Tuesday, June 30, 2009

theodora and beruriah's sister


The words for Handel’s “Theodora”
are not written in the Torah,
or even in the book they call
the gospels, or epistles Paul
wrote to the Romans and Galatians
and other gentiles whose persuasions
conflicted with his own. Their source
is neither classical nor Norse,
but comes from legends Christians told
about the martyrs in their fold.

Most of these martyrs met their death
with Jesus’ name upon their breath,
impressing Romans by their dying
joyfully, as if relying
on Jesus to provide them better
lodging with the First Begetter,
His Father who ruled heaven and
the still unholy Roman land.
They threatened Theodora with
a far worse fate, so goes the myth.
This fate all legends have reported
by martyrdom became aborted,
for only by her death could she
make such a fate be incompli,
since it involved the cruel loss
not of her life, as on a cross,
but her virginity within
a brothel––what a heinous sin
this seemed to her, and so she gave
her life her purity to save.

Her fate recalls that of a maid,
a famous sister Romans made
a prostitute like Theodora.
Horny men would come from fora
to visit her, sister-in-law
of Rabbi Meir, whose wise squaw
was Beruriah, who though he wedded
was, like all women, too light-headed:
this false charge led to suicide
because it caused her to backslide.

Her sister while in Rome would make
excuses like those wives who fake
a headache, thus remaining pure
till rescued by a saboteur,
the rabbi married to her sister.
In the brothel a resister
of all advances made by Romans,
she proved to him that she’d been no man’s
possession as unwilling harlot,
though widely advertized as starlet
whose famous father Romans knew
had burned because he was a Jew,
Teradyon’s son, a martyr burnt
because most of the Romans weren’t
as sympathetic as the man
who cooled him, burning, like a fan.

Like Beruriah’s sister, Theodora
avoided brothels. Was she more a
saint than Beruriah’s sister, since she died
while Beruriah’s sister lived? Decide
this question for yourself! Would Handel
for her have ever lit a candle
as he for Theodora did?Perhaps not. He was not a Yid,
and wore a wig instead of peyos,
but did score Judas Maccabeus,
and Hannah, Jewish memsahib,
in one of his great oratorios
where Jewish heroes were victorious.
If he had known of Beruriah’s sister
as he did of the other story,
his “Theodora” might well have
been “Beruriah’s sister.” Please don’t laugh.
George Frederic was a man who could
have written both oratorio––and should
have done, but since he didn’t, I
tell both curricula vitae.

Inspired by a performance of George Frederic Handel’s penultimate oratorio, “Theodora,” by the Bach Collegium San Diego, conducted by Richard Eggar, at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica on June 28, 2009. The excellent cast included Mireille Asselin (Theodore), Darryl Taylor (Didymus) and John Polhamus (Valens). The story of Beruriah that I discuss in the poem is mentioned in the Talmud (bAbodah Zarah 19b).

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/29/09

Wednesday, June 24, 2009



Although I never was a fan
of Johnny’s side-kick, Ed McMahon,
he’s died, so let me be the parson
who praises him. Though Johnny Carson
quite overshadowed him, side-kick
became the role they made him pick,
and happily he let himself
become a shadow on the shelf.
Comedian kept inside his pen,
he did not steal the limelight when
he said “Here’s Johnny!” which would cause,
on Johnny’s entry, great applause.

Always ready for abuse
by the man he’d introduce,
he often seemed to be competing,
but this was always self-defeating.
It’s true that he competed, but
he’d always end up as the butt
of jokes by Johnny who had sense
enough to make him look as dense
as side-kicks, when beside their hero,
should mostly seem to be a zero.

Asking questions they can’t answer,
They set up, like Sancho Panza,
their Don Quixote as the man
for whom we all should be a fan.
They serve because they sit and laugh,
prepared to be the lesser half
in teams where they become redundant
while jokes about them are abundant.
The more these side-kicks seem demented
the heroes’ auras are augmented.
And yet they ought to be accorded
respect, and reasonably rewarded.All insults made ad hominem
by heroes to those next to them
can be the means for the insulted
to be to stardom catapulted
as tail that tries to wag the head,
as was the case with Johnny’s Ed.

