Monday, December 10, 2012

Whore of B

I remember as a young man listening occasionally to fundamentalist Protestant ministers on television who referred to the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon. I thought at the time that it was a hysterical and scandalously scabrous characterization; the result of years of indoctrination in fringe theology, driven by a crass profit motive. But now, after decades of reflection and realization, I believe I understand what those canting poseurs meant.

It has taken me nearly fifty years of thought and soul-searching and life experience to come to the following conclusion: The Roman Catholic Church is an evil institution. Let me say it again: By its very nature, reinforced by its traditions and institutional behavior, the Catholic Church is a force for evil in the world.

I no longer see how any right-minded or well-intentioned person can subscribe to its teachings, nor how any earnest searcher after truth or the divine in man can succumb to its authority. The Church is a vile corruption of the teachings of Jesus, on whom it claims to be founded. That vague and illiterate man (if we can judge by how little we know of his origins and the fact that he committed nothing to writing), seems to have preached the virtues of poverty, self-neglect, absolute love and universal peace and tolerance, all concepts inimical to the Catholic Church as we know it. That the Church should claim its authorship from such a character is nothing more than farce at best, and blasphemy at worst. The Catholic Church has no more to do with the nature and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than does the current federal government with the principles of the Founding Fathers.

The Church has, over the centuries, been the purveyor of violence, intolerance, ignorance and injustice. And throughout most of its institutional history, it has been a haven to criminals of the worst sort, including thieves, liars, corrupt politicians, murderers and pedophiles. On this last point I have much to say, and have tried to say it in these pages. But suffice it to say that the abetting and cover-up of the crimes of child molesters has gone on throughout the entire history of the Church, and continues to this very evening, when the Los Angeles Archdiocese has compelled the records of hierarchical protectors of pedophiles to remain sealed from public scrutiny.

Beyond that, for generations, the Church, through its system of Catholic education, has been guilty of myriad crimes against children. By this I mean the systematic indoctrination of innocent little boys and girls in a body of dogma that makes no sense, and, more seriously, that rationalizes superstition and religious intolerance, enforced by the most vile threats of corporal punishment and eternal damnation. I was, myself, the victim of such browbeating from the ages of seven to eighteen. I and my fellow child-students were routinely beaten, terrorized, and solemnly threatened with an eternity of fire and torment if we did not submit ourselves absolutely to the authority of Holy Mother Church. That any mother would terrorize and abuse her children so is beyond my comprehension.

We were told, on a daily basis from the age of seven (the age of reason, as the Church terms it), that if we did not comply with every jot and iota of its teachings, we were destined to rot in hell fire for all eternity. What sane adult, with even the scarcest solicitude for children, would impose such terror on innocents? Who,  claiming any form of humanity, would abuse the children in their care in such a fashion? We were ritually herded into church three of four times a week, forced to confess (and often to invent) sins which we whispered in the dark to anonymous priests, begging for forgiveness, subjected to regular humiliation and corporal punishment, including, screaming, slapping, whippings and beatings. And all of this was elevated to the level of divine intent by a sexually confused and criminal clergy, represented to us as God's vicars on Earth.

I have stated here before, and I repeat again: The Catholic Church is a conspiracy against the innocence of children. The number of confessed pedophiles, and those who have enabled and protected them, is but a shadow of the actual number of violators of children. I have no hesitation in going so far as to state that every member of the Catholic clergy is complicit in those crimes, for those who did not commit them knew about them, and those who did not know about them did not want to know. All are guilty, either directly or indirectly, and the ones who are guilty by silence are not less so than those whose consecrated fingers raped and molested children.

There is a long and unbroken history in the Church of crimes against children, and against humanity at large. Founded on the poor shepherd of Palestine as it claims to be, the Church's own wealth, crimes  and arrogance condemn it far beyond my power to do so. But the worst of its sins remain those against the most harmless and innocent in its care: the children of the Church, who could neither understand nor resist the brutality and inhumanity perpetrated against them. Coldly, cunningly and calculatedly by men and women who wore the black mantel of righteousness, which was nothing more nor less than the black shirts of the fascists with whom they conspired so cravenly in the century past.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bad to verse...


Midnight

When the last bell-struck
Hour of the night
Has flicked its tongue
Into the ear of sleep
We waken if we dare
To see the dark,
Reach out to fold
Its slender flanks
And kiss its cheek
And hide our face
Within its velvet seams
And give it thanks
That it has put an end
At last to dreams



Dawn

What is that pallor
On the brow of night?
Is darkness dying,
Infected by the light?
There must be a remedy
To cure this bright decay,
Quench this inflammation
And put an end to day



What is it that fringes
On the shore of this
Unsleeping night?
Flotsam
Jetsam
Remnants of intent.
Here a bottle there a page
Wood and cloth and
Tailings indistinct
Stained with oil
Choked with weed
Too obstinate to sink.
The sea beyond
Is vast and heaving
But I cannot resist the spell
Of this its leaving,
For every sodden portion
Tells a tale an epitaph
Of passengers and crew
Of motor and of sail
Of trash and treasure
Tumbled into blue
Horizoned deep
To find its resting here
In jumbled aimless sleep.
This bright glass is laughter
That broken frame despair
A book begun
But never read
A brush that busked
A new bride’s hair;
That which held such promise
Now lies fallow --
All that's sown in depth
Will die in shallow.
As we journey hence
From calm to storm
From breeze to rising wind
Our vessels leave behind
A spall from where we had begun:
A puzzle for another time and mind,
Another sleepless night awaiting sun.




Sunday, October 28, 2012

Benghazi

I have hesitated to write about the events in Libya until, as the President has continually suggested, all the facts are in. We have enough, now, and the picture they form is disgraceful. An American ambassador and three other Americans were murdered, and the Administration did nothing to help them. The real question, beyond the details, is why?

We now know that the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi had been attacked twice before the fatal raid, and that the ambassador and staff had repeatedly asked for increased security. We know that the Administration and the State Department had denied those requests because they did not wish to offend the sensibilities of the government (such as it is) in Libya. We know that other foreign authorities, such as the British Embassy and the Red Cross had pulled out of Benghazi because of the severe security threat, and that the American legation was the only one left, and that it was left virtually unprotected.

We know that the President's and the U.N. Ambassador's repeated claims that the fatal attack was the result of a demonstration gone bad were false. There was no demonstration, and the idea that protesters would bring automatic weapons, a mortar and rocket propelled grenades to a demonstration was, in any case, absurd. We now know that the existence of the video that Obama repeatedly claimed provoked the attack was not even known in Libya (the Libyan leader himself said so), and that the President knew that was the case, and still went on national television and before the U.N. claiming that the video was the cause.

We know that the attack, rather than the spontaneous outbreak of violence the President claimed it to be, was a concerted seven-hour-long assault, and that Administration officials watched it in real time on video sent by two drones overhead. We know that the ambassador requested increased security on the very day of the attack, and that three urgent requests for assistance during the attack were denied.

