December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Soul to Self 2: Cosmic Facts & Personal Authority

Galileo. Descartes. These names almost everybody knows. Galileo for his trial by the Church; Descartes for his famous dictum: “I think therefore I am”. While the contours of their contributions are widely known, what is little appreciated is the revolution they helped initiate in the way we experience ourselves; the supplanting of soul with self.

Cosmos Disenchanted

Our inner life is not independent from how we position ourselves in the cosmos. When our cosmology dramatically changes, so too does our experience of ourselves.The two are tethered. Galileo, peering through his telescope, brought a new vision of the planets, moon and sun that also transformed our vision of ourselves within this new cosmic order.

The trial of Galileo, one of the most celebrated cases in Western history, marks a pivot-point when scientific fact eclipsed religious dogma, a material world supplants an inspirited cosmos, and reasoning about the path of an earthly self begins to overshadow concern about the fate a transcendental soul. The trial turned on the nature of the cosmos.  Church dogma posited that God, in His omniscience, created a perfect cosmos. This cosmos must be unchanging, for change implies either corruption or an improvement, both of which would slander God’s infallibility. Humans, who are made in the image of God, must reside at the center, and heavenly bodies, while possessing unique personal characteristics discernible from their behavior and appearance, also must exhibit perfection in movement (circular), shape (unblemished sphere) and number (seven).

Galileo not only challenged Church dogma about geocentric cosmology but, telescope in hand, discovered craters on the moon, spots on the sun, and multiple moons orbiting Jupiter.  The cosmos became unhinged from theology; pockmarked and blemished, suffering from inexplicable numerical irregularity, and no longer anthropocentric.  While this planetary dispute is widely known and easily grasped, the reworking of our psyche, presaged by this trial, is more difficult to discern.  The reply of an opponent to Galileo instructs:

There are seven windows given to animals in the domicile of the head, through which the air is admitted to the tabernacle of the body…two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth.  So in the heavens, as in a macrocosmus, there are two favorable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury undecided and indifferent.  From this and many other similarities in nature, such as the seven metals, etc., we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven.  Moreover, these satellites of Jupiter are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can exercise no influence on the earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist…Now, if we increase the number of the planets, this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.1

This response, like the trial of the Autun rats2, appears befuddling, if not ridiculous to us. But closer scrutiny exposes the anatomy of medieval thought and belief.  First, the reasoning is deductive.  Truth, and the conclusions, are presumed, given by scripture and dogma, and evidence reveals itself to support the obvious, God-given reality:  “The number of planets is necessarily seven.”  Second, the argument proceeds by analogy, so that a pattern in one domain, the microcosm of the body, is repeated in another, the macrocosm of the stars.  Thus, a dense web of signs weave “the heavens and earth and all that dwells within” into a grand, harmonious design attesting to God’s perfection. Third, only evidence that supports this grand, sacred design is recognized; all else is useless. This rebuttal makes sense only if these assumptions about the world are shared.

Galileo’s methods, evidence, reasoning and conclusions, so obvious to us denizens of the modern scientific-technological world, were as alien to his critics as their rebuttals are to us. Galileo not only challenged planetary explanations, he undercut what constitutes a fact, how facts are legitimized, what beliefs are fundamental, indeed the entire assumptive background that organizes how we position ourselves in the cosmos. He smashed our cherished interior gyroscope, cut loose the universe to float free of our certainties, and enshrined critical doubt, empirical observation and analytic reasoning as the pathway to truth. Perhaps worst of all, he situates us in a morally indifferent universe. This is a fate worse than Hell; a limbo without the vitalizing drama of salvation, without the thrill of being at the vortex of cosmic creation, and without the confident certainty that affords righteous action. It is a profoundly groundless moment, historically, evidenced by the plaintive, desperate lament that “this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.” And, indeed, it did.  And this collapse introduced new ways of thinking that we applied to ourselves.

 

I Think!!….??

Rene Descartes, a young contemporary of Galileo, carried the implications of the new science into the realm of the psyche.  His famous dictum, “I think therefore I am”, ushers in modern philosophy.  What makes this modern?  He was born over four centuries ago and died over a century before the American Revolution; hardly “modern” to our digital-age selves. Galileo challenged planetary facts and scholastic reasoning, and Descartes posited a modern philosophy— one steeped in the new science that applied analytic reasoning to immediate experience to achieve certainty; certainty unfettered by the corrupting influence of theology.

Each word in Descartes famous line is freighted with revolutionary significance:

I think…”:  The locus of authority is not priests, not biblical text, not Church dogma, not external authority to which “I” takes commands.  Rather, it is I, the self-reflective, subjective, independent self that provides the ground for truth-making.

“I think…”:  The source of truth is my cogitations; the experience and activity of my inner, subjective self.

“I think therefore…”:  Reason is what provides the link between the experience of the ‘I’ and the conclusions about truth.  This is unlike prior reasoning, which sought harmony with the sacred logos of the cosmos.  This reasoning is, instead, procedural, analytic and detached.

