Being a grandparent, I sometimes wonder what other grandparents say to their grandkids.

Some grandparents are unable to speak to their grandchildren once they reach high school age. They’re like two acquaintances forced to be together with nothing to say.

I believe, like Shakespeare, that human life is lived on a stage that every person stands on whether they wish to or not, whether they acknowledge the fact or not.

And for those who frump it and say they have nothing to say, well, by doing so, they’re having their say: to the puzzlement of family and friends.

On the stage, as we read the script assigned us — some say they create the script themselves — we attest to our value in life, our worth in relation to others, and our place in the history of human existence, all with grave consequences for our subconscious.

Macbeth speaks for Shakespeare speaking about life as a minimalist:
 

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.
 

I would love to sit down with Billy S. and ask him what that means and how such thinking affected his writing.

With respect to the stage conceit, I’ve often said that, when I was young, my parents were in the first row, in the footlights, directly facing the audience. Then, when they died, without me doing anything, I was whisked to the front where they once stood and it was me in the footlights facing the audience, directly, eye to eye, the footlights revealing the intensity of the relationship.

I was there for a while but then, when my son and his wife had a child, I was whisked to the back of the stage and my son moved to the front, at the footlights, the grandkids behind him, in front of me. I’m farthest back from contact with the public.

All these shifts in generational positioning have had me asking questions about who my grandchildren are, and not just mine but grandchildren en générale — the intergenerational thing.

My grandkids are related to me but they live in a whole other universe in that, when my son was growing up, he was in the house here — we had a face-to-face relationship; I had some control over him and to a large extent the conversations we needed to have.

I have three grandchildren and continue to wonder who they are, and how I might introduce myself without pushing them away — but remaining true to myself — in no way wanting a pal.

I used to say I wanted a grandfather like me but I also know some kids are born into the wrong family, which means they have the wrong grandparents: I might be no more my grandchildren’s cup of tea than the guy selling hot dogs at the food cart in front of the New York City Public Library on 42nd Street.

On one level, it doesn’t matter; on another, well, the story is worth its weight in gold, that is, how grandkids assess their grandparents in private, and whether later on they have a sense they came from them.

The passage of traits from generation to generation needs more study, especially from grandparent to grandchild.

Because I’m a poet, I have written a birthday poem for each of the three grandkids — not an occasional poem — for nearly every year of their lives. They’re in my published books.

The oldest grandchild just turned 19, the last day of August, the week after he left for school in Maine. I have many poems for him.

What follows is a short prose poem I’m sending him as soon as I’m done here. When he reads it, I hope he doesn’t say he’s in the wrong family.

Maybe you speak to your grandkids the way I do — I have no idea. Regardless, I pass on the following text in case you are one of those grandparents who sometimes wonders how other grandparents speak to their grandkids.
 

THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO SAY BUEN VIAJE

For C. M. A. SULLIVAN

A guy I once knew used to say: If you knew me like I know me, you’d … and then he’d stop like he just got caught doing something bad.

It was noticeable. I saw it because years before I began to fly above the world and see as Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgersson does in “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.”

The Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, spoke of such sight in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. (Lagerlöf got the prize in 1909, the first woman to do so.)

It seems as though Hans had a facility — by flying on the back of a goose high above the earth — to see everything as it was and, to some degree, as it was meant to be: simultaneously.

Seeing things from up above turned me inside out, though sometimes I think it happened the other way around. It’s not weird, I eased into it — I can talk about the practice another time.

If I were developing a Psychology-of-Self Inventory (PSI) I would include a question or two about vision — ask everyone to say how (and what) they see, and show all work as required in math.

I’m still bothered by the number of people who spew anger into the face of others because, they say, life has cheated them.

A woman I know comes to mind — Freud would love her — she never laughed or smiled. When I saw the extent of her sorrow, I took up my pen and wept.

I hope this doesn’t sound like it’s coming from another world.

At Starbucks today I spoke to a young barista named Mimi. I said: Mimi, you’re like the Mimi in “La Bohème,” a beatnik in love with all that’s love and the fanciful flights of dreams: She got TB and died.

At her last breath Puccini has the orchestra blast forth a thunder darker than the Dies Irae — I think it’s the Buddha speaking.

If someday you wonder who your grandfather was — I’ve told you once or twice — well … maybe even this is premature.

In the evening when the sun is down, I read a bit before the lights go out, buzzing like a bee inside a flower.

Some nights I can’t sleep because the day’s events and what’s in store have me watching one second pass by another.

The genius of my self is the way I see — which sometimes shows in the form of an assassin: but I always get to sleep and, in the morning, feel like Jesus on Christmas Day.

August 16, 2022

4:39 p.m.

The Ville

Happy 19th!

— From Project Gutenberg archives

Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon.

I’m still surprised at how few Christians, especially Roman Catholics, have heard about the spiritual writer Madame de Guyon — though small groups of believers practice the prayer she taught.

I came upon Jeanne-Marie years ago when I was writing a book-length essay on the Trappist poet Thomas Merton who prayed the way Guyon did. Though living three centuries apart, they would have made an interesting couple, comparing notes on what it takes to be happy.

The public became aware of Madame De Guyon’s ideas in 1685 when her mini-tome “Moyen court et très facile de faire oraison” appeared. In English it’s: “A Short and Very Easy Method of Praying.”

Part of the reason Guyon has been swept under the rug of Christian consciousness is because of the style of prayer she advocated. The Roman Catholic Church condemned her as a “Quietist,” a heretic they went after with bilious venom.

It was an economic matter: Guyon and her acolytes were drawing customers away from the Catholics: People liked the concept, the method, and the results her Moyen court produced.

It’s hard to say exactly how popular she became but popular enough that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church began to surveil her, and later took her into custody.

Guyon said the most direct way to be in touch with God is for a person to sit and listen — for a period of time each day, day after day, as a way of life — in total silence. She said in the depths of silence is the depths of the soul and that is where God resides — quite different from the person who says God tells him what to do — a neurotic projection.

Not long after Guyon’s book came out, it was filed in the stacks of books the Catholic Church forbade all Catholics to read; it was called “the Index,” short for Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which needs no translation.

As a kid, I recall going into our parish rectory for some reason or other and there, right in front of me in the foyer of the priest’s house, was a tall glassed-in bookcase that housed the Index; a sign on the glass said so; I have no idea who collected them.

Such a prohibition would be laughed at now, a lot of people saying: Who the hell is some bishop to tell me what I can and cannot read; hey, I watch porno on the internet!

The Catholic Church hierarchy said anyone who read one of those books was going to hell and to prove it on earth, they had their ecclesiastical police drag transgressors to the church station-house to be questioned by one of Torquemada’s kin.

You’d think the work was “Das Kapital” or Mao’s “Little Red Book” even “The Anarchist Cookbook,” or the in-the-works, “How I Led a Violent Insurrection Against My Country, Went Unscathed, and Made Millions.”

