A Visit From Phillip

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A Visit From Phillip

“I have come to reassure you.”

I looked up from my reverie, looking out into the sun-drenched forest behind my house after three days of rain, sparkling with a net-of-gems of droplets meshed through the green foliage, and steam still rising slowly from hot blotches of light on bark, timbers and brown earth.

He was tall, elegantly poised and dressed in a long, smooth grey coat, more like a gown with suggestions of an English raincoat and buttoned at the neck, and smooth brown boots or shoes, of which I could only see the lower parts below his black pant legs. He had a longish face, smooth-shaven, and straight dark hair, well-trimmed and laying back without sharp delineation.

Oddly, I was not startled by his sudden appearance, even though I had not heard his footfalls coming down the long stairs to my house, and then across the deck-work to my chair. I was much struck by this later.

“I have come to reassure you,” he said again, “my name is Phillip, and I have come to speak with you. May I sit here?” he asked motioning with with his hand to the chair next to mine.

“Yes, of course,” I said, “I’m Manuel.”

As he settled himself into the chair my mind began to fill wordlessly with questions. And then our conversation began.

Phillip: “I know that you have had many questions about the course of life in your times, and of how the future for it will unfold. This springs naturally from the concerns a father will have over the well-being of his family. It is through our concerns for our families that we are then tied to concerns for our kind, is it not? Like this forest, all the lives in it are woven together so finely that when you and I look into it we do not see its individual threads but only the smooth and deep totality of what we call ‘forest.’ And for those who let themselves wander far into such thoughts, like you, they find their concerns for the lives they know well and beyond them those they can know about and see, has expanded to a concerned sensing of all life. You have been troubled by such concern for all life, so I have come to reassure you.”

Manuel: “What you say is true, but how did you know about me? And why come see me about this? There must be millions, billions of people who feel this way. What about them? I’m confused, and beyond all that, what do you mean by reassurance? And first of all, who are you?! Where do you come from?!”

Phillip: “Yes, I understand, let me explain.”

Phillip took a moment looking out into the day to gather his thoughts, or perhaps really to construct the sequence of his subsequent words to me because on reflection I am sure his thoughts on all this had long been very well organized. Despite the surprise and oddness of this encounter, I felt a timeless tranquility as if the sun’s warmth had infused me with an expansive calmness, like the looking out onto the summer sea or a receding panorama of green hills bathed in light.

Phillip: “First, you must know that life infuses our universe. It is a potentiality everywhere, and it expresses itself where the conditions for such expression are welcoming. Over time and across space those conditions may change, and so the expressions of life can vary, change or ‘evolve’ as the great Charles Darwin put it, and such change can even mean that some of those scattered expressions of life flicker out. But life itself remains, because it also flickers on in unexpected ways, at unexpected times, in unexpected places. And that is the great reassurance.”

Manuel: “Expected by whom?”

Phillip: “That is the second thing you should know. Part of that life is a spectrum of consciousness. The most primitive particles of what might be called proto-life are viruses. They have what we might call proto-thought, which are instructions coded chemically in chained molecules of genetic fragments, for the replication of their kind by their infection of more complex organisms. They are parasites, seeking to attach themselves to more complex expressions of life, to continue their kind in their haphazard mechanical fashion. The spectrum of consciousness extends from the psychic absolute zero of viral proto-thought, through the very low frequency yet very long range meshed interconnectivity of plant life, and on through the ever more involved consciousness of animal life forms, which include us. That spectrum of consciousness is like a living ocean, or this forest, a very deep and very wide and very entwined reality of psychic dimension. We think because we are. And we are connected both physically and psychically because we are. All of us, individually, express the entire universe, and because of that we are as irrevocably bonded as are the water molecules that mesh into the oceans, and even into the rivers that flow through our bodies as sap or blood.”

Manuel: “Yes, I believe that. But, still, by whom?”

Phillip: (After a momentary smile) “Through the diffuse psychic ocean that permeates all space and time, life in its totality senses itself. It senses across the physical voids between its many expressions.”

Manuel: “You mean like psychics, seances, the afterlife?”

Phillip: “No, nothing so crude and simplistic. Because life is a potentiality of the universe, life senses itself from below through that primordial root. Think of it like quantum entanglement, where that entanglement was established with the birth — if we can use that word — of space, time and energy itself. That entanglement is the diffused unity of everything. It is through that primordial root that I have come to know your thoughts. So I have come to reassure you about that unity. It will continue.”

Manuel: “I suppose I can see all this, as allegory. But the logic of it escapes me. I mean, here you are, where do you come from? How do you know me? Do you read my mind? What are the concrete facts?”

Phillip: “That is the third thing you should know. I realize that from a concrete, logical point of view, what we have here today between us seems like science fiction, a fantasy movie like the kind so popular around the world today, and which has swept you into itself — like an abduction by aliens into a Flying Saucer!”

Phillip added this last with a laugh.

Manuel: “I mean, are you a figment of my imagination? Am I losing my mind? Are you some kind of imaginary hologram kicked out like static by some electro-chemical imbalance in my brain?”

Phillip: “No, Manuel, I am very real. As real as you are. What you have to understand is that the reality of your being, like the reality of my being, is beyond what a conscious logical mind can encompass. It is beyond understanding in that way, but it is the essence of understanding in its full unknowable dimension. It can be very stressful to try to encompass it logically, though with the right attitude it can be delightful to make the effort to do so. Such efforts can lead to deep emotional satisfaction for having fashioned a physical cosmological theory, or exquisite poetry.”

Manuel: “It sounds like self-realization.”

Phillip: “Yes, that is a reasonable term. But, really, no word is sufficient.”

Manuel: “So, the third thing I should know?”

Phillip: “The thoughts you have had, and very often and carefully considered, have deep, deep roots. Those roots connect to me and others like me, and others like you. I am better able than you are right now at tracing those roots back to other minds. Why? Because they are the more sensitive and alert pinpoints of all-mind, what we are all immersed in and express. I am just less constrained by the organic boundaries that most others are confined by.”

Manuel: “Confined by who?”

Phillip: “Themselves.”

Manuel: “Well, I can see that you’re real. That you breathe, you have mass, you sink into the chair cushion. But still, I mean, you could just be a very amiable, and I must say elegant and pleasant and obviously well-educated mental patient who is on the loose and just wandered down my stairs. If I were a simple-minded religious person I might say you are an enigmatic angel. Now that I think of it, I hope you’re not some sly demon.”

Phillip: “Ha! Hahahahaha!”

Phillip pealed with delighted and congenial laughter. I sensed he was laughing with me and not at all at me.

Phillip: “Oh, Manuel! I am enjoying speaking with you. I am glad I came. Angel, devil, hologram, phantasm, brain fever, or amusing insane person! You and I are all of these for any number of people who even notice us. Just know that I am as real as this hummingbird.”

As Phillip said this last he gestured with his hand up toward the hummingbird feeder hanging overhead just to the side close by us, and at that moment a hummingbird, flashing iridescent purplish-red and green as it wheeled through the sunbeams bathing the scene swooped out of the unseen into our presence and onto the perch attached to the feeder, to draw his fill from one of its small portals.

Manuel: “Phillip: lover of horses. So, did you name yourself?”

Phillip: “Well…, why not? Horses are such graceful expressions of life. And I love life. Tell me, what did you do last night?”

Manuel: “I had been busy all day, doing this and that, the kind of everyday things that absorb all your time and wipe your mind clean as you churn along keeping the affairs of the household moving. And then I sat here to relax watching the evening light, listening to music, a soprano voice undulating through a slow, haunting flamenco song, which seemed to fit the mood of calmness I sought as evening was fading. The hummingbirds, too, seemed to relish the time, for they came to lap nectar from the feeder, overhead, before they flitted off to sleep. Then as darkness was overcoming light, and the night sky was opening up, that voice flowed into the comforting melody and rhythm of a soulful Mexican ballad. It takes me back to my childhood. After a while, I wanted to listen to more music for under the stars, so I put on one of my favorite symphonies for such times, the Brahms second. And my thoughts went out, as you’ve described.”

Phillip: “And that is when I decided to come see you.”

Manuel: “You heard?”

Phillip: “The totality of all is completely amoral, of that you can be sure. We live in perilous times because all times are perilous, and those perils are always so randomly, and thus unfairly, distributed. You and I are fortunate at this time in our lives, we have secure retreats from which we can ponder the elusiveness of meaning within the grittiness of existence, and feel grateful for not being overwhelmed by tragedy.”

Manuel: “So, can you see into the future, and know when you can be happy and when you will be sad?”

