Saturday, February 27, 2016


Christian Schloe, digital art

In memory of Linda Brown, 1941-2006
The ocean is my speech therapist, Linda,
fluent spirit with no need to remove
pebbles from your throat.
I watched you climb my steep
Polish name on the first try,
licking off your cappuccino’s last foam.

We roamed in Yogananda’s Gardens,
the ocean lipping below,
lapping in flamenco billows.
You blew kisses to everything around:
a cypress twisted like a yogi;
the slow-motion koi. The plump gold one,

you said, was your guru, reincarnated now —
Swami turned Swimmie. In life
you crashed many times, and got up,
and got up, and smiled your wild smile,
until that final fall when you were beyond
anything as clumsy as mere getting up.

Overlaid with the great Amen
of surf, your voice speaks to me
again: So you’ve made a mistake.
You will make more mistakes.
Old grief and old salt,
what dancers they are! And the liquid

mockingbird sings forgiveness.

I still can’t pronounce
a single pebble correctly, not one blue
syllable of your death, Linda,
my friend, my friend,
you who had no right to die —

You laugh, an unstoppable child.
You are my speech therapist, Linda,
you and the Pacific Ocean,
that mouth full of broken glass —
wave after wave repeating,
Let’s shimmer, let’s shimmy, let’s shine.

~ Oriana © 2016

Not long ago, out of the blue, it seemed, I thought of Linda Brown, a well-known San Diego County poet whose premature death shocked the local poetry community. I checked, and that day happened to be the tenth anniversary of her death.

She and I would walk together in Yogananda's Gardens in Encinitas, always pausing to watch the koi. Then we’d sit on one of the stone meditation benches. She’d take out her notebook and effortlessly write a new poem — she was prolific. The world is a less vivid place with her gone.

Linda was bipolar. I’m not betraying any secrets here: she was completely open about all of her problems, and belonged to more 12-step groups than I can remember. Nor can I remember the number of times she ended up on the mental ward because at the height of her manic mode she became psychotic (again, she was quite open about this — she seemed to have no secrets). She also worked as a librarian, specializing in creating much-praised thematic displays.

In addition, for a number of years Linda taught a poetry workshop at a community college. She had a lot of friends and attended all manner of events. She traveled. How on earth did she find the time to do all those things, and to write poems besides — many ranging from good to excellent?

That, perhaps, was her one secret. Basically, she hardly ever revised. For her, poems simply welled up, the way that thoughts “arise.” If I hadn’t seen it, I’d have trouble believing it: once she opened her notebook and put her pen to paper, she didn’t stop until in her mind the poem had closure. Now, I can’t vouch that this is how she wrote every single poem she ever wrote, but it wouldn’t surprise me. A lot of poets have stop-and-go fits of inspiration; they revise and revise (Yeats was an example of a “serial revisionist”), and really sweat to find the right ending. Linda didn’t sweat — to put it mildly.

I knew one other person who wrote in this manner, but without achieving Linda’s quality. She also had some of the same mental-health problems and addictions, coupled with high energy and difficulty revising (since a poem was strictly “in the moment”). She produced poems by the hundreds.

I am not writing this to demonstrate, as if more demonstration were needed, that there is a link between creativity and the bipolar disorder — or maybe we should speak about the “bipolar spectrum.” Obviously, “there are so many madmen who are not artists.” And one doesn’t have to be bipolar to be creative. Yet being mildly — I emphasize ‘mildly’ — manic seems to help, at least when it comes to sheer productivity.

(But to complicate matters, many poets claim that for them being mildly depressed is inspiring. Some are downright afraid that happiness — a happy relationship, for instance — will ruin their creativity and deprive them of material.)

Like a lot of creative people who are also bipolar, Linda would go off her mood-stabilizing meds because he didn’t like normalcy. She felt the drugs “blunted” her, making it impossible to feel enthusiastic about anything — not even a sumptuous Pacific sunset. She didn’t care to be the efficient, mundane, down-to-earth person much like her very competent and practical mother. Not surprisingly, Linda enjoyed flying high and being artistic. She loved her “happy times.” And during those times, she had the happiest smile. She looked radiant.

But the “happy times” lasted only so long. Pleasant euphoria would shift into over-excitement leading to insomnia, overspending, and other out-of-control behavior. One of Linda’s sorrows was that she’d never known lasting love; her relationships were too turbulent to be lasting.

Here is an excerpt of one of Linda’s poems that her audiences loved. It starts with her mother teaching her about vacuum cleaner attachments and how to vacuum properly. But the gist of it is the difference between mother and daughter:

“I’d rather be an efficient devil than an inefficient angel,” Mother proclaimed.
Yet she’d birthed a dreamer, a throwback to her mother who fled housework
to fish, napped two hours after lunch like an orchard of slowly fruiting trees.

We were seeking different kinds of order. She wanted perfection, nothing less —
immaculate mattresses sans “body ash,” dead skin flakes that sift through sheets;
everything in place — heavenly stasis — polished, put away, gleaming and clean.

I loved storms, fast-moving clouds, wind shaking its fist through leaves.”


To do justice to Linda’s mother, Margaret Brown did more than just clean the house. She loved gardening — that was her art. And Linda did have poems that were an homage to her mother, remembering the mother’s amazing resilience, her ability to remain undefeated no matter what life threw at her. One of her two sons committed suicide, and Linda was of course a difficult daughter, occasionally even becoming psychotic. Margaret, always supportive, soldiered on into her eighties.


Why is being mildly manic apparently good for creativity? Both energy and brain function are involved. There’s more to it than dopamine, but if you increase dopamine through drugs or falling in love, creative output tends to go up — including people who pick up the brush or pen for the first time ever. At the same time, we need the usual caveat: not everyone on dopaminergic drugs experiences a creative flowering. It’s not as easy as that.

Quality is another matter. Writers who use uppers often end up crashing — the opening of the novel may be brilliant, but the last chapters fizzle (P.K. Dick was a classic example). And the price can ultimately be horrendous, including an early death.

Ah, the brain, the brain. It may be too complex ever to understand its own function. Remember that we still can’t even define consciousness, much less explain it. Who knows, perhaps we are like those ancient people who tried very hard to figure out where the sun went for the night because they had no idea that the earth rotates on its axis.

Christian Schloe


“Energy, drive, cockeyed optimism, entrepreneurial and religious zeal, Yankee ingenuity, messianism, and arrogance—these traits have long been attributed to an “American character.” But given how closely they overlap with the hypomanic profile, they might be better understood as expressions of an American temperament, shaped in large part by our rich concentration of hypomanic genes.

If a scientist wanted to design a giant petri dish with all the right nutrients to make hypomanic genius flourish, he would be hard-pressed to imagine a better natural experiment than America. A “nation of immigrants” represents a highly skewed and unusual “self-selected” population. Do men and women who risk everything to leap into a new world differ temperamentally from those who stay home? It would be surprising if they didn’t. “Immigrants are unusual people,” wrote James Jaspers in Restless Nation. Only one out of a hundred people emigrate, and they tend to be imbued “with special drive, ambition and talent.”

A small empirical literature suggests that there are elevated rates of manic-depressive disorder among immigrants, regardless of what country they are moving from or to. America, a nation of immigrants, has higher rates of mania than every other country studied (with the possible exception of New Zealand, which topped the United States in one study). In fact, the top three countries with the most manics—America, New Zealand, and Canada—are all nations of immigrants. Asian countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, which have absorbed very few immigrants, have the lowest rates of bipolar disorder. Europe is in the middle, in both its rate of immigrant absorption and its rate of mania. As expected, the percentage of immigrants in a population correlates with the percentage of manics in their gene pool.

While we have no cross-cultural studies of hypomania, we can infer that we would find increased levels of hypomania among immigrant-rich nations like America, since mania and hypomania run together in the same families. Hypomanics are ideally suited by temperament to become immigrants. If you are an impulsive, optimistic, high-energy risk taker, you are more likely to undertake a project that requires a lot of energy, entails a lot of risk, and might seem daunting if you thought about it too much.

America has drawn hypomanics like a magnet. This wide-open land with seemingly infinite horizons has been a giant Rorschach on which they could project their oversized fantasies of success, an irresistible attraction for restless, ambitious people feeling hemmed in by native lands with comparatively fewer opportunities.”


Is there a dark side to the hypomanic exuberance? There is, of course, the danger that the risk-taking and reckless optimism will lead to a collision with reality. But people who are genetically inclined to be risk-takers also seem very resilient. A week later the disaster is forgotten and they are already pursuing a new project.

It was a friend of mine who put her finger on what I see as the truly dark side of mania: “Manic people are shallow.” She said “manic” rather than “hypomanic,” but I think it applies especially to the non-stop go-go-go hypomanics.

Is Donald Trump hypomanic? One could argue that he is a classic example. One give-away: his self-reported low need for sleep. He is the go-go-go type.

Only a minority of people are truly hypomanic. However, it's a significant minority because those individuals are so active.

It's not really a disorder. Hypomania is not the same as “bipolar.” Hypomanics may have bipolar relatives, but they themselves are spared the ravages of the syndrome. If their elevated mood does crash, their depression tends to be mild and fleeting. But let’s remember the dark side: shallowness.

I realize that others would prefer to single out narcissism, arrogance, insufficient self-control, tendency to talk too much and insult others, never apologizing, never feeling sorry, and so on. These are indeed real problems, but for me they are secondary to that lack of depth of seems to go hand-in-hand with being “chronically happy” — especially if that chronic good cheer is achieved only through never slowing down.

Someone once told me, “Speed is the national drug.” Could this be related to excessive “pursuit of happiness”? Contentment seems to be a more desirable state, more conducive to depth.

Linda’s greatest wish was for serenity.

Half Moon Bay, Sabi Baral


“Love triggers dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. That's why it's so motivating. But happy chemicals come in spurts. They do their job by turning off after they turn on. When your happy chemicals dip, you might interpret it as a loss of love. That turns a natural fluctuation into a crisis. You are better off knowing why love makes happy chemicals go up and down.

