There are a Lot of Things I read and Read But Don’t Understand

I have a really bad memory. I can’t remember things that are very long, so what I have to do is remember a little piece of them and figure out what the rest of it says from fresh, every time I think of them. There are a few things that I keep going back to but I never actually successfully put them together. Something about them sticks in my memory and I flag them — I know that they are important — it’s actually a physical feeling, a certain tightness I think in my stomach or expectation of motion in my arms and chest and shoulders — and then I bring them to memory and try to think what they mean, but I never successfully do it.

Some of these things are:

“I know that I know nothing”

“The size of the thumb and dwelling in the heart — that is the soul”

“Time considered as a helix of semi-precious stones”

“The reason we embrace a morality — that itself is never moral”

“God had to remove himself from reality in order to make room for creation”

“time is a moving picture of eternity”.

I don’t understand what any of this means! But I keep re-reading it, whether in marks on paper or marks in my own memory.

People on the other hand are the opposite. I feel like I understand them because I have the bodily memory of being close to them — smelling them, putting my face in their flesh or their clothes. Mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, brother. But this is wrong; the older I get the more I realize that I don’t understand them at all; it just seems like I do because of the emotional closeness.


Homosexuality is Not a Mental Illness but Homophobia Is

Before 1973 homosexuality was described as a mental illness in the DSM — the diagnostic and statistical manual.

This really boggles my mind. It means that in my life-time when doctors — people who had been to medical school — had to make a list of illnesses they could go “Cancer. Common cold. Homosexuality.”

It’s a strange idea. People and those with professional training could look at another person who expressed love and intimacy with another person and think “Aha! That’s just like cancer!” or “Aha! That belongs in the same conceptual basket as compulsive hand-washing.” They think “Yes we all suffer from horrible loneliness, and to love someone, and take solace from their physical naked body takes an amazing leap of trust. But in this particular instance of it I classify it in the same category as somebody who can’t get in an elevator without throwing up.”

It’s hard for me to put myself in that person’s shoes, the shoes of the psychiatrist who looks at the gay man and says “Their minds are ill!”. I can only think that such a person is motivated by some sort of unconscious terror. “If those people are actually okay expressing intimacy and vulnerability to each other that threatens me. It is an assault on the integrity of my mind and of my body. My sexual self is going to open me up to the maelstrom — maybe to death — if I don’t take the sexual relationship between those two and classify it as illness.” And all this conversation going on beneath the surface of consciousness, so to the conscious mind it seems like “I’m just being a scientist here! Nothing to see here! Move along!”

Which is a psychologically ill thing to think, clearly.

I imagine two time travelers from the future getting out of their craft who have lost their way in time. They don’t know what era they have landed in. They ask two questions “Is homosexuality a mental illness?” The native person they are talking to says “No, I don’t think so.” And one time traveller says “We are not in prehistoric times.” And then they ask “What about homophobia, the view that homosexuals are mentally ill — is that a mental illness?” And the person says “No. That’s just a personal point of view. Some very admirable, religious people think that. My parents think that and they’re not crazy.” And then they realize “Aha. We are not in prehistoric times, but we are not in historic times either. We are still in the Dark Ages, the time when humanity rolls around on its bed and its eyelids flutter, but it is still asleep.”


I’m Trying to Say Something That Will Be Impossible to Misunderstand

-Are you crazy, man? What are you trying to do to people?

-Well do you have a better idea? Are you trying to say something that is impossible to understand?

-No, no, no, no, no!

-You wanna say something possible to understand?




-Shut up you dum-dum! How am I supposed to know what’s possible for somebody? How do I know that? Who knows that? How am I supposed to know what’s possible for me?

-Look just calm down, would you? I didn’t say “supposed to”. I just mean you could.

-I mean of course I “could”!


Do You Want to Be Tall or Have People Think You Are Tall?

What kind of question is that?

