Monthly Archives: November 2020

Serpents, Foxes, Abbey, Camus, Orwell & Other Sundry Folk

There was a recent piece in the New York Times about President Trump’s relationship with his father when he was young.  It explains, or tries to, the abysmal lack of empathy that he displays.  Everything always seems to be about himself.  In fact, when Trump gave the eulogy for his deceased father years ago, the authors point out how some were shocked that it was still more about himself.  Others who were there were not surprised.  It turns out that his father was a hard, driven man out to make as much money as possible in real estate and others were simply a means to that end.  The son did not rebel against his father, but totally absorbed his mindset and more.  Now this illustrates, at least a little bit, a Buddhist notion of our interrelatedness and interdependence.  The “sin” of the father infects the son.  A bad action reverberates through time causing other bad actions/results… can be called karma, or “the fires of hell,” or whatever, but everything we do and say goes out into the environment and leads either to more good or more bad, either to ourselves or to others.  Fr. Zosima in Brothers Karamazov (one of my spiritual fathers!!) said that if you even look mean or angry at a child, do you know what waves of anxiety, fear, resentment you send through that young heart and how you influence their future development and what they will do?

Another kind of story:  very few people know or remember Robert Byrd, a senator from West Virginia for over 50 years.  He started out as a segregationist, and welcomed the support of the KKK when he ran for office around 1960.  However, he somehow managed to radically change over the years.  By the time of the 1990s he vigorously denounced racism, championed civil rights,  and was one of the very few in government to oppose the Iraq war (Sanders also, but neither of the Clintons).  We must resist freezing people in their current blindness but try to create a transformative space….very very difficult to do.  Gandhi was especially adamant about this.  You might say one of his “commandments” would be:  Thou shalt not demonize the other.

I have always liked Albert Camus.  If you want something warm and cheery to read during the pandemic try his novel, The Plague!  Only kidding!   It is anything but that.  A good novel, not great, but truly thought-provoking.  Situated in the French Algerian city of Oran during a mysterious plague that kills people, it tells of several people who respond in different ways as the whole city is locked down and quarantined—nobody can enter and nobody can leave.  The Plague can be read either allegorically or realistically, but what you see is the human heart responding in various ways to the intractable human condition.

A few favorite Camus quotes:

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.

We all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others

When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.(A touch of Buddhism in that quote….)

Just today I saw an op-ed piece in the New York Times by of all people, Pope Francis.  Really good; worth reading.   I have been very critical of him many times, but here he hits a bullseye! Link

Another author I love is Edward Abbey.  Recently I was looking at one of his books, The Serpents of Paradise.    Not one of his best works but I do find that title very interesting.  Abbey had a passionate love for the wilderness, especially the desert.  You have to read Muir for mountains and forests; but you definitely read Abbey for deserts.  His passion for the wilderness was not superficial; he had a deep intuition for the role it played in deepening our humanity.  But what he witnessed over the years was an increasing exploitation of the wilderness in a mindless pursuit of wealth and “fun.”  He reacted with the same passionate intensity, like an Old Testament prophet, condemning all, whether they be ranchers, miners, corporations, the U.S. Government, city folk who breeze through the wilderness as a theme park, etc.   Abbey was not a traditional believer, but I think he understood well the opening chapters of Genesis.  What was the problem in Paradise?  There was a serpent inviting us to be “godlike” and “take and use” as our own what the wilderness offers.  This has been the Western ideology for centuries both in Christianity and in other religions, this “mastery” over nature.  Instead of seeing it as a gift which we cherish and tend, it is simply a resource for our use.

Abbey quotes:

“I have been called a curmudgeon, which my obsolescent dictionary defines as a ‘surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered fellow’. Nowadays, curmudgeon is likely to refer to anyone who hates hypocrisy, cant, sham, dogmatic ideologies, and has the nerve to point out unpleasant facts and takes the trouble to impale these sins on the skewer of humor and roast them over the fires of fact, common sense, and native intelligence. In this nation of bleating sheep and braying jackasses, it then becomes an honor to be labeled curmudgeon.”

. Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell

 “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

“If people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies’ territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.”

“High technology has done us one great service: It has retaught us the delight of performing simple and primordial tasks – chopping wood, building a fire, drawing water from a spring.”

As I write all this I am awaiting to hear whom will Biden pick to be Secretary of the Interior.  Progressives are hoping it will be this Native American woman who is a congress person from New Mexico.  It would be historic.

Speaking of the new appointments, Erin Brockovich writes that the “fox is in the chicken coop.”  She is referring to Biden’s appointing Michael McCabe, a chemical industry insider who worked for Dupont to help them ward off lawsuits, to a post on his Environmental Protection Agency transition team.  Truly not a good sign.

Then there is the problem of Biden’s appointment of Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence.  She had been a deputy director of the CIA  and was instrumental in formulating the drone-assassination policy during the Obama years and then in helping to cover up our torture programs.  Here is the story from Common Dreams:

We’ll see where all this goes, but so far I am, alas, not surprised….thanks to Chris Hedges!   The thing to do with Biden as with all politicians is pay special attention to what they really do, not so much their words…..

Now we turn to another favorite of mine whom I had forgotten about in recent years:  George Orwell.  What a remarkable man whose writings from half a century ago still feel incredibly futuristic in their insight….a nightmarish future toward which we are hurtling, a dystopian society which seems more and more just around the corner.  With the election of Biden we might be led to believe that we are ok for now, but don’t be fooled….be watchful,,,be aware….

 Orwell understood in a very deep way how the abuse of language, the portrayal of the situation by obfuscating its reality in a smokescreen of lies and half truths, how all this can be a key symptom of the cancer that lurks at the heart of that society.  (Merton was very interested in this area of social diagnosis—especially how modern advertising has corrupted our ability to communicate truth and reality to each other.)  His writings have given us neologisms that are very much still pertinent:

“Big Brother”, “Thought Police”, “Two Minutes Hate”,  “memory hole”, “Newspeak”, “doublespeak”, “unperson”, and “thoughtcrime”.

Orwell wrote only two novels:  Animal Farm   and   1984      Still best sellers and still relevant.  But he also wrote numerous essays, op-ed pieces, book reviews, etc. in which we see his passionate, acute and prophetic insights.  I was surprised at the sharpness of his analysis of Gandhi’s autobiography.  Merton has a deeper sense of Gandhi’s religious roots, but Orwell has a much better insight into the complexity of Gandhi’s personality and his various actions.  He does not idealize or idolize Gandhi, but he deeply appreciates the man.

Orwell spent over a year living among the poor and homeless of England to learn what they were experiencing directly.  He knew the ravages of war first-hand, and the abuses of British colonialism.  He witnessed the rise of Hitler and the era of Stalin.  He was rejected by the conservatives of his time, and many leftists had disdain for him when he excoriated the Left for promoting an alliance with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler.  He was not institutionally religious and he did not spare the wealth-loving Christians of his time with his sharp mocking.   Here he is translating the New Testament in their terms:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of  angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. … And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.

Seems like a very apt view of our own American brand of the “Prosperity Gospel.”

Here’s a bagful of Owell quotes:

Spending the night out of doors has nothing attractive about it in London, especially for a poor, ragged, undernourished wretch. Moreover sleeping in the open is only allowed in one thoroughfare in London. If the policeman on his beat finds you asleep, it is his duty to wake you up. That is because it has been found that a sleeping man succumbs to the cold more easily than a man who is awake, and England could not let one of her sons die in the street. So you are at liberty to spend the night in the street, providing it is a sleepless night. But there is one road where the homeless are allowed to sleep. Strangely, it is the Thames Embankment, not far from the Houses of Parliament. We advise all those visitors to England who would like to see the reverse side of our apparent prosperity to go and look at those who habitually sleep on the Embankment, with their filthy tattered clothes, their bodies wasted by disease, a living reprimand to the Parliament in whose shadow they lie.

