Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Something Where God Used To Be

It is through myth, story-telling, art, metaphor and play that we make overall sense of our place in the world. Given that language and imagination are what define our species, it is through these that we make our most truly human, and therefore most authentically ecological engagements with the world.

      ~ Richard Mabey

Richard Mabey, who lives in a 16th Century English cottage, has published many books extolling nature.  At 73, he expresses concern about extinction, but believes that trees are resilient and will survive modern threats, such as epidemic invasive insect attacks.  He probably doesn't know anything about the toxicity of tropospheric ozone, which has claimed yet another human victim, a woman in London who was killed yesterday because of a fallen tree.

The BBC stated that this occurred in a storm with winds "gusting up to 70 mph", which is nowhere near the force a healthy tree can't easily withstand (see Leonardo da Vinci's calculations).  I could not find a close up of that tree, but the photo below, from another deadly storm in the UK almost exactly a year ago, reveals why so many trees are falling on people, houses and that were once almost unheard of.  They are rotting from absorbing air pollution.
Richard Mabey has been critiqued for pandering to "bourgeois escapism", so perhaps he is the rural  eccentric British equivalent of Verlyn Klinkenborg, who was mercilessly savaged more than once by Hamilton Nolan in Gawker as being the New York Times' "leaf-and-cow" columnist, a "menace", a "literary hustler" guilty of some of the "world's most artisanal writing...none of which has anything to do with anything".   Hamilton's jabs are all exceedingly hilarious, and probably well-deserved, as are the comments he inspired, replete with satirical quotes from Mark Twain.  Go have a laugh.

YET, following his sudden resignation from that comfortably plush NYT perch, Verlyn appears to have abandoned his "over-wrought prose", relinquished his "male Martha Stewart" persona, and become something of a doomer, the very antithesis of his former treacly jovial self - assuming his recent article in e360Yale is taken as written.  Doomer porn doesn't get much more salacious than his mournful assessment of human nature and our prospects, so I'm going to post it right here at Wit's End...but first I want to explain the woodcuts that will accompany it by way of illustration.

In the recent post Endocene I included a painting by Hieronymous Bosch based on the ancient fable of the Ship of Fools, which so well describes the human folly of obliviousness - a perception that has only intensified as our population grows and we squander all the wonderfully potent reserves of fossilized energy we can extract.  Since then I have been fascinated with art that depicts warnings to humanity of the ephemerality of life, and the price to be paid for avarice (I found the images in this post at a curious Russian forum).  There seems to be a deeply intuitive unease that stretches back in time.  Even dilapidated architecture as a symbol of moral decay and corruption, which is all the rage among photographers currently chronicling the decline of civilization today, was well established in artwork by Bruegel and many others, as was the motif of dying tree.

A version of the etching above, attributed to a drawing by Jacques de Gheyn II in 1603, is found in a scholarly paper that delves into the Zeitgeist of the time, Hieronymus Bosch: Homo viator at a Crossroads: A New Reading of the Rotterdam tondo by Yona Pinson, which is riveting, for people like me who go for that sort of thing, because it is remarkably like our own.  Homo viator refers to the prevalent idea in mediaeval Europe that man is a way-farer, a vagrant exile on a pilgrimage.  This swelling "contempt for life", envisioned as a perpetual journey for itinerants swept into the Renaissance, where the gulf between rising standards conflicted with an ever more macabre obsession with the transience of life and spiritual alienation.  Warnings such as that depicted below, to memento mori, abounded and carried even into Victorian times (a charming collection is here with a fantastic video analyzing a Holbein).
Three living and three dead kings
To the left are three kings on horseback, starting back from the three crowned skeletons to the right; in the foreground are three dogs, bones are alloted on the ground.
Engraving made by Master of the Housebook, Germany, 1470-1500.
A poem from a manuscript at Cambridge University Library published on page 54 in The Darker Vision of the Renaissance: Beyond the Fields of Reason by Robert S. Kinsman is, trust me (or read more at the source), one of the milder examples of the literary reflection of the morbid gestalt that permeated art and literature:

Cur in hac miseria miserius moramini?
Hac mundana gloria quare dilectamini -
Vos qui moriemini, relinquentes omnia?
Mors que parcit nemini vestra tollet gaudia.

Why in this wretchedness do you linger on more wretchedly?
Why do you take pleasure in this worldly glory
you who are going to die, leaving everything behind?
Death, who spares no one, will take away your joys.

