Monday, December 15, 2014

What's behind the sky? Part II.

According to the script and the stages of grief, I think I'm supposed to       
be wallowing in self-pity and/or angry. But it would be absurd to feel sorry   
for myself even for a second, even if I thought the cancer would kill me       
in a few months. I'm 63 years old, and I have had a wonderful, amazing,        
incredibly fortunate life. I inherited some pretty darn good genes from        
my parents.  I have a wonderful, loving mother. Although my relationship       
with my father was rocky, it was much smoother for me than it way for my       
three siblings, and it is largely to him that I owe my life-long               
interests in mathematics, languages, and athletic endeavours.  I have          
those three amazing siblings. I grew up in complete economic security,         
with virtually unlimited educational opportunities, free to follow my          
own dreams. And follow them I did, from the joy of climbing to the joy         
of mathematics. I got a job I love at my absolute top choice university,       
here in Seattle. I have the most wonderful amazing wife who I love. I have two 
beautiful daughters who never cease to inspire and amaze me. I have two        
grandchildren who have been determined by an independent consulting firm       
to be the cutest grandchildren on the planet. At a low point of my             
youth, I had the incredible good fortune to meet Jay. It was through him       
that I met Wendy and almost all of the wonderful northwest friends that        
I've known for 40+ years. Hell, even in cancer I've been lucky: I am           
only a pleasant walk across campus from one of the top medical centers         
for cancer treatment in the world. Feel sorry for myself? Neanche per          
sogno! (A delightful Italian expression meaning ``no way!'', or                
literally ``not even in a dream''.)

And who would I be angry with? God? One of the oldest recorded writings        
on this theme is the Book of Job, which includes this memorable exchange       
between Job---who was in much worse shape than I am now---and his wife:         
Job's wife: ``How long will you go on clinging to your innocence? Curse        
God, and die.''                                                                
Job: ``Foolish woman, have you lost your mind? We have accepted good           
fortune from God; surely we can accept bad fortune too.''                      
Shortly thereafter Job completely loses his cool and begins ranting            
bitterly against the injustice of it all.  One can't blame him really,          
under the circumstances, but his initial response was much more to the         
point. Here I note that the words ``from God'' can be removed without          
changing the meaning at all; it is just the religious person's way of          
saying ``we have accepted good fortune; surely we can accept bad fortune       
too''. In my case, to curse fate or fortune or whatever would be               
ridiculous, even comical. Curse you, God! You have given me an easy,           
comfortable wonderful life for 63 years, with no pain or hardship worth        
mentioning whatsoever; how dare you betray me now!

Job's key question is ``why me?''.  I        
could ask this too, but the only reasonable answer is ``why the hell           
not?''. Millions upon millions have had cancer and died from it,               
including many younger than I. One of my early mathematical mentors died       
of stomach cancer at 49. The wives of two of my colleagues succumbed to        
breast cancer, in their late fifties I think. We all know many examples.       
So there's nothing special about it. In fact one can and should take           
this a step further: What's so special about cancer? I suppose it is the       
fact that it is a long, drawn-out battle---which some win, some                
lose---and a very painful one at the end, if it comes to that. In              
contrast, a colleague in the math department recently drowned while            
kayaking the upper reaches of the Yangtze (or was presumed drowned; his        
body was never found). That, surely would be a better way to go. But he        
was only around 40. My cousin David died in his sleep at age 16, of some       
strange disease that was never properly diagnosed. I can still picture         
the last time I saw him, a few years before that. I was with my family         
at the airport in New York, waiting for our flight to Belgium in the           
summer of 1964. A few cousins came to see us off, including David              
limping along on his club foot---with a big smile, as always. As usual         
we broke out the chess set and played a game in the waiting room. He           
called the knights ``horseys''. ``You can't take my horsey!'' he would         

 It is much too late to be angry. To be angry now only raises the               
question: why weren't you angry before, when David and so many others          
died long ``before their time'', as we like to put it. I have accepted         
good fortune. Surely, I can accept bad fortune too.                            
Since I have quoted from the Old Testament, and may well do so again,          
before going further I digress to clarify my position on that venerable        
text.  As some readers of this blog know only too well, I once spent three            
years studying the Old Testament.  I came to three main conclusions.           
First, that it is a work of great historical interest, providing a             
window into a corner of the ancient world in and before the first              
millenium BCE---a small corner, but one that for better or for worse           
intersected at various times all the major empires of a much broader           
region: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Persian, Macedonian,          
Roman. It is of course filled with innumerable myths, legends, and             
transparently tall tales, but even these provide interesting insights          
into the times, and into the minds of the legion of diverse authors who        
wrote the various ``books''.      

