Saturday, December 29, 2018


Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) Still Life with Pomegranates, Sea Shells and a Beetle


I know I’ll never meet anyone
who’s had a childhood like mine,
watched over by portraits of Lenin
and Karl Marx, with Engels tossed in

for the sake of the Trinity.
We all knew who God the Father was,
who the Son with slant Siberian eyes,
Engels the long-suffering Ghost.

Winter Palace and the Finland Station,
the first salvo from the battleship
Aurora, Smolny Institute:
those were family names —

it didn’t matter that they stood for
humanity’s shattered dreams.
You love what you grew up with:
not the moronic regime

but the lilacs of ideals,
the enormous width of The International —
when you sang it,
you sang with a million mouths.

Aren’t all poems about forbidden love?
The swooning lilacs instead of suicide?
In summer we ate cucumber salad, in winter
cucumber soup — it was the humble

potato soup with finely chopped pickle.
What can you expect from reality,
that fat woman who every day
opens a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle.

~ Oriana


“There are lots of women who are attracted to tyrannical men. Like moths to a flame. And there are some women who do not need a hero or even a stormy lover but a friend. Just remember that when you grow up. Steer clear of the tyrant lovers, and try to locate the ones who are looking for a man as a friend, not because they are feeling empty themselves but because they enjoy making you full too. And remember that friendship between a woman and a man is something much more precious and rare than love: love is actually something quite gross and even clumsy compared to friendship. Friendship includes a measure of sensitivity, attentiveness, generosity, and a finely tuned sense of moderation.” ~ Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness

“Feelings are just a fire in a field of stubble: it burns for a moment, and then all that’s left is soot and ashes. Do you know what the main thing is — the thing a woman should look for in her man? She should look for a quality that’s not at all exciting but that’s rarer than gold: decency.

“Faith, coming from the lack of faith: as much as the faith in oneself is demolished, as much the intoxicating faith in the salvation becomes strong and the desperate need to be saved grows. The savior is that much greater, as you’re small, insignificant and unworthy. Henri Bergson writes: “It’s not true that faith can move mountains. On the contrary, the main thing in faith is the ability not to notice anything, even the moving of the mountain in front of you. It’s like a hermetic screen, fully impregnable to the facts.

“Judaism and Christianity, and Islam too, all drip honeyed words of love and mercy so long as they do not have access to handcuffs, grills, dominion, torture chambers, and gallows. All these faiths, including those that have appeared in recent generations and continue to mesmerize adherents to this day, all arose to save us and all just as soon started to shed our blood.”

“I find the family the most mysterious and fascinating institution in the world.”

“And so I learnt the secret of diversity. Life is made up of different avenues. Everything can happen in one of several ways, according to different musical scores and parallel logics. Each of these parallel logics is consistent and coherent in its own terms, perfect in itself, indifferent to all the others.”

“Every single pleasure I can imagine or have experienced is more delightful, more of a pleasure, if you take it in small sips, if you take your time. Reading is not an exception.”

“Always characters first. I walk around pregnant with the characters for a long time before I write a single sentence.

And when, inside my head or inside my guts, the characters begin to do things to each other, what they do to each other is the plot. And then I can start writing.

What do we do to one another? It's the one and only subject of literature, if you really have to squeeze it in a nutshell.”

“Literature makes us look one more time at some things which we have seen a million times, and we see them afresh. Or, sometimes, it makes us reconsider things that we were sure we knew or we were sure we were convinced of.”

I think literature is based on the deep human need to hear stories and to tell stories. It doesn't have to serve any other purpose.”

“There are places in the world where real life is still happening, far away from here, in a pre-Hitler Europe, where hundreds of lights are lit every evening, ladies and gentlemen gather to drink coffee with cream in oak-paneled rooms, or sit comfortably in splendid coffee-houses under gilt chandeliers, stroll arm in arm to the opera or the ballet, observe from close-up the lives of great artists, passionate love affairs, broken hearts, the painter’s girlfriend falling in love with his best friend the composer, and going out at midnight bareheaded in the rain to stand alone on the ancient bridge whose reflection trembles in the river.”

“If you steal from one book you are condemned as a plagiarist, but if you steal from ten books you are considered a scholar, and if you steal from thirty or forty books, a distinguished scholar.”

“When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book. Not a writer. People can be killed like ants. Writers are not hard to kill either. But not books: however systematically you try to destroy them, there is always a chance that a copy will survive and continue to enjoy a shelf-life in some corner on an out-of-the-way library somewhere in Reykjavik, Valladolid or Vancouver.”

“The best way to know the soul of another country is to read its literature.”

“Love is a curious mixture of opposites, a blend of extreme selfishness and total devotion. A paradox! Besides which, love, everybody is always talking about love, love, but love isn't something you choose, you catch it like a disease, you get trapped in it, like a disaster.”

“There is no freedom about this: the world gives, and you just take what you're given, with no opportunity to choose.”

“A conflict begins and ends in the hearts and minds of people, not in the hilltops.”

“All of my novels are democracies.”

“In a short story by Chekhov or a novel by Balzac he found mysteries which, so far as he was aware, did not exist in any spy thriller.”

“While it was true that books could change with the years just as much as people could, the difference was that whereas people would always drop you when they could no longer get any advantage or pleasure or interest or at least a good feeling from you, a book would never abandon you. Naturally you sometimes dropped them, maybe for several years, or even forever. But they, even if you betrayed them, would never turn their backs on you: they would go on waiting for you silently and humbly on their shelf. They would wait for ten years. They wouldn't complain. One night, when you suddenly needed a book, even at three in the morning, even if it was a book you had abandoned and erased from your heart for years and years, it would never disappoint you, it would come down from its shelf and keep you company in your moment of need. It would not try to get its own back or make excuses or ask itself if it was worth its while or if you deserved it or if you still suited each other, it would come at once as soon as you asked. A book would never let you down.”

“I could imagine his sorrow. My father had a sensual relationship with his books. He loved feeling them, stroking them, sniffing them. He took a physical pleasure in books: he could not stop himself, he had to reach out and touch them, even other people's books. And books then really were sexier than books today: they were good to sniff and stroke and fondle. There were books with gold writing on fragrant, slightly rough leather bindings, that gave you gooseflesh when you touched them, as though you were groping something private and inaccessible, something that seemed to tremble at your touch. And there were other books that were bound in cloth-covered cardboard, stuck with a glue that had a wonderful smell. Every book had its own private, provocative scent. Sometimes the cloth came away from the cardboard, like a saucy skirt, and it was hard to resist the temptation to peep into the dark space between body and clothing and sniff those dizzying smells.” ~  A Tale of Love and Darkness 

Rembrandt: Bust of an Old Bearded Man Looking Down, 1631

“I believe that if one person is watching a huge calamity, let’s say a conflagration, a fire, there are always three principle options.

1. Run away, as far away and as fast as you can and let those who cannot run burn.

2. Write a very angry letter to the editor of your paper demanding that the responsible people be removed from office with disgrace. Or, for that matter, launch a demonstration.

3. Bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire, and if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon, everyone has a teaspoon. And yes, I know a teaspoon is little and the fire is huge but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon. Now I would like to establish the Order of the Teaspoon. People who share my attitude, not the run away attitude, or the letter attitude, but the teaspoon attitude – I would like them to walk around wearing a little teaspoon on the lapel of their jackets, so that we know that we are in the same movement, in the same brotherhood, in the same order, The Order of the Teaspoon.”

And this particular quotation, more personal: “I promised my wife that there won’t be a day when she doesn’t laugh.”


I love his thoughts on men and women. So much wisdom, and respect for women too.

It's easy to think that writers are all monsters — their marriage to words is a kind of necessary evil — but Oz seemed to be the kind of person who understood a lot about life and the importance of decency and friendship.

My mother used to say that friendship is more important than love — she meant romantic love. This certainly seems like a very wrong statement when you’re in your teens and twenties, and the whirlwind of romance can blot out all else. But after you’ve lived a while, you begin to understand the primacy of friendship. Deep friendship is love — the reliable love that in youth we may have thought too quiet and rather boring. It’s not boring — it’s the nurturing communion that makes us thrive (while a tumultuous love for the wrong person can be destructive).

I think Oz’s sensitivity to his mother's suffering (she committed suicide when he was twelve) made him more aware of suffering in general, and perhaps of women's suffering in particular.

His parents were afraid to let him travel to Europe. They were afraid that once he sees the beauty of European cities — the rivers, the parks, the magnificent buildings and heroic statues, the boulevards, the glittering stores and theaters, and more — that once he sees that beauty, he’ll not care for Israel. But what you grow up with imprints you with an indelible matrix. There was no need to fear that Amos would rather live in France or Italy (many of us imagine we would, and we may even try, but homesickness catches up with us).

He was a national writer, and yet a universal one because he was so attuned to timeless human psychology and to the larger world at the same time. 


~ “Oz’s masterpiece is his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” It was unlike anything he had ever written, telling the story of his own coming of age in Jerusalem with precision and brutal honesty. He captured the mystical air of the city, how it was transformed with the birth of the state, his own bookish youth and his mother’s depression, which led to her suicide when Oz was 12. In the memoir, he remembers his mother telling him: “I think you will grow up to be a sort of prattling puppy dog like your father, and you’ll also be a man who is quiet and full and closed like a well in a village that has been abandoned by all its inhabitants. Like me.” ~


Love all the quotes from Oz, but particularly his "Order of the Teaspoon." It is in the same spirit as John's poem about what his father believed — that you try to help the crucified man even if you know it won't be enough, even if it only gives the smallest and most temporary relief. As Oz notes, we all have a teaspoon,  can all do something, even if only in a very small way. Those teaspoons of water are love and hope and decency, they are the refusal of complacency and despair. They are humanity redeeming itself, and not to be scorned and dismissed as too small and ineffective.


My attitude exactly. I first learned it from St. Therese the Little Flower! Knowing she wasn’t a great mystic like St. Teresa of Avila, she developed her “Little Way” — just little kindnesses, like chatting with an elderly nun whom no one liked. And that is enough. Rather than attempt some great work of goodness at which we are likely to fail, let’s join the order of the teaspoon! Because we always have something to give.

Funny how pets seem to have something in common with their humans. In this case the asymmetrical coloration in the kitty's face could be said to correspond to Oz's complex, many-sided vision where things don't neatly add up. There is Israel the dream, and Israel the reality. There was his rationalist father, and his mother dying of home-sickness and shattered dreams.

As for the Nobel Prize, A Tale of Love and Darkness is universally acclaimed. It is beautifully written, a masterpiece. But just as Borges didn't get the Nobel, neither did Amos Oz — or, in the past, Rilke. So it goes — the irony has been pointed out many times. What matters is that people love certain authors and continue to read them. It's a kind of "We the readers" committee.



