Category Archives: general interest

Meister Eckhart’s “golden rule”



You must love all men equally, respect and regard them equally, and whatever happens to another, whether good or bad, must be the same as if it happened to you.

— Meister Eckhart, “in hoc apparuit caritas dei in nobis, quoniam filium suum unigenitum misit deus in mundum ut vivamus per eum” (1 John 4:9); Predigt Dreizehn (Sermon Thirteen) (a); in The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, translated by Maurice O’C. Walshe (New York: Crossroad, 2009), pg. 105


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2020



Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra

Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra in front of Yankee Stadium, 1956

This photograph from yesterday’s New York Times spoke to me.

A great photo. It took me back. To my boyhood days. When the Yankees had such a great team, when New York was the capital of the baseball world; and yet, I hated the Yankees (while admiring them); they always won; my Red Sox always finished third or lower.

Back to the 1950s and my parents’ generation. There was a confidence about that generation and a sense that things were as they should be. That hard work and ambition would bring success. It was a time of rising prosperity and social cohesion (from the perspective, at least, of my world, environment). Of course, I wasn’t looking at things analytically then. I was in the fifth grade.

Mostly I remember this time not from the vantage point of myself, or not entirely so, but from that of my parents and their generation, and what wonderful people they were. I miss them and their times. And, by the way, New York City in the 1950’s was at its zenith, an exciting, livable (and affordable) place. I have read about it.  My friend Bill Dalzell told me so.

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2020

Found! A “worthy successor” to Mayor Shinn.




Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford in “The Music Man”)



“You know, the thing about the Voting Rights Act it’s, you know ? there’s a lot of different things you can look at it as, you know, who’s it going to help? What direction do we need to go with it? I think it’s important that everything we do we keep secure. We keep an eye on it. It’s run by our government. And it’s run to the, to the point that we, it’s got structure to it. It’s like education. I mean, it’s got to have structure. Now for some reason, we look at things to change, to think we’re gonna make it better, but we better do a lot of work on it before we make a change.”

— former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville, responding to a question from a caller about his support for the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020


Tuberville, a Republican, is running against Alabama Democratic Senator Doug Jones for election to the US Senate. He was asked his view on the Voting Rights Act during a Zoom meeting with the Birmingham Rotary Club on September 1, 2020.




The Music Man is a musical with book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey. The story takes place in River City, Iowa.

The town’s Mayor, George Shinn (played by Paul Ford in an unforgettable performance in the movie version), is a pompous local politician given to making rambling speeches that go nowhere.


posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 2020

looking for work



looking for work



The approach of actual want was such an insidious thing that I really did not perceive how far I was getting into the depths before I was fairly caught and unable to extricate myself. I had always been accustomed in the past to make some arrangement with a magazine or publishing house to do some work which would pay me fairly well and this hope was now all the time acting like a will-a’ -the-wisp leading me thoughtlessly over the meadows of idleness and meditation to the slough of despond. Day after day I would get up and sit at my desk a little while feeling that this morning surely some ray of inspiration would arrive, but finding that it did not I would get up and go out, wandering around and saying to myself that if I could but rest a bit it would all come back to me. I was not really sick in the sense that anyone is prostrate in bed. I could walk and run and laugh and read, but I could not write, and worst of all I could not sleep. This latter difficulty was gradually undermining me though it did not seem as bad at first as it did later. I used to go down to the water’s edge of the East River, which was only a few blocks below me, and there in the neighborhood of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Wallabout Bay sit and enjoy the wonderful panorama which the river invariably presented. It seemed to me that when I came within the vicinity of these great warehouses and factories, with their tall black stacks that gave the water’s edge so varied and picturesque an aspect, I could lounge and dream forever. Not to worry, not to haste, not to be caught in the great turmoil of the city beyond from whose distant shore came subdued echoes of the clangor and strife that was always there–that seemed heaven to me. I sat and looked into the soft green waters gurgling and sipping about the docks and the stanchions below me and listened to the crying of the boats, until my heart was full to overflowing with it, but alas my purse was empty. And that was where the love of beauty undid me.

The approach of actual want was such a terrible thing however that whenever I thought of it distinctly I would get up and return to my room, or would hurry out into the streets almost in a cold sweat, saying, “I must do something.” Frequently I would start out and after walking the streets trying to think of some business that would likely offer me a means of making a living I would fix my eye on some distant shop and say to myself that when l came to it l would go in there. I would walk toward it, my feeling about life and labor wonderfully heightened for the moment, but as I drew near a cold fear of inability would lay hold of me. What would they think, I would begin to ask myself. What could I do in there? Sometimes I would see someone looking at me from one of the windows, a man or girl, or from the houses about and I would say to myself, “Pshaw, they see me coming. They think I am someone who is above that kind of work. They will not believe that I need it and tum me away. And how will I look to them anyhow?” And I would turn away carrying myself as if the thought of that sort of labor was the farthest thing from me imaginable. Or I would stand about and parley with myself, weighing the pros and cons until I had harrowed myself into the belief that I would not be acceptable. Always I would think of my own work, and hard as it was, would contrast my appropriateness to that with my inappropriateness to this and then I would weaken and hurry away. Dozens upon dozens of times have I stood outside of all sorts of institutions wondering, debating, saying that I was unsuited to it or the business was unsuited to me and in the end turning back disconsolately to my room, there to brood and worry over my fate.