Phillip: “Of course not. All you can do is feel grateful when you are living through a time of relative peacefulness, as we are here now; and exert yourself onto the fullest perhaps even onto death when you have to channel the hot pulse of life and its piercing frigid daggers of fear when you are confronting an onrushing, implacable and heartless threat. We can never know what fate has in store for us. The best we can do is live decently and with awareness in unwitting preparation for the future. We each have to navigate ourselves through this bewildering existence, bedeviled as it is by the many artificial evils and calamities that we confused social creatures have added to it. For navigating through all that we rely on the instincts that evolution has brought to us in our many species, and the upbringing we have been variously gifted with. Call it luck. Our engagement with the future is not random, but neither is it determined nor mechanical in any way. In that sense it is rogue, a mystery, even though we have so many ways in which we can shape it while never ever being able to control it.”

Manuel: “So you came to visit me to reassure me that life will continue, despite whatever happens, because you sensed my thoughts about it.”

Phillip: “Yes, that is the simplest explanation. I am who am, neither higher nor lower; just like you, though a little more aware of it. And so I gravitated to you through the primordial to reassure you that the primordial is everything eternity can mean for us, and it has life within it. Not conscious structured personality, but life, the all-life of which you and I, this forest and all the creatures and forms we see as ‘living,’ emanate out of.”

Manuel: “I can see reassurance in that, but people want more than reassurance, they want hope.”

Phillip: “Hope is desire, and desire is fear and selfishness. And selfishness is being lost from all-life while being inescapably embedded in it. We are all connected, and it is only through willful ignorance that many blind themselves from seeing that. You may experience the joy of seeing some of the life-forms you cherish continue happily during your human lifetime, and you may also experience grief and sadness at seeing some of them suffer and die before your consciousness blinks off, and you may or may not be able to influence the courses of those fates either way by your own actions. That is life, the great self-tangling mystery and revelation and energy. The peace and certainty in the core of the heart that we all want is to be had by understanding this, viscerally, despite all experiences of happiness or sadness however deep and prolonged. That is life. That is the great reassurance. It is beyond purpose. So you are free to be fully conscious of being alive. That is life, that is freedom, that is reality, and that is you when you awaken to it.”

Manuel: “And then what?”

Phillip: “And then you live like a primordial being. Like the hummingbirds that fearlessly zip their sparkling selves through the air and into our presences; like the cats that are always attuned to the shifts of their environments to sustain themselves and to grace themselves elegantly with the satisfactions of being alive; like the native peoples, which the myopic industrialized world has labeled ‘primitive,’ but who rightly should be termed ‘primordial’ because their kind live as interwoven threads within the meshes of life known as ‘the outback’, ‘the desert’, ‘the islands’, ‘the jungles and forests’, ‘the tundras and polar seas’, and who give as much to the environments that sustain them as they receive in recompense. Species of primordial beings come as close as any life-forms can to having everlasting life. But nothing is truly eternal except the forces of change.”

Manuel: “So the possession of true equanimity must be independent of both lively existence and oblivion, happiness and sadness?”

Phillip: “Precisely.”

Manuel: “And understanding how it all comes about, how it is all structured…”

Phillip: “…Is endlessly fascinating, so mentally stimulating, and completely empty. Marvelous, isn’t it?”

Manuel: “Listening to you I feel I have understood much, but have learned nothing. It all seems so clear, and yet there is no logic that I can grab on to. I mean, is it all just to feel as good as one can despite being fundamentally helpless to control, or influence, or prevent the capriciousness of the future? Is it all meaningless but we can console ourselves by thinking we individually are meaningful, and that understanding the totality means to stop punishing ourselves by releasing the illusion that we can understand it?”

Phillip: “The fourth thing that you should know is that I have come out of you, and that all such human and life-to-life connection is how we can each experience the fullest joy of being alive. Do that and all understanding comes to you beyond any mental filtration. It is like having a sun within you that shines a warmth onto you. That is life, that is the universe, it is so entangled, it is you. To know that is to then really be alive. Beyond that it is all just simple chores; washing dishes after you eat. Nothing complicated.”

Night had descended, and we both sat looking out into it for a while; then Phillip spoke again.

Phillip: “The fifth thing that you should know is that the great freedom we have is in being able to transmit this to others.”

Manuel: “Reassurance?”

Phillip: “Yes, reassurance.”

Manuel: “It sounds like love.”

Phillip: “One could use that word…without sentimentality. One could also say ‘solidarity,’ but with a bit more affection. We just call it reassurance. Agh! all our words are such flat monochrome shadows cast by a reality with so much depth and color and dimension! All our desires and focus on forms are such blinders. Forms come and go, but the upwelling from the primordial is enduring.”

Again, we passed some time in silence before Phillip continued.

Phillip: “I was once like you, but was changed by receiving a transmission.”

Manuel: “By a visit?”

Phillip: “Yes, yes, they can take many forms. And like me, you too will transmit the great reassurance to others, in you own way.”

Manuel: “Me, how?

Phillip: “There are so many ways for a person to infuse their talents and hone their skills through the most sublime expressions of interconnected life, by immersing themselves completely in the works and experiences that give them their greatest sense of fulfillment. And it is through such all-enveloping fulfillment that most such transmissions of reassurance are made. Einstein did it with his mind-expanding equations, Harriet Tubman with her ferocious struggle to enlarge human freedom, Mozart with his timelessly captivating music, Rachel Carson with her deep compassionate scientific intellect, Dostoevsky with his prose, Santa Teresa with her poetry, Miriam with her motherhood, and on and on and on. You’ll come upon your way, appropriate to whom you are addressing, and the circumstances. Who can say? This is life.”

We each looked off into the night.

After some time wandering through the many thoughts that Phillip had stirred in my mind, I began to feel a slight chill in the air as the moon crested the hill on the opposite side of my wooded canyon, and I looked over to Phillip’s chair. He was gone, only the depression in the seat cushion remained, illuminated by the moonlight. I got up and walked around the corner of the house to look for Phillip, but only saw the stairs leading away from the house and into the night beyond.

Was Phillip real?, was he a phantom of my mind, a hallucination?, a mental projection of the many intense times I have spent pondering existential questions that are so clearly beyond my powers of analysis or articulate expression? I realize I will never know, and that ultimately it doesn’t matter. Phillip is real in that his words are lodged indelibly and gemlike in my consciousness, and that is real to me. All that is left for me now is to continue, finding fulfillment as I am able, being a link in the transmission of reassurance — at the very least potentially.

And so I came inside and fell asleep, I think for the first time that day.

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Salvation

Painting of the Roiling Ocean, by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

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It is sad indeed to see an oppressed people destroying itself through factionalism and civil war, while a far more powerful enemy squeezes them out of their land and lives. I have read of such in Thucydides, but it is too painful to watch in my own time. And, such a sad spectacle turns foreign eyes away, withdrawing their compassion and respect, and leaving “the lost” to their fate of ultimate disappearance. You and I, Nadia Issam Harhash, know that a universal solidarity among humans is the only salvation for all of us, but you and I also know the unfortunate truth that too many of those humans will resist contributing to that salvation to the bitter end: a death cult. What is left to people like you and I is to speak out against the death cult (and hope we are not silenced), and then also retreat into care of our families and immersion in being creative artists, so as to keep our sanity while we live. As an engineer, I always look for solutions to problems, but here as in so many other times and places the “solution” is purely one of choice: unrestrained compassion, respect and solidarity for and with the other members of the homo sapiens species. To me, all politics and all religions are madness, and should disappear. Heraclitus (~500BC) said “Bigotry is the disease of the religious,” and politics is so obviously the mechanisms of organized greed. Salvation will NOT come down from some Sky God in Heaven, nor from Hell out of the barrels of guns; salvation can only come from human hearts and souls who have come to realize that they each are merely momentary wave crests in a sea of humanity flowing within an ocean of Life. Peace.

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Guy de Maupassant, and America Today

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Guy de Maupassant, and America Today

Having now read 98 of the 290 short stories written by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), from 4 English translation anthologies with many repeats between them, I am convinced that he was the best short story writer ever. The quality of his stories range from “good” to “masterpieces,” there are no mediocre nor bad ones.

Any writer aspiring to be a literary artist must read and learn from de Maupassant. He was a master of economy of style, brisk pacing, even-tempered wit, deep insights into human psychology that remain entirely relevant to this day, and of devising imaginative plots with deliciously apt denouements (endings).

He was superb at describing food, dining and cuisine, and also of sensory impressions like smells, with vividness. Also, he was a lyrical artist with his many passages describing natural settings: the sky at various times of the day and during various seasons, river environments, the woods, open hilly grasslands and plains, and weather day or night. The best equivalent I can recall in American literature is Mark Twain’s lyrical passage in “Huckleberry Finn,” on the early morning mists on the Mississippi River.

