Sunday, April 28, 2019


Umberto Boccioni: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913; bronze, cast in 1931



Your mother carried you
Out of the smoking ruins of a building
And set you down on this sidewalk
Like a doll bundled in burnt rags,
Where you now stood years later
Talking to a homeless dog,
Half-hidden behind a parked car,
His eyes brimming with hope
As he inched forward, ready for the worst.

~ Charles Simic

“Our [American] poets, when one comes right down to it, are always saying: This is what happened to me. This is what I saw and felt. Truth, they never get tired of reiterating, is not something that already exists in the world, but something that needs to be rediscovered almost daily.” ~ Charles Simic, “Poetry and Experience”

And this is what Simic is doing in this personal narrative — rediscovering the truth
 . . . years later
Talking to a homeless dog,
Half-hidden behind a parked car,
His eyes brimming with hope
As he inched forward, ready for the worst.

A street in Belgrade

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” ~ W. F. Hegel

Simic takes a dark view of history. I remember him saying, “I started to read a volume on world history — but in what kind of place can one read such an obscene text?” Obviously, an acute awareness of evil argues against a benevolent deity. Here is another short poem by Simic in which he imagines the kind of deity that condones any kind of evil. Note that this god is blind — an idea first presented in those of Thomas Hardy’s poems that likewise try to account for the relentless misery present in life and god’s inaction.


In his fear of solitude, he made us.
Fearing eternity, he gave us time.
I hear his white cane thumping
Up and down the hall.

I expect neighbors to complain, but no.
The little girl who sobbed
When her daddy crawled into her bed
Is quiet now.

It's quarter to two.
On this street of darkened pawnshops,
Welfare hotels and tenements,
One or two ragged puppets are awake.

~ Charles Simic

Indeed poets in general tend on comment on the dark side of history — not surprising in “poetry after Auschwitz” and the two world wars — and the recent upsurge in terrorism, whether coming from militant Islam or white supremacists. A fundamentalist religion or an extreme ideology — it doesn’t seem to matter. The outcome is still slaughter, and we are all potential targets.

I’m a soft target, you’re a soft target
and the city has a hundred hundred thousand softs;

the pervious skin, the softness of the face
the wrist inners, the hips, the lips, the tongue,

the global body,
its infinite permutable softnesses —

~ Deborah Landau, Soft Targets


“You, young woman, who are going to cross this threshold, do you know what awaits you?”
"I know.”
“Cold, hunger, hostility, contempt, irony, shame, prison, disease, and death.”
“I know, I am ready to endure all this.”
“Even if all this were to come not only from your enemies but also from your relatives and friends."
“Yes, even then.”
“Are you ready to commit a crime.”
“I am ready for that too.”
“Have you considered that you might be subject to a delusion, that you might find you have sacrificed your young life in vain”
“I have considered this too.”
“Enter then.”
“Imbecile,” said someone.
“Saint,” answered the echo.

~ Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve, a novel about young revolutionaries

If we didn’t know about religious fanaticism, we’d probably never understand the heroic dedication of the “true-believer” communists before the Bolshevik Revolution — and afterwards, in countries outside the Soviet Union.

Turgenev, Dostoyevski, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Geroge Orwell of course — those were “anti-totalitarians” who strongly opposed the blind obedience to party line and “revolutionary violence.” They knew that a revolution devours its own children, and turns into an oppressive dictatorship.

“Every revolutionary ends up either as an oppressor or a heretic.” ~ Albert Camus

“Freedom always for the one who thinks differently,” Rosa Luxemburg replied to Lenin’s “Freedom for whom? To do what?” But Lenin wouldn’t hear of it. Freedom is exactly what a dictatorship cannot tolerate, especially the freedom of thought, freedom of the press. Thus, no freedom for writers, poets, playwrights, movie-makers, visual artists — from now on, they must produce “for the people,” i.e. as they are told. 


Interesting that Turgenev's young revolutionary, in her absolute dedication to accomplish her goals, is called both "imbecile" and "saint." This is an accurate representation of the kind of blinders one must wear in either complete commitment to religious dogma or an equally complete commitment to political dogma. Both demand the sacrifice of reason and freedom of thought. Revolution has its dogmas and its saints, requiring strict adherence to the catechism, performance of rituals (think of criticism/self criticism — public confessions and public penances/corrections). There is no room for freedom of thought or expression — certainly not for the artist, who is almost always seen as a potential dissident/traitor/enemy of the people.

The examples are numerous — Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn, Ai WeiWei, and so on. In my early days with a group of academic self styled "Marxist-Leninist" would-be revolutionaries I experienced condemnation of my own visual art as subjective, decadent and ambiguous — not dedicated to the service of the people and the people's revolution. Luckily, by that time I was on my way out and back to my already familiar seat at the apostate's table.


Thank you, Mary, for these excellent observations. I especially treasure your candid sharing of your experience, in this case those academic Marxist-Leninist would-be revolutionaries (it’s hard not to LOL at the term — but then I too knew young people who casually tossed statements like, “Come the revolution . . . “ — and even “Up against the wall!”)

Dostoyevsky still remains a powerful guide to the evils of revolutionary fanaticism. What dooms it from the start is the assumption of infallibility and invincibility — ours is the absolute truth, and the only truth. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression? Forget it. We want to establish a dictatorship, and we mean OUR dictatorship, though we call it the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Another guide is of course Orwell. And we do have Solzhenitsyn and others — eyewitness accounts to how the revolution devours its own children, and destroys millions of lives of ordinary citizens. 

Gino Severini: Armored Train in Action, 1915


~ “Let’s first take a look at the words often used to describe the Italian Futurist movement: invention, modernity, speed, industry, disruption, brash, energetic, combative. Italian Futurists were obsessed with cars and airplanes; they emphasized youth over experience; they believed that the only way to live was by pushing forward and never looking back. The first tenant in the manifesto reads, “We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Disruption? Moving fast (and perhaps breaking things)? The rejection of history? Today’s most vocal voices in tech might not communicate their values with the same aplomb as the Italian poets, but they’re often saying the same kinds of things. Here’s a quote from Anthony Levandowski, cofounder of Waymo, about the value of history: “The only thing that matters is the future. I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess—the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.” Here’s a quote from the 1909 manifesto: “Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible?” Where Marinetti declares “We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!” today’s technology moguls say “the future is now.” Where the Italian Futurists were hypnotized by cars and planes, today’s technologists are drooling over rocket ships and space travel. Where Marinetti believed that women were too effeminate to bring about the kind of speedy progress he desired, former Google employee James Damore writes about how the gender gap in tech exists because men and women "biologically differ”.

Not only was Marinetti instrumental in the Futurist movement, he was also one of the artists who pushed the idea of artists as a brand. “Marinetti’s public braggadocio—and his manipulation of and engagement with the mass media—changed the way artists conceived of their relationship to the art world and popular culture,” writes Jon Mann at Artsy. Marinetti believed in the power of the manifesto, and in the idea that artists should be personas, and that they should push their narrative into the world. If Marinetti could have lived to see Elon Musk launch a red Tesla to space, he would likely have been beside himself with joy.

But Musk and his colleagues should heed the warning that the Italian Futurist movement provides. This love of disruption and progress at all costs led Marinetti and his fellow artists to construct what some call a “a church of speed and violence.” They embraced fascism, pushed aside the idea of morality, and argued that innovation must never, for any reason, be hindered. Marinetti and his movement cheered, for example, when Italy invaded Northern Africa. “Italian bombardment of Tripoli from biplanes and dirigibles was the first air bombardment in the history of the world, and thus a major technological innovation,” writes Eugene Ostashevsky. Today, some technologists praise drone warfare with similar language. “Though they painted themselves as scions of a new age, the Fascists and Futurists were really ultraconservatives ideologically,” writes Gabriel T. Rubin. Again, sound familiar? In their never-ending quest for progress at any cost, today’s companies are flirting with fascism themselves.

Brian Merchant at Gizmodo recently wrote about all the ways big tech companies are contributing to the current climate crisis. This is before we get into the ways that YouTube is contributing to the spread of conspiracy theories, white nationalism, and fascism.

Today’s technologists love to eschew history for the same reason the Italian Futurists did, but if they ignore the lessons contained in that movement, they’re bound to repeat it. And I’ll leave it to you to guess who said this, Marinetti or Musk: “Standing on the world's summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the Stars!”