I think therefore I am.” The most basic given, that I am, that I exist, has become problematic and in need of proof.  Proofs of God’s existence are supplanted by proofs of our own, and the center of gravity shifts from soul to self.  No more profound statement of a new, existential groundlessness could be made than this befuddling, self-contradictory equation, where “I am” is both the ultimate source of truth and also most in doubt.

Descartes’ solitary, subjective “I” is the inward consequence of the new Galilean-influenced science of the external world.  The only vestige of the lost spirit-world is our own internal mental experience, whose origins in a materially caused world are now the ultimate mystery. This is the mind-body problem that begins modern philosophy. This quandary breeds another equally troubling befuddlement: How we can know anything with certainty? Through reason? Experience? Feelings? The isolated, subjective “I” peers onto an alien landscape and asks: “What is the relation between my rich inner experience and the indifferent material world where I find myself?  How can I, from the shadows of my private experience, know truth, when meaning is not given, when logos is not divinely imposed?” Descartes answers: “I can have no knowledge of what is outside me except by means of the ideas I have within me”.3  I, we, our inner selves bring forth knowledge, truth, meaning.  The power formally held by God as bringer of truth befalls to us.  We bear this weight, not by God’s power and grace, but through our own bolstering of ourselves.4

Descartes did not single-handedly initiate a revolution of the self.  The 17th century witnessed a raft of developments that highlighted the “I,” the self.  The etymology of the word, self, predates the 10th century and its origins recede into the mists of the past.  Its use as a prefix, however, appears in the middle of the 16th century.  “The number of self compounds was greatly augmented toward the middle of the 17th century, when many new words appeared in theological and philosophical writing…a large proportion became established and have a continuous history down to the present time”.5  These words include self-contradiction, self-elation, self-inspection, self-neglect, self-perception, self-vindication, self-prizing, self-consuming, self-punishing, self-blinded, self-corrupted, self-invented, self-improvable, self-affected, self-endeared, self-cruelty, self-holiness, self-strength, self-worthiness and self-admiration.  Descartes was the most noteworthy and influential voice among many who came to view the self as an object of scrutiny, praise, blame and concern.

Our experience of ourselves has undergone startling and profound transformations. Augustine’s injunction, “Try to build yourself up, and you build ruin”6 is inverted; self-esteem, self-reliance and self-confidence are now essential to the new, modern, “self-made man” (and woman). Terror about the everlasting fate of our soul is eclipsed by existential dread about our uncertain place in the cosmos. The authority of church sanctioned leaders, who minister to the soul, is superseded by accredited scientists of the self, who instruct on the management of the psyche. These changes, of course, took centuries. Galileo and Descartes, ushering in modern science and philosophy, provided germinating seeds that helped midwife the modern self.

 

 

Breaking News

Headlines Shout:

Ice Pick Killer Executed! Dow Jones Up 53 Points! Cardinals Beat Cubs, 6-3! Congress Passes Tax Cut! Prostitute Sues President for Defamation! Apple Announces New iPhone! Beyoncé and JAY-Z Expecting Twins! Self-Driving Cars are Here! Burger King Gives Free Cheeseburgers to Terminally Ill Dog! Price of Beef Up! Amazon Announces Drone Delivery Soon! Prince Harry Marries! ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’—Box Office Smash! City Helps Boy Get Permit for His Hot Dog Stand! Fire Destroys Warehouse! Genealogy DNA Bank Nabs Killer! Facebook Announces New Privacy Policy! Scientists: Limits of Human Lifespan Not Yet Reached! President Calls Former Reality Show Participant a Dog!1

 

While just off camera:

This year is one if the hottest years on record in the hottest decade on record.  30% of coral reefs, home to 25% of ocean life and the densest area of biodiversity on the planet, have died in the last 30 years, and 90% will be gone in 50 years. Wildfires have grown exponentially in magnitude and frequency in the past 30 years. Monster storms and extreme weather events are now commonplace. Over 18 million acres of forest are lost every year; an area about the size of South Carolina. Ice at the poles is melting much faster than previously thought— the Arctic Ocean will be ice free in about 20 years, and in Antarctica, a huge ice shelf, the size of a Delaware and 700 feet thick, has calved into the sea. Oceans will rise 2-5 feet in next 50 years flooding many major coastal cities, from New York and Miami to Shanghai and Hong Kong, from Osaka and Alexandria to Rio de Janeiro and The Hague. A number of island nations will be underwater. The oceans’ temperature, oxygen depletion and acidification are increasing exponentially, destroying ocean ecosystems, changing weather patterns,  increasing sea levels and contributing to human famine. Intense drought has increased world-wide, denuding forests, destroying agriculture, and initiating mass human migration. Underground aquifers, which took thousands of years to create and that supply 35% of world’s population with water, are being drained. Glacier National Park is a misnomer, and the great glaciers of the high Asia mountains, the water source for millions of people, will diminish by over 50% in the next century. We are in the midst of earth’s 6th extinction crisis, called the Anthropocene period, named for the single species responsible for this mass destruction of life: us.2

 

 

delusional arsonist
big brained
virus3

 

 

Soul to Self: Trial of Rats

 

A Historical Divide

We live on the other side of a historic divide.  This divide is most obvious when we, of the privileged industrialized world, consider the physical, material conditions of our lives: indoor plumbing, central heating and cooling, refrigeration, cars-trains-airplanes, medical wonders, foods from faraway places at our fingertips.  The list is endless and startling when viewed from the conditions that have marked human life for most of our history.  These changes, so visible and profound, are tangible and easily apprehended.  No one needs convincing that we live on the other side of a great material divide.  But these changes are tethered to other, less visible, cultural, societal and social changes: in the forms of government; the organizing laws that provide structure to human exchange; the growth and modes of ordering of urban life; education, literacy and schooling; business, markets and economics.  These changes pervade every corner of human action and exchange.

