Saturday, November 28, 2015




It’s been snowing all night.
My mother and I take turns
pushing father’s wheelchair.
He dozes. He’s already part of the snow.

Mother remembers that he used to have
“an excellent sense of direction.”
No use now.
Only night and snow.

A ship is waiting in the harbor.
It could still be a hundred miles.
The stars look blurred, as if caught
in a long photographic exposure.

We don’t even notice the cold.

~ Oriana © 2015

This poem was inspired by a dream I had when my father was nearing the end. Parkinson's is a very cruel disease. It also tends to last a long time, so you get used to this new reality (“we don't even notice the cold”). When you are a caretaker, it may seem that the sick person will never die, even though there is progressive deterioration. Things will just keep on getting worse and worse, you’re trudging in the snow farther and farther north — but that’s just how it is and will be.

Now this poem reminds that “this too shall pass” — both the good and the bad shall end.

The phrase “far north” makes me think of Longfellow’s famous poem, “Ultima Thule” — referring to the northernmost region of the earth as imagined by ancient geographers.


With favoring winds, o'er sunlit seas,
We sailed for the Hesperides,
The land where golden apples grow;
But that, ah! that was long ago.

How far, since then, the ocean streams
Have swept us from that land of dreams,
That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!

Whither, ah, whither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Youth’s “land of dreams” versus finding yourself in Ultima Thule — yes, much has been written about that, and I'm not going to repeat it. What I repeat to myself in my mind is “Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!” It’s the sheer music of the words that enchants me, and obliterates the negative meaning.


Milosz: “Our epoch began somewhere around the end of the eighteenth, the beginning of the nineteenth century, and should be viewed as a whole. It is distinguished by a central philosophical problem ripening slowly as a result of the criticism directed at traditional Christian beliefs and aristocratic institutions, monarchy chief among them. . . . The true revolutionaries were the poets and the artists, even the most ethereal and least bloodthirsty of them, because they cleared the way; that is, they acted as the organizers of the collective imagination in a new dimension, that of man’s solitude as a species.”

Milosz also says: “The common feature of the teachings of Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche is their portrayal of the stupefaction of man when he recognizes that BEYOND HIM THERE IS NOBODY IN THE UNIVERSE, and that he does not owe his attributes to any deity.”
(“Speaking as a Mammal”)

Milosz may be overestimating the revolutionary role of the arts; economic and technological forces doubtless play a huge role in cultural evolution, and the failure (so far) of the SETI project to find intelligent extra-terrestrial life has no doubt had an impact (such life may exist, but so far away that communication is impossible). If anything, one could argue that it’s writers and artists (especially movie makers) who keep alive the yearning for meeting “someone out there.” But that “someone” is no longer imagined as a deity, but rather as an equal.

Indeed, in another essay Milosz does acknowledge the central role of technology in the process of secularization. But if I read Milosz correctly, he posits “man’s solitude as a species” as the central problem of modernity. He may be right; the explosion of science fiction, the most visionary branch of literature and film, seems to express a yearning for (and sometimes a fear of) intelligent extraterrestrial beings who could communicate with us. As angels and demons become increasingly implausible, ETs (wise as Yoda, or primitive as Chewbacca) rush into the mythological vacuum.

Yet all we have is science fiction (and the emphasis here should be on FICTION) and the notion that the universe is so vast that earthlike life is likely somewhere — but most likely too far away for contact.

From a recent article in The Guardian:

“In the very long run, as the sun gets hotter, the only way for humans or our successors to survive may be to move off-planet; it actually makes sense to start thinking about this now. Such a vision – "often implied but rarely acknowledged explicitly for fear of cynical ridicule" according to Billings – has guided space exploration since its inception when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky dreamed up the first space rockets in a remote log cabin in the late 19th century. It explicitly informs Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, a recent volume in which distinguished scientists explore the feasibility of initiating interstellar travel by 2100.

In "The Light Years", one of the Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, the narrator sees with his telescope a sign on a galaxy a hundred million light years away that says "I saw you". Aghast, he checks his diary and finds that on that very day 200 million years before he had done something that he had always tried to hide. He casts around frantically for a response, contemplating "Let me explain" and "I'd like to have seen you in my place" before settling for "What of it?" A conversation unfolds between the narrator and his distant interlocutor, with even more remote observers pitching into an exchange in which each comment takes hundreds of millions of years to arrive.

Calvino was writing in the 1960s, shortly after the discovery of quasars and at a time when the nature of the universe as we now understand it was coming into view. He turned this to delightful comic effect. But speculation that life exists across huge distances inthe cosmos is not new. In the sixth century BC Anaximander suggested that other worlds were endlessly forming and disintegrating in a universe of infinite extent. A century later Democritus, the laughing philosopher, argued that the never-ending dance of atoms would inevitably lead to countless other worlds and other lives. In the 12th century AD, citing a verse in the Qur'an that describes Allah as Lord of the Worlds, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi wrote of a thousand thousand worlds.

In the 17th century Johannes Kepler, Christiaan Huygens and others began to wonder if improvements to the recently invented telescope would one day enable humans to actually examine some of those other worlds. "There may be yet created several other helps for the eye," wrote Robert Hooke in 1665, "such as by which we may perhaps be able to discover living Creatures in the Moon, or other Planets.”

And yet in at least one respect we are no further along than Democritus or Hooke. We have found no trace of other life. This seems strange. Given the age of the universe and its vast number of stars, extraterrestrial beings should be common. As Enrico Fermi put it tersely in 1950: where the hell are they?

In Five Billion Years of Solitude, Lee Billings tells the stories of those who have tried and are trying to answer Fermi's question.”

Why didn’t the atheist cross the road? — Because there is no other side. ~ Dan Barker


Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial. ~ Nietzsche

It still takes Nietzsche to say something as politically incorrect as this, and as exhilarating. Do we need “mystical” explanations of the universe? I think we can enjoy the mysterious without multiplying useless metaphysics.

I don't deny the interconnectedness of things, but see no reason to call it mysticism. Do we gain anything by using this word? We might as well call interconnectedness exactly what it is — “interconnectedness”—  and gain precision. It’s a perfectly natural phenomenon — no supernatural explanation is necessary.

Personally I have never found any depth or strength through religion, nor have I found religious people to radiate love and peace the way a profoundly happy person does — say, someone who is in love, or someone who is very deeply devoted to their work (which is like being in love, but much more lasting). All that talk about the afterlife was vague and abstract and ultimately a bunch of platitudes about something invisible for which there was no evidence — unlike a tree or an animal, or a a painting or a poem. I have found depth through art and simply hard work -- which taught me humility, patience, and all the other virtues that going to church never imparted. Fear of god only taught me to hate the invisible monster in the sky who spied on everyone's thoughts, beyond any Orwellian nightmare.

I appreciate the part of Ecclesiastes that says two things 1) whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might 2) at other times, put on nice clean clothes and enjoy life while there is still time. That's all the wisdom I learned from the bible, finding most of it insufferably boring and/or vicious and archaic, with lots of violence but little understanding of human psychology, esp child abuse which leads to so much aggression and suffering later. I've learned a bit from Buddhism -- but that bit about desire and suffering has been extremely important. The rest I learned from life itself and from grappling with something very difficult — poetry and challenging intellectual work in general.