Politicallanguage — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

  • War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.
  • Every war, when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defence against a homicidal maniac.
  • The essential job is to get people to recognise war propaganda when they see it, especially when it is disguised as peace propaganda

(This was so true during the Vietnam and Iraq eras….both Dems and Republicans are guilty)

 Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war.  Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war.  There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.

I have always thought there might be a lot of cash in starting a new religion

  • The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”. The words democracysocialismfreedompatrioticrealisticjustice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriotThe Soviet press is the freest in the worldThe Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: classtotalitarianscienceprogressivereactionarybourgeoisequality.

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection

And to conclude, something very different.  A beautiful You Tube video of some young people hiking one of the great trails of world, the John Muir Trail in the Sierras.  I have camped by that trail in several spots so I can attest to its beauty.  You can see why Muir called it “my cathedral.”  

The young man who made this video experiences a lot of pain and struggle but comes through it and I think he has gained a lot for it.   In any case, the wilderness speaks for itself.

Whose Empire Is It Now? Some Reflections on Recent Events

Do you know who Paul of Thebes was?   Very interesting character, but obviously not very well known….at least in modern times.  Some scholars believe he was a totally made-up figure by Jerome, the only early Christian writer mentioning him.  Jerome seems to be well-acquainted with that early desert scene in 4th century Egypt and Palestine, so maybe Paul is not fictional.  Whatever be the case that story has some very significant and interesting points.

Jerome presents the young Antony, the future legendary hermit and father of Christian hermits, meeting this old bedraggled hermit out in the desert.   Jerome tells us that Paul has lived a very quiet, undramatic life in his solitude—this seems to be deliberately depicted in contrast to Athanasius’ picture of Antony and his epic struggles against the forces of darkness.  In any case, Paul, meeting a human being for the first time in a long, long while, gently places a few interesting questions before Antony:

Tell me, how fares the human race?
Are new houses being built in the ancient cities?
Whose empire is it now?
Do any yet survive, snared in the delusions of demons?

With this as our “background music” we will now move on to some reflections on our current situation.  First of all the pandemic is raging again.  As I write this, Pfizer has announced that the first results on their vaccine are positive—they say “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”  Unfortunately this tunnel may be much longer than anyone knows.  There are still a lot of unknowns about this virus and this vaccine.  One scary possibility is a mutation that would make the virus more virulent as it passes into the mammal world and then back to the human.  That’s why they killed millions of mink in Europe when it was discovered that a number of them were infected with the virus.  The mink was a perfect “petri dish” for the virus.  But apart from all that there are the Trump people!  Things could get very ugly in the next few months, and this brings us to the election.

Ok, so Caligula (oops, I mean Trump) was defeated.  But, as a number of commentators have pointed out, we are still stuck with “Trumpism,” which shows no sign of going away but is growing.  Ok, so I am relieved that we have rejected that paragon of narcissism, that malevolence, that supporter of white supremacy and the gun totters, that propagator of lies and fantasy, etc., but just think, about 70 million people voted for him, almost half of the electorate.  They are not about to go away.  The country is deeply, deeply divided, and I fear the situation is going to get worse.

Some of the people who voted for Trump are lost in all the bad stuff I just mentioned, but a lot are also basic folk who are themselves very badly deluded: Catholics and Protestants, a surprising number of Hispanics, poorly educated simple white folk who feel like they have been trashed by the system of which Biden is a supporter(and they are not so wrong), and so many others.  You have to read this essay from the NY Times about a farming community in Nebraska that voted strongly for Tump:

The title is “He Already Saw the Election as Good vs. Evil”—I can’t get to the story a second time unless I subscribe—you get one free read if you give your email!  Anyway, it was Nov. 1, 2020 in the Times and quite revealing.  Another story that I was able to get to and along similar lines.

Next on our list of headaches is the Republican Party which has gotten very nasty and just as delusional as their now leader.  Vilification and polarization, fear and division, these have been their tactics in the recent decades.  And the problem is that they have gained in this election.  They have made inroads in the House and look like they will still control the Senate—the two run-offs in Georgia won’t take place until January.  They potentially could prove to be supreme obstructionists—and of course there is the “packed” Supreme Court.