Guyon says people by nature are “called to inward silence” and that prescribed vocal prayers detract from it. She intimated that in silence a person can find “that self,” as Kierkegaard says, “which one truly is.” All religions are based in psychology.

Nancy James, a serious student of prayer and of Guyon’s life and method, put together a beautifully-arranged, -written, and -edited “The Complete Madame Guyon” (Paraclete Press, 2011). The introduction is a touching portrait of Guyon’s life before the quiet — she was married, had kids, etc. — and why the Roman Catholic Church shut down a peaceful woman who all she wanted in life was to sit and speak to God.

James said the Church lost its mind because the “hierarchy feared this popular movement [Quietism] … was attracting so many to a spiritual path that did not need the mediation of the clergy or bishops.”

To be saved, Catholics had to go to Mass, receive the sacraments, pray the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary,” memorize a catechism of questions: That came with the answers! Guyon said all that was unnecessary.

She also said meditative reading can enhance the silence but, to be effective, the aspirant must withdraw from the marketplace, factional politics, and obsessional consuming — to simply sit and read and render thanks for living.

French monastics called this set-aside time l’examen particulier — the particular examen — when a person assesses how well he or she or they are doing that day. Did they grow more? Were they good to others? Had they heard the voice of God?

Guyon said the aspirant should pick, “some strong abstract or particular truth” and read, “two to three lines and look for … the essence of the passage,” find the truth therein.

Does this sound heretical? Like something someone should be locked up for?

Jeanne-Marie became a hit in Paris but, while she and her followers were practicing Zen-like silence, the Roman Catholic Church sicced its police on her, arrested her, locked her in an airless room in a convent, and quizzed her like she was Judas Iscariot.

Nine months later, without an evidentiary leg to stand on, the fascists let her go, but did not release her from the cross-hairs of their long gun. On June 8, 1698, she was back in jail, this time by order of Louis the XIV — a favor to the Catholic hierarchy — they locked her in the Bastille of Le Quatorze Juillet.

They put her in solitary, interrogated her, threatened her with other forms of torture. The charge? Praying in quiet; living the life of a contemplative wanting to be a better person.

She was released from the Bastille in March 1703, again charged with nothing but being a pious old lady seeking to be with God. Her daughter took her in; she was 70 and feeling the effects of prison.

She wrote about it in a personal book that came out in 1772, fifty years after she died. The title page is truly 18th-century and worth sharing in full: The Life of Lady Guion, Now Abridged, and translated into ENGLISH, Exhibiting her eminent Piety, Charity, Meekness, Resignation, Fortitude and Stability; her Labours, Travels, Suffering and Services, for the Conversion of Souls to God; and her great Success in some Places, in that best of all Employments on the Earth.”

It continues: To Which are Added REMARKABLE ACCOUNTS of the LIVES OF worthy Persons, Whose Memories were dear to Lady Guion. BRISTOL: Printed by S. Farley, in CASTLE-GREEN.  MDCCLXXII.

Toward the end of the second volume, she addresses those who harmed her: “I forgive those who have been the cause of my sufferings, from the bottom of my heart, whatever they have done against me, having no will to retain so much as the remembrance thereof.”

She says it all started when a friend saw her notes on prayer, read them, and took them to share with others; Guyon says, “Everyone wanted copies. [The friend] resolved … to have it printed.” Guyon said she received all the “proper approbations” from the Church, there was no mention of heresy.

Guyon said the work, “passed through five or six editions; and our Lord has given a very great benediction to it. [But] The devil became so enraged against me on account of the conquest which God made by me, that I was assured he was going to stir up against me a violent persecution. All that gave me no trouble. Let him stir up against me ever so strange persecutions. I know they will all serve to the glory of my God.”

They were the same people who killed Jesus.

Portrait of Michel de Nostredame painted circa 1614 by his son, César de Nostredame. 

I’m not a social psychologist but I venture to say America is suffering from a dystopia complex that’s manifesting itself in national malaise.

People don’t use the word despair anymore but America is suffering from despair as well that manifests itself in anger. The cocktail of malaise and anger has people reaching for guns when they feel wronged.

A number of folks told me they like shows like the “Handmaid’s Tale” and other depictions of a fascist society, which the late great sociologist Erving Goffman called a “total institution” and Hannah Arendt totalitarian society.

I do not know if young people today, or people of any age, read Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” stories of societies where people’s choices are made for them: by the State, corporate entities, or some zealous prelate — the nightmarish life of an automaton.

And when I meet people who relish such darkness, I ask why, and they never have an answer.

Nevertheless, I’ll offer a few Nostrodamic predictions from my dystopian “Faithless New World: Two Thousand Thirty-Five.”

My Number One prediction is: Within the next decade or so, the American experiment called The Democratic Republic of the United States will be done for. It’s already gasping for air with social arrangements that divide more than heal.

It’d be worthwhile for the U.S. government to fund a study on how the Italians became a fascistic nation under Mussolini — they sure were Julius Caesar’s kin.

Number Two: There’ll be great migrations of people from the western part of the country and down south, ousted from their homes by drought or fire or overwhelming heat; when California goes dry, millions and millions of Americans will head east like pioneers in a wagon train.

Number Three: When it comes to governmental elections — at all levels — illusion-based factionalists will reach for their guns to pick a winner. A few weeks ago, Lee Zeldin, New York Republican candidate for governor, was attacked on stage by a guy with a blade, letting Americans know democracy is a no-go.

In some areas there won’t be elections at all.

Number Four: The great migrations from drought-ridden states and those torched by unquenchable fire — multitudes on the run — will aggravate the ethical divide that exists in the country, further mocking “America the Beautiful.”

That is, Americans who reject — even scorn — involvement in “community-making” will more boldly declare: This is mine and will stay mine, and that Second Amendment you see hanging from my hip says so too.

And, because we’ve stopped making community for so long, we’ve lost the competencies that come with it — the methods, techniques, strategies that facilitate accommodating difference without resorting to violence. Becoming involved in a community group like the Kiwanis is a thing of the past.

Thus, Americans know more about Maury Povich than what families, countries, individuals, local communities need to do to flourish. On July 20, Bloomberg News posted a bulletin saying Americans are migrating to Europe because they can’t afford to live here anymore.

Another study that needs doing therefore is: What’s the cause of America’s worries, and what’s the relationship between those worries and despair? We can easily develop a Happiness Quotient Inventory (HQI) to assess the depth of America’s neurosis and her willingness to change.

That is, if I brought in 10 judges right now — noted for their no-horse-in-the-race Solomonic wisdom — and asked each to size up the health of America’s institutions — rate them from 1 to 10 — and come up with a composite of how good Americans feel about being alive, how much family, church, workplace, school, even national pride affect their well-being, and how confident they are that — when things go wrong — the guy next door and people down the street will come running like a fire brigade.

That’s what Robert Putnam was talking about in “Bowling Alone” whose subtitle reads: “The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Putnam said America was breeding isolates, a condition for mass-shootings.

Dystopians know all about the collapse part and, while continuing to whine, refuse to administer the mouth-to-mouth America needs to resuscitate.