Giacomo Balla: Abstract Speed and Sound, 1914


This is perhaps the saddest comedy I’ve seen, dealing with last years of the two world-famous comedians, now reduced to playing their old “greatest hits” in second-rate theaters. This situation changes toward the very end of the movie, where they finally get to play at the Savoy — but Stan’s heart attack is the death knell for the team, even though Stan heroically manages to finish the tour.

(Stan got to be over 300 lbs, and that had a lot to do with his congestive heart condition. In spite of his obesity, in his younger years he was the best celebrity golfer in Hollywood.)

It’s also a complex love story. Laurel says, “I loved the two of us.” Hardy replies, “But you never loved me.” They quarrel over what Laurel sees as a betrayal in the past. Hardy says, “You loved the movies we made  . . . But I have real friends.” But Laurel does prove to be a real friend, someone who does love his movie partner also as a person. True, the two are stuck in their own gags, but that’s what they do best.

And Laurel keeps on writing scenes for a movie that he knows is not going to be produced — “Because what else can we do?” In fact — this may sound like mental illness to some, but I think I understand it — Laurel keeps on writing scenes for Laurel and Hardy movies even after Hardy’s death. Because what else can he do? That used to be the best part of his life, the part he loved, and he can’t  simply quit — that would be death itself.

This movie gives us extra comedy in the form of the duo’s wives. Lucille Hardy is petite and overprotective; Ida Laurel is a big, burly Russian and former dancer. Both are verbally aggressive, each in her way: Lucille rants in her squeaky voice, while Ida favors laconic sarcasm. But even then become part of the main love story thanks to their genuine dedication to their husbands. The movie becomes downright tender. Strongly recommended.



Critics on the whole hate this movie as mediocre and riddled with clichés. The interesting part is historical. While most people know about the bombing of Dresden, if not from history lessons than perhaps from Vonnegut’s classic, Slaughterhouse Five. (I also saw a Polish movie about it, with the unforgettable scene where a young Pole tries to justify the atrocity: “You bombed our beautiful cities. You too didn’t care if you were destroying cultural heritage. Why shouldn’t you be bombed in return?” The older man he addresses, a German professor, replies, “You are a barbarian.”)

Here the city in ruins is Hamburg just months after the end of the war, divided into “zones” administered by the Allies. The people of Hamburg are starved and full of hate for the invaders — but keep on cleaning up the rubble. An extremist group tries to commit acts of rebellion in the name of honoring Hitler, even if it means sacrificing young lives.

I think that overall it’s the ruins of Hamburg that are most likely to remain in the minds of those who see this otherwise forgettable movie.

Aerial view of the ruins of Hamburg, 1945
I disagree with the critics’ negative view of Rachel’s husband. True, except at the very end, he fails to respond to Rachel’s suffering and seems emotionally crippled in that regard. But his compassion and nobility are shown right in the beginning — and ultimately it’s no surprise that Rachel chooses him over the German architect (who, among his other faults, fails to see that Rachel could not possibly be happy as a British immigrant in Germany, especially with the war being barely over; he also seems challenged when it comes to making pragmatic plans. “How will we travel? You have no papers,” Rachel asks. He gives an evasive answer.)

One of the interesting scenes was a hostile interview to which Stefan is subjected by the British. “You designed houses for the Nazi officials, no?” Stefan replies, “After 1933, we built what we were told to build.” He is a Bauhaus enthusiast, and his main fantasy is not Rachel, but rather being able to realize his vision of architecture.

Another interesting theme is how people feel when an invader makes them lose their home. Because thanks to the Lewis Morgan’s generosity, Stefan and Freda are not forced to live in a camp. However, told to keep to their “zone,” they can’t help but try to sneak into their former domicile. The grief over the loss of their former life is expressed more acutely by Freda. Perhaps I was especially affected by this scene because of my mother’s experience of being expelled, along with her parents, from her house by the Germans — she kept bringing up that memory, a wound that never healed, even though arguably worse things happened before and after.

This grief was hardly a movie cliché — I found it very well portrayed. But the main grief the audience is expected to react to is Rachel’s and Lewis’s grief over the death of their son in a German bombing raid on London. Unfortunately, Rachel’s grief in particular seems awkward rather than moving. It’s too wordy and direct. Lewis’s silence is more eloquent once we understand what he’s in fact going through. His final breakthrough to genuine mourning is believable. Alas, it is at this point a literary and movie cliché — an emotionally repressed man is finally able to cry.

It’s no doubt very difficult to portray the parents’ grief over the loss of their child in a manner that could be described as “subtle.” But what we have here is an awkward and cliché presentation of this grief. It’s not the only thing that’s wrong with this movie, but it’s a sufficiently glaring flaw to make me almost wish I didn’t see this movie. “Almost” because the part that deals with the history of the first months after the war is the human drama that we need to know more about. 



~ “Once or twice over the course of my childhood, my father said in passing something that has stuck with me. It was more confessional than him imparting fatherly wisdom.

He said nothing satisfied him more sustainably than competence — far more than popularity, fame, status, wealth, power, love or sex or anything.

Now, 62, I’ve found that to be true. Competence makes me self-contented, at peace with myself, relieved from the questions that nagged me in my early years, always wondering how I was doing or whether I should be doing something else.

Sometimes my competence makes me proud to be me, but rarely. The sustainable satisfaction is in having a groove to dwell in, a groove so deep and snug that I’m not rattling around or peering out, envious of other people’s success, wondering if there are better grooves elsewhere or if my groove is going to turn into a rut.

It's called flow but that’s not very descriptive. I’d call it calmpetence. The calm self-unawareness that comes of competence, getting lost in one’s crafts. We know calmpetence by its absence. When we experience our incompetence we’re rattled, self-conscious, self-doubting.

Spiritualists sometimes urge us to counter self-consciousness by becoming egoless, a different kind of losing yourself. The only way I’ve ever been able to get my self-conscious ego to calm down was through the distraction of calmpetence. My ego doesn’t get smaller or go away; it recedes, out of sight out of mind. I get lost in my craft. The pursuit of calmpetence is obsessive-compulsive without being a disorder. Paradoxically, having some craft to fuss over makes us less fussy.

With calmpetence, I don't care about what I'm doing so long as I keep doing it competently, meeting or exceeding my own expectations, as the poet, Sharon Olds put it, like a runner, "a single body alone in the universe against its own best time."

If we could afford to add more human rights to the ones we’re not honoring now, the pursuit of calmpetence would be a good one. Every human deserves a crack at it. Nothing breeds contentment quite like it.

Calmpetence is as desirable as the romantic unions we crave, a marriage of you and your craft, with you affirmed by your competence at it. Perhaps the calm we aspire to in a happy marriage is, in part, the calm that comes of being good at the craft of relationship. Since relationship is so important to us growing up we seek competency at that craft. Looking back on my breakups I remember my grief as flooded with a sense of my relationship incompetence.

I recently asked a 92-year-old man why he still walks to temple every day. Was it to ensure a place in heaven?

“No,” he said, “It’s because I know how.” He knows the prayers and rituals. It’s his craft. He’s an accomplished, competent congregant. Maybe calmpetence is a large part of what people get out of religion too. They’ve got the rituals down. In Hebrew school growing up, the students would “daven” rocking forward and back, speed-buzzing, or mumbling the prayers like we were old hands at it. Devotion to God? In our, case, rarely. It was more devotion to the impression of religious competence.

But calmpetence can come from any craft, whatever makes your motor hum: knitting, cooking, video games, dance, art, wine connoisseurship, athletics, cosplay, collecting, computing, cleaning, accounting, driving, music, or some particular idea, some article of faith you know inside and out and can defend competently.

As with finding the best spouse, embracing ideas may be less about finding the right one and more about the calming relief of no longer searching because you’re calmpetent defending the one you’ve already got. People often cling to their ideas but maybe they’re mostly clinging to their competence at defending them against, their bubble as shelter, their rut as groove. We often swell with pride when defending what we believe. Maybe it’s our ability to defend them that makes them proud, and not the ideas. In choosing their ideas, maybe people pay as much attention to substance and character, as horny teens pay to substance or character when choosing mates.

