Like much of my generation, I was thrilled by rock & roll, beginning in my case with the Beatles. It was an amazing musical time. Maybe it’s like that for everyone when they discover music, but it still seems different to me. Music was coming from all over the place and cross-fertilizing, getting more complex and exciting all the time.

In the late 1960s I began to be disappointed. After Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band I liked what the Beatles were doing less, partly because I had left high school, left home, was working for a living, and was pretty depressed about it. Bob Dylan also changed radically in a way I didn’t like.

There were other bands coming along, though, a great explosion  of them, so I remained a musical addict for some years more. But eventually I lost interest in contemporary popular music. Part of it was because of new styles, metal, disco, punk, and eventually rap, none of which I liked much. But I think part of it too was that the musicians I had loved got decadent.

At the time I thought drugs like marijuana and LSD were a good idea, or at least not bad. That may have been naive, but I wasn’t naive enough to think that speed, cocaine, heroin, barbituarites, or too much alcohol were a good idea, and not only did I begin hearing more about those, but the music started to be less good too. A book, Live at the Fillmore East and West informs me that there was even more over-indulgence in that period than I’d known. Lots of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. With all this seems to have gone a lot of very egotistical behavior. Not very inspiring. It seems as if when musicians became successful they also graduated to harder and more addictive drugs. It’s disappointing to think so many heroes of my youth were so insecure–at least that’s what I presume it was.

Of course, I started picking up addictive behaviors too, though most of them were legal, unlike a lot of my musical heroes. I smoked marijuana, for a short time took (what I was told) was LSD and mescaline, but took very little else that was illegal. I began smoking cigarettes (to learn how to smoke marijuana), and that became habitual, lasting some forty-seven years. I also started drinking, and for several years drank like an alcoholic. After awhile I got tired of being hung over all the time, and began losing my tolerance (that may have been because I had Hepatitis C, unbeknownst to me), and began drinking less. And my very first addictive behavior had been reading, beginning from the time I learned, and continuing to this day.

I think it’s pretty clear to most of us that addictions usually have to do with pain. Sometimes it’s physical pain. I think even more often it’s emotional pain. We don’t want to fully experience that, so we run away from it. An interview I listened to yesterday suggested that meditation is a good way to approach emotional pain, not that it’s an easy fix–it still takes a lot of effort–but it’s a method of looking at pain objectively in which one focuses not so much on the pain as its characteristics and where it comes from. But it’s always tempting not to try to do anything effective about it, and just keep running. It’s certainly not a problem I’ve solved to any extent, even at my advanced age.

There’s always been drug abuse in this country’s history, especially if you count, alcohol, coffee, and cigarettes. There was an explosion of illegal drug abuse beginning sometime in my youth. Exactly when it began is debatable. It really got going among white people in the late sixties, but it had become a plague in Harlem about 1950, when heroin hit town. Now heroin is no longer an urban phenomenon. It’s a plague in rural America too. Overprescription is frequently blamed for the latest manifestation, but I think the main temptation for addictive drugs is hopelessness.

There are some objective reasons for hopelessness in this country, as well as reasons that are more subjective. Many of us grow up unhappy with our parents, with school, or many other things. But we shouldn’t ignore objective reasons too.

One is financial. In my early life I didn’t find it hard to support myself ( I also didn’t have a wife or children), but for people much younger than me this was much less true. I won’t try to go into the reasons for the financial instability of many, but only say it’s a major reason for lack of hope.

Along with financial instability, rapid cultural changes of all kinds have had a bad effect on people. Divorce has broken up a lot of families, which has caused economic and other kinds of instability. Do children feel more neglected now than they did a couple of generations ago? I don’t know, but fewer families have both parents now. And not only is there neglect, but other forms of abuse. Those kinds of problems generate feelings that many people try to deal with by self-medicating.

So do problems like bipolar disorder. I don’t know if disorders like this, ADD, and ADHD are more frequent now than they were before the diagnoses were formulated, but in any case, the medications are available, so the temptation is always there. As long as we have drugs they’re going to get used, unless our culture changes tremendously.

Heroin took over Harlem for awhile, and spread across the country, because people’s lives in ghettos like those were not very happy, and drug use was an acceptable way out. It still is, no matter how people preach about it. The only way to end drug abuse, as far as I can see, is to get to the roots of it in each individual case, which would be very difficult and inconvenient. People adopt addictive behaviors often because they feel unloved. Loving them effectively would take a tremendous effort that many people don’t want to make. And since we live in a capitalist society, as long as there’s a market for addictive things (drugs or other) there will be someone to supply them. If you’re selling things you have to consider addiction as part of your market strategy. If people can’t get along without your product, you’ll have a steady income.

It’s a shame this is how we live. It’s not how humans were meant to live, and getting really caught up in addiction can make us less than human. But our addiction as a society isn’t just to drugs, but to our whole lifestyle that is destroying the natural world that allows us to live. It’s a shame we live the way we do, that drugs destroyed the music and many of the musicians we’ve all loved, and that most of us don’t have the courage to turn away from that. But that’s dwarfed by the way in which we’re destroying not only our individual worlds, but the great world around us too. And it’s much easier to just go with the flow than to actually do anything effective about it.


Explaining Hitler


Explaining Hitler is the title of a book by Ron Rosenbaum. The cover of it shows a picture of Adolph Hitler as a two year old. It’s a reminder that he was once as innocent as any other baby. Why did he grow up to be one of the most monstrous murderers of the 20th century (though Stalin and Mao arguably killed more)? Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written trying to explain why he hated so bitterly and turned to genocide as the way to right what he believed to be wrongs. There are all kinds of different views on the matter. Some deny the Holocaust, some deny that Hitler caused it, others try to apportion the blame. The book tries to take an objective look at the variety of views, none of which has been accepted as definitive. Probably none can be.

Hitler was strange. Pretty much everyone agrees on that. His strangeness may have been part of his appeal, which seems to have been pretty overwhelming, not only during his lifetime, but still. Why else would so many people continue to write about him and argue about the validity of their views? Why else would some continue to idolize him?

Part of his strangeness is his background. His paternal grandmother had a baby at age 42 without any husband, and she didn’t volunteer a name for the father. She was a maid, and rumor had it she’d worked for a Jewish family and been impregnated by the son of her employer (who would have been twenty or more years younger). But there wasn’t any such Jewish family in the area. Jews had been forbidden to live in that part of Austria, though some traders may have traveled there.

Some years later she married a man named Hiedler. He might have been the father of her baby, whom she named Alois. Alois eventually changed his name from Schiklgruber to Hitler (a slight spelling change from Hiedler), but waited until he was forty to do so. Why wait so long, and why change it at all?

Maybe he thought Hitler sounded better, and didn’t suggest the isolated area around Döllersheim in eastern Austria that he came from, which seems to have been inhabited by the Austrian equivalent of poor white trash. Interestingly, after Hitler united Austria and Germany the area of Döllersheim was used for artillery practice, effectively destroying the church in which the birth of Hitler’s father was registered. We don’t know if Hitler personally ordered this, but he may have. Hitler is also quoted as saying to a nephew who was trying to get money from him after he attained power in Germany that, “No one can know where I come from”. What was he trying to hide? Possible Jewish blood? Or something else?

Another aspect of his strangeness was that just as his paternal grandmother had supposedly worked as a maid, his mother (who was related to his father) had served his father as a maid while Alois’ first wife was dying, and had become sexually involved with him then, marrying him several years later. She supposedly always called him “Uncle”.

Adolph Hitler became sexually involved with his own niece, who was working for him as a maid, making it three generations of that pattern. After he became prosperous in the mid-1920s he hired his half-sister and niece to keep his Munich apartment clean. After he acquired the Berghof on a nearby mountain he had his half-sister stay there while his niece stayed with him in Munich. It was potentially catastrophic when she was discovered shot to death in her room in the apartment. No one knows exactly what happened. Hitler may have shot her, he may have told someone else to do it, or she may have shot herself. But her body having been found in his apartment made sexual and murder scandal quite likely. The incident was successfully covered up, but just why the young woman died has been a matter of debate since.

We know that Hitler was jealous of her, didn’t like her going out, and that they’d argued about her desire to go to Vienna. Whether that was enough to prompt the death is debatable. One suggestion that later emerged was that Hitler practiced a sexual perversion in which he had Geli squat naked above him and urinate (or possibly defecate). We don’t know if that is true either, and Rosenbaum sees the suggestion as a way of seeing Hitler as so completely strange that he was unrelated to ordinary people. None of us could possibly have done what he did because we ordinary people aren’t perverted. The allegation rests on the word of Otto Strasser, whose brother had been murdered by Hitler, so there’s reason for doubt. Whether or not the alleged perversion affected Geli so strongly that she committed suicide, most of the other women he got involved with attempted suicide. Because of him? Or because he was attracted to women prone to suicide attempts?

