Saturday, March 24, 2018


Philadelphia, Rittenhouse Square, 3-21-18

It goes on and hurries to some end,
circling and turning without a goal.
Flashes of red, of green, of gray whirl past,
solid shapes barely glimpsed.

Sometimes a smile comes toward us,
and, like a blessing, shines and is gone
in this dizzying parade with no destination.

~ Rilke, New Poems

I prefer this carousel poem to the more famous one, with the white elephant. I prefer this one by far — the smile coming toward us and then disappearing, the carousel as a metaphor for life. It would be an unbearable metaphor without that smile

Sometimes a smile comes toward us,
and, like a blessing, shines and is gone

but it has already made us just a touch more happy than we were a moment before then. Yes, a blessing.


The carousel goes and goes and gets no where, and yet is so enchanting — not a thrill ride, but gentle, soothing motion, and a celebration of the imagination — the lights, the fabulous carved animals, the decorative painting. All part of that carnival experience, where it isn't the destination that matters, but the sensation.


Thank you, Mary,  for this beautiful insight about what the carousel “teaches” about life: it’s not the destination that matters (the carousel has none), but the sensation, the enchantment, the music, the magical details.

I think it's quite significant that Rilke was fascinated by the carousel and the fountain — the circularity of that motion, the return to where it started. By contrast, he was not especially drawn toward rivers, for instance — or at least he doesn’t mention them again and again in his poems. Because “life is a journey” is such a common saying, and a journey presupposes a destination, this focus on images that don’t suggest a linear progression is quite striking. Sure, we keep saying that it's the journey itself that matters, and not the destination — but you can't quite remove destination from the concept of the journey. Rilke (who traveled a lot) manages to find other metaphors.

If we think of life as a journey, there is no avoiding the knowledge that a typical life ends in old age and ultimately death. Much as we’d love to say that life is a journey toward wisdom, and even if in part it is that, at least for some people, we don’t have a good answer to the statement that life is a journey toward death — and unless you expect eternal bliss afterwards, and even then, that fact just not something we like to think about. “It doesn’t help me get out of bed in the morning and go on living,” is how more than one friend put it.

We say that death is what makes life precious, but, along with Woody, we’d “rather not be there when it happens.” So a way to think of life in terms other than a journey from birth to death is of more than theoretical interest.

A few have suggested a circular motion, but in the form of a spiral — we keep coming back to the same central themes, but at different stages of life, with new perception, a new understanding. Every several years or so, our priorities are different. At fifty, our philosophy of life may be quite the opposite of what it was at twenty-five. 

Melk Abbey, Spiral Staircase

And disappointments are inevitable. Shattered dreams everywhere! Or dreams that have come true, but the fulfillment was less gratifying than we expected, or perhaps downright depressing (Teresa of Avila’s remark that more tears have been shed because of answered prayers comes to mind here; the Buddha too spoke negatively about fulfilled desires). But there are some fulfilled dreams that have not proved disappointing (great art, the beauty of nature) — and there are the grace notes, the beautiful details, the moments of happiness — in Rilke’s poem, it’s that smile we receive as the carousel whirls on.

Note also, in the Second Duino Elegy

Oh smile, where are you going? Oh upturned glance,
a new, warm, receding wave from the heart —
alas, it’s in us all . . .
Are we mixed into [the angels’] features
as slightly as that vague look in the faces
of pregnant women? Unnoticed by them in their whirling
return to themselves. (How should they notice it?)

“Oh smile, where are you going?” But that’s not quite the right question. The afterlife of a smile is irrelevant next to the gift of the smile in the moment. 

“For if life were questioned a thousand years and asked, ‘Why live?’ and if there were an answer, it could be no more than this: ‘I live only to live!’ And this is because Life is its own reason for being, springs from its own source, and goes on and on, without ever asking why — just because it is life.” ~ Meister Eckhart
Dali: Don Quixote (1)

From the preface to the 1964 edition of Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges:

~ Pierre Menard undertakes to compose Don Quixote — not another Quixote, but the Quixote. His method? To know Spanish well, to rediscover the Catholic faith, to war against the Moors, to forget the history of Europe — in short, to be Miguel de Cervantes. The coincidence then becomes so real that the twentieth-century author rewrites Cervantes’ novel literally, word for word, and without referring to the original. ~

And here Borges has this astonishing sentence: “The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.” This he triumphantly demonstrates, for this subject, apparently absurd, in fact expresses a real idea: the Quixote that we read is not that of Cervantes any more than our Madame Bovary is that of Flaubert. Each twentieth-century reader involuntarily rewrites in his own way the masterpieces of past centuries.