We know that two Navy Seals defied orders not to assist the staff at the consulate and in the nearby safe house and went to their defense, losing their lives as a result. We also know that they managed to save some American lives before they were killed. We know that these two men were heroes - honest-to-god heroes just like in the movies - and that their requests for assistance were denied. We know that the U.S. possessed security assets in nearby areas which could have been sent to rescue them, but they were withheld.

And we know that the U.N. Ambassador, the Secretary of State and the President lied about all of this.

We also know that, after the tragedy, the President referred to the murder of the Ambassador as being "not optimal," and that at the memorial service for one of the Seals, the Vice-President commented to the hero's father in a stage whisper about the size of his son's balls, and that when the President shook the father's hand, he could not look him in the eyes. It was, the father has said, "like shaking hands with a dead fish."

It becomes tedious to point out that if anything remotely like this had occurred under a Republican administration, the mainstream press would be howling it from every front page, website and cable channel. There would be strident demands for investigations, resignations and impeachment. We recall that when the Bush Administration was accused of leaking the name of a CIA officer (a case in which no one was injured or killed), the media demanded that people be sent to jail, and, indeed, one administration official was tried and imprisoned. Yet in this instance, in which American territory was attacked and American officials were murdered, the mainstream media has chosen largely to ignore what now appears as a disgusting and pathetic lack of leadership and panoply of lies.

All this brings us back to my initial question: Why? Why did the Obama Administration, that is to say, the President, choose to ignore the appeals for security from Libya, and even on the day of the attack and during the murderous assault, still refused to save the lives of an American ambassador and American citizens? And why, having failed to do so, did he and his officials lie so ardently and repeatedly about it?

The answer, of course, is that we are in the middle of an election campaign, and nothing is more important than getting Barack Obama re-elected. Nothing. Not the nation's security, not the truth, not the lives of our citizens. Nothing.

I remember when Chuck Colson, one of Richard Nixon's re-election campaign thugs, said that he would run over his own grandmother to get Nixon re-elected. Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, and eighteen months later forced to resign, and Colson and many other people (not including Nixon) went to prison.

Barack Obama has done worse than that: He, it now appears, allowed an American ambassador and three other Americans to die while his people literally watched on video. Then, by all accounts, he went to bed, and the next day, to a fundraising event in Las Vegas.

With regard to the coming election, nothing more needs to be said. Nothing.




Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Random thoughts

--I was thinking today about kindness. Tolstoy said that kindness can be added to anything, and that is correct. Kindness can enhance any gesture; it can even be added to criticism and punishment. Jesus told us to treat others as we would wish them to treat us; he did not say to treat others well in order that they will reciprocate. We are kind not because of expectation of reciprocity, but, rather, because kindness nourishes the soul and affirms and deepens our humanity. This is illustrated most clearly by kindness to animals, which seems simply natural, even instinctual, to human beings. We do not treat animals with kindness in expectation that they will respond in kind; in most cases, in fact, they will not. Not abusing bears or poisonous snakes does not make them them kinder to us. They will continue to pursue their natures whether we treat them kindly or no. We do so, nonetheless, because it is an expression and extension of our humanity. Kindness is, therefore, rooted in humanity, not in calculation or in the nature of the recipient or our relation to him, or in expectation of reward; it is rooted in our souls.

--If god is love, why does life hurt so much?

--The lesson of birth is that we will never make a move of any importance in this life without hurting someone we love.

--Death remains a problem no matter what we do with it. Tolstoy wrote that if life is good, then death, which is a necessary part of life, must also be good. This is not the case. Rather, one could argue that if life is good, then death, which puts an end to life, must be evil, since it cancels out good. What Tolstoy was failing to realize is that, faced with the problem of death, he was seeking a way to think about it which would make it appear good. This is like a man, faced with a defect in his beloved's face, squints or seeks a light in which the defect will not appear, or will appear beautiful. To conceive of death as good is self-delusion. What, then, do we do with it?

Death is inevitable; that is, it is tied to time. Hamlet said 'If it be not now, then 'twill come; if it is not to come, then 'twill be now; and if it be not now, then surely it will come. The readiness is all.' But what readiness? What does readiness for death mean? What does it consist of? Does it mean resignation, putting one's affairs in order, making peace with one's fate? If readiness is merely acceptance, and actions and attitudes based on acceptance, then we remain victims of death; its servants and not its masters. That is why I wrote in my Crusade novel that death teaches us we are nothing - nothing but the slaves of time.

If the alternative to this view is, as Tolstoy often argued, to focus on and live in the present, and to do as much kindness as we can, then the question arises: Why? Ultimately, doing so will make no difference in our lives. Yet it will in the lives of others. And so we are left with the forlorn hope that our behavior in this life will make better the lives of others, and the even more forlorn realization that it will make no difference to our own fate. What this suggests is that we live for others; yet, what is the point of that?

All of this is true only if there is no form of accounting after death. For those who accept this idea, there is no point to life. At best it is altruism, and, at worst, idle entertainment and time marking; rather like those long hours we spend in the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists to whom we take our children for care. We may chat cordially or read or play games to pass the time, in the knowledge that we are doing what is best for another whom we love - and that has intrinsic value. This, it seems to me, is as close to an understanding of the meaning of life as I can come. But it is scant consolation in the face of extinction. And so I return to the idea that, unless one conceives of some form of accouting after death, the experience of life is shallow at best.

Now, as I have written before, I reject utterly the juvenile Christian concept of an afterlife of eternal punishment or reward, which is nothing more than a fairy tale intended to scare unreflecting minds into submission to dogma. It is, of course, posited on the idea that we will be in the body after death, which is nonsense when one thinks of it. Corporeal beings such as we cannot exist outside of time - there is no eternity for those who live within the confines of the body. And so, what is one to make of the necessity of an accounting after death? What vision of it makes sense in terms of what we know and what we can believe?

As I have also written before, I tend toward the Buddhist conception of a cycle of lives through which the soul passes in its quest to liberate itself from time and suffering. And yet, I continue to bump up against what appears to me a contradiction; namely, the idea of the individuation of the soul. To believe that a soul persists through many incarnations, intact as it were, is, I think, to confuses the soul with the personality. It is the personality which is individuated, and that individual personality, it seems to me, dissolves at death.

And so what of the postmortem accounting, which, I think, alone makes sense of suffering and kindness and the whole personal history of each human life? An afterlife alone renders personality meaningful, in that it extends the consequences of personal choice out beyond the temporal. But of such an afterlife I can find no conception that makes sense to me.

--Formerly I had thought of death as a threshold; as a sort of temporal-spatial doorway through which we pass into another dimension of existence. But this rather conventional view has given way in my mind to a less structural and more fluid one. I now tend to think of the experience of dying as passing through a membrane; a fluid transition from one degree of pressure, as it were, to another. We know that fluids always migrate from areas of higher pressure to those of lower. May it not be so with the soul, which is confined - pressurized, if I may so put it - within the body, and then, through a process of osmosis, returns to its natural state outside the body? And, if this is so, what are the implications for the soul and the afterlife?

