Category Archives: Mind & Brain

The Pursuit of Justice

Life in balance.
Life in balance.

There are myriad qualities that make us human but few, other than the wide bailiwick of ‘culture’, have tentacles that reach – or should reach, as far into our psyches as the pursuit of justice.

All the qualities are evolutionarily useful, of course, and some are shared with other species: tool use for example. Plus we have the category of emotions – but we have no lock on exclusivity there, either; witness your dog jumping for joy when you return to your home (even after being gone for only 10 minutes!) or elephants grieving their dead. Then there is the neurological brain and unfathomed mind terrain of morality, ethics, mutuality, competition and the like.

I, and millions of others on this hunk of rock speeding through the universe, think the historical Buddha was onto something when he hit upon desire as a main cause of human misery. And, again, when he taught that wisdom and compassion were two primary keys to the alleviation of much that passes for our distress in this world. Notice that I used the past-tense ‘taught’ (teach) and not ‘preach’, a signal difference between Eastern and Western approaches to the divine. Preaching is an activity wherein someone with a supposed special insight and connection to the spiritual expounds to a (mostly) passive audience. Other than the “call-and-response” in traditional black churches there is precious little two-way communication going on.

Teaching in the active sense is a whole other endeavor altogether. It is what Doris Lessing (“Introduction” to the Grove Press edition of Ecclesiastes) identifies as the “experiential Path” vs. the “passive” one. When we hear and learn of concepts like “Justice” in our schools and places of worship we internalize, if we do at all, an intellectual concept. When we grow up in an environment with parents and a community that teaches us about “Justice” we internalize it in our hearts. It is closely linked to compassion for the Other. To see a black citizen beaten or killed on an anonymous video stream causes every right-thinking person unease. To walk out of the house knowing that this treatment might be your own lot brings on another level of apprehension altogether.

In many ways ordinary, middle-class white people in our society are privileged not so much by what has happened in their lives as by what has not happened.

The last time I drove cross-country from Ohio, then to Chicago for a Leica meeting and then home to New Mexico I was stopped not once, but twice by states highway patrol. In Illinois the trooper was right behind me as we drove 70+ mph along the Interstate. I decided to move back to the right lanes after passing a car and in a few seconds saw the flashing lights go on in the patrol car. I dutifully pulled over and awaited the standard visit from the cop at my Mercedes Sprinter van window.

When he finally came up I asked what was the problem. He said that in Illinois there is a law that a driver cannot change lanes on an Interstate within 275 feet of signaling a lane change. I asked him to repeat the statement as I was trying to internalize his comment (which was not as succinct as my version of it.) Then I did a quick calculation and said that at the speeds we were driving, 275 feet go by in less than three seconds. I added that I did not have a stop-watch but was pretty certain the legal time had transpired and I had, after all, signaled my intentions. He said, yes, I had signaled but he was pretty certain I had moved into the right lane too early. When I let out an exasperated breath (I was trying to get to my meeting hotel before nightfall) he added that he was not going to give me a ticket, only a ‘Warning’, and that I should leave my van and get into his patrol car. I responded with, “Really!” He said, “Yes, you need to comply, sir.” As I opened the door and stepped out he suddenly said, “Are you armed?” I looked at him with incredulity and said, “Are you serious? No, of course not!”m

As I approached his car I reached for the back door handle but he said, “No, get in the front passenger seat.”

“Okay, cool, I can look at all the toys!”

I did not get much done by way of inspection because there was a police major in the back seat who grilled me on fly-fishing in New Mexico when he saw the Catch & Release sticker in my rear window. I got the idea he was trying to ferret out whether I knew anything about the great art of casting with a fly or had stolen an expensive vehicle.

After several days in Chicago I headed back to the Interstate toward New Mexico. That evening late, just west of St. Louis, a car kept tail-gating me closely for miles. Rather than hit the brakes, which I would have done in my youth, I simply slowed down. Who wants to get the driver behind alarmed and pissed-off enough that he/she pulls up and sends a bullet thru the driver side window?

