Friday, October 24, 2014

The Definition of Marriage, continued

Yesterday, Darryl and I attended the Marriage Equality Rally at Atlanta City Hall. It was a gorgeous, Georgia, breezy, autumn afternoon. Here are my photographs form the rally as well as a link to a site that includes the presentations of a host osf speakers. Following is a post I made last week about Marriage.

Freedom to Marry Site:

The Definition of Marriage

Our marriage in Provincetown
August 2004

Whatever you think of traditional marriage, the expansion of the fundamental right to marry to gays and lesbians is a powerful and moving affirmation of our human rights, giving legitimacy and recognition to same-sex relationships and the love that heretofore dare not speak its name. Heterosexuals may not always realize just how much this means to us, because they have never had to "come out," never had to pretend to have feelings other than those they already have. Seeing gay relationships praised, celebrated publicly before family and friends, and having *all* the considerable legal benefits, is nothing short of breathtaking, awesome, and a wonder to behold.

Where did all these gay people come from?!

Gay marriage is now legal in North Carolina
Same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina Friday, with a federal judge ordering the state to immediately put aside its ban.

Same-Sex Couples Line Up to Wed, and Courts Regroup After Decisions

A roundup of developments around the country regarding...


Sunday, October 12, 2014


We mortals are composed of two great schools--
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools. 
--Abul 'Ala al Ma'arri 

Photograph I made on our visit to

What is religion? The Oxford Dictionary offers us little help: "The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods." In order to begin a discussion of religion, the distinction has to be made between established and organized religion and personal religion which may or may not adhere to the tenets of a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or shrine. There must also be some discussion of the relationship of a religion to its scriptures, its acknowledged sacred writings, and the body of work created by the revered leaders of the religion. The greatest problem in discussing religion exists in the equivocation of going from personal religion, to generally practiced religion, to shared beliefs of the majority of those practicing a religion, to the pronouncements of the officials and leaders of an established religion. The Bible, for instance, forbids eating shrimp. It would be ridiculous now to say that Christians, generally, condemn the eating of shrimp and find doing so to be abominable. 

There are, as I see it, two starting points for any essay on religion:   first, the views of skeptics, agnostics and atheists such as Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri, Karl Marx, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins, etc.; and second, the exploration of the meaning of what is sacred, in the vein of Mircea Eliade, Paul Tillich, Thomas Merton, Joseph Campbell, Ernst Cassirer, Susanne Langer, and one of my favorite novelists and philosophers,  Iris Murdoch. (click for an essay on her views on religion). I shall take up the meaning of the sacred.

           The Parthenon, Athens

If I were to ask what people hold sacred, I imagine I would receive a wealth of answers. There are sacred spaces or places many of us hold dear. For me they are many, the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, Delphi, Tōdai-ji in Nara, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Kalani on the Big Island of Hawaii, homes I have inhabited, Big Sur, Mt. Rainier, to name a few. There are things I consider sacred; there are people I consider sacred. Does that mean I consider what I hold sacred to be holy or have some ultimate value beyond the value for me? When I find something to be sacred, I do not expect everyone else to appreciate it as such. The sacred is subjective, not objective, as I see it.


Carl Jung, like Eliade, found the experience of the sacred to be universal in human kind. He wrote of and illustrated mandalas as an example. There are patterns of experience of the numinous we all share. For Jung, the experience of god as well as the sacred took form in his idea of the Collective Unconscious. Alfred North Whitehead, among others, attempted to comprehend god as a collective process. For most modern philosophers the idea of a personal god who acts like an individual is inconceivable. Jean Paul Sartre and his companion, Simone De Beauvoir, gave convincing arguments that traditional views of god as an individual who acts and influences world events are self-contradictory. 

That is not to say that holiness is meaningless. Art especially has the ability to embody the sacred. From the poetry of Rumi, the biblical Psalms, and the Hindu Mahabharata, to the paintings of DaVinci and the sculpture of Michelangelo, to the poetry of Keats and Yeats, from the paintings of Schiele to the music of Bach, the arts are for many of us sacred. There is a spiritual reality in the world, quality and value not definable by science alone.

