Saturday, April 28, 2018


Monet: Houses of Parliament, stormy sky, 1904

One day in the street my grandmother
stopped before another grandmother.
Both stammer: “It’s you —
you — in Auschwitz — ”

Turning to me: “She and I shared
the same blanket. Every night
she said, ‘You’ve got more than I’
and pulled, and I pulled back —

and so we’d tug across the bunk — ”
and the two grandmothers laugh.
In the middle of the sidewalk,
in old women’s dusk,

widows’ browns and grays,
they are laughing like two schoolgirls —
tears rain down the cracked
winter of their cheeks.

On Piotrkowska Avenue,
in the busiest street,
they are tugging that thin blanket.
They are pulling back.

~ Oriana

My grandmother's first ID photo after Auschwitz

1) To begin with, all the quarrels over the uniqueness of the Holocaust strike me as futile. I readily accept the crude definition by the nameless woman who called the Holocaust “the worst thing that ever happened.” Some writers want to give it a kind of sacred status as an ineffable mystery, which makes limited sense. (Such critics might well dismiss my effort to see "lessons" in the Holocaust as a naive trivialization.) But the Holocaust ultimately has a place on the vast continuum of evil that it shares with the other horrors of the 20th century and before, from Turkey to Rwanda. And we can talk about it, even though the term "Holocaust," as has often been pointed out, is utterly inappropriate. A burnt offering? “Sanctifying the Name”? (kiddush ha-shem, the traditional phrase for martyrdom)? What did God have to do with it? Better Shoah or Hurban, but these have yet to become common parlance in English and doubtless never will.

When I do talk and think about it, I find myself reeling from one aspect of the Holocaust to another: from the sheer numbers of the slain (one might hope that Hilberg's original “low” estimate of 5.1 million is right) to the grisly variety of the forms of death (deliberately fomented starvation, exhaustion and disease; hanging, shooting, burning and gassing; elaborate torture and summary execution) to the incomprehensible madness of slaughtering people instead of just pragmatically robbing and enslaving them, to the cold-blooded bureaucratization of monstrous procedures (as opposed to eruptions of blind hatred), to the massive contribution by hundreds of thousands of “Hitler's willing executioners,” to the way the destruction consumed not just people, but culture, language, and every material and spiritual feature of the past while spawning a hideous new culture and language (the Lingua Tertii Imperii dissected by Victor Klemperer).

All of these things were horrible enough in themselves, but when fused into a whole, linked in a sort of row of scythed chariots, they reduced the spectator to helpless grief and rage. The world after the Holocaust had henceforth to be defined as the sort of place in which these sorts of things could always happen.

2) Grisly as all the stories were, from the Einsatzgruppen in 1941, to the Wannsee Conference in 1942 (four days before I was born), to the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, to the annihilation of the Hungarian Jews (which claimed my wife's aunt and other relatives) in 1944 (around the same time my great-uncle Otto Feilchenfeld was gassed in Auschwitz), the death marches in 1945 (when the war had long been obviously lost), they didn't tell the worst: the survivors' (or liberators' or narrators') perspective always skewed things too positively. They could never tell first-hand about the excruciating final moment when the Nazis triumphed, of how it felt when the bullet blasted through the back of the neck or when the Zyklon B pellets turned to gas and the agony of asphyxiation began. People talked a lot about Auschwitz, but that was because it was actually the more "benign" part of a death camp (Birkenau), whereas the pure death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzhets, Chelmno and Majdanek were swallowed up in obscurity. Most of the witnesses to murder there had been murdered themselves. Few people visited them, and there was little to see at the now greened over sites.

But wasn't this typical? The worst moments of the worst terrors and torments had always gone unrecorded: the countless thousands of slaves and rebels crucified by the Romans, the Aztec prisoners butchered by the myriads (Inga Clendinnen pointedly reminds us of them in Reading the Holocaust), the Africans who died on the Middle Passage, the victims of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot. There were no scribes writing, no cameras rolling when they were swallowed up in the black hole. While staring down into this particular abyss, my class and I often groped for something halfway adequate to say about it. I sometimes asked them to consider for a moment the banal, but indisputable, fact that here, as elsewhere, what all but a tiny handful of the perpetrators of the Holocaust had in common was, not their anti-Semitism, their Christian roots or their cruelty, but their testosterone. They were all, God damn them, men.