So, without further ado, following is the afore-mentioned article from Verlyn Klinkenborg.  It's not very long, and then we'll come back round to additional moribund topics.
A Young child and a skeleton in a coffin holding notices on poles
Allegory of the transitoriness of life; a memento mori scene with a view through two arched windows (at left is a tree with leaves and at right a dead, leafless tree) with a vase of flowers on a ledge between them; flanking the vase is a young child and a skeleton in a coffin holding notices on poles.
Engraving made by Jacob Matham, After Karel van Mander I, Netherland, 1599.

True Altruism: Can Humans Change To Save Other Species?
A grim new census of the world’s dwindling wildlife populations should force us to confront a troubling question: Are humans capable of acting in ways that help other species at a cost to themselves?

    ~   Verlyn Klinkenborg

Ever since Darwin, biologists have been arguing about altruism — the concept that an individual may behave in a way that benefits its species, at a cost to itself. After all, the self-sacrifice implicit in altruistic behavior seems to run against the grain of evolutionary theory, which proposes that the well-being of a species depends on robust, individual self-interest. Many biologists argue that in the non-human world what looks like altruism — benefiting another at a cost to oneself — may be merely the final refinement of self-interest, self-interest operating not at the level of the organism or the species but at the level of the gene.
A Wild man walks on all fours toward the right with a dead baby in his mouth
Several bodyparts of other victims are scattered on the ground; a cottage with woman and children in the left background; the Saxon shields are at the upper centre-r; with vertical fold.
Woodcut made by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Germany, 1510-1515 (c.).
This is all very interesting. But the discussion nearly always concerns the behavior of individuals within a single species — the warning cries of vervet monkeys, which alert their fellow monkeys to predators while calling attention to themselves; the self-abnegation of a stinging bee. What I wonder is this: Is altruism possible across species boundaries? Can an individual from one species, at cost to itself, act in a way that benefits individuals from another species? And — the crucial question — can an entire species learn to shape its behavior, to its own cost, for the good of other species? 

I ask because we need to know now. According to a new study from the World Wildlife Fund, the population of aquatic and terrestrial animals on this planet has dropped by half since 1970. Let me choose a better verb. Half the animals on this planet have been destroyed in the past 44 years. Let me put it another way. We’ve destroyed half the animals on this planet since 1970, even while our own numbers have doubled. 
Allegory of The Transience of Life
A vaulted tomb with a decomposing skeleton wearing a tattered shroud and a snake in its moth and eye socket; above within a Gothic arch is Moses holding the Tablets of the Law with the ten commandments; with three skulls in frontal and sideways positions.

This is a little like biological altruism — intention isn’t important. In order to be altruistic, a creature doesn’t have to intend to be altruistic. To cull half the animals on this planet, we didn’t have to intend to. We did it with our eyes closed and our fingers crossed and our minds elsewhere.

Nor did we — whoever we are — choose to swell our own numbers from some 3.7 billion to roughly 7.2 billion. They’re both effects of a cause we don’t understand, which is our nature as a species. Here we all are — whoever we are — and nowhere to be found are all those vanished animals and their doubly vanished, unbred, unborn descendants. 
Vanitas with Death and a maiden
A richly attired woman at her toilet-table; behind her stands Death as a female bride, holding an hour-glass; on the table is a jewellery box and a bag of coins.
Engraving made by Andries Jacobsz. Stock after Jacob de Gheyn II and published by Hendrik Hondius I, Dutch, 1610-1620 (circa).
You could argue, I suppose, that doubling the number of humans didn’t require halving the number of animals. Yet think of it this way: Could you cause the human population to double by halving the number of animals on earth? Of course not. But could doubling the number of humans have somehow done away with all those animals? The answer is obviously yes. Point to more immediate causes, like habitat destruction, if you like, but they are merely the effect of our numbers. What makes us so good at destroying such vast quantities of other creatures is simply the vast quantity of us — and who we happen to be. 

