Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Poem: From a distant spot


blue arched in yellow

        the gaslight sputtered in the night

              a girl pressed her cheek to Dostoyevsky’s

                 Poor People

                         and wept


and at so many anarchist meetings

       in Stelton

           you’d nod off among

                     rows of would-be



                             will she sleep on the back bench?”



one night some Italian cobblers

       at work under the eaves

            blew the roofOFF

a man stood naked among pigeons

    and the ruins


           and stared out


your father

        spirited him to Philadelphia


                     and you went off to college

                            first MARRIEDRADCLIFFE



 never leave him alone with the

             chambermaid  warned


   your New England




summer afternoons

               I hit against Pete Taggard

                 who had a live fastball

                        on the old racecourse by our


mornings, on your advice,

                 read Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov


                 while you ran for School Committee

                            in our town – “But after all, Jews

                                 can’t live in Greenwich”

                                          by the Connecticut sound


you who taught your children how to read

       but told no childhood tales

             for all the world was Westport

                   blown from a distant spot

*This blog program double spaces lines that should be single spaced and I do not know how to correct it. 

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Long Wave of Globalization

       In Santorini, we stayed at a lovely discounted hotel with a view of the sea and the sunrise.  The hotel owner,  saying gregariously that he had fixed up three hotels and had bought two more,  one for each of his five daughters drove us careeningly down the long switchbacks to the harbor, almost smashing into another car while we talked.  There is some effort here. 

      But the food for a continental breakfast in 2009 was a tang/orange juice substitute, four kinds of “bread” chock full of chemicals, two  kinds of jam in little containers (also full of chemicals if one could decipher the Greek)  and a Nescafe substitute (they made my wife wonderful Greek coffee when she asked).  There was no Greek yogurt or honey, the marvelous staple of breakfasts elsewhere in Greece. There wasn’t even cheese or mystery meat.   They had adopted the American “breakfast” of 2000, modeled as Michel Pollan tells us in In Defense of Food, on “k-rations” for the soldiers from World War II – flavored chemicals which can be sold now at a high price – and the incipient science of nutritionism.  Pollan says amusingly that nutritionism is like 15th century surgery, getting it right about some things, but not knowing very much.

   As he also relates, George McGovern led a senate committee that told the truth: Americans eat too much beef.  The cattle industry campaigned against him.  Politicians now talk about the nutrition in products as if food were a matter of getting the right chemicals in one’s body. See here.   Dan Glickman, Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture, used to rattle on  about Europeans having a “culture of food” – perhaps he could have said more simple: they like food; it was up to the US government,  Glickman said,  to keep  pushing the so-called “science of food.” In the United States,  fortunately, a movement for organic foods has taken hold.  Many ordinary people are deciding that one can pay now (for better food) or pay later (in feeling ill, being overweight, and in contracting new diseases like teenage diabetes).  But there is still a class divide.  Cheap hotels still serve chemical  “scrambled” eggs for breakfast (stuff that executives in the hotel chains, no matter how dumb, would not be caught dead, eating or feeding their families). 

      When we drove through Goodland, Kansas in August, 2000 on our return from Spain, the hotel clerk, a charming young woman told us she was corresponding via internet romantically with a young European man.  They had not exchanged pictures (she weighed about 250 pounds). She was a very lively person – hopefully, it worked out – but the story was tinged with sadness.  The waitress in the restaurant, weighed, oh, 275 pounds; one family was frantically eating, the man spread across two seats (lots of food, lots of weight,  no nourishment).  It was as if we had walked into a satirical play.  The woman, who cleaned our room weighed 300 pounds.    Goodland, Kansas – the ruin of American agriculture, the government subsidized production of cheap corn – was poisoning the land and the people.  

      In Santorini, they offered the drinks for free so we went out for breakfast.  Perhaps as my wife reflected , this is the long breaking of the American wave  of globalization, sent out in 2000, here on this beautiful island in 2009. (having been a colony, poor and dominated, Greece is and isn’t part of Europe; in Paris, where people feel better about themselves, the senses are more valued, the food magnificent, they say, Americans eat merde). The woman who ran the hotel bragged that the breakfast was inexpensive – 4 euros per person – compared to 5 elsewhere.  Hotel “management” – it  did cut costs at the expense of being poison (if one eats better food, it is easy to notice that one just does not feel good after eating such a “breakfast”).  But suddenly even McDonald’s in Europe, the International Herald Tribune tells us, is concerned with sustainable agriculture.  Even McDonald’s now is buying some meat from farmers who give chickens and cows a little space (not just relying on chemicals to make imitation flavor).  Even McDonald’s has hired Temple Grandin, the autistic speaker with animals from Colorado State University  (she thinks in images and understands what animals try to communicate through looking at you and sounds, since they, too,  project images), as an advisor.  Perhaps we need a slogan for businesses: better living through food, not “chemistry.”  The ground under this corrupt globalization  is shifting some, and in a few years perhaps, even in Santorini and for working class Americans..

      In a store on the mountain overlooking the sea and the sunset,  my wife found a beautiful and inexpensive cotton scarf.  She returned to get some to bring back as gifts. The man working there told her that several  others had done the same.  “Cotton,” he said, “not synthetics.”





Celia Gilbert's Poems: Something to Exchange


        One of the survivals of Hellenic civilization is grave steles.  A mother and daughter hold hands, eyes apart, looking at daylight and the night. Words are carved: how wonderful you were, my daughter.  Anne Carson’s The Economy of the Lost revives and traces the brief poems of Simonides, known otherwise for his advice to tyrants.  He was the first one paid and even  famously stingy – he kept some money,  unlike Socrates – to inscribe the brief words of a poem on a stele.  These poems have the intensity and dark magic of mortality.  What was here, in all its vigor and love,  is gone, except in its furious imprint in us.  As we age, we carry the magic of daily survival, the intensity of nature, the beauties of this world, of blossoms and of love, and the intensity of loss, with us.  Each day is an exchange of worlds.