It is easy to find critics, from de Maupassant’s day to ours, who dislike him. This is because he was so truthful, and so matter-of-fact about it; never an appealing trait for people protecting cherished illusions and prejudices. Indeed, Guy de Maupassant does not show any prejudices, except perhaps for a marked dislike of cruelty, and a marked enjoyment of life, from which springs his enormous compassion for the very very flawed creatures that we human beings are.

Reading Guy de Maupassant as a social critic of the French Second Empire (1852-1870) and Third Republic (1870-1940), it is easy to see why that Third Republic fell in 1940. Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, “The Rules of the Game,” is a gem in this regard. The health of a nation is based on the attitudes of its people, and the attitudinal corruption riddling the Third Republic, despite its wonderful cultural elegance peaking during its Belle Époque (1880-1914), undermined its political strength against the subsequent assaults by fascism.

The attitudinal weakness and sociopathology of Americans today, as say compared with the awesome fortitude of the Russians of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the 2 year 4.5 month siege of that city during 1941-1944, or of the Cuban population for over half a century since 1961, is similar to the classism and dissolution of the French bourgeoisie during the Third Republic. But, today’s Americans are practicing their dissolution and societal enervation without the culture, grace or elegance of the 19th and early 20th century French.

That 70 million Americans could vote for Donald Trump in 2020 is the saddest commentary one can imagine on the abysmal state of the American Public Mind. While I have now read many thoughtful and statistically supported analyses, from November 2020, of the erosion of Trump’s political support and the electoral collapse of his regime, I remain convinced that his appeal was always based on one factor: bigotry by white people (and minority individuals who hankered to join the capitalist übermensch club) whose xenophobia is expressed as fear of being economically swamped by demographic dilution.

I acknowledge that Marxist analyses of the November 2020 election, based on their economic focus using their class analysis dissection of American society, are excellent; and that perhaps a few of the pop-psychology and ‘cultural’ commentaries on that election’s aftermath also offer some insights; but I think it all boils down to identity politics (voting for the projected ‘me’ reflected by a candidate), electorally, and gut “race-consciousness” emotionalism, which is stronger the less educated the individual. That very highly educated very rich people would also vote consistently for Trump and the Republican Party is entirely a function of their parasitism, but even with them gut-level racism is a factor in their sociopathological outlook on human society.

What is wonderful in Guy de Maupassant’s stories is that they are filled with a wide variety of characters, and many of these reflect the attitudes I just described with respect to American voters in 2020. So, one gets sharply drawn personified images of the many shades of those attitudes. Another aspect of his sharp insights into human nature is that we are not strictly governed by our rational minds (which rationalist-materialist stricture I see as the biggest gap in the Marxist analysis of human society), because humans in fact are much compelled by genetically programmed behaviors and tendencies erupting out of our ancestral evolutionarily honed instincts: our monkey genes. It is so easy to see Trump’s rabidly naïve functionally psychotic evangelically bigoted zombie horde as a purely reactive monkey troop defending its imaginary territory from “them!”

As regards American society in November 2020, the best that I can see is the growth of refreshing and enlightened attitudes in so much of the young population (under 45 years old), which was crucial to the electoral defeat of Donald Trump; and the best I can hope for is that a revival of real education occurs so that an increasing fraction of our younger citizens can learn how to better enjoy life by developing their minds beyond the limbic tendencies embedded in our monkey genes. It is such people who will propel any economic and political improvements that may occur in American society in the coming years, and which are absolutely essential for making credible organized responses to the challenges posed by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the destruction of world environments and the loss of biodiversity, and the overarching threat from global warming climate change.

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Last Words

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Last Words

They hate us because we remind them of what they fear most — dying — and so they torture us, withholding morphine to punish us for our dying, to deny us some final joy, and they call that morality, righteousness against the sin of addiction. But, I know what it really is, deep down, it is the pleasure of cruelty inflicted on the helpless by terrified weaklings. Our only vengeance is knowing that in time they too in all likelihood will suffer this if they are unfortunate enough to fall under the power of those now young whom they abuse by training, which they call religion, to carry on with the same dreary deadness of soul and emptiness of mind and spirit. So open the valve, then turn out the light and go home, and you will have fulfilled your humanity by letting me fulfill mine.

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Heller, Vonnegut, Melville, Twain, Maugham, and Guy de Maupassant

On 17 October 2020, Eric Andrew Gebert wrote:

“Born on this day, 1915, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005). Now might be the right time to re-read ‘The Crucible’ (1953). I’ve always preferred ‘Death Of A Salesman’ (1949). Although, anything written by Miller is a gem.

‘“Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.” — Arthur Miller’

Eric’s comments prompted the following exchange:

MG,Jr.:
If you read the first few chapters of “Closing Time” (1994), the not-great sequel to “Catch-22” (1961), by Joseph Heller (1932-1999), you are given a very clear and fulsome view of the neighborhood and cultural environment – Jewish Coney Island – from which Arthur Miller and Joseph Heller came. While “Closing Time” is not great, it is nevertheless a tale imbued with “New Yorkness” particularly of the City, and it beats most of the twaddle published as novels and even “literature” today. It came out in the ’90s; Heller died in 1999. And agreed, Miller was a superb author-playwright.

Eric Andrew Gebert:
I’ve never read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I’ve read so many articles about the book and author, yet never read the book. It’s on my list for sure.

My own thoughts prompted by the above:

I read “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse Five” in 1968-1969, while I was listed as 1A for the draft (Vietnam War) during my first year in college. I consider both masterpieces of 20th century American literature, and both were written by anti-war WWII veterans who had seen plenty of action – and death – during the mid 1940s (in Italy and Germany, respectively).

It is my opinion that these two books are absolutely essential reading for any American alive then and now, if they really want to gain some insight into fundamental aspects of American culture, and the collective psyche of Americans. If one also wants to get “historical” and can accept immersing themselves in the “literary,” then it is essential they include “Huckleberry Finn” and “Moby-Dick” to that reading list.

There are many comedic elements in both “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969), but both books are very clearly deadly serious. With Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s (1922-2007) book (Slaughterhouse Five), the more you think about it, the deeper is your realization of the underlying tragedy; with Heller’s book, comedy carries you to a finale that requires a strong stomach and deep commitment to finish reading, and in this way leads you to the tragic realization equivalent to that which Vonnegut so subtly (well, playfully) presents.

Only AFTER you have read C-22 and SH-5 should you allow yourself to see the movies made of them. The only good movie of C-22 (a recent TV series has also been made, at best a C-) is the excellent 1970 Mike Nichols (1931-2014) film (Catch-22), with a screenplay written by Buck Henry (1930-2020). Parts of that screenplay were so good that Heller said he wished he’d thought of them to put in his novel.

This film is very faithful (but not exact) to Heller’s plot (simplification being necessary since Heller had many, many characters, and a great deal of non-chronological density), and is entirely faithful to Heller’s arc of comedy-to-anguishing reality (with a sparkle at the end of the film to give you hope). Milo Minderbinder, a character in C-22 (and Closing Time), is the absolute quintessential personification of American capitalism, an excruciatingly apt portrayal in both the book and movie.

The only film worth seeing (AFTER you read the novel!) of SH-5 is the 1972 George Roy Hill (1921-2002) movie (Slaughterhouse Five). In that movie the character of Valencia Merble is the quintessential portrayal of the White suburban American mom, not quite a Karen, but a simple self-absorbed but not selfish Americana (a chaste but not fundamentalist version of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif”); this perfection of depiction being in both the book and movie.

Believe me, those two books of the 1960s, and the two films made of them in the early 1970s cannot be remade today to equal standards of art and psychological insight: “we” are too hung-up on our “modern” (self-delusional) ‘wokeness.’ Here is art that is a mirror of a ‘national soul’ that we generally don’t wish to see in complete clarity. These works are both of their time, and timeless.

Every work of art has its roots in earlier works by earlier artists, and in conceptions from earlier times. One can, with imagination, follow this trail of sequential inspiration all the way back to the 5th Century (BCE) Greeks; and with even more imagination back to the cave paintings at Lascaux (~17,000 years ago) and Altamira (~36,000 years ago). Even though I do not know the history of Heller’s and Vonnegut’s literary inspirations, to my mind these two authors were the 1960s flowering of roots that grew from Herman Melville (1819-1891), Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910), and Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893).

Melville had a keen and pessimistic insight into the American soul, and a wicked wit, which can be hard for today’s casual readers to untangle from his convoluted and fascinating antique New England prose. I can see Heller’s Milo Minderbinder as a youthfully handsome comic inversion of Captain Ahab (the terrible protagonist of Moby-Dick): both are monomaniacal obsessive-compulsives. Both were avidly mercantile individuals, to devote themselves so fully to their risky commercial ventures. For Milo it was all about money to gain power to make more money (in a vicious circle), while for Ahab it was all about money (his gold Doubloon, and command of his ship’s resources like the breaking out of rum) to gain the mesmerizing power over his men’s hearts and souls to bind them tightly to his obsession for vengeance against the very forces of Nature incarnated as the white whale, Moby-Dick.