Thus, the reader changes the meaning of the text not only because the mentality of each reader is different, but because a modern reader has a mentality vastly removed from that of someone writing long ago. We certainly read the Odyssey, say, very differently than Homer could have conceived it. But even something written in the 19th century is a very different text to us than it was to 19th century readers.

Dali: Don Quixote (2)


With all respect to Borges, I do not believe his hypothetical re-writer of Cervantes’ Quixote could succeed in reproducing that original, word for word. The impossibility is in that “forgetting European history”—and he would have to forget his own personal history as well, and come into possession of Cervantes own history and memories. We are the products of our own times, our own experiences, shaped and tempered by place and time, the fears and dreams, the very shape of desire as we know it here and now, all both the same and utterly different from what they were in other places, other times. And the distance need not be that great—a few decades, a generation—a new, or at least different, world.

When I read Clarissa, I enter her world, so unlike what I know that it seems strange, impossible, alien—but drawn by a master’s hand, so that I recognize what we share despite those differences, and even the unusual length of her story (four long volumes of letters! Itself an antiquity of communication) serves to capture and hold me there with her, until I feel and suffer with her, as she is imprisoned, cut off from any possibility of escape, any hope—and I experience that suffocation with her, but also always as someone for whom those circumstances remain part of another, distant, vanished, world.  We can never read anything without re-creating it as we read, because we can not lose our own history and memories, we see all with and through a sensibility particular to our time, place, circumstance and personality. Our angle of vision, our lens to the world.


Borges was being literary, not literal — I'm sure you know that. He made up a surreal, impossible story in order to make his point about how readers change the meaning — especially over the centuries as the culture changes — as everything changes. And I agree that it doesn’t have to be centuries — decades is enough — even a few years, these days, when events rush on.

In fact a mere month — even a week — might do it if something significant happens! We can never see Islam the same way after 9/11. In fact we can never see our country or our world the same way. And that subtly or heavily affect everything else, including the way we see meaning in books and movies.

(A bit of a shameless digression, perhaps, reaching back to the previous blog — one man wrote that he saw the story of Abraham and Isaac in a different light after he became a father. For the first time the idea of a father killing his own son — a foreshadowing of god-the-father in effect killing his own son as a sacrifice to himself — became unbearable to him.)

So yes, of course we are a product of our times, circumstances, and unique experiences, both collective and individual — and this shapes the way each generation reads The Iliad, say, or any other work of literature.

And yet, as you point out, it’s possible for us to enter a remote, alien, vanished world portrayed in the kind of literature that tends to survive (a small percentage, especially as we move closer to modern times) — to “re-create” that world as we read about it, an excellent way to describe it — and empathize with the characters. We understand love and hate, we understand grief, or being betrayed by someone you trusted. There are enough universals so we can still connect even with Don Quixote’s deluded idealism, his need to believe in knightly heroism and courtly love. In the end we can even connect with sensible Sancho’s newly found love of adventure.

By the way, I love the way you describe entering the world of Clarissa (a book I found too painful to continue reading) — the very idea of an epistolary novel become antiquity. 


~ “Everybody's heard of the My Lai massacre — March 16, 1968, 50 years ago today — but not many know about the man who stopped it: Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot. When he arrived, American soldiers had already killed 504 Vietnamese civilians (that's the Vietnamese count; the U.S. Army said 347). They were going to kill more, but they didn't — because of what Thompson did.

I met Thompson in 2000 and interviewed him for my radio program on KPFK in Los Angeles. He told the story of what happened that day, when he and his two-man crew flew over My Lai, in support of troops who were looking for Viet Cong fighters.

"We started noticing these large numbers of bodies everywhere," he told me, "people on the road dead, wounded. And just sitting there saying, 'God, how'd this happen? What's going on?' And we started thinking what might have happened, but you didn't want to accept that thought — because if you accepted it, that means your own fellow Americans, people you were there to protect, were doing something very evil."

Who were the people lying in the roads and in the ditch, wounded and killed?

"They were not combatants. They were old women, old men, children, kids, babies."