DOPAMINE brings about that great feeling you get when you find your missing keys. It's the neurochemical that evolved for seeking and finding. Animals sniff around for food and mating opportunities, and when they find something that meets their needs, dopamine surges. But the surge is brief. Dopamine does its job by dropping after it rises, so it'll ready to alert you to the next chance to meet your needs—and so you'll be sure to pay attention.

When you find your keys, you don't expect that great dopamine feeling to last. But when you find "the one," your body may produce so much dopamine that you assume you'll soar forever. When it finally subsides, you wonder what's wrong. You might even blame "the one" for having changed.

OXYTOCIN is the neurochemical that causes trust. It's released during orgasm, and in smaller amounts when you hold hands. In animals, it's released when mothers lick their babies. Oxytocin is the good feeling of a common cause, whether a political rally, a football huddle, or thieves with a plan.

Reptiles release oxytocin during sex, but mammals produce it all the time. That's why reptiles stay away from other reptiles except when mating, while mammals form long-term attachments to relatives and herds. The more oxytocin you release when you're with a person, the more attached you'll feel. More touch = more oxytocin = more trust.

Getting respect feels good because it stimulates SEROTONIN. In the animal world, social dominance brings more mating opportunity—and more surviving offspring.

Your brain always wants more respect to generate more serotonin. Your loved one may give you that feeling at first, by respecting you or helping you feel respected by others. But eventually your brain begins to take the respect you already have for granted. It wants more, so it can get more good feelings. That's why some people constantly make more demands on their loved ones, and why others constantly seek out higher-status partners.

Happy chemicals give us information that's hard to interpret. For example, if I watch a football game and burst with excitement when my team scores, I see thousands of others share my reaction. It feels like they understand me. Why doesn't my partner understand me when thousands of others do? The answer is simple. SPECTATOR SPORTS TRIGGER OXYTOCIN, AS DO
OTHER GROUP ACTIVITIES SUCH AS POLITICS AND RELIGION. You get a good feeling of trust. Of course, trusting a large number of people in a limited way is not the same as trusting one person in a comprehensive way. But to your mammal brain, it's all the same oxytocin.

We want all the happy chemicals we can get. You expect some from romance, and some from other aspects of life. But no matter where you get them, happy chemicals sag after they spurt. When you know why, you can manage your behavior despite the confusing neurochemical signals.

There's good news here. Don't blame yourself or your partner if you're not high on a happy chemicals all the time. Maybe nothing is wrong. You are just living with the operating system that has kept mammals alive for millions of years.”

Hong Kong in the rain



“It’s one of my favorite Darwin quotes—"He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke"—scribbled furtively in a notebook between visits to the London Zoo in the summer of 1838. Twenty-one years would pass before On the Origin of Species would shock the world, but Darwin already knew: If man wanted to comprehend his mind, he’d need to train an unflustered gaze into the deep caverns of his animal past.” ~ Oren Harman


The man who probably understands baboons better than anyone is Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist who spent a lot of time studying one particular troop (from Wikipedia: After initial year-and-a-half field study in Africa, [Sapolsky] returned every summer for another twenty-five years to observe the same group of baboons, from the late 70s to the early 90s. He spent 8 to 10 hours a day for approximately four months each year recording the behaviors of these primates].

The story is that of a “tragedy”: the alpha males, the bullies of the troop, all died after eating TB-infected meat. What happened later is what makes me want to cheer: without the bullies, the health and well-being of the troop markedly improved. The levels of cortisol went down, and with them high blood pressure and other markers of stress and inflammation. Secure from aggression and harassment, the surviving animals were thriving. But the most striking result of this stress reduction was a “cultural” change toward cooperation and affection. Occasionally a male from another troop would join, and after a while adopt the non-aggressive ways.

Remove the bullies, and everyone benefits. In human cultures, this should start with zero tolerance for child abuse and abuse of women. Safe from abuse, a mother can provide more and better nurturing for her children. Stroking, grooming, speaking in a soft voice. It all starts there.

The title of this post was inspired by Shelley’s “The great secret of morals is love.” But for love to flourish — and by love I don’t mean the storms of romantic passion but mutual nurturing — there has to be enough freedom from stress. Under heavy stress, the goal is sheer survival. Love — or call it nurturing affection — grows and blossoms when stress is down to manageable levels.

Robert Sapolsky and friend

 ending on beauty

I beg you have no fear of silence
silence is eloquent
hatred yells roars barks and howls
love smiles and keeps silent
it’s waiting for you

~ Tadeusz Różewicz, tr Oriana

from the Polish website “You don’t read? Then I won’t go to bed with you”

Dali, Meditative Rose

Saturday, February 20, 2016


The amorous sky curved over the earth
        and lay upon her as a lover.

                       ~ Aeschylous, The Danaides

The best-selling author, a former monk,
has promised to speak about sex.
The end of the lecture is drawing near:
he’s still trying to define
the difference between soul and spirit.
A middle-aged, conservatively dressed
woman in the front row begins
to rock in her seat back and forth,
demanding, “Sex! Sex! Sex!”

The ex-monk blushes. He begins:
“Sex is the archetype of life.
‘I feel totally alive,’ you say
as the world wakes up in your arms.
Sex is a messenger of life,

saying despair is beside the point:
it continues, the banquet of life.
You think you want a new lover,
but what you really want
is a new life.” 

He quotes Dante:
“In the book of my memory
stands a chapter headed
Incipit vita nova:
Here begins the new life.”

Vita nova. Enter Beatrice.
The hunger for a lover
is the hunger for a new life.

“But,” the speaker cautions,
“there is the drive to couple,
and the drive to uncouple.
It’s possible to be married
and yet to satisfy the need
not to be married.” The former

would-be “father,” now father of two,
continues: “I strongly advise against
more communication in marriage.
Sex is a mystery, transgressive.
You need to invoke Aphrodite.
She is the Muse of Sex.
She’s also the goddess of affairs.
A new lover may or may not be
the entrance to a new life.”

Will we share a private language,
will we need an alibi

this is what Aphrodite sings,
faithful only to herself.

But what is Aphrodite,
that shimmering metaphor?
Aphrodite the lover of laughter,
subtle serpent and the dove?
Always faithful to herself,
Aphrodite is the soul.

A tall, skinny man in the back row
rises like a steeple:
“You are speaking totally
from a male point of view.”
“Of course,” the ex-monk replies.
“I wouldn’t presume
to speak from a female point of view.”

A tiny gray-haired lady stands up:
“Thank you for a wonderful lecture.
I also love the way you blush.”
— “Freud said that blushing
is an erection of the head,”
the speaker jokes. Laughter and applause,
then crashing echoes,

the faithful and unfaithful
filing from the wooden pews.
We walk out of the soulless cathedral
of Saint Paul, the celibate apostle,
into the blushing, Aphroditic sunset,
and set off in search of a new life.

~ Oriana, © 2016

I am reposting this poem because of the main theme of this blog — the seemingly unsolvable dilemma of marriage and fidelity. I mean fidelity in the broad sense, not just sexual monogamy, or, in the case of priestly celibacy, no sex. Is being in love, one of the most powerful human experiences, not a breach of fidelity and celibacy as long as there is no physical sex? Could verbal tenderness be more subversive than a thousand orgasms? What insanity of useless suffering have we gotten ourselves into?

The poem was inspired by attending a lecture by Thomas Moore, author of  a one-time best-seller, “The Care of the Soul.” Moore not only made more money than any other author writing about the non-materialistic needs of the soul (that elusive, undefinable, always shifting inner essence), for instance the need for beauty and deep feeling, for poetry and music and good food; the piquant thing about Moore was that he was an ex-monk who said that he was a “deep Catholic,” just the kind who renounced his vows and embraced the sacredness of this life.

The lecture was unremarkable until the very end, when Moore mentioned “the need to be married and the need not to be married.” Aphrodite was mentioned — the goddess of love, but not the goddess of marriage: more so, the goddess of affairs. Are affairs all bad? How come that those who’ve had an affair almost universally say, “I suddenly felt so ALIVE”? How come people don’t seem to regret having had an affair, even if genuinely sorry about having caused hurt to the spouse?

No answers are going to be completely satisfying. Perhaps accepting both pain and pleasure is the only imperfect solution.

Caravaggio: detail from “Rest on the Flight into Egypt”


"Hundreds of letters and photographs that tell the story of Pope John Paul II's close relationship with a married woman, which lasted more than 30 years, have been shown to the BBC.

The letters to Polish-born American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka had been kept away from public view in the National Library of Poland for years.

The documents reveal a rarely seen side of the pontiff, who died in 2005.

There is no suggestion the Pope broke his vow of celibacy.

The friendship began in 1973 when Ms Tymieniecka contacted the future Pope, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, then Archbishop of Krakow, about a book on philosophy that he had written.

The then 50-year-old travelled from the US to Poland to discuss the work.

She appeared to have revealed intense feelings for him because his letters immediately afterwards suggest a man struggling to make sense of their friendship in Christian terms.

In one, dated September 1976, he writes: "My dear Teresa, I have received all three letters. You write about being torn apart, but I could find no answer to these words."

He describes her as a "gift from God”.

Marsha Malinowski, a rare manuscripts dealer who negotiated the sale of the letters, says she believes Ms Tymieniecka fell in love with Cardinal Wojtyla in the early days of their relationship. "I think that it's completely reflected in the correspondence," she told the BBC.

Cardinal Wojtyla had a number of female friends, including Wanda Poltawska, a psychiatrist with whom he also corresponded for decades.

But his letters to Ms Tymieniecka are at times more intensely emotional, sometimes wrestling with the meaning of their relationship."


'I belong to you'

"I think there are some serious questions about the relationship," says religious affairs commentator Clifford Longley.

"My first reaction is, seeing it from her husband's point of view, I certainly wouldn't be relaxed about the whole thing.

"My impression was that she was in love with [the Pope]. That should have been a warning for him to back off, but it does not appear that he did.”

Celibacy is not strictly only about not engaging in sexual encounters, Clifford Longley says.

