God is there, don't despair!
Sleep is the most formidable creditor. It will get its payment no matter what is going down!
Thursday, April 25, 2013
People live three lives these days: daily, media, and inner. One of these is unavoidable, another is neglected at our peril, and the third, frankly, is becoming quite absurd. Both daily and inner life are “real life,” this in contrast with what “real life” is supposed to be about if we watch today’s entertainments. Daily life in our now retired state still holds its daily chores. Sometimes they are unusual and produce their own muted little triumphs. Sure enough the string-pull light above this station, which turns on the fluorescent lamps above, once more went on the blink. There are seven such in this basement; six have been in place since, well, since 1989 when we bought this place. But the one above me has been replaced, this morning, for the fourth time. Hard, black wires, their copper teeth bared, must be attached to two screws set into a porcelain device. And then the device, with suitable openings, must be threaded, in a manner of speaking, around two longer screws until they “catch.” After that the screws are tightened and the job is done—in relative darkness because the basement lights are turned off at the fuse box. And—it worked! The muted triumph. Real life. That life also involved my visit to Ace hardware. We began in sunshine—using which I cleared off last year’s vast clump of dead Michigan bamboo stalks (read Japanese knotweed, link). Drops marked my windshield on going, rain fell hard as I returned, having swiped my card and signed my name on a little calculator-sized screen with a kind of stick anchored to this device by another black wire. As if those signatures mattered. The Little Real Life has its own profound mysteries too. Returning Brigitte told me that an upstairs walk-in closet has another overhead that fails to dispense its light. Another item for my to do list in the Little Real Life; they are sometimes challenging, as that closet, I fear, shall be. But so long as the problems are little, no problem; when they are bigger, the pains tend to be financial. But nothing compared with what flows over the media every day, every day. And turning them off only helps a little—because the chaos is in the air. Which then, of course, reminds us of the Inner Life. It holds out hope.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
There are, of course, many thousands of anciently incurable conditions that modern times have made to disappear. To elucidate one on a blog like mine may be justified by the role that humpbacks have played in literature.
So (as the young begin their expositions nowadays) the human spine’s natural shape, seen from the side, is a flattened S—where the upper part is called the anterior, the lower the posterior. When the upper angle is unusually curved relative to the posterior, the back takes on a hump-like form. This curving can occur in teenage years due to uneven bone growth in the spine itself caused by the interruption of blood supply to the bone, known as Scheuermann’s disease, also known as Scheuermann’s kyphosis, using the Greek for “hump.” The disease is self-limiting; it affects its victim for a limited time only, but because the deformation is to the spine, the consequences remain in place. The condition has disappeared thanks to advancements in surgical know-how, medical technology, and metallurgy. Scheuerman’s is treated by major—and very invasive—surgery in youth. It involves spinal fusion and the installation of hardware—rods and anchoring (so-called pedicle) screws. The rods are made of titanium. What many unfortunate individuals had simply to live through today we solve with know-how and technology.
Some great challenges lie ahead of us as we enter the post-oil dark ages. One of them is how to preserve the advanced arts the Age of Oil has bequeathed us—not least the transmission of knowledge, skill, and technology the arts will continue to require. By all means let us deprive our future literature of certain categories of heroes.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
I’ve had occasion to point to a categorization of problems offered by E.F. Schumacher earlier (link). Schumacher suggests that humanity’s problems are either convergent or divergent. The first of these are physical in nature, dealing with the non-living sphere. In attacking these physical problems, sooner or later efforts “converge” on a decent solution. The second, divergent problems, center on the living, including human phenomena. Values are always involved in these. And precisely for that reason, humanity never embraces a single solution. There is perpetual discovered. And that is because humans are—and this is my label, not Schumacher’s—unfinished.