--I continue to reflect on the idea that consciousness is the nature of the spiritual force which animates all things. Formerly I had though that consciousness was the product of the soul's intersection with the corporeal. But, more and more, it seems to me that consciousness precedes the corporeal, and is merely limited by it. Therefore, after death, the soul regains or returns to its true form, which transcends the human experience of it in the body. 'We see now as through a glass darkly, but then, face to face.' And the face we will see is our own true face.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Poetry encore

Continuing with my plan to publish my poetry, whether the industry likes it or not...

Love is nourishment of life
milk on which it mouths
when drought of death
dries even tears. These years
we parcel out like playdough
colored pastel figures sculpted
by our fingers into shapes that linger
only till they parch and crumble
are too humble to contain the truth
that we possess nor age nor youth
but nod a dozy moment till
the breath of death revives us
and we wake and find it seems
we are the love we thirsted for in dreams.


What is Love?

Love is the lie we have to tell
Ourselves and others
It is escape from hell
An orphan’s prayer
That someone bothers
For the pain we feel in dreams
And every sunless morning
When we wake to face the raw
Reliving pain of borning
And melancholy hope of dying
Remembering with every breath
The truth that we are born for death:
That is why we are lying

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ideas...

I am casting about for the subject for my next book, which will be my tenth. I have a few ideas, but it occurred to me that some of you may have better ones. People are forever coming up to me and saying: I have a great idea for a book!

Therefore, I am soliciting ideas from you: fiction or non-fiction; stories, anecdotes, memoirs, dreams, fantasies, fears, suspicions, joys, heartaches, insights.

I realize this is a bit risky, but to this point readers of this blog have been pretty serious-minded and articulate. So if you have any suggestions, please send them to me - briefly - and I will consider them.

Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Poetic Fits

Back after a long absence. For me, the silence has been thick with depression and struggle; for many of you, I suspect it has been something of a relief.

Two years ago I brought out a volume of poetry. It was self-published since no corporation is foolish enough to publish poetry anymore. Most of the poems - some 450 pages of them - are love poetry, conceived in fits of passion which I can scarcely remember now, and which no longer seem to me of any importance.

Since I suppose that my volume of poems will never see the light of day, I have decided to publish one here from time to time, in case anyone is interested. I will begin with this one, which, because it is not about love, is uncharacteristically upbeat...


endstart

what came before endures behind
was and is are merely states of mind
nothing that is gone is lost
everything renews, and in December’s frost
are memories of dews to which we woke
in May from dreams that presaged
the dawning of the day that only death can bring;
stars explode the night in fireworks
to light our way through time, and time
returns upon itself in every birth of mind;
that which was hid is evermore revealed
and what was sealed in lips or tombs
will speak again within the wombs of earth
there is no dearth of hope so long as soul
can clap its hands and sing, there is no end
of anything so long as there is spring

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Two News

There are two news stories tonight that, in my mind at least, are tenuously linked. The first is the attempted launch of the North Korean rocket, and the other is remembrance of the tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger.

North Korea is the most pathetic, monstrous, absurd and criminal government on the face of the Earth. It is a socialist throwback to the worst days of Stalinist and Maoist communism, and of Mussolini and Hitler fascism, which, as I have said before, were essentially the same thing. The government of North Korea is nothing but a gang of thugs and lunatics in possession of a national cult of worship and obedience. The people of North Korea, poor souls that they are, have been victimized, hypnotized, and cowed into a submission that outstrips the worst days of Russian serfdom and American slavery.

Yesterday, North Korea attempted to launch a multistage rocket (which is a precursor to an ICBM that it would have sold on the terrorist market), ostensibly to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the founder of that pseudo-state, and, by extension, the ascension to hegemony of its new twenty-seven year old leader, whose only qualification for office is the bed in which he was conceived. North Korea has become the personal fiefdom of the Kim family, just as Cuba has become the property of the Castro family, and Syria that of the Assad family, passed from father to son (or brother) in the same shameful way that medieval kingdoms were passed from one generation of a family to another. This is an archaic model of governance that should have long gone the way of astrology and alchemy, but which somehow remains a tottering and tragic anachronism in our own time.

The North Korean launch, apparently, has failed. And as I watch the gloating reports of the failure, I cannot but reflect that people will be shot in the aftermath of this public humiliation of the Mafia-style clique that controls that starving and benighted country. By this time tomorrow, servile scientists will have been singled out for prison, torture and death because of this technological fiasco. They will die in the wake of their coerced service to the brutes who masquerade as the leaders of North Korea.

And then I watch reports, provoked by the failure, of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. I learned of the tragedy while I was in Belgium, pursuing a lead in my research into the assassination of President Kennedy. The people with whom I was staying woke me with the news, communicated to me in French, that "le Challenger s'est explose." I recall being uncertain at first how to respond, preoccupied as I was with the central mystery of American history in the twentieth century.

It was only later, when I had had time to read about and reflect on the tragedy, that it began to become clear to me that, whatever had happened to the Challenger in the air, those astronauts were probably still alive when the command module hit the water. And that they may have remained alive as it sank into the depths of the Atlantic. To quote from the conclusions of the investigative panel summarized in its report::
The findings are inconclusive. The impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was so violent that evidence of damage occurring in the seconds which followed the disintegration was masked. Our final conclusions are:
the cause of death of the Challenger astronauts cannot be positively determined;
the forces to which the crew were exposed during Orbiter breakup were probably not sufficient to cause death or serious injury; and
the crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following Orbiter breakup due to in-flight loss of crew module pressure.

Though there is clear evidence that at least some of the crew were still alive and operating the controls, it is likely that the concussion with the ocean surface killed the astronauts. But what if it did not? Yet, apparently, nothing was done to try to recover them as they lay strapped inside their vessel at the bottom of the ocean. They may simply have been allowed to die.

To this day I remain haunted by the possibility of those seven people strapped in their seats at the bottom of the ocean, waiting in vain for their government to save them. And that such is the fate of all of those who put their faith in government.

To my mind, these two news stories are overlapping phenomena of what government is and has always been and will always be: stupid, cowardly, brutish, self-serving and complacent. Willing to sacrifice others for the sake of its own survival. Ready to lie about or let die those whose lives, for one reason or another, threaten its bloated existence.

This is the nature of government, about which our Founding Fathers warned us. This is the monster of government which they sought to restrain even as they imposed it upon us. And this is the government which too many of us now worship and have confidence in and invite into our lives for the sake of a phony idea of fairness, which is nothing but the watchword of tyranny.


A post script: Writing this post has caused me to reflect:

Government is the enemy of free people. If you would retain your liberty, you must restrain your government. That was the message of the Founders, and that is the idea, and the ideal, which is being strangled to death by those currently in power in this country.

Recognizing government as a necessary evil in people's lives, the Founders struggled mightily to devise a form of it that would remain limited in its powers, and check itself with internal balances. Their goal, clearly, was to create for Americans the smallest government necessary to maintain social order and the national defense. How one extrapolates from that intent to, for example, confiscatory taxes, trillions of dollars of national debt, government subsidized contraception, a constitutional right to abortion, and federally mandated health insurance is beyond my understanding.

During the recent debt ceiling crisis, the president announced with characteristically studied impassiveness that if the government were to shut down, over 70 million government checks might not be issued. I was stunned by this bland assertion. That amounts to about one in four Americans receiving checks from the federal government.