Another, even less visible, but no less profound transformation is how we inhabit ourselves.  The most concrete expression of this change is the emergence and influence of the discipline of psychology; discipline here meaning scientific discipline.  It is a watershed moment when the analytical, skeptical, empirical gaze of science is turned from the material world of galaxies and stars to the subjective experience of our own psyche.  This turn was long in coming and not easily achieved, requiring that we wrench ourselves free from the moorings that provided stability for many centuries.  Thus, the inwardness of the soul, embedded and buttressed by a world whose social, public, and institutional axes were theologically organized, is supplanted by the self, which emerges within  secular, material, scientific coordinates. 1

The failure to grasp the historical basis of the modern self can result in the assumption that the basic features of the self are independent, timeless and “placeless” components of a universal human psyche.  But time and place, history and context, matter.  Indeed, they are formative.  This history, then, is not simply useful as background information, but is evidence that how we organize and experience our inner world is intimately connected to how our sociocultural lives are organized; that the context-free psyche often presumed by psychological science is, itself, context dependent.

I will offer several posts that explore  this transformation of inwardness from soul and self. This  does not imply that the historical movement occurred through the simple substitution of self for soul, nor does it presume a dichotomous conflict between religion and science.  Human history does not yield to such simplicities.  Nor does it presuppose that many today do not deeply, devotionally give ultimate significance to the soul.  Indeed, many do.  But they do so in a world inverted: heresy is not a heinous crime punishable by public, state sanctioned torture and execution.  Rather, the soul is nurtured in the privacy and shadows of one’s personal life.  These posts exploring the journey from soul to self, then, are meant to illuminate the dramatically altered state of our consciousness.

We can never, fully, bring to life the ruins and runes left to us by the past.  The past is always read through the lens of the present, and this is especially difficult when the focus is the experience of our inner life.  Our contemporary psychological self is so naively a part of ourselves, so given and transparent, that it is difficult to conceive otherwise.  The past is a foreign country.  Overcoming the barriers and biases to gain entry is not easy, or completely possible. The trial of rats, however, offers a unique vantage point for appreciating the seamless union of  the soul, the society, and the cosmos in the time before the onset of the age of the self.

    Trial of Rats

 

   

GUILTY!

The year is 1522, in Autun, France.  Survival is precarious, crops and weather are unpredictable, and pestilence and starvation a pressing reality.  Amidst this uncertainty, the town is visited by a plaque of rats.  The threat to the community is so severe that the municipal authorities seek to prosecute the rats, issuing a summons that the rats appear in court.  They do not.  The rats are represented by official legal counsel, who argues that most of the defendants live in the countryside and, thus, likely unaware of the summons.  The court, in response, issues a second summons which is read aloud in the churches in the surrounding countryside.  Again, the rats fail to appear.  Their attorney contends that the public reading also alerted their mortal enemy, the cats, making the journey to court too dangerous.  And so it went…for eight years.  Eventually, the rats were convicted, condemned, and excommunicated.2

This trial, and the many others like it, may appear confusing, shocking, even humorous to us moderns, but it obviously was a serious undertaking.  The full weight and formal rituals of communal justice was brought to bear on a vital issue threatening their community.  We cannot patronize our forbearers by simply dismissing this trial as a product of simplemindedness.  They were not idiots.  This example jars our sensibilities and thereby beckons us, offering a portal into the foreign country of the past.  Two words help us gain a foothold in this alien terrain:

  1. Enchanted. The medieval world has been described by many as enchanted; a world infused with magical and supernatural powers.  The root of the word is “to chant,” or sing, and harkens to the capacity for music and song to enthrall, to captivate our spirit, to charm, spellbind and bewitch.
  2. Inspirited. The world is alive, possessing, at its core, animating spirits that give movement, meaning, purpose and character not just to humans, animals and plants, but to all things in the cosmos.  Indeed, one of the principle aims of alchemy, the material “science” of this era, was to extract from matter the anima mundi; the primal spirit or soul of the cosmos.

