved right there in the text for us.

There is even evidence that earlier iterations of the God of Abraham had a wife (or at least a consort) named Asherah. From time to time the prophets had to get onto the people of Israel for setting up “Asherah poles” alongside their officially approved worship paraphernalia. When I was a younger reader (and still committed to a belief in divine inspiration), I assumed the Israelites absorbed this perversion of their religion through osmosis, as it were, by virtue of their mixing and mingling with the surrounding Canaanite cultures.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that most of the stories of early Israel were completely made up, and that prior to their emergence from Canaanite culture, there was no Israel to speak of.

I am a thoroughgoing mythicist where pre-Canaanite Israel is concerned, and I do not believe anyone resembling Moses ever existed. The reality is that the Hebrew people seem to have first emerged from Canaanite culture in the tenth or eleventh century B.C.E., quite a number of centuries after the supposed Egyptian captivity, wilderness wanderings, and conquest of Canaan. We find no evidence of violent conquest, nor do we see any historical support for their existence as a people prior to their gradual cultural differentiation at that time.

[The monotheistic religion] took from the stories around it and refashioned them into a separate identity in which one god in particular, Yahweh (who was likely a god of war), ruled over them all. This god (or God) wasn’t in charge of just one arena or sphere, he was in charge of all of them. And more to the point, everyone else’s gods have to bow to this one, even if it means killing off anyone who disagrees. Bonus points if they happen to live on farmable soil, because that really belongs to Yahweh as well. Isn’t that convenient?

    “As long as there has been one true God, there has been killing in his name.” –The DaVinci Code


As an atheist, I no longer subscribe to a belief in supernatural books. Letting that go was a freeing development for me. Now I am able to consider so many competing viewpoints and perspectives on religion and on the Bible without feeling so emotionally invested in protecting the book from, well, itself.

But even a supernaturalist can appreciate that the Bible, even if it were inspired by God, should be taken on its own terms. And as such, it doesn’t really do a service to the Bible to superimpose onto it an expectation about which questions it should answer. It doesn’t really help anybody to try forcing the Bible into addressing questions it was never designed to answer.

The first few passages of Genesis weren’t written to explain the mechanics of how the world was made. They were written as a polemic against neighboring cultures (and perhaps against its own earlier forbears) in order to posit that one single God, rather than many, was responsible for creating the world (however it was that he did it). It was also borrowing heavily from its own temple cultus in order to structure the narrative development, laying out each phase of creation according to the design of the temple itself.

It wasn’t written as a scientific or technical explanation for how the universe or the planet earth or the plants and animals and people on it came to be. That interpretive grid only showed up a few decades ago in response to the rise of Darwinian thought among the sciences, and it has produced some laughably absurd results.

Blake: The creation of Adam

Monotheism had a hard struggle not only against competing religions, but against its own roots -- that's the fascinating part.

Of course once you declare that your tribal god is the only real god and all the other gods are made-up, you've opened wider the gates of hell of us-them.


“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” ~ Plato

“We don’t need no edoocayshon” — the motto of one of the states of the Union (that, pre-Trump, loved to threatened to secede, but they never secede when you want them to).

(I just realized this can be sung to the tune of "I can't get no satisfaction":

We don’t need no edoocayshon,
We don't need no teacher action.
Who needs spelling? Not this nation.
Who needs ammo? Check my suction.)

OK, the last word is dubious, but I needed a rhyme, and don't happen to possess a rhyming dictionary (though I've been secretly lusting after one for years). 


~ “It seems the list of animals that menstruate is quite short: humans, apes, monkeys, bats and elephant shrews. What do these seemingly disparate animals have in common?

It all comes down to how much control the mother animal has over her own womb, according to Deena Emera of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In a paper published in 2011, Emera and her colleagues pointed out that in menstruating animals, the transformation of the womb wall is entirely controlled by the mother, using the hormone progesterone.

Embryos can only implant in the womb wall if it is thick and has specialised large cells, so this means the female is effectively controlling whether or not she can get pregnant. This ability is called "spontaneous decidualization”.

In most other mammals, these changes to the womb are triggered by signals from the embryo. In effect, the womb lining thickens in response to pregnancy.

