November 25, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving Week!


November is in its last week, and December is fast approaching bringing with it my beloved cold winter months, which, by the way, is perhaps the main reason why I so much love this time of the year—of course, in addition to the wonderful colors of fall and the magic of the falling leaves. This very morning I was just thinking about how, in many respects, the world around us seems to be falling apart as leaves fall in autumn, and everything seems on the verge of a spectacular implosion. This immediately brought to my mind a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke titled “Autumn,” which I searched for on Google—instead of in my overcrowded library—and quickly found. In the poem, however, the twilight feeling is tempered by the surrender to the Divine contained in the last two lines:

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.

Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.


The re-reading was delightful and pleasant, but even more so was… the search! In fact, I had the chance to stumble upon some very beautiful poems I had completely forgotten or didn’t know about earlier. One of them is a real pearl. It’s from Rilke’s Vergers (Orchards), his late book of poetry written in French—after the turmoil surrounding World War I, the great Bohemian-Austrian poet seemed for a while to renounce all things German, and embrace, in his own words, the “dear borrowed language”… Biographer Donald Prater writes that “he compared French to ‘a beautiful vine-ripened over the centuries’ and cultivated according to well-defined laws: a language with a clarity and sureness which his own was far from having achieved” (D. Prater, A Ringing Glass, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, 363).

Here is the short poem in both the original French and an English translation (by A. Poulin):


Sur le soupir de l’amie
toute la nuit se soulève,

une caresse brève
parcourt le ciel ébloui.
C’est comme si dans l’univers
une force élémentaire
redevenait la mère
de tout amour qui se perd.



The whole night rests 
upon a lover’s sigh, 

a brief caress 
crosses the dazzled sky. 
As if in the universe 
an elemental power
again became the mother
of all love being lost.


What a gem, isn’t it? Thanks, Fall, for yet another wonderful gift! As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for the above-mentioned Google search for Rilke’s “Autumn,” I probably would never have known about this little masterpiece. Even though we all know that nothing happens by chance. Never has, never will. Happy Thanksgiving Week!

November 21, 2019

An Ode to November


Who said November is a sad month? It actually isn’t so bad. Au contraire. It can be such a beautiful time of the year, at least as long as it’s not raining all day every day! November is not only the month of harvest and thanksgiving, a month to remind us to be thankful for the many positive things happening in our life, it is also a time when great things can happen, and often do happen, as I myself can testify—I could tell you of that November day when heaven and earth merged and became one, but I won’t...

At the same time, however, it would be useless, if not impossible, to deny that there’s something melancholic about this month and autumn in general, as Ernest Dowson’s poem “Autumnal” suggests:

Pale amber sunlight falls across
The reddening October trees,
That hardly sway before a breeze
As soft as summer: summer's loss
Seems little, dear! on days like these.

Let misty autumn be our part!
The twilight of the year is sweet:
Where shadow and the darkness meet
Our love, a twilight of the heart
Eludes a little time's deceit.

Are we not better and at home
In dreamful Autumn, we who deem
No harvest joy is worth a dream?
A little while and night shall come,
A little while, then, let us dream.

Beyond the pearled horizons lie
Winter and night: awaiting these
We garner this poor hour of ease,
Until love turn from us and die
Beneath the drear November trees.

Yet, sometimes melancholy—a rather underrated state—is okay. Feeling melancholy isn’t an illness or even a problem, it’s a particular species of sadness that arises when we’re open to the fact that life isn’t a Disney movie, no matter how badly we’d like to be princes or princesses, and that failures and disappointments, including the most painful ones, are part of the human condition. Melancholy is wisdom, it helps us grow. Melancholy is beauty. As Charles Baudelaire once put it, “I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.” Or, in Edgar Allan Poe’s words, “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.”

In another of his poems, Dowson wonderfully expresses a melancholic attitude towards life, or what we could call a November feel. The title of the poem—which is a line from one of Horace’s odes—is in Latin, “Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam,” and means, roughly, “the shortness of life forbids us long hopes.”

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

What an ode to the most mysterious time of the year!

