Saturday, November 11, 2017


Europe (a part of it) at night from the Space Station


(member of Robert F. Scott’s Antarctic expedition; he slid into a crevasse when he could no longer walk, in order not to be a burden to his companions)

Lieutenant Oats!
You lie close to my heart,
there in the icy crevasse.
Your death
death: resignation
cold death in the polar winter
cold death in cold snow
cold death among friends
the friends with whom
you were planning to win the South Pole

I know — the harness of the sled
cuts into your fingers
your legs get stuck in ice-sharp snow
I know — on a sheet of ice
and everywhere else
and always
and for everyone
life has infinite worth

I know it’s hard to catch your breath
when snow-laden wind muzzles your mouth
I know
that the night
the space
the blizzard
erases the last trace
But I also know
everyone has the right to hope

I understand you Oats
I understand the silence that falls
the silence that can’t replace words
The glances that avoid your eyes
your motionless darkening eyes
you you
a universe laid on the sled
blind deaf mute
in the dead night
Is it easier to die lying down
than standing up

They wrote:
Here lies a brave gentleman
What else could they write
too heavy
terribly heavy is the sled
the sled with someone sick
heavier than graves
heavier than dead friends

But after all they too lie in the same grave
on the same white hearse
death is always the same
then was it worth it
was it worth it?

I understand you my Polar Viking
I an ordinary person
Life is always a blizzard
the hospital — a cliff in the polar desert
the pillow a sharp-edged boulder
the blanket the dust of an avalanche
It’s easy to slide into a crevasse
The wind will cover the tracks with snow

Comrades of Lieutenant Oats
who can no longer cope
you too will die without
fulfilling your dreams
death is always the same
we need to forgive

~ Elżbieta Fonberg (1920-2005), tr Oriana Ivy

Grotto in an iceberg, Antarctica, January 1911

Ela Fonberg was a Polish neuroscientist and my mother’s friend and colleague for a great many years at the Nencki Institute in Warsaw. Like my mother, she was a member of the Resistance and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Only toward the end of her life she admitted to having always written poems, and sent my mother a proverbial slender volume.

I knew her personally — her soft low voice combined with tall stature and athletic build, her chuckle, her off-color jokes, her gesture of slowly pushing up her glasses with one finger at the nosepiece, are all engraved in my memory. It amazes me that I have just translated a poem of hers into English, hopefully gaining a few readers she never imagined reaching.


I know the poem is ambiguous, with lines like "everyone has the right to hope." But I'm sure Oats wasn't just simply giving up because of being a weak person. On the contrary, his suicide was an expression of moral strength.

It was clearly an altruistic suicide. I just remembered that even that kind is forbidden by religion, punishable with eternal damnation. What horrible nonsense.


This is not to deny that death is a terrible loss. The richness of a unique personality is lost. Hence:

you you
a universe laid on the sled

That universe comes to an end. So each of us faces “the end of the world.” What richness perishes with each person! As Emerson said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”


I'm pondering the line that we die without fulfilling our dreams. That's probably true for almost everyone. On the other hand, life gives us something else. As we look back, there is always something to mourn and regret, and something to celebrate. “I am in continual astonishment” that nothing in my life turned out as I originally expected . . .  but that somehow is the theme of my life: “nothing as expected.” 

By the way, it just occurred to me that this may be the only poem there is about Lieutenant Oats. It wouldn't surprise me if there exist a few forgotten poems about Captain Scott, whose diaries remain his best memorial. But this is probably the only poem ever about Oats — written in Polish by a Polish woman scientist, a former Resistance fighter, and just now translated into English by her friend's daughter. A minor event, I know, but it touches me to imagine this emotional chain: first Ela was moved by his story — by his heroic endurance up to the point when he saw that to persist was to be burden to others and to lower their chances of survival; then his heroic (in my eyes) self-sacrifice. Then Ela's poem reached me, moved me, and stayed in my mind for years, until, after much delay, I translated it after reading an article about Scott's doomed expedition. Once it’s published it in my blog, it may reach a hundred readers or so in several countries. While the number may seem modest, poets quickly learn to be grateful for every single reader, every mind they have the privilege to speak to.


On the possibility of an altruistic suicide, I think we are all too reductionist in our thinking about suicide. Like any other human act, suicide is not monolithic, but complex in both motivation and meaning, not always irrational, or "selfish" as so many would judge, not an act of weakness or lack of courage, certainly not a “sin.” It is probably often an act of desperation, but not always, and not always an unreasonable response to a bad situation. Traditional religion, which has “set its canon 'gainst  self-slaughter” is responsible for most of our cultural judgements on suicides.

At one of the lowest points in my life, severely depressed, having lost most of what I most valued, dulled and confused by medication and other medical “interventions,” I decided to go to confession, though I hadn't been a believer or practitioner for many years. I think I was seeking some kind of comfort, some place to feel “safe” — sanctuary, maybe, the way it used to be thought of. The priest asked me if I had committed the “sin of despair.” So hopelessness was not to be alleviated, but punished. Needless to say, no comfort there.