~ “Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can't know what the future will bring. We have to choose, despite uncertainty.”  ~ Ethan Hawke as the minister in The First Reformed — the 2018 movie that spoke to me most.

Another thing that the minister says, trying to discourage the young eco-activist from pressuring his wife to have an abortion, is “You want to withhold from the world the mystery and wonder that a child is?” A child is a powerful symbol of the future — and we certainly don’t know how the child — the future — will turn out.

2018 has been a year in which I dealt with despair more acutely than in the recent past. For a while, I lost the will to live. The surgery really was my last hope for pain-free walking and thus the kinds of activities that were possible in the past — and new ones as well. “You have no idea what kind of beautiful new life will open to you,” someone said to me. I tried not to hang on to those words, but obviously they did enter my psyche.

Then the crash.

And then the emotional recovery — both due to some physical improvement in the amount of pain, and to the greater clarity about how I can still contribute. Another important idea also helped: that instead of pursuing happiness, we should pursue being useful.

So: courage redefined as simply not committing suicide — trusting that even though at some point life may not seem to be worth living, it is — another perception will emerge. Trust the crafty brain to come up with some solution that replaces the shattered dreams!

“Diminished expectations” may indeed be a strong feature. Rather than the “last dance,” the metaphor shifts to “last stroll.” In any case, every step is precious, every blossom along the way.

And there’s also the mystery stemming from this: we don’t belong just to ourselves, but to those we interact with. And we never fully know how deeply we can touch the life of another. Sometimes (perhaps most often) we remain unaware of it. Sometimes it’s a line in a poem of ours that someone recites back to us ten years later; sometimes it’s a smile given at precisely the right time to the person who needed it — not that we knew it.

The mystery and wonder of that interaction, that often hidden but profound influence — that’s the child we offer to the world.

However, it’s best not to worry to what extent we are truly useful and not to try too hard, risking unintended harm. Instead, we should remember Heidegger’s idea that our great gift to others is simply our being — our unique, unrepeatable being, the lens through which we refract the world, with luck sometimes producing the equivalent of a rainbow.


(I can easily agree that a movie like Roma has more artistic merit. It just didn't speak to me at the personal level. So I'm not saying that "First Reformed" was the best movie of 2018 — only the one that most affected me. This can happen even with a mediocre piece of art — one detail that hits on a personal level is all it takes.)

This reminds me again of that scene in The First Reformed when the minister talks about a child being a wonder and a mystery coming into the world. Seeing this made me think that the same applies to an adult. Each person is a wonder and a mystery, a potential for bringing something good into the world that only this particular person can deliver. It doesn't matter if it's just small acts of kindness
or rather, it's perhaps the small acts of kindness that matter most overall.


Not with time..but with intention--what an insight here!! I also think of the Japanese tradition of mending cracked pottery with gold, so the broken is mended and more beautiful than ever.

“Do not throw away your heart. Keep your heart. Your heart is all that matters . . . Throw away your ancestors! Throw away your shyness and the anger that lies just a few inches beneath . . . Accept the truth! And if there is more than one truth, then learn to do the difficult work — learn to choose. You are good enough, you are HUMAN ENOUGH, to choose!” ~ Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story


Speaking of ancestors: I have a sepia portrait of one set of my great-grandparents (my Babcia Veronika’s parents). On the envelope, my mother’s note that the portrait probably goes back to 1890. Yes, the multitudes who have slipped away . . .

The digitized non-sepia version isn’t quite as striking.

I vaguely remember their names as Antonina and Marceli. After a financial reverse, he became a broken man who spent his days in an armchair, reading the newspapers. Meanwhile the daughters were taken out of school and sent to work in a textile factory (a slow death sentence due to cotton dust destroying the lungs). Their wages served to finance the education of the elder son (the younger one ran away and his name was never spoken).

Antonina belonged to an order of lay nuns. Each evening she asked of family and neighbors if perhaps she committed a trespass against them, and if so, asked their forgiveness. She didn’t go to bed until satisfied that everyone forgave her. This was perhaps the most endearing thing about her (or, depending on one’s point of view, the most annoying — but she meant well). Strong women whose (misguided?) ambition toward elegance was reflected in their hats run in the family . . . The life of each could be an epic novel.

Would I be able to “throw away” my ancestors, as Gary Shteyngart hints might sometimes be necessary? If they happened to be Nazis, sure. But when the time came, they were Nazi-fighters, members of the Resistance, war heroes (both male and female). I might find this or that personality fault, but when you see your family name on the monument to war heroes, that eclipses other matters.

And even looking at Antonina, I can reject her religiosity (though it’s understandable given her life experiences) and her being brainwashed that it’s all right to sacrifice the daughters’ education in order to provide for the education of the firstborn son — but I also see her courage to go on after the family’s financial ruin, and her courage to be eccentric (taking religion seriously enough to become a lay nun was seen as “too much” — “devotka,” meaning more or less a woman religious nut, was a term of contempt).

Speaking of more remote ancestors: Marx and Lenin are certainly not blood relatives (relief), and  neither is Trotsky, and yet . . . because of my familiarity with their biographies and photographs, they do feel like family, as my opening poem says. They are ancestors not only because of their enormous impact on history, but precisely because I’ve read those biographies — while even when it comes to the lives of my parents, how much do I know, especially dating back to the period before I was born . . . no, before my brain was developed enough to have coherent perceptions and memories? I shudder to think that I know more about Hitler and Eva Braun than about Marceli and Antonina.


“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.” ~ Margaret Atwood  (photo: writing The Handmaid’s Tale in Berlin, 1984)


That’s a great observation: “We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people.” Now, religion may push us to the opposite extreme — my Catholic scrupulosity was ridiculous, but eventually, sure enough, I came to see myself as a good person . . .  Yet truth lies in the middle. As Atwood says, our motives are mixed.  And sometimes we simply fail to perceive the suffering of another person.


“Human life — indeed all life — is poetry. We live it unconsciously day by day, piece by piece, but in its inviolable wholeness it lives us.” ~ Lou Andreas-Salomé


At first I rebelled at the phrase: inviolable wholeness. My life would have been whole, I felt, if I remained in my homeland. Coming to America (very willingly, I hasten to add, but also in a state of enormous ignorance about what I was doing) violated that wholeness, splitting my life in two, dooming me to be an awkward outsider whose early years prepared her for a life in a different culture. And, mind you, what you absorb first creates a model of reality: this is a real city, a real river, a real tree. Other kinds — e.g. a city consisting largely of suburbs, like Los Angeles — are wrong somehow. A real city needs a great river flowing in the middle of it, with beautiful embankments and great shade trees. Palm trees are not real trees. And a real city needs to be old and mysterious, with legends about its origins, preferably with kings and queens and a virgin princess or two jumping into the river to escape a forced marriage.

But I digress. Yes, perhaps an immigrant’s life is forever torn and wounded, especially at first, but there are still areas of wholeness. For instance, I have remained intensely intellectual, even in an anti-intellectual culture, surrounded not by kindred minds but mostly by people ignorant of history and the larger world, often hostile to science.

I have also remained convinced that the basis of human greatness is cooperation rather than extreme individualism. I take it for granted that the task of the government is to do good things for the people — that society is a cooperative enterprise and we are all in it together. I can’t imagine anyone in Poland saying, in reference to a sick person, “You seem to believe that he has a right to medical treatment.” Or the idea that the right to own assault weapons is more sacred (sacred!!!) than the right of school children not to be shot. I took certain attitudes so much for granted that only coming to know people opposed to the automatic certainties I grew up with made me more fully aware of my values. 

However, I’m sure Lou A-S wasn’t thinking specifically of political beliefs and even moral values. She had a more more intuitive feel for life as an organic whole, a great adventure of individual development in response to the collective forces of one’s historical moment. I needed to deal with the wound of being torn between two cultures; others have different wounds. Life remains a strange poetic whole that’s full of paradoxes and contradictions, just as a good poem has multiple meanings, and must hold that tension of opposites.

And yes, I can go along with the idea that life lives us while we constantly try to adjust and even manage to contribute.


TINKLE BELLS: the story behind Christmas hits
~ “Seasonal songs became a recording industry commodity in the 1940s, especially when it came to the big kahuna of seasons. The trailblazer was Bing Crosby’s record of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Berlin actually wrote the song before Pearl Harbor. He was in California and the opening verse begins: “The sun is shining, the grass is green / The orange and palm trees sway / There’s never been such a day / In Beverly Hills, L.A.” But Crosby’s performance of it in the film Holiday Inn and recording for Decca both came out in the summer of 1942, minus the verse. The geographical and meteorological nostalgia of the rest of the lyric effortlessly transformed into a wistfulness for Christmases past. Crosby’s record was number one on the charts for 11 consecutive weeks in the fall of ’42, and, by most accounts, is the most successful recording of all time. The Guinness Book of Records estimates that various versions of the song have sold 100 million copies, with Crosby’s record accounting for half of the total.

Other wistful Yuletide songs followed. Crosby released “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in 1943; the lyrics appear to be transcribed from an overseas soldier’s letter home. He starts: “I’ll be home for Christmas / You can plan on me / Please have snow and mistletoe / And presents on the tree.” But there’s an abrupt kicker at the end of the second chorus, as Crosby sings, “I’ll be home for Christmas / If only in my dreams.” Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin’s wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. The story is set in 1904, and the character played by Judy Garland sings the song to her little sister, in an attempt to console her about an upcoming move to New York. But no one could mistake the emotional connection to contemporary wartime: “Someday soon, we all will be together / If the fates allow. / Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow…” (In 1957, Frank Sinatra was putting together an album called A Jolly Christmas and asked Martin to provide some more upbeat lyrics. The writer provided some changes, including replacing the “muddle through” line with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” That became the most commonly performed version.)

Jay Livingstone and Ray Evans they produced a simple but memorable song called “Tinkle Bells,” about the Salvation Army workers on busy city streets. When Jay told his wife about it she said, “Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word ‘tinkle’ means to most people?’” The boys kept the melody and changed title to “Silver Bells.” Bing Crosby and Carol Richards’s recording, released before the film, was so popular that the studio called Hope co-star Marilyn Maxwell into the studio to reshoot a more elaborate production number. Hope made “Silver Bells” his Christmas theme, performing it every year on his holiday television special.