This enchanted, inspirited cosmos, pervaded by magic and supernatural powers and populated with hosts of strange, dangerous, threatening, helpful and inexplicable spirits, is a deeply unsettling place.  One the one hand, it shares basic properties of intentionality, purpose, will, and desire that we are familiar with in ourselves.  On the other hand, it is a dangerous, capricious, unfathomably powerful, personally directed, oppressively present reality that can crush us at any moment.  The sense of vulnerability is further heightened by abject poverty, the constant threat of starvation, illness, injury, disease and death, and the tipping point for survival rests on the caprice of weather, plague, fertility, and livestock.  Constant vigilance is thus required.  And vigilance there was:  Magic rituals were necessary before planting, plowing and harvesting; houses required the foundation to be consecrated by clergy and protected by magical charms; weather rituals helped ensure crop production; animals and livestock were subjected to blessings and curses; fertility rites and practices were required to ensure healthy offspring. Communal celebratory rituals, feasts, and pageants were held during the cycle of the seasons to ensure healthy crops and good harvests; childbirth, marriage and death each had their ceremonies to consecrate and protect against malevolent forces that threaten mental and spiritual well-being.

No important aspect of life was without its magical means of influence and control.

In this inspirited world, nothing happens randomly or fortuitously—everything has a reason.  Those reasons can,  potentially, be divined, and the future and our fate can, possibly, be influenced.3  The causal nexus of this cosmos is most certainly not an impersonal, blind and indifferent, billiard-ball material causality.  Rather, the world innately possesses meaning; all things, all thoughts, all actions are entangled in a web of meaningful influence.  The cosmos offers up portents, omens, and signs whose meanings hold great significance for our personal and collective fate.  This inspirited world, in turn, participates and responds to enchantments, to incantations, rituals and rites.  Consider the power of words: A specific utterance by the right person in power at the right place and time can send an army on the march, to great destructive consequence.  The entire cosmos is so ordered.

Individuals do not seek meaning in an indifferent universe; meaning is, rather, imposed. Personal thoughts and private experiences are coupled with the happenings in the greater world.  Omens, amulets, holy water, sacred relics—the entire inspirited world radiates influence, and unbeknownst to us, can overtake us, seize our wishes and will.  The boundary between ourselves and the cosmos is porous.  Possession by alien spirits is a legitimate fear and we must take caution, heed what we say, do, and think, lest we become prey to the intrusive influence of unseen, yet overwhelming powerful forces.  We are never alone, even in our thoughts, in this spirit-pervaded, enchanted world.

This cosmos is also fundamentally moral.  Satanic forces of destruction are aligned against God’s benevolence and the focal point of this titanic struggle is the eternal fate of our soul.  Demonic allure, temptation, and assault threaten at every turn.  The single biggest mistake, which will damn us to everlasting Hell, is to presume that, in the face of such powerful, supernatural malevolence, we can make our own way in the world, can rely on our own will and wile, be self-reliant.  Augustine, who shaped medieval Christian theology and practice, offers this advice: “Try to build yourself up, and you build ruin”. 4  Only God’s grace can save us, and the hard route to that grace must pass through humility, surrender, and acknowledgement of our unworthiness.

While our soul’s fate is profoundly personal, our plight is not solitary.  The Church stands between us and God, sanctified to draw down heavenly powers, channeled through ritual, incantation and relics, to combat the forces of darkness and evil; to provide opportunities for grace and forgiveness; and to offer sacraments for personal salvation.  The Church is the hub of spiritual power that extends to all official, organizing structures of society, from legal courts to royal crown, and together they stand as a bulwark against the flood-tide of evil that threatens not only individuals, but the entire community.

The maladies of human life were understood as a complex relation between body and spirit.  “Routine” illnesses were often treated as an affliction of the body, caused by an imbalance of humours; an ill wind bringing dirt and disease, the foul airs of urban life; or an unfortunate conjunction of moon and stars.  Treatments were usually provided by local healers who offered folk remedies of potions, ointments, and elixirs with an admixture of rituals, incantations, and appeals to supernatural powers.  Failure of treatment, or strange and disturbing symptoms, suggested affliction of the spirit requiring treatment in kind: prayers, confession, penitence, petition of saints, and also, simple resignation to one’s fate, as illness is God’s punishment for one’s sins.  More diabolical illness, including madness, required more extreme measures, such as exorcism, and plagues and pestilence were viewed as afflictions visited on the entire community requiring Church sanctioned, communal responses.5

Let us now return to the trial of the Autun rats.  The community was confronted with an infestation that threatened their crops, their health, their survival.  Evil forces were clearly at work—for what other explanation could there be?  One need look no further than the Bible, the word of God, to see examples of demonic spirits inhabiting snakes, pigs and other animals, not to mention people.  This affliction of rats was, obviously, evil let loose against the community, requiring a communal response of the highest order.  The decree of the court, which was closely aligned and working in concert with the Church, was a sanctified writ that spoke most directly to any spirits who might hear it and especially those to whom it was directed.  Failure to respond is not evidence that it is fundamentally impossible for the spirit-possessed rats to comprehend, but is a failure to either not to have heard it, or a willful refusal to comply.  Following official court protocol is necessary, for only then can the official powers of the court be legitimately enacted.  And the most damning injunction that can be invoked is spiritual; condemnation and excommunication.