Mark Twain, that other supreme giant of American literature (I vacillate between seeing Melville then Twain as the greatest of all American authors, but that is a worthless exercise really: together, they are the sourcepoint of all essentially American literature), was both a comedic genius and a deeply serious writer with a very great compassion for the human condition; and his enlightened outlook on people was far in advance of American norms — to this day!

Kurt Vonnegut was deeply influenced by Twain, he said as much in his introduction to a television movie (shown on PBS) of Twain’s “Life On The Mississippi,” and it is so easy to see many parallels between Twain’s seemingly naïve witticisms and Vonnegut’s seemingly childlike playfulness in prose. And both had very serious matters about America’s dark soul to present back to its people, under the cover of sweet sunny confections of comic storytelling — up to a point.

Guy de Maupassant was a supreme master of naturalness in the telling of short stories, with an economy of style that made his penetrating insight into the psychology of his characters — the people of his day, and ours — transparent. His words speedily take you to the heart of the matter without obscuring it by any pretentiousness, insights and matters that were: comic, tragic, banal, horrible, lovely, socially withering, and of human avarice, corruption, credulity, deceitfulness, and simple nobility.

Like Heller and Vonnegut, de Maupassant mined his wartime experiences as a French solider during the disastrous for France Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Guy de Maupassant’s story “Two Friends,” about the hazards two Frenchmen buddies find themselves facing when they are captured by the Prussians during a surreptitious fishing excursion along a river behind enemy lines, has all the absurdist qualities Vonnegut put into the narrative thread on his avuncular character Edgar Derby, the mentor of Billy Pilgrim (the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five) while both were prisoners of the Germans in WWII Dresden.

Even more grim a tale about the utterly absurd waste of human life, human innocence, and the permanent loss of happiness because of war, was de Maupassant’s “Mother Savage,” a story about one old French peasant woman’s iron will to wage her personal war against the Prussians, and by extension against all the social forces and higher classes and their attitudes, which had combined to bring that disastrous 1870 war right into her little cottage far out in the country. Where Edgar Derby was an endearingly blithe overgrown lamb oblivious to the hellscape of firebombed Dresden, Victoire Simon (Mother Savage) was an implacable wolverine propelled by grief capping a long hard meager life of scratching the land.

Two de Maupassant stories of desperate personal actions taken by ordinary French civilians against the Prussians, because they just exploded with rage against being bullied, are “Mademoiselle Fifi,” about the stabbing killing of a Prussian officer by Rachel, a Jewess prostitute who successfully evaded capture by being hidden by the parish priest; and “A Duel,” a similar story about a nebbish little man whose sudden rage fills him with power sufficient to kill a Prussian officer in a duel, his first ever, and for the Prussian his last of many. But I did not see any parallel incidents to these de Maupassant stories in either “Catch-22” or “Slaughterhouse Five,” despite their extensive periods in wartime settings.

Heller’s portrayal of the whorehouse in Rome frequented by Yossarian (the protagonist of Catch-22) and his buddies has many echoes of de Maupassant’s story “Madam Tellier’s Establishment,” of simple souls with simple dreams mixed with desperate longings and simple pleasures. Guy de Maupassant wrote many stories involving carnal affairs, licit and illicit, with a keen eye to human foibles and hypocrisy, and a sophisticated savoir faire combined with a very deep compassion to the human condition, so like Mark Twain’s.

Much of the anguish and histrionics of English and American marital-sexual-relationship dramas is refreshingly absent in de Maupassant’s stories because of his honest clear-sighted presentation of the situational and psychological facts. The hypocritical Victorian prudery of the English and the Americans is absent from de Maupassant and many of his characters, who are after all drawn from real life as de Maupassant saw it. That naturalness, pioneered by Gustave Flaubert (among others), de Maupassant’s mentor and teacher of literary art, is at the heart of Heller’s verve in “Catch-22.”

The direct root from Guy de Maupassant that grew out into English literature was W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), another great short story writer, as well as playwright, novelist and essayist. The keenest insights about women that I have seen in literature are by Guy de Maupassant and W. Somerset Maugham. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) has some as well (particularly in “Tender Is The Night,” 1934), but he was often much more lyrical and because of that honeyed radiance thus more vague.

Guy de Maupassant by contrast offered gems of clarity (not necessarily desired by society at large) cut with such precision as to bring out the sparkle of insights that pierced through the fog of all illusions. This deemed de Maupassant smutty and immoral to many socially correct readers (especially English and American ones) up to the present day.

My favorite novel of Maugham’s is “The Moon and Sixpence” (1919), a novelization of the life of the French Impressionist painter (and pal of Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890) Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), told as the story of Charles Strickland, a fictional English equivalent to Gauguin. Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence” is an epigrammatic novel worthy of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Maugham’s acknowledged inspiration: Guy de Maupassant.

Guy de Maupassant has written the best and most detailed descriptions of eating, food, cuisine and dining that I have ever read; he has done what Flaubert had taught him: to let you smell the aromas and taste the flavors just from reading the worlds. His touching yet earthy matter-of-fact slice-of-life story, “Idyll,” is echoed by John Steinbeck (1902-1968) as the grand and incandescent metaphor at the end of his “Grapes of Wrath” (1939), for the desperate and self-sacrificing human compassion and solidarity during a time of economic catastrophe that some of its victims could find to bring out of their own destitution and grief, to generously give others the milk of human kindness.

How fortunate I am to be able to read so many wonderful books. The overall lesson they have given me is simply to see with greater appreciation the intrinsic beauty of life despite the many hardships and random tragedies it also entails.

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The Connected, and The Unmoored

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The Connected, and The Unmoored

I saw the sunrise, from pitch black to clear light over the canyon rim this morning. An owl was hooting before the light, the air warming as the dark faded. Heard the birds wake up and each begin its chatter; the hummers buzzing over my head to inspect me before tanking up at the nectar bottle. The turkeys gobbled confidently from across the canyon.

Made French Press coffee. Watched our cats play, stalking and chasing each other on the hill as morning light expanded. We later ate some simple cold cuts, cheeses, bread, pasta salad; cool water.

I played, stumbling with some exponential functions, trying to simulate CO2 buildup in the atmosphere (55.5 million years ago, and also again today), a perennial project. Seems pointless to tell people about it, but it keeps my mind occupied, and I’m curious. That CO2 and its growing heat will be with “us” for centuries, a millennia? (who cares?).

Went out a few times to look at the day, which was lovely, with only a subdued hint of ash haziness from the fires up north. My mother is living with us for a while, waiting it out. She told me of her grandmother who raised her, who was born in the last days of Spanish rule in Puerto Rico, before the 1898 takeover by the Yankee Conquistadores. My mother wishes she could buy the platanos to make pastelón, like her grandmother used to make for her in Río Piedras.

I thought of my father, who would have been 96 on his birthday during these early days of October. I remember the stories he told me of his father’s childhood, spent with his father sheepherding in the Cantabrian Mountains, in the very early years of the 20th century: stories of facing off against prowling wolves, armed with long wooden staffs and Great Pyrenees mountain dogs, of drinking wine from the bota, of wild strawberries, and bagpipes.

Watched a nature video from 26 years ago, about Caribbean sea life, so lovely then. Had Caprese and guacamole (with tortilla chips) for supper, both made to perfection; I handwashed the dishes.

Watched a video (from 30 years ago) on the life and art of Mozart; I always have tears well up when I hear the Lacrimosa.

Life is short, and there is so much to do, so much to experience, even for us lacking the talent, grace and insight of a Wolfgang Amadeus, and I see none of what is worthwhile in the close-in noisy opaque bubbles everyone jams their heads into to plug up their senses with the flickering trivialities and remote dramas of the moment.

The owl, the birds, the turkeys, the cats, the critters who keep out of my sight (but not the cats’s), and later the crickets at night, they all know what is happening at any moment every moment. They have to, to eat, to stay alive; for them paying attention is the essence of living, but so is napping in the sunshine, which they all in their turn do so luxuriantly.

We can be so pitifully disconnected, and most of us always are, for we just don’t notice the whole world changing: drying, melting, burning, receding, dying. It’s no wonder animals look at us with such amazement: “how could they be so clueless?” There’s always a reason I guess, a crisis of the moment, to not get out of your head and wake up to the flow of the world; but that’s just tragic: death. It’s also why people feel so alone, because in fact they are alone in desert bubbles, befuddled, lost castaways, wired to artificiality: empty static.

I realize I’m an anti-social socialist, a hermit socialist, “out of the loop” in every way for sure. And I need to be, it’s best.

