Saturday, January 31, 2015

1/31 Syndrome

I was fairly convinced that, since starting this blog (on 2/7/2009), I had said pretty much the same thing every January 31 that followed—namely that today is peculiarly suited to wonder about the passage of time. That turns out to be wrong. Entries for 2011 and 2013 do make references to time, not the entries in other years. Perhaps my urge to mark the time (so to say) only comes in odd years.

The syndrome is easy to explain. Christmas, New Years, and Epiphany powerfully remind us of time’s passage. Thereafter the new year earnestly begins. For those who’re in the workforce, serious attention to the profession or occupation resumes with but a rather fuzzy holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which is only really half-observed), causing a half-stop. Then, suddenly, it is the 31st, and around here you’ll hear both Brigitte and me muttering to ourselves, “Jeez. January’s over. Where has it gone?”

Something that comes with advanced age is the feeling of time speeding up. I’m aware that saying that I’m contradicting myself. I don’t really believe in the so-called flow of time. Time, for me is simply duration. Therefore what I’m sure I mean is that the world is moving ever faster—or that the public message that comes from the civilization is quite unaware of repeating phenomena like seasons. Whereas, one might argue, as in childhood so in oldhood. Therefore for us the seasons are ever more meaningful again, much as they were in our youth. And the stuff between them rushes on, rushes, runs, races. And the end of January therefore shocks us to awareness of something. Call it a syndrome. The neatest definition of that word is “a place where several roads meet.” But what are their names?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Miss Marple? The Version Matters!

A central Christmas present for us, from Monique and John, was a Blu-Ray DVD which gave us access to streaming—from Netflix and others. A byproduct has been exposure to the turmoil in streaming. What up to now we’d barely have noticed is now Big News, thus, for instance the following web headline: Netflix is Yanking These Movies and Shows on February 1. Evidently a source’s list of titles is not a permanent but a dynamic sort of thing. Our access to Netflix in this new format gave us the means to see, again, the original Miss Marple series, 1984-1992, in which Joan Hickson is the lead character. That version, you might say matters. It is by every measure the very best. (Joan Hickson, incidentally, quite resembles my Mother in her advanced years).

This series was then followed by Agatha Christie’s Marple where first Geraldine McEwan (2004-2009) and the Julia McKenzie (2009-2013) have the leading role. This second presentation illustrates how current culture, let us call it, can bend, twist, and deform a traditional body of work, that body being the 12 novels Agatha Christie actually wrote with Marple its main character. This series has 23 episodes in 11 of which Marple is, as it were, forced into other Christie plots by the latter-day dramatizers. Not only that. The plots of virtually every episode are updated by introducing new story lines, sometimes changing the “who done it,” and peppering up the characters so that, as carriers of the new political correctness, they will presumably appeal to more sophisticated modern viewers.

If we view these as three series, the Miss Marple figure is played by ever younger people. Hickson was 78 when she began Miss Marple in 1984, McEwan 72 when she began playing Marple in 2004, and McKenzie 68 when she took up the role in 2009.

There is here also a seemingly deliberate effort to “lighten” the mood of the series, loosening the manners, and making characters young—with the net effect that some do not fit the times that Christie was actually writing about.

If we wait long enough, Miss Marple will eventually morph into an actual (if probably digital) cartoon—in which she’ll be a teenage sleuth brandishing the most recent devices and apps to bring the crimi to justice.

The version matters. Check your birth certificate before ordering the stream—or the disk—if there is still a disk to be had. The older you are the more likely you’ll be to like he original series. Which, incidentally, will stop streaming from Netflix on February 1. Shame, shame, and double shame.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

European Unity

Events in Greece in recent days—the election of Alexis Tsipras as Prime Minister followed by his party’s immediate actions to lift the policies of austerity still in place a week ago in Greece—reminded me of a trip I once took to Luxembourg to visit the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1956. I was in the U.S. Army in Europe then; the circumstances for this visit are lost. What does remains sharply imprinted on my memory were the presentations and graphics shown us in briefings. I saw projected there the first picture of a united Europe. That was roughly 58 years ago. The ECSC—made up of France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands—was indeed the original of the European Union; the whole of it, as it eventually emerged, was already clearly visible to ECSC’s founders. The idea surprised me. I’d only been gone from Europe then some five years; now I was back. And the concept of a United States of Europe was right there, projected on a screen in Luxembourg.

The current news and related comments swirling around Greece are not exactly encouraging. Tsipras appears to think that the European Union will continue to bail out Greece in order to save the Eurozone. As for that, we shall see. The problem with the union is that it is only a fragile and partial unity, as I’ve argued on LaMarotte three years ago (link). Part of me inclines in a negative direction, meaning that Greece may be expelled; in most ways we are now living in an era of political decentralization , at least within the old Christendom. A part of me is still there in Luxembourg marveling at the vision of a greater collective. The ECSC was known, back in my time, as the Montanunion. Montan means “montane,” thus referring to mountains. The word in practice then referred to the industries of the mountain, namely the mining of metal ores and coal. Mountains don’t fall apart, but they can erode.

One of the most notable aspects of voluntary unions of nations is that they tend to hold together only while a very dominant state, in Europe’s case that is Germany, retains the effective clout (but without sovereign power over other members) to hold things together. When that power fails—whether from within or through counter-pressure from without—pieces start to fall off. How long will Chancellor Merkel be able to hold on?

