Saturday, October 14, 2017


“Just to be here is magnificent” — oh yeah?


~ “What do we think of happiness? What do we think of defeat, and of victory? Nowadays when people talk of a happy ending, they think of it as mere pandering to the public, or they think it is a commercial device; they think it is artificial. Yet for centuries men could very sincerely believe in happiness and victory, though they felt the essential dignity of defeat. For example, when people wrote about the Golden Fleece, readers and hearers were made to feel from the beginning that the treasure would be found at the end.

Well, **nowadays if an adventure is attempted, we know that it will end in failure. When we read —  I think of an example I admire — The Aspern Papers, we know that the papers will never be found. When we read Kafka’s The Castle, we know that the man will never get inside the castle. That is to say, we cannot really believe in happiness and in success. And this may be one of the poverties of our time.** I suppose Kafka felt much the same when he wanted his books to be destroyed: he really wanted to write a happy and victorious book, and he felt that he could not do it. He might have written it, of course, but people would have felt that he was telling the truth. Not the truth of facts but the truth of his dreams.

. . . We have had two world wars, yet somehow no epic has come from them — except perhaps the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I find many epic qualities. But the book is hampered by the fact that the hero, T.E. Lawrence, is the teller, and so sometimes he has to belittle himself, has has to make himself human, he has to make himself far too believable.”

~ Jorge Luis Borges, from an essay published in The Atlantic, September 2000.


That is indeed a grand divide between the past and modernity: in the past, literature based on the hero's journey almost always ended in triumph. The quest was rewarded. Borges points out what others saw as well: modern literature is full of defeat. Dickens bowed to the wishes of the public and rewrote the first, unhappy ending of Great Expectations so as to make romantic love triumph. Nowadays we almost take it for granted that the protagonist's dream will be defeated (I used the word "protagonist" because "hero" sounds too exalted to modern sensibility).

Perhaps the chief reason is not any rise in nihilism, but rather the rise in the living standard and a drop in infant mortality. As life became less harsh, readers could endure a greater injection of reality. At some point in the 19th century, the fake happy ending of King Lear was tossed, and the original one restored.

Perhaps we've also become more “Buddhist” and realize that a dream come true is often a dream that morphs into disappointment. One acceptable ending to The Castle would have K enter, but find the castle either empty or otherwise a complete letdown.

Borges points out that the trend toward the unhappy ending s a modernist bias that impoverishes us, and that it’s possible to have authentic literature that is loyal to the truth of human dreams, and not just literature that is relentlessly loyal to the dream-shattering reality.  Perhaps we should consider a more moderate solution: there can always be a partial happy ending. Rather than persist in crippling idealism, we can settle for more modest contentment.

Lovers, John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1880


As for happy endings in the modern world, I think we do find them, but they are not simple and unmixed, like the "happily ever afters" of fairy tales. I think we discover we have to create our own meanings and our own happiness out of the materials and experiences of our lives.

Inevitably this is difficult, full of errors and disappointments, but not impossible. Our lives are stories we tell ourselves. What is modern, I think, is that the old standard narratives of religion and tradition are no longer available, or no longer fit. So making sense of things involves a lot more creativity and a lot more searching than it may have in other times.


Perhaps we place too much emphasis on endings, happy or unhappy. After all a life is NOT a novel or a movie. It’s not even a story (in the sense of one coherent narrative), but material for many stories, depending on perspective. It’s all in the interpretation.

Above all, a novel or a movie does not need to start with the protagonist’s birth and end with his or her death. The writer can choose any other point for beginning and ending. And a great deal depends on that choice, and determines whether we’ll see the ending as happy or unhappy.

Yet endings do bias us in terms of how we perceive the narrative. If a marriage ends in a divorce, the happiness of the first year is often forgotten. Only the bad things are thought about, told, and consequently more strongly remembered. Once in a while we see the opposite phenomenon: a marriage so idealized in memory that we know it couldn’t have possibly been so perfect.

But it’s our interpretation that counts, not “facts.” Still, here we have Borges saying that modernity can be characterized by unhappy endings, i.e. we know from the start that K will never enter the castle. “The Lost City of Z” will not be found. The “cure for cancer” (or  Alzheimer’s, arthritis, schizophrenia, etc) is also beginning to look like a myth. 

How was it that we ever managed to land on the Moon? Because it’s not all black and white, the past all happy endings and modernity all unhappy ones. It’s more complex than that. I’d venture to say, again, that life is on the whole easier and safer now, at least in the West. Thus, we are more able to endure the kind of “entertainment” (an interesting term) that is more realistic and complex, and this includes much suffering and small, limited triumphs. And we learn to embrace this complexity, and be grateful for whatever we get — in life and in art.


