Judge, and be judged

"The death penalty is a sophisticated crime, it kills the soul before the body, it is murder in cold blood.

Participants in the drama do not feel that they are criminals. Someone catches the murderer, someone else watches him, prevents him from escape, a jury condemns, a judge sentences, and a hangman kills. This hangman, a cretin, half animal, takes the brunt of the responsibility for the kill. I think that if there were none of this shuffling from hand to hand, if the judges themselves tightened the rope on the condemned man's neck, and the legislators held the condemned as he tries to shake off the noose, then we would not have death penalty.

If you believe in the validity of your sacred rights to condemn a man to death, then do it yourself! Tighten the noose and hang! If you believe firmly in the right to kill in the name of the law then you either do not comprehend the nightmare of the penalty, or you are a criminal." Mikhail Artsybashev


Marijuana, the secret weapon

Readers of espionage novels may find some thrills in the recently released Department of War documents on psychological warfare, including the use of hallucinogens (see also LSD experiments gone bad)

"Take the origins of MK-ULTRA, the notorious CIA program that dosed thousands of unwitting participants with hallucinogenic drugs.

Initially funded by the Navy, the project set out to study the effects of brain concussion. Soon after, scientists noted that a blow to the head prompted amnesia, leading to the pursuit of a drug-based technique to “induce brain concussion … without physical trauma.” Shortly thereafter, the project was transferred entirely to the CIA, because it involved “human experiments … not easily justifiable on medical-therapeutic grounds.”

Other programs, described briefly focused on mind control. MK-NAOMI was after “severely incapacitating and lethal materials … [and] gadgetry for their dissemination,” and MK-CHICKWIT was designed to “identify new drug developments in Europe and Asia,” and then “obtain samples.”

Another program, MK-OFTEN, started as a study on dopamine. But the scope was soon expanded to evaluate ibogaine, a hallucinogen, and then several more drugs, in hopes of creating “new pharmacologically active drugs affecting the central nervous system [to] modify men’s behavior.”

And the Navy is reported to have “obtain[ed] heroin and marijuana” in an effort to develop speech-inducing drugs for use on defectors and prisoners of war. The drugs were eventually tested on 14 people: six volunteer research assistants, and eight unwitting Soviet defectors." source


Lying in the grass with ladies

Spring is here, warm, sunny, happy. I went out and lay in the grass with two fascinating women, Emma Bovary and Eugenie Grandet. Word by word, they told me about their lives:

"And indeed, what is better than to sit by one's fireside in the evening with a book, while the wind beats against the window and the lamp is burning? One thinks of nothing, the hours slip by. Motionless we traverse countries we fancy we see, and your thought, blending with the fiction, playing with the details, follows the outline of the adventures. It mingles with the characters, and it seems as if it were yourself palpitating beneath their costumes." Flaubert, Madame Bovary.

"Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold." Balzac, Eugenie Grandet.


Franz Kafka's "Strange and deep darkness"

Franz Kafka to Milena:

"I knew in advance what I would find in the letter, after all it was in all your letters, it was hidden in your eyes (what can one not find in their depth), in the wrinkles on your forehead; I knew it like someone who spends all day in a dark room, in deep abyss of sleep, dreams and fear, and then opens the windows not at all surprised that it is dark outside, because I knew in advance that out there I shall find strange and deep darkness."

From time to time I like to return to Kafka's letters to Felice and to Milena. I recall reading them for the first time when I was about seventeen, and feeling as though I wrote them, they were straight from the heart. I read somewhere that when these letters were first published readers felt embarrassed, as though anyone might when reading someone's innermost thoughts. They emanate authenticity. Elias Canetti wrote about them:

"I can only say that these letters hit me as only authentic life can, and are now so mystical and familiar as though they belonged to me for a long time, ever since I started to observe and absorb other people so as to understand them better."


The most important thing in life, according to Leo Tolstoy

I stumbled upon this obscure book, a collection of articles from the 1960s, by a Polish journalist Krystyna Kolińska. In 1966 she went to Ley Puy, France, to rummage through a traveling trunk that belonged to one Victor Lebrun. In it she found correspondence between Lebrun and Leo Tolstoy! What an amazing account of a young boy's fascination with the great author and the ensuing friendship (Lebrun became a close secretary to Tolstoy) that began with a letter a 17 year old Lebrun wrote:

"Worthy of my highest consideration, Leo Nikolayevich. By a strange coincidence, Volume XIII of your works has fallen into my hands shortly after the death of my father. [...] I was struck and delighted with the simplicity of your thoughts, honesty and accuracy of your stunning works. [...] What way [in life] to choose? You showed me the concept of good and evil, and I realized that I can not and do not have to do evil. But what can I personally do, I do not know." Victor Lebrun, October 15, 1899.

Tolstoy's reply:

"Unknown, young, dear friend. I received your letter when I lay sick in bed. [...] The letter is sincere and pleased me very much. One thing confuses me: Your very young age. I do not think of it in the sense that youth stands in the way of understanding truth in life. [...] But I'm afraid of your youth, because it had not yet experienced the lure of many of the world's temptations. You did not have time to realize the futility of things, and they may yet seduce you and force you to give up the truth. [... ] The most important thing you can do is grow love around you. " Your Leo Tolstoy.