Here’s who I think we are. We resemble every other species on this planet. None of them seems to be able to favor the well-being of any species but its own. If a species escapes its natural bounds — think Japanese knotweed or lionfish or even whitetail deer — it spreads until it reaches its natural or unnatural limit. 
Teares of the Indians, or inquisition for Bloud
Frontispiece to Bartolome de las Casas, 'The Tears of the Indians: Being a True Account of the Cruel Massacres and Slaughters... Committed by the Spaniards...', translated by J.P. (London, J.C. for Nath. Brook, 1656).
Etching made by Richard Gaywood, London, England, 1656.
It’s easy to think, “Well, of course. No other species could conceive of being altruistic to the creatures it shares the earth with. No other species has a conscience or the intelligence to act upon it.” But I see no signs that we do either. No matter how hard you work, personally, for the conservation of other species, no matter how many groups we form or how much we protest or how much money we raise, I see no sign that humans, as a species, are able to act differently than any other species would act if it got the chance. Our vast cultural intelligence has freed us, so far, from the strict boundaries of habitat, freed us to behave, in other words, with absolutely unregulated, unconstrained self-interest — just like any other species on this planet. 

Humans have always had a hard time thinking of themselves as creatures, strictly akin in nearly every way to all the other creatures on this planet.  We’ve always insisted on our specialness. But we’re special in ways that have freed us — so far — only to behave as if we’re utterly ordinary. We turn out to be creatures who can be restrained, collectively, only in the ways that every other creature is restrained, by scarcity and death. As a species, we appear to be utterly incapable of self-restraint. This is something we share with every other organism on this planet.
A Nude woman holding a sundial, standing on a skull
Engraving made by Master MZ, Germany, 1500-1503 (c.).
I felt a sharp stab of pain and anger when I read the World Wildlife Fund report detailing the demise of so much earthly life. And I began to wonder: In what index of human motives or emotions — the forces that shape our behavior — will we find the one that truly binds us to the other species on this planet? Is there anything inside us that might allow us to behave altruistically — and consciously so — toward the rest of life on earth?

The answer seems very grim to me. Whoever we are as persons, as nations, even as civilizations, what really matters, when it comes to protecting other life-forms, is who we are as a species. Yet it appears to me that nothing in our makeup allows us to respond effectively to this terrible census of the animal dead. Logic doesn’t deter us. Neither does emotion. Self-interest is an abstraction — it barely crosses social or racial boundaries, never mind the boundary of species. Economic motives are far too easily perverted. They’re how we got here in the first place. So far, it looks as though the only real restraint will turn out to be scarcity and death — two things we’ve committed ourselves to defeating. 
Owl sitting on a skull in a ruined cemetery
a sun rising or setting over a hill in right
German woodcut attributed to Hans Wechtlin, 1500-1525.
Inscription Content: Lettered at centre: 'Ich fyrcht Den Tag'.

Why bother to say these things? What good does it do to sound so grim? For one thing, I know almost nothing grimmer than the fact — not the thought or the idea — that so much life and diversity has simply vanished. For another, we need to know just how hard the job really is if we’re going to do anything about preserving the life and diversity that remains. For this is the background condition of the human condition: Solve global warming, eliminate the nuclear threat, and we will still have to confront the vastness of our species and the way it diminishes, without thinking, all the other species around it.

   ~ END ~

Two mercenaries and a woman with Death in a tree
The skeletal figure of death above the soldiers pointing at an hourglass, landscape background.
Woodcut made by Urs Graf, Block cut by Hans Lützelburger, Swiss, 1524.

Because I have been living for years with the foreboding knowledge that trees are dying at a rapidly accelerating rate - ALL of them...all ages, all species, all habitats - the subject of death in general has come seems like a normal preoccupation.   Indeed, lately when I go outside I get the creepy impression that nature is stagnant.  Usually, it's bad enough to consider death as an individual fate, which is a far cry from the emotional challenge of contemplating extinction.  Only a few oddballs really look into the abyss - consider what Richard Burton wrote in his diary (excessive familiarity with Shakespeare might do that to you):

There are few pleasures to match tipsiness in this murderous world. Especially if, like me, you believe in your bones that it - the world as we know it - is not going to last much longer.
Death as a nobleman leading away a woman
Death wearing a tall hat with feathers at left; showing an hourglass to the woman whose hand he has taken; a male figure holding her other hand
Engraving made by Allaert Claesz., Germany, 1562.