But we must not be fooled.  All this chaos and turmoil and political and social thrashing about is only the symptoms of a deep and long-term problem.  The political divide (and the economic divide, the income inequality) are only the pimples on the communal body.  Hard to say; harder still to believe; but we are in much more trouble than any election can cure.  

Someone who digs underneath the surface of our popular news and culture and scares the willies out of most people in his dark vision ( or else they just ignore him like Jeremiah and Cassandra….he can’t get published in any of the major media even though he was a Pulitzer Prize winning newsman once with the New York Times).  Here are two recent op-ed pieces he wrote; the first one before the election, the second one after the election.  Hard to digest these but I think he is mostly right, but even he doesn’t get deep enough in his diagnosis.

That’s why I am not dancing in the street over the seeming Biden victory.  Oh yes, he will have a more rational approach to the pandemic, and we won’t have to listen to all that bombastic narcissism; but do not ignore or underestimate the problems and issues that Biden’s presidency will bring.  Progressives who hope that he can be nudged in that direction will most likely be disappointed—after all half the country doesn’t “want” medicare-for-all or any other “socialist” program.  Joe does not seem like FDR, leading the country into a new vision, but more trying to hold the thing together by compromising and paying off various groups…and maybe alleviating a little bit of the misery….  He has such a bad record in the past that it’s hard for a progressive to feel comfortable with him.  I voted for him because there was no choice.  (Actually I almost wrote in Paul of Thebes but then I realized the old guy would not have appreciated such an awful suggestion!)

There is a scholar, Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist by training who has written an intriguing book:  How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?  Interestingly enough there is a whole field of study now devoted to studying civilizational collapse…you can see a long Wikipedia article about it.  Tainter’s main thesis: “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.   Nearly every one that has ever existed has also ceased to exist, yet understanding disintegration has remained a distinctly minor concern in the social sciences.”  He says he’s alarmed at all the signs of disintegration that he finds in the complexity of modern society.”  

The agents and causes of decay and collapse are on the one hand internal to a society, in the increasing human confusion which we see co-existing with and perhaps riding within  the increasing complexification.   And on the other hand the causes of collapse can also come externally, so to say, in an “enemy force,” or more likely from Mother Nature herself.  Climate and geology have played a big, big part in the end of many civilizations.  (By the way, Biden’s announced plan to reconnect with the Paris Climate Accords sounds good but according to many climate experts the Accords are way too weak to put a brake on the catastrophe down the road.)

But there is still another critical point to consider.  More than one political philosopher has pointed out that a society disintegrates when it can no longer produce a leadership adequate to its problems.  You can have leaders boasting of their own greatness and/or boasting of the greatness of their country, and this is very common certainly in our history….America, the greatest country on earth.  Here I would like to turn to a poem by Shelley:  


I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The poem speaks for itself.   As Paul of Thebes well knew, the “demons” delude us all into thinking our institutions and structures, our power and wealth,  are a permanent reality.

But our reflection is not through yet….there is still another poem and even a more dire insight.   It is a poem written by the great Yeats in 1919, “The Second Coming.”  The poem was written when the world was traumatized by the slaughter of the first world war and the insanity of it all happening among these supposedly “civilized” nations who were also professing Christianity.  Yeats saw deeper and expressed his nightmare eloquently.  Here is the poem, and afterwards I borrow, word for word, a section by section commentary written by a dear friend…it is so insightful:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


Yeats begins his meditative poem by looking heavenward.

He sees not unity of God and human, but a real-time dissolution occurring before his very eyes.

The falcon, he says, is gyrating, meaning, having left his hands, and soared high into the sky, it is now turning in circles and whirling down and down, further and further away from the falconer.  That trajectory was how a bi-plane would have traced in the sky toward its impending crash once hit by machine gun fire in WWI. 

So, the date is 1918.