The remembrance of this weakness has proved a great wonder to me since. I am not naturally afraid to face people and these sentiments do not as a rule rule me, but I was so rundown nervously that I did not have my usual feeling about things. Sickness had apparently made a coward of me.

As these reflections did not relieve my situation any I would after a night of sleepless tossing usually pull myself together again and make another effort. Once in these early days I went to a great sugar refinery far down on the water’s edge where many a day I had stood looking at the wagons and the men and the evidence of industry inside and wondering at the complicatedness of it all. (What a mystery the life we lead is. How strangely we divide this problem of sustenance, how narrowly some of us work in small dark comers all our days and never think or at least never attain to the heights of our thinking.) On this day however my mind did not busy itself with this larger spectacle. I was anxious to get something to do there and I was wondering how I could persuade the foreman or the management to accept me. Once I had read a long account of the labor struggles of another writer who had dressed himself to look the part of a laborer and I had always wondered how he would have fared if he had gone in his own natural garb. Now I was determined or rather compelled to find out for myself and I had no heart for it. I realized instinctively that there was a far cry between doing anything in disguise and as an experiment and doing it as a grim necessity.

However I went in after hanging about for some time and asked for the manager. As I expected he was busy but a clerk who came over to me wished to know what my business was. I cold him I wanted work. He looked at me in a quizzical way as much as to say, “You?”

“What kind of work is it you wish to do?” he asked.

I tried to explain as quickly as I could that I wished to do any kind of work, manual or mental, but he did not seem to understand me. “You couldn’t do the physical work here,” he said. “All our clerical positions are filled. We don’t change very often.”

“Is there something you could give me to do out there?” I said, motioning with my hand toward the great dark mass behind.

“Nothing at present,” he said. “We are not taking on men at this time of year. I’m quite positive you couldn’t do the work if you had it. It’s very hard.”’

He turned with a brusque manner to his work again and I fell back abashed. His loud voice had attracted the attention of others, who looked at me curiously. I felt as if he might have been a little more quiet and a little more considerate, but I found here as everywhere what seemed to me the old indifference to the underdog. People do not see–I said–they have not the faculty to grasp what it means to be the other man. Otherwise they would never do such things.

My next effort was in search of a motorman’s or conductor’s position, a place I had long had in mind as I was sure it was something that I could do. It was not a thing that I could get quickly, for I knew that unless I had a “pull” or could bring some extraordinary pressure to bear I would have to go through the usual formality of enrolling my name somewhere and then waiting patiently for my turn to be called. I had vivid dreams of forcing my way into the office of the president, who I conceived to be a man who could tell by my appearance that I was not exactly of the ordinary run of men, and who on my putting the matter before him would understand and give me something to do. I went down to the section where this great railroad building was located but as usual when I reached there my heart failed me. It was an hour before I raked up courage enough to go in.

This building was a mass of little offices devoted to different phases of the street railway and when I looked over the immense directory painted on the wall I could scarcely tell which office it was at which I wished to inquire. I saw the name of the president posted as being in room one hundred and something, on the fourth floor, but now my idea of going in and talking to him looked awfully foolish and hopeless to me. The idea of intruding on a man with endless affairs weighing on him and the financial end only of the great company before his gaze struck me as exceedingly useless. He would have nothing to do with me. All he would do would be to refer me to the department which handled such cases as mine and they would not dare to make an exception. It seemed impossible and yet I went up.

In an ante-chamber I was met by a clerk. As I expected he told me the president was busy and asked me my business. When I explained to him, he looked at me curiously also and said the president never attended to such details–that I would have to go to the regular department, mentioning the number. I saw how hopeless it was of making a boy see–an inexperienced youth who knew nothing of the world, and went away. I could have written an essay that morning on how nature meets want with inexperience and pain with those who cannot see. Blind! Blind! Blind!

The office of the Superintendent of Something, who hired men, was on the floor below and there I went. It was a small room filled with motormen and conductors who were there being measured for new suits or answering to complaints of various kinds. All of them looked at me with curious eyes as I came in, for I was still comparatively well-dressed, and some of them stood aside in so deferential a way that I felt that I was sailing under false colors. I went up to the counter where the official was standing and stated my business. When I had come in he had looked at me with so much consideration that I felt he mistook me for someone who had important business with him. When I finally explained that I wished to know where applications for positions were made his face changed immediately and he told me in brusque tones where to go. I felt like an imposter slinking out for it seemed to me I had in some indefinable way misrepresented myself to him. I had not turned out to be what he took me for.

This phase of my reception discouraged me greatly but I went down to the little office on a side street near the East River, in a one-story red brick building, where I found a room containing a few old benches and an inner door marked “Applicants” but no persons. A sign hung up over a window informed me that those who wished to register should come between the hours of seven and nine A. M. on Tuesdays and Fridays, which I confess was a great relief to me. I had anticipated another such ordeal as I had just gone through and the mere fact that it was postponed was something. I turned on my heel, temporarily relieved from the ache that inquiring under such conditions gave me, and promised myself that I would come back on Tuesday. I then wandered about saying that I must look for something elsewhere but, being out and moving, I did nothing. It was the old story of the previous days. I could not find the heart to go in.