Governor Christie's recent warning that we are becoming a nation of people sitting on our couches and waiting for the next government check is apt. I have never in my life received a check from the government, unless it was a tax refund in my early years, which amounted to nothing more than repayment of a yearlong interest-free loan that I had made to the government against my will. Yet now nearly twenty-five percent of Americans are the recipients of government largesse, while forty-nine percent pay no taxes at all. And the liberals talk about "fairness"? Where is the fairness in that?

No, it must stop. While those of us who still work and pay taxes and struggle for our families remain in the majority - a majority that is shrinking with every passing day - we must do something. And what we must do, it seems to me, is clear.

We must turn out of office every incumbent running this year. We must impose term limits at every level of government. We must cut government spending - and by that I mean real cuts, not the reduction in the growth of spending which the pols routinely pass off as cuts. We must cap the rate of growth of the federal government. And we must finally pass a balanced budget amendment to force the Congress to live within its means.

Removing the professional politicians and cutting off the unlimited flow of tax dollars to the government are essential to recovering control of our debt and of the reins of power in our nation. If we fail to do so, starting with this year's election, I fear that we will drown in debt even amid the assurances of the politicians and the press that things are getting better, and so business may go on as usual.

That, it seems to me, is a recipe for the demise of the Republic which the Founders created for us as our legacy to the future of the world.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Italian Concerto

On the way home from the gym I was listening to a recording of Bach's keyboard work, The Italian Concerto, and I thought again what I remarked to someone the last time I heard it -- that this is as close to perfection as one will ever experience on the Earth.

Every idea is clear and original and wonderfully phrased, every note is exactly what and where it should be, and the tone of the piece is exultant, exuberant, but never excessive. The piece moves and is constructed the way Nature moves and makes - organically, concisely, lucidly, without an effort at show, though with results of such beauty and grace as make the concept of "show" have meaning. Taken together with the English and French Suites, the Italian Concerto is like the essential elements of Nature, lacking only an overt fire, which would diminish the effect. (Though fire there is, but glowing and subdued rather than out-flaming.)

The experience only reinforced me in my opinion that Bach is the greatest artist of our civilization. (If there is anyone to match him in another civilization, I would very much like to know who it is.)

As I drove home up toward the San Gabriel Mountains, the weather was rolling in on flat clouds of slate gray, and the temperature was dropping. It is expected to rain tomorrow, and since any storm gathers first over the mountains, I have the luxury of seeing it coming. Only this replaces the anticipation of the seasons, which are two only here: wet and dry. We are now at the end of the rainy season, before the indecision of May and the dull of June, and the full sear of summer set in.

It was nearly seven o'clock and still light out, which is for me always a cheering sign. I am one of those souls who suffers from what is called seasonal affective disorder, with its ironically appropriate acronym, SAD. This means that the long, dark, cold, dreary months of winter drain from me such spirit as I have. I am getting older, and every symptom in my body and, increasingly, in my mind reminds me of the fact.

I intend one of these days to write about the experience of aging, which I observe with a good deal of curiosity and bemusement, in the changes it is wreaking in me. It is an odd prospect -- it seems that I was young for so long and with such surety that this process, though inevitable, has no place in my life. But in my gait and memory and mood and muscles it is always there now, and there seems little I can do about it but chronicle it. It is strange, but as Hamlet said: As a stranger give it welcome.

All of these reflections were under the spell of the Bach, which was intricately played by Glenn Gould, that most exacting and eccentric of pianists. And it provoked the further reflection that, if the Mayans were right, and the world will end this December, I would just as soon be listening to The Italian Concerto when the end comes as to anything else. Except, perhaps, my children's voices telling me that everything will be all right after all.

Pres Declares War on Court!

"President Declares War On Supreme Court
Implies Justices lack authority to overturn law
Warns against 'unprecedented' action"

Had a Republican been in office last week, and made the statement which Barack Obama made regarding the Supreme Court and his healthcare law, this would have been the headline and sub-head in most major newspapers.

And the network news organizations would have trumpeted the statement as "The most serious challenge to the Constitution since Nixon and Watergate."

Instead, I watched as the mainstream media worked furiously to minimize the president's extraordinary concatenation of lies and anti-historical claims.

He stated that Obamacare passed Congress by a large majority. This was not true. It passed by a mere seven votes in the House, and in neither chamber did it receive a single Republican vote. How did he think he was going to get away with this phoney claim?

He stated that a decision by the Supreme Court to overturn the law would be "unprecedented." In fact, the Court has been ruling acts of Congress unconstitutional since 1803, and doing so is, in effect, its only job. How did he expect to get away with this blatant distortion of American history?

He implied that the Court had no authority to overturn an act of Congress passed by a substantial majority. This flies in the face of American Constitutional history, and represents a challenge to the very structure of our government, which embraces a clear separation of powers. Now, Mr. Obama is reputed to be a constitutional scholar and a former professor of constitutional law. He must know better. He has to know that the implication of his statement was fallacious, and even dangerous. Yet he made it nonetheless. How did he expect to get away with that?

The answer is simple: The mainstream press is dedicated to the proposition that Barack Obama must be re-elected. And it will do anything - mask any lie, distort any story, slant any report - to achieve that.

Yet, if George Bush or Ronald Reagan or any Republican had made such false and anti-historical assertions, he would have been hounded out of office by the very same mainstream press that touts objectivity on the one hand, but evinces such bias and hypocrisy on the other.

The spectacle of news anchors, commentators and analysts attempting to minimize and rationalize Mr. Obama's stunning statement was shameful. And that of press secretary Jay Carney, that milquetoast huckster for the administration, to alternately deny that he said it, claim that it was factually accurate, insist that it was misinterpreted, and talk down to reporters who demanded an explanation was disgraceful.

The truth is that Mr. Obama's statement, made with many pauses for reflection and careful phrasing, was a rare candid admission that he intends precisely what he stated during the campaign: a fundamental restructuring of American society. The healthcare law proves it, the unapproved appointment of 'czars' proves it, the sheltering of those who intimidate voters and who sell guns to drug cartels proves it, the imposition of taxes under the guise of administrative fees proves it, the war on capital proves it, the attempt to replace individualism with collectivism proves it.

Ironically, when he referred to the Ryan budget as an effort to radically alter American society, Mr. Obama inadvertently described his own political program. It is Mr. Obama who is the radical, and if a mere matter of constitutional history gets in his way, he cannot refrain from warning those who would insist on the Constitution that they have no authority to defy him.

This is a dangerous president, one whose policies are failing and threatening the nation with bankruptcy, and who must be removed in November. It is not a question of the choice we will have: We have no other choice.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Occam and Easter

My nine-year-old was asking me about Easter yesterday, and I found myself speculating once again about its meaning.

Some years ago I attended the parents' visiting day at my girls' Catholic high-school. It was near Easter, and in theology class, in which the resurrection was being discussed, I asked the girls the following question: Jesus was crucified naked or nearly naked, but the next time his disciples saw him, he was fully clothed. Where did he get the clothes?