Ah, the “sin of despair.” It’s also called the “sin against the Holy Ghost,” the one sin which will not be forgiven. Yet given the teaching about how only the chosen few will enter heaven, how was I to feel about my chances? Of course sooner or later I’d decide that my continued doubt, for instance, clearly indicated that I was not among the chosen few, so hell was inevitable. But I also knew that to believe that meant you were sinning against the Holy Ghost, and would not be forgiven, so now you were going to hell for sure. 

Another reason I was going to hell for sure that no way could I feel the slightest love for the creepy god that the church tried to jam into our heads, the first command being to love god above everything — and only then your neighbor. So I felt doomed — but remember, to feel doomed is to commit the sin against the Holy Ghost, which will not be forgiven.

In retrospect I'm just glad I didn’t go insane. I certainly felt tormented, though.

Religion is often defended and justified because it supposedly offers “consolation.” It offered none to you or me. Perhaps it offers consolation only to those who are able to kid themselves that they are going to heaven for sure.

 Lucas Cranach: Trinity, 1515. I love the baby cherubim. But also note the centrality of the loincloth, and its upward extension. But . . .  is there any question as to who is boss? The one who sends the plagues and floods and other disasters? I think Jesus is already dead, and in this painting at least, he remains dead.


 After the tragedy of Capt. Scott's Antarctic expedition, this provides a bit of a comic break: ~ “The discovery of a 106 year old fruit cake among the artifacts from Antarctica’s first building at Cape Adare went viral with more than 1700 media stories in 32 countries across the globe. Made by Huntley & Palmers, the fruit cake is still wrapped in paper and encased in the remains of a tin-plated iron alloy tin.

The cake was most likely taken to the ice by the Northern Party of Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ expedition (1910 – 1913).

Finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake in amongst the last handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins was quite a surprise. It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern trips to the Ice.” ~



~ “At any major juncture in life, Hollis argues, we should ask: “Does this path, this choice, make me larger or smaller?” There’s something uncanny about this question, which has seen me through several dilemmas since discovering his work. The usual question is “Will this make me happy?” – but few of us, if we’re honest, have much of a clue about what will make us, or our loved ones, happiest. Ask whether a choice will make you larger or diminish you, though, and surprisingly often the answer’s obvious.

Every choice, writes Hollis, demonstrating again his splendid refusal to be upbeat for the sake of it, represents a kind of death. So “when we get to junctures like that, we had better choose the dying that enlarges rather than the one that keeps us stuck”.

And anyway, who says that “happiness” — that shallow, elusive, rather narcissistic notion — is the best measure of a life in any case? Hollis quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by ever greater things.”

Hollis is a follower of Carl Jung, so his view of the mind is that the ego — the conscious “voice in the head” that we take to be ourselves — is only a tiny part of the whole. Sure, it has all sorts of schemes it believes will make us happy and secure, usually involving large salaries, public acclaim, or flawless partners or children. Yet in reality (Hollis writes elsewhere) the ego is nothing but a “thin wafer of consciousness floating on an iridescent ocean called the soul”. The vast forces of the unconscious — the psyche, or “the gods” when Hollis is feeling more lyrical — have their own plans for us.

These days we try to just ignore this deeper level. But when suppressed, it always surfaces somewhere eventually, as depression or insomnia or bad dreams. “When we are off track, psyche protests,” Hollis writes. “Noisy demonstrations are held in the amphitheatre of the body; streets are blocked in the brain by rebels from the cane fields; dreams are invaded by spectral disturbances; affects riot and tear down the work of years.”

OK, OK, but what’s the answer? What does matter most? Don’t expect Hollis to tell you. “I will not rehearse the usual list of what matters most, namely: friends and family, love, honour, good work, reputation,” he writes. [To repeat the central point: Hollis argues, we should ask: “Does this path, this choice, make me larger or smaller?”] ~


I read several books by Hollis, including this one, around the time when my mother was close to dying. Told that she should do this or that, she began to say, more and more often, “That's not important.” She was obviously totally focused on what she regarded as important. There was no time to waste on the trivia.

“Does this choice make me larger or smaller?” is a fabulous question to guide us in making choices, often pointing to the need for taking that rather expensive and inconvenient trip or taking a chance on trying something new. Enlargement or diminishment? Of course we need also ask about the price, the consequences for others, the stage of life . . . But on the whole, we don't regret choosing enlargement.   


“I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth,” Henry James wrote to fellow writer Hugh Walpole when James was 70. “I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.” ~ Henry James

It’s wise to remember this as we are tempted to turn down an opportunity to experience something new for the sake of staying comfortably where we are (though once in a while doing nothing is the best choice — there are no absolute rules here). And, once it’s too late to undo one’s choice, there is no point spending time on regret — we need to concentrate on the present and the future.