I am thrilled that it's finally OK to reject mysticism and not provoke a storm by saying there is no soul nor the "beyond." When someone dies, he remains in the memory of others -- and that to me is an awe-inspiring neurobiological mystery. The inner world of our dreams is stranger and more fascinating than any idea of the afterlife.

This morning I had a dream vaguely set in Italy — an artist colony, perhaps. There is a dog ambling about, and I decide it’s “my dog” (I'm certainly going to pet it and spoil it). “I have an Italian dog,” I say to a man who happens to be standing there. “Her name is Correggio.” In the dream I believe that this mean courage. My Italian is imperfect, to put it mildly — the word for “courage” is “coraggio.” “Correggio” isn’t even a word, but seems to derive from the word for correcting. (Also, there was a Renaissance painter who was known by that name, after the small Italian town where he was born)

I could see it as a mystical dream — it takes courage to correct a mistake, right? A message from heaven, divine wisdom sent to guide me! To me, it’s simply my unconscious rearranging bits and pieces (I know where Italy came from, and the fantasy of having a dog; I know which act of courage I recently decided on, and another one which would actually be more difficult). And the startling fusion of the words? I’ve always loved languages, learning a word here, a phrase there, and know how easy it is to fuse and confuse.

We are hard-wired to seek patterns and meaning. On the whole this is a good thing, but it can result in the mistake of seeing a pattern where none exists, assuming that “everything happens for a reason,” and manufacturing supernatural explanations.

As Matt said, “Mysticism throws everything back in the formless cauldron so it can be endlessly prated about without logical restrictions.”

You may object that the shallowness I speak about is that of the commercialized “spiritual” movement which sells the trappings — crystals, incense, little altars — but of course can’t sell the alleged depth of the “holy men.” Many of them strike me as charlatans, pure and simple. As for monks and nuns, up close they turn out to be just ordinary human beings who happen to be dressed in strange clothes (which used to be ordinary street clothes in the Middle Ages) and who live in communes rather than in family or single households. Those who do well in communal living are extraverts rather than deep thinkers.

Yet once you delve into physics, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the true mystery is all around us. As Nietzsche also said, once you look at something in sufficient depth, an infinity opens up. And that infinity may be frightening to some, but a source of ecstatic joy to others.

One of my discoveries in life has been that it’s happy people who exude peace and love. The easiest way to be happy is to be in love. Now, that love need not be erotic. To me, the most important thing is to be in love with work. I mean not the work you do for a living, though in the luckiest cases there is an overlap, but what you feel is the true work of your life. Daily communion with such work leads to a sense of fulfillment and deep and lasting happiness.

Contrary to Nietzsche, I claim that happiness is the source of strength and virtues such as as kindness, humility, and serenity. How do we become happy? Freud gave the perfect answer: love and work. A gardener happy among flowers, a chef happy in her kitchen, a mother enjoying her child, a father shooting baskets with his youngsters, a scientist in his lab, an artists in his studio — these are the true benefactors of humanity, rather than preachers with their platitudes, or the so-called mystics with theirs.

Though my examples tend to be those of meaningful work, in a way, it all comes down to love: the work you love will usually lead you to people you love — and will make it easier to at least like others. In my experience, I like people best when I am able to do the work I love. My connection to my work gives me the foundation and security so that  I can also be spontaneously affectionate.

You may ask, “But what about those nuns who claim to be in love with Jesus?” Yes, a few among them, like Teresa of Avila, may even have hallucinations that make Jesus seem an actual man, and a handsome one at that. But an imaginary lover is just that — a rather limited and one-sided experience, a longing for a soul-mate that can find no outlet in a real person. An idealized imaginary lover has some advantages over a real lover, but — a real lover is always more interesting. Reality is richer. I pity those who, perhaps in order to survive deprivation, settle for the imaginary.

Falling in love in the usual meaning of the term? Yes please. It’s turbulent, scary, and difficult, but it can be ecstatic. At the very least, it’s always interesting. It’s not the same as a deep attachment to the right person, which takes years, but love in any form can be a source of happiness. Good things come from happiness.

As for the feeling of awe, which is supposed to be central to mysticism, again I say yes. Religion is not necessary for the feeling of awe. For me the beauty of nature is enough. A combination of the beauty of nature and the collective human genius is a source of inexhaustible awe for me. An great art and music, including sacred art and music. I am open to whatever poetry religion can offer, the esthetic-sensual aspect. The “holy hush” one can experience in beautiful churches when they are empty, yes. Anything that leads to a deep sense of happiness, the joy of being alive and experiencing all manner of perceptions.

Correggio: Jupiter and Io


Pascal complained that the “eternal silence of those infinite spaces” frightened him. I had the opposite reaction, even as a child. The hugeness of the universe pleased me immensely -- it was so clearly not about reward and punishment for using a profanity or spilling the soup (my idea of what "sin" meant).

The universe was so much bigger than all our petty struggles, or causes like nationalism. Nature simply was, without moral justification of any sort. When I looked at the night sky, I knew early on that this was beyond any naive biblical account written by men who had no idea where the sun went during the night.

To me the stars at night — my abbreviated image for “the universe” — just the world thrilled me — were nature that did not appear to need the existence of the god of punishment. Looking at the stars, I did not feel like a sinner, but like someone privileged to behold wonders. I did not feel judged.

This, by the way, was the advantage of the New Age movement over Christianity — its sundry teachings were non-judgmental. It was truly emotionally supportive. For some, it was the dream of a completely supportive religion come true. It was like liberal Protestantism, but without the burden of the Old Testament dragging it down. (To emphasize this, New Age spoke of the Spirit, or even The Holy Spirit; “Christ Consciousness” was occasionally mentioned and equated with “Buddha Consciousness”; Yahweh, however, was deleted, except for occasional short paragraphs of rage against the toxic old-time religion with its vengeful god.)

One touch of badness came during the years that the ruling motto was “You create your own reality” — meaning, if you got cancer, it wasn’t your genes and/or carcinogens or aging. It was your negative thinking. This kind of talk got profoundly trashed as the ultimate in “blaming the victim,” and faded relatively quickly. But if you didn’t “create your cancer” — or, “attracted cancer into your life” — then what about your ability to create good things in your life by having positive thoughts? Doubt crept in. The absurd, shallow side of this mysticism lay exposed — see the “Spiritual No More” section of this blog.

photo: Luigi Chiriaco


I looked down at my keyboard and saw one key:
Enter, with its backward arrow.

Enter, meaning Return.


I'm not sure if I wrote this. I remember that a friend pointed out that the “Enter” key used to be called “Return” back in typewriter days. So arguably the other name of “Enter” is “Return.”

I'm content to let the author be the “collective psyche.”


It’s been true many times in my life: going back to something begun a long time ago has yielded rich “returns.” Every day I start something new, and almost every day I discover something seeded in the past. Often it’s mainly return: I rework an older piece of writing. It gives me joy to have all these riches to return to.

I know this won’t go on indefinitely. As Jane Kenyon put it, “One day it will be otherwise.” But if it could go on, I wouldn’t mind living like that for centuries.

And if there is a gate of paradise, I think it may have a sign over it that says RETURN.


You say returning is an illusion? “You can't go home again.” True. In another poem I say:

Odysseus only thought he returned.
By then, Ithaca
was another country.

