Forgiveness

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I’m reading a book called The Unburdened Heart, by Mariah Burton Nelson, which is about forgiveness, and which probably applies to almost everyone. It certainly applies to me, and other people I know, but it also applies on a wider scale.

There are several things the books tries to make clear. One is that forgiveness isn’t easy, and if it’s facile it’s not real, and if not real it doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s a process rather than something done automatically.

Another thing is that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning the offense. Some people feel that forgiveness must be conditional: that the person has to be sorry, and be willing to accept appropriate punishment and to make resitution. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but some people find it better to forgive unconditionally.

One example given is that of a young woman, an American who had gone to a good university and was an excellent student, who had gone to South Africa 20 years ago to work at getting people to register to vote. She had written to her parents that young blacks who committed violence shouldn’t be blamed too much because they were doing what had been done to them and their families for generations. Not long after that she was murdered.

Her parents were very involved in the Christian church they attended, and reported that they immediately felt forgiving, that they felt less anger than sadness, and that they hoped the young men involved could eventually return to their communities and live positive lives. Many people couldn’t arrive so quickly at such a position.

Some will remember the movie Dead Man Walking from about 20 years ago, which was loosely based on a true story about a young man who had abducted a woman, raped her, stabbed her boyfriend and left him to die. Some years later the young woman wrote a book about her experience, and the resentments she had from it.

She blamed her abductor, of course; she blamed her mother for not being concerned for where she was that night; she blamed Helen Prejean (and had written the book on which the movie was based), who had offered spiritual guidance to her abductor, but not to her; and she blamed God, for having allowed this to happen. “…she realized that in order to forgive God she needed to experience his forgiveness. So,

over a period of weeks, whenever I remembered something I’d done wrong, or something I hadn’t done right, I simply prayed and asked God’s forgiveness…As I did so, an incredible thing happened. As I came to know and feel God’s forgiveness, it was suddenly easy to forgive myself. If God who is holy and perfect could forgive me, who was I to think I should hold myself to a higher standard? If he didn’t blame me, neither could I! What a new and incredible sense of freedom!”

Researching the background of the man who had abducted her, she found that he’d been arrested 30 times before the age of 21, and when talking to Helen Prejean about him, asked if he’d ever expressed remorse. Prejean said he hadn’t, and that she doubted if he was able to. There may be no clear file into which to put this murderer, but no one gets arrested that many times in a few years without having something drastically wrong. Maybe his problem was hardwired in, but maybe it had to do with some dreadful pain of his own which led him to take revenge any way he could. At another place in the book, Prejean says of her work on death row, that when she tells inmates that she forgives them, their response is that no one ever said anything like that to them before. People who experience extreme and unjust pain, especially when young, are likely to pass that pain along to others. Forgiveness is one of the few ways to begin breaking that chain.

The point here is that not only do we need to forgive others, but ourselves. It seems analogous to the pain amputees experience from phantom limbs. One such amputee felt that his missing arm was contorted into an uncomfortable position. When he used a mirror to make his remaining arm look like his missing one, and moved it into a more comfortable position, his mind was fooled, and the phantom limb stopped hurting. If we’ve convinced ourselves we’re in pain, we can also convince ourselves to let go of that pain–if we want to.

Each person who decides to embark on the process of forgiveness obviously needs to do so for him or herself. But it would also be nice to see forgiveness enter into wider contexts, such as politics. In politics, much of the rhetoric is always about blame and NOT forgiving anyone who has behaved wrongly, further complicated by frequent disagreement as to what is right and wrong.

That’s why the American decision to help rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II was such positive move that gave peace a chance to defeat the lingering resentments. Of course there were resentments, and they were justified, but the USA’s actions recognized that not all Germans and Japanese were evil, and we could encourage them to be our friends.

Not that our country’s conduct was entirely consistent. The war crimes trials made us feel superior because we didn’t acknowledge our own war crimes and those of our allies. But helping our erstwhile enemies rebuild made the postwar world a much more stable place than it might have been.

At the moment, forgiveness is not a prominent part of the political landscape. Our Civil War of 150 years ago is not something that is settled. It still influences politics today, as liberals are unable to forgive conservatives for being bigots, and conservatives are unable to forgive liberals for being self-righteous. Whites are unable to forgive minorities for not being white, and minorities, seeing the inhuman faces of those who persecute them, put on inhuman faces of their own. No one wants to change themselves: they want to change other people. Thus we get inflexible hatred and the inability to see other people’s humanity.

Some have said that seeing things as they are means we also have to see ourselves as WE are, which can be horrifying. Many who do, feel that they can never be forgiven, and do anything they can to forget their faults or pretend they don’t exist. From this attitude comes addictions of all kinds.

Not that this is the only source of addictions, though a major one. Nelson suggests that forgiveness offers us a way to not only forgive others for what they may have done to injure us, but a way to forgive ourselves for being human and imperfect. The resulting freedom may give us the ability and impetus to do much better.

Nelson’s own experience was with a man who was her basketball coach when she was 14 and he was 11 years older, and married. She liked a lot of things about him, so when he began molesting her she ignored her bad feelings about it, and cooperated. Three years later her family moved to another area, and she lost contact with the coach, but the experience stayed with her. Eventually she contacted him again, and confronted him about what he’d done. He was remorseful, and agreed to help her heal (eventually) by admitting what he had done. Initially he still didn’t want her to tell anyone, since he didn’t want to lose his job and family, and initially she agreed, but then decided to mention his name.

He came close to losing job and family, but didn’t, and continued to do what she asked to help her heal, which he found in the long run to be healing for him too.