But in the main I agree (reluctantly, the home-body that I am) with the idea that “life rewards action.”


“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.” ~ Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

 The movie starred Hurd Hatfield

Sabina’s view on the nature of the “cure” in psychoanalysis was arguably an important influence on Jung’s interest in the future more so than in the past — his notion of fate versus destiny (destiny being the daimon, the future pulling us onward).

It’s by having a vision of what s/he might become that the patient can afford to drop pathology and move toward what might be called a “purpose-driven life.” When life becomes focused and disciplined through an inspiring vision of a future self, pathologies are transcended. Useless now, they drop away.

Thus, in the Jungian system, it’s not insight into the past that is curative, but insight into the future. Health is restored when we grow more interested in what we are becoming rather than in brooding over our past wounds.

Sabina also apparently influenced Freud’s development of the Eros-Thanatos theory of the “death drive” – to me, the most provocative of Freud’s ideas. That emerged from the movie more clearly than the more central divide between Freud and Jung. Freud was fixated on the past and on the need to understand the past, “the make the unconscious conscious,” and restore the patient “from neurotic suffering to normal misery.” Jung became more interested in a person’s vision of the future. There is a larger personality that we are intended to become. That destiny, or vision of the future self, pulls us upward.

The text above is from my own 2012 blog, A Dangerous Method (part of it was a review of the movie by that title). 

Sabina Spielrein: My main goal is to cultivate and express all the wonderful things.


~ “Recently, I was in an all-day meeting in San Francisco with a pretty sophisticated group of international business experts. As the morning wore on, our host brought out treats. I quickly learned that sophistication does not dull one's response to M&Ms. As bowls of the brightly colored, candy-coated chocolates were distributed around the room, these hot shot financiers and venture capitalists perked up, wiggled with glee, and leaned forward to retrieve a handful of happiness.

When the host reached the couch on which I sat with another man, I heard the man mutter, “Oh no, here goes my diet.”

I turned to him and said, “Want some help?” He looked at me despairingly and said, “Yes!”

I leaned forward, picked up my note pad, and placed it over the M&M bowl that sat on the coffee table in front of us, offering its bounty like a candy shop window. The effect on my friend was immediate. It was as though the candy store proprietor had pulled a window blind. My friend relaxed. His breathing became more regular. And in spite of the fact that the M&Ms were no further from him than they had been seconds earlier, he endured the remaining hours of our meeting without even once succumbing to the bowl’s siren call.

Perhaps we don’t have as much free will as we think we do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take an active role in shaping our own behavior. The journalist Michael Shermer suggests that the way to do so is by exercising our “free won’t.” While the impulses to act a certain way are inevitably tied to the various sources of influence that affect us—we can choose not only to not respond to them, but to blunt or change them.

Shermer is right to refocus our attention on “free won’t” rather than “free will.” My colleagues and I have come to the same conclusion. The vast evidence of the social sciences over the past decades suggests that human beings have remarkably little control over their own behavior. We are incredibly easy to manipulate. We spend, eat, talk, vote, work, and play in ways that are profoundly shaped by forces we grossly underestimate. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we start accepting how little free will we have, we can refocus our attention on our free won’t by reshaping the sources of influence that shape us. In the end, we’re back in control—just a little less directly.” ~


It always seemed to me that there existed a tiny pause where you could choose (choose!!) to act differently. A “stop and think” pause. A one-syllable, yes-or-no pause. Sometimes a Wait! pause. It doesn't work under heavy stress, but in relatively low-stress situations, I had the impression that the pause, though brief and ephemeral, could not be denied. This article confirms the ability to inhibit customary behavior. Maybe we should stop talking about free will (which leads to judgmentalism) and concentrate on the “free won’t.”

Of course there are factors that cause us to inhibit (or not inhibit) customary behavior, to ultimately there is no escaping determinism. But since we can't spend our lifetime minutely analyzing the causes of everything, we might as well celebrate the existence of the “free won’t.”  Yes, there is an area of the brain responsible for inhibition, and it can be better developed in some individuals due to both environmental and genetic factors, but knowing that doesn't particularly get us anywhere (except perhaps, again, away from judgmentalism -- not everyone had the luck to have the kind of parents who provided training in inhibitory behavior). Instead, we can concentrate on the environmental factors and strengthen those.

Need I say that I'm the sort of person who especially enjoys the power of “won’t”? Ah, to walk out of a store without buying anything! It makes me feel like a stronger person. But I realize that, as with everything, inhibition too could be pushed too far — consider pathologies such as anorexia or mutism. Hence, as the ancients counseled, “moderation in all things.” And yet, and yet . . . the joy of that tiny pause when I can decide NOT to buy X, not to say anything, to turn off the computer (that’s the hardest of all).


