Saturday, November 18, 2017


Methuselah tree: a 4845-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) tree growing high in the White Mountains of Inyo County in eastern California. I have visited the White Mountains and got to see Methuselah and its ancient siblings, amazing sculptures carved by wind and scarcity of water and nutrients.


For a long time we have been in this car,
His hands on the wheel, the sun
Finishing behind the building

And a couple walks by, tucked into one coat
As if against a wind. I am not sure
If he has seen them, but he goes on

This talk of his and I do not watch
His body anymore, the light being
What it is, already going. He repeats

He wants to do this alone
But will do everything they tell him
And will do nothing more than that

While now and then traffic comes
From up behind then veers around
As we sit into dark, streetlight not yet

Started, his head against the window
Like a bird, waiting; we have been at this
For hours as the light changes, trying to love

What has not yet been written and then
We are still here when the couple turns back;
They were only walking around the block

Or maybe they return because the snow
Has begun and from this sudden world
The unbroken comes, and nothing is wasted.

~ Sophie Cabot Black, “The Exchange”


Why have I chosen this poem just before Thanksgiving? Because it praises life. Bear with me.

Other poems in the book makes clear that the speaker’s partner is dying of cancer. The poems are a long death watch — though the surprise here is a sprinkling of poems about Abraham and Isaac, with absence of “the animal that was supposed to save us” and other twists. Still, the main story is the long dying of a man still young, just settling into his career, the couple buying their first house. And then comes the diagnosis, and the whole world changes as the husband and wife (whether they are officially married doesn’t matter) begin to see what will no longer happen:

The meadow you meant to walk all year;
That part of the woods you’ve never been. 


Note how in this poem the setting of the sun and the growing dusk becomes symbolic, but too conveniently so, and we realize that when the speaker says

I do not watch
His body anymore, the light being
What it is, already going

we realize that it’s not so much the literal waning of the light as the waning of the body that is meant here; it’s painful to look at someone in the final stage of cancer. They tend to be emaciated like the victims of concentration camps; suddenly, as if overnight, they also look extremely aged. But Sophie Cabot Black is no Sharon Olds, who tends to wallow in physical detail (note all the critics who accuse Olds of “oversharing”). Black spares us the physical description of terminal cancer; when I mention “emaciated” and “suddenly extremely aged,” I speak on the basis of eyewitness experience. But the author of this poem collection about the dying of her partner avoids the physicality of disease. The reader is left to imagine the dying man as relatively young and probably attractive — healthy and active before the diagnosis.

Another interesting and unexpected detail here is the couple walking by, “tucked into one coat.” This is something somewhat childlike and “fun” that new couples may do, usually very young couples, at the beginning of their relationship. The shared coat symbolizes their unity and their sharing of whatever they have, their mutual nurturing. This is a brilliant detail — one relationship is being born while another is ending, not through anyone’s fault or lack of courage or kindness (“He wants to do this alone” implies that he doesn’t want to increase anyone’s suffering by having them watch his actual last moments; that's his last gift to others).

The poem ends on the continuity of life: the young lovers tucked into one coat return, and it begins to snow, making the world look “unbroken.” 

Note that here snow doesn’t function as a shroud. But it’s been such a frequent literary use of snow that the “shroud” metaphor is probably in the reader’s consciousness. The speaker sets up the opposite: snow as unbrokenness, as the continuity of life. But the most potent symbol of that is the couple tucked into one coat.

Can we believe that “nothing is wasted”? We want to. At the very least, we imagine that not everything is wasted. Some important traces and memories will remain for a while. But maybe that is not all that important. What is important is that life will indeed go on, with others continuing to fall in love, so love will go on. As Borges observed, others will be our immortality.   


Yes, we want to believe “nothing is wasted,” and while I find the idea of reincarnation less than appealing, and somewhat absurd, I find great comfort in things like Einstein’s famous equation, the conservation of matter and energy, the long chain of connection and change in our genetic history, and that of all forms of life. I love that something of the dinosaurs is remembered in birds, and something of Neanderthals in our own DNA.

It seems that most religious systems present a universe already completed, static, all things already ordered and accounted for, all the rules and meanings written down — everything already finished, the end known, we simply have to follow the steps set out for us. The world of science is so much more of an adventure — a place of endless challenge and discovery, with room for play and hope, creation and freedom. A place where maybe nothing much is lost, and nothing wasted.


Sister when I look at you
I see our Mother’s face
When I speak
I hear her voice
And I know we have more of her
Than any of the things she left behind
Nothing is absolutely lost
Like a thrifty housewife
Time keeps every scrap
To use and reuse
Each atom danced out
Again and again
Cards sorted and resorted
Through a million hands
Each slap and shuffle
A new chance
In the old and endless game
Whose rules we only faintly


I too love the conservation of matter and energy and all the things that you mention. But I mourn the fact that it takes so long to learn how to live, to acquire some wisdom, to learn patience and other supremely useful and important skills . . .  and to learn how to really enjoy life . . .  and after so much time spent learning the hard way — I feel I'm finally ready to begin! — there isn’t that much time left. And all that personal wisdom will end with the individual, since others have to make their own mistakes.