The trial of animals is an understandable response to a haunted world of spirits and demons, where our earthly existence is tenuous and our eternal fate is precarious, huddled as we are with other lost souls who are tossed in a violent struggle of cosmic scope and supernatural power.  Demons that stalk our inner life and plague the outer world are adjudicated and combatted through the divinely sanctioned power of the Church-government.The trial is a feeble effort to exert a measure of control in an inexplicable and overwhelming cosmos.

 

 

Past-in-the-Present

Genealogy

Genealogy has been a mystery to me. Why do so many obsess over their genealogical tree, trying to get the most complete and extensive record going as far back as possible? To claim being a 4th cousin to a distant relative who sailed on the Mayflower? To be dubbed a “Daughter of the Revolution’? A relative sent me a compendium of my ancestors, pages long, of the names of strangers in a geometric regress into the long ago past. It was as impersonal as the list in a telephone book. I am reminded of the boxes of old photos my parents kept of their relatives who were never spoken of, of whom I have no inkling. After my parents’ death, I did feel a pang of regret when disposing the photos, as if I was consigning them to oblivion, but had no desire to keep them. My genealogy consists of a generation or two, ending where the reach of memory fails.

Our Collective  Fate

Or so I once thought. An awakening occurred when I realized that many have the same view of history as I of genealogy. After being forcibly subjected to an avalanche of names, dates, battles and long-ago events, and required to memorize them, many ask: “Why should I care? How are these relevant to my daily life, my interests, cares, loves and labors?” History is but another genealogy, writ large, of a culture or a collective entity several orders removed from life’s immediate, pressing concerns.

My previous posts, Cockfosters and EMPIRE and Home in the Strange, offer a partial reply to the dismissal of history as a pile of facts that have little consequence for our immediate concerns. The past has a living presence in London and Amsterdam. But we need not travel to far lands or look to a city’s architecture. We live in and through history in everything we do, say and think. Take, for example, this very moment when I am composing this blog. I do so using paper and pen at my desk. Paper. What a remarkable invention—fashioning tree pulp into fine sheets that preserve the present for the future. Originating in China about 2 millenniums ago, paper slowly made its way along the silk road, not arriving in Europe for over 1000 years. The more immediate history of this piece of paper includes a scar in the earth where trees were efficiently hacked down, and the subsequent processing, packaging, marketing, and sales. All of these, of course, with their own long historical tail. And this is only one item in of many involved in this simple act: Writing. Writing instruments. Desk. Lighting. Chair. I lift my eyes to the window in my second story air conditioned study. My entire surroundings, everything that I see, touch and use have their own deep history, which is braided into the composite present that I inhabit, reflexively, without awareness.

The genealogy of my ancestors is a faint trace of the braided lives, loves and fates that have sired me; the miracle of “Why Me?!” . And the canals of a historically distant Home in the Strange are scribed into my character. Ancestral and historical genealogies are not background to our lives, they are constitutive. We are embodied genealogy. How ignorant, then, for me to unmindfully shout: Me! Now! Here!

History, collective or personal, engenders a reverence, indebtedness and union with those who have proceeded us. We die alone. The full weight of the singularity of our existence is experienced in the hammer-blow of our death. Genealogies help assuage our existential isolation, assuring us that we are part of a larger community, composed of the past and the yet-to-come— that our lives matter beyond the tight circumference of our time and place.

 

 ghost-haunted body
I open my mouth
my father speaks1

 

Home in the Strange

Amsterdam

10.1.171

London, Rome, (Paris) and New York are empire capitals, which I mentioned in the ‘Cockfosters and EMPIRE‘ post, that we enjoy visiting. I failed to appreciate that Amsterdam should be on the list. The Dutch empire is less obvious than the others and Amsterdam lacks the typical vertical architecture of power: palaces of monarchs, destination churches, towers of glass skyscrapers. Amsterdam does, however, possess an architecture of power of a different sort: canals. This horizontal architectural structure is evidence of a trading, commercial power and the city is ribbed with a multitude that is the defining feature of the city. They were the avenues that brought overland goods into this port city, to be exchanged and dispatched to the far reaches of the globe. Now they are charming waterways of houseboats, flower markets and tour boats.

Holland was one of the earliest republics in Europe, having fought an 80-year war of independence from Spain in the 16th  into the 17th century. What sparked the rebellion was taxes; money. While religion also played a role, it is noteworthy that it is a secular, mercantile empire that emerged, not a theocratic state. Amsterdam became the capitol of modern day capitalism, as the first stock market was established here, along with an accompanying civil, secular government based on contracts and led by influential burgermeisters. No monarchy, divine sovereignty or hereditary privilege here. Indeed, these were violently opposed. The religion, Calvinism, venerated hard work and worldly success as a pathway to eternal redemption, thereby harmonizing spiritual and economic aspirations, and Amsterdam became a beacon for religious refugees, free thinkers and republicans from countries across Europe. Fifty percent of Amsterdam’s population in the 16th-17th centuries, were immigrants; something that continues to this day.