Second, if viewed as a work of literature, some of it is quite good,           
although one does have to watch out for editing by late redactors who          
felt that the original did not conform sufficiently to the theological         
dogma of their own day. The remarkable Book of Job (often the favorite         
of tree-hugging cappuccino-sipping pointy-headed pinko intellectuals           
such as myself) was among the worst victims of this corruption by pious        
meddlers. I personally recommend the beautiful translation by Stephen          
Mitchell (no relation). It too inevitably takes liberties with the             
``original text'' (to the extent that such a thing can even be                 
determined), but at least it captures the fury of Job's shocking charges       
against God, without the white-washing and censorship added by the late        
meddlers. When they were not busy altering the text itself, the meddlers       
were fond of making up the most absurd interpretations of it. In the           
erotic love poem ``The Song of Solomon'', the King James translators           
added chapter headings in which lines such as ``your two breasts are           
like two fawns that feed among the lilies...oh queenly maiden, your            
rounded thighs are like jewels...'' are introduced by ``Christ setteth         
forth the graces of the church''. The Book of Ecclesiastes has been            
attributed to King Solomon, for example by the Catholic church which           
appealed to its supposed Solomonic authority to add weight to its              
refutation of Copernicus' theory: The sun also riseth, and the sun        
  goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he ariseth. But as scholar       
R.B.Y.  Scott of the Anchor Bible Series points out: ``There is of   
 course no possibility that the Solomon of history composed this book; to       
claim this is like claiming that a book about Marxism in modern English        
idiom and spelling was written by Henry the Eighth.''                          
Third, if the Old Testament is to be viewed as a guide to                      
morality, then it is one of the most disgusting, repulsive documents of        
its kind ever written; large parts of it are virtually unreadable              
without a stiff dose of ondansetron.                                           
But these many failings of the Old Testament (or of the bible in general,      
of the Koran or whatever ``Holy Scripture'' is on offer at the moment)         
should not lead us to reject it wholesale. Hidden among the horrors, the       
absurdities and the sheer soporific tedium are a number of real gems,          
most notably the Book of Job.                                                  
In the next installment I'll finally confront Kaia's question.                 
What is behind the sky? Where did we come from? What happens when we           
die? What are we to make of this sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly           
world we find ourselves in? What does ``God'' have to do with it?              
I have no answers, but I do have a vision I want to share. There is an evident danger here, succinctly put by British philosopher A.J. Ayer in his famous monograph ``Language, Truth and Logic'':               
``If a mystic admits that the object of his vision is something which          
cannot be described, then he must also admit that he is bound to talk          
nonsense when he describes it.''                                               
Nevertheless, I'm going to give it a go.     


  1. A wonderful post, darling brother.

    Regarding the quote by A.J. Ayer. I think many have tried,with varying degrees of success. Two of my favorites are John Donne's poem 'Negative Love' and a verse from the ancient Sanskrit poem, the Chauraspanchasika (which is mostly a love poem, but--according to legend--written in a night by a poet who was facing execution in the morning), as translated/interpreted in E. Powys Mathers' 'Black Marigolds'. I hope you will enjoy these. :-)

    Donne (in my interpretation) is writing about divine love, which he can only describe or express by what it is not:

    Negative Love

    I never stoop'd so low, as they
    Which on an eye, cheek, lip, can prey ;
    Seldom to them which soar no higher
    Than virtue, or the mind to admire.
    For sense and understanding may
    Know what gives fuel to their fire ;
    My love, though silly, is more brave ;
    For may I miss, whene'er I crave,
    If I know yet what I would have.

    If that be simply perfectest,
    Which can by no way be express'd
    But Negatives, my love is so.
    To All, which all love, I say no.
    If any who deciphers best,
    What we know not—ourselves—can know,
    Let him teach me that nothing. This
    As yet my ease and comfort is,
    Though I speed not, I cannot miss.

    And Chauras:

    Even now
    Spread we our nets beyond the farthest rims
    So surely that they take the feet of dawn
    Before you wake and after you are sleeping
    Catch up the visible and invisible stars
    And web the ports the strongest dreamer dreamed,
    Yet is it all one, Vidya, yet it is nothing.

    (One could, IMO, capitalize "One" and "Nothing".)

  2. Wow...very beautiful indeed, thanks for sharing these. I'm afraid my musings will be a big let-down after poetry of this order, which I have no hope of replicating. But then, the very point of my next essay is to make an attempt, futile though it may be, to represent my "vision" within the framework of rational thought. Still, some poetry may appear, although not by me!