As I slowed those flashing lights came on! He kept me waiting for a long time before coming up to the window. Tired and (again) exasperated as I was trying to reach my usual hotel, I asked what took so damn long. He said he saw I had an old arrest record at the White House but could not find that it had ever been settled. It took him a long time to find it had been adjudicated (‘don’t return to DC and cause trouble for at least 6 months.’)

Then, I got the only laugh I have ever received from a state cop during the many times I have been stopped: “Officer, first things first. I am very proud of that arrest. It is a sterling moment of civil disobedience from my youth. I made national TV and got a televised comment from my state senator, John Glenn! Second, why did you stop me in the first place?”

“I could not read your license plate or see a sticker to see if it is current.“

“My date sticker is right there for all to see.”

“Yes, I see it now, but in Missouri it is illegal to drive with a license plate that is hard for an officer to read. Now, I’m not going to give you a ticket, but….”

Another ‘Warning’ ticket in my pocket after a stop that lasted ninety minutes.

Many of you will laugh at these stories, and I can, too, now. But, the significance of them is that any ‘untoward’ action or displayed anger on my part could have ended badly for me. Driving while brown can be a risky practice in many places in the United States. What proved to be remarkable was that the very next week the NAACP issued a notice that read, “if you are black you should avoid driving through Missouri if at all possible.” This is an incredible piece of advice in 21st century America.

These examples of state police action would be simply idiosyncratic stories if not for the fact that they are repeated across this nation every day. I am lucky in that I am sure the officers’ calculus of behavior was influenced by my educated flat, mid-Western speech, my demeanor and my expensive set of wheels (both officers were impressed by my great Mercedes vehicle), i.e. ‘he can probably afford an expensive lawyer’.

To sum, dear Reader, do not assume that your peaceful and secure daily existence is the norm for everyone in this country. Do not assume that those who are executed with impunity by state actors had it coming. Do not assume that after we have conquered Covid-19 everyone will return to a life of beauty and personal empowerment. Do not assume we must all color within the lines as dictated by the mandates of the 1%. Yes, applaud those officers who “take a knee” in solidarity with the people they have sworn to serve and protect but remember that real change is not a cosmetic application of soothing words and easy actions. True justice requires vigilance and perseverance – the hard work of all people of good will.

“History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” – Justice Thurgood Marshall

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” – John Stuart Mill, 1867

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ― Frederick Douglass

Great Reads #2: The Aeneid

Arma virumque cano….

The Aeneid is the story of how a refugee from beaten and destroyed ancient Troy preserved his people, via divine authority, by founding Rome, with his descendants going on to establish an empire.

In 19BC the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro left Greece, where he had been conducting research for The Aeneid, to return to his home in Rome. He shipped out on a vessel with the Emperor Augustus, as one does. They stopped at Megara where Virgil contracted fever (or heatstroke) and he died as the ship docked in the southern Italian trading port of Brundisium. Among his last thoughts was his dissatisfaction with a 10-year long writing project, this book, The Aeneid. Rather than let an unfinished work see the light of day, he asked his executors to burn the manuscript. Augustus, who knew something of the book as Virgil had read him three chapters, stepped in and ordered the work to be published ‘as is’.

The Aeneidis an acknowledged cornerstone of Western literature and by two centuries after his death was a prerequisite in Latin education, which is to say, any western education above the rudimentary. Even in the 19th century it was often a requirement of students to memorize the whole of it! Its 9,896 lines have been printed in hundreds of editions in both its original Latin dactylic hexameter and in poetic and prose translation. Its opening line was even found in excavation as graffiti in Pompeii: Arma virumque cano, “Of arms and a man I sing.”