When considering questions of determinism and free will, I am in complete agreement with your statement about the little "pause." And I think the idea of "I won't" is a much clearer way of seeing how choice and free will can act. Of course we are determined, influenced, manipulated in thousands of ways, from biology to history to the incidents of personal experience. The question is how much, to what degree, and how rigid and overwhelming the determining factors are, and how that may vary from individual to individual, in ways that are also determined by biology, history, experience. In alleging there is no space left for choice we also erase any sense of responsibility for any acts or decisions. In fact, there are not then any "decisions." All actions are put beyond individual choice and control, there is no room for judgement. This leaves us with a very strange, and I think obviously false, world of human activity.

For instance, I have been irritated by a series of ads run on tv for certain drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. The ads state "addiction can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime." What I think they are trying to get at is that addiction crosses social divisions such as race, class, gender, education etc, and can be found in every category, every segment of society. What I find unacceptable,  and insidious, is the assertion that addiction can "happen to anyone"-- with the emphasis on "happen." This makes addiction equivalent to a natural catastrophe , like getting caught in a hurricane, or even a rainstorm, or like catching an infectious disease, like measles or tuberculosis.

But even with these examples we know measures can be taken to avoid them — just as with addiction. Somewhere, way back at the beginning, there was that small space, that pause, that chance to say "I won't." In that space a choice is made. In that space is our responsibility for our lives. No matter how small the space, or how strong the pressures that have shaped us and our circumstance. And without acknowledging the existence of that space, we lose what it is to be human.


Addiction is a very complicated matter. Can it just “happen” to anyone? No. It happens to genetically susceptible individuals when the circumstances are just right for it, e.g. under the stress of combat. A lot of American soldiers started using hard drugs during the Vietnam war — but an extensive follow-up showed — surprise, surprise! — that most of those users discontinued drug use when they were out of danger, the hellish stress behind them. (I don’t mean to minimize the aftermath of war, only to say “the worst was over.”) Once these men were busy trying to succeed in civilian life, once they were once more with families and friends, wives and girlfriends rather than prostitutes, picnics and sports rather than slogging through the jungle being shot at by an enemy they couldn’t see, their circumstances mitigated against the use of hard drugs. The life of a junkie held no allure.

Am I arguing for strict determinism when it comes to addiction? Frankly, I don’t know. Those veterans who discontinued may have well had an “I won’t” moment. A conscious decision certainly plays along with all the factors influencing us.

I am very interested in the power of neural inhibition. We see it failing in the case of brain diseases and advanced aging (e.g. the so-called “senile garrulity” — for one thing, as aging progresses, the levels of inhibitory neurotransmitters wane, and the person becomes more impulsive and unfocused, “scattered”). We also see inhibition fail under severe stress.

We have drugs that can help. We know how to train people to be more focused. We know how to increase self-control. But all this is underutilized because the enormous power of inhibition, including the “free I won’t,” is not appreciated enough.

The Soul Nebula near Cassiopeia, in infrared


“Humans have an experiential mind, which allows us to experience the world via sensations and perceptions, to have urges and desires, and to feel emotions like fear or joy. We can bundle these various processes together and call them “primary processes”, in that they happen quickly and relatively automatically with no self-conscious, deliberative effort. We share our primary process system with creatures like dogs.

Adult humans also have a self-conscious, deliberative mind that allows us to talk and to be reflective about our feelings and actions. We can consider this slower, more effortful and reflective portion secondary processes. In keeping with the idea of what a person is, we will call it your “deliberative mind”.

 Addiction is a state of being whereby the Primary Process Mind is overpowering the Deliberative Mind.” ~ Gregg Henriques

Yet another formulation that I find applicable to my experience with deciding not to be depressed — perhaps the most interesting “decision experience” in my life. Though my central insight was about mortality: “It’s too late in life to be depressed,” another influence was having come across the statement: “You can practice falling apart, or you can practice being strong.”

Here was the POWER OF THE “OR” STATEMENT — I saw that there was a choice, and knew instantly my preference for being strong. Coming from a family of strong women, I never doubted my strength (a dubious logic, I know, but at the time it served wonderfully). 

On the other hand, the human brain is also the most magnificent thing in the universe: adaptable, always learning. It doesn’t exist in isolation but in constant dialogue with the environment — including fictional characters and memories, many of them false!


 ~ “William James, who ducked service in the Civil War but who watched it wreck the lives of two of his brothers, concluded that the idealism which had led them to volunteer had been a destroying angel, and that it would be far better to regard ideas as instruments which help people adapt to their circumstances, rather than abstract truths which they allow to govern their actions. In his post-war career at Harvard, James formulated an entirely different way of understanding ideas, which he called pragmatism.

