Friday, January 27, 2023


Music at One's Fingertips

The topic commends itself right in this moment, when the whole world seems to be watching "The Banshees of Inisherin."  The film admonishes us that for a man to sever his fingers from his instrument, permanently, is a form of suicide, and that after that line is crossed "it ain't worth it no more" even if we continue to live.

The etymology of the word "instrument" is plain as day.  An instrument is a tool, and therefore an extension of the physical body in pursuit of a particular purpose.  The affection for and attachment of Thelonious to his piano are the same as those of the fisherwoman in the stream for and to her far-flung fly, the fly that accomplishes for her the miracle of "action at a distance."

In the case of the old Irish lap drum called the bodhran, the attachment may be enhanced still further by the materials from which it is made.  The body of the drum, the ring if you will, is of highly polished rosewood, as is the T-shaped support that lies hidden from the audience within the drum.  And the little drumstick or "tipper" that is held in the dominant hand of the drummer is likewise made of wood.  Between wood and wood, the head of the drum is of lambskin, cured, soaked and stretched.  Thus nearly the entire contraption is as organic as you or I; it is up to us to bring it to life.

To top it off, Paraic McNeela, in Dublin, who makes the drums, advises the purchase of a very special lotion called "Drum Diddly."  Its principal ingredient is lanolin.  Drops of the cream are squirted onto the drum head, and then the dominant hand caresses the head in small circles until every pore is softened by the diddly.  Lanolin, of course, is a natural sheep secretion meant first of all to protect a living lambskin from drying out as well as from other environmental assaults.  Thus we add insult to injury by reuniting the poor lamb in death with the esters that softened it when it was alive.

It is good that the sheep huddled on the hillside within faint earshot of a human commotion are too dumb to recognize the ancient composition that is unfolding in the pub below, too dumb to recognize as well the composition of the bodhran itself as they hear it punctuate the relentless rhythm of the reel, if only by way of artful syncopation.

Monday, January 23, 2023


 From Poem to Cliche

I thought it a beautiful expression when first I heard it. It was the night of the day when my father died.  I was lying in bed, weeping.  

"Tsarstvo yemu nyebyennoye" -- "May he be in the heavenly kingdom."

Now rote and ritual on Telegram, every time another young Russian mobik comes home, or rather parts of him come home, in a black zippered bag.

Sunday, January 22, 2023


Gauguin's Three Questions

"D'ou venons-nous?  Que sommes-nous?  Ou allons-nous?"

They are indeed the three primal questions.  But also, how perfectly they complete the work, simply by naming it.  What would it be if it stood mute, without the questions?


Two Empty Chairs

I'm not a fan of Freud.  I don't like his particular reductionism.  But I'll give him this much -- in nearly every kitchen, including my own, there are two empty chairs at the table, one for the mother of the groom and one for the father of the bride.  If the groom could fill the emotional gap left for the bride by her father, and if the bride could fill the emotional gap left for the groom by his mother, then the chairs could be withdrawn and discarded; this particular circle would be unbroken.  But this almost never happens.  The chairs remain, empty, as Freud's wedding and also anniversary gift to the not so perfectly happy couple.

Friday, January 20, 2023


The 21st Century (so far and through a glass darkly)

The first quarter of it, remarkably, is racing to a close.  When it began, I was in "middle middle age;" I would have then given myself only even odds to make it this far.  Perhaps I will make it a lot farther before my time is done; perhaps not.

The eggheads can debate what Francis Fukuyama really meant by "the end of history" in 1992.  But earth shocks aplenty have arisen since then, and one gets the feeling that we ain't done yet.

Sept. 11 and the chaos in the Middle East that it precipitated.  The decline of the American political class into a confederacy of dunces and buffoons, left and right, and with it the disappearance of the ideological center.  A global pandemic that has been mismanaged nearly everywhere, in good and in bad faith.  A brutal war on European soil.  Anxieties about changes in global climate that the feel-good policies adopted so far in the Western world will do precisely nothing to ameliorate.  A rise in the power of AI -- AI that does not, I believe, threaten to evolve into machine consciousness, but does threaten to evolve into a tool for the further erosion of individual agency, both in authoritarian states and in states like our own with a long history of liberal democracy.

On this bumpy road, we reach for the straps that hang from the top of the bus.  

I hope that the next major shock is not a nuclear one.  I feel in my bones that the next major shock will be, as the saying goes, an epistemological one, brought on by irrefutable proof that our whole world is but a petri dish that other, far more evolved forms of consciousness can do with as they please, without being bound by fealty to the benevolent, paternal Supreme Being that we have, up to now, fashioned largely in our own image and likeness.

The historian/philosopher/ufologist Richard Dolan sometimes sees things that others don't see, simply because he pays more careful attention and draws the rather obvious inferences that the rest of us feel obliged to file away in the drawer marked "Do Not Open!" (In fairness, he sometimes sees things that are not there at all!)

