Saturday, January 30, 2021




So this is death, I think and wonder why
I can still see through my eyes. An angel
approaches me with a feedback form asking
how I’d rate my life (very good, good,
average, bad, very bad) and I intend to tick
‘average’ followed by a rant then I recall
your face like a cartoon treasure chest
glowing with gold light, tick ‘very good’
and in the comments box below I write
‘nice job.’ The angel asks if I enjoyed
my stay and I say, ‘O yes, I’d definitely
come back,’ and he gives me a soft look
meaning ‘that won’t be possible but thanks
all the same,’ clicks his pen and vanishes.

~ Caroline Bird



~ Despite his lasting popularity in America, Camus is often misunderstood. Tellingly, in the midst of the Tea Party rebellion a decade ago, Newt Gingrich quoted The Plague while on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The former speaker of the House tried to co-opt Camus into his denunciation of “Obamacare” as the mark of a tyrannical, secular, leftist government. Camus was, in fact, a European social democrat who backed universal health care and was deeply skeptical of organized religion. Such disinformation—a prelude to the rise of Trumpism—was precisely among the pitfalls of ideologies that revolted Camus.

The Plague evoked the shadow of authoritarianism that would resurge in our age. According to biographer Olivier Todd, Camus began writing the story in the midst of World War II when he was involved in the French resistance. Published two years after the war ended, it came to represent the advent of the Third Reich. A nonbeliever, Camus equally used his allegory to call into doubt religious or spiritual explanations for tragic life events. The words of a resilient old man in the final pages of the novel exemplified this outlook: “What does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.”

The world that Camus paints in The Plague may appear bleak. In reality, the novel is a testament to hope, resistance, and humanity. Camus explained that his allegory could be read in three ways: “It is at the same time a tale about an epidemic, a symbol of Nazi occupation (and incidentally the prefiguration of any totalitarian regime, no matter where), and, thirdly, the concrete illustration of a metaphysical problem, that of evil.” Camus raises a recurrent question in the book: How may one become a saint in a godless world? The answer may be through compassionate self-sacrifice.

“There always comes a time in history,” reads the translation by Robin Buss, “when the person who dares to say that two and two make four is punished by death.” For the protagonists of the novel, however, death would not come at the hands of an authoritarian regime but in their battle against a virus. As the narrator explains, many were saying that nothing was any use and that we should go down on our knees. 

Tarrou, Rieux and their friends could answer this or that, but the conclusion was always what they knew it would be: one must fight, in one way or another, and not go down on one’s knees. The whole question was to prevent the largest possible number of people from dying and suffering a definitive separation. There was only one way to do this, which was to fight the plague.


Born in 1913, Camus grew up in colonial French Algeria before spending most of his adult life in mainland France. Throughout his career, he tended to oscillate between the roles of journalist, novelist, playwright, essayist, and philosopher. After briefly joining the Communist Party in his twenties, he became staunchly anticommunist. This led to his falling out with far-left figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who lacked his profound reservations about revolutionary violence. Camus was not an absolute pacifist—his pragmatism led him to accept that armed resistance against oppressive regimes could be necessary—but he was suspicious of ideologies convinced that it is righteous to kill in the name of some greater good.

Camus was simultaneously unyielding in his moral commitments—Sartre stressed his “stubborn humanism”—and wary of the tendency to dehumanize those who disagree with us or even people who are indeed despicable. These are among the reasons why Camus was a fierce opponent of the death penalty. He did not wish to reduce people to their worse thought or act.

As many have rediscovered this year, Camus’s humanistic ideals and sensibilities are omnipresent in The Plague. 

The novel unfolds in Oran, an Algerian city under French rule. A group of volunteers, including Dr. Bernard Rieux, Jean Tarrou, and Father Paneloux, a Catholic priest, choose to provide health care to plague victims at the risk of contracting the virus. The volunteers’ solidarity symbolizes the French resistance during World War Two, which enlisted people of diverse stripes—liberals and conservatives, socialists and capitalists, believers and nonbelievers, and more.

Why do plagues or pandemics occur? Why such human suffering? Throughout the novel Camus calls into question religious or supernatural explanations. Consider how Father Paneloux identifies the plague as a trial of faith, claiming in a sermon that “God was doing His creatures the favor of putting them in such a misfortune.” Camus subsequently depicts an innocent child dying in agony from the disease in the vicinity of a helpless, distressed Paneloux.

But Camus did not see the world in black and white. He does not demonize Paneloux, one of the few who courageously joins the solidary group of volunteers who care for plague victims at tremendous personal risk. Dr. Rieux, a nonbeliever and the group’s leader, welcomes Paneloux: “We are working together for something that unites us at a higher level than prayer or blasphemy, and that’s all that counts.” Paneloux later falls prey to the disease.


Caring for the vulnerable is a central theme of The Plague. To Camus this mission unequivocally was a key dimension of social democracy. It remains a crucial issue in an age when the United States is the only Western democracy without a universal health care system.

Rambert, the journalist trapped in Oran, ultimately decides to stay and join the volunteers who care for plague victims, instead of escaping to his lover. Rieux tries to dissuade him, arguing there is “no shame in choosing happiness.” But “there may be a shame in being happy all by oneself,” Rambert replies. Choice is an omnipresent theme in Camus’s works, as he rejects fatalism and emphasizes human agency.

The volunteers are akin to the French resistance, yet they also incarnate an ideal of democracy based on compassion and humanism. Tarrou, who founded the group, finally dies of exposure to the disease. His coming of age had occurred when he grasped that his father, a prosecutor, sought the death penalty—a punishment symbolizing inhumanity in Camus’s eyes. “I was already suffering from the plague long before I knew this town and epidemic,” he recounts. As I have commented on elsewhere, the United States is the only Western democracy that has refused to abolish the death penalty, and it now has the highest incarceration rate worldwide. Alongside health care, criminal justice was a benchmark of democracy and humanity in Camus’s worldview.

The end of The Plague reaffirms this perspective as the virus slowly disappears. This infuriates Cottard, the character who comes closest to resembling a villain because he only thinks of himself. A smuggler, Cottard profits financially from the disease and its human misery. Realizing that he will no longer be able to do so, Cottard erupts. He takes a revolver, locks himself in his home, and attempts a mass shooting by rabidly firing outside his window. The police eventually break into the building and arrest him. Camus then has a policeman beat up Cottard. Rieux, the narrator and arguably a stand-in for Camus, feels uneasy. The narration suggests disapproval, that doing violence even to the guilty dehumanizes all of us. As Rieux walks away from the crime scene to go see a patient, Camus writes: “Rieux was thinking about Cottard, and the dull sound of fists thudding into his face stayed with him.” The specter of police brutality is still with us.


The Plague rewards our attention today not only because we live in an age of polarization, authoritarianism, illiberalism, and pandemic. In his time Camus also spoke with passion about the threats that ideology, disinformation, and cynicism posed for liberal democracy, as in Neither Victims nor Executioners (1946): “The long dialogue among men has just come to an end. Naturally, a man who will not listen is a man to be feared.”

Throughout his life, Camus wished to transcend the opposition between utopianism and cynicism. When he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, this was his call to the world:

‘Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death.’

Camus sought to reconcile idealism and pragmatism, hope and realism, humanity and inhumanity. We need to read and reread Camus. ~

~ I regard hatred as bestial and crude, and prefer that my actions and thoughts be the product, as far as possible, of reason. Much less do I accept hatred directed collectively at an ethnic group, for example at all the Germans. 

If I accepted it, I would feel that I was following the precepts of Nazism, which was founded precisely on national and racial hatred. 

I must admit that if I had in front of me one of our persecutors of those days, certain known faces, certain old lies, I would be tempted to hate, and with violence too; but exactly because I am not a fascist or a Nazi, I refuse to give way to this temptation. ~ Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz


Still, we can’t afford to forget. A poetry-workshop classmate once exclaimed, “It’s time that the Jews would somehow metabolize the Holocaust out of their system!” No, an attempt to exterminate an entire people can’t be “metabolized” (and then presumably flushed down the toilet). (And I wonder if she'd have the nerve to tell Afro-Americans to "metabolize" slavery.)

Alas, the Nazi mentality, including anti-Semitism, is still virulently alive. It’s it’s always about the power of the lie: the Big Lie (about Germany’s being stabbed in the back by the Jews) or the myriad lesser lies, however ludicrous they may be:

~ “Noah was a conspiracy theorist himself when he built the ark. So who are we to say that it’s true or not?” ~ a supporter of GOP Georgia Congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said that wildfires were caused by a secret Jewish laser space laser. MTG ran unopposed because her opponent quit the race due to death threats.

Mikhail Iossel:

One of the main purposes served by the vile clownish lunatics like Marjorie Taylor Greene — or, say, Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia — is to make their political masters, the much bigger and crazier and more dangerous actors, Trump and Putin, respectively, seem marginally "normal" by comparison.


As Hannah Arendt said, the first task of fascism is to erase the difference between truth and lie: to normalize extreme lies as the supposed hidden truth that's now being revealed to true believers.

Also: a Jewish space laser starting forest fires in California? Can you imagine how that goes over in Israel? In the world in general? 


On CNN this morning, former QAnon believer -- a perfectly sane-looking, bespectacled and bearded young man -- to Anderson Cooper: "I apologize for thinking that you ate babies."
Well, that's big of you, whacko. Apology accepted.
And these people, many millions of them, vote. For Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
It’s 2021, and a Republican member of Congress has literally just said that Jews are controlling outer space and using giant lasers up there to start wildfires in California — and not one Republican has said anything. Not a single one. Utterly shameful and disgraceful. She shouldn't be in the House. She needs to be expelled immediately. 


Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene believes in destructive Jewish space lasers.
believes that Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton killed a girl, wore her face as a mask, and drank her blood
believes that evil Jewish George Soros funds fake school shootings to take guns
Believes that 9-11 was a hoax
. . . and her fellow Republicans put her on the EDUCATION committee

Yes it is amazing how lunatic the ideas of the Trump faction are, how much you are tempted to laugh at their belief in such outlandish and inventive lies as Jewish Space Lasers and Satanic cannibal pedophiles operating out of pizza shops. But it is also clear what a mistake it would be to disregard them. They are passionately invested in these lies, they are armed, and they feel not just the election, but Everything, is being taken away from them. They cannot see change in how we see history, justice, and society as anything but destructive.

To them removing the statues of Confederate generals is not an adjustment acknowledging they were not heroes but traitors, and that the confederate flag is the symbol of a treasonous state, but is "canceling culture "...denying history rather than clarifying it. Efforts to amend injustice and create a more just society they see as taking away something from them, diminishing them, and giving what was rightfully theirs to the undeserving and unworthy. While they deny institutional racism and white privilege, they see any challenge to them as oppression. They are "insulted" by Black Lives Matter, assuming that means only black lives matter, and cannot see the movement as a reaction to a society and history where black lives don't and have never mattered, while there was never any question about white lives, which have always mattered.

I think one of the things going on here is a kind of scarcity mentality: that there is only so much "stuff", material or opportunity, to go around, and if one group receives there has to be another that gets nothing, or nothing much. There is also a kind of failure of imagination — if old things can't be maintained as they were, the losses are huge and permanent, they can't be easily replaced. If coal and oil go, we are doomed to massive unemployment, there is little sense that the passing of these industries is both inevitable and well underway, and they are already being replaced by rapidly growing new industries — solar, wind, vehicles that won't rely on fossil fuels.

They see only destruction and loss. They are both terrified and furious, ripe for demagoguery,  for the Big Lie that will weaponize their fear and rage, then use them to consolidate power in a totalitarian state. Reason, facts and argument will not persuade or dissuade them, and they have already become the Republican party, with both the flamboyant,  unrepentant crazies filling high office, and the majority unwilling or afraid to step out of line, no matter how terrible or outrageous  things become.

Things are very much in flux, and it's  impossible to predict or be sure of our hopes for a good outcome, for the survival of a democratic state.

Interesting that the Bernie memes have been so prolific, so amusing, so much enjoyed. He sits there calm and wise, with those large mittens some Nana must have knitted...benevolent, reassuring, a visual icon of relief and sanity after the insurgent qAnon leaders in their fur hats and horns.


Add to this the toxic masculinity, bare chest being one of the emblems. Real men don’t need clothes — they need war paint!
What I find overwhelming is that the struggle is not for this or that policy issue, e.g. minimum wage or voter suppression.  The struggle is for sanity against collective paranoid schizophrenia.


"The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

You simply feed him “alternative facts.” The prisoner needs to think he is in paradise!

Compared to the War on Facts, all other “wars” are secondary. Orwell understood this perfectly. All dictators understand this. Lies are their primary tool.


But things are always more complex than they appear at first glance. Here is the story of one police officer who tried to defend the Capitol building.


(warning: graphic description of violence, though there is a “happy ending,” given the circumstances)

~ Blinded by smoke and choking on gas and bear spray, stripped of his radio and badge, D.C. police officer Michael Fanone and his battered colleagues fought to push back rioters trying to force their way into an entrance to the U.S. Capitol.

The officers had been at it for hours, unaware that others in the mob had already breached the building through different entrances. For them, the West Terrace doors — which open into a tunnel-like hallway allowing access to an area under the Rotunda — represented the last stand before the Capitol fell.