Beliefs had to be judged by their consequences, James insisted, by whether they had “cash value in experiential terms” and could be converted into useful practical conduct. Giving abstractions like abolition and freedom some absolute status as truth made them into the lethal and uncompromising tyrants which decimated James’s generation. But without the status of truth, religion degenerated into therapy—which, from James’s perspective, was not necessarily a bad thing.” ~


I didn't know that the Civil War played a role in the development of James's pragmatism: never mind if X is true; what are the “fruits” (results) of believing that X is true? His approach to religion simply blew my mind: never mind if god exists, or which religion is “true”; what kind of belief works for you?

There was an element of Nietzschean perspectivism here, but with a much greater emphasis on subjective experience. If a certain set of beliefs helps you live a happy and productive life, James argued, don't worry about an objective validation of those beliefs. Go by what works for you. As the article points out, James would not be upset by the argument that by divorcing religion from its claims to objective truth he was reducing it to therapy; that, for him, was not a reduction but rather an enhancement.

James saw that a strong belief in the truth of ideas (whether religious or secular) could easily lead a disaster. In the debate between the eternalists and those who perceive perishability, he was certainly not an eternalist. 


~ “A Russian friend of mine likes to say, in the spirit of Voltaire’s famous joke about the Holy Roman Empire, that the Great October Revolution, as it was always known in Soviet days, was none of those things: not great (it was an economic and political disaster); not in October (according to the Gregorian calendar it was actually Nov. 7); and, above all, not a revolution. It was a Bolshevik coup d’etat. But it was not an accident, either. Lenin began plotting a violent seizure of power before he had even learned of the czar’s abdication. Immediately — “within a few hours,” according to Victor Sebestyen’s excellent new biography, “Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror” — he sent out a list of orders to his colleagues in Petrograd. They included “no trust or support for the new government,” “arm the proletariat” and “make no rapprochement of any kind with other parties.” More than a thousand miles away, in Switzerland, he could not possibly have had any idea what the new government stood for. But as a man who had spent much of the previous 20 years fighting against “bourgeois democracy,” and arguing virulently against elections and parties, he already knew that he wanted it smashed.

His extremism was precisely what persuaded the German government, then at war with Russia, to help Lenin carry out his plans. “We must now definitely try to create the utmost chaos in Russia,” one German official advised. “We must secretly do all that we can to aggravate the differences between the moderate and the extreme parties . . . since we are interested in the victory of the latter.” The kaiser personally approved of the idea; his generals hoped it would lead the Russian state to collapse and withdraw from the war. And so the German government promised Lenin funding, put him and 30 other Bolsheviks — among them his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya , as well as his mistress, Inessa Armand — onto a train, and sent them to revolutionary Petrograd. They arrived at the Finland Station on April 16, where they were welcomed by a cheering crowd.

A few days later Lenin issued his famous April Theses, which echoed the orders that he had sent from Zurich. He treated the Bolsheviks’ minority status as temporary, the product of a misunderstanding: “It must be explained to the masses that the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is the only possible form of revolutionary government.” He showed his scorn for democracy, dismissing the idea of a parliamentary republic as “a retrograde step.” He called for the abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy, as well as the nationalization of all land and all banks.

Plenty of people thought he was crazy. But in the weeks that followed, Lenin stuck to his extremist vision despite the objections of his more moderate colleagues, agitating for it all over the city. Using a formula that would be imitated and repeated by demagogues around the world for decades to come — up to and including the demagogues of the present, about which more in a moment — he and the other Bolsheviks offered poor people simplistic answers to complex questions. They called for “peace, land and bread.” They sketched out beautiful pictures of an impossible future. They promised not only wealth but also happiness, a better life in a better nation.

They certainly did not persuade all Russians, or even a majority of the Russians, to support them. They did not persuade the Petrograd Soviet or the other socialist parties. But they did persuade a fanatical and devoted minority, one that would kill for the cause. And in the political chaos that followed the czar’s abdication, in a city that was paralyzed by food shortages, distracted by rumors and haunted by an unpopular war, a fanatical and devoted minority proved sufficient. 

Lenin making a gramophone recording, 1919
Like Lenin, Stalin never accepted any form of legal opposition — indeed he never believed that there could be such a thing as constructive opposition at all. Truth was defined by the leader. The direction of state policy was defined by the leader. Everyone and everything that opposed the leader — parties, courts, media — was an “enemy of the people,” a phrase that Lenin stole from the French Revolution.

Within two decades of October 1917, the Revolution had devoured not only its children, but also its founders — the men and women who had been motivated by such passion for destruction. It created not a beautiful new civilization but an angry, unhappy, and embittered society, one that squandered its resources, built ugly, inhuman cities, and broke new ground in atrocity and mass murder. Even as the Soviet Union became less violent, in the years following Stalin’s death in 1953, it remained dishonest and intolerant, insisting on a facade of unity. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has observed, Bolshevism eventually became so cocooned in layers of dishonesty that it lost touch with reality: “Facts no longer made contact with the theory, which had risen above the facts on clouds of nonsense, rather like a theological system. The point was not to believe the theory, but to repeat it ritualistically and in such a way that both belief and doubt became irrelevant. . . . In this way the concept of truth disappeared from the intellectual landscape, and was replaced by that of power.” Once people were unable to distinguish truth from ideological fiction, however, they were also unable to solve or even describe the worsening social and economic problems of their society. Fear, hatred, cynicism and criminality were all around them, with no obvious solutions in sight.