Aristocracy in medieval countries derived its wealth, privilege and power from land ownership; tangible, concrete and essential to securing the basics required for sustaining life. This is a culture of stasis. Holland is small— it would be ranked 42nd  in area as a state in the US, above Maryland and below West Virginia. Yet it was, and continues to be, one of the world’s great economic powers. It derives most of its wealth from trade and commerce. Most of what comes into the country goes out. Holland signaled a shift from medieval to modern nation state, where wealth and power are based, not on landed stasis, but on the dynamics of capital ex-change.

This dramatic emergence of a new form of culture, government, and economic life is reflected in the art. The Dutch Golden Age of art dates from this period. The “Persons of Quality” that were the objects (and financiers) of art are not popes, kings, bishops, nobles; they are wealthy merchants and traders. And the themes are not religious or biblical dramas but still-lifes, portraits and landscapes. The topics and approach are thoroughly modern. I cannot muster much enthusiasm for art prior to the 16th century, but the Dutch masters, especially Vermeer and Rembrandt, speak directly to me. They are personal and psychological; they convey the “epiphany of ordinary life”. This is why we went to Amsterdam and The Hague—to see Vermeer, Rembrandt, and the newly renovated Rijksmuseum.

We were not disappointed. The Rijksmuseum was built and recently renovated to showcase Dutch art and, in particular, Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”.  Arriving at the second floor, we turned into the “Hall of Honor” and were immediately drawn into a telescoping architecture that focused all attention to the end of the hall, on the golden spot at the center of the “Night Watch”. It must have been 50 yards away, but it halted our steps. Oh my! Oh my! (See pic; I am in the foreground, unsuccessfully trying to take this picture).

We slowly worked our way toward it, viewing the art in the side chapels. As we turned into one of the last of these chapels, there, before us: 3 Vermeers. Sharon broke into tears. I was overcome. In contrast to Rembrandt’s golden glow, here is a luminous light. And in contrast to Rembrandt’s high drama, here is a hold-your-breath immediacy of an “ordinary” moment, transformed. The Milkmaid is, for me, the pinnacle of Vermeer’s work. The personal intimacy of a prosaic moment, several centuries past, set before us, now; timeless infinity, grasped. Yet all is dust; painter, milkmaid, pitcher. All that remains is the painting and, thus, it also intimates finitude and mortality.  This whipsaw of immortality and death renders his work breath-stopping. The tiny spec of paint on the corner of the mouth of the “Girl with the Pearl Earring’; the thread of milk from the Milkmaid’s jug that becomes more translucent and immaterial the closer you inspect, are instances of the masterly details, almost invisible, that create this temporal magic.  (Pic offers only a weak similitude).

To see a World in a Grain of Sand.
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour.

–William Blake

Holland’s early history as a center of trade and commerce, free thinkers and religious tolerance, proved to be a magnet for publishing scientific work that was considered dangerous, blasphemous and subject to religious Inquisition and persecution. Galileo, while under house arrest, had the manuscript for his most important work, ’Two New Sciences”, smuggled to Holland to be published. It proved foundational for the emergence of dynamics, a branch of classical mechanics that addresses the physics of moving bodies. Descartes, another 17th century pioneer, spent 22 years of his adult life (he died at 54) in Holland, where he published his philosophical masterpiece, “Discourse on Method” (e.g., “I think therefore I am”).   It is considered the seminal work that ushers in Modern Philosophy, where philosophical bedrock is secured in perception, reason and mathematics, not Church doctrine, Biblical text and scriptural exegesis. The Calvinist religious tradition emphasizes the importance of each person reading the Bible, which fostered literacy among the entire population, including women, as early as the late 16th century. In the 17th century, ½ of all books published in the world were published in Holland, and 30% were published in Amsterdam. Today, this commitment to science and literacy has very visible consequences. This scientific legacy continues, as almost all of the most important contemporary scientific journals are published in Holland. And despite its size, Holland is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural goods, after the US. It has transformed its landscape into a veritable hothouse of high-tech farming.

Holland felt like home to me in a strange way. It is certainly foreign, but the cultural practices and personal interactions are familiar. My family name is Dutch. I was raised at 55 Amsterdam Rd, and attended a Dutch Orthodox Presbyterian church (NOT Dutch Reformed—they were too liberal), composed of extended, interlocking families of Dutch origin. When I viewed a gaggle of school children at the Rijksmuseum, they looked like a collection of my cousins and me in our old family photographs.

This commonality is evidenced not only in physical appearance. Conversations with Dutch colleagues, Dutch residents, and reading convince me that I, and my family, share core character traits with the Dutch, despite a remove of over three generations and the Atlantic Ocean. (I know it is politically incorrect to ascribe national character types, as it ignores diversity and individual differences found in any national grouping. However, I would argue that national character types exist and are the product of a shared cultural heritage. Crossing from France into Germany, or from the US into Mexico, is a convincing demonstration of this—at least to me). These traits are, in my mind, intimately connected with Dutch history and cultural heritage; the interpersonal and psychological concomitants of the horizontal power of a trading, mercantile nation that spent nearly a century at war freeing itself of monarchy, the Church, and hierarchical power. Here are some traits:

Distrust of/opposition to authority (vs. deference)
Direct and plain spoken (blunt) (vs. mannered & elaborate social protocol)
Informal (vs. formal)
Frugal (cheap) (vs. extravagant)
Pragmatic and functional (vs. poetic and ornamental)
Display of personal accomplishments and position shunned (vs. self-promotion)
Stoic (vs. emotive)
Serious and industrious (driven) (vs. fun loving and relaxed)

The canals that define the landscape, history and power of Holland have complementary channels of habits, values and character etched into the lives of its descendants, centuries later, in a far-away New World. I have journeyed into strangeness and discovered home.