Over the course of his short life my father cultivated calmpetence at many things – taxidermy, gymnastics, business, classical piano, oboe, conversation, oratory, raising orchids and birds, Judaism, literature, music theory, child-rearing, social activism, history, and bagpipes, which were as dazzling to him in his youth as rock music was in mine.

Once, in my teens, I visited my parents at the end of the summer. By this time my dad was retired and attending the Edinburgh police academy’s Master’s program in bagpiping. He proudly reported that he had spent the summer perfecting two bagpipe tunes.

In my youthful insolence, I said, “is that all?” He was furious and right to be. His two refined bagpipe tunes were benign. Loud as that instrument is, those tunes were a mere peep in this overwhelming world. My dad had been a captain of industry, and an activist of some renown. Guided by what he called “the courage of his insignificance” he chose for a quiet life in trivial pursuit of calmpetence. I admire his non-insistence, born of his recognition that competence is the thing, not status.

Ours is not to go around floodlighting the relative insignificance of other people’s calmpetencies. Those two tunes were my dad’s “a single body alone in the universe against its own best time.” It’s tacky to trivialize the sources of people’s calmpetence, flattening their groove and leaving them rattled.

And yet some people’s calmpetence comes from doing just that.

Still, I do not want to credit them with more strategic thinking than they actually do. Perhaps being a total jerk is just their groove. Their calmpetence comes from deploying a bag of easy tricks for disrespecting other people’s calmpetence, the way I disrespected my father’s two bagpipe tunes. Maybe they’re total jerks because they know how to remain unrattled in their groove by rattling other people in their grooves.

It’s tacky to rattle people ensconced in their calmpetencies however trivial, but we do need to rattle those whose calmpetency comes from doing just that. We must rattle the total jerks whose self-flattering groove is flattening other people’s grooves.

There will be cults that draw followers impressed primarily by the leader’s skill at just that kind of calmpetence, leaders who show no competence other than a dazzling ability to disparage all competences but their own and followers as dazzled by it as my father was by bagpipers or I was by rock stars.

Whatever floats your boat so long as you’re not a destroyer whose calmpetence comes of sinking other people’s boats. Whatever makes your motor hum so long as it isn’t a Sawzall or buzz saw cutting down others to carve out your cozy, rattle-free groove.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Scottish antarctic expedition, 1904


This is something creative people know well. I used to ascribe the calm, contentment, the almost instant improvement in mood simply to creative work and its "external focus" -- the focus on craft rather than self (introspection often leads to a depressed mood, according to studies and my personal experience -- depressed persons used the first-person pronouns significantly more often than the non-depressed).

The anecdote about the temple-going nonagenarian is a priceless eye-opener.

~ “The anecdote about the nonagenarian who keeps going to the temple is priceless: ~ I recently asked a 92-year-old man why he still walks to temple every day. Was it to ensure a place in heaven?

“No,” he said, “It’s because I know how.” He knows the prayers and rituals. It’s his craft. He’s an accomplished, competent congregant. Maybe calmpetence is a large part of what people get out of religion too. They’ve got the rituals down. In Hebrew school growing up, the students would “daven” rocking forward and back, speed-buzzing, or mumbling the prayers like we were old hands at it. Devotion to God? In our, case, rarely. It was more devotion to the impression of religious competence.” ~

Of course! Once you get good at the ritual, of course it can become your craft, your source of mood-lifting competence. In fact quite a few of the “faithful” admit that they don’t care about the doctrine — they go to church because they enjoy the liturgy. And still others go for the sake of socializing — socializing after church is their craft, their “calmpetence.”

This seems related to Alfred Adler's idea that our major drive is not sex drive but the drive for mastery. This was a major heresy that Freud could not tolerate, and Adler got expelled from Freud's circle. Adler was the one who developed the concept of an “inferiority complex.” Part of our motivation to become competent is to overcome our feelings of inferiority.

But the sense of competence is its own reward, and need not be perceived as any kind of “compensation.”

Note that Jeremy Sherman doesn’t just say the same things as Adler. He points out the mood-lifting benefit of performing any activity at which we are competent — the joy of it. Adler was more into overcoming inferiority, which may be true in some cases, but doesn't strike me as the primary motivator for most people. Competence is definitely its own reward. Learning something to the level of competence and beyond (which would be artistry) is intrinsically satisfying. For some people it's music, for others — plumbing. Vive la difference.

For some people, the pursuit of usefulness is more important. And of course the two are not mutually exclusive: who doesn't enjoy being both competent and useful ("I have something to contribute") at the same time? 

Freud said that the two most important things in life are love and work. True, but it must be the kind of work at which you feel competent — the more so, the better. Performing competent work is a source of calm joy. And arguably it’s the most reliable source of self-esteem. 


I believe competence is not only its own reward, and a reliable source of joy, it is also something that can rescue and restore the integrity of the self when it is threatened or damaged. Sometimes in grief, in desperation, in the dead world of depression, allowing the hands to do work they know well and can perform reliably becomes a way to move out from under the shadows and into a world where you are not a passive victim, but an active force creating your own life and the world you inhabit. This may come in making something new, a song, a painting, a loaf of bread, or in making order in your space, cleaning a room, planting a garden, doing any small thing you know how to do well. In these things you are not a victim but an effector of creative change. Yes, competence brings calm, and joy, and satisfaction — it would be hard to find any better medicine for a heartsick soul.


Yes, I have experienced this. My motto is “work works.” The answer doesn’t lie within — in endless depression-inducing introspection. The answer lies outside us, in work, in engagement with the world. If it’s the kind of work that we are especially good at, that’s all the better. But even cleaning the house helps heal the soul. 

 Boccioni: Dynamism of a soccer player


“Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.

Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring.

Loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose.”

~ Nelson Algren


I wouldn't know about playing cards with a man named Doc, or what loving Chicago feels like, but I can confirm that being involved with someone with more troubles than you have will quickly turn into hell — and the kind that it’s very difficult to get out of. People with a lot of pathology tend to cling to you. You may have to change your phone number. A friend reported that even moving out of town didn’t work (eventually it did, but imagine . . . )


Politeness, civility, don’t criticize.
But that’s exactly how bad’s normalized. 

~ Jeremy Sherman



~ “Christians accept certain things as true that are demonstrably false, and it does no one any good to tiptoe around these beliefs as if they are sacrosanct merely because people take the discussion so personally.

And I’m not talking about things we cannot entirely disprove like miracles, or the afterlife, or the power of prayer. We could argue about these things until we are blue in the face, and in the end very few people would ever change their minds. The church has had two thousand years to develop excuses for why these things fail to materialize (they usually involve faulting the believer rather than the beliefs themselves).

No, I’m talking about clearly demonstrable historical facts—facts for which we can apply reliable tools of scientific inquiry in order to ascertain what is real and what is not, what is fact and what is fiction.

This Never Happened

The Hebrew people did not exist before Canaan. They gradually and peacefully emerged as a subset of Canaanite culture somewhere around the 1200s B.C.E.,which is roughly the time we were told they invaded the land. Before that time they simply. didn’t. exist.

The violent conquest of Canaan never actually happened. We know this for certain. We’ve gone to the places that was supposed to have happened and we dug our way down to the bottom. Didn’t happen.

The wandering in the wilderness for forty years? Also never happened. That story was made up. We know this for certain. We canvassed that entire region a hundred times now and not so much as a coin or a piece of pottery or anything at all that would signify they were ever there.

The dramatic exodus of millions of Hebrews from Egyptian captivity? We know for a fact that never happened. It’s not even a debate anymore, not among scholars, historians, or archaeologists. The story was undeniably made up. That means that the Passover never happened. Nothing even remotely like it.

There wasn’t even a group of Hebrews in Egypt in the first place. There never was. That whole bit about 400+ years in captivity, with a dozen tribes growing into a large but enslaved nation? Made up out of thin air. We know this for a fact now.
Think about what this means for a second. It means there was no Moses. No Aaron. There was no Abraham, no Isaac, and no Jacob. There was no Sarah, no Rachel, no Leah, no Rebekah, etc. All fascinating stories, yes. And could there have been real life analogues many centuries later that got cobbled together into an origin story for the nation of Israel? That’s certainly possible.

