Monday, December 31, 2012

The Meaning of Life

Walter Russell Mead has written an interesting "Yule Blog" on the centrality of meaning to human life.
"Our lives in the world point us towards something beyond the facts of our lives. Eating, drinking, making babies: this is all very well, but our lives do more than revolve around the simple biological necessities. They point us toward meaning. 
"Most people, including the very large majority of those people who say they are atheists, believe that life means something. To those who believe that life means something, the moral feelings we have about justice and duty (for example) aren’t just random biological signals that flash across our neurons in response to evolutionary patterns. We sometimes can’t articulate why this is true, but we feel that it matters that we do the right thing: that we bring up our kids well, that we honor our parents and care for them when they are old, that we remain loyal to our spouses and keep our wedding vows, that we behave fairly in our dealings with other people and that we contribute to the greater good through the way we live our lives. There are people and causes for which many of us are willing (though perhaps not particularly eager) to die. 
"Maybe we feel this way because we are biologically hard-wired to do so, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of people around the world believe that life counts and that the whole is somehow greater than the sum of the parts.
"This feeling that there is some meaning to our lives is the basis, I think, not only for the Christian religion and for all religions and mystical experiences; it is the basis for the many noble forms of ethical thought and philosophical reflection found among atheists and agnostics. Anyone who feels the pull of a higher path and greater responsibilities than just blindly grabbing what can be seized is moved by a vision of something outside ones own life that compels our allegiance and respect: a vision of what matters and a sense of life’s meaning.
"That sense of life’s meaning is our sense of the transcendent: a sense that our experience points beyond itself to something important."

Monday, December 24, 2012

Where is He?

"We apprehend Him in the alternate voids and fullnesses of a cathedral: in the space that separates the salient features of a picture: in the living geometry of a flower, a seashell, an animal: in the pauses and intervals between the notes of music, in their difference and sonority: and finally on the plane of conduct, in the love and gentleness, the confidence and humility which give beauty to the relationship between human beings."
--Aldous Huxley

Friday, December 21, 2012


This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm'd -- see here it is --
I hold it towards you.
--Keats (1819)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Life of Pi: the Art of Reconciliation

Seeing the magnificent Life of Pi movie this weekend, I was reminded of Robert A. Johnson's insightful book, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (1991). 
Robert A. Johnson

In it he discusses an image from medieval Christianity that has largely been forgotten: the mandorla.  Though similar in meaning to the holistic circle of the Hindu/Buddhist mandala, the mandorla is actually the almond-shaped intersection of two overlapping circles, symbolizing the overlap of opposites. 
In medieval Christianity it was used to describe the overlap of heaven and earth, and often surrounded images of Christ, the Divine Incarnation.
For Johnson the image gives insight into the healing ways of both religion and art.  It is the duty of true poets, he says, "to take the fragmented world that we find ourselves in and to make a unity of it."  The same holds true for the storyteller:
Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi
"All good stories are mandorlas.  They speak of this and that and gradually, through the miracle of story, demonstrate that the opposites overlap and are finally the same."
Director Ang Lee

Johnson brings up the story of Moses and the burning bush, a metaphor of the impossible situation where two orders of reality have been superimposed.

"Whenever you have a clash of opposites in your being and neither will give way to the other (the bush will not be consumed and the fire will not stop), you can be certain that God is present. We dislike this experience intensely and avoid it at any cost; but if we can endure it, the conflict-without-resolution is a direct experience of God."
Next time you're caught between a rock and hard place (or stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger), in the midst of your suffering try to remember: "The religious experience lies exactly at that point of insolubility where we feel we can proceed no further." The struggle becomes an act of heroic endurance, what Johnson calls highly conscious waiting. "The ego can do no more; it must wait for that which is greater than itself."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

All History is Myth

(click to enlarge)
"All history is myth.  It is a pattern which men weave out of the materials of the past.  The moment a fact enters into history it becomes mythical, because it has been taken and fitted into its place in a set of ordered relationships which is the creation of a human mind and not otherwise present in nature."
--Enoch Powell

Saturday, November 24, 2012

the Buzz

Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face
"Cinema has encouraged people in unprecedented numbers to imagine what it would be like to be someone other than themselves. This can be, and has been, positive. But it can go the other way too, conjuring the fantasy of filling the shoes not of the characters on the screen, but of the actors playing them.