Then Thompson and his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, and his gunner, Lawrence Colburn, "saw some civilians hiding in a bunker, cowering, looking out the door. Saw some advancing Americans coming that way. I just figured it was time to do something, to not let these people get killed. Landed the aircraft in between the Americans and the Vietnamese, told my crew chief and gunner to cover me, got out of the aircraft, went over to the American side."

What happened next was one of the most remarkable events of the entire war, and perhaps unique: Thompson told the American troops that, if they opened fire on the Vietnamese civilians in the bunker, he and his crew would open fire on them.

"You risked your lives," I said, "to protect those Vietnamese civilians."

"Well, it didn't come to that," he replied. "I thank God to this day that everybody did stay cool and nobody opened up. ... It was time to stop it, and I figured, at that point, that was the only way the madness, or whatever you want to call it, could be stopped.”

Back at their base he filed a complaint about the killing of civilians that he had witnessed. The Army covered it up. But eventually the journalist Seymour Hersh found out about the massacre, and his report made it worldwide news and a turning point in the war. Afterwards Thompson testified at the trial of Lt. William Calley, the commanding officer during the massacre.

Then came the backlash. Calley had many supporters, who condemned and harassed Thompson. He didn’t have much support — for decades. It took the Army 30 years, but in 1998, they finally acknowledged that Thompson had done something good. They awarded him the Soldier's Medal for “heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”

On the 30th anniversary of the massacre, Thompson went back to My Lai and met some of the people whose lives he had saved. "There were real good highs," he told me, "and very low lows. One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, 'Why didn't the people who committed these acts come back with you?' And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, 'So we could forgive them.' I'm not man enough to do that. I'm sorry. I wish I was, but I won't lie to anybody. I'm not that much of a man."

And what were the highs?

“I always questioned, in my mind, did anybody know we all aren't like that? Did they know that somebody tried to help? And yes, they did know that. That aspect of it made me feel real good.”

Today there's a little museum in My Lai, where Thompson is honored, and which displays a list of the names and ages of people killed that day. Trent Angers, Thompson's biographer and friend, analyzed the list and found about 50 there who were 3 years old or younger. He found 69 between the ages of 4 and 7, and 91 between the ages of 8 and 12.

Hugh Thompson died in 2006, when he was only 62. I wish we could have done more to thank him.” ~

Hugh Thompson 1969


~ “Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist is not just a question of personal temperament.  It is also, increasingly, a question of politics. The divide between the optimists and the pessimists is as acute as any in contemporary politics and like many others—the generational divide between old and young, the educational divide between people who did and didn’t go to college—it cuts across left and right. There are left pessimists and right pessimists; left optimists and right optimists. What there isn’t is much common ground between them. Competing views about whether the world is getting better or worse has become another dialogue of the deaf.

Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress—along with its critical reception—illustrates how dug in the two sides are. Pinker argues that most people have lost sight of the incredible benefits that liberal democratic values continue to deliver because too many of us have a bias in favour of bad news. He blames the things he doesn’t like—including Donald Trump’s presidency—on this innate and deeply misguided pessimism about the possibility of progress. “The most consistent predictor of Trump support,” he writes, “was pessimism.” He accuses these pessimists of fatalism, because they assume that any good news they hear is essentially fake news. They discount progress because of their deep faith in the inexorable pull of the worst that modern societies have to offer. He thinks that the pessimists have effectively given up on the capacity of human beings to make a better future.

Pinker is at pains to insist that there is nothing fatalistic about his own conception of progress. The point of his polemic is to warn that we will toss it all away if we give up on progressive values. No one should take progress for granted. As Pinker says, “a belief that things will always get better is no more rational than a belief that things will always get worse.”

Lying behind Pinker’s account is the suggestion that the main thing we can do to progress is screw it up with our stupid pessimism. It is better on this account to ignore bad news than to overreact to it. That attitude is not the same as fatalism, but it is innately passive. It is fatalism light.

Pinker’s previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), was a more tightly argued account of progress across a particular domain — the relative decline of violence over both the long and the short term.  It provoked a similar reaction — readers divided on the basis of their prior convictions about the state of the world. They read the evidence according to what they thought should be true, rather than adjusting what they thought was true in the light of the evidence. 

Optimists see acts of violence as the exception not the rule; pessimists see them as the rule not the exception. When a terrible act of violence takes place, we tend to filter it through the stories we tell ourselves about the possibility of progress. On the one hand, we can argue that it shouldn’t derail the good news; on the other, we can argue that it makes a mockery of the good news. Either way, we can be left with a feeling of helplessness.