Not every molester or other offender will be so helpful. Nelson suggests that each person must work out the problem in his or her own way, but that forgiving one’s self for being caught in such a predicament, and to the extent possible, forgiving the perpetrator is more likely to contribute to healing than holding on to rage and hatred (however justified) for the offender and offense. That kind of holding on contracts the consciousness: forgiveness (again, to the extent possible) has at least the possibility of expanding it.

This was an important part of Jesus’s message: “Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.” It’s advice many of us are disinclined to take very often.

For one thing, we usually want to be right. One mother had a teenage son who, beginning in his early teens, was constantly getting into trouble. One night they had a confrontation, which was frightening for her, since he was by then in his late teens, and big. She managed to shove him out the door,  and he drove to where he was living. Later that night he called her, told her he had been driving recklessly, running red lights, and telling himself he must be a total asshole to treat his mother that way. She told him, “I’m sorry,” and kept repeating it. She said she suddenly wasn’t concerned about who was at fault, but was sorry that he was in so much pain, and sorry for whatever she had contributed to it. He replied to her, “My world just changed.”

Nelson comments that his world hadn’t entirely changed: they were fighting again the following week, but that the incident had opened the way to apology and forgiveness, which was healing for the whole family.

She also notes that even if a perpetrator doesn’t apologize perfectly, apologizing at all can be powerful. One young woman, an athlete, was running with a group of other athletes when a young man plowed into them, and injured her pretty severely. She eventually recovered, but had a lump on her collarbone visible when she wore an evening dress, and a large scar on her abdomen when wearing a bikini. Eventually she confronted the young man who had injured her, and found that he was sincerely apologetic. He insisted that he had been alone in the car (observers had said there were others with him, and they were laughing) and that he hadn’t laughed. She wasn’t sure she could believe this aspect of his story, suspecting him of trying to protect his friends, but still found his apology liberating. She recognized his humanity, imperfect as it may have been.

How many of us have not offended others, as well as having others offend us? All of us have done things we shouldn’t have. That’s the nature of being human, and the way in which we learn to do better. I think forgiveness is an excellent tool towards liberation, and intend to use it more myself.

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William Blake

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It’s not unusual for artists in one medium to dabble in another, but usually that’s a sideline for them. William Blake was different having great skills in both drawing and writing, and in his early works especially he didn’t care to separate the two.

He was also different from most people (even artists) in pretty continually seeing visions. Many people have hallucinations, at least occasionally, but a lot of these are meaningless. There are physiological problems that cause some of them, but not all. For some they’re a source of amusement or irritation, but for Blake they were often deeply meaningful. He was of a religious turn of mind, but not conventionally religious. His family were Dissenters, so he was open to a variety of religious ideas, which did much to shape his art. He saw himself as both poet and prophet, and created his own religious system, which he tried, not very effectively, to popularize, not having much talent for business. He said, “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.”

He began his working life as an engraver, and probably most of his art was in that medium, which is (or was) an extremely demanding one. The engraver has to prepare the plate (usually sheets of copper, in his case) before drawing the desired image on it, which could take a very long time. He made money copying various pictures for books, but was never able to make a lot of money at that, let alone his own work.

He was a man of the 18th century, a most interesting time, and lived almost all his life in London, though he did spend 3 years in a village before returning, but never left England. And he lived almost all his life in the same area of London, which might have made him insular, though London also gave him access to the theater and art exhibitions. So he was a man of his own time, but was also out of step. That probably contributed to his lack of commercial success, but also brought him insights which were in advance of his time and place.

He despised the ideas of Newton and Locke, which he saw as describing a mechanical universe (Peter Ackroyd, his biographer, comments that he can’t have been aware of Newton’s interests in the occult) which was exactly contrary to his beliefs, which more modern science has partially confirmed. Blake saw Newton’s atoms as being cold bits of material: modern science says they’re no such thing. The modern picture of the universe is still mechanistic, but there are aspects of it that approach the mystical,  if in a very different sense from Blake.

Songs of Innocence was one of Blake’s earliest works, with the later Songs of Experience to complement it. He has a striking poem about chimney sweeps–young boys whose indigent parents would sell them from ages 4 to 7, and who were forced to climb through chimneys through very tight spaces to clean them. It was a very dangerous job: some died doing it, some were crippled or liable to cancer of the scrotum, they made little money, and their clothes were usually ragged if they had clothes at all. Many saw them as connected to sexuality because of their entrance into small places, and they must have been very vulnerable to sexual abuse. If they managed to survive to adulthood they were most likely to become criminals, having little other option.  In Songs of Innocence Blake ends the poem by saying that anyone who does his duty has nothing to fear, which was obviously absurd in this case. A companion poem from Songs of Experience makes it clear that the sweep is quite aware that no one cares about him, and that society is quite willing to take advantage of his suffering. Blake said, “Innocence dwells with Wisdom, but never with Ignorance,” and in the first poem the sweep is ignorant. Blake’s statement seems a conundrum to ordinary consciousness, which would be tempted to equate innocence and ignorance, but that was precisely the point of Blake’s art: he believed human consciousness to be constricted and unable to perceive much of reality, and in his art he tried to encourage fuller consciousness.

It has been suggested that the ancient Egyptians and others perceived much differently from the way we do today. One author says that humans used to be able to perceive the stars even during the day, and also used to live much longer. He says that incorrect living blunted human perceptions, reduced human life span, and caused overpopulation. Blake might have agreed. He knew that each perceives the same object with greater or lesser difference.

He saw the Biblical Fall of Man as having been a descent from the spiritual into the material workd, and that the spiritual world could be regained, though immense processes barred the way. He also saw repressed sexuality, industrialization and war as being at least part of what entangled people and prevented them from attaining their spiritual inheritance.