It turned out that the most successful Christmas records tended to have two common qualities: catchy, upbeat melodies and imagined unlikely scenarios for anthropomorphized yuletide characters. “Frosty the Snowman” was a triumph in 1950 for the cowboy turned mainstream singer Gene Autry, and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” for 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd in 1952. (The song had the distinction of being banned by the Diocese of Boston because it combined sex and religion.) The biggest Christmas song of all was the creation of a tunesmith named Johnny Marks, who put to music a humorous poem written by his brother-in-law, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”; Autry’s recording reached number one on December 31, 1949. Despite the fact that Marks—like Berlin, Livingston, Evans, and most other songwriters—was Jewish, he repeatedly returned to this particular well, writing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and other holiday songs. But none reached the heights of his first hit. A 1980 People magazine interview with Marks contained some illuminating statistics. To that point, Autry’s version of “Rudolph” had sold more than 12 million copies, and records by some 500 other performers 130 million more.

~ “When I was a child, my parents told me that, during the priestly benediction that brings the Sabbath service to a close, we all had to bow our heads and keep out eyes down until the rabbi’s solemn words came to an end. It was extremely important to do so, they said, because in these moments God passed above our heads, and no one who saw God face-to-face could live.

I brooded on the prohibition. To look into the face of the Lord, I reasoned, must be the most wonderful thing any human being could experience. Nothing that I would ever see or do in all the years that lay ahead of me would even approach this one supreme vision. I reached a momentous decision: I would raise my eyes and see God for myself. It would be fatal, I understood, but the cost was surely not too high.
I did not dare tell my parents of my determination, for I knew that they would be distraught and try to dissuade me. I did not even tell my older brother Marty, since I feared he would reveal my secret. I would have to act alone.

Several Saturdays passed before i could muster the courage. But finally one morning, standing with my head bowed, I conquered my fear of death. Slowly, slowly, while the rabbi intoned the ancient blessings, I raised my eyes. The air above my head was completely empty. And I found that I was by no means alone in looking about the sanctuary. Many of the worshipers were glancing around, staring out the windows, or even gesturing to friends and mouthing greetings. I was filled with outrage: “I have been lied to.”

Many years have gone by since this moment, and I have never recovered the naive faith that led me to prepare to sacrifice my life for a vision of God. But something lives in me on the other side of lost illusions. I have been fascinated throughout my life by the stories that we humans invent in an attempt to make sense of our existence, and I have come to understand that the term “lie” is a woefully inadequate description of either the motive or the content of these stories, even at their most fantastical.

Humans cannot live without stories. We surround ourselves with them; we make them up in our sleep; we tell them to our children; we pay to have them told to us. Some of us create them professionally. And a few of us — myself included — spend our entire adult lives trying to understand their beauty, power, and influence.” ~ Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve


This reminds me of the first time I dared to look up during the blessing with the monstrance. You are supposed to bow your head in reverence and not lift your eyes until the shrill small bells have stopped ringing — yes, because allegedly god is present in the consecrated wafer inside the monstrance. But, somewhat like Lot’s wife, I did look up. The monstrance was very ornate — a traditional solar monstrance, with sharp gold rays radiating from the disk housing the eucharist. The priest was slowly making a large sign of the cross over the bent heads of the “flock.” The rays struck me as very spiky, wounding the dense, incense-choked air. There really was nothing unusual here — just a blessing by making the sign of the cross, using a monstrance rather than the hand or two fingers.

I too saw that it was a human performance, with nothing mysterious or divine about it. The drama of the loud ringing of the bells and the idea that you should bend your head and not look up — that was hype. There was nothing all that special about what was going on. I don’t quite remember my age — I’d guess eleven or twelve — too early to fully understand how the whole mass is a kind of theater, and the chanted mass an opera. Or, in a more shamanic interpretation, it was all magic rituals.

That was not the moment when I decided to leave the church, that all-too-human institution. But it was one step toward it. For me the surprise was the absence of feeling as a sinner as I was looking at the monstrance with plain curiosity rather than reverence. A certain emptiness that matched my spontaneous suspicion when I looked at the sky and couldn’t restrain the thought, “There is no one up there.”

Only clouds — and I loved watching clouds.

HOW FASCISM WORKS, by Jason Stanley

~ “The normalization of the fascist myth “makes us able to tolerate what was once intolerable by making it seem as if this is the way things have always been”, Stanley writes. “By contrast the word ‘fascist’ has acquired a feeling of the extreme, like crying wolf.”

The assertion that immigrants are responsible for social ills that threaten to ruin a once-great nation, for example, might represent run-of-the-mill racism or xenophobia. His book’s subtitle is after all “The Politics of Us and Them”. But the idea is also drawn from a blueprint shared by the most robust fascistic regimes in recent history.

Any reader for whom that previous sentence anticipates a debate – honestly, do Trump’s offenses of pettiness and corruption warrant such historico-political alarm? – might do well to open Stanley, who reassures us that it is OK to use the F-word, even when applied to regimes that do not appear to seek to mobilize populations for world domination.

Fascist politics – which evoke a mythic past, which rely on a sense of unreality and victimhood, and which use the cloak of “law and order” to hide corruption and attack scapegoats – can be used to flexible ends, writes Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale whose previous book was an analysis of propaganda.

What if a regime, for example, used a dismal us-versus-them divide in national politics to destroy faith in institutions capable of containing its power – elections, an independent judiciary, the public forum – thereby eliminating checks on its own self-enriching schemes?

Publicizing false charges of corruption while engaging in corrupt practices is typical of fascist politics, and anti-corruption campaigns are frequently at the heart of fascist political movements,” Stanley writes, helpfully, without once mentioning “Drain the swamp”.

What if the regime used the same divisive politics to build popular support for a tax system that preserves wealth for the most privileged while creating no new opportunities for everyone else? Would that warrant the term “fascism”?

“Since I am an American,” writes Stanley, “I must note that one goal appears to be to use fascist tactics hypocritically, waving the banner of nationalism in front of middle-and working-class white people in order to funnel the state’s spoils into the hands of oligarchs.

Underlying Stanley’s equanimous appraisal of the contemporary political moment is a weighty personal history. Both of his parents arrived in the US as Jewish refugees, his mother from eastern Poland and his father from Berlin, where his grandmother posed as a Nazi social worker to free Jewish prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

“My family background has saddled me with difficult emotional baggage,” he writes. “But it also, crucially, prepared me to write this book.”

The book provides a fascinating breakdown of the fascist ideology, nimbly interweaving examples from Germany, Italy and Hungary, from Rwanda and Myanmar to Serbia and, yes, the US. As he proceeds through his framework of the broadest features of his subject, Stanley includes smaller observations that may for some readers land bracingly close to home.

“In all fascist mythic pasts,” he writes, “an extreme version of the patriarchal family reigns supreme, even just a few generations ago …

“In the rhetoric of extreme nationalists, such a glorious past has been lost by the humiliation brought on by globalism, liberal cosmopolitanism, and respect for ‘universal values’ such as equality. These values are supposed to have made the nation weak in the face of real and threatening challenges to the nation’s existence.”

Stanley’s acute awareness of the power of the term, and the subtlety of his argument here, must contribute to the fact that he does not explicitly brand Trump a “fascist”. Nor does he harp on “Make America great again”.

It is a misfortune of yet-unknown dimensions that he does not have to.


“If your belief system is shot through with lies, you’re not free. Nobody thinks of the citizens of North Korea as free, because their actions are controlled by lies. Freedom requires truth, and so to smash freedom you must smash truth. ” ~ Jason Stanley


~ “I’ve worried that gay and abortion rights might be killing our chances of addressing global priorities like the climate crisis. Though it’s heretical I’d be for surrendering on abortion rights if doing so takes the steam out of the right. I’ve worried about fighting the right-wing coup while fighting for a black or woman president. It could be like fighting the ultimate battle with one hand off doing something else.

Reading a recent book “How Fascism Works,” by Jason Stanley, I now see how gay, racial and women’s reproductive rights are always priority subtext.

Fascism is borne of the haves' (by historical accident, us white males’) natural progression from privilege to cozy detachment to annoyance with all obstacles to rationalized annoyance to delusional self-assertion as the chosen people, eternally entitled.

It’s a natural progression, just what you’d expect from an organism with language. What do you get when you cross emotions with language? You get language that rationalizes emotions. The haves justifying their having as though it were the natural order of things is just what you’d expect.

Fascism is the militant reassertion of paternalistic authority, a pecker-based pecking order with the fascist leader as the supreme father figure. Trump cult fascism fits Stanley’s diagnosis perfectly. No wonder it marginalizes civil rights for women, gays and minorities, all of which are at cross purposes to fascism’s goal: To rewrite history, making the white male great again by subordinating all to the father figure. It’s the bible but not just – both secular or religious fascism are all about misogyny and xenophobia.

That diversity is a front-burner subtext doesn’t compel me to drop strategic prioritizing. It’s not like we have the power to bludgeon the backward right into accepting our diversity standards just because they’re urgent. I’m still no fan of “backfiring firebrands,” leftist radicals who set us back by pushing too hard too fast without attention to what’s politically, even humanly possible.

Still, recognizing fascism as a militant absolutist reassertion of eternal god-ordained white male superiority gives me new context and appreciation for the front-burner subtext. The fascists’ fierce and fearful opposition to women, gays and minorities is part of a larger plan: to make us all the supplicating subordinates not to big brother but big daddy, the boorish, profligate, monster-man who thinks he can do no wrong and therefore does lots of it.” ~ Jeremy Sherman


~ “I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.” ~ Susan Sontag


Note: “Faith: not wanting to know what is true.” My heavy problem was that a voice in my head was telling me that religion wasn’t true (that there was no one up there, for instance, and the sky was empty except for the clouds) — and the suppression of that voice took a lot of energy and agony.

Of course it didn’t start with Romanticism. Many roots of our culture go back to Hebrew and classical mythology — and those are already composite mythologies going back much earlier. All is historical, and all is fusion and transformation of multiple cultures.


“There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, Faith is believing what you know ain't so.” ~ Mark Twain



~ “The development of rationality is the theme of Johannes Fried’s book, The Middle Ages, and it is traced through the application of Aristotle’s logic in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century schools to the spread of its influence in ways that make it possible for Fried to postulate a “thought collective” among educated Western Europeans by the end of the period.

Perhaps there was such a collective. In Fried’s work its rise and achievement are given a priority that leaves not enough room for contrary cultural developments. One that is noted in his book is the almost universal expectation of the imminent end of all things, of the Last Days and Final Judgment predicted by Jesus and accepted throughout the early church. About every thirty years from the tenth century onward, this fear took possession of various, sometimes large bodies of men and women and inspired them to form mass movements. Collective penance, pentecostal enthusiasm, irregular crusades, unauthorized pilgrimages, messianic mobbing—all these engaged Christians who feared it might soon be too late.