The recent Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, like many previous horrors, illustrated this, but it also illustrated something else: the possibility of a space between the twin fatalisms of the optimists and the pessimists. Gun control in the United States is a classic example of an issue that can be captured by fatalism on both sides. It is tempting to think there is nothing to be done, because the divided worldview of the two sides is too great to bridge.

But there is an alternative to discounting the horror as a blip against the wider story of progress and also to treating it as evidence that progressive values are a lie. When something terrible happens, we can seek to use it as evidence of the need for change. This is what the pupils at Stoneman Douglas and their supporters have been doing. Change is possible when people stop treating what happens in the world as confirmation of their view of the direction of travel of the world and instead start trying to see it for what it is: the consequence of particular political choices and therefore subject to further political choices.

It is possible to see things like this. But it is also incredibly difficult, especially in an age when the pull of fatalistic narratives on both sides of our political divides is so strong. Worse, it is hard enough with cases of violence, but it is even harder when dealing with issues that lack the same sense of immediacy. There often appears to be a close relationship, for instance, between environmental politics and a sense of fatalism. Environmental threats can leave people feeling powerless. It is a small step from feelings of powerlessness to shoulder-shrugging resignation: if we believe there is little we can do to remedy a situation, then there is little point in trying to remedy it.


In a series of exchanges with his friend John Stuart Mill, Tocqueville discussed the varieties of fatalism. Mill distinguished between what he called “pure” fatalism and what he described as the prevailing “modified” version. Pure fatalism was a belief that the future had already been decided. It made its adherents either stupefied or serene; in either case they were accepting of the path that was chosen for them. It was almost always a manifestation of a set of religious or traditional beliefs and Mill associated it with the philosophy of the Far East.

Modified fatalism was a more modern and Western phenomenon. It derived from an understanding that individuals are the product of social and economic forces beyond their power to control; it could be reinforced by social science (including the new science of psychology). Modified fatalists might be passive and resigned as a result of a sense of their powerlessness. But just as likely they would become impatient, complaining, dissatisfied. The impersonal forces that conditioned their fate might be a provocation to rail against it. Equally they might become complacent, happy to count their blessings.

Pinker is right: ours is a far less violent world than it was in the last century, never mind in the century before that. But the tyranny of the majority in the twenty-first century has more in common with the intemperate passions of Tocqueville’s America of the early 1830s than with the exhausted fears of Hayek’s Europe of the late 1940s. It is ardent, not resigned, and it makes it very hard for elected politicians to do anything that might rouse its anger. Indeed, as the case of environmental politics in contemporary democracies shows, our politics are not as violent as nineteenth-century American politics, but they are just as confrontational.

So it is not a straight choice between fatalism and freedom. We need to find a way between the fatalism that gives up on personal freedom and the fatalism that can’t give up on it even when it needs to. [We can’t] preclude the possibility of a future in which this turns out to be the wrong approach because the risk of disaster is too great. The reason Pinkerian faith in progress opens the door to fatalism is because it assumes that present problems are just future solutions waiting to happen. But what if some of our present problems end up making future solutions impossible?

Optimistic fatalists imagine that there is no mistake that cannot be corrected in time so long as we leave the future open. One reason for pessimism in the present is that the optimistic fatalists appear to have the upper hand. In this respect, their fatalism might yet be self-fulfilling. Climate change raises the risk of getting trapped in a future whose effects, while presently unknown, will be bad enough to trump the capacity of human ingenuity to ameliorate them. This is what makes the politics of environmental catastrophe different and it is the reason why all forms of fatalism are worth resisting while we can.

“I can’t tell any one person what to do, but I will say this: despair is not an option. Now more than ever, we need you to fight back.” ~ Bernie Sanders

Dürer: Self-Portrait as Man of Sorrow, 1522


said the big sign on the side of a car parked at the post-office. In smaller typeface, it was a personal ad: Dave described himself as good with children and pets, honest, faithful, etc. “Open to all ethnic” he stated toward the end, before the concluding the marvelous statement: “Can be clean-shaven or not.” And then: “Over 69.” 

Dave was in fact sitting in the car, and I wish I’d walked over to the driver’s side for a quick chat — just to learn a bit more about Dave and what made him paste that ad on his car and the responses he’s been getting — or not getting. The old childhood prohibition of approaching male strangers still prevailed, though now I see how perfectly safe it would be, and no, I wouldn’t have to get into Dave’s car . . .  