To have the perceptions of an uncontracted consciousness would be “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flowr/Hold Infinity in the plam of your hand/And eternity in an hour.”

To write this sort of thing was to be considered mad, they as now; and Blake had a friend who also had religious visions, but who died insane because he accepted the world’s valuation of them, rather than believing in his own ability to be spiritually renewed. Blake was stronger than that.

His desire was to return mankind to the purity of perception that would be able to perceive evils and awake from them, to perceive the mental states like drunkenness, in which people could be ensnared for a time, but from which they could recover, something like what we might now call addictions.

He never had worldly success. He married, and was fortunate in finding a wife devolted to him, who did all the work of the house, cooking, cleaning and making his clothes, as well as helping him with his engraving. She apparently learned to have visions herself, though she may never have understood what Blake was writing about in any depth. She commented to a visitor that she didn’t have much of Mr. Blake’s company, as he was frequently in Paradise.

Similarly, he had friends and admirers who helped support him by giving him commissions (which could be a problem when the subjects they gave were superficial and he felt he was neglecting his own work) or sometimes money. He felt the world should pay attention to him, but also that he had to accept his situation. Which was what he did, continuing to work almost to the end  of his life, expanding from engraving into watercolors and tempera and always refining what he had to say and how he said it. The substance of it never changed much, but his techniques did.

From one perspective his might seem a wasted life, since he never made much money from it, and because people around him were generally unable to appreciate his work, but I wonder just how a life of devotion and almost continuous work is to be evaluated. His message wasn’t gladly received by either the secular or religious. For one he was too religions, for the other heretical. Many would have abandoned such a path after years without success, but he never did.

“Knowledge of Ideal Beauty is Not to be Acquired It is Born with us Innate Ideas one in Every Man born with him…Man Brings All that he has or Can have Into the World with him. Man is Born Like a Garden ready Planted and Sown This World is too poor to Produce one Seed…He who does not Know Truth at Sight is unworthy of Her Notice…The Man who never in his Mind and Thoughts travels to Heaven is No Artist.”

Compare this to Goethe (Blake’s contemporary): “A man must strive to be what he is.” As humans we have many potentials, but often fail to realize them. A common belief at present is that anyone realizing his or her potential will automatically become wealthy. This seems not to be the case. Not everyone can be good at business, and I am unable to believe in money as the only measure of success. Blake certainly didn’t.

That being said, I wonder (and the biographer doesn’t go into this) just how Blake attained the fame that he has now. Someone must have discovered him, since he and his works are now studied, but I don’t know who, and suspect (his biographer says as much) that his works are still rarely paid much attention. A curious man with a curious sort of success.

Jack Vance’s Trilogy

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I don’t know if Jack Vance intended his trilogy, Araminta Station, Ecce and Old Earth and Throy as a political analogy, but it’s interesting to read them that way.

The story is set in the far future in which a whole world has been set aside as a conservancy to protect the ecology from human exploitation. There are only a few places in the world where people are allowed to live, and they’re governed by a document put together by the scientific society which had the planet declared off-limits. Araminta Station is the administrative center, and descendents of the original settlers live there, on the mainland.

On an island live the Yips, originally brought to the planet as laborers, until it was found that they were extremely lazy. They were then left mostly to themselves. They may have been lazy, but they were fecund, and greatly outnumber descendents of the original settlers. A so-called progressive party wants to resettle the Yips on the mainland and then proclaim a “democracy”, which would amount to a transfer of power.

This is very similar to at least one conservative narrative about illegal immigrants. But there are some differences with contemporary reality. Those who claim to speak for conservatives now have little interest in protecting nature in the form of air, earth, water, animal and vegetable species, which seems surprising to me, as I would think this would one of the finer possible forms of conservatism. This concern is secondary for the establishment of Araminta Station as well, but it IS part of their concern.

The so-called progressives want what they call “democracy”, but this would include large estates for themselves, as well as opening the planet for settlement and exploitation of natural resources. They don’t really care about the Yips (reflecting the current narrative of conservatives about liberals and minorities).

A lot of the problems are begun by two sisters resentful at having been ejected by society for lack of achievement. It later appears that when properly motivated they’re very capable of achievement, although of an illegal sort. They enjoy achievement through theft, fraud and murder. The hero’s mother has been murdered at the instigation of an associate of theirs because both had wanted to marry him and he had rejected both. Their grudge against society is similar and is pursued by similar means.

This resentment seems very similar to that expressed by a lot of conservative commentators (at least to me), that they aren’t being recognized for their superior talents and morality, which strikes me as projection, since they’re often unwilling to admit the talents of minorities. A lot of the people you hear this from have achieved positions in which they’re paid well and can be vocal about their beliefs (and often paid for it). One hears somewhat less, depending on where listening, from those prevented from obtaining good education and jobs.

At the end of the trilogy Good fairly predictably triumphs over Evil, but the whole thing kind of reminds me of Colin Wilson’s comment (I don’t remember where) about the classical music and/or art of the first half of the 20th century. As I remember it, he said that Western music and/or art had become pessimistic, while Soviet Russia music was often powerful and optimistic, as if all the labels had come off and been stuck on backwards.

No doubt there were some very subjective views somewhere in that phenomenon: if not about music/art, then about the politics. I’m also reminded of Ayn Rand’s comment about a picture supposedly taken in the Soviet Union. It couldn’t be authentic, she said, because no one would smile there.

At this point, my only response could be, “What, never?” Maybe I’m mistaken, but I thik even unhappy people smile at least occasionally. Granted, a lot of Russians at that time had little to smile about, but consider American stereotypes about blacks during that period. They were ALWAYS smiling, presumably because they were too dumb to know they were being mistreated.