Your days are numbered

What if you knew that you would live exactly 28 years, or 50, or 88? Would you be happy? That is the question Elias Canetti asks in his play Their Days Are Numbered.

"I know what age you shall reach, but I do not know how old you are. It's a secret, and everyone should keep it for himself. This way you can spend your life exactly as you consider appropriate. Nobody can command you what you should do with yourself, because nobody knows how many years you have left, only you can guide your life."


How to end all war, by George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw found (inadvertently) a solution to end all wars, if only women would stop gossiping around their TEA parties, join the military and fight the wars that they cheer for:

"The closing of the fighting services [to women] is socially necessary, as women are far too valuable to have their lives risked in battle as well as in child-bearing. If ninenty out of every hundred young men were killed we could recover from the loss, but if ninety out of every hundred women were killed there would be an end of the nation."

These days when males are too obese to join the military, the women fill the gaps, yet wars still go on. But... if women were to kill their children before shipping off to distant lands to kill other people's children then surely all wars would end, right?

The quote comes from "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism", by George Bernard Shaw.

Literary Agent, the oracle of literary taste

Toronto Star: "Once upon a time, when you finished that book you’d either take it to an agent or simply send it to a publisher and pray someone might read — and like —it. Today, that’s not enough.

There are now fewer publishers and they have fewer employees. There aren’t as many people around to read manuscripts on spec — those works are usually relegated to that heap of unsolicited manuscripts called “the slush pile” — and people in the book business are more bottom-line oriented than ever.

For the most part, manuscripts today will only be considered if they’re polished, promising, and endorsed by a reliable agent, from a respected (and commercially successful) writer, or an impressive prior track record. [...]

“In some cases, agents are very important. We rely on them, because that’s all they do.” says Pepper [publisher]. “They go out there and find stuff, and they cut a lot of the dross out. There’s agents I know, they have fabulous taste and they’ve backed it up with success. When they tell me to read a book, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to agree with them, but I’ll read it. It will mean a lot to me that that agent says that.”

You can  dream, or you can wake up and take charge.

The writer is the most threatening person for dictatorships

"The murder of poets and writers was the beginning of murder of a universal freedom of a whole people [...] Freedom begins and ends every time that a writer is murdered [...] - the defender of the right and just is annihilated, since it is the most articulate voice of society, every time that fear overcomes dissent, every time that the voice that sounds different is seen as a threat. The writer is the most threatening person for dictatorships and dictators. Democratic society and its institutions must see their perfect reflection in the acts of writers and in the writers themselves.

[...] the effort to remain human never ends. It takes meaning from political systems, from circumstances, from the goals that it has, from the standards of freedom and morality that the individual seeks for him, for the society and his country. Let the memory of martyr intellectuals, poets and writers encourage us and for such a goal!

May their memory and deeds be immortal!" SOURCE


Artists working for the predatory animal

In between challenging books, or after a book that had a profound impact on me, I like to pick up something neutral, or something that I already know and enjoy reading, such as Turgenev's or Chekhov's short stories. I read the latter last weekend, to cracking freeze, and an inch of snow:

"Science and art, when they are true, are directed not to temporary or private purposes, but to the eternal and the general--they seek the truth and the meaning of life, they seek God, the soul, and when they are harnessed to passing needs and activities, then they only complicate and encumber life. All our intellectual and spiritual energy is wasted on temporary passing needs.... Scientists, writers, painters work and work, and thanks to them the comforts of life grow greater every day, the demands of the body multiply, but we are still a long way from the truth and man still remains the most rapacious and unseemly of animals, and everything tends to make the majority of mankind degenerate and more and more lacking in vitality. Under such conditions the life of an artist has no meaning and the more talented he is, the more strange and incomprehensible his position is, since it only amounts to his working for the amusement of the predatory, disgusting animal, man, and supporting the existing state of things." Anton Chekhov, in "The House with the Mezzanine."

The photograph shows Chekhov's grave.


Literature to laugh your entrails out

I never cared much for Salvador Dali's art, and to this day feel quite ambivalent toward it. Some weeks ago tropical rain and a promising exhibit grove me to an art gallery. The topic was: book illustrations, and not just any books, but Don Kichote, The Divine Comedy, La Fontain fairytales and Gargantua and Pantagruel, all made by Dali. The latter made me pick the book, which I've been hoping to read for so many years and never finding the time. At last, I dove into it, and I sank right away. I haven't laughed this much since reading Don Kichote. It well deserves to be placed on the list of the best books, to be read before U die. One word of caution though: do not rush for it, this book requires some knowledge of the period, as well as other literary works that are profusely alluded to.

If you can't wait, and just have to pick it up, I think you'll still find plenty to laugh about.

How Gargantua was born:

"A little while after she began to groan, lament and cry. Then suddenly came the midwives from all quarters, who groping her below, found some peloderies, which was a certain filthy stuff, and of a taste truly bad enough.  This they thought had been the child, but it was her fundament, that was slipped out with the mollification of her straight entrail, which you call the bum-gut, and that merely by eating of too many tripes, as we have showed you before." Francois Rebelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (get a free eBook from public domain).