And Milosz, in telling of his life, has a strange problem: his old age was glorious, but he has to belittle his incredible privilege of sudden worldwide fame by claiming an unhappy life. First I judged him as ungracious, but then I considered the facts: he was almost 70 when he won the Nobel Prize. It could have just as easily been Zbigniew Herbert, and many thought it should have been Herbert. But the gods in Stockholm chose Milosz. What a journey — from obscurity and downright humiliation to the acme of recognition and adulation. And the creative flowering that followed was perhaps the greatest source of joy.

I say “joy” in spite of Milosz’s insistence that his life had been unhappy because I can’t imagine a glorious old age as anything but a triumph (Yeats and Robert Penn Warren are other examples). But 1) Milosz had many decades in which to form an image of himself as cursed and rejected 2) as Borges describes, our age calls for unhappy endings; K never enters the castle.

Yet there is no denying that Milosz did enter the castle. He went past the frightful guardians; he miraculously evaded even the flaming swords of the cherubim, and reached the Tree of Life. (Kafka did too, but only posthumously). Imagine what it’s like to live on for more than two decades knowing that your words will survive you. Not for ever and ever, but any literary afterlife is a miracle.

And yet the many years of thinking of himself as failed and worthless demanded that Milosz say his life had been unhappy. The loyalty to an outdated self-image is hard to break.

Now, Dickens even at the height of his fame was described as an unhappy man. We can ascribe it to the unhealed wounds of childhood and/or to his frustration with his wife, and later with his much younger mistress, who apparently did not really love him and resented the miseries of being a secret mistress. So the dream of an angelic and completely loving woman remained unfulfilled (and no wonder).

And the older Tolstoy. Let’s not even get into Tolstoy. When a marriage goes wrong, it’s just too depressing.

Milosz was no Victorian, but maybe he too felt bitter about an insufficiency of erotic fulfillment (certainly not an absence — his poems make no secret of the fact that he’d had affairs). I’m guessing. Like Dickens, the aging poet turned to a much younger woman. Yet the difference of thirty years is a barrier, a source of feeling “not at home” with one another. They each grew up in a different world, and might as well be from different planets. Milosz’s dream seems to have been a woman who grew up in the same world as he did, in a white Lithuanian manor.

And what about the woman in Vilnius that he got pregnant and abandoned, going to Warsaw —   his first exile. I don’t even want to touch that guilt.

No, it was easier to stay with the dream, beautifully put by a relative, Oscar Milosz, who became a French poet:

“It happened that sometimes I kissed in mirrors the reflection of my face; since the hands, face and tears of Annalena had caressed it, my face seemed to me divinely beautiful and as if suffused with heavenly sweetness.”

Doesn’t that sound as if written by Borges, sunk in the beatitude of his luminous blindness? Or by Poe, inventing his Lenore, just as Petrarch, centuries earlier, invented his Laura, and Dante essentially invented Beatrice? For a writer, the written life is supreme, whether it’s the “truth of a dream” or an attempt at realism (there is no realism, strictly speaking; to write is to simplify). A writer’s happiness lies in being able to write, to create until the end. By that standard — and not just because of the Nobel Prize — Milosz’s life had a fabulous happy ending.

And what is a writer’s life is not a hero’s journey? But a happy ending is by no means assured.


This just arrived via email. Literature Today is asking for submissions, and here is what they want (verbatim):

1. Escape from self.

2. Scape from society. [yes, “scape” as in “scapegoat” — perhaps the editors wanted an alliteration here]

3. Escape from native place.

4. Escape from hope.

5. Escape from negative thoughts

6  Escape from values.

7. Any other relevant topic which explores the disassociation,
displacement, and angst of contemporary life


And this is probably as affirmative as we can get: 



~ “In the 1980s, around the time of the massive deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, I was working toward my degree in clinical psychology by training at a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. One sweet, diminutive, elderly patient sometimes wandered the halls. She had been committed to the hospital after she stabbed someone in a supermarket. She was what is sometimes referred to as a revolving-door patient: She was schizophrenic and heard frightening voices in her head, and when she became psychotic enough, she would be hospitalized, stabilized on medication, and then released back to the community. There she would soon go off her medication, become psychotic, be rehospitalized, stabilized again on medication, released, etc.

At her commitment hearing, she testified that she had become extremely upset in the grocery store before repeatedly stabbing the man in front of her in the checkout line. The hearing officer, aware of her history and sympathetic to this woman with such a sweet demeanor, asked helpfully if she had been hearing voices at the time. Yes, she replied, she had. “And what were the voices telling you?” the officer inquired supportively. She explained that the voices were telling her not to hurt the man, but he had gotten in the express checkout lane with more than 10 items, and that made her so mad that she couldn’t stop herself.