Endless debates are a marker of divergent issues. Even masses of empirical data fail to solve them. One such is whether “life” or “mind” are emergent or transcendent phenomena. If they are emergent, all is but a consequence of matter/energy complexly arranged by chance. If the latter, we must posit a “higher” dimension from which life and mind derive. The debate is unending because the scientific observations will not produce an answer. They present a pattern which people with different awareness will interpret intuitively, thus from personal experience. And they will therefore have a very firm conviction that they are right. If one’s intuition produces the inwardly felt truth of transcendence, the mechanical will never seem sufficient explanation for the living or the spiritual. If no such resonance is felt by the person—but the facts of life and mind are still there to see—the equally firm view is that these must have evolved.
A recent example of this is a book by Ray Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed—and a review of the book by Collin McGinn (link), in the New York Review of Books, titled “Homunculism” (ht to Siris).
Rare, exceedingly rare, is the case where a man of science after long, long study of what is a divergent problem, at last concludes that something transcendental is going on. I came across a book that makes this point last year, Wilder Penfield’s The Mystery of the Mind (p. 113-114). Penfield was a pioneering neurosurgeon. And even Penfield ends with a reservation:
And so I come to my final reconsideration: I worked as a scientist trying to prove that the brain accounted for the mind and demonstrating as many brain-mechanisms as possible hoping to show how the brain did so. In presenting this monograph I do not begin with a conclusion and I do not end by making a final and unalterable one. Instead, I reconsider the present-day neurophysiological evidence on the basis of two hypotheses: (a) that man’s being consists of one fundamental element, and (b) that it consists of two. I take the position that the brain-mechanism, which we (my many colleagues and I all around the world), are working out, would, of course have to be employed on the basis of either alternative. In the end I conclude that there is no good evidence, in spite of new methods, such as the employment of stimulating electrodes, the study of conscious patients and the analysis of epileptic attacks, that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does. I conclude that it is easier to rationalize man’s being on the basis of two elements than on the basis of one. But I believe that one should not pretend to draw a final scientific conclusion, in man’s study of man, until the nature of the energy responsible for mind-action is discovered as, in my own opinion, it will be.
The debate will certainly continue on. There is such a thing as the will to believe, but it arises from a spark of intuition. Until it does, all will be matter, matter, drearily matter.
Monday, April 22, 2013
Friday, April 19, 2013
“No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” Almost as if to convey to us just that message from the famous poem, “Desiderata,” yesterday a quite young Black Swallowtail butterfly appeared. It landed on our flowering pussy willow tree and stayed a while to feed on the nectar it found there. Then, briskly, it flew away again.
The times now are unusually turbulent. The Boston Marathon disaster consumes our media. Even the weak attempt to curb our gun-use failed in the Senate. Almost as if it were a vast collective “meaningful coincidence,” a fertilizer plant blew up in tiny West, Texas and killed ten times as many people (and still counting) as died in the marathon bombing. Once more we hear about the cowardice of our attackers and the heroism of our police and fire-fighters. And quite undeserved and cloying flattery comes from the mouths of our leaders suggesting our own unique exceptionalism—attempting to pump up our morale and trying to show that the center is still holding. But quite another smell rises with the smoke. These very attempts to manage the collective emotion suggest something else. President Obama’s focus on children—and the horror of their death in terrorist attacks—causes us to wonder how many equally innocent children died in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen thanks to the deployment of our own sleek drones.
Relativism, pragmatism, materialism left to storm unchecked eventually produce a state in which madness comes to be the norm—and it seems that only the steadying of egotism and of our self-regard will permit us to “finish the race.”
Contemplating all of this with involuntary shudders made me think: Valuable books repay rereading. So, last night, I picked up once more E.F. Schumacher’s book, A Guide for the Perplexed, to remind myself how things really are—and where the path begins back from the chaos to an ordered life. The more the chaos mounts, the more people will set foot on that path and begin the pilgrimage we sorely need.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Collective memory recalls the gallant Lafayette—and several other French officers—gallantly serving to help the new Republic achieve its independence from Britain—and Silas Deane as the agent who did his high-level recruiting in France. And, as they say, the rest is history.