Of course some side-kicks break the rules,
as is the case with Shakespeare’s Fools,
transforming heroes they deride
to side-kicks. This way they provide
the audience with a clear insight
of heroes’ flaws. While they all bite
the hand that feeds them, they’re permitted
to diss the heroes. Not dim-witted,
some side-kicks often point this out
in real life too, when they’ve the clout,
but usually they fail, like Ed,
and act as foils not Fools, instead.

Now that Ed McMahon’s dead,
let’s praise him for the way he led
us all to think so well of Johnny,
because his jokes were far less funny.

Ed McMahon died in Bel Air on June 22, living in a house that had been foreclosed in the course of the economic meltdown, but supported util his death by a loyal supporter. Robert Lloyd writes an appreciation in the LA Times on June 24 (“Completing the Star”).

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/23/09

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

life and death in teheran


Barbarians who murdered Neda
are standing by the lethal letter
of Islamic law in Teheran,
where ayatollahs choose to ban
the freedom of expression that
now spurs a proletariat
that will not let itself be hushed,
and trampled and betrayed and crushed.

Believers here have not endorsed
deniers of the Holocaust
whose deadly lack of inhibition
has brought them close to nuclear fission
and brings to virgins’ faces pallor,
afraid of devotees of Allah
with whom they never wished to be
united, hoping to be free.

Nega has provided them
a martyr, and they now condemn
the ancien régime and say
she died for them, which is why they
must rise together taking arms
against the bigoted imams,
behaving as Persian Jews
behaved when they mixed blood with booze.

Inspired by the death of Neda Agha Soltan, who was murdered on June 18, 2009 in Teheran, an innocent bystander in a demonstration gainst the regime in Iran. Roger Cohen writes in the NYT, June 23, 2009:
They gathered, the women in black, at Nilofar Square to mourn Neda Agha Soltan, the Iranian student cut down by a single bullet, whose last moments were captured on a video that has gone global. I sat among the mourners in late afternoon, under the plane trees, as candles burned and a prayer was said. The square seemed an oasis. I asked a young woman if she was scared. “Yes,” she said. “I’m scared that all the blood shed for this cause may be wasted.” The cause, of course, is the annulment of Iran’s fraudulent election and, beyond that, freedom. The freedom not to live in a state that slams shut the doors of the mosque next to Nilofar Square because Neda, as a protester, was denied a proper service.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/23/09

Monday, June 22, 2009

old lion, mouse and cat


The story that I am about
To tell is of a lion that, retired,
had lost his spirit and his clout,
no longer active or admired.
Whenever this old lion wished
to sleep a small mouse would appear,
and on Old Lion’s mane it swished
its tail. The only beast mice fear
are, as you know, a pussy cat.
Old Lion knew this and he hired
a cat to chase the mouse. And that
is what it did, till bored and tired
of such a chore, the cat dispatched
its little victim, whereupon
Old Lion stroked his mane and scratched
his back and thought, “Now mouse is gone,
I needn’t feed the cat.” Cat starved and died.
It should have known you shouldn’t keep
your master free of care. Provide
a problem to disturb his sleep
that only you can solve so he
depends on you. The same applies
to mistresses. Don’t keep them free
of problems that wise men devise
to make them think that they depend
on you. It’s ditto for your spouse.
Her enemies you should befriend,
as cat should have befriended mouse,
but then again it’s complicated,
because in life it’s dog eat dog,
a fact that often is debated
in Congress, Church and Synagogue,
especially by people who,
like our Old Lion, have retired,
because there’s little you can do
once people see you’re old and tired.