He sees us mostly now as in a transition as momentous as the First Great Transition -- from a hunter/gatherer culture to an agricultural one -- and the Second Great Transition -- from an agricultural existence to an urban, industrial one.  And yes, the other side of this Third Great Transition looks dystopian to him.  

If Dolan holds out any hope for humankind, it's a fragile hope that circumstances will force an unprecedented kind of maturation on us, across all political boundaries on the planet.  My thought, not his -- such a maturation will be largely from the ground up, but perhaps it can only be triggered by the appearance on the scene of a figure, male or female, with a level of charisma, gravitas and inspirational power that we have not seen since the Buddha or the Christ.  Indeed, on appearance, s/he no doubt will be tagged, slandered as, "the Antichrist"!

Tuesday, January 17, 2023


A Most Unlikely Double Feature

It was brought to me last week by the All-Knowing Algorithm that resides on my tablet.

"Trapper Jake" tells us, simply and cleanly, about the life of a man who died in his 100th year, in 2013.  He lived for most of his life in Fremont County, Wyoming, which lies near the center of the state and is itself about the size of Vermont.  I didn't check this, but I think it is considered part of the Wyoming "high plains."  There are no spectacular mountains, but the open plains have an austere beauty of their own.  It is a long way from Fremont County to what we would call "civilization," with both Denver and Salt Lake hundreds of miles off.

Jake made his living, until the very end it seems, by trapping mid-sized creatures in the old-fashioned way, but for a few concessions to modern times such as his beat-up pick-up truck.  He sits hunched over the wheel as he traverses long dirt roads from trap to trap, interspersing with the secrets of his trade a lot of personal stories, like the one about the time he found a varmint on two legs in the act of stealing one of his prizes.  Jake, then a very young man, took out his .22 and plugged the guy through the ass, "by accident."  The man pressed charges against Jake, but the local judge handed him his hat and let Jake go.

We learn that Jake was revered in his community, as a throwback to the old days, as a raconteur, and for the practical reason that he could be engaged to keep the coyote population down when the animals were decimating the county's sheep.  Also, though, he was known for his devotion to his wife and to his children, especially a son who survived an initial polio onslaught only to die of the disease in his 40's.

Beyond portraying Jake himself, the movie is about "the ethical treatment of animals."  When he comes upon them in traps, most of the time they are still alive.  Jake's practice is to stun them by knocking them on the head, then to crack their windpipes with a couple of blows to the throat.  It's a quick way to go if not a painless one, and it is good for us to remember that the lives of wild animals are in the main nasty, brutish and short with or without our intervention.

When he takes an animal, Jake resets the trap right away in roughly the same place where it lay.  For coyotes, the trap is opened and buried in shallow, loose dirt.  An animal bone or skull, smeared with a foul-smelling concoction, lies not over the trap but in front of it.  The trick is to set branches and leaves in such a way as to create a natural path over which the coyote will walk as he follows his nose to the bait.

We also see Jake at work in the little shop where he skins the creatures.  This is fine work that requires a steady hand, strong wrists, and some very sharp knives.  The pelts so produced are what really keep Jake going.  (One year he made about $18,000 off the trade in furs, a handsome enough income for a simple man in those parts.)  We don't see much about what becomes of the coyotes, fox, muskrat and beaver after their skins are peeled off, but one good-sized rabbit does seem to make it into a thin lunch-time stew.

By the accounts of his neighbors, including a friend who is a Native American chief, Jake was a spiritual man, a God-fearing one, not in spite of his trade but perhaps because of it.  To this we shall return.

As the film closes, Jake simply dies in media res you might say.  Surely that is how he would have wanted it.

"Purgatory" is an odd undertaking.  Released just last year, it is a Polish production with the explicit goal of getting us all on board with a very conservative conception of the afterlife, one inspired by the philosophy of the mystic "Padre Pio" and also of a couple of Eastern European women.  These women channeled the afterlife; at least one pounded out her impressions on a rickety Polish or Czech typewriter.  We see re-enactments of the lives of all three, but they are sparse in the extreme.  We also see file footage of Pio at work.  (He heard many thousands of confessions.)  

Mostly in "Purgatory" we are lectured by contemporary men of the cloth who are Polish, French and Italian.  (One was a friend of the padre and a dormitory mate in Pio's monastery.)

The clerics are soft-spoken and benevolent in their tone, but this lies in sharp contrast to the horror that they describe as the natural fate of man (and woman) after death, a vision that they believe we reject only at our further peril.  Indeed, the film can be said in this sense to be a true "horror film."

According to their doctrine, even if our sins are forgiven, when we die we must atone for them by spending thousands or millions of years in purgatory, where we will suffer torments "the least of which are worse than any torments we may experience in life."  And this is a condition that we will choose for ourselves rather than having it imposed on us.  Like Mick Jagger, we will "look inside [ourselves] and see [our hearts are] black."  With this knowledge, it simply will not be possible for us to be in the same room with God, as it were, until we are cleansed by the purifying fire for a very long time.