In addition to being a valuable cautionary tale about grocery etiquette, the story illustrates an important truth about violence and mental health: Violence is not a product of mental illness; violence is a product of anger. When we cannot modulate anger, it will control our behavior.

Violent crimes are committed by violent people, those who do not have the skills to manage their anger. Most homicides are committed by people with a history of violence. Murderers are rarely ordinary, law-abiding citizens, and they are also rarely mentally ill. Violence is a product of compromised anger management skills.

In a summary of studies on murder and prior record of violence, Don Kates and Gary Mauser found that 80 to 90 percent of murderers had prior police records, in contrast to 15 percent of American adults overall. In a study of domestic murderers, 46 percent of the perpetrators had had a restraining order against them at some time. Family murders are preceded by prior domestic violence more than 90 percent of the time. Violent crimes are committed by people who lack the skills to modulate anger, express it constructively, and move beyond it.

Violent crimes committed by people with severe mental illnesses get a lot of attention, but such attacks are relatively rare. Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said, “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.” A 2009 study by Seena Fazel found a slightly higher rate of violent crime in schizophrenics—but it was almost entirely accounted for by alcohol and drug abuse. Likewise, the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study found that mentally ill people who did not have a substance abuse problem were no more violent than other people in their neighborhoods.

The attribution of violent crime to people diagnosed with mental illness is increasing stigmatization of the mentally ill while virtually no effort is being made to address the much broader cultural problem of anger management. This broader problem encompasses not just mass murders but violence toward children and spouses, rape, road rage, assault, and violent robberies. We are a culture awash in anger.

Anger disorders are a product of long-term anger mismanagement. They are a pathological misdirection of normal aggressive feelings. Anger is, at its essence, a part of the basic biological reaction to danger, the fight or flight response. The physiological shift makes us stop thinking and mobilize for immediate action, as though our life depends on it. It is a primitive response, and very powerful. Anger prepares us to stand our ground and fight. It helped our ancestors survive, but in today’s complex technological world, it is often more hindrance than help. The angrier you feel, the less clearly you can think, and therefore the less able you are to negotiate, take a new perspective, or effectively handle a provocation.

The violence that is a part of anger disorders is fueled by chronic repressed rage that has found no socially acceptable outlet. It is fostered by families in which adults behave in violent, intimidating ways or in which anger is tightly repressed. In either situation there is no appropriate model for the safe or constructive expression of anger.

The truth is, anger management skills are simple techniques that can and should be taught to children and adolescents. We should not wait to teach these skills until verbally or physically violent behavior has become habitual and, often, life-threatening.

The skills involve balancing the initial fight-or-flight response, governed by the sympathetic nervous system, with its opposite, the parasympathetic nervous system, which permits reasoning to take over again. It’s simple, but it requires a significant amount of practice. There are many techniques that can be taught to achieve this end: deliberate shifting from emotional to more objective thinking, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques, communication and listening skills, and identifying warning cues before anger boils over.

Mindfulness can reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. It has been used with success in populations as diverse as cardiac patients, prison inmates, police officers, and children. It incorporates deep breathing, heightened attention to one’s internal state, and the acceptance of internal discomfort. One can observe one’s own thoughts without identifying with them and acting on them.

Dialectical behavior therapy, a kind of cognitive therapy developed by the psychologist Marsha Linehan, was designed to meet the needs of extremely emotional, volatile individuals and has been used successfully over the past 25 years. It incorporates mindfulness skills and also teaches distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.

Uncontrolled anger has become our No. 1 mental health issue. Though we have the understanding and the skills to treat the anger epidemic in this country, as a culture, we have been unwilling to accept the violence problem as one that belongs to each and every one of us. We have sought scapegoats in minority cultures, racial groups, and now the mentally ill. When we are ready to accept that the demon is within us all, we can begin to treat the cycle of anger and suffering.


Thinking about the violence in our society, and anger management — it seems to me the problem is almost completely with male anger, whether driven by testosterone or cultural allowances and expectations for male behavior. However, I think there is an essential problem with thinking anger management can successfully reshape the violent expression of anger in our world. In order for any therapy, or any program of management to succeed, the subject has to want it to succeed, has to see their angry behavior as a problem they want to solve. My experience with angry and violent men has never found them eager or willing to give up their anger, or their violent behavior. To them, it is righteous, like the wrath of God, and full of an exultation, a powerful rush of pleasure. They may go to anger management classes if compelled, but they don't truly see their anger or their violent behavior as wrong, or something they want to give up. I have seen this intimately in terms of domestic violence. The perpetrator feels it is his right to be angry, and to impose that anger on the world, most commonly on the women and children closest to him. It is they who have provoked him, they who caused his angry acts, calling violence down on themselves. If anyone's guilty, it isn't him, it's his victims. This may seem a convoluted justification, but I think it's quite common.


