Saturday, August 31, 2019


Roseate Spoonbill, Everglades. I never cease to be wonder about the flamboyant strangeness of America — including, to be sure, “purple mountains majesties,” but also various great American bird species.

All of us at a long school desk.

We are told to tilt back our heads 

and slowly say, “Ouch, mother.”

A capsule is dropped down our throats 

sometime during the vowels. 

I fade out. Yet soon I walk, I love 

the ash trees silver after rain. 

The city hovers, half-sun, half-cloud, 

the bridge across the bay 

spun with beams of light.

This is my world, my pearl, 

my kingdom within and without. 

And dying in the night, what is it 

but another self being born

to help us carry the questions. 

I wake up refreshed 

in the Valley 
of the Shadow of Death. 

Since childhood I have climbed

mountains; my sinews and bones

know that going downhill is the killer,

not the drunkenness of heights.

I have died more than once, and look: 

I walk, I dream. Siehe, ich lebe,
“See, I live,” I repeat after Rilke,

in the exquisite, horrifying tongue

of the executioners. How close 

leben sounds to lieben, 

long liquid notes of the same song:

Siehe, ich liebe, See, I love:
it’s the story of my life, many lives.

~ Oriana

It was lovely being alive after dying, and staying right here, in San Diego. Almost like Cathy in Wuthering Heights being returned to the moors in her dream of "going to heaven." Funny how dreams are either filled with anxiety or wish fulfillment and the most wondrous peace. I think much-needed chemicals are produced as we dream. If I have to get up even half an hour early, that half an hour of missed dream time makes me feel off the whole day, as if sleep-deprived.



Given the dense history of the American West, nearly unexplored in its most fundamental aspects and poten­tially the richest of American myths, why has there not emerged a modern novelist of the first rank to deal ade­quately with the subject? Why has the West not produced its equivalent of New England’s’ Melville or Hawthorne—or, in modern times, of the South’s Faulkner or Warren?

The question has been asked before, but the answers usually given are some­what too easy. It is true that the West­ern subject has had the curious fate to be exploited, cheapened, and sentimen­talized before it had a chance to enrich itself naturally, through the slow accretion of history and change. It is true that the subject of the West has under­gone a process of mindless stereotyping by a line of literary racketeers that ex­tends from the hired hacks of a hundred years ago who composed Erastus Bea­dle’s Dime Novels to such contemporary pulp writers as Nelson Nye and Luke Short—men contemptuous of the stories they have to tell, of the people who ani­mate them and of the settings upon which they are played. It is true that the history of the West has been nearly taken over by the romantic regionalist, almost always an amateur historian with an obsessive but sentimental concern for Western objects and history, a con­cern which is consistently a means of escaping significance rather than a means of confronting it.

In its simplest form, the conventional Western involves an elemental conflict between the personified forces of Good and Evil, as these are variously repre­sented by cowboy and rustler, cowboy and Indian, the marshal and the bank robber, or (in a later and more socially conscious version of the formula) by the conflict between the squatter and the landowner. Complications may enter—the marshal may be beset with worldly temptations; the landowner, imperfectly evil, may have our sympathies for a moment; and, in curious neo-classic varia­tions, passion may set itself against honor . . .

It is tempting to dismiss such fa­miliar manipulation of the myth; but the formula persists, and with a dis­turbing vigor. However cheaply it may be presented, however superficially ex­ploited, its persistence demonstrates the evocation of a deep response in the con­sciousness of the people. The response is real; but though it may have been widely identified as such, it is not, I believe, really a response to the Western myth. It is, rather, a response to another habit of mind, deeply rooted and essen­tially American in its tone and applica­tion.

That is the New England Calvinist habit of mind, whose influence upon American culture has been both perva­sive and profound. The early Calvinists saw experience as a never-ending con­test between Good and Evil. Though fundamentally corrupt, man might re­ceive, through the grace of God, a state of salvation. Of this inner state of Grace man can never be fully sure, but he may suspect its Presence by such outward signs as wealth, power, or worldly success. Since this state is the choice of God, the elect tend to be ab­solutely good; and the more numerous damned tend to be absolutely evil. This affair is wholly predetermined; man’s will avails him only in the illusion of choice; and the world is only a stage upon which mankind acts out a drama in which Good will ultimately prevail and in which Evil will inevitably be de­stroyed. In the very simplicity and in­adequacy of this worldview lies its es­sentially dramatic nature. All experience is finally allegorical, and its meaning is determined by something outside itself. 

The relationship between this habit of mind and the typically primitive Western is immediately apparent. The hero is inexplicably and essentially good. His virtue does not depend upon the “good deeds” he performs; rather, such deeds operate as outward signs of in­ward grace. Similarly, the villain is by his nature villainous, and not made so by choice, circumstances or environ­ment; more often than not these are identical to those of the hero. And even in those instances, relatively infrequent today, when the villain is Indian or Mexican, the uses of racial origin are not so conventionally bigoted as they might appear. Racial backgrounds are not explanations of villainy; they are merely outward signs of inward damna­tion. In the curiously primitive nature of this drama, it is necessary that we know at every moment the figure in whom Evil is concentrated and that we be constantly assured that it is doomed to destruction. Beneath the gunplay, the pounding hooves and the crashing stagecoaches, there is a curious, slow, ritualistic movement that is essentially religious.

But when the more serious artist can no longer sustain the religious faith necessary for allegory, then the transformed Calvinist habit of mind is likely to move toward the novel of manners. Henry James, a Calvinist out of the Emersonian transformation, was a novelist of manners less from choice than from necessity; he perceived that “essences” of tremendous complexity lay in human character, and that these es­sences existed mysteriously, obscurely. The only way to get at them was by an examination of their outward manifesta­tions, which were most precisely dis­coverable in the manners of individuals, classes, or even nations. To put it bald­ly, the novel of allegory depends upon a rigid and simple religious or philosophi­cal system; the novel of manners de­pends upon a stable and numerous so­ciety, one in which the moral code can in some way be externalized in the more or less predictable details of daily life.

It seems obvious, then, that the West­ern landscape and subject, especially in their historic beginnings, are not really appropriate to the Calvinistic formula which has most frequently enclosed them. What has been widely accepted as the “Western” myth is really a habit of mind emerging from the geography and history of New England and applied uncritically to another place and time.


What gives the epic its unique force and what finally justifies and sustains both its rhetoric and repetitive struc­ture is its fundamentally nationalistic nature. The heroism, the bloodletting, the Superhuman bravery, the terrible mutilations— these are given point and intensity only by the nationalistic impulse that lies behind them. Without that impulse the adventure (handled epically) is empty, is bombast, is vio­lence without rage.

As in tragedy, the mythic subject rises from the enveloping action of history, but the events that detail that subject are invented. For example, in Moby Dick we are at all times pro­foundly aware of the social, economic, religious, and political forces that impel the Pequod and its crew upon their journey, and we believe in those forces as a matter of course. But the events and characters which specify the quest are intensely symbolic and they compel belief on a level different from that of historical reality. Like the tragic charac­ter, the mythic character is designed to generalize the subject, but whereas the tragic character gets his generalizing power from his high rank (ideally, as the functionary of the state, he is a per­fect and inclusive type whose fate is inextricably tied to that of his subjects), the mythic character gets his generaliz­ing power from his archetypal nature. The mythic subject typically involves a quest—one that is essentially inner, however externally it may disclose it­self. Thus its feeling is neither public in the large and impersonal sense that tragic feeling must be, nor private in the small and domestic sense that comic feeling must be. It is that feeling which comes with an awareness of the cost of insight, the exaction of the human spirit by the terror of truth. The outcome of myth is always mixed; its quest is for an order of the self that is gained at the expense of knowing at last the es­sential chaos of the universe.

The history of the West is in some respects the record of its exploitation. Its early exploitation by the Spanish moving up from Mexico was clearly nationalistic, for the open purpose of strengthening an already powerful na­tion and church. But the American frontiersman, who came From the East through Kentucky and Tennessee and out of St. Louis, was a lone human being who went upon plain and moun­tain, who subjugated nature on his own, terms, and who exploited the land for his own benefit. There was no precise ideological motive for his exploitation, and because of that lack of external motive the adventure became all the more private and intense. Removed from a social structure of some stability, im­bued to some degree with a New Eng­land Calvinist-Emersonian tradition that afforded him an abstract view of the nature of his experience, he suddenly found himself in the midst of a few desperate and concrete facts, primary among which was the necessity for sur­vival in a universe whose brutality he had theretofore but dimly suspected.

The Western adventure, then, is not really epical; no national force stronger than himself pushed the American frontiersman beyond the bounds of his known experience into the chaos of a new land, into the unknown. His voyage into the wilderness was most meaning­fully a voyage into the self, experiment­al, private and sometimes obscure.

Viewed in a certain way, the American frontiersman—whether he was hunt­er, guide, scout, explorer or adventurer—becomes an archetypal figure, and begins to extend beyond his location in history. He is 19th-century man moving into the 20th century; he is European man moving into a new continent; he is man moving into the unknown, into potentiality, and by that move profoundly changing his own na­ture. He and the land into which he moves may have their counterpart is in both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and in Moby Dick—which is to say that, though the myth which embodies him has its locality and time, it is con­fined by neither. He walks in his time and through his adventure, out of his­tory and into myth. He is an adventurer in chaos, searching for meaning there. He is, in short, ourselves. Valley, Dawn, seen from Hunt’s Mesa; Daniel Plumer


In the Western as a genre, we are locked into stereotypes — and audiences howl with outrage if the good guys aren't all good or the bad guys all bad. It's indeed the stuff of myth, but not of great literature.

I've known a few ardent fans of Western novels (not just movies) — all of them older men. The relentless masculinity of the genre leaves no room for rounded female characters.

And yet one could argue that Moby Dick is also a very masculine book — but it never lacked female readers. The relationships may not be romantic, but they are richly human.

One thing that the article hardly considers: while the New England and Southern writers were generally rooted to their region for several generations, West Coast writers were newcomers, often born somewhere else, with family stories about somewhere else.

(I'm not sure if it’s relevant, but the dramatic beauty of the California coast, like the beauty of sunsets in regard to painting, may simply overwhelm literature. Distracted by the palm trees? The magenta rocks too mind-blowing for existential meditations? A place like Walden Pond is easy to understand in terms of a congenial setting for writing. Rain is also congenial, I think.)

Monet: Morning on the Seine in the Rain

~ “I remember the butchers on Division Street. Chicago. Their fingers like bananas. Their knives like wives they beat and raped with joy. One time when I was a child one of them told me I was a lamb he could slaughter and easily sell for a dollar a pound. My mother smiled and said it wasn’t enough, how about two.” ~ John Guzlowski


“I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return.” ~ Frida Kahlo


That’s what a lot of physical pain will do — easily.

~ “When William Blake was 30, his older brother Robert fell ill and soon succumbed to consumption. As Robert died, Blake would later insist, he saw his brother's spirit rise up through the ceiling, "clapping its hands for joy." 

Clapping its hands for joy. Yay, Death!” ~ M. Iossel


Blake of course had tremendous imagination, but at least he understood that people get to the point of WANTING to die. I doubt that they envision paradise — it’s rather that they want a release from pain. Not being able to breathe enough causes “oxygen hunger” in all tissues, which is felt as severe pain.

That’s why dying of lung cancer (or any cancer that has metastasized to the lungs) is regarded as especially tormenting. 

But imagining the release as joyful, sure, we are permitted to dream a little. 

Blake: Albion Rose

Blake was generally at his best presenting the dark side. Here is my recent discovery: Blake’s Capaneus, the Blasphemer (in Dante’s Inferno) — magnificent in the way that Milton’s Satan is magnificent.


“Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot.” ~ Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

I'm infinitely grateful to all those who gave me confidence. They say it takes only one person who believes in you, and you'll be OK. That may be true, but after you get used to being attacked and put down every day, and having been bullied in school, it helps if it's many supportive people rather than just one — though every supportive comment helps. I bless every editor who took a minute to scribble a note, even every man who face lit up when he looked at me (no sexual harassment, that!) I bless every unknown driver who's ever let me into a lane — that too has added to my confidence.