But real life as it happens is always much more problematic. Deane was effective, but in part because he promised each officer he recruited very high rank. The French recruits, once here, did not get along either with each other or with the Americans. Here a quote from Baron de Kalb (source):
On the whole, I have annoyances to bear, of which you can hardly form a conception. One of them is the mutual jealousy of almost all the French officers, particularly against those of higher rank than the rest. These people think of nothing but their incessant intrigues and backbitings. They hate each other like the bitterest enemies, and endeavor to injure each other wherever an opportunity offers. I have given up their society, and very seldom see them. La Fayette is the sole exception; I always meet him with the same cordiality and the same pleasure. He is an excellent young man, and we are good friends.... La Fayette is much liked, he is on the best of terms with Washington.
Deane was a wretched record-keeper and careless in money matters. After his recall from France, he was tried for misdemeanors, eventually turned against the new nation that he had served, and went to live in England and in the Netherlands.
The correcting lens of memory, itself once more corrected, brings us what we always experience in the here and now: a pretty kettle of fish. But memory reminds us how we should treat the never-ending failures of our nature: with benign neglect.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Some people have noted—certainly my friend Montag on his blog yesterday (link)—that terrorist events in Iraq yesterday killed 61 people (per this morning’s Wall Street Journal). We cannot help ourselves. We become hardened and eventually ignore that which relentlessly recurs. Disasters closer to us are another matter—until they become frequent enough so that we are hardened to them in turn and just roll our eyes. Boston. Yes. Strong feelings and heartfelt prayers, here in Detroit, as we witness the loss and suffering that concluded this year’s marathon—whatever its motive, most likely some mad personal grudge. Deliver us from evil. Amen.
Monday, April 15, 2013
We have been attending performances of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra held at various churches and centers in the suburbs of Detroit, yesterday once again. We like to sit in the front row of the balcony quite close to the orchestra at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church. The balcony has a neat railing where the opened program finds a spot so that we can follow the movements as they are played. Mozart’s Serenade No. 6 in D major for Two Small Orchestras, “Serenata notturna.” It has three movements: Marcia maestoso, Menuetto, and Rondo. The Rondo is described as Allegretto, Adagio, Allegro. Originally, when first performed, the first movement, the “majestic march,” was played both at the beginning and at the end. At the beginning the two orchestras marched in playing it, positioned themselves at two different spots in a great hall. And when they finished the Rondo, they rose again and, playing their majestic march, again departed. So our vastly gifted conductor, Christopher Warren-Green, informed us. (Not all knowledge comes from the Internet.)
Looking at those, and the succeeding, movements, I got curious about the designation of tempos these words indicate. So what exactly is the difference between an Adagio and an Allegro? Well, adagio means slow, allegro merry and cheerful. One movement was Allegro con brio, meaning that the composer of it, Franz Joseph Hayden, wished it to be played cheerfully and “with panache, with flair.” Are these tempos or do these words transcend mere beat? Did I just discover a secret but quite literal “language of music” quite familiar to composers, who know this stuff much better than I do? It’s common to hear that music just cannot be expressed in language—but here are the composers doing so. Very parsimoniously, to be sure, but they have something in mind.
Among tempo indicators, for instance is Solenne, meaning “solemn.” But just as solemn music is quite difficult to put into words, so is that word itself. How do you render solemn into other words? What is a solemn occasion? Perhaps a funeral? What all does that word contain? It contains the whole behavior of a collective of humans gathered for it, their dress for the occasion, their postures, their facial expression, the words they utter, the look in their eyes. It means the kind of music that will be played, the formality of movements observed by everyone, the content of the words exchanged, the subject of the sermon, the words chosen for the service itself.
