The American Transformation III

It's the Biosphere, Stupid

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This morning is one of those drizzly mornings in San Francisco that brings to mind the lines of Paul Verlaine:

Il pleure dans la ville comme il pleut dans mon coeur, quelle est cette langueur qui pénètre mon coeur?

[It rains in my heart as it rains on the town, what is this languor that penetrates my heart]

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur ?

Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s'ennuie,
Ô le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s'écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?...
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C'est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon coeur a tant de peine !

Note: pleurer means to rain; pleuvoir means to cry. Literally il pleure dans mon coeur means  it cries in my heart, but I have always seen it translated as it rains in my heart. Here is a free translation of Verlaine  I found on the web:  It rains in my heart

Poetry softens the heart-penetrating pain of languor  (de hartdoordringende pijn van de weemoed) that comes from 'the worst pain' of not knowing why the heart suffers so much in its impassiveness: 'without love and without hate'.

For a heart that's bored [or troubled] un coeur qui s'ennuie, the soft song of the rain may be either pleasant or unpleasant. Here is a great link on poetry by the way:  

Cross-overs in Poetry « Blane milling and languor all the scabs in me are loosened ..... vol stof, vol weemoed en vol zorgens! Mijn hert is als een vrucht...

A few days ago I decided to renew my walks downtown again, even though my buddy Brahm has fled back to Teheran and I no longer have a coffeemate anymore like I used to at Cafe Venue across from the old Mint.

But the walk downtown  always brings its own rewards. They were setting up a huge Christmas tree on Union Square and they opened up a skating rink next to it. San Franciscans are obviously not used to ice and snow and are not the world's greatest  skaters--but everyone was happily bumbling along and there were some tiny kids showing the adults how to do it. The public watching along the perimeter got most of their kicks from the sudden mishaps that occurred, sending people flying into the fence, or falling flat on their blushing faces.

Afterwards I repaired to my ivory tower on the top floor of Border's Bookstore nearby on Powell where there is usually an open easy chair one can read quietly in whatever books and magazine's might take your fancy. It is not as busy and distracting as the second floor coffeeshop.

Thus comfortably ensconced, and hearing in the distance the melancholy sounds of a lonely bag pipe rising up from the corner of Union Square I surveyed the poetry of Pablo Neruda--and was at once attracted by the following lines: Inclining towards the evenings, I cast my sad nets to your ocean eyes:

de Pablo Neruda:

Inclinado en las tardes

Inclinado en las tardes tiro mis tristes redes
a tus ojos oceánicos.

Allí se estira y arde en la más alta hoguera
mi soledad que da vueltas los brazos como un náufrago.

Hago rojas señales sobre tus ojos ausentes
que olean como el mar a la orilla de un faro.

Sólo guardas tinieblas, hembra distante y mía,
de tu mirada emerge a veces la costa del espanto.

Inclinado en las tardes echo mis tristes redes
a ese mar que sacude tus ojos oceánicos.

Los pájaros nocturnos picotean las primeras estrellas
que centellan como un alma cuando te amo.

Galopa la noche en su yegua sombría
desparramando espigas azules sobre el campo.


(tr. M S Merwin)
Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets
towards your oceanic eyes.

There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames,
its arms turning like a drowning man's.

I send out red signals across your absent eyes
that wave like the sea or the beach by a lighthouse.

You keep only darkness, my distant female,
from your regard sometimes the coast of dread emerges.

Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to the sea that is thrashed by your oceanic eyes.

The birds of night peck at the first stars
that flash like my soul when I love you.

The night gallops on its shadowy mare
shedding blue tassles over the land.

I explored some of the other poems as well and found the 20 poemas de amor wonderful sustenance for the afternoon. But then I walked back home to that coast of dread emerging from C-Span and the web whenever I tune into a program on current events these days. Not that there are no reasons for optimism--there are aplenty. But the challenges faced at this stage by our nation and our species are daunting indeed. Having Obama there standing behind his little roster with that reassuring sign "Office of the President-Elect" seems like a promise that: Yes Northern Virginia, and the rest of the country, there is a Santa Claus, a Tooth Fairy and a God. Don't give up hope yet. We still have a chance to set things right--as long as we tune in to the right wavelength and then give in to that wavelength, submit to that wavelength--no matter how boring it may get. In meditation boredom is the greatest enemy. To empty the mind is the greatest challenge.

Ledigheid is des duivels oorkussen. But it is exactly that emptiness, die ledigheid, that neti neti  of the Buddhists,  that we must surrender to: with each moment counted as if on a rosary, we say 'not this, not this'-- niet dit, niet dit. We relax and give in to the  the moment to moment letting go of clinging to any particular something or anything that we might use as a security blanket, as a lifejacket in the ocean of emptiness, including the believe in anything not self evident but constructed out of boredom and the insecurities that boredom brings.