I won’t say boning up on these matters is summer reading, though it’d work for some — the ideas need a quiet place for pondering and study groups to discuss the conditions of a happy society, the feeling of being connected and looked after, of believing one’s dependencies (needs) will not be greeted with grudge-filled resentment.

Which is to say that, when Utah is asked to take in 11 million Californians arriving like dust-bowl Oakies, and Mississippi two million, how will Utah respond? What will Mississippi say? A sharp-mouthed cynic would say: Them down-home folk don’t even spend on their own.

I looked at what Mississippi spends on educating its young; they’re fifth from the bottom in how much states encourage kids to expand their vision beyond the kitchen door; Utah is last.

The DODS, the Diaspora of Displaced Souls, will need jobs, a place to live, a school for the kids (that’s somewhat culturally sensitive), a feeling of being at home because the guy next door and neighbors down the street helped heal the pain of a trip that started from nowhere.

We must never forget that the Diaspora did not cause the drought, the wildfires, or killing heat — we all cause them. We cannot treat them like some do rape-victims: Hey, lady, you asked for it!

Number Five: There’ll be a mass shooting every week — we may be there already — the non-stoppable collapse of a dying body-politic, the way a body disintegrates, afflicted with muscular dystrophy.

Never mind red states and blue states, the new criterion will be just states and unjust states, just communities and unjust communities, the same for families, schools, places of work — even intimate personal relationships.

Over the years I’ve been involved in discussion groups on justice at all levels and, when appropriate, have asked someone in the group: Well, do you consider yourself a just person?

It always brought puzzlement; the thought of being just versus unjust, or being a stooge for Mussolini, is not part of America’s patois.

In school, kids do not collaborate so they lose out on the practice of community: I’m talking about two of them — even a group — working together all semester, doing exams together, the same homework, getting the same grade. One for all, all for one.

Years ago I taught a course at the State University of New York at Albany — twice — called “Utopia,” in the once-exalted School of Criminal Justice. We looked at societies opposite that of the handmaidens’ Gilead.

A few people asked what a course like that was doing in a School of Criminal Justice.

I said: If a person is interested in ridding society of crime, and harms that tear a society apart, he, she, they need to find examples of social life where everybody gets along, where the needs of all are met, where no one feels compelled to shower a neighbor with bullets because they feel cheated by life.

As the great American poet, Williams Carlos Williams — a revered physician by day — used to say: People can’t speak about these things because they do not have the words. The beginning of his great epic “Paterson” goes:
 

The language, the language

                    fails them

They do not know the words

                    or have not

the courage to use them . . .
 

they say: the language!

                   — the language

is divorced from their minds,

the language … the language!

Rodney Dangerfield performing in 1972.

What a mess erupts these days when people start talking about what is, and what is not, funny. America’s funny bone has become a raw bone. In some circles, making a comedic faux-pas deserves life without parole and no thought of forgiveness.

Last month, David Weigel, a political reporter for The Washington Post retweeted something he found funny. The original Tweet was: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

The post was made by Cam Harless whose website “camharless.wordpress.com” describes him as: “Writer. Husband. Father. Follower of Jesus. Barbarian.” A puzzling farrago.

Never mind finding the joke funny, Felicia Sonmez, a colleague of Weigel at The Post went on Twitter and started to shout: are you kidding! that’s outrageous! NF! [My exclamations; my paraphrase.] When seeing her words in print, I feel the ire.

Then Sonmez started going at The Post in front of the world: She tweeted: what kind of paper allows a reporter to make fun of women like that! [More paraphrase.]

I wondered if anybody in management thought the joke funny.

Weigel saw what was going on; not wanting to get into anything, he went back on Twitter with: “I just removed a retweet of an offensive joke. I apologize and did not mean to cause any harm.”

And I wondered, because so many people make false apologies these days, if Weigel, despite his shared regret, still found the joke funny: he just wanted people off his back.

I see humor in the joke — from a certain cultural comedic frame of mind, it’s funny.

Of course The Post weighed in. The paper’s chief communications officer, Kristine Coratti Kelly, got on the tweeter-horn — the mind-shaping-instant-opinion-forming network — and said, “Editors have made clear to the staff that the tweet was reprehensible and demeaning language or actions like that will not be tolerated.”

Id est, management’s vote was: not funny.

But I haven’t seen where the paper spent time explaining to staff its position on funniness and laying out what it, as a political-economic institution, will not tolerate in its workers.

Those who have studied the nature of sincere apology would say The Post offered a standard by-the-book version, the best a capitalist institution can do, even one with a motto: Democracy Dies in Darkness.

Before I accept the Post’s apology I want to see the results of a two-question questionnaire they’ve administered to every employee, the first question being: Did you find the joke funny? The second: Why did you say yes or no to the first question? And, as in math, show all work, your ethical thinking.

Did any boss at any level say to any staff member at the paper that keeping his job required him to espouse a particular comedic frame of mind — pointing out exactly where “the line” is, and what happens to those who cross it?

Here’s the update: Despite his remorse, Weigel was suspended for a month — no pay. [Where does a guy like that come up with next month’s rent?]

Sonmez kept at it, pulling her colleagues into the fray. They started tweeting their views on funniness, whether Weigel was right, and whether a paper is responsible for training its workers properly. For a day or two, Twitter was a Wapo warzone.

I had, and still have, no quibbles with Sonmez’s view. It’s worth discussing. It’s the means she took to deal with the hurt. She went to the world on Twitter to find relief rather than walk down to HR and demand a meeting of all staff — top to bottom — to discuss what is and what is not funny, what people at the paper can and cannot say, and what the paper’s responsibility is for worker deportment — even the guy in the mailroom.

That is, rather than deal with the issue structurally, Sonmetz blazoned her torch on Twitter. That’s not to say her point of view should not be available to everyone, it’s that she went for “the show” and not for policy elucidation and structural change.

And I have not seen anything that says The Post has taken action to delineate what people at the paper can and cannot say.

The other sad part of the story is that on June 9, The Post fired Felicia Sonmez. True. They said it was for, “misconduct that includes insubordination, maligning your coworkers online and violating The Post's standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity.”

Violating workplace collegiality means Sonmez, and those of her mind-set, failed the section of the Miss Manners course on “cooperative workplace.”

How will Sonmez come up with the rent for who knows how long? And, according to the book, canceling someone is not a show of collegiality, it’s a failure in leadership.

When she went on Twitter, the paper needed to call her in right away, slow her down, say they were ready to listen but wanted her first to sit down and write out all her thoughts. And because they needed it soon, she had time-off to do it — with pay.

And the paper needed to say it would convene a synod — to which every Post employee was invited — where there would be discussed the difference between a funny that relieves pain and a funny that causes it, at least more pain than it relieves.

Which is the measuring rod of ethical comedy: the relieving of pain versus causing it.

Here’s the joke again: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

Funny or not funny? Why? Show all work.