Of course that stereotype was no more true than Rand’s: blacks knew perfectly well they were being mistreated and that they’d be treated worse if they brought it to white attention. People the Communist Party didn’t like developed a similar attitude, and lied to Western reporters when asked about the subject, having a foolish interest in self-preservation.

Some people like to provoke that kind of behavior, and later are astonished that anyone should object. And that’s where the resentment apparently begins.

People have certain narratives they like, and resent alternative views. Particularly people with power. The narrative in the South in particular during the first half of the 20th century (the first half of the 19th too) was that blacks were happey, that whites treated them paternally, which may not have been entirely false, but was certainly incomplete.

Balance that, though with Malcolm X’s statement that he learned about racism in the North, since he never lived in the South. The Civil War was supposedly founght because of the slaves, but they probably came out of it worse than anybody, not least because Northerners didn’t like them much better than Southerners did. So when conservatives accuse liberals of hypocrisy about race, they may not be entirely wrong. Not that they don’t have their own hypocrisies.

Certainly Vance’s trilogy isn’t all about politics. That’s part of it, but I don’t know that he intended the politics in the story to refer to contemporary politics. Maybe that was somewhat inescapable. There’s a good deal more to the books than that, though. Vance is excellent at describing odd peoples and societies, as well as unusual landscapes, and the action in the story ranges fairly widely.

He’s also quite good at plotting a story, and delineating individuals, and does so in these books as well as ever. His writing is often satiric and ironic, so I wouldn’t entirely discount the idea that he intended the story as a subtle commentary on politics, power, and those who seek power.

 

Immanuel Velikovsky and “Pseudoscience”

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Immanuel Velikovsky had a best-seller with Worlds in Collision in 1950, made even more popular because a number of scientists denounced it, even before it had been published, and often without reading it. That seems like a strange way for scientists to behave. In most cases, if a theory is obviously foolish, scientists merely ignore it. In this case, Velikovsky’s theory was at least superficially plausible, and was based on a fascinating idea: that Venus had originally been explosively emitted from Jupiter, becoming a comet, had wandered the solar system, and had come close to earth, causing the plagues associated with the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. People still find the Bible fascinating and mysterious, and something that will explain its mysteries can sell.

So why did scientists object? One reason, according to the author, Michael Gortin in Pseudoscience Wars, was because of the example of Lysenko, in Soviet Russia. Lysenko was a biologist who believed that plants could be induced to reproduce acquired characteristics, which went against the genetic theory of Gregor Mendel. This was, however, before the discovery of DNA and its structure, and now it might be possible, through transplantation of genes, to produce vegetables, animals or humans with characteristics they might not otherwise have. But such manipulation of species as could be done then had been done strictly through breeding: reinforcing the desired characteristics while discouraging the undesired. Adding characteristics not previously even potential was impossible.

What American and British scientists worried about was that Stalin liked Lysenko’s ideas, and made him a powerful man, at least potentially steering biological research into a blind alley. These scientist were just beginning to realize the extent to which politics had entered into science, which could produce unprecendentedly powerful weapons, among other things, and feared that politics would prevent them from doing the kind of research they wanted, though at the same time they needed governmental support to do ever more expensive experiments.

That seems plausible, as far as it goes, though I’m not sure it entirely explains the horror with which Velikovsky’s theories were greeted. In any case, Velikovsky had his best-seller (though his publisher, which published a lot of scientific textbooks) found it necessary to transfer his book to another publisher. What he didn’t have was scientific acceptance of his theory, to which he had become very attached. He spent the rest of his life fighting for scientific respect, unsuccessfully.

The rest of the book chronicles that struggle, along with Velikovsky’s relationship with his followers. He had the common experience of the charismatic leader who attracts followers, but then has to protect his message from heretics. Here he ironically recapitulated the behavior of scientists to his own work: to keep his message on the track he wanted he had to “excommunicate” followers who wanted to take it somewhere else. That part of the whole process is familiar and boring, so I didn’t finish reading the book. Much more interesting to me was where Velikovsky’s theory came from.

It seems that Velikovsky’s theory had an agenda. He was Jewish, and was deeply attached to the Old Testament, whether or not he was religiously observant (I don’t recall). Despite having become a psychiatrist (though he was also quite well educated in history, languages and science as well), he was greatly disturbed by Freud’s book, Moses and Monotheism. Freud’s theory was that Moses was Egyptian, and a follower of Aton, the God publicized by the Pharaoh Akhenaton, as far as we know the first person to declare monotheism. According to Freud, Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, but was so strict that the Israelites rebelled and killed him. Thus the whole structure of Judaism was a kind of coverup of this crime.

This theory, of course, was Freud’s Oedipus Complex writ large, and while he was not wrong in his perception of the reality of the complex, it’s questionable that it’s practically the only driving force in the human experience, as Freud seemed to believe. It’s also true that Moses was an Egyptian name, not a Hebrew one, so his being Egyptian is plausible, if unproven. The rest, since I haven’t read Freud’s book, seems speculative to me.

The same is true of Velikovsky’s first book (he wrote others, which I’ll address further on). One of the incidents he believed had actually happened was the sun apparently standing still, as related in the Book of Joshua. He looked through other mythologies of the world to see if they recorded such a thing at that time, and felt he’d found confirmation in them. But the only way the sun could appear to stand still is if the earth’s  rotation were drastically slowed, and such is the force of that rotation that it seems very likely that anything that could so slow it would also cause widespread destruction, like earthquakes, volcanoes and storms. A body as big as Venus could, I suppose, potentially do it, but if it got too close, probably both it and the earth would be split into pieces from tidal strains. So that incident seems unlikely.