“What I write is smarter than I am, because I can re-write it.” ~ Susan Sontag


Amazing what a difference even one re-write can make!


~ “People do not necessarily — not primarily, at any rate — vote their self-interest. They vote their identity, vote for someone they identify with — someone who, they feel, is the one most like who they are inside.

Trump followers didn't fall for him slowly, gradually, as a result of some cerebral process of diligent solitary deliberations. It happened instantaneously, in the few nano-seconds it takes lighting to strike a tree, because immediately they knew, sensed in the most powerful wordless way, that he was like them, only someone infinitely more successful and powerful; that he would protect and legitimize the essential core of their inner selves — and that, consequently and just as importantly, they desperately wanted and, with luck, why not, this is the land of opportunity, could in some smaller way be like him. All it took was for their, Trump's and Trumpland's, metaphoric eyes to meet across the crowded field of much more qualified presidential contenders. It was love at first sight, as goes the opening sentence of one of the great 20th-century American novels of life's immanent absurdity.

And of course, for the 30 or so per cent of the American electorate comprising the hard core of his following, he in essence is them and they are him — "We say Lenin, we mean the Party, we say the Party, we mean Lenin," to quote from Mayakovsky's long hack poem penned on Lenin's death and one of the most common specimens of Soviet visual propaganda — and for them to abandon him would be tantamount to betraying what they believe to be their indivisible, eternal inner beings.

Similarly, it took no time at all for those staunchly and vehemently opposing Trump to become totally and permanently repulsed by his persona and by everything he stood for and represented: i.e., the absolute worst of America. That, too, happened all at once, right on the spot and once and for all.

Those firmly and passionately opposing Trump — and that's the majority of Americans — it is entirely incomprehensible how one could in fact support him, even if there might indeed, initially, a certain self-interest component have been involved there; and of course, for the smaller and more rural-bound segment of the country's population, denizens of Trumpland, the notion that someone may not be enraptured by Trump is just as confounding.

It is a nation-wide clash of self-identities we have here — an irreconcilable chasm between the emblematic Trumpland and the larger America containing it.

For as long as Trumpland remains the smaller, and steadily shrinking, part of America, there is hope for all of us.” ~ M. Iossel


The “US versus THEM” theory has been expounded multiple times — it does makes sense — up to a point (about this later).

The scary part is that the divide appears to have worsened — the blue area appear to be tiny islands in the ocean of red. That’s of course the urban versus rural divide, and though the islands seem tiny, they represent the majority of the population (and this trend toward the increasingly urban concentration of the population is likely to increase in the future). Education, knowing more than one language, having traveled outside the country, being secular or belonging to a progressive religion — these are all the marks of Satan, according to devout Trumpists.

Among the five main traits that distinguish Trump’s supporters, I was especially struck by this one:

“There is growing evidence that Trump’s white supporters have experienced significantly less contact with minorities than other Americans. For example, a 2016 study found that “…the racial and ethnic isolation of Whites at the zip-code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.” This correlation persisted while controlling for dozens of other variables. In agreement with this finding, the same researchers found that support for Trump increased with the voters’ physical distance from the Mexican border.”

I was also struck by the statement that German Lutherans who were the most ardent supporters of Hitler were those who believed that God manifested himself in history not once, in the person of Christ, but repeatedly, were, as one critic put it, “Painfully exposed to the euphoria of the hour.” “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler,” said one. ~ (cited by Peter Watson, “Nazi Religions of the Blood”)

And I continue to wonder about that puzzling confusion between Christ and anti-Christ. You'd think it would be easy to tell the difference. You'd think. But apparently it was all about the euphoria of making Germany great again, and the millennia-old capacity to divinize the ruler.

Like all grand theories, “we vote for the candidate we identify with” does not apply in all cases. A lot of people report that mainly that vote not “for,” but “against.” They are far from thrilled with the candidate, but he or she is a “lesser evil” than the opponent. 

And some people are single-issue voters — for instance, they would never vote for someone who is either for or against abortion rights. 

Women used to vote slightly more conservative than men, but in the recent decades in the developed countries women have moved toward the progressive side. This doesn’t hold for post-communist countries or the developing countries. 

Cities by total wealth. ($ trillion):

New York City: 3

London: 2.7

Tokyo: 2.5

San Francisco: 2.3

Beijing: 2.2

Shanghai: 2

Los Angeles: 1.4

Hong Kong: 1.3

Sydney: 1

Singapore: 1

Chicago: 0.98

Mumbai: 0.95

Toronto: 0.94

Frankfurt: 0.91

Paris: 0.86

(New World Wealth)
via The Spectator Index



Trump has an advantage with Evangelicals. Most Evangelicals are conditioned to obey the leader. Their minds are conditioned to Pray, Obey and believe in the Second Coming. Thinking is not part of their program.


And since the world is about to end — some Evangelicals believes this could happen literally any time now — why bother about the environment? Besides, wasn’t man given “dominion” over the earth? What does it matter if the orangutang become extinct? They don’t have souls, do they?

And on and on, in a disgusting display of dark-ages mentality.

In an interesting aside, it’s more difficult to predict the Catholic vote.


Let’s detox with Oliver Sachs:

"Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure," Oliver Sacks wrote shortly before dying.


~ “Historically imperial madness has come in all sorts of kooky, wonderful forms. In Suetonius, we find Tiberius in retreat on the island of Capri, where he spends his days pursuing live-action pornography and indulging in paranoid fantasies and terrible cruelties, including having the skin of a man’s face scraped off with a fish. Suetonius, adopting the tone of a very proper, upstanding Roman citizen, criticizes the emperor less for his violence and lewdness, though he finds these deeply distasteful, than for absconding into private debauchery and leaving the wheels of government and the Senate without the motive force of a leader. Caligula is even nuttier—you may recall that he made his horse a senator, but I prefer the story that he believed that Neptune, the god of the sea, was personally plotting against him. Two centuries later, Elagabalus forced Romans to worship the sun and reportedly passed much of his time dressed as a temple prostitute and forcing his guards and courtiers to bring him “clients.”

In pre-modern Europe, they were stranger still. Charles VI of France, for example, appears to have at some points believed himself to be made of glass. He had his servants sew iron rods into his clothes to protect his body from breaking. Charles II of Spain was popularly known as el Hechizado—the bewitched, the cursed. We do not know what was wrong with him precisely, except that he could barely eat, didn’t learn to speak until he was four years old, was treated as an infant by his family until he was ten, and apparently did not bathe. Ludwig II of Bavaria, one of the Trumpiest of European monarchs, frittered away his fortune building elaborate, tacky castles. To be fair, he also supported Wagner, who for all his terrible political views could sure write a tune. Ludwig may not have been actually mad, of course, merely crushingly profligate; efforts to declare him insane may have been clumsy ministerial efforts to staunch his spending.”~

(Actually the post is a pretext to post this wonderful image of Nebuhadnezzar by Blake.)

But here is also a lesson for our times. It seems that people who could do something about removing the mad monarch (high government officials, to use the broadest term, or the Parliament or its equivalent) do nothing. They are as if both mesmerized and paralyzed by what they see.

(As for the notorious case of King George III, the porphyria hypothesis — porphyria is a rare genetic disorder that causes an inadequate production of hemoglobin and a build-up of toxins in the blood — is on its way out due to latest research. Most likely King George was bipolar, with the predominance of mania. Hence his “incessant loquacity” — about an ordinary person, we’d probably say, “constant babbling.” In any case, the king got better, and his 60-year reign is judged by historians as largely successful ~



In Arthur Herman’s “The Cave and the Light,” I came across this paragraph:
“The one principle Heraclitus did embrace was that of the Logos, which can be variously translated as the Word or the Spirit or the Reason or even the Way —in fact, the parallels between Heraclitus’s Logos and the Chinese Tao are striking. By following the Logos, Heraclitus affirmed, which he saw as a kind of spark or breath (psyche in Greek) that resides in each of us as individuals and also permeates the world, we can achieve peace. 

For Heraclitus, the discovery that nothing is permanent was meant to be a source not of nihilistic despair but of understanding, as we come to realize that the physical reality around us — buildings, trees, mountains, other people, the entire works — is not actually “real” at all, but merely the playing out of opposites, “an attunement of opposite tensions, like a bow or lyre.”

This takes me back to my twenties and the unforgettable class on comparative religions — and my delight in Taoism. But trying to define either the Tao or the Logos (which I’d translate mainly as “concept” or “information containing the essence”) does not seem fruitful. I'm still with “You can’t step into the same river twice” as the greatest gift that Heraclitus has given us. True, again it’s seductive to see that here Heraclitus uses water imagery the way water is the favorite element in the Tao.

I used to think of the Logos as the collective psyche of humanity. Then I started reading more about the Logos and the Tao, and simply gave up on theorizing about them. What proved supremely important to me were not the complicated and elusive definitions, but the practical angle. Taoism helped me more directly, with the idea of non-doing — which I took to mean not struggling, but rather being peaceful, slow, and patient. Depending on the situation, I’d either let go of the problem on the conscious level and trust that my unconscious brain processing will find the right connections; or, when it came to everyday tasks, the moment I found a task stressful I’d slow down. Doing something slowly decreases stress. Sometimes the task becomes downright easy.

It may be Aristotelean of me to have shrugged off theory and gone over to “practice.” 

Maturation has definitely made me more Aristotelean and grounded, more realistic. 

Adolescence was Platonic and idealistic — but I don’t really see that label as useful anymore. Reading Herman’s book draws the reader into playing the game that the author of playing, of trying to divide everything in the world into either Platonic or Aristotelean mentality. They are interwoven; practice isn’t devoid of vision. But it was practice that saved me from manic busyness and overdoing and despair. I keep reminding myself to slow down, take small steps (“We manage best when we manage small” ~ Linda Gregg); do less, lie down. Overall: think small. 

It’s time to admit that the allegory of the cave is completely wrong. We are not in a dim cave; we live in this amazing world woven of both sunlight and shade. The real is far more interesting than the ideal, and — surprise! — more exciting and beautiful as well. And yes, with a nod to Heraclitus — there is the playing out of opposites, an attunement of tensions. That’s what makes both the creative process and life itself so interesting.



~ “For several years, tarot has drawn attention at the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s annual conference: the poet Hoa Nguyen, a Griffin Poetry Prize finalist and author of the forthcoming Ask About Language As If it Forgets, has held tarot readings and consultations there. In 2019, writers Leslie Marie Aguilar, author of Mesquite Manual; Laurie Filipelli, author of Elseplace and Girl Paper Stone; Cecily Sailer, founder of the Austin-based Typewriter Tarot, a collective of female writers and Tarot readers; and F.T. Kola, who was short-listed for the Caine Prize, held a well-attended panel on tarot that tarot reader  and writer Leah Mueller described in Quail Magazine as “packed,” with the room “too small for the number of bodies.”)

Meg Hayertz, founder of Creative Momentum, which offers tarot readings, workshops, and coaching for creative professionals, calls tarot a means to “hush the inner critic and evoke the creative zone.” This freedom to explore, without judgment, may be tarot’s gift.

Do you see more people turning to tarot to relax, develop their creativity, or free themselves from writer’s block? 

Meg Hayertz: I think tarot is becoming more common as a tool for reflection. Many people have a practice of pulling a card every morning to help them feel centered and to engage more deeply with whatever happens that day. I know a lot of writers who pull cards for their characters, or for direction when they feel stuck in their writing.

Cecily Sailer: Absolutely. I notice more people using Tarot for all these reasons, and then some. People seem hungry for spiritual practices they can personalize, and more people are realizing that Tarot is a form of therapy—one you can use entirely on your own, without needing another human to mediate the process. I was drawn to Tarot because it shares with writing a fundamental aspiration—to articulate the complexity of human experience. Writers must journey into the murky realms of the subconscious and return with material the conscious mind can digest. Tarot can enter this process as a collaborator and compliment: It shares a writer’s desire to interrogate while providing a different language and angle for doing so. I’m noticing more writers embracing Tarot as a tool for navigating that subconscious space. When we feel stuck, we can turn to Tarot for insights or alternatives, then language can flow into that space.