Though it should be obvious it is part of the human condition to wrestle with our foreknowledge of mortality, the reason even the most pessimistic resist the notion that we are predisposed to overshoot - and ultimately ecocide and extinction - is they desperately want to believe that the outcome could have been, at least theoretically, averted.  Some also retain the hope that maybe a few humans will get another chance after the bottleneck to “evolve” and do it right.  This set of hopeful beliefs requires a conviction that there is something other than *us* to maybe culture, or capitalism, the 1%, or white European privilege (that’s leaving out the crazy conspiracies like HAARP and Planet Nibiru). After all, it’s much more pleasant to blame something one has no control over for being evil, than to look in the mirror (another potent symbol in memento mori art) and admit complicity in the over-arching problems humanity has engineered.
Landscape with a child seated on a skull at centre, holding a mirror and a rose
Engraving made by Augustin Jorisz. Verburcht, and published by Hendrik Hondius I, Netherland, 1548-1560.

To maintain this fiction however demands a refusal to acknowledge the injustices and periodic, frequent episodes of overshoot of the past, which is either willfully ignorant or just plain ignorant, because there are legions of examples from everywhere on earth.  Besides, if the only "proof" of purportedly sustainable societies are those that are pre-literate, does anyone seriously propose we go back to that? And how could we? And why would we want to live in a world where witchcraft was blamed for bad luck and disease?

The thinking class has realized that not every omniscient, onmipresent and omnipotent deity worshipped throughout history can possibly exist - especially in direct contradiction with each other. Iris Murdoch asked, "But is there something where God used to be?" and the answer is, absolutely. Most people successfully replace worship of a divinity with something more vague but just as fervent, an amorphous "consciousness" that is deemed consecrated, meaningful and of course the bottom line, eternal. The alternative is that great mawing emptiness of an indifferent universe which is anathema to a human psyche that yearns for the sacred. The inherent tension between anticipating death is resolved with the conviction that there is purpose, that there is hope, that there is justice...and it's all based on nothing but powerful feelings and conjecture.  And a lot of psychobabble.

This precarious balance between fear and knowledge is the essence of humanity's discombobulation, what motivates our conceits and vanities, and causes us to shun the truth in favor of delusion.
Parable of the rich fool
Old couple sitting at a table and counting money, with, behind them, Death personified, armed with scythe, and raising a sandglass to signify that their time has come.
Mezzotint made by Jacques Meheux, and Published by Girard Audran, Paris, France, 1660-1703.

Ernest Becker in his profoundly excellent 1974 book, The Denial of Death, makes a persuasive case that dread of mortality is a primary motivator for all human behavior, including the need to posit a spiritual component to life. However, I wonder if it doesn't also stem from an overwhelming need to resolve guilt over our barbaric tendencies, starting with the killing of animals and eating of meat, and extending directly to killing other people (and sometimes eating them too!).  I don't see faith as benign because it inevitably enables people to rob the future for their own present.  For an explanation of the evolutionary process that resulted in hard-wired metaphysical thought processes, you can't do much better than Reg Morrison's book, Plague Species, The Spirit in the Gene (although Schmookler's The parable of the tribes is pretty good too, with some limitations).

Since it's the 100th extinction anniversary of the year the last passenger pigeon died, I think it is worthwhile to visit this commemorative page and watch the video that reproduces Audubon's account of their magnificent, astonishing numbers - and their slaughter - even though it is discordant and strange.
DÜRER, Albrecht
Young Woman Attacked by Death; or, The Ravisher
c. 1494
Engraving, 114 x 102 mm
Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

I need to learn there is no point in debating people who simply choose to not believe the evidence that humans extirpated the megafauna (and Neanderthals!) - because that stance is about as learned and rational as refusing to accept that the earth is round, or that plate tectonics push mountains around. Such people refuse to admit there is now a scientific consensus based on several irrefutable lines of evidence - because they don't like the implications, which are ominously that humans have ALWAYS been self-centered and taken what they want with no regard for the rest of nature or even the future of their own children. Humans never would have migrated out of Africa in the first place if there hadn't been resource conflicts - certainly they never would have colonized the most brutal, inhospitable climates on earth, or set sail for unknown places on a treacherous ocean for the hell of it. Human populations - like ALL others, which biologists know quite well - wax and wane. When food is plentiful, the population grows and when the supply becomes short, famine is the result. The other limit on population is warfare, and plenty of it. Tribal warfare had far higher casualty rates per capita than modern warfare. Two comprehensive books make the case, Constant Battles: Why We Fight by Steven Le Blanc, Katherine E. Register and War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence H. Keeley.
Memento mori: a corpse, all skin and bones, lying in a landscape, a scythe in his hand; around him, putti playing music and singing, and monkeys chained up to a ball.
This Beautiful Anonymous French woodcut dated c.1580.