My boy black cat — Buster — will bump into my leg at night, when I’m out looking onto the deep sound of the unseen. He understands of course, his connection to the primordial is undimmed by civilization, his wisdom is locked safely in DNA that has been 25 million years in the imprinting, and I appreciate his encouragement.

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Book and Movie Reviews by MG,Jr. (2017-2020)

1 August 2020, was the 201st anniversary of the birth of Herman Melville. 2019 was my year to be totally immersed in Moby-Dick (for the third time), an awesome masterpiece. This is PERHAPS, the greatest novel yet written in the English language.

I’ve written previously on Melville and Moby-Dick here:

Happy 200th, Herman!
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/08/01/happy-200th-herman/

Moby-Dick
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/08/07/moby-dick/

Ye Cannot Swerve Me: Moby-Dick and Climate Change
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/07/15/ye-cannot-swerve-me-moby-dick-and-climate-change/

The Ultimate Great American Novel
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2018/09/04/the-ultimate-great-american-novel/

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W. Somerset Maugham’s “Ten Novels And Their Authors”

Maugham wrote a book of this title, describing his picks, ranked as shown below, His essays on each are excellent.

War and Peace (Tolstoy)
Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky)
Le Père Goriot (Honoré de Balzac)
Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and The Black; Stendhal)
Tom Jones (Henry Fielding)
David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)
Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)

Read by MG,Jr (from Maugham’s list), so far:

Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)
The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky)
Le Père Goriot (Honoré de Balzac)
David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)
Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)

I like the following, as SOME of the other novels that I think are “classics”:

The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)
Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
On The Road (Jack Kerouac)
Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut)

The Three Musketeers is described here:

My Favorite Classics
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2017/09/18/my-favorite-classics/

Huckleberry Finn and Slaughterhouse Five are described here:

The Ultimate Great American Novel
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2018/09/04/the-ultimate-great-american-novel/

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Three movies from 2015-2016:

Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants) (2016)

Superb film by Katell Quillévéré (screen-writer and director), about life, death and organ donors. The meditative nature of this film, without excessive pathos, with a lovely piano accompaniment (most of the time except for two noisy rock songs), the lovely crisp photography possible with today’s equipment, and its seamless transitions between wakeful reality and introspective day-dreaming, and back, and its transitioning ensemble – constellation – of collaborative actors (instead of a star in front of background “support”), make this a very thoughtful and artistic film that presents fundamental truths. All these sterling qualities (except for the crisp photography) will make this film largely unpopular for US audiences, especially when spoken in French with English subtitles.
https://youtu.be/otYWveDaplo

Genius (2016)

A superb English film about legendary American authors, particularly Thomas Wolfe (author of “Look Homeward, Angel”) and really about Max Perkins, the Scribner’s (book publishing company) editor who discovered Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and, most flamboyantly, Thomas Wolfe (the movie is ostensibly about him). The heart of the story is about friendship (male friendship) collaborating in the creative artistic process, in this case to produce literary novels. Anyone who likes reading (actual books of literature, in paper), and who strives to produce excellent art that requires collaborators (particularly theater and often music, and inevitably every art) in any medium would like this movie. However, the American reviewers were not keen on this movie because they and most American audiences don’t really like reading and find the movie “slow;” it’s basically a detailed exposition of intellectual processes (and what American wants to watch that?); its lighting is “dark” (which is how it actually looks in downtown Manhattan); Americans don’t like foreigners making movies about American subjects (English actors can do any variety of American accents, but American actors can’t do English, or any other foreign accent); and the movie unrolls like a well thought-out play since it was in fact directed by an English theatrical director (with a story based on a carefully studied biography of Max Perkins).
https://youtu.be/gCvcD3IBSlc

Mr. Holmes (2015)

This is a modern and very clever modern story (i.e., not by Arthur Conan Doyle) of Sherlock Holmes near the end of his life in retirement, living as a beekeeper. The plot, photography, score, and acting by the (largely) English cast are all first rate, naturally. The film has proved popular with English and American audiences, and rightfully so. The story involves Holmes as a 93-year-old (in ~1947) who, despite failing memory, is trying to recall the details of his last case, which ended tragically and caused him to retire. The jumps between “the present” (~1947) and flashbacks (~1912) are clear, as are the transitions to the flashbacks to Holmes’s post WWII visit to Japan (1946/1947). There is enough of the “solve the mystery” element in the film to satisfy most Sherlock Holmes fans, and a thoughtful emotional-psychological thread to the story that was not ruined by an excess of pathos or icky sweetness. Of course the acting, photography and score were good and well-integrated into this polished work of cinema. Overall, nicely paced and good entertainment with wit, polish and good heart.
https://youtu.be/0G1lIBgk4PA

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Some commentary on Anti-War movies and books:

The Pentagon Papers in the Movies
[the 2003 movie is the best, and what a story!]
20 April 2018
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2018/04/20/the-pentagon-papers-in-the-movies/

Anti-War and Socialist Psychology Books and Movies
23 January 2018
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2018/01/23/anti-war-and-socialist-psychology-books-and-movies/

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Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was an unusual American who eventually became a Far Eastern foreign correspondent to American newspapers and magazines, and an expert interpreter of Japanese and Chinese stories, legends and fables, as well as a keen observer of how life was conceptualized and conducted in Asia (mainly Japan).

Lafcadio Hearn was born in Lefkada, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea on the west coast of Greece. He had an Irish father and Greek mother, and a difficult childhood filled with rejection. He also lived a very unusual life, for some time a newspaper crime reporter in the U.S.A. (Cincinnati, New Orleans), marriage to a Black Women at a time when mixed marriages were extremely difficult to sustain socially in the U.S., and then moving on to a foreign correspondent role, first in the French West Indies and then in Japan. There, he learned Japanese, taught in Japanese schools, married a Japanese woman and had four sons, and lived out a happy last chapter to his colorful and literary life.

A superb book by Hearn is Kwaidan, which is a book of Japanese ghost stories, and which book was the basis of an amazing 1965 Japanese art film (movie) of the same title by Kobayashi. I think Kwaidan is a masterpiece.

Gleanings In Buddha Fields is a collection of stories (the mythical, legendary and fabulous) and essays (on the realities of life), which in total immerse the reader into the zeitgeist, or context, of late 19th and early 20th century Japan.

Alan Watts noted that Lafcadio Hearn’s book Gleanings In Buddha Fields (1897) sparked (or was one of the sparkers of) his interest in Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy. I read Gleanings In Buddha Fields because I was curious to learn the source (about one of the sources) of where Alan got his Zen.

I recommend Gleanings in Buddha Fields to you (and Kwaidan).

Because some (at least one or two) of Hearn’s references to historical personalities of 19th century (and earlier) Japan are not part of modern memory, you might have to do a little Internet researching to gather some of the historical facts about the incidents Hearn was referring to (in Gleanings…), in order to fully appreciate Hearn’s presentation. But even without such deeper investigation, Gleanings In Buddha Fields is an excellent, informative, thoughtful and Zen-atmospheric book. In discovering it with your first reading, you can also imagine yourself reliving, at least in part, the juvenile awakening to Zen Buddhism experienced by Alan Watts (whose The Way of Zen is a masterpiece).

A modern collection of selected Japanese stories (including some from Kwaidan) by Hearn is the following. It is excellent, and well-researched, with a very informative introductory essay by the editor-researcher, who was Ireland’s ambassador to Japan.

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Cinema Art From 1968 For Today
18 August 2018
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2018/08/18/cinema-art-from-1968-for-today/

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The Ultimate Great American Novel
4 September 2018
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2018/09/04/the-ultimate-great-american-novel/

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All Quiet On The Western Front

“All Quiet On The Western Front,” by Erich Maria Remarque (22 June 1898 – 25 September 1970), is the greatest war novel of all time. Why? Because it vividly conveys the physical, psychological and emotional realities of being at the front face-to-face with the enemy in an all-out massively industrialized war. “All Quiet On The Western Front” is also the greatest anti-war novel of all time. Why? Because it vividly conveys the physical, psychological and emotional realities of being at the front face-to-face with the enemy in an all-out massively industrialized war.

This novel was first published 92 years ago, in 1928; and its story is set a century ago, in 1918, during World War I. This novel describes the realities of a soldier’s transformation from naïve enthusiastic recruit to hardened emotionally vacant veteran, the deadly and depersonalizing confusion of military operations, the rush and terror of frontline combat, the haphazard allocation of injuries, the slow-motion dread of being in hospital, the brief joys and overwhelming alienation and anguish of home leave, the struggle against insanity, the scant and fleeting serendipitous joys in the field, the loss of a personal past that moored one to a potentially fulfilling future in one’s culture, and the crushing of the lonely human spirit shadowed by the omnipresence of death. The human reality of this novel is timeless. Most of us casually say we are anti-war, but to truly inoculate yourself against any taste for war you must read this book and allow its story, and its feeling, to soak deep into your psyche.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is The Night hit me like a thunderbolt. Fitzgerald drew the title from a line in John Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale.” I’ve written quite a bit about Fitzgerald (follow the links to that). Below are a few of the comments about Fitzgerald and movies about him and his novels.

Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/04/24/appreciating-f-scott-fitzgerald/

The Poetry of Disillusionment in “Gatsby” is Beyond the Movies
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2020/04/27/the-poetry-of-disillusionment-in-gatsby-is-beyond-the-movies/

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/06/17/f-scott-fitzgerald-and-lost-american-lyricism/

I Learn About F. Scott Fitzgerald
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/03/16/i-learn-about-f-scott-fitzgerald/

Two “F. Scott Fitzgerald” movies:

Last Call is based on the memoirs of Frances Kroll Ring (1916-2015), Fitzgerald’s last secretary, and sounding board, to whom he dictated his last novel The Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western. Frances Kroll Ring’s book (1985), highly praised by both scholars and Fitzgerald aficionados for its accuracy, detail and sympathy, is about the last two years (1939-1940) of Fitzgerald’s life. Frances Kroll Ring (herself in 2002) appears at the end of the film. A very well made film, as close as we’ll ever get to “being there” with Scott. Jeremy Irons plays Scott, Neve Campbell plays Frances Kroll Ring, both excellently in my opinion. The Cambridge Companion To F. Scott Fitzgerald (2002) is dedicated to Frances Kroll Ring “with affection, gratitude, and respect from everyone who reveres F. Scott Fitzgerald as man and artist.”

Getting Straight is a fun movie of college life and protest in 1970, and centers on a much put upon ex-activist and graduate student of literature (“Harry,” played by Elliot Gould) who ultimately gives it all up (except the girl) in a very spirited defense of the art and spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This movie was approvingly pointed out by Ruth Prigozy, the editor of The Cambridge Companion To F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was surprised at how many references Harry makes to characters and incidents in both Fitzgerald’s novels and in his life (with Zelda and then Sheilah Graham). The movie can be fun without having to know all these references, but it is much funnier being in the know. I thought, my god!, this bright, breezy, light-hearted confection from 1970 would be over the heads of the illiterate comic-book-cartoon-movie-consuming popular audiences of today: we’re doomed!

Last Call (2002, trailer)
https://youtu.be/uzxx8C2xWDc

Getting Straight (1970, stills and music)
https://youtu.be/vWER0TLWLuo

The Crack-Up
F. Scott Fitzgerald
[originally published as a three-part series in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Esquire.]
https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a4310/the-crack-up/

The Moment F. Scott Fitzgerald Knew He Was a Failure
By Lili Anolik
Sep 22, 2015
https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a38113/f-scott-fitzgerald-1015/

“It was a gorgeous evening. A full moon drenched the road to the lustreless color of platinum, and late-blooming harvest flowers breathed into the motionless air aromas that were like low, half-heard laughter.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, section V.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Crack-Up, part I, 1936

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My Wicked, Wicked Ways, by Errol Flynn

A mostly honest book. I have always loved Flynn in the movies. A very engaging character, with his own flaws and tragedies despite all the glamour and antics. What I most like about him is that despite everything, he always sought to enjoy, to laugh, to be happy and make others happy; but a major prankster.

I think he knew he was doomed to a short life from very early on; he had contracted tuberculosis and malaria as a teenager prospecting in New Guinea in the late 1920s very early 1930s. So, he enjoyed his smokes and booze and morphine, and most of all women, who shamelessly threw themselves at him, especially after he made money but even before when broke and homeless. Besides, he pursued them very keenly, too.

Alan Watts mentioned that some Zen master from the past had said that there were two paths to enlightenment: the path of thoughtful study, meditation, good works, piety, humility and patience; and the path of debauchery leading to exhaustion of that attitude leading in turn to an awakening. This in fact is the main comparison presented in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. But, Watts continued, the first path is by far recommended even though its “success rate” is not particularly high, because the second path can easily be fatal (in every way) though it was considered a “sure thing” and “quicker” for gaining enlightenment: if you survived to getting to that point! The story of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) is in fact of a life of renunciation of a princely life of luxury and dissipation to first seek meaning through asceticism, which was ultimately found to be arid, and then to settle on the “middle way,” between asceticism and dissipation: which for today we can think of as consumerist materialism (dissipation, that is).

So, Flynn’s book was fun for me to help reflect on these ideas. Besides, it is a fun book on vignettes and quips about “golden age” Hollywood.

Errol Flynn starred in the 1938 movie, The Dawn Patrol, about WWI British fighter pilots in France. This is an anti-war movie. I describe it here:

Criminalated Warmongers
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/11/11/criminalated-warmongers/

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Magister Ludi (The Bead Game)

Herman Hesse received the Nobel Prize for Literature for Magister Ludi (The Bead Game). Interesting book (long), but sometimes a bit remote/slow for me. The “three tales” appended at the end are superb. I wonder if the whole big book before it was really just an enormous lead-in to them. Hesse put tremendous thought and work into this book, there are many undercurrents and subtleties that I may not have fully appreciated. I think it is basically a book about religious feeling (existentialism?) in a non-religious way; similar to the orientation of Carl G. Jung’s psychology. Both Jung and Hesse were born in religious/missionary families from Switzerland (Jung) or southwest Germany near Switzerland (Hesse, who spent much of his life till the end in Switzerland). I think Hesse was working from a view of life like looking at the Swiss Alps from a remote chalet (which is in fact where he lived).

Excerpts from Magister Ludi (The Bead Game), (1943)

He had also made the discovery that a spiritual man in some curious way arouses resentment and opposition in others, who esteem him from afar and make claims on him in times of distress, but by no means love or look upon him as one of themselves and are more inclined to avoid him. He had learned from experience that old-fashioned or home-made magic formulas and spells were more willingly acceptable to sick people or victims of misfortune than intelligent advice. He had learned that man prefers misfortune and external penance rather than attempt to change himself inwardly, and had found that he believed more easily in magic than in intelligence, and in formulas more readily than in experience — many things in fact which in the few thousand years that have elapsed have presumably not altered so much as many history books would have us believe. He had also learned that a man in quest of the spiritual should never abandon love, that he should encounter human desires and follies without arrogance, but should, however, never allow them to dominate him; for, from the sage to the charlatan, the priest to the mountebank, from the helping brother to the parasitical sponger, is only a short step, and people fundamentally prefer to pay a rogue or allow themselves to be exploited by a quack than to accept selflessly offered assistance for which no recompense is asked. They would not readily pay with confidence and love, but preferably with gold or wares. They cheated each other and expected to be cheated in return. One had to learn to regard man as a weak, selfish and cowardly being, but one had also to see how greatly one participated in all these characteristics and urges and longs for ennoblement.

We must no longer rely on the fact that the cream of the talented from out there flock to us and help us to maintain [our society]: we must recognise our humble and heavy responsibility to the schools of the world as the most important and the most honourable part of our task, and we must elaborate it more and more.

Times of terror and the deepest misery may arrive, but if there is to be any happiness in this misery it can only be a spiritual happiness, related to the past in the rescue of the culture of early ages and to the future in a serene and indefatigable championship of the spirit in a time which would otherwise completely swallow up the material.

Siddhartha

I love “Siddhartha” by Hesse; easy to see why that book of his is so popular. It is an “awakening” story similar to the life of Buddha, who appears as a support character to the protagonist. I said more about “Siddhartha” in my comments on Errol Flynn, above.

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After The End of The World: books by George R. Stewart, and Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Here are two classic “after the end of the world” books. In Earth Abides, George R. Stewart’s end-of-the-world is by pandemic!, and in A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s is by post nuclear war taking America back to a Medieval Period, and then eventually over a few millennia to a new rocket and nuclear age, which ends as one would expect.

Stewart was an English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1930s-1940s, and his book here is from 1949. Amazingly prescient, realistic “speculative fiction” about the subsequent lives of the few survivors of the nearly overnight pandemic.

Miller’s book is definitely different, but there are no cheesy sci-fi gadgetry nor “special effects,” despite the strangeness of the worlds he portrays. Interestingly, the monastery life that is the center of Miller’s book is similar in many ways to the monastery life that is the center of Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi (which is also a sort-of after the end of the world book, really of a “distant” future after the end of the fascist world).

I cannot imagine Miller’s vision becoming reality, but I can easily imagine Stewart’s coming about.

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The Twilight Zone

A PERSONALLY IMPORTANT LIFE GOAL OF MINE MET!

During this 2020 summer of hiding out from the pandemic, I watched all 156 episodes of the anthology TV show, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which originally ran between 1959 and 1964. This feat was accomplished by seeing 2 to 6 episodes a night on consecutive nights over the course of several weeks.