But basically every story and every person which appears prior to Israel’s presence in Canaan around the 12th century B.C.E. is a product of pure fiction. After that, much smaller versions of the stories appear to have happened in real life: for example there probably was a King David, only his “kingdom” was more like a small insular group of technologically challenged herdsmen. But never anything like the geopolitical giant the Bible paints him, or them, to be.

Everything that happened in the first five books of the Bible is pure fiction. And the next few books don’t get much better. They are stories made up to teach lessons and to provide some kind of political basis for competing factions of ancient Israel, quarrels which no longer mean anything to us today but leave us with the mistaken impression that this people group existed many centuries before it actually did.

The Dirt Doesn’t Lie

Back before World War II, biblical historians had a more limited number of resources to draw from in order to ascertain fact from fiction. They had to rummage through the annals of Egyptian and Sumerian and Babylonian historical accounts to see if this divinely favored nation ever got mentioned, but they kept coming up empty handed.

Sometimes they would come across something that sounded enough like a Bible name that they would count that as confirmation and move on. For most of them the standard of verification was very, very low. Quite frankly, in retrospect, they were wearing their desperation on their sleeves.

But instead of finding evidence of a mighty kingdom spreading across a large geographical region governed by legendary kings with hundreds of wives and concubines, all anyone could turn up was an occasional reference to a small confederation of tribal heads inhabiting negligible territories sandwiched between much more powerful kingdoms which were constantly taking them over. And nothing at all prior to their supposedly forceful conquest of the Promised Land.

Over the next couple of decades after WW2, archaeologists carried their students and volunteers on hundreds of excavation trips to every biblical place you could imagine, digging down as far as they could go in order, quite literally, to get to the bottom of what happened. What they discovered was disappointing to say the least.

There were no Hebrews prior to their gradual and peaceful emergence within Canaanite culture in the 1200s B.C.E. None of that stuff in the Bible prior to Canaan appears to have ever happened. And even when they did begin to slowly emerge as a people group, they looked and acted almost exactly like their surrounding neighbors, but with a couple of notable quirks: they left behind no pig bones, and they seemed disproportionately fond of one particular member of the Canaanite pantheon, Yahweh, the god of war.

At first, Yahweh (aka “Elohim,” which also may have referred to a whole group of gods) appears to have had a wife named Asherah. We know that the worship of the goddess still continued for centuries into Israel’s history despite many leaders’ attempts to cleanse the land of her memory (like ISIS style, physically destroying monuments and disposing of her corresponding cultus). But subsequent versions of the Israelite religion became increasingly monotheistic, vehemently disavowing all of its polytheistic precursors. Occasionally you will still find remnants of this culture war preserved for us in the biblical texts.

A Valiant Attempt, Thwarted

No one walked through this eye-opening discovery more directly than William Dever, a post-war biblical archaeologist with a Disciples of Christ education who later studied at Harvard and led hundreds of students on dozens of excavations all over Israel. After a lifetime of study and first-hand exploration of the biblical lands, Dever reports:

    ~ After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible “historical figures.” Virtually the last archaeological word was written by me more than 20 years ago for a basic handbook of biblical studies, Israelite and Judean History. And, as we have seen, archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit. Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness. ~ William Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? p.98-99

Remember the story of the wall of Jericho? Didn’t happen. Archaeologists like Dever inform us there wasn’t even a wall in existence during the time the Israelites were supposed to have taken the city. And the city, which by the way was likely abandoned before these invaders were supposed to have gotten there, was in its heyday no larger than the size of a couple of baseball fields side-by-side, occupied by no more than maybe 600 people. Can you imagine a nation of over a million adults marching around such a place, waiting for something miraculous to deliver this small town into their hands? They could have just walked right in and eaten their lunch.

    ~ There is not so much as a Late Bronze II potsherd of that period on the entire site…Nor is there any other possible candidate for biblical Jericho anywhere nearby in the sparsely settled lower Jordan Valley. Simply put, archaeology tells us that the biblical story of the fall of Jericho…cannot have been founded on genuine historical sources. It seems invented out of whole cloth. ~ Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? pp.46-47

Try for a moment to imagine millions of Israelites. According to the Bible, there were 600,000 men who left Egypt on the night of Passover. Given that most adult men counted as heads of households would have been married, and given that the Bible stories show each family punching out at least half a dozen children a piece, we are being told that somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-4 million people exited a nation of only about 6 million in one single evening, leaving not a single trace of their presence in that country.

So we are to believe that those 3-4 million people spent 40 years in a deserted wasteland (getting their water from a rock, by the way, with their food just falling from the sky every morning) and yet somehow left not a single trace of their presence anywhere. No evidence of their existing in Egypt, no evidence of their dramatic departure, no evidence of their presence in the wilderness for decades, and zero evidence of their forceful takeover of any territories prior to their gradual emergence among the Canaanites several hundred years after the time they were supposed to have first come to be.

In short, none of this happened. The whole story is just made up. We know this.

I found the above citations in my own very conservative seminary’s library, but you’ll never hear any graduates of that institution telling their congregations what those books contain, if they ever even read them.

What grabs my attention the most in all this isn’t the fact that the Bible got something so important so incredibly wrong. I got over that a long time ago, even if I continue to be impressed with just how much of this book was made up over time. What fascinates me most is the rationalization process that kicks in the moment a true believer is confronted with these realities. The mental contortions are impressive, and I can’t help but recall as I watch them happen how I myself once walked through these steps as well. I’m trying to remember what it was like to be so imprisoned by predetermined conclusions in my search for truth. ~ Neil Carter


Actually, I’ve read that even some Orthodox rabbis acknowledge that the Torah is a collection of myths. Now, myths are not without value — they may impart some life wisdom. 

Not in Catholicism, though. The point is that you are not supposed to think. The answer I most remember whenever someone was brave enough to question this or that absurdity was “It’s a mystery. Humans don’t have the mental capacity to understand the mind of god.”

It would be so much easier to accept that we are dealing with mythology rather than history. There is wisdom we can learn from this or that story — or, if nothing else, stories tend to be entertaining, and give us something we can hold onto as a common heritage.

For my generation, that tends to be Star Wars. We all know about Yoda and Darth Vader, the Force and going over to the Dark Side. Of course we also realize that a movie is not reality, but we still enjoy the stories, and still admire courage and goodness even in fiction. And the fans of Yoda are not going to go to war with those whose main hero is Han Solo. That would be like going to war over Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

Humans have an insatiable need for stories — fortunately matched with the ability to create stories. Alas, the ability to tell the difference between truth and fiction is not something we can take for granted. 


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

Woody as a high-school senior

ending on beauty:

All that distance beyond embrace,
what is it but your own infinity.

~ Li-Young Lee (about the night sky)


Saturday, April 20, 2019


The most beloved gargoyle of Notre Dame — this photo goes back to 1910


No stars before the dawn of resurrection.
The night sky is all white shroud.
Only Jupiter shines
through a window in luminous clouds.

Planet of luck! In my chart
Jupiter rules the house of wealth:
a cruel joke, I thought,
back in my pauper years.

Yet even then how rich I was
in words, in music, in horizons;
rich in mind and rich in time,
in solitude to create myself.

I think of the looters in Iraq,
how in their national museum
they unscrewed even the light bulbs —
“Greed is the failure to choose.”

True wealth possesses even planets.
It watches Venus lay a path of light
on black dolphin waves.
I look away from youth’s

crucifixion. My hands in the dark 

blossom like lilies.

~ Oriana

For me Jupiter is special not because it's supposed to be the planet of luck, but because it brings back a childhood memory. When I was eight or so, I asked my father, “What's that bright star?” and he replied, “It's too bright to be a star. It's a planet, probably Jupiter.” And that's how I first heard the word.

Having the kind of father I had, one who read to me at bedtime and introduced me to the universe, you could say, was my real great wealth in childhood. This poem is about real wealth versus “it’s only money.” Once we shift away from the standard definitions, I was indeed a child of privilege. My wealth was of the mind. The crucial stanza is the third one:

Yet even then how rich I was
in words, in music, in horizons;
rich in mind and rich in time,
in solitude to create myself.

My inner wealth also meant that I was able to “possess the world,” so to speak. So the contemplation of how the planet of wealth and luck seemed such a cruel joke in my “pauper years” makes me realize how rich I’ve been all along.


The last lines of your opening poem are startlingly, ravishingly beautiful. 