In 1680 Henry Purcell published the music for one of my favorite operas, Dido and Aeneas with Nahum Tate writing the libretto. (Tate is today mostly remembered, when he is remembered art all, for rewriting Shakespeare’s plays so that every scene would be “full of respect to Majesty and the dignity of courts”. Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same!) I have many versions of The Aeneid shelved in several libraries around the house. My current favorite is the translation by Robert Fitzgerald (1983). I own four copies of this translation: one (trade paperback) in the sunroom library, one (mass market paper) in the research area for my work on wine in life and literature and two in the bedroom (first edition hardcover and a trade paper to share my enthusiasm by lending to friends.) Hmmm…. maybe this is why I have more than 5,000 books!

Virgil was a talented writer and superb stylist who cleverly knew his way around alliteration, onomatopoeia and other wordplay. His poetic lines are of a grand and stately solemn nature, very foreign to our modern ears attuned as we are to formulations of unstructured free-style verse and sentences. His goal in The Aeneid was to create a work that would glorify Rome and rival Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. There are twelve books (what we might call chapters) in The Aeneid, written using the same syllabic and metrical line as used by Homer. The first six chapters play on the Odyssey and the last six the war and battles in the Iliad.

Though a great work, The Aeneid has not been free of issues. Yes, there are literary ones (it is a bear to translate as it is composed in what the Germans call kunstsprache, an artificial or invented artful language; I never truly mastered it in my school Latin.)

But, the problems I address here are political in nature. The work was ‘co-opted’ right from the beginning by Augustus. The emperor is kindly mentioned by name in scenes where Aeneas is gifted sight into the future when he enters the Underworld to visit his late father, Anchises. Augustus’ reign came after decades of instability (the Roman Civil Wars) following Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon in 49BC, taking his legions into Rome and eventually becoming Dictator. Augustus was seen by many as savior and last hope of the Roman people for peace after the civil turmoil. Likewise it has been used through the centuries as a support for the aggrandizing and subjugating nature of colonization, a classical ‘white man’s burden’ made flesh.

But, to be fair, The Aeneid has also been interpreted as an anti-war poem and it is this tack I take. The language and potent imagery is second to none – cinematic even. The battle scenes do not require a very active imagination to visualize. It is sad that Virgil is no longer on the required reading list of our schools. It still has a lot to teach us about myriad human qualities like devotion, piety, hubris, rage, fate, courage and love in all its incarnations. Stop in and borrow a copy or buy your own if you are unfamiliar with the joy of reading this fine story.

Below, a section from “The World Below”, where Aeneas, led by the Sibyl, travels to the Underworld to see his father. She is carrying, under her dress, their entry ticket: the golden bough. It had been torn off a tree by Aeneas who was foretold it was needed as a presentation to Charon to get him to ferry them across Cocytus, the Stygian river leading to Hades. At the other side of the river there is another obstacle, the huge three-headed dog, Cerberus, but he enters the picture some lines later.

(If the words ‘golden bough’ seem familiar look up J.M.W. Turner’s painting of the same name and, also, the early anthropologist Sir James George Frazier whose work greatly influenced a generation, including Freud and Jung; Aleister Crowley; T.S. Elliot and William Carlos Williams; Hemingway, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves and Yeats; and the man who founded anthropology ‘off the verandah’, the founder of my university’s department, Bronislaw Malinowski, who was prompted to lay out the first statement of the aims of ethnography in his ground-breaking Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). Though now superseded in scholarship, for many years The Golden Bough exerted a profound influence upon literature, anthropology and intellectual thinking.)

Selection, below, courtesy of Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, NY. The Aeneid Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Book VI, lines 331-402. Copyright 1980, 1982, 1983.

Editions of The Aeneid
Bedroom Library

Book VI, “The World Below”, lines 331-402

The cavern was profound, wide-mouthed and huge,

Rough underfoot, defended by dark pool

And gloomy forest. Overhead, flying things

Could never safely take their way, such deathly

Exhalations rose from the black gorge

Into the dome of heaven. …

                                                “Away, away,”

The Sibyl cried, “All those unblest, away!”

Depart from the grove! But you, Aeneas,

Enter the path here, and unsheathe your sword.