That such a quest would soon prove disastrous I was constantly seeing and yet I could not get anything. I went back to the newspapers–they had nothing. I came over to New York and thought to put an application in over there, but I did nothing but walk the streets. On Tuesday I returned to this little office again, desperately clinging to the fatuous belief that having managed to go so far, something would come of it. I had dressed myself carefully to make as good an impression as possible but when I got there, or rather in the vicinity of it, I was sorry that I had done so. At a distance of three blocks I saw quite a crowd standing around so early as seven o’clock and in the vicinity, at distances of from one to two blocks, other individual stragglers, who impressed me at once as people who like myself were anxious to register but were ashamed to go up. They were a little better dressed than those who were gathered about the door–not so strong-looking and not so coarse. They pretended to be doing anything but heading for this particular institution though one could see by their averted glances that that was just the thing they were trying to do. I encountered two or three of them three or four times in a radius of as many blocks and each time they exchanged that shamed look of understanding with me, which convicts one of ulterior designs. It was all very painful.

What interested me on this occasion was my own wretched attitude. For the life of me I could not summon up sufficient courage to join that crowd. Three or four times I went toward it, getting as close as the corner, but each time I would see some of those at the door looking up toward me and I would say to myself, “They see what I am coming for,” and would turn off. Once I did go down absolutely determined to stop and take my place among them, but the keen conception of the difference between them and me which flared up in my mind as I approached drove me on by. They were so young, most of them, so raw and so inexperienced. They looked at me as though they thought I was some critical business man or other citizen merely passing on my way to my office. They had such sharp eyes which seemed to say, “Now let us see what he does,” that I could not bring myself to stop.

For this feeling–vanity or weakness as it may seem to some, I have now no excuse to offer. I will say that the difference I felt was not based on a sense of superiority–far from it. I was only conscious that I was out of place and they knew it. It was more like the case of an old man who would like to play with children on their own basis, but who has lost the how of it.

My first visit to this registering room was a failure as was my second, but on the third time I managed to go in and put down my name, which brought me nothing. I left my address, the chain of which has never been broken, but I have never heard a word.

— Theodore Dreiser, An Amateur Laborer (1904, published in 1983)






It is customary to blame everything on the war. I say the war had nothing to do with me, with my life. At a time when others were getting themselves comfortable berths I was taking one miserable job after another, and never enough in it to keep body and soul together. Almost as quickly as I was hired I was fired. I had plenty of intelligence but I inspired distrust. Where ever I went I fomented discord–not because I was idealistic but because I was like a searchlight exposing the stupidity and futility of everything. Besides, I wasn’t a good ass-licker. That marked me, no doubt. People could tell at once when I asked for a job that I really didn’t give a damn whether I got it or not. And of course I generally didn’t get it. But after a time the mere looking for a job became an activity, a pastime, so to speak. I would go in and ask for most anything. It was a way of killing time – now worse, as far as I could see than work itself. I was my own boss and I had my own hours, but unlike other bosses I entrained only my own ruin, my own bankruptcy. I was not a corporation or a trust or a state or a federation or a polity of nations–I was more like God, if anything.

This went on from about the middle of the war until … well, until one day I was trapped. Finally the day came when I did desperately want a job. I needed it. Not having another minute to lose, I decided that I would take the last job on earth, that of messenger boy. I walked into the employment bureau of the telegraph company–the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America–towards the close of the day, prepared to go through with it. I had just come from the public library and I had under my arm some fat books on economics and metaphysics. To my great amazement I was refused the job.

The guy who turned me down was a little runt who ran the switchboard. He seemed to take me for a college student, though it was clear enough from my application that I had long left school. I had even honoured myself on the application with a Ph.D. degree from Columbia University. Apparently that passed unnoticed, or else was suspiciously regarded by this runt who had turned me down. I was furious, the more so because for once in my life I was in earnest. Not only that, but I had swallowed my pride, which in certain peculiar ways is rather large. My wife of course gave me the usual leer and sneer. I had done it as a gesture, she said. I went to bed thinking about it, still smarting, getting angrier and angrier as the night wore on. The fact that I had a wife and child to support didn’t bother me so much; people didn’t offer you jobs because you had a family to support, that much I understood only too well. No, what rankled was that they had rejected me, Henry V. Miller, a competent, superior individual who had asked for the lowest job in the world. That burned me up. I couldn’t get over it. In the morning I was up bright and early, shaved, put on my best clothes and hot-footed it to the subway. I went immediately to the main offices of the telegraph company … up to the 25th floor or wherever it was that the president and the vice-presidents had their cubicles. I asked to see the president. Of course the president was either out of town or too busy to see me, but wouldn’t I care to see the vice-president, or his secretary rather. I saw the vice-president’s secretary, an intelligent, considerate sort of chap, and I gave him an earful. I did it adroitly, without too much heat, but letting him understand all the while that I wasn’t to be put out of the way so easily.