One of the greatest comedians of all time, Rodney Dangerfield — Comedy Central ranked him seventh best of all time, one behind Steve Martin and right before Chris Rock — was enamored with people’s idiosyncrasies.

Playing the sad sack he kept moaning, “I get no respect.” He was always getting the short end of the stick: with his kids, his doctor, lawyer wife, girlfriends — they all disappointed. He liked fat jokes and ugly jokes.

One night on Carson, he started in on the women he met. One of them, he said, “was no bargain … she was FAT!”

And Rodney’s fans in the audience, taking the bait, came right back: “HOW fat!?”

And he, loving the joust, looked in their direction and fired back: “HOW fat?  [I’ll tell you how fat] When she wears high heels, she strikes oil, OK!”

And you know what? “I met her at the Macy’s Parade, she was wearing ropes!”

HOW fat was she?! “She got on a scale, a card came out and said One at a Time.”

That’s right, “She was standing alone, a cop told her to break it up.”

Funny or not funny?  Pain-relieving or pain-causing?

Rodney went at “ugly” people too. What power does anyone, whose looks have veered far from the hub of beauty, have to tackle such a trope? They were already dismissed.

George Carlin is the best stand-up comedian ever — Dave Chapelle was wrong last month — sure, George berated Americans for being absolutely stupid, unable to wake even when hit with a two-by-four. But he turned the spotlight from the idiosyncratic to the powerful — people and ideas — and, like Jeremiah, began chanting “Converte, Jerusalem.”

He took on religion, God, child-rearing, education, play, drugs, imagination, personal responsibility — the meaning of life — and exposed “the line” of acceptance, letting everybody know what was waiting on the other side.

Indeed, in 1972 the Milwaukee police arrested him at Summerfest for using the English language on stage — seven words — like he was Al Capone.

I can’t figure out if George was brutally funny or funnily brutal.

Would Rodney play today? With the fat, ugly, and loser jokes? I recently realized he was dystopian.

In this next phase of our collective existence, we’ve been called to clarify what language relieves pain and what language causes it: and how much control anyone in the future will have over what he can say about how he truly feels.

— Photo from the Library of Congress

Walt Whitman was photographed by Matthew Benjamin Brady during the Civil War.

For George Carlin
 

DEAR ABBY: I need advice and I need it now; I’m besieged on all sides.

First of all, every time I turn the TV on, I see Ukrainian families blown to bits, some while sitting in the kitchen drinking tea with friends. Ukraine’s cities are boulevards of sunken ash.

I listen to what pundits say; they say the head of Russia is crazy, that he’s an old-time ideologue lost in a world where he projects himself and Russia as beneficent beings on the world stage when in fact, Abby, he neutralizes people who oppose him and shows little regard for the quality-of-life needs of the average Russian; Russia is close to a failed state.

His black eyes reach down to Dante’s inferno.

Not long after Russia started bombing Ukraine, the senior United States senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, offered a solution. On Twitter he posted, “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a successful Stauffenberg in the Russian army?”

The next day he was back at it: “I’m begging you in Russia … you need to step to the plate and take this guy out.”

He was clearly aping: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

Such pleas are acts of treason in that leaders of a sovereign nation are asking citizens of another sovereign nation to intervene in a nation’s future, to transgress the geo-political-cultural boundaries that allow a nation-state to be a sovereign.

How different was Walt Whitman’s America — he called it a “Body Electric” — the converse of the dystopian virus infecting America’s heart today.

In his poem “To Foreign Lands” Whitman does not ask a foreign power to intervene in America’s future but points to her vibrancy as an “athletic democracy.”

In the poem, he tells the leaders of the world, “I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle, the New World,/And to define America, her athletic Democracy;/ Therefore I send you my poems, that you behold in them what you wanted.”

What nerve. Telling the world that his “Leaves of Grass” is the true heart of America, a benevolent sovereign that takes into account the needs of the very least (without resentment).

Nowhere does Whitman encourage the fox to enter the hen house.

And he never called for civil war the way the past president of the United States keeps doing — he was in a civil war, and heartbroken that America was resolving her differences with one side shooting the other down.

And though he was 41 when the war began, Walt signed on as a nurse; he went into hospitals and talked to soldiers who’d lost an arm or a leg; he wrote letters home for them — some to a sweetheart — and gave absolution to those tortured by guilt for having killed a soul from the next county over.

Like a teddy bear, he hugged the men; he gave them kisses on the cheek, he called it manly love. Like a good shepherd, he never sought a nickel in return.

“One Sunday night, in a ward in the South Building,” he tells us, “I spent one of the most agreeable evenings of my life amid such a group of seven convalescent young soldiers of a Maine regiment. We drew around together, on our chairs, in the dimly-lighted room, and after interchanging the few magnetic remarks that show people it is well for them to be together, they told me stories of country life and adventures, &c., away up there in the Northeast.”

Whitman’s America is what Norman Brown means by Love’s Body, a collective soul that burns so bright with kindness that it treats its least as the very best — without resentment.

The Stauffenberg who Lindsey Graham mentioned was Claus von Stauffenberg, an officer in the German army during World War II. On July 20, 1944, he became world-famous after he tried to kill Hitler with a bomb.

While Hitler was meeting with his staff, Stauffenberg slid a suitcase under the table packed with a bomb; it went off and three officers were killed; the thickness of an oak table saved Hitler from demise. His pants were blown to shreds.

Stauffenberg had tried it before but something always happened and Hitler went unscathed. He himself helped with the cause on April 30, 1945.

After the failed assassination, Stauffenberg and three comrades were arrested; they were shot dead before the next day’s sun rose.

In Berlin today, there’s a museum called the German Resistance Memorial Center that celebrates Strauffenberg and every other Nazi resister from 1933 to 1945.

Abby, tell me: Can a person be a hero, be without sin, for killing another for ideological reasons?

The memorial center is located on Stauffenbergstrasse [sic] and opens onto the quadrangle where Stauffenberg and his comrades were shot as enemies of the state.

In 1944, it seems some Germans had a vision of a Germany that resembled Whitman’s America when “Leaves of Grass” appeared on July 4, 1855 — a homeland teeming with largesse.

As soon as I heard Graham mention Stauffenberg, I was brought back to my youth when we played a game called “Would You Assassinate Adolf Hitler?” It was me, my cousins, and a brother — I do not think it was at school — but I remember the “game” as clear as day.

We asked each other: Would you do it? Would you take the Führer out, especially if you could get away with it? I don’t remember what we said but we were Roman Catholics and the Catholic Church said transgressing the sovereignty of another’s person was murder, a mortal sin for which the sinner would spend eternity burning in the fires of hell. The forever-and-ever part was always stressed.

When one of us waffled with an answer, he was asked right away: OK, what if you knew that, by assassinating Hitler, you would save the lives of three million Jews — and never be detected — what does your Catholic Church say about those odds?

It’s a radical means-ends question, and economic in nature because it deals with the worth of one thing/person/community/nation over another. I’m fascinated with the dilemma still: Can a person be a kamikaze pilot for Jesus?