Obviously I want to have people think I am tall because they should look up to me. If I am tall but I am always lying down and they walk all over me, what good is the tall? It’s just long.

I’ll tell you, it’s the amount of time an ant takes to walk from your head to your toe.

That reminds me, I want to write an autobiography of a lace-wing, an insect that is so soft and delicate that to touch it is to kill it.

It’s all a question of scale — if there were giants we would be like the lace-wing — to touch us is to kill us.

There are giants.

When they touch us and kill us we get to be formed again, just as when you mix flour and water and make dough and you play with the dough you can make a ball and then you can turn that ball into a snake by rolling it on the kitchen table, or you can take a snake and turn it into a ball by balling it up.

I remember reading somewhere that before it was flour it was the seeds of a special kind of grass, called “WHEAT”.

I can barely see her coming above the field of this special kind of grass (called WHEAT) but I can smell her, and I can smell the wheat, and also the sunlight.


Future Masquerade

Every century there would be a masquerade and the future people — aliens and robots and plants and fungi and slippery helices all, some of them in rowboats some of them in spaceships — would spend a century to prepare because it was at the masquerade that something surprising would happen that could teach you who you might be if you allowed enough space betweeen your ideas of who you already were for a little smell from the kitchen to get in the room, and you could do that by dressing up. I’m not kidding when I say it took a century to prepare for it. Awali spent a decade at her dress-maker for example. He was a spider with a billion arms, a billion spinerets — for so many colors — and a city-sized brain.

Alawi showed up as the Vampire. Across the room she spotted someone. Was it her young triple cousin Fernando? Had he grown up into a man since the previous century’s Masquerade? Why was he obese? What was that dusty, filthy threadbare suit he was wearing? Why that hat? Why that mustache?

She shot him a look — a sinuous look. All was sinuous and sinister and pale, the drinking of blood, an addiction to love, a love that killed — this was what she was portraying. A wisp of an idea from an ancient book — Dracula.

But who was Fernando?

Also an addict, also one who seeks a food that eats him, also someone who plays at the boundary between forgiveable and unforgivable sin. She loved him already and dropped pretense and dropped honesty, dropped everything, her nudity on fire with longing with lust with desire — I need him she thought and rushed across the ballroom. She had to know who he was playing at! Who is this being from the ancient tome.

Not the nightmare life-in-death was he but something stranger. He did not feast on blood but on meat.

My name he said Is Wimpy.

I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

The epic meeting of Vampire and Wimpy is immortalized on our bronzes and our amphoras, she chasing him, he fleeing, she hungry for his blood, he hungry for a hamburger.

I once asked my teacher “Why is that we place this image of vampire chasing Wimpy in our temples?” She said “That is not correct. Rather wherever we place the vampire chasing wimpy image, there it is a temple. There is holy ground.”


Look Who Thinks He’s Nothing

So there is a joke you probably know on the topic of humility. The chief rabbi of the synagogue at Yom Kippur is beating his breast and crying, tears running down his cheeks “I’m nothing, Lord! I’m nothing! I’m absolutely nothing!” Next to him the chief donor to the synagogue, a wealthy banker kneels down and hits himself on the chest and yells “I’m nothing! God forgive me for thinking I’m something. I’m not. I’m nothing!” Whereupon Shlomo a poor man who sweeps the synagogue out after services and halls trash gets down on his knees and yells “I’m nothing! I’m nothing.” The rabbi observes this, elbows the banker and whispers “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”

So we don’t want to be the rabbi in this story. We don’t want to brag about our humility for the obvious reason that bragging about humility shows that we are not humble. People who truly think they are nothing don’t look down on other people for thinking that they’re nothing.

But how do we avoid being the rabbi in this story?

We don’t do it by telling the story it seems to me. Because if we have the story in our back pocket and any time anybody extolls the virtue of humbleness we tell the story then we are bragging about how we are not fake-humble. And if we are bragging about how we are not fake-humble, that we know about how to avoid the pitfalls of fake humility, then we are bragging about being genuinely humble. And we are like the rabbi in the story.