When he picked up the telephone and demanded the general manager I thought it was just a gag, that they were going to pass me around like that from one to the other until I’d get fed up. But the moment I heard him talk I changed my opinion. When I got to the general manager’s office, which was in another building uptown, they were waiting for me. I sat down in a comfortable leather chair and accepted one of the big cigars that were thrust forward. This individual seemed at once to be vitally concerned about the matter. He wanted me to tell him all about it, down to the last detail, his big hairy ears cocked to catch the least crumb of information which would justify something or other which was formulating itself inside bis dome. I realized that by some accident I had really been instrumental in doing him a service. I let him wheedle it out of me to suit his fancy, observing all the time which way the wind was blowing. And as the talk progressed I noticed that he was warming up to me more and more. At last some one was showing a little confidence in me! That was all I required to get started on one of my favourite lines. For, after years of job hunting I had naturally become quite adept; I knew not only what not to say, but I knew also what to imply, what to insinuate. Soon the assistant general manager was called in and asked to listen to my story. By this time I knew what the story was. I understood that Hymie–”that little kike”, as the general manager called him–had no business pretending that he was the employment manager. Hymie had usurped his prerogative, that much was clear. It was also clear that Hymie was a Jew and that Jews were not in good odour with the general manager, nor with Mr. Twilliger, the vice-president, who was a thorn in the general manager’s side.

Perhaps it was Hymie, … who was responsible for the high percentage of Jews on the Messenger force. Perhaps Hymie was really the one who was doing the hiring at the employment office–at Sunset Place, they called it. It was an excellent opportunity, I gathered, for Mr. Clancy, the general manager, to take down a certain Mr. Burns who, he informed me, had been the employment manager for some thirty years now and who was evidently getting lazy on the job.

The conference lasted several hours. Before it was terminated Mr. Clancy took me aside and informed me that he was going to make me the boss of the Works. Before putting me into office, however, he was going to ask me as a special favour, and also as a sort of apprenticeship which would stand me in good stead, to work as a special messenger. I would receive the salary of employment manager, but it would be paid me out of a separate account. In short I was to float from office to office and observe the way affairs were conducted by all and sundry. I was to make a little report from time to time as to how things were going. And once in a while, so he suggested, I was to visit him at his home on the q.t. and have a little chat about the conditions in the hundred and one branches of the modernistic Telegraph Company in New York City. In other words I was to be a spy for a few months and after that I was to have the run of the joint. Maybe they’d make me a general manager too one day, or a vice-president. It was a tempting offer, even if it was wrapped up in a lot of horse shit. I said Yes.

In a few months I was sitting at Sunset Place hiring and firing like a demon. It was a slaughter-house, so help me God. The thing was senseless from the bottom up. A waste of men, material and effort. A hideous farce against a backdrop of sweat and misery. But just as I had accepted the spying so I accepted the hiring and firing and all that went with it. I said Yes to everything. If the vice-president decreed that no cripples were to be hired I hired no cripples. If the vice-president said that all messengers over forty-five were to be fired without notice I fired them without notice. I did everything they instructed me to do, but in such a way that they had to pay for it. When there was a strike I folded my arms and waited for it to blow over. But I first saw to it that it cost them a good penny. The whole system was so rotten, so inhuman, so lousy, so hopelessly corrupt and complicated, that it would have taken a genius to put any sense or order into it, to say nothing of human kindness or consideration. I was up against the whole rotten system of American labour, which is rotten at both ends. I was the fifth wheel on the wagon and neither side bad any use for me, except to exploit me. In met, everybody was being exploited– the president and his gang by the unseen powers, the employees by the officials, and so on and around, in and out and through the whole works. From my little perch at “Sunset Place” I had a bird’s eye view of the whole American society. It was like a page out of the telephone book. Alphabetically, numerically, statistically, it made sense. But when you looked at it up close, when you examined the pages separately, or the parts separately, when you examined one lone individual and what constituted him, examined the air he breathed, the life he led, the chances he risked, you saw something so foul and degrading, so low, so miserable, so utterly hopeless and senseless, that it was worse than looking into a volcano. You could see the whole American life–economically, politically, morally, spiritually, artistically, statistically, pathologically. It looked like a grand chancre on a worn-out cock. It looked worse than that, really, because you couldn’t even see anything resembling a cock any more. Maybe in the past this thing had life, did produce something, did at least give a moment’s pleasure, a moment’s thrill. But looking at it from where I sat it looked rottener than the wormiest cheese. The wonder was that the stench of it didn’t carry’em off … I’m using the past tense all the time, but of course it’s the same now, maybe even a bit worse. At least now we’re getting it full stink.


— Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939)






See also my post:

“Henry Miller and Dreiser”



— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 2020

Edward T. Hall, “Distances in Man”





Hall, ‘The Hidden Dimension,’ Chapter X



Edward T. Hall, “Distances in Man”

Chapter X from Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (New York: Anchor Books, 1969)








— posted by Roger W. Smith

prosateur (prose writer)




A French word meaning prose writer.

We have no equivalent word. I ran across it this evening in a quote from Sartre.

Prosateur. Something I aspire to. (It’s good to have ideals. What famous writer said this?)



— Roger W. Smith

   September 9, 2020




the bloviator




to talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way






Real speech comes, on average, in packets of 10 or so words at a time, rather sloppily juxtaposed. Rapid, spontaneous talk makes more use of parataxis — the stringing of simple clauses together, such as in this segment:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at M.I.T.; good genes, very good genes, O.K., very smart, the Wharton School of finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world – it’s true! – but when you’re a conservative Republican they try – oh, they do a number – that’s why I always start off: “Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune”– you know I have to give my life credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged – but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me … (speech by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Sun City Hilton Head, South Carolina, July 19, 2016)

In writing, this would likely be rendered using hypotaxis, which entails clearer subordinate clauses. The same sentence would be written as: “My uncle Dr. John Trump, who was a professor at M.I.T., had very good genes, which lent him considerable intelligence.”