3) The Holocaust definitively abrogated the covenant between God and his people. Not that God hadn't failed to keep his word in the countless pogroms and persecutions before then; but this was the limit. Jews (and Christians) often claimed that memory was redemptive (liturgical practice, among other things, was based on that notion). Not this time: the “sacred history” (Heilsgeschichte, from Abraham to the rebirth of Israel) that theologians liked to talk about had been replaced by suffering-history (Leidensgeschichte, from the Jewish War to the 1946 pogrom in Kielce, and beyond) — but without the aesthetic comforts of tragedy.
It was a grim fulfillment of the scenes in The Trial where Joseph K. keeps finding childishly lettered signs or cheap pornography or stupid faked portraits, instead of the beautifully inscribed Torah he is looking for — a scrawl, not a scroll.

Of course, the notion that God had ever chosen a people (for no particular reason, judging from Genesis) and then watched over its destiny, punishing here, rewarding there, macro- and micro- managing everything behind the scenes, was never more than an ingenious conceit, perhaps even an obnoxious delusion. But it was pleasant to entertain it; and there was something quasi-miraculous about the stubborn survival of the Jews. Well, that was by the board. As Itsik Manger said, "Nor mir di galitsiener mekhn dikh oyf eybik oys,/ fun der eyde emese oyeve-yisroel" ("But we the Galicians forever exclude you [God]/ from the congregation of the true lovers of Israel.") God had a chance, and he failed — over and out. In some poems about the Holocaust God was still needed, but only to pour abuse on.

4) In a broader sense the Holocaust put paid to all the genial anthropomorphic visions of a world where there was some grand Judge in charge and some sort of long-term justice. Of course, we didn't need the Holocaust to realize this. The notion that one had to wait for the Holocaust to abandon traditional theism would have made Voltaire and Freud, among others, smile ruefully. But again the Holocaust was the clearest, most vivid demonstration of God's impotence. All Jeremiah's and Job's and Qoheleth's complaints, it now turned out, barely scratched the surface. "Behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them" (Ec.4.1). There wasn't even delayed justice, as the great majority of Nazi criminals went unpunished and died in their beds.

5) Throughout all this, one undeniable fact about the Holocaust was its power to fascinate. If ever there was such a thing as the pornography of violence, this was it. As a stunning set of limit-situations, where human experience was pushed to every conceivable extreme, it turned us all into rubber-neckers, like motorists passing a spectacular chain-collision. Seventy or so years later, the questions still burned: what would you have done if you were ... (a Jew ordered to dig your own grave before the "nape-shot"? a member of a Judenrat? part of a Sonderkommando at a death camp? a sympathetic gentile in Poland? a would-be assassin of Reinhard Heydrich? FDR?) No use pretending, class: it was infinitely more interesting than Milton's theology or Le Cid or Romantic alienation or the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Where else in the world could one find so astonishing (and weirdly comic) a tale as this one, reported in Martin Gilbert's The Holocaust (pp. 200-01), about a survivor of an Einsatzgruppe massacre in Ejszsyski, Lithuania,

 ... the sixteen-year-old Zvi Michalowski, who had fallen a fraction of a second before the volley of shots which killed those next to him, including his father. Later he had heard the chief executioner, the Lithuanian Ostrovakas, singing with his fellow executioners as they drank to their successful work.

Just beyond the Jewish cemetery were a number of Christian homes. Michalowski knew them all. Naked, covered with blood, he knocked on the first door [wait, was this a fairy tale?— PH]. The door opened. A peasant was holding a lamp which he had looted earlier in the day from a Jewish home. "Please let me in," Zvi pleaded. The peasant lifted the lamp and examined the boy closely. "Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!" he shouted at Zvi, and slammed the door in his face. Zvi knocked on other door, but the response was the same.

 Near the forest lived a widow whom Michalowski also knew. He decided to knock on her door. The old widow opened the door. She was holding in her hand a small burning piece of wood. "Let me in!" begged Michalowski, "Jew, go back to the grave at the old cemetery!" She chased him away with the burning piece of wood as if exorcising an evil spirit.

Michalowski, desperate for shelter, returned. "I am your Lord, Jesus Christ," he said, "I came down from the cross. Look at me — the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in."

The widow crossed herself and fell at his bloodstained feet. "Bozhe moj, Bozhe moj," "My God, my God," she kept crossing herself and praying. The door was opened.

Michalowski walked in. He promised the widow that he would bless her children, her farm, and her, but only if she would keep his visit a secret, and not reveal it to a living soul, not even the priest. She gave Michalowski food and clothing, and warm water to wash himself. Before leaving the house three days later, he once more reminded her that the Lord's visit must remain a secret, because of His special mission on earth.

This being a miracle story, Michalowski went on to join the partisans and survive the war. The exception proved the rule. The Holocaust, as Lucy Dawidowicz said, was the war against the Jews; and in many crucial ways the Nazis won.” ~

(Source: Facebook, the page of Peter Heinegg; also available on M. Iossel’s page. Peter Heinegg used to teach the “Literature of the Holocaust” at Union College in Schenectady, New York)


Jesus really did exist at least for that moment.