       Huichol Jaguar

That being said, there is also the profane. By the profane, I do not mean the merely neutral, valueless entity or being, but rather that which negates the good and the sacred. It is impossible to discuss religion without discussing evil. Most religions have presented us with a path, a Tao, a means to a holy life, a way to enlightenment, or a code of conduct that will lead to some reward, whether in this life or in an afterlife. The path is always toward the good and away from evil, a path to avoid the temptations and pitfalls of life that might lead us astray. Evil need not be so blunt as Satan or host of devils, it can be something as seemingly innocuous as ignorance. In the Bhagavad Gita, a prince resists the call to war, not wanting to kill friends or relatives on the other side. Yet a deity, talking of immortality, convinces him to accept his caste, to become a warrior. How, we must ask, are we to know good from evil, right from wrong, correct action, noble endeavor, in the modern world.

"There is nothing either good or badbut thinking makes it so." --Hamlet 

My view is in accord with the existentialists that each of us must determine what is right or wrong subjectively. I am responsible for my acts. There is no one else to blame. When it comes to religion and society, however, how can we find consistency and guidance? My answer is to affirm what Eleanor Roosevelt advocated and persuaded the United nations to pass-- 

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Rights override rites; that is, Human rights as outlined above must, in the eyes of justice and the law, outweigh acts in the name of religion or tradition that take away those rights. For it is in this arena that the most egregious evils take place. In the name of faith and God, the Inquisition burned so-called heretics and witches alive. The practice of burning witches continued for centuries. Christianity can never free itself from the shame of this atrocity, nor can it forget the mistreatment of Galileo and other scientists who spoke the truth against the absurdities of religion. The Crusades were no better. War in the name of religion is the true abomination.
    Rose Window, Notre Dame

    Similarly, belief in a god or gods often leads those in power to assume that they know what god wants. Since many holy writings, like the Bible, the Koran, the Sutras, allow for interpretation, whether literal or allegorical. Who has the authority to apply sacred texts? What if religious and cultural traditions lead to harm of others, or to destruction of the Earth and its animal inhabitants? Whaling comes to mind. More devastating, climate change arises as a problem. Those who believe in an afterlife and in all-powerful gods sometimes take destruction of the planet as unimportant. Religion has become in some cases malleable to capitalism. The ethical problems go on and on.

  1. Today, there is a heated debate between those who support human rights, who are agnostic or atheists, and those who defend the basic traditions of religion. The former have singled out (always a questionable tactic) Islam as especially hostile to rights of women and minorities. Rather than cite both sides and whether this or that practice falls under the banner of Islam or not, the point I want to make is that there is no reasonable defense, religious or otherwise for the mistreatment of any class of people, whether women, children, gays and lesbians, or an ethnic minority. Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzaiwe consider a hero because she resisted mistreatment by a religious sect, and risked her life for the good of girls wanting an education.The Caste system is a violation of human rights, as Gandhi eloquently argued. Female genital mutilation cannot be defended in the name of religion or for any other tradition. Male circumcision, though far less serious, has nonetheless been called into question. All religions need reform and it does not matter at all which religion needs more reform than another. 
  2. Church in winter, Santa Fe
  3. One other valid criticism of religion is that established religions have become tools for those in power to stay in power, to lull the masses into behavior that benefits the state and its leaders, and give them false hope for an afterlife. Marx's perceptive analysis of how capitalism in particular does this is devastating. That religion is co-opted and misused for power rather than love or whatever other good motives initiated the religion, does not negate the religion; but it gives us all good reason to ask who speaks for the religion and to what end.

  4. To conclude on an uplifting note, look at a few more artistic achievements directly resulting from religion. All photographs on this page are by Darryl or by me:

  5. Tōdai-ji
  6. Search Results


      The Alhambra

      Notre Dame

      The Pantheon

      Mosaic, Hagia Sophia

      Sitting Ramesses II Colossus inside Luxor Temple


      Kasuga-taisha Shrine

      Daibutsu, Tōdai-ji

  7. --Jack, October 2014 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Definition of Marriage

Our marriage in Provincetown
August 2004

Whatever you think of traditional marriage, the expansion of the fundamental right to marry to gays and lesbians is a powerful and moving affirmation of our human rights, giving legitimacy and recognition to same-sex relationships and the love that heretofore dare not speak its name. Heterosexuals may not always realize just how much this means to us, because they have never had to "come out," never had to pretend to have feelings other than those they already have. Seeing gay relationships praised, celebrated publicly before family and friends, and having *all* the considerable legal benefits, is nothing short of breathtaking, awesome, and a wonder to behold.