But a partial return is possible, as to a favorite vacation spot — and if that's the best we can have, that's fine with me. Meanwhile we will always fantasize about those big and impossible returns — the thrill of the first love, for instance (never mind how it ended). It existed; it happened. The most important thing about love is simply that it happens.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


John William Waterhouse,  Siren, 1900



Oh they came, their eyes blank.
I pinned their souls under rocks
wanting only their shocked flesh
as the ships broke up, again, again . . .
Years now. Unlike the others I remember
a hand, some coarse hair against my cheek.
Now I stare at the sea all day
singing about strange events
for I’ve passed through their souls
inadvertently, thinking them shadows —
their souls were particles of odd happenings
or geography or touch,
tainting my immortality with memory.

As the sea roiled around him, one sailor
dreamed of his wife’s tomb,
the steep, sweating walls and dead pigs
killed to entice away the worms.
Another rubbed sea salt into his eyes
as if it were home, the desert;
while the one i murmured over, sweetly
dead in my young, implacable arms
saw his father turn in another sea.
In this fairyland, their strenuous lips
only blub loosely like the octopus
crossing my feet with lank, amorous
tentacles; their fingers dissolve
into the sharp, familiar bone.

Sometimes I hear mariners’ wives chanting
over the water, like us, forlorn;
I remember the charmed wedding nights,
and each man’s last embrace snow-
flake patterned into his soul, now mine.
Yet I keep singing, my dangerous voice
joined in sad irresponsibility with those
on this rock who forget why
each time until the next ship crashes.
Into the haunted music I weave my warning
carefully, as if my language were decipherable.

~ Maura Stanton

I love persona poems. I love the leap of the imagination it takes to dream oneself as precisely as possible into someone else who’s become part of our psyche. And once we know the tale of the Sirens, it’s with us forever.

Homer’s Sirens were part birds, part women. It’s later that the current image of the Siren, with a fish’s tail, became standard. But in classical Antiquity, the image of Sirens was found most often in cemeteries. The concept of the Siren evolved away from the Homeric femme fatale toward something more akin to our notion of an angel.  The wings stayed, as well as the attribute of music. The most striking piece of art in the whole show was a funerary Siren: sculpted in marble, a lovely woman with large wings, playing a kithara, a string instrument resembling a lyre. It turns out that Sirens were believed to accompany the dead to the Underworld, consoling them with music.

Ultimately, the Sirens, who could impart mystical wisdom, also became a symbol of the soul yearning for paradise. As I said in my blog post, “The Sirens Still Sing to Us,” we lose the world but gain the song.

This poem, however, takes us back to the Homeric sirens. There is no competing with The Odyssey. Few people know about the later “angelic” Sirens; millions are familiar with the myth of beautiful women’s voices luring sailors to their death. Stanton makes the Sirens basically innocent, unconscious. They mean no harm; immortal, have no memory, so they keep on singing, unaware of the consequences until the next ship crashes.

I read somewhere that the only way eternity would be endurable would be without memory. If in heaven there is no memory, then each moment repeats the wonder of seeing the place for the first time.

But one Siren mistakes the sailors souls for shadows, and something astonishing happens:

Now I stare at the sea all day
singing about strange events
for I’ve passed through their souls
inadvertently, thinking them shadows —
their souls were particles of odd happenings
or geography or touch,
tainting my immortality with memory.

“Tainting my immortality with memory” is my favorite line.

Now the “memory-tainted” Sirens is full of the sailors’ memories — their wedding nights, their parents, the landscapes they’d seen, the memories of touch (and, I assume, smell — those remain for a lifetime).  She identifies with the bereaved wives. She knows her voice is dangerous, but she can’t simply stop singing — apparently she’s “hard-wired” to sing. She tries to weave a warning into her song, but her language, alas, is not decipherable.

(A shameless digression: I’d love this poem to start with the second stanza — “in medias res.” Then it would be immediately compelling:

As the sea roiled around him, one sailor
dreamed of his wife’s tomb,
the steep, sweating walls and dead pigs
killed to entice away the worms.
Another rubbed sea salt into his eyes
as if it were home, the desert;
while the one i murmured over, sweetly
dead in my young, implacable arms
saw his father turn in another sea.

“Pigs killed to entice away the worms” — who knew? Wait, was that really done? Regardless, it’s irresistible detail.

The part about the Siren’s immortality becoming contaminated by memory could come later, in flashback.

But never mind. The poem is magical even if imperfect. It’s magical because it creates an alternate reality vividly enough.)

Absorbing the sailors’ memories is somewhat like eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. You cease to be an innocent being — “innocent” mainly in the sense of “ignorant.” Now you know you cause harm. Alas, in some circumstances you can’t help it — and you end up suffering too, as Stanton’s Siren feels the grief of the bereaved wives. In a fascinating twist, those women at least on the surface become like the Sirens, also singing over the waters, forlorn, but cut off from love except as memory and longing. 

 Siren, 7th century BC vase, Corinth, on an old Polish stamp


A “siren” has become pretty much a synonym for a “femme fatale.” Any woman can find herself in a femme fatale situation without really being a typical femme fatale: any relationship where she loves the partner less than she is loved puts her in the position of power — and she may be uncomfortable with it, and feel compassion for her partner. The poem certainly presents the case of “I know I am alluring to you, but you are not alluring to me.”

And what woman hasn’t dreamed, at least for a moment, of being a Siren, a beautiful Lorelei, a femme fatale? Ah, the power to inspire devotion while not making any sacrifices! A femme fatale illustrates the “Ben Franklin effect”: we love those for whom we’ve done favors, in whom we’ve invested time and energy. Since we’ve waited for them for hours while they were unconscionably late for a date, they must be worth that kind of waiting, right? The more they abuse us, the more difficult it becomes to break free — that’s the pathology of it.

And of course there is also the “homme fatal.” In fact I suspect that much more often it’s the man who remains aloof, solidifying his power over the woman helplessly in love with him — until, proverbially, she’s ready to “do anything for him.” It’s what I call “the boss and the secretary” game. She does most of the work he’s being paid for while he enjoys long “lunch meetings,” and covers up for his professional negligence. Usually he’s too smart to become an actual lover — that promise is forever dangling, never fulfilled. A physical love relationship usually comes to an end; an unrequited love, if unconsummated, can last for decades.

Whether it’s a man or a woman abusing someone else’s infatuation, it’s dreadful, pathological. A normal woman quickly snaps out of her Siren fantasies, realizing she would not be really happy being loved — even madly loved — by someone she doesn’t love. She returns to dreaming about the Prince. If the dream is intense, it too can be destructive, but on the whole a woman’s nurturing side prevails and she can love actual people with their flaws.

It would be going too far to say that the speaker in the poem is a femme fatale with a heart of gold. At most, she feels sorrow, she weaves warnings into her song. A heart of gold would require that she sacrifice her immortality in order to save a sailor’s life. But perhaps it’s not within her power to do that. The Greeks didn’t traffic in free will. There was Necessity, or Fate.

 The Goddess Ananke, or Necessity


By the way, in Homer the Sirens don't devour the bodies of the sailors. That’s a common misconception. Those sailors who survive the smashing against the rocks starve to death, listening to the enchanting song.

Clever reader, have you predicted that the phrase “starving artist” will come up next? And the word “compulsive”? Need I connect the dots?