The Holocaust (the term is indeed inappropriate, but it has become standard usage) will be analyzed again and again for decades to come. But right now, for me, the unforgettable part is the story of Zvi Michalowski’s narrow escape by claiming he’s the Second Coming of Christ. It’s a powerful story because it contains an element of tragic truth: that WAS the Second Coming. When Michalowski says, “I came down from the cross. Look at me — the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent,” he is not lying. Not in the deeper sense. 

American Nazis near Newman, Georgia, April 21, 2018; photo: Spencer Platt

~ “On March 23, 1971, the Soviet Union set off three Hiroshima-scale nuclear blasts deep underground in a remote region some 1,000 miles east of Moscow, ripping a massive crater in the earth. The goal was to demonstrate that nuclear explosions could be used to dig a canal connecting two rivers, altering their direction and bringing water to dry areas for agriculture.

The nuclear bombs, it turned out, weren’t that effective for building canals, though they did create an “atomic lake” in the crater formed by the blast. But the tests had another lasting consequence, all but forgotten until now: They set in motion the first U.S. government research on climate change — a far-reaching project that has continued into this decade.

On the surface, the reaction to the Soviet tests was somewhat muted. Western countries, including the United States, detected the explosions and lodged a protest alleging a violation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Moscow wouldn’t publicly acknowledge the tests for several years.

 But in the national security community in Washington, the blasts sparked panic. When intelligence officials briefed Stephen Lukasik, the director of the Pentagon’s secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, he had an immediate reaction: “Holy shit. This is dangerous.”

The Soviet Union, it turns out, had for more than a decade been studying ways to use nuclear weapons to create massive canals to reroute water for irrigation, and the plan involved hundreds of nuclear detonations. “The Soviets wanted to change the direction of some rivers in Russia,” Lukasik, now 87 years old, told me recently in an interview. “They flow north where they didn’t do any good for them and they wanted to turn them around so they would flow south.”

The Pentagon didn’t particularly care which way rivers ran in the Soviet Union, but it cared about how this ambitious act of geoengineering, which would affect waters flowing into the Arctic Ocean, could potentially alter the world’s climate. Lukasik decided that DARPA needed to start a climate research program that could come up with ways to model the effects. The name of this climate program, highly classified at the time, was Nile Blue.

At first glance, DARPA might have seemed like an odd place to study climate change. The agency was created in 1958 as a response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, to help the United States get into space. But in those years, DARPA was also deeply involved in nuclear issues. It had created an extensive monitoring system precisely to tip off the Pentagon to secret tests like the Soviet effort in 1971.

The [climate] research program for the first time was drawing together [computer] modelers, paleo-climatologists, radiation experts, and meteorologists. The program created an interdisciplinary field, according to Warren Wiscombe, who credits the agency for transforming him from an applied mathematician into a climate scientist in the 1970s. “All of the sciences then that later contributed to climate science were very separate and they had brick walls between them,” he said. “They were what we call stovepiped now.”

 As DARPA was building up its Nile Blue program, another government effort that would alter the course of climate research was taking place behind the scenes. In December 1972, George J. Kukla, of Columbia University, and R.K. Matthews, of Brown, wrote to President Richard Nixon expressing their concerns about “a global deterioration of climate, by order of magnitude larger than any hitherto experience by civilized mankind.”

Their concern was not global warming, but cooling, which they feared could lower food production and increase extreme weather. It was a preliminary result (and one that would later be used by critics of climate change in a simplistic fashion to argue that climate predictions were wrong). The letter caught the attention of Nixon, who ordered an interagency panel to look at the issue. The recommendation, according to William Sprigg, who helped set up the national climate program, was “that the government should have some kind of a program, a plan that would set goals and determine who should be doing what.”

In the end, the Soviets abandoned their grand plan to alter the course of rivers, but by the time DARPA finished its research in 1976, the foundation of climate research was firmly in place: a community of scientists dedicated to the issue, and a political atmosphere conducive to continuing the research. DARPA, whose mandate is for fixed-term research, ended its climate program, but the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration picked up the work, eventually leading to the establishment of the national climate program.

 More than 40 years after the end of Nile Blue, former DARPA officials like Perry and Lukasik still get together for a monthly lunch, where they reminiscence about their days at the pioneering agency. Lukasik recalls Perry telling him: “You know, Steve, the work started in DARPA and continued by me in the National Science Foundation became the foundation for all of the understanding of global warming.” ~

Delta of the River Lena, Siberia. If you are reminded of Lenin (April 22 was his birthday), you are on the right track.


