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.