This show is a collective work of TV art, guided by Rod Serling, who wrote 59% of the episodes. Amazingly, despite this show being in the neighborhood of 60 years old, its anachronisms relative to today’s typical attitudes and technological paraphernalia are infrequent (as regards the attitudes) and not distracting (as regards the technicalities). But it really shines in its depiction of the inner workings of human hearts and minds, and also human heartlessness. In this most important artistic-literary aspect, The Twilight Zone has not been surpassed by television shows since.

The Twilight Zone is a sequence of — usually — morality tales (interspersed with occasional comedies) whose telling is freed imaginatively and dramatically by allowing for the arbitrary actions of mysterious metaphysical forces. It’s as if Lafcadio Hearn, Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft had been transported 60 years into their futures to write for television. One of the most thrilling aspects of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone is the intense social consciousness, and anti-war, anti-greed, anti-bigotry and anti-cruelty attitudes nearly every minute of the entire series exudes. The acting, by many many actors, is uniformly excellent; and the production values of all the technicalities are also very good, but also very obviously more modest than in the costly productions of TV fare today.

In seeing the entire 156 episodes in one concentrated period of time, I have gotten a very clear appreciation of The Twilight Zone’s beauty and value as art. Without intending to be blasphemous, pretentious or dumb, let me say that I can see The Twilight Zone representing, for discerning American (and beyond?) viewers of the 1960s, a thought-provoking and socially instructive film-electronic art form in the same way that the plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were thought-provoking and socially instructive theatrical art forms to the Fifth-century Athenians.

The bubbling cauldron of social tensions, aspirations and fears of dynamic yet troubled societies were artistically abstracted and polished into the diamond-sharp facets of intense dramatic plays, reflecting the whole of contemporary society back into itself through the fascinated gaze of its individual people. If “the eyes are the mirror of the soul” then The Twilight Zone, through TV screens, was the mirror of the collective or societal American soul, which soul is always hidden behind a flashy loud and positivist front.

If you see the whole series, looking past the incidentals of its presentation, but deep into the essence of its conception, literateness and soul, you will see and hear as sharp and accurate depictions of the personalities and preoccupations of our society today as was the case for the American society of the early 1960s, during the show’s first run 61 to 56 years ago.

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John Keats, poet

Much feeling here, combined with a tremendous amount of work to present that feeling with refinement and grace of language, without dilution of the emotion, and without making it all seem a labored construction. Also wonderful feeling for nature and the natural world. I can’t criticize anything here, only try to learn from it. To my mind, Keats is to English poetry what Mozart is to music. Keats was a major influence on F. Scott Fitzgerald, who I see as an American “3rd generation” English Romantic poet who expressed his artistry in prose.

I have to dig into Shelley next (I have a huge tome), who was more “ferocious” than Keats. Both were very focussed artists. I’m struck by the idealism they felt and worked from.

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In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World, by Ian Stewart

Hello math lovers! (sic),

At one time or another a member of my family or friends has expressed an interest in:

Pythagoras’s Theorem (triangles, distance, areas, surfaces), or

Calculus (rates of change of anything and everything), or

Newton’s Law of Gravity (planetary motion, satellite trajectories), or

Pure Math (Napier’s Bones, the weirdness of the square root of -1, and Möbius Strip topology), or

Normal Distribution (the probability distribution of IQ, and “The Bell Curve” book), or

The Wave Equation (tones, semitones, musical scales, even tempering, beats within harmony), or

Fourier Transform (sines and cosines, single frequency/pitch modes and equalizers, digital camera images), or

The Navier-Stokes Equation (fluid flow, aerodynamics, F1 car design, global warming computation), or

Maxwell’s Equations (electricity, magnetism, radiation, wireless communication, TSA body scanners), or

Thermodynamics (entropy, efficiency of engines and renewable energy technology, disordering of the universe), or

Relativity (curved space-time, bent light rays, black holes, Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy), or

Quantum Mechanics (Schrödinger’s Cat, many parallel worlds, semiconductor electronics), or

Information Theory (codes, coding, data compression, digital communications), or

Chaos (species population dynamics with explosive growth and collapse, erratic unpredictability), or

Black-Scholes Equation (insane financial speculation, options, futures, derivatives, credit default swaps, the banking/real estate/financial crash of 2007-2008).

Because of that, here is my review of Ian Stewart’s 2012 book: In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World. Stewart says of his book: “This is the story of the ascent of humanity, told through 17 equations.”

This is an excellent enthralling book: interesting, very informative, very well written clear explanations of the mathematics and the applications of that mathematics to: classical mathematical calculations, lots of physics and related technology, information theory (codes and computers), chaos (wild swings in species populations), and the insane 21st century finance economics of our previous financial crash and its inevitable successors. This brief description does not in any way convey the complete range of this book.

On the front cover you can see the 17 (sets of) equations, which Stewart describes (and their many uses) over the course of 17 chapters. Of the 13 equations I feel confident about knowing something about (all “basic” math and/or mathematical physics), I find Stewart to be accurate and masterfully clear in his descriptions.

My only quibble is where he states about the main causes of global warming being the production of carbon dioxide and methane (gases) that: “These are greenhouse gases: they trap incoming radiation (heat) from the Sun.”

This is a collapsing of the actual mechanism, which is: the the capture of outgoing heat radiation (infrared radiation) by CO2 (most importantly) and CH4 (along with other heat-trapping molecular gases in trace amounts in the atmosphere), which upward radiated heat energy is derived from the earlier absorption (by the oceans and lands) of incoming light energy; a necessary process for cooling the Earth and stabilizing its temperature (if we didn’t mess with the process). So I would rephrase the Stewart sentence quoted as: “These are greenhouse gases: they trap outgoing radiation (heat) from the Earth.”

[If you think about it you will see that wherever the biosphere captures the incoming LIGHT from the Sun — in the air, lands or oceans — it ultimately heats to the same degree; but when our pollution intercepts and stores a greater portion of the re-radiated outward going HEAT (infrared radiation) from the biosphere than would be the case “naturally,” that the Earth’s “cooling system” is impaired and the biosphere warms up steadily, for an Earth out of heat balance.]

Regardless of this quibble, Stewart knows much much more about all the mathematics he presents and all the uses of it than I do. The 4 equations I knew nothing about (and learned about from Stewart) are: #1 Euler’s formula for polyhedra (topology); #2 information theory; #3 chaos theory (I know a little a bit about nonlinear dynamics, sensitivity to initial conditions, and limit cycles: similar to the “butterfly effect”); and #4 the Black-Scholes, or “Midas” equation that was heavily abused to produce the financial meltdown of 2007-2008. On these four, I learned a great deal from Stewart (basically everything I know about them now), and in the reading of this book I gained a sense of trust in his descriptions and pronouncements.

My only other critique of the book (and a minor one) is that there are a number of proofreading lapses (both of text and substance) that show up as typographical errors, and/or what I presume to be mischosen words (some obviously errors, others didn’t make sense to me). The few instances of these errors occur most frequently in the later chapters of the book, and none is fatal (especially if you don’t notice them). So, I agree with the praise for the book highlighted on the back cover.

I especially recommend the book for its explanation (in 8 chapters) of the physics of: classical gravity (Newtonian mechanics), waves, heat flow, fluid flow, electrodynamics, thermodynamics (entropy), relativity and quantum mechanics. I also appreciate his logical and scathing take-down of the modern hyperactive derivative-based financial speculation that dominates and threatens the world’s economies today. For me, the 8 physics chapters are superb; but there is no part of the book that is weak: “a wonderfully accessible book.”

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Upanishads

Juan Mascaró was a superb poetic translator. His selections from the Upanishads is enthralling. His translation of the Dhammapada was also wonderful:

“As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.” — The Dhammapada, 49

Joseph Campbell (author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces, editor of Heinrich Zimmer’s book The Philosophies of India) said of the Upanishads: “It’s all there.”

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Books I must add to my list of essential classics:

History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner)
The Plays of Euripides
The Plays of Sophocles
L’Avare (The Miser, a play by Molière)
Phèdre (Phaedra, a play by Racine)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
The Moon and Sixpence (W. Somerset Maugham)
The Razor’s Edge (W. Somerset Maugham)
Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
Homage to Catalonia (George Orwell)
1984 (George Orwell)
Collected Essays (2002, George Orwell)
Bhagavad Gita (Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood)
Bhagavad Gita (Juan Mascaró)
Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Carl Gustav Jung)
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X, with Alex Haley)
Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner)

…and others as I think of them.

Sunshine Girl, and Good People

Nit’s Cafe is a small, wonderful Thai-themed restaurant in Fort Bragg.