         No one has as uncanny a sense of the pain and shock of this traffic as Celia Gilbert, whose book of poems, Something to Exchange (Blazevox, 2009) captures “death’s democracy” as she puts it speaking of her father, or in “Naked Seed” sharing with him a gymnosperm – in the Greek - a pine cone,

           now that I find you in everything

           now that you are nowhere.*

.    In one etched poem – only Simonides’ words  at his work were scarcer but not more measured – she speaks of Giotto’s painting of the death of St. Francis.  These are monks, devoted to animals, living simple and quiet lives, having meditated, much more than even doctors, on mortaliity.  But mortality is not yet theirs, not even of the one who made life radiant for them.  And it is quick, linking her experience to theirs:

        I understand this moment –

        this passage from breath to nothing –

        stuns them as it did me

        when I saw you carried out

        knees strapped to chest

       “Goodbye” too late.

But Celia experiences this moment with  a great simplicity, a mother’s and daughter’s grief, in a way one can hear further, even  to the dark blossoming still fragrant on the air here, of death and a kind of life in death with those of us who remain:

         How sweet the faces of the monks

         They have lost their shepherd,

         and later painters will be too worldly

         to catch the simplicity of loss:

         the gaze that reveals  they had heard of spring

         all their lives, but only now

         come upon a blossom.

        The epigraph is from John Donne: “Poor Intricated Soule!  Perplexed Labyrinthical Soul.”  Labyrinths are, in the ancient world,  homes for the dead  (most in Knossus, where death is currently least grasped, see here).  Her words are up to Donne. The first poem “Coming Back” speaks indirectly of the loss of a daughter: 

           Walking down a country road

            I see it,  the flat, boldly-striped petals

            of the climatis wrapped

            around its friend the tree.

            Nights you come, in the second

            between  closing the book and turning off the light,

            or at 4 a.m outside the window

            riding the ivy


            Intense, energetic , so young,

            so fully created - a fragrance

            all at once – no interval

            between you and existence.

         “Her Voice,” a beautiful , extraordinarily painful series of songs about her mother, a woman who came across to her almost as an angel – named by her own mother this, a poem embroidering the words from her mother’s childhood, “angelic” as opposed to her moody sister Jean and wild brother Charlie (she names them).  But now her mother is failing, has forgotten or is unsatisfied with her, cannot  call up her own words.  In “You are my Daughter?,” the poet’s words are calm but implacable in conveying terror:

                                                This disappointed face

      Seems to say you’re not what I wanted, not what I meant

      Now I am a memory and you are a memory too.

Perhaps the deepest relief or making peace here is the epigraph from Basho, translated by Robert Bly:

        The temple bell stops-

        But the sound keeps coming

        Out of the flowers.

This image is these poems.

         In “Morning Glories on the Day of Atonement,” she speaks, again of her childhood, of being a jew who comes from a family, in a way like mine (the grandparents on both sides of mine had departed, Jewish practices were  more distant):

          Tradition had been lived and left by my parents

          for my brothers and me,  nothing

          but the knowledge we were Jews

          and a feeling of unease when we counted,

          on this holiday, the empty seats

          around us at school.

          We were different again

          from those who are different.

I will invoke these last two lines at my youngest son’s Sage’s bar mitzvah in three weeks.  He chose this and so chose to place me, in an interesting way in it, as I have found some words of the prophets to name the humanity of the Palestinians.  As Aristotle says, we are not complete without our children, focused in and beyond this life.

        Marx wrote of commodity fetishism and the falseness of exchange when it departs from and traduces use.  Celia traces the livingness of exchange for her grandfather, a peddlar in the West with few words in English, trying and making a new home in America:

        Loneliness stretches its arms to a stranger

        even the Jew can be offered a drink from the well.

        at kitchen doors buxom women

        watched as you walked up

        Mister, what have you got?

         And she has two political/personal poems, two  collages which capture the distance of these exchanges.  One is a long poem of the holocaust in Lodz, “July 20, 1944,” perhaps the best poem I have ever read about it.  It sees those, full of pity for themselves like the Nazi death-accountant, seeking only exchange, who have nothing to exchange.  But we jews (and others) have the morning glories of rags:

        Received in the ghetto by the end of May 1942:

        Clothing and rags, 798,625 kilos,

        Feathers, eiderdown and pillows, 221,035 kilos.

Set against:

         Let nothing of the Jew be wasted.

         these old clothes men

         who called under the windows

        “Cash for rags. Any old rags? Bring out your rags.”

      In “Family,” she writes of Kathy Boudin, her cousin, who was caught up in the Weathermen, committed a great crime and served for many years to atone for the horror.  Celia employs the dictionary definitions for remorse, redemption,  Kathy’s working in the prison with  women with Aids or teaching them to read.  I have met her again  since (Celia introduced us at a party).  Starting in prison, she has now earned,  at 60. a doctorate in education.  She has come up again from the voyage to the underworld, not young any more, with something to give.  Celia’s own words are those, unusually, of a prose poem:

        "Over time my anger at your illusions fades.  We talk on the phone.  The death of parents draws us closer.  I visit in the beige waiting room, behind the glittering hoops of wire. We make an island in this sad space of food vending machines and starched guards, where silent lovers are clasping hands, staring, and little children climb on their mothers."

       She has written  fierce, almost unbearably honest poems about the strange not complete connections or disconnections in what nearness we achieve with those we love.  Of a son who had learned to conceal himself from her, she writes in “Afterimage”:

                                  Just in time

      I remember to say nothing.


     There’s nothing now I can do.

     I recall sitting on his bed

     When he was ten.


      He asked me almost every night,

     “Do you love me?”

      What the failure then was

       I never knew.

     A failure of exchange or of the intention to exchange. Perhaps we all do, to some extent, what her son did to unfold the not yet and murky independence each of us must unfold.  Perhaps at other times or in the last things or in near goodbyes,  sometimes we see each other, can call what is important into speech.