Psychohistorian Robert Waite sees Hitler’s relationship with his niece, as well as his having only one testicle (“Hitler had only one left ball…”),  as basis for diagnosing him as a borderline personality, the sort of person who does dangerous and dramatic things. The diagnosis may or may not have been accurate, but Waite thinks the missing testicle is very significant, and we don’t know if it’s true. One doctor who examined him said he was normal in that respect.

It’s true that, as Waite pointed out,  Hitler didn’t always seem to want to win the war he later started: he could have destroyed the British army at Dunkirk, but halted his troops for two or three days instead. And after Pearl Harbor he declared war on the United States, committing himself to a two-front war that he had vowed to avoid and excusing Franklin Roosevelt from having to persuade the USA to go to war against Germany. Not only that, but he rerouted trains that should have taken supplies to the Eastern Front to deliver Jews to the death camps instead.That’s not enough to make Hitler a madman, exactly, though. Hubris may be enough to explain that and his behavior when the Russians began getting the better of his troops, and he refused to let them retreat.

But questions remain, and are hard to answer. Was Hitler sincere in his desire to kill the Jews, or was he just an opportunist? Did he believe killing them was right to do? If he did, why is he quoted in the book recording his table talk during the war as commenting (to Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler) on the “rumors” about exterminating the Jews, when they were “merely parking them in swamps”, though they deserved to be exterminated?

And whether he was sincere or not, what caused him to want to do that? Was it simply that Jews (and others) cost too much to feed? Did he do it because he was a sexual pervert? Or was it (as has been suggested) that a billy goat took a bite out of his penis? That  a Jewish doctor took care of his mother during her fatal illness? Or that he caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute?

Let’s consider some of the different interpretations of what he did.

Perhaps the earliest attempt to understand Hitler was by reporters of the Munich Post, which early decided he was bad news and tracked his behavior and that of his party members. Not just the street violence by the SA, Hitler’s private army, which often enough resulted in injuries and deaths, but the question of Hitler’s ability to live a comfortable lifestyle without visible means of support, and the sexual improprieties of some of his followers, including Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, who was notoriously homosexual.

They also covered the death of Geli Rabaul and the political murders the Nazis began committing in the last two years before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. As determined as they were, and as assiduously as they documented Hitler’s crimes, not enough people paid attention. Once he achieved power the paper was shut down and any of the reporters who were unable to leave the country in time were sent to concentration camps or murdered.

Fritz Gerlich was another journalist who did the same. He had been a rightwing nationalist like Hitler, and might have supported him, but when Hitler asked him for support, he asked Hitler to promise not to mistreat von Kahr, the politician he supported and not to try a putsch. Hitler promised, then did attempt a putsch (sudden revolution) and arrested von Kahr during the course of it. Gerlich could never trust Hitler again. He started his own paper, but he and the Munich Post both denounced Hitler as a counterfeiter who lied about what he wanted, who he was, and especially about the myth that Germany had only lost the First World War because it was stabbed in the back by politicians and financiers, which meant JEWISH politicians and financiers. This was more comfortable to believe than that Germany had lost the war.

Gerlich in particular was able to get under Hitler’s skin. In a piece he published in 1932 he analyzed Hitler’s nose according to the racial characteristics that Hitler endorsed, saying that it wasn’t a Nordic nose, but looked much more Mongolian, and Mongolian mixed with other races. This was a way of pointing out that Hitler looked very little like his supposed blonde- haired blue eyed Aryan ideal.

The racist stereotypes that Hitler supported also stated that real Aryans loved freedom and thought for themselves. This obviously contradicted what the Nazis were advocating, that Germans selflessly dedicate themselves to following their Fuhrer’s direction, and Gerlich commented that this too was, according to racist views, much more Mongolian than Aryan.

Just two years later a book was published in Germany lauding Genghis Khan for being willing to commit mass murder in building a state, the largest continental empire ever known. Hitler may or may not have read this book, but he absorbed the ideas from somewhere, because he gave his SS troops a pep talk just before the invasion of Poland, urging them to kill without mercy in order to secure the “living room” (lebensraum) that Germany needed. He told them to be like the Mongols because Stalin’s Mongols would have no mercy on them if they lost. Gerlich was somehow able to intuit what Hitler was thinking, and he was soon killed by the Nazis for his insight.

The problem with any one interpretation of Hitler is that there is almost always evidence to contradict it. During World War II the Allies compiled as much information about him as they could, and one part of it purports to be information proving Hitler never had sex, while another part says he had too much of it. Both can’t be true–maybe neither are.

Rosenbaum says there are a number of legends of evidence hidden, sometimes in Switzerland, sometimes known to one person who died or was killed before being able to tell it. One is the story that Fritz Gerlich managed to publish a pamphlet accusing Hitler of murdering Geli Rabaul. If it ever existed, it hasn’t come to light. Another says that the doctor who treated Hitler for hysterical blindness at Pasewalk at the very end of World War I deposited his case history in a bank in Switzerland, but entrusted no one with the information of how to retrieve it. Did this happen? Is the information still there?

Rosenbaum also mentions a story in the Hearst newspapers using Alois Hitler Jr as a source. In it, Alois says he’s the son of a cousin of Hitler’s father, when actually he’s Hitler’s older half-brother of the same father. Rosenbaum points to this as the kind of petty criminal outlook characterizing the Hitler family. Hitler was always very concerned about his image, and protecting it. We’re unlikely to find any more previously unknown evidence, and it’s questionable that any one thing could explain his actions anyway.

Since the war there have been further interpretations made. One interpreter, David Irving, lived in England during the war, and didn’t find information given by the Allies persuasive. He came to believe that, because no order signed by Hitler authorizing the Holocaust had been found, that it had all been the work of his underlings–until he came across papers written by Adolph Eichmann after the war referring to that order being received by Himmler. Rosenbaum reports that Irving says he thought, “Oops, how do I explain THIS away?”

He managed to find a way. He managed to meet a number of old Nazis, whom he respected for their intelligence and accomplishments, and their views of Hitler influenced him.

Perhaps the most important of these was Christa Schroeder, who had been Hitler’s secretary. Rosenbaum recounts a story he says rang true to him that Schroeder told Irving.

During the Night of Long Knives in 1934 Hitler purged the Nazi party, primarily of Ernst Röhm, who may have wanted authority over the German army, or parts of it, and whom the army cordially detested. Hitler also had other enemies and dissidents murdered at the time.

Christa Schroeder accompanied him to the SA barracks in Bavaria, where he arrested Röhm and other SA leaders. Afterwards they flew back to Berlin, where Schroeder got something to eat, and Hitler disappeared. When she saw him again he told her he had just had a shower and was now as clean (probably meaning as innocent) as a baby.

Franz Kafka, the famous writer, has often been credited with predicting the sinister bureaucracy the Nazis employed, writing stories like “In the Penal Colony” and The Trial. Perhaps amusingly, an American GI in 1946 visited Hitler’s Munich apartment in which Geli Rabaul had died, and found a lawyer named Kafka living there.

But there are deeper connections than that. Dr. Eduard Bloch, who cared for Hitler’s mother during her terminal illness of breast cancer, used iodoform  to pack her wound. Rudolph Binion argued that Bloch had used too much iodoform, causing Klara Hitler great pain without any good effect. Hitler later compared the Jews to “abscesses” on the body of the nation, which played into his fantasy of himself as “Dr. Hitler” purifying the German people.

Of course this is another one- explanation theory, which makes it dubious, as does Hitler’s documented gratitude to Dr. Bloch. But yet another Kafka enters the story, a nephew of Dr. Bloch, who deeply loved and respected him, and resented Binion’s theory, saying there’s no way any one Jew was responsible for the Holocaust. He, another respected scholar, followed Binion around and heckled him wherever he spoke, and said he would never stop.

Claud Lanzmann, who created the 9 1/2 hour documentary Shoah. took a different approach, from a concentration camp guard who reportedly told a prisoner, “There is no why here.” His rationale seems to have been that trying to understand such horror inevitably leads one to excusing it, which is at least a questionable idea, and which led Lanzmann to attack anyone who disobeyed that commandment and others, even survivors of the death camps. While there is some virtue in denying that understanding all inevitably means forgiving all, Lanzmann himself apparently behaved as tyrannically as the Nazis in denying others the right to their opinions.