There is no need now for the heart to be bored or suffer the pain of not knowing why it is full of languor.

Yet there are many reasons why my heart is filled with weemoed, sad feelings of neither pain nor pleasure. Just a dull grey foreboding. For many people,  December, not March, is the cruelest month. Yet it is also the month that brings new promises of hope for improvement. By January 20, the world is bound to have a world wide festival of renewal--even as Al Qaeda and other malevolent entities may be plotting some spectacular counter-demonstration. The promise and the foreboding are both there--and yes, Verlaine,  it does fill my heart with languor, weemoed.

Note: Dutch wee is related to the English word woe. Door  wel en wee gaan means going through well and woe. Moed means gemoed, feeling, mood. Weemoed thus literally would be woemood, a bad or sad mood, but is best translated as languor, langueur. Langgazoo is the Greek verb for to slacken, or to give up--thus laguorous could also be rendered as weary.

The country is both weary and wary. The world is weary and wary. We have a right to be.

Obama has shown a remarkable ability to communicate in word, sign and body language as well as in his action, his appointments that he is serious about the job he has been elected to do. The respect the nation and the world is showing him and the positive reactions to his appointments bode well for his coming presidency. It is a mood changer to have someone like Obama at the helm. He reminds me in many ways of Nelson Mandela more than of any other venerated public figure. But he is younger and more dynamic--and he heads a country far more powerful and consequential than Suid Afrika ever was. he also is facing circumstances that are worse than anything this country, the human species or the world have ever faced, when looked at in the combinatorial totality of crises we are faced with. I don't need to spell them out. They are well known.

But Obama shows no weariness and neither should we. Languor is not the right response, as soothing as it may be on a rainy afternoon like today. Inclinado en las tardes, I cast my sad net on your ocean eyes, oh world of mankind. But there is no convenient time for indolence.

Indolentia in Latin literally means freedom from pain or suffering > dolere = to suffer.  To be indolent therefore connotes being lazy, avoiding the pain of effort, seeking the easy way out. This was often snidely applied to the way people in the east did things--giving the false etymology that being Indo-lent meant doing things 'slowly'  (Lat. lente, Fr. lentement) and without much effort--presumably in the manner of an 'Indo', someone from the East Indies.  Cf also: festina lente, which means make haste slowly, or in Dutch: haast u langzaam.

It connotes a passive-aggressive slowness:  slow as in the Indies. Slowness as a passive-aggressive resistance to authority. One often found the same attitude in unionized plants where managment-labor relations were not as good as they should be; where the work force did not feel it had a stake in productivity. It was the same story under Communism. That time is past. The East is turning away from indolence and it is now the turn of the West to reinvent itself to match the new found dynamism of an re-awakeneing East. We cannot sit on our haunches and let events take their course, as free market advocates advocate: laissez fair laissez aller....and let the market decide what's right.

Dogmatic laissez faire capitalism has been as great a failure as dogmatic communism  turned out to be with the fall of the Soviet Union. That fall began with the fiasco in Afghanistan, which disaffected an entire generation, the same way the Viet Nam disaffected my own generation in America. We almost got over Vietnam--but then there was a return of the know-nothings and a renewed reign of  nuancephobia.

We almost--but not quite--learned the lessons of Vietnam.  The nuancephobics claimed that Reagan had vanquished communism and they made fun of Al Gore whom they falsely accused of claiming to have invented the internet. Such hubris! They also made fun of Gore's warnings about climate change and his plan to provide incentives for the development of non carbon based car technology. Oh, the elitism of it all. The effete Eastern intellectuals with their taste for nuance and foreign languages were laughed out of the White House and even invited to leave the country. Love it without nuance or leave it: nunance ninnies, get out!

The attack Al Queda planned for us (from the same country that had done the Russians in) came on 9/11, a date that can never be forgotten for it means "HELP, WE HAVE AN EMERGENCY" in America. 

The alarm call was as badly responded to by the Bush people as the later call for help from the folks affected by Katrina. Both emergencies cost unnecessary lives and huge amounts of money.

But our problems really took over our financial system when fatal errors of judgment were made by the dogmatic free market capitalists who were in an expansive mood to conquer the world--and saw Iraq as more important than Katrina or the debts of the nation.