Inspired by an article about the Clay Sanskrit Library (CSL) by Aditya Behl (abehl@sas.upenn.edu), who teaches Hindi and Urdu literature at the University of Pennsylvania, in the TLS, June 19 (“Big cat, little cat”): The goal of the library is to bring to a worldwide audience the text of the two national epics of India, the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. Illustrating story literature (katha) in the CSL, Behl records one of the animal fables, which in Sanskrit are known as niti-shastra, the science of niti encompassing politics, ethics, right conduct and street smarts:
An example is the story of the old lion, now retired, who wishes only to sleep peacefully in his cave. But a naughty mouse comes out of its hole and nibbles at his mane whenever he wants to take a nap, and this drives the lion crazy. So he engages a cat, its natural enemy, to keep it at bay, and for a while things go well. One day cat ambushes the mouse and dispatches it. Though the lion had previously fed the cat well, after the mouse is gone the poor thing starves to death. The story is recycled by, among others, Lallu La Kavi, the Bhakha-munshi or Hindi teacher at the College of Fort William in Calcutta around 1800. The Bhakha-munshi, who is responsible for teaching the young sahibs of the East India Company the language they need to command Hindustan, relates it in his Hindu primer with its moral: Never keep your master free from care”. In this situation, who is the colonized subject? Modernity needs to inscribe tradition, especially when coded in a classical language, as closed, singular and oppressive in order to define itself as the opposite. Yet when we look at stories such as these, they reveal the classical as open, both in the sense of using older materials in new situations of cultural encounter and in the expanse of what can be represented as part of the human condition.

This was Aditya Behl’s response:

Dear Gershon,

This was wonderful, a charming redoing into verse! I enjoyed it very much, as the fable is a favourite one of mine. I liked particularly your extension of the moral into the world of human relationships, different from the master and servant one that is the ordinary reading of the fable.

Thank you,

Best wishes,


© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/22/09

Friday, June 19, 2009

gospel of my muse


Auden sang the gospel of his Muse
to fundamentalist and nun,
but though my chosen people are the Jews
my gospel is for everyone.
In my milieu I don’t pontificate,
but on the light fantastic trip,
yet serious problems never underrate
when audenly I wield a whip
that gives tongue-lashings, fire in my belly
as hot as mustard on pastrami
that’s served with cole slaw in a kosher deli.
The messages embalmed are balmy
because of rhymes that reassure the reader
that in the universe there’s order,
equilibrating, like obsessive meter,
the chaos threatening the border,
between my universe and sanity,
while I in LA, no pelagian,
attempt to hold my ground, and with urbanity
sing what most readers can’t imagine.

Inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem “On the Circuit”:

Among pelagian travelers,
Lost on their lewd conceited way
To Massachusetts, Michigan,
Miami or L.A.,

An airborne instrument I sit,
Predestined nightly to fulfill
Unfathomable will,

By whose election justified,
I bring my gospel of the Muse
To fundamentalists, to nuns,
to Gentiles and to Jews,

And daily, seven days a week,
Before a local sense has jelled,
From talking-site to talking-site
Am jet-or-prop-propelled.

Though warm my welcome everywhere,
I shift so frequently, so fast,
I cannot now say where I was
The evening before last,

Unless some singular event
Should intervene to save the place,
A truly asinine remark,
A soul-bewitching face,

Or blessed encounter, full of joy,
Unscheduled on the Giesen Plan,
With, here, an addict of Tolkien,
There, a Charles Williams fan.

Since Merit but a dunghill is,
I mount the rostrum unafraid:
Indeed, 'twere damnable to ask
If I am overpaid.

Spirit is willing to repeat
Without a qualm the same old talk,
But Flesh is homesick for our snug
Apartment in New York.

A sulky fifty-six, he finds
A change of mealtime utter hell,
Grown far too crotchety to like
A luxury hotel.

The Bible is a goodly book
I always can peruse with zest,
But really cannot say the same
For Hilton's Be My Guest.

Nor bear with equanimity
The radio in students' cars,
Muzak at breakfast, or--dear God!--
Girl-organists in bars.

Then, worst of all, the anxious thought,
Each time my plane begins to sink
And the No Smoking sign comes on:
What will there be to drink?

Is this my milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?