November 15, 2019

Let's Be Fair with Ourselves

Detail of victorian stained glass church window
 in Fringford depicting King David, the author
of the psalms in the Old testament
with a hand harp
There are people who master the art of tearing their lives into confetti-sized pieces and starting all over again. I don’t know whether I would be able to do that, nor do I know whether I would actually like to. What I am certain about is that life is never black and white, never a simple question of right or wrong, true or false. Life is a continuum—not an either/or, nor a series of episodes or a straight line, but a circle, where the opening and the conclusion finally meet at the same point. Therefore, as a general rule there’s no need for radical and fundamental changes in your life, lifestyles, and attitudes, or to dramatically subvert your system of human relations. Contradictions are, after all, not only the propulsive moments of the Hegelian dialectic, as all students of philosophy know, but also the soul of humanity and the substance of who we are. They are what make each of us unique. Let’s not despise human nature and what makes it what it is! Let’s be fair with ourselves and towards our fellow human beings, and may we always say with the psalmist, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honour.” (Ps. 8:4-5, KJV)

October 10, 2019

October


October isn’t just a month, it’s a feeling. It’s a state of mind and a celebration of everyday beauty. In fact, there’s no better month of the year than October to enjoy the splendors of nature, with the leaves turning colors into beautiful shades of red, gold and orange, whether you head off for a proper weekend vacation to get the full effect of the Fall foliage or you’re driving home down a street lined with trees that are all turned into different colors—a very good reminder of just how beautiful nature can be after a long hot summer of plain green everywhere.

Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery was so right when she proclaimed her love for this wonderful month. “October was a beautiful month at Green Gables,” she wrote in her famous novel Anne of Green Gables, ”when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths. Anne reveled in the world of color about her. ‘Oh, Marilla,’ she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, ‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.’”

At the same time, however, this month is somehow a messenger of death—though one wrapped in the colors of nostalgic happiness—and rebirth. In truth, it happens that before the first November frosts start, October admonishes us on the necessity of taking up the incoming challenge of winter, the most Yin of the seasons, according to the Taoist school of thought. As a matter of fact, in winter, when the earth lies dormant and nature appears frozen and dead, we’re called to look into our depths, to reconnect to our inner being, to befriend the darkness within us and around us. This means, interiorly speaking, that while winter is at the same time the season of rest and reflection and the most challenging time of the year, autumn in general and October, in particular, is the time of the year when something old ends—in a blaze of glory—and something new is brewing and about to begin. In other words, it’s true that, as Robert Frost puts it, nothing, especially that which is perfect and beautiful, can last forever:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.


Still, for every death there is a birth, for every ending there is a new beginning. “Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.” (Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte)

September 30, 2019

Oh Shenandoah

Charles DeasThe Trapper and his Family (1845) depicts a voyageur and his Native American wife and children
It has fairly been said that songs are the language of the heart, and speak the sentiments of the soul, in familiar verse. It can also be said that folk songs, for their part, are the soul of folk literature and folk culture, they are the expression in the idiom of the people of their joys and sorrows, their patriotism, their zest for life, and the simple pleasures of a country life. Perhaps even more so, folk songs can often show a part of a country usually unnoticed, ignored or hidden by official representations and day-to-day activity. They are “the true classics of the people, and form the foundation on which a national love of music can be built up,” as the British Board of Education put it in their “Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers” (1923).

All the above may serve as introduction to the subject of this post, namely a traditional American folk song known as “Oh Shenandoah,” also called simply “Shenandoah” or “Across the Wide Missouri.” Like many Europeans of my generation, I first came across this song thanks to the soundtrack of the 1965 Civil War movie, Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart, one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time. I saw the movie back in the 80s and enjoyed it a lot, including, but not especially, the soundtrack. Later on, I heard some good renditions of the song—including those of Tom Waits & Keith Richards, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Emmylou Harris. But what made me truly fall in love with the song was Bruce Springsteen’s stunning version of “Shenandoah,” to whose rolling cadences he did full justice on his 2006 Seeger Sessions album.



What this song is all about? As the Library of Congress’s Song of America Project puts it, the origins of “Shenandoah” are not so easily deciphered:

Like many folksongs, it is impossible to determine exactly when the song was composed, yet it probably did not originate later than the Civil War. In any case, by the nineteenth century, “Shenandoah” had achieved widespread popularity, both on land and at sea.