This was a recurrent electrical charge both in politics and in religion, and Fried does it justice although it sits ill with his insistence on the period as an Age of Reason. He seems reluctant to concede that hysteria kept pace and outstripped the achievement of the thought collective. By 1500 art, printing, theater, and song had enriched the West with a vivid backdrop on which the presence of Antichrist, the Last Judgment, the Devil, Hell’s Mouth, and torments were made clearer than ever before. Individual consciousness of sin was so intense that the attempted reformation of the church would turn into hell on earth.” ~ source: New York Review of Books

Charlemagne features as a key figure of the time and he is close to Fried’s project as a historian: to relocate the birth of the age of reason from the Renaissance to the middle ages. So his book, translated by Peter Lewis, begins with Boethius and his death in prison at the hands of the Ostrogoth king Theodoric. Boethius translated parts of Aristotle’s Organon into Latin, “an introduction to a mode of thinking that was subject to learnable rules and therefore susceptible to scrutiny and correction ... It wasn’t emperors and kings that made Europe great, but the categorical mode of thinking inspired by this translation”.

When chronicling Charlemagne’s rule, Fried pays particular attention to his interest in founding libraries and other centers of learning, some of which evolved into universities that are still around today. Alfred the Great is also singled out for praise in this regard, and Fried notes that when Europe was being plagued by Vikings, Alfred was apparently the only ruler who bothered to find out what made these marauders tick.

Fried also cites Muslim-ruled Andalucía as a major influence on the development of European thought, with Muslim scholars and visiting European ones translating ancient Greek authors, as well as their exegetes such as Averroës and Avicenna. I experienced a mild frisson of Ukip-baiting as I contemplated the proposition that European civilization as we know it can be at least in part accounted for by a Francophone pan-Europeanism and an expansionist Islam.

It is not all about learning, though. The middle ages may have been more enlightened than we have come to believe, but there were still plenty of examples of mass credulity out there. During the Black Death, traveling mendicants would go from town to town, scourging themselves with nail-studded whips; people would wash their eyes in their blood in the hope of curing or inoculating themselves against the disease. We’re more than 800 years after Boethius, and things don’t seem to have changed much. It is – here Fried borrows the historian RI Moore’s phrase – “a persecuting society”, with almost arbitrary rules determining heresy, and a relish for inflicting the punishments.

You may wonder what the point is of learning about all this but, apart from spotting alarming modern parallels, there is a joy in learning for its own sake. On practically every page something extraordinary is going on. One instance: a decisive battle in the crusade against the Cathars was lost because a commander, Peter II of Aragon (Berenguer IV’s grandson), was “supposedly exhausted by a night of love-making”. That’s one of the more benign examples. Despite the focus on reason, we are never too far from cruelty, or folklore.
” ~

At left, the wedding of Louis and Eleanor; at right, Louis leaving on Crusade; 14th-century

Based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States maternal mortality ratio is three to four times higher than that of most other developed nations. The maternal mortality ratio is increasing, reaching 21-22 per 100,000 live births in 2014 (more than double from 1990.) Although much has been written about this problem, few solutions have been forthcoming.

The researchers of this study wanted to know if maternal and fetal death ratios were higher on weekends versus weekdays or during different months of the year. "We were interested in this study because we believe this data provides a valuable window into the problems with the U.S. system of obstetric care delivery," said Amirhossein Moaddab, M.D., with the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and the presenter of the study at the SMFM annual meeting.

The researchers analyzed more than 45 million pregnancies in the U.S. between 2004 and 2014 to determine if there are significant differences in ratios of both maternal deaths and stillborn deliveries depending on the day they occurred. Weekend delivery is also associated with differential maternal and neonatal morbidity, including increased ratios of perineal lacerations, maternal transfusions, neonatal intensive care admissions, immediate neonatal ventilation requirements, neonatal seizures and antibiotic use.

"We were able to control for pregnancy complications, and found that most women with pregnancy complications known to lead to death actually deliver on weekdays, suggesting that the actual problem with weekend deliveries is even greater," Steven L. Clark, M.D., senior author of the study explained. Researchers also looked at months of the year including "July phenomenon," the month of the year that is associated with an increased risk of medical errors and surgical complications that occurs in association with the time of year in which United States medical school graduates begin residencies. The researchers found no association between maternal-fetal mortality and July.

Clark continued, "Any system that shows this sort of variation in the most important of all system outcomes is, by definition, badly broken. Our data suggest that a part of the overall dismal U.S. obstetric performance may be related to this systems issue, that is, there may be a 'spill over' effect that is demonstrably worse on weekends but is also present on weekdays to a lesser extent. Our data does not allow us to go any further than this in terms of specifying what the problem is. However, we believe it is likely due to the fact that rarely is care of the pregnant inpatient the primary concern of the treating physician — it is almost always a distraction from office, surgery or personal activities."

Giotto: Nativity, 1305 


That final statement is a shock — especially when it hits you that a woman may die as a result of this inexcusable attitude. 


On our miserable distinction of being the only major developed nation with shockingly high, and climbing, rates of maternal mortality and morbidity..this has been going on, and even studied for several years now,  and is essentially continuing to rise, and even accelerate. Why?? Are we more concerned with the survival of at risk fetuses and newborns, spending time, money and sophisticated technology to save at risk infants, whose death rates are declining, while ignoring climbing rates of maternal deaths and serious complications?? In reports I've read dangerous symptoms of developing preeclampsia--a catastrophic complication of pregnancy, were not recognized, not reported, not treated, symptoms not monitored, and even symptoms of intense pain were brushed off, even when the pain was not relieved by increasingly strong doses of narcotics. Such intense and unresponsive pain is the body's siren screaming out that something very dangerous is under way.

Our health care system, far from being the finest in the world, is seriously broken. What was an art and a science is being run as a business, and the needs of both Doctors and Patients are pushed aside to satisfy the business model, whose bottom line is not health but financial solvency and profits. So we really get what we pay for, and it's not the best. Certainly not the safest.


You’ve said it all. Profits first. All stems from that. And this is so near-sighted — after all, if a mother survives and is in good health, she’s likely to have another child — more business, more profit! But it’s more important to play a game on the iPhone . . .


ending on beauty and humor:

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

~ Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 2

OK, let’s reach for the stars.

Saturday, December 22, 2018


Churchill also said: “We are all worms but I believe I am a glow worm.”

In advanced age, my health worsening, I woke up in the middle of the night and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition. And there was no reason for it. It didn’t obliterate consciousness; the past, which I carried, was there, together with my grief. And it was suddenly included, was a necessary part of the whole. As if a voice were repeating: “You can stop worrying now; everything happened just as it had to. You did what was assigned to you, and you are not required anymore to think of what happened long ago.” The peace I felt was a closing of accounts and was connected with the thought of death.

The happiness on this side was like an announcement of the other side. I realized that this was an undeserved gift and I could not grasp by what grace it was bestowed on me.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, This, 2000


Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, 

I felt a door opening in me and I entered 

the clarity of early morning. 

One after another my former lives were departing, 

like ships, together with their sorrow. 

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas 

assigned to my brush came closer, 

ready now to be described better than they were before. 

I was not separated from people, 
grief and pity joined us. 

We forget — I kept saying — that we are all children of the King. 

For where we come from there is no division 

into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be. 

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago —
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror 

of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef — they dwell in us, 

waiting for a fulfillment. 

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,

whether they are aware of it or not.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, This, the closing poem


Still life with Grapes, Johann Wilhelm Preyer (1803-1889)
Could there be a more perfect demonstration of the difference between prose and poetry? And it’s certainly not just a matter of line breaks. It would be very easy to lineate “Awakened”:

In advanced age, my health worsening,
I woke up in the middle of the night
and experienced a feeling of happiness
so intense and perfect that in all my life
I had only felt its premonition. (etc)

I like the way that line breaks add clarity and intensity to Awakened — but they don’t transform it into real poetry. The actual poem (Late Ripeness) has a radically different feel to it. The major difference is not lineation, but the richness of imagery and the widening of the scope —ultimately reaching for the universal.

Milosz starts with the personal:

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, 

I felt a door opening in me and I entered 

the clarity of early morning. 

One after another my former lives were departing, 
ike ships, together with their sorrow.

But after this departure, we get a sense of renewed vocation — as if beginning again (note also the time setting: “early morning”)

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas 

assigned to my brush came closer, 

ready now to be described better than they were before.

~ And now comes the embrace of the universal:

I was not separated from people, 

grief and pity joined us. 

We forget — I kept saying — that we are all children of the King. 

(The religious reference can be “translated” into “we are all children of the Universe.” The moment when I read, in Desiderata, “You are a child of the Universe . . . you have a right to be here” was a major revelation to me, totally uplifting; the Catholic verdict of belonging in hellfire was finally annulled by this new formulation.)

I also like the passage below, reminiscent of Rilke’s idea that “we are the bees of the invisible” — our main task is to transform the visible, the material, or “what really happened” into the content of memory, which depends on meaning and insight:

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago —
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror 

of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef — they dwell in us, 

waiting for a fulfillment.

Milosz doesn’t see himself as a worker bee but as a worker in the vineyard, but that’s a minor difference. Honey or wine, it’s all a matter of transformation.

So why does the prose piece and the poem feel like two distinct entities, belonging to different mental realms, one of them greater and more beautiful by far — even though the content is relatively similar? It’s obviously not a matter of line breaks, but of transformation. 

The original content (as presented in Awakened) has “ripened” into poetry. 

Fruit and goblet; Johann Wilhelm Preyer, 1854

*After many years of thinking about it, I’ve decided that the main difference between poetry and prose is the much more frequent use of images in poetry and poetry’s reliance on images to convey multiple meanings. It could be said that poetry “speaks to the senses” and is “cinematic” rather than rhetorical, i.e. “words, words, words.”

Imagery is a broader concept than metaphor, but given that any image can have multiple meanings, lending itself to symbolism, imagery and metaphor largely overlap. Here is what Zagajewski says about metaphor:

“Poetry needs metaphor to be lifted above the level of everyday speech. Not just because it’s more elegant, but because there’s some other level of perception which can be attained only in poetry. It’s very difficult to define this, but there’s this metaphor of the whole and the part; it always seems to me that in poetry we try to return to some mythical whole of perception, which of course never existed. In our everyday speech and our everyday perception, we are hopelessly divided ; we are in the life of the part. Poetry is an aspiration to return to this higher level, where we see the whole. Of course we will never see it, but there’s an almost religious aspiration to find a stronger perception, a better perception, which would correspond more to the whole than to this divided and fragmented way of perceiving the world. And I think it wouldn't be possible without metaphor.”

In Milosz’s Late Ripeness we enter the poetry, the region of imagery and metaphor, right from the marvelous imagistic leap of the beginning:

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, 

I felt a door opening in me and I entered 

the clarity of early morning. 