Donald Trump, press conference, September 7, 2020:


The story is a hoax, written by a guy who has got a tremendously bad history. The magazine itself — which I don’t read, but I hear it’s just totally anti-Trump; he’s a big Obama person, he’s a big Clinton person. And he made up the story. It’s a totally made-up story.

In fact, I was very happy to see Zach Fuentes came out and said now he’s — that’s — I think that’s number 15 — and these are people that were there. That’s the 15th person. General Kellogg, everybody that was there knew what happened. And so I was happy to see that Zach came out and said it’s not true. He just came out.

And it’s a disgrace. Who would say a thing like that? Only an animal would say a thing like that. There is nobody that has more respect for not only our military, but for people that gave their lives in the military. There’s nobody — and I think John Kelly knows that. I think he would know that. I think he knows that from me.

But Zach Fuentes, as you know, worked for John. And I think they both know that. But Zach came out, as you know, today or yesterday, last night, and said very strongly that he didn’t hear anything like that. Even John Bolton came out and said that was untrue.

Now, what was true is that we had the worst weather. I think it was as bad a rain as I’ve just about ever seen. And it was a fog you — you literally couldn’t see. I walked out, and I didn’t have — I didn’t need somebody to tell me. I walked out and I said, “There’s no way we can take helicopters in this.” I understand helicopters very well. And they said, “No, sir, that’s been cancelled.”

They would have had to go — Secret Service, I have the whole list — they would have had through a very, very busy section, during the day, of Paris. They would have had to go through the city. The Paris police were asking us, “Please don’t do it,” because they’re not ready. When you do that, you need a lot of time. They take days and days and days to prepare for that.

I wanted to do it very badly. I was willing to sit in the car for two hours, three hours, four hours. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. And I had nothing else to do. I went there for that; I had nothing else to do. It was ended because of the terrible weather, and nobody was prepared to go through, in terms of Paris, the police, the military, and the Secret Service. And they came out very strongly and said, “Sir, we can’t allow you to make this trip.” If I wanted to: “Sir, we can’t allow you, from a safety standpoint.”

It was a phony story, just like the dirty dossier — the fake, dirty dossier; just like the Russia collusion; just like all of the other phony stories. And there’ll be more phony stories.

But I do appreciate Zach coming out. But Zach now is the 15th person that’s denied it. Zach now, I think, also talked about the weather aspect of it. And he’s probably the 14th or 15th person that blamed it on weather. So that’s enough of that.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 8, 2020

the trouble with …



‘The Trouble With Empathy’




Therefore, all such things as you wish men might do to you, so do to them as well: for this is the Law and the prophets.

Matthew 7:12

And just as you wish men should do to you, do likewise to them.

Luke 6:31


The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart


No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

— MEDITATION XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and severall steps in my Sicknes, by John Donne



No man is an island
No man stands alone
Each man’s joy is joy to me
Each man’s grief is my own

— Joan Baez, “No Man Is An Island” (lyrics)







“The Trouble With Empathy: Can we really be taught to feel each other’s pain?”

By Molly Worthen


The New York Times

September 4, 2020


The trouble with this 1,990-word essay is that it attempts to dissect a topic that needs no more analysis or exposition other than perhaps to state the obvious. See the quotations above. There is such a thing as cumulative or received wisdom. The wisdom of the ages.






Statements from the op-ed follow, in ITALICS. My “commentary” is in ALL CAPS.



[I]n recent years, empathy — whether we can achieve it; whether it does the good we think — has become a vexed topic.



When we attempt to step into the shoes of those very different from us, do we do more harm than good?



… skeptics say that what seems like empathy often may be another form of presumption, condescension or domination.




If an author of European descent writes a novel from the perspective of Indigenous people, is it an empathic journey, or an imperialist incursion?




— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 2020

re “Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within”




The following are emails of mine to Joel F. Harrington, author of Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), a book I recently read.

The second email contains my reflections on the book. Realizing that I am praising myself, I think the email shows an earnest attempt on my part to not only show appreciation for the book, but to learn as much as I can from it — in other words, it shows how a book should be read, how I customarily do read; that is, with close attention and a critical eye, and extracting every scrap of meaning and knowledge I can.

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2020






June 20, 2020

Dear Professor Harrington,

I was in the Strand Bookstore in New York City a year or two ago and asked if they had any books on Meister Eckhart.

The clerk said no.

I browsed the shelves in the religion section and found several, including your biography.

A long time ago, when I was new to New York, a coworker who became a lifelong friend [Bill Dalzell] introduced me to Meister Eckhart. My friend, a deep and earnest thinker, was not scholarly per se … he was interested in mysticism along with many other things in art, philosophy, and aesthetics that he introduced me, a recent college graduate, to.

I am an independent scholar and writer. I know good writing when I see it.

I have read only a few pages of your biography so far, but I can tell how well written it is and how worth reading.

I will be in touch with you again when I have finished.


Roger W. Smith






August 19, 2020

Dear Professor Harrington,

This is a follow-up (as I had promised) to a previous email of mine two months ago about your biography of Meister Eckhart, which I finished a few weeks ago. I am finally getting around to writing you.