Monday, January 26, 2015

That Time of Night

Having just last night heard Miss Marple refer to a fortnight, made me curious about the origins of that word. I learned that its rooting is “fourteen nights,” with fourteen contracted. Evidently it was ancient Germanic custom to count time by nights. Sennight was also once used in English, meaning “seven nights”; but that word is now classed as—the direction in which fortnight appears to be trending. To be sure, while laboring at Gale Research, which had its roots in old-fashioned publishing, senior editors and such were required to file fortnightly reports… This made me nod. We have two choices: count time by day or by night. Sure enough, such is human diversity over time, once in Germanic lands nights were the basis of counting. Online Etymology Dictionary tells me that Tacitus (56-117) made a note of this back in his own time. Mankind has followed every conceivable conceptual path available. One that came up in our morning discussion was the fact that one branch of Mazdaism, Zurvanism, held that God was Time. Time is a mysterious enough experience to stimulate human innovation.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Placebo Humor

A while back, discussing the placebo effect (link), I came across another interesting usage of that word in Wikipedia’s article on the subject (link). The word in Latin means “I shall please,” as in the 9th verse of Psalm 114: “Placebo Domino in regione vivorum.” That is the Vulgate, the Latin version used by the Catholic Church. “I shall please the Lord in the region of the living,” usually translated as “I will walk before the Lord…” in English, there using Psalm 116:9. (How the verse wandered from 114 to 116 still remains unresearched.) Well, the Latin version was once recited as part of the Catholic funeral service, that phrase being a response by those attending. Now back in those days of yore, some people in no way related to the deceased—or to his or her family—used to arrive at funerals and claim such a relation strictly in order to take part in the funeral festivities and the meals there served. Such people were once called “placebos,” and in that context the word meant a “mooch.” — Which reminds me that, not quite as far back as that, mooches were also referred to as “nosebaggers” with reference to horses that, wearing a nosebag filled with oats, would worry and worm them avidly when they got to the bottom of the bag. I’m one of few people left alive who actually saw such “nosebagging” done by horses “parked” near a store somewhere harnessed to a cart…


On December 2, 2014, Nature published a story headlined “European probe shoots down dark-matter claims”  (link). Reading such a headline, one is inclined first to ask, What exactly are “dark matter claims”? The first thought that springs to mind is the claim that dark matter exists. And if that claim has been shot down, why, that’s actually Big News. But that can’t be true, can it? If it was, the headline would be bigger—and even CNN might have mentioned it since December 2, 2014 (or even December 11, 2014, when the article was last revised).

The article concerns a news announcement, by the European Space Agency, that a full analysis of data on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), collected by the Planck spacecraft, is now being prepared for publication. Some highlights were presented on December 2.

 Reading the brief-enough article, one learns that despite the “shoot down” Planck data still “confirm that 26% of the total mass-energy budget of the Universe is made up of dark matter.” Therefore dark matter is alive and well. What that dramatically announced “shoot down” means is that some conjectures about dark matter—namely that excess positrons found in the CMB is explained by dark matter—has been shown to be false. So one conjecture has been falsified, but dark matter is still in the saddle. Had the headline signaled that, I wouldn’t have bothered reading the article.

Compare that headline to another published by Phys.Org on December 4 (link). It said: “Researchers report on data analysis from Planck spacecraft.” The substance of that story is essentially the same as Nature’s. Clever headlines capture readers, but dark matter lingers on.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Cloud of Unknowing?

Reading FWH Myers’ own work (link)—and reading about him—brought back to my mind a subject that once much puzzled and interested me, namely Carl Gustav Jung’s Unconscious. It has always puzzled me that anyone would associate a mental something, which the Jungian Unconscious surely is, with unconsciousness—and it has exercised my mind because, for me, the mental is above all, and almost by definition, consciousness. In this I am in good company because the modern psychologist I most respect, Viktor Frankl, somewhere once called the Unconscious a mystification. All sorts of thought processes are going on in the body—because the brain produces them; of some we are conscious, of others we are not. My own very traditional view is that we have a soul; and it is the soul that is conscious of some things and not of others. In the modern view, namely that the entirety of consciousness is a brain structure pure and simple, and there is no soul at all, thus nothing separable from the body and therefore from the brain, the Unconscious is some major part of brain activity and consciousness simply another and much smaller part of the brain specialized in “attention,” or something like that.

Myers comes into this picture because he postulated something quite like the Jungian Unconscious in his notion of a Subliminal Mind. And, much like Jung, he saw in this part of our mind the same features of greater comprehensiveness and wisdom than the ordinary waking consciousness produces. From that level, in Myers view, “gushes up” (to use his phrase) the inspiration that makes the genius and artist; there reside healing powers and paranormal gifts like telepathy.

Now, to be sure, anyone involved in creative activities is surely well aware of inspiration—and will confess that the work of art, whatever its nature—or the invention, or the discovery—is not a personal achievement but a gift. It comes from somewhere and the artist/inventor/discoverer is merely an agent by means of which this (call it) energy is given some kind of tangible form. You might therefore say that the Unconscious or the Subliminal Mind is what creative people would call Inspiration—thus something separate from them but actually existing out there somewhere. And access to it is by one of the actual powers of the human mind, intuition.

Back when I was wrestling with Jung, I used to laugh and say to myself: “Here’s Carl Jung. He’s reinvented God again.” I said that because, functionally, the Collective Unconscious, anyway, had many features of the towering divine. God, for Jung was just an archetype, thus something in the Unconscious. No sooner had Nietzsche declared God dead than Jung declared the Unconscious alive and well. Their lives overlapped.

The phenomenon we all experience is something strange indeed—because inspiration is a strange thing, as are meaningful coincidences—as are precognitive dreams, experiences of telepathy, and so on. Those who give deep thought to these things give them names and thus in a way institutionalize them. And this has always been so.

Back in the fourteenth century appeared a slender book—which long ago I once had read—entitled The Cloud of Unknownig by an anonymous author. It deals with prayer. It counsels that we must let go of our ego and mind in prayer and enter the realm of “unknowingness” to experience what God is. My own thoughts about Carl Jung were thus grounded in an intuition. Whenever analytical knowledge fails us, we tend to discover some king of cloud of unknowing and project there what we think the answer might be. Dark matter serves that purpose in modern cosmology. The truth may be (to produce a projection of my own) that we are indeed surrounded by a vast reality of mind quite resistant to our effective grasp. And it is real enough—but it is not us, is not our mind. At different times through history we invent new names for it to explain what will not fit into our head.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sound of Two Hands Clapping

While reading Irreducible Mind, by Kelly and Kelly et. al., I’m learning in painful detail how modern science has denied the existence of Mind because it cannot detect it in material ways. Today a good paper Brigitte passed me on cosmology documents the way modern science is absolutely certain of the existence of Dark Matter—which it also cannot detect in material ways. Are we dealing here with science or are we dealing with Faith?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Women in Symphony Orchestras

We chose seats in the second row of the Seligman Performing Arts Center yesterday for a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The seats were so low, relative to the stage, that we were looking straight at the feet of the performers when looking dead ahead—so that John (of Monique and John and Patioboat fame) said that the way to discover how many musicians were playing, we might count the feet and divide by two.