Anyway, I blew a chance for what perhaps would be an unusual chat — though also might give Dave a moment of hope I’d quickly have to disappoint. I guess men still assume that women want to marry them even if they are “over 69.” At least Dave wasn’t fussy: “Open to all ethnic” [I assume he meant “ethnic groups,” but there is only so much space on the side of an average car]. And reasonably eager to please: “Can be clean-shaven or not.” 

So I just drove home, past the church sign that said: “Easter Musical: The Road to Cavalry.” Not interested. If I were to put a sign on my car, it would say, “Not interested.”

Glory lily and morpho butterfly by Georg Dionysius Ehret, 1758


~ “A 2009 poll in eight east European countries asked if the economic situation for ordinary people was ‘better, worse or about the same as it was under communism’. The results stunned observers: 72 per cent of Hungarians, and 62 per cent of both Ukrainians and Bulgarians believed that most people were worse off after 1989. 

In no country did more than 47 per cent of those surveyed agree that their lives improved after the advent of free markets. Subsequent polls and qualitative research across Russia and eastern Europe confirm the persistence of these sentiments as popular discontent with the failed promises of free-market prosperity has grown, especially among older people.

Thoughtful observers should suspect any historical narrative that paints the world in black and white. Since nuance in the story of 20th-century communism might ‘reduce the ease of our thoughts and the clarity of our feelings’, anti-communists will attack, dismiss or discredit any archival findings, interviews or survey results recalling Eastern Bloc achievements in science, culture, education, health care or women’s rights. They were bad people, and everything they did must be bad; we invert the ‘halo’ terminology and call this the ‘pitchfork effect’. Those offering a more nuanced narrative than one of unending totalitarian terror are dismissed as apologists or useful idiots. Contemporary intellectual opposition to the idea that ‘bad people are all bad’ elicits outrage and an immediate accusation that you are no better than those out to rob us of our ‘God-given rights’.

Contrarian Twitter users [ask]: ‘And are you going to expose the horrendous record of slavery, murders, and all the capitalism crimes too?’ East Europeans suffering from the severe downturn in economic growth after 1989 might ask this same question. Ethnographic research on the persistence of red nostalgia shows that it has less to do with a wistfulness for lost youth than with a deep disillusionment with free markets. Communism looks better today because, for many, capitalism looks worse. But mentioning the possible existence of victims of capitalism gets dismissed as mere ‘whataboutism’, a term implying that only atrocities perpetrated by communists merit attention. 

Conservative and nationalist political leaders in the US and across Europe already incite fear with tales of the twin monsters of Islamic fundamentalism and illegal immigration. But not everyone believes that immigration is a terrible threat, and most Right-wing conservatives don’t think that Western countries are at risk of becoming theocratic states under Sharia law. Communism, on the other hand, provides the perfect new (old) enemy. If your main policy agenda is shoring up free-market capitalism, protecting the wealth of the superrich and dismantling what little is left of social safety nets, then it is useful to paint those who envision more redistributive politics as wild-eyed Marxists bent on the destruction of Western civilization.

What better time to resurrect the specter of communism? As youth across the world become increasingly disenchanted with the savage inequalities of capitalism, defenders of the status quo will stop at nothing to convince younger voters about the evils of collectivist ideas. They will rewrite history textbooks, build memorials, and declare days of commemoration for the victims of communism – all to ensure that calls for social justice or redistribution are forever equated with forced labor camps and famine.

Responsible and rational citizens need to be critical of simplistic historical narratives that rely on the pitchfork effect to demonize anyone on the Left. We should all embrace Geertz’s idea of an anti-anti-communism in hopes that critical engagement with the lessons of the 20th century might help us to find a new path that navigates between, or rises above, the many crimes of both communism and capitalism.” ~ 

Soviet soldier feeding a Ural owl; Stanislav Lvovsky


The longer I live, the more I perceive that (barring extremes) nothing is all good or all bad. And some of the good is quite surprising. Thus, the Golden Age of Polish Poetry unfolded in the second half of the twentieth century before the political change; the same is true of the Golden Age of Polish cinema, theater (including the Jewish theater), radio and TV comedy, literary criticism, and the arts in general.