Each death is the end of the world — that person’s rich and unique universe. Yes, of course the atoms will be recycled — but the inner life ceases like a flame once the fuel is exhausted. And “there’ll never, never be another you” — the refrain of the song from a justly forgotten movie, The World According to Garp.

I am slightly consoled only when I think that sometimes something we read affects us deeply and becomes part of our psyche. Perhaps something that I said and/or wrote will touch others in a positive way. But as for continuing in the sense of a literary afterlife, for instance, I stopped kidding myself a long time ago. My liberation was the insight that we are of the moment, and belong entirely to that moment. Yes, YOLO and Carpe Diem, but tempered with whatever wisdom (which is mostly the wisdom of kindness) we’ve managed to acquire.  

Pierre Paulus de Châtelet (Belgian): November in Auderghem, 1905


An example of how a painter can make a very mundane scene look beautiful. 


Just as a poet can transform an ordinary event into something transcendent. One secret is choosing just the right details — “less is more.”


“And reincarnation? Really? If that were real, wouldn’t there be some proof by now? A raccoon spelling out in acorns, “My name is Herb Zoller and I’m an accountant.” ~ Bill Maher


A wild raccoon spelling out ANYTHING would make me reconsider my atheism.

I'm also reminded of a Kabbalist rabbi who said that because of the population increase we now have only one-eighth of a soul, compared to the good old days.


~ “For many patients with terminal diseases, Coyle has observed, this awareness [of imminent death] precipitates a personal crisis. Researchers have given it other names: the crisis of knowledge of death; an existential turning point, or existential plight; ego chill. It usually happens as it did with my mother, close to when doctors break the news. Doctors focus on events in the body: You have an incurable disease; your heart has weakened; your lungs are giving out. But the immediate effect is psychological. Gary Rodin, a palliative-care specialist who was trained in both internal medicine and psychiatry, calls this the “first trauma”: the emotional and social effects of the disease.

The roots of this trauma may be, in part, cultural. Most people recognize at an intellectual level that death is inevitable, says Virginia Lee, a psychologist who works with cancer patients. But “at least in Western culture, we think we’re going to live forever.” Lee’s advanced-cancer patients often tell her they had thought of death as something that happened to other people—until they received their diagnosis. “I’ve heard from cancer patients that your life changes instantly, the moment the doctor or the oncologist says it’s confirmed that it is cancer,” she says.

The shock of confronting your own mortality need not happen at that instant, Coyle notes. Maybe you look at yourself in the mirror and suddenly realize how skinny you are, or notice your clothes no longer fit well. “It’s not necessarily verbal; it’s not necessarily what other people are telling you,” Coyle says. “Your soul may be telling you, or other people’s eyes may be telling you.”

E. Mansell Pattison, one of the early psychiatrists to write about the emotions and reactions of dying people, explains in The Experience of Dying why this realization marks a radical change in how people think about themselves: “All of us live with the potential for death at any moment. All of us project ahead a trajectory of our life. That is, we anticipate a certain life span within which we arrange our activities and plan our lives. And then abruptly we may be confronted with a crisis ... Whether by illness or accident, our potential trajectory is suddenly changed.”

In this crisis, some people feel depression or despair or anger, or all three. They grieve. They grapple with a loss of meaning. A person’s whole belief system may be called into question because “virtually every aspect of their life will be threatened by changes imposed by the [disease] and its management,” Lee has written. In a small 2011 Danish study, patients with an incurable esophageal cancer reported that after their diagnosis, their lives seemed to spin out of control. Some wondered why they had received a fatal diagnosis, and fell into despair and hopelessness. “I didn’t care about anything,” one patient said. “I had just about given up.”

n the 1970s, two Harvard researchers, Avery Weisman and J. William Worden, did a foundational study on this existential plight. Newly diagnosed cancer patients who had a prognosis of at least three months were interviewed at several different points. At first, for almost all the patients in the study, existential concerns were more important than dealing with the physical impacts of disease. The researchers found that the reckoning was jarring, but still relatively brief and uncomplicated, lasting about two to three months. For a few patients, the crisis triggered or created lasting psychological problems. A few others seemed to face the crisis, then return to a state of denial, and then double back to the crisis—perhaps more than once. In the study, the researchers describe a patient who was told her diagnosis, only to report to interviewers that she didn’t know what it was—and then make it clear she wasn’t interested in receiving a diagnosis in the near future.

Palliative-care doctors used to think that a patient was either in a state of denial or a state of acceptance, period, Rodin says. But now he and his colleagues believe people are more likely to move back and forth. “You have to live with awareness of dying, and at the same time balance it against staying engaged in life,” he says. “It’s being able to hold that duality—which we call double awareness—that we think is a fundamental task.”

Whether or not people are able to find that balance, the existential crisis doesn’t last; patients can’t remain long in a state of acute anxiety. Coyle has found in her work that later peaks of distress are not usually as severe as that first wave. “Once you’ve faced [death] like that once, it’s not new knowledge in your consciousness anymore,” she says.

For most, figuring out how to adapt to living with a life-threatening disease is a difficult but necessary cognitive process, according to Lee. When patients do emerge on the other side of the existential crisis, she finds that many are better off because of it. These patients are more likely to have a deeper compassion for others and a greater appreciation for the life that remains.