One after another my former lives were departing, 

like ships, together with their sorrow. 


This is almost posthumous, as I like to say: you’re done with your active life, you know the best you’ve accomplished is already behind you — but also the worst, the sorrows. Now a door opens, as if a French door to a balcony. You step into “the clarity of early morning” (yes, in older age there can suddenly be that “early morning”). And you see the harbor, and the ships laden with former lives departing. It’s over now, you don’t have to worry about the past. You surrender to the moment — “let it be.” 

Late Ripeness is special to me also for a personal reason. As I mentioned in a previous blog, in my younger years I used to worry if I’ll regret having spent so much time writing poetry. I’ve met a few people who thought it was a waste of my talent and education. I also worried that I haven’t given enough to others. It’s certainly possible to imagine more active and productive “alternate lives.” Milosz’s poem is one of voices reinforcing the peaceful reconciliation to the idea that, given my particular circumstances, I did fine.

Not that I'm completely done; I still contribute as best as I can, even via this modest blog. I'm grateful to every single reader — which could be someone in India or Africa — so remote, and yet so human and connected through the love of beauty and idea.



Milosz’ poem, with that door opening inside him, explores that wonderful gift that comes with "ripeness", when we are in the late stage of our lives, and discover we have lost nothing, have nothing left to regret, no more ambitions to realize, that all was just as it had to be — that our personal failures and disappointments no longer require our attention or apology, and all the world becomes more interesting, more compelling, and more worthy of attention than the narrow concerns of our individual strivings.

This is a kind of reconciliation that brings with it enormous relief, a wonderful freedom, and a sense of connection, inclusion, in the enterprise of the universe as it is created/understood/interpreted/transformed/experienced by all, in this moment and every one leading to it. Finally all is forgiven because forgiveness is no longer necessary. Finally you realize yourself among those “bees of the invisible” containing all, creating and recreating, part of all that is just as it must be.


And even if, theoretically speaking, it’s not exactly a matter of “must be,” there is no time left to be pondering other options. It’s too late in life (certain exceptional individuals notwithstanding) to be changing direction; we harvest what we have sowed. Or, to change the metaphor, we build on the foundations we laid earlier in life — but without striving, without ambition.

There is a saying, “Ambition bites the nails of success.” For me the atrophy of ambition has been the greatest gift of growing older. Once I realized that even if I won that contest I dreamed of winning, it wouldn’t change my life one bit. It might bring a handful more readers — but these days I gain that extra handful (handful? a strange word in the context of readers) by posting my blog.

Freedom from ambition paradoxically means that you can be more daring in your writing. You are not looking over your shoulder over how you’re being judged. You can write dangerously!

And because you need to conserve and focus your energy, you can also improve the quality. But above all, it’s the pleasure of it, and the basking in that pleasure — more conscious now than ever in the past. The past, like the ships with their cargo of sorrow, has largely departed.

Some things of value may also have departed along with the sorrows, but the richness of what we are left to sift through is too great to leave any time to worry about what may have been lost. Overabundance is my problem, not scarcity. But that’s how it is with mental riches. You sit on a pile of them tossing this or that onto a page, like a well-fed child playing with food (gee, I'm certainly leaping from one metaphor onto another today! It's a circus!)



I’d like to modify this to say that most often entirely different things come to you, not the one you expected. The vision of life you had in your twenties and thirties (we won’t even mention the teens) may start to look delusional: such high hopes! Prince Charming! Dream job! Dream house! As we grow older, “diminished expectations” become an almost universal reality. And that’s no tragedy. As both the Buddha and Oscar Wilde observed, there are two kinds of tragedy: one is not getting what you want, and the other is getting what you want. And Teresa of Avila observed that more tears are shed over answered prayers than over the unanswered ones. Life is perverse that way. But peace and contentment remain a prize after the years of struggle.


~ “What's remarkable about Roma is that after the overwhelming visual spectacles of Gravity and Children of Men, Cuarón has now used a similarly big, sweeping canvas to tell the most personal of human stories. It's an intimate portrait of a Mexican middle-class family during the early 1970s, inspired by the director's own memories of his childhood.

Cuarón shot the movie himself in shimmering black-and-white, and he presents every scene as a meticulously composed tableau. The movie is an epic of the everyday, and you can sense the influence of great neorealist filmmakers like Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini. But you can also feel Cuarón the popular entertainer hard at work, staging the action in long, unbroken takes and filling the frame with marvelous bits of quotidian detail.

Much of the action unfolds in a house in Mexico City's Colonia Roma district, where we see four children playing and running up and down the stairs. From the furniture to the décor, the house is a nearly exact replica of the home the director grew up in, and one of those children is presumably a stand-in for the young Cuarón himself.

But the kids are not the main focus here. Nor are their parents, a busy and distracted couple named Sofía and Antonio, played by Marina de Tavira and Fernando Grediaga. The protagonist here is the family's live-in housekeeper and nanny, Cleo, an indigenous Mexican woman of Mixtec heritage played by a soulful first-time actress named Yalitza Aparicio.

Cleo is a quiet, watchful presence and the glue that holds the family together. For much of Roma we follow her as she goes about her daily routine, gently waking up the kids each morning, hanging the family's laundry up to dry on the roof, and chatting in the kitchen with her best friend in the Mixtec language. (The subtitles indicate which language is being spoken, subtly highlighting the disparities of class and ethnicity within the household.)

The story comes together from a hundred stray threads and background details. Cleo goes out with a handsome young martial artist, but he abandons her after he learns she's carrying his child. Sofía supports Cleo through her pregnancy, but the mistress of the house has problems of her own: She and the rarely seen Antonio are going through a separation.

Occasionally the business of everyday life intersects with the broader historical and political context, as when Cuarón recreates the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, in which more than 100 student protesters were killed by army soldiers. Cleo watches the horrors unfold from the window of a furniture store where she's gone to purchase a crib for her baby.

It's a stunning piece of choreography, one of many throughout the movie, and I don't mean that entirely as a compliment. I can't remember the last time I wrestled as much with a movie I admired as much as Roma. I wish that more Hollywood directors would work in this austere, observant mode, patiently building an entire world around their characters and gently, unobtrusively drawing you in.

But there's something curiously showy about the unshowiness of Roma. The pristine quality of the visuals begins to feel lofty and self-admiring; it's a movie that never lets you forget how exquisitely directed it is. For my money, Cuarón's masterpiece remains his earlier Mexican production Y Tu Mamá También, which seemed to stumble on its razor-sharp insights into class, race, privilege and oppression as if by accident. I'm not suggesting that Roma would have been better as a raucous sex comedy, only that by comparison, it feels as if it's been orchestrated to within an inch of its life.

Cuarón has conceived Roma as a valentine to the real-life Cleo: Her name is Liboria Rodríguez, and Cuarón consulted her extensively for research. But for all the sharpness of this movie's visuals and the richness of the details, there is something about Cleo and the world she inhabits that never comes into focus. Aparicio gives a deeply moving performance as Cleo, and Cuarón could hardly be more attuned to her feelings, frustrations and desires. He clearly loves this character, but both times I saw Roma, I couldn't shake the feeling that he loves his images more.” ~


Watching Roma (in a marvelous art-nouveau theater), I was acutely aware that the director was influenced by famous neorealist movies such as Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and François Truffaut’s 400 Blows. What I didn’t immediately understand was why in the past I felt so entranced by de Sica and Truffaut, but now I wasn’t not particularly drawn in by Roma (except for the two riveting and somewhat comic martial-arts scenes — and I'm hardly a martial-arts fan).

This review made me see it clearly: Bicycle Thieves and 400 Blows each had a strong story. Roma has a rather minimal story; it’s a movie about images. Every scene is indeed very carefully orchestrated, sometimes overstuffed with details. Do we really need to see a man shot out of a cannon? Does the forest fire add anything, especially after we get to see the grotesque heads of dogs mounted on the walls of the hunting lodge, the oldest dog going back to 1911? Is the amount of dog poop in the driveway overdone, bordering on the surreal? Do we need certain scenes at all?

It’s also possible that I responded to the emotional intensity of the earlier neorealist movies —both of them ultimately devastating, descending into more and more misfortune — although there is a certain triumph in Truffaut’s juvenile delinquent’s managing to run away to see the ocean, which was his dream, so the last image is that of grandeur, beauty, and freedom. In both movies, the child actors manage to be amazingly expressive, conveying an inner life in spite of everything.

The main character in Roma is mostly silent and stoical — which she is supposed to be, and all agree that the acting is superb. But perhaps this is a little too realistic from the point of view of art. “Art is a lie that tells the truth,” Picasso famously observed. Cleo’s inner life remains a blank.

She reminded me of the “inscrutable” Chinese. Chinese men tend to come across that way because of their limited English. But catch them in the company of their Chinese friends — now no one’s face is a mask; no one speaks in a monotone. Now the men laugh, modulate their speech, gesticulate, and otherwise freely express emotions. They “are themselves” — by virtue of speaking their native language and feeling connected with their culture.

I wonder if that’s perhaps true of Cleo, at least to some extent. Her first language is Mixtec; she uses it when talking to the cook, the other servant. With the rest of the household asleep, the two women talk as only close friends do, and try — not very hard — to do exercises by candlelight. In this delightfully intimate scene, we note an interesting personality change. The women liven up: they even giggle. No longer stolid, they become universal: two young girls gossiping and having fun.

True: they are equals, and it’s different being with an equal rather than with someone to whom you are subordinate. You can be yourself only with an equal. Cleo is more expressive also with the children, over whom she has some authority as a nanny. I was especially taken with her ease when she interacts with the imaginative boy (presumably the future director) who keeps inventing his past lives. She can play along.

But these are just brief flashes of Cleo as an intelligent and emotionally lively human being. The movie felt unbalanced: either too noisy or too cloister-like quiet. Speaking of cloisters, there isn’t even a trace of Catholicism in this movie about life in Mexico in the early seventies. Not a single church, priest, or nun. Not a  single statue of the Virgin, not a single rosary. In a movie that tries so hard to be realistic and makes us view such prodigious piles of dog poop, that strikes me as a remarkable lapse.

Roma left me feeling disturbed and confused. Cleo finally gets the love and gratitude she deserves, and appears to be granted a slightly higher status within the family she works for (the wife suspends the harsh manner of addressing her and even shows some sisterhood — “We women are always alone”). The children definitely love Cleo. It could even be argued that she is the real mother — though the biological mother is the “decider,” in Woody Allen’s apt phrase. Still, Cleo remains a servant, be it a servant with a heart of gold. The movie doesn’t progress toward a higher plane; there is no path toward a more prosperous and fulfilling life for Cleo. We return to where we started. Even the same obnoxious military band passes through, as if to trumpet the unchanging judgment dividing the poor from the rich.