It is doubtful that people who prefer to continue to believe that humans once lived sustainably in harmony, or even were of a net benefit to nature (yes, I’ve seen that!), will ever read these books. They will dredge up some obscure defeated tribe to bolster their need to believe humanity is a benign constituent of the biosphere. There is no convincing such folks with facts, anymore than you could once point out the silliness of the risible conviction that, say, there is a fellow in a golden chariot towing the sun across the sky. People used to have faith in the most ludicrous entities (or else they built a whole lot of statues and temples for nothing). And yet now everyone recognizes that science does a perfectly splendid job of explaining the rising and setting of the sun.

It's a grim approach but possibly the most conclusive way to gain a realistic assessment of human capabilities and limitations is to delve into the history of famines.  We in the developed world are so far removed and insulated, intellectually and emotionally, from famine that it is amazing to find how common it has been (oh, and will be again).  Just the wiki account should suffice.  This illustration from a newspaper from the late 1800's of famine in Finland and Sweden depicts a father scraping bark from a tree with an axe to feed his starving family…not that long ago, and not in an exploited third world country, either!  Pine bark was served as food there again after 1914.

I do not understand why hunter-gatherer groups are portrayed as being egalitarian. I should have thought Jim Crow would have demonstrated beyond further doubt that separate does not translate into equal, and hunter gatherer groups of all cultures have the most strictly delineated roles for men and women. I don't mean this in a pejorative way, it derives from basic different physical attributes between males and females, as well as on status based on prowess, and applies also to most of the animal kingdom. For humans this means that women have been frequent captives and slaves, deep into our past, and it was only with the advent of surpluses found after agriculture and the much-maligned civilization where they were able to demand any semblance of equality and freedom. Of course the most privileged societies are still far from perfect, but at least there are rights and protections enshrined in laws, even if they are not always enforced.  It is one of the paradoxes of the doomer world that feminists can be anti-civ, lost in the fantasy that they would be allowed into the sweat lodge to indulge in hallucinogens and dance with the guys; similar to vegans who block out the cruel hunting practices of the hallowed prehistorical tribes.

Since Ebola is causing mass hysteria, an unexpected result serendipitously arose, which was a reference to an old controversy.  The issue revolved around the acceptance speech given by Professor Eric Pianka in 2006 as that year's Distinguished Texas Scientist.  He was accused of endorsing the idea of an Ebola epidemic to reduce human population, in a scurrilous distortion that had no merit.  So I was very glad to learn about his extensive work, and what he actually said in The Vanishing Book of Life, because he is a very wise fellow.

In Can Human Instincts Be Controlled? he wrote:

"Human instincts evolved long ago when we lived off the land as hunter-gatherers and took refuge in simple shelters like caves. Although our instinctive behaviors were adaptive then (that is, they enhanced our ability to survive and reproduce), many do not work so well in modern man-made environments. Our brains appear to be organized in ways that promote such duality (download Morrison’s “Evolution's Problem Gamblers”). In fact, some of our instinctive emotions have become extremely serious impediments now threatening our very survival. Let us focus on denial, tribal loyalty, revenge, greed, and procreation."
The Power of Death/ Allegory of Original Sin and Death
Print made by Heinrich Aldegrever 
After Hans Holbein the Younger 

He even quotes Reg Morrison:

Natural selection has organized our brains in ways that promote such duality (Morrison 1999; Trivers 2011). Natural selection molded our emotions and instincts, including setting aside the right half of our brain for storage of subconscious irrational information. Rational logic and common sense reside in the left half of our brain along with speech. Morrison (1999) argues that this duality effectively gave the irrational right side of our brains invisible control over the rational left side:

"To properly accommodate this vital streak of insanity in an increasingly rational brain it was first necessary for people to perceive, quite accurately, that their genetic imperatives -- instincts, feelings and desires -- represented a source of considerable wisdom and 'super-natural' power; and second, to believe, less accurately, that this inner source had its roots in an invisible world of super-intelligence, a mystical world that lay beyond rational comprehension." 