Not for those readers who are familiar with the creative process. It is devouring. Most artists never “make it” in terms of worldly rewards. They pay a price not only in terms of poverty, but also in terms of guilt over not giving enough to their partners — since, you guessed the next eternal verity, they are “married to their art.”

The human beloved is doomed to being second in importance. “It’s a lonely life” — unless the artist’s mate has enough life of her own, enough of other sources of affection and satisfaction.

One time I asked fellow poets and writers, “Would you want your daughter to marry a writer?” The answer was an instant and unanimous No. In fact, it was a horrified shriek of No! Yet such a relationship can work well if it’s a relationship equals — usually both of them work in a creative field. Or, if only one does, then the partner manages to have a rich, satisfying life of his or her own.

 Cezanne, Kiss of the Muse, 1860


But Stanton’s poem appeals to me precisely because it’s not “about” the Siren as an ice-hearted femme fatale. The Sirens don’t lure the sailors because they are evil. Stanton posits that they ply their trade because they are immortal: hence they have no memory. Having no memory, they learn nothing about the consequences of their actions. They are surprised to see amorous fingers turn to sharp bone.

The idea that immortality requires no memory reminded me of a chapter in Einstein's Dreams, No memory means that everything keeps happening for the first time. Here one of the Sirens becomes accidentally "tainted" with memory, and now instead of her happy innocence she carries the psychic burden of the sailors' memories — especially, it seems, their memories of love.

Immortality as lack of memory is an interesting inversion of the usual understanding of immortality as everlasting memory. But who’s doing the remembering? Not the object of “immortality,” but those who remember him in some manner. Immortality as being remembered — usually with the aid of rituals such as commemorating anniversaries, writing reminiscences, talking about the person — and, in the case of a writer, reading and discussing his work — this kind of immortality is “done” by others. It’s not personal immortality, which I suspect might indeed be unbearable after a few centuries — and which might require absence of memory.

Being human, we are much less “programmed” than animals. I think this is as far as I want to go at present without stepping into the eternal debate over free will versus determinism. We are mortal and have memory. We can learn from noting the consequences. I will leave it at that.

Closing Image: Paul Delvaux (1897 - 1994), Dawn in the Village of the Sirens. Note that their lower bodies here resemble tree trunks and roots. The trunks can be a reference to the Maenads, the worshipers of Dionysus who got punished for tearing Orpheus into pieces by being changed into oaks. So the Maenads too represent destructive women. But I am not sure if Delvaux intended this reference. I think that he simply morphed the Sirens into this shape, perhaps to indicate that they are rooted, locked, imprisoned in their behavior. 


The Siren painting is the perfect image for A VOICE FOR THE SIRENS. In fact all the pictures are perfect for this blog.

The Siren on the Polish postage stamp could be 20th century especially with the background so I wonder if the background was added.

Learned so much from Femme fatale section.

What is the Goddess Ananke or Necessity holding?

My favorite part of Paul Delvaux’s painting is the breast in the mirror. To me implies that the Sirens also love themselves and are narcissists without memory so they constantly have to remind themselves who they are by looking at the breast in the mirror. But that’s probably not what the artist intended. Maybe he just liked breasts. LOL


Insofar as there are three kinds of men, with painters it’s easy to figure out which kind they are: just note how they paint women.

This is hard at first with Picasso, but eventually it also shows


That’s a very good observation about the Sirens: they have no memory, so they can’t love anyone (not even themselves, but the main theory of narcissism holds that a narcissist lack true self love), and they need to have a mirror to remember who they are.

The Siren on the stamp: the shape is authentic, copied from a really ancient Greek vase. And very early art can look surprisingly modern — it doesn’t try to be realistic, but is strongly stylized.

I think the bright colors and the background are probably a contemporary invention, but it would take an art historian with a background in vases to know for sure.

Ananke is supposed to be be holding a spindle — anything to do with spinning and weaving indicated fate. But in this image what I see is most likely a torch. A more brutal interpretation would be that since is the Goddess Necessity, she’s holding a club with which she hits poor humans, to impart the lessons of the “School of Hard Knocks.”

Glad the part on femme fatale provides insight. It took me a lot of life experience to figure out some of those “relationship dynamics.”


Made me think of my old poem “Hell” a short one that says hell would be “every dream remembered.”


Yes, remembering everything would be sheer hell — not just dreams but everything that ever happened.

Happiness depends on selective forgetting. Fortunately that’s just how our memory works. I don’t mean that we easily forget the bad things — but we tend not to “rehearse” those memories, meaning that we don’t reconstruct them over and over. A person in good mental health prefers to dwell on positive memories, selectively strengthening them. “Practice makes perfect” also when it comes to recalling happy memories.

Conversely, depression blocks the access to happy memories, so only the negative stuff is remembered. If depression continues long enough, you may find you can’t remember a single good thing that ever happened to you, absurd as that sounds. Even after depression ends, it takes a while to regain that access.

But even if immortality meant only positive recall, imagine how tiresome that would get after a few centuries. Immortality as lack of memory makes sense — then everything would be fresh and interesting.

Some Alzheimer’s patients experience precisely that. There is the tormenting, paranoid Alzheimer’s, and the “beatific” kind, when the victim becomes happy, cherubic. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015


photo: Channing Tatum


The Sirens sing a different
song to everyone.
True to Homer, they are
half-desire, half-birds,
dark and hidden like nightingales.

To a lover they trill,
“This at last is true love.”
To the ambitious they croon,
“You can have all. The gods
do not require sacrifice.”

To a mystic the Sirens
offer silence, that most
unanswerable of all songs.
Nothing contains everything,
the Sirens sing without a sound.

To a young man I loved they sang
about death’s country of light:
Why suffer in this valley of unfinished souls,
when you could stroll
in meadows of a happy afterlife?

To me the Sirens chant
through my dead lover’s mouth:
Remember only the beauty —
his skin, petal-smooth, when we dozed
in the gardens of dawn and dusk.

I’m not Odysseus; it’s not fame
the Sirens promise me at sunset —
Only the beautiful is real.
Come sing with us about
the marble palaces of clouds.

Evening falls, silhouettes in blue
the mirage of an island.
Copper glow fades from the cliffs.
Flowers gray to shadows of flowers.
Far off, still the ravishing voices.

~ Oriana © 2015


“Black Daesh, white Daesh. The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity’s common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things. The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia.

In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other. This is a mechanism of denial, and denial has a price: preserving the famous strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia at the risk of forgetting that the kingdom also relies on an alliance with a religious clergy that produces, legitimizes, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on.

Wahhabism, a messianic radicalism that arose in the 18th century, hopes to restore a fantasized caliphate centered on a desert, a sacred book, and two holy sites, Mecca and Medina. Born in massacre and blood, it manifests itself in a surreal relationship with women, a prohibition against non-Muslims treading on sacred territory, and ferocious religious laws. That translates into an obsessive hatred of imagery and representation and therefore art, but also of the body, nakedness and freedom. Saudi Arabia is a Daesh that has made it.

The West’s denial regarding Saudi Arabia is striking: It salutes the theocracy as its ally but pretends not to notice that it is the world’s chief ideological sponsor of Islamist culture. The younger generations of radicals in the so-called Arab world were not born jihadists. They were suckled in the bosom of Fatwa Valley, a kind of Islamist Vatican with a vast industry that produces theologians, religious laws, books, and aggressive editorial policies and media campaigns.