It was, of course, a facetious question, but one intended to start them thinking about the resurrection in a practical way. A practical way: That is always the hardest sort of thinking to apply to matters of faith, yet how important and illuminating it is. In the case of the resurrection, if we accept that Jesus was crucified and died, then we are left with two possibilities: Either he managed to resuscitate himself (or be resuscitated by some other power) and return from the dead through a miracle of both physiology and spirituality or... the body was simply removed from the tomb during the night.

Now, faced with those choices, any reasonable person, that is, anyone not imbued with dogma, would have to choose the latter. It is the law of Occam's razor: The simplest solution is usually correct.

Disposing of the bodies of rebels and malcontents is hardly a rare phenomenon. We did as much with the corpses of John Wilkes Booth and Osama bin Laden, in order to prevent their graves from becoming rallying points for their fanatical followers. Certainly the Romans, having executed the rebel Jesus, would have been wise to dispose of his body as quickly as possible. Assuming that they did so, then when the disciples arrived at the tomb on Monday (not Sunday) and found it empty, they may have interpreted it as a sign that Jesus had returned to life; or, perhaps, taken advantage of the fact of his disappearance to claim that he had.

The forty days that he is supposed to have spent among them are scarcely chronicled, though one would think they would have been the most important six weeks of his time on Earth. But, of course, the number forty, like the number three, is a powerful symbol in Hebrew mythology and numerology. That of this postmortem period nearly nothing is said is stunning. The one human being in history who defies death and returns to his friends, and nothing is revealed about the afterlife, the experience of death, and the transformation of a resurrected soul? Impossible.

The idea of the resurrection of Jesus, or of any man, seems a fatuous one on even brief reflection. Try to imagine the actual event: What would it have looked like? How was it done? Was there some blinding radiation, as the Turin Shroud advocates claim? And of what did this radiation consist? How was life returned to the corpse of Jesus? How did he experience it? How did he feel? The notion defies everything we know about life and death.

No, I am inclined to take a rather pragmatic view of this event, and suggest that it was invented by the followers of Jesus, who could not accept the fact of his death, just as those of L. Ron Hubbard and Elvis Presley cannot accept theirs. If Jesus was dead and gone, then they were finished. But if he could be presented as being still alive, then their movement, too, was still alive. And the hope which he represented for them had not died, but had been reborn immortal. The resurrection of Jesus was not a historical fact; it was a historical necessity.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Laundry and Mortality

As I finish my fifth load of laundry (there are only two of us living in this house!) I reflect on the following:

In face of death, we have three choices: To try to distract ourselves with idle entertainment, quotidian cares and petty concerns (which is what most people do); or to submit to the reality of death, to allow it to fixate and overwhelm us, and to fall into despair (which some do); or to try to discover that which does not die in ourselves - that which endures. Now the last is done most commonly by those who adhere to conventional religion, at least to the extent that they subscribe to one or another concept of God and of salvation. And while this pursuit undoubtedly offers some consolation, it does not, to my mind, represent the truth.

This religious track inevitably leads, as I have said, to contradiction and disillusionment for anyone who can think past its concepts to its conclusions. Ultimately, in my experience at least, the path of conceptual religion (which is itself a contradictory notion), leaves the believer bereft of any sense of will, any power of self-determination, and any hope for survival of death. The idea of a God who is little more than an extension of Santa Claus - an old man who lives "up there," who speaks our language, concerns himself with our daily affairs and oversees our lives, rewarding us for good behavior and withholding reward for bad, is a juvenile, hollow thing. Likewise, the concept of heaven, an ethereal chamber wherein we will live in a gauzy state of suspended youth, doting on ourselves and our good fortune and enjoying some form of eternal pleasantry, is a pointless answer to the question of the meaning of life and the possibility of survival.

And so we are left with three possible outcomes to the problem of mortality: Ignore it until the moment when, in panic and uncertainty, we succumb; collapse under its suffocating weight and admit the meaningless of our lives; or carve out for ourselves, each in his own time and fashion, some answer to the questions: Why do we live, What meaning does life possess, and What happens after we die?

I have attempted all three, and as I grow older, it seems to me that the third course is the only one that offers hope and dignity. But it also requires a great dedication of thought and a good amount of self-knowledge and courage. To stand alone against the inevitable extinction of one's life is, as the existentialists said, the greatest test of a human being. To overcome the fear of hopelessness, to withstand the weight of despair, and to find some source of solace and purposefulness is at once the greatest challenge and the most pressing demand an individual can confront.

Yet confront it we must if we are not to be destroyed by death. In his story 'The Death of Ivan Iliych,' Tolstoy's character comes to the terrifying reflection: 'Death is all that there is; and death ought not to exist.' It was this denuding insight that led Tolstoy to his own desperate self-realization. Out of the experience of confronting his own mortality, which he and all other mystical thinkers have undergone, he was reborn.

But as what, and to what? As a man freed from the fear of death? I do not think so. I think Tolstoy was involved in an unceasing race against mortality which provoked in him both enormous labor and enormous suspicion. Having lived with him and studied his life and work for forty years, I am convinced that he never truly solved the problem of death - his own death. And, as all of us will, ultimately he succumbed, though more in hope than in fear.

Tolstoy in death was, I think, no more enlightened than was Tolstoy in life. The difference between him and the rest of us was a monumental intellect coupled with a rare gift for self-expression. I say rare and not unique, since it was equaled by that of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Bach, Leonardo and Michelangelo. Yet no more in them than in Tolstoy do I find a resolution of the problem, and an answer which can satisfy humanity at large. In the end, each man, each artist, struggled with his own mortality; though of them all, only Beethoven, I think, came close to the truth about the perplex.

That truth, it seems to me more and more, lies in what Kazantzakis called the need to transform flesh into spirit. That process is, of course, the essence of Buddhism, and for my own part, I find myself drawn more and more to its spirit, not of nihilism but of self-negation. The first is surrender, the second, a struggle. We are born into flesh, which means into death, and our salvation lies, not in any church or doctrine, but in our individual ability to free ourselves from flesh and so from death - in our power to transform flesh into spirit.

Those who do not understand that life is essentially spiritual (not religious, but spiritual) are, I think, condemned to death by their own minds. But those who can at least glimpse the true nature of existence - that that nature transcends our own and possesses its own vitality and destiny - may escape the fate which awaits every person born of woman. Yet, what is the nature of this nature which consumes and surpasses us? What is this spiritual reality?

To this point in my thinking, I had made the distinction between flesh and an animating force which resides in everything that lives. (It is for this reason, for example, that I have tended to move away from the killing and consuming of any living creature.) The concatenation or intersection of the corporeal and the non-corporeal I have said gives rise in us to consciousness. Thus, I have seen consciousness as the product of organic life, its characteristic phenomenon, at least in sentient, that is, self-reflecting beings.

Now, however, my thinking is beginning to change. I am questioning whether my model has been misconstrued. It seems to me now that, rather than being the product of sentient life, consciousness may itself be the force which animates life. In other words, consciousness is the animating force which I had posited in my attempt to explain the peculiar nature of self-aware beings. What if consciousness is itself the animating force, and human consciousness merely a reflection of it, limited by corporeal existence? What if there are not three components to organic life: flesh, spirit, and consciousness? What if there are only two: the corporeal and consciousness? What if consciousness is the animating force; what if it is spirit? What if it is that reality which I have characterized as that which men speak of when they speak of God?