To arrive there, they have to squarely face the fact that they’re going to die. “If you’re an avoidant person, and you don’t like to think about these things, that works better when life is going well,” Rodin says. “It just doesn’t work well in this situation because reality doesn’t allow it. It’s like trying to pretend you don’t need an umbrella or something, or it’s not raining, when it’s pouring. You can do that when it’s drizzling, but eventually, you have to live with the rain.”


I thought this would be an interesting follow-up on Sophie Black's poem. After the shock and the crisis, people adjust to the thought and re-engage with what life remains.

For me Christopher Hitchens remains a model of how to die: he kept writing up to the very end. In spite of the pain and the horrible intrusion of chemotherapy and other torturous medical procedures, he kept on working, contributing. 


The discussion about death is interesting from the point of view of someone 91 years old. I have known for some time that death is imminent and have resolved many issues. I guess because so far I’ve had no terrible illnesses like cancer I have accepted what has come and what will be.  Have been in ICU once and near death. You live “as if we think we will never die..” a quote from my villanelle.


Coming from you, this line certainly has special authority: “we live as if we think we will never die” — ultimately we have to, for the sake of sanity, even after a terminal diagnosis, or at an age when it could happen any time. At the same time, of course, at one level we are perfectly aware that there comes a point you don’t begin any long-time projects, or buy a huge “lifetime” supply of anything. And whatever day we still wake up to becomes infinitely precious: that’s our “eternal moment” (Milosz’s phrase).


Dying, except in sudden traumatic situations, is not passive, it is an act. My parents each died in ways singularly their own. My mom was suffering from end stage emphysema, my dad in the last stages of Parkinson’s. Mom spent her last few days in Hospice, dad had been in a nursing home for several years. Mom was to all appearances in a coma, or state of unconsciousness, that came suddenly, and we were called to her bedside. For the last  two days of her life we sat around her bed, telling old family stories, remembering, sharing memories. My nephew, the last “baby” mom had taken care of was coming in from out of state. When he arrived, he held her hand and talked to her, and expressions flitted over her face. In a few hours, she died, surrounded by all her children.

My dad was a very private and non-demonstrative person. During his time in the nursing home we were vigilant, someone there almost every day, particularly one of my younger brothers, who was extremely faithful in his attendance. He left after dad had dinner one day, and while he was alone, before anyone else entered, dad died. Both of these deaths reflected the personalities and preferences of each as individuals. I have seen patients in hospitals, seemingly nowhere near death, say they were going to die, and then die, surprising everyone but themselves. Some die in fury —“raging against the dying of the light.” Others die with a sweet patience and endurance that seem almost impossible.

Of course I think our experience of death has been so changed that it is easy to believe we won’t die. Most now die in hospitals, not at home, bodies are not “laid out” as they used to be, at home, but in funeral “parlors” where “viewing time” is limited, and no one sits up through the night with the body, as used to be common. Many grow to adulthood never having seen a dead body. And the accomplishments of medicine, along with the separation of sickness and death from ordinary life, have almost resulted in a feeling that death is somehow “optional”—that medicine’s extreme measures can prolong and prolong life indefinitely, beyond all sense and reason. This distancing is disappearing lately in particularly horrific ways, however, with mass murders, wars that aim to kill civilians in great numbers, the huge losses suffered by refugees fleeing these terrors, the active genocides in progress now — bodies of children washed up on beaches, numbers beyond counting…horrific death has almost become ordinary.


Mary, thank you for your generous sharing.

I would like my last words to be “I love you” — even if spoken to a stranger, or no one in particular. But I also know that usually the dying person is unconscious, or at least mentally confused (by our standards) — in a world of their own.

I'm glad that I’ve seen dead bodies, both in childhood and in adulthood — not many, but enough to give me a strong sense that “this is no longer that person.” The change in appearance can be startling. It’s when I was looking at my dead mother’s body that I thought, “We are of the moment. We belong to the moment.” It wasn’t the first time those words surfaced in my mind, but this time the insight solidified.


Oriana: In the long run, nothing matters. But we don't belong to the “long run,” much less to the “cosmic perspective.” We belong to the moment. And then it matters how we live and how we die. It matters because we are not isolated individuals: we touch the lives of others.

Aside from continuing productivity, even in the face of death there is also a desire for continued deep connection:


Jacobsen’s apprehension of his own mortality would manifest itself in perhaps his greatest work, the novel Niels Lyhne (originally titled The Atheist), which Jensen calls “the most death-haunted novel in European literature.” In its bizarre alloy of detached detail and dreamy, horrific awe, it is a novel “in which the strands of both realism and modernism are greedily imbricated.” Niels, the titular protagonist, loses his faith at the age of 12 following the death of a beloved aunt. Over the course of the novel he runs a harrowing existential gauntlet, accruing a series of other terrible losses: his friend, his wife, even his young child. At his son’s deathbed, Niels breaks down and prays to the God he has rejected; when the boy dies, Niels is left with his failure of spirit and the understanding, as Kierkegaard wrote, of “the agonizing self-contradiction of not being able to do without a confidant and not being able to have one.” It is an uncannily full and nuanced account of atheism, “not simply as an idea,” Jensen says, “but as a living, fluctuating belief.” The paralysis Niels feels at the novel’s end is the apostate’s natural condition, one Jacobsen knew intimately: that of an unwilling conversant with a deposed divinity.!