And what exactly does “with flair” signify? Not any one thing? Something graceful may be entirely still—or may be in motion. Not just music, it strikes me; vast ranges of human experience, rendered by words as well as music, extend beneath words the meaning of which is as elusive as music itself—and yet we all know what they mean.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Reading Verlyn Klinkenborg, Robinson Jeffers, and certain other inhabitants of Brigitte’s poetry folders, I sometimes wonder whether that persistent inner feeling expressed in Exodus 2:22 (link), “I have been a stranger in a strange land,” refers to what we call civilization where only token remnants of the natural world survive, rather than (as I sometimes feel, failing to make the proper distinctions) the whole order of earthly existence. Nowhere in this vast, hardened lava flow of urbanization do we see—
…the jewel-eyed hawk and the tall blue heron;
The black cormorants that fatten their sea-rock
With shining slime; even that ruiner of anthills
The red-shafted woodpecker flying,
A white star between blood-color wing-clouds,
Across the glades of the wood and the green lakes of shade.
This from Robinson Jeffers “The Broken Balance, Part III,” quoted more fully on Laudator Temporis Acti, on November 30, 2010 (link)—a valued gift.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
link). It shows four personality types based on the predominance of four humours, each in turn linked to the four elements as viewed in ancient times. Going clockwise, yellow is choleric, black is melancholic, blue is phlegmatic, and red is sanguine.
Very few people are so predominantly or consistently only one of these, personalities are thought of as mixtures—as Brigitte and I discovered the other day when discussing temperaments and Brigitte, as is her wont, wondered about the etymology of that word. We were both a little taken aback, lacking Latin, as it were. My only association was with tempera, a kind of egg-based paint. Could it have to do with color schemes used long ago to classify personalities? Let’s by all means go to the basement and look it up.
Temperaments are mixtures. But in the case of personality types, the mixing is of the various biles—whereas, in tempera, the mixing is of colors. The Latin for “to mix” is temperare. What is your mixture and your color, and are you wet, dry, hot, or cold? Or does it all change hour by hour, day by day? On this, the fifth day of unrelenting dark grey skies and steady rain, color me dark blue. And I am definitely cold.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
The passing of Margaret Thatcher produced in news coverage exaggerated encomia. I learned that she had changed the very arch of history and heard other words with much the same meaning. Such hyperbole was possible because she was conservative and her years in power coincided with the collapse of Russian communism. Now it happens that exemplary leaders moved by principled convictions are always present with us in small numbers; but they rarely reach the top or remain long in power. Mrs. Thatcher was an exceptionally able and admirable figure, very rare in politics. But she did not bend the arch of history. She no more caused the moribund communist structure to collapse than did Ronald Reagan or the blessed free market system. Communism collapsed from within; if an individual must get the credit, that credit belongs to Mikhail Gorbachev; but he probably only needed to give the structure an energetic kick.
The arch of history is quite out of the reach of our leaders. The chief trauma of our age is not even recognized; yet it is causing our gradual decline. It is technology or, to put it more precisely, energy slavery. Actual human slavery produced the fall of Rome. It destroyed that culture’s yeoman farming sector (thus its economy) and caused displaced farmers to crowd into its urban centers. It is impossible to ignore the moral wrong in human slavery; yet it was practiced in this supposedly Christian nation until the Thirteenth Amendment (good number) passed in 1865. Our own case is much more problematical. We see technology and our vast number of energy slaves as the greatest blessing ever to fall into human hands. We see no problem at all. But its effect—as that of vast hordes of imported slaves laboring on latifundia in Roma—is to destroy jobs, livings, and therefore organic social relations. That destruction is still going on. And if one’s interested in the arch of history, say in England, a good source from the trenches are the books of Theodore Dalrymple. But the cause for the conditions Dalrymple describes is not the failure of a too-left ruling class; it’s energy slavery. As for us, we who are, perhaps, the high point in that arch of history, around 44 million living in poverty proclaim that no one is bending the arch—not downward, anyway.
It took a long time for Rome to die; and, in a sense, under the feudal order that rose thereafter slavery lingered in a milder form. You couldn’t sell people, but you could acquire lands to which the peasants were bound as if by chains. Our own case suggests another scenario. Our own arch of history will last just about until the oil runs out. And that day is quite visible already while we’re just laboring on the 237the year of our still nominally republican system.