Stanislaw Baranczak once caused an uproar during a lecture at UCLA by saying that censorship turned out to be good for Polish poetry, forcing a greater reliance on metaphor, analogy, and indirectness in general; poets had to be more subtle and eschew nationalism, which made their work more universal. 

(But most people who came to Baranczak's lecture were the "older generation," embedded in the God-and-Fatherland brainwashing of their youth, I suspected, not willing to grant to this wonderful man the brilliance of his insights.)

The Warsaw in which I grew up was a vibrant metropolis. When I returned for a visit after the fall of communism, it seemed muted and half-empty. Where did the crowds go? Where did the energy go? I kept asking myself, knowing I’d not find an answer. Even if an answer existed, it would consist of tangled strands of economics, the stranglehold of Catholicism, the growing emphasis on private as opposed to social life, and dozens of other factors.

I am not implying a lost paradise — far from it. And no one cites the flowering of the arts as an excuse for the government’s servility to Moscow and the privileges of the party elite. Land reform, health care, the spread of education, roads, electricity
— is it right to forget the good and concentrate only on the bad? Would the system ever have had charisma and inspired millions if it were devoid of idealism and a vision of a better world for many, not just the few? What is needed is a more balanced assessment. Alas, it’s not forthcoming. 

"We have to cultivate our garden" which is not easy in California, with the drought. I do my best (even my ridiculous best) to recycle water. 

I love gardening as a metaphor for any useful work we do, hopefully helping to create beauty as well.

DELUSIONS CAN BE ADAPTIVE (just read the fabulous opening example)

~ “A patient lies in a hospital bed in the neurological ward, his head wrapped in bandages. He’s just suffered a major trauma to the brain. The injury has wiped out the region that controls motion in his left arm. More than that, it’s destroyed the man’s ability to even conceive of what moving his arm would be like.

He’s paralyzed, in other words, but he doesn’t know that. He can’t know.

“Would you be so kind as to raise your left hand?” his doctor asks.

“Certainly,” the patient. But the hand remains where it is. “It’s gotten tangled up in the sheets,” the man explains.

The doctor points out that his arm is lying free and unencumbered on top of the sheets.

“Well, yes,” the man says. “But I just don’t feel like lifting it right now.”

The inability to recognize one’s own disability is a disorder called anosognosia, and it offers an unusually clear window into that peculiarly infuriating and astonishing aspect of human psychology: our seemingly boundless capacity for delusion. Faced with stark and unambiguous information that a part of their body is paralyzed, anosognosia sufferers can effortlessly produce a stream of arguments as to why this is simply not the case. They’re not lying; they themselves actually believe in the validity of their claims.

We’d like to think that we mold our beliefs to fit with the reality that surrounds, but there’s a natural human impulse to do the reverse: to mold our reality so that it fits with our beliefs, no matter how flimsy their justification may be.

Psychologists define “delusion” as a manifestly absurd belief held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, specifically as a symptom of a disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But we’re all delusional to some degree. In fact, a certain amount of delusion may be essential for our mental health.

As we go about our lives, we form all sorts of beliefs and opinions about the world, which psychologists divide into two types. The first kind, “instrumental” beliefs, are ideas that can directly help us accomplish our goals. I believe that a chain saw can cut down a tree; I believe that the price of a first-class postage stamp is 49 cents. These kinds of beliefs tend to be directly testable: if I rely on them and they fail, I’ll have to revise my understanding.

The other kind of belief, the “philosophical” kind, are not so easily tested. These are ideas that we hold these beliefs not because they are demonstrably true, but because of the emotional benefits of holding them. When I say that I live in the greatest country on earth, or that true love lasts forever, I can’t really offer any evidence supporting these ideas, and that’s okay. They’re worth believing because they fulfill my emotional needs.

We get into trouble when we confuse the two types, and start holding instrumental beliefs for emotional reasons.

What kind of emotion tends to lead us astray? Well, one of the most powerful is the need to feel in control. Countless psychological experiments have shown that for both humans and animals, helplessness in the face of danger is intensely stressful. Believing that we have power over our destiny helps relieve that negative experience, even when that belief is unfounded. Hence the enormous appeal of “magical thinking” — the belief that one’s thoughts and private gestures by themselves can influence the surrounding world. If you’ve ever put on a lucky shirt because you thought it would help your favorite sports team win, leaned sideways to keep a bowling ball out of the gutter, or felt like you were more likely to win the lottery because you used numbers that had special significance to you, then you’ve succumbed to the delusion of magical thinking.