Where did all these gay people come from?!

Gay marriage is now legal in North Carolina
Same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina Friday, with a federal judge ordering the state to immediately put aside its ban.

Same-Sex Couples Line Up to Wed, and Courts Regroup After Decisions

A roundup of developments around the country regarding...


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Jules and Jim

Tonight I experienced this film as one ought, on a big screen, in a ravishing black and white print, if that is the right word. How films are remastered into such perfect moving pictures is beyond me and I must look into it. The clarity and richness of the moving image, which at rare moments Truffaut held in a still, freeze-frame, was astonishing.
What I want to do here is write of my reaction to such a remarkable work of art, my reaction as a gay man, often in my young life bisexual, who pursued the loves and friendship portrayed here. Like the characters, I was often so caught in the moment that I failed to step back, pan as a camera can, to an overview, a necessary distance to appreciate fully the richness of the life I was living.
The film moves from the idyllic and innocent world of the young friends, through their Bohemian days in Paris,  to the ravages of  a war (WWI) in which they fight on opposite sides, to the love affair with Catherine, embodied perfectly by Jeanne Moreau. Their friendship, with never any question of sexual attraction, becomes a strange relationship of empathy, fellow feeling, shared joys of ordinary life and good conversation, then  jealousy, then a deeper sharing, as they both become lovers, then alternate husbands of Catherine, who is the archetype of a Femme Fatale.
There is no Hollywood ending, nor any of the mundane morality of monogamy and family values here. Catherine is moved by emotion, by her own logic and feeling, as the men struggle with their own conflict of emotion and reason. I shall have to read what feminists think of Catherine as a woman, whether they think her liberated or somehow a victim of her society and her relationships with the men.
The view of the limits, especially the false expectations of marriage, must have been way ahead of its time in 1962; the same time that Masters and Johnson were revealing so much about human sexuality.
The ending is sad. We are left feeling it could not have been otherwise. Do we take joy in the menage-a-trois as it was lived out,  do we look for some alternate solution or ending, or should we go with the inevitability of suffering in relationships? Nonetheless, how I admire  the art, the way Truffaut presents life to us. How many of us, I wonder, must identify with Jules?

Jack 9-30-14

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

 "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life".-- Oscar Wilde

"The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature." --A.N. Whitehead

Ever since Democritus, scientists have jumped to the conclusion that reality consists of atoms in motion. The theory has been promising, leading to century after century of elaboration and refinement. Today, a number of scientists are disputing the existence of nothingness, whether there can be a void in any meaningful sense. They take issue with Vladimir who, in Waiting for Godot, proclaims, "There is no lack of void."

The mistake, both in philosophy and science, that is so ubiquitous today was called by Whitehead "The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness." As the quote above makes clear, the error is to assume that the concept is more real than what it purports to explain. The primal fact is the perception. In the words of Bishop Berkeley, "To be is to be perceived." Awareness comes first. Afterwards, comes the attempt to make sense of perceptions. The pre-Socratic philosophers tried all sorts of explanations: water, air, earth, and fire, followed by all sorts of interesting theories. Ask a scientist today what is real and you get something like this:

My Own Personal Nothingness: From a childhood hallucination to the halls of theoretical physics.

An atom is less real than my perception of this table in front of me. The perception is first. The theory that the table consists of tiny atoms spinning and flying about comes at the end of a long line of abstraction and ideas based on the initial perception. 

That there is an "I" doing the perceiving also comes after a process of  gathering perceptions and unifying them into the idea of a person, an ego, a Vladimir, waiting for Godot to come.

Yes, ideas and theories are real as well as perceptions, for they are based on perceptions. As I see it, the idea of a mind that does the perceiving is existentially more real than the biological theory that all our thoughts and feelings are contained in an organ called the brain. The latter construct is far more complex than the former. You'd have to have lost your mind to believe otherwise.

Ogata Gekkō (尾形月耕, 1859-1920)

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and 
Disappear in the deep pool, 
The whole world would shine 
With dazzling pureness.