Sometimes I do feel that yearning for a very wise, non-judgmental, empathetic person with whom I could discuss what my life has been about. And no, I wouldn't want to pay a therapist for listening. A loving friend. An all-understanding god, god as the supreme confidant? Sure, that’s a wonderful fantasy — a Protestant one, someone recently pointed out to me, since it’s Protestantism that emphasizes having a a personal relationship with the deity.

But for me it's far from an all-consuming longing. What we do with whatever time is left is more important. And besides, as a writer I can always confide in writing — though I'm aware of the limitations and inevitable distortions. But any use of words, even talking to a loving friend, can't avoid limitations and distortions.

God as a lover, then? The typical god of the mystics? Just how explicitly erotic are we willing to get?


Thirty years ago, the art scholar Leo Steinberg published “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion,” a book that does much to explain the connection between Pope Francis’s passionate devotion to the poor and afflicted and his seeming openness to gay Catholics. In “The Sexuality of Christ,” Steinberg argues that as a result of the rise of the Franciscan order, around 1260, an emphasis on Christ’s nakedness, and, thus, on his humanity, joined compassion to an acceptance of the role of sexuality in human life.

A credo of the Franciscan order was nudus nudum Christum sequi (“follow naked the naked Christ”). It was a radical call to cast aside worldly wealth and belongings and acknowledge the fragile, fallen nature of all men and women. But in casting aside Christ’s garments, the Franciscans made Christ’s nude body a focal point. As a result, according to Steinberg, from about the middle of the thirteenth century until the sixteenth century artists lavished particular care on Christ’s penis, the part of Christ’s body that made him most mortal, and which proved his union with humankind. “One must recognize,” wrote Steinberg, “an ostentatio genitalium comparable to the canonic ostentatio vulnerum, the showing forth of the wounds.”

Trinity by Lucas Cranach; when I posted the painting in my blog from a week ago, I certainly noticed the upward slant of the loincloth, but dared not think the obvious. 
“The Sexuality of Christ” has changed the way we look at certain works of art. The “modern oblivion” of Steinberg’s subtitle was just that: centuries during which the central fact of Christ’s phallus in hundreds of Renaissance paintings was overlooked, denied, and, sometimes, bowdlerized. Steinberg adduces several examples of Christ’s genitalia being painted over or touched up to make them look like a mere blur. In one case, probably in the mid- to late nineteenth century, the Alinari brothers, famous for their photographic reproductions of paintings, blackened out the Christ child’s penis in their photograph of a fifteenth-century “Madonna and Child” by Giovanni Bellini. Such censorship, Steinberg believes, was meant as distraction from an uncomfortable theological premise: “A disturbing connection of godhead with sexuality.”

To bring to the surface this suppressed artistic trend, Steinberg reproduced dozens of paintings and drawings in which Christ’s genitalia are indisputably a central thematic concern. There are paintings of the Christ child touching his penis, and of the Virgin handling the infant Christ’s penis. In some pictures, the Christ child exhibits his genitals in a style similar to Venus displaying her sex. “Again and again,” Steinberg writes, “we see the young God-man parading his nakedness, or even flaunting his sex in ways normally reserved for female enticements.”

Many representations of the Three Magi show one of the foreign kings closely inspecting the infant Christ’s genitalia. Depictions of Christ on the cross and of the dead Christ lying in the Virgin’s arms clearly portray Christ with an erection. In some images, which Steinberg calls “psychologically troubling,” the divine Father touches his Son’s penis, “a conciliation,” Steinberg writes, “which stands for the atonement, the being-at-one, of man and God. For this atonement, on which hinges the Christian hope of salvation, Northern Renaissance art found the painfully intimate metaphor of the Father’s hand on the groin of the Son, breaching a universal taboo as the fittest symbol of reconcilement.”

“The Sexuality of Christ” takes up, to put it mildly, an ultra-sensitive subject. For that reason, Steinberg stresses that Renaissance artists’ emphasis on Christ’s penis is an esthetic choice guided by deep religious belief, though he occasionally hints that Renaissance artists could at the same time have been having sly fun with the subject. And it is hard to believe that in, say, quattrocento Florence, an epoch so liberated in its sexual mores—Fra Filippo Lippi, for example, lived openly with a defrocked nun, whom he used as a model for his Madonnas—artists could resist being simultaneously worldly and pious.

For Steinberg, however, theological motives were preëminent. He held that artists used the evidence of Christ’s genitals to prove that Christ submitted to becoming human before returning to the godhead. The revelation of his penis demonstrates, as Steinberg puts it, Christ’s “humanation,” that moment of incarnation which proved Christ’s love for humankind. And the many representations of the Christ child’s circumcision are important as foretellings of his crucifixion—the blood of Christ’s penis is fulfilled in the blood from Christ’s wounds.