        Celia has also been “In Katmandu.”  I, too, was there once with my father when I was 16; he tried to bargain with the Panchen Lama over a charm stick while women sold their charms on the streets near the Temple at the top of the hill and the homeless begged.  Since then,  I have learned something from the Tibetans.  But the poet’s sense of the afterlife is not at that moment, similar to that of the lamas, talking you through death,  keep awake,  to journey to a new life.  Her sense is more like the Hellenes, more linked, as we are going, to the here and now,  the hands still touching:

     I don’t want a new life.  I’m not ready

     to shed the disappointments and longings

     of this one  For every particle trying to let go

     there’s another hanging on to grief.

         In “The Market Place” Celia is in the agora in Athens.  She sees the Greeks who came

        some with goods, some with ideas 

        like you, Father?

Izzy (I.F. Stone) wore a hearing aid, as I remember from many visits to her living room (Celia is my sister-in-law) and to hearing him speak at Harvard noble words on the State Department’s “White Paper” (as full of lies as Cheney) on Vietnam:

       In the flea-market at Plaka

       an elderly man sold carved birds,

       his old-fashioned hearing aid.

       with flesh-colored wire,

       conjured you up for me that night 

Her father took her for walks and chatted with a homeless man before giving him change.  Here again, as if in the realm of the grail, an exchange arises between worlds.  He also wrote a last book on Socrates:

       The next day I bought an owl

        from the old man,

        wanting to touch his veined hand

        knowing  he would soon go down,

        unacknowledged to abide

        in death’s democracy with you, Father,

        both of you among the fortunate

        with something to exchange.

      In the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the steles are the most intense gifts of the Hellenes, overpoweringly with us to anyone who walks in front of them, to this moment in time.  The words of Simonides, carved into steles, seeing magically, unmercifully into each person’s mortality and into his own, live.  So will these.

*For some reason, the blog program here has double-spaced all the citations from the poems.  I couldn't figure out how to get it to single-space.  My apologies.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Soccer and the threat of fascism

      This week, the US national soccer team won a fabulous underdog victory over the most powerful team in the world from Spain 2-0.  The US team was at the height of its play, the Spanish team at a low ebb.  Play this game 50 more times and perhaps the US would win once or twice again.  It is rare that an American team has this possibility (in the Olympics, the coverage of the US "overdog" has been often entirely chauvinistic).  As George Vecsey wrote in the New York Times, this was the greatest victory in US soccer history, even surpassing the defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.

       But the beautiful game, the game every boy in the world learns to play at an early age, kicking soccer balls in every free moment – hiking along a forest trail in Mallorca, for example, the sons of a friend of mine taught my son Sage then four, the wonders of soccer, and he became a soccer player for a number of years and will always be a fan) – is, in Europe, one of the breeding grounds for racism.  A few weeks ago, Spain’s coach Luis Zaragones was caught on film instructing one of his players to go after a black player, one of the best in the world, as a lesser being.  When an outcry occurred,  Zaragones announced that he was “friends” with Roma and blacks. He was just using a motivational tactic.  The 1948 UN Convention against Genocide made advocacy of racism – standing up in a black shirt, for example – a crime.  But Franco lasted till 1975 in Spain.  Even in the new and vibrant democratic Spain, many – as Zaragones reveals – simply breathe racism.  It is who they are, and they must be shocked – through nonviolent resistance -  out of it.    It was vengeance for the black players from the US – and for anti-racists everywhere -  that the Americans defeated this (within elite soccer) monster.*

      Taunted with racist chants from the fans, jeers from the opposing players, and even bananas thrown on the field (soccer is an excuse for mass displays of naked racism in Europe), Zoro, a great player from Camerooon took up the ball and walked off.  There is now a campaign against racism in European soccer.  Brilliant players have done ads against racism, calling on decent fans to rise up, promoted by Nike – very much to the corporation’s credit, a result produced by the enormous change in the United States in the last 40 years**.  But the situation is extreme.  Right wing parties, often in the government,  crusade against immigrants from Morocco (Spain) or Pakistan and other African countries (Greece).  Smaller parties, sometimes in the government as in Italy, have,  open fascist sympathies,  Though there is a fight about it, being a soccer fan is now an education in racism.  Being a soccer fan is, in essence,  to be internationalist (it is the world's sport).  In Europe, it needs to be transformed into an education in fighting racism.

        A well-known  Italian soccer player gave fans the Mussolini salute. ESPN did a video on “the beautiful game turned ugly” which has all of these incidents here.  This video is especially worth taking in.

        That ESPN did this story and  that the New York Times and the mainstream press did not pick it up reveals the political emptiness – the enabling of reaction – of the media (it is the same reason why a person interested in the news would learn more from the Daily Show or the Colbert Report than from reading or watching the corporate news media).  The world cup (FIFA) officials will take action, they say, against players and coaches, but not against the fans.  Since Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi is quite near to Mussolini in political orientatin and the government now organizes abuses and roundups of the Roma, these are hardly just events within soccer.   Two weeks ago I posted on the Karmanlis’ government in Greece’s response to rising democracy by sending out trucks to round up homeless immigrants to take them to camps (see here). 

      America was saved from the worst of this by the civil rights movement.  One owes to Martin Luther King and to black and white student anti-racists, and to Malcolm X, and to the rebellions in American cities, and to black workers and anti-racist whites who organized campaigns going back to the 1930s about the Scottsboro boys and Angelo Herndown, the revolution in the segregated South and throughout the country, the diminishing of the Ku Klux Klan.   Just 62 years ago, Jackie Robinson broke into major league baseball and was greeted by endless racist abuse.  The great players in the Negro Leagues are today just being invited to join the Hall of Fame.  No events are greater in American sports than the knock out by Joe Louis of Max Schmeling (the Nazi’s white hope) or the ban on Mohammed Ali for opposing the Vietnam War.