Thursday, September 04, 2014

Updike on Murakami


John Updike

New Yorker. 1/24/2005, Vol. 80 Issue 44, p91-93.

Haruki Murakami’s dreamlike new novel

Haruki Murakami’s new novel, “Kafka on the Shore” (translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel; Knopf; $25.95), is a real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender. Spun out to four hundred and thirty-six pages, it seems more gripping than it has a right to be and less moving, perhaps, than the author wanted it to be. Murakami, born in 1949, ran a Tokyo jazz club before he became a published writer, with the novel “Hear the Wind Sing,” in 1979. Though his work abounds with references to contemporary American culture, especially its popular music, and though he details the banal quotidian with an amiable flatness reminiscent of Western youth and minimalist fiction in the hungover nineteen-seventies, his narratives are dreamlike, closer to the viscid surrealism of Kobo Abe than to the superheated but generally solid realism of Mishima and Tanizaki. We often cannot imagine, while reading “Kafka on the Shore,” what will come next, and our suspicion—reinforced by Murakami’s comments in interviews, such as the one in last summer’s Paris Review—is that the author did not always know, either.

Yet “Kafka on the Shore” has a schematic rigor in its execution. Alternate chapters relate the stories of two disparate but slowly converging heroes. The odd-numbered chapters serve up the first-person narrative of a fifteen-year-old runaway from his affluent, motherless home in Tokyo; his father is a world-renowned sculptor, Koichi Tamura, and the son has given himself the peculiar first name Kafka. He totes a carefully packed backpack and, in his head, talking in boldface, a scolding, exhorting alter ego called Crow—which is what Kafka means, or close to it, in Czech. The even-numbered chapters trace, beginning with a flurry of official documents, the life of a mentally defective sexagenarian, Satoru Nakata. He was one of sixteen fourth graders who, in 1944, while on a mushroom-gathering walk with their teacher, fell into a coma after an unexplained flash of silver in the sky. Nakata was the only one who didn’t wake up, unharmed, within a few hours; when he did wake up, several weeks later in a military hospital, he had lost his entire memory and, with it, the ability to read. He doesn’t know what Japan is or even recognize his parents’ faces. He is able, however, to learn to work in a shop producing handcrafted furniture, and when, upon the owner’s death, the factory disbands he supplements his government subsidy with a modest-paying sideline in finding lost cats, since along with his disabilities he has gained the rare ability to converse with cats. (Cats frequently figure in Murakami’s fiction, as delegates from another world; his jazz club was called Peter Cat.) One cat search leads Nakata to a house—that of the sculptor Koichi Tamura, in fact—where he is compelled to stab to death a malevolent apparition in the form of Johnnie Walker, from the whiskey label. Fleeing the bloody crime scene, Nakata hitches truck rides south to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four major islands, where Kafka Tamura, as it happens, has recently arrived by bus.

Both the young man and the old, though independent and reclusive, have a knack of forming useful friendships. Kafka befriends Oshima, the androgynous, hemophiliac assistant at a small library where the boy can read all day and, eventually, bunk at night; Nakata in his winning simplicity finds a disciple in one of the truck drivers who give him a ride, the lower-class, hitherto unenlightened Hoshino, “with a ponytail, a pierced ear, and a Chunichi Dragons baseball team cap.” The double plot unfolds in cunningly but tenuously linked chapters. There is violence, comedy, sex—deep, transcendental, anatomically correct sex, oral and otherwise—and a bewildering overflow of possible meanings.

In a prefatory chapter, Crow promises Kafka a “violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm,” with “hot, red blood.” He assures him, and the expectant reader, “Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through. . . . But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.” At the center of this particular novelistic storm is the idea that our behavior in dreams can translate to live action; our dreams can be conduits back into waking reality. This notion, the learned Oshima tells Kafka, can be found in “The Tale of Genji,” the early-eleventh-century Japanese classic by Lady Murasaki. Oshima summarizes:

“Lady Rokujo—she’s one of Prince Genji’s lovers—becomes so consumed with jealousy over Genji’s main wife, Lady Aoi, that she turns into an evil spirit that possesses her. Night after night she attacks Lady Aoi in her bed until she finally kills her. . . . But the most interesting part of the story is that Lady Rokujo has no inkling that she’d become a living spirit. She’d have nightmares and wake up, only to discover that her long black hair smelled like smoke. Not having any idea what was going on, she was totally confused. In fact, this smoke came from the incense the priests lit as they prayed for Lady Aoi. Completely unaware of it, she’d been flying through space and passing down the tunnel of her subconscious into Aoi’s bedroom.”