One might counter: Isn’t Saudi Arabia itself a possible target of Daesh? Yes, but to focus on that would be to overlook the strength of the ties between the reigning family and the clergy that accounts for its stability — and also, increasingly, for its precariousness. The Saudi royals are caught in a perfect trap: Weakened by succession laws that encourage turnover, they cling to ancestral ties between king and preacher. The Saudi clergy produces Islamism, which both threatens the country and gives legitimacy to the regime.

One has to live in the Muslim world to understand the immense transformative influence of religious television channels on society by accessing its weak links: households, women, rural areas. Islamist culture is widespread in many countries — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania. There are thousands of Islamist newspapers and clergies that impose a unitary vision of the world, tradition and clothing on the public space, on the wording of the government’s laws and on the rituals of a society they deem to be contaminated.

It is worth reading certain Islamist newspapers to see their reactions to the attacks in Paris. The West is cast as a land of “infidels.” The attacks were the result of the onslaught against Islam. Muslims and Arabs have become the enemies of the secular and the Jews. The Palestinian question is invoked along with the rape of Iraq and the memory of colonial trauma, and packaged into a messianic discourse meant to seduce the masses. Such talk spreads in the social spaces below, while up above, political leaders send their condolences to France and denounce a crime against humanity. This totally schizophrenic situation parallels the West’s denial regarding Saudi Arabia.

All of which leaves one skeptical of Western democracies’ thunderous declarations regarding the necessity of fighting terrorism. Their war can only be myopic, for it targets the effect rather than the cause. Since ISIS is first and foremost a culture, not a militia, how do you prevent future generations from turning to jihadism when the influence of Fatwa Valley and its clerics and its culture and its immense editorial industry remains intact?

Is curing the disease therefore a simple matter? Hardly. Saudi Arabia remains an ally of the West in the many chess games playing out in the Middle East. It is preferred to Iran, that gray Daesh. And there’s the trap. Denial creates the illusion of equilibrium. Jihadism is denounced as the scourge of the century but no consideration is given to what created it or supports it. This may allow saving face, but not saving lives.

Daesh has a mother: the invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex. Until that point is understood, battles may be won, but the war will be lost. Jihadists will be killed, only to be reborn again in future generations and raised on the same books.

The attacks in Paris have exposed this contradiction again, but as happened after 9/11, it risks being erased from our analyses and our consciousness.”


In my childhood I’ve experienced two kinds of propaganda: the Communist propaganda and the Catholic propaganda. It may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that the Catholic church had considerable freedom in Communist Poland — to the point, eventually, of religion classes in public schools. It had its printing press and its own degree-granting university.

At this point in history — an achievement of many centuries, the Reformation and above all the Enlightentenment — Catholicism is indeed a religion of peace. Medieval Catholicism can be compared to Wahhabist Islam (even then, the subjugation of women wasn’t as terrible), but not modern Catholicism. It is still fundamentalist in some ways, totalitarian, anti-human, anti-life and anti-democratic — but between a lunch with the most fire-breathing Catholics and a lunch with Islamists, there is no question which invitation a Westerner could accept without fear. My point is rather the power of propaganda.

Having experienced both kinds of propaganda, I state with zero hesitation that the Catholic propaganda was by far more powerful. When you claim to control eternity, when you can make people agonized with the fear of hell, while rewarding obedience with very attractive promises, how can the government compete with that? During my childhood and teens, the political repression in Poland was mild and nothing like the Stalinist rule during the thirties. The economic promises were shabby. The living standard, except for Party members, was the source of constant complaining. Meanwhile the church offered the splendor of its churches — never sparing money to make them beautiful  and full of flowers, even in winter — and the great organ music and the ornate rituals that made something like the May 1 parade look  . . .  again, “shabby” almost forces itself as the best description, along with “ridiculous.” 

As for the holy icons compared with portraits of Marx and Lenin, there was a certain similarity, but need I say which had a greater appeal? And there were of course ten thousand times (likely an underestimate) more statues of Mary, Jesus, and various saints than the statues of revolutionary leaders.

Among the publications, I remember especially the glossy Catholic Weekly. It concentrated on the attractive promises rather than hellfire. It presented a lovable Jesus, not the one who’s come to bring the sword, and who will come again to separate the saved from the damned. No, the Catholic Weekly dripped the heavy, sweet syrup of piety. It used a simple vocabulary and homey stories of ordinary families. It was produced by master manipulators, not clumsy government amateurs.

The church was — and is — very rich, but its wealth is nothing to compared to that of Saudi Arabia. Now there is a country that has almost unlimited resources to produce propaganda. It owns not just printing presses but radio and TV stations. I operates religious schools at every level, including countries all over the world. I shudder to think how far-reaching its propaganda is, spewing the poison of Wahhabism everywhere.

Cartoon by Peter Brookes

There is one more kind of very effective propaganda: commercial advertising. Unfortunately, it’s geared toward creating artificial demand, making us want to buy the toys and clothes we don’t really need. But imagine if that power were harnessed toward nobler goals.

To some extent that is so when we look at education — real education: an enterprise too complex to be called propaganda.
To detox, let’s enjoy this image of the beauty of THIS world. No need for pie in the sky when we can have this:

photo: Asen Asenov


The first, happy year with M, he said to me, “If I had to die right now, I wouldn't mind. I could just go anytime. “ I knew what he meant: life had finally granted him the fulfillment he wanted. He was so sated with happiness that he felt calm and accepting — and willing to let go of life with gratitude.

I knew, because even at a very unhappy time in my youth I experienced a similar serenity and a similar perception of being ready to die, even though I was only 28. Just before my most serious surgery, I realized (an unforgettable minute when it all flowed to me) that, for all the misery I’d also experienced, life had given me great gifts and blessings. I had known great love; I didn’t know motherhood, but I didn’t resent it because now I didn’t have to worry about leaving an orphan. I had had the best of literature, art, and music; I’d seen gorgeous scenery; my Polish summers were a paradise of nature, even the time I got chased by hissing geese that nipped my shins.

I felt reconciled to the possibility of dying, even though I hadn’t yet “done” anything to speak of. That was irrelevant somehow. I felt peaceful and accepting: life had been generous to me; I didn’t feel cheated.

Occasionally this theme appears in poetry: in Keats’s “Ode to the Nightingale” Sexton’s “Starry Night,” Hölderlin’s “To the Fates.” Hölderlin says he’ll enter the world of shadows content after he’s had his fill of singing: “Once I lived as the gods; more is not needed.” Keats and Sexton want to die sated with beauty: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die”; “Oh starry, starry night! This is how I want to die.”

And there is Jack Gilbert’s wonderful title: “We Have Already Lived In the Real Paradise.” It’s all in the title; more is not needed.

It’s not dying we dread, but not having lived.

“A FEAR OF CULTURAL ANNIHILATION MAY HELP FUEL TERRORIST SENTIMENTS, says psychologist and terrorism expert Fathali Moghaddam, of Georgetown University's department of psychology. In "How Globalization Spurs Terrorism: The Lopsided Benefits of One World and Why That Fuels Violence," Moghaddam argues that rapid globalization has forced disparate cultures into contact with one another and is threatening the domination or disappearance of some groups—a cultural version of "survival of the fittest." "You can interpret Islamic terrorism as one form of reaction to the perception that the fundamentalist way of life is under attack and is about to become extinct," he says.”
The rest of the article is not especially new: the insecurity and vulnerability of male adolescents, their yearning for belonging, etc. But this part — the fear of cultural annihilation as other cultures show themselves to be more creative and attractive — has not been explored.