~ “Dr. Winthrop Kellogg and his wife, Luella, had adopted Gua from Cuba at 7-and-a-half months to see if a chimp would act like a human if raised with their 10-month-old son, Donald, and surrounded by other people — a bizarre thesis in any era but especially in 1931, when chimps were rarely used for behavioral research. For nine months, Kellogg, his wife and other researchers meticulously observed the two babies, an experiment that today would alarm scientists, animal rights activists and child protective services.

Two years prior to the child-chimp procedure, Kellogg had received his doctorate in psychology from Columbia University and returned to his alma mater, Indiana University, to begin teaching. Early in his career, he was fascinated by wild children. “What would be the nature of the resulting individual who had matured … without clothing, without human language and without association with others of its kind?” he asked in his 1933 book, The Ape and the Child. There had been a few instances of feral children allegedly appearing from the woods, but those cases weren’t scientifically sufficient to answer a major issue in psychology at the time: Is nature or nurture more important in shaping an individual’s life?

Kellogg’s experiment was conducted during the heyday of the eugenics movement, which held that mental and intellectual deficiencies were always nature, always genetic. That contention was bolstered in 1927, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that the intellectually disabled could be forcibly sterilized. The ape and the child experiment set out to disprove this theory by showing that environment was more important than genes — that nurture was key.

Although the Kelloggs claimed they treated Donald and Gua the same, the parenting wasn’t always loving. They tapped Donald’s and Gua’s heads with spoons to hear the difference in the sound of their skulls; they made loud noises to see who would react faster; they tried to convince Gua not to eat soap bubbles by shoving a bar of soap into her mouth; and they spun Donald around in a high chair until he started crying — all in the name of science.

Today, the experiment would never pass an ethics board. “Experimenting on your own children is highly problematic,” says Jeffrey Kahn of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. “Anytime you do an experiment with your own family and your own life, it’s not scientific in the same way as a laboratory study.”

This was only one of the problems with the premise. “N=1 [a trial with one participant] can only give you so much information,” says Kahn. “How much can you generalize from one case? And how do you do that experiment? You can’t raise the same chimp in two different scenarios.”

Kellogg touted how much Gua learned and how many human qualities she seemed to develop over the nine months: She walked upright, used a fork and had humanlike facial expressions. But Kellogg’s attempt to instill the power of speech in the grunting Gua was a nonstarter. “That was one last shot to see if you could teach a chimp to talk,” says Andrew R. Halloran, author of The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Language of Chimpanzees. The species’ physiology and brain development simply don’t allow for human communication.

“It could have been an interesting psychological study about how children and chimpanzees both crave companionship,” says Halloran. “If there’s a way to not be isolated, chimps will find it, and that’s what they share with humans. Chimps need companions just like humans need companions.”

But Luella Kellogg had other concerns that ended the experiment — namely, that Donald was becoming more chimp than Gua was becoming human. Gua and Donald wrestled in a way that looked more like chimp play than how babies interact. Gua taught Donald how to spy on people beneath doors. Donald started biting people. Donald crawled like Gua even after he could walk, and began grunting and barking like his “sister” when he wanted food. This might have been something the Kelloggs should have expected. “If you raise a baby with a puppy, you don’t expect the puppy to learn human traits,” says Kahn, but who hasn’t seen toddlers crawling around on the floor and barking like dogs?

After Luella pulled the plug, Gua was taken away, caged to be the subject of another experiment and died of pneumonia months later. Donald reached adulthood, became a doctor and killed himself at age 42.” ~


The penultimate paragraph is so funny: the human baby “becoming more chimp than [the chimp baby] becoming human.” “Donald crawled like Gua even after he could walk, and began grunting and barking like his “sister” when he wanted food.”

[from another source: “though Donald had learned to walk before Gua joined the Kellogg family, he regressed and started crawling more, in tune with Gua. He'd bite people, fetch small objects with his mouth, and chewed up a shoe. More importantly, his language skills were delayed. At 19 months, Donald's vocabulary consisted of three words. Instead of talking he would grunt and make chimp sounds.”]

And then the brutal brevity of the last paragraph.

If you go to the full article and watch the movie that comes with it, you’ll likely feel that the parents were unpleasant people. Note that the write-up mentions that both the boy and the chimp would be “fed, diapered, and punished just like any children”; words like love or affection are not mentioned. However, we need to remember that the parents who attempted to perform the “humanizing” experiment didn’t know what we know now, after more research and further along the human cultural evolution: social animals thrive on affection, and need it as much as they need food. It’s not surprising that after the trauma of losing her companion poor Gua (who should have never been separated from her mother and her social group to start with) would become ill and die. And for a while at least, the little boy would likewise miss his “sister” — but at least he didn’t lose his home and parents.