Read in context, in the first section of Arthur Waley’s translation of “Genji,” the episode borders on the naturalistic. Within the tight, constrained circles of the imperial court, emotional violence bursts its bonds. Both women are gravely sickened by the trespassing spirit of one of them; Lady Rokujo, a beauty of great refinement, is horrified that her dreams about Princess Aoi are full of a “brutal fury such as in her waking life would have been utterly foreign to her.” She reflects, “How terrible! It seemed then that it was really possible for one’s spirit to leave the body and break out into emotions which the waking mind would not countenance.”

From the inarguable truth of the second observation the possibility of one’s spirit leaving one’s body could be plausibly deduced in a prescientific, preëlectric age when, Oshima points out, “the physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two.” In Murakami’s vision of our materialist, garishly illuminated age, however, the boundary between inner and outer darkness is traversed by grotesque figments borrowed from the world of commercial imagery: Johnnie Walker, with boots and top hat, manifests himself to the cat-loving simpleton Nakata as a mass murderer of stray felines, jocularly cutting open their furry abdomens and popping their still-beating hearts into his mouth, and Colonel Sanders, in his white suit and string tie, appears to Nakata’s companion, Hoshino, as a fast-talking pimp. The Colonel, questioned by the startled Hoshino about his nature, quotes another venerable text, Ueda Akinari’s “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”:

Shape I may take, converse I may, but neither god nor Buddha am I, rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man.

Later, with some exasperation, the Colonel tells Hoshino, “I’m a concept, get it? Con-cept!” Concept or whatever, he is a very adroit fixer when it comes to such supernatural hustles as handling the entrance stone to the spirit world, where the dead and the drastically detached live in the heart of the forest like writers at the MacDowell Colony—meals and housekeeping provided and other residents discreetly out of sight.

This novel quotes Goethe as decreeing, “Everything’s a metaphor.” But a Western reader expects the metaphors, or symbolic realities, to be—as in “The Faerie Queene,” “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and Goethe’s “Faust”—organized by certain polarities, in a magnetic field shaped by a central supernatural authority. No such authority controls the spooky carnival of “Kafka on the Shore.” To quote Colonel Sanders once more:

“Listen—God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan, God’s always been kind of a flexible concept. Look at what happened after the war. Douglas MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person.”

In “Kafka on the Shore,” the skies unaccountably produce showers of sardines, mackerel, and leeches, and some unlucky people get stuck halfway in the spirit world and hence cast a faint shadow in this one. Japanese supernature, imported into contemporary America with animated cartoons, video games, and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, is luxuriant, lighthearted, and, by the standards of monotheism, undisciplined. The religious history of Japan since the introduction of Chinese culture in the fifth century A.D. and the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth has been a long lesson in the stubborn resilience and adaptability of the native cult of polytheistic nature worship called, to distinguish it from Buddhism, Shinto. Shinto, to quote the Encyclopædia Britannica, “has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, in the strict sense, and no fixed dogma.” Nor does it offer, as atypically surviving kamikaze pilots have proudly pointed out, an afterlife. It is based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as “gods” or “spirits” but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence. One of Shinto’s belated theorists, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), defined kami as “anything whatsoever which was out of the ordinary.”