Hurt and disruption can be caused as much by an emotional relationship as a physical one, he adds.

For some Catholic leaders and commentators, the story will be another example of the need for the current rule mandating priestly celibacy to change.

Celibacy is a discipline not a doctrine or dogma — religious beliefs or principles — so the Church is free to alter that practice if or when it believes this is necessary.

Jesus' surviving words in the Gospels include very little about sex, and the shift towards celibacy within Christian practice came later, in part because of remarks in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. It was re-affirmed from the Second Century as some men and women began living celibate lives as monks and nuns.

Since the 11th Century, the Roman Catholic Church has required priests to remain celibate, while other churches, including the Eastern Orthodox churches, have permitted married men to be ordained.

But some Catholic leaders and commentators have called for a rethink. Former priests have said it is not just the physical aspect of remaining celibate that they struggled with, but the loneliness.
With Anna on a camping trip, 1978


The emotional cruelty of denying a human being the possibility of love is regarded by the Holy See as a necessary sacrifice so that priests are “married to the church.” Historically, we know that, aside from the abhorrence of sex, the question of inheritance was involved, the church trying to prevent estate, if any, from going to the priest’s heirs (should he be allowed to have legitimate children).

The Reformation did away with priestly celibacy, arguing it signified a degradation of marriage and, since it also meant a forced abstinence, it was a major reason for widespread clerical sexual misconduct. I also see this as the case of what Nietzsche called “a hangman’s metaphysics”: by creating a rule that was extremely difficult not to break, the church essentially made sure that the rule would be broken, and the priest would then feel guilt and shame. Men who feel they are “fallen” are more likely be stay meek and silent, obedient to their superiors.

It’s interesting that the Reformation, which came up with “total depravity” and “limited election,” nevertheless managed to undo the idea that marriage was inferior to virginity, and that a minister would be defiled by marital sex.

A lot of scripture-based aversion to sex had to be overcome in permitting Protestant clergy to get married and thus to have sex. For instance in Matthew 19:12 we read: “Some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and there are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

The modern reader is likely to squirm reading this passage. We are not comfortable with castration, even if voluntary. To be sure, physical castration is a literal reading; it can always be softened through a metaphorical reading: let us not have sex for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

And since a loving relationship might lead to sex, it’s best to go into the wilderness and devote oneself to prayer. Except that’s just when sexual fantasies are likely to descend as never before. The desert air will undulate with naked women — sent by Satan, of course.

Against that psychopathology, it does seem astonishing that Protestants came to their senses in at least one aspect of religious life.

The Eastern Orthodox churches never fell into this insanity — only the highest ranking priests were supposed to stay unmarried because this was somehow more holy. But at least most priests were granted access to normalcy, and could experience the joys and ordeals of family life. 
With Anna at the Vatican


Lately there have been more and more protest against the Catholic celibacy rule from within the church. One high-ranking Vatican official left to marry an art historian with whom he’d already had a son. Another left for a relationship with a male partner, announcing at a press conference that it was cruel of the church to sentence anyone to a life without love. The number of priests and nuns who have left the church mainly in order to get married should come as no surprise — after all, the desire for love and connection is a fundamental human need.

St. Paul’s preference for celibacy and his triumphant claim that there is no marriage in heaven should be understood in the context of his expecting an imminent Second Coming. Two thousand years of no Second Coming has implications far beyond celibacy — but celibacy might be a place to start. 

Few doubt the benefits of having a loving relationship. The right to love seems to be an essential human right. Yet Catholicism has insisted that the clergy remain unmarried and sexless — for reasons that in reality are far from spiritual, in spite of the high-sounding official explanations.

Pope John Paul 2 certainly wasn’t about to abdicate the papacy in order to be with Anna. But he did let her know how special she was to him by giving her something very personal: the little scapular (a kind of devotional pendant) that he’d received as his first communion gift. You could say that it was like giving her the ring — symbolically, of course.

Anna’s letters have been withheld from the public — could it be that they contain verbal tenderness, simple phrases such as “my dearest” or “my love”? How sad it seems, that one of the best things about being human, our ability to deeply love another person, would be seen as needing to be suppressed.

All this could make a wonderful movie, if handled with subtlety. The pope was no doubt a major love object for more than one woman, and knew how to keep these women (especially Anna) in love while withholding what maybe both of them fantasized about, but were wise enough to know it was impossible.

Given the burden of his office, I am glad that he had the emotional support of someone who greatly cared for him. True, I wish the Catholic church would vanish from the earth, since it does vastly more harm than good. But as long as it exists, it’s better than the pope should receive love than be the kind of bitter person that a man (or woman) with a loveless life can easily turn into. Then dogmatism and lack of compassion could really flourish.

At the same time we can’t help but feel sorry for Anna — and for the many women who fall in love with priests and other men we’d describe as inaccessible. But it’s no surprise that women fall for charismatic men, and charismatic priests have always been erotic magnets. And professors, male writers and poets (it doesn’t seem to work for women), male artists of all kinds, and all kinds of other “inappropriate” love objects.

Such men are good at using language (or the language of art), which for some reason makes a woman think: This is my male twin. A delusion, of course, but it makes the heart beat faster. Romantic love is largely narcissistic in that we need to see ourselves in our love object.

One last thought: before we pity Anna for having fallen in love with the pope, and wish she’d either been a devoted wife to her husband, or else found a man who could provide a more complete relationship, let’s not forget that she did find a soul mate. She did have a rich love life— not in the physical sense, but in the sense of “mind sex.” The intellect has an erotic dimension. To a smart woman, there is hardly anything as sexy as intelligence responsive to her own.


There is a broader issue here, one that goes beyond the celibacy of priests, monks, and nuns. That issue is more explosive to the conventional mores. It’s the issue of loveless (and often sexless) marriages. We admire couples who stay together and don’t ask if each partner might be better off with someone else, or single and free to have or not to have another relationship. (The joy of being single is finally being noticed — and even celebrated.)

If we publicly admit what Edith Piaf sang about — “le droit d’aimer” — the right to love — then a closer look at monogamy is almost inevitable.

Married couples who continue to love each other and stay together for lifetime will probably continue to be the cultural ideal — and that’s fine. But should we condemn the kind of less-than-ideal marriage where the couple stay together for the sake of the children, but give each other the freedom to lead separate lives — including having another partner who is more of a soulmate? This already goes on, but with a load of guilt. What if the practice remained discreet in order to avoid the unavoidable hurt of jealousy — “Don’t ask, don’t tell” — and gained social acceptance?

This seems to be the view of Esther Perel, author of “Mating in Captivity,” who thinks it’s high time to stop demonizing extramarital relationships. There are two sides to serious affairs: the hurt and betrayal, but also the personal growth and the discovery of a new self. Perel points out a new double standard when she asks, “How come we think that when a man has an affair it’s out of boredom and fear of intimacy, but when a woman has an affair, it’s out of a deep hunger for emotional intimacy?”

And what about the unfunny joke about someone going into therapy in order to improve his or her marriage, and ending up developing a really satisfying relationship with the therapist? After all, the client wanted someone sensitive and supportive . . . someone who’d listen instead of criticizing . . . someone intellectually stimulating rather than mundane . . . 

There is the need for touch, for laughter, for escape from the crushing practicalities. The need to feel entirely oneself, to say whatever comes to one’s mind. The need to taste strange new dishes in ethnic restaurants, and see movies that one’s spouse wouldn’t be interested in seeing.

Ah, that familiar need for someone who has similar interests  . . .  But how come we didn’t marry someone with similar interests? Perhaps originally we did, but fifteen years later we may have developed a different set of interests and are no longer the same person. I’ve heard both men and women say of their early adulthood, “I wasn’t yet me.” It takes time to become more fully oneself.

Ideally, one’s need for emotional and intellectual companionship would be satisfied in marriage, and perhaps in the beginning they were. Then the partners changed. Add to this yet another factor: dailiness prevailed.

The modern trend is not brief “casual” affairs, but long-term emotional and erotic intimacy. We wish that such intimacy would persist between spouses, but reality is often different. Some spouses turn out to be excellent practical partners and good parents, but after a while all they have in common is the practical matters (definitely important!) and the children (absolutely important!). Articles on “Ten Ways to Keep Romance in Marriage” begin with the assumption that marriage is, somewhow, about romance. Or should be. Perhaps it’s time to drop the denial and the hypocrisy, and rethink marriage.

Do we hold it against Dante that he celebrated a married woman, Beatrice, and not his own wife?

Not that there isn’t a lot to be said for marriage. 

While the sexual potency of various pagan gods is seen as part of their power and glory, Yahweh — at least once monotheism was established — was presented as sexless, even though he’s unquestionably male. As I argue in a previous blog, Yahweh does appear to have a body, just as the pagan gods had perfect and immortal bodies:

But Yahweh’s body is described in a rather restrained manner. He has hands and feet, a backside, and presumably a mouth (he kisses Moses — the “kiss of death” that sucks out the breath of life out of Moses). If he can walk and talk, then presumably he has the kind of anatomy that makes it possible. In spite of the prevalent assumption about a long gray beard, there is no reference to a beard. More important, there is no reference to genitals — though if humans were created in the image of god, then both male and female genitals should be present, and breasts too. A problem, yes, but given all the confusion and contradictions that are found in the bible, this may be minor — relatively speaking.

We sense there is something more fundamental involved here. While many ancient cultures glorified sex, especially male sexuality, here we find ambivalence at best (e.g. being ashamed of nakedness, which never occurred to the Greeks). Worse: sex is unclean. It’s defiling.

Blood was defiling, especially menstrual blood of course, but all blood by association. Touching a dead body was defiling — “whoever touches a corpse shall be unclean for seven days.” Childbirth was defiling. The discharge of semen was defiling, even without contact with a woman. Procreation was certainly seen in a positive light, but sex made you ritually unclean. Obviously the deity could not engage in such a disgusting activity.

There is a lot of sex in the bible, but Yahweh has none.