Every critic praises the artistry of the images in Roma. All that water, with its rich symbolism! But I don’t think Roma will achieve the status of a classic like the movies it’s trying to imitate, which are always listed among the greatest ever made. Reason: it can’t be just images. The story has to be strong too. 

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” Marcus Aurelius said this two thousand years ago. Nietzsche wasn’t the first to realize that there is no truth, only perception/interpretation.

Well, there are some scientific facts, e.g. the earth is round (but slightly flattened at the poles), the liver has certain functions, and so on. But that's not what people actually mean when they used the word “truth.” Usually they mean much more slippery matters.

Note that millions of people have killed and died for totally made up "truths." Not to be always bringing up the Catholic-Protestant wars of the past, just think of the Sunni-Shia conflict, which to us is completely idiotic.

~ “Rilke seems to have passed with relief from the all-consuming rites of romance to the half communion, half self-examination of writing letters, an activity that also served as a calm precursor of his art. Not surprisingly, he was one of the greatest — and most self-conscious — letter writers who ever lived. He composed missives with a devotional purposiveness. He once wrote a poem about the Annunciation in which the angel forgets what he has come to announce because he is overwhelmed by Mary's beauty. The implication seems to be that communicating through the mail would have been a more fruitful procedure.” ~

Church of the Annunciation, Florence

Imagine Mary getting the Annunciation via a letter — these day, email or an iPhone text. “Face time” is an endangered species. 



Of course this is a fifties ad, illustrating an era when pleasing a man was supposed to be a woman’s only goal — well, perhaps second after finding the right shade of lipstick (I'm still searching).

Seriously, I can’t help but grow sad when I ponder that this is not a romantic, chivalrous culture — not matter how much pretending went into that. I wasn't prepared to be around men who just wanted to get laid and made that completely plain, without going through the motions of courtship. Worst of all, men (I don't mean truck drivers, but educated, professional men) who grew up in families where there was domestic violence, so they don't have a taboo against hitting a woman. Maybe just my personal bad luck, but it was a shock.

Maybe it’s a matter of social class, America being more proletarian-friendly, with no aristocratic ideal to speak of, none of this bringing flowers. A cowboy bringing flowers to his sweetheart (if he even has one) — that just doesn’t happen.

Actually, the ad starts with an interesting premise: every woman marries two men, the outward persona and the inner man. But that gets terribly vulgarized by making it about beer.

It reminds me of one of my first "advertising shock" experiences. It was my first week in the country. A commercial crooned: “What is a woman? Someone who cares.” I was instantly delighted by that “definition.” But the commercial went on: “Cares about clean clothes for her family” — and what followed was a pitch for the “new improved Tide.”



~ “As soon as Andrei lands at Sheremetyevo Airport, he finds himself in a world that doesn’t conform to the platitudes in which he’s been trained. For one thing, they’re old, dating back to the Cold War or even earlier, and they’re predicated on a narrative of Russian backwardness inadequate for explaining Moscow’s modern glitz. They are also confounded by Moscow’s stark contrasts. His grandmother’s apartment, obtained long ago during the Stalinist purges, is located in what has become a tony district of the capital, full of overpriced restaurants and cafés. While everything inside the apartment is old and musty—knickknacks and relics of the ancien régime—as soon as Andrei goes outside, he finds himself surrounded by fantastic wealth and reminders of the power of the police. Viewed from a coffee-shop table, the difference between Russia and the United States seems one of degree rather than of kind.

Sheremetyvo Airport, Moscow

Many of the Russians that Andrei initially encounters only add to his sense of disorientation. Through his brother, he meets a privileged coterie of Russian liberals, who complain about the propagandistic stupidity of Russian television and rhapsodize about the prestige shows that represent the enlightened culture of the West. They’re not wrong about the propaganda, but they are oblivious to what it hides. They don’t understand the economic grievances that motivate most Russians or how their own class position insulates them from the regime’s worst crimes. For ordinary Russians, the market reforms of the 1990s created a disastrous era of collapse and dysfunction; for Andrei’s new friends, the problem is that the reforms weren’t allowed to go far enough.

Andrei soon finds his real friends in Moscow among a small group of Marxists. They are not members of the Russian Communist Party, the KPRF; the successor to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is a venal, racist, and anti-Semitic lapdog of the regime, happy to endorse its imperial ambitions and its culture-war agenda, as long as Putin’s government does not cut social services too deeply. Instead, Andrei’s friends belong to a small group called October, akin to socialists in the United States. They try to make clear the capitalist exploitation that underlies Putin’s rule while working to salvage a usable past from the Soviet legacy, building bridges with ordinary people who remain unmoved by the liberals’ focus on political freedoms alone but who feel strongly about their homes and public lands being handed off for plunder by developers.

Navigating between the fossil-fuel wealth of the central city and the dismal highways and auto-repair shops on its sprawling outskirts, Andrei begins to view the new Russia in a different way. The much-maligned gray, prefab, concrete apartment buildings that ring the city no longer represent Soviet backwardness; instead, they have become the last refuge for Russia’s working class. These buildings stand in for the positive aspects of the Soviet inheritance: its commitment to free health care, housing, and education. Even the dilapidated state hospital that Andrei visits with his grandmother is not a monument to the failure of communism but rather a place where conscientious doctors and nurses try to make do with scarce resources. Where most Western writers present these institutions as obsolete relics doomed to disappear as Russia moves deeper and deeper into the capitalist mainstream, Andrei comes to see them as seeds of hope and alternate possibilities; at last the enjoyment of building a ramshackle dacha alongside his Marxist friends outweighs the dubious pleasures of Moscow nightlife, and he soon finds himself falling in love with one of them.

Underlying Andrei’s predicament is the broader question of whether Russia itself can be saved, whether it is worth saving, and who will be able to save it. Like Andrei, the country is at a crossroads. As Gessen noted in a recent interview, it was not a coincidence that he set the novel in 2008: At the heart of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential interregnum, Russia appeared poised between a milder, more liberal form of “sovereign democracy” and a harsher return to the Putinist tradition. At the beginning of that year, liberals and Marxists thought the regime might make concessions to demands for bottom-up political and economic reform, and Gessen captures the sense of possibility, however illusory, before the country took its more authoritarian turn.

Near the beginning of the novel, Gessen has Putin himself voice this moral quandary. In an interview that Andrei watches on his grandmother’s television, the then–prime minister argues that criticism of Russia too often targets not his government but Russia itself, which he compares to a sick mother. Andrei himself, of course, has come to Russia to be at his grandmother’s bedside, and he finds Putin’s speech “a devastating response” to liberal critics who seemed so ready to consign the country to the dustbin. Yet a year later, and with prospects in the United States less bleak, Andrei finds the temptation of abandoning his metaphorical mother and his literal grandmother a lot stronger than he had anticipated.” ~
Abandoned church of the transfiguration, Archangelsk region


Actually I found some of this during my 2 trips to post-Communist Poland (although it could be argued that Poland, with its private agriculture and powerful Catholicism, and its pro-Western, anti-Soviet attitudes, including an anti-Soviet intelligentsia, was never quite a Communist country). There was the increasing Western glitz for the rich, the glossy magazines, the expensive cosmetics alongside the greasy creams from Romania — and there was the unnerving poverty of some, e.g. the elderly without enough family to help them.

As for the “Socialist” group that becomes the protagonist family, it’s not particularly about ideology — it’s about belonging to a small circle of people who meet often enough to get bonded to one another. They aren’t trying to change society — that’s not really the point. The point is the camaraderie among kindred minds. Even occasional squabbles are lovers’ quarrels. Imagine 8-10 people going to see a movie or a play together, and discussing it afterwards. I never had that experience in this country! The closest I came was a couple  of Jungian lectures that included a screening and discussion. No matter how air-headed some of it was, and how someone just had to tell his or her dream that had some vague connection with the story, at least there was the thrill of listening to intelligent people’s varied perspectives, and watch an intellectual synergy that emerges.

from another review, by Francine Prose:

~ “According to the familiar adage, there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. It’s a catchy premise that falls apart when measured against one’s experience of literature. Yet I found myself recalling it after reading Keith Gessen’s excellent new novel, A Terrible Country. What if those two plots were in fact successive chapters in a single story? A man (or woman) goes on a journey and becomes the stranger in town. Isn’t that what happens in the novel of immigration?

By 2008, when the novel begins, the world may be on the brink of a financial crisis, but Moscow is doing great. Andrei notes the changes he observes even before he leaves the airport: “[In the past] they made you come down to this basement and wait in line before you got your bags. It was like a purgatory from which you suspected you might be entering someplace other than heaven.” Now, however, the cheerful airport guards have good haircuts and are chatting on ‘sleek new iPhones’:

“Oil was selling for $114 a barrel, and they had clobbered the Georgians — is that what they were laughing about?

Modernization theory said the following: Wealth and technology are more powerful than culture. Give people nice cars, color television, and the ability to travel to Europe, and they’ll stop being so aggressive. No two countries with McDonald’s franchises will ever go to war with each other. People with cell phones are nicer than people without cell phones.

I wasn’t so sure. The Georgians had McDonald’s, and the Russians bombed them anyway.”

Obliged to stay in Moscow by his need to take care of Baba, and lacking any practical alternatives back home [in the US], Andrei is no longer a privileged tourist but a poor immigrant who can’t afford the city’s shatteringly expensive bars and cafés.

Events conspire to remind Andrei that he is an outsider. He and a friend encounter a group of skinheads yellow: Beat the Jews, save Russia! When Andrei takes his grandmother to the park, the jovial old women hanging out on the benches turn out to be the mean-spirited anti-Semites that Baba Seva has said they are from the beginning. And yet, despite everything, Andrei’s infatuation with Russia continues:

~ I loved it. I loved kasha and kotlety and I loved the language and I loved the hockey guys and I even loved some of the people on the street. ~

This is a terrible country is Baba Seva’s furious, sincere opinion of Russia. (. . . ) She’s part of a cohort of preternaturally tough old women who survived the twentieth-century disasters — exile, death, persecution, starvation — engineered by Hitler and Stalin. It’s a type that readers may recognize from the work of Nadezhda Mandelstam, the author of two of literature’s most eloquent memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned.

Andrei’s new friend Sergei says:

What we’ve seen in Russian in the last twenty years is the replacement of a stagnant, sometimes violent and oppressive, but basically functioning state with a dictatorship of the market. People have died, of starvation, of depression, of alcoholism, and violence, and not only have they done so quietly, they have done so willingly. They have praised their conquerors.

. . . Sergei knew about the camps, the purges, the lies. But there was more to socialism, he seemed to be saying. It wasn’t just camps and insane asylums.