The solution, it seems to me, is cultural fusion: all cultures have something to contribute, whether cuisine or music (two realms where this fusion has already been most apparent). Anyone with sufficient intelligence can become a scientist, a medical worker, or a teacher, to name just a few professions, and be of great use to humanity at large.

As I see it, there is no need to cling to one’s particular culture. It would be ridiculous if I started wearing a Polish folk costume and otherwise demonstrating how Polish I am. I prefer to contribute to the culture at large. To make even a tiny contribution is a great privilege.

Here, tangentially, is a paragraph about nationalism:

“Do you know the saddest things that’s happened to the Kurdish people?” he asked. I shrugged; chemical bombings? Having their language banned and being denied a country? No. “We’ve lost all our love songs,” he said. When we got political, we changed all our the songs. Instead of ‘I love you’, ‘I want you’, we sing ‘I love you Kurdistan’, ‘I want you Kurdistan’. It’s impossible, he said, gazing at me, for a man to say to a woman, “I love you.” I thought he was doing fine. ~ Samantha Ellis, How to Be a Heroine

This is what I disliked most about the Polish literature of the Romantic era — Poles, like the Kurds, were fighting for statehood, and nationalism permeated the culture. When that meant Polish folk songs and dances as motifs in the music of Chopin, that was charming, it worked; in poetry, it got tiresome (at least for me).


While driving I was listening to public radio, and ant and bee behaviors were discussed: how their behavior stems from interaction, the way neurons interact to produce thought (the phenomenon of EMERGENCE; bird migration is another frequent example). You can’t isolate a single neuron and expect to find a “fragment of a thought” inside it. It’s all in the interaction.

An older commentator said, “To me that implies an author.” A younger journalist replied, “You’ve just taken out the magic out of it.” The older man: “So the beautiful world you wake up to every morning has no meaning, no purpose? Are you comfortable with that?” The younger man: “Yes, I’m comfortable with that. That makes it even more magical.”

I agree. Without the invisible man in the sky, it’s even more awesome. We can stop being childlike and imagine that everything that happens is produced by some deity, the way primeval man thought that waves are produced by the god of the ocean, rather than the ocean itself, in interaction with the shape of the bottom (this is not a putdown of early humanity; before scientific investigation, how were they to know?). Of course early humans, seeing the world in terms of human emotions, saw a storm of the anger of a god. Of course it was Zeus or Yahweh tossing lightning, or angry Poseidon causing an earthquake by hitting his trident against the bottom of the sea.

Now that we understand more about the causes of natural phenomena, there is no need for an “author.” Note that I said “more” rather than “everything.” Of course there is still plenty of mystery, but the existence of yet unexplained (and phenomena that will perhaps never be explained) does not prove the existence of the prime mover.

I am so glad there is now an open discussion of these matters. As Ginette Paris said, “It’s still early after the death of god.” It’s still early in the transition to the post-religious world (at least in the West), and we are just beginning to shape a positive secular philosophy and a new understanding of the world.


“There is a further level to this eros, deeper than its contrast to angelic disembodiment. The devils of my childhood, on TV commercials and, weirdly, even in church scenes and religious iconography, laugh. In church, they're the only ones who do. You won't watch an angel cracking a joke or poking under the mantle of an assumed truth, but those in red are the very definition of "irreverent." They go unhobbled by piety, certainty or received truth. There is in the devilish an eros or élan of argument, a delight in undercutting the given, mocking the president or the professor or the priest.

Milton, famously, makes Satan a grand psychological antihero, whether he intends to or not; it's just that the devil's the most interesting character in the story, and there is nothing the Puritan poet can do about this except to honestly portray the glittering skin of the snake and the fiercely driven will of Lucifer. Even Milton (who William Blake, almost equally famously, said was of the Devil's party without knowing it) can't make an all-knowing God, for whom the fate of each of his subjects is a foregone conclusion, dramatic.

It was Blake himself, a century and a half or so later, who was the first poet to conceive of the infernal troupes as having less to do with good and evil than with states of mind. "All deities," he tells us, "reside in the human breast." It is a particularly modern intuition; he blurs the lines between the holy and the unholy by casting angels, prophets and demons as characters in the grand theatre of the human psyche. Here he is, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, early in his career but already causing problems for Christian orthodoxy:


As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs; thinking that as sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell show the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings and garments. When I came home: on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat sided steep frowns over the present world, I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of the rock, with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence now perceived by the minds of men, & read by them on earth:

How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?


A great current of energy becomes available for poetry in that passage, and in the wildly brilliant proverbs that follow it, a new wind blowing off the revolutions of Europe and the further edges of the Enlightenment. It has nothing to do with evil, really, in the usual sense of the word, though it certainly represents a huge challenge to conventional morality and received thinking. It is the assertion of a temperament that favors inquiry and uncertainty, distrusts sanctimony of any sort, and piousness and rule-making. It expresses delight in instability and paradox, and favors the uncontainable, that which isn't readily circumscribed. What can be shut within the chapel is clearly not large enough to serve as a description of reality; what I will call, for convenience's sake, a diabolic perspective, prefers the unsettled, the disorder that leaks out of systems, the darkness that looms beneath the altar.

The Biblical and literary scholar Elaine Pagels writes that the Greek word diabolos
the origin of our devil — means "one who puts an obstacle in the path." The devilish, in this sense, confounds our expectations of ease, keeps us from going easily where we thought we were going, undercuts expectations. The diabolic eschews the straight path, the easy progression.

But to be halted, to be confounded, is to be instructed. In writing, as in living, isn't it the troublesome, knotty thing that winds up having the most of opportunity in it? A friend of mine is fond of quoting a provocative Zen proverb: "The obstacle in the path is the path." What gets in the way, in other words, is what there is to be done; we learn not from the way we thought we were going, but from the actual interruptions, frustrations, all that stops us short, refuses ready apprehension.

INFERNAL SYMPATHIES ~ Mark Doty, Lodestar Quarterly, Winter 2004

I want to call your attention especially to this part:

“Blake was the first poet to conceive of the infernal troupes as having less to do with good and evil than with states of mind. "All deities," he tells us, "reside in the human breast." It is a particularly modern intuition; he blurs the lines between the holy and the unholy by casting angels, prophets and demons as characters in the grand theater of the human psyche.”

Already Thomas Aquinas hinted that heaven and hell are not places. Pope JP2, on 21 July 1999, officially (I guess that means infallibly) stated that “Heaven is neither an abstraction not a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity.”

The church certainly didn’t speak of a “personal relationship with the Holy Trinity” in my day! In fact, a direct, personal relationship with any person of the Trinity would be considered heretical. Only the saints were grudgingly granted the privilege. The church wanted obedience, not any fraternizing with the Trinity.

But times have changed. In place of “the Holy Trinity” one can of course insert whatever is the highest and most important in one’s life. For an artist, it’s art.

Detoxing with music (Rachmaninoff's Third)


Saturday, November 14, 2015


Paris will never be taken from us.


later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

~ Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet (b. 1988)


“The armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria . . . After its battle in Dabiq, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.”