"Under the spell of our carefully programmed 'spirituality', we cannot help falling in love, yearning for idealised sexual gratification, nurturing our children, forging tribal bonds, suspecting strangers, uniting against common enemies, and on occasions, laying down our lives for family, friends or tribe." [Morrison 1999]
Dance of Death
Various collections

Dr. Peter Ward, paleontologist and author of The Medea Hypothesis puts it bluntly in a 2011 interview:

"My view of life on Earth is that it's a huge board game, and every species has but one goal: To take over the planet. And every species that could, would, if it got the chance. So we're just doing what evolution has pounded into us: Produce as many of yourselves as you can. Make sure that, as you produce, you aren't threatened in your production, and co-opt all the planet's resources. Kill any competitors and spread to every place that you possibly can. We're doing all of that. We get the prize, ironically, because of the brains that we have."

Since we are supposed to wind things up on a happy, hopeful note, I will drop in a little bit about Camus, because that's as close as I get to happy and hopeful.  NO not my new puppy aka MuMu (even though he is indubitably and adorably absurd!).  The philosopher.

"The Myth of Sisyphus (1943) – If there is a single non-fiction work that can be considered an essential or fundamental statement of Camus’ philosophy, it is this extended essay on the ethics of suicide (eventually translated and repackaged for American publication in 1955). For it is here that Camus formally introduces and fully articulates his most famous idea, the concept of the Absurd, and his equally famous image of life as a Sisyphean struggle. From its provocative opening sentence (“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”) to its stirring, paradoxical conclusion (“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”), the book has something interesting and challenging on nearly every page and is shot through with brilliant aphorisms and insights. In the end, Camus rejects suicide: the Absurd must not be evaded either by religion (“philosophical suicide”) or by annihilation (“physical suicide”); the task of living should not merely be accepted, it must be embraced."

The wiki entry on absurdism says:

Camus states in The Myth of Sisyphus: "Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide." "Revolt" here refers to the refusal of suicide and search for meaning despite the revelation of the Absurd; "Freedom" refers to the lack of imprisonment by religious devotion or others' moral codes; "Passion" refers to the most wholehearted experiencing of life, since hope has been rejected, and so he concludes that every moment must be lived fully....Camus perceives filling the void with some invented belief or meaning as a mere "act of eluding"—that is, avoiding or escaping rather than acknowledging and embracing the Absurd. To Camus, elusion is a fundamental flaw in religion, existentialism, and various other schools of thought. If the individual eludes the Absurd, then he or she can never confront it...For Camus, the beauty people encounter in life makes it worth living. People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life (if there is one), but can still provide something to strive for. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd, lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd....The rejection of hope, in absurdism, denotes the refusal to believe in anything more than what this absurd life provides. Hope, Camus emphasizes, however, has nothing to do with despair (meaning that the two terms are not opposites). One can still live fully while rejecting hope, and, in fact, can only do so without hope. Hope is perceived by the absurdist as another fraudulent method of evading the Absurd, and by not having hope, one is motivated to live every fleeting moment to the fullest. In the words of Nikos Kazantzakis' epitaph: "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

On Saturday I drove [!  yes I actually did!  What with the world is coming to an end why should I have a phobia about having a car accident?  See...I AM free!] into Manhattan for the matinée at the Metropolitan Opera of Le Nozze di Figaro with Doc and adopted 4th daughter, the lovely Laura.

This is a marvelous opera that should be watched by all the armchair anti-civ anarchists who think they are making uniquely original critiques of modern society, because the overarching themes are of sexual and class tension, the urges for freedom rebelling against power that were stirring in Europe in the 18th Century.  Susanna's aria in the night of the moonlit Pine Forest is a miraculous mix of beauty and malice.  She is taking her revenge on Figaro for mistrusting her, knowing he hides in the shadows, by expressing her ardent yearning for another lover with sweetly agonized anticipation.  Her song is simultaneously ecstatic and cruel, sensuous and rapturous and playfully mischievous, if not vindictive.  I looked for quite a while for a version online that is comparably evocative to Marlis Petersen's stunning performance at the Met.  This one I think is nothing shy of gorgeous.


An annotated, critical version of W.H. Auden's famous poem starts with this observation:

“The Age of Anxiety begins in fear and doubt, but the four protagonists find some comfort in sharing their distress. In even this accidental and temporary community there arises the possibility of what Auden once called 'local understanding.' Certain anxieties may be overcome not by the altering of geopolitical conditions but by the cultivation of mutual sympathy - perhaps mutual love, even among those who hours before had been strangers.”