MH: In Alexander Chee’s beloved essay, “The Querent,” he discusses the difference between reading the future, and reading the now. When I read the cards, I always ask the querent about their area of expertise— Is it writing, parenting, permaculture, rock climbing? From there, I help them apply the cards’ message through the lens of their craft, so that the cards’ guidance feels workable. This is important in helping the querent stay present. It often means the difference between a person leaving a reading downtrodden and distanced from themselves, or excited and full of curiosity.

MH: In many ways, my writing practice influences my tarot practice. When I first began playing around with tarot cards, I discovered that I had already been trained in intuition through the craft of writing. As writers, we read everything: books, cards, every detail of the immediate world around us. “Reading” is easy because meaning is so resonant and interconnected that as soon as we begin reading the poem of the world around us, everything connects. I’ve spent my life as a writer honing my skills of connecting the concrete details of an individual’s life to abstract themes, pursuits, and archetypes, to create a meaningful narrative. I think many writers delight in this connection between writing and tarot.

Tarot, in turn, has certainly influenced my writing practice. Tarot cards have the power to push past my self-doubt and reveal the gorgeous archetype of human experience that I am going though. This assurance that life is meaningful has been one of the biggest gifts Tarot has offered me as a writer.

LF: I agree with Meg. I’ve been a poet since I was a kid, which basically means I read the world as a set of images. I think writers and artists can often access the cards more easily than those who don’t use imagery as a means of creation.” ~



Caspar Friedrich, Ships in the Harbor — the vividness of the sky may reflect the giant 1815 Mt. Tambora (Indonesia) explosion which put a huge amount of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

The exploding mountain heaved some 12 cubic miles of earthen matter to a height of more than 25 miles. While coarse particles soon rained out, finer ones traveled the high winds in a spreading cloud. “It passed,” Dr. Wood wrote, “across both south and north poles, leaving a telltale sulfate imprint on the ice for paleoclimatologists to discover more than a century and a half later.”

The global veil, high above rain clouds, reflected much sunlight back into space. So the planet cooled. The pall also spawned tempests far below.

Friedrich: Ships in the Harbor


Slaves never rebelled

Miseducation surrounding slavery in the US has led to an elaborate mythology of half truths and missing information. One key piece of missing history concerns slave revolts: Few history books or popular media portrayals of the trans-Atlantic slave trade discuss the many slave rebellions that occurred throughout America’s early history. 

C.L.R. James’s A History of Pan African Revolt describes many small rebellions such as the Stono Plantation insurgence of September 1739 in the South Carolina colony, where a small group of enslaved Africans first killed two guards. Others joined them as they moved to nearby plantations, setting them afire and killing about two dozen enslavers, especially violent overseers. Nat Turner’s August 1831 uprising in Southampton, Virginia, where some 55 to 65 enslavers were killed and their plantations burned, serves as another example.
Enslaved Africans resisted and rebelled against individual slave holders and the system of slavery as a whole. Some slipped away secretly to learn to read. Many simply escaped. Others joined the abolitionist movements, wrote books, and gave lectures to the public about their experiences in captivity. And others led or participated in open combat against their captors. 

Omitting or minimizing these stories of rebellion helps hide the violent and traumatic experiences enslaved Africans endured at the hands of enslavers, which prompted such revolts. If we are unaware of resistance, it is easier for us to believe the enslaved were happy, docile, or that their conditions were not inhumane. It then becomes easier to dismiss economic and epigenetic legacies of the transatlantic slave system.

House slaves had it better than field slaves

While physical labor in the fields was excruciating for the enslaved — clearing land, planting, and harvesting that often destroyed their bodies — that didn’t negate the physical and emotional violence enslaved women, and sometimes men and children, suffered at the hands of enslavers in their homes. 

In fact, rape of black women by white enslavers was so prevalent that a 2016 study revealed 16.7 percent of African Americans’ ancestors can be traced back to Europe. One of the study’s authors concludes that the first African Americans to leave the South were those genetically related to the men who raped their mothers, grandmothers, and/or great-grandmothers. These were the enslaved African Americans within the closest proximity to and who spent the longest durations with white men: the ones who toiled in the houses of slave owners.

A 2015 study determined that 50 percent of rape survivors develop PTSD. It is hard to imagine that enslaved and freedom-seeking African American survivors of rape — female, male, old, young, no matter their physical or mental abilities — did not experience further anxiety, fear, and shame associated with a condition they could not control in a situation out of control. Those African Americans with the most European ancestry, those tormented mentally, physically, emotionally, and genetically in the house, knew they had to get out. In fact, they fled the farthest — Southern whites are more closely related to blacks now living in the North than the South.

Abolition was the end of racism

A common myth about American slavery is that when it ended, white supremacy or racism in America also ended. 

Recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar variant of this myth when he said he opposed reparations “for something that happened 150 years ago.” To the Kentucky Republican, a descendant of enslavers, slavery simply was, and then it just wasn’t, as though the battlefield had leveled the playing field when it came to race. 

But the truth is that long after the Civil War, white Americans continue to carry the same set of white supremacist beliefs that governed their thoughts and actions during slavery and into the post-emancipation era.

In the South, especially, whites retained an enslaver’s mentality. They embraced sharecropping and convict leasing to control black labor in late 19th century, enacted Jim Crow laws to regulate black behavior in the early 20th century, and use racial terror to police the color line to this day. 

In the North, whites also rejected racial equality. After emancipation, they refused to make abandoned and confiscated land available to freedmen because they believed that African Americans would not work without white supervision. And when African Americans began fleeing Dixie during the Great Migration, white Northerners instituted their own brand of Jim Crow, segregating neighborhoods and refusing to hire black workers on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Slavery’s legacy is white supremacy. The ideology, which rationalized bondage for 250 years, has justified the discriminatory treatment of African Americans for the 150 years since the war ended. The belief that black people are less than white people has made segregated schools acceptable, mass incarceration possible, and police violence permissible.
This makes the myth that slavery had no lasting impact extremely consequential — denying the persistence and existence of white supremacy obscures the root causes of the problems that continue to plague African Americans. As a result, policymakers fixate on fixing black people instead of trying to undo the discriminatory systems and structures that have resulted in separate and unequal education, voter suppression, health disparities, and a wealth gap. 

Something did “happen” 150 years ago: Slavery ended. But the institution’s influence on
American racism and its continued impact on African Americans is still felt today. 

"History classes taught us everything we needed to know about slavery"

Many of us first learned about slavery in our middle or high school history classes, but some of us learned much earlier — in elementary school, through children’s books, or even Black History Month curriculum and programs. Unfortunately, we don’t always learn the entire story.

Most of us only learned partial truths about slavery in the United States. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, many in the North and South wanted to put an end to continuing tensions. But this wasn’t done just through the Compromise of 1877, when the federal government pulled the last troops out of the South; it was also done by suppressing the rights of black Americans and elevating the so-called “Lost Cause” of the enslavers. 

The Lost Cause is a distorted version of Civil War history. In the decades after the war, a number of Southern historians began to write that slaveholders were noble and had the right to secede from the Union when the North wished to interfere with their way of life. Due to efforts by a group of Southern socialites known as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Lost Cause ideology influenced history textbooks as well as books for children and adults. 

The accomplishments of black Americans involved in the abolition movement, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Maria W. Stewart, Henry Highland Garnet, and William Still, were downplayed. Union generals like Ulysses S. Grant were denigrated, as were anti-racist whites from John Brown to William Lloyd Garrison. Generations later, there are still many people around the country who believe the Civil War was about states’ rights and that slaves who had good masters were treated well. 

Even an accurate historical curriculum emphasizes progress, triumph, and optimism for the country as a whole, without taking into account how slavery continues to affect black Americans and influence present-day domestic policy from urban planning to health care. It does not emphasize that 12 of the first 18 presidents were enslavers, that enslaved Africans from particular cultures were prized for their skills from rice cultivation to metallurgy, and that enslaved people used every tool at their disposal to resist bondage and seek freedom. From slavery to Jim Crow to civil rights to the first black president, the black American story is forced into the story of the unassailable American dream — even when the truth is more complicated.

Slavery doesn’t exist today

One of the greatest myths about slavery is that it ended. In fact, it evolved into its modern form: mass incarceration. 

The United States has the highest prison population in the world. More than 2.2 million Americans are incarcerated; 4.5 million are on probation or parole. African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the general population. But black men, women, and youth have outsize representation in the criminal justice system, where they make up 34 percent of the 6.8 million people who are under its control. Their labor is used to produce goods and services for businesses that profit from prison labor.

For those of us who study the early history of mass incarceration in America, these statistics are not surprising. From the late 1860s through the 1920s, over 90 percent of the prison and jail populations of the South were black. Thousands of incarcerated men, women, and children were hired out by the state to private factories and farms for a fee. From sunup to sundown, they worked under the watchful eye of brutal “whipping bosses” who flogged, mauled, and murdered them. They earned nothing for their toil. Today, labor exploitation, the denial of human dignity and the right to citizenship, family separation, and violent punishment define our criminal justice system in ways that mirror slavery.

Hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people work. According to a 2017 report published by the Prison Policy Initiative, “the average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents.” Those assigned to work for state-owned businesses (correctional industries) earn between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour. In 2018, incarcerated Americans held a nationwide strike to end “prison slavery.” In a list of demands, striking individuals called for “all persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction” to be “paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”

Prisoners picking cotton in Texas

“Though we expect to find copying mistakes and other variations in our current versions of Josephus’s writings, we don’t in general suspect that the message of his texts was purposely altered in any significant way, except concerning the pivotal Jesus, James, and John the Baptist. And here nearly ever conceivable position has been proposed by scholars, including that Josephus didn’t mention any of these people, but later Christians added texts about them; that Josephus converted to Christianity, but his texts were changed to hide his belief in Jesus Christ; and that we have nearly perfect copies of what Josephus wrote.
What we can do is work from the preponderance of the scholarly evidence. Fortunately, that points us in a relatively clear direction. The passages about James and John are mostly authentic. The passage about Jesus is not. . . . No one seems to have ben aware of this particular passage until the fourth century.” ~ Joel Hoffman, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor

El Greco: James the brother of Jesus


The awareness that blasphemy was once punishable by burning at the stake is always with me. The priests understood that in the absence of divine punishment (odd, how lightning failed to strike the blasphemers), the clergy had to be the executioners.

This morning I was thinking about capital punishment for blasphemy in Islamic countries (unbelief is the ultimate blasphemy). It struck me that such punishment itself constituted blasphemy, a lack of faith that god himself would exact revenge. Punishment simply could not be left in god’s hands! And, come to think of it, nothing could be left in god’s invisible hands. The most religious countries seem to have the least faith.

By the way, this reminds me of a friend of mine, K, who lost her job once — a job she didn’t want, so it was not distressing. But a co-worker urged her to appeal. K replied, “I think it’s best to leave it in god’s hands.” The co-worker pleaded, “I too believe in god, but I don’t think you should leave it in his hands!” 

No, we don’t leave anything in god’s hands. We know better than that.

(As someone observed: “God is supposed to be omnipotent, but in reality he can’t even say Hi”)


~ “The authors of the study found a very surprising correlation: A given person, in 2006, eating the same amount of calories, taking in the same quantities of macronutrients like protein and fat, and exercising the same amount as a person of the same age did in 1988 would have a BMI that was about 2.3 points higher. In other words, people today are about 10 percent heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the exact same diet and exercise plans. 

“Our study results suggest that if you are 25, you’d have to eat even less and exercise more than those older, to prevent gaining weight,” Jennifer Kuk, a professor of kinesiology and health science at Toronto’s York University, said in a statement. “However, it also indicates there may be other specific changes contributing to the rise in obesity beyond just diet and exercise.” 