I completely agree with you: violent men don’t want to give up their anger. The emotion gives them a feeling of power. It is so loud and macho: the male rage in full display. And of course it’s the victim’s fault —she provoked the anger. 

Cultural permission obviously plays a role, e.g. the recent empowerment of the Nazis and KKK by Trump, war-mongering etc. Also: the Islamic countries having gone backwards as radical fanatics gained power, and now they the women especially are suffering. The good part is that we can see it’s not strictly biological. As primatologists showed, even with baboons it’s not strictly biology: remove the bullies, and the troop develops a different culture, cooperative rather than competitive and aggressive.

Once I posted an article on how expressing anger through aggressive behavior (be it just verbal) only intensifies the anger — it doesn’t harmlessly “let off the steam.” One man got quite upset and ranted on and on about how unhealthy it is not to express anger. You could tell that he felt entitled to expressing anger, no matter the consequences, because after all only he counted — and supposedly his mental health depended on this “release.”

Unfortunately the recent studies on the ravages of anger and aggression can’t seem to overcome the earlier view that it is indeed “unhealthy” to try to calm down, say, rather than scream and rage (or worse). And recently we have had a huge setback, in the form of a president who empowers this ugly, entitled anger.

And since the problem is in part biological, it will always be with us. At best we can hope to ameliorate it through non-violent child rearing, non-violent communication and role models. And  right away I can hear a chorus of sarcastic: “Good luck with that!” But slowly, slowly . . . 

Picasso's portrait of his mother, 1896 — before Picasso became Picasso. Interesting to ponder that in another era he'd have been a fine conventional painter.


Interesting details here, e.g. the crew included pardoned convicts.

~ “On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus boarded his Spanish ship and sailed west. He had no idea where he was headed, and he almost gave up. In his Diario, on Wednesday, 10 October, he wrote:

“Here the men could no longer stand it; they complained of the long voyage.”

A day later, they saw floating sticks and canes and planks; then, 2 hours after midnight on the 12th, they discovered a New World, and its inhabitants. Columbus made these notes:

“All of them go around as naked as their mothers bore them,” and, “They are all very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces,” and, “They should be good and intelligent servants.” ~


SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH: “After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom.”

~ “Recently she published Second-Hand Time, which reads as a requiem for the Soviet era. It chronicles the shock and the existential void that characterized the 1990s after the Soviet Union disintegrated, and helps explain the appeal of Putin’s promises to bring pride back to a wounded, post-imperial nation.

‘Nobody thought the Soviet Union would collapse, it was a shock for everyone,” she says. Everyone had to adapt to a new and painful reality as the rules, behavioral codes and everyday language of the Soviet experience dissolved almost overnight. Taken together, Alexievich’s books remain perhaps the single most impressive document of the late Soviet Union and its aftermath. Alexievich became a harsh critic of Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of newly independent Belarus. She left the country “as a protest”, and spent 11 years living in exile in various European countries, returning only a few years ago. “When you’re on the barricades, all you can see is a target, not a human, which is what a writer should see. From the point of view of art, the butcher and the victim are equal as people. You need to see the people.”

In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.” ~


~ “Alexievich’s fourth book, published in 1989, was about the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), the disaster that perhaps more than anything brought down the Soviet Union. At first the Soviet press was silent about the presence of the Red Army in Afghanistan, then portraying the mission as one of keeping peace rather than supporting a particular (and doomed) regime. In an age of television, the typical Soviet press image was of a soldier planting a tree.

Alexievich once again sought out veterans and the women, the young soldiers and their mothers. The result was a masterpiece of reportage, probably her best book, in which the problems (what we might now call post-traumatic stress) of the young men emerge through the words of their mothers as well as their own, and then the typical experiences slowly emerge through the individual memories. The book was published in English as Zinky Boys, which is awkward; the “zinc” is a reference to the coffins of soldiers.

For Alexievich, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not a radical new beginning, since, she seemed to be saying, the present cannot move into the past when the normal process of considering the past has been disrupted. When official nostalgia has filled the space needed for individual reconsideration, change can be literally fatal. Alexievich’s next book was about people of her parents’ generation, often heroes of the Second World War II, who committed suicide in the 1990s.