Up close and personal. Oddly this nearness greatly enhanced our enjoyment of the performance, but a part of my mind went wandering during certain passages. It occurred to me that all that I was seeing—the people, the instruments, the sheets of music, everything would have looked pretty much the same way a hundred, hundred and ten years ago, dress-codes aside. During the intermission, I put the question to Monique. “Look at the orchestra,” I said, “and tell me what would have been different a hundred-and-ten years ago.” Monique thought about it for a while. Then she said: “The women.” And, of course, I nodded. It had occurred to me that a large proportion of the orchestra, particularly in violins, was female; and that that, 110 years ago, would not have been the same.

It turns out that I was quite wrong. The high proportions are a fairly recent phenomenon in large metropolitan symphonies. But using pictures back to the early 1900s, I discovered here one, there two, sometimes three women in the symphonic orchestras even then—and not just playing harps. And by that time, women had already reached high visibility in regional symphony orchestras like the Battle Creek, MI, symphony, shown here courtesy of the Willard Library in Battle Creek (link). The picture dates back to about 1905.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

From the Age of Letter-Writing

A while back now, I got a volume titled Women’s Letters, America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler (Dial Press, 2005). Many of the figures in that volumes were well-known or relatives of the well-known. Their letter-writing skills, therefore, might be attributed to education and standing in society. The letter I’d like to reproduce here was written by an ordinary woman; she was the wife of a major serving in Britain’s Army in India. It was originally published in Phantasms of the Living (vol. ii, p. 239), and I came across it in Myers’ Human Personality, hence its subject matter. Now there are many, many such letters, equally well done, in that work and the Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research; hence, in a way, we are looking at the “average” of middle- and upper-class writing in the nineteenth century. Herewith the letter:
In the month of November 1864, being detained in Cairo, on my way out to India, the following curious circumstance occurred to me: -
Owing to an unusual influx of travellers, I, with the young lady under my charge (whom we will call D.) and some other passengers of the outward-bound mail to India, had to take up our abode in a somewhat unfrequented hotel. The room shared by Miss D. and myself was large, lofty, and gloomy; the furniture of the scantiest, consisting of two small beds, placed nearly in the middle of the room and not touching the walls at all, two or three rush-bottomed chairs, a very small washing-stand, and a large old-fashioned sofa of the settee sort, which was placed against one-half of the large folding doors which gave entrance to the room. This settee was far too heavy to be removed, unless by two or three people. The other half of the door was used for entrance, and faced the two beds. Feeling rather desolate and strange, and Miss D. being a nervous person, I locked the door, and, taking out the key, put it under my pillow; but on Miss D. remarking that there might be a duplicate which could open the door from outside, I put a chair against the door, with my travelling bag on it, so arranged that, on any pressure outside, one or both must fall on the bare floor, and make noise enough to rouse me.
We then proceeded to retire to bed, the one I had chosen being near the only window in the room, which opened with two glazed doors, almost to the floor. These doors, on account of the heat, I left open, first assuring myself that no communication from the outside could be obtained. The window led on to a small balcony, which was isolated, and was three stories above the ground.
I suddenly woke from a sound sleep with the impression that somebody had called me, and, sitting up in bed, to my unbounded astonishment, by the clear light of early dawn coming in through the large window before mentioned, I beheld the figure of an old and very valued friend whom I knew to be in England. He appeared as if most eager to speak to me, and I addressed him with, Good gracious! how did you come here ? So clear was the figure, that I noted every detail of his dress, even to three onyx shirt-studs which he always wore. He seemed to come a step nearer to me, when he suddenly pointed across the room, and on my looking round, I saw Miss D. sitting up in her bed, gazing at the figure with every expression of terror. On looking back, my friend seemed to shake his head, and retreated step by step, slowly, till he seemed to sink through that portion of the door where the settee stood. I never knew what happened to me after this; but my next remembrance is of bright sunshine pouring through the window. Gradually the remembrance of what had happened came back to me, and the question arose in my mind, had I been dreaming, or had I seen a visitant from another world? - the bodily presence of my friend being utterly impossible.
Remembering that Miss D. had seemed aware of the figure as well as myself, I determined to allow the test of my dream or vision to be whatever she said to me upon the subject, I intending to say nothing to her unless she spoke to me. As she seemed still asleep, I got out of bed, examined the door carefully, and found the chair and my bag untouched, and the key under my pillow; the settee had not been touched, nor had that portion of the door against which it was placed any appearance of being opened for years.
Presently, on Miss D. waking up, she looked about the room, and, noticing the chair and bag, made some remark as to their not having been much use. I said, What do you mean? and then she said, Why, that man who was in the room this morning must have got in somehow. She then proceeded to describe to me exactly what I myself had seen. Without giving any satisfactory answer as to what I had seen, I made her rather angry by affecting to treat the matter as a fancy on her part, and showed her the key still under my pillow, and the chair and bag untouched. I then asked her, if she was so sure that she had seen somebody in the room, did not she know who it was ? No, said she, I have never seen him before, nor any one like him. I said, Have you ever seen a photograph of him? She said, No. This lady never was told what I saw, and yet described exactly to a third person what we both had seen.
Of course, I was under the impression my friend was dead. Such, however, was not the case; and I met him some four years later, when, without telling him anything of my experience in Cairo, I asked him, in a joking way, could he remember what he was doing on a certain night in November 1864. “Well,” he said, “you require me to have a good memory;” but after a little reflection he replied, “Why, that was the time I was so harassed with trying to decide for or against the appointment which was offered me, and I so much wished you could have been with me to talk the matter over. I sat over the fire quite late, trying to think what you would have advised me to do.” A little cross-questioning and comparing of dates brought out the curious fact that, allowing for the difference of time between England and Cairo, his meditations over the fire and my experience were simultaneous. Having told him the circumstances above narrated, I asked him had he been aware of any peculiar or unusual sensation. He said none, only that he had wanted to see me very much.