One of the people he attacked was Dr. Louis Micheels, himself a survivor of the camps, who insisted, there MUST be a why. He and his fiance had been sent to the camps, where they were separated. Both survived, but didn’t marry each other. They stayed in touch, though, and in the 80s she appeared in a Dutch documentary about the period. Also appearing was a Dr. Munch, who had refused to be a “selector” choosing which Jews would immediately perish when they arrived at the camp (Auschwitz, in this case). He was the only one of the Nazi doctors to be acquitted in a war crimes trial, at least partly because many survivors were grateful to him, even though he hadn’t resisted the brutal system in other ways. Though Micheels thought the film was flawed, he also thought it raised important questions, and invited Lanzmann to see and discuss it. Lanzmann accepted the invitation, then denounced the movie and Micheels for “revisionism”, which apparently means Micheels was trying to excuse the Nazi crimes. Rather unlikely for an Auschwitz survivor.

One possibly valid question is how the Jews could still believe in God after the Holocaust. If the Jews were still the Chosen People, how could God have refrained from intervening. Dr. Yehuda Bauer says that God can’t possibly be all-powerful and just too; if he’s all-powerful, he’s Satan; if he’s just, he must want to intervene, but not be powerful enough to make a difference. Of course there are still Jewish believers, whether or not they’ve thought the issue through as thoroughly as Bauer. Or are we (the whole world, rather than just the Jewish world) supposed to take the Holocaust as a moral lesson for which we should be grateful? Thus, the question is less whether God is dead than whether he has responsibility for, or complicity in, Hitler’s “radical evil”, a more satisfying formulation than his being, or the Holocaust’s being, the product of blind forces no human can withstand. As one commentator put it,, “No Hitler, no Holocaust.” That does seem to be valid.

Emil Fackenheim was struck by the idea expressed by some people he met that we all have a “Hitler within”, an idea he strongly disagreed with. He saw Hitler’s evil as so radical that it couldn’t be found in ordinary human nature. For this reason, he didn’t speak about Hitler or the Nazis for twenty years, until the Six Day War in 1967 between Israel and a coalition of Arab States. He feared a second Holocaust, and decided he must say SOMETHING. He decided he needed to add to the 613 rules of worship and behavior of Orthodox Judaism, so he added: “Jews are forbidden to allow posthumous victories to Hitler.”

He, like Lanzmann, saw a danger in explanations of Hitler. Too much empathy could lead to excusing him. So he recommended use of empathy to understand Hitler, but a resistance to any temptation to explain away his evil. So not allowing Hitler posthumous victories means not only opposing anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, but not refusing to believe in God anymore because of the Holocaust, when one could hardly be blamed for believing that God had failed to hold up his end of the bargain.

George Steiner, the novelist, wrote a novel entitled, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. This has Hitler escaping Germany to South America, being tracked down and forced to defend himself at a trial conducted in the wild. According to Rosenbaum, even some of Steiner’s supporters believe that he let A.H. get away from him, and Steiner had to wonder himself after seeing his character in a dramatization of his novel, and hearing him applauded.

Steiner said that he had already known he had to be careful with the Hitler character, and had vowed not to let his work be translated into Hebrew or German. The Word is very powerful, and can be very destructive. One of Steiner’s earliest memories was of the voice of Hitler on the radio, and of having to flee. His family made it safely to America (on the last ship from Genoa), and as he grew up his father’s dream for him was to return to Europe because if he didn’t, Hitler would have won a victory. Europe would be Judenrein (Jew-free). His father felt the same as Fackenheim.

Steiner became fascinated with Hitler. He knew Hitler and the philosopher Wittgenstein had both gone to secondary school in Linz, and must have at least seen each other in passing, as there was only two year’s difference in their ages. He thought that when Hitler was in Vienna he must also have passed people like Freud and Mahler on the street, and asked that as many photos of the period as possible be searched to see if they could be found together. He mentions that Karl Kraus, a very popular literary satirist in Vienna in 1909 said, “Soon in Europe they will make gloves of human skin.” He sees Franz Kafka too as having either conjured up the concentration camp world, or intuited its coming. The fascination of the best and worst aspects of European civilization existing together, some of them in the same city where they could potentially interact as individuals, and be inseparable. The highest and lowest intermingled.

There’s a photo of Hitler in 1919 standing on a street corner in pouring rain, unnoticed by anyone. As each year progresses he’s noticed by more and more people, which Steiner ascribes to the power of his words, which he compares to Martin Luther’s. This was the proximate inspiration of the novel, part of which wrote itself as he sat down to it.

The climax of the novel is when Hitler is being tried in the jungle when the people who tracked him down are unable to bring him back to civilization. At the end of the trial he speaks, saying that his mission had been to eradicate the people who had brought the idea of conscience into the world which, and whose religion had engendered Christianity and Islam, which had crippled the world with unnecessary suffering. A kind of reprise to Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor. The idea that the religious ideas of the Jews had asked too much of humanity, and had a malignant effect on them. He compares what the Nazis did to what had been done earlier by the Belgians in the Congo, the concentration camps invented in the Boer war in South Africa, and the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. “We were not the worst,” he says. He adds that in a sense he is savior of the Jews because his war on them made it possible to return to Palestine and found the state of Israel.

Did Steiner somehow reveal Hitler’s actual thoughts? Are the thoughts and words attributed to him in the novel so potent that they can convert others into anti-Semitism and what goes with it? Steiner didn’t think so. He thought they were questions that needed to be answered, perhaps first and foremost by Jews. Rosenbaum asked him if the Jews shouldn’t have conceptualized self-transcendence. Should they have apologized for it?

Steiner answers, no. That they would have done better to demand it more of themselves than of other people (which certainly applies to Christians and others as well), but that it would indeed be a very good thing if humans learned to love each other as themselves. Some do, some have, but these are rare. And humans hate being told they must be better. They are likely to hate anyone who tells them that, especially if the teller isn’t clearly better themselves.

This seems a sophisticated way of blaming the victim. However, Steiner goes even further. He believes the Jews as victims were the occasion for lowering the bar of humanity, showing just how bestial humans could be, and that the difference between the Holocaust and previous massacres was ontological: Jews were murdered not because of what they had done, but because they existed. Those who performed this obscenity became worse than beasts. In his willingness to look at the implications of the Hitler of his novel, and what his Hitler says, Steiner is playing with fire, says Rosenbaum. The obscenity that was applied to the Jews can also be applied to any other group.

Other voices shift the blame elsewhere. Daniel Goldhagen blames the German people as a whole for accepting the propaganda of the anti-Semitic press of the late 19th and early 20th century, and being all to willing to murder Jews when they were asked to. This assertion is answered by George Steiner, who says that the Germans may have been the LEAST anti-Semitic of the European countries. Had the Holocaust started in France, he says, it could have been much worse. Also worse seem to have been Austria and eastern European countries. It’s possible to see the passivity with which the Jews refused to fight back in Germany as a love for the country that had allowed them to assimilate and achieve. Anti-Semitic as it may have been, it was better than other countries. All of which is not to absolve Germans or anyone else of the Holocaust.

Hyum Maccoby blames Christianity, and with some reason. Blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus begins in the New Testament and continues for almost 2,000 years. Once Christians achieved political power in the 4th century CE they began persecuting other Christians for heresy, pagans, and (of course) Jews. Persecution was relatively mild at first, but one landmark of change was at the beginning of the First Crusade when the collected crusaders decided to massacre the local Jews.

From then on persecution became more severe. Jews were expelled from England. They were forcibly converted in Spain, children being kidnapped from their parents to be brought up Christian, parents sometime killing their children to prevent it. Eventually some willingly converted, but then practiced rituals of Judaism at home. When this was discovered it set off the Spanish Inquisition in a burst of paranoia, which led to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain too, where they had lived peaceably with Christians and Muslims for much of the previous 700 years. The next step was putting them in ghettos. Some eventually left the ghettos and tried to assimilate, but were still resented. Hitler, at least in some respects, was the culmination of all this history.

And the ostensible cause is darkly ironic. We celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, the appointed sacrifice, then blame the Jews for doing the dirty work from which we all supposedly benefit. On top of that, the more you hate Jews  the more you are saved yourself because you can’t be implicated in the crime of killing Jesus. Just as hating Jews means you couldn’t possibly be one.

Rosenbaum recalls medieval “debates” in which a Christian would debate a Jew as to which religion has the truth. Of course the debates were fixed. Christians had to win. The best Jews could do was try to maintain their dignity in a discussion they had no interest in.

Maccoby sees St Paul as perhaps the originator of Christian anti-Semitism since he purged early Christianity of Jewish law, converting gentiles and telling them they didn’t need to be circumcised  or follow the dietary laws. When the gospels were written (somewhat later than Paul’s epistles to the churches he founded) the story of Judas became prominent as the archetype of betrayal, and considered by many to be the archetypal Jew. What many fail to consider is that Jesus must have been a singularly poor judge of character to make Judas a disciple in the first place, if Judas actually was as portrayed. But this portrayal of Judas and the Jews for 1800 years made the Holocaust possible. Maccoby thinks Christianity would be (and would have been) better served by concentrating on Jesus’s life rather than his death.