American folklorist Alan Lomax suggested that “Shenandoah” was a sea-shanty and that the “composers” quite possibly were French-Canadian voyageurs. Sea shanties were work songs used by sailors to coordinate the efforts of completing chores such as raising the ship’s anchor or hauling ropes. The formal structure of a shanty is simple: it consists of a solo lead that alternates with a boisterous chorus. With the sweeping melodic line of its familiar refrain, “Shenandoah” is the very nature of a sea shanty; indeed, the song’s first appearance in print was in an article by William L. Alden, titled “Sailor Songs,” that was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1882).

As unclear as is the song’s origin, so is the definitive interpretation of its text. Some believe that the song refers to the river of the same name. Others suggest that it is of Native American origin, for it tells the tale of Sally, the daughter of the Indian Chief Shenandoah, who is courted for seven years by a white Missouri river trader. Regardless of these textual discrepancies, “Shenandoah” remains an American classic.

As an example of the difficulties in interpretation of the text, in one version of the song’s lyrics—there are several—we read “Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,” which could refer to the sound of a running river, but could also mean a woman’s voice; another version says, “Oh Shenandoah, I hear you calling.” Maybe, as a music blogger fairly noted, the love affair between the fur trader and the Indian maiden gradually morphed into a longing for a river and its valley…

As David Cheal insightfully noted in an October 9, 2017, Financial Times article, the song is

a sea shanty, a logging song, a fur traders’ ballad. It’s pronounced “Shanandore”. Actually, that should be “Shenan-doh-ah”. It’s about a fur trapper who falls in love with a Native American chief’s daughter. It’s about the wide Missouri river. In fact, it’s called “Across the Wide Missouri”. Actually, it’s not about the Missouri at all — it’s about “This world of misery”. “Shenandoah” is all of these things, and none of them. It’s an enigma, inside a mystery, wrapped in a gorgeous melody. Generations of schoolchildren in the US and elsewhere have grown up singing it, and some of the world’s great popular singers have been drawn to it.
Most of all, however, as John and Alan Lomax pointed out in their book Best Loved American Folk Songs, what makes the beauty and appeal of the song is the fact that

[t]he melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with the romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills.

As for the lyrics, I’d say that it’s not so much about their literal meaning—or lack of it—as it is about the nostalgia and the sense of loss they convey to us. Maybe such a poignant feeling is the key to penetrating the mystery of this song. After all, to compose a song or a symphony, as well as to write a novel or a poem is to inhabit a dream, a dream that sometimes takes place in its very own dreamscape, even more so when it comes to traditional folk songs, myths, legends, and fairy tales. Actually, dreams matter, myths matter. We in modern Western societies think that “myth” and “legend” are practically synonyms for “untrue.” But there is a more profound sense in which myths, legends, and even dreams can be very true. Quite often, myths and legends, along with folk tales and traditional folk songs, express not only our most intimate feelings and longings but also our innermost sense of reality, the sense of nostalgia for what was and what could have been, if not our hope that someday, somehow, we will reach our Promised Land. Humans need myths because they need dreams. That’s also why “Oh Shenandoah” matters.

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away, I'm bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I love your daughter,
Away, you rolling river.
For her I'd cross
Your roaming waters,
Away, I'm bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
'Tis seven years
since last I've seen you,
Away, you rolling river.
'Tis seven years
since last I've seen you,
Away, we're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, we're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Far away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
Just to be near you,
Far away, far away.
'Cross the wide Missouri.