Venus being ejected from Jupiter recapitulates the story of the birth of Athena from Zeus’s head. This, according to Robert Graves, was in fact a propaganda story, attributing the birth of a goddess from a Father instead of a Mother. There were, of course, many other goddesses (though they all had the same basic identity) with many other names, and many other accounts of their birth. Venus being ejected from Jupiter seems too pat.

Velikovsky wanted to disassociate Moses from Akhenaton, so he tried a different strategy as well. He claimed that ancient history had been mistakenly dated, that the period when the Hyksos had taken over Egypt (some had suggested the Hebrews might have been part of the Hyksos) had been much longer than usually thought, and that the Hyksos had been the Amalekites, who were entering Egypt just as the Israelites were leaving, so that the two groups fought before going on in their separate directions. Velikovsky has King Saul of Israel later fighting to help expel the Hyksos, which also seems unlikely, as Israel was hardly a powerful kingdom at the time, but one that was trying to establish itself.

As a corollary of that theory, Velikovsky thinks Akhnaton lived much later than he is usually dated, in the 8th or 9th centuries BC, and was the original for the legend of Oedipus. Thus he discredits Akhenaton and distances him from Moses. His reconstruction is certainly interesting, and has its poignant moments, but Velikovsky was never able to complete a timeline that could be reconciled with the timeline that had been established over the previous two centuries, more or less, as it became harder and harder to reconcile the closer he got to more recent periods for which we have more reliable data.

He was on more solid ground with Earth in Upheaval. Here he lets the data speak for itself. There’s a cave in England with many remains of hippopotami, for instance. Unless the climate  was much different when they came to rest there (I believe they’re dated to about the end of the last ice age), which doesn’t seem to be the case, there’s the question of how they got there. Charles Lyell, who promoted the idea of uniformity of the earth’s development in the 19th century (and influenced Charles Darwin) suggested that hippos used to go vacationing in England, though nobody seems to have noticed them doing so since.

There’s much other such evidence, whether presented by Velikovsky or others. Velikovsky notes a number of sites in which the remains of both arctic and tropical animals are mixed. It’s hard to see how this could happen, except through an immense flood, unless someone went to the trouble of deliberately faking such a site. Velikovsky also mentions boulders sitting in areas completely unrelated to them. There have also been fossils of sea life found high in the Himalayas, indicating where that part of the land once lay. And on an island off the northern coast of Siberia has been found the remains of a fruit tree that grew to be about 80 feet tall. Vegetable life there now grows only an inch or so high.

Science has come around to accepting that this planet has endured many catastrophes. It’s now frequently accepted that the dinosaurs died because an asteroid landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the Mexican coast. This caused a gigantic explosion, and put so much dust into the air that the climate changed drastically. So catastrophic it seems to have been that you wonder how ANY plant or animal life could have survived.

Whether Velikovsky was right or not, his work has led to some interesting speculations. One observation possibly providing evidence for the planets having previously been closer together is that the planet Mars has been identified with war by most mythologies of the past. Mars has an immense canyon in its northern hemisphere, which would look like the kind of scar a warrior might have. We can’t see that with our naked eyes, but maybe our remote ancestors could.

Jupiter has usually been identified with the king of the gods, and lightning has always been said to be his weapon. Perhaps immense lightning bolts once flashed between the planets. One observer says that the vast canyon on Mars, mentioned above, looks to have been caused by electrical phenomena on a vast scale.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that our distant ancestors had more acute perceptions than we have, that they could see further, and even see the stars and planets in the daytime sky. We don’t know which of these theories is true, but both are interesting.

Velikovsky’s theories never were accepted by scientists in general, and while a lot of work went into them, they don’t seem to have enough rigorous knowledge about how the solar system works to be considered accurate.

I wish, though, that Gortin had written more about Wilhelm Reich, whose work was also proclaimed pseudoscience at about the same time. Reich was another psychiatrist turned to other sciences. He was at least as brilliant as Velikovsky was, but since his work involved sexuality it was also more threatening to more people than that of Velikovsky. I can’t say if Reich’s theories are more accurate than Velikovsky’s, but I remember reading a memoir by Reich’s son in which a lot of strange phenomena happened. One of my friends knew Peter Reich somewhat, and talked to him about his book, commenting on how many strange occurrences there were in it. As I recall, Peter Reich responded that he’d left out some of the strangest. That seems to me to suggest that Wilhelm Reich had been on to something.

And that suggests that not all “pseudoscience” is nonsense.

The Dead Lady of Clown Town

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Cordwainter Smith wrote The Dead Lady of Clown Town almost 50 years ago, about a year before he died. In a preface to a collection of his stories he said it was a retelling of the story of Joan of Ark, but it’s obvious that it’s much more than that.

He writes about the far future when humans have colonized many other worlds and are collectively ruled by a benevolent authority called the Instrumentality of Mankind. Religion has been driven underground as a danger provoking fanaticism, so that most people haven’t even heard the word god.

With the suppression of religion is also suppressed the good things religion does, but this is not unusual. Conventional religion often suppresses these things for the sake of order and policy, because the power of religion can shake the most stable society, even when fanaticism is not involved.

In this future universe humans have many servants. Besides more or less ordinary machines there are robots and underpeople. Underpeople are made from animals and put into a human shape. They’re made to do the dirty menial jobs that humans don’t want, and their wishes and welfare are not considered. If they get sick, they’re killed, since it’s easy to make more underpeople.

As those of us who were born in the last century might suspect, this becomes a problem. Most of Smith’s stories are set in this future world, and the problem of the underpeople is addressed piecemeal in many of them. In this one a prophecy long prepared for is enacted in mysterious ways.