So discredited was Bolshevism after the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991 that, for a quarter of a century, it seemed as if Bolshevik thinking was gone for good. But suddenly, now, in the year of the revolution's centenary, it's back.

 “October,” 1928 movie poster

Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Jaroslaw Kaczynski: although they are often described as “far-right” or “alt-right,” these neo-Bolsheviks have little to do with the right that has been part of Western politics since World War II, and they have no connection to existing conservative parties. In continental Europe, they scorn Christian Democracy, which had its political base in the church and sought to bring morality back to politics after the nightmare of the Second World War. Nor do they have anything to do with Anglo-Saxon conservatism, which promoted free markets, free speech and a Burkean small-c conservatism: skepticism of “progress,” suspicion of radicalism in all its forms, and a belief in the importance of conserving institutions and values. Whether German or Dutch Christian Democrats, British Tories, American Republicans, East European ex-dissidents or French Gaullists, post-war Western conservatives have all been dedicated to representative democracy, religious tolerance, economic integration and the Western alliance.

By contrast, the neo-Bolsheviks of the new right or alt-right do not want to conserve or to preserve what exists. They are not Burkeans but radicals who want to overthrow existing institutions. Instead of the false and misleading vision of the future offered by Lenin and Trotsky, they offer a false and misleading vision of the past. They conjure up worlds made up of ethnically or racially pure nations, old-fashioned factories, traditional male-female hierarchies and impenetrable borders. Their enemies are homosexuals, racial and religious minorities, advocates of human rights, the media, and the courts. They are often not real Christians but rather cynics who use “Christianity” as a tribal identifier, a way of distinguishing themselves from their enemies: they are “Christians” fighting against “Muslims” — or against “liberals” if there are no “Muslims” available.

To an extraordinary degree, they have adopted Lenin’s refusal to compromise, his anti-democratic elevation of some social groups over others and his hateful attacks on his “illegitimate” opponents. Law and Justice, the illiberal nationalist ruling party in Poland, has sorted its compatriots into “true Poles” and “Poles of the worst sort.” Trump speaks of “real” Americans, as opposed to the “elite.” Stephen Miller, a Trump acolyte and speechwriter, recently used the word “cosmopolitan,” an old Stalinist moniker for Jews (the full term was “rootless cosmopolitan”), to describe a reporter asking him tough questions. “Real” Americans are worth talking to; “cosmopolitans” need to be eliminated from public life.

Surprisingly, given its mild and pragmatic traditions, even British politics is now saturated with Leninist language. When British judges declared, in November 2016, that the Brexit referendum had to be confirmed by Parliament — a reasonable decision in a parliamentary democracy — the Daily Mail, a xenophobic pro-Brexit newspaper, ran a cover story with judges’ photographs and the phrase “Enemies of the People.” Later, the same paper called on the prime minister to “Crush the Saboteurs,” choosing a word that was also favored by Lenin to describe legitimate political opposition.

Famously, Trump has also used the expression “enemy of the American people” on Twitter. Though it is unlikely that the president himself understood the historical context, some of the people around him certainly did. Bannon, Miller and several others in Trump’s immediate orbit know perfectly well that the delegitimization of political opponents as “un-American” and “elitist,” and of the media as “fake news,” is the first step in a more ambitious direction. If some of what these extremists say is to be taken seriously, their endgame — the destruction of the existing political order, possibly including the U.S. Constitution — is one that the Bolsheviks would have understood. The historian Ronald Radosh has quoted Bannon’s comparison of himself to the Bolshevik leader. “Lenin,” Bannon told Radosh, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” At a conservative gathering in Washington in 2013, Bannon also called for a “virulently anti-establishment” and “insurgent” movement that will “hammer this city, both the progressive left and the institutional Republican Party.”


Like their predecessors, the neo-Bolsheviks are also liars. Trump lies with pathological intensity about matters small and large, and he lies so often and so obviously that it is not even necessary to cite his uncounted falsehoods again here. But he is not alone. Recently Le Pen was charged in an investigation into her anti-European party for cheating the European parliament out of money. The Law and Justice party pretends that its attacks on the Polish constitution are nothing more than “judicial reform.” Orban has hidden the probably corrupt details of Russian investment in a nuclear plant in Hungary. These are not coincidences. Nor is it a coincidence that the most successful neo-Bolsheviks have all created their own “alternative media,” starting online and moving into the mainstream, specializing in disinformation, hate campaigns, racist jokes and organized trolling of opponents. (The old Bolsheviks used to call this propaganda, and they were brilliant at it.) Both the politicians and the “journalists” lie out of conviction, because they believe that ordinary morality does not apply to them. In a rotten world, truth can be sacrificed in the name of “the People,” or as a means of targeting “Enemies of the People.” In the struggle for power, anything is permitted. 