September 7, 2019

A Kiss Is just a Kiss



This morning, as sometimes happens to all of us, I woke up with a song playing in my head, the typical case in which you ask yourself, “Why the hell is this song playing in my ears? Why now? And why this one specifically?” The song—an old and very famous one—speaks about the time going by “no matter what the future brings” and a kiss which is just a kiss, a sigh which is just a sigh… After asking myself those questions for a while, the mystery was somewhat cleared up. In fact, unusually, I was able to recall the dream I had just before waking up. A strange dream—but then which one isn’t? And stranger still, I could recall it! What was it about? Well, the dream’s background was a love affair—a very complicated one for a variety of reasons—I had in a previous life. She was my angel, my inspiration… I loved her and I knew she loved me back. But what we both wanted and hoped for never happened. How much I just wanted to take her in my arms! How much I wanted to kiss her! But I never did. Okay, that’s the dream’s background, but what did exactly happen in the dream? Well, besides a few irrelevant details, we… finally kissed! And that was wonderful. So wonderful that I didn’t pay attention to the fact that she had a light cold! I mean, maybe not the best of the best, but memorable nonetheless. After all, perfection is not of this world, and there is always room for further improvement. Maybe in the next life.




You must remember this / A kiss is just a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh / The fundamental things apply / As time goes by / And when two lovers woo / They still say “I love you” / On that you can rely / No matter what the future brings / As time goes by [...]


“As Time Goes by” by Herman Hupfeld (1931).
(The song became most famous in 1942
when part of it was sung by the character Sam
in the movie Casablanca).


August 17, 2019

R.I.P. Peter Fonda


If I hadn’t read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—among many other novels set in the U.S.—and seen Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider, I probably wouldn’t have undertaken my pilgrimage to America in my early thirties and wouldn’t have fallen in love with her… I mean the real America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” not the country narrated by both Jack and Peter. You know, they call it heterogony of ends: while consciously pursuing your particular ends, you have unconsciously served wider ends, or if you prefer, I was like Columbus, who thinking he was going to China discovered a new world. Therefore, willing or unwilling, I owe them both a debt of gratitude. Kerouac died in 1969, the same year as Woodstock (!) and that Easy Rider came out. Maybe a coincidence, maybe not. And yesterday, exactly 50 years later, he died at the age of 79.

What about the movie? Well, since I’m not particularly adept at talking about films with the minimum competency requirements, it is my pleasure to give the floor to someone who knows more than I do. This is how Mark Bannerman concluded his article on ABC News (August 17, 2019):

Some 50 years on, there are those that see it as a curious film; a kind of period piece. For others it's the story that matters, a story that has crucial relevance today. Forget the bikes and the hippies and see it instead as an allegory of America. Two guys doing a questionable business deal, using it to fund their search for experience and meaning only to find the deal they did took them on a road leading nowhere.
In so many ways it challenges everything that America rests on.
Towards the end of the film Peter Fonda's character looks back on their journey and says simply: “We blew it.”
Asked about this just before his death, the actor said the line of script was intended for all generations, then added this pointed comment.
“Go look out the window and tell me we haven't blown it.”
Not my cup of tea, to be honest. But no hard feelings on my part. May the ground be light to you, Peter.

May 15, 2019

About Being Right or Wrong


It is nobler to declare oneself wrong than to insist on being right—especially when one is right.


~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra





To put it with tongue in cheek, we might say that Nietzsche is definitely right. But to be honest we should admit that the sentence would be even more right—though much less intriguing and thought-provoking—if it sounded like this instead: “It is nobler to declare oneself wrong than to insist on being right—especially when one is wrong.” Let’s just think this through for a minute. How many of us suffer from an inflated sense of infallibility? And how few are those who are not afraid to admit their wrongdoing? The truth is that it takes tremendous fortitude to utter the words, “I was wrong and you were right.” The general rule is that people have not such strength of heart and soul. I was no exception to this rule until I was rudely awakened by the reality of my own weakness and fallibility. It was at that very moment, however, that my inner nobility triumphed over my inner demons and inadequacies. It was as if I had finally reached my promised land, though with a bitter taste in my mouth. I was free, at last, but we all know that freedom, in every sense of the word, is not free nor a birthright, but won at a great price.

April 28, 2019

Why I Won't Delete My Social Media Accounts

A couple of days ago a good Facebook friend of mine asked me my thoughts on a couple of interviews released by Jaron Lanier. An American computer scientist who is considered by many to be one of the central figures in the history of immersive virtual reality, Lanier has now ascended to guru status in tech circles, issuing warnings about a digital world he helped make. In the interviews, like in his latest book—Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018)—he talks about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and how the tech and social media giants are using algorithms to record data about their users and to shape how we see the world and what we’re shown online. In particular, he contends that sites like Facebook and Twitter are dopamine farms that are reprogramming how you think and feel. He says they’re also causing political instability, and are changing the global economy for the worse.