Still, what most stays in my mind — aside from the image of little Gua, frightened by the sound of a gunshot, jumping into the arms of the nearest human, seeking to be hugged — was the irony that instead of “humanizing the ape,” the Kelloggs ended up with an “animalized” toddler.

Mary (on various posts):

This week seems to find in the history of horrors, the Holocaust, the various genocides and instances of mass murder, from the Aztecs and the Romans to Armenia, Rawanda , Stalin's Russia and Pol Pots' Cambodia, ripe with irony and more, finally, akin to the theater of the absurd than of classic tragedy. The massive numbers of the victims and the industrialization of murder make it almost impossible to see the singular human intimacy of each particular death--that moment when the bullet enters the flesh, when the gas rises and chokes the lungs. The depersonalization particularly present in the Nazi bureaucratization of genocide, everything counted, weighed, measured and recorded, teeth and shoes and hair — no longer personal, human, unique, just so much stuff, so many numbers, to enter into the ledgers kept by the book keepers of death.

This is a world not where god is dead, but where he is irrelevant. Useless. All the meaning is gone, shaken out of things, rolled over, fractured beyond repair. The story of Zvi's survival is the perfect illustration. Why does he survive? No reason . . . simply accident . . . he falls before the bullets take everyone down, and he is covered with their blood, overlooked long enough to flee. Naked, freezing and bloody,  he knocks on the doors of three Christians, begging shelter. Of course there are three, that is always the number for storytelling. But in the usual story, there are two fails, either out of wickedness or stupidity, and then the third succeeds, because of goodness, wisdom, intelligence or grace. That is where Zvi's story so perfectly reveals the absurdity of our world. He is saved, not because the woman is good or kind or wise, but because he tells her he is Christ himself come down from the cross, and she believes him. So, accidents, lies and superstition allow his survival. Not justice, certainly not an act of god, simply chance, accidental, without purpose or agency, or anyone to thank.

 Follow this with the story of the Soviet attempt to use underground nuclear explosions to reverse the flow of first too ridiculous to believe, but apparently true. What hubris!! But even more, what a circus, what a riot of clowns mucking about with powerful forces, ones they neither understand nor respect. Not only clowns, dumb clowns. With enough power to actually go forward with their experiment for some time before abandoning it. Hundreds of nuclear explosions over more than 10 years. Didn't reverse any rivers, but surely did some damage.

The third  story, also an absurdist folly, raising a child and an ape together to see if the ape would become more human. Result: the child becomes less human and more like the ape in behavior. Uh-oh..experiment ended — an experiment astonishing for its unethical nature. And the end result for both victims, death, sours the comedy.


I'm especially grateful for your comment on how Zvi’s story differs from the typical stories. Let me simply quote that part — it’s worth re-reading:

“Naked, freezing and bloody,  he knocks on the doors of three Christians, begging shelter. Of course there are three, that is always the number for storytelling. But in the usual story, there are two fails, either out of wickedness or stupidity, and then the third succeeds, because of goodness, wisdom, intelligence or grace. That is where Zvi's story so perfectly reveals the absurdity of our world. He is saved, not because the woman is good or kind or wise, but because he tells her he is Christ himself come down from the cross, and she believes him. So, accidents, lies and superstition allow his survival. Not justice, certainly not an act of god, simply chance, accidental, without purpose or agency, or anyone to thank.”

Well, in a way he has himself to thank. This man was incredibly resourceful. I think he fell
deliberately just before the shot was fired; I read of another case like that, when another man saw that his would-be Lithuanian executioner was drunk, so there was a chance to get away with that. It was extremely difficult to get out from under the bodies that fell on top of him, but this man was strong enough — and of course motivated enough — to manage. If I remember correctly, the first challenge was simply breathing — he knew he had to wait until the massacre was over and all the Nazis and their collaborators were gone. Eventually he did crawl out and made his way into the forest. Alas, I forget the rest.

But Zvi counted on human help, and eventually proved super-resourceful that way — or should we say that he had unbelievable nerve? A Christian, or even a former Christian, unless a schizophrenic, would not have dared to say “I'm your Lord Jesus Christ.” Childhood indoctrination and remnant fear of hell would have prevented that. And it was precisely this childhood indoctrination that made the woman believe him and shelter him. Not her goodness, nor Zvi’s goodness, but the woman’s not wanting to take a chance on refusing Jesus — in case this really was Jesus and the Second Coming.

To be sure, the element of sheer luck was huge in both stories. The first man decided to fake  being killed when in the last moment he became aware that the executioner was drunk — which may have been the case with Zvi’s guy as well. And the number of bodies that fell on each man just happened to be fewer than would have made it impossible to crawl out from under them. One can easily imagine a horrible scenario where either man would have gotten crushed and/or suffocated.