"There's a nice correlation between species that menstruate and species that exhibit spontaneous decidualization," says Emera.

"We argue that spontaneous decidualization likely evolved because of the conflict between the mother and the foetus," Emera says.

"We put forward two possibilities, especially in primates." The first is that spontaneous decidualisation may have evolved to protect the mother from an aggressive fetus.

All fetuses burrow into the linings of their mothers' wombs, in search of nourishment. But some do this more than others.

In horses, cows and pigs, the embryo simply sits on the surface of the womb lining. In dogs and cats, the fetuses dig in a little more. But in humans and other primates, a fetus will dig through all the womb lining to directly bathe in its mother's blood.

That's because mothers and babies are engaged in an "evolutionary tug-of-war", says Elizabeth Rowe of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The mother wants to ration how much nutrients she gives to each baby, so she has some left and can have more babies. On the other hand, the developing baby wants to get as much energy from its mother as it can.

"As the fetus became more aggressive, the mother responded by putting up her defenses before the invasion actually began," says Emera.

The second possibility is that spontaneous decidualization evolved to get rid of bad embryos.

Human embryos are very prone to genetic abnormalities, which is why so many pregnancies fail in the first few weeks. This might because of our unusual sexual habits, says Emera.

"Humans can copulate anytime during the reproductive cycle, unlike many other mammals that copulate right around ovulation," says Emera. This is called "extended copulation". Other menstruating primates, some of the menstruating bat species, and the elephant shrew all engage in extended copulation.

As a result, an egg may be several days old by the time it gets fertilized, says Emera. Aging eggs may result in abnormal embryos.

Once the womb lining has thickened and changed, its cells develop the ability to recognize and respond to defective embryos. So spontaneous decidualization may be a way for the mother to save her resources, says Emera. "It prevents her from investing in a bad embryo, lets her get rid of it right away, and primes her body for another successful pregnancy.”

In line with this idea, a study published in 2008 found that rhesus macaque embryos are also prone to genetic abnormalities. But we don't have similar data for many other species, says Emera, so this idea can't be properly tested.” ~

from Wiki:

~ Decidualization is a process that results in significant changes to cells of the endometrium in preparation for, and during, pregnancy. This includes morphological and functional changes to endometrial stromal cells (ESCs), the presence of decidual white blood cells (leukocytes), and vascular changes to maternal arteries.

In humans, decidualization occurs after ovulation during the menstrual cycle. After implantation of the embryo, the decidua further develops to mediate the process of placentation. In the event no embryo is implanted, the decidualized endometrial lining is shed or, as is the case with species that follow the estrous cycle, absorbed. ~


Let’s face it, this is not intelligent design. Decidualization? No thanks. Who profits? The makers of “feminine hygiene” products and blood stain removers and anti-cramp meds. But no, I'm not implying that they had anything to do with creating this mess — this is where evolution has failed women, big time. Well, at least women get to live past the mess. 


The intelligent design argument collapses when you look closely at all the horrible possibilities embedded in that design. Take the human female reproductive system. The placenta, that marvelous organ that negotiates between mother and fetus can fail in spectacular ways. In placenta previa the placenta is positioned incorrectly, partially or completely over the cervix, and can cause bleeding , threatening the pregnancy, and requiring a c section. The true horror comes with something called placenta accretia. Here the placenta does not simply attach to the uterine wall, it continues to grow into and even through the wall into the peritoneal cavity, and even on or into other organs. This particular design flaw is a catastrophe. The birth followed by massive hemorrhage which, if not immediately controlled, and hysterectomy done, results in death. It is rare, and was almost excluded in the curriculum when I was in nursing school, because it was so rare. However, one of my friends suffered this complication with her second pregnancy — the sudden massive hemorrhage was unexpected, and only the quick response of the surgical team saved her life with a hysterectomy. The intelligence of such failures in design is unimpressive at best.


The system is so complicated that endless things can go wrong. But first of all, no woman would ever design for menstruation. That’s a failure right there.


I think there comes an age when a woman just doesn't care what she looks like. Just to be alive is ecstatic. (I think. I hope.) Photo: Donato di Camillo
Ending on beauty:

“The wind came with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” ~ Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937.

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