The Neocons were still riding high. Bush's arrogant assertion at the time of his re-election that he was going to spend his political capital when the country's real capital was leaving for Chinese prisons and  Arabian  deserts was Kafkaesque in its absurdity.  He may not be too clever, but in all his bumbling Bush made sure there would be neither money nor political will to ever impeach him.  It is interesting to note that Vermont is the only state in the nation Bush has never set foot in--and is unlikely to do so in the remainder of his term, considering that he could be arrested there:

Vermont towns vote to arrest Bush and Cheney | Reuters


Aiding and abetting the neo-cons were the theo-cons, whose agenda has not significantly changed since the crusades. The Arabians are not stupid. They know history as they see it. Of course we know history as we see it. We are looking at the same history from diametrically opposite perspectives. In a sense we are both right, for the wrong reasons. Someone has to tear down that wall of separation that prevents us from having a common outlook--a shared persepctive: a world view that does not say country first but humanity first.

That, I suspect, is the real reason Obama was instinctlively reluctant to wear an Amercian flag on his lapel.

Imagine the goodwill we would have gained back in the early seventies if we had planted a United Nations flag on the moon instead of the Stars and Stripes. The moon cannot belong to any single nation. It belongs to all of humanity and only in so far as we are the custodians for our entire biosphere. The moon has been worshipped as a goddess or a god, as a divinity--and to claim a divinity for a particular country or people is as absurd as to claim a particular country or people for any particular divinity.

For the same reason, no one group can claim the earth as its backyard. Like the sun, moon and stars the earth too belongs to all of us. That awareness became more focused in the generation that grew up with the photograph taken of the earth as seen from space--a beautiful, fragile sphere without national boundaries.

It was necessary to set the stage this way, but now let's move on to higher ground.

Whether we like it or not...the world is going through a transformational change--which could be for the better or the worse. Life on this planet will not continue on its merry parth as before, slowly evolving at a snail's pace as it has before in human memory, simply because circumstances are changing so drastically that the old equations no longer hold up.  There have been numerous transformational changes before in the long history of earth, long before there even was a human species. There have been firy scorched earths and inundated watery earths as well as frozen snow ball earths. Many species have evolved and come to an end before we ever saw the light of day. But what is different now is that we as a species have become aware of the potential of our own destruction--and we are becoming aware to what extent we ourselves have had a heavy hand in it. 

The exact moment we became aware of this may have been on July 16, 1945 at a location 35 miles (56 km) southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, on what is now White Sands Missile Range, headquartered near Alamogordo. Trinity was a test of an implosion-design plutonium bomb. The Fat Man bomb, using the same conceptual design, was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9th. The Trinity detonation was equivalent to the explosion of around 20 kilotons of TNT and is usually considered the beginning of the Atomic Age.

 Cf.: Trinity (nuclear test) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

As Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer watched the demonstration, he later said that a line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita came to mind:

I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.[11][12]

Test director Kenneth Bainbridge said to Oppenheimer,

"Now we are all sons of bitches."

In recent years it has become more clear to more people just what the implications were of these words. We have becone the agents of our own destruction. And not just our own destiny but that but that of the entire biosphere is threatened by our actions and lack of timely remedial counteractions.

It is unforntunate that this message did not hit home until it finally hit those on top in the pocket books and until the entire global financial house of cards was close to collapsing. But the real tragedy is that a total economic collapse would be the least of our problems, if it were not for the fact that we so desperately need the funds to finance the remedial countermeasures that are required to prevent a collapse of the biosphere. The foot dragging of the last eight years may have far more catastrophic implications than most people are aware of. The clock is ticking....and we are running out of time.

But we have also been extremely fortunate, if that is the right word, that we were able to elect someone like Barack Obama as our President at this most crucial moment. If only he had been around eight years ago, how different things might have been! But we are where we are as of now and we may count ourselves lucky.

No one knows whether he can deliver the goods, but I can't think of anyone more qualified than him to lead us in our best effort. He has already shown tremendous leadershp qualities in bringing most of the country together and in restoring more positive attitudes towards America in the rest of the world. Most of the world acknowledges that America must provided the leadership the world and humanity need at this time. There is no other country that can fulfill that role. But to fulfill that role properly we need to inspire trust and confidence in our leadership.  Having elected Obama goes a long way in that respect.

Without the active cooperation of those who look to America as a world leader all our efforts will stumble on the passive-aggressive resistance of those who resent our self-serving policies of the past. That would doom all of us to failure in our last-ditch attempt to save the biosphere.  It is not the economy stupid, it is the biosphere. The economy is merely a necessary means to that end. We must put humanity first--and without the biosphere, where would humanity be?  And without humanity, where would America be?

In Ken Bainbridge's words, we would all be sons of bitches indeed.