Jesus, being an ideal human being, even before being deified, could not be presented as having sex either. There may be a troublesome suggestion in the person of John as “the beloved disciple.” Was Jesus gay? But that’s only a suspicion at best. The main message is that Jesus had no sex. He was even conceived without sex, through some strange doings of the Holy Ghost that did not interfere with Mary’s virginity.

So the requirement that priests (and monks and nuns) be sexless — they mustn’t even think about it — is in keeping with the negative view of sex that goes back to the remote past. If the deity is male but never has sex then this is obviously the ideal.

Angels likewise don’t have sex, though there is the strange passage describing how some angels (“sons of god”) found “daughters of men” so attractive that they did descend from heaven and have sex with them, fathering a race of giants (Nephilim) (Genesis 6:1-4). This was not something my catechism nun ever told us about. But then the bible is full of off-color stories, as I was to discover later.

Along with those stories, however, the message was clear: Yahweh was sexless, as was Jesus, as were the angels. As a Catholic, you should be too, virginity being a higher state than matrimony and parenthood. But given the fallen nature of humanity, sex — for procreation only, never for pleasure — had to be allowed within marriage. But priests represented Christ, so they had to be male and sexless. Oddly enough, they didn’t have to be Jewish.

a break for comic relief 


It’s fascinating to see one New Testament scholar after another discover something subversive while reading the text in Greek. James Tabor, for instance, confirms that Christianity is really Paulianity (not his term, but a commentator’s; still, it fits). Paul’s far-out hellenized theology didn’t quite survive in pure form. Nevertheless, having undergone its own peculiar evolution, it influenced Martin Luther among others.

~ “Paul is the most influential person in human history. I have in mind, of course, the West in particular. The foundations of Western civilization, from our assumptions about reality to our societal and personal ethics, rest upon the heavenly visions and apparitions of a single man -- the apostle Paul. We are all cultural heirs of Paul. In contrast, Jesus as a historical figure -- that is, a Jewish Messiah of his own time who sought to see the kingdom of God established on earth -- has been largely lost to our culture. In this holiday season, it is worth taking pause and thinking a bit about the historical origins of the Christian faith, and how much it depends on St. Paul.

Visit any church service, Roman Catholic, Protestant or Greek Orthodox, and it is the apostle Paul and his ideas that are central — in the hymns, the creeds, the sermons, the invocation and benediction, and of course, the rituals of baptism and the Holy Communion or Mass. Whether birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage or death, it is predominantly Paul who is evoked to express meaning and significance.

The fundamental doctrinal tenets of Christianity, namely that Christ is God "born in the flesh," that his sacrificial death atones for the sins of humankind, and that his resurrection from the dead guarantees eternal life to all who believe, can be traced back to Paul — not to Jesus. Indeed, the spiritual union with Christ through baptism, as well as the "communion" with his body and blood through the sacred meal of bread and wine, also trace back to Paul. This is the Christianity most familiar to us, with the creeds and confessions that separated it from Judaism and put it on the road to becoming a new religion.

It was not until seven years after Jesus' death, around A.D. 37, that Paul reports his initial apparition of “Christ,” whom he identifies with Jesus raised from the dead. He asks his followers when challenged for his credentials: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” equating his visionary experience with that of those who had known Jesus face-to-face (1 Corinthians 9:1). Paul's claim to have “seen” Jesus, as well as the teachings he says he received directly from Jesus, came after Jesus' lifetime, and can be categorized as subjective clairvoyant experiences (Galatians 1:12, 18; 2:1; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10). These “revelations” were not a one-time experience of “conversion,”  but a phenomenon that continued over the course of Paul's life. Paul confesses that he does not comprehend the nature of these ecstatic spiritual experiences, whether they were “in the body, or out of the body” but he believed that the voice he heard, the figure he saw and the messages he received were encounters with the heavenly Christ (2 Corinthians 12:2-3).

We must imagine a "Christianity before Paul" that existed independently of his influence or ideas for more than 20 years, as well as a Christianity preached by Paul, which developed independently of Jesus' original apostles and followers.

I have spent my 30-year career as a scholar of Christian Origins investigating the silence between two back-to-back statements of the Apostles' Creed, namely that Jesus was: "Conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary," and that he "Was crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day He rose again from the dead."

Is it not striking that this oldest and most foundational Christian creed jumps from Jesus' birth to his death and resurrection, entirely skipping over his life?

How did it happen that the way Jesus came into the world, and how he left — Christmas and Easter — came to define Christianity itself? Here Catholics, mainstream Protestants and evangelicals all agree. To be a Christian is to believe in the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, and thus to participate in the salvation Christ brought to the world as God-in-the-flesh.

Fortunately, in the letter of James, attributed to the brother of Jesus, as well as in a collection of the sayings of Jesus now embedded in the Gospel of Luke (the source scholars call Q), we can still get a glimpse of the original teachings of Jesus.

What we get in the letter of James is the most direct possible link to the Jewish teachings of Jesus himself. James is quite sure that the "Judge" is standing at the door, and that the kingdom of God has drawn very near (James 5:7). He warns the rich and those who oppress the weak that very soon the judgment of God will strike.

For James the Christian message is not the person of Jesus but the message that Jesus proclaimed. James' letter lacks a single teaching that is characteristic of the apostle Paul and it draws nothing at all from the Gospel narratives. What we have preserved in this precious document is a reflection of the original apocalyptic proclamation of Jesus: the "Gospel of the kingdom of God" with its political and social implications."


There is no controversy over this: Paul never met Jesus except in his visions (hallucinations? trance-like cogitations?). The life of historical Jesus as witnessed by the disciples did not seem to interest him, nor did the sayings of Jesus as remembered by the disciples. He was devoted only to his own personal “risen Christ” and the messages he was receiving through his visions.

It seems (though there IS some controversy over this matter) that Paul understood the Resurrection not as the resuscitation of a corpse, but as a “metamorphosis,” the soul being embodied in a new and perfect spirit body, a supernatural body, the resurrected person having become a heavenly being. In an odd way, this possibly “explains” why the resurrected Jesus is not instantly recognized — his appearance is different (if we follow Paul’s fantasy). And besides, there is reason to believe that Paul imagined his celestial Christ to have been killed by demons “in the upper realm” (in another place Paul mentions having been teleported to the “third heaven”).

And this personal “heavenly Christ” is the only Christ that matters to Paul. Not Jesus the social revolutionary, nor Jesus the nationalist  zealot, nor even Jesus the apocalyptic preacher. Only the Christ of his own visions has authority.

Did Paul suffer from psychotic episodes? Was mental illness the “thorn in the flesh” he alludes to? Anyone who has known schizophrenics knows that they may be lucid for substantial periods of time, during which they can be completely functional — even brilliant. 

So what’s left? As I said in the previous post, the principle of forgiveness as opposed to revenge — and it’s so odd that everyone’s favorite story here, the woman taken in adultery, turns out to be missing in the earliest manuscripts and was added by a later scribe — which could be called forgery, but so what? Talk about the power of a story!

And one more thing for which I am grateful: the kingdom of heaven is within you. It’s not “out there” (though being in nature may help). It’s a blissful state of mind (for me this includes the enjoyment of beauty and creative work). Others may have said in a different fashion that heaven was within, but not as succinctly (e.g. Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make / a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”)

Now, that saying may be based on a mistranslation. Some scholars say that the intended meaning was “among you”: the person of Jesus, the Messiah, is already among you. But so what? I’ll take the mistranslation any time — “heaven” is within; it’s a state of mind. Such are the ironies of helpful beliefs.

Thus, in my contemplation of the ruins of Christianity, I see at least two things that have influenced me deeply and which I find worth preserving.

Tintoretto: Woman Taken in Adultery

“When we read of ancient civilizations there are many mysteries. One perennial question is how societies with (supposedly) no technology, no system of writing, and no known system of calculating managed to develop the mathematical ability to calculate movements of stars and planets? There is overwhelming evidence that (many) early civilizations did this with great precision; we have not surpassed them until quite recently.

One question I’ve never seen asked in that context is this:  Is there reason to think those early mathematicians and engineers were autistic?

For example, Isaac Newton is widely believed to have been autistic based on accounts of his behavior, and his own written words.  Today we know Newton for setting down a description of calculus.  Some say he invented calculus, but there are many autistics (me included) who can manipulate waveforms in our heads, and the written calculus may just be a way to share that ability with others.  If that's true in Newton's case as well, then what he did was lay out for others an ability he was born with.  In that sense, he didn't invent anything.  Instead, he described his different way of thinking.

But that’s “Newton now.” In his time, Newton wrote considerably more on theology and religion than he did on science.  In his day he was more known as a theologian than a mathematician. When we go back in time, we find most scientists and deep thinkers were supported by churches.  Prior to 1800, churches were the world’s centers of logic, reason, and abstract and scientific thought.

With that in mind, we can find many descriptions of autistic behaviors alongside the achievements of early churchmen. We even find evidence of accommodation. For that, look no farther than the silent orders of monks, or the reflective orders that spent their days in cool shade.  Today we’d call that sensory-friendly. What did that call it then? It’s reasonable to ask how far back that connection may reach.  York University archaeologist Penny Spikins posits that sustainable autistic traits made their appearance in the human genome some 100,000 years ago.

With that in mind, we can find many descriptions of autistic behaviors alongside the achievements of early churchmen. We even find evidence of accommodation. For that, look no farther than the silent orders of monks, or the reflective orders that spent their days in cool shade.  Today we’d call that sensory-friendly.  What did that call it then? It’s reasonable to ask how far back that connection may reach.  York University archaeologist Penny Spikins posits that sustainable autistic traits made their appearance in the human genome some 100,000 years ago.

Archaeologists ask why early societies needed such complex and far-reaching calendar systems.  While that is a good question, a more interesting question (to me at least) might be, what kind of person could build and run such a calendar?

To find that answer, we need only turn to the autism community. Psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald has studied calendar calculating abilities and other savant skills. He’s found that calendar skills are almost exclusively the province of certain autistic people. In his experience the people with the greatest calendar skills were often quite disabled in present society, but they could tell you the moon phase or day of the week for any date 500 years in the past or present with complete accuracy.