Entering with obvious relish the realm of Christian sexual hermeneutics, Steinberg relies on St. Augustine, who emphasized his surrender to and then escape from the “fleshpots of Carthage,” to argue that Christ’s erection was a singular way to demonstrate Christ’s chastity. Without the capacity to yield to lust, Christ’s triumph over carnal desire would have no human meaning. Unlike men after the fall of Adam, who fell victim to lust, Christ willed his erection; it was not an involuntary physiological event. By both willing and resisting it, he declared his victory over the stain of sin bequeathed to humanity by Adam and Eve, and over the death that their carnal weakness brought into the world. That, after all, is the significance of the resurrection.

To drive this point home, Steinberg had to prove that during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the word “resurrection” could be used as a double entendre, connoting both the divine event and the humble mortal fact of an erection. Steinberg quotes from one of Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century tales in the Decameron, in which a pious young girl inflames the desire of a monk named Rustico, causing in the latter a “resurrection of the flesh.” Steinberg notes that it was not until modern times that the original phrase was accurately translated from Italian, a censoring that he sees as analogous to the later bowdlerization of Christ’s penis in Renaissance paintings.

The vulnerable component of Steinberg’s perspective was that it was almost entirely speculative. Steinberg does quote from some sermons of the time in support of his argument concerning the centrality of the circumcision, but he builds his case mostly on logic and on physical evidence. Christ’s penis is a prominent element of countless paintings in the Renaissance. That is undeniable, and a theological explanation is the only one that made sense to him.

Michelangelo: Cristo della Minerva, in the church of Santa Maria sopre Minerva, 1519-21 (the bronze loincloth was added during the Baroque period)

The skeptical response to Steinberg’s thesis was that the attention paid to Christ’s penis was merely the consequence of Renaissance naturalism. Steinberg had a convincing set of rejoinders: No children in actual life have been known to receive powerful kings shortly after their birth while smiling benignly and proudly displaying their genitals. It is not a medical fact that dying men experience an erection in the moment of their decease. And even if the emphasis on Christ’s penis in Renaissance painting were the product of fidelity to real life, Christ was no ordinary man.

The most cogent criticism of Steinberg’s book came from Caroline Bynum, a feminist scholar. Bynum pointed out that in medieval texts Christ was often portrayed in feminine terms, and she gave as evidence paintings in which a feminized Christ appears. Steinberg conceded that Christ was sometimes portrayed as both male and female—“In one category of metaphors, the wound [in his side] is said to lactate and give birth”—but responded that this did not diminish the universal resonance of phallic imagery, nor did it lessen the impact of the other paintings he offered as evidence. Steinberg’s and Bynum’s arguments do not appear to be mutually exclusive. An androgynous Christ with a highly symbolic phallus does not seem out of the question.

Steinberg also argued that the artists he was using as examples were not illustrating preëxisting texts. They were confronted by the entirely new artistic problem, made possible by the Franciscan emphasis on Christ’s nakedness, of how to portray Christ’s naked body. In response, they created their own theology, embedded in their representations of Christ. “Renaissance art,” wrote Steinberg, “harnessed the theological impulse and developed the requisite stylistic means to attest the utter carnality of God’s humanation in Christ.” Byzantine art had to prove the divinity of Christ in the face of schisms and iconoclasms; Byzantine artists had no special use for Christ’s naked body. But the more confidently situated Catholic artists of the Renaissance celebrated Christ’s carnal humanity.

Particularly striking now is the original book’s postscript, written by a Jesuit scholar named John W. O’Malley. In the course of defending Steinberg’s thesis, O’Malley writes that the “ ‘Renaissance theology’ ” of Christ’s penis that was put forward by the artists Steinberg discusses “was severely damaged, perhaps in large part destroyed, by the bitter controversies sparked by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.”

The Jesuit O’Malley is talking about a time when Catholicism was under such siege that the freedom of embodying Christ’s love for humanity in his naked body, a freedom fueled by Franciscan piety, vanished, giving way to polemics and proselytizing. As James Carroll vividly demonstrates in his Profile of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, it is this very lapse into militancy that the present Jesuit Pope, inspired by Franciscan piety, is determined to correct. Pope Francis could well agree with Steinberg, who lamented that the human Christ disappeared “as modern Christianity distanced itself from its mythic roots; as the person of Jesus was refined into all doctrine and message, the kerygma of a Christianity without Christ.” That, Steinberg says, was when “the exposure of Christ’s genitalia became merely impudent.”

One might add that in our own epoch the Catholic Church’s denial of Christ’s sexuality runs parallel to its denial of human sexuality, taboos that resurface in once scandal after another.

In modern times, the Catholic Church has been under siege to an unprecedented degree, as much by internal rifts and abuses as by unbelief and competing Protestant sects. In response, its doctrine and its message have become all the more abstract and inflexible; all the more a Christianity without Christ. The current Pope, by heeding the call to “follow naked the naked Christ,” seems determined to make inseparable the alliance between the naked body that lives, works, suffers, and dies, and the naked body that was created with the capacity to experience physical love. If this is so, then Pope Francis has an ally in Leo Steinberg, the displaced Russian Jew whose modernist, heretical instincts led him to the grave, beautiful, profound, and, at times, playful depiction of Christ’s sexuality.