      Today most of the world – outside of right-wing Israelis who are sadly mainstream and a considerable number* - celebrates American democracy for electing Barack Obama, forty years from the assassination of King. Europeans liked Obama in polling about 8 to 1 over McCain (in this respect, there are plenty of decent people in Europe).   And American racism is real and virulent.  Yet its power to place the Republicans in power – the Southern strategy of Nixon and Atwater  incarnated by Rove -  has been broken by their crimes (the aggression in Iraq, torture, the financial crisis) and the emergence of Obama as a political leader who is not tainted by the enabling of all of these corrupt policies by Democratic leaders.  The mainstream press and neoconservatives in particular (featured once again on the Washington Post editorial page among many others) display monstrous racism toward Arabs.  It is okay to torture any Arab innocent the US government lays its hands on; at least no one should be prosecuted for it, even though American law requires this,  Even the New York Times will blather, in so-called reporting, about “enhanced interrogation techniques”which are somehow different from torture when done by the American elite and its agents.  Racism, H. Rap Brown, a leader in SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), once said is as American as cherry pie.  The civil rights movement of which Brown was a part has helped to make that less overt toward blacks – America is not Europe – and yet anti-Arab racism is now  as American as cherry pie.  So is the wall to keep out latinos, and continuing horrors including murders along the border.  Obama’s speech in Cairo (see here)  and actions toward Israel – he has united all the G8 in pressing Israel to freeze the settlements and his emissary George Mitchell is pushing for serious negotiations between Israel and Palestine are a huge step forward.   But the abolition of the rule of law in the last administration and the vacillations about law – the noxious appeal to so-called state secrets of the Obama administration to protect the criminals in the Bush administration from investigation and legal consequences – are frightening.

        One might look at this film of European decadence in soccer and say: this era is thankfully past in the United States.  With the election of Obama, this is, to a large degree, true.  And yet the impact of a police state toward Arab-Americans and other Arabs, poisoning the rule of law as a whole, is with us,  Stephen Johns,  a black man who guarded the Holocaust Museum in Washington can be murdered by a racist (see here).  There is an American variant even now to what is shown in Europe.  Turn the medal of this ugly coin – and it is we who need to fight for decency.

*I am very grateful to Richard Rockwell for bringing this video to my attention.

**Nike also needs to deflect attention from its longstanding racist abuse of nonwhite people, including children, in its factories in the Philippines, Vietnam and elsewhere.

***Thanks to Ilene Cohen for frightening communications on this point.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


      Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade uses contemporary archaeological techniques and discoveries to make deeper and more interesting a theme of Friedrich Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.  Engels was attractively anti-sexist and connected the oppression – the imprisonment, the reduction to chattels – of women to the emergence of high status, certain kinds of property (in slaves and women), and a repressive state (a “special body of armed men” as Lenin later name it) to keep the down the subordinates.  He suggests that original or primitive communism preceded these later forms.

     What Marija Gimbutas and Eisler identify sharply is the Neolithic, agricultural societies, spiritually led by women and emphasizing life, which as Eisler suggests, have a partnership and not a domination model of how society should be organized.  Theirs is a richer picture of an earlier and different society.  As I have described about Crete and Atlantis (here, here and here), there is a lot of evidence for this different kind of organization.  The Indo-Europeans were hunter tribes,  partriarchal, with a great emphasis on weapons,  fighting and subordinating and enslaving (the Nazis worshipped the supposed Aryan blood-lines of these warriors).  The transition to their rule is quite an ugly one.

     What is powerful about Eisler’s argument, strengthening Engels’s account of early communism,  is the insight that human life does not have to be militarist and destructive.  In the age of Obama, there is new hope in the United States and the world.  Yet the American government is still the slave of the military-industrial complex.  There is a link between the hierarchical social organizations which wielded  the  first weaponry,  as Eisler shows, and nuclear weaponry.  Sociobiologists often want to infer a genetic basis to aggression and violence.  These are certainly a human possibility as much of history has shown.  But that they are necessary to humans is false, as, for example,  these very different trading and non-warlike social organizations, extending in historic time even into Crete from 2900 to 1400 BC (and for a long epoch earlier in the Cycladic islands and old Europe) highlight. 

     Humanity is now faced with a situation in which continued modern wars, including the recent Bush enterprises, one of which Obama is plainly continuing and with regard to Pakistan, worsening,  are not survivable in even the medium run. They wreak deep environmental and human damage (for instance, our poisoned with depleted uranium and often homeless soldiers, many of whom will die young; others, however, will now be with us, from this war, as the Vietnam veteran homeless linger, for another 50 years)  The election of Obama represents a significant shift in the vision of the United States, for instance,  about global warming.  But that the military-industrial-financial complex can be defeated or re-channeled is not clear (trying to deal with the complex fictiveness of the financial economy, it is not yet clear that Obama himself even understands this danger).  But the Engels-Eisler argument (there are others as well) and modern nonviolent movements  help to indicate alternate possibilities.  

       Another striking political implication of Eisler’s argument is on the origin of fascism.  In the tombs of ancient warriors, the men are buried with their weapons around them, “their” women and slaves often sacrificed with them.  The idea of the Fuehrer, il Duce, one man rule comes from the initial acts of patriarchal domination.  Refurbished in the 20th century by the needs of a capitalism threatened by class war and the Russian Revolution, fascism seems a modern political phenomenon.  Mussolini was an atheist.  Hitler used the most modern and efficient means to commit genocide against Jews,  Roma,  slavs and others.  But the authoritarian or fascist phenomenon cuts against all modern political thought, falls outside any reasonable conception of modern politics and aims to suppress it.  As I argue in Democratic Individuality,  all decent modern political thought, conservative, liberal and radical, seeks to forge those economic, social and political institutions which facilitate or at least do not too much obstruct each individual in pursuing the life that she sees fit, and changing that conception, so long as she doesn’t (fundamentally, violently) harm others. That is the core notion of democratic individuality at a high level of abstraction.  Great social theoretical and empirical differences divide, say, anarchists and conservatives, but on this underlying moral judgment, they agree.  For instance, conservatives in the current period have been leading defenders of habeas corpus and the rule of law as opposed to tyranny and  torture.  In this respect, I find myself a thoroughgoing conservative  - it is the part of the view they share with other modern views,  but often with more self-awareness; the emphasis on habeas corpus contrasts markedly with Cheney’s authoritarianism and the tearing up of the Constitution.