Are these the kinds of questions you’re dealing with these days, Abby? Are you up on the political-economy of nation-state sovereignty? How would you handle a man who calls for civil war?

And what about all those shootings where kids in schools and Black people buying cereal at a supermarket are taken out, desecrating Whitman’s body-electric America? I think it means the civil war has begun.

In my Orwellian moments, Abby, I project that someday there’ll be a museum on Drumpftstrasse [sic] in some southern parish featuring Donald Trump as a Stauffenbergian hero for trying to kill the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, for opposing his fascist regime.

The more America’s Whitmanesque face-to-face communities disappear, the more isolates take up guns to settle differences. It’s a Euclidean axiom: The less face-to-face, the more the gun.

And when you write back, Abby, please tell me if there’s an elixir I can take to heal my despair.

In 1511, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michaelangelo painted his view of the face of God in “Creation of the Sun and Moon.”

I came out with a new book of poems this past Christmas called “Thirty-Two Views of the Face of God.” It was a gift for my friends.

As you might imagine, the title is problematic in that millions of people believe that a person cannot see the face of God, that it’s beyond human ability — their religion says so.

Christian genealogists trace their thinking to John the Evangelist who says in the Prologue to his gospel: No one’s ever seen God. Zero-sum.

And, if you read the New Testament (the Greek Scriptures) you know such thinking exists in Paul. In a letter to a group of young Christians in Corinth, he tells the neophytes right off that happiness is seeing God face-to-face and that we, in our bodily state, see only “through a glass darkly.” A human being is fully happy only after death.

It’s a bold assertion because it sets the parameters of human potential, defines the psychological dimensions of personhood, and maps out a person’s path to happiness.

Thomas Aquinas and theologians of his ilk refer to seeing the face of God as the “beatific vision” and reaffirm John’s assertion that it’s a human being’s raison d’être.

Such thinking is clearly at odds with the work of the great psychotherapist Carl Rogers who spent his life working with people who sought relief from their unhappiness. His “On Becoming a Person” is a collection of essays about people revealing their stories and experiencing a new sense of “divine.”

The odd thing about seeing the face of God is that, if I sat down 10 believers right now and asked each to describe it, they would be perplexed, dumbfounded. And they have to do it in detail: A face has features. What are its physical properties? Or is the face of God an invisible nothingness?

Without some sense of what to look for — as the late comedian Jackie Mason might say — you could wind up with the face of a wrong God.

And — for the conventional believer — dealing with these issues is far beyond the power of the conventional sense of “faith.”

You can see why “Thirty-Two Views” stands in opposition to John, Paul, Thomas Aquinas, and others who set the parameters of human happiness outside the human; without human grounding, happiness could easily be mistaken for smoking crack.

If the gospel writer John were here, he’d say with a snip: “I already told you: No one’s ever seen the face of God! And here you’re telling me you have thirty-two views. Infidel!”

And I would say: “No, John, these poems reflect actual visions or experiences that took place beyond the edge of human consciousness — where poems are born — expressions of what some poets call the voice of God. And because you say, John, no human being can see the face of God, you have no data — while in my little book, I offer 32 graphic captions of what that face looks like in its own language — poetry.”

At the end of the “Poet’s Preface” in my little book there’s a poem I wrote in Spanish called “El Evangelio Según San Yo” which in English is, “The Gospel According to Saint Me,” and saint not like those in Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” but like those evangelists who speak of the divine’s human dimensions.

I started thinking about this in Barcelona when I bought a copy of the “Collected Poems” of the Spanish poet José Ángel Valente. In the back of the book Valente offers his Spanish of the Prologue of the gospel of John: “El Evangelio Según San Juan [Prólogo]” “The Gospel According to Saint John [the Prologue].”

Valente translates John’s dictum as: Nadie jamás ha visto a Dios — nobody’s ever seen God—words I read in Greek 60 years before but never saw their subversive nature, how they turn happiness upside down.

In the middle of my poem I say (my translation of my Spanish):
 

But what grates me most

Is the pen of the propagandist John

Who Catholics call a saint

Who apostatized saying

No one’s ever seen the face

Of God.
 

While my heart smiles all day

And at night laughs beyond control

Because the stars never expire

Just like the moon and the sun.
 

Rogers would like that, the author of his own Upanishads.

And, if a person cannot see the face of God, and it’s central to his religion, he must imagine it. A face is a visage and visages are images that have words: eyes, nose, placidity, contemplative.

I might add that a few people — two to be exact — expressed concern about the first two sentences of my Poet’s Preface which read: “If I told you all I learned in life, it would take a million years. I still surprise myself.”

One of my friends said I was coming across as some kind of Renaissance man. But the words mean that, when a person starts telling the story of how he relieved himself of burdens and entered into the divine, it takes time.

If I asked you: Tell me everything you know, how long would it take? A minute? An hour? Most of the day? Would it take a million years?

My hypothesis is: Detailing one’s transition from one stage of growth to another is a source of happiness, and arranging the narratives of all those transitions into a harmonized whole is a view of the face of God.

Rogers said, when people come in for therapy, they come behind a façade, behind which they hide their face and everything else of value. Thus, my second hypothesis is: Those who cannot see their own face because they keep it hidden behind a façade, are unable to see the face of another, never mind the face of a being they bet their happiness on.

Rogers also said that, when folks begin to feel safe in therapy, they start saying things they never knew were inside them, and their face lights up with the light of another world.

If you were asked right now to tell everything you learned in life and how it’s made you happy, should I pencil you in for an afternoon or will it take a million years?

— Photograph by Camille Ruf (1872–1939)

James Joyce in 1918

For Elizabeth Stack

As I was preparing to become an Irish citizen years ago, I started reading everything I could find on “Ireland,” not just in the 26 counties of the Republic but the six up north as well.

And to supplement my study, seven out of eight years I went to Ireland to see things for myself. As I sat in my grandmother’s house, drinking tea with a cousin, the aged Kerryman told me: The kitchen is an add-on; it’s where we used to tie the pony up.

When asked about my trips there, I said I was going not to see the country but to find out who the Irish were — a much more difficult task as anyone who’s been to Ireland with a keen nose knows.

And those wishing to take the approach I did, I urge: Learn how to listen (well); don’t ask direct personal questions — the Irish bat them away like pesky gnats — and keep in mind that the Irish listen with their eyes. So watch what they see.

As you might imagine, my study of Ireland brought me to “the potato” (práta in Irish) — not only its role during the “The Great Hunger,” as the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh called the famine, but also how the Irish grow them: for centuries in “drills.” On the Internet an Irish farmer shows how: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zL_llRUxbz4

As you might imagine as well, the group I was (and am) most taken with are Ireland’s poets and writers. For centuries people have said that, when it comes to putting things down on paper, the Irish do it best. There’s an old expression: “The Irish have a way with words.”