“Dig in!” Fanone yelled, his voice cracking, as he and others were being struck with their own clubs and shields, ripped from their hands by rioters. “We got to get these doors shut.”
An officer since 9/11, the 40-year-old Fanone, who has four daughters, had been working a crime-suppression detail in another part of the District on Jan. 6. He and his partner sped to the Capitol when dispatchers broadcast an urgent citywide emergency call.

“They were overthrowing the Capitol, the seat of democracy, and I f---ing went,” Fanone said.
Someone in the crowd grabbed Fanone’s helmet, pulled him to the ground and dragged him on his stomach down a set of steps. At around the same time, police said, the crowd pulled a second officer down the stairs. Police said that chaotic and violent scene was captured in a video that would later spread widely on the Internet.

Rioters swarmed, battering the officers with metal pipes peeled from scaffolding and a pole with an American flag attached, police said. Both were struck with stun guns. Fanone suffered a mild heart attack and drifted in and out of consciousness.

All the while, the mob was chanting “U.S.A.” over and over and over again.

“We got one! We got one!” Fanone said he heard rioters shout. “Kill him with his own gun!” ~


This is where the account on the Facebook page of Danusha Goska ends, and I have to rely on my memory of having read it on Newsworthy. Fanone still had the control of his gun, and could have tried shooting in self-defense. But he realized that he’d be quickly overpowered. Instead, he decided to appeal to what sense of humanity might be left in his would-be  killers. He shouted: “I have kids!”

Then, according to his account when interviewed by CNN, “A group within the rioters circled Fanone and protected him until help arrived, saving his life. 

"Thank you, but f*** you for being there," Fanone said of the rioters who protected him in that moment.”

Can the same people be both monstrously evil and yet in the end show decency? In terms of this  story, the question is rhetorical. 


“In my work with the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, I was searching for the nature of evil. Now I think I have come close to  defining it. A LACK OF EMPATHY. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think is the absence of empathy.” ~ Captain G.M. Gilbert, the army psychologist assigned to observing the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials.



~ Raye Montague was born on January 21, 1935 in Arkansas, and the gifted girl, who excelled at math and science, set her sights on her future career early: when her grandfather took the 7-year-old Montague to see a captured German submarine during WWII, she was fascinated by how it worked. "I looked through the periscope and saw all these dials and mechanisms. And I said to the guy, 'What do you have to know to do this?'" she recalled later. "He said, 'Oh, you’d have to be an engineer, but you don’t have to worry about that.'"

For a while, it seemed that he was right: when she graduated high school, she wasn't permitted to study engineering at the University of Arkansas because the engineering program didn't admit black students. Instead, she completed a degree in business and moved to Washington D.C. in 1956 to become a typist for the Navy. She continued to pursue her dream of becoming an engineer by taking night classes in computer programming and engineering.

Montague's job with the Navy seated her next to the department's UNIVAC I computer, where she learned how it worked by watching the male Ivy League graduates running the computer. At first, as she later recounted, Montague wasn't allowed to use the computer "because 'we' weren't supposed to touch that computer right? And because I was from Arkansas." One day when the engineers were all out sick, however, she proved that she was up for the challenge by running the machine by herself. Her boss grudgingly agreed to give her a promotion to work on engineering projects — if she worked the night shift. But there was no public transportation at night, and Montague couldn't drive. So she bought a 1949 Pontiac, taught herself how to drive, and worked nights until she got the promotion. Soon, she was appointed a computer systems analyst, and she continued to excel, despite many obstacles along the way.

The real test of Montague's mettle came in 1971 when she was given the daunting task of figuring out how to design a Naval ship using a computer — her boss didn't mention that his department had been unsuccessfully trying to accomplish this task for years. She ended up having to tear down the Navy's computer and rebuild it but, after months of work, she figured out how to create computer-generated ship designs.

After she proved it was possible, the admiralty asked her to create a rough draft for an actual ship. It normally took two years to produce a design of a ship on paper; they gave her a month and she finished the design in 18 hours and 56 minutes. In honor of her breakthrough in the ship design process, Montague was awarded the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1972.

Montague continued to climb the Navy's civilian ladder, becoming the program director for the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Integrated Design, Manufacturing, and Maintenance Program, the division head for the Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) Program, and deputy program manager of the Navy's Information Systems Improvement Program. She eventually earned the civilian equivalent rank of captain.

When Montague retired in 1990, her contributions were largely forgotten, but with the success of Hidden Figures, her name emerged as another example of an African American woman in technology whose work was critical to her country's success. She has since been recognized by the Navy and inducted into the Arkansas Women's Hall of Fame. She used her fame to tell people her story and urge them to persevere in their dreams: "Don’t let people control you, you control the situation," Montague said in an interview in 2018. "Change obstacles into challenges. You might have to step back and go a different direction, but you can achieve."

”The past is present first of all in the language we speak." ~ Hannah Arendt, 1969


Yes, and the future enters through language also: new words can announce subtle or radical shifts in consciousness.



~ In the early morning of June 30, 1908, a massive explosion flattened entire forests in a remote region of Eastern Siberia along the Tunguska River. Curiously, the explosion left no crater, creating a mystery that has puzzled scientists ever since — what could have caused such a huge blast without leaving any remnants of itself?

Now Daniil Khrennikov at the Siberian Federal University in Russia and colleagues have published a new model of the incident that may finally resolve the mystery. Khrennikov and colleagues say the explosion was caused by an asteroid that grazed the Earth, entering the atmosphere at a shallow angle and then passing out again into space.

“We argue that the Tunguska event was caused by an iron asteroid body, which passed through the Earth’s atmosphere and continued to the near-solar orbit,” they say. If they are correct, the theory suggests Earth escaped an even larger disaster by a hair’s breadth.

First some background. Scientists have long speculated on the cause of the Tunguska impact. Perhaps the most widely discussed idea is that the explosion was the result of an icy body, such as a comet, entering the atmosphere. The ice then rapidly heated up and evaporated explosively in mid-air but without ever hitting the ground.

Such an explosion could have been powerful enough to flatten trees without leaving a crater. And it would have left little evidence other than vapor in the atmosphere.

But this theory does not fit some of the other evidence. There were just a handful of eyewitness reports of the event. These describe how “the sky split in two,” a huge explosion and widespread fire. But together, they provide evidence that the impactor traveled some 435 miles (700 km) through the atmosphere before the explosion that morning.

So Khrennikov and colleagues simulated the effect of meteorites made of rock, metal or ice, moving through the atmosphere at a speed of 12 miles per second (20 kilometers per second). (Meteorites enter the atmosphere with a minimum speed of 11 kilometers per second.)
Friction with the atmosphere immediately heats these objects. But while iron vaporizes at around 5,432 degrees Fahrenheit (3000 degrees Centigrade), water vaporizes at only 212 degrees F (100 degrees C). So icy meteorites do not last long.

Indeed, Khrennikov and colleagues calculate that an icy body large enough to cause such a large explosion would have traveled no more than 186 miles (300 kilometers) through the atmosphere before vaporizing completely. That suggests the Tunguska meteorite could not have been made of ice.

Instead, Khrennikov and colleagues say a different scenario fits the facts. They say the explosion must have been caused by an iron meteorite about the size of a football stadium. This must have passed through the upper atmosphere, heated rapidly, and then passed out into the Solar System again. The shock wave from this trajectory was what flattened trees.

The shock wave would have caused an explosion of about the right magnitude, and any vaporized iron would have condensed into dust that would be indistinguishable on the ground. Crucially, this scenario would not have left any visible asteroid remnants.

It could also explain reports of dust in the upper atmosphere over Europe after the impact.
If Khrennikov and colleagues are correct, then Earth had a lucky near-miss that morning. A direct impact with a 656 foot-wide (200 meter-wide) asteroid would have devastated Siberia, leaving a crater 2 miles (3 kilometers) wide. It would also have had catastrophic effects on the biosphere, perhaps ending modern civilization.

In the event, the Tunguska impact is thought to have killed perhaps three people because the region is so remote. It could clearly have been much worse. ~

from Wikipedia:

~ Leonid  Kulik led a scientific expedition to the Tunguska blast site in 1927. He hired local Evenki hunters to guide his team to the center of the blast area, where they expected to find an impact crater. To their surprise, there was no crater to be found at ground zero. Instead they found a zone, roughly 8 kilometers (5.0 mi) across, where the trees were scorched and devoid of branches, but still standing upright. Trees more distant from the center had been partly scorched and knocked down in a direction away from the center, creating a large radial pattern of downed trees.

Glancing impact hypothesis

In 2020 a group of Russian scientists used a range of computer models to calculate the passage of asteroids with diameters of 200, 100, and 50 meters at oblique angles across Earth's atmosphere. They used a range of assumptions about the object's composition as if it was made of iron, rock or ice. The model which most closely matched the observed event was an iron asteroid up to 200 meters in diameter, traveling at 11.2 km per second which glanced off the Earth's atmosphere and returned into solar orbit.

The explosion's effect on the trees near the hypocenter of the explosion was similar to the effects of the conventional Operation Blowdown. These effects are caused by the blast wave produced by large air-burst explosions.  The trees directly below the explosion are stripped as the blast wave moves vertically downward, but remain standing upright, while trees farther away are knocked over because the blast wave is traveling closer to horizontal when it reaches them.

During the 1990s, Italian researchers extracted resin from the core of the trees in the area of impact to examine trapped particles that were present during the 1908 event. They found high levels of material commonly found in rocky asteroids and rarely found in comets.

A smaller air burst occurred over a populated area on 15 February 2013, at Chelyabinsk in the Ural district of Russia. The exploding meteoroid was determined to have been an asteroid that measured about 17–20 meters (56–66 ft) across, with an estimated initial mass of 11,000 tons and which exploded with an energy release of approximately 500 kilotons. The air burst inflicted over 1,200 injuries, mainly from broken glass falling from windows shattered by its shock wave. ~


~ “The author of Mark (who, by the way, was not really an apostle or named Mark) was most likely writing to a community that lived through the time of the Jewish revolt (and subsequent massacre). They also knew that, during his lifetime, Jesus was understood by his followers (even his disciples) to be the Jewish messiah—not one equal to God himself, but a figure like King David who would overthrow the Roman rule and usher in the Kingdom of God. But, they wondered, how could he be the messiah given that he was crucified? Mark gives them an answer: because no one at the time understood what it meant to be the messiah. Before Jesus was to usher in the Kingdom, God intended for him to suffer and die “as a ransom for many.” Only later would he return to establish the Kingdom.

Why didn’t people realize this at the time? Mark reinterprets (misremembers) Jesus’ life to make sense of this. Mark says that Jesus intentionally kept his mission a secret; and he did tell his disciples, but they were just too dumb to understand. That’s why Jesus death was such a surprise to everyone. Mark seems to be letting his readers in on this secret for the very first time. He is reinterpreting what it means to be the messiah, and misremembering Jesus life to fit into that interpretation.

According to Mark, God’s plan also included a subsequent era in which followers of Jesus would suffer just like he did (which Mark’s community was currently experiencing). But not to worry, says Mark. Jesus will be returning soon, in judgment, to fulfill is ultimate goal as messiah and finally establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. That’s the promise God had made, through Jesus, to the Christian community…according to Mark.

The gospel of John, on the other hand, is written (again, not by John) in a completely different era—an era when the early Christian expectation of the Jesus’ “imminent return” was nearly a century old and thus beginning to look a bit silly. As a result, John remembers Jesus’ life in a completely different way. Although John still thinks part of Jesus’ mission is to suffer and die, Jesus’ ultimate goal is not to overthrow Roman rule and establish an Earthly Kingdom of God. That’s not the promise John’s Jesus makes. He instead promised his followers eternal life after death. Think John 3:16.

To make this offer, Jesus must be one with God himself. And so in John, Jesus doesn’t keep his mission or his true nature a secret, like he does in Mark. In John, the main purpose of his ministry is to declare who he is (one with God himself), prove it by performing miracles, and then do what is necessary to grant this eternal life to his followers by suffering and dying. The resurrection is the final proof that he was telling the truth.

Ehrman draws an analogy between how Mark and John remembered Jesus and how people in the American North and South remember the civil war. For the former, it was a war brought on by southern rebellion, motivated by their desire to keep slavery legal. For the latter, it was the war of northern aggression, motivated by their desire to keep southern states from governing themselves. Same war, different memory.

For Mark, Jesus was someone who would deliver his community from their suffering and bring judgement on the political authorities who were suppressing them. For John, Jesus was someone who promised and provided the means to eternal life. Same guy, different memory.” ~

St. John the Evangelist by Domenico Zampieri (Domenichino)


Ehrman sees the “historical Jesus” (he opposes mythicism) as one of many apocalyptic preachers common around that time. Not that he thinks we can reliably extract a historical Jesus from the gospels (including those gospels that didn't make it to the canon), but he thinks there is a certain “gist” in those stories that adds up to an apocalyptic preacher.

The gospel of John, however, strikes out in a new direction, more relevant to the times and less Judaic. The promise of the Second Coming is now displaced in favor of eternal afterlife. Of course what really happened is that instead of the Coming of the Kingdom we got the Coming of the Church . . .



~ Daniel Lieberman is a professor in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard. He says that the notion of "getting exercise" — movement just for movement's sake — is a relatively new phenomenon in human history.