The historians say, "there was no evidence they had math" and they may well be right. They didn’t need math. They had autistics.


While I associate religion chiefly with schizophrenia, this article opened my eyes a certain compatibility between religion and autism as well.

ending on beauty

Saturday, February 13, 2016



Let not the rash marble risk
garrulous breach of omnipotent oblivion,
in many words recalling
name, renown, events, birthplace.
All those glass beads are best left in the dark.
Let not the marble say what men may not.

The essentials of the dead man’s life —
the trembling hope,
the implacable miracle of pain,
the wonder of sensual delight —
will abide forever.

Blindly the willful soul asks for length of days
when its survival is assured by the lives of others.
You yourself are the embodied continuance
of those who did not live into your time
and others who will be (and are) your immortality on earth.

~ Jorge Luis Borges, tr. W.S. Merwin

Borges was such a “singular” man (I mean it in the sense of unusual, exceptional -- but the word insists on its most common meaning) that it’s striking how he doesn’t buy “individualism.” He does not insist on his “exceptionalism.” Simply because we are human, we are not isolated individuals; we are humanity. We pass as the water in the river passes, but the river remains.

This realization may have come to Borges in part from his life among books. He realized that his mind is a tapestry of the endless volumes he’s read, influences he’d absorbed. From there it’s only a step to seeing oneself as part of the larger human community across time, and of the human continuum.

His acceptance of the collective mind set Borges apart from those writers in his generation who insisted on the cult of the artist as completely separate and alienated. But Borges communed with great writers across time, and knew he was part of a continuum.

This is not to deny the uniqueness of each of us, something we bring to the universe only once. “There will never be another you.” In the Western culture in particular, everyone has had at least moments of feeling so different from others that loneliness threatens to overwhelm: no one really knows me, so how can they love the “real me.” Never mind that the “real me” is so elusive, so . . . unreal. Even our memories are not fully ours, but a collage of we absorbed in all kinds of ways, including books and movies.

If we were words, each person would be an oxymoron: a collective individual. A single individual has no meaning apart from his social context. As Christian Wiman said, “Experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others.”

It took me a while to get beyond adolescent “individualism” and see that indeed “no man is an island.” The meaning of our lives is in how we touch the lives of others.

As Borges reminds us: others are and will be our immortality, here on earth.

The tomb of Borges in Geneva. The inscription, in Old Icelandic, says, “Be not afraid.” 


For most of the time since the seventeenth century, Britain and its growing empire were run by graduates of the ancient universities. The main studies at those universities were the classics. That means that the British governing class was brought up on the literature, philosophy and history of classical civilization — ancient Greece and Rome. This was a fine education — in government, military strategy, ethics, political theory, examples of good and bad rule, management of an empire, social conditions, how to mitigate popular unrest, educational theory, institutions of law, and much besides. Aristotle and Cicero, Homer. Aeschylus and Vergil, the ancient myths and legends, the examples of Horatio and Mucius Scaevola, had as much if not indeed more influence on the minds of the British ruling class than the etiolated beliefs of Christianity, which provide very little in the way of instruction or guidance - beyond a few generalizations about being nice to people — for dealing with the complexities of life.

And it is not surprising that this should be so. Only consider: if you go the New Testament for instruction on how to live, you are told to give away all your possessions, make no plans for the future, reject your family if they disagree with you, and stay celibate if you can (see respectively Matthew 19.21, Matthew 6.25, Matthew 12.48, and 1 Corinthians 7). This is the outlook of people who sincerely believed that the Messiah was going to return next week or next month, anyway very soon. It is an unlivable ethic, and when after several centuries the Second Coming had still not materialized and hope of it had been deferred sine die, more was needed in the way of ethics. Where did it come from? From Greek philosophy – not least from the Stoics – and from the Roman Republican virtues of probity, honor, duty, restraint, respect, friendship and generosity that Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Horace, and countless others wrote about and enjoined ceaselessly. ‘Christian values’ are largely Greek and Roman secular values. So Christianity is not even Christianity.

An associated point reinforces this. The early Christians, like St Paul, were Jews. They believed that when you die, your body sleeps in the grave until the Last Trump, at which points the graves open and all the dead rise to be judged. St Paul said that the faithful will ‘see no corruption’ — that is, their bodies will not rot in the grave. But anyway at the Last Trump when all rise, the faithful will be clothed in ‘new bodies,’ resplendent and fine.

But when Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire (which it very quickly did; it was legalized by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, and made the empire’s official religion by Theodosius IX in 381; within the next few decades all other religions were proscribed) and churches were being built apace, all requiring relics of the martyrs and saints, these latter were found to have rotted (‘seen corruption’) in their graves. This embarrassing problem was quickly got over by importing another useful idea from Greek philosophy: Plato’s doctrine of the immortal soul, which entered Christianity via the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus and his followers. That is why, starting from several centuries after the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe in such a thing. Once again, Christianity is not Christianity but borrowed Greek philosophy.

Mr Cameron would in fact have been more right to say that ‘we are Greeks and Romans’ and meant that we are defined by the following words — and therefore concepts — of classical Greek and Latin origin: democracy, liberalism, values, history, morality, comedy, tragedy, literature, music, academy, alphabet, memory, politics, ethics, populace, geography, energy, exploration, hegemony, theory, mathematics, science, theatre, medicine, gymnasium, climate, clone, bureaucracy, dialect, analogy, psychology, method, nostalgia, organ, encyclopedia, education, paradox, empiricism, polemic, rhetoric, dinosaur, telescope, system, school, trophy, type, fantasy, photography…take almost any word denoting political and social institutions, ideas, learning, science and technology, medicine, and culture, and it derives from the language — and therefore the ideas and the history — of ancient Greece and Rome.

Christianity attempted to suppress all this heritage, and for a time succeeded. The Emperor Justinian closed the schools of Athens – the institutions founded by Plato, Aristotle and others – in 529, because they taught ‘pagan’ philosophy (‘philosophy’ then meant everything – science, history and the rest included). There was little learning worth the name in the first seven centuries of Christianity’s dominance, because it had suppressed it, leaving only the thin pickings of scripture; later it persecuted those who advanced scientific ideas in conflict with scripture: Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, and Galileo nearly so, for not accepting that the sun goes round the earth as Psalm 104 and Joshua 10.12-13 says it does. If the list of words just given provides us with the terminology that we use to describe ourselves today, then the mighty endeavor of Christianity to obliterate all those words and what they mean makes us anything but a Christian nation.

We who had protest against the description of us as a ‘Christian nation’ had in mind the fact that we are a highly pluralistic nation, with many faiths and none, and that the ‘nones’ are net contributors to our society and culture in major ways that does not deserve having the fact of their principled rejection of religious belief overlooked.

But the remarks above should be further evidence that the description of us as a ‘Christian nation’ is deeply misleading if taken to imply that we are a nation of believers in Christian doctrines and legends. I hope and trust that Mr Cameron intended to mean something different and far better: that we are an open-minded, tolerant, generous, kindly nation. And I hope and trust he is right.


This essay describes the situation I noticed chiefly in regard to the 19th century: the emphasis in education was the classics, creating a this-worldly counterpoint to the otherworldliness of Christianity. The thorough knowledge of classical mythology that every educated person had, the free banter about “the gods” and similarities such as a divine father and a virgin human mother, may have sparked the suspicion, at least, that all religion is mythology.

Another interesting point is that the idea of the immortal soul came from Plato. Ancient Jews believed that life ended with the last breath — but god could, under extraordinary circumstances, reanimate a dead body with breath again. The early Christians believed that the dead bodies slept in their graves, to rise incorruptible at the sound of the Last Trump. The reality of the post-mortem decay was an inconvenient fact resolved by introducing the idea of the immortal soul. But how many Christians realize that Jesus himself did not believe in any such thing? That’s why RESURRECTION IN FLESH was of such importance. There was no disembodied soul flying around in the clouds (or anywhere else). Plato probably got his idea from Ancient Egypt.

WE ARE GREEKS, NOT CHRISTIANS ~ Aleksander Krawczuk (redux)

“I bring joyful news: the gods are back! Let me summarize it in four major points:

1. the joy of the body, games, sports.

2. the joy of sex between consenting adults. In the eyes of the immortal gods, sex is good; it’s not a sin.

3. the joy of knowledge, meaning freedom of inquiry and the true cult of science. We have finally dropped the idea that the ultimate truth comes from revelation. We use our limited mind, the faint lantern of our reason, to light up the surrounding darkness. For fifteen centuries Christianity managed to prevent the progress of science. Since truth is contained in revelation, what’s the point of seeking it? But slowly, slowly, since the Renaissance we’ve been returning to the idea that all we have is our reason. And we are discovering the magnificence of the Universe.

4. the joy of democracy. It was created in ancient Greece and grafted onto Rome, which remained a republic for several centuries. Now we claim that democracy is the best political system, and it should be adopted everywhere --  including the Catholic church. But it will be most difficult to democratize the church, since the church is anti-democratic; it stands for theocracy and feudalism, left over from the Middle Ages.”

~ Aleksander Krawczuk, interview in Pantheleon, December 29, 2009; translated by Oriana


“Why did Christianity change?

The very thing that has forced Christianity to redefine its positions, is the very thing that is not permitted in Islamic states, and it is a secular government. If it was not for a secular government to protect the rights of individuals to speak against religious dogma, free-thought heroes like Frederick Douglass would never have been permitted to say, “I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.” It was only because individuals like Douglass were free to write and speak as they pleased that Christianity was forced to incorporate verses like Galatians 3:26-28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,” into its theology.

Likewise, it was the restraints of a secular government that allowed women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton the liberty to say, “The church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns women,” and Susan B. Anthony to state, “The religious persecution of the ages has been done under what was claimed to be the command of God.” It was the protection of a secular government that required Christian theologians to redefine their stances on women with verses like Acts 2:17 “… your sons and daughters shall prophesy.”