Andrei and his friends believe in the ideal of a state in which labor and human rights are valued and the government works to improve its citizens’ well-being, health, and education.
[There is the private intellectual paradise of the “Marxist” circle] “There were little cafés and bookstore-cafés where you could sit and have tea or a beer for a couple of dollars and read Derrida for a few hours without anyone bothering you. Even critical theory, which had fallen out of fashion in the United States, was still cool here. It was Moscow I had once hoped existed but couldn’t find. Now here it was.” ~


Again, how familiar it all sounds. “Familiar” is in fact a critical word here. We love that which is familiar: the food, the language. The fact that my grandmother could turn any kind of food into soup, and then put sour cream into every kind of soup (and it tasted great!) was a lot more significant to me than the type of government my homeland had. Toward the end of high school I finally acquired some political consciousness — but once Poland was lost forever, did that matter? No, the terrible loss, the source of crying myself to sleep night after night, was the loss of the familiar.

This is what non-immigrants find it hard (or even impossible) to understand: if the “old country” (a horrible phrase) was so wonderful, why did you ever leave it? It’s not about “wonderful” — though it may seem that way through the lens of having been lost. It’s about “familiar.” 

But that’s not the essence of Gessen’s novel. The protagonist left Russia early in life, and basically only the language (which he loves, but who wouldn’t — Russian is so musical) is familiar to him. In fact until he finds his new family with the “Marxist” intellectuals, he feels estranged. I haven’t read the book, but based on these thoughtful reviews I think the central message is that the country is both wonderful and terrible, and everything in between. Complexity rules.

By the way, is the US a wonderful or a terrible country? Americans would be shocked at how many Western Europeans (and not just Western Europeans) regard America as a terrible country — one riddled with religious fundamentalism, for one thing, and an arrogant, militaristic bully. Can America be described in one word? Of course not. Neither can any other country in the world. 


“Literature is an antidote to the blunt distortions—good vs. evil, us vs. them—that are so easily exploited by those who would manipulate us.” ~ Jennifer Egan

THE MYTH OF JUDEO-BOLSHEVISM (a review of Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe)

~ “It’s the bad luck of the Jews, and a persistent shonde [shame, disgrace], that some of the most notorious Communists were members of the tribe: “Iron Lazar” Kaganovich, Stalin’s brutal henchman; Jakub Berman, head of the Polish secret police; Romania’s Ana Pauker (“Stalin in a skirt”); and of course Exhibit A, Leon Trotsky. Like most of the other Red firebrands, Lev Davidovich Bronstein declared his Jewish identity meaningless. But maybe it wasn’t. For one thing, Communism promised to solve the Jewish question in a way that other movements could not. World revolution, unlike Bundism and Zionism (both more popular options among Eastern European Jews), offered an escape from Jewishness in the name of universal humanity, and at the same time satisfied the classically Jewish prophetic urge.

It shouldn’t be verboten to speak of a certain Jewish aptitude for Communism. The historian Yuri Slezkine busted that taboo in his masterwork The Jewish Century when he suggested that the notorious image of the Jewish commissar was more than just an anti-Semitic smear. Jews combined “relentless rationalism and exuberant messianism” and so made excellent revolutionaries, Slezkine wrote. Slezkine sensibly remarked that “most radicals were not Jews and most Jews were not radicals, but the proportion of radicals among Jews was, on average, much higher than among their non-Jewish neighbors.” Seven out of 10 members of the original leadership of the Polish Communist movement were Jewish, and in the 1930s Jews made up about 65 percent of all Warsaw Communists, 75 percent of the Polish Party’s propaganda apparatus, and 90 percent of MOPR, Poland’s international Communist relief organization. We can keep such facts in mind, Slezkine argued, and still avoid sliding into the anti-Semitic slander that Bolshevism was a Jewish plot.

The revolutionary spirit that seized some Jews and many more non-Jews in the early years of the 20th century has led to all kinds of trouble, not least for the Jews themselves. In the early 20th century, Slezkine wrote, Jews looked like a vanguard people, modernity incarnate. But a trapdoor loomed for the Jews: Modernity now meant nationalism, the new opiate of the people, “states that posed as tribes.” A head-on collision resulted between nationalism and the Jews in which the latter suddenly looked like the enemies of the newly chosen people, the Germans, Poles, Hungarians, and Romanians. Despite the Jews’ strenuous devotion to the national gentile cultures, their love for Goethe, Mickiewicz, Petöfi, they were still suspect, rootless aliens. Jews came to represent the evil, corrosive side of modernity, string-pullers of international capital and media, and worst of all, ready to destroy one’s nation in the name of global Communism.

Enter the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, capably explored by Paul Hanebrink in his new book, A Specter Haunting Europe. For many Europeans in the late 1910s, the face of Communist revolution was Jewish. Short-lived revolutions swept across Eastern and Central Europe in the wake of the Bolshevik coup, and many of the leaders were Jews or half-Jews, like Hungary’s Bela Kun and Bavaria’s Kurt Eisner. Like Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin, Eisner was no Bolshevik, but that didn’t matter. After these revolutions collapsed, Jews were blamed for the chaos and bloodshed.

Granted, Jews were overrepresented in a few Communist regimes. There is still a huge leap between this fact and the anti-Semitic notion, sharply on the rise in today’s Eastern Europe, that “the Jews” were responsible for Communism, and that they should be unmasked as aggressors, not merely innocent victims of the Nazis. Judeo-Bolshevism has become a way not just to blame the Jews, but to minimize Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian responsibility for anti-Jewish crimes.


Calling Communism a Jewish plot was not Hitler’s idea, as Hanebrink points out. He borrowed it from a slew of national anti-Semitic movements that sprung up in the wake of the failed revolutions of the 1910s. Hitler did, however, make the most devastating and cynical use of Judeo-Bolshevism.

The Nazis were often opportunistic in their understanding of Judeo-Bolshevism, relying on the principle that one should take revenge on Jews, any Jews, for crimes committed by the NKVD. Both in Lviv, where the NKVD had killed thousands, and in Drobomyl, the SS carried out retaliatory massacres. Victims were chosen, one Nazi commander wrote, “according to the principle that Jews were the carriers of Bolshevism.” The infectious-disease model provided carte blanche for random killings of Jews, and relieved the SS murderers of the need to show that any particular Jew had been a part of the Communist apparatus. Judeo-Bolshevism became an excuse for genocidal anti-Semitism.

In a fascinating chapter, Hanebrink addresses the Historikerstreit of the 1980s. The German historian Ernst Nolte suggested that Nazi genocide against the Jews stemmed in part from a real fear of Bolshevism. The fact that there were prominent Jewish Bolsheviks in Russia and elsewhere was the “rational core” of Hitler’s genocidal project, Nolte argued. Hitler saw his deeds as part of a “European civil war” between Nazism and Bolshevism, with the Jews on the side of the Bolsheviks. For Nolte, anti-Communism took precedence over anti-Semitism in Hitler’s thinking.

German scholars and thinkers rushed to condemn Nolte because, they said, he had minimized the Nazi evil. For him Nazism was merely a reaction to the Communist threat and an imitation of Communist cruelty. Nolte was trying to lighten German guilt, his critics charged, by downplaying Nazi anti-Semitism.

The German campaign against Nolte’s theories reinforced Germany’s refusal, from the 1970s on, to balance its wartime suffering against that of other peoples, especially the Jews. Whatever Germany had endured during the war was a righteous punishment for its sins, and in no way comparable to the Jewish disaster. The Germans of the Nazi era would always be perpetrators rather than victims, with later generations elaborately aware of their ancestors’ guilt.


In Hungary, Poland, and Romania, as Hanebrink shows, postwar history took an altogether contrasting shape. All too often, right-leaning Eastern Europeans excuse crimes committed against Jews before, during and after the Nazi era. They point out that Jews, in their role as Bolsheviks, inflicted death and suffering on the homeland; the resulting anti-Jewish pogroms were in part the Jews’ own fault.

Hanebrink ends his book with a doubtful argument. He thinks that our current fear of radical Islamic terrorism echoes the earlier paranoia about the Jewish Bolshevik. The Judeo-Bolshevik myth, he claims, is a “fertile source” for “anti-Islamic sentiment.” The truth seems to me quite the opposite: Islamist terror owes a debt to the Judeo-Bolshevik idea. Radical Islam links Jews to colonialism and the evils of modernity. Jews are seen as the foreign oppressor unjustly occupying Muslim lands, like the Jewish Bolsheviks who supposedly crushed Poland or Hungary.

It is politically correct these days to cast Muslims in the role of Jews. This analogy is misleading. Radical Islam is a real entity; Judeo-Bolshevism was not. European wariness about Islamic radicalism finds a real basis in the fact that its adherents murder innocents in the name of religion, as Jews did not. Islamist terrorism is not a paranoid fantasy, like the notion that the Jews are behind Communism. Chaotic waves of mass immigration play a key role in the debate over Islam in the West, as they did not for the promoters of the Judeo-Bolshevist theory. To imply with Hanebrink that Islamism does not threaten Europe or oppress ordinary Muslims encourages a liberal blindness that will result in more prejudice against Muslims, not less. We need to convince Muslim immigrants to the West to reject Islamism, not just to stop terrorist attacks, but to free Muslims who feel trapped in a severely patriarchal culture.

Despite Hanebrink’s concluding misstep, his book comes just at the right time, when nationalism is again on the upsurge, and not just in Europe. A few days ago our callous and crass president excitedly remarked to reporters, “I’m a nationalist! … Use that word!” The urgent task for us today is to see if we can use the word nationalism without being racists and xenophobes. The strange, persistent history of Judeo-Bolshevism shows how often nationalist pride depends on a fantasy of the evil other. But nationalism has often enabled a people to know itself, even to become itself: Look at America, Israel, and, yes, even Poland and Hungary. We can’t just see nationalism as the big bad wolf of politics and overlook its immense contributions. But we must not shrug off the dangers that can come with it, like the phantom menace of Jewish Bolshevism.

Trotsky as Saint George, propaganda poster, 1918


But then Jews are blamed for capitalism too. “The Jewish bankers” are another specter that has been haunting the world for centuries. Add to this the strange longevity of the bizarre claim that Jews are responsible for all the wars. I think the point is that a scapegoat needs to be found — a group that can be blamed for all that seems wrong with the world.

The Jewish conspiracy theories sweeping through different regions and different historical eras have always struck me as the craziest of all ethnic/religious bigotries. They seem to rise to the level of hysteria, fade, but then are replaced by new ones. 


Just wanted to mention how funny I thought that image of Trotsky as St George was!! Meant as satire I hope??


On the contrary, it’s a perfectly earnest propaganda poster. The dragon is capitalism.