"Until recently, when energy was limited and people were physically active, doing physical activity that wasn't necessarily rewarding, just didn't happen," Lieberman says. "When I go to these [remote African tribal] villages, I'm the only person who gets up in the morning and goes for a run. And often they laugh at me. They think I'm just absolutely bizarre. ... Why would anybody do something like that?"

Lieberman has spent a lot of time with indigenous hunter-gatherers in Africa and Latin America, cataloging how much time they spend walking, running, lifting, carrying and sitting. He writes about his findings, as well as the importance of exercise and the myths surrounding it in his new book, Exercised. 

"If you actually look at what our ancestors do, they walk about 5 miles a day, which turns out to be, for most people, about 10,000 steps," Lieberman says.

Lieberman notes that many people are moving less than they did before the pandemic. He says if 10,000 steps feels out of reach, it's OK to shoot for less — just so long as you're focused on movement. Even fidgeting can keep your muscles engaged.

"The more we study physical activity, the more we realize that it doesn't really matter what you do," Lieberman says. "You don't have to do incredible strength training ... to get some benefits of physical activity. There's all different kinds of physical activity, and it's all good in different ways.”

On the demonizing of sitting as "the new smoking" 

When I walk into a village in a remote part of the world where people don't have chairs or a hunter-gatherer camp, people are always sitting. ... Some friends and colleagues of mine actually put some accelerometers on some hunter-gatherers and found that they sit on average about 10 hours a day, which is pretty much the same amount of time Americans like me spend sitting.

So it turns out that I think we've kind of demonized sitting a little falsely. It's not unnatural or strange or weird to sit a lot, but it is problematic if, of course, that's all you do. As I started to explore the literature more, I was fascinated because most of the data that associates sitting a lot with poor health outcomes turns out to be leisure-time sitting. So if you look at how much time people spend sitting at work, it's not really that associated with heart disease or cancers or diabetes. But if you look at how much people sit when they're not at work, well, then the numbers get a little bit scary.

On the importance of “interrupted sitting”

Just getting up every once in a while, every 10 minutes or so — just to go to the bathroom or pet your dog or make yourself a cup of tea — even though you're not spending a lot of energy, you're turning on your muscles. And your muscles, of course, are the largest organ in your body — and just turning them on turns down inflammation. It uses up fats in your bloodstream and sugars in your bloodstream, and it produces molecules that turn down inflammation.

So the evidence is that interrupted sitting is really the best way to sit. In hunter-gatherer camps, people are getting up every few minutes, to take care of the fire or take care of a kid or something like that. And that kind of interrupted sitting, as well as not sitting in a chair that's kind of nestling your body and preventing you from using any muscles, all that kind of keeps your muscles going and turns out to be a much healthier way to sit.

On how chairs with backs have contributed to our back pain 

We all think that it's normal for a chair to have a seat back. But until recently, only really rich people — the pope or the king — had a chair with a seat back. Until recently, all human beings pretty much either sat on the ground or, if they did have chairs, they were stools or benches or things like that. ...

The reason it matters for our health is that a seat back essentially makes sitting even more passive than just sitting on a bench or a stool because you lean against the seat back and you're using even fewer muscles, even less effort to stabilize your upper body. And the result is that we end up having very weak backs. So there are a lot of muscles that we use in our backs to hold up our upper body, and those muscles, if we don't use them, just like every other muscle in your body, they atrophy. And weak muscles then make us more prone to back pain. 

In fact, studies show that the best predictor of whether or not somebody gets lower-back pain — and most of us do get lower-back pain — is whether or not we have weak and, importantly, fatigable backs. I think sitting a lot on chairs with backrests contributes to that.

On the idea that running is bad for your knees 

There's this kind of general idea out there that running is like driving your car too much — [that] it's wear and tear, and that running is highly stressful and it just wears away your cartilage, just like driving your car for a long period of time wears out your springs, for example. And that turns out not to be true. 

Study after study has shown that in terms of "wear" — by which we really mean arthritis, degeneration of the cartilage in your joints — that people who run more are not more likely to get arthritis in their knees. In fact, they're actually slightly less likely to get arthritis, because using your cartilage, using your joints, using your muscles, strength, all the good benefits from physical activity actually turn out to be slightly protective.

That said, it's also true that the most common site of injury for runners is their knees. But a lot of those injuries, I think, are preventable by learning to run properly. We don't treat running as a skill in our culture. We just give people shoes and tell them to head out the door, and some people run really well and some people don't run that well — or their bodies aren't really well-adapted to running, and then they get into trouble. But in terms of wear and tear, I think we can dispel that myth completely.

On becoming frail with age 

I think one of the most important points about physical activity is that as we age, it becomes not less but more important to be physically active. Muscle atrophy is the perfect example.

We have this notion that as you get older, you retire, you go to Florida, you kick your feet up on the beach or whatever. ... We have plenty of evidence that older individuals in America are less physically active and they do fewer activities that involve strength. And one of the really sort of serious negative consequences of that is that our muscles dwindle, they atrophy. 

There's a technical term for that, which I think is illuminating — it's called "sarcopenia." Sarco means "flesh" in Greek and penia means "loss" — so "flesh loss." But basically it's frailty. And as we get older and become more frail, a vicious circle sets in because because we walk more slowly, it's harder to get out of a chair and that makes us even less likely to be physically active, which keeps that cycle going. So that's the bad news.

But the good news is that it doesn't take a huge amount of physical activity to kind of reverse that, turn it around. Think about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was celebrated for her vim and vigor, which meant that a lot of that came from the fact that she kept working out and as she got older, she went to the gym several times a week. Now, she didn't do crazy, "pump iron" stuff. She wasn't trying to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But she did a few rounds of weight training every week and that helped keep her marvelously active and vigorous up until her late 80s. And the mechanisms that get turned on when we do a little bit of strength training don't diminish with age. So if you're in your 80s or 90s and you do a little bit of strength training, you'll still get enormous benefits.

On the stress around getting eight hours of sleep a night

I used to say this to my students, that Thomas Edison robbed us of sleep. We invented electricity, and now we have iPhones and televisions and all these things that keep us up at night and that we didn't used to do. But it turns out that people who live in places where there is no electricity and there no iPhones and there's no TV — turns out they don't sleep any more than the average American. I think the number is 6.7 to 7.1 hours on average at night. And they often don't nap either, by the way, which is something we're also told. If you look at the data, there's no evidence that people [on average] sleep less today than they used to.

And furthermore, to my astonishment, when you look at big epidemiological data sets where you graph how much you sleep on the horizontal axis and your health outcomes on the Y axis, it's a U-shaped curve. And the bottom of that curve is about seven hours. Of course, there's a lot of variation. Some people need more, some people need less.

So I think sleep is another one of those examples of how we make people exercise. We make them stressed about what they should be doing, and there's a lot of "virtue signaling" going on. If you tell somebody they're not getting enough sleep and they actually are getting enough sleep, you just make them stressed ... that elevates cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone that's about arousal. Cortisol prevents you from sleeping. [So by worrying about getting enough sleep] we get into this kind of vicious circle.

So, while it's true that people who don't get enough sleep, that can be a problem, getting three, four, maybe five hours of sleep a night can be detrimental and it's an issue ... if you're getting six, seven hours of sleep and you feel fine, I think we should all relax and stop being so uncompassionate to each other. ~ Daniel Lieberman, professor in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard.


Make no mistake about it: this book was written by a jogger. It's still of great value for those of us who feel great relief when we read about "interrupted sitting." Simply engaging our muscles in the course of daily life absolves us from the guilt of "sitting is the new smoking." 

My favorite paragraph: 

"The more we study physical activity, the more we realize that it doesn't really matter what you do," Lieberman says. "You don't have to do incredible strength training ... to get some benefits of physical activity. There's all different kinds of physical activity, and it's all good in different ways.”



~ One of the main actions of berberine is to activate an enzyme inside cells called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK). [adenosine monophosphate protein kinase]

This enzyme is sometimes referred to as a “metabolic master switch.”

It is found in the cells of various organs, including the brain, muscle, kidney, heart and liver. This enzyme plays a major role in regulating metabolism.

Berberine also affects various other molecules inside cells, and may even affect which genes are turned on or off.


Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage the body’s tissues and organs, leading to various health problems and a shortened lifespan.

Berberine seems to work via multiple different mechanisms:

Decreases insulin resistance, making the blood sugar lowering hormone insulin more effective.

Increases glycolysis, helping the body break down sugars inside cells.

Decrease sugar production in the liver.

Slows the breakdown of carbohydrates in the gut.

Increases the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Berberine also appears to inhibit the growth of fat cells at the molecular level.

It lowers LDL cholesterol and raises HDL cholesterol.

It has also been shown to lower apolipoprotein B by 13-15%, which is a very important risk factor.

According to some studies, berberine works by inhibiting an enzyme called PCSK9. This leads to more LDL being removed from the bloodstream.


Depression: Rat studies show that it may help fight depression.

Cancer: Test tube and animal studies have shown that it can reduce the growth and spread of various different types of cancer.

Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory: It has been shown to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in some studies.

Infections: It has been shown to fight harmful microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.

Fatty liver: It can reduce fat build-up in the liver, which should help protect against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Heart failure: One study showed that it drastically improved symptoms and reduced risk of death in heart failure patients.

Many of these benefits need more research before firm recommendations can be made, but the current evidence is very promising. ~


There are currently two known anti-aging drugs: metformin and rapamycin. Metformin is widely used to treat diabetes. Diabetic patients who use metformin tend to live longer than non-diabetics. Animal studies have confirmed that metformin extends life span as effectively as calorie restriction.

Rapamycin is rarely prescribed, It regulates the immune system, which becomes a hazard to us past a certain age, becoming overactive in the wrong way and causing auto-immune diseases. A lot of common disease of aging have a large autoimmune component. But to qualify for rapamycin, it’s best to be a kidney transplant patient. 

And, alas, I don’t know of any supplement that can act as an equivalent of rapamycin, though a diet low in animal protein helps, as do the vegetables in the cabbage family (blessed be broccoli and bok choy, and possibly curcumin and D3). 

Given the enormous cost of the diseases of aging, it would make perfect sense to prescribe both metformin and rapamycin to all seniors, but such an enlightened action seems too radical in terms of the current medical mentality — and of course it would cut into the profits of Big Pharma.

Fortunately there is a supplement equivalent of metformin. I became convinced of berberine’s benefits when my lab results (especially blood sugar and cholesterol) astonished my primary physician. My fasting blood sugar, which used to hang around 100 or slightly above, was suddenly down to 70. Lower (but still normal) blood sugar means less damage to body tissues through glycation, and a lower risk of obesity.

(Hope for hypertension: one study also showed that taking berberine together with the drug amlodipine [a calcium-channel blocker like magnesium but without magnesium’s laxative action) lowers blood pressure more effectively than amlodipine alone. This helps prevent the  prescribing of a whole cocktail of anti-hypertensive drugs, all with side effects). 


Speaking of anti-aging drugs, metformin and rapamycin, now we  have berberine to substitute for metformin — but I felt at loss about rapamycin. 

And suddenly I pondered progesterone. And the first headline that came up was:

Progesterone suppresses the mTOR pathway and promotes generation of induced regulatory T cells with increased stability

mTOR means  “mammalian Target of Rapamycin.” 

Activation of mTOR isn’t all bad — we definitely need it just to function, remember things, replace old cells — it’s just a matter of the right degree. And as we grow older, less activation is apparently better. Fortunately, metformin and berberine inhibit mTOR when it’s called for.

Curcumin, green tea, aspirin, etc — do the same. 

So I’m not saying you need to get progesterone cream (although post-menopausal women would benefit from it), but rather — there is yet another reason to rejoice in berberine. 

Exercise inhibits mTOR in the liver and fat cells, but activates it in the muscles, brain, and heart. 
Addendum 2, mid-March 21
I'm stunned by the benefits of metformin. Apparently lowering blood sugar, even if it's in the normal range, has astonishing benefits for the entire body. I sleep so much better! My chronic pain isn't gone, but it's a fraction of what it used to be. Energy is up, mood is up, mental clarity prevails, nothing seems too difficult to do. 

ending on beauty

The forest, letting me walk among its naked
limbs, had me on my knees again in silence
shouting — yes, yes my holy friend,
let your splendor devour me.

~ Hafiz




















Saturday, January 23, 2021


This is no time to make new enemies. ~ Voltaire

The philosopher’s deathbed response
when asked to renounce Satan.

Did he think he might inhabit hell,
the antithesis of his enlightened thought,

find himself adrift in limbo,
suspended in Dante’s purgatory—

the weight of a stone on his back
until he stooped beneath pride,

his eyes sewn shut
until secured against envy,

wrath cleansed by blinding smoke,
gluttony by abstinence?

Should we also fear such redemption,
adhering to the logic of Voltaire—

where there is a god
there might be a fallen angel,

our final thoughts weighing both

the bliss of enlightenment,
the seared humanity of that other realm?

~ Sally Albiso



~ Samuel Beckett’s writing often seems to have a religious air about it. Take his most famous play, Waiting for Godot (1953). Two Chaplinesque tramps – Vladimir and Estragon – wait at a crossroads by a tree for someone who might provide an answer to their prayers: Mr Godot. This is a man who has a suspiciously divine white beard, who ‘does nothing’, and who remains frustratingly absent, despite repeated promises of his imminent arrival.