A tenacious adherence to Shinto in the Japanese countryside and among the masses has enabled it to coexist for a millennium and a half with Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and to be subject to repeated revivals, most recently, from 1871 to 1945, as the official national religion and a powerful spiritual weapon in Japan’s imperialist wars. After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, Shinto, under the direction of the Allied occupation force, was disestablished, its holidays were curtailed, and the emperor’s divinity—based on the first emperor’s purported descent from the sun goddess—was renounced. But Shinto shrines remain, in the imperial precincts and in the countryside; its rites are performed, its paper wish-slips tied to bushes, its amulets sold to tourists Asian and Western. Shinto’s strong aesthetic component, a reverence toward materials and processes, continues to permeate the crafts and the arts. Kami exists not only in heavenly and earthly forces but in animals, birds, plants, and stones. Nakata and Hoshino spend hours trying to learn how to converse with a stone—to divine what the stone, at times easily lifted and at others heavy to the limits of a man’s strength, wants. Kami pervades Murakami’s world, in which, therefore, many Western readers will feel, a bit queasily, at sea, however many fragments of globalized Western culture—Goethe, Beethoven, Eichmann, Hegel, Coltrane, Schubert, Napoleon—bob from paragraph to paragraph.

The novel’s two heroes interact only in the realm of kami. Of their entwined narratives, the story of Kafka Tamura is more problematic, more curiously overloaded, than that of the holy fool Nakata, with its familiar elements of science fiction, quest, and ebullient heroics. As Hoshino remarks, “This is starting to feel like an Indiana Jones movie or something.” Return and release to the underworld of his childhood coma are the old man’s intelligible goals, for which he prepares with prodigious sessions of sleep. Less intelligibly, the “cool, tall, fifteen-year-old boy lugging a backpack and a bunch of obsessions” labors under an ill-defined Oedipal curse. He hates his father enough to dream of killing him, and to feel little sorrow when he is killed, but we never see the father, unless it is in the bizarre guise of Johnnie Walker, and know only that he was a famous artist and, as such, probably pretty egocentric. Kafka’s mother left home, with his older sister, when he was four years old, and when he encounters her in Shikoku it is in the form of a fifteen-year-old spirit projection of the library director, trim, prim, reserved Miss Saeki, who is over fifty. Miss Saeki and Kafka Tamura talk like this:

“We’re not metaphors.” “I know,” I say. “But metaphors help eliminate what separates you and me.” A faint smile comes to her as she looks up at me. “That’s the oddest pickup line I’ve ever heard.” “There’re a lot of odd things going on—but I feel like I’m slowly getting closer to the truth.” “Actually getting closer to a metaphorical truth? Or metaphorically getting closer to an actual truth? Or maybe they supplement each other?” “Either way, I don’t think I can stand the sadness I feel right now,” I tell her. “I feel the same way.”

Small wonder, as the teen-ager admits, that “the whole confused mess swirls around in my brain, and my head feels like it’s about to burst.” The Oedipus myth, shedding its fatal Greek gravity and the universality Freud gave it, just adds vapor to the mist of fancy and strangeness through which the young hero moves toward the unexceptional goal of growing up.

In the last pages, the novel asks that it be taken as a happily ending saga of maturation, of “a brand-new world” for a purged Kafka. But beneath his feverish, symbolically fraught adventures there is a subconscious pull almost equal to the pull of sex and vital growth: that of nothingness, of emptiness, of blissful blankness. Murakami is a tender painter of negative spaces. After his coma, Nakata “returned to this world with his mind wiped clean. The proverbial blank slate.” In his adulthood, “that bottomless world of darkness, that weighty silence and chaos, was an old friend, a part of him already.” Throughout this chronicle, Murakami describes his characters falling asleep as lovingly as he itemizes what they cook and eat. Refrigerated severed cat heads, like the severed human heads of Tanizaki’s tremendous novella “The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi,” have a lulling serenity, “staring out blankly at a point in space.” Making love to a woman, “you listen as the blank within her is filled.” Kafka Tamura says, “There’s a void inside me, a blank that is slowly expanding, devouring what’s left of who I am. I can hear it happening.” Heading into the forest, leaving all his backpacked defenses behind, he thinks triumphantly, “I head for the core of the labyrinth, giving myself up to the void.” Existence as something half empty—a mere skin on the essential void, a transitory shore—needs, for its celebration, a Japanese spiritual tact.