There’s yet another interpretation of Hitler and what he did, a “mystical” one. In The Spear of Destiny Trevor Ravenscroft said that Hitler, during his sojourn in Vienna as a young man, had found ways to expand his consciousness and had found a spear which had belonged to one of the Holy Roman emperors in a museum, where he was observed by another young man, a student of the occultist Rudolf Steiner, who saw how much he coveted the spear.

Ravenscroft’s thesis, which I don’t assert the truth of, but which fascinated me when I encountered his book more than forty years ago, was that the spear was the one which had been thrust into the side of Jesus when he was on the cross. Jesus’s blood had made the spear a formidable magical implement, so that anyone who possessed the spear would make history on the world stage.

One possessor of the spear was the emperor Constantine, who made Christianity legal in the Roman empire, giving it political power which eventually made it the national religion and banished paganism. Another was Frederick Barbarossa, one of the outstanding Holy Roman emperors. Hitler wanted it too. But in his process of expanding his consciousness he took mescaline, which Ravenscroft interpreted as black magic, especially when used for the purpose of accumulating political power. In doing so he allowed the spirit of the AntiChrist to possess him, which seems a cogent explanation of his behavior–if you can believe in the AntiChrist. It’s not hard to think of his behavior as figuratively demonic, though I think Ravenscroft belives it to be LITERALLY so.  I neither include nor exclude this possibility.

The final view the book deals with is that of Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who doesn’t see Hitler as ever being hesitant about the Holocaust, but cunningly making it seem as if he was. She sees him as an actor, but not as an actor who is merely an opportunist, but an actor who creates a persona that affords him deniability. She sees him doing this through “esoteric” language that his inner circle would understand, but others would not. He is a criminal not only in small ways, but on a grand scale, and protects himself with a counterfeit persona which seems still to convince some today.

She comes to this conclusion from what he says in Mein Kampf  about being in the sanitarium in Pasewalk, where he was treated after being gassed and apparently suffering a case of hysterical blindness, perhaps brought on by the news of Germany’s surrender to the Allies after a naval rebellion and a revolution had forced the abdication of the emperor. She quotes him as saying, “There is no making pacts with Jews; there can only be the hard either-or.” 

This is when Dawidowicz believes he made the decision, though she adds that he may have made it as late as 1924 when he was writing Mein Kampf. She also thinks he decided to conceal his ambition from all but his inner circle. Extermination on such a scale isn’t a goal to advertise. If she’s correct, he concealed his goal very well. Most historians think he gradually became more radical in what he was willing to do as he acquired more power, so that he didn’t REALLY decide on extermination until 1941 when that became more convenient than continuing to feed them. That’s probably a good model for the murders committed by Stalin and Mao: they were willing to commit them, but murder wasn’t their goal from the beginning.

Hitler did make remarks about hanging Jews from every lamp post, or that having gassed thousands of them in 1918 might have prevented German defeat, but most people didn’t take that too seriously. Dawidowicz points out that just after the war Hitler was still attached to the military, who liked what he was saying, but didn’t want him speaking too plainly. So he used code words: “usurers”, “profiteers’, “exploiters”, all descriptions that had been applied to the Jews before.

As Rosenbaum says, Dawidowicz doesn’t have solid proof that Hitler had decided what he was going to do so early, but neither can anyone else prove that he hadn’t. Hitler is quoted in a speech from 1937 to a Nazi party group in which he says that everyone knows their goal, but that he will do whatever he can to maneuver the enemy into a corner from which he can’t fight back.

She gives several indications of how he concealed his direction of events. He gave no order for Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews in 1938, but when Himmler tried to get Goebbels to stop instigating the violence, Hitler prevented him.

In January 1939 Hitler made a speech saying that if the Jews started a war it would be their destruction. In September 1939 he spoke declaring war on Poland. This speech stands out because it was one in which he never mentioned Jews. But no less than four times in the next three years he referred to the September speech as the one in which he had threatened the Jews. Dawidowicz takes this as meaning that extermination was the REAL reason for starting the war, and that Hitler “slipped” in thinking he had threatened the Jews in September rather than January.

And she says the threat is also linked with laughter. In several speeches Hitler says the Jews have laughed at him, but that they are laughing no longer. It’s pretty hard to imagine Jews laughing at him in the late 1930s, let alone the 40s. The laughter is really Hitler’s. The extermination of Jewish laughter is the extermination of Jews.

Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper believed that Hitler was “convinced of his own rectitude”. That he was doing something right and appropriate, but that doesn’t fit this kind of laughter. This laughter is, as Rosenbaum puts it, from someone who RELISHES what he’s doing, and the illicit nature of it. While he liked to picture himself as Dr. Hitler destroying a life-threatening infection, he was enjoying what he did in a way that actual doctors don’t. Killing bacteria isn’t something they take personally. Killing Jews was something Hitler DID take personally.

According to Milton Himmelfarb, abstract historic forces didn’t compel Hitler to kill Jews: he did it because he wanted to, and perhaps he saw what he did as an ironic form of art, like the motto at the entrance to the death camps: Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes freedom. A last good joke on the Jews before they died. Perhaps, Rosenbaum suggests, it’s easier for us to believe that Hitler was some kind of freak, insane or perverted, an opportunist who believed in nothing, and only killed Jews because it was convenient. Instead, this picture is of Hitler who knows his own malignance and delights in it.

Emil Fackenheim called Hitler “an eruption of demonism into history”. That could be seen as justifying the idea that he was possessed by the spirit of the Antichrist. Doesn’t that explain his actions as well as anything? Of course there have been mass murderers in the past, and Stalin was already responsible for the death of millions by the time Hitler came to power. Can we explain either of them by any abuse they suffered as children? Or did they simply have a predilection for evil and a genius for getting into position to exercise it?

But it does seem better to say Hitler was as consciously evil as it’s possible for a human to be, and not liberate his memory from responsibility for what he did and caused. That would be, as Fackenheim said, allowing Hitler a posthumous victory.



We got the story of Atlantis first from Plato, who got it from his ancestor, Solon, who got it from the Egyptians. Now mainstream historians and archaeologists don’t believe it existed. Joseph Campbell was quoted as saying there hadn’t been enough time for humans to develop a high civilization earlier than the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Indians, but that’s not accurate.

We’re now aware that our kind of human being has been around for at least 100,000 years, maybe 200,000, or even longer. Considering that the history we know much about (beginning mostly with writing) is only five to six thousand years, that leaves plenty of time for a high civilization to develop. Why don’t we see traces of these civilizations? Maybe we do. Graham Hancock has spent more than twenty years writing about the evidence for a previous high civilization, most recently in Magicians of the Gods. 

There are many megalithic monuments around the world. In most cases we have only vague ideas when they were built, and how is a complete mystery, though archaeologists (in some cases) think they know. The most obvious examples are the Great Pyramid and the Great Sphinx, though there are many more.

The above two are probably the most famous monuments in the world. We, with modern technology, might be able to duplicate the Sphinx, but it would take a major effort. as it’s 260 feet long and 65 feet high, and carved out of bedrock. Few people nowadays would be willing to make that kind of investment.

The Great Pyramid is not only immense, but mysterious. The first mystery is how it was built. It has well over a million stone blocks in it, most of them weighing at least a ton, some well over a ton. The ceiling of the King’s Chamber is roofed with slabs of about 70 tons apiece. How would you, first of all, cut the stones very precisely, then move them, and finally place them with extreme precision? Precision is one of the other mysteries of the pyramid, but far from the last.

The timeline of civilization says that agriculture began around 8,000 BC, and towns were necessarily built, since people would have to stay in one place to farm. That makes a place like Göbeckli Tepe particularly mysterious.

It’s a site in southern Turkey, the beginning of which has been dated to about 9600 BC, making it the oldest known megalithic monument in the world (with one possible exception). It seems to have been used for more than a thousand years, then covered up. That it was covered is convenient for archaeologists because it means that the organic material covered can be accurately dated. It must be from when each area was covered, rather than from when it was built, which means the structures could be much older, but these are certainly old enough.

And it’s IMMENSE! The archaeologist interviewed by Graham Hancock five years ago said that after eighteen years of continuous excavating much more is still buried than has been uncovered.

Making it even more mysterious, the builders seem to have been hunter-gatherers. How did they acquire the skills, when they had to spend most of their time acquiring food in order to survive? Besides, the best workmanship so far uncovered is also the oldest. What does that mean?