Another morning comes: I see,
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don't remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/18/09

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

amour propre


Isolde told her trick, true Tristan,
“On you for good sex I’m insistin’.”
She gave her corny fellow ease
like that obtained from Héloise
by Abelard, who put above
his love for her castrated love
for God by cutting off his balls
while heeding Héloise’s calls.
She loved her man no less than Frida
loved her Diego, charming cheater,
although like him she cheated too,
as Mexicans all seem to do.
Emily, of course, was chaste,
and I won’t dwell upon such waste,
since now that all of us recycle
lovers we don’t unicycle.
Lastly, as a poet elder,
I’ll mention Scott’s beloved Zelda;
greater love the age of jazz
showed no one, although Zelda’s has
an ending that’s extremely sad,
since, alcoholic, she went mad.

Famous guys and gals all need
each other’s love until they breed
or get involved in their careers,
when they may look for other dears,
amour the first theme of the opera
that often ends in amour propre,
and isn’t over till fat ladies
sing and give their lovers Hades.

Inspired by “More Amour,” a review by Megan Cox Gurdon of “A Vindication of Love,” by Christina Nehring (also author of a review of Jonathan Margolis’s “Intimate History of the Orgasm” in The Nation, “Good Vibrations”) (WSJ, June 16, 2009):
It is Cristina Nehring's opinion that romantic love in our modern era has dwindled into a shriveled, ignoble thing. After reading "A Vindication of Love," her rousing defense of imprudent ardor and romantic excess, we may be tempted to agree -- though probably not to the point of wishing to embrace quite the degree of disordering passion that Ms. Nehring so esteems.Feminists, it should be said, may hotly disagree with Ms. Nehring, an essayist for Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. They will not like her argument that egalitarian feminism is the principal acid that has corroded romantic love. No more the passionate hunger that swept up Tristan and Iseult, Abelard and Heloise, or even Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo: The flashing ardor produced by such combustible couplings is scarcely possible in today's feminist-dampened culture, Ms. Nehring believes. "We inhabit a world in which every aspect of romance from meeting to mating has been streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence," she says. "We imagine that we live in an erotic culture of unprecedented opportunity when, in fact, we live in an erotic culture that is almost unendurably bland." Not that feminism has been a total bust, of course; legal equality and the expectation of female sexual satisfaction are surely pleasant results of centuries of activism. Ms. Nehring concedes this but notes: "We need not trash feminism's flowers to dispose of the rotting fruit in its cellar."… To make her case, she takes us into a dark forest to show us the doomed lovers Tristan and Iseult, lying with a sword between their hot bodies. She opens a window into Emily Dickinson's chaste New England boudoir, where we see the recluse penning breathless letters to her mysterious "Master." We hear the bawdy laughter of Chaucer's Wife of Bath, conquered at last (with a clout to the ear) by husband number five. Any of these love stories submitted to a modern-day advice columnist would come back with a diagnosis of troubling pathologies: co-dependent adulterers, a sexually frustrated agoraphobe, a battered wife. Ms. Nehring wants us to see how impoverished this worldview is; how our fixation on successful, "healthy" relationships cuts us off from the profound, inspiriting and sometimes wounding effects of romantic intensity.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/16/09

Sunday, June 14, 2009

chosen people


Not only chosen people, they’ve been frozen
in time by Sinai laws that made them docen-
tophilic, thinking there should come from Zion
a Torah that the gentiles are not buyin’
unless emasculated by a prepuce,
retained by them, rejected by the Hebrews,
who think the cause of His divine decision
to choose the Jews was, oddly, circumcision.

Inspired by a pre-opera talk by Paul G. Floyd,, who pointed out that the third act of Verdi’s “La Traviata” ends conventionally, unlike the other three odds, with all the chosen cast frozen, singing a finale in a grand finale.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/10/09

Friday, June 12, 2009

chinese brides who scam


In China brides are worth far more than grooms
since there are there more testicles than wombs
so that the bride-price has become inflated
which causes brides to be so over-rated,
above fine rubies, even above pearls,
transforming China into paradise for girls.
This shortage has produced a marriage scam,
in which once married brides go on the lam
and heir liaisons terminate so soon
that there's no weDding night or honeymoon.
A pity Bernie Madoff had no daughter:
because a Chinaman might well have bought her
to make him rich in such a Ponzi scheme
about which Wall Street moguls cannot dream
because their daughters usually are Japs,
less helpful to their Jewish dads, perhaps,
than Chinese girls who for a bride-price scam,
less kosher than the Japs, since they eat ham.