At first, I thought I could write down a quick reply in the comment section, but then again I thought that the matter is too serious to be taken lightly, I mean I didn’t want to get off lightly. Therefore I realized it was worth writing a blog post at least. And here I am. Let me first say that I’m no expert on the subject here, even though last year, intrigued by a couple of reviews, I had a quick read of the above-mentioned book. (I also had the opportunity to read something about James Williams, yet another guru of computer science, a former Google product strategist who became a philosopher at the University of Oxford and whose research addresses the philosophy and ethics of attention and persuasion—in harsh opposition to the giant of the I-tech and on the same wavelength with Lanier, he argues that digital technologies privilege our impulses over our intentions, and are gradually diminishing our ability to engage with the issues we most care about.)

But let’s now get into some of the most fundamental and relevant concepts of Lanier’s thought. Take for instance the well-known concept of random reinforcement—addiction fed not by reward but by never knowing whether or when the reward will come. Well, Lanier puts it like this:

When the algorithm is feeding experiences to a person, it turns out that the randomness that lubricates algorithmic adaptation can also feed human addiction. The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments; it’s a cat-and-mouse game based on pure math. Because the stimuli from the algorithm don’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t responding to anything real, but to a fiction. That process—of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage—is addiction. As the algorithm tries to escape a rut, the human mind becomes stuck in one.

Roughly speaking, the reasons for freeing ourselves from social media include their tendency to trick us with illusions of popularity and success, to spend too much time isolating ourselves and disconnecting from the real world in order to maintain the perception of being connected, to twist our relationship with the truth, to rob us of our free will with relentless targeted ads, and to make politics terrifying. In other words, they bring out the worst in us. More specifically, here are “the ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now” (and the titles of the chapters of the book) in a nutshell:

1. You are losing your free will. Social media has become a space where everyone is posting for likes and comments…
  • Sean Parker, first president of Facebook: “We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever....It’s a social-validation feedback loop... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology....The inventors, creators -- it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people -- understood this consciously. And we did it anyway...it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other...It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
  • Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth at Facebook: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.... No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem -- this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem... I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds—even though we feigned this whole line of, like, there probably aren’t any bad unintended consequences. I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of, we kind of knew something bad could happen...So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundation of how people behave by and between each other. And I don’t have a good solution. My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.”

2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times. In this chapter, Lanier introduces an acronym under which all social media’s ills can be umbrellaed: “BUMMER” or “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” The Bummer machine is made up of six parts, indexed by the following mnemonic: A for Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy; B for Butting into everyone’s lives; C for Cramming content down people’s throats; D for Directing people’s behaviours in the sneakiest way possible; E for Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everyone else; and F for Fake mobs and Faker society.
3. Social media is making you into an asshole. Meeting your inner troll, etc. This might be one of the most compelling reasons for either quitting or never joining social media.
4. Social media is undermining truth. Myths and lies spread across the internet like wildfire…
5. Social media is making what you say meaningless. Because it strips it of context.
6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy. “If you don’t see the dark ads, the ambient whispers, the cold-hearted memes and the ridicule-filled customized feed that someone else sees, that person will just seem crazy to you. And that is our new Bummer world. We seem crazy to each other because Bummer is robbing us of our theories of one another’s minds.” Hence the explosion of nastiness, a great blossoming of “assholes.”
7. Social media is making you unhappy. The author states that due to targeted advertisements, if you look up something unhappy you will start seeing ads similar to that search and will create an even greater sense of sadness…
8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity. The reason BUMMER is a huge issue is because the internet is free. Lanier thinks that if each user pays a small fee, advertisers will not be targeting audiences and people can live in greater harmony online…
9. Social media is making politics impossible. “There are so few independent news sites, and they’re precious … Our huge nation is only a few organizations away from having no independent newsrooms with resources and clout.“ But above all, BUMMER may have no party affiliation but, as stated before, is pro-asshole.
10. Social media hates your soul. A couple of quotes:
  • “Usually Google has had a way of coming up with the creepier statements, but Facebook has pulled ahead: A recent revision in its statement of purpose includes directives like assuring that ‘every single person has a sense of purpose and community’. A single company is going to see to it that every single person has a purpose, because it presumes that was lacking before. If that is not a new religion, I don’t know what is.”
  • “When you use BUMMER, you implicitly accept a new spiritual framework. It is like the EULA agreement—the user agreement—that you clicked “OK” on without reading. You have agreed to change something intimate about your relationship with your soul. If you use BUMMER, you have probably, to some degree, statistically speaking, effectively renounced what you might think is your religion, even if that religion is atheism. You have been inducted into a new spiritual framework.”