On the other hand if we never tell the story or use the idea in the story how do we point out to people not to be fake humble? How do we teach ourselves and others the value of humility? If nobody makes distinctions between true and fake humility (as exemplified by the telling of the story) then how does the practice of humility endure.

It’s a problem!


The Mastery of Good in Luzzatto’s The Way of G-d

Speech delivered to the Sephardic Synagogue of London, May 2018

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was born in Padua in 1707. He was a controversial figure. Although he was acknowledged as a master of Talmud he also wrote voluminously on kabbalah including commentaries on the Zohar and the Etz Chaim of Rabbi Isaac Luria. He also wrote erotic dramas in Latin and is considered one of the founders of modern Hebrew. The rabbis of Italy forced him to burn his kabbalistic works. He was driven from Italy to Germany under suspicion of Sabbateanism. In Germany he had to sign a document stating his works on kabbala were false. He then went to Acre in Palestine where three years later he died of the plague.

Since his death his orthodoxy has been rehabilitated. His works are standard reading in Yeshivas and the Vilna Gaon said if he were still alive he’d walk on foot from Lithuania to Italy to study with him.

I’m going to focus on the first section of “Derech HaShem”. In it Rabbi Luzzatto sets out to answer two questions: what is God, and what is the purpose of creation. He believes we can only answer these two questions together. He writes “If one wishes to understand something, it is therefore very important that he be aware of other things associated with it as well as its place among them.” — p.21

Let’s start with God since Luzzatto believes everything does. God is ” a first Being, without beginning or end, who brought all things into existence and continues to sustain them.” It’s worth pausing a moment on the concept of first here. Imagine the world is a vast chain of dominos and the history of the universe is those dominos falling over. You might believe that there needs to have been a first domino to set the whole thing in motion. Or you might not — philosophers have differed upon whether the idea of an infinitely existing chain of dominoes makes any sense. Aristotle thought it did and it was also true. Aquinas thought it made perfect sense but we know it’s not the case because of revelation. However God is not first the way the domino is first — or at least not just like that.

God is first in the sense of being the first explainer. An explanation is basically an answer to the question “Why?” If we say “Why is the sky blue” the answer is because that’s how light looks refracted through the earth’s atmosphere. If we ask again “Why does light refracting make things look blue” the answer is the laws of optics and the nature of the human eye. If you ask “why are the laws of optics the way they are” the answer is quantum physics. If you then ask why is quantum physics the way it is the non-theistic answer would be — no answer, it’s just the way it is. The theistic answer is God. Luzzatto accepts the theistic answer. So God is in the words of ibn-Rushd the unexplained explainer. Any question you ask about why things are the way they are is ultimately going to reach God. And there is no explanation for God. His true nature is “beyond comprehension”. Now at this point you might think we have a problem.

What good is it to answer questions by appealing to something or somebody who is “beyond comprehension.” It doesn’t seem very intellectually satisfying. Why are things the way they are? God. But who’s God, what’s God? It’s like saying the reason of everything is BLABLABLA. Beyond comprehension. It has an authoritarian ring to it. Why do I have to clean my room. “Daddy said so. And that’s final.” Let’s remember that problem because we are going to come back to it.

Now Luzzatto goes on from God to the purpose of creation And I think we can think of this as among other things an existential question. Not what is the purpose of creation in general but what for each of us is the purpose of our lives? The question “what is the purpose of creation” is for each of us the quesiton “Why am I here?” “What is the point of my life?” Luzzatto’s answer is that God is infinitely good so an infinitely good being would want to do the very best thing it could possibly do.

What is that? What is the best thing an infinitely good thing could do? It could give you a great house. It could give you money. It could give you health. But those are finite things — Luzzatto thinks God can do better. He thinks the best thing he can do is to give himself. “God’s purpose in creation was to bestow of His good to another. “Since God desire to bestow good a partial good would not be sufficient. The good that He bestows would have to be the ultimate good that His handiwork could accept. God alone, however, is the only true good, and therefore His beneficent desire would not be satisfied unless it could bestow that very good, namely the true perfect good that exists in His intrinsic essence.”