Inspired by an article by Mei Fong in the WSJ, June 5, on a scam performed by Chinese girls, of whom there is a great shortage ("It's Cold Cash, Not Cold Feet, Motivating Runaway Brides in China: Surplus of Bachelors Spurs New Scam: Mr. Zhou, Briefly Betrothed, Now Pines"):

With no eligible women in his village, Zhou Pin, 27 years old, thought he was lucky to find a pretty bride whom he met and married within a week, following the custom in rural China. Ten days later, Cai Niucuo vanished, leaving behind her clothes and identity papers. She did not, however, leave behind her bride price: 38,000 yuan, or about $5,500, which Mr. Zhou and his family had scrimped and borrowed to put together. When Mr. Zhou reported his missing spouse to authorities, he found his situation wasn't unique. In the first two months of this year, Hanzhong town saw a record number of scams designed to extract high bride prices in a region with an oversupply of bachelors. The fleeing Mrs. Zhou was one of 11 runaway brides -- hardly the isolated case or two that the town had seen in years past. The local phenomenon has fueled broader speculation among officials that the fast-footed wives may be part of a larger criminal ring. "She called me soon after
she left," says Mr. Zhou, a slight man with a tentative smile. He says she asked how he was doing, and apologized for the hardship she had caused. "I told her, 'I will see you again one day.' " ...

While there are no nationwide statistics, wedding scams have occurred before, but usually isolated cases. Mr. Tang, Xin'an's Communist Party secretary, says he has never before seen such clusters of cases. Most of the 11 families involved lost an average of 40,000 yuan. Officials consider these to be fraud cases. So if caught, the women could serve jail time, according to police. Meanwhile, Mr. Zhou is still lovelorn. "I feel I can't hate her," says the deserted husband, who is now so depressed his parents have forbidden him to leave the village, as he longs to. "She must have her own troubles."

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/5/09

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

your lips



Your lips are like a cherry I have bitten
into, and your smile is like a riff
music sung by Ella or a Briton
whose upper lip is transiently not stiff.

Below your neck your features are outstanding;
I love your breasts, your narrow waist and hips,
and thighs that seem to have an understanding
of what between them greets before it grips.

I love you since you seem to be laid back,
a minstrel mistress with a loving lay;
you have program that I want to hack,
to spend the night with you till beak of day.

Inspired by a song, “Your lips are like a red and ruby chalice,” whose lyrics, according to Garrison Keillor at the Greek Theater two nights ago, were written by Johnny Mercer after he heard the tune written by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke in 1947 on a radio station seven years after the tune was written. He phoned the radio station as soon as he heard it, and it was subsequently sung by Ella Fitzgerald. These are the lyrics written by Johnny Mercer:


Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice, warmer than the summer night
The clouds were like an alabaster palace rising to a snowy height.
Each star its own aurora borealis, suddenly you held me tight
I could see the Midnight Sun.

I can't explain the silver rain that found me--or was that a moonlit veil?
The music of the universe around me, or was that a nightingale?
And then your arms miraculously found me,suddenly the sky turned pale,
I could see the Midnight Sun.

Was there such a night, it's a thrill I still don't quite believe,
But after you were gone, there was still some stardust on my sleeve.

The flame of it may dwindle to an ember, and the stars forget to shine,
And we may see the meadow in December, icy white and crystalline,
But oh my darling always I'll remember when your lips were close to mine,

And we saw the Midnight Sun.© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/7/09

Thursday, June 4, 2009

the more a man has


For what I am about to say there is no proof,
though I hold them close to me, just like the quoof
Muldoon has celebrated as a means to coddle
the body when it is alone—hot-water bottle.