It is very well written, in my opinion, and combines impressive scholarship with readability. Although I am probably more acquainted with the Middle Ages and medieval thought than most readers, having majored in history and taken excellent courses in medieval history with professors Norman Cantor and Joshua Prawer at Brandeis University, I am no expert — and yet, I would say that you have done a very good job of getting your hands around the subtleties in Eckhart’s thought. They (the subtleties and nuances of his theology) require much effort at explanation, and yet, I believe you would concur, they also have to be intuited.

It is my belief that, in the best writing, the writer has done the homework, so to speak, for the reader. Your Eckhart biography, in my opinion, provides a much needed synthesis for the reader familiar with but not deeply read in or that well acquainted with Eckhart or his writing.

I thought that Chapter 13 was a brilliant synthesis of writings about Eckhart and his influence over time, and in modern times, and, in general, the book does an admirable job of showing how views and interpretations of Eckhart have shaped and have been shaped by trends and fashions in religions and mysticism. You have shown how Eckhart continues to be influential — indeed, how his influence has grown, yet you avoid the trap of presentism: of trying to give him a “makeover” for later generations. You have made a strenuous effort to understand his writings, theology, and life in the context of and with reference to the actuality of his own life and times.

The analysis of Eckhart’s neologisms on pages 216-217 was very interesting and stimulating for this reader with a rudimentary (very limited) knowledge of German.

Among the many thoughts that occurred to me while reading the book were latter-day concepts such as transcendentalism; specifically, the idea that God is all around us. Are there any similarities to Eckhart here? Ralph Waldo Emerson talks of becoming nothing and seeing all. “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”

On page 239, you speak of a “power … variously named by Eckhart as the divine light of the soul, the head of the soul, the husband of the soul, the guardian of the spirit, the light of the spirit, the imprint of divine nature, a citadel, a tiny drop of intellect, a twig, and, … a little spark.” And, on page 319, you write, “The divine spark within each person, the master teaches, is what links us to one another and to all creation. …” Is Eckhart’s divine light of the soul anything like the Quaker inner light?

I found the following passage on pages 92-93 to be very enlightening:

For the sake of his youthful and inexperienced audience, raised with conventional notions of piety, Eckhart made his point explicit: [God] is little concerned with our works, but only with our state of mind in all our works, that we love Him in all things. The prior’s apparent diminishment of conventional acts of piety should not be misunderstood; it was their perception as bargaining tools with God that he explicitly rejected, not their value as spiritual aids:

Many people think they are performing great works by outward things such as fasting, going barefoot, or other such things which are called penance. But the true and best penance is that whereby one improves greatly and in the highest degree …. This penance is truly a state of mind lifted into God away from all things, and in whatever works you find you can have it most, and have it from those works, do them the more freely; and then, if any outward work should hinder you, whether it be fasting, watching, reading, or whatever else, you can safely leave that alone without worrying about failing in any penance. …

Acts of penitence undertaken without this shift in attitude could in fact have a deleterious effect, drag[ging] down into ever greater sorrow and plung[ing] a man into such distress that he is ready to despair, and then the repentance remains painful and he gets no farther: nothing comes of this.

On page 218, you wrote:

Even with a new and colorful vocabulary, the master’s translation of scholastic thinking into the common idiom was not always successful. What, for instance, would a modestly educated listener have made of this attempt to describe the timeless melding of divine union?

You should wholly sink from your youness and dissolve into his Hisness and your “yours” and his “His” should become so completely one “mine” that with him you understand His uncreated self-identity and His nameless nothingness, …

Viewed in the context of Meister Eckhart’s general teaching and as words on the page, the passage appears somewhat comprehensible; heard in a sermon, the spoken concepts of “youness” and “Hisness” must have been baffling.”

I found the last sentence (“Viewed in the context …”) to be very perceptive, showing a real attempt to place oneself in the context of Eckhart’s place and times.

On page 11, you write:

The spectacular rise and fall of this prescient spiritual teacher carries important ramifications for the perennial debate over religious authority, even today. Church leaders’ concerns during Eckhart’s lifetime that simple people might misunderstand the master’s words and reject all religion may appear at first as mere self-justification for their own authoritarian agenda. Yet as the later Protestant Reformation and subsequent schisms have made clear, the appeal to individual conscience as the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth invariably leads to ever more interpretations, ever more denominations, ever more religious conflicts.

I could relate to this passage in terms of my own thoughts, experience, and religious upbringing. I was raised a Protestant. I have attained a deep appreciation of Roman Catholicism as well through experiences with Catholics from childhood; my wife and sons are Catholic. Having a knowledge of various Protestant denominations and having had relatives and ancestors belonging to different ones (and having studied history), I have often thought to myself, once the cat was let out of the bag and Protestantism emerged, there was no end to the splintering among different denominations — often over matters of church policy or governance and both large and small doctrinal issues.

On page 209, there is a quote from Eckhart:

[T]here is not one of you who is so coarse-grained, so feeble of understanding, or so remote but he may find this joy within himself, in truth, as it is, with joy and understanding, before you leave this church today, indeed before I have finished preaching: he can find this as truly within him, live it, and possess it, as that God is God and I am a man.

These are, in my opinion, truly remarkable words; and, I am sure you would agree, quite remarkable for a thirteenth or fourteenth century preacher.

On page 220 you wrote: “As always, Eckhart was aggressive in his interpretations of scriptural passages, convinced that any reading conveying an essential truth was a valid reading. This exegetical approach, common among contemporary scholars, gave him considerable thematic flexibility.” I liked the way you put this: “thematic flexibility.”