If that is so, the implications are far-reaching. Every individual person, then, is a reflection of pure consciousness, and is, theoretically, capable of purifying and rarefying his being to the point where he can attain nearly to consciousness itself. Does this not raise the possibility of survival of death? Understood in this way, would it not be possible for every human being to view death as a retrograde movement toward that which is his or her true nature? Would death then not become a form of liberation - a liberation of our true selves? And does not immortality consist in our embracing once again the pure consciousness which is our progenitor and our birthright?

What survives, then, is what we truly are - pure consciousness. We see now as through a glass darkly, but then, we face ourselves. It is not God that we seek beyond death, but our veritable nature, which we can glimpse even here and now in our moments of greatest exultation, as in the birth of our children, or the ecstasy of love, or moments of artistic transport, especially in music.

In those exalted experiences, perhaps, we can see what it is that survives, because it resides within ourselves. It is that consciousness which we call God or love or simply happiness. But ultimately and essentially, it is what we are, what we are made of, what we are destined to recover through the experience of death. Mortality, in this light, appears as rediscovery. Death is our destiny in the sense that it restores us to that which we truly are, whether we can see it through this veil of life or not.

I will continue to muse about these questions in future. But now I must confront the pressing question of the moment: fabric softener or not.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Maggie, Maggie, out!

Last night I finally went to see the film The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep. I had intended to avoid it, since I assumed it would be a typical media trashing of a conservative political figure, and I find such spectacles as predictable as they are tedious.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for my assumption, since the fact is that, in order for a woman to achieve the praise of the mainstream media, it is not sufficient that she be ambitious, accomplished, creative, original, or brilliant – she must also be a liberal. Indeed, a woman may be a world leader or an artistic genius, but if she is not left-leaning in her politics, she will be the object of remorseless mockery and vicious attacks by the left. And, needless to say, no matter how vile and personal their assaults are, they will get away with it.

And so, I went to the film solely to see Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance. I was not only surprised, I was astonished.

To the writer’s credit, he chose not to frame the story as that of Britain’s first female prime minister and its leading voice for conservatism, but rather, as that of an old woman struggling to exorcise the ghost of her husband from her life. Fully half the film takes place in Margaret Thatcher’s retirement, when she is ill and on the verge of dementia. Indeed, the flashbacks to her girlhood and her political career serve only to illustrate the character in the present-time story, as we witness her dealing with age, illness, regret, and her fear that she is losing her mind.

On the whole, I thought the rendering of the political aspect of the film was quite even-handed. And at some points, especially when she speaks of the need for people to return to self-reliance, to abandon their dependence on the government, to make sacrifices for the sake of the common good and their own characters, I kept thinking how relevant and how right her ideas are.

As for the performance: I have rarely seen anything to compare with it. I must admit that, while I have admired some of Meryl Streep’s work, I have never been a fan of hers. Yet, her Margaret Thatcher is the equal of Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth, or any of the work of Olivier or Orson Welles. It is, simply, a portrayal of breathtaking realism, delicacy, depth and truth. It is life itself. It is acting artistry.

She creates the character (with the help of marvelous make-up work) both macro-cosmically and micro-cosmically. She grasps and conveys the great sweep of the woman’s character and accomplishments. Yet I could not help admiring, even marveling, at her careful choice of gesture and vocal tonality, especially her use of her eyes, which dart left and right, rarely fixed on any one point, as though there is such a universe of thought and action inside her, she cannot be troubled by anything of passing interest before her. That her mind is constantly working, constantly searching for the strength and insight to make what she calls the hard choices is clear in every scene. As Meryl Streep portrays her, she is a woman for all seasons, as powerful as she is imperfect; as fated to public greatness as she is flawed in private life.

I was a recent college graduate living in London during the time Margaret Thatcher was in office, and I recall how all of my young friends hated her. Hated, loathed, despised and derided her mercilessly. In fact, they managed to persuade me to march in an anti-Thatcher demonstration, and I, a consummate leftie who never missed a chance to demonstrate, joined them. I remember they shouted, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out! At the time, I knew only that her government, as part of its austerity measures (which saved the British economy) had cut back on funding for milk in the schools. The slogan was, Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher! And some of the young people chanted: Maggie, withdraw, as your father should have done! All of which, as a twenty-one-year-old, I thought very clever and amusing.

But that was then and there, and this is here and now. And how I wish we had a leader with Margaret Thatcher's character and vision in this country today. Someone who will tell us the truth about who we have become and the crises we face, and the hard choices we will have to make to restore our nation's vitality. And who has the courage of the Iron Lady to make those choices.

Still Waiting After All These Years

Recently I attended a performance of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles. I have never missed an opportunity to see Godot, and so have seen several productions. By far the best was one I attended while at film school in Paris. It took place in the hold of a barge on the Seine, in a small lake of mud. It remains for me the benchmark for productions of the play.

I first read "Waiting for Godot" in high-school when I was seventeen years old, and it changed my life. I had never thought that drama could take such a form. To me, to that point, plays were the silly, shallow spectacles of my childhood, usually involving animals or fantasies or popular songs. Godot changed all that. Its stark setting, bold barrenness of character and plot, and the beauty of its language opened my eyes to infinite possibilities of drama. I had been writing plays since I was thirteen, but from that day on, for many years, I immersed myself hungrily in Beckett's work and tried to write like him. In his austere, grim demeanor, he became a model to me as a writer; a hero of thin, pale light in darkness. That I write drama today is largely due to Godot.

The Taper production was beautifully laid on in the nearly circular theater, overawed by a towering backdrop of languidly gathering storm clouds from which a frail ribbon of road emerged, lolling across hillocks toward the stage. A few minutes before the play began, my nine-year-old pointed out urgently to me that a man was moving hypnotically across the road towards us, scarcely more than a silhouette of a stick figure. In all my years of reading, watching and thinking about the play (which I consider one of the two most important of the 20th century - Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" being the other) it had never occurred to me to wonder how the tramps reached the intersection where they were to wait. I think Beckett would have approved of the effect.

The play calls for "a country road, a tree," and that is what the production gave us. The playing area, a rough circle hemmed by rocks, was suitably spare and featureless, which I found a bit of a disappointment. In the French production, the set had three dimensions, which gave the play a visual depth to accompany its intellectual one. It is not necessary to perform Godot in two dimensions as most people do; in fact, I think it is a mistake. So little happens during its two hours, that some visual variety is a relief, and opens possibilities of blocking of which the actors can make use, especially for comedic purposes.

The production at the Taper is a very good one. Barry McGovern as Vladimir is excellent; Alan Mandell as Estragon, rather less so. McGovern's Irish accent serves the dialogue well, sounding as it must have in Beckett's mind. Mandell's repertoire of gestures, both physical and verbal, is limited; there are too many shrugs and outstretched open palms. Still, his gentleness is a good counterpoint to McGovern's relentless, pensive questioning. James Cromwell is impressive as Pozzo, a commanding, cruel dictator to Hugo Armstrong's hapless Lucky. His rendering of Lucky's frantic, semi-coherent speech is one of the best I have ever heard.