So yes, luck rather than meaning. But in terms of the Christian story, each victim could indeed be said to be Jesus in the sense of being innocent yet condemned to death for being, well, not exactly “the King of the Jews,” but simply Jewish and thus guilty of made-up crimes, e.g. “all wars were started by the Jews.”


I am with you on the horrible hubris of the Soviet leaders who conceived the project of diverting the Siberian rivers. Scientists and engineers probably knew the idiocy and danger of it, but didn’t dare disobey.

And then we get the generic human hubris of trying to “humanize the ape.” By the way, this wasn’t the only such attempt, though probably the only one in which a human baby was also involved. And it took the mother rather long to pull the plug . . . but at least she did act in the end to prevent more developmental damage to her son. I have a feeling that the father would have persisted much longer — imagine how ambitious he was, dreaming of fame, blind to the most obvious thing that was happening. You see, he was obsessed with signs of Gua’s “becoming human” — for instance, she learned to eat with a spoon.

By the way, eventually it turned out that it’s possible to teach a chimp sign language. A female named Washoe mastered almost 350 signs in ASL. One gorilla and one bonobo likewise learned to “speak” in sign language. I duly watched the movies that boasted, for instance, of how well these intelligent primates could make the sign for “dog” when a dog passed by or a dog’s bark was heard. The problem, as I saw it, was that these animals had nothing interesting to say — or at least nothing that would be interesting to us humans, with our capacity for abstract thought and not just a large vocabulary, and our considerably different human reality.

Obviously animals communicate quite effectively in their own way within their social group, and the attempt to “humanize” a few primates by teaching them ASL showcases hubris once again. The ancient Greeks who came up with the concept of hubris did not think humans could ever be cured of it. History has shown the correctness their insight with monotonous regularity.


~ “Partnership used to be practical, then it got hyper-romantic and then we opened it up, dreaming that we could have it all, the practical benefits of an honest friendship and a mutual admiration society, a straight-shooting buddy and a devoted bunny all rolled into one.

We dream that with the right partner we’d be free to be ourselves warts and all, and still be reliably adored. 

That’s a tall order, not that some don’t succeed in pulling it off. But fewer than the romantic ideal promises. Most couples have to settle for compromise – less romance, more tact, a tireless effort to find what poet Philip Larkin calls “words at once true and kind or not untrue and not unkind”.

Partnership is an ever-simmering crucible that often feels too close for comfort with no respite in sight. You can’t afford to lie to each other. If you’re caught, you may never live it down. And you can’t afford to be totally honest either. Too blunt and you may never live it down.

Not that breakups are any picnic. Unshackled, you might start dreaming of a perfect union again with someone better or just better-suited. You’ll want another crack at the ideal, as though the problems in your last partnership were caused by your partner or just a bad match, not by the internal inconsistencies of the romantic ideal itself. Like gamblers who don’t get that the deck is stacked against them, singles often dream that they’ll be dealt a good hand next time, not like the last, a full house of freedom and safety, love and honesty, being yourself and being appreciated.

This may sound like a pretty dark interpretation of partnership. It’s meant to be kind and optimistic. If we can sober up on how drunk we get on romance we no longer have to convert our mutual admiration society partnerships into mutual accusation societies when they go sour.

Were you at fault? Was your partner? Was it bad chemistry? Maybe, but above all, the problem may just be that we expect more from partnership than it can deliver.

Sobering up about the drunkenness of romance frees partners to escape the threat of romantic blackmail: “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to hold you responsible for the failure.  If you don’t love me right, you’re a narcissistic pig.”

Many couples ease their way into romantic sobriety over time. Often they’re the couples that partnered early and sustained it such that, 30-plus years in, they’re at ease with each other, warts and all (warts do accumulate with age).

Sure, they fell in love as God and Goddess. Nice to have had that temporary delusion fueled by the hormonal certainty of youth. Nice state to visit, but they know that one can’t live there, so they no longer try. They are buddies to each other and it works just fine.

Some of us take romantic drunkenness as real, and seek it through endless dating, unable to sustain the high, the endless quest to find a super-human partner, disappointed again and again by only finding people who are also looking for a super-human partner. And you don’t qualify.

And some make it work through simplicity. They don’t expect much. They partner because people partner.

For the kind of people who read Psychology Today, the best partnerships might be an honest merging of ambivalences, two people who admit they each want conflicting things, a bunny and a buddy, brutal honesty and tactful kindness, and can laugh together about the predicament of trying to get that from one person for life.

A partner of this kind laughs at you.

With you.

And vice versa.