E. H. Elgee.

1864 was firmly in the Age of Letter-Writing. Quite often on Masterpiece Theater, we hear characters excusing themselves because “I have to catch up on my correspondence.” No. That is not a simple ruse to get the character off-stage. They did then write lots of letters. And this sample shows how spending time and effort, produces skill that seems effortless. It flows from the fingers to the paper—and via pens regularly dipped into a bottle of live ink at that…

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Public Square

One of the curious consequences of modern technology is that it causes distortions to Time and to Space as these are ordinarily experienced. What they are is a philosophy, natural and other, keeps examining. I emphasize modern technology because its uses demand very dense and ample forms of energy; the availability of such energy really dates to the mid-nineteenth century.

When we speak of the “public square” these days, we no long literally mean a place. Long ago and far away, however, when the Greek agora and the Roman forum were such centrally located and large open spaces, space in the ordinary sense was very important for any kind of meaningful public assembly. The spatial aspect of public communication had not yet been (call it) virtualized. That virtualization began with the rise of the newspaper, was intensified by radio, and became exhaustive with the dawn of television. Since then—if we must absolutely find a space for this public square—we find a part of it in every living room; it is the part were communications are directed at the public. The response to these communications has been institutionalized as polling; it is from polling that we get public opinion—rather than from the shouting, yelling, or clapping in an actual, physical forum. The geographical reach of the old agora was also limited maximally to a 100-mile circle. Our media are influential everywhere.

The time dimension in ancient times was limited to the speed of travel by horse or by ship. Events in China taking place back then on a given day could not—could never—reach people in Italy on the same day. Today we’ve annihilated Time as well or, to be more precise, the speed at which electronics waves travel is the new limit.

So where do we fit the Internet? Is it yet another extension of the media? Does it enlarge that public square? In an ambiguous way— perhaps. It enlarges the public square for those who are willing to use it for that purpose—but it is generally much slower than media-capped-by-TV. The Internet is also only potentially public. My favorite analogy is that posting something on the web is analogous to typing out a sheet and pinning it to the back of one’s garage. If the garage backs onto an ally, some potential readers might see it…. In fact it isn’t quite as bad as that because the Internet has multiple searchable indexes, the big one being Google. But the Internet, like all modern technology, annihilates space and time to the extent now possible. It is the Great Library. You can find virtually any kind of take on reality there, from the absurd on to the exalted. But it does not oblige you to go to any building anchored in space. Consulted with mobile devices, it is everywhere. And its speed is very fast. Ah, the 1950s. All those trips to the library—and up and down all those stairs there….

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Mom, Dad, and Hellzapoppin

The sophisticated sector of our society, e.g., the media, don’t much like simplistic analogies. Like, for instance, the notion that our smallest collective, the family, may be like our greatest, the nation. Yet this morning such an analogy arose in my mind. The occasion was a headline in the Wall Street Journal: “Gas Savings Not Spent Yet.” The essence here is that despite good numbers on December retail spending from private associations, national numbers from the Commerce Department indicate 0.9 percent decline in retail and food services spending as compared to November spending. And this despite a huge drop in gasoline costs?

The key word in the headline is that word Yet. The sophisticated understanding of people is based on an artificial notion of pure economic rationality. When people have extra money, they will spend it. If they don’t now, soon they will. Nothing else matters except having money or not having it. There is no future or social dimension present at all.

But if we use a “simplistic analogy,” our economic life today is comparable to the life of a family where mom and dad are at each others’ throats and hellzapoppin. A sign of that is a story on the next page: “House Votes to Block Immigration Policy,” just a day after a frosty meeting between the President and the Congressional leadership to discuss cooperation.

In a family in uproar, the children won’t be jolly. Consumer confidence is based on many things, not least the bigger atmosphere of the social whole. And there we have Mom determined to undermine Dad and vice versa. It’s barely safe to play, with half a mind, behind the couch, while in the kitchen things are heard to break on the tiled floor.

Bottom-up v. Top-down

I discovered Carl Gustav Jung just after I had passed my nineteenth year—and Frederic W.H. Myers as I’m approaching my seventy-ninth. Clearly Jung captured the attention of elements of my generation much more effectively than Myers. Jung was the worthy adversary (to use a phrase from Castaneda) of Sigmund Freud. Myers was associated chiefly with parapsychology as a founder of the Society for Psychical Research, an activity in shadows. Yet now I realize that the younger Jung (born 1875 versus Myers’ birth-year of 1843) owed an enormous debt to Myers. One doesn’t have to look hard or very long to discover the grounding ideas in Jung’s psychology fully developed in Myers and already published when Jung was just a little boy. Myers had the subconscious, which he called the subliminal mind; he also maintained the idea that the subliminal mind’s powers were greater and much wider than that of the conscious mind; finally, like Jung later, he also imagined the conscious mind as a subset of total consciousness or, to use Jung’s phrasing, as a small island floating in a sea of superior consciousness.

Myers had formulated this idea to explain anomalous phenomena in human behavior and experience—all those experiences we now label as paranormal. His views were in part shaped by the rise in evolutionary thought. Darwin was 34 years older than Myers and Myers 32 years older than Jung. Myers reached out to evolution in attempts to explain paranormal powers in humans; it seemed sensible to view them, in his time, as emerging by means of an evolutionary process. Evolution was in the air, you might say. Thus Myers’ explanation made use of a bottom-up model. To be sure, Myers was something of a genius; as his knowledge advanced he also came to see that what was bubbling up from beneath the threshold (subliminally) also at times seemed to come down from above the waking consciousness. But, in effect, he set the stage for a not-quite materialistic psychology which had a bottom-up framing. Start of the twentieth century.