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Sunshine Girl

I saw the granddaughter of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin today —
Beautiful girl —
Lives in Berkeley sometimes
Sometimes in Fort Bragg or Albion
Not sure what she does for a living
Maybe work part-time in Nit’s Cafe
But she’s a good singer
Makes up her own lyrics
Loves animals —
Feeds the hummingbirds
Has a pet skunk —
Not bad at gardening —
Trades with her tomatoes at the Farmers’ Market —
Even knows Spanish!
Said Zapata was an ancestor, it’s likely true
Said Santa Monica is like golf:
A Republican pig playpen
Lights incense to read
Rings a Tibetan bowl-bell when the Moon is full
Does her own math even, I’m impressed
Keeps bees I heard, earns her honey
Hikes the hills to see the hawks
Watches waves from the cliff
A tough cookie with a sweet disposition
Free spirit
Always fun when she’s around
Glad I lived long enough to know her

4 June 2020

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Good People

I do not think it is fair to ridicule people of modest education and sophistication, who are otherwise good-hearted, right-thinking and right-acting. Wisdom is not the same as intelligence, which is not the same as education. Education is the product of opportunity, and thus usually an accident of birth; intelligence is a product of genetics, and thus a blameless accidental attainment; and wisdom is a product of rationality coupled with good character. It is rationality and good character that are essential to the making of a complete person, and to the making of a good society.

4 June 2020

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Moon Gliding Over a Time of Stillness

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Moon Gliding Over a Time of Stillness

The Moon rose large over the forested far slope of the canyon, shining its cool reflected effulgence from a pastel blue evening sky down through faint high wisps of nebulous mist and into the otherwise invisible water vapor filling the air to glow with a plush soft burnished halo around that majestically floating orb of crisp ghostly luminosity bringing to sharp silhouettes the forms of branches and leaves interposed between us, as an expansive polyphony of sparkling birdsong gradually diminished toward silence as pools of darkness swelled to merge into a night stillness cored by a tunnel of clarity between that Moon’s silvery pockmarked hemispherical surface in vivid sharp relief, and and my enchanted eyes.

The myriad meshed wheels of the unimaginably vast machinery of the Heavens and of the Earth, from the astronomical to the subatomic, continue their many cycles indifferent to the stoppage of humanity’s wheels of thoughtless contention, what we call civilization, now brought up short by the collision of all our ambitions into the stark terror of an erupting plague, a pandemic of an uncontrolled, evasive and pervasive deadly virus. Many of us hide from each other hoping to avoid chance and fatal infection, and waiting fearfully hoping for the conjuring of a magical medical salvation soon, it can never be too soon. Others hide from reality burrowed into their shaky fantasies of imperviousness and longings for illusions of self-importance, angrily protesting their mandated self-incarceration from a now shattered and scattered society, an anger that is really the roiling surface of the deeply suppressed realization of being inconsequential and superfluous. And then there are those who walk through the undefined extent of the valley of death each day: to battle the virus, attend to the sick, bury the dead; or forced by the needs of their own survival to labor blindly through the pervading pestilence; or moved by a higher calling sacrificing themselves to be of service to others.

For some it is a time of being terribly tested and of exhibiting great nobility, for others of being cravenly malicious parasites taking advantage of a prostrate humanity. It is a time when the contours of authentic merit and of the foulest degradation within the usually amorphous mass of humanity are brought into the sharpest contrast by the glaring light of pandemic circumstances. It is a time when the best hold solidarity with all and affirm life, without denying and being disheartened by the indeterminate inevitability of death. It is a time to savor the great and mysterious gift of life, of consciousness along a stream of time; but in truth it was always that time, now only sparked into many minds by the viral invasion of our human meshwork of flesh, blood and behavior.

How should I conduct the uncertain continuation of my survival? In what form will humanity emerge from this winnowing, and when if ever? I suspect this pandemic is but a skirmish in a much larger and longer war against the unrelenting forces of overstimulated entropy, evolution and extinction. Human consciousness is an evanescent field of scintillating glints flashing off the rippling surface of the deep black night of nonexistence towards which our human world of tragic innocence, of blithe self-absorption and of damning hubris, inexorably drifts.

Millennialist dreamers, both romantically religious and technologically ideological, envision humanity’s future to be a unanimous transformation of attitudes and behaviors that coalesce as a new self-perpetuating good life of affluent coexistence, a hoped-for transformation of our civilization prompted by the finally awakened realization of its self-caused catastrophe of increasing inhospitability to our form of life, as well as to that of many other organisms, by this Planet Earth.

I would wholeheartedly welcome such a transformation, but I suspect such a desirable outburst of human behavioral evolution as the endpoint of our old paradigm inflecting into the gateway to an imaginary new utopia, will never occur. I expect the actual finish of our human world will be, metaphorically, as the ending of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: The brute force of Nature stoves in our obsessive, exploitative, narcissistic, predatory collective boat and it plunges to oblivion, with Tashtego — the “native” worker whose life was a struggle for survival against extinction, by being carried along as an underling in the Great White Conquest of the Living, to Gain Wealth — climbing the sinking mainmast in a vain attempt to evade engulfment, and finally — as the last gesture possible from the Earth-connected people of his kind — nailing the American Sea Eagle bannering master-race illusions to the mast-top, so it too would vanish with those it had entranced, and those enslaved to that entrancement, to their self-imposed and necessarily collective doom.

But why give oneself over to such thoughts, even if ultimately true? One’s life will have its extent, and between its dawn and dusk spans a spectrum of opportunities to apply one’s energy and talents to the creation of beauty, dignity, truth, healing, and noble connection, all independent of fate’s hazards and happenstances. It is from each individual’s weaving of all these efforts that whatever fulfillment is possible for them will be found. And the commitment to this attitude forms the center of gravity, the stillpoint of a calmed awakened mind, of a life of balanced openness and worthy purpose though immersed in the endless uncertainties, luckless cruelties, and constant flux of unfolding existence.

The Moon has arced far across my night thoughts, dispelling my illusions of judgement and knowledge while infusing me with a wordless sense of acceptance, of trust, in just being. In this I may have finally achieved after seven decades the intrinsic wisdom of my self-assured night-ranging cats, of my feisty day-flitting hummingbirds, and of all the lovely Sun-soaked non-human life I will see and hear all along my wooded canyon when day comes. Life continues by being, not wanting. It is only our wanting that is extinguishing itself in the flood of its own excesses, and there is no necessity that we extinguish ourselves by only being our self-absorbed wanting.

A White-throated Swift twitters at the first blush of eastern light, rippling the once glassy surface of the evening silence as the cool ghostliness of moonglow fades into the dusky shadowless twilight before dawn, and a Chestnut-backed Chickadee then lilts its pulsating greeting to the day seeping up from the horizon into the sky. Goodnight Moon.

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Can COVID-19 Save Lifeboat Earth?

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Can COVID-19 Save Lifeboat Earth?

Harbhajan Singh asks [6 April 2020]: “Could COVID-19 save Lifeboat Earth?”

Many realize that eliminating humanity would make Earth healthier for Nature, plants and animals.

Many also realize that without profound changes to human behavior — by everybody, everywhere; including limiting population growth and ending greenhouse gas emissions — that humanity can not exist in balance with Nature, and both will increasingly suffer, eventually — in a few lifetimes? — fatally.

It is well documented that as human encroachment and destruction of Nature (e.g., environments and biodiversity) advances, that habitability decreases.

That decrease is due to a combination of:

— pollution (bad air, ocean plastic, dead seas, lost topsoil, lost forests, toxic land);

— climate change (and more violent weather, floods, droughts, wildfires);

— food source degradation (inorganic industrial farming, loss of natural varietals, loss of seafood), and

— greater hazards of releasing viruses (epidemics and pandemics) fatal to people.

The scientific reports get very specific on ‘this particular negative effect has this particular [human stupidity] cause’, but in aggregate they show what I’ve just outlined.

More people are realizing that humanity’s accelerating encroachment and destruction of Nature can only cause more deadly virus pandemics to plague us. Hotter environmental temperatures from global warming, and greater particulate and noxious gases pollution from human activity (industrialization, capitalism, militarism) aggravate the severity and lethality of all respiratory illnesses, like COVID-19.

I prefer that humanity became vastly more intelligent, and cooperative, and altruistic, and balances its existence (both individual and collective) with Nature’s timeless rhythms and geophysical limits.

The most important aspect of that wished-for cooperativeness is that we cease viewing each other as deadly rivals in a grim zero-sum game of making-money one-upmanship and competing narcissistic schemes of enslaving others.

Miraculously, the Earth is the most wonderful Paradise we know of in the entire Universe. If we treated it as such, instead of treating it like a garbage dump and sewer, it would return that appreciation, and we would knowingly experience life in this actual Paradise, for ourselves and for endless future generations.

This is not just poetry, it is fact.

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