The director, Michael Arabian, understands the need for naturalness and nuance in the dialogue, and he did a wonderful job of bringing out the humor in the play. The pacing was good and the blocking effective. My one reservation was in the rendering of the great, dramatic "Let us not waste our time" soliloquy, which Vladimir delivers strolling arm-in-arm with Estragon as if it were meant as an ironic commentary on the helplessness of Lucky and Pozzo. This is a mistake, I think, since the speech, in my view, is one of the loftiest and most weighty calls to action in the face of existential despair in all of Beckett. The blocking of the speech and the tone undercut its power.

The production does not make the mistake of most directors and indeed some actors of portraying Beckett's characters as if they were little more than mouthpieces for the poetry of the dialogue. This is often the case in the complete set of Beckett on Film which I own, and which I watch periodically (the worst example is Julianne Moore's "Not I"). For all their minimal other-worldliness, Beckett's characters should be played as real people, caught in real, if odd or unnatural, situations. They are not burlesque mannequins or philosophical practitioners: They are human beings trapped in landscapes not of their making or choosing, unable either to leave or to understand why they have to remain. They are, in short, humanity at its rugged, sensitive core.

The tramps in Godot, like most of Beckett's men and women, exist only on the stage for the length of the production; unlike Hamlet or Lear they do not live forever, and their lives do not suggest great events before and beyond them. They can scarcely remember the past and have no idea what to expect of the future. As far as we know, they have never been anywhere but where we encounter them (and they encounter one another), and they seem incapable of leaving, despite their confusion, uncertainty and suffering. Once again: They are us, in our daily lives of quiet desperation, if only we had the insight and courage to see those lives for what they truly are. Since we cannot (like them we cannot bear the spectacle of ourselves at heart), then Beckett presents us with them for an hour or two, in the hope that we will recognize ourselves and take from the play at least a sense of perspective if not of shame.

I love the two great speeches in Godot, the hortatory "Let us not waste our time in idle discourse. Let us do something while we have the chance!", and the poignant, profound attempt at meaning and even triumph, "Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?" They are, I think, among the greatest soliloquies in Western literature, expressing man's anxious search for meaning in the midst of the confusion and chaos of life, as well as his thirst for some sense of dignity and self-affirmation. The latter, especially, is as close as Beckett ever comes to declaring that we are capable of imposing meaning on our lives, and of declaring victory, no matter how poor and passive. We may not be in control of our circumstances and we may be at the mercy of our fate, but at least we know that we are, and in that knowledge, we can take some sense of pride. "Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear: We are waiting for Godot to come."

I had brought my nine-year-old son half in the hope that he would appreciate the play, half in the expectation that he would be baffled and bored. Indeed, the man behind us in the snack bar line at intermission announced, "I don't think I get it." But my son did. He was riveted. He laughed at the burlesque humor, enjoyed the fart joke and the dropped drawers as only a nine-year-old can, and was moved to silence by the distraught condition and poetic eloquence of the characters. And he made a comment, which had never occurred to me and which I thought was insightful and profound, and totally in the spirit of the play. We arrived ten minutes before the performance began, and after a few minutes he asked, "Is this part of the play?" I didn't understand at first, and then it hit me: We were waiting; waiting for Godot to come. He was right: Waiting for the play to begin is very much a part of the experience. When I asked afterwards what he thought of the production, he gave it a child's highest marks: "I liked it. It was good."

I, too, after all these years, still like it and think it is very good. Indeed, it retains the power to stir my deepest suspicions and fears about the human condition, and to evoke my dearest hope - that they also serve who only stand and wait, as John Milton said; and in T.S. Eliot's prayer, Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still. Whether sitting or standing still in this naked landscape of life, which we neither created nor chose and which we cannot escape, awaiting the arrival of some savior who never comes, we may yet, by finding humor in our suffering, and dignity in what Hopkins called our poor potsherd selves, salvage some shred of meaning to mark our inexorable passage from existence to extinction, from time to timelessness.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Thinking... can't sleep...

So much has happened these past few days. Is it just that I am getting older, or is it that things are happening so fast and so corrosively one cannot keep up...?

When I was a student at a Jesuit university in Philadelphia, the administration decided, after more than a hundred years, to admit women. They did this, of course, not from any sense of duty or rationality or justice, but because they needed the tuition money, having excluded half the human race from the pool of applicants.

With the prospect of women joining the student body, a few friends and I formed the first feminist club on campus. Let me be clear: A group of male students, led by me and a black friend of mine, formed a feminist club as a way of welcoming the university's first freshman class of women. When they arrived, not a single woman joined. Instead, the co-eds rushed to the booster club, to support the men's basketball team. That should have been a lesson to me.

Now, this past week, I have watched the pathetico-comic spectacle of a Georgetown University law school student, a bright, young, educated woman, go before a pseudo-Congressional committee and complain that her birth control needs were not being met by the federal government - that is by me, the taxpayer. "I am woman, hear me beg." That any self-respecting woman in the 21st century would go before, not only a committee chaired by a former Speaker of the House, but before the nation, to beg for contraceptive relief, and that the media would lionize her for it, and that the President of the United States would telephone and congratulate her for it, says everything one needs to know about the current state of American culture and American politics. It makes me ashamed to say that I am an American.

Yesterday I paid $4.50 for a gallon of gasoline. When gas prices spiked under George Bush, the media and the left, including a dear friend of mine, blamed him for it. Indeed, my friend asked rhetorically: Is this Bush paying off his buddies in the oil industry? Well, is this Obama paying off his friends in the environmental industry?

Yet President Obama now claims in stentorian terms that there is nothing a President of the United States can do to affect the price of oil, and the media suddenly understands that the problem is more complex than they had thought under a Republican administration. Despite Mr. Obama's manifest ineptitude, despite the miserable failure of his policies, despite the fact that he calls their owners and share holders villains and wishes to punish their success, the media apparently will do everything in its power to see to it that he is re-elected. The inane, self-defeating hypocrisy is suffocating.

Obama's Secretary of Energy, an incoherent babbler if ever I heard one, has said repeatedly that the administration wants the price of gasoline to rise... until, of course, that rise hurts the president's chances for re-election. In which case, that same incoherent babbler has now said that the administration no longer wants the price to rise. Yet he denies that the president has ordered him to reverse his position. Greater hypocrisy cannot be imagined. It makes me ashamed to call myself an American.

And then there is Afghanistan... By the president's campaign promises, we should have been out of that benighted country by now. But of course, judging by the mainstream media, no promise of this amiable incompetent must be kept. We are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Guatanamo. And now...

More than a dozen Afghan civilians, including nine CHILDREN, have been murdered by a deranged, marauding American soldier. It is, of course, a tragedy of ancient Greek proportions, of Biblical proportions, of Vietnamese proportions. And what does our titular president do? He attends, with the Prime Minister of England, a basketball game, grinning as he ever does for the camera. Grinning and gawking in the wake of the murder of children. To quote Hamlet: "God, a beast that wants reason would have mourned longer!" Has he no shame at all? Has he no sense of propriety? This same man who, after the killings in Tucson, made an unabashedly political speech and then glad-handed and grinned for the cameras? Is there no disgrace of which he is not capable? It makes me ashamed to call myself an American.