Vladimir and Estragon pass the time by singing, eating radishes, play acting, and arguing. One of their first bits of comic back-and-forth concerns a discrepancy between the gospels in the Bible. Why is it, Vladimir wonders, that only one of the evangelists mentions that, of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus, one had repented and was saved while the other mocked him and was damned? The penitent thief is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, but not in Matthew, Mark or John. ‘One out of four,’ mutters Vladimir. ‘Of the other three, two don’t mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him.’

Estragon can’t quite see the point of Vladimir’s musings. ‘Well?’ he says. ‘They don’t agree, and that’s all there is to it.’ But Vladimir needs Luke’s version to be true. If one of the thieves was saved, he thinks, that’s a ‘reasonable percentage’. There’s a 50/50 chance of salvation. A 50/50 chance, perhaps, of getting out of the play’s purgatorial cycle of non-action. For Waiting for Godot is, as one critic quipped, a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’.

While it might be possible to find some fragments of theology in such exchanges – some musings on the nature of God or perhaps his absence – I suspect that the religiosity of Beckett’s work stems more from this preoccupation with salvation, from what we might call Beckett’s soteriology. The theistic religions are, of course, soteriological: for instance, Christianity preaches both being ‘born again’ at baptism and then inheriting eternal life after death.

But soteriology is also found in non-theistic religions such as Buddhism, where the aim of religious practice is nirvana, both in this life and after death. And there are also soteriologies in various schools of ‘therapeutic’ philosophy: the Stoics, Sceptics and Epicureans, for instance, promised variations on ataraxia, a state of serene contentment immune from life’s vicissitudes. The common thread to all these soteriologies is the promise of an end to suffering. As the Book of Revelation puts it: ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’

Despite Beckett’s reputation as the Eeyore of 20th-century literature, hopes for such an end are surprisingly common in his work. In Murphy (1938), for instance, the novel’s eponymous hero yearns for a ‘self-immersed indifference to the contingencies of the contingent world’. In the novel Malone Dies (1951), one of Beckett’s most bitter and jaded narrators is confident that ‘beyond this tumult there is a great calm, and a great indifference, never really to be troubled by anything again.’


It turns out that Beckett himself had good reason to wish to get beyond the tumult of this world and its woe. He had, since his 20s, been plagued by anxiety attacks. For many years, he would often wake up in the middle of the night, drenched with sweat, his heart racing faster and faster, until he found himself in a state of panic, even paralysis. He told a friend that it was like being attacked by a ‘demon’ that wanted to ‘disable’ him with ‘sweats and shudders and panics and rages and rigors and heart burstings’. 

In Beckett’s early fiction, his literary alter-egos tend to have the same affliction. One character, Belacqua Shuah, has a ‘pulsing snowball of his little heart that went pit-a-pat’, a ‘bitch of a heart’ that ‘knocks hell out of his bosom three or four nights in the week’. Murphy has an ‘irrational heart’ that one moment it ‘seemed on the point of seizing’ and the next ‘on the point of bursting’. And it’s no surprise that one of Beckett’s favorite poems from this time – one that he could recite from memory – was ‘A se stesso’ or ‘To Himself’ (1833) by the Italian pessimist Giacomo Leopardi:

Or poserai per sempre,
Stanco mio cor. Perì l’inganno estremo,
Ch’eterno io mi credei. Perì. Ben sento,
In noi di cari inganni,
Non che la speme, il desiderio è spento.
Posa per sempre. Assai

Now you’ll rest forever,
worn-out heart. The ultimate illusion
that I thought was eternal died. It died.
I know not just the hope but the desire
for loved illusions is done for us.
Be still forever.
You have beaten enough. 

(translated by Jonathan Galassi, 2010)

While literature might have offered a salve to his worn-out heart, medical science was, unfortunately, not so forthcoming. Dublin’s heart doctors could find nothing physically wrong with Beckett and so, in 1933, he set out for London in search of a psychotherapeutic solution that was, at that time, unavailable in Ireland. He began treatment with the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic in Bloomsbury. During this period, he also took extensive notes from psychology books and attended Carl Jung’s lectures on analytic psychology. After a year, however, Beckett was forced to concede that therapy had been an ‘expensive canular’ that had failed ‘to render the business of remaining alive tolerable’.

It was at this point that one of Beckett’s friends decided that a spiritual solution might be in order. Perhaps this was not so much an affliction of the body or of the mind but rather of the soul. Soteriology, not medicine, would be the solution. The friend in question was Thomas MacGreevy, another young Irish writer, whom Beckett met in Paris in the late-1920s. Both men were champions and mentees of James Joyce, and they had kept up an intimate correspondence since they first met. MacGreevy was concerned about Beckett’s panic attacks and wrote to him in the spring of 1935 to recommend that he read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. This classic of Christian contemplative literature, likely written in the 15th century, might just bring some calm to Beckett’s weary heart. 

While MacGreevy himself was a Catholic, he was keenly aware that his dear friend Sam was not only a self-described ‘dirty low-church’ Protestant but an apostate Protestant at that. Beckett’s childhood faith, impressed upon him by his almost puritanical mother, had promptly dried up in his teenage years. MacGreevy therefore wisely suggested that Beckett could read The Imitation of Christ in a secular manner, perhaps by substituting the objectionable word ‘God’ with terms such as ‘goodness’ or ‘disinterestedness’.

Beckett wrote back to say that he was grateful for MacGreevy’s concern, but pointing out that he had actually read the book some years ago, and didn’t find it especially helpful:

All I ever got from the Imitation went to confirm and reinforce my own way of living, a way of living that tried to be a solution and failed. I found quantities of phrases like qui melius scit pati, majorem tenebit pacem [he who knows how to suffer well shall find the most peace], or Nolle consolari ab aliqua creatura magnae puritatis signum est [to refuse comfort from any creature is a sign of great faith], or the lovely per viam pacis, ad patriam perpetuae claritatis [by the way of peace to the country of everlasting clearness] that seemed to be made for me and which I have never forgotten. Am[on]g many others. But they all conduced to the isolationism that was not to prove very splendid. What is one to make of ‘seldom we come home without hurting of conscience’ and ‘the glad going out & sorrowful coming home’ and ‘be ye sorry in your chambers’ but a quietism of the sparrow alone upon the housetop & the solitary bird under the eaves? An abject self-referring quietism indeed.

This letter shows that Beckett was drawn to the promise of spiritual release: the Latin phrases he cites all describe a kind of transcendent peace, a peace that is found by going into suffering rather than resisting or shying away from it. But Beckett also acknowledges the dangers of such unearthly priorities. The Imitation of Christ, he says, promotes ‘isolationism’. Don’t go out, it says. Remain in your cell. Shun the company of others. Beckett then proceeds to explain to MacGreevy it was precisely this aloofness and distance from other people that caused his panic attacks to worsen in the first place.

This letter shows that Beckett was drawn to the promise of spiritual release: the Latin phrases he cites all describe a kind of transcendent peace, a peace that is found by going into suffering rather than resisting or shying away from it. But Beckett also acknowledges the dangers of such unearthly priorities. The Imitation of Christ, he says, promotes ‘isolationism’. Don’t go out, it says. Remain in your cell. Shun the company of others. Beckett then proceeds to explain to MacGreevy it was precisely this aloofness and distance from other people that caused his panic attacks to worsen in the first place.

Beckett’s word for the attitude that he finds in The Imitation is ‘quietism’, a term that crops up in several of his letters and notebooks from the 1930s. And it seems from this letter that he saw quietism as both the cause of his affliction and its unforthcoming solution. It is, as one of his later novels says about religion, both ‘poison and antidote’.

While he was no closer to a cure for his anxiety attacks, Beckett had begun to see that his personal problems might nevertheless be useful for his growth as a writer. In a diary entry from 1937, he confessed his hope that he might be able to put his suffering to artistic ends and ‘turn this dereliction, profoundly felt, into literature’. Quietism, it turned out, provided a means to do so.

Quietism has a history, and it was one that Beckett knew a fair bit about. Towards the end of the 17th century, Christian mystics in Spain and France were reviving a method of contemplative prayer that had been first popularized by Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) and John of the Cross (1542-91). Known as the ‘prayer of quiet’, this method of contemplation involved doing as little as possible. Whereas other forms of prayer might make use of thoughts or images, in the prayer of quiet, all forms of mental activity are discarded. The devotee abandons his or her own will and surrenders completely to God.

The most outspoken advocate of the prayer of quiet in the 17th century was a Spanish priest named Miguel de Molinos (1628-96). In 1675, Molinos published a manual of prayer called The Spiritual Guide that became an instant bestseller. It was translated into several languages and went through many print editions. In the book, Molinos advises each Christian soul to ‘shrink into its own nothingness … without heeding, thinking or minding any sensible thing’. This act of silent surrender would enable the devout soul to proceed through various stages of purgation until, at last, it entered a state of deep equanimity and mental stillness. 

Miguel de Molinos; doesn't Molinos sound a tad like "Malloy" ?

In Malloy Dies, Beckett imagines something similar: ‘a last prayer, the true prayer at last, the one that asks for nothing’. Rather scandalously, Molinos also claimed that the soul in such a state would be so resigned and passive that even the wish for salvation would disappear: the soul would gladly go to hell, if God so wished it. The final step was ‘annihilation’: a complete erasure of the soul, the self, and the will, and then union with God. The soul, Molinos explained, passes into the state of ‘nothingness where it scorns itself, abhors itself, and confounds itself, knowing that it is nothing, that it can do nothing, and that it is worth nothing.’

Unfortunately for Molinos and the other Quietists, as they came to be known, the late-17th century was not an auspicious time for inward mystics. The Counter-Reformation was now in full swing and the Inquisition was keen to root out anything that smacked of Protestantism. With its emphasis on individual prayer, its iconoclastic tendencies, and its neglect of the external trappings of the Catholic Church, Quietism was viewed suspiciously by the Church authorities. In the end, Molinos was arrested on suspicion of heresy in 1685, condemned by Pope Innocent XI and, under threat of torture, confessed to his supposed crimes, after which he spent the remainder of his life in prison.

Thanks to this history, ‘quietism’ has become a pejorative term, reserved for heretics, defeatists and navel-gazers. Nevertheless, it was embraced by a thinker who had a significant influence on Beckett’s personal outlook and literary vision: the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Although Schopenhauer was an atheist and wrote caustically about religion’s absurdities and horrors, he nevertheless had a great admiration for what he called the ‘saintly souls’ of mystical religion: the ‘pietists, quietists, pious enthusiasts’. While such saints were useless as metaphysicians, they were extremely valuable, Schopenhauer thought, as guides to the highest happiness. He could do without their dogma, but he cherished them as soteriological geniuses.

Schopenhauer saw life as an endless parade of suffering: a ‘balls-aching world’, in Beckett’s own colorful summary. Every living thing, Schopenhauer argued, is really a manifestation of a monistic ‘Will’: a drive, an urging, a craving that goads us into a fight for survival, procreation, competition and struggle. But the Will cannot be satisfied, and so neither can we:

All striving comes from lack, from a dissatisfaction with one’s condition, and is thus suffering as long as it is not satisfied; but no satisfaction is lasting; instead, it is only the beginning of a new striving. We see striving everywhere inhibited in many ways, struggling everywhere; and thus always as suffering; there is no final goal of striving, and therefore no bounds or end to suffering.

The only permanent solution to this terrible situation is renunciation of the will. We have to learn to give up all effort and struggle and craving. Then, and only then, will we see through the illusion of separate existence, and discover a ‘peace that is higher than all reason’.

This is why the quietists and the mystics were useful to Schopenhauer. Their kind can be found, he alleges, in all religions and they can, through their attitude and disposition, teach us the way to surrender.

Beckett started reading Schopenhauer in 1930, when he was doing research for his first book: a work of literary criticism on Marcel Proust. He soon found a deep affinity with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic worldview and, to the amused bewilderment of all his friends, quickly read as much of the philosopher’s work as he could get his hands on. Beckett told MacGreevy that he had found in Schopenhauer’s work ‘an intellectual justification of unhappiness’. It was also no doubt significant for Beckett that Schopenhauer had claimed that the most appropriate symbol and indeed synonym of the will was the ‘heart, this first mover of animal life’. If calming the will was tantamount to calming the heart, then maybe Schopenhauer – and quietism – held the promise of healing his affliction.

Although Beckett might have first come to quietism for personal relief, it proved instrumental in helping him develop as a writer. A crucial link between Schopenhauer’s therapeutics of salvation and the creation of literature came via Beckett’s admiration for the French novelist André Gide (1869-1951). Gide shared many of Beckett’s literary interests: not just Proust and Schopenhauer, but also the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81). And it was Dostoevsky who was, according to Gide, the paradigmatic quietist novelist, the author who took the attitude of renunciation and surrender and turned it into a way of writing.