Much of what [ISIS] does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)

But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

According to Bernard Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

If al-Qaeda wanted to revive slavery, it never said so. And why would it? Silence on slavery probably reflected strategic thinking, with public sympathies in mind: when the Islamic State began enslaving people, even some of its supporters balked. Nonetheless, the caliphate has continued to embrace slavery and crucifixion without apology. “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” Adnani, the spokesman, promised in one of his periodic valentines to the West. “If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”

“Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.”

The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda. During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world. McCants says a prominent Islamist in Iraq approached bin Laden in 2008 to warn him that the group was being led by millenarians who were “talking all the time about the Mahdi and making strategic decisions” based on when they thought the Mahdi was going to arrive. “Al-Qaeda had to write to [these leaders] to say ‘Cut it out.’ ”

For certain true believers—the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles—visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need. Parts of the predictions are based on mainstream Sunni sources and appear all over the Islamic State’s propaganda. These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

“Dabiq is basically all farmland,” one Islamic State supporter recently tweeted. “You could imagine large battles taking place there.” The Islamic State’s propagandists drool with anticipation of this event, and constantly imply that it will come soon. The state’s magazine quotes Zarqawi as saying, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” A recent propaganda video shows clips from Hollywood war movies set in medieval times—perhaps because many of the prophecies specify that the armies will be on horseback or carrying ancient weapons.

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. Western media frequently miss references to Dabiq in the Islamic State’s videos, and focus instead on lurid scenes of beheading. “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” said a masked executioner in a November video, showing the severed head of Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig, the aid worker who’d been held captive for more than a year. During fighting in Iraq in December, after mujahideen (perhaps inaccurately) reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts or hostesses upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.

The Prophetic narration that foretells the Dabiq battle refers to the enemy as Rome. Who “Rome” is, now that the pope has no army, remains a matter of debate. But Cerantonio makes a case that Rome meant the Eastern Roman empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul. We should think of Rome as the Republic of Turkey—the same republic that ended the last self-identified caliphate, 90 years ago. Other Islamic State sources suggest that Rome might mean any infidel army, and the Americans will do nicely.

After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former pledges could of course continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers. But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it. If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have given baya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: “No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.”

Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

Within the narrow bounds of its theology, the Islamic State hums with energy, even creativity. Outside those bounds, it could hardly be more arid and silent: a vision of life as obedience, order, and destiny. [We should not underrate] the religious or intellectual appeal of ISIS. That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time."

Why Paris again? Because, apart from the fact of there existing a number of ISIS sleeper cells already firmly in place there, it is the city of lights, dedicated to the love of life like no other place on Earth — the ultimate symbol of the human love of life — and as such, it is especially antithetical to the ideology of anger and darkness premised on the love of death. ~ Mikhail Iossel


Dr. Tawfik Hamid, author of INSIDE JIHAD, knows of  young terrorists' dreams because he dreamed this way himself during his years of terrorist training.

Terrorism is a large-scale version of domestic violence. Terrorists treat populations the way domestic abusers treat their spouses and/or children. The abuser mentality in both cases makes domination a life goal.

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haran and Hamas and other devotees of radical Islam dedicate their lives to  Jihad, that is, to establishment of domination by Islam over all the world.

Dictators bully the citizens of their country.

Batterers bully their spouse and children.

Bullies on the playground are the school-age precursors of the same mentality.

Dictators, terrorists, domestic abusers and playground bullies all

    Focus on controlling others

    Are preoccupied with dominance

    Regard their way as right and their target victim's differing ways as wrong

    Begin with verbal abuse: harsh criticism, blame, baseless accusations, name-calling

    Gradually escalate to physical violence

    Can escalate to the point of murder

    See their violence as justifiable and as a legitimate way to deal with differences

    Show little to no insight into what is problematic in their behaviors or motivations

    Rarely accept responsibility for their inappropriate behavior. For instance, their anger is always the other's fault: "I only did it because she/they…"

    Tend toward paranoia, inappropriately distrusting others who are different, blaming their victims, and seeking scapegoats to blame for their own inadequacies.

    Use projection, accusing those they attack for what they themselves in fact do.

The good news is that psychologists increasingly understand how to halt and even how to prevent domestic abuse. Now is the time to begin applying these lessons to halting terrorism.

First, strong police response and legal action keep domestic abusers in check. Police and military surveillance and reprisals will continue to be essential elements to combating Islamic terrorism.

Second, to prevent the development of abuse by parents/spouses in homes, by dictators in countries, and by terrorism internationally, families need skill training. Terrorists at all three levels have been shown to have serious deficits in skills for functioning as cooperative partners. When they want something they become violent in part because they have no idea of how to negotiate collaboratively or how to find win-win solutions. They know only domination or submission.

In addition, when potential victims are clear that bullying in all its forms is unacceptable, and especially when the surrounding culture agrees as well that abuse is unacceptable, victims become confident, which empowers them to more effectively fend off bullies.

1. PARENTING EDUCATION. Children who were abused are at increased risk for becoming abusers themselves. Abusing children teaches children that violence is normal, that dominance and submission are what people do. If globally, all parents were taught skills for positive, emotionally healthy parenting, the world would change. The violence of dictators and terrorism would no longer be tolerated.

2. PARTNERING EDUCATION. Many domestic abusers grew up in families in which parents modeled violence. Parents fought, or one parent verbally and physically beat up on the other. The victim stayed in the relationship instead of leaving or bringing in policing authorities. Children therefore grow up thinking that violence is normal. They also grew up lacking modeling of healthy communication in relationships. 

Abuse is learned at home.

In cultures and countries that produce terrorists. e.g., the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, rates of domestic abuse are very high.  Because the culture condones violence against women and children, laws against domestic and child abuse are non-existent.  When a culture accepts violence as normal, families regard violence as normal, as an acceptable way to interact.

It is no wonder then that when some of these young men hear about Jihadists like those in ISIS, they regard beheaders, suicide bombers and men who enter a [public buiding] and start shooting people as superheroes.

In too many parts of the world, violence in the name of Jihad is being taught in religious schools and preached from mosques.

Countries that condone domestic violence and spawn terrorism also tend to be governed by dictatorships. The belief that dominating others via violence is a legitimate way to act pervades homes, the religious arena, and the behaviors of governments toward both their citizens and toward neighboring countries.

Peace also is learned at home.

In families where parenting and partner are cooperative, children grow up expecting relationships to be cooperative, at home at work and in their country. They also learn via parental modeling the skills the respectful talking and responsive listening skills that enable people  to function collaboratively.

For people who grew up in homes where collaborative problem-solving skills were not modeled, resources like marriage self-help learning books and programs that tutor how to fix a relationship are increasingly accessible. These kinds of books and programs need to be translated and disseminated in areas of the Islamic world that currently are spawning Jihadist violence.  Such a project is currently under way in Saudi Arabia, where my book on collaborative skills, Power of Two, is being translated into Arabic with added comments from the Qoran that legitimize it for Sharia observant readers.

An imam in a local Denver mosque who is aware of the high rates of domestic abuse and low rates of cooperative marriage relationship skills in his immigrant following has asked me personally for help teaching the couples in his mosque these skills. This trend also is a positive one.