Kuk proffered three different factors that might be making harder for adults today to stay thin. 

First, people are exposed to more chemicals that might be weight-gain inducing. Pesticides, flame retardants, and the substances in food packaging might all be altering our hormonal processes and tweaking the way our bodies put on and maintain weight. 

Second, the use of prescription drugs has risen dramatically since the ‘70s and ‘80s. Prozac, the first blockbuster SSRI, came out in 1988. Antidepressants are now one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., and many of them have been linked to weight gain. 

Finally, Kuk and the other study authors think that the microbiomes of Americans might have somehow changed between the 1980s and now. It’s well known that some types of gut bacteria make a person more prone to weight gain and obesity. Americans are eating more meat than they were a few decades ago, and many animal products are treated with hormones and antibiotics in order to promote growth. All that meat might be changing gut bacteria in ways that are subtle, at first, but add up over time. Kuk believes the proliferation of artificial sweeteners could also be playing a role. 

“There's a huge weight bias against people with obesity,” she said. “They're judged as lazy and self-indulgent. That's really not the case. If our research is correct, you need to eat even less and exercise even more” just to be same weight as your parents were at your age.” ~


One of the most striking things is walking into an elementary classroom and seeing that almost half the children are overweight or downright obese. In my days one such child per classroom, perhaps two, was about it. The average child was slender — even skinny.
As were the young adults. And I don’t remember any skipping of dessert, either!

My bet is an overconsumption of both meat and fructose, and the change in microbiome. An overconsumption of protein mean the body becomes more and more efficient at turning protein to glucose. Higher glucose levels lead to more insulin, the fattening hormone. And fructose is worse by far than glucose; leads to obesity and a whole array of health problems in fairly direct ways. Yet nutritional advice in mass media has made people think that fruit is necessary for health — that our very survival depends on the daily consumption of fruit! Remember that the same sources tried to convince the public that margarine was better than butter. 

As for the microbiome, we are barely beginning to explore which microorganisms are good for maintaining slenderness, and which work against it. Fecal transplants showed that receiving the bacteria from an obese donor start gaining weight — without a change in their diet. This has been confirmed in animal studies. There are gut bacteria that protect us from obesity and those that promote it.

Diversity seems an important key: you need many kinds of bacteria in your gut to maintain a proper ecological balance. The key food group that appears to promote that diversity is vegetables, especially the crucifers (the cabbage family). Fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut are a special treat for the good bacteria. 

Less meat, no bread or cereal, nothing with added sugar, no fruit (above all, not fruit juice or fruit smoothies) and more cabbage! I realize that this diet — which needs to be lifelong — is not going to thrill hamburger lovers. The stubborn ones are never going to experience the joy of being slender.

(PS. I know what everyone will say: but kids back then used to run around! Their heads weren't stuck in screens! 

Exercises actually increases appetite. Diet is much, more more important than the amount of exercise. Not just what you feed yourself, but what you feed your gut bacteria. Also, please remember that in this study the amount of exercise was statistically controlled for. A person of the same age exercising just as much and consuming the same number of calories would still end up heavier than his peers in the 1980s.)

Ending on beauty:

We love each other like poppy and remembrance

we slumber like wine in the sea shells

like the sea in the moon’s blood jet.

We stand at the window embracing.

People watch us from the street.

It is time people knew. It is time

the stone consented to bloom.

It is time it were time.

It is time.

~ adapted from Celan’s Corona

Saturday, August 24, 2019


“Oh, love isn't there to make us happy. I believe it exists to show us how much we can endure.” ~ Hermann Hesse, Peter Camenzind. Nathan Oliveira: Couple with Light, 2003

            The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved.
                               ~ Faiz Ahmed Faiz
The death of the fantasy man I loved
and held in my arms every night,
the man I called by your name,

caused me more pain than later
the throbbing bullet of your real
suicide. Then I learned about

poetry’s true subject: the tremble
in your voice when you said,
I want to do something great —

the heft of a thousand-page
anthology of regrets we read in the dark,
and yes, it ruined our eyes;

eating oatmeal, the only
food you had, as we listened
to the aria of the Queen of Night;

your turning to the wall
when I tried to wake you up;
the time a sudden lightning

like an angry ghost
danced around the room —
though it never seemed to rain

when I was at your house —
my dream withering without
the veil of that sound.

~ Oriana


~ “'Lolita' is a brilliant book in many ways, but it’s not a masterpiece. It engages us on a literary and intellectual level in a masterful manner. But the book lacks a crucial component of great fiction: compassion. Great fiction is more than artifice and wordplay, it’s more than cleverness, more than irony. It’s certainly more than unabated rage. As we see in the works of Sophocles, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Bronte and Woolf, the way great writers stretch and inform us involves the heart as well as the mind.

Lolita was shocking when it appeared, and now, 60 years later, the pedophilia and the serial rape are still shocking. The book still carries a whiff of pornography, of the forbidden, offering a new iteration of the Jamesian theme in which the innocent New World is defiled and corrupted by the decadence of the Old World.
But what’s shocking now, 60 years later, about Lolita is not the sexuality but the lack of it. What’s striking are the genteel euphemisms—all salacious metaphor and suggestive similes—that characterize Nabokov’s writing about the sexual act. What’s striking is the odd absence of any kind of real erotic passion, in which two people connect powerfully. Humbert’s feelings for Lolita are completely solipsistic. They are no more than masturbation fantasies, and might as well be directed at a blow-up sex toy. Humbert has no understanding of Lolita as a person, and his sexual activities with her are entirely self-involved. He himself is a two-dimensional caricature, and he sees her as one as well.

Though much of the appeal of the book depends on titillation, Lolita is a novel of postponement and deferred gratification. Nabokov leads us enticingly toward gratification, first sexual, then homicidal, but he delights in mocking the eager reader, holding off the climactic moment through a series of rambling digressions and detours. And he denies the reader any peak moment of experience that might offer psychological satisfaction. If Nabokov mocks the trope of the erotic novel, he also mocks the reader who was secretly hoping to read an erotic novel cloaked in literary respectability.

The sexual energy in Lolita is unremitting, but oddly impersonal, and in fact the truly passionate energy comes from another emotion. The sexual narrative functions as a screen, which distracts the reader and disguises the real story: this is the expression of Nabokov’s rage and resentment toward a world that had betrayed him. The writer is driven by fury at the fate that decreed the loss of his father, his wealth, his aristocratic heritage and his elegant, cultured, sophisticated and beautiful motherland. His entire country.

Nabokov never forgave the Bolsheviks for assassinating his liberal, aristocratic father, or for betraying his family, for seizing his estates and property. Why should he? It was the trusted family footman who was guilty of the most intimate betrayal, telling the soldiers about the secret hiding place in his mother’s bedroom, where her jewels were kept. It was the Communists who cynically betrayed their own people. The sophisticated culture of the aristocracy, like a Faberge flower, bejeweled, tremblant, was crushed beneath the Soviet boot. These betrayals informed Nabokov’s sensibility, staining it with a deep and pervasive cynicism.

Lolita stands as a monument to Nabokov’s resentment: it is not a novel of sexual consummation but of cultural contempt. Contempt is the true driving passion: the landscape, the characters, the narrator, the narrative are all drenched in it. Nabokov despises his characters and their bright vulgar world, with its populist architecture and cheap displays, its tawdry, ersatz culture. Lolita is a raging cry for the world Nabokov lost, which was one of refinement, perception and beauty. It’s a cry of rage at a world that represents his world’s counterpart: young, vulgar, unrefined and irredeemably seductive.

Lolita becomes the object of his perverted desire. Early in his life, in Europe, Humbert had an adolescent fling with a girl who died. Now that he has been exiled from Paradise, now that his first love is dead, America and Lolita are what Humbert must endure. Lolita herself is common, superficial and unintelligent, though Humbert ignores her mind and her sensibility. He despises the vulgar clothes and makeup, snacks and advertisements that entrance her, America’s cheap post-war offerings. He hates these philistine vulgarians for owning this huge green continent across which he drives his unwilling partner, full of meadows and mountains and sunsets, rich and open and empty, “end of the summer mountains, all hunched up, their heavy Egyptian limbs folded under folds of tawny moth-eaten plush… a last rufous mountain, with a rich rug of lucerne at its feet.” These people don’t deserve this place.

Lolita acts as a counterpart to Pnin, another novel that chronicles Nabokov’s clumsy immigrant story. But while Pnin is full of compassion, for the narrator, the place, and the other characters, and it explores the possibilities of strengths and benefits in the new world, Lolita is an indictment. It’s an unrelenting cry of rage at an order that places a cultural sophisticate, a European gentleman-scholar, in the position of wooing a vulgar adolescent America. This provincial place lacks the means to understand his value, his lineage, his intellect, the deep abiding worth of what he represents. His culture has been crushed by proletarian Russia and ignored by demotic America.

Nabokov was praised for his boldness in challenging sexual mores, but this was not his intention, and he told his publisher that a succès de scandale would distress him. In fact his true boldness lies elsewhere. Using the erotic narrative of Lolita as a screen, he blinds his readers to his real intention. In a dazzling act of prestidigitation, he invites his readers to enter into a tirade of contempt which is directed at them. Contempt is the most serious element in this mocking, ironic, satirical narrative; it’s the one emotion that comes directly from Nabokov’s heart. Exiled from a country that no longer exists, terminally embittered, grieving and resentful, Nabokov reviles an undeserving America, his unintended refuge. This is a place that knows nothing of his great fortune or his unspeakable loss, an America which provides him with both the target of his contempt and his largest and most enthusiastic audience.

Nabokov creates a brilliant, glittering snow-queen’s castle, a dazzling confection of lust and artifice and irony and deception. But this isn’t enough to make a great masterpiece: that requires a heart. The only real emotion in Lolita derives from Nabokov’s embitterment, and its expression lies in his interior laughter.

The joke’s on us.” ~ Roxana Robinson

A dissenting comment: “In my reading, it's because the characters are so rich, and so well-defined, that we do feel compassion, certainly, for Lolita, and at least some level of empathy (not absolution or forgiveness, please understand) for Humbert. With Lolita we have the shape and sense of a real adolescent who is gradually destroyed
and a sensitive reader cannot fail to see this or to feel it. It reaches a pitch in a moving scene which critics often fail to cite, but which always moves me deeply this is the scene late in the book where Lo and Hum have a visit from Lo's friend Avis Byrd. She is Lo's opposite in every way, an overweight young thing who would never excite the lust of Humbert. Yet Humbert realizes as he watches the two girls that Lo yearns for the life of Avis "who had such a wonderful fat pink dad and a small chubby brother, and a brand new baby sister, and a home, and two grinning dogs, and Lolita had nothing." In this one perfect scene you seen how Lolita has been robbed as well as exploited robbed of family, security, happiness, comfort. She is as alone and vulnerable as any foundling in Dickens. The scene breaks the heart. As for Humbert and what I refer to as empathy, Nabokov constantly draws our attention to his awareness of his own evil. For all his extravagant and illustrative depictions of his fetish, he is deeply aware that he is a destroyer, that he is a vampire, that if there is a hell he belongs in it. Part of the success of the book is that we see both his desire and his torment through his own eyes.” ~ Rodney Welch

Another comment: “As I understand it was Nabokov’s intention to write beautifully to show that the greatest evil can be very charming and manipulative.”

Yet another comment: “Nabokov's father was not assassinated by Bolsheviks, but by a pair of Tsarists associated with Vasily Biskupsky (a far right Russian general who later financed Hitler) at a conference in Berlin in 1922. They were actually trying to kill Pavel Milyukov, in large part because they blamed his Constitutional Democratic Party for creating the conditions for revolution that allowed the Bolsheviks to take power. Nabokov's father wrestled the gunman to the ground before he could shoot Milyukov, but was himself shot and killed in the process.”

And someone else quotes my favorite passage, toward the end of the book, describing HH’s reaction to hearing schoolchildren play during recess:

“What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic — one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.”