According to Gide, Dostoevsky’s writing ‘leads us to a sort of Buddhism, or at least quietism’. Dostoevsky had himself adopted an attitude of ‘gentle and total resignation’ that brought him – like Molinos and Schopenhauer before him – to a level of mind ‘where the limits of being fade away, where the sense of the individual and the sense of time are lost, the plane where Dostoevsky sought – and found – the secret of happiness’. Dostoevsky then, at least as Gide describes him, was a master of soteriology, a genius of the inner world. But Gide then explains how this inner renunciation can help to form an aesthetic:

"It is this abnegation, this resignation of self, which allows the most contrary sentiments to live together in Dostoevsky’s soul, which preserves and safeguards the extraordinary wealth of antagonisms which struggle within him."

Just as the sage who has quietened their will can thus endure any vicissitude or eventuality – including damnation – the writer who relinquishes control can allow their work to accommodate contradiction and discord. Characters no longer need to be artificially controlled. A writer can embrace imperfection and powerlessness. A text can accommodate contrasting ideas and moods, perhaps in a manner similar to what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’: ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ 

Or as Beckett put it himself in an interview from 1961:

“there will be a new form; and … this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else … To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”

A quietist literature can accommodate its mess because it can surrender control. In his prose fiction, Beckett increasingly felt able to break down what might be expected from a novel and from a story. By the time he came to write his major postwar novels – the ‘trilogy’ of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable (all first published in French, between 1951 and 1953, and later adapted by Beckett into English) – the accommodation of the mess was complete. Molloy is narrated by a man who is unsure whether he’s writing a diary or dictating to an audience. He often finds himself at a remove from his body, with a disintegrating sense of self and world. And he sees himself as a kind of ‘contemplative’ who has, in true Schopenhauerian fashion, abandoned his will to live:

"My life, my life, now I speak of it as of something over, now as a joke which still goes on, and it is neither, for at the same time it is over and it goes on, and is there any tense for that?"

Molloy’s narration eventually collapses midway through the novel. He starts to doubt whether he is really telling us his own story or is rather making it up, compelled by some other presence, some voice that pushes the whole novel onwards. Perhaps, Molloy wonders, he is ‘merely complying with the convention that demands you either lie or hold your peace’. As the trilogy progresses, each subsequent narrator confesses that he’s the author who’d made up the previous narrator. The fictions keep collapsing, keep revealing themselves as fiction, but we don’t seem to get any closer to the authorial presence underneath all the stories.

It seems then that Beckett’s experiments with quietism in the 1930s eventually led to an aesthetic of incoherence, mess and powerlessness that shaped his most celebrated novels. ‘I’m working with impotence, ignorance,’ Beckett told one interviewer. ‘I don’t think impotence has been exploited in the past.’

But what of the preoccupation that we started with? That wish to be free from anguish and pain? That hope for some kind of salvation?

In his later years, Beckett occasionally seemed keen to distance himself from soteriological systems. In 1986, just three years before his death, he told an interviewer that, unlike Schopenhauer, unlike Leopardi and unlike certain ‘oriental thinkers’, he didn’t propose a ‘way out’ or a ‘hope of an answer’ or a ‘solution’. The only solution, Beckett said, grimly, was death.

While this might seem to be the final word on the matter, it’s worth recalling that, for the quietists such as Molinos, the truest beatitude – and perhaps even the truest salvation – was found in the renunciation of hope for salvation. The theologian William Inge called this ‘the mystic paradox’ in a book on Christian mysticism that Beckett read and took notes on in the 1930s. According to Inge, Thomas à Kempis ‘wrote and then erased in his manuscript’ the statement that ‘it would be better to be with Christ in hell than without Him in heaven.’

The mystic paradox is pithily expressed in a maxim of the French aphorist Nicolas Chamfort, translated and versified by Beckett:

Hope is a knave befools us evermore
Which till I lost no happiness was mine.
I strike from hell’s to grave on heaven’s door
All hope abandon ye who enter in.

Beckett would often inscribe the maxim in copies of his play Endgame (1957) for his friends. Chamfort’s words, Beckett said, were the perfect rejoinder to all those readers and audiences who had, erroneously, found ‘affirmations of expressions of hope’ in his work. It is worth noting, however, that hope is the only casualty of Chamfort’s erasure and re-engraving. Happiness and even heaven are, remarkably, left intact. Chamfort’s point was merely that, in order to reach happiness or heaven, we must abandon hope for them through resignation and giving up. Or put another way, resignation of hope is the only happiness and heaven we are likely to attain.

Beckett’s own embrace of such an attitude can be seen in a beautiful letter he wrote in 1968 to Barbara Bray, a BBC producer he met while working on his radio plays who became a close confidante and companion. Bray’s husband had died in an accident and she had written to Beckett to share the news. He replied:

“Far from being troubled by your letter I am very touched that you should tell me about your great sorrow. I wish I could find something to comfort you. All I could say, and much more, and much better, you will have said to yourself long ago. And I have so little light and wisdom in me, when it comes to such disaster, that I can see nothing for us but the old earth turning onward and time feasting on our suffering along with the rest. Somewhere at the heart of the gales of grief (and of love too, I’ve been told) already they have blown themselves out. I was always grateful for that humiliating consciousness and it was always there I huddled, in the innermost place of human frailty and lowliness. To fly there for me was not to fly far, and I’m not saying this is right for you. But I can’t talk about solace of which I know nothing.”

After some careful disclaimers about his lack of useful wisdom, Beckett makes the astonishing suggestion that Bray should move towards ‘the heart of the gales of grief’, since it is there that these gales have ‘already … blown themselves out’. His description suggests a place of stillness and peace in the midst of suffering, perhaps like the eye of a hurricane. 

Beckett’s solution is paradoxically both an escape – as suggested by the word ‘fly’ – and also a courageous refusal to turn away from pain. He suggests that the movement out of pain is one that flies right into it, that embraces it whole-heartedly, that resigns itself and surrenders to it. Salvation is found, oddly enough, in a place of weakness, humility and lowliness, right in the midst of suffering. This is Beckett’s mystic paradox.

And so, Vladimir, interminably waiting for Mr Godot, needn’t have weighed the odds of salvation quite so anxiously. For the quietist, salvation and damnation, heaven and hell, weal and woe, suffering and its end, are not distant poles, but perhaps two sides of the same coin. As Thomas à Kempis put it, in that phrase that Beckett confessed was made for him: ‘he that can well suffer shall find the most peace’.

Transfiguration, a Russian icon

from Wiki: ~ Quietism is particularly associated with Miguel de Molinos, referred to by the Catholic Encyclopedia as the "founder" of Quietism. Molinos and the doctrines of quietism were finally condemned by Pope Innocent XI in the bull Coelestis Pastor of 1687. Molinos was imprisoned in the Castel Sant'Angelo, where he died in 1696.

Quietism spread among Roman Catholics through small groups into France. Here it was also influenced by the thought of François de Sales, with his emphasis on pure love resulting from spiritual practice. The most noted representative was Mme Guyon, especially with her work A Short and Easy Method of Prayer.

Madame Guyon won an influential convert at the court of Louis XIV in Madame de Maintenon, and influenced the circle of devout Catholics in the court for a time. She was also a spiritual counsellor to Archbishop Fénelon of Cambrai. A commission in France found most of Madame Guyon's works intolerable and the government confined her, first in a convent, then in the Bastille, leading eventually to her exile to Blois in 1703.

Guyon believed that one should pray at all times, and that one should devote all one's time to God. "Prayer is the key of perfection and of sovereign happiness; it is the efficacious means of getting rid of all vices and of acquiring all virtues; for the way to become perfect is to live in the presence of God. He tells us this Himself: 'walk before Me and be blameless' Genesis 17:1. Prayer alone can bring you into His presence, and keep you there continually.” As she wrote in one of her poems: "There was a period when I chose a time and place for prayer. ... But now I seek that constant prayer, in inward stillness known.”

Analogous sets of beliefs:

It is possible to isolate similar tendencies (and similar concerns from the accusers) as those condemned in the seventeenth century "Quietist" controversy in earlier periods.

In Hellenistic philosophy, the state of imperturbable serenity or ataraxia was seen as a desirable state of mind by Pyrrhonian, Epicurean, and Stoic philosophers. 

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, an analogous dispute might be located in Hesychasm in which "the supreme aim of life on earth is the contemplation of the uncreated light whereby man is intimately united with God".

The condemnation of the errors of Meister Eckhart in 1329 may also be seen as an instance of an analogous concern in Christian history. Eckhart's assertions that we are totally transformed into God just as in the sacrament the bread is changed into the body of Christ (see transubstantiation) and the value of internal actions, which are wrought by the Godhead abiding within us, have often been linked to later Quietist heresies.

In early sixteenth century Spain, concern over a set of beliefs held by those known as alumbrados raised similar concerns to those of Quietism. These concerns continued into the mid-sixteenth century, and the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
Both were very active reformers and both cautioned against a simple-minded "don't think anything" (no pensar nada) approach to meditation and contemplation; further, both acknowledged the authority of the Catholic Church and did not oppose its teaching concerning contemplative prayer. Thus, their work was not condemned as heresy, being consistent with Church teaching. This did not stop John's work, however, coming under suspicion after his death; the fact he was not canonized until 1726 is largely due to seventeenth-century suspicions of beliefs similar to those termed "Quietist" later in the century.

George Fox came to the conclusion that the only real spirituality was achieved by paying attention to the Holy Spirit (the godhead) through silence, and founded the Quaker movement on this basis – one which shared much resemblance with "Quietist" thought. Quietist thinking was also influential among the British Quakers of the later 19th century, when the tract A Reasonable Faith, by Three Friends (William Pollard, Francis Frith and W. E. Turner (1884 and 1886)) caused sharp controversy with evangelicals in the society. 

The Capuchin friar Benet Canfield (1562–1611), an English Catholic living in Belgium, espoused quietism in a tract called Way of Perfection, on deep prayer and meditation. ~ 


I read about Madame Guyon some years ago, and felt and immediate attraction to her idea of the blissful peacefulness that comes from a state of complete receptiveness, emptying out all will and desire. It reminded me of the Taoist ideal of “non-doing.” 

Hamlet of Act V, the transformed, wise Hamlet who says, Let it be, and Let be, can be called a quietist, as Harold Bloom points out. He has achieved acceptance of whatever fate will bring. “Readiness is all.” 

My own creative process taught me “trust in the unconscious.” I don’t need to force the ending; it will come when it is fully ready, the right words that sometimes surprise me, deeper and more original. That’s why we speak about art of any sort, including writing and music, as being either inspired or “uninspired.” 


On Beckett and quietism — it seems the suffering here is the existential pain of being without sense of meaning or connection, that anxious panic suffered alone in the darkness, that nothing seems to answer or resolve. If suffering's root is the constant striving of the will, of desire, the wanting that is never-ending, never satisfied, the way past pain is to stop the striving, release the hold of will. At least that is according to the contemplative mystics like St John of the Cross and Meister Eckhardt. Solitary contemplation of the nothing that you are, the knowledge that comes in unknowing, the light that lives in the dark night...the familiar opposites of mystical instruction, point the way to peace and freedom from suffering. It is like opening oneself to all that is, with acceptance, without choosing or holding on to any one thing, any fragment of one's own will. By becoming empty one is filled.

Not an easy path. I can see how Dostoyevsky fits in this picture, as in Karamazov all the differing paths, all the struggling riotous conflicting purposes of the characters, are held without giving any one the right of solution…there are answers but no Answer. The whole is the answer, the whole  mess of characters and confusion, just as it is. Of course the reader is sure to find some arguments more convincing, even though they offer no answers. We are not saints, after all.

I think The Idiot may be even a better illustration of this kind of contemplative saintliness, but here we also see the limits of the quietist approach. Prince Myschkin, the innocent, perfect example of Christian love, does not do well in the world, which sees him as an "idiot," not able to navigate the chaos of a world full of striving, conflicting, greedy and selfish wills…and he ends in madness and confinement.

The question is, can this quietist approach to ending suffering exist anywhere but in a monastic separation from the world? Is there a way to be active and engaged, to be socially alive and connected, and yet find that peace beyond the pain of existence?

I cannot help but think there may be another way, not in solitude and silence, not in letting go but in embracing, not in moving into and through suffering, but in realizing joy. Remember, St John was also a sublime poet.


For  some reason that part is hardly ever commented on: we do not have a single protagonist, suffering all alone, but a couple of best buddies (I vaguely remember one critic arguing that Didi [Vladimir] and Gogo [Estragon]) are gay lovers, but the play works supremely well without that assumption). However we define their friendship, we need to remember that these two have each other and there’s some caring and affection between them (that’s why I chose the pet names).

And St. John of the Cross had the Christ as the bridegroom in the Song of Songs. Teresa of Avila had her own “Jesus of Teresa.” Never mind the imaginary character of the beloved. The two great  mystics never felt alone, without emotional connection.  

As for quietism, I’d call it “on a spectrum.” One can practice immersing oneself in the bliss of openness to anything that happens, in complete trust and lack of any driving desire for only minutes — and then return to one’s daily activities, which may involve some degree of difficulty and  striving. About St. Teresa is was said, “She was Martha and Mary in one” — she could deal quite competently with the mundane, and then return to prayer and contemplation.

It’s not an  “either/or” choice, but both. I think it’s a different balance for each person. I think of quietism as offering a form of de-excitement and rest — simply a pause to be still and refresh oneself. It can be as brief as a minute of sitting still and completely relaxed. Bliss! (And hard, productive work is also bliss — of a different kind.)