In her work there is no redemption from catastrophe because it is behind us and within us. The search for bits of the authentic past is individual and dangerous and disruptive, but there is nothing else to be done.

Alexievich is sometimes compared to Ryszard Kapuściński, the great Polish international journalist. But unlike him she resists the charms of constructing appealing characters from composites. She has no characters; only voices.

Alexievich had no trouble explaining to westerners, far more quickly than they themselves could usually grasp, that Russia had in fact invaded Ukraine. She also very quickly explained that the fault lay not with one man but with the experiences of Soviet generations, now reworked for new wars. When she listed the fake descriptions of events in Ukraine in the Russian media, she spoke of Russian society as a “collective Putin.” As she put it, “Putin placed his bet on the basest instincts and won. Even if he disappeared tomorrow, we would remain as we are.” ~

 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, May 2008
“Marx’s bourgeois sorcerer descends from Goethe’s Faust, of course, but also from another literary figure who haunted the imagination of his generation: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These mythical figures, striving to expand human powers through science and rationality, unleash demonic powers that erupt irrationally, beyond human control, with horrifying results.” ~ Marshall Berman, Adventures in Marxism

Marx as Prometheus, engraving


This question is often asked: What separates humans from animals? Anthropologists, however, would rather ask—and answer—what separates humans from earlier humans?

About 50,000 years ago, homo sapiens developed the capacities for “innovation, planning depth, and abstract and symbolic thought,” as a study published in Current Anthropology earlier this month puts it. In academia, this moment in human evolution is referred to as the shift toward “behavioral modernity.” Until recently, not much was known about why our species veered toward more sophisticated sensibilities.

A group of anthropologists and biologists at Duke University had a theory: It’s because our skulls changed shape. This would have led to, as their study argues, a “change in average human temperament toward a less aggressive, more socially tolerant individual.”

To test their hypothesis, the team measured more than 1,400 skulls—1,367 modern ones from 30 ethnicities; 41 from between 10,000 and 38,000 years ago; and 13 ancient ones from more than 80,000 years ago—paying special attention to the brow ridge, face shape, and endocranial volume. “The study was motivated,” the researchers say, “by us trying to find a biological explanation—with evidence—of what could explain the huge explosion of culture around 50,000 years ago.”

After taking stock of their painstaking measurements, the researchers were surprised by how well their data supported their hypothesis. They found that there had indeed been a structural change in the human cranium—specifically, our brow ridges shrunk and the upper parts of our faces got shorter. It happened in the late Pleistocene era, and the shift indicated a lowered level of testosterone acting on the skeleton.

The researchers think that sexual selection could have been what feminized our skulls. “Facial masculinity appears to be an honest signal of behavioral tendencies,” the authors explain in the paper, and “as population density and social complexity increased, females may have preferred males with more feminized faces that signal a greater propensity to invest in parenting effort.”

“Although our results don't really pertain to populations of humans living today,” the researchers say, “it's important to note that the potently biggest leap forward in human technology was likely accomplished through advances in cooperation, not intelligence.”

Leonardo da Vinci, drawings of a skull


I wonder if sexual selection was the central factor — or simply the likelihood that groups with the highest degree of cooperation (and, perhaps by chance, with the least bullying males, and thus less stress and more healthy females and young) survived better and reproduced more. And why 50,000 years ago? Did a special environmental pressure emerge just then?

At the same time, it IS interesting that the most attractive men seem to possess a mix of masculine and feminine traits. Painters typically gave Jesus — and I'm sure they wanted to present him as beautiful — a rather feminine face. Angels, likewise icons of idealized beauty,  also tend to have feminine faces (there are no bearded angels). 


~ “Researchers at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz, Germany said last month that – by studying a type of worm called C. elegans – they’ve made a breakthrough in understanding why humans age. They call the aging process a quirk of evolution. Their work involves identification of the genes belonging to a process called autophagy – from Greek words auto meaning self and phagy meaning devouring – a normal physiological process related to the destruction of damaged cells in the body, which, these researchers explained:

    … promote[s] health and fitness in young worms but drive[s] the process of aging later in life.

Thus these researchers have provided what they say is “some of the first clear evidence” for how the aging process arises as a quirk of evolution.

And they say their findings may also have broader implications for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease where autophagy is implicated. The researchers show that by promoting longevity through shutting down autophagy in old worms there is a strong improvement in neuronal and subsequent whole body health.” ~

ending on beauty:

Remember what it was to carry your load? Your you. That
weight. Wondrous it was. At intervals light-struck. 

Silence and then the
cutting of water, sleeping audible, 

thrown about by breath, keeping a sharp lookout —

~ Jorie Graham, Exchange

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