So what’s that? Is it I get a package at my door and open it up and God is inside with a note “Enjoy!”. No. That’s impossible because God is not located in space. So giving his good means = letting creature “attach themselves to Him to the greatest degree possible for them” [37] What does it mean to attach to something that doesn’t have a spatial location? Luzzatto argues that means to be similar to it. God is an infinite being who takes pleasure in the good. So the purpose of creation is to create beings who can be like that. That is us. “The purpose of all that was created was therefore to bring into existence a creature who could derive pleasure from God’s own good, in a way that would be possible for it.”

At this point Luzzatto introduces an interesting idea. He says that to be like God we cannot just receive good from Him. We have to in some sense own it ourselves. We have to be what he calls “the master of our own good”. He writeS:

God’s wisdom, however, decreed that for such good to be perfect, the one enjoying it must be its master. He must be one who has earned it for himself, and not one associated with it accidentally. In a way this can be said to partially resemble God’s own perfection…God is perfect because of His intrinsic nature, and not without cause…In order to resemble God to some degree, it is at least necessary that this creature earn the perfection that its essence does not require, and avoid deficiency that its nature does not preclude. God therefore arranged and decreed the creation of concepts of both perfection and deficiency, as well as a creature with equal access to both. This creature would then be given the means to earn perfection and avoid deficiency. Having accomplished this, the creature could then be said to have made itself resemble its Creator, at least to the degree that this is possible. As a result it is then worthy of being drawn close to Him and deriving pleasure from His goodness.

So I want to raise a problem. Is this “mastery” of good actually mastery? It seems more like a slave/employee/child situation. God creates us. He gives us the possibility to choose either good or not-so-good. If we choose good we are the master of our own good. How is this situation “mastery of our own good”?

If Dad puts out a cake and a note which says please don’t eat it before dinner and I wait till dinner to have dessert — does that make the master of my own good? It seems like Dad is the master here. Or the laws of good eating. But I seem to be in a slave like relationship to Dad or the laws of good eating.

On the other hand wouldn’t somebody who really was the “master of his own good” be some sort of egomaniac? Like a dictator who hurts people to make himself rich and famous and powerful? Because he’s the master, right? So why does Luzzatto think that the good people are the masters of their own good and not the tyrants?

Another way to say this problem: How does it make us like God to choose perfection rather than deficiency? Because that’s not the situation God is in. And the whole point of this was to give us the best thing God could give us — namely resemblance to him.

So we have two problems: how is the purpose of our life achieved by being the master of our own good? And what kind of explanation is “God” anyway? If he’s incomprehensible why is it any good to explain things by appeal to him? How is explanation by God better than explanation by BLABLABLA?

I think Luzzatto wants us to answer those two questions together.

Remember he said we need to understand everything in context. So he wants us to understand how it is that the purpose of our life is to be master of our own good by reference to God, and to understand God by understanding what it might mean to be master of our own good.

How should we understand God’s infinity?

How do we understand infinity at all. The natural numbers -1,2,3,4 — are infinite. But I can’t say them all even if I do it for my whole life. I can’t fit them in my brain. But I understand it. To understand it means that I know if anybody gives me a number even a million miillion million million — I know that that’s not the biggest one. I know there are numbers bigger. So what does it mean that God is incomprehensible? It doesn’t mean God is nonsense. It’s not like BLABLABLA. But it means that any conception you give m of God — he’s a great father a great king a mystical light, the simplest, the best — there is a bigger one. We should never rest with our conceptions of God. That would be idolatry.

So we need to figure out how to construe our PURPOSE and GOD in context. We understand “purpose of life” by understanding God and we understand God by understand purpose of life.