Even the man on the street speaks in a kind of fancy prose. You might hear, “A widow and her money are soon courted” or, “Contentment is greater than a kingdom.” After their first trip to Ireland, travelers come back and say: I love the way those people talk — then try to imitate the lilt (unsuccessfully).

And, as anyone familiar with language knows, the Irish have a special relationship with the subjunctive — the mood of conditionality. I think it comes from being suppressed for so long.

Those familiar with the Irish literary canon know well that this year, 2022, is the hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It’s the Babe Ruth of books.

Whenever the best-of lists of “greatest stories ever told” come out, “Ulysses” is up there with “Don Quixote,” “War and Peace,” and other epics of that stature. Some Irish say they like “Ulysses” better than the Bible.

In retrospect, these many years later, it seems sad that, when “Ulysses” first came out, it was censored and confiscated like a piece of smut — and chief among the confiscators was not the Roman Catholic Church but the United States Post Office.

The book first appeared in 1918 in serialized form in The Little Review, an artistic, progressive magazine — Emma Goldman wrote for it — out of New York’s Greenwich Village. Its motto was: “Making No Compromise with the Public Taste.”

But a lady from Chicago took issue with that. She wrote a letter to the editor saying “Ulysses” was “Damnable, hellish filth from the gutter of a human mind born and bred in contamination.”

When the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice got involved, the publisher and editor of The Little Review were hauled into court.

The moral entrepreneurs were especially incensed by Chapter 13 — the famous “Nausicaa” episode — which depicts an encounter between a timid Dublin man, Leopold Bloom, and a beautiful Irish woman, Gerty MacDowell, who’s sitting on the beach of the Sandymount Strand in suburban Dublin. From afar, she’s staring into the eyes of a man whose eyes are penetrating hers.

The two never touch but the eye-exchange gets so hot that Gerty lifts her skirt to the top of the calf and Bloom explodes like a Roman candle.

At trial, Margaret Anderson, the publisher of The Little Review, and Jane Heap, the journal’s editor, were told to explain why the image of a man masturbating while a woman teases him with fantasy, should not be kept from public view. The women did of course but the court disagreed.

The Feb. 22, 1921 edition of The New York Times began its report on the outcome of the case with a four-tier headline: (1) IMPROPER NOVEL COSTS WOMEN $100; (2) Greenwich Village Publisher and Editor Fined for Producing “Ulysses.” (3) WOMAN’S DRESS DESCRIBED; (4) Prosecution, on Anti-Vice Society Complaint, Said Description Was Too Frank.

The original complainant for the case was the Vice Society’s Secretary, John Sumner; he must have preened all the way home that night, recalling the words of Judge James McInerney, one of the three justices on the bench, “I think that this novel is unintelligent and it seems to me like the work of a disordered mind.” “Disordered mind” in legal-speak means crazy.

Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Game: The Battle for James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses” touches on all these points, calling attention to the irony involved. He says that, while the book “was banned to protect the delicate sensibilities of female readers … [it] owes its existence to several women. It was inspired, in part, by one woman [Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle], funded by another [Harriet Shaw Weaver], serialized by two more [Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, joint editors of The Little Review] and published by yet another [Sylvia Beach].”

“Ulysses” ran into a problem with the censors in Britain as well so Joyce had to wait 10 years before Random House put the smut-sniffing dogs to sleep. The case was the United State of America v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce. In his decision, Judge John M. Woolsey said while, “in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”

In 1948, the Catholic Church got involved in a similar case when Patrick Kavanagh’s “Tarry Flynn” came out, a touching account of rural life in 1930s Ireland. But the Éire Censorship Board declared the book “indecent and obscene,” implying that Tarry had followed Bloom’s lead.

Kavanagh kept saying the book was not about him but it is.

Years ago, I used to hear every St. Patrick’s Day there were, “only two kinds of people in the world, the Irish, and those who wish they were,” which seems so puerile now.

I also heard the Irish Blessing: “May good luck be with you Wherever you go, and your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow. May your days be many and your troubles be few, May all God's blessings descend upon you, May peace be within you, May your heart be strong, May you find what you’re seeking wherever you roam.”

Some say the prayer is sentimental but my concern is that it leaves out a blessing: May you go to your nearest library or bookstore and get a copy of Anthony Cronin’s “Dead as Doornails” containing prose as good as Joyce and poetry the equal of Yeats.

Cronin talks about how he met and interacted with and loved three Irish literary giants during 1940s and 1950s Dublin: Brendan Behan, Brian O’Nolan [aka Flann O’Brien aka Myles na Gopaleen], and Kavanagh — all of whom kept striving for self-esteem in a world where recognition was in short supply.

I might add that those three incarnations of Ireland’s literary soul died early from the drink — Behan at 41 — and that Cronin handles the weakness with understanding.

Today, March 17, 2022, I’d like to wish all our Enterprise readers a Happy St. Patrick’s Day and to those afflicted by these troubled times: Slàinte Mhaith.

Poets and friends gathered at Smitty's Tavern. The buzz of the place was a beautiful piece of music.

For Anthony Cronin

Though I’ve never seen it written in a history book, May 27, 2017 is a day that lives in infamy.

A flotilla of ships was not bombed in a faraway port or the tops of towers cut with the wings of enemy planes. It was the day that Smith’s Tavern in Voorheesville, New York closed its doors forever. A pall came over the town.

Hospitality had been the signature dish served in that building for 117 consecutive years in the form of food, drink, and a place to stay upstairs — sometimes the owner lived there.

During that time, the property changed hands five times. The Smith in Smith’s Tavern came when the Frank Smith family took over the business in 1945. There was a Frank Sr. and a Frank Jr., the son still held in honor today.

When Smitty’s — that’s what the place came to be called — finally shut its doors, I thought it was part of the jinx.

That is, Nick Oliver — who raised the building in 1900 as the West End Hotel — saw his 15-year old daughter die within a year.

And shortly after Ernie Albright bought the place, his baby girl, Coretta May, died. A 1915 edition of The Enterprise said she was “aged 2 years 9 months, 8 days.” And that her “funeral was held Wednesday morning from the West End Hotel, where her parents reside.”

Albright felt the jinx — he changed the name to the Brook View Hotel.

The editor of the paper who reported on the child’s death felt compelled to offer the community a maxim of consolation: “There is no flock however watched and tended, but one dead lamb is there; There is no fireside, howe’er defended, but hath its vacant chair.”

Some of Smitty’s patrons I met over the years would fully understand the meaning of that because they themselves were outside time, like characters in a storybook. I see their faces clear as day as I write this.

The tavern was situated on State Highway 85A diagonally across from the village elementary school and a few hundred feet from the Vly, a beautiful creek that winds through Albany County.

But go there today and all you’ll see is a frame looking like a soufflé ready to fall or a Halloween pumpkin slumped in winter snow.

For 50 years, when Friday night rolled around, friends, neighbors, and especially people with kids, headed to Smitty’s for a night out.

Sometimes there’d be a wait but nobody cared, it was a time to say hello to a neighbor at the bar or a family seated at a table waiting for dinner. The buzz of the place was a beautiful piece of music.