And this one, which I forgot (perhaps because I was smitten with HH and disdained Lolita):

“We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.”

And now the comment that best sums it up:

“The character lacks compassion, not the book. That's the point, and that's why it is a masterpiece.”


It IS a masterpiece. It does show that great evil can be charming, eloquent, intellectually elegant, and so forth — I was always taken with the idea of Satan being presented not as an ugly monster, but as a very attractive man or woman.

Now, I was much too young when I read Lolita (back in innocent Warsaw, in English, the Olympia edition) to grasp notions such as the unreliable narrator; more important, I didn’t really understand the horror of pedophilia and Lolita’s ordeal. I was dazzled by Humbert Humbert and disdained the poor teenage girl.

It embarrasses me now to recall how I adored HH’s eloquence and sense of humor, and was somewhat annoyed that Lolita had such a prominent place in the novel. Why would a man with his kind of intellect waste his time on this “vulgar” teen? Later, I had a similar feeling about Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Of course I instantly fell in love with Herzog, and couldn’t understand why he’d waste himself on those awful women in his life.

Well, most literature is not meant for schoolgirls with limited experience of life and men. I don’t think I could bear to re-read Lolita. But I am very glad that I did read it at an age when the ugly pathology hardly registered on me. Why? Because I vividly remember my delight with Nabokov’s use of language, his poet’s love of words. It was my first encounter with prose of such stylistic brilliance.

Now, I hasten to add that Lolita is not a masterpiece in the rank of, say, Crime and Punishment. As the author of the article correctly hints, it's not "a great masterpiece." Lolita is an extraordinary, unforgettable novel 
—but it does not rise to the wisdom and universality of greatest literature. It does not make the list of Top Ten, or even Top Twenty. It is a limited, minor masterpiece — chiefly a stylistic one.

And yet style can’t be entirely separated from essence, from thinking, from a certain philosophical vision. To some extent, Lolita reminds me of the Portrait of Dorian Gray — another unforgettable meditation on both evil and beauty. 


The discussion of Lolita is intriguing  in several ways, but what I find most fascinating is the idea of Humbert seducing the reader with the beauty and elegance of his intellect and style. He is seduced by his fantasy object, the young Lolita, not the actual person, but the objectification of his own desire. There is no love here, no passion that is not like masturbation. In fact, he has contempt for this vulgar, common creature he preys on to satisfy himself. It's not just the mean spiritedness, but the consummate selfishness, that strikes me as evil here, no matter how elegant and sophisticated and beautiful the language. He pretends to sleep while listening to her sobs, night after night, and that in itself puts him beneath contempt. Maybe he does see what he is, a vampire, a destroyer, but that doesn't mean he will stop, even knowing the emptiness at the heart of all his acts, all his fancy magic with words and ideas.

So, he does have some insight, and as Nabokov seduces the reader with the tease of suggestive, but never explicit, content, there is the sense of contempt for such an easily manipulated audience, enjoying the Humbert and Lolita peepshow, that like circus peepshows, promises more than it delivers, and is successful only because it appeals to our basest desires and forbidden curiosities. The enchanted, engrossed reader becomes complicit in this construct of literary onanism.

It all seems so much a game, and a cruel and heartless one. Seemingly without compassion, it becomes a challenge to our own capacity for compassion and empathy. Though not exactly the same, it reminds me of the problem I have with artists who are not admirable as human beings, who may be even evil, or have done evil things, and whose art is yet beautiful, maybe even great. How does knowledge of the one thing affect our appreciation and estimation of the value of the other? Are the two so intimately connected they cant be separated? Should they be seen independent of each other...the creator and the creation?? Is that even possible??

There was an artist whose work I really liked, who was revealed to be an active pedophile. I could no longer see his work in a positive way after learning this, and felt a kind of grief for that loss. Is this a fault or incapacity of mine? An injustice? A mistake? I truly don't know.


I agree with what you say about Humbert Humbert. It’s perverse, I know, that I’ve never felt like re-reading Lolita in adulthood, too afraid that my teen delight would vanish, its butterfly iridescence crushed by the weight of greater understanding. My teen self loved HH the way I later loved Herzog — but I loved HH more. That, I suppose, was the magic of Nabokov’s style combined with certain things going over my virginal head. 

(A shameless digression: arguably, even my reading knowledge of English wasn’t advanced enough to tackle a novel that relies so heavily on the artistry of style. And yet that artistry came through and dazzled me. The sex part interested me the least.)

As for Woody Allen (I guess he’s who you mean), I read an article by another member of Mia’s household, Moses Farrow, which presents it all as abusive Mia’s vengeful smear campaign. The children and the housemaid were relentlessly rehearsed to repeat certain lies.

The astounding irony in that situation is Mia’s brother, John Farrow — a convicted pediophile now finishing his prison sentence.

But that’s a side issue — we do have examples of “monster” artists who nevertheless produced great art. While I can understand why Israel would ban performances of Wagner, I feel sorry for those who have not heard the best of Wagner. Great art is universal, and comes from the unconscious — in a sense a broader and more collective part of the psyche than a particular artist. I don’t like the way Tolstoy treated Sonya, and his attitudes toward women in general are, to us, despicable (think of the Kreutzer Sonata and various esssays, including the one in which he praises prostitution as the guardian of the purity of marriage)..

But — could he write? And did most of his writing rise above misogyny? Who even thinks of misogyny as one of Tolstoy’s central themes? We are mesmerized by his writing because it has qualities that make it universal across the ages. And the same goes for the music of Wagner. It’s not “about” anti-Semitism.

The more I deal with this issue of immortal art versus human flaws of the artist, the more I wish we could concentrate simply on the art. Even before I read the piece by Moses Farrow, even when I thought there was a lot of smoke, I never joined those who decided to boycott Woody’s movies. And last night I was thrilled to see a great turnout at the screening of one of Woody’s enchanting late comedies. Perhaps more people than we dare believe have a deep, intuitive understanding that the art is greater than the artist.

“Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh.” ~ Elizabeth Janeway


I think the Kubrick movie fleshed out Lolita, put her at the center as an all-too real teenage girl in the fifties. The book, by contrast, is a dramatic monologue by Humbert Humbert about his memories of Lolita. We are inside Humbert's stunningly articulate mind.



“To try and remember yourself as a child or young teen full of beautiful unformed breath-shortening dreams and expectations for the indescribably magnificent (and alas, also impossibly far-flung and excruciatingly slow to come) future — and then, for no clear reason and certainly to no practical benefit, to try and imagine what that child, who used (at least nominally) to be you, would have thought, doubtless horrified and momentarily undone unto speechlessness, of your present-day life and the person you have become...

Not-knowing is the greatest of our blessings.

"We live not as we will — but as we can," said Menander.

Menander, yes. It's OK not to know who he was. Once a famous Athenian playwright, he wrote more than one hundred celebrated plays, but at some point virtually all of his manuscripts were lost or destroyed. It happens.

Everything flows and nothing abides. Ultimately, it's no big deal.”

~ Mikhail Iossel


This tiny essay resonates with me, since I had such extravagant — if totally vague — dreams upon setting forth for America. And many other dreams got shattered too. I know this is fairly common and don’t claim that I suffered more than a typical immigrant — or a typical young woman in love, a typical job seeker, teacher, writer, poet, surgery patient hoping for a recovery, and so on. Dreams do get shattered. There is no end to it.

I used to find this tremendously depressing. At times the death of dreams seemed a worse fate than physical death. This is where a more philosophical outlook — which comes only with age — can help. Even if this or that dream came true, how long before I’d discover the problems that come with such fulfillments? And, above all, everything passes. My ambition is no longer to produce something of lasting value, but to be beautiful in the moment.

On a mundane level — but it’s the mundane stress that kills us — I recently had the idea of changing my bank accounts. I won’t go into the complicated reasons — not anywhere as complicated as what happened later. When the process was 90% or so completed, the agent asked  if  I had any automatic payments or withddrawals. I paled — I did have a bunch . . . “You will have to call each agency and company, and rework all this,” the agent said. In some cases it turned out even more cumbersome than I dreaded. If I had known at the start, I would have never tried to change accounts.

On a larger scale, if it’d known how much suffering follow the change of countries, would I have gone to America? It would have been sheer masochism. I need to make clear that my life was not in danger; in fact my life was, especially that last year, quite happy. I was very curious about the world, though. So, to the question, “What made you leave Poland?” I can only say, “Great curiosity and infinite ignorance.”

And if I had to compress that answer, I’d settle on “infinite ignorance.” Again, if I had known from the start, I would have never changed countries and been spared enormous suffering. But perhaps a different kind of suffering would have happened had I stayed in Poland: mostly of unknown sort, but one kind was predictable: always wondering what would it have been like to take the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave that emerged right after I was done with high school. Wondering if I did the right thing or made the greatest mistake of my life drives me crazy, so . . . I've learned not to go there. 

But that brings up another side of the “infinite ignorance”: although there is a good chance that I’d have been a much happier person if I’d stayed in Poland, there is no guarantee. Without the immigrant trauma, with more self-confidence, I’d be a different person. A Polish poet who chose to stay in Poland pointed it out to me when I was wondering if I’d have become a poet if I’d stayed. She answered, “Yes, you’d have become a poet — but as a completely different person.” And that put an end to my recurrent fantasies of that whole other life. The only solution that makes sense is total acceptance: whatever happened, happened. There is no undoing it. Both good and bad resulted from it, and it’s impossible to untangle, to concentrate only on the good. Rather, I need to remember that it’s all very complex, and not 100% disappointing. And now there is no time for anything except moving on, trying to make whatever small contribution I can still make. 

Let me end these peculiar musings with the lines from Katie Ford’s poem, Psalm 40 — the speaker imagines herself dying and looking back on her life:

I held things here, and I felt them.

And to all I felt I will whisper hosanna for goodbye.

It is sweet to think of myself, alone at that very moment,
able to say such a thing
to all that was my life, and to all that was not.


~ “David Remnick’s wonderful account of the last days of the Soviet empire—Lenin’s Tomb—is 25 years old. In its closing pages, Remnick muses on Russia’s future, as already disillusionment with Boris Yeltsin is setting in. A “mythic” yearning drives his communist and other enemies, Remnick writes. The most potent idea is “nationalist nostalgia for empire and higher spiritual purpose.” This situation has beset other once great powers in decline, from the Ottomans to the British. (Boris Johnson, anyone?) “Empires are not lost happily,” Remnick observes.

For a moment, as the USSR crumbled, it was possible to imagine a benign outcome for the new Russia. The historian Yuri Afanasyev sketches to Remnick a couple of scenarios. In one, Russia is transformed into south Korea. In another it becomes “Latin America with a taint of Sicily.” Afanasyev acknowledges that it is far from certain any new regime will resemble a developed western democracy. Fascism is “a threat”. “The pull of the state sector, the authoritarian tug, is still a very dangerous thing,” Afanasyev tells the author. The conversation happens in late 1992.

Another of Remnick’s characters, Galina Staravoitova, is gloomy. Staravoitova likens Russia’s situation to that of Germany after the treaty of Versailles. Wounded self-esteem, economic crises, the disintegration of empire, the prevalence of an imperialist mentality, millions of ethnic Russians stuck outside the country’s new, makeshift borders … all make it possible that Russia might embark on a dark, fascist path, she says. Staravoitova doesn’t rule out that a populist authoritarian movement could one day emerge. Its goal: to restore Russia’s lost prestige in the world and to avenge hurt pride, she thinks.

A quarter of a century on, Remnick’s final thoughts from Moscow—shot through as they are with liberal foreboding—look pretty on the money. Take Staravoitova herself. A leading democrat, she won a landslide victory to Russia’s parliament and worked as Yeltsin’s spokesperson. Yeltsin later sacked her. She spent much of the 1990s trying to reform and “lustrate” the KGB, rebranded the FSB, identifying its officers correctly as the greatest threat to democratization. In November 1998 she was murdered outside her St. Petersburg home. The zakazchik—the person who ordered the hit—was never found.