The story begins with Elaine, a human being created by mistake to be a healer who would find her proper place on a frontier world, but is sent to a civilized world instead, where she is unable to find her purpose. She doesn’t actually do much in the story, but seems to be a sort of catalyst that enables certain things, analogous to chemical reactions, to take place.

She walks through a city semiconsciously looking for the work with which she can fulfill her purpose, and not finding it, but then comes to a door she’s never noticed, and goes through it. On the other side of the wall she finds and information booth in which there is a machine imprinted with personality of a woman now dead who used to be very important. This is the dead lady of the story’s title, and Clown Town, nearby, is where underpeople live illegally.

The dead lady tells Elaine she must enter Clown Town because her destiny is there. After some protest Elaine does son, and meets underpeople for the first time. Of course she’s seen some all her life, but has been conditioned not to notice them, since they’re not human. Ironically, these are exactly the people she could help, since many of them are sick, except she has been specifically conditioned not to help THEM.

They, at first, are frightened of her, because when underpeople are discovered living illegally, some robot is deliberately contaminated and sent into their refuge to unwittingly poison them. They think she’s such a person. Even if she’s not, they are in danger, because if she leaves the police will read her mind, know about the underpeople living there, and kill them. She’s in a trap, but also at the beginning of a destiny long prophesied in which she must play a part.

Her part is to make love with a man called the Hunter, and then have both her and his personality imprinted on a five year old girl named D’joan. This one has been imprinted with many other personalities too, extending back for many centuries. She is called D’joan because she’s made from a dog. This is customary for underpeople.

After some further preparations the underpeople march out of their home into the streets of the human city, proclaiming their love to everyone they meet. Those they meet are often frightened and perplexed. Robots sent to restore order when told they are loved destroy themselves instead. A great drama is being enacted that few can understand.

The Lords of the Instrumentality for that planet intervene, and at least one wants to kill the underpeople out of hand, but another insists on a trial, and that is what is done, but not for all. The underpeople whose testimony is not needed are simply killed by soldiers, but go to death rejoicing and repeating that they love their killers.

A rat woman holds up her seven babies for asoldier to kill. He knocks her down, stomps the babies to death, then clubs the mother and breaks her neck, while she calls out to him that he can’t kill her love.

And the soldier weeps, like a child who can’t understand what has happened to him. “He had started to do his duty, and his duty had gone wrong, all wrong.”

Here we begin to understand the Nazi soldiers called upon to massacre Jews, how it affected them, and why the Nazis began building the facilities where many people could be gassed together at a distance from the soldeirs whose humanity tortured them for what they were ordered to do.

This part of the story is written from an historical perspective, in which all the things that happened on the surface of the historical world are clear, but all the dimensions of it are not.

We see the danger of living religion which can light a fire that overturns all the social questions that people will answer in different ways.

The decision made, D’joan, or perhaps now simply Joan, is burned at the stake. A young soldier, overwhelmed by her message, jumps into the fire with her. What has happened on the surface is clear, having been recorded. The roots of it and the impact caused are a mystery, and so we can see what else Smith was writing about.

The death of Jesus, as portrayed in the Bible, is also an immense drama. To say that he was the Son of God is only to approximate the meaning. After all, in that time and place there had been many sons of gods, many of whom had died for the betterment of their people. It was an old mold to pour a new molten experience into.

And we also remember, perhaps especially those of us who lived at that time, what was going on when Smith wrote this story. We might characterize it as a reenactment of what happened on Calvary, when a people used disciplined nonviolent disobedience to assert that they WERE people, and the people who considered them enemies reacted with fear, rage, and violence. They still are, unable to accept the truths that many of them have claimed to believe. They, many of them, rejected living faith, because it was too frightening, and did their best to deny freedom to those they knew, but denied, to also be people.

Was it wild and foolish for those people to march, as lovingly as they could, into what could have been the jaws of death for all, and was for some?

“Perhaps the death they had chosen was better. Joan DID say, ‘It’s the mission of life always to look for something better than itself, and then to try to trade life itself for meaning.'”

A friend told me of Victor Frankl, who survived the Nazi deathcamps, and subequently created what he called “logotheraphy”. He said that the usual translation of “logos” from the Greek is “word”, but that’s incorrect. The correct translation of it is “meaning”, which puts the beginning of the Gospel of Saint John in a different perspective.

“The Meaning was with God, and the Meaning WAS God.”

That is what living religion and this story are about.

City

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Clifford Simak was a science fiction writer who began publishing in the 1930s, I think, and wrote a book of connected stories published as a novel about 60 years ago, considered a classic of the genre: City.

It’s kind of an odd, wistful and elegiac kind of story beginning approximately in our own time but then extending for thousands of years.  At the beginning Simak seems to have been extrapolating from the expansion of suburbs around big cities to a world where cities died, which obviously didn’t happen. Part of that world is that each family has its own private plane, atomically powered, which also didn’t happen.

In the first story a city is saved from being destroyed, and is kept as a sort of museum, but the decentralization goes on, and humans become more isolated and scattered. There also seems to be a lot less population than we have now. In that isolation some strange things begin happening. First, there are some human mutations. One of them builds a contraption over an anthill that keeps it warm during the winter, so the ants don’t have to hibernate.Therefore they also don’t forget what they’ve learned during the year, and begin to evolve, beginning to make technology.

The stories are built around a human family, the Websters, and the robot, Jenkins, who serves them. The Websters begin experimenting on dogs, changing their mouths so they can speak, giving them glasses so they can read, and self-reproducing robots to be their hands. The dogs realize their own intelligence and extend it.