A year when war was seen not as romantic and heroic, but indeed a “blood-dimed tide.”

And the dissolution of heaven and earth has begun.

That is what Yeats means by “anarchy.”

Now in Homer, the analogue of all Western warrior-culture, blood is also what feeds the spirits of the fallen.

And Yeats, classically educated, fluent in Greek, would have known that analogue.

Of course, that analogue of Homeric blood is filtered thru a knowledge also of the Roman World as the first world empire, whose land was gained by countless human battles, and the later claim of Christianity to have invoked by its writings a world of peace, overcoming that world of Roman war, a peace which spread “everywhere”—”pan” in Greek. 

But Yeats sees something different now—a world coated in blood, blood everywhere, and he divides people into two classes—the people who have a realization of how horrible the whole situation is—those who “lack conviction” in the prosecution of war, and those who are “full of passionate intensity,” in other words, brimming over with passion. 

The implication is that behind the warrior is merely the beast, and Yeats will expand on this in the next half of the poem. 

Yeats considers the beast-warrior-man to be a revelation.

Yeats pretends to look “upward” for a “revelation”—a “Second Coming”—and he mocks himself repeating it for a second time.

And now, like Paul or one of the Prophets, Yeats has a mock vision—not of heaven—but of earth, and what he has really been seeing all the time. 

Yeats sees no “new Adam” who is coming—no prefiguration of Christ—the “Spiritus Mundi” of which Yeats speaks is a creature of the earth, and a creature—even more primitive, as a “spiritus,” than the warrior of Homer, the battle-line agmen of ancient Rome, or the ascetic of Christianity in the desert mimicking Christ.

Here is the “spiritus”—it does—like Christ at his baptism—come from the desert—but it is clearly animalistic—it is more like the Sphinx, and not at all like Christ, and this “spiritus” has no human or God-like characteristics, but looks at the world and evaluates it through a beast-mentality. Yeats writes:

“A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”  

   Yeats further defines the spiritus beast as the physical embodiment of the passion he had mentioned earlier in terms of its “slow moving thighs, and like a Greek auger, Yeats sees that the birds now gyrate and “reel” around the beast. 

   Are the birds being commanded by the spiritus beast—or are they ready to eat the dead—of WWI and its following “pan-demic”—of H1N1, that also killed 50 to 100 million people, we are left to guess. 

   The is the world of an even deeper darkness than Homer.  

   Death is everywhere.  Affecting all peoples—as in “pan-demic.

   It is a world transformed. 

   That was the point of Yeats’s vision. 

    And looking at this world of pandemic death, Yeats’s vision via Greek augery brings us back to the beginning of Western Civilization, which appears to be the theme of his meditation —that is, to give all of us a second look at the origin of Western Civ—what we would call today, “Year Zero.”  

   And in the last four lines Yeats’s poem comes, we see Yeats’s not only thinks 1919 is bad, but that he knows 1919 is bad because Year Zero—and the very origin of Western Civ – is bad and not what we thought at all.

    According to Yeats, in the 20 centuries of sleep, we slept as beasts—we had a “stony sleep,” the sleep of the “spiritus mundi.”

   And in order to unpack the events of 1919—in a way better than any newspaper editorial—Yeats tells us that we had been looking at something all along, and yet not really believed our eyes at what we were seeing.

   We are seeing who we are—for the first time. 

  We were baby beasts being rocked into a nightmarish existence for the past 20 centuries, and all that Christianity and Judaism did for Western civ and human beings within its framework was to “vex” us awake and help us grow into our true beast-nature, earth-bound killers who live as our own pitiless sun, that’s our “darkness dropping” on the earth.

   We are the beast, whose birth hour has come, moving beast-like to the birthplace of the man in the desert, who had no affect on us whatsoever. 

And that is 1919. 

In 2020. 

But somewhere out there is a lonely but peaceful hermit, under the starry sky, with a wolf and a squirrel in his neighborhood, listening to the wind in the trees, and silently wondering, whose empire is it now and how fares the human race?