 

 

 

 

 

Cockfosters and EMPIRE

London Postcard

9.17.171

 

Before we left for London, my hair stylist asked me what my highlight of the trip would be. I was a bit taken back, as we hadn’t yet gone so it would be hard for me answer. However, as I now consider the question, I realized that what is most memorable, and what is most striking, is that we are HERE; the sheer thrill of walking down the street and seeing double-decker busses; Black London cabs; drivers on the wrong side of the street; beautiful, novel and historic architecture; upholstered seats in the Tube; the quite politeness of the people (in contrast to the bold, brassy look-at-me Americans); the daffy and striking names and use of language (the destination of the northern direction of the Piccadilly tube line [that name is, itself, a tickler]: Cockfosters—really! What about the children??); and most enchanting of all, hearing the lilting sing-song of British English being spoken in nearly every encounter.

Do you think it possible that a successful restaurant chain in the US would choose the name for their establishments, ‘Slug and Lettuce’? Of course not. What would possess someone to do this? Equally surprising, it works—at least here. And I love these;  the first, a moving truck (or whatever a “Master Remover” is…) with the company slogan in the side—it is an aphorism of humorous wisdom, not compelling sales hype, at least it would not be in the US.

“Tell the Truth and Run”

The second, another large truck with an admirable, if puzzling, mission for a vehicle this size.

We have chosen to return to London rather than go to somewhere new and I now know why. Our favorite places, which we love, and are drawn to, are New York, London and Rome (and Paris). The reason is that they are the capitals of empires that have shaped Western history:  Rome from 1st century BCE to the 16th century (via the Church); London from the 17th to the 20th century; (France in the 18-19 centuries); and the US in the 20th century. They are bursting with the art and architecture of empire; both what was plundered and what was created, housed in the great museums, and with deep historical markings woven into the fabric of everyday life. What I particularly enjoy, especially in London and Rome (because of the reach of their historical past), is walking down the street and encountering historical “mashups”. Here are several pics of what I mean:

A view from inside the British Museum of the column of Ramses II, 13th century BCE (Egypt being part of the British empire and the column taken from Napoleon), looking through a glass roof constructed at the beginning of the 21st century, looking through and out onto a 18th century building constructed in the model of ancient Greece and Rome to confer the imprimatur of EMPIRE.

A traffic stop in the London financial district with “Greek/Roman” buildings from the 18th century, stoplight/double-decker modern foreground, and striking 21st century glass buildings in the looming background (the “Shard” and the “Gerkin”), with cranes promising more.

Greenwich, a lovely town outside (but a part of) London, is the location of the Royal Observatory, a naval museum, and Greenwich Mean Time. This spot, longitudinal ground zero, marks where the shipwrecking navigational uncertainty of east-west seafaring was solved using astronomy and time keeping. It is also the resting place of the Cutty Sark, the last, greatest, and fastest clipper ship (see pic; it is moored on a pedestal).

It is sleek, elegant and shark-like, built in 1869—the culmination of human history of sailing, soon to be replaced by smoke, fire and iron. We saw the Turner painting,  “The Fighting Temeraire” at the National  Gallery that captures the moment of steel replacing sail; very evocative, and it will be on the British 20 Pound note in several years.

And finally, the visible effects of empire are to be encountered in the people: many dark-skinned people from the far reaches of the empire; the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, many speaking the Queens English. And many not. The first language of over half of Londoners is not English. The mashup is in the streets—in both the architecture and in those walking the streets.

The London skyline is a cultural Grand Canyon, where the strata of history is visible in the architectural layers; from the Tower of London to St. Paul’s to the Shard. The strata of the Empire is also visible in the people; from the Anglo-Saxons to the  accented speech of the  Scots and Irish (that hint at centuries of enmity, conflict and compromise); from to the brown faces of colonialism to the  newly arrived EU members  speaking many languages, seeking work (who, ironically,  are the byproduct of Hitler’s failed attempt for racial purity).  Unlike the architecture, however, the people are the living, breathing, dynamic presence of history that walk the streets, make love between the sheets, and shape what is said, sold, eaten, discussed, disputed, legislated.

“The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past”—Faulkner.

Indeed.

 

 

 

Footprints

 

1

Shoes on the floor where they were tossed after yesterday’s walk. The frig, with the tomatoes, special lettuce, mushrooms, beets and milk for the day’s meal. The radio, tuned to NPR, for the morning chat. Porch chairs askew, as they were left after we spent the evening reading. Laundry basket, checkbook, a pile of unopened mail; desk clutter, yesterday’s newspaper, phone charger, to-do list and purse on the counter. TV clicker on the couch, half completed crossword, grocery list, opened book with bookmark, pills to be taken. The pillow with the impress of where she laid her head. Habits, routines and concerns of daily life leave behind a trail of our presence; the intimacy of the mundane, overlooked in our headlong rush through our days…into the night.