We should expect nothing less in the Islamic world. The religious despots of Islam have never allowed a Reformation, and it is time world leaders begin encouraging one. It certainly does not help when leaders like President Bush compare the battle against terrorism as a “crusade.” Where were the leaders advising Iraq that a democracy only works if it is secular? Perhaps they were too caught up in the false belief that the United States is a Christian nation.”


“Unknown to most Americans is the fact that the rate of suicide is sharply on the rise and has been over the past decade. At the same time, the rising suicide rate is contrasted by a steadily declining homicide rate.

There are now nearly three suicides for every murder committed in the U.S. Suicides also outnumber deaths in motor vehicle accidents. To put it in perspective, there are currently about 15,000 murders, 33,000 auto fatalities and 38,000 suicides in the U.S. annually.

Suicide is no longer concentrated among isolated, elderly Americans and, to a lesser extent, troubled teenagers. It has been dramatically on the rise among middle-aged Americans. There has also been a dramatic increase in suicides among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Dr. Ileana Arias, Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told The New York Times that the rising suicide rate among middle-aged Americans might be due to a series of life and financial circumstances that are unique to the baby boomer generation. Men and women in that age group are often coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children.

There is a tremendous stigma attached to suicide in the U.S. that I believe is linked to the Protestant religious ethic and its emphasis on individual choice and responsibility. That is, the Protestant ethic would suggest that if you commit suicide then you alone are culpable and society is relieved of any moral responsibility for your actions.

This religious perspective which is at the heart of American culture can help to explain why politicians, religious leaders, and law enforcement authorities are not discussing the current suicide epidemic. As a result, it is invisible to the general public. The pervading American ideology of fierce individualism based on the Protestant ethic precludes an open discussion of suicide as a serious social problem.”


I'm not sure if Protestantism is a really important factor anymore. As I experienced it, this culture immediately divides people into winners and losers, and losers vastly outnumber winners. Big and unrealistic expectations are planted in the young, who are then not given much help as they flounder in the difficult adult world for which the schools have not prepared them. I do agree that suicide is not seen as a social problem.

ending on beauty

How can you gather together
the thousand fragments
of each person?

~ George Seferis

The walls of Troy

Saturday, February 6, 2016


Penny Hardy: "You blew me away"  


My shadow is a fool whose feelings
are often hurt by his routine
of rising up behind his queen
to bump his silly head against the ceiling.

His is a world of two dimensions,
that’s true, but flat jokes can still smart;
he longs to flaunt my court’s conventions
and drop a role he knows by heart.

The queen leans out over the sill,
the jester tumbles out for real;
thus they divide their actions — still,
it’s not a fifty-fifty deal.

My jester took on nothing less
than royal gestures’ shamelessness,
the things that I’m too weak to bear —
the cloak, crown, scepter, and the rest.

I’ll stay serene, won’t feel a thing,
yes, I will turn my head away
after I say good-bye my king,
at railway station N., some day.

My king, it is the fool who’ll lie
across the tracks; the fool, not I.

~ Wislawa Szymborska, Poems New and Collected, tr. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

This is a rhymed translation, so I wasn’t looking for literal accuracy. In spite of the rhyming, the translation is surprisingly accurate! until the very last stanza, where one can argue about shades of meaning. Let me provide a non-rhyming version of that stanza:

Light and easy I’ll move my arms
and turn away my head,
my king, at the railway station.
When the time comes, my king,
the fool will lie across the tracks. 

The rhymed translation is unambiguous: the speaker is in denial about dying — or possibly committing suicide like Anna Karenina (it’s not really possible not to think of Anna Karenina when reading the ending of this poem). And this saying goodbye to her king — which doesn’t exist in the original? Well, it could be saying good-bye to whoever is left to be said goodbye to. It could be saying goodbye to life itself.

I don’t really have any serious quarrel with the rhymed translation. In fact the rhyme pleases me, and the self-deceiving clarity of “the fool, not I.” For some reason my unrhymed version touches me more deeply; perhaps the rhyme lessens the sadness. And perhaps the lack of “not I” comes close to the admission: “I, the fool, will lie across the tracks.”

As for the symbolism of the shadow, volumes have been written about it. The “queen” could be the rational self; the emotional self is prone to make a fool of itself, especially if the queen happens to fall in love. It’s a classic duality, only recently questioned by some neurologists who argue that emotions are in fact a form of intelligence.

Then there is of course the meaning of “shadow” as the “dark side” — but I don’t think it’s relevant to this poem.

This is likewise not relevant to the poem, I freely admit, but my latest encounter with “shadow” was learning that in the original Hebrew of the Genesis the word translated as “image” is actually “shadow.” The literal translation would imply that a human being is the shadow of god. Theologians could really chew on that, but wisely they chose not to. It’s hard enough to try to deal with the concept of the deity without having to deal with the deity’s shadow, whether Jungian or literal.

One Polish reader (not a literary critic) suggested that the shadow is the alter ego of the speaker, who is a woman secretly in love. She can’t bring herself to tell her beloved (the “king”), “Don’t leave. I love you.” It’s the shadow that tries to prevent the train from leaving.

My king, I, your fool, will lie across the tracks — if that’s what it takes. But no, I won’t reveal what a fool I am! Let me not degrade myself, sob . . . Romantic as this sounds, it doesn’t explain the phrase “when the time comes” and the use of the future tense. It could be a reference to a future parting — possibly a break-up. But more likely it’s about mortality.

A think-positive reader might object that the queen-fool dichotomy reveals the impotence of the fool (shadow). The queen is a mature woman who won’t kill herself because of a man or for any other reason. Her less mature self may experience suicidal impulses now and then, but the queen knows we all die so there is absolutely no point in suicide — you only need wait a little. And while you wait, you might as well make the best of life. Don’t listen to the fool in you; listen to the queen.

I’d love to say that this is the self-help message of the poem — but poetry (not to be confused with “inspirational verse”) doesn’t work that way. Besides being a constant memento mori, poetry also tends to remind us of the foolish and helpless part of ourselves, the child that bursts into tears when life withholds what we dearly want. Poetry doesn’t dismiss the fool. Poetry keeps us humble. 


The message that I take from this article is that the brain contains multiple minds. That multiplicity makes it more difficult for us to figure out just what it is we "really" want. Yet to accomplish things we need to settle on something (Sartre: Freedom is found in commitment) and use the power of focus. Are we the slaves of passions? Yes, but by becoming more aware we can become more coherent.

“The basic problem is this: Most of us consider making decisions to be an analytical skill, a rational weighing of pros and cons. But applying intelligence is not enough because choice is intimately tied to emotion. If we want to be happy and not drive ourselves crazy second–guessing, then choices need to be attuned to context, desire, and temperament. It sounds daunting when framed this way, perhaps too abstract, but it isn’t hard. You simply learn to self–observe.

The brain contains multiple minds. Briefly, the consciousness we think of as “me”—a singular, in–command self—is not the only agent acting on our behalf. Like the Wizard of Oz, other actors are busy behind the curtain. The various and separate aspects of mind, however, are inaccessible to conscious introspection. Think of a magician’s trick: The audience never perceives all the steps in its causal sequence—the special contraptions, the fake compartments, the hidden accomplices. It sees only the final effect. Likewise, the real sequence of far flung brain events causing a thought or an action is massively more than the sequence we perceive. Yet we explain ourselves with the shortcut, “I wanted to do it, so I did it,” when the neurological truth is, “My actions are determined by forces I do not understand.”

Discerning what we want is not as easy as we imagine because motivation lies obscured beneath the surface. Ironically, the very anatomy of the brain assures that we often act at cross–purposes with ourselves. While it is not necessary to wade through the neurological details behind this strange but fascinating way our heads are constructed, it is necessary to appreciate that an invisible force exists that pushes you in certain directions. It is beyond the scope of this column to illustrate how one discerns what those directions are. But it can be learned. Once you get oriented to where your true desires lie, you can better align your choices in order to achieve them.


It often takes undistracted leisure and relative freedom from stress to attain clarity about what we really want — what makes us happy in a deep way. And there is no substitute for having lived for a while. I think we need to be very forgiving toward our younger selves: we learn good judgment slowly, through trial and error.

I wonder about that expression: “trial and error.” Why not “trial and success”? Perhaps because everyone fails more often than succeeds, and not through lack of hard work. There are simply too many factors over which we have no control. The sooner we understand this, the less we’ll blame ourselves and escape that needless misery. 

As for knowing what we REALLY want, it's a rare condition, and we shouldn't blame ourselves if we don’t achieve it. The way our competing multiple neural networks work, and given the complexity of reality, if we never achieve that shining clarity, we should be able to say that’s OK, we’re doing our best as is. And we evolve: what we “really” wanted at age twenty is usually quite different from what we want at forty or sixty.

As we grasp mortality, or rather it grasps us, we begin to see more clearly what is important (at least at an older age) and what's not, and which options are already closed. It takes so many years to learn simplicity. But we have to forgive ourselves, knowing we have multiple and competing minds, so we'll always be torn to some degree.

For me, as deep desires go, only two things have stayed steady regardless of age: wanting intellectual stimulation and an insatiable need for solitude and quiet so I could process that stimulation. A passion for poetry? It came and went. A passion for teaching? Pretty much the same. The desire to write has remained, but with a dramatic shift from essay to fiction (briefly) to poetry to essay again. If that makes it look as if I never “really” knew what I wanted in life, so be it.


It’s one of my best and funniest blogs. Here is the opening:

I remember a small paragraph in a book created for the men’s movement. Under the heading Don’t burden the female with choice, the paragraph said:

‘A woman wants a man who is decisive. When a woman asks you, “Should I wear the red dress or the blue dress?” — don’t say, “Either one is fine.” This throws the burden of choice back on the woman. Without a moment’s hesitation, say, “The red one.” After all, it doesn’t matter.’