That’s a parallel with ancient Egypt, which had few pyramids built before the Great Pyramid, but nonetheless created it as a masterpiece of architecture; then, within a few hundred years, apparently forgot how pyramids are built. Those built in the late third millenium BC are ruins. For a monument 4500 years old, the Great Pyramid is in pretty good shape. Why would the oldest Egyptian monuments so exceed more recent ones? The obvious hypothesis is that they had learned from a predecessor civilization, rather than developing the necessary techniques themselves.

Even older is the Great Sphinx. About 25 years ago it was studied by geologist Robert Schoch, who determined the erosion of its body was from rain, and lots of it, not wind. It seems that the last time there was lots of rain in Egypt was about 5,000 BC, so Schoch decided it couldn’t have been built any later, which means it might have been built much earlier. But according to the commonly accepted historical timeline, there were no high civilizations that could have built anything like it or Göbekli Tepe anything like as early.

There are some four hundred legends of the Great Flood around the world, including in the Americas, where legends from the Middle East are unlikely to have reached. The Flood was universally believed to have occurred by Europeans until about two hundred years ago when Enlightenment thinkers reacted against the Bible and the idea of the supernatural. Ice ages were conceived of partly as a way to account for things like boulders found in geological areas they weren’t related to. But an ice age doesn’t preclude a Great Flood, or vice versa. The first could have led to the latter. And a supernatural cause isn’t necessary either.

But a Great Flood, or equivalent calamity could explain why we don’t know about civilizations predating Sumeria, India, and Egypt. Written documents from before the calamity haven’t survived–or haven’t been found yet, though one of the Assyrian kings claimed to have a library of books from before the flood, which he claimed to be able to read, which apparently since have been lost –so our information about it is only legendary.

But legends, especially widespread ones, usually have some truth to them. If such a catastrophe had happened, what would a high civilization do, especially if it saw it coming? It would probably try to preserve as much of its knowledge and wisdom as it could. How would it do that? One way would be to teach the skills of civilization to other humans. According to widespread legends, that’s precisely what happened.

One legend is about a being named Oannes who wore a fish suit, but had human feet and, after teaching skills of civilization all day to humans of what is now southern Iraq, retreated to the sea for the night.

Another group were the Seven Apkallus in the northern Middle East, who are depicted as looking like part men and part bird.

A third was Osiris, who taught the ancient Egyptians, then is said to have traveled around the rest of the world to teach others.

A fourth was Quetzelcoatl in Mexico, who arrived from the eastern sea with a group of other teachers, but ran into a hostile god who apparently objected to his trying to end human sacrifice in the region.

Yet another was Viracocha in the Andes in South America. Interestingly, both Viracocha and Quetzelcoatl are depicted as WHITE men with full beards, unlike the natives of both regions, who were and still are dark skinned. Their whiteness may help explain how the Spanish were so easily able to take over the Aztec and Incan empires: they looked like the revered legendary gods. By the time the natives found out they weren’t, it was too late.

Not only does this ancient culture seem to have sent out missionaries of a sort, but Hancock suggests that monuments like Göbekli Tepe and the Great Pyramid were built as time capsules to prevent antediluvian knowledge and wisdom from being lost. The catch is that a civilization must have attained a high level of knowledge to access what’s in these time capsules. We seem to only now be getting there.

Another way to preserve knowledge is orally. There are also numerous legends of spiritual teachers whose traditions go back thousands of years. Could these traditions have been begun by a civilization (or more than one)  both spiritually and technologically advanced?

Hancock notes that there are things about the statues found at Göbekli Tepe that remind him of ancient statuary he’s seen elsewhere in the world. These statues seem to be part human, part animal, with human arms extending across their bellies with fingers almost touching, and holding things that look like bags. Hancock remembers artwork in Mexico with similar figures, as well as in Easter Island. If this is accurate, they may have been products of a worldwide civilization.

Other mysterious sites are in western South America: around Cuzco, Tiahuanaco, Lake Titicaca, etc. Again, structures are built of unbelievably large stones precisely cut and set. When Hancock asks the archaeologist who, with his father, has been studying the area for over a hundred years, how the building was done, the archaeologist thinks there was lower gravitation (perhaps a device to make things lighter?) allowing stones to be put into place relatively easily. The archaeologist also thinks the stones were subjected to extreme heat to make it possible to shape them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and fit them together. In this case too, the most ancient monuments are the most impressive. Later South American civilizations were also impressive, but couldn’t compete with their predecessors.

Even older than Göbekli Tepe, apparently, is Gunung Padung in Indonesia. Hancock points out that Indonesia is the remains of a fabled extension of the Indian subcontinent called Sundaland, which was destroyed by flooding, volcanoes and earthquakes, probably during the time the last Ice Age was ending. It was supposed to have been a large and fertile land with mountains and at least four river systems, and with schools of wisdom too. Gunung Padung, in the local language, means Mountain of Light or Enlightenment.

It was believed to be a natural hill until archaeologist Danny Natawidjaja and his team began using ground penetrating radar and other techniques to survey the area. Then they realized that it was a pyramid, and began using radiocarbon dating on organic material underlying the surface structures, then from tubular drills penetrating to much deeper levels.

The first results were dated between 500-1500 BC, but lower levels gave increasingly older dates. 3,000-5,000, 9600, 11,000, 15,000, then 20,000-22,000 and even earlier, which means they began to be built before the end of the last Ice Age.

The end of the last Ice Age was the beginning of a tremendously traumatic period in earth’s history, when many animals, and even a number of genera (related species) went extinct. The worst part of it seems to have been between 10,800 BC and 9600 BC, called the Younger Dryas, when temperatures, which had been getting warmer, suddenly got colder again. Before that time North America had been home not only to the Clovis people (who may have gotten there two or three thousand years before), but to mammoths, horses, camels, giant sloths and beavers, and saber-toothed tigers. None of these species were alive at the end of the period, and though the Younger Dryas was a worldwide phenomenon, North America (maybe the Americas in general) seems to have been hardest hit. What happened?

Some scientists now think that a large comet came very near to earth and parts of it separated, several chunks hitting the immense glaciation covering most of what is now Canada. Ice and ground vaporized, and were propelled into the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun, which caused the downturn in temperatures that lasted about 1200 years. It also started an immense flood from the melted glacier and a very large lake that then was located approximately on the US/Canada border. An area in eastern Oregon called the “scablands” seems to be the result of this flooding.

The scablands are a large area in which canyons were eroded, and some scientists now think, very quickly. The archaeologist Hancock interviewed said it wasn’t just water, but soil, boulders, and huge chunks of ice running very fast through the passage that became the scablands. There’s still very little topsoil in the area.

This seems to have been a very large but localized flood. The extreme erosion happened because the flood, immense as it was, was still confined to relatively small passages. That amplified the force of the liquid mixture in its ability to erode.

Whether there was actually a universal flood remains an open question. There were certainly local floods that surpassed any seen before, and there have been reported fossils of whales in mountains in Alabama and Ontario. Were these relatively recent fossils, from only about 10,000 years ago, or are they much older? Also reported have been a cave in England full of bones of hippopotami and a site where mangled bodies of polar and equatorial animals were mixed together. The latter case sounds like evidence of a universal flood. The former may be something else.

Fascinating as tracking down evidence of Atlantis or other ancient civilizations may be, it doesn’t really matter anymore, does it? Hancock gives some reasons to believe it does.

One is that the various legends of the Flood often include the idea it happened because of human wickedness. High as our civilization is, our behavior often isn’t admirable. Consider the way we treat each other and the world in which we live. Cruelty and exploitation characterize our behavior. If God is watching, it’s quite possible She is displeased.

But there are other indicators. One is a column in Göbeckli Tepe that draws attention to the winter solstice when our sun aligns with the center of the Milky Way galaxy when rising in the constellation of Sagittarius. That’s been where it rises since 1960, and will continue to be through 2040. The The Mayan calendar also predicted an age ending and one beginning in this period.

A precessional cycle; that is, the wobble in the earth’s rotation that causes constellations to seem to move slowly across the sky especially in relation to the equinoxes and solstices, is not quite 26,000 years. We are about half a precessional cycle from the time the asteroid some scientists tell us hit the earth and started the Younger Dryas period, that is, more than 12,000 years ago. There are meteor streams which come near us cyclically, and Hancock believes ancient astronomers in Göbekli Tepe, Egypt, and Mexico left us warnings that the cataclysm that destroyed their civilization may return to destroy ours. If an asteroid of, say, one mile in diameter were to hit the earth, it would destroy our civilization, and possibly the whole human race. Humans who could survive such a catastrophe would be those used to surviving on very little, the hunter-gatherer societies that remain today.