At the start of the twenty-first, Myers is once more rising into prominence but, curiously, as a champion of a top-down theory of psychology. That theory is that the mind is irreducible to matter and must therefore in some sense either transcend matter or belong to another radically different order. (See this post on Irreducible Mind here.) Myers’ work supports that thesis because his exhaustive review of the empirical evidence for the veridical character of paranormal phenomena had already effectively undermined materialist monism back at the tail of the nineteenth century. But nobody paid it any mind. Materialism was rising like a gusher based on technological success. By the twenty-first century, despite being ignored, evidence for the paranormal had greatly increased.

It occurs to me that cycles in civilization also tend to be either bottom-up or top-down in orientation. Modernity is bottom up—whether it is in explaining reality by studying matter or ruling collective by democratic means. The age that came before was top-down in looking up towards an invisible Creator. I’ve slowly come to feel that beginning roughly in the 1820s a transition back from bottom-up to top-down began with the decay of Western civilization. Myers occupies a kind of midway point in this transition. It is not surprising, therefore, that his labors are equally useful in the support both modes of thought. He saw the one nearing its end and foresaw the other rising. These processes, needless to say, do not take place on a human time scale. Reading the papers I see a total conviction that we’re only beginning to build the Tower of Siloam. The sky’s really the limit. Poets see only cracks (link).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Herewith a repost of a 2009 item on LaMarotte, in a version of that blog that is no longer on the web. The occasion is a story in the New York Times this morning telling the world that William F. Buckley Jr. had been a “peanut butter freak.” A good day for peanut butter! Brigitte and I also count among the enthusiasts. Herewith that post.

*   *   *
One night my father brought home a five-pound can of something. He said he didn’t know what it was, but we should try it. Mother opened the can. The contents were a light shade of oily brown. She took a spoon, took some, and tried it. “Ummmm,” she said, approvingly. She gave each of us a spoonful too. In moments we all had spoons and we were eating this strange stuff, right from the can. In a single session that night, we emptied that huge container down to its very bottom—and then scraped out the remains.

We had just encountered one of the great foods of America. Peanut butter. The stuff was a great hit because we were always starved for oils and protein then. Needless to say, I voted for Jimmy Carter when he ran for president—remembering that memorable night. 
[From Majd Amerikába, a family memoir]

The scene just described took place around about 1947. My family was in Germany, in a small town called Tirschenreuth. Patton’s Army had occupied this region; it had become the American Zone and thus came to be exposed to the radiant light of the distant U.S. economy. My father, a soldier, had lost his left arm fighting the Russians as part of the Hungarian Army; after his recovery he had been assigned to the Hungarian Military Academy as a professor. That Academy had moved west as the Russian forces advanced into Hungary, and there in Tirschenreuth, this unarmed but still military unit surrendered to General Patton’s soldiers. The event—I mean the epiphany of peanut butter—took place two years after the war ended for us. My father endeavored then to support us all by trading on the Black Market, and he had just scored a five-pound can. The family’s relationship to peanut butter, which is on the level of a kind of cult, endures strong and loyal to this day, some sixty-two years later. Brigitte is a latecomer in that it took her ten years longer to escape East Germany and thus come into the Zone of Heavenly Oils. Her reaction to the oily brown stuff, however, was exactly the same as ours.

According to the World Book Encyclopedia, the peanut is a legume, thus the fruit of a seed or pod-bearing plant. Peas and beans are classified the same way; so are clover, alfalfa, and soybeans. Horses and cattle therefore also have some chance to feel true happiness. The plant gathers sunlight in a bushy sort of way above the ground. The peanut plant’s flowers sprout on its lowest branches from slender stems; as they wilt the stems droop; drooping, they stiffen; their stem-tips harden into so-called pegs. When these pegs touch the dirt, they begin to dig down into the soil and, buried there, finally, they transform themselves into peanut pods. The illustration inserted here is courtesy of Mother Agriculture also known as the USDA. Georgia dominates peanut growing; its farmers grow more than half of all the peanuts sold. Other blessed states are Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia (in order of importance). We were privileged to live in Virginia close to the living peanut plant itself. (link) informs me that peanut butter in the modern sense came into being in 1890 when a physician in St. Louis encouraged a food producer, George A. Bayle Jr., to make and sell ground peanut-paste. The physician, whose name is lost to history but who is certainly well-known in heaven, had supposedly tested the product by grinding peanuts experimentally and tasted the resulting product by taking a spoonful. He probably said: “Ummmm!” He intended to produce a nutritious food for people with poor teeth—and this was a real winner. Kelloggs obtained the first patent for a “process of preparing nut meal” in 1895. The rest, as they say, is history.

This morning we got to the bottom of a jar of our favorite brand, Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter. It takes us a mere two days to finish a jar, and the final act is to scrape the last bit of tiny product from the glass. Brigitte likes to do that with a spoon, and the activity produces a kind of clicking sound. This morning that reminded me of 1947 when I first heard that sound, although then the clicking came from metal hitting metal. And the memory inspired me to write this. One cannot praise peanuts, and peanut butter, frequently and ardently enough.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Soul Source

The roots of the word meaning soul in Greek and Latin are both from “breath,” thus pneuma in Greek and spiritus in Latin. The English soul is rooted in Proto-Germanic saiwalo and takes all sorts of variant forms in Germanic languages from Seele in German to ziel in Dutch. If you produce a list of the meanings of these three words, they all agree. At the most exhaustive level, the words mean “life,” more narrowly “an animating principle,” more narrowly yet a being that “feels, thinks, and wills.” Both the Online Etymology Dictionary (OED) and the much earlier (1852) and exhaustive German Dictionary produced by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm state that the Germanic word is of “uncertain origin.” Both, however, continue on to suggest that the root may be the Proto-Germanic saiwaz, meaning “sea.” The Grimm brothers speculate that the sea might once have suggested “waves” that mark the interior swings in the soul’s inner life. OED suggests what sounds much more plausible to me. Herewith OED’s addendum:

Sometimes [soul is] said to mean originally “coming from or belonging to the sea,” because that was supposed to be the stopping place of the soul before birth or after death [Barnhart]…. Klein explains this as “from the lake,” as a dwelling-place of souls in ancient northern Europe.