It’s been said that the most difficult thing the average modern woman can master is to drop the thought that everything is going to fall apart if she lies down and rests. That’s why I’ve come up with a notion of “intermittent quietism.” There is a time for everything.



~ Most of us who have been reading American poetry for many years will remember, will perhaps still have on our shelves, a copy of Bly’s first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields, published in the iconic Wesleyan University Press poetry series in 1962, its pages generously wide, its plain blue cover decorated with a black abstraction reminiscent of a Rorschach blot. 

Here on his farm over a thousand miles from New York, Bly wrote:

There are palaces, boats, silence among white buildings,

Iced drinks on marble tops, among cool rooms;

It is good also to be poor, and listen to the wind.

No poet, with the exception of Stafford, is as good as Bly at rendering in a plain style the deliciousness of solitude, of simple pleasures rendered sensuously. Here is “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter” in its entirety:

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.

The only things moving are swirls of snow.

As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.

There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.

Driving around, I will waste more time.

Some of these poems, like “After Drinking All Night with a Friend, We Go Out in a Boat at Dawn to See Who Can Write the Best Poem,” with its outrageously long title, its use of plain, archetypal images, have become classics. Here is the poem’s last stanza:

A few friendships, a few dawns, a few glimpses of grass,

A few oars weathered by the snow and the heat,

So we drift toward shore, over cold waters,

No longer caring if we drift or go straight.

These poems, and kindred ones by Stafford, James Wright, Galway Kinnell and others, established a way of writing sometimes referred to as the “Deep Image” school. They were influenced by classical Chinese poets like Du Fu, whose poem “Written on the Wall at Chang’s Hermitage,” ends, in Kenneth Rexroth’s translation, similarly:

The way back forgotten, hidden

Away, I become like you,

An empty boat, floating, adrift.

Bly must also have read Jung early on, because he tends to think in terms of archetypes, sometimes to good effect, sometimes at the expense of accuracy and credibility. In addition, there is the question of his poetry’s extreme unevenness: often the gems lie side by side with the clunkers. In reading Bly’s Collected over the past couple of months, I have often had occasion to recall Auden’s line from “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: “You were silly like us.” Bizarre images crop up side by side with marvelous passages, like this one from a prose poem, “Sitting on Some Rocks in Shaw Cove”: “I have the sensation that half an inch under my skin there are nomad bands, stringy-legged men with firesticks and wide-eyed babies.”

There are at least four Robert Blys. One is the poet of pure lyrics like the ones I have quoted. Then there is Bly the political poet of the Vietnam War years. After his political and antiwar poetry, Bly turned to the self-help or human potential movement. His book Iron John: A Book about Men, was a best seller, and Bly became a guru of the men’s movement. 

And there is at least one more Bly: the polemicist. After service in the Navy, graduation from Harvard and Iowa and a few years in New York, Bly settled in rural Minnesota where, in the tradition of poets who used their magazines to advance their views, like T. S. Eliot with The Criterion and John Crowe Ransom with the Kenyon Review, he edited his fiercely polemical magazine, The Fifties (later, predictably enough, The Sixties and The Seventies). Warmly loyal to his friends, Bly was also ready to attack, sometimes viciously, those whose approach to poetry did not agree with his.

Two of his most vicious attacks, published in The Sixties, were “The Collapse of James Dickey” and “Robert Lowell’s Bankruptcy.” Dickey’s poem “The Firebombing,” focusing on a pilot’s experiences dropping napalm on enemy targets and his difficult adjustment to civilian life after the war, is a nuanced poetic study of the psychic wounds inflicted by war on those who serve; Bly’s response to nuance tends to be simplistic. What he demanded, in Ernest Suarez’s words, was for Dickey “to engage in didactic moral outburst . . . to condemn war and damn the pilot for having participated at all.” This would, of course, have eviscerated Dickey’s poem. As for his attack on Lowell, he had the decency to regret it later in life: “One teaspoon of envy was enough for me / To attack Robert Lowell.”

The mythmaking of Iron John and his activities as founder of the Great Mother and New Father Conference have not, in my view, contributed much of lasting value to his poetry. The plainer and more modest Bly is, the better. I like how, in Morning Poems, 1997, he takes a calm, retrospective view of his life. He now seems relaxed enough, back home—this grizzled veteran of the poetry wars, this laureate of the men’s movement, this warrior who has helped broaden the audience for poetry, albeit at the expense of the quality of his own work—to write a conventional but insightful and closely observed, beautifully rendered poem like “A Family Photograph, Sunday Morning, 1940,” where “The women look as if they have too much to do,” “The men smile, but their eyes say hard things,” and “Two old women who guard the group on both sides / Take nothing on trust. ‘I trust my hands, and that’s all.’”

I also admire Bly’s willingness to write frankly about his own shortcomings, as he does in “Wanting More Applause at a Conference”:

I talk, and the man next to me

Talks, and he gets the applause. Or I am confused

And she makes sense. This is hard to bear.

I bear it, but it causes trouble inside the den.

Is it a mammal problem then?

To pass this greed for attention off as “a mammal problem” is evasive, but at least give the man credit for honest self-examination, even if it’s more a confessional admission than a poem.

Since the life of the spirit has been central to Bly’s vision, it might be appropriate to end by quoting some lines from a late poem of his, “Tasting Heaven,” which begins, “Some people say that every poem should have / God in it somewhere. But of course Wallace Stevens / Wasn’t one of those. We live, he said, ‘in a world / Without a heaven to follow.’” Bly ends the poem on a surprising and appealing note, free of the dogmatic utterances that have often flowed from his pen: Echoing Stevens’ “gusty / Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights” from “Sunday Morning,” he concludes, “But our gusty emotions say to me that we have / Tasted heaven many times: these delicacies / Are left over from some larger party.” ~


Jeremy Sherman remains true to the evolutionist attitude:


also by Jeremy: “There’s a popular quote often misattributed to Goethe:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

It's not just misattributed, it's willfully misunderstood in the service of pep-talk, which is fine, but only if you also recognize that this generic pep talk can inspire any bold action including the Capital mob riot.

"the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans"  

Splendid plans but also atrocious plans. Providence isn't discerning. 

"A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way."

Raising in one's favor and against it too, for example the 25k troops acting against the mob now that they have taken bold action. 

The quote implies that the universe has a reserve of consequences in an escrow account awaiting your bold decisions. It does, but you can only guess what's in there. It may be enough to take your bold plan over the line or it may be enough to crush it on launch.

And again, it has nothing to do with whether your bold plan is splendid or vile. ~ Jeremy Sherman


There is a German proverb (and similar sayings in many languages): “Man strives, God laughs.” And of course we have an English proverb about the best-laid plans of mice and men. In any case, we can aspire, but let’s stay humble — any action may have unforeseen consequences, sometimes good, sometimes bad, or both.

By the way, the quote comes from William Hutchinson Murray, 1913-1996, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, 1951. The attribution to Goethe may have arisen from the fact that a bit of the quote is a very loose translation of a couplet in Faust.


I can say, in my experience, the universe has supported my reasonably good decisions and that it has thwarted the bad ones...if only I'd paid attention sooner.


An acquaintance once said, "I have a friend who, every time he wants to embark on a project, first watches which way the universe will move. He then either proceeds or doesn't." This sounds very attractive, this trying to read signs of approval or disapproval not from tea leaves or Tarot cards, but from the Universe itself! And if we are in that set of mind, there are signs and omens everywhere. (Too much of that set of mind is known as schizophrenia.)

But the real problem for me is that what I see as a good decision at one time I can later come to see as a bad mistake. I've come to love the phrase "learning experience." And I accept this fallibility: "You'll make more mistakes."  


My son often has reminded me of how to make God laugh: Make a plan. I can say that years ago I realized I could prepare or "set the table" but things invariably move in ways I never expect. As an additional thought: I think Marx was on target with his dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.


And then the synthesis becomes the new thesis, giving rise to new contradictions. Life is constant learning, an adaptation to ever-shifting reality.

Still, it's amazing how, when it comes to big things, life always turns out completely different than the way we expected it. That was the biggest lesson of the first half of my life. The biggest lesson of my later life, however, seems to be "trust your unconscious." Stuck for an ending or an answer to a problem? "Sleep on it." Clarity will come when I'm ripe for it.

Mt. Everest

. . . while the meme is still going around: my second most favorite 


Basically I want to stop quoting articles about Trump, “but not yet” (to steal from St. Augustine’s prayer for chastity). This one seemed to sum up something  that to me was as central about him as his narcissism ("sado-narcissism," as Jeremy Sherman called it).


~ Donald Trump is a man, and he has gone to great lengths to prove it. He has tried, most recently, to steal back the presidential election he lost (democracy, which acknowledges the feelings of other people, is unfortunately feminine). And he has resorted to bullying in his effort to force others to join his war on the electorate. Here is how the president, The New York Times reported this week, tried to persuade his vice president to submit to his preferred reality: “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.”

“Grab ’em by the pussy,” Trump had bragged of his treatment of women, in a recording made public just before the 2016 presidential election. The line rivals “Make America great again” as the defining motto of the Trump era. And “patriot or pussy inow puts that era in stark relief. Trump’s invocations of pussy—the one a boast, the other a threat—make fitting bookends to a presidency shaped by malignant masculinity. With pussy it began; to pussy it has returned.

The Access Hollywood tape, in retrospect, was an omen. The video captured not only Trump’s misogyny, but also the mechanics of his mind: its abiding self-interest, its drive for dominance, its assumption that politics, like life, is little more than a string of arid transactions. The tape’s revelations led directly to the events that followed Trump’s inauguration: the marches, populated by people wearing “pussy hats,” protesting the new president. And it foreshadowed what it would feel like for a country—and a planet—to live at the mercy of one man’s whims. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump informed Billy Bush in the video. “You can do anything.” He turned that brag into a core principle of his political movement.

When manliness is summoned as a claim to authority, it typically involves an acknowledgment of obligation: a with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility idea that is there for the benefit, ostensibly, of those who have not had the good fortune to have been born male. That is one more norm Trump has trampled during his years as president. Trump’s sense of manliness has excised the element of duty. The masculinity that he embodied through his presidency was entirely self-referential. It took what it wanted. It grabbed. And it assumed, furthermore, that grabbing was its right: You can do anything.

Trump used his maleness in roughly the same way that he used his whiteness: as permission. And he turned his own entitlements into a gaudy sales pitch. Part of Trump’s promise to voters, in 2016 and again in 2020, was that they might be liberated not by his virtues, but by his vices. They, too, might be spared the inconvenience of obligation to other people. They, too, could be free to indulge their wants with impunity. They, too, could engage in cruelty and rebrand it as a proud stance against political correctness. They could call themselves patriots—not because they sacrificed for a common cause, but because they understood that the worst thing one can be, in this world, is a pussy.

That message did not win in 2020. But it came uncomfortably close. And its effects will remain long after Trump leaves office. Patriot or pussy is a worldview available to people of any gender (thus: Lauren Boebert, carrying her handgun to Congress); it is a worldview, though, that thrives on stereotypical ideas about masculinity and femininity. It rejects values typically associated with the feminine—compassion, collaboration, deference to expertise—as evidence of weakness. The brute logic was there in the violent entitlements of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. It was there in the grotesquely masculine iconography of that event: the pelts, the horns, the capes, the exposed chests, the tactical gear. It was there in the wreckage of the violence, too: Among the trash the insurrectionists left in Washington was a vial of injectable testosterone. The rioters were motivated, some of them explained, by impulses of personal responsibility; they left others to clean up their mess.

Patriot or pussy was also there in the fact that, as congressional leaders huddled together for safety that day, some in gas masks, a portion of those leaders refused to don another kind of safety device for the pandemic era: plain old masks. In the aftermath of the violence, several leaders who hid together have now tested positive for COVID-19. One of the most shameful legacies of Trump’s presidency will be his failure to control the coronavirus pandemic; one core element of that failure has been his framing of mask wearing—a simple, inexpensive, and effective way to slow the spread of the virus—as a front in America’s culture wars. That reinterpretation, too, was an extension of Trump’s worldview. It falsely pitted personal freedom against the collective good. It elevated an extremely mild inconvenience—the wearing of a face mask—into an alleged infringement of Americans’ rights. It ratified one of the basest assumptions of Trumpism: that freedom is, in its essence, manly. And that the common good, by contrast, carries the stain of femininity. Patriot or pussy. That false choice is killing people.

Trump modeled his aggressive caricature of maleness throughout his presidency, and throughout his adult life. During his childhood, his family revolved around the moods and desires of his father, Fred. This helps explain why, in his presidency as in his life, Trump espoused the bland entitlements of the patriarch—expecting to be waited on, unbothered by anyone else’s needs. Trump, in the White House, did what he wanted, when he wanted. He left it to his staff to make sense of it all. “This could have been stopped,” Trump said about the pandemic, in July. “It could have been stopped quickly and easily. But for some reason, it wasn’t, and we’ll figure out what that reason was.” The reason, of course, was in large part Trump; he trusted, though, that the presidency, far from conferring responsibility on him, would shield him from blame. He trusted that his aides would rationalize his behavior. He trusted that, as the keepers of the household, they would clean up the mess.