I have long been interested in the bodily aspect of divinity. Greek gods certainly had bodies and sexuality; Yahweh did have a body, at least in the earlier books, though his sexuality remains unclear (except for the Kabbalists). But the insistence that Jesus was fully human leaves us little choice but to assume some stance about it.

As for Christ’s sexuality, it’s strange and incomplete at best: sexuality without sex. It’s telling that Jesus is shown without a partner — except for those who draw an unsurprising conclusion from the phrase “John, the Beloved Disciple,” or those who cling to the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. In the main, there is no denying that the four gospels avoid the subject of Jesus’ sexuality, and the general impression was that Jesus lived and died a virgin. 

Insofar as Jesus is regarded as the supreme role model to be imitated, this is not a feasible model, but one bound to produce pathology.But the pathology goes back already to Yahweh, a god without a mate, an angry father for whom no loving arms wait wherever “home” might be.

Somewhat on a tangent: Someone on Facebook argued that Jesus’ DNA was identical with Mary’s. That would make Jesus Mary’s clone, necessarily female. The Y chromosome comes only from the father. If Yahweh’s was the biological father of Jesus, then he somehow produced sperm that carried the penis-producing Y chromosome. The most logical solution to this is to suggest that Yahweh himself had genitals.


Favorite painting and most obvious is Jesus and the upward-slanted loin cloth. It was the first thing I noticed in the painting. How can anybody see anything else in the painting on first look?

It’s really the Quaternity because the globe is the fourth main symbol. Interesting juxtaposition of the loincloth and the cherubim.

Favorite line in blog is “......sixteenth century artists lavished particular care on Christ’s penis, the part of Christ’s body that made him most mortal, and which proved his union with humankind.”

So Michelangelo’s god’s butt fits right into that theme.


As a friend said, “Michelangelo wanted to show us the human face of God.” She meant “side” — but we had a good laugh over this “face.” Now, I still think that Michelangelo’s god is mooning Pope Sixtus, but that’s minor next to the bigger point: like the Greek gods, Yahweh has a human body. 

It’s one of the great themes of Renaissance: the human body is good. There is no absolute chasm between the human and the divine: if we were made in god’s image, then the body is glorious.

The “globe” (globus cruciger) is officially called the “royal orb.” It’s a symbol of the king’s authority, and a Christian symbol of highest authority in general. Since the Christian god is supposed to be the “king of kings,” the orb stands for the whole world.

Normally one hand of the king would hold the orb, while the other one holds the scepter. Here instead of the scepter we get the cross with the body of Jesus.

The royal regalia are very important in this painting. Religions were born during the era of kings and emperors. They seem to thrive under monarchy (the absolute kind), and decline under democracy. Democracy has found a way to allow dissent, something that religion generally cannot tolerate.


~ “The diminutive Yezhov, who was nicknamed the Bloody Dwarf and was a true sadist, had a curved leg and a limp, while suffering from “myasthenia and neurasthenia, anemia, angina, sciatica, psoriasis, and even malnutrition” and other ailments. During the Terror, his teeth began to fall out. He drank until he lost consciousness. One of his buddies (later arrested as a Polish spy) would bring him prostitutes, while another (whom Yezhov’s NKVD also arrested) joined him in farting competitions. In one report, Yezhov claimed to have discovered numerous interlocking conspiracies: one fascist plot in the NKVD, another in the Kremlin, a Polish espionage group, several Trotskyite groups—the list of plots goes on and on until Yezhov concluded: “I have enumerated only the most important.” But the specific charges really didn’t matter, since Stalin set quotas for arrests.

Interrogation virtually always involved torture, followed either by execution or a sentence in the Gulag. Those who knew they were about to be arrested—like Politburo members—often committed suicide to avoid the interrogation. Despite the purges in the NKVD, by 1938 it grew to over a million men.

Of course, Yezhov himself was eventually arrested and replaced by the still more sadistic Lavrenty Beria. When Yezhov’s apartment was searched, it turned out he had preserved as souvenirs the bullet casings with which Zinoviev and Kamenev, two of the original Bolshevik leaders, had been shot. His one regret was that he hadn’t killed more people. He promised he would die with Stalin’s name on his lips.

The event that was used as an excuse for the Great Terror was the assassination of a popular party figure, Sergei Kirov, who was shot by one Leonid Nikolaev. Mysteriously, the guards had been withdrawn from each floor of the building where Kirov worked and his personal bodyguard was absent. Even stranger, Nikolaev had already been caught trying to sneak into the building with a revolver, and had been released! Over the years, one story after another was promulgated, each involving an ever-growing network of spies. Especially in 1937–38, literally millions of people were accused of belonging to branches of a vast conspiracy whose main purpose was killing Kirov. Conquest’s classic book on the topic, Stalin and the Kirov Murder, cautiously concludes that circumstantial evidence points to Stalin as the instigator of Kirov’s killing.

Yezhov with Stalin before his fall from grace
One of Stalin’s decrees ordered the arrest of wives of traitors, just for being their wives, and in one famous toast he promised to destroy every enemy and also “all his kin, his family.” Other decrees made being late to work punishable by a term in the Gulag and the theft of even a minute amount of grain a capital crime. Any attempt to call such punishments excessive was denounced as “rotten liberalism.”