Thank you.

Avalanche lilies, Mt. Rainier 

~ “We usually think of tragedy as a misfortune that simply befalls a person (an accident, a fatal disease) or a polity (a natural disaster, like a tsunami, or a terrorist attack like 9/11) and that is outside their control. But if “tragedy” is understood as misfortune, then this is a significant misunderstanding of tragedy. What the 31 extant Greek tragedies enact over and over again is not a misfortune that is outside our control. Rather, they show the way in which we collude, seemingly unknowingly, with the calamity that befalls us.

Tragedy requires some degree of complicity on our part in the disaster that destroys us. It is not simply a question of the malevolent activity of fate, a dark prophecy that flows from the inscrutable but often questionable will of the gods. Tragedy requires our collusion with that fate. In other words, it requires no small measure of freedom. It is in this way that we can understand the tragedy of Oedipus. With merciless irony (the first two syllables of the name Oedipus, “swollen-foot,” also mean “I know,” oida), we watch someone move from a position of seeming knowledge—“I, Oedipus, whom all men call great. I solve riddles; now, Citizens, what seems to be the problem?” (I paraphrase)—to a deeper truth that it would appear that Oedipus knew nothing about: he is a parricide and a perpetrator of incest. On this reading, which Aristotle endorses, the tragedy of Oedipus consists in the recognition that allows him to pass from ignorance to knowledge.

One lesson of tragedy, then, is that we conspire with our fate. That is, fate requires our freedom in order to bring our destiny down upon us. The core contradiction of tragedy is that we both know and we don’t know at one and the same time and are destroyed in the process. How can we both know and not know?

Such is the complex function of prophecy in tragedy. In the tragedy of Oedipus, we watch someone who believes they possess an unencumbered sense of freedom become undone and destroyed by the force of fate. What is so delicate in Oedipus’s experience is that his being is not simply causally determined by fate, by necessity. No, fate requires Oedipus’s partially conscious complicity in order to bring about its truth. Characters in tragedy are not robots or preprogrammed puppets. In its movement from a delusional self-knowledge and the fantasy of an unencumbered freedom to an experience of an insight into truth that costs us our eyes, tragedy gives voice to an experience of agency that is partial and very often painful. It shows the limits of our attempted self-sufficiency and what we might think of as our autonomy. It shows our heteronomy, our profound dependency.

Tragedy gives voice to the complex relations between freedom and necessity that define our being. Our freedom is constantly compromised by that which catches us in the nets of the past, in the determination of our past and future being by fate. Tragedy enacts that which snags at our being and pulls us back to a past that we disavow in our constant thirst for the short-term future.

Tragedy has a kind of boomerang structure where the action that we throw out into the world returns to us with a potentially fatal velocity. Oedipus, the solver of riddles, becomes the riddle himself. Sophocles’ play shows him engaged in a relentless inquiry into the pollution that is destroying the political order, poisoning the wells, and producing infant mortality. But he is that pollution.

The deeper truth is that Oedipus knows something of this from the get-go, but he refuses to see and hear what is said to him. Very early in the play, blind Tiresias tells him to his face that he is the perpetrator of the pollution that he seeks to eradicate. But Oedipus just doesn’t hear Tiresias. This is one way of interpreting the word “tyrant” in Sophocles’ original Greek title: Oidipous Tyrannos. The tyrant doesn’t hear what is said to him and doesn’t see what is in front of his eyes.

There is a wonderful Greek expression recalled by Anne Carson, “Shame lies on the eyelids.” The point is that the tyrant (and we could list many recent examples) experiences no shame. But we also have no shame. We are also little, shameless tyrants, especially when it comes to our relations to those we think of as our parents and our children. I think of Walter White from Breaking Bad, who insisted until almost the end of the final episode of that long show that he did everything, everything, for his family and not for himself. This is tyranny and this is perversion.

Greek tragedy provides lessons in shame. The political world is stuffed overfull with sham shame, ham humility, and carefully staged tearful apologies: I’m so sorry; I’m so, so sorry. But true shame is something else.” ~


Funny, it’s become Oedipus Rex, King Oedipus — but the Greek title is Oidipous Tyrannos. With his unchecked, hubristic power, “the tyrant doesn’t hear what is said to him and doesn’t see what is in front of his eyes.”

What the Greeks called hubris can be translated as narcissistic grandiosity. Part of it is usually trying to scapegoat someone else for whatever is going wrong. 


Yes, there is a great difference between catastrophe and tragedy. And we seem to have lost the capacity for shame — which means no one wants to take responsibility for their own words or actions. All is dismissed, in truly absurd fashion, as a 'slip of the tongue' or as "I misspoke”... as though not single words but whole sentences and complete actions can spring into being without deliberation or consent. And certainly shame is not possible then, as though all suffer from a kind of moral Tourette's syndrome and no one is ever guilty of anything.


Still, let’s not forget that sometimes we are dealing with complete randomness. As a child of survivors, I know this from many wartime stories. Some people died merely because of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Others survived due to a lucky accident of not being at home at the time the Nazis came. Milosz has poems about this . . . 


You mention the randomness of survival or destruction in the course of war — what is, I think, the very essence of the experience of war. What the soldier on the battlefield learns is exactly this randomness, in all its indifference to our demands for meaning and justice. Why does one die and another live? Chance. Luck. Nothing else is as powerful a determinant — not worthiness, or training, certainly not piety and prayer. This randomness denies us the order and meaning we crave, it is so hard to accept, and we go to great lengths to avoid it.

I would argue that the losses and horrors of war that we call tragic are not tragic in the sense that Oedipus, or the other great tragic figures of theater are. The victims of war and genocide do not collude with their own destruction, do not suffer as a result of hubris or any deliberate blindness to their own responsibility. Their sufferings are not punishment — nor are they redemptive. No more so than the losses and suffering resulting from natural calamities or accidents.

But we demand meaning. We need to understand why and how these horrors occur . . . again and again. That understanding cannot come from religion or psychology, but only from an understanding of history. And even there we won't find the satisfactions of justice, or of some inherent meaning. There is no master plan where all works out in the end. If there's to be a better world, with less violence, less suffering, more freedom, more joy and beauty, we will have to make it for ourselves.


Yes, while Hegel thought that “Spirit” unfolded itself in history, we have no such illusions. It’s easier for me to agree with I.B. Singer’s “History is made by the wicked.” But that omits positive  developments, such as the abolition of “cruel and unusual punishment” and other accomplishments of the Enlightenment. Not that progress is holy and preordained in any manner. That humanity has survived its own follies and cruelties can sometimes seem miraculous. And even so, we still have religious wars! Who would have thought it possible in the 21st century? 9/11 was a terrible setback.

But it seems that, extremes aside, nothing is all good or all bad and that each curse contains a blessing, and each blessing a curse. 



~ "PARIS—It was Holy Week and nearing end of day, and the setting sun was as fierce red-orange as the terrible blaze engulfing Notre-Dame—Notre-Dame!—when the spire, spindly and delicate during its long life and now consumed by flames, collapsed. It was near 7:50 p.m. The sky was still light.

I was standing in a hushed, pained throng along the Quai d’Orléans of the Ile Saint Louis facing the back of the basilica, and when I watched the spire fall, I gasped and choked back tears. In this, I was not alone. Billows of pale yellow smoke rose from the nave. They became iridescent against the sky. The firefighters spraying plumes of water onto what was once the roof seemed tiny against the enormity of the structure.

How could Notre-Dame be burning? How could Notre-Dame, which had survived for eight centuries—survived plague and wars of religion, survived the French Revolution, survived the Nazis—be falling? Notre-Dame, the heart of Paris, not only a Catholic site but the preeminent symbol of European cultural consciousness, the heart of France, the kilometer zero from which all its farthest villages are measured—how could this majestic structure collapse so fast? I looked around at the faces with me in the crowd. Written on them was sadness, and pain. But also curiosity. A few giggles, as if the enormity of the loss had not yet quite settled.

The silence was interrupted by the clicking of camera lenses. And then there were the cellphones. Hundreds of people filming, photographing, sharing the tragedy, so many that the networks were jammed. Trying to capture in a few pixels what had stood for centuries, a symbol of endurance, of architectural achievement. Built in the Gothic era, destroyed in the social-media era. [this was written before the author knew most would be saved]

The authorities will now investigate. The basilica was under construction. How maddening to see the metal scaffolding still standing, while the nave itself still burns. Nearby, people in cafés were watching the blaze over drinks. Out of sight of the basilica, they streamed images of the flames on their phones.