A few months earlier a little-known former KGB colonel became the FSB director—a gray, charmless fellow. His name was Vladimir Putin. Putin had a middling career in Soviet spying. He had begun busting hippy communes in Leningrad and spent the latter half of the 1980s posted to east Germany and Dresden. Putin missed perestroika—the main political vector that shaped Remnick’s Russia tour—and viewed the USSR’s demise with undisguised horror. Putin rose on the coat-tails of Anatoly Sobchak, St Petersburg’s mayor. In 1991 he exited the KGB. But, as Putin himself said, no-one really leaves the kontora [bureau, organization].

Lenin’s Tomb offers a droll account of the KGB’s attempt to wrest power from Mikhail Gorbachev, the flawed architect of Soviet reform. In August 1991 Remnick was packing up to leave Moscow, his stint for the Washington Post over, when a group of hardline plotters, led by KGB boss Vladimir Kryuchkov, seized power in a coup. The omens had been there for some time. The General Secretary was on holiday in Crimea, where he found himself under house arrest. Tanks surrounded parliament. The stage was set for a military-KGB takeover—probably a bloody one.

The new junta turned out to be shambolic. Its members were elderly, disorganized, incoherent, plan-less. And drunk—at least in the case of Gennadi Yanayev, the Soviet vice-president. Yanayev was the face of the emergency committee. His appearance before the foreign press was a disaster. “His hands trembled like little wild animals quivering in front of him. He was lost from the start,” Remnick writes. The conspirators wanted to arrest their enemies, and to storm the White House where Yeltsin—the Russian republic’s newly elected president—was holed up. The gerontocrats discovered that the army, most of it, was ignoring their orders.

During the three-day putsch, the KGB goons who normally tailed Steele around the Russian capital disappeared. When it failed—with Yeltsin triumphant, and Gorby brought back—the surveillance resumed. Steele’s MI6 workmates reported that in eastern Europe the secret police ran away during democratic revolutions, never to come back. In Russia they bowed out of a sight for a bit, then carried on as before. Steele’s conclusion: the regime in Moscow changed during the tumultuous years of Lenin’s Tomb. But the system—repressive and implacable—continued.

At the turn of the century Putin became president. It was soon apparent that the secret police were the country’s masters. In communist times, the Politburo commanded the KGB. Now, the siloviki—the power guys—were subordinate to nobody. In the words of Nikolai Patrushev, the FSB’s director, they were a “new nobility.” Putin’s bureaucrat-spy state was stuffed with former KGB officers, possessed of the old complexes and prejudices. They believed the west was perpetually scheming against Russia. America—the Soviet bogeyman—was again the main adversary,  the glavny protivnik.

Putin’s counter-revolution wasn’t far from the one Remnick’s interviewees had glumly imagined, almost a decade earlier. His Kremlin took over independent TV, squeezed out opposition politicians, and clamped down on dissent. Critics—the journalist Anna Politkovskaya—began to die in nasty ways. The state resumed the old Bolshevik practice of eliminating “traitors” abroad, sometimes ingeniously. Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer turned Putin denouncer, died in London in 2006 after drinking a cup of radioactive green tea.

Soviet practices of secrecy and control of information were back. There were a few independent media outlets—the radio station Echo of Moscow, founded in Remnick’s day; the investigative paper Novaya Gazeta. But most Russian journalists toed the line. I pursued subjects that were apparently taboo—though this was never explicitly spelled out: Putin’s wealth; the FSB’s role in Litvinenko’s murder; the federal war against Islamists in Russia’s north Caucasus. My reward was a series of crude break-ins at our Moscow family apartment. FSB operatives—so the British embassy told us—carried them out. They were bugging us too.

The Putin state was actively pursuing two projects, I concluded. One was explicitly, noisily nationalistic. It was to remake Russia as a great power. Moscow saw former Soviet republics—the Baltics, Georgia, Ukraine—as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and as sub-sovereign entities when it came to foreign and security choices. The Kremlin—according to this doctrine—was co-equal to the US. It saw its geo-political role as that of spoiler anti-pole.

The other project was more furtive, shifty. Over one decade and then another Putin’s friends and KGB cronies became billionaires. They controlled Russia’s strategic resources and industries—oil, gas, road-building, a bridge to Crimea. State contracts swelled profits; any venture done by one of Putin’s former judo partners prospered, as if blessed by a divine wind. It was Litvinenko who coined a phrase to describe this ascendancy—a mafia state. It was a kleptocracy alright, featuring organized crime, the security services and bureaucrats. Their mantra: if we don’t steal someone else will.

Success in Washington (the 2016 election) masked growing problems at home. Western sanctions damaged Russia’s economy. The sugar-rush from Putin’s annexation of Crimea has now worn off. The regime looks tired, its thug playbook drearily familiar. It responded to July protests in Moscow in classic style: using riot police to clobber and arrest harmless demonstrators. I spoke to one former insider recently—now living in comfortable oligarch exile—who called Russia’s president a doddering Brezhnev, out of ideas. Putin appears intent on staying in power anyway until 2024—when his latest term expires—and probably beyond.

Russia’s current stagnation and retro-repression stand in contrast to the optimistic years described in Lenin’s Tomb—an epoch of dynamic, unpredictable change; hope; vim; truth-telling and sudden opening up. Remnick’s writing holds up well. His book is a compelling chronicle. And a marker for the way things turned out—less “ordinary” than he once hoped, and as pessimistic as his liberal friends told him it might go.” ~


I could never forget that early on Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” This was the event that he would most like to reverse. No one can say that he’s worked tirelessly to restore the Soviet-style repression at home and to try to weaken the West at every opportunity.

I like the term "Putin's counterrevolution." All the post-Soviet progress was to be erased. And first they came for the journalists.

Many would say that now the American Empire is collapsing, and again perhaps the rise of fascism shouldn't surprise us. 

Lenin's statue being toppled in Ukraine. In Russia itself, thousands of those statues, some gigantic, still remain. Ukraine says it removed 1,320 statues of Lenin. And it changed a Lenin Street to Lennon Street. It can be done. But in Russia itself? Probably not within our lifetime. Those raised in the worship of Lenin (and now, increasingly, of Stalin as well) will have to be gone.


~ “Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.


They picked in long rows, bent bodies shuffling through cotton fields white in bloom. Men, women and children picked, using both hands to hurry the work. Some picked in Negro cloth, their raw product returning to them by way of New England mills. Some picked completely naked. Young children ran water across the humped rows, while overseers peered down from horses. Enslaved workers placed each cotton boll into a sack slung around their necks. Their haul would be weighed after the sunlight stalked away from the fields and, as the freedman Charles Ball recalled, you couldn’t “distinguish the weeds from the cotton plants.” If the haul came up light, enslaved workers were often whipped. “A short day’s work was always punished,” Ball wrote.

Cotton was to the 19th century what oil was to the 20th: among the world’s most widely traded commodities. Cotton is everywhere, in our clothes, hospitals, soap. Before the industrialization of cotton, people wore expensive clothes made of wool or linen and dressed their beds in furs or straw. Whoever mastered cotton could make a killing. But cotton needed land. A field could only tolerate a few straight years of the crop before its soil became depleted. Planters watched as acres that had initially produced 1,000 pounds of cotton yielded only 400 a few seasons later. The thirst for new farmland grew even more intense after the invention of the cotton gin in the early 1790s. Before the gin, enslaved workers grew more cotton than they could clean. The gin broke the bottleneck, making it possible to clean as much cotton as you could grow.

The United States solved its land shortage by expropriating millions of acres from Native Americans, often with military force, acquiring Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida. It then sold that land on the cheap — just $1.25 an acre in the early 1830s ($38 in today’s dollars) — to white settlers. Naturally, the first to cash in were the land speculators. Companies operating in Mississippi flipped land, selling it soon after purchase, commonly for double the price.

As slave labor camps spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the country was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop, with 350 million pounds picked that year. Just four years later, it harvested 500 million pounds. Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who erected textile mills to form, in the words of the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an “unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” The large-scale cultivation of cotton hastened the invention of the factory, an institution that propelled the Industrial Revolution and changed the course of history. In 1810, there were 87,000 cotton spindles in America. Fifty years later, there were five million. Slavery, wrote one of its defenders in De Bow’s Review, a widely read agricultural magazine, was the “nursing mother of the prosperity of the North.” Cotton planters, millers and consumers were fashioning a new economy, one that was global in scope and required the movement of capital, labor and products across long distances. In other words, they were fashioning a capitalist economy. “The beating heart of this new system,” Beckert writes, “was slavery.”

Planters aggressively expanded their operations to capitalize on economies of scale inherent to cotton growing, buying more enslaved workers, investing in large gins and presses and experimenting with different seed varieties. To do so, they developed complicated workplace hierarchies that combined a central office, made up of owners and lawyers in charge of capital allocation and long-term strategy, with several divisional units, responsible for different operations. Rosenthal writes of one plantation where the owner supervised a top lawyer, who supervised another lawyer, who supervised an overseer, who supervised three bookkeepers, who supervised 16 enslaved head drivers and specialists (like bricklayers), who supervised hundreds of enslaved workers. Everyone was accountable to someone else, and plantations pumped out not just cotton bales but volumes of data about how each bale was produced. This organizational form was very advanced for its time, displaying a level of hierarchal complexity equaled only by large government structures, like that of the British Royal Navy.

Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs by developing precise systems of record-keeping. Meticulous bookkeepers and overseers were just as important to the productivity of a slave-labor camp as field hands. Plantation entrepreneurs developed spreadsheets, like Thomas Affleck’s “Plantation Record and Account Book,” which ran into eight editions circulated until the Civil War. Affleck’s book was a one-stop-shop accounting manual, complete with rows and columns that tracked per-worker productivity. This book “was really at the cutting edge of the informational technologies available to businesses during this period,” Rosenthal told me. “I have never found anything remotely as complex as Affleck’s book for free labor.” Enslavers used the book to determine end-of-the-year balances, tallying expenses and revenues and noting the causes of their biggest gains and losses. They quantified capital costs on their land, tools and enslaved workforces, applying Affleck’s recommended interest rate. Perhaps most remarkable, they also developed ways to calculate depreciation, a breakthrough in modern management procedures, by assessing the market value of enslaved workers over their life spans. Values generally peaked between the prime ages of 20 and 40 but were individually adjusted up or down based on sex, strength and temperament: people reduced to data points.

This level of data analysis also allowed planters to anticipate rebellion. Tools were accounted for on a regular basis to make sure a large number of axes or other potential weapons didn’t suddenly go missing. “Never allow any slave to lock or unlock any door,” advised a Virginia enslaver in 1847. In this way, new bookkeeping techniques developed to maximize returns also helped to ensure that violence flowed in one direction, allowing a minority of whites to control a much larger group of enslaved black people. American planters never forgot what happened in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791, when enslaved workers took up arms and revolted. In fact, many white enslavers overthrown during the Haitian Revolution relocated to the United States and started over.

Faster workers were placed at the head of the line, which encouraged those who followed to match the captain’s pace. When enslaved workers grew ill or old, or became pregnant, they were assigned to lighter tasks. One enslaver established a “sucklers gang” for nursing mothers, as well as a “measles gang,” which at once quarantined those struck by the virus and ensured that they did their part to contribute to the productivity machine. Bodies and tasks were aligned with rigorous exactitude. In trade magazines, owners swapped advice about the minutiae of planting, including slave diets and clothing as well as the kind of tone a master should use. In 1846, one Alabama planter advised his fellow enslavers to always give orders “in a mild tone, and try to leave the impression on the mind of the negro that what you say is the result of reflection.” The devil (and his profits) were in the details.