Which requires two people who can each laugh at themselves and the predicaments they find themselves compelled to enter, for example, romantic partnership.” ~

 Rembrandt: Artemisia, 1634 (probably a portrait of Saskia)


“In the beginning, there was nothing. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a lot better.” ~ Woody Allen
Image: Woody as a high-school senior


~ “In defending the cause of Christ, Luther was uncompromising. No one, he wrote, should think that the Gospel “can be advanced without tumult, offense and sedition.” The “Word of God is a sword, it is war and ruin and offense and perdition and poison.”

In Luther’s famous dispute with Erasmus of Rotterdam over free will and predestination, the renowned Dutch humanist suggested that the two of them debate the matter civilly, given that both were God-fearing Christians and that the Bible was far from clear on the subject. Exploding in fury, Luther insisted that predestination was a core Christian doctrine on which he could not yield and that Erasmus’s idea that they agree to disagree showed he was not a true Christian.

In his later years, Luther produced venomous attacks on groups he considered enemies of Christ. In his notorious On the Jews and Their Lies, he denounced the Jews as “boastful, arrogant rascals,” “real liars and bloodhounds,” and “the vilest whores and rogues under the sun.” In Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, he called the pope “a true werewolf,” a “farting ass,” and a “brothel-keeper over all brothel-keepers.”  

When in 1542 a Basel printer was preparing to bring out the first printed Latin version of the Quran, Luther contributed a preface explaining why he supported publication. It was not to promote interfaith understanding. By reading the Quran, he wrote, Christians could become familiar with “the pernicious beliefs of Muhammad” and more readily grasp “the insanity and wiles” of the Muslims. The learned must “read the writings of the enemy in order to refute them more keenly, to cut them to pieces and to overturn them.”

Luther arrived at his own interpretation of the Gospel after experiencing years of debilitating doubt as an Augustinian friar. The prescribed rituals and sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church—designed to offer a clear path to salvation—provided little relief. No matter how often he went to confession, no matter how fervently he prayed the Psalter, Luther felt undeserving of God’s grace. Sometime around 1515, while lecturing on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Luther had his great intellectual breakthrough: Salvation comes not from doing good works but through faith in Christ.

Upon discovering this truth, Luther later wrote, “I was altogether born again” and “entered paradise itself through open gates.” In thus describing his sudden spiritual transformation, Luther provided a model for millions of later Protestants seeking similar renewal. Being born again is one of the defining characteristics of evangelicalism, and it was Luther who (along with Paul and Augustine) created the template.   

[Luther retreated] from his early radicalism into a reactionary intransigence in which he opposed all forms of resistance to injustice and maintained that the only proper course for a Christian was to accept and acquiesce. He took as his watchword Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.” It was the individual who had to be reformed, not society. Luther also believed in the concept of the “two kingdoms,” the secular and the spiritual, which had to be kept rigorously apart. Christ’s Gospel was to apply only in the spiritual realm; in the secular, the government’s role was to maintain order and punish evildoers, not to show compassion and mercy. The Lutheran churches in Germany and Scandinavia (like most established churches in Europe as a whole) became arms of the state, developing a top-heavy bureaucracy that bred complacency, discouraged innovation, and caused widespread disaffection.

Not so in America: With no established churches to confront and freedom of worship guaranteed by the Constitution, American Christians have been free to create their own spiritual pathways. Over time, Luther’s core principles of faith in Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the priesthood of all believers became pillars of American Protestantism—especially of the evangelical variety.

The message from evangelical pulpits is overwhelmingly one of self-reliance, personal responsibility, individual renewal, scriptural authority, and forging a personal relationship with God and Christ. American evangelicalism has further assumed the populist stance of the young Luther. His rebellion was directed at the dominant institution of his day — the Roman Catholic Church. He denounced the ordained clergy, anointed theologians, and university scholars who, appealing to custom and tradition, sought to silence and discredit him. Protestantism, in short, arose as a revolt against the elites, and Luther’s early appeals to the common man and his disdain for the entitled lent the movement a spirit of grassroots empowerment that remains alive to this day. His insurgent nature further implanted in the faith a reflexive adversarialism — a sense of being forever under siege.

Luther’s rebelliousness was, however, paradoxically joined to an opposition to real-world change. While rousing the masses, he refused to endorse measures that would concretely address their needs. This combination of incitement and passivity is apparent in contemporary American evangelicalism, with both its ceaseless agitation against the centers of power and its shunning of any real program to address the underlying sources of resentment and dissatisfaction. In accord with Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, many evangelicals see the proper role of the government to be imposing order, not showing mercy.

Donald Trump has followed this approach. On the one hand, he has played on the conviction of evangelicals that they are an oppressed minority who have been prevented from practicing their religion as they see fit. He has vigorously defended the right of the faithful to say “Merry Christmas,” of pastors to speak freely in their pulpits, of church-run hospitals and health-care organizations to refuse to offer contraceptives. He has also appointed judges committed to those principles (and adamantly opposed to abortion, a key issue for this group). At the same time, Trump has carefully avoided taking on the powerful financiers and magnates who have helped to create the economic system that has inflicted such hardship on his base. Trump’s insults, invective, and mocking tweets against enemies real and perceived seem a long way from the Sermon on the Mount, but they very much mirror the pugnacity, asperity, and inflammatory language of the first Protestant.