The president trusted in Trump-friendly media to do the same work. In April, during a live briefing on the pandemic, Trump mused aloud about the curative possibilities of injecting bleach. As Lysol put out frantic press releases begging people not to ingest its products, and as poison-control centers took calls asking whether bleach could cure people’s ailments, some of Fox News’s opinion hosts went on long tirades about the mainstream media’s inability to detect the president’s obvious “sarcasm.” That a president might have a duty to communicate clearly about matters of life and death did not diminish their indignation; Trump will do what he wants, when he wants, his defenders assumed. It’s up to everyone else to deal with the consequences.

The father decides; the wife and children make peace with his decisions. The physics of that regressive arrangement also guided the way that the White House responded to the 26 women who have accused Trump of doing what he bragged about on the Access Hollywood tape: harassment, assault. First his defenders dismissed the claims outright; then they studiously ignored and thoroughly maligned the people who had made them. (“Is the official White House position that all of these women are lying?” a journalist asked Trump’s then–press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in October 2017, after 16 of those women had come forward. “Yeah, we’ve been clear on that from the beginning,” Sanders replied. Having thus dismissed the testimonies of 16 people, she quickly changed the subject.)

Trump’s is a Potemkin masculinity. It glorifies dominance, while taking refuge in cowardice. (“I’ll be there with you,” he told the crowd on January 6, encouraging them to march on the Capitol, before returning to the White House to watch television.) Trump lavishes autocratic strongmen with praise, yet behaves subserviently to them. (He reportedly failed to act on intelligence that Russia bribed Afghan militants to kill American soldiers.) He loves the swagger of military parades, but is disgusted by the notion of self-sacrifice for one’s country. (Those who died in battle are “losers” and “suckers” to him.)

Of course, Trump himself avoided service in Vietnam (bone spurs, he claimed). This summer, as the pandemic was raging in New York, the president announced that he would be speaking at West Point. This was, reportedly, news to most everyone involved—including officials at West Point. In response to the presidential whim, West Point summoned back to campus more than 1,000 cadets who had scattered across the country, so that they might serve as a setting for his speech, despite the pandemic. It was typical Trump: Endanger the humans of the military so that their commander in chief might have his spectacle.

Was that patriotic? Or was it the other thing? You might observe a similar emptiness on display in the Access Hollywood tape—a cowardice lurking behind Trump’s boastful swagger. Here was a person who preferred to engage in violence rather than risk sexual rejection. Here was a man who treated women as trophies, but also as threats. What the tape further proved, though, was that Trump, in his assessment of the world, had a point. He was elected to the presidency in spite of—and in some ways because of—the tape’s stagy misogynies. Not much earlier in American history, presidential ambitions had been squelched by tears deemed unseemly and yells deemed too loud; by 2016, a man who was credibly accused of assault—a man who admitted to some of these allegations on tape—was elevated to the White House. He was openly, proudly bigoted; he had a long and well-documented history of mocking women (“fat pigs,” “dogs,” “blood coming out of her wherever”); he announced his candidacy, in 2015, by dismissing Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”

He won anyway. He began his administration with religious discrimination; he continued it by tearing children from their parents; he made his own cruelty into a national condition. And then, unable to tolerate rejection, he ended the regime with a lie. Falsehoods, too, are weapons in Trump’s aggressively masculine project. Liars impose their desires not just on other people, but on reality itself. The dark delusions failed this time, but just barely. They linger, still, threatening the future, and whispering one of the grimmest lessons of the past four years: They let you do it. You can do anything.


I too, am so tired of thinking about and talking about Trump. But we have to understand him, his appeal, and why and where it came from, if we are to have any hope of "healing the American mind." Yes, he was the apotheosis of malignant masculinity, with the arrogance and cowardice of the schoolyard bully, and the absolute refusal to assume any responsibility. Oh that eternal thrusting of the pugnacious jaw!!

What I think is important is that we must look past adolescent,  and even childish behavior, to see that what characterizes Trump is actually the infantile. He is the tyrant infant demanding always attention and the fulfillment of every need, every wish. He wants to do Whatever He Wants, whenever and wherever, with no consequences. Every slightest check inspires only rage and spite. This is echoed by his followers in their refusal, for instance, to wear masks. They won't have Anyone Telling Them What to Do. Any thing of the sort is an affront to their free rights. This is the definition of freedom as the selfishness of the supreme infant. And we must remember, infants are not civilized creatures. Civilization is achieved in the process of becoming an adult.


An adult knows that “no man is an island,” is attuned to the needs and feelings of others, and knows how to cooperate. S/he has a sense of fairness, and other ethical principles — kindness, honesty — we could go on. But what used to be obvious and normal before Trump’s pathological presidency no longer is. Slowly, with a new president who doesn’t exhibit any blatant psychological problems, the country should normalize also — except for the “lunatic fringe,” but that’s an ancient problem that’s always been with humanity.

Trump on the cover of the Polish edition of Newsweek. Note Pence on the horn. The caption says: The Rise and Fall of Big Brother."



“Every person we save is one less zombie to fight.”  ― World War Z, 2013 film

~ The invasion of the U.S. Capital Building by rioters and vandals on January 6 marked a significant moment in American history. It made clear that political propaganda and irrational beliefs have reached crisis levels. Thousands of people in Washington D.C. that day, and many more elsewhere in America, are now so hypnotized by blatant lies and objectively nonsensical beliefs that they are willing to break laws and even threaten others with violence, at risk of their own safety and freedom.

Are you skeptical of the claim that America is in the midst of a critical thinking crisis? Consider that many (possibly most) of the January 6 rioters were QAnon believers. Going all in with QAnon means believing that a long list of celebrities and elites—including Lady Gaga, Bill Gates, Joe Biden, and Tom Hanks—operate an international satanic cannibalistic child sex-abuse organization. It is a claim so extraordinary that it can almost serve as the perfect litmus test for the pathological absence of critical thinking.

QAnon is a movement with no clearly identified founders or leaders and no formal doctrine. It is a big-tent/grab-bag of many old and new conspiracy theories that accommodates a long list of suspicions, fears, resentments, and prejudices. QAnon is the Costco of conspiracy theories, the Walmart of delusions: “Whatever you want, we got it.” It also has a “Da Vinci Code” element that seems to appeal to many believers who excitedly search for clues and follow online crumbs toward big “revelations”. Despite the absence of any credible evidence and the overwhelming unlikeliness of it all, the combination of fuzziness, inclusiveness, and flexibility is working. QAnon has vacuumed up millions of unprepared minds in recent years.

According to a recent NPR/IPSOS national poll, less than half (47 percent) of Americans say QAnon’s core claims are false. Seventeen percent of US adults—millions of voting-age citizens—admit to believing. Also alarming, 37 percent are “unsure”. Imagine being on the fence about whether Tom Hanks and Beyoncé are working with Satan to traffic child sex-slaves around the world.

As if it were not interesting enough already, some people include lizard aliens in the QAnon recipe. These infiltrators from outer space supposedly include Queen Elizabeth, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. The usual claim is that they are either shapeshifters or merely hiding beneath human skinsuits. This is not how the 21st century was supposed to be going for us. As a child nurtured on Star Trek reruns, I imagined our species solving poverty, ending war, and colonizing other worlds by now. Silly me. Here I am today discussing a popular belief that reptilian extraterrestrials reside in Buckingham Palace.

What can be done to meaningfully address the poor state of the American mind? Is there a way to alleviate so much politically oriented blindness to reason? How can we prevent QAnon and other such beliefs from corroding our nation’s collective sanity to the point of no return? Unfortunately, there is no quick fix available. Once people have tumbled down a rabbit hole as wide and deep as that one, reorienting or deradicalizing them is difficult. For some it may be near impossible. Add to that the problem of social media’s scary ability to supply a seemingly infinite supply of rabbit holes. But there is a preventive treatment for all of this. Most won’t like it because it’s slow and involves a lot of work. But it is a solution, probably the only one we can be sure would have a good chance of success.

Elevating critical thinking through education is the solution. Playing the long game of education is the only way to deny the irrational-belief beast the steady supply of victims it depends on. Extreme political manipulation, social media madness, QAnon, and other 21st century American delusions would dry up and shrink to insignificance without a deep pool of unquestioning believers ready for indoctrination. Those who understand the need to stop America’s slide into ever-deepening irrationality must push our society to raise up new generations of thinking citizens who are capable of identifying and shrugging off baseless claims. The American mind can be repaired, long term, but only by teaching the skills and principles of critical thinking to every child. I am aware of the cliché-like feel that comes with citing education as our only salvation from a big problem. But in this case, it really is the only way.  

Making critical thinking a national educational norm is the cognitive vaccine America needs to have a fighting chance of reclaiming and maintaining its sanity. Good thinking prevents and alleviates bad thinking. Young students can be taught reason and skepticism as basic life skills. This would not be the kind of education that involves learning a bunch of facts for later regurgitation. Critical thinking is more like learning a trade. As one might train to weld or build furniture, one can learn how to think well out in the real world.

Having written several books and given many lectures and interviews on this topic, I know from experience that some people cringe, if not shriek in horror, at the thought of teaching critical thinking to ten-year-olds. But these concerns seem rooted in a misunderstanding of what critical thinking is. To be clear, it is not a list of taboo beliefs or approved ideas. Critical thinking is the means of figuring out if something makes sense and is likely to be true. Nothing is threatened apart from mistaken or unjustified beliefs that one hopefully would want exposed so as not to waste time, energy, or money on. 

Thomas Paine put it well: “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.” Anyone who opposes critical thinking education is effectively taking a position against reason and reality. Considering the current American landscape, this is inexcusable stark negligence. We cannot continue to fail so many children. They need the necessary tools to be able to navigate the increasingly complex and foreboding information jungles of 21st-century civilization. We owe students better than leaving them to exit schools on graduation day as soft targets for con artists and victims-in-waiting for delusion peddlers.

What else can we do? The U.S. government cannot outlaw the inclination to believe nonsense. Regulations won’t purge the internet of every lie. Our brains are not going to suddenly evolve beyond their natural tendencies to lead us astray when it comes to perceiving and calculating reality. The answer lies with us. Teach our children thinking skills so that they can be their own editors and fact checkers. Children who grow up in this century must be their own guardians of truth. But they will fall short unless someone cares enough to teach them how.

Books about critical thinking: 

Think: Why You Should Question Everything, by Guy P. Harrison
Good Thinking: What You Need to Know to Be Smarter, Safer, Wealthier, and Wiser, by Guy P. Harrison
Think Before You Like: Social Media's Effect on the Brain and the Tools You Need to Navigate Your Newsfeed, by Guy P. Harrison

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan
The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake, by Steven Novella
Critical Thinking: Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, by Jonathan C. Smith
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, by Michael Shermer
Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in a Modern World, by Hank Davis
Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, by Ben Radford


Critical thinking will never be popular. Only some people have the drive to know the truth. Many (most?) have a strong emotional need to believe anything that makes them feel good. But yes, I'm all for teaching the basics of critical thinking, the habit of asking, "What's your evidence?" 



~ Former President Donald Trump did not declare martial law in his final minutes in office; nor did he reveal a secret plan to remain in power forever. President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were not sent to Guantánamo Bay. The military did not rise up and arrest Democratic leaders en masse. 

Instead, Biden took the oath of office and became the 46th U.S. president on Wednesday.
For some supporters of QAnon, this was an earth-shattering turn of events. Or rather, nonevents. 

QAnon is less a baseless conspiracy theory than an umbrella of many baseless conspiracy theories, but it centers on a belief that there is a shadowy cabal of pedophilic, satanic world leaders. For years, a mysterious figure called Q has issued promises that this cabal is on the verge of being exposed and defeated by Trump in a cataclysmic event that QAnon calls "the Storm."

The baseless, often bizarre claims have gained a shocking amount of traction with the public. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that 17% of Americans believe that a group of Satan-worshipping, child-enslaving elites is trying to control the world, and another 37% aren't sure about the false allegation. And two women who have expressed some support for QAnon, Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, are now sitting members of Congress. 

Now that Trump has left office, some QAnon supporters are baffled — or even giving up.
New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose tweeted out screenshots from groups on Telegram — a popular messaging service for QAnon supporters — on Wednesday, after the transfer of power was officially complete. "Been played like fools," one wrote. 

Roose noted that one particularly prominent QAnon figure publicly announced that supporters need to "go back to our lives as best we are able," rather than continue trying to overthrow Biden's presidency. 

Will Sommer, who tracks conservative media and is working on a book about QAnon, wrote in the Daily Beast that even late on Wednesday morning, QAnon groups were still hopeful that the mass arrests would materialize. But after noon, "the mood changed quickly," Sommer wrote, with supporters saying they felt fooled by Trump and felt sick. 

Feeling fooled may not lead to a return to normalcy. One researcher told NBC News that frustrated, disappointed Q followers could be prime targets for radicalization by other extremist groups, like neo-Nazis. 

And, of course, not every Q follower is giving up the faith (an appropriate word — some argue that Q is best understood as a religious movement).

The Times' Roose noted Q fans arguing with each other, with some declaring the movement over while others insisting the Storm was still coming. NBC's Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny took a look at one of the largest QAnon Telegram groups, which briefly shut down on Wednesday and reopened with "a range of reactions: confusion and realization that QAnon was in fact a hoax, as well as renewed commitment to the conspiracy theory, despite its unreliability."