Peter Carruthers: ~ “Thoughts such as decisions and judgments should not be considered to be conscious. They are not accessible in working memory, nor are we directly aware of them. We merely have what I call “the illusion of immediacy”—the false impression that we know our thoughts directly.

In ordinary life we are quite content to say things like “Oh, I just had a thought” or “I was thinking to myself.” By this we usually mean instances of inner speech or visual imagery, which are at the center of our stream of consciousness—the train of words and visual contents represented in our minds. I think that these trains are indeed conscious. 

In neurophilosophy, however, we refer to “thought” in a much more specific sense. In this view, thoughts include only nonsensory mental attitudes, such as judgments, decisions, intentions and goals. These are amodal, abstract events, meaning that they are not sensory experiences and are not tied to sensory experiences. Such thoughts never figure in working memory. They never become conscious. And we only ever know of them by interpreting what does become conscious, such as visual imagery and the words we hear ourselves say in our heads.

I claim that consciousness is always bound to a sensory modality, that there is inevitably some auditory, visual or tactile aspect to it. All kinds of mental imagery, such as inner speech or visual memory, can of course be conscious. We see things in our mind’s eye; we hear our inner voice. What we are conscious of are the sensory-based contents present in working memory.

Some philosophers believe that consciousness can be richer than what we can actually report. For example, our visual field seems to be full of detail—everything is just there, already consciously seen. Yet experiments in visual perception, especially the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, show that in fact we consciously register only a very limited slice of the world. [Editors’ note: A person experiencing inattentional blindness may not notice that a gorilla walked across a basketball court while the individual was focusing on the movement of the ball.] So, what we think we see, our subjective impression, is different from what we are actually aware of. Probably our conscious mind grasps only the gist of much of what is out there in the world, a sort of statistical summary. 

Of course, for most people consciousness and awareness coincide most of the time. Still, I think, we are not directly aware of our thoughts. Just as we are not directly aware of the thoughts of other people. We interpret our own mental states in much the same way as we interpret the minds of others, except that we can use as data in our own case our own visual imagery and inner speech.

Let’s take our conversation as an example—you are surely aware of what I am saying to you at this very moment. But the interpretative work and inferences on which you base your understanding are not accessible to you. All the highly automatic, quick inferences that form the basis of your understanding of my words remain hidden. You seem to just hear the meaning of what I say. What rises to the surface of your mind are the results of these mental processes. That is what I mean: The inferences themselves, the actual workings of our mind, remain unconscious. All that we are aware of are their products. And my access to your mind, when I listen to you speak, is not different in any fundamental way from my access to my own mind when I am aware of my own inner speech. The same sorts of interpretive processes still have to take place.

There is a great deal of experimental evidence from normal subjects, especially of their readiness to falsely, but unknowingly, fabricate facts or memories to fill in for lost ones. Moreover, if introspection were fundamentally different from reading the minds of others, one would expect there to be disorders in which only one capacity was damaged but not the other. But that’s not what we find. Autism spectrum disorders, for example, are not only associated with limited access to the thoughts of others but also with a restricted understanding of oneself. In patients with schizophrenia, the insight both into one’s own mind and that of others is distorted. There seems to be only a single mind-reading mechanism on which we depend both internally and in our social relations.
The price we pay is that we believe subjectively that we are possessed of far greater certainty about our attitudes than we actually have. We believe that if we are in mental state X, it is the same as being in that state. As soon as I believe I am hungry, I am. Once I believe I am happy, I am. But that is not really the case. It is a trick of the mind that makes us equate the act of thinking one has a thought with the thought itself.

There are rare instances when we succeed in [differentiating state of mind from belief]: for example, when I feel nervous or irritated but suddenly realize that I am actually hungry and need to eat.

~ Would you agree that we are much more unconscious than we think we are?

I would rather say that consciousness is not what we generally think it is. It is not direct awareness of our inner world of thoughts and judgments but a highly inferential process that only gives us the impression of immediacy.

~ Where does that leave us with our concept of freedom and responsibility? 

We can still have free will and be responsible for our actions. Conscious and unconscious are not separate spheres; they operate in tandem. We are not simply puppets manipulated by our unconscious thoughts, because obviously, conscious reflection does have effects on our behavior. It interacts with and is fueled by implicit processes. In the end, being free means acting in accordance with one’s own reasons—whether these are conscious or not.


Important characteristics of consciousness include subjectivity (the sense that the mental event belongs to me), continuity (it appears unbroken) and intentionality (it is directed at an object). According to a popular scheme of consciousness known as Global Workspace Theory, a mental state or event is conscious if a person can bring it to mind to carry out such functions as decision-making or remembering, although how such accessing occurs is not precisely understood. Investigators assume that consciousness is not the product of a single region of the brain but of larger neural networks. Some theoreticians go so far as to posit that it is not even the product of an individual brain. For example, philosopher Alva Noë of the University of California, Berkeley, holds that consciousness is not the work of a single organ but is more like a dance: a pattern of meaning that emerges between brains.


I found it interesting that Carruthers makes a distinction between the almost constant inner monologue that we tend to call “thinking” and decisions and choices that are apparently unconscious and do not have a sensory component, such as hearing an inner voice or recalling images. Freud said that all cognitive activity is unconscious, and I think the scientific consensus is that he was right (for a change).

I have also always assumed that some neural pathways become activated to communicate at least some of these decisions and choices to some executive centers that create awareness. Just how that happens — what is chosen to enter our awareness, which pathways decide that, and why — that remains a murky area, as we’d expect, given that we’re trying to use the brain to investigate the workings of the brain. The new science of complexity, with its idea of “emergence,” may become a factor in future discussions of consciousness. 

Another interesting thing that Carruthers points out is that introspection isn’t that different from trying to understand the mind of someone else. “There seems to be only a single mind-reading mechanism on which we depend both internally and in our social relations.” That makes intuitive sense. People we regard as “sensitive” are usually those who are also introspective.

Meanwhile I find my mind to be quite an amusement park, especially when it comes both to the creative process and trying to remember a word or something else that has slipped away from us. Why the solution tends to come at the most inconvenient times — in the wee hours of the night or while driving or taking a shower — is anyone’s guess, but it’s a common phenomenon, and part of the adventure of living in a very complex environment, with trillions of connections. Sheer accident certainly plays a role. 

(Jung had an interesting theory that he called “cryptomnesia” or “hidden memory”: the unconscious processing of information we are likely to have forgotten ever having acquired; this processing can lead to creativity of all sorts, e.g. finding a solution to a stubborn problem. Alas, time wasn’t ripe for such theorizing.)

At the same time, it makes sense that we are not “puppets of the unconscious.” Unconscious processing and conscious reflection interact. We can indeed “pause and think.” We don’t like to — it’s an effort, and the problems are often complicated. Best art is usually the kind that comes with the least effort. Yet anyone familiar with the creative process also realizes that the gift of an easy birth is not something we can count on — we get stuck, draw a blank, or spend hours going in wrong direction before we find we find what works. 

Most of what “wells up” from the unconscious disappears without a trace. It’s all part of the adventure. To life!

Proust: Manuscript of Swann’s Way


I’m not sure that conscious thought is that endless stream of words. Most of the time it seems to me awareness comes before words, putting it into words is another step, sometimes difficult — we work to find the right words, and they never seem to completely succeed. So we become poets, and use words metaphorically, use images and sounds to approximate the awareness we are experiencing.

In the beginning was Not the word. That comes later, both to our infant selves and to our adult consciousness. Dreams are not full of words, and when we tell our dreams, we know we are reshaping them by the very process of putting them into words. So all speech is revision, awareness and memory edited and reduced. I do not think wordless awareness is unconscious. Consciousness does not depend on words, does not need to be spoken to exist.


Carruthers does not say that consciousness depends on words; it’s certainly in large part imagery (and animals presumably “think in images” — though “think” may not be the best word here). He says, “I claim that consciousness is always bound to a sensory modality, that there is inevitably some auditory, visual or tactile aspect to it. All kinds of mental imagery, such as inner speech or visual memory, can of course be conscious. We see things in our mind’s eye; we hear our inner voice. What we are conscious of are the sensory-based contents present in working memory.”

But I like your idea that “all speech is revision, awareness and memory edited and reduced.” Talk therapy is an attempt to use language to “tame” and distance our experience through all kinds of intellectual labels and concepts. It’s “cognitive reframing” that at its best helps a person deal with disturbing emotions. It gives us at least the illusion of being more in control — and even if it’s an illusion, like carrying a lucky charm, it can have a powerful effect.

People say that a song changed their life, or a book. In my case, just the title of a certain (mediocre) book — Eating, Drinking, Overthinking — helped change my life, by moving me closer to my liberating insight about depression. And come to think of it, it was just one word of that title, Overthinking, that did the work — though placing it in the context of addiction helped me see it more clearly. So a single word can be salvation! But together with everything that has led up to it, including many other words.

But  language itself produces a ton of problems — it can make up believe all kinds of nonsense. Or it can lead precisely to paralyzing, disabling overthinking — in depression, that’s known as “brooding.” As for lying and propaganda, volumes have been written on the harm done by the the malignant manipulation by language. To Dante, misuse of the intellect was the primary sin.

So that’s the human condition: each blessing contains a curse. I’d love to say that each curse also contains its own blessing, but that’s true only some of the time. Some curses kill.

But I’ve gotten carried away from the subject of consciousness. I'm not sure if we can ever decide just what is conscious and what is unconscious (“The problem with the unconscious is that it is not conscious,” Jung quipped). But I love it when the brain manages to find a perfect solution after simmering it on some neural back burners for hours, days, sometimes even years. And then very suddenly we KNOW. Learning to trust the brain’s power to do things without my conscious trying has been one of the most beautiful gifts of life.
And I do like the connection of consciousness to sensory experience. Somehow that seems right. In the beginning was sensory experience. I can go along with that. 


P.S. I think Carruthers is also saying that the big choices, the life-changing choices — vocation, marriage — are not subject to rational thought. This overlaps with the topic of free will. After all, conscious thought is typically a synonym for rationality. We “cogitate” like an army of little Descarteses (?? well, what is the anglo plural of Descartes?) But ultimately we cogitate most about matters that are not that important. Still, once awareness is kindled (e.g. beware: opposites may attract, but not for long), it does influence our conduct. But that’s another can of philosophical worms. We don’t want that. We want butterflies.


ending on beauty and insight:

One God is born. Others die. Truth
Did not come or go. Error changed.
Eternity is different now.
What happened was better always.

Blind Science plows the useless sod.
Fool Faith lives the dream of its observance.
A new God is but a word.
Search not, nor believe. All is hidden.

~ Fernando Pessoa