To those of us who live in Paris, Notre-Dame is as familiar as a landscape, and as solid as a mountain. How could it have burned so fast? I walk past it so often. I like it best at night, when the sculptures on the outside come alive under the spotlights, the gargoyles and saints and the few fallen angels plunging upside down from heaven above the central door.

On French television, a historian of religion, Jean-François Colosimo, described the scene as “images of the end of the world.” The fire, he said, seemed to communicate “the extreme fragility of our situation.”

Messages come in from friends around the world—“Are you okay?”—as if this were another terrorist attack, or a death in the family. In a way, it is a death. In the human family. We are all shocked together.” ~

 The interior of Notre Dame after the fire


Fortunately the main structure has been saved. The wonderful “pompiers” (firefighters) — more than 400 of them — worked for 9 hours to put out the fire, using the water pumped from the Seine.

And a new kind of fire fighter was also important in the rescue:


~ "Say “bonjour” to Colossus: the French firefighting robot that helped save Notre Dame.

As the 850-year-old cathedral burned Monday, the Paris Fire Brigade deployed the fire-resistant, waterproof android to quell the flames.

Dramatic footage shows 2.5-foot tall remote-controlled bot spraying water inside the smoke-filled Gothic gem.

The 1,000-plus pound machine is equipped with a fire hose and a camera that firefighters can control from afar, without having to risk burns, smoke 

inhalation or being hit by fallling beams.

Colossus “helped extinguish the fire and lower the temperature inside the nave,” Paris Fire Brigade spokesperson Gabriel Plus told AFP.

It was developed by the company Shark Robotics and added to the Paris Fire Brigade team two years ago, according to France Info.

“This is a robot that is designed to remove humans from danger,” said Shark Robotics co-founder Cyril Kabbara . “Not to replace [humans] but to act as operational support for firefighters.” ~



~ “Seeing the spire of Notre-Dame split like a pencil, you wanted, honestly, to be sick. “La flèche s’est effondrée” (“The spire has collapsed”) was how they said it—on TV, on the radio, on Twitter—in French. “La flèche” also means “arrow.” That seemed fitting: Notre-Dame’s peak was a standby of Paris wayfinding, but it also pointed to the sky, to the realm of creators and destroyers who, on a whim, could seize a city on a Monday night. To Victor Hugo, the Paris skyline was “more jagged than a shark’s jaw, upon the copper-colored sky of evening.” Now there was a smoking void. The falling arrow seemed to be pointing to some kind of reckoning, to some bigger thing than the construction accident that early reports suggested might have been at fault for the fire. The omniscient of the Internet told us not to fret, that cathedrals had been built and burned before. But Parisians watched with the supplicant helplessness of the ages, singing hymns on their knees as the firefighters battled to save the north belfry on the second day of Holy Week.

The diocese of Paris had recently begun a hundred-and-fifty-million-euro restoration, which was to have been carried out over the next ten years. The façade of the cathedral was cleaned up in 2000, but the rest of its exterior was in dire shape. Flying buttresses were giving way; erosion had blunted the pinnacles into melting candles. In some places, the limestone was so friable that you brushed a finger against it and it ran like sand through an hourglass. In others, missing elements had been replaced by plywood and PVC pipe. The spire’s lead covering was cracked, and water had damaged the wooden structure that underlaid it.
Late on Monday night, I called Olivier Baumgartner, a master technician at a company called SOCRA, which specializes in the restoration of historic monuments. Baumgartner and a colleague, Alexandre Decaillot, had spent a week working at the cathedral, removing copper statues for restoration offsite. “I’m completely nauseated,” Baumgartner told me. He added, of the effort to restore the cathedral, “In wanting to give her a second youth, we have perhaps destroyed her.”

I met Baumgartner on the roof of the cathedral in late March, when I went to see how the renovation was coming along. He and Decaillot had been at Notre-Dame for almost a week, dismantling the copper statues of the twelve disciples that the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc installed around the cathedral’s spire sometime after 1843. The men were wearing hard hats and cobalt-blue jumpsuits. Scaffolding rose around them. Decaillot was carrying the apostle Andrew’s head, which he had just separated from its base with a blowtorch. The head was heavy, so Decaillot held it upside down and face in, with its nose poking into his belly. Then he turned the head around and stuck a hand into its hollow neck, like a puppeteer. Saint Andrew had a mournful look. Streaks of verdigris ran from his eyes to his beard, giving the impression that he’d been crying for a hundred and sixty years.

Decaillot and Baumgartner had been deployed to Versailles (fixing the marble in the Hall of Mirrors) and Mont Saint-Michel (re-gilding the archangel Gabriel and putting him back on top of the church with the aid of a helicopter). Even so, they were discreetly thrilled to be spending their workdays in the gargoylesphere. From where they were standing, you could see the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, the mysteriously lopsided towers of Saint-Sulpice.

Decaillot and Baumgartner finished work on the statues on Thursday. They were looking forward to going back to Notre-Dame in a few weeks, to take down the rooster that perched on top of the spire. Tonight I realized that we may have been some of the last people to stand there. I remember seeing a pigeon that had made its nest in the flat of a gargoyle’s neck. I got up close to a clock that, I was amazed to learn, was wound every Thursday morning. The job site seemed clean and well organized—there was a shower cabin where, before descending, each worker was required to wash off toxic lead, untold quantities of which were released tonight into the atmosphere—but I was amazed at how fragile everything was, and how intimate its upkeep. The cathedral was the work of people, not machines.

As of late Monday evening, the western façade of the cathedral—the twin bell towers, the Portal of Judgment—appeared to have been saved. “The worst has been avoided,” the French President, Emmanuel Macron, said on the scene. For Parisians, Macron said, Notre-Dame was “the epicenter of our lives.” He vowed to rebuild and said that a national fund to do so would be launched on Tuesday.

That morning on the roof, Decaillot and Baumgartner wrapped Saint Andrew’s head in bubble wrap, sealing it with orange tape. They put it in a wooden crate where his brethren—along with four smaller sculptures depicting symbols of the Evangelists—were waiting.

The saints’ bodies were joined with their heads last week, at the artisans’ workshop in Périgueux. They are the city’s sentries, its wayposts, the bombers of a billion photos, the inhabitants of an arrondissement in the sky. They, at least, are safe.” ~

St. Paul minus head being lowered from the roof of Notre Dame

I chose both these articles not only because, like millions of people everywhere, I love Notre Dame, nor for purely historical reasons, but because the writing is so marvelously vivid.

More good news: Drone photos show that Our Lady’s bees survived! They are flying in and out of their hives.

“In a hopeful development Friday, 180,000 bees being kept in hives on Notre Dame’s lead roofing were discovered alive.

“I am so relieved. I saw satellite photos that showed the three hives didn’t burn. I thought they had gone with the cathedral,” Nicolas Geant, the monument’s beekeeper, told the AP.

Geant has looked after the bees since 2013, when they were installed as part of a city-wide initiative to boost declining bee numbers.

Since the insects have no lungs, Geant said the CO2 in the fire’s heavy smoke put the bees into a sedated state instead of killing them. He said when bees sense fire they “gorge themselves on honey” and protect their queen. He said European bees never abandon their hives.”

~ “Notre Dame has housed three beehives on the first floor on a roof over the sacristy, just beneath the rose window, since 2013. Each hive has about 60,000 bees.

[The Notre Dame beekeeper Nicolas] Geant said the hives were not touched by the blaze because they are located about 30 meters below the main roof where the fire spread.” ~



“Millions, millions of tons of stone. Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries more stone was excavated than in Egypt. The eighty cathedrals and five hundred churches built in this period, if gathered together, would effect a mountain range erected by human hands. In one of my books I saw a drawing of a façade of a Greek temple imposed on the façade of a Gothic cathedral. It was clear that many an Acropolis could be contained, as in a suitcase, inside cathedrals like Amiens or Reims. However, little results from such comparisons, at least little that would tell us about the functions of sacred buildings in different periods. The temples of antiquity housed the gods; cathedrals house the faithful. The immortals are always less numerous than their believers.” ~ Zbigniew Herbert, “A Stone from the Cathedral” ("Barbarian in the Garden," trans. Michael March and Jarosław Anders, 1985)


There was indeed a boom in cathedral and church buildings, just as Herbert describes. Then the resources started going into the Crusades . . .