This struck me as strangely wonderful for a reason. Back about three years ago I put up a post on Borderzone (link) in which, commenting on Tony Hillerman’s The Dance Hall of the Dead, I had discovered a very curious aspect of Zuni religious beliefs. It is that souls come from and return to a sacred lake in Arizona called Ko-thuwallawa, literally God-Town. What do they do there? They dance.

It is not very likely that the Zuni peoples originated in ancient northern Europe—however similar the beliefs might be. What we glimpse here is something else. While in these bodies we’d better be breathing at right regular intervals. The Greek and Latin words are centered on this vital but also mundane activity. But as for that much less fragile structure, the soul, it may also be seen as a “substantial entity” (OED) that keeps on dancing on….

Monday, January 12, 2015

Psychology Reexamined

A new book appeared in 2007 and then reissued in 2010 in paperback intended to nudge modern-day understanding of psychology forward—or perhaps back. What goes around comes around. The book is Irreducible Mind by Edward F. Kelley, Emily Williams Kelly, Adam Crabtree, Alan Gauld, Michael Grosse, and Bruce Greyson, Rowman & Littlefield.

I came across it just last month while doing some background lookups on Wilder Penfield for posts here (link, link, and link). It struck me as interesting that Amazon could not deliver the book (ordered in mid-December) until January 11—suggesting that it was in reprinting mode. The book, subtitled “Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century,” should become a widely used reference in psychology and parapsychology.

Herewith the first paragraph from the Preface:

This book originated from a seminar directed to theoretical foundations of scientific psychology, initiated in 1998 by Michael Murphy under the auspices of the Center for Theory and Research of Esalen Institute. By the year 2000 our discussions had advanced to the point where we believed we could demonstrate, empirically, that the materialistic consensus which undergirds practically all of current mainstream psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind is fundamentally flawed. We therefore committed ourselves to developing a book-length [800 page] presentation which would systematically articulate and defend this point of view.

Michael Murphy was a co-founder of the Esalen Institute and is perhaps best described as a New Age author. The authors of the book are associated with neuroscience (Edward F. Kelly), near-death experience and paranormal research and authorship (Emily Williams Kelly), psychotherapy (Alan Crabtree, Bruce Greyson), psychology and parapsychology (Alan Gauld, Emily W. Kelly), and philosophy (Michae Grosso).

The authors all have at least one foot—if not both—off the orthodox reservation of materialism. Emily W. Kelly, presumably Edward Kelly’s wife, worked closely as a research assistant with Ian Stevenson, famed for his reincarnation studies at University of Virginia. Edward Kelly had spent a decade at the J.B. Rhine’s Institute of Parapsychology. Gaunt had been President of the Society for Psychical Research (1989-1992), some of Greyson’s work has been on Near Death Experiences (NDEs), Crabtree’s work has focused on borderline matters like hypnotism, and one of Grosso’s books is titled The Millennium Myths: Experiencing the Next World Now.

The combined profile will make it easy for Orthodoxy to dismiss their collective effort in Irreducible Mind, but the claim made in that prefatory quote to “demonstrate, empirically” that Orthodoxy is flawed is quite obviously accurate so far as I’ve gotten in the book.

The book’s subtitle—and the general tone of the text—show that its authors intend seriously to nudge along a paradigm shift in the study of the human mind. They seem to be right on course.

Irreducible Mind is dedicated to F.W.H. Myers, dubbed “a neglected genius of scientific psychology,” and to Ian Stevenson and Michael Murphy. Now I’m not surprised that, when buying that book, Amazon helpfully tried to sell me Myers’ Human Personality. Since that book came out posthumously in 1903, Irreducible Mind is looking back as it looks forward, anchoring itself in the work of Myers (1843-1901) and William James (1842-1910).

Sunday, January 11, 2015


A while back (here) I had a brief not on greeting—where, incidentally, I pointed out that in my own childhood we said “Hi” by using the Latin word “servus”; in Hungary that’s spelled szervusz. Today the French merci came up; words keep doing that in our morning conversations. I went searching for it in that post on “Hello” but could not find it.

My spontaneous inclination was to derive it from a longer phrase, as in the English “I’m at your mercy.” The French have a very similar phrase as in the following: “Monsieur le Président, cest un honneur pour moi d’être ici, et je vous en remercie.” Now in that usage, the speaker is re-thanking the President because, one assumes, the invitation was itself a form of “grace” or gift, hence the Spanish gracia. It’s not a bad guess to assume that endless repetition of the “je vous en remercie” would eventually been shortened to merci. The English “I’m at your mercy” no doubt was taken from that phrase. The Wiktionary (here) derives merci from the Latin mercēs, meaning pay, reward, wages. Hence the English “I’m in your debt” would be equivalent to be at someone’s mercy. Complicated, all this. It seems that in French saying merci means receiving something—and acknowledging that situation by using the generic for “a gift”—for getting one. Suppose that we said “dollar” instead of “thanks.” Wouldn’t that give foreigners a fit in understanding English?

But the complications associated with a word like merci are incomparably simpler than to explain that little word en in that French phrase. For that task I’d have to apply to someone who understands French at a much deeper level than I understand English. Some things you simply know—and even waterboarding could not elicit a meaningful response unless you were a highly specialized linguistic scholar.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Micro-View of Real Estate

We sold our house in Grosse Pointe Farms on August 13, 2014 to a company engaged in updating and the reselling homes. Our property, call it the McKinley house, went on the market again January 4, 2015—which makes it 4 months and 22 days later. In the process what had been an old (1926) but mechanically very sturdy house—with the exception of a garage that, I think, was kept upright merely by the low branches of some very sturdy little trees—has been transformed, per the new seller, into a “fantastic English Colonial completely updated” and priced at nearly 74 percent above the price we got for it—a price which we considered quite adequate.