What shall I say about this book? Well, if I’m being honest, ever since I read Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now the first definition that comes to my mind when I think of Lanier is exaggerated. Don’t get me wrong, I think the book is interesting and thought-provoking. Maybe nothing really new—these or similar ideas have been debated for some years now—but a good summary and exploration of the big personal and broader societal problems associated with social media. Despite his critical approach to the whole social media thing, however, Lanier has not lost hope. Speaking in general terms, that is, without specific reference to social networks, he thinks that “we can definitely make better interaction devices than we have.” As he told Wired in 2017, “there are lots of displays and sensors yet to be built. There’s so much to improve. But I love that. […] We’re in a perilous time. But I really believe in the human capacity for increased creativity and intelligence and wisdom, and I think if we present the tech in such a way that people have an ability to really see it and master it, they’ll rise to the occasion.”

As for social networks, he argues that If users rebel, Facebook, Twitter, etc. have an incentive to change for the better. “Whoever you are,” he explains in the book, “I hope you have options to explore what your life might be, especially if you are young. You need to make sure your own brain, and your own life, isn’t in a rut. Maybe you can go explore wilderness or learn a new skill. Take risks. But whatever form your self-exploration takes, do at least one thing: detach from the behavior-modification empires for a while—six months, say? Note that I didn’t name this book Arguments for Deleting Your Social media Accounts Right Now and Keeping Them Deleted Forever. After you experiment, you’ll know yourself better. Then decide.”

Put down this way, it would seem a rather moderate and balanced approach. But this is only one side of the story. The other is the depiction of a dark future and an even worse future based on the systematic amplification and exaggeration of issues that are real but not that dramatic. To say nothing about the contradiction in which the author finds himself: he explains how social media is making America tribal, but at the same time he goes out of his way to add extraneous content attacking Republicans. He attacks president Trump for his alleged addiction to tweeting, while ignoring those who gang up on him using bot networks and troll factories. Unfortunately, the obsession with politics turns an otherwise interesting book into a partisan attack. He starts his book nicely—with a metaphor comparing cats and dogs to social media users to show a divide between those who use social media and those who don’t—and he ends up just another unashamedly biased political commentator.

In any case, if we were to follow what seems to be the logic of his reasoning, we should also stop reading books and newspapers, watching television, using email, etc. In reality, every progress brings with it negative side effects, new challenges but also new opportunities. Every innovation carries both advantages and unpredictability, both desired and unintended collateral effects. Social media is just a tool, and like most tools, it can be used well or horribly or anywhere in between. It is not social media that “makes politics impossible,” nor is it politics that makes social media awful. Both social media and politics are tools. Paraphrasing the NRA saying (“It’s not guns that kill people it’s people that kill people”), it’s not social media that makes people into assh*les, it’s assh*les that make social media a sh*tty place.

March 31, 2019

Everything Rare for the Rare


One must renounce the bad taste of wishing to agree with many people. […] In the end, things must be as they are and have always been—the great things remain for the great, the abysses for the profound, the delicacies and thrills for the refined, and, to sum up shortly, everything rare for the rare.


~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil




As everyone knows, Friedrich Nietzsche wasn’t the most humble man on earth, nor was he a prophet of democracy and an advocate of the principle of equality of all men and universal brotherhood. That is also why the above-quoted fragment from his 1886 Beyond Good and Evil should not come as any surprise to anyone.