But the real end of the cathedral-building boom was the Hundred-Years' War, 1337 to 1453. Herbert finishes the chapter on cathedral-building with this sentence: “The sons of those who carved the smile of an angel turned to producing cannon balls.”

The Smiling Angel of Reims Cathedral. Reims sustained damage from the German shelling during WW1, and then the wooden ceiling caught on fire. Restoration began in 1919, and the cathedral was re-opened in 1938. Reims is of special importance in French history, since this was the place where the French kings were crowned. 


What is so interesting is that like the pyramids the cathedral building was a massive cultural project involving whole communities for a long period of time. Of course the purpose, direction and meaning were very different and specific to each culture.




~ “Protesters set ablaze a car, motorbikes and barricades near the Place de la République as they took to the streets of Paris and other French cities for the 23rd Saturday in a row, the Associated Press reported. This time they say they are outraged the government could raise more than a billion dollars to help restore the burned Notre Dame cathedral, while their demands to fight wealth inequality remain overlooked.” ~


Most posts that I saw on Facebook expressed sorrow over the damage caused by the fire and, later, the joy that much has been saved and that restoration will begin. But a few grimly protested that this kind of money should be spent on the homeless, the infrastructure, and other worthwhile projects.

There is no doubt that much needs to be done to make this world a better place for all. We should definitely help the poor and so forth — but not INSTEAD of restoring an art treasure like a beloved cathedral. I have a feeling that the demand for reforms in Europe will intensify. The great American tragedy continues to be spending of enormous sums on unwinnable wars.

Still, this could be a turning point. Yes, it’s nothing for billionaires to contribute millions to the restoration of a great cathedral. This has not escaped the attention of those of us who want adequate funding for projects designed to fight climate change, for instance. Maybe a transformation will eventually be born of this perception.



~ “When most scientists were trying to make people use code to talk to computers, Karen Sparck Jones taught computers to understand human language instead.

In so doing, her technology established the basis of search engines like Google.

A self-taught programmer with a focus on natural language processing, and an advocate for women in the field, Sparck Jones also foreshadowed by decades Silicon Valley’s current reckoning, warning about the risks of technology being led by computer scientists who were not attuned to its social implications.

Sparck Jones’s seminal 1972 paper in the Journal of Documentation laid the groundwork for the modern search engine. In it, she combined statistics with linguistics — an unusual approach at the time — to establish formulas that embodied principles for how computers could interpret relationships between words.

By 2007, Sparck Jones said, “pretty much every web engine uses those principles.”

Karen Ida Boalth Sparck Jones was born on Aug. 26, 1935, in Huddersfield, England, a textile manufacturing town. Her parents were Alfred Owen Jones, a chemistry lecturer, and Ida Sparck, who worked for the Norwegian government while in exile in London during World War I.

When studying history and then philosophy (the department was then called moral sciences) at Cambridge, she met the head of the Cambridge Language Research Unit, Margaret Masterman, who would inspire her to enter the field. Sparck Jones later described her as “a very strange and interesting woman” who, unusual for the time, used her maiden name professionally.

Sparck Jones, too, kept her name when she married Roger Needham, a fellow computer scientist, in 1958, saying, “It maintains a permanent existence of your own.”

Sparck Jones started working for Ms. Masterman. She wanted to figure out how to program a computer to understand words that could have many meanings (for example “field”) and set about programming a massive thesaurus.

“All words in a natural language are ambiguous; they have multiple senses,” she said in an  oral history interview for the History Center of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “How do you find out which sense they’ve got in any particular use?”


Sailing was another passion of Sparck Jones and Needham. They restored an 1872 vintage sailboat called Fanny of Cowes and raced it against other old boats along the east coast of England. They chose not to have children.

“They wanted their intellectual life,” said Andrew Herbert, her friend and a fellow computer scientist. “They were clearly deeply in love with each other all the way through their life.”

Sparck Jones had a booming voice and a puckish sense of humor. At work, she usually wore a simple uniform: bluejeans, red sweater, white blouse. She also wore a brooch, which she made from stones and part of a horseshoe. When she had to bike to a formal dinner, as one often did at Cambridge, she was known to use clothing pegs to pin her dress to the handlebars.

In 1982, the British government tapped Sparck Jones to work on the Alvey Program, an initiative to encourage more computer science research across the country. In 1993, she wrote, with Julia R. Galliers, “Evaluating Natural Language Processing Systems,” the seminal textbook on the topic.

Sparck Jones became president of the Association for Computational Linguistics, an international group for professionals in the field, in 1994. She became a full-time professor at Cambridge in 1999 — and it had bothered her that it took so long. For all the years before, she had been on contract with the university, an untenured and lower-status form of academic employment referred to as “living on soft money.”

“Cambridge was in many ways not user-friendly, in the sense of women-friendly,” she said of the delay.

Sparck Jones died of cancer on April 4, 2007. She was 71. Though she did not receive an obituary in The Times, her husband did, in 2003.

Today, researchers are still citing her formulas. Ideas she wrote about are now being put into practice as artificial intelligence research becomes more prevalent.

Sparck Jones mentored a generation of researchers, male and female,  and came up with a slogan: “Computing is too important to be left to men.”

She was ahead of her time in another respect. Decades before Silicon Valley was having its moral reckoning, Sparck Jones cautioned engineers to think of their work’s impact on society.

“There is an interaction between the context and the programming task itself,” she said. “You don’t need a fundamental philosophical discussion every time you put finger to keyboard, but as computing is spreading so far into people’s lives, you need to think about these things.” ~


All I can say is Wow! What wonderful contributions this woman made! But note: “Though she did not receive an obituary in The Times [in 2007], her husband did, in 2003.” I'm so glad she’s being acknowledged at last. 


Wouldn't it be wonderful if they made a movie about Sparck-Jones? 


Yes! I think audiences would love a movie about this brilliant and very colorful woman. She needs a wider exposure. And she would make a fabulous movie character. And we badly need movies about great women and their contributions.


“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.” ~ Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values


I think the main reason for this phenomenon is cognitive dissonance. The less evidence there is, the greater the struggle against cognitive dissonance, and the more peculiar the arguments, e.g. it's good that there is no evidence — otherwise we'd have knowledge, and not faith, and faith is a special virtue, preferable to knowledge. The Protestant principle was sola fide — “faith alone” — souls get into heaven due to correct faith.

I like Nietzsche’s “definition”: “Faith: not wanting to know the truth.”

Pirsig’s book has a lot of tension in it. I remember I could take it only in small segments when I read it (which was long ago). I do remember agreeing with Pirsig on a lot of points, but also disliking the speaker as a domineering, smart-ass father who needs to be right and superior at any price. I think if I re-read now I’d be more compassionate toward the author’s insecurities and his way of projecting his shadow onto his son (who later, like his father, was also diagnosed as mentally ill, and died in a tragic way at the age of 22, “fatally stabbed in a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center” ~ Wiki)

Robert Pirsig and Chris, 1968


“Exploring the mind of a psychotic is impossible—the shortest distance between two points becomes a maze—yet as Churchill perceived, there was method in Stalin’s dementia.” ~ William Manchester, The Last Lion


Years ago I read a pretty convincing argument that at least late in life, Stalin was a paranoid schizophrenic. And paranoids often have a “method”: they have a delusional goal and can take effective actions to reach that goal.

By the way, Hannah Arendt fully understood that a revolution devours its children. She didn't advocate revolution (that's why many leftists rejected her as a reactionary, of all things) but a social collaboration (labor unions, progressive legislation) aimed at creating a better world.

(I love the statement "Exploring the mind of a psychotic is impossible—the shortest distance between two points becomes a maze." This seems to apply to theology as well.)

According to the most recent poll, 70% of Russians have a positive opinion of Stalin — up from 40% in 2008. Not a “mass murderer,” but a “strong leader.” The power of nationalist propaganda.