For Stephen Kotkin, this aspect of the regime—its destruction of its own most loyal members—constitutes something unprecedented in world history, and he gropes for reasons. Even if Stalin was afraid of other officials challenging him, he could sack or transfer anyone at will. But not only did he murder them or send them to slave labor camps, but, “in a huge expenditure of state resources, had them tortured to confess . . . not to being corrupt or incompetent, but to plotting to assassinate him and restore capitalism on behalf of foreign powers.”

Kotkin rightly dismisses explanations based on Stalin’s childhood or Georgian upbringing. Stalin’s character surely made a difference, but his character was itself shaped by his experience as a revolutionary and a dictator. As Kotkin notes, absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, it also shapes absolutely. Above all, Bolshevik ideology was crucial. It taught the inevitability of maximal brutality in class warfare and treated anything less—such as refraining from torture—as an impermissible, liberal lapse. For a Bolshevik, there is no such thing as “human values,” only “class values.” Killing millions not only posed no moral dilemma for Stalin; “on the contrary, to pity class enemies would be to indulge sentiment over the laws of objective historical development.”

The best proof that terror inhered in Bolshevism itself, Kotkin observes, “was the relative ease with which Stalin could foist the bloodbath upon the political police, army, party-state, cultural elites, and indeed the entire country.” He could count on the widespread acceptance of Marxist-Leninist ideology. “It was no accident . . . that a single leader had emerged atop a single-party system that, on the basis of class analysis, denied legitimacy to political opposition.”

Yezhov after his fall from grace


~ “From his perch as a linguist eavesdropping on Soviet-backed forces in Eastern Europe, [Jeffrey Carney] knew that Washington’s portrayal of the other side was a lie. The enemy wasn’t an unstoppable juggernaut preparing to invade the West. Its combat units were barely functional. And it was the U.S. that was trying to provoke the Soviets into an incident that could lead to war.

Depressed and looking for an escape, Carney bolted for Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway to Communist East Berlin, near midnight on April 22, 1983, and asked for political asylum. It didn’t work out as planned; within hours, East German intelligence agents blackmailed him into returning to his unit as their spy. If he refused, they made clear, they’d leak his planned “defection” to his bosses.

[The “Able Archer” military exercise] “This situation could have been extremely dangerous if during the exercise—perhaps through a series of ill-timed coincidences or because of faulty intelligence—the Soviets had mis­perceived U.S. actions as preparations for a real attack.”

That was exactly what worried Carney—that one shot would lead to another, and maybe even a nuclear war. “We underestimated the Russian psyche,” Carney says. “They were institutionally paranoid. The average American would not launch a rocket and shoot a plane out of the air. But they don’t think like we do.”

As Able Archer unfolded in the summer of 1983, Soviet state-controlled radio started making announcements “several times a day” suggesting a U.S. attack was imminent, the study notes. New street signs went up in Moscow and other cities showing the locations of air raid shelters. A Soviet air force unit in Poland began carrying out drills to speed up the transfer of nuclear weapons from storage to aircraft. Some in the Ronald Reagan administration worried that the Soviets were preparing for an invasion of Europe. In response to a Western attack, Moscow’s war doctrine called for the destruction of most European cities and ports using nuclear weapons, followed by a massive ground invasion that would put Soviet troops on the Atlantic in 14 days.

 “One misstep,” Reagan recalled years later, “could trigger a great war.”

Carney had no idea what he was getting into when he crossed into East Berlin in the spring of 1983. His access to some of the Pentagon’s most sensitive electronic-spying operations had driven him to reconsider his initial enthusiasm for the election of Reagan, who had dubbed the Soviet Union “an evil empire” bent on crushing the West. Newspaper reports at the time described the Russians as unstoppable. “Perhaps the first moment I realized there was a problem, a big discrepancy, was while I was waiting for the bus to go to work one day,” Carney recalls. “Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, had an article about Soviet superiority in the European theater. I remember laughing with a friend, a Russian linguist, about the numbers and technical information cited in the report. It stood at complete odds with what we saw in our intel reports every day.”

The truth, he says, was that Communist-allied units were hampered by fuel and food shortages, alcoholism and even cholera, picked up by soldiers rotating into East Germany from the Soviet Far East. Soldiers were siphoning off brake fluid to get high. He doubted many were battle-ready. “Ronald Reagan,” Carney began to think, “was intent on making Russia an evil empire, whether it was evil enough on its own or not.”

Beginning in May 1983, Carney started looking for “important” documents to steal. The more he read, the more he was concerned about Washington’s electronic warfare programs and weapons, which could fry the Soviets’ command-and-control telecommunications. “[They] were mind-boggling in their reach and ability,” he says. “Many of them were purely offensive, and...would have only found use in a first-strike scenario.”

Later that year, Carney learned that U.S. warplanes were about to fly into Soviet airspace to simulate an attack on a sensitive military site and measure how the enemy responded. War jitters were already high with the impending deployment of U.S. Pershing ballistic missiles in West Germany. In September, the Russians shot down a Korean airliner that wandered over its missile testing area on the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Soviet Far East. Fearing a similar result, Carney rushed to tell his Stasi East German handler what was coming.