As for Maggie Thatcher: admirable. Let’s not diminish her principled labors in the vineyard by speaking of history, arches, and other such foolish things.
Saturday, April 6, 2013
Back when I was reading Toynbee for the first time ever, in the Army, stationed in Germany, it was difficult for me to look up any of the ancient civilizations Toynbee classified and then viewed from countless angles. A few, of course, like the Greek-Roman, I knew a little about. My current re-reading is aided by a quite magical reference facility, the Internet. Now I read, mark, and then, in the morning I look up the strange old names, see their extents on maps, and can rapidly put them in the time-frame of the centuries, millennia past. The Hittites are one of these. I had no idea where and when they’d lived.
|Click to enlarge.|
In naming centuries in the BC scheme, the eighteenth century BC, for example, when the Hittite empire began, started in 1800 BC and ended in 1701 BC. (I keep having to remind myself of this.) Well, the Hittite realm extended from the eighteenth century BC to the year 1178 BC. So it lasted, in round numbers (because we don’t have an exact date for its beginnings), some 622 years. The Hittites are remembered as using horse-drawn chariots as the major “armor” of that time. They were significant producers of bronze goods and early in switching to iron. Indeed, the Age of Iron is dated to about the fall of the Hittite Empire. In the major cultural region of Greece, Turkey, Mesopotamia, and down to Egypt, all culture seemingly went to sleep for a while, an era some call the Greek Dark Ages (roughly 1200-750 BC). Various civilizations came under fierce attack from southern European “People of the Sea” or “Sea People” who arrived in boats, carrying their populations along, and attacked the cities they could reach from the oceans. Sea Peoples? Well, ancient history has its endless mysteries.
It gave me a strong same-old, same-old feeling to learn that the Hittite Empire itself, never mind its people, existed principally by trade. Much of it flowed through what is known as the Cilician Gates, a passage through the Taurus Mountains (link). The pass gave access to Mesopotamia and to Egypt, and from there to the Anatolian Plateau where the Hittites ruled. So what was life like in, say 5600 BC? What will it be like in 5813 AD? It is good to know, in any case, that we can now drive through the Cilician Gates by using a major twentieth-century six-lane freeway. It will last for a while yet.
The picture I am showing, from Wikipedia (link), is of German origin. The blue area, labeled Der Reich der Hethiter, was where the Hittites lived. And the city, Tarsos, on the southern edge, shows the approximate location of the Cilician Gates.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
It’s a little mad, I know, but I am sitting out of doors in sunlight writing with a pen on a genuine Staples clipboard even though the temperature is grimly stuck on 39. Time for a face-off. Strengthened by having done my Turbotaxonomy (link), and both Fed and State having “accepted us,” it’s high time to stare down a stubbornly clinging winter and do what in clement season I do every morning in sunshine, later in the shade, and, between thoughts, idly watch tiny ants and very high-tech bees visiting our flowering plants. No flowers yet. But we saw a single bee two days ago trying to learn to fly. And the ants have been exploring. Birds? They are a little slow, a little tentative, but they are here.
Now for that title of mine. Ages ago, our girls still quite young, we arrived one evening at an extremely crowded motel very close to the Atlantic shore in Delaware. It was a big holiday. We’d tried two motels already; both had been full. We wanted to be close enough to walk to the beach before dawn to watch the sunrise. I parked the car and said to Brigitte: “I’ll go and check. I hope they’ll accept us this time.” The girls got out to go with me while Brigitte stayed behind to listen to the radio. Daunting. There were lines before three clerks. We waited our turn. At last. Yes! They still had room. I filled out the form, credit card, ball of wax. We headed out. People stood about. Our girls at once set off on a run toward Brigitte shouting at the top of their lungs: “They’ve accepted us! They’ve accepted us!”
We had a good laugh. That’s how family slogans are born—used many times since on fitting occasions, always with laughter. So I am out here in the cold trying to signal to Spring: “We’ve accepted you! Come right in. Plenty of room. Don’t be so shy!”