Never mind the patronizing tone. In our politically correct era, this kind of “male straight talk” is downright amusing. I loved the heading: “Don’t burden the female with choice.” Once done with the inner chuckling, I went past it to extract the treasure: AFTER ALL, IT DOESN’T MATTER. The man is not supposed to say those words to the poor choice-burdened female. But he is supposed to know the great secret, the secret that makes him strong and (mostly) silent. Thus he can give a decisive answer right away, sparing the unenlightened woman hours of agony on the cross of choice.

In the one minute it took to read this paragraph, I learned two revolutionary things: 1) choice means stress; 2) AFTER ALL, IT DOESN’T MATTER.

I can’t begin to tell the therapeutic jolt delivered to me by the words, “After all, it doesn't matter.” Being a woman means being brainwashed about so many false priorities. And that’s another reason we don’t know what we “really” want: we’ve been brainwashed since childhood. Advertising and cultural forces pressure us to want things that truly don’t matter. Don’t blame yourself for having yielded to those huge pressures.

To me, way too many things used to matter — until I understood that they didn’t. Sure, people would tell me that X or Y “didn't matter” — but did I ever believe them? No. I had to be ready, and the example had to be just right. Now I see that MOST things don’t matter . . .  finally it’s down just to a handful of priorities we truly couldn’t live without (or so we think — I bet with age even more paring down will happen).


Actually a lot of people make a secret deal with god of one sort or another — "If you do X, I'll do Y" (stop drinking, donate to charity, stay in the marriage). Graham Greene's “The End of an Affair” is about this kind of deal. Artists, often suspected of making deals with the devil, are more likely to have made a deal with god. Sometimes a deal with god involves a huge lifelong personal sacrifice — yet any lawyer could tell them the deal is invalid without the other party's signature . . .


I wasn’t prepared for the badness. At least The Return of the Jedi had some charm in the second part, with the adorable, childlike Ewoks. More important, it also explained how people go over to the Dark Side: they yield to hate (which almost happens to Luke, in his encounter with the grand Old Emperor who was a bit of a Dostoyevskiean Grand Inquisitor, at least in style. Even in this much sneered-at sequel, there was charm, there was a message.

This time: no charm, no message. The only semi-interesting character was Kaylo Ren, Han Solo’s and Leia’s unlikely son who looks like Prince Charming (once he takes off the encumbering, pointless mask) and worships the skull of Darth Vader. If only his lines had even 1% the similarity to Hamlet’s . . .  But obviously the movie was made to appeal to to 12-year-old boys, so abandon any hope of intelligent dialog.

And there was an opportunity for intelligent dialog. Leia and Han have grown older and presumably wiser. They could have offered us more glimpses of that growth than Leia’s admission to Han: “Whenever you left, I always missed you.” If I remember correctly, he replies: “I know.” This is the closest we come to a depiction of great love.

And there was the huge unexplored family drama here: their son goes over to the Dark Side. A child who “turns out badly” in some way is all parents’ nightmare, and quite a few parents’ reality. But giving this more development would mean making an intelligent movie rather than a sci-fi adventure flick.

There is also another fertile plot possibility in Rey’s having been traumatized by the loss of her parents and not having received love while growing up (as for “it takes a village,” her village doesn’t seem to be nurturing). Finn likewise had the worst childhood imaginable. But they rise above their wounds with just a minor stumble or two, developing super-powers with total ease. Again, I seem to have a crazy desire for an intelligent movie rather than a mindless action flick.

I couldn’t identify with any of the characters. I felt warmth only toward Chewbacca. I suspect that’s only because he’s furry, and I love animals. The unrealistic part, however, was how quickly Chewy recovers from the death of his beloved partner Han Solo — while R2D2, a robot, remains for years (decades?) in deep depression because of the absence of “Master Luke.” Now, Luke (found in the movie’s final scenes) appears to be truly depressed, something that might be worth exploring. But again, that would be asking the movie to be intelligent and have psychologically interesting characters. Emotional depth? Even, simply, some emotional connection? No such luck.

But I admit that in this totally predictable movie, that was precisely the one thing I did not expect to see: the skull of Darth Vader. Still, I certainly could live without it. Even this was predictable in the sense that Darth Vader, like everyone else of any importance in the original, would somehow be present. I just didn't guess the form of his presence (ghosts had already been used before). Also, since we are using every cliche there is, why doesn't Rey pull out Luke's light saber out of a huge ancient oak, or, better yet, out of a runic boulder? Why does it have to be a trashy little treasure chest in a basement-like place? But what's the point . . . The original Lord Vader was indeed a "rare honor" compared to what's left of him. This could serve as a metaphor for the whole movie.

No sequels for me — no more of that doodoo. Also, I don’t want to take any chance on any slight brain damage from the endless explosions and shootouts. I felt so much better once outside the theater, taking deep breaths, recovering.

A commenter on Facebook: “Was disappointed to the point of irritation myself. The "Saga" may be emblematic of the decline of American culture in general. Increasingly superficial.”

Oriana: Other than the political correctness of having a “supergirl” in the lead, partnered with a black good guy, what does this movie offer? You said it very well: “Disappointment to the point of irritation.”

The original Star Wars had the freshness of novelty. And, perhaps because of the Zeitgeist where the myth of the hero’s journey was enjoying a rebirth thanks to Joseph Campbell, that movie had a cultural impact that we are still processing: figures like Yoda, though repackaged from earlier sages, still had emotional power. One could fall in love with Yoda, or with Han Solo, the archetypal outsider. Now we get a rehash and a Supergirl. Yes, disappointing to the point of irritation.

But the black-and-white characters of Star Wars (other than lovable flaws, of course) have provided us with good material during this bizarre political campaign:


I went to see the Star Wars film last night. A friend is a big fan and we made plans go together, long before your review, Oriana (I didn't read it until after seeing the film.) We saw the 3D version, of course; that was important. There were wonderful visuals, and I liked the diminutive Asiatic tavern keeper, but it was mainly a yawn and forgettable.

The filmmakers may have diversified the cast — the Luke Skywalker of the story is played by a young woman, Rey, and they've cast a truly African-looking young black man (not a black man with the features of a Greek God) — but, I agree with you, the filmmakers failed miserably. 

Poor story, poor dialogue, and for me, one of the biggest failures was the no romantic follow-through between Rey and Finn. They are inexplicably drawn to one another - but never kiss. They've made the adventuress Rey sisterly and Finn may as well have been castrated. If we'd been given a bit of romance — there would have been more emotional energy. A few real kisses and embraces would have done the trick and suggest that more might develop. There would have been more warmth — and edge — since they'd then be a racially enlightened 21st century couple. I know it's a teen movie but they needn't have gone too far. What we ended up with was a lot of devoted infantile robots with loyal canine behavior and stilted, nostalgic one liners from the aging stars from the original Star Wars.

A lot of the movie was obviously catering to video game players who could vicariously enjoy the battles, all the shoot-em-up and drag race flying sequences. That was all pure video game play.

The music was a bit murky. It was all over the place and more John Williams-esque than John Williams. 

Another thing, even though we went to a brand new, supposedly state-of-the-art theater, it seemed the projector's lights were at about only 75% of the necessary wattage (those bulbs are expensive.) The entire film was not bright enough. I hope that your theater didn't have that problem. When the picture's not bright enough, the colors are deadened. Even the scenes in broad daylight were dark. 

Yes, Oriana — too many dark forces at play in this picture. I do not recommend it either — unless you're a lover of nostalgia and sentimentality.  


Basically, it’s an action movie for male teens. The lead is female, but not feminine — she’s an imitation high-testosterone young man. Don’t expect any “deeper meaning” or mystical revelation. Forget the kind of dawn-of-new-religion mystical aura that the “Force” used to have. It hinted that a calm and fearless state of mind is a source of personal power. This movie is an exercise in “pure entertainment,” aka mediocrity; it will have zero cultural impact. This matters only by contrast: the first Star Wars was unforgettable.
Maybe I would have enjoyed the visuals in the 3-D version. I walked in prepared to enjoy at least the visuals and special effects — both fizzled. When I saw the space bar and the familiarly weird “aliens,” my heart sank. Would there not be one single original thing in this movie? Having a Supergirl in the lead didn’t do it for me. I didn’t identify with any of the characters, but the Supergirl alienated me most. I just don’t take to superpowers. Luke at least slowly learned to use the Force, starting out as a reasonably normal young man. It took a long training to become a Jedi — what a masterpiece of realism that suddenly seems!

OK — the black lead. You are so perceptive, Lisa: Finn did look genuinely African rather than like a Greek god. It didn’t help. Rey looked authentic at first, but soon enough she had nice make-up, perfect even after the most harrowing shoot-outs or saber duels. As for the lack of romance, that was obviously a failure of nerve. If both leads were black — or both of them white — I bet that we’d have gotten to see at least some kissing.

The closest thing to romance here is between Rey and the new drone. By the way, I did not find BB-8 to be more cute than R2D2. On the contrary, he was tiresome. Like the rest of the movie, even the new droid was derivative and inferior, without the freshness and humor originally provided by R2D2. 

A great perception: infantile robots with loyal canine behavior. 

The bar-keeper was obviously meant as a female version of Yoda, a wise woman and Rey's mentor before General Organa (oh my! no more of that princess stuff!) becomes a mother figure to our female Luke Skywalker. But the striving for that mind-reading wise-woman archetype was too obvious. Of course by then I was already exhausted by all the mindless preceding bang-bang (you’re right-on: a movie for video-game players), so all I wanted was quiet — and that was the closest we got. Yoda had more serenity, and oh, those wonderful ears. So this time it had to be the eyes — but they ended up just weird, without being wonderful.

The score was heavily Wagnerian, but without the genius. Just pompous, grandiose, overdone. To be sure, this is not a nice quiet movie where we could have some subtlety in any dimension, some equivalent of “forest whispers.” Still, the sheer mediocrity of it . . .

Overall, the falling away from the original Star Wars and even the two much-maligned sequels, which now seem almost profound, is pathetic.