By John Updike

Updike, John
New Yorker. 1/24/2005, Vol. 80 Issue 44, p91-93. 4p. 1 Color Photograph.
Book Review
KAFKA on the Shore (Book)
MURAKAMI, Haruki, 1949-
Reviews the book "Kafka on the Shore," by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Messiah President

If only the rest of Congress consisted of representatives like mine, what a wonderful country this would be.
"The March on Washington was 51 years ago today. I spoke number six, Dr. King spoke number ten, and out of everyone who spoke that day I'm the only one still around." JOHN LEWIS
Photo: The March on Washington was 51 years ago today. I spoke number six, Dr. King spoke number ten, and out of everyone who spoke that day I'm the only one still around. #TBT

Every day intelligent people on the Left despair of war, poverty, and the destruction of our environment. Like me they see the waste and greed of capitalism unchecked and its keeping power through corrupt banking, a bad tax system, and the spending of the military-industrial complex. Because big money is needed to obtain office for most politicians, we end up with a puppet Congress, beholden to the corporations and a President who can only enact a bare minimum of legislation that benefits anyone but the already rich and powerful. Few liberals would disagree with this assessment. The question is what to do about it. Too many liberals are following the pied piper dreams of socialism and pacifism. They want a Messiah President to come and make everything good and righteous once more. Most forget that the closest we've ever had to such a leader is Jimmy Carter, who really did care about the poor and about humanity and the environment. But he dared to tell people to turn down their thermostats in the winter of their discontent. He dared to put solar panels on the White House. He was just too idealistic. We shall not see his like again. Presidents must be practical and that is the way it will stay. 2016 will offer us a so-called moderate Democrat, and a Republican who would give even more to the corporations, the oil companies, the war machine. meanwhile, this year, as liberals despair that Hillary is not one of them, the Republicans will overthrow what sanity is left in Congress by seizing control of the Senate. They will give us the absurdity of impeaching Obama two years before his term ends. That will allow them to increase "defense" spending, lay more polluting pipe lines, and fuck over the poor and the needy. The cruelest irony is that those on the Left who rant the most about inequality and war are, by their idealism and refusal to support the greater good that is electable, thereby bringing about the most destructive outcome imaginable. Perhaps Epicurus was right to see that the world is doomed, that the best we can do is to wall ourselves in with friends who are poets, artists, musicians, and philosophers as the Evil Empire burns.

Jack Miller

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Thoughts on the suicide of Robin Williams

“There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Albert Camus's philosophy of the absurd gives us as a metaphor for our lives, Sisyphus endlessly pushing his rock up the mountain only to see it roll back down as soon as he gains the top.

Camus's answer to the question of suicide is to be creative, to choose our own values and meaning in life, to live despite the absurdity, to rebel. In earlier works he also valued sensual pleasure:

... when I throw myself down among the absinthe plants to bring their scent into my body, I shall know, appearances to the contrary, that I am fulfilling a truth which is the sun's and which will also be my death's. In a sense, it is indeed my life that I am staking here, a life that tastes of warm stone, that is full of the signs of the sea and the rising song of the crickets. The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. (

When life offers pleasure, whether sensual, intellectual, or meditative, how can we not agree that it is worth living? I have spent my life taking delight in simple pleasures, myself. A good meal, a walk in the woods, a mountain vista, a swim in the sea; a good novel, poem,  or film; standing before the paintings of Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Georgia O'Keeffe; or hearing a piano sonata by Beethoven or music of a thousand other musicians...Then, too, I have had the good fortune of love and travel, of nothing short of euphoria and ecstasy in my life. 

You will never hear from me a disparaging word about Earthly Delights. 

The joys of life, however, are too often fleeting. As John Keats said,

Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, 
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips: 
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine, 
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine; 

There's the rub. As we grow older, the joys, though sweeter, are ever rarer. It is then that we grow more aware of suffering, not just our own private suffering, but that throughout the world. We are saddened by the wars, the natural disasters, the deaths of our friends and family, the cruelty, poverty, misery everywhere. We see how much of the misery is our own doing, the product of capitalism, greed, indifference, the inability of so many to have empathy, much less to love. Not only does the stone of Sisyphus roll back to the bottom of the mountain, it causes mass destruction in its wake, crushing homes and the people who dwell therein, killing animals, fouling the entire planet. We come to agree that "man is a useless passion," that "best is never to be born and second best to die as quickly as possible."

Robin Williams was a great actor; he conjured fine emotion and thoughtfulness from those who saw his best films. We mourn the loss of his life; few of us knowing the depths of whatever pain or thoughts may have given him anguish or despair. I dare say in the scheme of things his death should disturb us no more than the deaths of children in Gaza, or the innocent civilians in Iraq. Perhaps it moves us more because we have let his characters into our hearts and minds. His choice of death at age 63 makes us ask ourselves why we don't commit suicide, especially those of us older than he was. 