When you start relying on emotionally-motivated beliefs to make decisions with real consequences, you’re treading in dangerous territory. One fellow I know had to sell his small business and move lock, stock and barrel to rural Idaho because his wife had a dream about the Apocalypse. She said if he didn’t come with her, it would mean divorce. I like Idaho, but having to move there in the dead of winter strikes me as a steep price for confusing two modes of belief.

I wish I could wrap up this essay by giving you the secret key for avoiding delusion, but it’s not easy. The whole problem with delusion is that we don’t want to escape from its clutches. Even I don’t. I mean, look at us: suspended on a tiny dot in the middle of the vastness of empty space, doomed to suffer and die, and never know the reason why. If we woke up every morning and stared reality in the face, we’d slit our wrists. Maybe literally. Psychologists have long known that depressed people are less delusional than the rest of us; they’re much more perceptive of their own flaws, a phenomenon called “depressive realism.” (Imagine knowing exactly how flawed your “Call Me Maybe” is.) So I say: Raise a cheer and throw up your arms, assuming you’re able. Enjoy your delusions while you can. Let’s just hope that they don’t wreak too much havoc along the way.
 Middle of March; John Bellinger


The tendency to cling to delusion and magical thinking seems directly connected to the unbearable fear of being helpless and out of control. Certainly a factor in all systems of religious and superstitious belief, fears of helplessness are replaced by belief in the efficacy of prayer, that, like a magic spell, can coerce god, or the universe itself, to rule in your favor, give you what you want. Thus we have faith healers, various “no fail” prayers, and even things like chain letters, lucky talismans, even things posted on the internet that urge you to repeat or share them so many times to be spectacularly rewarded (usually by money).

The temptation of this kind of magical thinking is powerful. I have been a sceptic since age 13, but when my young brother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, inoperable and sure to be fatal, in grief and panic I bought a prayer book, searching for the saints and novenas promising relief — there actually is a patron saint for cancer. But I couldn’t find any way to believe, even in desperation, and put the book away. In that pain and helplessness, I flirted with the comfort of delusion, even knowing it was delusion. In the end, as you say, comfort comes with love, with beauty, with work, and with intellectual discovery—wonder and joy.


Thank you, Mary, for sharing the story of your brother’s illness and how in your desperate need you bought a prayer book. In my mid-thirties I too tried to “re-believe” on various occasions — oddly enough, not connected with acute suffering (this may seem like a poor joke, but I’ve heard it from a few others too — “I was too busy suffering”), but rather just wondering about life and reality, trying to find some evidence of a “real god.” The god of the bible had no appeal, though I did go through a period of trying to imagine Jesus as a real person, standing next to me, listening to me even though he never spoke — even so I can even understand those who interpret some of their own thoughts as Jesus speaking to them, and thus claim to have a “personal relationship with Jesus” — sure, you can create anything in your head!

And I understand Catholics praying to their favorite saint or to special saint who is supposed to be a “patron” of some select group of people — for instance, Saint Barbara is a patron saint of miners, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a saint who didn’t even exist, of wheelwrights (due to a detail of her fictitious martyrdom), and of philosophers, preachers, and lawyers (because of her supposed eloquence). (By the way, the church removed her from the calendar of saints, but later semi-restored her, making her veneration “optional”).

Maybe wanting to be loved completely the way only god can allegedly love us has something to do with it on an unconscious level — but I know I'm being influenced by a post which said, about a dog, “for the first time in my life, I felt completely loved.”

Entirely believable when said about a dog!

But I agree that mainly it’s about not wanting to feel helpless.

The paradox is that at least at times accepting one’s helplessness is liberating because we stop trying, hoping and crashing. We can finally move on. But that’s a topic for another post. 

St. Catherine of Alexandria by Carlo Crivelli


“My shortcomings are my voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my frankness and my lack of personality . . . I am incorrigible . . . I say ‘merde’ to anybody, however important he is, when I feel like it.” ~ Charles Aznavour

The statue of Aznavour (real name: Aznavourian) in Gyumri, Armenia

~ "The Book of Revelation is war literature," Pagels explained. John of Patmos was a war refugee, writing sixty years after the death of Jesus and twenty years after 60,000 Roman troops crushed the Jewish rebellion in Judea and destroyed Jerusalem.