The cotton plantation was America’s first big business, and the nation’s first corporate Big Brother was the overseer. And behind every cold calculation, every rational fine-tuning of the system, violence lurked. Plantation owners used a combination of incentives and punishments to squeeze as much as possible out of enslaved workers. Some beaten workers passed out from the pain and woke up vomiting. Some “danced” or “trembled” with every hit. An 1829 first-person account from Alabama recorded an overseer’s shoving the faces of women he thought had picked too slow into their cotton baskets and opening up their backs. To the historian Edward Baptist, before the Civil War, Americans “lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”

Profits from heightened productivity were harnessed through the anguish of the enslaved. This was why the fastest cotton pickers were often whipped the most. It was why punishments rose and fell with global market fluctuations. Speaking of cotton in 1854, the fugitive slave John Brown remembered, “When the price rises in the English market, the poor slaves immediately feel the effects, for they are harder driven, and the whip is kept more constantly going.” Unrestrained capitalism holds no monopoly on violence, but in making possible the pursuit of near limitless personal fortunes, often at someone else’s expense, it does put a cash value on our moral commitments.

As it’s usually narrated, the story of the ascendancy of American finance tends to begin in 1980, with the gutting of Glass-Steagall, or in 1944 with Bretton Woods, or perhaps in the reckless speculation of the 1920s. But in reality, the story begins during slavery.
Consider, for example, one of the most popular mainstream financial instruments: the mortgage. Enslaved people were used as collateral for mortgages centuries before the home mortgage became the defining characteristic of middle America. In colonial times, when land was not worth much and banks didn’t exist, most lending was based on human property. In the early 1700s, slaves were the dominant collateral in South Carolina. Many Americans were first exposed to the concept of a mortgage by trafficking in enslaved people, not real estate, and “the extension of mortgages to slave property helped fuel the development of American (and global) capitalism,” the historian Joshua Rothman told me.

Enslavers were not the first ones to securitize assets and debts in America. The land companies that thrived during the late 1700s relied on this technique, for instance. But enslavers did make use of securities to such an enormous degree for their time, exposing stakeholders throughout the Western world to enough risk to compromise the world economy, that the historian Edward Baptist told me that this can be viewed as “a new moment in international capitalism, where you are seeing the development of a globalized financial market.” The novel thing about the 2008 foreclosure crisis was not the concept of foreclosing on a homeowner but foreclosing on millions of them. Similarly, what was new about securitizing enslaved people in the first half of the 19th century was not the concept of securitization itself but the crazed level of rash speculation on cotton that selling slave debt promoted.

When seeking loans, planters used enslaved people as collateral. Thomas Jefferson mortgaged 150 of his enslaved workers to build Monticello. People could be sold much more easily than land, and in multiple Southern states, more than eight in 10 mortgage-secured loans used enslaved people as full or partial collateral. As the historian Bonnie Martin has written, “slave owners worked their slaves financially, as well as physically from colonial days until emancipation” by mortgaging people to buy more people. Access to credit grew faster than Mississippi kudzu, leading one 1836 observer to remark that in cotton country “money, or what passed for money, was the only cheap thing to be had.”

If planters thought themselves invincible, able to bend the laws of finance to their will, it was most likely because they had been granted authority to bend the laws of nature to their will, to do with the land and the people who worked it as they pleased. Du Bois wrote: “The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings had to have disastrous effects. It tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets.” What are the laws of economics to those exercising godlike power over an entire people?

We know how these stories end. The American South rashly overproduced cotton thanks to an abundance of cheap land, labor and credit, consumer demand couldn’t keep up with supply, and prices fell. The value of cotton started to drop as early as 1834 before plunging like a bird winged in midflight, setting off the Panic of 1837. Investors and creditors called in their debts, but plantation owners were underwater. Mississippi planters owed the banks in New Orleans $33 million in a year their crops yielded only $10 million in revenue. They couldn’t simply liquidate their assets to raise the money. When the price of cotton tumbled, it pulled down the value of enslaved workers and land along with it. People bought for $2,000 were now selling for $60. Today, we would say the planters’ debt was “toxic.”

During slavery, “Americans built a culture of speculation unique in its abandon,” writes the historian Joshua Rothman in his 2012 book, “Flush Times and Fever Dreams.” That culture would drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it has been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider — one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.


Not being a historian or an economist, I don’t feel qualified to evaluate the accuracy of this article. Perhaps the close supervision of the workers did not begin with the plantation owners determined to squeeze the utmost from their laborers — perhaps it started earlier than that. What can’t be denied is that the slave era in the American South was perhaps the most flagrant and wide-scale exploitation of human beings in the name of profit.

I like Andrew Yang’s idea of “human-centered capitalism.” Human well-being needs to be an important part of any economic enterprise — or else what is civilization about?

Excesses tend to bring about their own destruction, and to give birth to a new mentality that can no longer tolerate flagrant exploitation. Yes, it takes time. There are setbacks. There may be something to the view that only calamities (world wars and epidemics, e.g. the Black Plague) bring about a more fair distribution of wealth. But sometimes change happens quite rapidly (e.g. women’s influx into graduate schools) because new ideas gain wide popularity. Ripeness is all.




~ “Yang (@AndrewYang), founder of Venture for America, a nonprofit for entrepreneurs, has become synonymous with one of his signature campaign planks: universal basic income. His proposal would create a "dividend" paying each American $1,000 per month, in an effort to offset looming job losses some have predicted as a result of automation.
Money for the program would come from tech giants like Amazon, a company that made news over its $0 federal income tax bill in 2018, Yang says.

"If we have a new mechanism to harness the gains from all of these incredible innovations around the country, we will give the American public a tiny slice of every Amazon transaction, every Google search, every Facebook ad, every robot truck mile and it's enough to pay for a dividend of a thousand dollars a month," he says.

"There's one state that's already had a dividend [basic income — though calling it a “dividend” is brilliant”] for almost 40 years, and that state is Alaska. It was passed by a Republican governor. It's wildly popular in a deep-red state. Everyone in Alaska gets between one and two thousand dollars a year right now through oil money. And what I'm saying is that technology is the oil of the 21st century, and we can do this for all Americans.

What it's going to do is it's going to create over 2 million new jobs because of all the new buying power in our communities. It would help Main Street businesses stay open and thrive. It would recognize the work that parents and caregivers like my wife do every single day. My wife's at home with our two boys, one of whom is autistic, and right now that work is valued at zero in our economy. So what it's going to do is it's actually going to create millions of new jobs and expand what we think of as work.”

On his favorite U.S. president

"I'd say Teddy [Roosevelt], in part because I feel sort of spiritually aligned. But also, he did so much that struck me as nonpartisan and bipartisan. Plus he finished a speech after being shot. What's more badass than that?” ~


~ ““For centuries, a woman’s social status was clear-cut: Either she had a maid or she was one,” the author Ester Bloom wrote in The Atlantic. In the late 19th century, more than half of women worked in domestic and personal service.

Today’s “servant economy”—as The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has called it—is vastly superior to that of the late 19th century (to say nothing of the slave economy that preceded it). The nannies, house cleaners, and cooks of the past had little to no recourse, not even in name, to the protection of the law if their employers maltreated them. But their work was also less anonymous; the hired help tended to live with their employers, where they would cook, clean, and care for children. These workers were integrated into family life in a way that is unthinkable for the anonymous wealth workers of the modern world.

In an age of persistently high inequality, work in high-cost cities catering to the whims of the wealthy—grooming them, stretching them, feeding them, driving them—has become one of the fastest-growing industries.

The MIT economist David Autor calls it “wealth work.”

Low-skill, low-pay, and disproportionately done by women, these jobs congregate near dense urban labor markets, multiplying in neighborhoods with soaring disposable income. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of manicurists and pedicurists doubled, while the number of fitness trainers and skincare specialists grew at least twice as fast as the overall labor force.

Relationships between the classes, once mediated through the household, are now managed through an app that serves a large metro area. The workers of the new servant economy don’t live with their employers, but rather sleep many miles away where they can afford a bedroom. “You could argue there was a more benignly human quality to the old aristocratic relationships,” the economist Muro told me. “Today’s platforms strip down what was once a job into simple, seamless transactions.”

Many contractors surely relish the autonomy—and perhaps even the anonymity—of these apps, which give on-demand wealth workers flexibility to work whenever and wherever they wish, while protecting their privacy from clients (if not from the apps themselves), but the rush to make these transactions seamless can make both sides of this marketplace feel invisible. Customers have disaggregated the servant by spreading a once-intimate job across hundreds of drivers, delivery people, and spa workers. Those workers, in turn, have little reason to remember their clients’ names.

Perhaps the ultimate price of wealth work, for all of the opportunities for the low-skilled, is not only the threat of exploitation, but broader alienation. In a digital marketplace of maximal convenience, there is no room for the friction of intimacy.

Perhaps the ultimate price of wealth work, for all of the opportunities for the low-skilled, is not only the threat of exploitation, but broader alienation. In a digital marketplace of maximal convenience, there is no room for the friction of intimacy.




If email has been sitting in your inbox for a few days, or even a just few hours, it often seems polite to begin your response by apologizing for your “delayed response.”

Such anxiety about responding immediately might make you think you’re being conscientious, but you’re probably just driving yourself crazy.

So if you want to take the stress out of email management, remove “apologies for the delay” from your vocabulary. It’s very likely that the recipient didn’t even notice.


In 2017, The Telegraph conducted a survey of 5,800 participants seeking to determine whether people were happier renting or owning their homes. The survey questions focused on how financial circumstances contributed to happiness and stress levels. The results showed that those who rented detached, single-family homes were the least stressed.

This isn’t to imply that a rented home is always a happier home; owning a home has its perks, and the decision should mostly come down to whether people are financially — and mentally — ready for homeownership.

If you don’t want to deal with the extra costs and maintenance of owning a home, consider simplifying your life and reducing stress by renting a place.


Cross-sectional studies have found that workers who retire early tend to be less happy than those who stay in the workforce through the age of 65.

Additional studies also found a connection between retirement and memory — or, as some economists call it, “mental retirement.” Drawing on memory-test data from the U.S., England, and 11 European countries, researchers found that the earlier people retired, the more their cognitive abilities declined.

While the research doesn’t indicate the specific elements of work that might help maintain one’s mental sharpness, the study’s co-author, Robert J. Willis, said in a 2010 interview with The New York Times that even if the work itself isn’t stimulating, “there’s evidence that social skills and personality skills — getting up in the morning, dealing with people, knowing the value of being prompt and trustworthy — are also important.”

Forget what you’ve heard about having a midlife crisis. In fact, getting older is a pretty good predictor of happiness.

That was among the findings of a longitudinal study from the University of Alberta in Canada that looked at participants’ happiness levels as they aged from 14 to 43, with the participants self-defining and self-reporting their well-being on a scale from “not happy” to “very happy.”

Researchers looking into how happy people tend to complain surveyed 400 college students about their pet peeves with current or former romantic partners. They found that those who complain in a more “deliberate” way — that is, with a purpose toward helping fix whatever is causing irritation — tend to be happier.

So the next time you’re about to complain to a friend, give this a try: Stop for a minute and think about how you would prefer things to be and how they could be improved, rather than simply venting.


I hasten to add that many studies extended beyond the forties into the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties — and did indeed find an improvement in self-perceived happiness. This is typically explained by the disappearance of the future — older people really live in the now, and are able to enjoy small pleasures as never before.

Some people can retire early and be happier than ever — but only if they have meaningful activities they look forward to. The need for meaning, for a purpose in life never disappears. Without a meaningful activity to follow paid employment, life will be empty. The lucky ones will find — or invent — volunteer work. It helps to live in a large city. (On the other hand, organic farming might just be the perfect solution for some.)

I was also struck by the statement that you don’t even need to like your work — the mental stimulation that comes from the social aspects of work benefits your brain, as does the sense of being useful. It’s not unusual to see an older woman who’d thought that doting on grandchildren would be enough decide to take a low-paid part-time job in retail, say, rather than sit at home. I was amazed to see a woman in her seventies (or possibly beyond) working as a volunteer guide at the UCLA information desk, directing patients and visitors where to go, how to navigate the maze of the huge complex. It seemed such a tiresome job, but apparently she felt useful that way. I’ve met an older man taking care of the shopping carts at Home Depot — he told me that staying home was just too boring. When there is a will, there is a way.