      Fascists and authoritarians disagree in kind with these modern views.  In hating the supposed decadence (i.e. the extension of freedom) of modern society, they revel in warlikeness: one man, one leader, every one else the follower, the subordinate, heavily policed.  Perhaps Engels and particularly Eisler help situate this view.  It is a decadent modern perversion of the old patriarchal model (it is not tribal since many indigenous people live differently, as of course, the women-led Neolithic civilizations did).

       In this context, it is worth emphasizing, once again, that the so-called neoconservative view,  despite some fantasized affection for democracy – imposing democracy at gun-point is a racist enterprise –is a form of authoritarian imperialism.  It is not a conservative  view,  a modern view, or a decent one.  It has taken over the Washington Post editorial page, the Wall Street Journal and the Denver Post. It is in love with torture.  Its representatives aim through bombing Iran to wreak further destruction.  Senator Joseph Lieberman today admires the Iranian people for their courageous demonstrations, but just yesterday (and tomorrow) wants to bomb them.  They are not faces to him but pawns.  The Iranian rebellion has helped to make us aware of whom our government is being asked to murder.  It has temporarily helped to isolate neoconservatives.  But the mainstream media treats these views as respectable (it denies that there are laws against torture, as the recent controversy about National Public Radio's and the New York Times's refusal to use the term torture for crimes committed by American officials highlights). They remain a stone's throw away from power and Obama's complex path about state secrets, to some extent, shields them. Neoconservativism  needs to be put out of business in American politics.




      Several weeks ago,  I was in Seattle to give a talk.  Rainy most of the time, the city is often overcast.  But on a clear day, suddenly one can look out Rainier Avenue and see, hulking, Mt. Rainier.  It is as if some dark magic had occurred.  The clouds suggest nothing is there.  They clear.  The sheer force of the mountain makes itself felt.  The whole city is marked by this mysterious hide and seek.

       One can see why indigenous peoples, who had more of a sense of these things, worshipped volcanoes.   Power and transience.  Some distance away are the remains of Mt. St. Helen’s.  30 years ago, the top blew off.  The stump of the volcano remains.

      As St. Helen’s was exploding, everyone left except one man who stayed with his cabin by a lake.   The mountain side collapsed. The lava took the cabin, with him in it, back into the earth.

      I have just gone to Santorini (named for the Venetian St. Irene) in the Aegean.  There 3400 years ago, the great volcano lurching up in a giant island exploded. The air was filled with fire.   Most of the island sank beneath the sea (the origins of the Atlantis story - see here and here).

       The crater or caldera of the volcano is Santorini and the surrounding islands.  Far beneath the sea, the still living volcano has thrown up a small lava island, Neo Kamenei.  A boat ride and one can walk up it, look into the crater,  see out to the few islands making some pieces of the circle of the larger former island and the blue and open sea.

      Our guide has lived on Santorini all her life.  In August, she says, the path smokes.  Even now one can see wisps down in the crater.  The June heat of the Aegean beats down, the heat of the magma comes up through our shoes.  The volcano exploded four times in the last century, the last time in 1950.  There were great showers of smoke and fire but nothing threatening even to Santorini close by (the guide has photographs).  But the island coming up out of the sea is a fragile mass of decaying lava rock, a few grasses, many withered and a few bright and hopeful yellow flowers.  The immense heat of it is an energy of a possible explosion – scientists monitor it daily and reassure everyone  to go about their lives, that the extraordinary beauty of this circle of islands, this crater,  these sunrises and sunsets, will remain solid.  The island itself, as one clambers up over slipping rocks, doesn’t suggest it.

      Her son, the guide says, once went off by himself down into the crater.  It is a couple of hundred feet below and looks solid.  It is way hot, she says, full of gases – one can see wisps of smoke – and he staggered up, tipsy, from breathing it.  As in a fairy tale, if she had known, she said firmly,  she would never have given him permission (like all explorers, he went off…). 

      The great explosion sent a tsunami – initially 75 meters high (the one that hit Thailand was 20 meters high).  It took 20 minutes to hit Crete (the boat ride today lasts about 4 hours), still 45 meters high.  Everyone on that side of Crete like Thailand went down to the shore where the water was drawn out, and then…

      The archaeologists call the original the round island.  No name survives for it. The remains were absorbed beneath the sea,  but on Thira (the Dorian name for what is today Santorini), were preserved in volcanic ash.

     Most excavations are of burial sites, the objects recovered (or plundered as by the British or  grave robbers) are ones buried with the dead, for their travels in the underworld.  Since 1960, archaeologists have come to respect the places they work in.  Now teams of scientists try to listen and reconstruct what they unearth. 

          On Thira,  there is a whole town, Akrotiri, deserted by its inhabitants as the volcano warned of eruption, leaving most of the buildings and many objects including frescoes are in tact,  preserved by ash. Currently, the excavations are closed, but there is a record of what is found in the Santorini museum.  Because one fresco shows two women beside one another (a naked breast hangs down), some archaelogists named it “The Room of the Ladies.”  In the goddess culture, it may be that every room involved the same sense of the universe, of spirit; even teams of archaeologists need to tread carefully, including with their words.

      The Santorini Museum has many of the frescoes and other finds.  Among the 5 or so is a large one of blue monkeys (there are also blue monkeys playing with crocuses in the Archaelogical Museum in Heraklion).  Blue monkeys are not native to Hellas or these islands.  They are not native to Egypt.  They come from elsewhere in Africa.  In 1999, the team of scientists carefully excavating  Akrotiri found within a box a container with a perfectly forged golden ibex (see here).  This goat is also African.  In the circuit of the trading goddess cultures, influences moved from old Europe and the Cycladic islands to and fro with Africa.  As a research question, it would be useful to find out how the rich cultures of Africa, not just the Pharonic culture which influenced later Greek art and Athens, interacted with Crete and Thira, and whether some of the life oriented, egalitarian goddess-cultures also have African inspiration or roots (anyone who knows something about this, please write to me).