But the isolation isn’t entirely good for humans. One of the Websters, who went to Mars early in life and made friends with a Martian who has become an eminent philosopher, finds this out. Webster has meanwhile become and eminent surgeon, and has made a study of Martian brain physiology. His old friend is just on the point of a philosophic breakthrough when he has a stroke, or something similar. Webster is the only doctor who can possibly save him, but he discovers that he’s agoraphobic: he’s so attached to his home that when he tries to leave it he becomes terrified, and is unable to go to Mars, so his friend dies.

Meanwhile, humans have built an outpost on Jupiter. They’re studying the planet and its lifeforms (it does have life, though obviously built on different chemical foundations from ours) as best they can, but it’s a very difficult environment to study. Besides the very different atmosphere and temperature (Jupiter here is a very cold world compared to earth, though this may not actually be true), it has much higher gravity than earth. Scientists are trying to get around this by transferring human personalities to some of the native animals on the planet, which seem to be quadripeds, and which they call “Lopers.” The problem is, no one they send ever comes back–until one does. This is because it’s much more pleasant to be a Loper than a human. Lopers need no food or sleep, and they’re able to use their entire brains, so life is much clearer and more vivid. One man comes back from being a Loper to tell the world, and most of the remaining humans go to Jupiter and become Lopers.

Back on earth, this leaves the dogs, grouped around Jenkins, the Webster family robot; the mutants; a group of wild robots left behind when the humans they served went to Jupiter; a few humans who have been left behind; and the ants.

The dogs, partially from Jenkins’ influence, are quite humane. They interrupt the predator/prey structure, feeding the animals at stations with food made from yeast. Violence seems to have been conquered.

One of the Webster family comes to visit and sees what the dogs have done. Jenkins encourages him to visit and bring others: the dogs will enjoy it. The man goes away and thinks about it. One of his friends has been put into suspended animation, and he’s been thinking about doing the same. He thinks about the interaction with the dogs, and what kind of interaction it would be. He feels that the dogs, who have come so far, consider humans to be gods, and that they ought not to. Humans, despite whatever they’ve accomplished, are imperfect; the dogs are by now at least their equals, and ought not to be overshadowed by humans. So he activates something like a force field that seals the city he lives in, Geneva, so that nothing can get in or out. Then he goes into suspended animation, intending to sleep till the end of time.

As things go on, animals are suddenly getting killed, but not eaten, so it’s not animals doing it. The few humans aren’t the killers either. It’s a mystery.

At the same time, one man has independently reinvents the bow and arrow, and in trying it out, accidentally kills a robin, not realizing how powerful a bow and arrow can be. He goes with a friend to give himself up for punishment, and his friend is suddenly killed by the “cobbly” which has been doing the killing. This entity doesn’t seem to be material in the usual sense, and seems to be from some parallel world. The human tries to shoot it wiith his bow and arrows, but actually scares it away through hating it. Jenkins, the robot, now some 7,000 years old, and in a brand new body, witnesses the whole thing and understands it.

He’s been trying to think what to do about the sudden outbreak of violence, and now understands what to do. Instead of punishing the human who killed the robin, he tells him he’ll show him how to make better bows and arrows. then gathers the remaining humans in the world. When the “cobbly” was scared by the human it had thought a particular kind of thought, which Jenkins had been able to catch and remember, which took it out of this world into another one. Jenkins gathers all the humans together and uses the word, taking them all to another world. This removes the humans from their original world, and also removes their violent influence: Jenkins has recognized that this is how humans function, and he shouldn’t attempt to change that. Instead, he feels sorry for the “cobblies”.

In the last story of the book Jenkins returns from the parallel world to visit the Webster house again. It’s again been several thousand years, and of course things have changed. He says nothing about the humans he took away with him, so we don’t know if they’ve survived or not. The difficulty now is the ants. They’ve been building a huge structure and adding on to it, so that it now takes up acres. The dogs can’t communicate with the ants, and ask Jenkins what to do. Jenkins wakes up the last Webster for a few minutes and asks what humans used to do to combat ants. He’s told to take a slow-acting poison and put it into something sweet, so the ants will eat it and then bring it back to the hive where they’ll infect the others. Jenkins goes away to think about this.

The dogs have reached a level of maturity and civilization. Jenkins could tell them how to make poison to kill the ants, but that would be reintroducing violence into the world. He decides instead to take the dogs to another of the parallel worlds, and leave their original home to the ants.

Obviously this is a fable. The author isn’t happy with the human proclivity to violence, but his depiction of the ending of the predator/prey structure of the world is unrealistic. Of course he shows the animals as being intelligent, but that would, by itself, make little difference, as human history shows.

Simak seems to be unable to dig deeply enough into the problem to see all aspects of it. He feels there’s something wrong with humans, and considers violence to be wrong, but at the same time recognizes that violence can at times be useful. Of course the problem with violence has always been to keep it under control and to use it only ethically.

At one point in the story humans celebrate the 125th anniversary of the last murder. Going that long without a single human committing murder is something that OUGHT  to be celebrated, but Simak still sees humans as needing to accomplish something more, and not wanting to, as if humans were no longer violent because they’ve become rich and decadent. I tend to doubt that decadence would express itself in this way.

When the Websters work at helping dogs to evolve their vision is that the two races work together, as they have historically, but this time on a higher level. Humans don’t hold up their end of the bargain, instead going off to Jupiter, living the old comfortable human life in a city, or living isolated in the wild. If humans had really solved the problem of violence, you’d think they could find something less frivolous to do.

So Jenkins, the robot, decides to hide the previous human existence from the dogs by censoring mention of them from some books and burning the others. Each story is prefaced by what purports to be criticism by leading canine intellectuals, who disagree as to whether Man actually existed, or is merely a mythological figure.