Researcher Travis View told The Washington Post that it was only a "minority ... facing reality," while others are simply shifting their expectations. 

It's a process they're familiar with, after all: A multitude of Q predictions has failed to materialize, and that has never stopped the conspiracies from spreading.
Like apocalyptic cults that persist despite a noteworthy lack of apocalypse, QAnon may survive the failed prophecies around the inauguration just like it has survived other failed prophecies before. ~

from NBC:

~ QAnon supporters believed Wednesday's inauguration was an elaborate trap set by the former president, wherein Democrats would be rounded up and executed while Trump retained power. 

Some QAnon followers spent weeks preparing for a nationwide blackout starting at noon on Inauguration Day, warning friends and family in text chains and Facebook messages to buy CB radios and stock up on food. They believed Trump would announce martial law through the Emergency Alert System before carrying out mass arrests.

Travis View, who hosts the conspiracy-debunking podcast QAnon Anonymous, said those who make money on the conspiracy theory are having a harder time persuading adherents to keep the faith after such a spectacularly wrong prediction.

Ron Watkins, the former administrator for the message board and QAnon hub 8kun and a major force behind false conspiracy theories surrounding the election results, seemed to capitulate, posting a note to his more than 100,000 followers: "We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.” ~



~ Trump was delighted by the mob he’d unleashed on the Capitol, but according to sources, appalled by how badly dressed they were. He 'expressed disgust on aesthetic grounds over how ‘low class’ his supporters looked,' one Trump adviser told New York magazine, adding, 'He doesn’t like low-class things.’

When it came to launching a mad plan with zero chance of success solely to benefit himself, Trump turned to the weakest members of society, the very people whom he had used to get elected and then betrayed.

In his rally speech, Trump vowed he’d march to the Capitol with them. Go fight that guy! I’ll be right behind you. After the rally, of course, he immediately repaired to the White House, where he could enjoy a nice lunch and watch the poor saps on TV.

"Trump sees other humans only in terms of what they can do for him. He will ask for favor after favor after favor, no matter how humiliating or burdensome, but the moment someone says 'no,' will viciously attack him. Ask Jeff Sessions.

At 2:24 p.m., as Trump watched the mob streaming through the Capitol, he tweeted: 'Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution …' Whereupon, some in the crowd began chanting, 'Hang Mike Pence!'
"Trump never called to find out if Pence and his family were safe.

For 48 hours, Trump didn’t lower the White House flag to half-mast in honor of Brian Sicknick, the Trump-supporting Capitol Hill Police officer who died from injuries sustained during the siege. The guy could at least have worn a decent shirt. Nor did he call Sicknick’s family. Pence did. ~



"Our main myth is apocalyptic . . . and our children today live among and act out images of catastrophe. Suicide among children shows a startling rise. . . . The only hope, according to the authorized version of the catastrophe, is in a divine redemption. In face of that cosmic science fiction of Armageddon, psychology’s scientific fiction narrows the cause of devastated children to dysfunctional families." ~ James Hillman, “The Soul’s Code” (1997)

Hillman claims that the general culture affects children more than family — that parents kid themselves about how much impact they have on a child. First of all, a child’s life will unfold according to the “soul’s DNA,” Hillman claims — his famous “acorn theory” of vocation. The second most important factor is the larger society and the historical era, the time and place where they were born.

This reminds me of having grown up with eye-witness stories of WWII. All children and a lot of adults believed that WWIII was inevitable and would be worse by far, likely the end of civilization. Post-nuclear dystopia novels and movies were more a sub-category of realism rather than fantasy. It was not a religious Apocalypse that we feared, but we were aware of those predictions too. There weren’t that many Jehovah’s Witnesses in Warsaw, but a congregation existed — though frankly one didn’t have to be a Jehovah’s Witness to experience that apocalyptic feeling at least once a month or so. In view of the A-bomb, the Horsemen seemed rather superfluous.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the smashing of giant statues felt almost like comic relief. Oh, so there won’t be a nuclear war between Russia and the US? True, an insane North Korean leader could still press the button, but that was seen as survivable (if still extremely damaging).

Today’s children grow up without that horrific mushroom-shaped shadow over them, but with the constant news of shootings — and images of war, mass shootings including school shootings, and suicide bombings (or just bombings — e.g. the Boston marathon) — and, in the post 9/11 world, terrorist threat in general. There is also the awareness of environmental destruction and of how life on earth could end due to the run-away greenhouse effect. I wonder how this affects the children.

One of my favorite images sic transit gloria mundi.

Jorie Graham shared an interesting theory that deep down we want the world to end because we have the need for closure and we want to find out what it was all about.  

About Ivan Karamazov: "Rather than a million rubles, he'd like answers to his questions."

The two great European narcotics: alcohol and Christianity. ~ Nietzsche


It’s the unexpectedness of the second narcotic that makes this a startling statement. As someone said, Nietzsche is the master of the disruptive aphorism.

To my knowledge, Nietzsche wasn't familiar with Marx's "religion is the opium of the people" (Opium des Volkes), published in 1844 but hardly paid much attention to back then (if Marx had to depend on his income from publishing, he would have starved). Yet it may be assumed that intellectuals of the era had formed this opinion in one form or another, perceiving religion as a consolation favored by the poor and the desperate. "Your reward will be in heaven" and "Christ will dry every tear" were attractive promises that until fairly recently were not regarded as "pie in the sky."

And the New Age movement? It offers what might be called an individualist-universalist perspective. Louise Hay (whose wisdom has been helpful to me) says, “We are learning to go within to find our savior. We are the power we are looking for. Each of us is totally linked with the Universe and with Life.”

Does Nietzsche's observation still hold? When faced with an adversity (or, as Dave Bonta said, "Shit happens" is the best translation of the First Noble Truth), some people drink, others pray, still others go to a therapist or a psychic (therapists themselves go to psychics), some meditate and seek an answer within — and now, increasing, many seek answers on the Internet.

It's interesting that I first remembered this quotation as "the two great American narcotics" — and, not sure who said it, I wondered if Oscar Wilde would have been so daring. Well, that's the way the brain works — instead of accuracy, it transforms a statement into what is relevant and more familiar to us.

By the way, it's unfair to Marx to use the short form of the quotation. Marx also saw religion as "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

(Note especially: "Faith: not wanting to know the truth" (upper right)

”Here is what my great-grandfather Clemens Vonnegut said one time about Jesus, “If what he said was good, and it was marvelous, what did it matter if he was God or not?” … But I gotta go. I’m not well. Good luck." - Last Words of Kurt Vonnegut, 2007


I don’t know if these  really were Vonnegut’s last  words, but again, if they are good, they are  worth pondering.



~ Nobuyuki Sudo found that mice born and raised with no bacteria behaved differently than normally germy mice. It was a stunningly simple, but powerful, observation.

At that time, we were just beginning to realize that gut bacteria were, for the most part, beneficial to us. That was a huge break from the "kill all germs" philosophy. But just what those microbes were doing in our gut was a big mystery. Germ-free mice presented a golden opportunity to investigate.

When Sudo realized that germ-free mice had a different reaction to stress, it was confounding. How in the world could bacteria affect behavior? Sudo then introduced normal gut bacteria to the mice and discovered something else: he could fix their stress response, but only if he inoculated them before they were three weeks old – the equivalent of a human teenager. After that, the window of opportunity slammed shut.

Since then, researchers have shown that this is not just happenstance or a mere association. The relationship is causal. An astounding series of experiments have shown that you can transmit depression by transferring microbes. Most of these studies use fecal transfers, and some have gone from humans to mice, thus demonstrating cross-species causality. In general, feces from depressed animals will make the recipient depressed as well. From a psychiatric point of view, that is truly revolutionary.

Although much more research needs to be done, there are some good theories about how microbes manage to pull off such a feat. One tantalizing piece of evidence is that if you cut the vagus nerve that connects the gut to the brain, many of these effects disappear – implying that at least some of the psychoactive properties of microbes are transmitted by that meandering nerve bundle.

Another shocker is that bacteria know how to make neurotransmitters all on their own. Microbes don’t have brains, of course, but they may use neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin to communicate with each other, just like neurons do. They may also be communicating with us as well. There is accumulating evidence that microbes could even be using these chemicals to affect our cravings, another spooky instance of mind control.

Studies show that psychobiotics can improve the mood of even healthy individuals, implying that inflammation may not be the whole story. More research is needed to fill in the gaps in our understanding, but the field is moving quickly. 

Can we control our microbes to improve our mood?

The research so far has indicated that healing a leaky gut can go a long way toward improving mood. The best way to do that is to support those microbes that nourish the gut lining. That turns out to be fairly easy: increase your consumption of fiber.

Fiber refers to chains of sugar molecules that our body can’t break down, but our microbes can. Properly fed, these beneficial microbes produce substances like butyrate that are excellent gut salves.

Fiber is found in veggies and fruit, two food categories that have dropped precipitously from western diets. Vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, onions, garlic, and beans are full of fiber. So are fruits like berries. An important source of psychobiotics is fermented food like sauerkraut, pickles and yogurt (unsweetened).

Refined sugar and junk food, on the other hand, supports pathogenic microbes that may lead to leakiness.

The bottom line

Not all psychological problems start in the gut, and some amount of depression and anxiety is normal and healthy. For those with long-term depression, antidepressants are still popular and effective tools. Still, as Dr. Dinan has found with many of his patients, a psychobiotic alternative has great promise and possibly fewer side effects.

The beauty is that you can try fiber or fermented food yourself with a trip to the grocery store. Psychobiotics are complex, involving all bodily systems, and everyone is different due to unique genes, environments, diets and antibiotic history. So pay attention to your psychobiotic adventures and take notes about what works for you.

If you are a psychiatrist, the lesson of psychobiotics is that it might be wise to check on your patient’s gut as well as their mind. As strange as it seems, microbes affect our moods, and simply eating better could change your life.


Apparently, just as a fecal transplant from an obese person can can the recipient obese, so a fecal transplant from someone depressed can make the recipient depressed. If this is correct, and if fecal transplant happened to be a common procedure, the feces of slender, happy people would be much sought-after. A new line of employment would open.

Seriously, eating a more healthy diet (and that always means more fiber) means not just a change in your microbiome, but a change in attitude toward yourself: eating well means valuing yourself. And since generally that means cooking, now you have an activity that takes you out of yourself. 

As such threads typically end, “more research is needed.”



~ Lycopene is the pigment in red fruits and vegetables like pink guava and tomatoes. It is an important nutrient scientists are currently testing in the prevention and suppression of neurodegenerative diseases. Past research has shown lycopene to have antioxidant properties, which are effective in fighting other diseases such as cancer, precursors to heart diseases, and bone conditions.

In addition to suppressing oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, lycopene restores changes associated with neurodegenerative disorders, epileptic conditions, aging, brain hemorrhages, spinal cord injury, and neuropathy and prevents proteinopathies, neuroinflammation, apoptosis, cerebral edema, and synaptic dysfunction in the brain, according to a review published in Neurochemistry international.

Lycopene also ameliorated neuroinflammation, oxidative stress, amyloid genesis, and memory loss in an Alzheimer’s-induced mice model, through mediating cell signaling pathways (MAPKs, NFκB, and Nrf2) related to inflammation, and thus could be effective in preventing Alzheimer’s disease, found an animal study published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry.

Researchers studied 6,958 participants aged older than 50 years to assess the impact of carotenoids on mortality risk from Alzheimer’s. High levels of lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin were found to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s mortality. In an Alzheimer’s-induced mice study, oxidative stress biomarkers were measured with two treatments—lycopene and lycopene combined with vitamin E.

The combination was synergistic in significantly decreasing memory impairments and improved three oxidative stress markers for Alzheimer’s. In a rat study, researchers demonstrated that lycopene, a natural carotenoid, lowered aluminum-induced hippocampal lesions by inhibiting oxidative stress-mediated inflammation and apoptosis in the brain.

Similarly, lycopene was found to be very effective against age-induced cognitive impairment, memory loss, and cognitive defects while reversing age-associated neuronal damage and synaptic dysfunction in brain synapses by mitigating oxidative stress and inflammation markers in a mouse model.

Top Fruits and Vegetables Highest in Lycopene
(By milligrams per cup)

1. Tomato puree (50)

2. Sun-dried tomatoes (25)

3, Guavas (8.6)

4.  Fresh tomato (7.3)

5. Watermelon (6.9)

6.  Pink grapefruit (3.3)

7.  Papaya (2.7)

8.  Red bell peppers (0.5)

9.  Persimmon (0.3)

10. Asparagus (0.05)

11. Red cabbage (0.02)

12. Mangos (0.01)


If you don't like tomato products, and guavas are hard to find (and growing your own requires a mild climate), you may want to experiment with lycopene supplements. When it comes to Vitamin E, the most important thing to know that it's the gamma tocopherol and tocotrienols that provide the greatest protection, and not alpha tocopherol, which, when taken as supplement, depletes the body of gamma tocopherol. 

Or just eat nuts. 

Vitamins A, D3, E, and K2 are the super-important fat-soluble vitamins. If you eat eggs, you are probably covered.

Guava tree

ending on beauty:

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand —

How few! yet how they creep 

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep—while I weep!

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

~ E. A. Poe,  A Dream Within a Dream

(photo: David Whyte)