“The Soviet Union was never a communist country. It was a fascist dictatorship.” ~ M. Iossel. By the way, Noam Chomsky shares this view. He blames Lenin. The point of Lenin’s revolution was not to build Communism, but to establish a dictatorship, Chomsky stated. The terms socialism and communism were used because of their moral appeal.

(A shameless digression: This reminds me of the increasingly popular view that Paul destroyed true Christianity, which would have been based on the teachings of Christ, compassion rather than hierarchy, the inclusion of women rather than their silencing. But others point out that only seven of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul have been authenticated; the rest were forgeries that   made Paul look more patriarchal and misogynist. Regardless, and not because of Paul, Jesus preached the imminent end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom. What happened instead was the coming of the Catholic church, as Alfred Loisy pointed out in 1902).


“When children are asked why, say, lions exist, they prefer teleo-functional explanations — “to go in the zoo.” ~ Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct

teleo-functional — from “telos,” end, purpose. Bering also gives the example: “Why do mountains exists?” Young children do not reply in terms of geological origins, i.e. they don’t understand the question in terms of how the mountains come to exist, but in terms of the purpose they serve, e.g. “so animals have a place where they can scratch their backs.”

Bering's book on the cognitive biases that lie at the foundation of religion was a tremendous eye-opener for me. It's the only non-fiction book I've read more than once; some sections of it, 3-4 times, I was so intellectually excited by it. And no one else seems to have heard of it!


“Today as always, men fall into two groups: slaves and free men. Whoever does not have two-thirds of his day for himself, is a slave, whatever he may be: a statesman, a businessman, an official, or a scholar.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits


On the other hand, if you love your work, you can’t get enough of it. Even if you’re paid for it, you are basically working for yourself.

But in Nietzsche’s era — and to a great extent still in our own — most people labored long hours at jobs they hated —jobs that left them too exhausted to do much else at the end of the day. In our era, the fatigue of the commute adds to the overall exhaustion. It’s not only the worker’s health that suffers; productivity does too.

As for working mothers, volumes have already been written about that. The interesting part is that many women prefer the office to household and child-rearing chores, which they find to be the real slavery. 

“I don't like work… but I like what is in work — the chance to find yourself. Your own reality —for yourself, not for others — which no other man can ever know.” ~ Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


“I cannot believe that any religion has been revealed to Man by God. Because a revealed religion would be perfect, but no known religion is perfect; and because history and science show us that known religions have not been revealed but have been evolved from other traditions.” ~ Robert Blatchford, writer, journalist, and freethinker in God and My Neighbor (1903)


By the way, Nietzsche was quite excited by the concept of evolution as applied to religion. He commented that we no longer need to debate the existence of god, only to trace the evolution of the various concepts of god.


The Polish word for hell is “Piekło.” The root seems to be “to bake.” Hell is a kind of bakery. Not a bakery where you bake bread, but where you are being baked without end. “Cotto” — cooked or baked — Dante uses that word to describe the faces of the “sodomites” who run under a rain of fire.

But the Polish word is somewhat comical, and the very concreteness of it made it a bit childish. The same could be said for heaven, which is simply "sky," and Purgatory, which is "cleanser." I am very much a "word person," so "she's probably in the Cleanser; let's buy a mass to help get her out of the Cleanser" spoken of someone dead, sounded less and less dignified. I still didn't know that the word "hostia," used for the communion host, meant "victim" — originally a sacrificial animal, then Jesus. Once I learned that, I mentally threw up.

Oddly, I learned about the origin of the mass in the Temple sacrifice ritual at a Jungian lecture, which was quite reverent; the lecturer was obviously in love with the liturgy. And I wondered, how peculiar that we weren't taught any of that in religion lessons — was the church hanging on to Latin in order to hide the meaning, which would reveal the archaic origin — and many people, young girls in particular, find blood sacrifice extremely repugnant.

I did learn at some point in my early teens that there were four prayers from which the priest chooses one, and once he's finished praying, the wafer is changed into the flesh of Jesus. I remember my terrible disappointment: so the priest says a brief prayer, and — abracadabra! — the wafer is changed into flesh? That seemed so bizarre.
Not that the wafer looked any different after the magical transformation from a bit of flour and water to the “living flesh of Jesus” — but we were not supposed to trust our senses. It was a mystery. Whenever something was absurd, the priests and nuns “explained” it as a mystery.

So just as the fairy-tales and children’s books, with their complete absence of god, helped me shed belief (talk about stress reduction! if only it had happened sooner yet), so did the concreteness of the religious Polish words.

 Hell as a "bakery." Note that we get to see only male sinners here. Usually both sexes are included, naked of course. I suppose including even one naked woman in this particular representation would push it too far into the worst kind of porn. But what you see here is pretty standard “old-time religion” —  religious propaganda that's the ultimate in hideous intimidation.
I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.” ~ Albert Einstein, column for The New York Times, Nov. 9, 1930 (reprinted in The New York Times obituary, April 19, 1955)

Among famous poets, Milosz, though a public Catholic, objected to the notion that god rewards or punishes.

Too bad that Michelangelo did not have Einstein as his model . . . According to what I've read, Michelangelo based his Sistine Chapel Yahweh on representations of Zeus.



A little story on "concreteness " and the doctrine of transubstantiation. When my granddaughter made her first communion she told me with disappointment that she expected the communion host to "taste better" after it was consecrated and "became Jesus." But it tasted just as awful as it did when they practiced with unconsecrated hosts in rehearsals.


Thanks for reminding me about those rehearsals. We also rehearsed confession. The first volunteer was a 9-year-old boy. With great confidence, he started rattling off: “I killed five times. I committed adultery three times.” I think that’s about how far he got before being stopped by the alarmed nun.


~ “The anesthetic version of ketamine has already been used to treat thousands of people with depression. But scientists have known relatively little about how ketamine and similar drugs affect brain circuits.

Previous research has found evidence that ketamine was creating new synapses, the connections between brain cells. But the new study appears to add important details about how and when these new synapses affect brain circuits.

Dr. Conor Liston and a team of scientists from the U.S. and Japan gave mice a stress hormone that caused them to act depressed. For example, the animals lost interest in favorite activities like eating sugar and exploring a maze.

Then the team used a special laser microscope to study the animals' brains. The researchers were looking for changes to synapses.

"Stress is associated with a loss of synapses in this region of the brain that we think is important in depression," Liston says. And sure enough, the stressed-out mice lost a lot of synapses.

Next, the scientists gave the animals a dose of ketamine. And Liston says that's when they noticed something surprising. "Ketamine was actually restoring many of the exact same synapses in their exact same configuration that existed before the animal was exposed to chronic stress," he says.

In other words, the drug seemed to be repairing brain circuits that had been damaged by stress.

Was the drug really creating all these new synapses in just a couple of hours?

To find out, the team used a technology that makes living brain cells glow under a microscope. "You can kind of imagine Van Gogh's Starry Night," Liston says. "The brain cells light up when they become active and become dimmer when they become inactive.”

That allowed the team to identify brain circuits by looking for groups of brain cells that lit up together.

And that's when the scientists got another surprise.

After the mice got ketamine, it took less than six hours for the brain circuits damaged by stress to begin working better. The mice also stopped acting depressed in this time period.
But both of these changes took place long before the drug was able to restore many synapses.

"It wasn't until 12 hours after ketamine treatment that we really saw a big increase in the formation of new connections between neurons," Liston says.
The research suggests that ketamine triggers a two-step process that relieves depression.

First, the drug somehow coaxes faulty brain circuits to function better temporarily. Then it provides a longer-term fix by restoring the synaptic connections between cells in a circuit.

One possibility is that the synapses are restored spontaneously once the cells in a circuit begin firing in a synchronized fashion.

The new study suggests not only how ketamine works but also why its effects typically wear off after a few days or weeks, she says. "What we can imagine is that ketamine always has this short-term antidepressant effect, but then if the synaptic changes are not maintained, you will have relapse," Beyeler says.

If that's true, she says, scientists' next challenge is to find a way to maintain the brain circuits that ketamine has restored.” ~

 During depression, it's difficult to recall any positive memories, or too perceive the beauty of the world.

ending on beauty:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

W.S. Merwin



When the lover
goes, the vow though
broken remains, that
trace of eternity love
brings down among us
stays, to give
dignity to the suffering
and to intensify it.

~ Galway Kinnell