On page 221 you wrote:

… indisputably Meister Eckhart’s favorite authority–other than Augustine–was Meister Eckhart. Dozens of times he prefaced a remark with I have also said before (and it is a certain and true saying), or sometimes I have said, as I said the day before yesterday in my last sermon, or I said in Paris. Only a preacher of such an elevated scholarly status could get away with such frequent self-invocation. Yet in Eckhart’s defense, his strategy was as much to establish an ongoing dialogue with his individual listeners as to proclaim his own superior knowledge-building on his own authority but also drawing each person in the room into a more intimate relationship. ‘I’ appears several hundred times in Eckhart’s surviving vernacular sermons, but almost always in the explicit or implicit sense of a conversation. Often that dialogue is with the listener, created by Eckhart’s rhetorical use of you. You often ask, for instance, how you ought to live. Now pay close attention. Describing the utter stillness preceding a personal experience of God, Eckhart anticipated his listener’s question: But sir, you ask, where is the silence, and where is the place where the Word is spoken? Again and again, he answered his own questions–not unlike in a scholastic summa–but with the justification that I was once asked, I was recently asked, people say, or similar formulations.

“Sense of a conversation,” Indeed. This is a subtle and rewarding analysis, in my opinion, from which the reader gains insight.

On page 230, I liked your wording in the phrase “his [Eckhart’s] intellectually challenging­-some might say impenetrable–way of speaking.”

Pages 230-231 contain the following passage:

Not that Meister Eckhart was the first preacher of his day to discuss ways into God. In his own sermons he identified two widely acknowledged methods, which he contrasted with his own “third way.” One [way] is to seek God in all creatures with manifold activity and ardent longing. The most famous recent advocate of this via positiva was St. Bonaventure, like Eckhart a learned theologian and admirer of St. Augustine as well as a mendicant administrator. Bonaventure, though, was a Franciscan who embraced the affective piety of his order’s founder, in which one began by loving the created world and other humans and progressed to loving the Creator Himself. In his Soul’s Journey to God, Bonaventure described–in Latin and chiefly for his fellow Franciscans–six successive levels of illumination, beginning with the apprehension and perception of beauty in nature and fellow humans by the physical senses, followed by intellectual and spiritual contemplation up the ladder of creation, and culminating in an encounter with the divine source of all. This approach appealed to many Christians of the day and was expanded upon in such instructional works as David of Augsburg’s Seven Stages of Prayer and Rudolf of Biberach’s Seven Roads of Eternity. Dante Alighieri was its most famous contemporary proponent and his Divine Comedy the most enduring dramatization of the pathway to God through ever-expanding love.

While never impugning Bonaventure or any of his fellow Franciscans by name, Meister Eckhart rejected seeking God through the external world and senses. The Creator was in all things, he agreed, but He could not be directly encountered in this way. Human will, as he had argued against the Franciscan Gonsalvo in Paris, too readily attached itself to images and intermediaries, preventing genuine access to the divine. Even poverty, the supreme virtue of the Franciscans, could become an idol. Preaching on the feast of St. Francis, Eckhart directly challenged his rival mendicants on this score, arguing, I used sometimes to say (and it is quite true) that whoever truly loves poverty is so desirous of it that he grudges anyone having less than he has. And so it is with all things, whether it is purity, or justice, or whatever virtue he loves, he wants to have to the highest degree. Rather than look to the created world, He who would see God must be blind. Rather than seeking God’s voice in the conversation of men, anyone who wishes to hear God speaking must become deaf and inattentive to others.

This is an example of the many passages in the book that are instructive both on “historical grounds” and as providing intellectual fodder/stimulus and insight to the reader in the here and now.

On page 249, you write: “The spiritual perfection resulting from the divine birth in the soul, according to Eckhart, was not a rejection of human nature but a fulfillment of its true potential.” This sentence seems to hit the mark and to contain a “germinal” insight.

On pages 252-253, the analysis of the Mary and Martha story and how Eckhart interpreted it at various times is fascinating — somewhat difficult to get one’s hands around. I am not sure what I myself would say if asked what I thought.

Page 254:

Love itself has become an irresistible force. The just person no longer has any attachments whatsoever, but rather loves all of creation equally and indiscriminately, in conformance with his or her divine nature. You must love all men equally, respect and regard them equally, and whatever happens to another, whether good or bad, must be the same as if it happened to you.

Words to be taken to heart.

I thought the discussion of Stoic apathy on page 255 was excellent:

In some ways, the just person’s state of equanimity is reminiscent of Stoic apathy–the complete eradication of all emotions from the inner self, rob­bing pain and misfortune of their ability to distress us. But Eckhart did not seek to eliminate a powerful emotion such as empathy so much as to universalize it. For the just man, love was an overwhelming and unifying force. Certainly the self-knowledge advocated by Stoics had helped prepare him for the divine birth, but it was the divine essence that now filled him that overcame all suffering. The serenity he displayed might look like that of the accomplished Stoic on the surface, but it sprang from the certainty of unity with all fellow humans, not willful separation from them.

On page 302, you write:

The modern rediscovery of Meister Eckhart began chiefly as a response to Enlightenment rationalism. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, many German intellectuals sought a new philosophy that would approach the great truths of human existence with a combination of reason and feeling, or sensibility. … A mystical quest for life’s fulfillment was still possible in the modem world, Novalis averred, but first one had to overcome the legacy of the Enlightenment, which had “branded as heretical all imagination and feeling, placed man with difficulty at the top of the order of natural being, and turned the infinite creative music of the universe into the monotonous clattering of a gigantic mill.”