We have the science and technology to possibly be able to ward off such a collision, if we could detect the body coming soon enough. It would take quite an effort, but the potential is there. But will we make the effort? If the danger is now, we’d better start planning pretty soon.

I’m not very optimistic. Hancock says that when NASA became aware of the danger in the late 20th century, they were told to play it down. We’ve heard a lot about climate change, and while some accomplishments have been made, they haven’t been enough to make a substantial difference. If an asteroid collides with earth, climate change will be the least of our problems–it will probably occur too, but so will explosive destruction, fire, flood, earthquakes, volcanoes, as well as a possible new ice age.

If one wants to see such a collision as punishment for our collective sins, it would be ironic if it came after we had ALREADY made great progress in destroying ourselves and our civilization by refusing to change our destructive habits in terms of how we treat our habitat and our fellow humans.

I hope my pessimism is misplaced. Right now I see few signs that it is.

Genesis as History


I watched a movie last night expressing what I guess are current views of Creationism, some of which I can buy, some of which I can’t.Of course Creationism sees the Bible as being accurate historically. I don’t entirely disagree, but think there are contradictions.

The movie began with a rationale for believing in the Great Flood, something I tend to agree about. The geologist appearing in the movie calls the Grand Canyon convincing evidence for the Flood, seeing the geologic layers revealed in it as having been laid down suddenly and catastrophically, rather than gradually over millions of years, as mainstream science contends. I think that’s possible, whether it was a local flood or worldwide. There’s a less known site in this country, in eastern Oregon, which some scientists believe was similarly eroded by huge volumes of water moving very fast. They think that one was caused by an asteroid striking the ice pack then covering most of what is now Canada, vaporizing or melting large amounts of ice, and also releasing water from a large lake, just as the geologist believes about the Grand Canyon.

The viewpoint the movie cleverly takes is that of catastrophism, which was anathema in mainstream science for quite awhile.

There’s other possible evidence for a Great Flood too: that the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Caspian Sea in Asia are saltier than they ought to be for their apparent ages. There are also two salt lakes in the Middle East at high altitudes, Lakes Van and Urmia. Lake Titicaca in South America is also at high altitude and is a salt lake, but it seems to have once been a seaport that got lifted up when the Andes mountains were formed.

So far I can agree with much of what the movie says. But part of its quarrel with the conventional dating of the Grand Canyon is, according to the geologist, that the various dating methods for ancient stone and fossils do not agree. That’s certainly a problem, but not enough of one to justify the belief that the world is only 6,000 or so years old. That figure has been a dogma among certain Christians since the 18th century, which makes it questionable in itself.

One of the examples used to justify that figure is a site in which there are fossils in many layers, and the geologist says that each layer shows its own ecosystem. He attributes this to the Great Flood washing over the world more than once. Were this true, it seems to me the fossils would be jumbled up together, as sites reported by other sources state.

The Creationists seem to be on firmer ground questioning natural selection as the evolutionary mechanism. Not that it doesn’t work in producing variations within species, but the idea that all life on earth has a common ancestor is hard to believe. For this to happen, one would have to expect new species being produced from other species. There are variants of many species (cats and dogs are two examples), but those are different breeds, not different species. We haven’t seen new species being created since human beings began to write about 5,000 years ago.

For another thing, it would take a very long time for life to begin from bacteria and differentiate into vegetables, marine life, amphibians, and mammals. Creationists have a point when they question if enough time could have passed. There’s a point in the fossil record (I think after the dinosaurs went extinct) that an explosion of new species occurred. How did that happen? If the asteroid strike which made the dinosaurs extinct was that destructive it’s hard to see how much of any kind of life could have survived, especially many species with no obvious ancestors.

But part of the reason for the question about time scales involved seems to be the Creationist desire to prove Genesis literal. Thus they talk about the process of creation described in Genesis as only taking literally six days. Why is that so important?

One question the movie didn’t address was that of Cain: if his parents were the first humans, as we who read the English translation of the Bible are supposed to believe, how did Cain, after leaving his family, find someone to marry? Let alone found a city? The sensible solution to this is that in the original Hebrew the Adam and the Eve were treated as generic human beings instead of individuals. The story of the Fall would refer to individuals at a later time.

But the movie sees dinosaurs as being part of the punishment of humans for the Flood, and representing the corruption and violence of the world after the Fall of Man. Then it has the dinosaurs dying in the flood, which must have taken place (according the their version of the age of the earth) not much more than 4500 years ago, or about 2500 BC. Again, the questioning of timelines by the movie’s makers doesn’t really provide evidence to suggest that the earth isn’t much older than that. It does suggest that tests to determine the ages of rocks, artifacts, fossils, etc, don’t agree with each other, which does call science’s view into question, but doesn’t give positive evidence.

Another question the movie doesn’t address is one that started people thinking about evolution in the first place: how did life survive the Great Flood in the Americas (where are there are flood legends, just as in Asia) when the animals couldn’t have possibly been taken to or picked up by Noah’s ark? And the thing that really began to make scientists think was the variation in animals and plants around the world. The New World had examples of both that the Old World didn’t, and species in isolated places (like solitary islands) developed in unique ways. The New World also DIDN’T have species found in the Old World, like horses and elephants, fossils of which were found later. But different species and variants within species were an example of evolution at work in isolation from other parts of the world, though not an example of new species being derived from old. It also doesn’t explain the evolution of humans from apes, though we do seem to be closely related to them.

I don’t object to Creationists questioning the findings of science if they do so in a rational way. Scientists can be biased and make mistakes too. What I DO object to is trying to rationalize taking the book of Genesis literally, as well as other Christian dogma, unless there’s very strong evidence for it.

Called Out of Darkness


I haven’t read many of Anne Rice’s novels, not being particularly interested in vampires, but her memoir, Called Out of Darkness, looked interesting when I saw it in the library. It’s about her childhood experience of religion, her retreat from it, and her eventual return.

Her childhood was in a time not so long ago, from my perspective, since it overlapped with mine. It was a time when almost everyone was religious (at least nominally Christian) and there was no air conditioning, which we didn’t miss, not having experienced it. One may have little to do with the other, but it was a more natural time in that respect, and Americans in general were more innocent.

Rice’s life has been unusual in part because she wanted to be a writer without having facility in reading books. So her experience of religion (Catholicism in her case) was direct. She loved the churches and services she and her family attended. She never remembered NOT wanting to go to mass, and she also loved the priests and nuns she came in contact with. Two of her aunts were nuns, and she was impressed with the selfless way in which they lived. She also liked the nuns who taught her in school (though she adds the nuns were tougher on the boys than the girls). Of course this was well before the sexual molestation scandal hit the Catholic church, and probably few even imagined such a thing in those days.

It felt to her like a gigantic family because growing up in New Orleans everyone she knew was Catholic, and all the holidays were religious. She loved them all. She thought, at one point, of becoming a nun, but was dissuaded by her father. In retrospect she says that this was just as well, since she didn’t have the temperament for it.

Temperament, among other things, became problematic for her as she entered her teens. She was annoyed at being treated like a child, since she never felt like one (at least since being a very young child), and being a girl, and a Catholic girl at that, was also a problem.

That’s because, in the 1940s and 50s going steady was a mortal sin, as were hugging and kissing. This was one of the things pushing her away from the church.

Another thing, not specifically Catholic, was the attitude of some about her going to college. One person tried to persuade her it would be better for her to major in something other than journalism, since she would be unlikely to find a job in that field. Another tried to persuade her that highly intelligent people were unhappy. College, she says, is when she put that kind of thinking behind her.

A basic problem was that the Catholic church had come out against the modern world in the previous century, and that was agonizing for Rice, because she desperately wanted knowledge, just as she desperately wanted sex. The only acceptable way to have sex was to be married and have children. There WAS no acceptable way to the kind of knowledge she wanted when so many of the authors she wanted to explore were atheists, or at least not Catholic. She had decided she needed to attend college and work at becoming someone, and that meant a Protestant college, as there was no Catholic university she could possibly afford.

And when she met other students just as hungry for knowledge as she, she also discovered they were good people without being Catholic. They weren’t careless sinners, but thought about what they wanted to do and how to behave ethically.

Talking to a young priest about her doubts, he told her, after he found out about her old-fashioned Catholic upbringing, that she would never be happy outside the church. Though he meant well, she was no longer a Catholic when she left the room, she says.

There had been a mixture of art and mind in the church she had attended as a child. Now that was being taken away from her. So she stopped being Catholic.

“I could not separate my personal relationship with God, and with Jesus Christ, from my relationship with the church.” This, she says, was the real tragedy: she felt she had to stop believing in God in order to leave the church. She left it for 38 years.