What has happened to this country? What have we, as a generation of Americans, allowed to happen? We have suffered sixty years of unremitting liberalism, of "progressive"-ism, of permissive-ism. We have allowed our values to erode, our sense of self to deteriorate, our pride, our self-respect, our very idea of decency, to go by the board. And for what? For a phony sense of fairness and self-righteousness. For a cheap narcissism. We have permitted our concept of who we are as a people and what our nation means as a beacon of hope to mankind to be sold out for cheap health care and cheap prescription drugs and cheap public education that does not teach our children to think for themselves, and a cheap sense of progress and a cheap, submissive conviction that the government knows best, and cheap food stamps and cheap birth control and cheap abortions and cheap consciences that allow us to do whatever we want and consequences-be-damned, and a cheap lifestyle and cheap deaths in which our lives have meant nothing and our deaths are merely an agglomeration of cheap fertilizer.

But where has gone our soul? Where is our national identity? Our collective pride? Where is our sense of uniqueness? We are becoming the laughingstock of the world, a second-rate power, a cheap joke at the expense of others who have embraced our ideals of innovation and hard work, of sacrifice and self-sufficiency, even as we barter them away for a modicum of government subsistence at the expense of excellence and risk and our national heritage.

Indeed, as I watch events unfold through the distorted prism of a media which I trust as I do adders fanged (again to quote Hamlet), I am increasingly ashamed to call myself an American. Indeed, I no longer know what that word means.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why Write?

I was asked recently by the mother of a seventeen-year-old boy to write a letter to her son explaining why he should write. I must admit, I procrastinated for some time before I complied. I do not like writing about writing, do not like to think about the process, which has always come naturally to me. It's rather like trying to concentrate on your golf swing - you can only suffer from self-consciousness. However, since this was to be about purpose and not process, and as I had promised her I would do so, I set about it, and I reproduce the result here for anyone else who may be interested...


Why Should a Seventeen-Year-Old Write?

Every human being is a universe. We spin on the axis of our own ego; our perceptions, thoughts, desires, fears and hopes embracing a cosmos that, so far as we can tell, is eternal. We are all that we see and seem; a dream within a dream as Poe mused. Indeed, we spend our entire lives dreaming – whether asleep or awake. Our night dreams are pure introspection – the collision of a waking consciousness with a subconscious awakening. The result defies logic, experience, even our own will and better judgment. Nightmares are a sort of inner social commentary on our worst fears and darkest expectations; pleasant dreams are a gift which our subconscious offers to our waking mind. Guilt and generosity, damnation and delight – these are the fabric and function of our dreams. Shakespeare said that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” As usual, he was right. Life is a dream – the soul’s dream of reality – and we spend our entire life dreaming.

Dreams have no hard substance. They lack height, weight, depth, taste and temperature. They exist only in time and the mind’s experience of it. Life, since it is a dream, is essentially insubstantial. The suspicion that what we call reality is, after all, merely an illusion, has been thudding around philosophy from the beginning, its “mighty footsteps echoing in the corridors of time,” as Longfellow put it. What is real, in the sense of: What can be proved to be reality? The Beatles said that nothing is real. Tolstoy believed that “only that which is spiritual is real.” And St. Exupery’s fox tells the Little Prince that only those things you cannot see are essential. I am convinced that they are all correct. And you do not have to believe in Sixties rock or the soul or spirituality to agree with them; you need only believe in dreams.

And so we reach the conclusion that each of us is a universe, and that our universe consists of dreams – either consciously thrust upon us while awake, or unconsciously synthesized by us while alseep. Our whole life passes and is passed within a dream, either conscious or unconscious. Given a certain looseness of logic, the two are perfectly interchangeable; indeed, there was a tribe of Native Americans who believed that only night dreams were real, while waking consciousness was an illusion. Again Shakespeare: “Thou hast nor age nor youth, but as it were, an after dinner sleep dreaming of both.” Like ice and water, solid and liquid, night dreams and day dreams are merely differing phases of the same truth – that life itself is a dream.

Now, what does all this have to do with seventeen-year-olds and why they should write? The answer is simple: Dreams have no substance, but words can give them substance. Words are the bones and sinews of dreams; phrases are their blood, sentences are their muscle and tissue, paragraphs their flesh and emotions, and insight, emerging from them, is their mind. Think about it: What do you do when you awaken from a particularly vivid dream? You tell someone about it. Your natural instinct is to give voice to your dreams – to express them in words. You don’t just lie in bed re-dreaming – in fact, you can’t force yourself to re-experience any dream. But you do have an immediate and instinctive need to put your dream into words, so that you, and someone else, can experience it and try to understand it, to puzzle out its symbols. In other words, you want your dream to live, to last, to have a meaning.

To experience and understand, to create something that lives and has meaning: That is what words enable us to do. Words lift us, momentarily, out of the dream state and give to it a lasting form – the height and weight and depth and taste and temperature which dreams lack. Words allow us to live our dreams – indeed, they compel us to. Words are the substance of dreams, and writing is the most enduring form of words. Writing makes dreams survive; it enables them to live and last. Writing makes our dreams meaningful to ourselves and to others. And since we are, each of us, a universe of dreams, writing releases our lives from the constraints of time – it makes our dreams eternal.

Because writing enables us to do this, it makes it possible for us to gain knowledge of, and insight into, our inner selves, the meaning of our lives. It enables us to outlast the time which is the only context of dreams. It enables us to join our personal universe with the multiverse of others – to meld our dreams with theirs. And because of this, writing enables us to live and last and love.

Without words, your private universe would be a dark, cold, sterile place. With words, it comes alive both to yourself and to others. And in written words, it takes on its most lasting, thoughtful and intimate aspect. There is nothing in this world so intimate as sitting down with a pen or at a keyboard and writing from your soul, writing your life out, writing to someone else, connecting your separate minds in a mutual galaxy of thoughts and words. There is nothing more beautiful and wonderful, and difficult and frightening than the process of putting your dreams on paper. The great Irish poet W.B. Yeats told his beloved that he longed to give her a cloth of gold, “But I, being poor, have only my dreams. I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

When you open your private universe to others in writing, you are making the ultimate act of faith and hope and love. You are saying: Here are my dreams, for both you and me to see and understand; here is myself. This is what my private universe looks and sounds and feels and sings like. This is me – the real me. Such is the power of the written word: To turn a cold, dark universe inside-out, and open our inner selves to the light of understanding and the warmth of love.

Writing is dangerous, it is difficult, but it is essential if we are to learn and grow and become larger than ourselves. If we are to understand and express ourselves, if we are to dream in eternity and love in time and space, we must confront who we are, each in his private cosmos, and we must express the truth of our discovery to others, for all time and for all to see. That is why we write; that is why you, a seventeen-year-old must write: Because you are a universe roiling and rocketing through space-time, searching for a cloth of gold in which to wrap your dreams.