And so, another rambling post began with art and nature...sailed through anxiety, alienation and death...and it ends with love.  How fitting that it turns out the current trend for doomers to look to hospice for comfort was foreseen long ago, as well:

The Art of Dying/ Ars Moriendi
The Ars Moriendi, or "art of dying," is a body of Christian literature that provided practical guidance for the dying and those attending them. These manuals informed the dying about what to expect, and prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a "good death" and salvation. The first such works appeared in Europe during the early fifteenth century, and they initiated a remarkably flexible genre of Christian writing that lasted well into the eighteenth century.
Latin artes moriendi had been printed in Germany since 1475. Subsequent translations into German, French, Dutch, Castilian, and Catalan testify to their broad acceptance in Europe in the late fifteenth century


  1. Beautifully illustrated, Gail, in both verbiage and art! The "still" images are amazingly detailed and the aria from "Figaro" was absolutely delightful! Thank you. I am astounded that the Vimeo videos have NO comments, especially given their "age," and I'm chagrined at not having seen either of them sooner! The "Extinction" video is sublimely beautiful and poignant though I found the narration somewhat understated. Tomorrow I'll make it a point to watch the entire The Sixth Extinction. Otherwise, you really do "need to learn there is no point in debating people who simply choose to not believe the evidence" because, once you do, you will find your stress-levels greatly diminished. I know it is a hard lesson to learn but the needless stress incurred by not learning it may preclude you from the coming, ahem, excitement! :D

    I posted the following two comments at another site in the ether but I think they may be equally applicable here, I hope you don't mind.

    An interesting piece from Huff-Po...

    Texas-Sized Stupidity


    Epistemic duties require us to subject our beliefs to critical examination and willingly revise or release them when they are contrary to evidence and logic. On the other hand, we violate our epistemic duties when we believe irresponsibly, for instance, when we accept preposterous scenarios rather than plain facts, leap to conclusions in defiance of the most elementary canons of inference, or permit wishful thinking to substitute for sober judgment. To neglect your epistemic duties is to act irrationally, to be voluntarily stupid.

    There is also a narrower and even more pernicious sense of irrationality that I wish to distinguish from the sort of dereliction of epistemic duty mentioned by Clifford. I make the distinction at the end of this essay, after developing a detailed example. I draw upon Texas politics, the wellspring for every type of stupidity and irrationality.


    Every belief system, throughout the history of human existence, whether deemed a religion or not, was created and/or still exists for the sole purpose of programming the minds and motives of the masses to be subservient to, and for the exclusive benefit of, a self-proclaimed elite! Regardless, far too few will be willing or able to believe that and fewer still will endeavor to find out for themselves. The Box = womb = the warm and fuzzy world that exists solely between their own ears.

    I attempted to post the above last night but it disappeared before my eyes! Therefore, my sincerest apologies if this appears twice in this space and I fully support the removal of any duplication.

    1. Cursed Blogger comments! I don't know if belief systems are so much created by the self-proclaimed elite as exploited by them, or maybe I'm talking about the propensity to believe in something and you are referring to the institutionalized canons. It's a penchant advertisers thoroughly understand.

    2. That article about Texas is either hilariously funny, or terrifying. I'm not sure which.

    3. Whether beliefs or systems of belief are "created" or merely "exploited" is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant as the effects are the same. Please note, I am not criticizing or picking nits as I concur that there is both a "propensity to believe in something" as well as "institutionalized canons." Furthermore, your observation that "It's a penchant advertisers thoroughly understand" is spot-on with the implication that 'they' exploit those beliefs, regardless of origin (sometimes even originating 'new' beliefs), for their own profit, the nature of which is either increased finances or influence (power), regardless of any harm or detriment to others (their prey). Therefore, I would ask, "Exactly WHY should I, or anyone, believe that these 'predators' are my fellow Americans/humans and deserving of the same consideration as those who are more helpful?"

      Perhaps the Texas article could be described as terrifyingly funny or hilariously terrifying. Regardless, I think it is illustrative that the best and brightest are not always the ones who rise to the top, either financially or authoritatively. The axiom that if one "studies hard and gets good grades and works hard" will result in succeeding to rise to the top echelons of society is an abject myth, or if you prefer, an abjectly exploited belief.

  2. Wow, this is brilliant. Universal consciousness comes to mind, but that's probably just wishful thinking. I will re read to digest this treasure chest of ideas! I can't believe how relevant this is to everything that is going on in my life right now.

  3. An erudite salve for our time, many thanks. I am with you in heart.


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