It made sense at the time. The church lied to her. God wouldn’t damn people for kissing, masturbating, or thinking. If he did, he couldn’t be called loving, and loving is the way Rice perceived God and Jesus as a child. She tells how a very old nun beamed at her once and said it was wonderful because her soul was pure. That was the manifestation of God and Jesus she wanted to believe. But that’s not what the church told teenagers and young adults.

She adds that from childhood on the church gave people lies to tell outsiders. For instance, that the Inquisition hadn’t executed anyone–that was done by secular society. But secular society and the Catholic church hadn’t been separate in those times. This, she says, was a first-rate Catholic lie.

She could have gone to an opposite extreme and become promiscuous, for instance. Instead, she married the young man she had known for several years, and stayed with him for the rest of his life (he died fifteen years ago). And theirs was, for the most part, a gender equal relationship at a time when that was probably unusual. She wanted to become something, and he thought she should. They argued as equals about the things that passionately interested them, sometimes scandalizing their friends.

These passions, contrary to what one might think, had little to do with the new movements that had begun in the 1950s and were becoming public in the sixties. Rice says she had missed the civil rights movement because she’d moved to California before it became front page news. She was looking at the past, so didn’t pay attention to Vietnam, and didn’t realize that assumptions about race and gender were being overturned. Feminism she thinks was a movement too painful for her to participate in at the time. She was trying to understand the past, especially the World Wars, and was unaware of the present. She admired secular humanism as she found it in San Francisco and Berkeley, and still does today, she says–much against the fashion in some sectors of society.

Two things then happened to change her life significantly. Her daughter became sick and died before turning six. This led her to write her first novel, Interview with a Vampire, which not only established her as a writer, but also as a person separate from her husband. Now, when people spoke to her it was because they wanted to talk to HER, not her husband.

The other was that they had another child, and decided they needed to stop drinking, which they did, thus avoiding the bad health, inability to work at high capacity, and possible early death that comes with alcoholism.

Then, as a wife and parent, she pursued her writing.

She wrote about people shut out of life for various reasons. Vampires are outsiders. So are witches. So are castrati. And since she didn’t write in the intellectually fashionable way, she attracted readers who sometimes never read anything else.

The arc of her writing was to lead her back to God, she says. She found this particularly in the historical research she did to create her novels, most especially in the survival of the Jews which, according to what she’d learned in school, shouldn’t have happened. She’d been drawn to a brilliant Jewish family she’d met (and had babysat for) in her early teens, and was heartbroken when they’d moved away. In her later life she had many Jewish friends, and was as impressed with their determination to do right as with the Catholics she’d grown up with.

Then, in 1988, she moved back to New Orleans with her family, and found that the huge Catholic family she had left there accepted them the way they were, quite against her expectation. When she was growing up Catholics were told to shun anyone who married outside the church, divorced, or did a number of other things the church disapproved of. But she wasn’t judged for those things or for having written about witches and vampires. Suddenly the church felt inclusive, that ordinary Catholics were no longer willing to automatically exclude minorities who transgressed on some dogma, no matter what the church hierarchy might say.

In the late 80s and 90s Rice’s faith in atheism was beginning to crumble, she says. She traveled to religious sites and collected religious relics. The natural world and artistic world both spoke to her of the existence of God. Not only that, but twentieth century American was still obsessed with Jesus, and not just the fanatics. Jesus Christ Superstar is a frivolous example, but there were also many books written, and a whole new genre of popular Christian music became commercially viable. Probably some of this was fanatically dogmatic, but not all of it.

Rice says of her own novels that they rebelled against modernist literature in telling stories in old-fashioned ways, but not against the modernism the Catholic church opposed. Her characters were isolated individuals who didn’t live according to dogma, maybe especially not according to sexual dogma. Her novels, she says, are committed to sexual freedom and gender equality–all the things that had been going on in the 60s and 70s which the Church had generally opposed, and which she had generally been oblivious to. Overall, she says, they’re the story of her return to faith from atheism. Atheism hadn’t exactly been wrong, in the context of a church that rejected so much of the modern world, and hence of life, but ultimately it was unsatisfactory for her.

The world was telling her of God’s existence and love, and eventually she surrendered to it, realizing that she didn’t have to understand everything. God did and does. She only had to play her part.

At this point, she says, came a miracle: she didn’t know ANYTHING about the contemporary church. If she had, she might never have felt able to return. She didn’t know about the church’s rejection of ordination of women (she had once wanted to become a priest), or of the polarization between Right and Left within the church, nor about the pedophilia scandal that had only recently broken. All she knew was that the Catholic church of her childhood still existed, and that this was her way to return to God.

Not, she says, that she could consider herself an actual Christian during this time. She didn’t live an unChristian life, but it wasn’t especially Christian either. The essence of it was a struggle how to proceed. The Christian life means to entirely substitute God’s will for your own, and that’s where many of us hesitate. Rice had numerous employees; would God demand a sacrifice so she could no longer employ them? Many Christians have suffered persecution, often physical persecution as well as emotional. Would that be demanded?

Then she realized that, as a writer, it was her role to write what God wanted her to write. So that’s what she began doing. As she did, she discovered that the only version of the life of Jesus that resonated with her was the orthodox version: he was the Son of God, and performed all the miracles recorded in the New Testament. She says she read many of the books that question the New Testament, and found the scholarship slipshod, one place where I would probably disagree with her, though my knowledge of the the question is far from complete.

For Rice, the Incarnation is what is important, so she dubs herself a Christmas Christian instead of a Passion Christian. The Passion and Atonement leave her cold compared to the idea of God being born a child of a mortal woman. A woman, moreover, who had become pregnant outside of wedlock, giving rise to obvious rumors. While the Passion may be as or more important, it’s not what moves her.

She also began reading the Gospels, the rest of the Bible, and Biblical scholars as well. What she found, she says, is that she couldn’t see the Gospels as anything but written by first-person witnesses. She couldn’t see the books as collaborative or edited, something else I would probably disagree about. She finds tremendous depth in those books, as the Church has always insisted, but cannot force anyone to believe.

The other thing she realized was that she was called on to love everyone. Literally. It’s easy to condemn Christians and everyone else for not doing this, or not doing it well enough. A temptation, she says, we always have to resist.

She includes a prayer written by St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,                                      Where there is hatred, let me sow Love.                                             Where there is injury, pardon,                                                                Where there is doubt, faith,                                                                   Where there is despair, hope,                                                                Where there is darkness, light,                                                             And where there is sadness, joy.                                                          O Divine Master, grant that I may                                                          Not so much seek to be consoled as to console;                               To be understood as to understand;                                                   To be loved as to love;                                                                            For it is in giving that we receive–                                                        It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;                                              And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

Rice tells us of finding a statue of Christ on the cross reaching down to embrace St. Francis. She found it three times: once in an antique shop, once in a church in Brazil, and then in the church she was attending as this memoir was written.

I think it’s significant that the present Pope is Francis, and that no other Pope before him had taken that name. I think that was because the Church went through a time of great hatred, some of which began about the time of St. Francis, with the crusade against the Albigensians. That crusade was the birth of the Inquisition, model for future police states, which led to the persecution of the conversos (the Jews who had converted to Christianity in Spain, but continued to practice Jewish worship), the great wars against the Protestants, the persecution of the witches, and finally to the ideals embodied in the US Constitution about the separation of church and state to avoid religious wars. Maybe the appearance of the present Pope and his choice of the name Francis is significant. Maybe it means that a majority of Catholics are tired of the hatred that made them embattled in many places and separated religion from science.

And if that’s true for a majority of Catholics, maybe it’s true for a majority of people in general: Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist, despite the horrors still perpetrated in the world, too often by religious people.

Rice notes the religious obsessions with sexuality and gender, and wonders if these could not be made secular as much (but not all) of science has. Science tells us something of how the stars are made, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also see them as lights created by God to guide us. We can also, if we wish, see God in every human, every animal, and the whole natural world. That would be a more optimistic view of the universe than seeing the world as merely the story of random chemical reactions.

Unless, of course, God were to continue to be viewed through the lens of dogma and power. When God is only a tool of the powerful, organized religion loses its point. It has nothing to offer the rest of us, especially the poorest, most vulnerable, and most persecuted.

Anne Rice had, it seems, to leave her church and return to it to realize just how significant it was to her. Her path won’t be the same path as anyone else. But her story can serve as an inspiration, rather than a roadmap.




Lavondyss is a quest story by Robert Holdstock about an ancient forest in England bigger than it looks from the outside. A stream runs through it which becomes a river deep inside. Not only is the the forest larger in space, but in time as well, with spaces in it extending back as far as the Ice Age.