A man wants more than what he has, and if he’s got
a lot he wants more that that, for man has not
been programmed to declare, “No more! I have enough!’
perpetually accumulating lots of stuff
that never fills his needs because he’s always trying
to get some of what he doesn’t need. He’s lying
if he maintains he’s satisfied with all that’s he’s
accumulated. Getting more is a disease
that can’t be cured, and only ends when he has died,
and left his heirs his treasures that they will deride
once they have buried one that he too long had taken
for granted: his dead body, corpse no longer shaken
or stirred by the possessions that he had acquired,
especially his written words no one admired,
unless they had been signed and written on a check
facilitating salvage of the rotten wreck
which was the vessel that contained him while he sailed
and looked for more when he with less might have prevailed.

Inspired by a verse of Paul Muldoon’s poem “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants”:

The more a man has the more a man wants,
the same I don’t think true.
For I never met a man with one black eye
who ever wanted two.
In the Las Vegas Lounge and Cabaret
the resident group—
pot bellies, Aran knits—
have you eating out of their hands.
Never throw a brick at a drowning man
when you’re near to a grocer’s store.
Just throw him a cake of Sunlight soap,
let him wash himself ashore.
You will act the galoot, and gallivant,
and call for another encore.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/3/09

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

what would jane do?


Do not ask “What would Jane
In order to stay sane
must be prepared to get
lost in
the present, and forget
Jane Austen.
The past is a mere book
you’ve read;
be forward, girl, and look

Inspired by “The Jane Austen Book Club,” a movie based on Karen Joy Fowler’s book of that name. Stephen Holden writes in the NYT, September 21, 2007:

The movie gets foolishly carried away only once, when it suggests that a clueless macho boor, pressured to read Austen by his neglected wife, is magically transformed into a cuddly enlightened tomcat purring with empathy. I didn’t believe it for a minute. But I like the idea of a great British author from another century casting such a spell. If Shakespeare can do it, why not Austen? The movie glamorizes Ms. Fowler’s characters in ways large and small. Several are a decade younger in the film than in the book, and all are attractive. Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the lone man, has been transformed from a temp in a university linguistics department in his 40s into a cute-as-a-button Silicon Valley techie and possible genius in his early 30s. Having grown up with three older sisters, this puppyish man-child and science-fiction fanatic who compares an Austen novel to “The Empire Strikes Back” is charmingly feminized without being effeminate. The rest of the lineup is as follows: Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the group’s founder, is a six-times-married dynamo in her mid-50s who is both free-spirited and maternal. Her close friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a control freak and dog fancier who breeds Rhodesian Ridgebacks, fancies herself above the human mating game. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), happily married for 25 years, imagines she has it all, then falls apart when her husband, Daniel (Jimmy Smits), breaks the news that he is having an affair with a woman in his law firm and wants to end their marriage. The couple’s lesbian 20-ish daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), who has an active love life and a secret addiction to extreme sports like skydiving, moves back home to keep Sylvia company. Prudie (Emily Blunt), drawn into the group after meeting Bernadette in line at an Austen film festival, is a beautiful, prim, married high school French teacher. To her recently acquired husband, Dean (Marc Blucas), an uncommunicative sports nut, the author’s name only conjures the capital of Texas. As their marriage falters, she is pursued by Trey (Kevin Zegers), a handsome senior. One of the movie’s few surreal touches is a traffic sign that flashes “What would Jane do?” as Prudie contemplates meeting him in a motel.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/2/09

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

mysterious, shifting and elusive


Mysterious, shifting and elusive,
the Mona Lisa’s smile
is proof that being inconclusive
can help us to beguile
more easily than making clear
the feelings that we hold.
Elusive we, like her, appear
mysterious, yet bold,
but as we shift with sands of time,
we prove by being in-
conclusive there’s no reasoned rhyme
that justifies our grin.