Luther throwing an inkpot at the devil

Of course there was more to Luther than his inflammatory speech and inability to compromise. An article like the one above is by its nature selective in what it highlights. Another article might focus instead on Luther’s astonishing courage in standing up to the Catholic church. Of course he knew there’d be a price on his head.

Another bad thing about Luther was his doctrine of sola fide — one is saved by faith alone. That made conduct of less importance, since nothing you did could “earn” heaven — or lose it, if you happened to be among the Elect. In practice, having correct faith got translated into belonging to the right church. Sins? They didn’t matter all that much if the person was “one of us,” i.e. member of the same denomination.

“He who doesn’t give up all that he has cannot be my disciple,” is one of the most extreme pronouncements of Christ (Luke 14:33). Though it’s entirely in line with other teachings condemning wealth, it is generally ignored. Luther, so eloquent in condemning the wealth of the Catholic church, found himself on the side of the rich and against the peasants during the peasants’ uprising. Protestantism eventually fully embraced the idea that wealth is a sign of being among the Elect.

This is a fascinating article — Martin Luther is hardly the figure we think about in connection with the current administration. And yes, certain parallels exist. But Luther was neither cynical nor greedy. A devoted husband and father, he certainly was not a one-person summary of the Seven Deadly Sins.

True, he was prone to wrath, but I think his worst fault, at least in modern eyes, was his literal, fanatic belief. He shifted submission from the Catholic church to the text of the bible — or rather, his own translation and interpretation of that text, opening the way for much sectarian craziness to come — unfortunately with political repercussions.


A better parallel for Trump is Yahweh himself, the polar opposite of Jesus. See my blog from two years ago:

Let me quote a brief comment of mine from that blog:

~ We shrug and say that’s just the archaic tribal mentality — boosting “us” — the chosen people, the greatest country in the world, the exceptional nation among inferior humanity — against the “other.” We say that god is dead — meaning specifically the vengeful, wrathful, nationalist, sexist, narcissistic, petty, jealous, infantile, and altogether distasteful Yahweh. But when this mentality suddenly crops up in the 21st century, there is reason to wake up — and lament. ~


In retrospect, the first person to plant the “mythology” idea in my head was my catechism nun! She was trying to explain the opening of the Genesis, the waters below divided from the waters above by a solid firmament (thanks to my father I already knew words like stratosphere and ionosphere), and she said, “This comes from the Babylonian mythology.” 

I was thunder-struck. Dividing the waters from the waters — Babylonian mythology! This was a nun!! The seeds of my seeing the Judeo-Christian tradition as mythology (one full of borrowings, too, but aren't they all?) were sown by a nun. They'd take seven years to germinate fully.

Still thinking back to the nun, she seemed vaguely embarrassed. She mumbled a bit as she went over this “dividing the waters from the waters.” Maybe she suspected that in the second half of the twentieth century not even children can swallow the biblical creation story. It wouldn’t surprise me if this particular nun later joined the mass exodus of clergy from the Catholic church during the 1970’s. She knew too much about the human origins of those stories.


It’s the amount of gold on display in this church in Madrid, belonging to the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, that struck me as overwhelming. I couldn't help thinking, “Inca gold.” Of course it could also be Aztec or from yet another region, but the Inca filling a large room with gold in the hope of providing ransom for their captured king Atahualpa was the first one to come to mind. The gold was taken and Atahualpa executed anyway.

More "Inca gold" (or so I call it, to make it stand for gold looted from the New World).  Imagine if Peru demanded the gold back?


ending on beauty:

The House Lies Silent

In the distance, an occasional whistle from a passing train. There's a lone firefly flitting among the morning glories & a lone man with a thin cigar wandering in the yard. Now & then you might imagine a woman too, one with long delicate fingers & a wan smile who walks with the man & maybe holds his arm. There's no telling what they might say to one another, no, that's their secret & who would want to intrude – a rejected lover – his or hers – one with a grudge who can't abide happiness, one who thinks spite rules our lives? & as the man makes his way to the gate & out the tree-lined street you might think he feels loss & regret & as he makes his way to the corner & into town where a trio is playing something like Autumn Leaves or Moonlight in Vermont, you might think he's come to this place to reflect, a place that tells him time is no longer running far behind but is already running alongside & he must keep up or, for the last time, lose his way.

~ Roger Aplon

No comments:

Post a Comment