On no account, however, should the quote lead us to conclude that there is no truth in those rather dismissive words. In fact, upon closer inspection, such brutal honesty is widely justified by the differences among human beings. To put it simply (and to make it more simple than it actually is), being equal before the law with equal rights for all doesn’t mean being the same. Analogously, equality in the sight of God does not imply that there should be no distinction on the basis of skill and qualities or on any other basis. Actually, the real implication of equality, from both a political and, at least to some extent, a religious point of view, is the equality of opportunity. That’s why the differences between individuals cannot be ignored and/or denied in the name of and on behalf of the principle of equality. Therefore, in the light of the above, Nietzsche’s words are far less controversial than what they may seem at first glance.

But let’s now focus on some concrete situations to which Nietzsche’s statement may apply. Take, for instance, the case of two persons in love or in a relationship of some sort. One enjoys the company of open-minded, intellectually refined and stimulating friends, the other usually feels comfortable with Manichean and intellectually crude people. Or take a guy who thinks big and one who only cares about little things—well, how hard could it be for them to get along with each other and, what is more, to deeply and completely appreciate each other? Unfortunately, in both cases, there are people with different priorities, mindsets, and perspectives. Or take the case of a couple in which one is a profound guy, while the other is a nice but rather superficial person. How could they love each other for a long time, if not until death and beyond?

In reality, the possible combinations of sensitivities, characters, expectations, priorities, individual stories, etc. are nearly infinite. There’s no way to predict whether a friendship can survive whatever difference of opinion, taste, mindset, worldview, etc., or whether two lovers can really take their relationship to the highest level notwithstanding (or maybe because of) their differences.

Despite what Nietzsche seems to think, however, Love—in all of its many forms—will always have the final say. Omnia vincit Amor.

January 16, 2019

Love Is the Key





To love another is something
like prayer and it can’t be planned, you just fall
into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief.



~ Anne Sexton, “Admonitions to a Special Person” (1974), from Last Poems


Not so long ago, a couple of years back on a typical gloomy Milan day, I had a pretty interesting talk with a Benedictine monk—an old friend and a very inspiring man—on the nature and practice of prayer.

A scholar of both Western and Eastern philosophies, religions and meditative practices, he explained me that prayer, in order to be genuine and of any real value, must fulfill three conditions: Beauty, Goodness, and Love. Beauty is what the apostle calls (1 Peter 3:3-4) a gentle and quiet spirit: “It is not fancy hair, gold jewelry, or fine clothes that should make you beautiful. No, your beauty should come from within you—the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. This beauty will never disappear, and it is worth very much to God.”

Goodness is virtue and holiness in action. In Paul’s words (Galatians 5:22-23) is a “fruit of the Spirit”—“fruit,” here, means “beneficial results,” the good things that come from the Spirit’s indwelling. In other words, goodness is a moral characteristic of a Spirit-filled person.

The first in Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit is Love. “Prayer does not depend upon words,” my Benedictine friend said, “love is the foundation of all prayer because God Himself is love.”

Beauty, Goodness, and above all, LOVE—these are what prayer is all about. Selfless prayers, filled with compassion for all creation, are beautiful and enlightening. They are made out of the essence itself of Beauty. But, as we learn from Plato’s Symposium, Beauty is the object of every Love’s yearning, and a life gazing upon and pursuing this Beauty is the best life one can lead...

The memory of that conversation, or, still better, of the theology lesson I received from the monk, came back to my mind a few days ago when I stumbled across the above-quoted verses from Anne Sexton’s beautiful poem entitled “Admonitions to a Special Person.”

The poet’s comparison between love and prayer is not only evocative and even moving in an understated way, but also philosophically and theologically correct. The same, to some extent, goes for the “falling into the arms” of prayer because of the victory of belief over disbelief.

As far as I can tell, the idea of love/prayer embraced by the poet includes—or should include—love in all its declensions, from profane love to sacred, from erotic/carnal love to spiritual/esoteric love, from love for other human beings to love for things and places. Of course, there is something Dantesque about this, something reminiscent of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars,” as Dante put it to define God in the last verse of the Divine Comedy. The stars, the planets, the universe as a whole are not governed by a blind force. In all and above all there is the Spirit of God.