Inspired by James Gardner’s article on the Mona Lisa in the Masterpiece section of the WSJ, May 30, 2009:
The response of most tourists, on first seeing the Mona Lisa in person, is one of vague disappointment. Eavesdrop on the multitudes and, before long, someone will dare to ask the question on everyone’s mind: What’s the big deal? Why has this one painting (probably depicting Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine silk merchant) come to assume a unique and paramount stature in human culture? A number of factors have supplied it with the necessary mythic updraft. If the Mona Lisa were hanging in the Prado in Madrid or the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, it would never have achieved the cosmic ranking that it now enjoys. Surely its qualities would be devoutly appreciated, but after the fashion and to the same degree as, say, Leonardo’s “Lady With an Ermine” in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow. Mona Lisa, however, sits enthroned in the center of the Louvre, which lies in the center of Paris, which, for more than 100 years, was the unchallenged center of Western art. Indeed, the painting, begun in 1503, seemed—and still seems—somehow French, having entered the national patrimony around 1516, when Francis I invited Leonardo to his palace at Amboise. But, of course, the influence of Paris—and its art critics—was only one factor. It was also crucial that Leonardo was a man unlike any other in the history of art. A myriad-minded polymath and inventor, he acquired, even in his own lifetime, the aura of a magus. His entire oeuvre took on a shimmer of holiness that would have made little sense in connection to the mere excellence of, say, Titian or Raphael.And then there is, obviously, the fact that the Mona Lisa is, technically speaking, a very great work of art. But is that really obvious? Well, it would be if we could still see the thing. Unfortunately, like the dollar bill and the American flag, it has assumed a pall of such impenetrable familiarity that we no longer see it at all.But if ever you succeed in seeing the painting as people saw it in centuries past, you will discover something astounding: The Mona Lisa looks entirely different from what we have been led to believe. To many observers, this is the one supreme masterpiece, the unarguable bedrock of our visual culture, the painterly equivalent of the Parthenon, Chartres and the Taj Mahal. In fact, it is anything but that. It is a mysterious, shifting, elusive thing, and it was that very ambiguity that so confounded and compelled the attention of all who saw it in the past.

Linda’s version:




© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/31/09

Monday, June 1, 2009

what from insects we may grok


In the summer we can grok,
learning from the insects how
to seize the day and make it rock.
Let me explain this to you now.

Time for reproduction, eating,
insect-eaten in the summer,
lovers laze around while cheating,
every one of them a comer,
some in gardens, some in houses,
hotels, mountains, woodlands, beaches,
changing in the heat their spouses
for another partner. Each is
inspired to perfect the talents
exercised in summer style,
while the sun shines and they balance
testosterone with gyne-guile,
attracted in their sex excursions
to destinations out of bounds
in the winter, when diversions
are considered to be grounds
for separation. Caveat lector
if you don’t approve of cheating
in summer when, pursuing nectar,
lovers wear no neckties, meeting
each other’s needs and frantic, dance
fantastically before the fall,
and in the season’s heat enhance
their love lives till they’re forced to crawl
back into those cocoons where they’re
compelled to keep commandments which
the insects don’t, and no more share
each others’ partners in a switch.