"So the dream became first to be a movie star, then merely to be famous. Now it’s simply to be seen. I am seen, therefore I am. This is the message of Facebook and the ubiquity of camera phones. This is the buzz of the limelight."
Thomas Hodgkinson, The Spectator 10/6/12

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Messiah Matrix

From an interview with Kenneth Atchity, author of The Messiah Matrix, a controversial new thriller about the hidden origins of Christianity:
"The book is written for anyone, like myself, who’s ever wondered about the historicity of Jesus and who’s been troubled by the numerous contradictions found in the Gospels. If you’ve been inspired by the core teachings of Christianity but wondered if the figurines in the Christmas nativity set are based on actual fact or are instead mythic icons this novel was meant for you and will give you plenty to think about. The literalists seem to feel that Jesus being “mythic” instead of actually historical is somehow demeaning to the Christian founder—when the very opposite is true. Nothing is more powerful than myth, which is a public dream that endures through the ages.  The true history of Christianity has been shrouded in mystery for millennia, partly intentionally and partly out of ignorance. The Messiah Matrix reveals crucial structural and conceptual aspects concerning the roots of Christianity, clouded by history through the ages that will change the reader’s understanding, possibly forever. But it should not in any way be a detriment to believing in the essential doctrines of redemption and transformation that is the seminal essence of Christian—and indeed almost every—religious faith. The challenge is stripping away the layers of organized religion to find that essence."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Fury Inflamed

"All healthy men, ancient and modern, Western and Eastern, hold that there is in sex a fury that we cannot afford to inflame; and that a certain mystery must attach to the instinct if it is to continue delicate and sane."
G. K. Chesterton (1834-1936)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

That Reverent Embrace

From an interview with Camille Paglia, one of the few outspoken atheists who refuses to dismiss the role of religion:
"A responsible atheist needs to be informed about religion in order to reject it. But the shallow, smirky atheism that’s au courant is simply strengthening the power of the Right. Secular humanism is spiritually hollow right now because art is so weak. If you don’t have art as a replacement for the Bible, then you’ve got nothing that is culturally sustaining. If all you have is “Mad Men” and the Jon Stewart “Daily Show,” then religion is going to win, because people need something as a framework to understand life. Every great religion contains enormous truths about the universe. That’s why my ’60s generation followed the Beat movement toward Zen Buddhism and then opened up that avenue to Hinduism — which is why the Beatles went to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Then it all disappeared, when people became disillusioned with gurus. But spiritual quest was one of the great themes of the ’60s that has been lost and forgotten — that reverent embrace of all the world religions. This is why our art has become so narrow and empty. People in the humanities have sunk into this shallow, snobby, liberal style of stereotyping religious believers as ignorant and medieval, which is total nonsense. And meanwhile, the entire professional class in Manhattan and Los Angeles is doping themselves on meds and trying to survive in their manic, anxiety-filled world. And what are they producing that is of the slightest interest? Nothing. Nothing is being produced in movies or the fine arts today (except in architecture) that is not derivative of something else."

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Now even Buddhists are to blame

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) - Hundreds of Muslims in Bangladesh burned at least four Buddhist temples and 15 homes of Buddhists on Sunday after complaining that a Buddhist man had insulted Islam, police and residents said.

(Buddhists make up less than 1 percent of Muslim-majority Bangladesh’s 150 million people.)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ages of Man According to Martin

"Your youth evaporates in your early 40s when you look in the mirror. And then it becomes a full-time job pretending you're not going to die. Then in your 50s everything is very thin.  And then suddenly you've got this huge new territory inside you, which is the past, which wasn't there before.  A new source of strength. Then that may not be so gratifying to you as the 60s begin, but then I find that in your 60s, everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again. And it's imbued with a kind of leave-taking resonance, that it's not going to be around very long, this world, so it begins to look poignant and fascinating."
--Martin Amis

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Process of Waiting

The actor Alfred Molina, currently appearing as the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko in RED, on acting, painting, and the creative process:
"The mechanics of what we do is really rather dull.  The notion that there is some kind of process, some kind of magical alchemical formula is nonsense.  I don't know my 'process.'  But I can tell you what I do.  The day-to-day grind of getting up and learning your lines and coming into work and going over the same bits is work.  But the journey toward creativity is always mundane.  Bloody hell.  It's the same for any creative endeavor.  It's not just about painting or the fine arts.  It's about everything we do.  It's a process of waiting."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Novel's Polestar

"A long-exposure photograph of the night sky will show you something that you never see, however often you look at the stars: thousands of perfect curves, concentrically arranged around an invisible pinhead. Everything is wheeling slowly about a single point. 