Princess Leia before her promotion to General


Seems awfully obvious and maybe everyone else thought this at the time: the real star of the first Star Wars and the most unforgettable character was Darth Vader. He seized the viewers’ imagination and has remained there.

After that, perhaps R2D2, still the most endearing robot in movie history.

Chewbacca was sweet in an animal way.

Luke was the least interesting.

Han Solo was more attractive by far than Luke. Of course it didn’t hurt that he was played by a charismatic actor.

Princess Leia was mediocre at best, memorable chiefly for her strange ear-encumbering hairdo.

In the most recent sequel, nobody was interesting, though I enjoyed seeing Chewbacca again. 

And here is an entertaining review by Steve Colbert -- based on the Vatican's review of the movie. Perhaps the most striking remark is that the original Star Wars had a Father-Son-Holy Ghost trinity. And there is something to it -- not just that Obi-Wan becomes a Holy Ghost, but that the Father (Darth Vader) and the Son (Luke) are on opposite sides, Father standing for power and wrath, the Son for not giving in to hatred (to oversimplify matters).

 Iran’s culture ministry has decided to censor the use of the word “wine” and the names of “foreign animals” and dignitaries from any books published in the Islamic Republic.

The new rules are designed to protect Iranians from what the regime calls a “cultural onslaught” by the West.

Mohammad Selgi, the head of book publishing at the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, said: “When new books are registered with us, our staff first have to read them page by page to make sure whether they require any editorial changes in line with promoting the principles of the Islamic revolution, effectively confronting the Western cultural onslaught and censoring any insult against the prophets.”

Mr Selgi added: “Words like wine and the names of foreign animals and pets, as well as names of certain foreign presidents are also banned under the new restricting regulations.”

 One Iranian MP alleged that alcoholic drinks were smuggled into country in tankers.

“There is absolutely no control over the contents of the tanker trucks that supposedly import oil from Iraq into our country that are in fact loaded with wine and beer," said Abuldreza Messri, the MP for Iran’s border city of Kermanshah, according to Bahar news.

Oriana: This is so ludicrous — meerkats a threat to the Iranian theocracy? elephants? pandas and reindeer and koalas? — we may overlook the deeper meaning. These “foreign animals” speak of an existence of a larger world, one which is quite happy without Islam. It’s bad enough that the infidels look quite happy. In addition, there are millions of species outside of Islamic countries — why would Allah even create them? Why so many things that aren’t in the service of Islam? That diverse world out there that doesn’t care about either Islam, or even humans per se . . .  So by even mentioning their existence, we risk sliding down a global slippery slope where religion is no longer central, or all that important.


How is it that as humanity as a whole seems to be evolving to be more inclusive and less dogmatic in general, certain religious strains are doubling in their extremism? It’s possible to conceive of kernels of extremism as intrinsic within particular faith traditions. But it’s also possible to understand the current rise of extremism as a reactionary backlash against the overall liberalization of faith.

“We live in a world where every single person is challenging everything, where every single person has a voice” Amanullah De Sondy told me. De Sondy is a senior lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork (Ireland) and author of The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities.

“The extremists want conformity and detest plurality and differences. Being different, being an individual who states that it is their individual relationship with the divine is a huge challenge to those who want the strict order of organizing society.”

Put another way, strict religious ideology requires strict conformity, and people aren’t confirming anymore.

The number of church-goers has dropped steadily for decades, but now there [is] also a lot of space in mosques around Europe. Recent data from the extensive European Social Survey (ESS) show that the number of Muslim immigrants who regularly go to the mosque drops significantly after they've lived in their new homeland for some time.

So how is it that in the face of declining religiosity, we nonetheless find ourselves swept up in almost unprecedented magnitudes of religious struggle—from the brutality of Daesh (as ISIS hates being called) in Paris and throughout the Middle East, or the far less extreme yet still perpetual hostility of Christian fundamentalists toward the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community?  

“The three major Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all have groups that espouse some type of eschatology, or belief about the end of time,” says Valerie C. Cooper, associate professor of Black Church Studies at the Duke Divinity School. “Among these groups, eschatological fears that the end times are near may be stoked by perceptions that the group is being persecuted.”

That sense of persecution can come from the fact of declining religiosity. Or, say, a war being launched against an entire religion—whether it’s the supposed “War on Christmas” or a kind of “War on Islam” that some on the far right call for.

In this context, it’s reasonable to interpret any surge in fundamentalism within a given denomination as a reactionary backlash to the overall trend of liberalization.
And so, unable to propagate their narrow view through ideological cohesion alone, dogma resorts to force—in mild forms like pro-discrimination laws against LGBT people pushed by Christian extremists in the United States, or murderous forms like the brutality of Daesh, which is disproportionately used to punish other “unfaithful” Muslims. 

In fact, like other fundamentalist religious groups in this era, Daesh is overreacting to a shifting global climate in which its ideas are increasingly marginalized. The trick to defeating Daesh is to see it for what it is—a desperate backlash by a declining ideology."

So . . .  let’s not live in unwarranted fear: the fundamentalists aren’t going to take over the world. They will manage to cause tremendous suffering before they are destroyed and/or self-destruct, but they won’t be taking over.


"As for those who protest that I am robbing people of the great comfort and consolation they gain from Christianity, I can only say that Christianity includes hell, eternal torture for the vast majority of humanity, for most of your relatives and friends. Christianity includes a devil who is really more powerful than God, and who keeps gathering into his furnaces most of the creatures whom God turns out and for whom he sent his son to the cross in vain. If I could feel that I had robbed anybody of his faith in hell, I should not be ashamed or regretful."

~  Rupert Hughes, "Why I Quit Going to Church," 1924

Two things interest me in this quotation. First, this lets me know how far behind my hell-based church was — OK, half a century, give or take. But more important, the statement that the devil was really more powerful than god — yes! I had that feeling, but of course I never dared to say it out loud, anymore than I’d admit I thought god was a vicious monster. The nuns had us children  convinced that we were morally evil by nature so we’d always listen to the voice of Satan — specifically, there was a little devil seated on each child’s left shoulder, whispering temptations. Furthermore, MOST humanity, and that included most Catholics, were bound for hell. Heaven was for a minority of elite Catholics, and I certainly didn’t feel included. Leaving the church was above all a liberation from the terror of hell.

Alas, the good aspects of catholicism were killed for me by the obsession with sin and eternal punishment. The image of god was the eye-in-the-sky that spied on me 24/7. I knew I was sinning even while not aware of it, sinning every moment if not in deed, then in thought (see Nietzsche's "A Hangman's Metaphysics" for a brilliant explanation of why religions invent impossible commandments that are meant to be broken). Why a dossier of sins was necessary before being tossed into hell was not clear, but I did feel doomed. I didn't feel Jesus had any real power next to his vengeful father, and besides this sweet "judge-not" Jesus was coming to be the judge at the Last Judgment. I could NEVER return to catholicism because the wounds start bleeding again — this deep rejection of me as a sinner. To a believing child, to be rejected by a super-Hitler god was no small thing! (Grandmother's stories from Auschwitz, don't forget -- an indelible part of my psyche.) And the whole cult of suffering part. I reject that 100%, and the idea of collective salvation through the gory crucifixion, and more.

The only religion (life philosophy would be a better label) I could accept would be one of my own making, a kind of transformed Taoism ("no struggle" -- complete trust in the unconscious) that also uses the gnostic idea of Pleroma, "fullness," and the union with the richness and beauty and pure acceptance.

Perhaps because of my family story, I could plainly see that god does not help anyone, does not love anyone, does not intervene on anyone’s behalf. Apparently god couldn’t care less (which is perfectly understandable considering that he doesn’t exist — I'm long recovered from the enormous rage at god I occasionally did feel, even after my apostasy).

It’s other people who can — and do — come to your help. Just yesterday I experienced another beautiful example of that. As for god allegedly giving you the emotional strength to endure ordeals, that strength comes from both the emotional support of others and from within, from our unconscious mind, which draws on both personal experience and the collective psyche.

Perhaps because of my family story, I could plainly see that god does not help anyone, does not love anyone, does not intervene on anyone’s behalf. Apparently god couldn’t care less (which is perfectly understandable considering that he doesn’t exist — I'm long recovered from the enormous rage at god I occasionally did feel, even after my apostasy). It’s other people who can — and do — come to your help. Just yesterday I experienced another beautiful example of that. As for god allegedly giving you the emotional strength to endure ordeals, that strength comes from both the emotional support of others and from within, from our unconscious mind, which draws on both personal experience and the collective psyche.

I want death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening. ~ Michel de Montaigne

This, ultimately, is also my own unoriginal conclusion: no matter what, let’s cultivate our garden.   Let’s keep making this world just a tiny bit more beautiful.

By the way, the philosopher's grandfather bought this château in 1477 from the profits of the family salt-fish business (probably mainly herring).  

ending on beauty


I said of course
I will write about you

have no fear you will not be

your voice will be wind
your eyes will be clouds

your words the faint wings
of remaining light 

photo: Mary Bonina


Love what you said about the biblical definition of image that it means shadow and that humans are a shadow of God.

Intelligence tied to emotion — very interesting but how smart can a person be if they are always emoting?

All my desires and emotions must line up to who I am as an artist. Once I’m focused everything seems to fall into place.

Love the movie review; it had more depth than all the Star Wars movies.

Why would Allah create those “foreign animals” if we can’t look at them or talk about them?

Glad your article on religion had a happy ending.


I think that was the best part of the whole blog: that “happy ending” of the article on religion. Writing that sentence lifted my spirits: fundamentalism can’t win. Modernity has simply progressed too far.

What do you mean, Allah created foreign animals? That’s just a rumor spread by the infidels :)  Such rumors must be stopped.

Seriously, when you have to rely on suppressing information, the regime doesn’t have much life left in it — not long-term, historically speaking.

There is a difference between “always emoting” and feeling and processing emotion. The two are synonymous only in young children — and perhaps in those who don’t really mature. I must say this for growing up in an oppressed country: you learn to shut up and think your own thoughts. It leads to a complicated doubleness, but I think it also sharpens intelligence.