The “monotonous clattering of a gigantic mill”: what a great metaphor. (I realize it is Novalis’s, not yours.)

Page 320:

Eckhart’s third valuable insight for current spiritual seekers of all varieties involves the consequences of what he calls human divinization. In essence, Eckhart cracked the active/contemplative conundrum of Christianity for laypeople long before Protestant or other modern attempts. Going deep within oneself and reaching out to the world in service were two sides of the same coin for him, not an either/or choice. Without a profound appreciation of what he called the divine unity of existence, good works easily lend themselves to a transactional, commercial way of thinking about salvation. Without participation in the world, the supposedly enlightened person risks slipping into solipsistic selfishness-a state Eckhart compares to a tree that never bears fruit. The just person who has truly experienced the divine birth, the direct intuitive encounter with the unity of existence, does not withdraw from society, free from any obligation toward other human beings. Instead, experiencing God means becoming one with God and thus acting as God does–by which Eckhart means living an active life of love and service with­out a why, or any thought of justification or compensation. Acts of personal kindness or contributions to social justice are not means to spiritual enlight­enment or salvation but natural effects of the inward experience preached by Meister Eckhart (and many other religious figures). Again, the master describes a holistic approach to the good life, where the perceived divisions between the self and the world, between the individual person and others, dissolve.

In my humble opinion, this paragraph exhibits an ability on the author’s (your) part to explicate, go deeper, make things clear; draw out implications. That’s what a reader wants, but does not often get, in scholarly works/exegeses.

The torments you describe medieval religious women undergoing on page 202. were incredible. I can’t think of a better word — what I mean is that they give one a feeling for the strangeness if not weirdness of the times, the intense piety and practices that seem so strange if not disturbing:

…. extreme practices and dramatic successes inspired both wonder and individualistic competition. Most accounts of famous religious women accordingly emphasized that the awe-inspiring feats described should not be attempted by readers. A century earlier, for instance, Christina of Saint-Trond (aka Christina the Astonishing; 1150-1224) had become famous for whirling like a Sufi dervish when in divine ecstasy, then climbing (some witnesses said levitating) up to church rafters, roofs, and nearby trees. The theologian Jacques de Vitry described how the holy woman tried to replicate the torments of the damned in hell by putting herself in ovens, plunging into boiling water (and suffering no visible injuries), having herself lashed to mill wheels and hanged on the gallows, or lying in open graves. In Eckhart’s day, the Premonstratensian nun Christina of Hane died at the age of twenty-three after subjecting her sexual organs to such extreme tortures that even her pious biographer blanched. Another contemporary, Christina of Stommeln (1242-1312), allegedly suffered many years of diabolical torment in response to her own acts of self-mortification, ranging from being physically tom apart at night by demons (and reassembled in the morning by angels) to dodging the flying excrement thrown at her and her visitors by the same evil spirits. …

On page 312, you wrote: “Appropriation of this latest nature is an inherent risk to every public thinker, although Eckhart seems to have endured more than his fair share of diverse interpretations and applications over the years.

I was wondering, was “latest” a typo? Was latent intended?

On page 288, there is the following sentence: “There is no apparent order to the excerpts, which to the contrary often repeat or return to earlier subjects in the list.” Shouldn’t it be on the contrary?





August 21, 2020


Dear Roger (if I may),

Thank you for your very thoughtful (and thorough!) reading, and for all of your generous words.  I can’t tell you how much it means to this author to hear from such a careful and perceptive reader.  Like you, I find Eckhart occasionally perplexing but still a genuine and honest seeker.  I am so grateful that you found my book useful in that respect.  And thank you for taking the time to write such a wonderful reflection.

Yours sincerely,

Joel F. Harrington
Centennial Professor of History
Vanderbilt University

Maya Zlobina, “Koestler’s Version: The book and the life”




Maya Zlobina, ‘Koestler’s Version’ (re Darkness at Noon) – Novy Mir IN RUSSIAN


Maya Zlobina, ‘Koestler’s Version’




Posted here in both Russian and my own English translation (as separate downloadable Word documents, above), is the following essay/book review about Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, which appeared in the Russian journal Novy mir in 1989. The article came to my attention because of the mention (critical) therein of Theodore Dreiser. The citation is as follows:


Maya Zlobina. “Versiya Kestlera: kniga i zhizn” (Koestler’s Version: The book and the life), Novy mir, No 2 (1989)






I read Darkness at Noon in my high school history class in my senior year. I by no means fully appreciated the novel’s implications, because of my ignorance at that time of Russian history and of the worldwide political environment in the 1930’s, when Soviet-style Communism had great support among the intelligentsia.

I now see, thanks largely to this excellent, penetrating essay by Maya Zlobina, a literary critic and translator. The occasion of her Novy mir essay was the publication in 1988 of Darkness at Noon in Russian translation, during the Gorbachev era. The book had been banned in the Soviet Union.

Published in 1940, Darkness at Noon is the story of Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason. The novel is set in 1939 during the Stalinist Great Purge and Moscow show trials.

I see similarities between Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and feel that it ranks very high as a dystopian, politically oriented novel.



— Roger W. Smith

   August 2020