I left out one clause that he keeps repeating “TO THE EXTENT POSSIBLE”. We’re finite, God’s infinite. We are not supposed to be like God to an extent that’s impossible. But how much is possible?

Bear in mind that Luzzatto wrote under conditions of tremendous censorship. They rabbis of the day him burn most of his books, most of his kabbalistic books. So we don’t know. But the only way to know the extent something is possible is to try. So that’s the idea — we are constantly deepening our sense of how much we can do, how much we can give, how much we can love, how much we can understand — we are constantly deepening our understanding of what our life’s purpose is. And that constantly deepens our understanding of God. And vice versa.

God is not an ego — he’s perfect and simple and incomprehensible. He’s like the context of all contexts. He is not a slave to any sort of limitation or self-protection or fear. We deepen our understanding of ourselves by having the conception of God and we deepen our understanding of God by having a deeper existential grasp of our own lives — coming to a decision about what it is to live our life most authentically and at it’s best.

So what does it mean to be master of our own good? We know it means to be like God. And God is infinite. He’s not compelled to do anything. He’s not motivated by any fear or limitation. And what he does is bestow his own good on others. How? By making the others — us — the masters of our own good.

So to resemble God must mean to be like God and give without any fear of limitation. So it was a bit of a trick to say that the tyrant or egomaniac or dictator is master of his own good in Luzzatto’s sense. He is actually afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t frighten people. If he doesn’t force them to acknowledge his greatness. That’s not like God who is not afraid of anything and doesn’t need anything. They are in Luzzatto’s language motivated by deficiency.

So the dictator is not the master of his own good in Luzzatto’s sense. What would be an example? Not somebody trying to get rich — then his deficiency is his master. Not someone trying to be famous — then his need for acclaim and applause is his master. What could we do if we’re already rich and famous enough? What you can do is help other people be masters.

To be the master of our own good is to be like God and one example of how to do that is to create a space for other people in which they can be infinite — in as much as human beings can be infinite, which we can’t know without trying. But we know how to start — removing poverty, sickness, lack of education, slavery, neurosis — everything that limits their happiness and flourishing and freedom and seeing what happens.

Doing this, creating situations for other people to flourish will gives us pleasure. And it will achieve the purpose of creation which is for God to give the very best thing he can give — which is resemblance to God.

To be masters of our own good we need to give like God gives from an overflowing of our own good. Overflowing of good to benefit another that itself gives us pleasure. That is a definition of love.

So to conclude:

    What is the purpose of existence for Luzzatto?

To be like God as much as possible.

    What’s God?

God is incomprehensible and infinite.

    What does that mean?

For anything good we can say about him there’s something more. We can never stop understanding the boundless greatness and goodness of God.

    So given that how can we be like God as much as possible?

By freely choosing and taking pleasure in infinite good — which he calls being master of our own good.

    And what is an example of that?

Creating spaces and situations in which other people can become masters of their own good — everyday being better, greater, and enjoying life more than the day before.


The Depredations of an Akratic Monk

The Depredations of an Akratic Monk
Return of the Akratic Monk
The Akratic Monk Goes to Monte Carlo
The Akratic Monk in the Major Leagues
The Akratic Monk in the Swamp of Death
The Akratic Monk and His Friend Snuffy Smith in the Case of the Unusual Watchband
Stories from an Akratic Monastery
Jungle Tales from the Akratic Monastery (out of print, write publisher)

What do you mean by “akratic”?
It means somebody who lives in the water.
No, no, no. Yyou mean “aquatic”.
Ohhh. Ok. Aquatic Monk.
Yeah, maybe. Do you know what a monk is?
Sure I do. Monkey, right?
No. Do you mean “Sea Monkey”?
Did you know they’re really tiny shrimp?