Inspired by Elizabeth Royte’s review of “Summer World: A Season of Bounty” by Bernd Heinrich (“The Forest Dumbledore: An entomologist who considers insects ‘magical’ conjures up a riot of life,” NYT Book Review, May 31, 2009):
It may not be every urbanite’s idea of a dream date, but mine, after reading “Summer World,” is to spend a summer day with a 69-year-old insect physiologist and all the tools of his trade. My ideal man lives in Maine and Vermont, where he’s surrounded, at various times, by screen-cloth aviaries and screen cages; insect nets; electronic thermometers; tape measures; binoculars; barrels of frog eggs; scraps of wasp-nest paper; plant sprigs and mosses being subjected to various light, temperature and moisture treatments; ant nests he’s experimentally relocated; moths tethered to shrubs; and the skins of small rodents dotted with botfly maggots. Our date would start before dawn and would include, but not be limited to, climbing into treetops, slogging through wetlands and sitting quietly for hours with pencil and notebook, the better to observe and record. An emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont, Bernd Heinrich — the object of my admiration — has been doing all this, and writing about it with brio, for decades. (He’s the author of 13 previous books.) Perhaps his most attractive quality, for this reader at least, is his ability to find something intellectually stimulating whenever he steps out the door. “Every summer I spend some time trying to learn something new about animals,” he writes with disarming simplicity. But “some time” is hundreds of rigorous hours, and “something new” means new to science.
While Heinrich considers insects “magical” for doing so much with a pinpoint-size brain, the entomologist himself is a Dumbledore of the forest — magical himself for his ability to conjure a riot of life from what others less attuned might consider your standard Northern woodlot. Those rolled up aspen leaves on the ground? Look inside and behold a moth caterpillar hiding in a tube made of its own fecal pellets. Those bite marks on fresh leaves? They indicate the biter was unpalatable to birds. That barely audible patter in the woods at night? It’s the rain of caterpillar poop on leaves. Heinrich’s business is exploring and explaining the astonishing adaptations of his woodland neighbors (among them wood frogs, mud daubers, Cecropia moths, longhorn beetles, hummingbirds and various annoying flies) and their struggle to procreate while they’ve got the chance.
Summer, Heinrich writes, “releases” life. For most creatures, it’s “the season of reproduction, feeding, growing and trying to avoid being eaten.” For the scientist, it’s time to get super-busy, muddy, viciously stung and lucky — as in “I also found a female black ichneumon wasp in the act of injecting an egg into a young tiger swallowtail butterfly larva on a chokecherry.” Heinrich captures the wasp, sketches the act and then spends an hour watching sap drip from a birch. “I hope to see sur­prises, even as I want to learn the routine,” he says. Is sap dull? Hardly. During this period three hummingbirds, two satyr butterflies, roughly a dozen bald-faced hornets and a swarm of small flies lap the sap. Later, by flashlight, he notes a flying squirrel taking its turn. He does too. The sap “tasted sweet,” with a sugar concentration of 17 to 18 percent, as measured with his brewer’s refractometer. You’ve got to admire the precision. And the unending questions. Concerning wood frogs, why do the males aggregate and call for females at once? The proximate answer is to attract mates, but if females can’t differentiate between males in a chorus, why should an individual bother? (See Chapter 3 for the answer.) Animals come to life in gripping detail (the organ pipe mud-dauber wasp injects her spider prey with a chemical that keeps it in a zombie-like state of suspended animation so her larvae can get a fresh meal upon emerging), and so does Heinrich as he bounds between his experiments. The man is irrepressible…
“Summer World” will please fans of noncharismatic, non-mega fauna, but the book isn’t all splendor in the grass. There are snakes, too — the snakes of local extirpation and the first world’s unsustainable lifestyle. In our “climate bubbles,” Heinrich writes, we live in a virtual summer world, “eating bananas from Central America and drinking coffee from Africa.” He continues: “It is madness to suppose we would make a significant difference by using more energy-efficient lightbulbs and using agrofuels rather than oil, or that city dwellers can or would take up a rural farming or a hunter-gatherer lifestyle: given our numbers there is no land.” (Pace vertical farmers.) But there is a way out: “radical reductions of population.” The answer will rankle some readers, but not those who grok Heinrich’s central message — the necessity of maintaining sound natural ecosystems. Without them, we cannot live. Hein­rich offers a brief prescription — “We need two things: clear vision and also a spiritual imperative so that we will focus on the ultimate ecology, not the proximate economy” — and then he quickly moves on . . . to the evolutionary pressures of head and body lice.At this point, my dream date with Bernd Heinrich concludes.
Here is an explanation of “grok”To grok (pronounced /ˈɡrɒk/) is to share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity. Author Robert A. Heinlein coined the term in his best-selling 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Heinlein's view of quantum theory, grokking is the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed:
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines grok as "to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with" and "to empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment." Other forms of the word include "groks" (present third person singular), "grokked" (past participle) and "grokking" (present participle).
In an ideological context, a grokked concept becomes part of the person who contributes to its evolution by improving the doctrine, perpetuating the myth, espousing the belief, adding detail to the social plan, refining the idea or proofing the theory.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/31/09