Knowledgable Muslims abroad such as therapists and community leaders I have worked with from Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia similarly have told me of the dire needs of many their people to learn skills that would be antidotes to domestic violence.  While these countries all have many families that function on the very highest level, a too-significant proportion of their populations desperately need collaborative marriage and parenting education.

Teaching people worldwide the skills for healthy collaborative interacting would cost next to nothing in this internet era. Our homeland security budget would barely grow by a blip if in addition to trying to capture and punish individual terrorists or use our military to slow the spread of ISIS, we focused on how to disseminate information about collaboration and cooperative ways of resolving differences.

The time has come to confront terrorism at its roots by addressing and changing the mentality of domination and violence that for too long has provided fertile ground for the spread of domestic violence, tyrannical governments, and terrorism.”

Oriana: Years ago I read elsewhere about the high rates of domestic abuse in many Islamic countries, but of course it was deemed politically incorrect and ignored.


“Islam is a religion that preaches peace,” U.S. President Barack Obama told CBS last September, and likewise President George W. Bush’s mosque speech after 9-11 said “Islam is peace.” Yet there’s continual violence committed in the name of Islam. Analysts are abuzz over a major article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood, who contends the bloodthirsty Islamic State Caliphate is thoroughly grounded in end-times theology and “governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers.” Wood cites especially the research of Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel.

“Jihad” is a duty of all believers but the term means simply “effort” or “struggle” in the faith. Teachers have called spiritual exertion the “greater jihad” and violent struggle, when necessary, the “lesser jihad.” As with Christianity’s “just war” concept, Muslim authorities have said the holy Quran allows warfare to defend Islam and its followers but forbids wars of aggression: “Fight for the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not be aggressive. Surely Allah does not like the aggressors. . . Drive them out from wherever they drove you out” (2:190-191). Of course, adherents of both religions haven’t necessarily honored such niceties.


Mainstream imams cite this scripture on treatment of civilians: “Allah does not forbid you, regarding those who did not fight you and did not drive you out of your homes, to be generous to them and deal with them justly” (60:8). And they say this verse condemns forced conversions: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). The authorities have said codified teachings of Muhammad (Hadith) said when conflict was justifiable protection was required for innocent non-combatants, the aged, children, women, Christian monks, people attending worship, and prisoners of war.


Amid the general mayhem now afflicting the Muslim world, that venerable understanding of Islam is defied by a rising movement that’s attractive to a subset of young Muslims. It claims divine sanction to embrace thievery, torture, mutilation, terrorism, suicide bombing, kidnapping for ransom, sexual slavery, gruesome executions without trial, killing of envoys and guest aid workers, slaughter of worshippers and Jews and Christians, and of fellow Muslims who dissent from those who hold power or belong to rival factions.
In summary, the heritage now under assault does accept violence and warfare as morally justified in some circumstances, but can favor “peace” in the sense of negotiations between nations and social harmony within nations.


Some religious believers say “peace” means God mandates strict non-violence or pacifism. Islam has a far weaker pacifist strain than other world religions, according to such scholars as Mark Juergensmeyer. Unlike the Buddha, Jesus, and other spiritual founders, Muhammad was a military commander and political ruler, and armed struggle has been continual through Muslim history. Since Islam recognizes no equivalent of “church-state separation,” military politics is bound up with religion and vice versa.


Some individuals do reject violence in all circumstances. The U.S. has a Muslim Peace Fellowship, and Muslim-American attorney Arsalan Iftikhar wrote a book on “Islamic Pacifism.” A non-Muslim sociologist, New Zealand’s Malcolm Brown, thinks some Quran and Hadith texts “can reasonably be interpreted in pacifist terms.” Followers of mystical Sufi orders emphasize spiritual “jihad” to the near exclusion of war making. In the past Islam’s Shia branch tended toward military quiescence while awaiting the return of the Hidden Imam, but Iran’s violent Khomeini revolution pretty much extinguished that belief.

For pacifists, the good news is there’s one distinct branch of Islam that fully spurns violence. The bad news is that it’s branded heretical by mainstream Islam — not over pacifism but other problems. We’re talking about the Ahmadiyya community, headquartered in London. The small U.S. group has offices in Silver Spring, Maryland. This group claims some 15,000 mosques worldwide, and Oxford’s “World Christian Encyclopedia” counts 9.7 million adherents among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. However, the Ahmadis are very evangelistic and may be Islam’s fastest-growing faction. The largest concentration is in Pakistan, which brands it non-Muslim and imposes persecution.

The major issue is that founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) is believed to be the end-times Messiah or Mahdi or Imam of the Age mentioned by Muhammad, and the metaphorical Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Since his death, a succession of Caliphs have ruled the movement.

In a 1900 booklet Ahmad declared the following. Muhammad “never took up the sword against anyone except against those who first resorted to it.” The military retaliation of those days “was never meant to be a general rule” and “in this age the circumstances for that command do not exist.” Also, Muhammad said the coming Messiah “will put an end to wars” and Ahmad is that Messiah. “Now that the Promised Messiah has come it is the duty of every Muslim to abstain from jihad with the sword.”


"Sharing ideas with a small, tight-knit group of sympathizers leads to radicalization. This pattern can be broken only by confronting people with diverse opinions and unpleasant facts. This “war” of information cannot be won in Syria, but in the homes, mosques, schools, community centers, and sports-clubs in the US, Canada, Britain, France, and the rest of Europe.

First, during group discussion social comparisons are made. People find out what the opinions are of the other group members. And if it appears that the majority of people with whom you communicate, personally or via social media, is willing to take some risk - for example, travel to Syria - then you want to outdo them. The result is that you are becoming a little more extreme after each chat. A second possibility is that by discussing your dilemma with other people – who tend to be sympathizers - you are more likely to hear more arguments in favor than against. So after interactions with likeminded people a person gets increasingly convinced about the correctness of their risky choice. Other research shows that people indeed take more notice of the opinions of their peers. And the more a person identifies with their group the more prone they are to social influence. It is perhaps not surprising that much Muslim radicalization takes place in prisons where people are exposed to extreme views and deviant positions are absent. Thus the prison is a breeding ground for radicalization.

What can we do against radicalization? And what would an anti-radicalization program look like? The anti-terror coordinator of Europe, Gilles de Kerckhove, recently argued for a counteroffensive against the propaganda of IS. That‘s an excellent initiative because it is important that potential jihadists are confronted with other, more moderate opinions than what they get now through Facebook or Twitter. It is crucial to block this propaganda material from the internet. Also, it seems sensible to give a public platform to young Muslim sympathizers who have good reasons not to join IS. Better still: Why don’t we hear from former Jihadists who returned from the Middle East disappointedly and with much regret?

It might further help to be exposed to diverse opinions, because the more diverse a group is the less it is likely to polarize. When American students discussed their dilemma, first alone and then in a group, they radicalized. But when they discussed the same dilemma with a mix of American and Chinese students they became more cautious -- that's called a "cautious shift" in the decision-making literature.

Governments must ensure that potential Jihadists are confronted with the views of moderate Muslims such imams or opinion leaders from politics, sports, or music. If someone close to you radicalizes, don’t ignore it but start a discussion and ask uncomfortable questions.

Haiku for Paris 

I can't imagine
a God who wants me
to kill you.

~ John Guzlowski

detoxifying with beauty

 Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Bonito, 1941