There’s need of gall and resolution now.”


She flung herself wildly into the cave mouth,

Leading, and he strode boldly at her heels.

Gods who rule the ghosts; all silent shades;

And Chaos and infernal Fiery Stream,

And regions of wide night without a sound,

May it be right to tell of what I have heard,

May it be right, and fitting, by your will,

That I describe the deep world sunk in darkness

Under the earth.

                                    Now dim to one another

In desolate night they walked on through the gloom,

Through Dis’s homes all void, and empty realms,

As one goes through a wood by a faint moon’s

Treacherous light, when Jupiter veils the sky

And black night blots the colors of the world.

Before the entrance, in the jaws of Orcus,

Grief and avenging Cares have made their beds,

And pale diseases and sad Age are there,

And Dread, and Hunger that sways men to crime,

And sordid Want – in shapes to affright the eyes –

And Death and Toil and Death’s own brother, Sleep,

And the mind’s evil joys; on the door sill

Death-bringing War, and iron cubicles

Of the Eumenides, and raving Discord,

Viperish hair bound up in gory bands.

In the courtyard a shadowy elm

Spreads ancient boughs, her ancient arms where dreams,

False dreams, the old tale goes, beneath each leaf

Cling and are numberless. There, too,

About the doorway forms of monsters crowd –

Centaurs, twiformed Scyllas, hundred-armed

Briareus, and the Lernaean hydra

Hissing horribly, and the Chimaera

Breathing dangerous flames, and Gorgons, Harpies,

Huge Geryon, triple-bodied ghost.

Here, swept by sudden fear, drawing his sword,

Aeneas stood guard with naked edge

Against them as they came. If his companion,

Knowing the truth, had not admonished him

How faint these lives were – empty images

Hovering bodies – he had attacked

And cut his way through phantoms, empty air.

Listen to the Oldest (Discovered) Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

FROM: the web site Open Culture

World's Oldest (Discovered) Song: A 3400 Year Old Sumerian Hymn
World’s Oldest (Discovered) Song: A 3400 Year Old Sumerian Hymn

In the early 1950s, archaeologists unearthed several clay tablets from the 14th century B.C.E.. Found, WFMU tells us, “in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit,” these tablets “contained cuneiform signs in the hurrian language,” which turned out to be the oldest known piece of music ever discovered, a 3,400 year-old cult hymn. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California, produced the interpretation above in 1972. (She describes how she arrived at the musical notation—in some technical detail—in this interview.) Since her initial publications in the 1960s on the ancient Sumerian tablets and the musical theory found within, other scholars of the ancient world have published their own versions.

The piece, writes Richard Fink in a 1988 Archeologia Musicalis article, confirms a theory that “the 7-note diatonic scale as well as harmony existed 3,400 years ago.” This, Fink tells us, “flies in the face of most musicologist’s views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks.” Kilmer’s colleague Richard Crocker claims that the discovery “revolutionized the whole concept of the origin of western music.” So, academic debates aside, what does the oldest song in the world sound like? Listen to a midi version below and hear it for yourself. Doubtless, the midi keyboard was not the Sumerians instrument of choice, but it suffices to give us a sense of this strange composition, though the rhythm of the piece is only a guess.

hear the song

 

Today’s Palindrome Date: 4/14/14

But wait!… It gets better!

ALL of this week’s dates, when read backwards, are the same as when read forward — at least in America where we place the month first in the line-up.  Europeans tend to put the day first, so this post is not for them!

4/13/14

4/14/14

4/15/14

4/16/14

4/17/14

4/18/14

4/19/14

Nice.  And, a good thing I had to enter a note into my phone calendar or I might have missed this meaningless, numerological event.

A side-light: I have long been on a crusade to get people to adopt my way of date-stamping.

I put the day first, then the month, followed by the year.  BUT… I use a Roman Numeral for the month so my international clients are never confused as to my dating. Example for today: 14.IV.14

Finally, all this nonsense reminds me of my favorite palindrome:

“A man, a plan, a canal. Panama!”