Well, the mark-up makes sense—and must have cost a pretty penny. The place has been transformed. Among the features: all new hardwood and granite flooring downstairs and in the bathrooms, completely new kitchen with marble counters, a new back drive and patio, very nice paint everywhere, a new front door, and new front stairs.

In an effort to give the house more spacious rooms and a “circular flowing floor plan,” the developers created larger openings in the living and in the sunroom thereby reducing usable space quite a bit—our old couch and big arm-chair would no longer fit in there now. They did away with storage space upstairs and shortened one hallway (at the end of which I had a huge shelf with tons of books). In the basement they erased a highly useful double tub used for laundry purposes.

Among the negatives, from our point of view, is that they took away all of the radiators and added forced air heating to the already existing air-conditioning system. One of the principal features of the McKinley house had been pleasant and very quiet heating which never dried you out like forced air does.

Now to that garage. We were certain that it would be torn down and replaced with a new one. Well, the developers fixed up the old one by adding some beams here and there. They also gave it some new siding. But it’s still the old garage. And no doubt it will do its job for another 25 years.

We wish the new owners a pleasurable use of the old McKinley house. They will not miss what we would sorely miss if by some chance we’d have to make the move back. The old becomes the new. And the location, to be sure, couldn’t be better for a family with children. The schools are within walking distance—as is the Library. But the library’s nearness isn’t noted by the e-brochure that brought us this intelligence (with our old neighbor, Paul, acting as intermediary).

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Free Speech?

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. Gompers v. Bucks Stove & Range Co., 221 U. S. 418, 221 U. S. 439. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
     [Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919) (link) Emphasis mine.]

My object here is to enlarge the context of the terrorist attack on personnel of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris—in reaction to which Free Speech is (as it were) being deified. In actual fact, there are limits to free speech, at least in the United States, when its use or abuse presents a clear and present danger. Here, anyway, according to Chief Justice Holmes back in 1919, there are substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

The case decided in Schenck v. United States dealt with  “A conspiracy to circulate among men called and accepted for military service under the Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, a circular tending to influence them to obstruct the draft.” That action, very mild in the context of our time, was “within the power of Congress to punish.” The quotations from the case itself.

Just where these limits to Free Speech actually fall appears to have become very ambiguous, evidently depending on which side of an issue you’re on, whose ox gets gored, and so forth. If we look at the actual flavor of Charlie Hebdo, provided on this Google dump of images here, it is obvious that the paper attacks just about everything. One of their covers, visible here, cited by some to show that the paper exercises its satire on all faiths, shows the Bible, Torah, and Qur’an as rolls of toilet paper. In the secular world, such things are deemed Okay and unremarkable. But Holmes, in Schenck, noted, immediately after the quote given above, that “The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done.” In today’s circumstances it may be just fine to badmouth Christianity and Judaism, but plain facts, going back some years now, indicate that Hebdo was creating a clear and present danger—to itself and all those who, by proximity to it, might become “collateral damage” to an attack on its use of Free Speech.

Pondering these matters, Brigitte had a sharp intuition. Odd, she said, that we set clear limits on attacks on bodies but attacks on human minds are defended passionately and there is no limit whatsoever. Well, according to our Supreme Court, there are situations in which “the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition.” But we are so busy in our selective outrage that we have no time actually to think about things at all, never mind such unspeakable horrors as limiting Free Speech.

The Word

We saw the Danish film Ordet, which means “the word,” made in 1955 by Carl Theodor Dreyer based on a play by Kaj Munk first performed in 1932. The movie is impressive in part because it embodies a kind of contradiction. It is an art film and, simultaneous, a religious film. It is long, ritualistic in its mode of presentation, yet builds incredible tension. Seen in the right company, it will generate discussion that will last at least as long as the film itself. Ordet is the kind of film best left undescribed to enable those who might want to see it to experience its full impact. It is available from Netflix.

I got to thinking about ritual. Ritual is strongly associated with religious experience at every level, even down to the trivially superstitious: touch wood, black cat, spilled salt. Art film, in my own mind, and any “art” one is tempted to put in quotes, represents the piety of Humanism. It does not contrast so much with traditional ritual behavior as it updates it for elites. For the ordinary folk sentimentality will suffice. In Ordet a kind of tension arises because the technique of Humanistic ritual is used to tell a religious story—straight, you might say. Art films are not supposed to deal with that subject seriously.

Or perhaps the times are changing. I put “Art Film” on Google. The first item that comes up, of course, is the Wikipedia article on the subject. To my surprise the first image shown in that article is a portrait of Carl Theodor Dreyer celebrating his The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 film.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

All They From Sheba Shall Come

Die Könge aus Saba kamen dar,
The kings from Sheba came—
Gold, Weihrauch, Myrrhen brachten sie dar,
Brought  gold, incense and myrrh,
Was dort Jesaias vorhergesehn,
What there Isaiah had foreseen
Das ist zu Bethlehem geschehn.
That did in Bethlehem take place.
Hier stellen sich die Weisen
The Wise men, here, they do arrive
Bei Jesu Krippe ein
And at the foot of Jesus crib
Und wollen ihn als ihren König preisen.
They stand to praise him as their king.
Gold, Weihrauch, Myrrhen sind
Gold, incense, myrrh are costly gifts
Die köstlichen Geschenke,
By means of which they honor pay
Womit sie dieses Jesuskind
To this small Jesus gently laid
Zu Bethlehem im Stall beehren.
In a stable at a place called Bethlehem.
  [Beginning of J.S. Bach's Cantata 65, for the Feast of the Epiphany, authorship unknown]

The Cantata here is usually rendered as Cantata BWV 65. That acronym stands for Bach Werke Verzeichnis, thus Catalogue of Bach’s Works.

The reference to Sheba and to Isaiah comes from Isaiah 60:1-6 which says the following:

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

2  For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.

3  And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

4  Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side.

5  Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.