"A good book or a great adventure, fictional or real, often does the same.  There is a fulcrum: a still, quiet centre to the tale."

Matthew Parris

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Not Ready Yet?

To those friends and readers who've asked why my novel is still unfinished, a poem:

The Gesture

To step forward to the canvas then back from it
Without making a mark, and to do this
Again and again as the paint on the brush
Thickens, as my eye, my hand, my heart
Refuse to repeat the gesture once made freely
With a synthesis of joy.  What Auerbach called
The safety net of manner could be mine
If I admitted it, to break my fall and rest there
Saved by repetition.  What you might say
Is 'Nobody paints like him, amazingly prolific
For his age, such energy, such vision', easy words
Like that, but exactly so, I should indeed
Be nobody with nothing left to show but a blank
And vacuous deception.  No, I'm not ready yet.
--John Mole

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Do It Now

"Death is a beautiful woman, always by my side.  She'll kiss me one day, I know.  She's a companion who reminds me not to postpone anything -- 'Do it now, do it now, do it now.' Her voice is not threatening, just constant. It tells me what matters is not how long I live, but how I live."
--Paulo Coelho

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Coward's Fear of Death

"The coward's fear of death stems in large part form his incapacity to love anything but his own body.  The inability to participate in others' lives stands in the way of his developing any inner resources sufficient to overcome the terror of death."
--J. Glenn Gary, The Warriors


"Many Native American tribes would consult a shaman before embarking on a hunting expedition. In one tribe, a shaman would take a caribou bone, carve on it images of the kind of prey the tribe were keen to find (buffalo, deer, trailer-park video-poker addicts) and then place it on a fire. At some point the heat of the fire would cause the bone to split. The hunting party would then set out unquestioningly in the direction of the line of the crack.

"This is of course a completely insane practice; the kind of irrational, superstitious nonsense that would have Richard Dawkins foaming at the mouth. Except it isn’t. In fact, it’s rather brilliant.

"One hundred years ago there was no surefire way of predicting where to find a buffalo herd. But there were two ways to improve your odds when hunting them. First it is better to keep moving. Secondly it is a good idea not to hunt buffalo alone: hence it is vital for the group of hunters to stick together — and to maintain internal cohesion and solidarity. Once you get dis­unity or dissent (‘I told you we should have gone west this time or ‘Why didn’t we go fishing instead?’) your odds of success fall dramatically. Since disobeying the shaman was unthinkable, this kind of dissent almost never arose. A sociologist would say that the bone-cracking ritual helps create gemeinschaft rather than gesellschaft — it helps individuals subordinate their different interests to the common good. A military man would call it camaraderie.

"Once you understand that man is a eu­social species (humans were recently described by the evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt as ‘90 per cent chimp, 10 per cent bee’), many seemingly arbitrary and irrational religious practices reveal a remarkable hidden intelligence. They may not seem to make sense intellectually, but behaviourally they work."

--Rory Sutherland, from "Divided We Stand", The Spectator, 7 July 2012

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"All great novels are great fairy tales."
--Vladimir Nabokov

Monday, June 25, 2012

Here's What Real Theocracy Looks Like

A man named Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Saudi Arabia this week after being found in possession of spell books and talismans. Beheading is "God's punishment" for "sorcerers and charlatans," according to a statement that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued in March.
Al-Asiri's execution was the latest accomplishment of Saudi Arabia's Anti-Witchcraft Unit, an elite police force specifically trained to track down and arrest practitioners of magic. The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was part of a larger campaign to exterminate sorcery from the kingdom which began in 2009 and has included a hotline for reporting witch sightings, raids on suspected houses, and lectures to inform the public about the dangers of magicians -- "key causers of religious and social instability in the country," according to the Commission's statement.  
(Foreign Policy, 6/26/2012)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Leap into the Unknown

Another one for the Courage file:

Later this summer, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner will ascend to 120,000 feet in a pressurized capsule and, wearing only a spacesuit, jump.

As he plummets 23 miles in the highest skydive ever, Baumgartner will become the first person to break the sound barrier in free fall. That’s the plan, anyway. To even attempt this will expose him to many challenges, including the risk that water in his body could vaporize. 