 

Today is 3/14/14, but next year….

3.14159265359

The number π is a mathematical constant, the ratio of a circle‘s circumference to its diameter, approximately equal to 3.14159. It has been represented by the Greek letter “π” since the mid-18th century though it is also sometimes spelled out as “pi“.

Being an irrational number, π cannot be expressed exactly as a common fraction. Consequently its decimal representation never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern. The digits appear to be randomly distributed although no proof of this has yet been discovered. Also, π is a transcendental number – a number that is not the root of any nonzero polynomial having rational coefficients. This transcendence of π implies that it is impossible to solve the ancient challenge of squaring the circle with a compass and straight-edge.

Fractions such as 22/7 and other rational numbers are commonly used to approximate π.

For thousands of years mathematicians have attempted to extend their understanding of π… – Wikipedia

 

Freud in America

We are born at a given moment, in a given place and, like vintage years of wine, we have the qualities of the year and of the season of which we are born. Astrology does not lay claim to anything more. — Carl Jung

It was on this day in 1909 that Sigmund Freud (6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939) landed in America for the first and only time. Freud had been invited by Dr. Granville Stanley Hall, president of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts to give a series of lectures on the origin and growth of psychoanalysis. Freud invited his Hungarian disciple Dr. Sandor Ferenczi (7 July 1873 – 22 May 1933) to travel with him as well as another disciple who had also been invited to Clark University, Dr. Carl Jung.

“After insuring his life for 20,000 marks (then equivalent to about US$4,764) Freud took a train to Bremen to join Jung and Ferenczi a day before boarding their ship. Hosting a farewell lunch, Freud ordered wine. Jung, a teetotaler, didn’t want any but at Freud’s insistence agreed to have a drink. Curiously, after Jung capitulated and drank, Freud fainted.”*

On the voyage across the Atlantic Dr. Ernest Jones, Freud’s leading British disciple and later his biographer wrote that “the 3 companions analyzed each other’s dreams — the 1st example of group analysis…”

Before setting sail Freud, a collector of antiquities, confided that all he wanted to see was the Metropolitan Museum’s Cypriot collection and Niagara Falls. While in New York the three compatriots also saw their first moving picture.

Although Freud was impressed by the following he had in the United States, enjoyed a long walk and talk with the dying William James, and received the only academic honorary degree he ever received, he hated the food that inflamed his already bad prostate; thought women led American men by the nose; was discomfited by American women, admitting they kept him awake at night, giving him erotic dreams about prostitutes; and disliked not being understood in German.

“Freud died still believing, as he had once remarked, that tobacco was the only excuse for Columbus’ great mistake in discovering America.”

* “Dr. Freud Visits America” from The People’s Almanac by Irving Wallace, © 1975 – 1981 by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace.

— http://www.trivia-library.com/a/freud-in-america-part-5-feelings-about-america.htm

Greatest Hits & CTE

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

Malcolm Gladwell continues to amaze and inspire. He spoke on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS this morning about why college football should be eliminated. (He was also a panelist, teamed with Buzz Bissinger, in a very good debate on the TV program Intelligence Squared. Gladwell and Bissinger are opposed by former footballers Tim Green and Jason Whitlock for ‘the motion’ “Ban College Football”.) The gist of the argument is that players are at risk for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain injury resembling Alzheimers but more aggressive in its display.

I have written a bit about CTE in relation to Ernest Hemingway in my forthcoming book on wine. One now has to wonder whether CTE affected people like Paul Robeson, an All-American at Rutgers who also played a couple seasons professionally with teams in Akron, Ohio and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

There will come a time, no doubt, when we will take a closer look at those seeking public office who were formerly involved in contact sports like football, hockey and boxing. Did they suffer any head trauma or concussions while engaged in these activities? Even soccer may have its affected players what with head butts to the ball and collisions between players.