He says another incident in particular, in the fall of 1983, drove him from an “unwilling to a very willing spy.” Since it’s still classified, he refuses to divulge it further, for fear it could land him back in prison. “It was an intentional, aggressive provocation of the Soviet Union in a very sensitive area,” he says, “that would have made [Russian radar monitors] flip out.”

He adds, “When it was explained to me, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You are going to push their buttons. People are going to be shot down.’”

But Carney has few regrets. “I regret the pain I caused people, I regret the fact that I was in a position where I didn't have the whole picture and I made decisions where I ended up hurting people,” he says. “Unintentionally, though, I think what I did—and there are hundreds and hundreds of people who did what I did, on both sides: American spies, Russian spies, German spies—all of us together made it basically impossible for a war to break out. And I think that's where the focus should be.” ~


In Poland we knew very well that the US had total military superiority. But in the US the fear-mongering went on, and the reckless militarism kept bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.


The 1918 pandemic was unusual in that it killed many healthy 20- to 40-year-olds, including millions of World War I soldiers. In contrast, people who die of the flu are usually under five years old or over 75.

The factors underlying the virulence of the 1918 flu are still unclear. Modern-day scientists sequenced the DNA of the 1918 virus from lung samples preserved from victims. However, this did not solve the mystery of why so many healthy young adults were killed.

The 1918 flu and World War I

While a mild flu circulated during the spring of 1918, the deadly strain appeared on U.S. soil on Tuesday, Aug. 27, when three Navy dockworkers at Commonwealth Pier in Boston fell ill. Within 48 hours, dozens more men were infected. Ten days later, the flu was decimating Camp Devens. A renowned pathologist from Johns Hopkins, William Welch, was brought in. He realized that “this must be some new kind of infection or plague.” Viruses, minuscule agents that can pass through fine filters, were poorly understood.

With men mobilizing for World War I, the flu spread to military installations throughout the U.S. and to the general population. 

The quest to understand the 1918 flu fueled many scientific advances, including the discovery of the influenza virus. However, the virus itself did not cause most of the deaths. Instead, a fraction of individuals infected by the virus were susceptible to pneumonia due to secondary infection by bacteria. In an era before antibiotics, pneumonia could be fatal.

Recent analyses revealed that deaths in 1918 were highest among individuals born in the years around 1889. An earlier flu pandemic emerged then, and involved a virus that was likely of a different subtype than the 1918 strain. These analyses engendered a novel hypothesis, discussed below, about the susceptibility of healthy young adults in 1918.

Exposure to an influenza virus at a young age increases resistance to a subsequent infection with the same or a similar virus. On the flip side, a person who is a child around the time of a pandemic may not be resistant to other, dissimilar viruses. Flu viruses fall into groups that are related evolutionarily. The virus that circulated when Adolfo was a baby was likely in what is called “Group 2,” whereas the 1918 virus was in “Group 1.” In fact, exposure to the “Group 2” virus as a young child may have resulted in a dysfunctional response to the “Group 1” virus in 1918, exacerbating his condition.

Support for this hypothesis was seen with the emergence of the Hong Kong flu virus in 1968. It was in “Group 2” and had severe effects on people who had been children around the time of the 1918 “Group 1” flu.

To 2018 and beyond

What causes a common recurring illness to convert to a pandemic that is massively lethal to healthy individuals? Could it happen again? Until the reason for the death of young adults in 1918 is better understood, a similar scenario could reoccur. Experts fear that a new pandemic, of influenza or another infectious agent, could kill millions. Bill Gates is leading the funding effort to prevent this.

Flu vaccines are generated each year by monitoring the strains circulating months before flu season. A time lag of months allows for vaccine production. Unfortunately, because the influenza virus mutates rapidly, the lag also allows for the appearance of virus variants that are poorly targeted by the vaccine. In addition, flu pandemics often arise upon virus gene reassortment. This involves the joining together of genetic material from different viruses, which can occur suddenly and unpredictably.

An influenza virus is currently killing chickens in Asia, and has recently killed humans who had contact with chickens. This virus is of a subtype that has not been known to cause pandemics. It has not yet demonstrated the ability to be transmitted from person to person. However, whether this ability will arise during ongoing virus evolution cannot be predicted.

The chicken virus is in “Group 2.” Therefore, if it went pandemic, people who were children around the time of the 1968 “Group 2” Hong Kong flu might have some protection. I was born much earlier, and “Group 1” viruses were circulating when I was a child. If the next pandemic virus is in “Group 2,” I would probably not be resistant.

It’s early days for understanding how prior exposure affects flu susceptibility, especially for people born in the last three to four decades. Since 1977, viruses of both “Group 1” and “Group 2” have been in circulation. People born since then probably developed resistance to one or the other based on their initial virus exposures. This is good news for the near future since, if either a “Group 1” or a “Group 2” virus develops pandemic potential, some people should be protected. At the same time, if you are under 40 and another pandemic is identified, more information would be needed to hazard a guess as to whether you might be susceptible or resistant.

ending on beauty:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

~ Wallace Stevens

Not having found any image of blackbirds that pleases me, I'm posting instead this fireball meteor seen on November 14 over Italy’s Dolomite Alps (Ollie Taylor)

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