       The Akrotiri excavations have just begun.  At a campground,  I spoke with Benedict, an archaelogy student working with student tourists  because there are no jobs.  4 years ago, a roof collapsed in Akrotiri, killing one visitor.  The site has been shut every since.  The Professor in charge of the excavation in Athens is not doing anything.  It is a depression. The reactionary Greek government is short of funds.  The standstill is a mirror of the New Acropolis Museum, supposed to open 5 years ago (to coincide with the Athens Olympics), just opening its doors now,  on June 20th.  The desire to unearth the secrets of the past is real, but perhaps only the ones leaders and scholars already  know (a goddess culture with some roots in Africa; for a long time as Riane Eisler points out, scholars refused to recognize the blackness of some Pharoahs – the “master race” just couldn’t be…black.  And to set out to find black women …Better perhaps not to pursue it too deeply or quickly.

      But the secrets are there to be found.  Mt. St. Helen’s, Mt. Rainier, Neo Kamenei work on a different time scheme.  Still, the fragility of life, transience, hangs in this place like the wisps of clouds coming in over the sun, in over  the white tabernas and  houses set steeply on the stark cliffs of Santorini, nearer and nearer.



Photo: the Golden Ibex from Akrotiri, Santorini

This statue of a golden ibex was preserved in a container in a larger box in Akrotiri in the volcanic explosion some 3000 years ago that hastened the decline of Minoan civilization in Crete and Santorini. The statue demonstrates the remarkable artistry and technical abilities arrived at toward the end of the Minoan period, the sophistication of a women-led egalitarian civilization that celebrated life.  The ibex is not native to the European Mediterranean or Aegean but to Africa and Eurasia.  This statue thus suggests an interplay, through trade, of quite distant communities which may all have been  egalitarian in comparison to the hierarchical warrior cultures which would triumph in later Hellas.
The ibex was found in 1999, incarnating and hinting at the treasures which are yet to be discovered in excavating Akrotiri. This photograph was taken by Paula Bard.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Photo: the dark snake goddess at Knossus

This image of a dark snake goddess with a cat on her head is from Knossus.  This destroyer power is one aspect or incarnation of the goddess; the others, perhaps more dominant, centered on life - reproduction - and the fostering of an egalitarian society.   It is in the Archaeological Museum at Iraklio (Heraklion). This photograph was taken by Paula Bard.  It illustrates the post on Knossus brought to you by Sir Arthur Evans here.

The ring of Gyges, the Lord of the Rings

          In book 2 of the Republic, Adeimantus tells the story of the ring of invisibility, the ring that conceals injustice.  It gives the unjust man the reputation of perfect justice, while the just man is martyred (Socrates, a precursor of the story of Jesus 399 years later). 

        One night,  lightning strikes and a chasm opens in the earth.  Gyges, a shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia, descends and finds a huge horse perhaps reminiscent of Troy, war, and deception.  He crawls into it and finds a large, naked corpse, with only a ring on its finger.  Not spooked by the dark, he takes the ring, and climbs out.  This cave precedes the famous cave in book 7 and the underworld in the Myth of Er (the direction of the Republic is down, the first sentence: yesterday I went down to the Peiraeus with Glaucon, son of Ariston to see the festival of the [Thracian] moon goddess Bendis). 

             Gyges sits among his fellow shepherds around a fire, turning the ring.  When he turns it in, they speak of him as if he were not there (remember Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party at the opening of Lord of the Rings).  When he turns it out, he reappears.  He acts swiftly.  He goes to the palace, with invisibility (like a succubus) seduces or rapes the Queen, and kills the King.  He becomes the tyrant in Lydia.

       The challenge to Socrates which drives the rest of the Republic: anyone who has the ring of invisibility will commit any injustice or impiety.  Socrates is himself a counterexample,  but the lingering thought – a classier version of Thrasymachus’ “justice is the advantage of the stronger” from book 1 – has had, historically, wide political sway. 

         A master of stories like Shakespeare, Plato was retelling a story of Herodotus who wrote the first history.*  In Herodotus, Gyges is an aide to King Candaules (he has a name).  The king is struck with a hubris familiar in the male Hellenic world; he thinks he has married the most beautiful woman on earth (shades once again of Helen, perhaps the first Hellene**, after the rule of the goddess, and Troy).  You must see her naked, he says stupidly and in heat to his counselor.  No, no, sire, says Gyges, do not make me do this.

      The King hides Gyges behind a door to his chamber.  His wife comes in, takes off her clothes and Gyges sees her.  As he exits,  just as his master said, she glimpses him.

       The next morning Gyges is summoned to the Queen.  He thinks nothing of it, Herodotus says; he was often invited to talk with the Queen.  I have been shamed, she says; you have seen what you should not see.  I must have you killed now or you must slay my husband and take his place (royal rule often depends on who kills whom and not much else).  Choose, she says.   No, no, he says to her, do not make me do this.

     That night,  poised with a dagger in the same spot behind the door, he waits for Candaules to lie down,  slays him and becomes the king or tyrant of Lydia.

       In Herodotus, the woman plays a large and decisive role.  Plato often runs away from women – substitutes the view of an Athenian patriarch – and this is an instance.  See here.  In addition, it is her shame which drives the choice she poses to Gyges; he must kill her husband and reestablish her modesty or die (and reestablish her modesty).  Further, the story is about the fatheadedness of Candaules, the hubris (the seeking to be a god: look at this woman,  my goods, look how beautiful she is).  And Gyges is but the will-less puppet of Candaules and the Queen, though a little empathy – he dispatches Candaules quickly enough – suggests his agency.

      In Plato, only the agency of the shepherd – he gets the ring and acts swiftly to take it all, the whole kingdom – is at issue.  Anyone with the ring will do it (the metaphor of a shepherd, also plays a large and ambiguous role in Socrates’s discussion with Thrasymachus in book 1).  Troy and war are adumbrated in both stories, more directly in Plato’s, as is the deception, what is and is not hidden or glimpsed.  A long paper could be written on this, as on many other stories in Plato, all hidden from earlier classical scholars.  The Perseus program at Tufts (www.perseus.tufts.edu)  lists all mentions in the classics as history in every language; one can find citations to Gyges in Herodotus, and contemporary essays, as I often have my students do.  But no mention is made of Plato’s Gyges.  An immense field of creative scholarship opens about the dialogues to any student who has Plato and a computer (widespread reading in Homer, Aristophanes and the like will do much better, but one can go right to the connections here)..