Tallis Keeton’s older brother, Harry, has disappeared into the forest, and his family mourns him. He says goodbye only to Tallis, then a young child, and seems to be in pain. She thinks the pain is in his chest, but doesn’t understand. She wants to rescue him, but doesn’t know how.

As she grows older she becomes obsessed with the forest, which seems to act on her; she sees human figures out of the corners of her eyes, stories come to her, she discovers the real names of fields and trees, and makes masks symbolizing various states of consciousness.

The first one she makes she calls “the Hollower”, after the opener of roads (holloways) that lead from the world of the living to the world of the dead, roads which heroes walked leading to worlds where the heroes sometimes became trapped–as Harry apparently had been. She makes more masks too.

A story comes to her about a king and queen with three sons. The youngest, Scathach, is exiled to a castle made of “stone which is not stone”, and is unable to return.She finds a tree she names Strong Against the Storm, which is a hollowing place where she can have visions, where a passage can open between worlds, and there she has a vision of Scathach grievously wounded on a battlefield. Carrion birds are coming for him, and she performs a childish sort of magic to keep them away.

Her parents don’t understand. They know she’s been distracted from the ordinary world, especially when she quits school, but don’t  understand what she’s trying to accomplish, and she rarely feels she can even try to explain. She does try sometimes, to her father, and he does try to understand.

She is only thirteen when she actually meets Scathach. Born in the wood, but with a father from the outside, a scientist who had been investigating and trying to understand the forest, and had eventually entered it and become the shaman of a primitive tribe, fathering two children, performing the rituals necessary for the tribe, and continuing his observations of the different peoples traveling up the river headed for Lavondyss, the heart of the great woods. Scathach speaks English and is able to explain some things to her, but urgently needs her help to return home deep in the forest. He needs her to hollow, to open a path so he can find his way home. Just when she has persuaded her father to help her Scathach persuades her to help him find his way in the forest, promising she can quickly return. She goes with him, hollows a way into the forest, but quickly becomes lost. For eight years.

Scathach’s father feels her coming. The creatures of the forest aren’t natural, though they live. They’re shaped by the powerful subconscious fantasies and problems of warriors and shamans, and the father, a shaman himself, sees things around him changing.

One of those things is the boy not really his son who was actually born from the forest and is about to change the tribe in which he lives by changing all their rituals. He is preparing for this by eating the marrow out of the bones of the tribe’s dead to get their memories and dreams. Eventually he will kill his father and eat his head, giving him even more access to powerful thoughts and dreams. He is a mythago, a sort of archetype created by the forest out of powerful images dreamed.

He tries to kill his father the shaman, and almost succeeds. Once the shaman has healed enough to travel Tallis and Scathach take him up the river as both seek Lavondyss. Scathach, as he is a warrior, must fight in the battle of Bavduin, a sort of apocalyptic battle in which hecatombs of men are killed. He hopes to find the friends he journeyed with and lost.

Tallis wants to enter Lavondyss so she can free Harry, and doesn’t know exactly how to do so. After Scathach and the shaman both leave her she enters a ruined castle she has found, one she had glimpsed before in previous hollowings. It is made of petrified wood–stone that is not stone. There time speeds up, a tree grows into her body and turns her into wood. Ages pass.

It is usually winter in the wood, but now she finds herself in extreme winter, and the family living near her are trapped in it. They didn’t realize the extremity of winter coming in time, and don’t have the food to go south, and barely have enough to survive where they are. The youngest son of the family is an artist. He finds Tallis and chisels her out of the tree, then plants her at the head of the grave of his grandmother, who has just died.

As he does so, his father comes behind him, kills him, and eats as much as he can, then runs away. The mother follows him, kills him, and returns. She and the two older boys eat the remains of the younger son to survive, then the middle son allows birds to peck his eyes out. This breaks the magic Tallis realizes she had made in trying to protect Harry. Harry is the middle son, but the loss of the son’s sight has also freed Harry. His spirit thanks Tallis and disappears, telling her he’ll soon see her again.

The wooden statue embodying her is burned, but not entirely, and from what is left she metamorphosizes eventually back into her previous body and leaves Lavondyss, realizing it is the place of events that resonated with humans and which became myths on which human behavior is founded (just as human survival is founded on ecology). Time is plastic there, as can be human, plant, and animal forms.

Returning to the tribe where she found the shaman, she finds the boy who has now killed the shaman and eaten him. She also finds Scathach, who has survived the Battle of Bavduin.

The next scene is of Tallis as an old woman still living in the forest and near death considering her life. She enjoyed her subsequent life with Scathach, though he died too soon, but still hasn’t found Harry.

Until she dozes and he comes to her. He helps her stand up and leads her to the edge of the forest where she sees her father. She has returned to the very moment she entered the forest. She hasn’t destroyed the family, and now can heal it. And though she still hasn’t found Harry, hope remains for him. And for the grandson she leaves behind in the forest, with directions for finding the old lodge where there are records of the shaman’s researches.

But just after that a scene from earlier in the novel repeats. Harry arrives at Tallis’s funeral and is grief-stricken. He cries out, as Tallis had heard him many years before, ” I’ve lost you. I’ve lost you. And now I’ve lost everything!”

From one of Tallis’s masks comes an answer in Tallis’s voice: “No, I’m here. I’ll come to you, Harry. Wait for me. Wait for me…”

In interviews Holdstock said he was deliberately working with myth in this book and others in its series. The progenitors of ancient stories are still more ancient, and the versions we know are often romanticized. Robin Hood isn’t mentioned in chronicles until 1377, but his story is probably much older, and may be related to that of King Arthur, whose story may go back as far as the Bronze Age.

Lavondyss is a sequel to Mythago Wood, in which the author set up the premise on which the stories are based, but the sequel is far superior. The premise is about the role myth plays in human life, in our subconscious minds (much larger and wiser than our individual consciousnesses). The story is both deeper and more complex, not only about questing, but about courage, determination, and loss. The end, which always makes me emotional, suggests that loss may not always be forever, and that healing is possible, in spite of loss.


The Arts in Public School


I went to two concerts last week. Two of my grandchildren were participating, one in choir, one in band. They’re only sixth graders, so they didn’t spend a lot of time onstage, but I hope by the time they hit high school they’ll have a lot more skill and still enjoy performing.

Music is the kind of thing that many people don’t feel is really useful. I think that depends on what your criteria are. Do children make money from performing? Not usually. Does that mean only children should perform who can do so professionally? I don’t think so.

I’ve been singing in choirs off and on most of my life. It’s not the kind of music I usually listen to, but I enjoy it, and I’ve gotten to sing some pretty nice material. While I have a reasonably good voice, I’m not a real musician, and can’t compete with anyone who is. But singing in a choir isn’t about competing, it’s about cooperating. If I were of professional talent I could do it much better, but I can still enjoy it. The same can be true for my grandchildren.

I don’t know that any of them have the talent or drive to be professional in music, sports, or drama. If they do, I hope they can succeed at whatever they choose, but if not, they can still enjoy their efforts in any of those directions.

Sports can teach young people discipline and the right way to work in order to succeed, as well as being enjoyable in itself. So can drama and music. Music, in particular, helps young brains make more connections between neurons, which can be positive, no matter how the neurons are employed. Better functioning brains can aid in success, whether it’s in music or some other discipline.

I worry, though, about cuts in funding to schools. As I understand it, school funding usually comes through property taxes in the neighborhoods the schools serve. The disadvantage of this approach is that poor neighborhoods don’t get schools as well funded as wealthy ones. Nationally, the attitude toward school funding is announced by the decision to cut funding for meals for hungry children. Considering that hungry children can’t very well be expected to concentrate on what they’re supposed to learn, this means that a large percentage of the population is being prepared to fail, not succeed. Shame on parents too irresponsible to feed their children before school, but when hungry children are being refused food, who is being punished?  I don’t think the authors of such legislation are serving their constituencies very well, arousing questions about their real motivation.

The issue is the same for programs like music, drama, and sports. The returns on those investments may not be immediate, but in my opinion, are worthwhile. Of course, if one’s interest is to turn the nation’s schools, elementary and secondary as well as collegiate, into profit-making institutions, one is announcing that one’s concern is for those making the profits, not for those they’re supposedly serving.

My grandchildren apparently live in a pretty good neighborhood, because they have music programs (I don’t yet know about any others) that serve the middle school as well as high school children. My grandchildren are only beginning their exposure to the arts. By the time they graduate high school I hope they’ll have had a lot more exposure, whether they choose to pursue it further or not. I’d like to see children in all parts of the country getting the same chances. I think their lives would be enriched. If public school funding has to be cut (and I’m not convinced it does), I think this is the wrong place.