What's more, we will be entirely helpless to alter our fates in any way.  If we scream for mercy, for early release into Heaven, God will not hear us.  And this, critically, is where you and I, still earthbound, come into play.  The prayers of the Faithful Departed are not heard, but the prayers for the Faithful Departed may be heard, if they are offered in the right spirit, and particularly if the Blessed Virgin Mary chooses to intercede for us with her Son, the Christ.

The last major piece of the puzzle as described in the film is the fact that earthbound suffering should be welcomed, because it turbocharges our entreaties on behalf of the dead.  If we come down with a very bad case of the shingles, we should welcome it, for our suffering will redound not to our benefit but to that of our departed loved ones for whom we pray.  (In grammar school, I was taught a variation of this cosmology, with slight cultural adjustments.  I remember one nun telling us that a certain St. Theresa would stick hat pins in and through her hat, into her skull in fact, in remission of the sins of one or another inhabitant of that place.)  Padre Pio himself, it should be noted, suffered the classic stigmata, the signs of crucifixion on hands and feet, demonstrably mind in triumph over matter.

For a modern person, even one favorably disposed to life after life, the whole cosmology makes no sense.  Its fatal flaw is the clockwork orange argument.  The supposedly merciful God designed and built the whole system.  When the clock was done He wound it up and flicked it "on."  Everything that happened after that, free will or not, was something that He chose.  Given His own free will, He could have chosen otherwise, and all of this suffering would have been averted.

And, we are told, "Jesus has never been known to turn a deaf ear to the intercessions of His mother."  Well, in that case, she herself must be rather arbitrary in her intercessions, for there are millions that still suffer notwithstanding all of the prayers sent up to her for relay to the Christ.

Kierkegaard, perhaps, or Dostoevsky's Jesus in "The Grand Inquisitor," could embrace this utterly bleak narrative, but only because they asserted that if it weren't impossible to believe then it would not be worthy of belief.

Compare and contrast.  In Jake's afterlife, while there is Fear of the Lord, the lion lies down with the lamb, and Jake turns his "dog whispering" skills onto the very coyotes that he has dispatched, and to his friend the Indian chief this is simply the natural order of things.

Thursday, January 12, 2023


East of Bakhmut

There is a field of corpses so dense that it has become a carpet for the Wagnerites who each day send new waves of attacks against the Ukrainian lines.  Making allowances for changes in military gear and dress, it is reminiscent of Antietam or of the ground under the "high water mark of the Confederacy" on Day Three of Gettysburg, of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the morning light, after the final, night time suicidal samurai charges.

It is about 300 miles from Bakhmut to what is now called Volgograd.  There, just outside the city, each spring there is a new harvest of German bones poking out of the soil.

Just what end is this 21st century carnage supposed to serve?  I guess for an answer we have to ask the little man behind the Big Wall.

As shorthand for the center of power, we have "the White House," the South Koreans have "the Blue House," the Brits have "10 Downing Street."  For the Russians, it is simply "the Fortress."  Never breached, it holds out the rules of reason as well as it has held out the invaders, over centuries.

Saturday, January 7, 2023


If You Must Drink Tequila

Do it as I do, in dreams.  It is served to me by one Fred Siegel, who is a highly successful retailer of crap, mostly low-end household items like pencils, pens, notepads for little kids.  

Fred likes to throw big parties on the cheap, in public parks in summertime.  They are like picnics, with lots of rummaging over rough terrain to get to the picnic tables.  There the shots of tequila are set out, a single green grape in each, never a worm nor an olive.  

Little cups made of thin paper, the kind that they used to use to administer oral vaccines back in the day.

You are allowed to drink as many as you want.  I often spill mine, as no one else does.  This gives rise to a certain general resentment aimed at me for wasting.

After all, these people are by no means my friends.

Thursday, January 5, 2023


The Netherworld

No, that's the wrong word, for that world must be higher than our own.  I have known for a long time that it exists, but except for a single night-time visitation from my late sister, I knew it in only an abstract way.

Now I have experienced it concretely.  My loved ones have not been annihilated in spirit, only in body.  This I know to a near certainty.

Does this new conviction give me comfort?  Yes it does, intellectually.  But it has also thrown me off my feet, made it more difficult, at least for now, to apply myself in this world, to "carry on" in the British sense.

I am still bereft of my loved ones, after all, and the only path to a reuniting is, as it were, through a wall of purifying fire.  I can go there; I will go there.  What choice do I have?  But I fear the fire and the loss of control that will accompany it.  I cling to my body as I once clung to a stuffed rabbit that long since should have been thrown in the trash.

One of my loved ones said that she had to go because she just grew too tired to persist.  I fear as well that I am on a path towards this sense of ultimate exhaustion already.  In a more perfect world, a goddess ex machina would come to me, either as a creature of this world or of the next.  She would offer me nothing to spark prurient interest, only her magically healing hands on neck, shoulders, back and hips, and I would be rejuvenated, on an upward trajectory once again, one that I have all but forgotten.  

There is no stasis in this, only one trajectory or the other.