(a pause long enough to burn Troy to the ground and build it up again out of cotton candy…)



“I Used to Think People Care about Love. Now I realize People Actually Care About Real Estate”

Kenny said to me. And I said come on, how could you say such a thing? But he said look it’s obvious, it used to be everybody wanted to hook up but now everybody wants to get a good deal on a house. And I said that’s not people, your priorities have changed. Now that you got, older. But he said no, I was just wrong. I thought people cared about something. I have come to realize they care about something else. So we kept fighting and finally we decided to go to the Grand Monkey for a decision.

“Look” he said scratching his face with the back of his hand while eating a paw-paw fruit “People cared about hooking up because they wanted to find a place in this world to live — both physically in another person’s body or hug — but also in the long run, making a family, creating a place where who they are could be saved and protected and flourished.”

“Monkey says I’m right!” said Kenny.

“But look! What is real estate for but a place to put what we love and protect it?”

“Fine.” said Kenny, losing interest “We’re both right.”

“Why do they call you Grand Monkey?” anyway I asked the Grand Monkey.

“Oh that’s to acknowledge the metaphorical length of my grip. I am able to take to quite distant vines — in this case real estate and love — and connect them because of my superior ability to swing!”

“Also, because I am a monkey.” he said, dropped the paw paw pit on the jungle floor and brachiated out of there!


My Troubles — Why I Am Not Allowed to Speak

I don’t want to overstate my troubles. From most perspectives, my life is good. My trouble is actually a trouble about self-expression, and of all troubles, that is the easiest to bear, compared with troubles related for example to self-preservation. Preserve the self first, express it later, because if you fail to preserve it, what will you have to express, Father J tells me, rhetorically. And why shouldn’t he? He’s a rhetor.

Look to be honest — and I say that although everyone who has passed through even the first oratorical training knows that it is simply an ornamental embellishment, if that, since those who are dishonest are as likely to employ it as those who are not — to be honest, I repeat — I am allowed to “speak” if by “speak” you mean what “speak” means in English. However “to speak” in English is systematically ambiguous between two words in my native language, which translate to

i)speak with a hope of actually effecting changes in the world
ii)to speak without any actual reasonable hope of effecting changes in the world.

In the second sense I am allowed to speak or say whatever I please as often as I want, in whatever form or attitude is pleasing to me. But what I am not allowed to do is to speak in the first sense, because it is, in a word, expensive.

To speak with a hope of actually being heard is an expensive undertaking. It requires paying royalties to those who own the intellectual property on the words for example — all of our words are owned by someone, and for some words — beauty, truth, democracy, love, god — the chain of title and the collection of shareholders who must be paid off is labyrinthine in the extreme!

And if that were not expensive enough the means of making the words effectual is dear to purchase or even rent.

Because we are powerful. We exist at the end of the Long Trail, the Great Saying is within our power. We say “Let there be light” and there is light. We say “Murder is wrong” and it is wrong. We say “Great panda — an animal that eats bamboo” and Lo! the panda before us stands.

Extreme power like that is expensive. You have to apply to the Fathers and make your application clear and persuasive before you are allowed to speak.

Nine out of ten applications are for permission to clarify the existing words, which are engraved in the basement in the stone that is no stone.

But some are for new things. And I want to say a new thing.

The Fathers want to help me. They say “What is the thing you want to say?”

And I say “I can’t explain it. It was so beautiful. It was a beautiful thing.”

And the Fathers say “Go on. What was it?”

And I say “I just don’t know! I wish I did, but I don’t.”

And the Fathers say “But why do you think it is beautiful then? Why call it beautiful.”

And I say “I don’t know! I don’t know!”

And Father-K who is the one who is of all the Fathers most indulgent to me says “Why worry if it is beautiful. Can you at least say that it is a thing? What sort of thing is it?”

And I say “I don’t know if it is a thing even. I would just like to say it.”

I am racing through the streets by night, it is so long since I have had eyes or ears or a body or feet that I don’t even remember what these words mean. The Fathers have come with me in my backpack — it turns out that they have things to say as well and don’t know how. By tomorrow morning we will be far away.