Finally, and most painfully, there is a hint, and sometimes more than a hint, of a reviving appreciation among the neo-Bolsheviks for the cleansing possibilities of violence. The violent poetry of 1917 has morphed into the violent memes of 2017, the “Ultra Violence” threads on Reddit, the white nationalist groups seeking “race war,” and the NRA videos urging Americans to arm themselves for the coming apocalyptic struggle to “save our country.” Some of this dangerous trash has been around for a long time: far-right and far-left extremists in Europe have always savored the idea of violence. But now some of that nihilistic desire for disaster has become mainstream, even reaching the White House. As long ago as 2014, Trump, after railing against Obamacare, fantasized: “You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a, you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”

Shocking though it is, that sentiment is mild by comparison with Bannon’s apocalyptic vision of a coming war — perhaps with Islam, perhaps with China — that will cleanse the Western world of weakness and restore Western greatness. This is how Bannon put it in 2010: “We’re gonna have to have some dark days before we get to the blue sky of morning again in America. We are going to have to take some massive pain. Anybody who thinks we don’t have to take pain is, I believe, fooling you.” A HuffPost article included similar Bannon statements. In 2011: “Against radical Islam, we’re in a 100-year war.” In 2014: “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.” In 2016: “We’re going to war in the South China Seas in the next five to ten years, aren’t we?”

No excuse for complacency

Fortunately, we do not live in 1917 Petrograd. There are no bread shortages, or ragged barefoot soldiers, or aristocrats in thrall to mad monks. There will be few opportunities to surround the government in a palace, enter and take it over. Our states are not, yet, that weak.

We also have, as the Russians of 1917 did not have, the benefit of hindsight. In much of continental Europe, the demagogue who divides the nation into enemies and patriots creates bad connotations and triggers unpleasant memories. Over the past year, French, Dutch and Austrian voters rejected the nihilism and xenophobia of Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Norbert Hofer, not least because of what they resembled.

The French may even have taken the first necessary step in the longer battle against false revolutions by voting for Emmanuel Macron, the first major European politician to argue for a muscular revival of liberalism. Macron openly opposed the fear, the nostalgia and the nativism on the rise across the continent, and he won without offering impossible schemes or unattainable riches. Even if he fails in France, his formula hints at a way to fight back against modern false prophets. Offer a positive vision, both open and patriotic. Don’t let the nationalists appeal to “the People” over the heads of the voters. Don’t let extremists become mainstream.

But the Anglo-Saxon world was less lucky. It may not be an accident that neo-Bolshevik language has so far enjoyed unprecedented success in Britain and the United States, two countries that have never known the horror of occupation or of an undemocratic revolution that ended in dictatorship. They therefore lack the immunity of many Europeans. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon world has its own advantages: the bonds of old and long-standing constitutionalism, the habits created by decades of rule of law and relatively high standards of living. It may be that as Americans and Brits slowly learn to recognize lies, they will become less susceptible to the fake nostalgia on offer from their leaders.

But there is no excuse for complacency. That is the lesson of this ominous centennial. Remember: At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who later became known to the world as the Bolsheviks were conspirators and fantasists on the margins of society. By the end of the year, they ran Russia. Fringe figures and eccentric movements cannot be counted out. If a system becomes weak enough and the opposition divided enough, if the ruling order is corrupt enough and people are angry enough, extremists can suddenly step into the center, where no one expects them. And after that it can take decades to undo the damage. We have been shocked too many times. Our imaginations need to expand to include the possibilities of such monsters and monstrosities. We were not adequately prepared." ~


When I first read that Bannon described himself as a “Leninist,” I was astonished — though the slogan of destroying the existing order did seem familiar. Still, the media usually called Bannon a Nazi, so his self-labeling as a “Leninist” was a shock. Then when Trump first used the phrase “enemy of the people” to describe the media, it all fell into place — the recollection of the political rhetoric I grew up with became complete. Perhaps we should stop thinking in terms of the right and the left, but rather think in terms of people who prefer dictatorship and see no point in democracy.

The nihilistic thirst for WWIII is particularly frightening.

In a different vein, I think the article doesn’t quite do justice to the initial (but continuing for decades) appeal of Bolshevism to countless millions, including a great many Western intellectuals. It wasn’t just an anti-democratic, nihilistic system based on destroying the old order  (though it was that too). Such a system would not fire the imagination of the young. What the young crave is a heroic ideal.

Unfortunately the Nazis knew how to provide that also.