In the nightmarish visions of John’s prophecy, Rome is Babylon, the embodiment of monstrous power and decadence. That power was expressed by Rome as religious. John would have seen in nearby Ephesus massive propaganda sculptures depicting the contemporary emperors as gods slaughtering female slaves identified as Rome’s subject nations. 

And so in the prophecy the ascending violence reaches a crescendo of war in heaven. Finally, summarized Pagels, "Jesus judges the whole world; and all who have worshipped other gods, committed murder, magic, or illicit sexual acts are thrown down to be tormented forever in a lake of fire, while God’s faithful are invited to enter a new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven, where Christ and his people reign in triumph for 1000 years.”

Just one among the dozens of revelations of the time (Ezra’s, Zostrianos’, Peter’s, a different John’s), the vision of John of Patmos became popular among the oppressed of Rome. Three centuries later, in 367 CE, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria confirmed it as the concluding book in the Christian canon that became the New Testament.

As a tale of conflict where one side is wholly righteous and the other wholly evil, the Book of Revelation keeps being evoked century after century. Martin Luther declared the Pope to be the Whore of Babylon. Both sides of the American Civil War declared the opposing cause to be Bestial, though the North had the better music — “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword." African-American slaves echoed John’s lament: "How long before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?"

But like many Christians through the years, Pagels wishes that John’s divisive vision had not become part of the Biblical canon. Among the better choices from that time, she quoted from the so-called "Secret Revelation of John": "Jesus says to John, ‘The souls of everyone will live in the pure light, because if you did not have God’s spirit, you could not even stand up.’

"The other revelations are universal, instead of being about the saved versus the damned.”

Woman and dragon, Apocalypse 12, Beatus d'Osma, 11th century


~ “Antimicrobial peptides are part of the ancient immune system that's found in all forms of life and plays an important role in protecting the human brain.
One way antimicrobial peptides protect us is by engulfing and neutralizing a germ or some other foreign invader. That gives newer parts of the immune system time to get mobilized.

These peptides are "extremely important," Moir says. "They're not like legacies from an immune system we don't use anymore. If you don't have them, you're going to die in a couple of hours.”

One of these ancient molecules, known as LL-37, looked a lot like a molecule closely associated with Alzheimer's. That molecule is called amyloid-beta and it forms the sticky plaques that tend to build up in the brains of people with dementia.

LL-37 and Amyloid-beta "looked just like peas in a pod," Moir says.

The two scientists began to discuss a wild idea. What if amyloid-beta was an integral part of the ancient immune system? What if those sticky plaques were actually an effort to protect the brain by encapsulating foreign invaders?

Their idea was that the brain was producing amyloid for much the same reason an oyster forms a pearl — for self-defense. "Maybe amyloid plaques are a brain pearl," Moir says, "a way for our body to trap and permanently sequester these invading pathogens.”

Tanzi and Moir set out to prove that amyloid really is part of the immune system. And they were lucky enough to have a funder, the Cure Alzheimer's Fund, that was willing to take a chance on their idea.

The effort took years. But in 2010, Moir, Tanzi, and their team demonstrated that amyloid is really good at killing viruses and bacteria in a test tube. And, in 2016, they showed it did the same thing in worms and mice.

"It was very clear that amyloid protected against infection," Tanzi says. "If a mouse had meningitis or encephalitis, [and] if that mouse was making amyloid it lived longer." In contrast, mice that did not produce amyloid died quickly from the infection.

"Even though we really concentrate on these plaques and tangles in Alzheimer's disease, it looks like it's the brain's immune system — the very primitive immune system of the brain — that's gone awry," Tanzi says, "and the plaques and tangles are a part of that system."

The question now is: What's causing the glitch in the ancient immune system?

One possibility is that it's overreacting to viruses and bacteria that get into the brain. Or, the system could be getting confused and attacking healthy cells — a lot like what happens in diseases like lupus or multiple sclerosis.” ~


Interesting that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s is almost double among women — already in the sixties, before differential life expectancy could account for it. Female prevalence is one of the clues that auto-immunity is likely to be involved.


ending on beauty:

The grass between the tombs is intensely green.
From steep slopes a view onto the bay,
Onto islands and cities below. The sunset
grows garish, slowly fades. At dusk
Light prancing creatures. A doe and a fawn
Are here, as every evening, to eat the flowers
Which people brought for their beloved dead.

~ Milosz, Provinces

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