And, while it can be said there was no such thing as a stranger at Smitty’s, at times one of the regulars got out of hand and had to be talked to. I never saw a fight at the place nor even heard a voice raised in anger — though at times the owners did call for public assistance.

During the tenure of the last owners — business partners Jon and John — the place sported a poets’ corner, which the regulars at the bar knew well. Nailed to the wall by the heated soup tureen was a street sign with block letters that read POETS’ CORNER. It’s in the village archives now.

There are two other great institutions that have a poets’ corner: the famed Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York; and Westminster Abbey in London (where Mr. Chaucer resides).

Nearly always, as you came through the front door at Smitty’s, you’d catch a fluffle of poets in the corner, reciting Keats or debating Miss Emilie’s pedigree. Above the street sign was a plastic holder with copies of the poem of the Poet of the Month. Inquisitive regulars always availed themselves.

Jim Reed — who stood at the end of the bar that curved into the kitchen, a short one in front of him always — read the poems with childish delight. One day he got into a terrible fix over the word “rill.”

And when National Poetry Month rolled around in April, some of the poets put on a confab called the Smith’s Tavern Poet Laureate Contest.

The prizes were underwritten by the owners: $100 for Laureate; $75 for second place; $50 for third. Poets came from Massachusetts and as far west as Utica.

On contest day, you could hear the genial buzz as the poets and their fans packed into the dining room shoulder to shoulder: The owners were reimbursed after the first hour as pizza, whiskey, beer, and esoteric stout filled the tables nonstop.

And while the poets read their work amid the deepest silence, the waitresses served drink and food in the tightest of spaces with ne’ery the clink of a plate. At Smitty’s, the waitresses were impresarios; most were older women with day jobs who came at first to make an extra buck or two but soon became part of Smitty’s family.

Some were there for 30 years. I won’t name any here but their sweet womanly kindness I still feel today — better than anything on TV’s “Cheers.”

From time to time one of the waitresses, while waiting for her orders to come, penned a line or two on the back of a placemat and brought it to the poets for their review: brass duende, but always the best of fun.

And with respect to the pizza itself: Each year, when the region’s “best of” notices came out, Smitty’s was right near the top. In a 1989 interview, Frank said he’d just finished baking his millionth pie — but that quality was always the measure.

At the beginning of the week, he’d head to the butcher to buy the best prime beef for his burgers, served beside the incredible German potato salad of his German-born wife Gert, a force in her own right. They used to refer to themselves as equals.

And some nights after the kitchen closed, Frank would make the rounds and hand out little gifts: one time a frisbee with Smith’s Tavern printed on the side; another time a key ring with nail file and pen blade enclosed — Smith’s Tavern engraved on the side. I always marveled at the quality of his offerings.

And just as sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli in New York had names, so did Smitty’s pizzas. A person might walk in one day and say: I’ll have the “John Gray.”

But all that’s gone now and Voorheesville is worse for the wear: a life-giving organ of its collective self sold.

In 1916, Mr. L. J. Hanifan, the State Supervisor of Rural Schools in Charleston in West Virginia, wrote about the disappearance of communal treasures that might be as small as a quilting group — never mind the community bee that brought the stones for Nick Oliver’s foundation in 1900.

In “The Rural Community Center” Hanifan wrote, “When the people of a given community have become acquainted with one another and have formed a habit of coming together upon occasions for entertainment, social intercourse and personal enjoyment, that is, when sufficient social capital has been accumulated, then by skilful leadership this social capital may easily be directed towards the general improvement of the community well-being.”

“Social capital” is not money or real estate but the communal joy people experience living with others in mutual aid and fun and bonding in accord.

Some days I wonder if there’s others who feel the loss as I do. When the place was sold, angry critics said the owners had no right to sell a public trust.

Frank Cramer, who bought the place from Ernie Albright in 1937 and called it the Cramer House, was part of the jinx: He died upstairs, never thinking a place like Smitty’s would suffer a fate like his own.

“Solitude,” an 1809 painting by Frederic Leighton.

Share your reading list with me and I will tell you who you are; a reading list is food and we are what we eat.

And, if you tell me you do not have a reading list, I will tell you who you are as well: why you’re starving, and how to restock your shelves to offset the disease.

Years ago, I was editor-in-chief of an international journal on justice called Contemporary Justice Review. It’s out of the U.K., under the imprint of the esteemed Routledge, a subdivision of Taylor and Francis. It was my brainchild.

For a proposed special issue of the journal, I put out a call for papers to the academic community — as well as the public at large — asking folks to submit an essay on their moral and ethical development, that is, the emotio-socio-cultural foundation stones on which their being rested, a personalist vision of what Nietzsche was talking about in “On the Genealogy of Morality.”

Thus the writer had to reveal his overriding vision of life — concepts like freedom and justice — as well as the spiritual foundations on which his rules of life were based, his system of ethics, and because all rules and ethical systems have to do with happiness, the call for papers was essentially asking the writer to say what made him happy.

Delineating such mental frameworks is not an easy task; it requires naming the persons, places, and events that shift the axis of a person’s being and force him to build his ethical foundation anew — from the bottom up.

Thus, if a writer saw himself as a five-story building, he had to say how (and why) each floor came into being, right down to the rooms. It’s a level of self-analysis the great psychoanalyst Karen Horney championed all her life.

The special issue of the journal never came about; the response was too lukewarm — and I knew why.

First, the process is painful. The writer, explorer, thinker, analyst, must engage in a near-Marxian economic analysis of every aspect of his life — every person, place, and event — and reveal the worth he has assigned to each.

The human personality is a pool, a gestalt, of all such rankings combined. And they might be as basic as: I like pasta over pizza but, on a larger social-structural level, it’s: men are superior to women; whites outshine Blacks; fascist societies surpass those where people have a say.

And the ranking process is not some option, it’s grounded in our DNA: parents do it with their kids. They say they love their every child the same but deep down say one of the kids tugs on their heartstrings in a special way — a hierarchy of worth. A Freudian would say it’s the ego moving the soul toward Nirvana.

When a person’s rankings leak out and I’m there, I always ask how they came to be. Economics are not Marxian but arise with the birth of time and consciousness. The human being prices things like the Antiques Roadshow.

When people get old and lose their inhibitions, they say aloud — often to the embarrassment of their kids — what they think a thing is worth. Life’s clock freed them; saying their piece is a source of peace.

As a country, as a culture, America has long rejected reflective self-analysis — what do the Proud Boys read? — thus splinter groups keep springing up that lionize aggression and violence, nihilists who deny the worth of anything not themselves.

On the other hand, contemplatives — I read their work daily — speak (and write) a poetry of peace. It might not be Yeats or John of the Cross but it’s the language of mystics.

The issue of my journal never came about as well because contemplative self-reflective activity is not rewarded in the academic marketplace; it does not lead to tenure or a full professorship. Who will pay for periods of meditative reading and a space for solitude (could be a room in the public library) and, for some, a pen to log their experience?