Here it’s good to remember William James and his warning that idealism is a destroying angel.

Also, both the Nazi and the Communist ideology emphasized a radically different future. Never mind how false the promises were — it was still a vision of the future, a goal to be working toward, a direction. The Neo-Bolsheviks rely on the nostalgia for the past — and the past just isn’t all that real to the young. Even older people’s memories of the past tend to be bittersweet rather than filled alleged power and glory. That’s my chief hope: that the young will not find the neo-Bolsheviks sufficiently appealing. 

(Of course some will, as is already evident. Let’s hope they remain a lunatic fringe.)


“The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” ~ Jack Kerouac


Time for a comic break:


“... We see how ambiguous its results were, how closely the negative and, we must acknowledge, the positive consequences of those events are intertwined,” Putin told a gathering of academics last month.

“Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives?”

Putin chose his words carefully. The centenary may leave him with mixed feelings, but it remains a hallowed anniversary for the Russian Communist party and for many older Russians.

Although it is the second largest party in the lower house of parliament after the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, the Russian Communist Party wields little real influence today and votes with the Kremlin on most major issues.

But its supporters, who held a week-long series of celebratory events to mark the revolution’s centenary and were due to rally in Moscow later on Tuesday, believe their time will come again.

“Capitalism is stumbling from one crisis to another,” veteran Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov wrote in a centenary congratulatory note to his supporters.

“We are convinced that the sun of socialism will once again rise over Russia and the whole world.”



While the Soviet nostalgia of older Russians has no future, it’s the anti-democratic, totalitarian trend that is worrisome.

Still, for me it’s quite something that Russia’s head of state would openly NOT celebrate the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution (once the greatest state holiday), and even state that the Revolution was a bad thing and should not have happened. Now that’s revolutionary!


~ "And before the throne was something like a sea of glass, as clear as crystal. In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, covered with eyes in front and back." ~ Revelation 4:6

Just discovered this trippy passage. For some reason this was never discussed in church! The priests' mouths were sealed as to what creatures (a new species of angel?) cavorted before the throne of god.


~ “Danish researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University compared urine and fecal samples from 15 healthy male participants who either consumed a diet featuring cheese or milk or a diet that included butter but no other dairy items. What they discovered was that the cheese-eaters had a different composition of gut bacteria, higher in levels of the compound butyrate—an anti-inflammatory fatty acid produced by intestinal fermentation—and it showed in their stool. High butyrate levels have been shown to actually reduce cholesterol absorption, improve metabolism, and prevent obesity.

Because the sample size was so small and funding was partially provided by the Danish Dairy Research Foundation, it’s crucial to perform larger tests before drawing significant conclusions about how cheese consumption—and which kinds of cheeses—could be the most helpful in terms of weight management. And the nuances of our gut bacteria have long been linked with how our bodies gauge appetite and store (or don’t store) fat.

But don’t just load up a bowl of pasta or thick slice of pizza crust with grated Jack and expect great results. Previous studies have linked blue cheese consumption to gut health and anti-aging properties—keep it classy and have a sliver with some fruit and red wine, another French staple that has been shown to have numerous health benefits.” ~


Butter is also a good source of butyrate. Likewise, consuming a lot of fiber makes your gut bacteria produce butyrate. It’s an anti-inflammatory compound that also helps prevent autoimmune disease.


Many molds simply taste unpleasant, yet are not problematic to our bodies. Dangerous molds are those which produce mycotoxins and aflatoxins. These toxins may affect our respiratory system and in some cases even act as carcinogens. Not all moulds produce these toxins.

Penicillium roqueforti and Penicillium glaucum, which are the blue moulds used for cheese, cannot produce these toxins in cheese. The combination of acidity, salinity, moisture, density, temperature and oxygen flow creates an environment that is far outside the envelope of toxin production range for these moulds. In fact, this is true for almost all moulds in cheese, which is the reason that cheese has been considered a safe moldy food to eat for the past 9,000 years. Not only is it safe, but it can also be healthy (P. roqueforti and P. glaucum have natural antibacterial properties and ability to overtake pathogens. Moreover, our bodies use a variety of wild flora for digestion, development and immune systems).

Blue moulds have a particularly unique effect on cheese. They accelerate two processes dramatically: proteolysis (breakdown of proteins), which causes the cheese to take on an extra-creamy texture (especially in proximity to the blue mold veins) and lipolysis (breakdown of fats), which makes up the tangy, spicy, sharp and strong flavor. The creamy texture stands up to the sharp flavor and together they produce an exciting flavor/texture/aroma profile, which is often further balanced against sweet/nutty milk and lots of salt (blue cheeses typically contain twice the salt of other cheeses). This combination is so unique — it is unlike any other food.

ending on beauty:

Spring found us:
all the mountains around
are stone weights
to weigh how much we love.

~ Yehuda Amichai

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