6  The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord.

In the Revised Standard version of Isaiah, Chapter 6o is headed “The dawn of Zion’s glory,” which suggests why this passage is associated with the birth of Jesus or his revelation to the Gentiles. Some very close readers of the Bible note that Isaiah mentions gold and incense (frankincense) but not myrrh, an aromatic resin used as a perfume in ancient times; they interpret myrrh as symbolizing Jesus’ death for our sins because myrrh was used at burials once.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Reading the chapter on Hypnotism in Frederic W.H. Myers’ Human Personality—which describes the state of this art or practice at the end of the nineteenth century, the thought occurred that hypnotism might be classified as a branch of paramedicine. I use that term in a new way. The word, I just discovered, is already in use in connection with emergency medical services—in which the paramedics are highly active. But in that usage, the para prefix (meaning “beyond”) is here derived from parachute, seeing that the earliest use of “paramedic” was to designate medical corpsmen arriving on the scene after jumping from airplanes.

In my usage here, the analogue is parapsychology—thus the extension of psychology into regions where the scientific proof of observations or diagnoses are difficult-to-measure or difficult-to-replicate, neutrally described as alternative medicine (much as acupuncture is), aggressively derided as hokum.

Hypnosis fits this designation because its uses are not as unfailing (or as close to unfailing) as the dominant mechanical or chemical approaches; yet when they work, they are rather spectacular. The main variables in this art are the personalities of the hypnotist and of the patient. Significantly enough the practice has, from its days of inception under Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) tended to be associated with unusually charismatic figures—of which the last I am aware of was Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980). Thus the practice appears to resist “institutionalization” —much as talents in parapsychology effectively decay when put to use in, say, trying to play the stock market, as shown by the parapsychologist, J.E. Kennedy (see papers here).

It appears to me that hypnosis involves that famously mysterious borderland between mind and body—much as does faith-healing and a very well-known but not-at-all-understood phenomenon, the placebo effect. The “faith” part of the placebo effect is indicated by its name; it derives from the Latin for “I shall please” and comes from doctors giving patients innocuous pills, thought to have no effect at all, just to please the patient. Yet, miraculously, the white flour just worked. Somehow.

Two views of hypnosis divide the field today (Wikipedia tells me). One theory is called the Altered State, thus it is “an altered state of mind or trance, marked by a level of awareness different from the ordinary conscious state” (link). The other is called Non-State and viewed as imaginative role-playing. If the first theory is correct, the state of mind can be produced by an individual without the help of a hypnotist: self-hypnosis. The most famous teacher of that technique was Émile Coué (1857-1926), the French psychologist, he of that famous “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” The field’s second and perhaps most influential practitioner, the Scot James Braid (1795-1880) thought that hypnotism was induced by concentration; he also believed, and indeed successfully practiced, self-hypnosis in pain control.

A state of the mind? A certain level of awareness? Reached by concentration when fully relaxed with external stimuli maximally muted? We’re starting to think that meditation has something to do with it. Parameditation perhaps?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

God as Metaphor

Back on December 24, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Tanya Marie Luhrman, an anthropologist at Stanford. It was titled “Religion Without God.” The article’s general thematic was the rise (how measured was not stated) of what Luhrman calls a “kind of God-neutral” faith which, here and there, is openly and professedly atheist but engages in religious observance with (you might say) all the usual bells and whistles.

Today the Times published letters in response to the article. Of the six letters, four are in favor of “religion without God,” one is ambiguous, and only one opposes that view. A good sample of New York Times readers perhaps—predominantly wealthy and sophisticated?

Before Brigitte showed me the letters and caused me thereafter to trace the original, I was out trying to shovel masses of slush, what with the Weather undecided whether it wants to rain or to snow. And in the context of repetitive action, what with wondering where I’d put the salt, a phrase came and started repeating. “If the salt hath lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” In turn then I also traced that sentence to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, in which the profile of those destined for the kingdom of heaven is shown. Among these are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted, with emphasis on the last. They are the salt of the earth.

In her own profile, T.M. Luhrman describes her work as follows:

I use my training in anthropology to understand how people know what is real. I don’t pass judgment on whether they are right. Instead, I ask: what leads people to make the judgment that God was present? What do they perceive that makes them more confident or more uncertain? How have they learned to pay attention? I observe what people do, and I listen to what they say, and I search for patterns. I am also interested in what happens when that capacity to judge what is real gets broken, and how we help those who are in pain.

To know Luhrman’s sample is perhaps to know what Luhrman’s conclusions about the “real” will turn out to be. As for what is rising, and what is in process of decaying, for that perhaps a more robust study of culture in its cycles might be more instructive. What lies ahead, seems to me, is growing hardship for humanity. And hardship has a peculiar virtue in enlarging the inner perception of what is real and what is merely on the surface.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Starting Anew

A notable aspect of New Year’s Day is that it has no anchorage in anything traditional—or seasonal. Going by western history, an early Roman calendar was that of Romulus (circa 771 BC). In that calendar the year began on March 1—and the calendar did not even have a January or a February; there were only ten months to a year. January and February make their first appearance under King Numa Pompilius (r. 715-673 BC), with the first day of January starting the year.

Under the calendar reforms of Julius Caesar, carried out in 46 BC, January retained its leading position—and does so to this day. Caesar’s year had 365.25 days; the earlier calendar had between 377 and 378 days, thus causing each month, each year, to “drift” from season to season. Under Pope Gregory XIII, the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582, further conformed the year to the actual movements of the sun just a tad more, to 365.2425 days. That has been good enough to last until today. Under the Gregorian calendar, however, Caesar’s January 1 became January 17—as the Gregorian made its correction.

Thus New Year’s Day, as we now find it, came about for (call it) scientific reasons—or the desire to have the months of the year conform to the seasons more or less perfectly, with one extra leap day added to every year divisible by 4. Years divisible by 100 are not leap years, however, unless they are also divisible by 400. Thus the year 2000 was a leap year but 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not.

For more detail on these numbers, see this post here (link).

While no tradition clings to New Year’s day, nonetheless it offers something all of us need at least once a year: a formal occasion for starting anew. Yes, for starting anew—with nothing else distracting from that resolution and, for those who overindulged on New Year’s eve, a strong motivation to clear the decks for the new and perfect life which every new year thus offers.

So, happy New Year! May your resolutions bloom!