But people reject such a life because they view solitude as loneliness, with being disconnected from everything that makes them happy: phone, TV, computer, shopping. And they are partially right because solitude requires time alone.

The irony is: The deeper a person’s solitude, the more he’s connected to others — a paradox of consciousness. It translates into living in accord with “other” at every level: neighborhood, town, village, partner, mate, and family; aggression and violence are rejected as means to deal with “difference.”

The aspirant speaks of such accord with elation and strives to keep that way of life intact. Some Asian mystics say they fear no hardship because they can sever soul from body — elation as inexhaustible.

I love to write. I love to read what I write, I read what I write over and over, it’s a source of meditation: a record of me listening to myself in solitude. It’s not trite to say it’s a gift.

The great psychoanalyst Carl Rogers said that, when people came in for therapy, they came packing a facade behind which they were hiding all the assessments of worth they made of every person and being in their life, including themselves — and the repression was killing them.

The aggressive, violent American we see in the papers and online today — even those in public service — is hiding behind a façade that keeps breaking out into violence: sometimes with a gun; sometimes in denial of reality; sometimes with a flag pole — to which the American flag is attached — beating down on a neighbor the community hired to keep itself safe from flag-pole-beaters like themselves. Communitas non compos mentis.

Seven years before Nietzsche’s morals book came out, his overlooked “Daybreak” appeared in which he called for the “reevaluation of all values.”

He said, “I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern. When I am among the many, I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul and I grow angry with everybody and fear everybody. I then require the desert, so as to grow good again.”

Where America is now: in the desert trying to find a way to grow good again.

— From “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” by Selma Lagerlöf.

When he was 16, the writer-thinker extraordinaire, Aldous Huxley, was struck with an eye disease that left him blind for 18 months. Years later he recalled, “I had to depend on Braille for my reading and a guide for my walking with one eye just capable of light perception, and the other with enough vision to permit of my detecting the two-hundred foot letter on the Snellen Chart.” That’s the long black and white rectangular chart doctors and government agencies use to measure sightability.

Huxley did regain some sight but had to rely on thick-lensed glasses that wore him down as the day wore on. And this a man whose calling in life was reading and writing books for nearly half a century. (His “The Doors of Perception” is about sight’s relation to mental health.)

In a similar way, the great Irish writer James Joyce had trouble with his eyes. He underwent 12 operations. In his biography of the Dubliner, Gordon Bowker says after those operations Joyce couldn’t, “see lights, suffering continual pain from the operation, weeping oceans of tears, highly nervous, and unable to think straight.”

Like Huxley, he became “dependent on kind people to see him across the road and hail taxis for him. All day, he lay on a couch in a state of complete depression, wanting to work but quite unable to do so.”

In the classic photos of Joyce, the first thing you see are the glasses (maybe the hat) fitted with thick-hazed lenses.

Gradually biographers have come to reveal that Joyce contracted syphilis and that that affected his eyes. In 1931, Joyce said, “I deserve all this on account of my iniquities.”

There are many differences between the two writers but one that stands out is that Huxley wrote a book on sight called “The Art of Seeing.” It came out in 1942, thirty-two years after he was first struck.

To help himself, Huxley adopted a sight-improvement module developed by a certain Doctor William Bates; he adhered to Bates’s regimen and his eyes improved. He became a devotee.

But some doctors raised concerns about Huxley’s claims; one reviewer of the book said Huxley “borders on the ridiculous.”

Pasted on the inside cover of my 1943 Chatto & Windus cloth edition is a small newspaper clipping with a headline that reads, “A council bans Huxley eye book.”

The text says, “Southport [England] libraries committee have refused to purchase Aldous Huxley’s book, ‘The Art of Seeing,’ in which he describes how his sight was restored, on the ground that it is more likely to do harm than good.” Whammo.

It does not say who the committee members are, whether librarians following doctors’ orders or taking a stand on ophthalmological health in accord with the ethics of their profession: a meaningful difference.

Bates deals with the psychological dimensions of sight and Huxley goes a step further. He says a lot of the “mal-functioning and strain” people suffer comes from their psychological make-up; that is, a person’s emotional gestalt affects what he sees.

Sounding like Freud, Huxley avers, “The conscious ‘I’ interferes with instinctively acquired habits of proper use.” That is, constrictive ideologies set up a mental framework that ambushes biology: the cornea, lens, all the parts of the eyeball that allow people to see (straight).

He says people try “too hard to do well … feeling unduly anxious about possible mistakes.” Not at home with themselves, they worry about failing which affects their sight.

The reviewer who criticized Huxley did say the philosopher was “quite right in saying that visual disabilities are often muscular and often psychopathic in origin”; thus people can help themselves by adopting protocols like Bates’ [not an endorsement].

The reviewer concluded “The Art of Seeing” would be good for psychiatrists “as an intimate and revealing self-study in psychology.” Which can be taken two ways: (1) that “The Art of Seeing” is a memoir worthy of attention or (2) that Huxley needs a psychiatrist.

One example Huxley gives of how psychological make-up affects vision is a woman who’s terrified of snakes: Walking along one day, she does a double-take thinking she just saw a snake; she looks again and sees only a piece of rubber tubing.

Huxley said memories of snakes had imprinted themselves on her imagination and were ready to surface when called upon. It’s the psycho-philosophical-biological condition of (1) seeing what is not there or (2) not seeing what is.

A lot of people reject examining these issues because it requires considerable self-analysis, and America hates self-analysis.

It’s such a coincidence that, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, the Polish poet-writer Czeslaw Milosz took up the matter of sight.

And he gave as an example the stories of the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf in her “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.” (She was the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1909).

Nils is 14-year old Nils Holgersson who flies high above the earth on the back of a gander and sees the whole of life in context.

He sees “both distant and … concrete” at once, which Milosz calls “double vision,” seeing from up above and up close simultaneously. He says that’s how poets see, and it is the apex of clarity.

The slovenly neurotic sees up close but has no overview, lacks perspective; the abstractionist on the other hand sees from up above but cannot see what’s in front of him.

Giuseppe Tucci in his classic “The Theory and Practice of the Mandala” (1961) says those forms of neurotic blindness cause “spiritual sterility.” But, when a person sees from up-above and up-close simultaneously, like a poet, a “new consciousness” arises. Simultaneity is key.

The up-above stands for wisdom and the up-close the discipline of daily life. Without the union, the simultaneity, Tucci says, there’s never a “return to the summit of consciousness.”

As America struggles to find the words to regenerate Her self, She’s also having a hard time seeing from up above (like Nils Holgersson) — She lacks perspective — and that is why ideological skirmishes keep flaring up.

Way back in 1938, the two great American songwriters, Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren, described the eyes of the double-vision-seer. Their song begins:

Jeepers creepers


Where’d you get those peepers?


Jeepers creepers


Where’d you get those eyes?


Gosh all, git up


How’d they get so lit up?


Gosh all, git up


How’d they get that size?

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