The worst thing in life is false hope, and oh, there is so much of that. Religion is the primary source of it, presenting us with the most absurd images of all, streets paved with gold in some ethereal heaven, virgins waiting to have sex with warriors, health and happiness for the poor, starving, and suffering. Wishful thinking keeps the workers turning the wheels of luxury and sensual pleasure for the rich. How many centuries have the majority of people enslaved themselves to a commanding few? As Bertrand Russell put it: 

"Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first one is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.”

My position on suicide, if you haven't figured it out, is that it is often a wise choice; but in any event, never ours to decry when another person chooses it freely. If ever there were Rights of Mankind, the right to end one's own life is fundamental. As an Epicurean who sees the value of simple pleasures, of art, of philosophy, of friendship and awareness in general, I have to bow before the choice of another to forego what joys there might be for the solace of sheer nothingness. The thought of death is comforting as I grow older: whatever pain, loss, and alienation I suffer in the years ahead will end, finally and completely. If I am able, I shall choose not to suffer the surgery and years of intense pain my mother endured in her 80s or the senility and confusion my father suffers yet in his 90s. So I conclude by saying, absurdly, Thank God for suicide*, a blessing to suffering souls everywhere; short of that, Thank God for death. 


* One caveat I have to mention is that depression and despair are not always rational or the result of one's circumstances. There is mental illness and imbalance. When this is so, or in cases of addiction, when depression is a symptom, a possible cure is surely warranted. I know this complicates cases of suicide and, in particular, this one. My overview of suicide stands, nonetheless. I think a person can come to suicide rationally, as a matter of choice, and that not everything can be made good by anti-depressants, pain killers, and tranquilizers. 

Monday, August 11, 2014


The argument that the two parties are the same is so tired and wrong. Be smug and superior and stay home and let the country go to Hell, right? Great. What difference does it make to the poor, the unemployed, the victims of war, those whose civil rights are trampled? Take a look at the records of Bernie Sanders, John Lewis and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren; then tell me they are no different from Rick Perry! Get real. If you can elect a Green Party candidate or a socialist, fine. If not, please don't turn the country over to the Tea Party.
8 hrs · Like · 7 (from a FB Thread)

Why on Earth should I support and vote for Hillary Clinton for President if she is the Democratic candidate in 2016? Is she not supported by corporations? Is she not too one-sided for Israel against the Palestinians? Has she not voted for war repeatedly while I am a pacifist? Doesn't she represent everything wrong with American Politics, it's dependency on money and polls, its deception, its continual crafty appeasement of special interests, its desire for power? Isn't Hillary no different from her husband, in the final analysis?

Oh yes, all those criticisms have truth and validity. There are plenty more we could make, too.

Whenever there is a presidential election in my country, I think of Plato's critique of Democracy. I have posted Jowett's translation in the entry below this one. I prefer Grube's or Cornford's translations since I don't read ancient Greek. The reason I think of it is because all the blatant flaws in democracy he discusses in his dialog from The Republic. Never was this more obvious than when we elected Ronald Reagan. Even an actor may become the leader in a democracy, Plato wrote. People are swayed by personality, false promises, the candidate's looks, the most absurd and empty traits of popularity. Sound bites trump substance. Watch the debates.

Right now, the U.S.  electorate is ready for a woman president. Yes, there will be some who will say-- A woman yes; but not this one. But they are the minority. Hillary Clinton is the one who can win right now; and most of us know this. She will have to posture herself to meet the Platonic requisites of popularity and appearance; but she could win.

Hillary, in my view, is not "the lesser of two evils." She has stood for many positive causes in our society, notably Universal Healthcare. She is on the side of same-sex marriage as opposed to Republicans who are adamantly against it. She fights for voter rights rather than voter suppression. She has a favorable record on dealing with climate change. She would select Justices for the Supreme Court who do not believe corporations are people. Before you say she's the same as the Republican opponent in 2016, check her record  against any of the likely Republicans:

Hillary Clinton-

Rick Perry

All the Others:

Jack Miller