      The ring of invisibility inspired Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray.  Dorian looked young and beautiful, despite his crimes, but his portrait grew uglier and uglier, until he stabbed it and died.  Wilde understood the Republic; a striking theme is the psychological self-destruction of the tyrant,  how ugly the life is (it is also a theme of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, particularly book 7 where the horror of solitude of the tyrant is a contrast to the love of self and independence which permits genuine friendship).  Of course, Plato also had the hidden view for his students (Aristotle is one, as book 5 of the Politics shows) that a tyrant of a certain kind becomes a philosopher-king, or more aptly, a philosopher-tyrant.  Hence, the decline of regimes from philosopher-king to tyrant.  But everything is not a decline in the Hellenic world.  As Aristotle,  his student, says delicately, it would be “prefect and a circle” if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher-king.  See my "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?," Constellations, January, 2009, here.

        J.K. Granberg-Machaelson, a student of mine a few years ago, wrote a brilliant paper on the ring of invisibility and the Lord of the Rings.  The one ring, the ring of power, the ring that would corrupt all except Frodo (it does ultimately kill him), Sauron’s ring longing and questing to return home to its evil master in Mordor, is the ring of invisibility.  Tolkien was a student of classics at Oxford (and every student there at that time read the Republic, often in Greek; Oxbridge education in Greek is still impressive).  Tolkien knew the story in book 2 which stirred his imagination.  One can see the influence of the Lord of the Rings even in Harry Potter (though not the ring; Rowling’s central device, Voldemort  dividing his soul in pieces and locating them here and there even in Harry, is also striking).

      But the story of the ring of Gyges is both the motivation of the Republic – Socrates must show,  against all odds, why he is not a person who would take the ring and use it as most people, on Plato’s view, would.  Both his argument and the way he went to his death does.  But the Republic leaves the implication about most people and regimes; Tolkien did not misread it.  The image of the ring inspired great novels by Wilde and Tolkien.  Quite a lot to find in a transformation of a story from Herodotus.

* I am endebted to my student Jim Cole for initially bringing the Herodotus version to my attention.

** As my 13 year old, Sage Bard Gilbert pointed out to me, that title is usually given to Hellen, son of Deucalion and grandson of Prometheus.


Crete, the Mysteries and Athenian democracy

        The Mystery religions in Athens involved a large number of initiates each year in a parade on the Panathenian Way to Elefsina (Eleusis).  The initiates pledged to release no information about the Mysteries.  No writing directly about the Mysteries survives.  

       Yet one can learn many features of the Mysteries from surviving objects.  In the National Archaelogical Musuem in Athens, a huge marble votive stone from Eleusis depicts a great figure Demeter offering wheat to a young king Triptolemus.  On the other side of him stands a large Persephone,  her daughter,  occasionally called kore (girl or maiden).

      He is smaller than the two of them, naked. He is not humbled in their presence but they overshadow him.   Demeter is dressed in a peplos, Persephone in a chiton.  Every year, Athenian women wove  a peplos for 9 months which was then carried in the procession and presented to a priestess (probably representing Demeter).  9 months is the period of pregnancy.

     Demeter means the mother, with a prefix which indicates the people or demos.  When I took students to the Archaelogical Museum with  Athanassios Bobos (the teacher of my student, Jonilda Dhamo), he explained that Demeter derives from Crete and the mother-goddess there,  Sito.  In fact,  from another object in the Museum, it is clear that women were the center of the Mysteries, Demeter and another woman receiving the procession, Persephone leading it with a torch.  Other torchbearers followed.  The ceremony was at night.  Women as well as men participated. 

     Demeter is the great mother  and Persephone, her daughter.  They  carry into Athens the role of the feminine suppressed as much as possible in Athina (Athens), for whom the city is named, sprung from the head of Zeus, a warrior,  of no woman born. In the votive marble, Demeter gives Triptolemus wheat.  Her story is that of the earth connected to fertility and agriculture.  The surviving myth of Demeter and Persephone is a story of the seasons, Persephone is kidnapped, when she is among the flowers, by Hades, and dragged to the underworld.  She consumes some pomegranate seeds.  Demeter searches for her daughter and the earth goes barren.   When Zeus reclaims Persephone for her mother, she has only 9 months in the sunlight (the time of weaving  of the peplos by the Athenian women initiates, also the period of pregnancy) before she returns for winter to the underworld.  Winter is the grieving of Demeter.

     As we have seen here and here. the religion of old Crete (roughly 3000 to 1550) and the Cycladic islands was centered on women (see Riane Eisler’s chapter on Crete in The Chalice and the Blade* and her and Marija Gimbutas’s account of the Neolithic, agricultural civilization of the goddess in old Europe).   Minoan Crete was comparatively egalitarian, with the houses roughly of the same size (on the so-called “palace” of Knossus, see here).  Eisler mentions, but offers no proof of  a connection between  Crete and Athenian democracy.  But the Mysteries are a living connection as I just discovered listening to Thanos, between  Crete and Athens.

      In Athens,  a great struggle for democracy occurred over several  hundred years.  In 1200, revolts of the poor all over the region destroyed a caste system like India’s and created peoples among each of whom democracy was possible.  More class struggle from below over time helped to give rise in Athens to the democratic measures of Cleisthenes and Pericles, among others, and Athenian democracy is often seen as being rooted in the Peiraeus (the port district), and the rowers who made up its powerful navy.  Of Crete, one might say, observing Athens, that the patriarchy had triumphed and imprisoned women.  See here.  Women were charged in ancient Hellas with mourning.  Thus in Sophocles’ play, Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, covers with dust  her brother, Polynices, who has fought against the city.  The new king Creon has forbidden Polyncies’ burial. Creon has her killed because she honors the duty of women,  to take care of the dead and the underworld.  But the vultures tear at the corpse and spread its unclean flesh over the city, and before night, Creon is brought down.   In love with Antigone, his son joins her in death, sealed in a cave.  Discovering what has happened to her son, the Queen, too, takes her own life.  Still despite this continuity, it is  easy to see Athenian and Hellenic civilization as locked in mortal battle, with Zeus and the patriarchy pitted against the goddess and the spirit of the earlier, island civilizations. 