 

 

footprints
in the sand
incoming tide

 

2

 

Water

 

 

I swim for exercise several times a week, and undergo a species transformation. Vertical to horizontal, gravity-bound to weightless, a lumbering biped becomes an aquatic mammal.  Immersed, massaged, chilled, my entire body tingles from the supporting surround of water. As I ‘crawl’ along, head swinging from down to up, my vision turns from watery shimmer to sunlit solidity…and back. Embedded in this frolic in an alternative universe resides a thorn. Lose a breath, sense the remoteness of landed safety, gulp the aquatic environ, and a stab of fright reminds me that my shape-shifting self is not untethered. I must breathe. The water that supports can also kill. Whether in the pool, the page or the mind, we can gain blessed respite from our fate, but we cannot be rescued. I swim, I sing this joyous panic.

 

 

 

weightless in the surge
jeweled creatures
snorkel dreams

1

 

“Why Me?!”

“The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

This famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar wisely advises that we are not doomed by the heavens, but by ourselves. I would like to add a corollary—that how we regard the stars can doom or liberate us; that our lives are deeply affected by our cosmology.

Consider: “Why me?!”

This is an oft spoken lament when fate delivers a mishap, a crisis, a tragic blow. The emphasis of the query is on ‘ME’. Of all the people in the world, why have I been singled out for this misfortune? What have I done to warrant such unfair treatment?!” The misfortune is experienced as a deeply personal violation of the natural order, of how things are supposed to unfold. We presume an implicit causal structure in this lament; that the universe is fair, that cosmic justice privileges us, and that we have been dealt a dirty deal.

How we understand the cosmic order gives rise to our experience of “Why me?”.

I would like to briefly explore the cosmic order as it applies to me; that is, myself as a unique, conscious being, present and alive at this moment. I begin with the basic causal question: What are the origins of ‘me’? How did I get here? Biologically, I am the product of my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg. But what are the circumstances of ‘me’; of my unique presence? This is a matter of probability. Of the millions of my father’s sperm, the singular one that impregnated my mother’s singular egg is ‘me’. One in millions—that is the probability, or improbability, of ‘me’. But while this is the improbability of the biological event, it does not encompass the circumstances that gave rise to it. What if my father had been too tired or my mother too busy? What if a phone call or an emergency had interceded? Another untold million contingencies of intention, motivation, happenstance and caprice now magnify the biological improbability exponentially.

But this is only the first order improbability. What about my father’s parents? And my mother’s? And their parents. And then, again, their parent’s parents— and so forth. Indeed, this generational regress eventually traces the lineage of the human race. And, further back still, as the genome of our human ancestors emerges from earlier primates, and these, in turn, harken to earlier unions of more distant life forms. Each coupling, and the circumstances surrounding it, stacking more orders of improbability on improbability, receding into the mists of the first primordial awakenings of life.

This, however, is not the end of the causal thread. Life emerged only because of a host of remarkable planetary developments— the appearance of water and of oxygen among the most notable. And these, in turn, are descendants of big-bang cosmic events that created this precious globe and its sweet-spot orbit around our life-giving star. My being here, now, is a point on a singular trace among the near infinite number of possible trajectories that could have spun out after the big bang.

From cosmic beginnings to the formation of our planetary outpost, from water to life, from slime mold to ape, and from my father’s sperm to my mother’s egg, one single moment askew in this house-of-cards tower of improbability stretching to the stars… then—no ‘me’.

The singularity that is me also embodies the entire arc of creation: In my star-dust body, animated by the elixirs of water and oxygen, my heart throbs and my breath heaves to the rhythms conferred to me by my evolutionary heritage.

This cosmic order brings me to my knees in gratitude— and in astonishment, I ask:

“Why me?!”

 

 

 

Statues in the Park

Billy Collins 1

 

 

I thought of you today
when I stopped before an equestrian statue
in the middle of a public square,

you who had once instructed me
in the code of these noble poses.

A horse rearing up with two legs raised,
you told me, meant the rider died in battle.

if only one leg was lifted,
the man had elsewhere succumbed to his wounds;

and if four legs were touching the ground,
as they were in this case—

bronze hoofs affixed to a stone base—
it meant the man on the horse,

this one staring intently
over the closed movie theatre across the street,
had died of a cause other than war.

In the shadow of the statue,
I wondered about the others
who had simply walked through life
without a horse, a saddle, or a sword—

pedestrians who could no longer
place one foot in front of the other.

I pictured statues of the sickly
recumbent on their cold stone beds,
the suicides toeing the marble edge,

statues of accident victims covering their eyes,
the murdered covering their wounds,
the drowned silently treading the air.

And there was I,
up on a rosy-grey block of granite
near a cluster of shade trees in the local park
my name and dates pressed into a plaque,

down on my knees, eyes lifted,
praying to the passing clouds,
forever begging for just one more day.

 

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