But one challenge in particular is foremost in everyone’s mind: What happens when Baumgartner encounters the shock waves that invariably occur when something exceeds the speed of sound?
No one really knows.
"Until you do it, it's still an unknown," says Jonathan Clark, the medical director for Red Bull Stratos, the team assembled to help Baumgartner reach his lofty goal.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

American Fury

MAN INGESTS DRUG, TURNS INTO RAGING CANNIBAL.  Who could have imagined such a thing?

"On Saturday, May 26, Ronald Poppo, a 65-year-old homeless man, was attacked allegedly by 31-year-old Rudy Eugene, also homeless, in Miami, Fla.  The attack has been dubbed the "naked zombie attack" and "zombie apocalypse" because Eugene reportedly pounced on Poppo while naked and began eating his face, to the shock of several passerby and vehicles.
"Eugene reportedly continued to eat Poppo's face until police arrived 18 minutes later. All that was left of Poppo's face was his beard and mustache, reports indicate.  Eugene is suspected to have been taking a new drug called "bath salts," and although it was not immediately clear if the properties of the drug are linked to the household item of the same name, there have been other violent cases involving the drug." (The Christian Post)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bean Queen

"A sculptor has created what is believed to be the world's smallest portrait of the Queen - on a 2mm coffee bean.  ...British micro-sculptor Willard Wigan created the commemorative tribute by slowing his heartbeat and working between beats to avoid hand tremors.  He used tiny homemade tools and painted with a hair plucked from a housefly's back to carve the microscopic figures."

Saturday, April 7, 2012


"There are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart.  The first of these is science and the second is art."
--Raymond Chandler

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Last Nabokov

"Existence is a series of footnotes to a vast, obscure, unfinished masterpiece"
--Vladimir Nabokov
Dmitri Nabokov, the only son of Vladimir Nabokov and Vera Slonim, died in Switzerland aged 77 on February 22.  

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Dionysus Unleashed (again)

Following last year's mob rape in Tahrir Square of "60 Minutes" reporter Lara Logan, comes another, far more deadly, Egyptian Night of the Furies:
(Sky News) At least 74 people have been killed and 1,000 injured after a football pitch invasion in Egypt, according to reports.Clashes are said to have broken out as fans flooded the field seconds after the game in the northern coastal city of Port Said finished.There were reports of rocks, bottles, flares and fireworks being thrown as politicians in the country criticised a lack of security at the match.Doctors treating the victims said some had been stabbed to death. One player caught up in the rioting described it as "a war".
I would describe it as another horrific example of the Primal Sin.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mitt and the Mad Myth of the Mormons

Say what you will about Mitt Romney, the guy is an Eveready energizer bunny, always upbeat and undaunted, effective and accomplished in business and politics, and obviously totally committed to his family. It also happens that Romney is a Mormon.

In this regard he seems to me a perfect example of a basic idea behind this blog: that what is most important about a myth is not its credibility, but its effectiveness in sustaining and guiding positive human behavior.  As the Mormon character says at the end of the (in)famous South Park “All About Mormons” episode:
Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Inscrutable Frivolity

Mark Rothko, "Red on Maroon"

Saturday night we joined the parade of looky-loos touring the LA art galleries on south La Cienega Boulevard.  The profusion of mind-numbing abstract art and the zombie stares of the foraging crowd reminded me of John Logan's Rothko play, RED, and a review of it written last year by the British critic/playwright Lloyd Evans:
"This play is about painting, or rather about the remnant of painting we call ‘modern art’. Before photograpy destroyed draughtsmanship, artists were labourers, odd-jobbers, innovators, scientists in the best sense, philosophers with dirty hands using the materials of the universe to enhance our understanding of it. Until the second half of the 19th century, painting was a vague and happy alliance between technique and meaning. No one cared at what point a piece of representative art rose from the literal to the metaphysical. But once craftsmanship became obsolete this started to matter a lot. It became paramount. Divine inspiration was everything suddenly, because there was nothing else. Every artist had to pose as a genius or face being dismissed as a water-colourist, a weekend doodler, an easel weasel painting pretty sunsets. Artists declared war on craftsmanship. Sadly they won. (Writers tried it, too, but after Finnegans Wake, the worst book ever published, they hastily and blushingly signed an armistice.) Crucial to the artist’s new status was his strategic decision to shift the burden of elucidation from himself to the viewer. ‘Don’t ask me what it means. I commune with the godhead, earth-dweller, you explain it to me.’

"These two renunciations — of technique and of meaning — created art in its current phase of inscrutable frivolity."
That about sums it up.  Even the simple value of beauty seems to have been forgotten.  After two hours wandering, I left the galleries feeling absolutely nothing.