Thus, I agree with all these points — but the advice about renting rather than buying a home is the most controversial, and arguably dubious. It depends on one’s temperament and finances — and location. Home ownership is expensive and occasionally quite stressful (if something goes wrong, you have to fix it — it’s not your landlord’s problem but your own). But only ownership gives you the freedom to fix the house the way you’d like it — to build a patio or an addition, for instance, or remodel the kitchen or bathrooms. Want to install solar panels? Want to knock out a wall for a more spacious look? You are the owner type. Perhaps the chief reward of home ownership if freedom to create the kind of home that’s your “magical home,” that makes you feel happy every time you look around.

On the other hand, if you happen to have grown up in a comfortable apartment (with your parents paying the rent, I assume), you are now even aware of the burdens of ownership. But everyone tells you are are supposed to own, not rent. So you do buy a house, and discover that the wisdom of the cliché about problems falling on you like a ton of bricks. You better really, really love that house. You better realize that the mortgage is only the tip of the iceberg as price goes.

But there are also those for whom the simple life is more important than picking their own carpet or laminate floors — or accumulating equity that can later be translated into needed funds.
When I was forced to rent (and rents were never low, even before they truly went crazy in the seventies), I resented making someone else rich. But I can see that for a rich person, that would hardly matter next to the convenience.

So, whether you rent or buy depends on many factors — your primary values prominently included. But there is also the pragmatic side. The usual advice is that if you know you’ll stay somewhere less than three years, renting is the way to go.

Still, I think everyone would agree that whether or not you rent or own seems a side issue having little to do with the essence of happiness. I think Victor Frankl said it best:

“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.” ~ 

Viktor Frankl

~ “Before Mohammed, before Jesus, before Buddha, there was Zoroaster. Some 3,500 years ago, in Bronze Age Iran, he had a vision of the one supreme God. A thousand years later, Zoroastrianism, the world’s first great monotheistic religion, was the official faith of the mighty Persian Empire, its fire temples attended by millions of adherents. A thousand years after that, the empire collapsed, and the followers of Zoroaster were persecuted and converted to the new faith of their conquerors, Islam.

Another 1,500 years later – today – Zoroastrianism is a dying faith, its sacred flames tended by ever fewer worshippers.

We take it for granted that religions are born, grow and die – but we are also oddly blind to that reality. When someone tries to start a new religion, it is often dismissed as a cult. When we recognize a faith, we treat its teachings and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. And when a religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires. Tales of the Egyptian, Greek and Norse pantheons are now considered legends, not holy writ.

Even today’s dominant religions have continually evolved throughout history. Early Christianity, for example, was a truly broad church: ancient documents include yarns about Jesus’ family life and testaments to the nobility of Judas. It took three centuries for the Christian church to consolidate around a canon of scriptures – and then in 1054 it split into the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. Since then, Christianity has continued both to grow and to splinter into ever more disparate groups, from silent Quakers to snake-handling Pentecostalists.

If religions have changed so dramatically in the past, how might they change in the future? Is there any substance to the claim that belief in gods and deities will die out altogether? And as our civilization and its technologies become increasingly complex, could entirely new forms of worship emerge?

Those faiths that endure are “the long-term products of extraordinarily complex cultural pressures, selection processes, and evolution”, writes Connor Wood of the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston, Massachusetts on the religious reference website Patheos, where he blogs about the scientific study of religion. New religious movements are born all the time, but most don’t survive long. They must compete with other faiths for followers and survive potentially hostile social and political environments.

Under this argument, any religion that does endure has to offer its adherents tangible benefits. Christianity, for example, was just one of many religious movements that came and mostly went during the course of the Roman Empire. According to Wood, it was set apart by its ethos of caring for the sick – meaning more Christians survived outbreaks of disease than pagan Romans. Islam, too, initially attracted followers by emphasizing honor, humility and charity – qualities which were not endemic in turbulent 7th-Century Arabia.

Given this, we might expect the form that religion takes to follow the function it plays in a particular society – or as Voltaire might have put it, that different societies will invent the particular gods they need. Conversely, we might expect similar societies to have similar religions, even if they have developed in isolation. And there is some evidence for that – although when it comes to religion, there are always exceptions to any rule.

Hunter-gatherers, for example, tend to believe that all objects – whether animal, vegetable or mineral – have supernatural aspects (animism) and that the world is imbued with supernatural forces (animism). These must be understood and respected; human morality generally doesn’t figure significantly. This worldview makes sense for groups too small to need abstract codes of conduct, but who must know their environment intimately. (An exception: Shinto, an ancient animist religion, is still widely practiced in hyper-modern Japan.)

Today, many of our societies are huge and multicultural: adherents of many faiths co-exist with each other – and with a growing number of people who say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world.

Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future.

That’s most true in rich, stable countries like Sweden and Japan, but also, perhaps more surprisingly, in places like Latin America and the Arab world. Even in the US, long a conspicuous exception to the axiom that richer countries are more secular, the number of “nones” has been rising sharply. In the 2018 General Social Survey of US attitudes, “no religion” became the single largest group, edging out evangelical Christians.

The pattern Pew predicted was of “the secularizing West and the rapidly growing rest”. Religion will continue to grow in economically and socially insecure places like much of sub-Saharan Africa – and to decline where they are stable. That chimes with what we know about the deep-seated psychological and neurological drivers of belief. When life is tough or disaster strikes, religion seems to provide a bulwark of psychological (and sometimes practical) support. In a landmark study, people directly affected by the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand became significantly more religious than other New Zealanders, who became marginally less religious.

But Woodhead thinks the religions that might emerge from the current turmoil will have much deeper roots. The first generation of spiritual revolutionaries, coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, were optimistic and universalist in outlook, happy to take inspiration from faiths around the world. Their grandchildren, however, are growing up in a world of geopolitical stresses and socioeconomic angst; they are more likely to hark back to supposedly simpler times. “There is a pull away from global universality to local identities,” says Woodhead. “It’s really important that they’re your gods, they weren’t just made up.”

In the European context, this sets the stage for a resurgence of interest in paganism. Reinventing half-forgotten “native” traditions allows the expression of modern concerns while retaining the patina of age. Paganism also often features divinities that are more like diffuse forces than anthropomorphic gods; that allows people to focus on issues they feel sympathetic towards without having to make a leap of faith to supernatural deities.

These are niche activities at the moment, and might sometimes be more about playing with symbolism than heartfelt spiritual practice. But over time, they can evolve into more heartfelt and coherent belief systems: Woodhead points to the robust adoption of Rodnovery – an often conservative and patriarchal pagan faith based around the reconstructed beliefs and traditions of the ancient Slavs – in the former Soviet Union as a potential exemplar of things to come.

So the nones mostly represent not atheists, nor even secularists, but a mixture of “apatheists” – people who simply don’t care about religion – and practitioners of what you might call “disorganized religion”. While the world religions are likely to persist and evolve for the foreseeable future, we might for the rest of this century see an efflorescence of relatively small religions jostling to break out among these groups. But if Big Gods and shared faiths are key to social cohesion, what happens without them?

One nation under Mammon

One answer, of course, is that we simply get on with our lives. Munificent economies, good government, solid education and effective rule of law can ensure that we rub along happily without any kind of religious framework. And indeed, some of the societies with the highest proportions of non-believers are among the most secure and harmonious on Earth.

“I’d be careful about calling capitalism a religion, but a lot of its institutions have religious elements, as in all spheres of human institutional life,” says Wood. “The ‘invisible hand’ of the market almost seems like a supernatural entity.”
Financial exchanges, where people meet to conduct highly ritualized trading activity, seem quite like temples to Mammon, too. In fact, religions, even the defunct ones, can provide uncannily appropriate metaphors for many of the more intractable features of modern life.

Perhaps a new religion will emerge to fill the void? Again, Woodhead is skeptical. “Historically, what makes religions rise or fall is political support,” she says, “and all religions are transient unless they get imperial support.” Zoroastrianism benefited from its adoption by the successive Persian dynasties; the turning point for Christianity came when it was adopted by the Roman Empire. In the secular West, such support is unlikely to be forthcoming, with the possible exception of the US. In Russia, by contrast, the nationalistic overtones of both Rodnovery and the Orthodox church wins them tacit political backing.

But today, there’s another possible source of support: the internet.

Online movements gain followers at rates unimaginable in the past. The Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” has become a self-evident truth for many technologists and plutocrats. #MeToo started out as a hashtag expressing anger and solidarity but now stands for real changes to long-standing social norms. And Extinction Rebellion has striven, with considerable success, to trigger a radical shift in attitudes to the crises in climate change and biodiversity.

None of these are religions, of course, but they do share parallels with nascent belief systems – particularly that key functionalist objective of fostering a sense of community and shared purpose. Some have confessional and sacrificial elements, too. So, given time and motivation, could something more explicitly religious grow out of an online community? What new forms of religion might these online “congregations” come up with?

We already have some idea. Transhumanism, Jediism, the Witnesses of Climatology and the myriad of other new religious movements may never amount to much. But perhaps the same could have been said for the small groups of believers who gathered around a sacred flame in ancient Iran, three millennia ago, and whose fledgling belief grew into one of the largest, most powerful and enduring religions the world has ever seen – and which is still inspiring people today.

Perhaps religions never do really die. Perhaps the religions that span the world today are less durable than we think. And perhaps the next great faith is just getting started.” ~ 


“Yahweh” is such a difficult, alien name (and we don't even know for sure how to pronounce it). It’s not actually Hebrew — seems to have been picked up somewhere in some ancient desert. Shiva is a lot more pleasant. Krishna, Lakshmi, Kali, Sarasvati. How did we get stuck with a god with such an ugly name, a god who doesn't dance or play the flute . . .



~ “Studies have shown that a feeling of compassion releases large amounts of immunoglobulin A (IgA) into the body. IgA is an antibody found in the mucous lining of the lungs, digestive tract, and urinary tract, as well as in saliva. With high levels of IgA, you get protection from colds, flu, bladder infections, and tooth decay. 

Dr. David McClelland was one of the most renowned experts in human motivation—the need for achievement and power in particular. But toward the end of his life, he defined another human motivation—that of caritas, or lovingkindness. As a postdoc, one of my projects was to find a film that would create feelings of compassion and lovingkindness in the laboratory. We finally settled on a documentary on the life of Mother Teresa. Dr. Mclelland and his colleagues were able to show that an antibody in saliva — which protects us from colds, flu, and tooth decay —  increased markedly after watching the film. After about an hour, as habitual forms of thinking replaced the loving state produced by the film, antibody levels fell to the baseline level. But when the volunteers were then asked to think about a personal time when they had felt authentic compassion, antibody levels rose once again. 

Dwelling on the positive not only changes your mind—it changes your body as well.
There may be an evolutionary purpose for complex emotions such as empathy and compassion when one considers that subjects who simply observe the expression of those emotions (e.g., watching a video of Mother Teresa tending to her patients) show increased levels of immunoglobulin type A antibodies (IgA) [McClelland and Kirshnit, 1988].
It is interesting to note that although IgA levels increase when subjects are exposed to acts of compassion, levels drop after less than an hour in subjects with a cynical mindset, whereas subjects who hold a more optimistic view of the world maintain gains significantly longer (McClelland, 1989).

Later studies suggest that positive emotions in general increase salivary IgA, while negative emotions such as anger decrease IgA.” ~ 

(I’ve lost the original link, but there is more information on the Internet)


Hardly a new discovery (initially dubbed the “Mother Teresa effect), but it’s interesting to be reminded that while stress suppresses the immune system, making us more susceptible to infections, compassion (even simply viewing it) and other positive emotions have the opposite effect.

Ending on beauty:

and not a single death but many deaths came to each of them:
every day a petty death, dust, worm, a lamp
that goes out in the mud of the suburbs . . .
they all despised themselves waiting for death, their brief daily death:
and their crushing fate every day was
a sort of black cup that they drank trembling.

~ Pablo Neruda, The Heights of Machu Picchu