I wonder just how clearly Simak saw the problem. His solution to it was clearly unrealistic; I don’t know if deliberately so or not. He seems to think that cities are the source of all violence, but that’s clearly not true, though cities may be more violent per capita than most areas. It’s certainly clear that he sees humans going off in unsatisfactory directions that achieve little of any use, even though they’ve apparently solved the problem of violence. Maybe the apparent solution is explained by people not caring enough anymore to be violent.

As I said, it’s a strange story, but maybe worth pondering.

More About Bob Dylan in America

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My last post was about Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America, but I don’t think it did justice to the book. Wilentz started as an historian, but later began writing about the arts, so he’s dug into everything he can find about what Dylan’s performed and recorded, as well as what he’s said about what he’s done and where he got his inspiration. And what others have said too.

The result is a vast amount of data. Dylan always absorbed a LOT, anything that came into his field of vision, Wilentz says, and his vision has extended wider and deeper than most people’s.

Ambiguity seems to be a big part of how his art works. Song gives a fuller view than text alone, since songs can be sung and inflected in different ways. The same song can be happy or sad, disdainful or ironic, depending on its performance. His music has always been music of reference: he stole tunes and put other words to them, stole familiar words and phrases to evoke other songs or poems, and/or to inspire other connecting lines. So he builds a song allusive but elusive that might mean something definite, but remains open to interpretation. In this way he’s similar to a lot of other artists, but different from some others.

Ayn Rand was an artist very definite about what she meant, and insisted that what she had to say was true, verging on insisting it was the ONLY truth. In this she had plenty of predecessors, from the Roman Catholic Church (power politics mode) up through Hitler and Stalin. She despised anyone who believed in nonabsolutist relativity, but her values were most important to her, and in defending them she went on offense, tryhing to impose them on others, as her predecessors had done.

That vision is a desperate dualistic one in which it is necessary that good absolutely triumph and evil be absolutely defeated. Others cannot be allowed their own visions or interpretations.

Maybe there is such an absolute world, but I don’t think it’s where she believed it was, which is not to say her vision was absolutely untrue. She believed in a world of heroes, but not everyone sees heroism where she did, and even if it does exist in the world, as in her vision, it isn’t unmixed.

Perception creates the world each of us lives in, and a higher deeper perception can lead us to live in a higher deeper world than others. One form of heroism might be to cultivate that perception and then work to follow and implement one’s resulting vision. And this can take other forms than Rand’s vision.

Rand absolutely rejected traditional religion, and like many others, labored to create her own, as absolute as what she rejected.

George Gurdjieff, on the other hand, spoke of a relative local morality, where something absolutely prohibited (say cannibalism, or various forms of sexuality) in one place, may be thought a virtue somewhere else. That doesn’t exclude the possibility of a Cosmic morality valid everywhere at every time, nor does it mean that anyone knows everything about that morality. More of it always remains to be discovered, as Quakers thought, in their doctrine of Continuing Revelation.

That’s the problem with absolutism, whether practiced by Hitler and Stalin or by Christianity, Islam, Rand, or other variants. It tries to freeze a fluid and dynamic process that calls for different actions at different times that may seem crazy. Thus a formulation that’s liberating at one time becomes imprisoning later. That’s the kind of thing Bob Dylan’s always stood against, whether applied to him or others.

His art seems to say that there may be no new thing under the sun, but there are always new ways to see what is, and that there are connections to truths underlying the visions that others try to sell us or impose on us.

As he was just beginning his career he was also reading widely, not just in literature (ancient, modern and in between), but in history. Particularly he was fascinated by the American Civil War, both sides of it, and not as a righteous section of the country defeating the unrighteous one, but as a monstrous flood of passion and suffering that “literally” put the country on the cross and resurrected it. William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”, particularly true of the Civil War, which we seem poised to repeat.

The French Revolution tried to erase history and create Utopia, but lacked our present technology (not that they were the first to try this) and institutions to create a hypnotic virtual reality. Two hundred years ago our ancestors lived much closer to the natural world, which can correct certain kinds of mistakes in ways technology cannot. The French tried to escape a certain kind of imperfection, followed by many others. But at the same time a new way of life and doing things had begun, which created greater wealth spread more widely, bur brought another kind of imperfection no less brutal, but possibly even more insidious.

According to Camille Paglia, movies and TV incited pagan worship. But so did much other technology, as well as the various kinds of knowledge it brought. The modern world is the picture of Faust, who wants all knowledge and power, only to fail at human relationships, and thus be more destructive than most human beings could otherwise be.

In spite of this there remains human truth, which isn’t unreachable, if we want to reach it. Dylan said he found it in the songs more than anywhere else, more than from any preachers or other dogmatic figures. There are other ways to reach it too, but we have to want to do it. Fascinating as it may be, it’s also hard work, and one can easily get lost.

But Dylan spoke of the process as traveling towards home, reminiscent to me of a game my cousin and I used to play when we were children. We saw ourselvs as old, traveling through a wilderness, and suddenly coming on things now buried in trees and weeds that we recognized anyway as things relating to the homes we’d left behind.

Perhaps we had stumbled on an archetype of human experience: the necessity to leave home (which many of us may be too frightened to do in many ways), and then return more consciously and deeply than we could as children.

Dylan’s method was to break down distinctions in his art between high and low, black and white, North and South, past and present, and create his vision of an American continuum containing everything, which corresponded with the reality he saw underlying the stories the media and powerful figures told us and the stories we told ourselves.

The past was still present, maybe especially in the New York he was then living in, but all through the country and the world. We may desperately wish to change it, but it still remains. Getting a different perspective on it, or MANY different perspectives, may be a good way to guide us to our own decisions or actions.