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Modern industry, Retailing, and Nature played a neat April Fool’s joke on us. The day being bright and sunny, looking out of the bedroom window Brigitte glimpsed what looked like a balloon hung up in a tree quite a distance away. Or was it just a plastic sack? From certain angles it had a diamond shape—possibly a balloon. We made a note take a look at it. Off I went late in the afternoon, driving and then walking by. I carefully examined the trees that line Charlesvoix Avenue at the appropriate spot, looking in our direction. Nothing. Sigh. Well, it wasn’t visible from the bedroom window either. And it wasn’t there yesterday.
Suddenly it was back again. And sure enough, Brigitte was just talking about time travel. This time, armed with a camera, I set out at once. And the picture shows our “balloon” form up close. Only it is a plastic bag.
I managed also to photograph the bag from its printed side, as shown in the inset. It is from an outfit called Wisted’s. I got busy tracing it—all the way to Huntley, IL, a place about midway between Rockford and Chicago, reachable by I-90. Lordy. That’s a long ways from here. Reviews of Wisted’s say that it is a pretty good supermarket. Sometimes a little disorderly and crowded, but you find good things there. Like our Village Market? Probably. But now hung out to dry until the next really serious windstorm takes it off to visit Canada somewhere.
Monday, April 1, 2013
Still reading Toynbee’s monumental work on history, it strikes me—as I see him assessing ancient cultures’ decline and occasionally touching on our own—that humanity has never experienced a situation like our current one (viewed some 80 years after Toynbee wrote his first five volumes). It is a situation in which extraordinary wealth touches a huge population—but it’s not wealth as once understood, namely personal control of physical resources and money; it is wealth in the form of collective systems, structures, technologies, and organized knowledge.
Two examples may be Communications and Health Care. Communications anciently demanded personal wealth in that, to deliver a message, one had to send a courrier to distant places; no such media as telegraphy, telephony, radio, or television existed—and general circulation news papers were also absent. Health Care then was centered on the person of a doctor, midwife, or a surgeon—and what small bag he or she carried. The hospital, with its emergency room—accessible even to the poor—did not exist; nor did colossal testing technologies, clean-rooms, remote and robotic surgery, or the pharmaceutical industries.
Behind communications today are submarine cables and space satellites; behind the satellites stands an aerospace industry. Behind medicine are mountains of extraordinarily sophisticated institutions, technical developers very much cut of the same cloth as aerospace, computer technology, and world-wide supervisory organizations communicating, by means of the never-before-seen communications sector, to inhibit the spread of plagues; among them is our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These two sectors—and they are just two of many others that operate in the same way, for the collective—represent a form of wealth one cannot discover in ancient times except in the most rudimentary forms: state-built roads with their bridges and water control on a large scale for river management and for delivering water via aqueducts.
Can our collective wealth, which makes even the poor a little “wealthy,” be traced to a single discovery? Yes. It is the “discovery” of fossil fuels. I put that word in quotes because, of course, coal and oil were known before the age of fossil fuels dawned. They were also used, principally for making weapons-grade metals, usually employing human-made and therefore manufactured charcoal. The discovery, however, was triggered by a technological innovation, the steam engine. That device—the Luddites’ first nightmare—then led, step-by-step, to an extraordinarily massive geological raid of dormant energy hidden beneath the earth probably by cataclysmic global changes literally eons ago.
The quite foreseeable exhaustion of this incredible and non-replaceable deposit of wealth will have consequences we can logically project forward. The extent to which essentially “free” energy underlies virtually everything we do and touch—not least how we communicate and heal—is effectively invisible to the public—except its members visit filling stations. The sooner it becomes the daily conscious worry of the average citizen, the sooner can creative responses to future troubles begin. The most important job now is to slow our current energy consumption drastically—to give humanity more time to adapt to conditions where effective “wealth” will once more become personal and nothing much beyond—except roads, bridges, aqueducts, and (I hope) sewage systems that will still, collectively, support us all.