          There may be another commonality.  In the Archaelogical Musuem in Iraklio (Herakleion) in Crete, late statues (1300 BC) survive of the goddess with poppies rising from her hair.  This connection with opium is linked also to goddess figures who have snakes in their (or as) hair. Poppies may have provided some of the experience of the Mysteries as they did the rituals of Dionysus.  But this is speculative.

           Equality, however,  is a great commonality between  ancient Crete and democratic Athens (at least for men).  If the Mysteries concerning Demeter survived into Athens, they brought a plainly egalitarian spirit which probably also contributed to the democracy.  Another source on the Mysteries is Plato’s Myth of Er in the 10th book of the Republic.  Er seems mortally wounded and goes to the underworld,  but returns twelve  days later to tell the tale.  In this underworld,  there is a transmigration of souls, much like what happens in the East, little like later Christianities, Hellenic or Roman.  The runner Atalanta who stoops to swoop up three golden apples, loses a race,  has to marry the victor and dies in childbirth.  She chooses a guiding spirit (neither male nor female) and the body of a male athlete.  There is a psychological connection between lives chosen,  a kind of karma.  But more importantly, the soul is neither male nor female, and one can choose the bodily form of either,  In addition,  the buffoon Thersites gets himself into the shape of an ape.  Torn apart by the Maenads, Orpheus will not be born again of women, and chooses the life of a swan.  As in Hinduism or Buddhism, all life is connected.

        Socrates was a participant in the Mysteries and a number of the dialogues particularly the Symposium bear signs of this.  At the beginning of the Symposium, he goes into a trance while the other participants in the dialogue are already inside and at dinner.  But at the end, he remains awake  long after even Aristophanes has fallen asleep and goes about his business, returning home to rest only the next evening.   The metaphor of sleep and dreams – the Cave for example - as opposed to waking or agonized turning to the light is a central theme of Plato’s dialogues.  Something of the Mysteries may also be captured in that metaphor,  as in the story of Alcibiades, whose experience of Socrates reveals a similar agony without illumination, at the end of the Symposium.

        In Meno, Socrates speaks in the last lines of whether virtue can be taught.  He says perhaps that someone as wise as Tiresias the blind seer, who alone among the shades in Hades can see as Odysseus found on his journey there,  could teach virtue.  In the Republic, however,  Plato shows Socrates teaching Plato’s brother, the military leader Glaucon not to be “hungry” (where’s the relish? Glaucon asks, offended at Socrates’s proposal of an austere city), not to become a tyrant.  Odysseus is the one in the Myth of Er who chooses last and finds a private life, one outside the wars which he at last, in his long journeys, is beyond.  He escapes what would be called in the Middle Ages the wheel of fortune.  So does Tiresias,  So does Socrates.  Philosophy is to learn how to die, as Montaigne later said, in this case, to escape an ordinary psychological cycle or repetitive vacillation of which the Greeks were profoundly aware.

     In Meno, Socrates asks his interlocutor to summon any of his slaves and gets the slave to prove, by questioning, an advanced theorem of Euclidean geometry.  This is a difficult passage in the dialogue, but a central meaning which is often overlooked,  for instance in the Harvard Philosophy Department when I was a graduate student – they knew that no Greek philosopher opposed slavery -  or  by Leo Strauss, in his semester-long course on the Meno which my friend Mike Goldfield took, is that each of us, including any slave, has from eternity knowledge which can be awakened – “recollected” –through questioning.  This is radical egalitarianism.    There is no distinction among souls of the sort Aristotle alleges in book 1 of the Politics between bodies and minds, such that some are natural slaves and others natural masters. (for the subtleties of Aristotle’s view,  see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1)  Socrates opposed slavery and, curiously enough, his student Plato as well.  Even the modified Spartan hierarchy of the city in speech in the Republic in which one can just here Plato sneering – a little, bald headed worker in bronze bathes himself, marries philosophy and begets sophisms – has no slaves.  Aristotle sought to answer Socrates and his teacher.

       Socrates’ vision of souls who each have knowledge which can be stirred “as in a dream” by questioning is a dramatically egalitarian one.  So to a lesser extent is his view of women,  his learning from Diotima, not unshadowed (there is a comic remark about how the prophetess postponed the plague in Athens for 10 years which meant that it  hit in the Peloponnesian War as staggeringly described in Thucydides; that her action was a benefit one might doubt) but real enough.  Here is a feature of Socrates as a kind of radical democrat,  one which accords with the idea of the Mysteries conveyed by the Myth of Er.

      Slaves and women were famously not treated well in Athens.  But here too, Atthanasios Bobos illuminated ancient Athenian practices.  The notion of anthoropoi (humans) extended to slaves, implying an equality beyond that of citizenship.  A slave who was beaten by his master could go to the Temple of Hephaestos near the Acropolis, and sit there.  Everyone would see him.  His act was a petition that he get a new,  non-abusive master.  The loss of a slave was a big financial loss for a master.  The petition was almost universally granted. 

         Athens did maintain servitudes and empire.  Nonetheless, the equality was extensive,  undermining even some especially cruel features of slavery; further, (male) eccentrics were unbothered, as Pericles says, so long as they served in battle for a common good.  The murder of Socrates, which has damned the democracy historically, occurred at a low point in Athens, 5 years after their defeat by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War.  It was an exception.  Though my thesis depends on some complex inferences, the novel idea that the great mother from Crete,  in the role of Demeter in the Mysteries, extended the equality of the islands into Athens perhaps even to slaves ( also anthropoi) and helped give a deeper life to the democracy is clear and important.

*I am indebted to Paula Bard for telling me about Eisler and Gimbutas and for conversations about the goddess.