Zen and longing

Everything about Leonard's 2006 book of poetry and Anjani's album
johnny7moons
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Zen and longing

Postby johnny7moons » Mon Nov 19, 2007 10:53 pm

Here's the question for Leonard which, typically, formulated itself in my mind five minutes after the end of the Q&A session at the Barbican. Since I blew my chance to ask him directly, I'll put it up here and see if anyone has any thoughts about it.

The question is this. BOL is, at least on one level, a celebration of longing, as Leonard confirmed in typically dry, ironic style that evening ("what does fulfillment have to offer?"). BOL was partially written at a Zen monastery, and a fair chunk of it concerns Leonard's life there. I know Leonard claims that he was there for Roshi's company, not for Buddhism, but he clearly spent a lot of time there engaged in ferociously full-on meditation.

The thing is, longing seems to be precisely the opposite of Zen. Pretty much every Zen teacher I've ever come across in print or in person teaches a variation on the same theme - we're unhappy precisely because of our longing, and our addiction to longing. When we can accept that there is nowhere to go, nothing to do or to be or to achieve, nothing to long for, then we become free, and the work of Zen is to make us free in precisely this way.

So how did Leonard manage to come down from the mountain with a hymn to longing in his hand? Was he essentially untouched by all that dharmic non-dualism? Is that why he left and sat at Balsekar's feet? Hold on, though - Balsekar is a non-dualist too, his teachings are as opposed to longing as Zen is. So, did Leonard manage to find some way of marrying the longing with the beng-here-now and the being-nobody-going-nowhere? Or what?

I'd be very interested to hear any thoughts that anyone has.
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Joney
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby Joney » Tue Nov 20, 2007 3:06 am

So, did Leonard manage to find some way of marrying the longing with the beng-here-now and the being-nobody-going-nowhere? Or what?
Interesting question Johnny but one I think that you'll probably never get the answer to. I don't know enough about Buddhism to comment really but your post reminded me of an episode of Father Ted where they taught Father Jack a few phrases in response to any difficult questions that may be posed, one of which was "that would be an ecumenical matter" and the bishops thought he was very wise. I imagine you might get a similarly cryptic response from Mr Cohen. (Not, heaven forbid, that I am comparing him with Father Jack.) It is not the sort of question that could be easilly answered although he might say that you are bang on.

My feeling is that you may be on to something though.
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby opendoor » Tue Nov 20, 2007 3:54 am

Old answer from an old Dave Brubeck Quartet Lp - (Reflections of Japan)
Re: Cut entitled 'Zen Is When' - Some unused "imagined" lyrics on the back of the album sleeve.

Zen Is When you long for longing no more

If memory serves, I think there was a reference to a book by Paul Reps entitled Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

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blonde madonna
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby blonde madonna » Tue Nov 20, 2007 4:52 am

I think Leonard answers your question all through BoL but particularly in the poems ‘The Collapse of Zen’ and ‘Leaving Mt Baldy’ and best on the page at the end of this post.

But what is wrong with longing? For me it is a deep and driving force that I can feel physically (like home sickness), at times even chemically (like longing for a child). I can’t imagine life without it. If it is a Western construct then it seems to cross cultures and millennia, as you find it in thousands of years of literature, back to Celtic myths, Greek and Roman mythology and the bible.

As for Zen teaching, well I do strive to be more fully engaged with the world, in the present, at peace. I want to love family and friends better, live better, work better, and make smarter and more generous choices. The Dalai Lama
makes a distinction between negative desire, or attachment, and the positive quality of love that wishes another person's happiness. Isn't this idealism a type of longing? I long for all the world to feel this way.

I think of a poem, one of the last poems Raymond Carver wrote before he died. It distils for me the endless questioning:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
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lizzytysh
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby lizzytysh » Tue Nov 20, 2007 1:54 pm

Hi Madonna and Johnny and Joney and OpenDoor and everyone else ~

I love your response, Madonna [and Joney, too, though I'm referring to Madonna in this paragraph]. I was coming here this morning to try to construct one of my own. You've already covered some of the aspects I was going to, but I'd have had to recopy the words that go with the picture of the dancer woman, since I don't know how to copy photos or images here, yet. I, too, was going to reference Book of Longing's verses... as I mentioned, as well, its title; along with how Leonard seems to have given the answer to this question himself, in multiple ways.

He's outlined why he went to Mt. Baldy:

(1) Has a perfectly good religion of his own = to me, so not to convert or pursue Buddhism in the same way as others there likely are.

(2) To be near Roshi in a significant way = to me, to get to know Roshi at the level where he lives his life. This reminds me of the visits I've liked best, where people don't stop to entertain me, but go on with their own lives and I 'live' their reality for awhile. I used to love going to my former brother-in-law's for that very reason. It's how he was with everyone. You didn't feel like you were imposing, as you weren't a 'requirement' placed on his life. You were free to come and go and so was he, and he'd often invite you to come with. You were welcome to stay as long as you liked because his life didn't "Stop" when you got there. It all felt very real. I experienced his profession and his daily activities, but when I left, I didn't take his profession for myself and I didn't change my own daily activities to mirror his; but I could relate to everything in his life and knew him a whole lot better.

(3) If Roshi taught mathematics in Berlin, he'd have gone and taken mathematics classes from him = to me, he wouldn't have become a mathematician, but would have learned something useful and improved his mind while he was there. Roshi would have still been able to carry on with his own life and responsibilities. Leonard would not have been a deterrant or a burden.

When I consider how it could have been for Leonard, had he gone and just hung out in his cabin, as others rose at whatever-AM to begin their practices, he would have likely incurred an enormous amount of resentment from the others at Mt. Baldy... who is this guy [even though they may have known it was Leonard Cohen] who gets to come and enjoy the 'best' times with Roshi and not enter into the activities?

With that, he also wouldn't have really gotten to know Roshi's world at all, not in any real way... or learned from or enjoyed what Roshi's world had to offer him, either.

The bottom line is that by entering in to Roshi's world, he came to know Roshi much better.

The title of his book, Book of Longing, filled with verses related to that very thing... and not in a dissatisfied way, pretty well says it all. One of the poems is of him and one of the women from the monastery doing some, at the very least, heavy petting in a car and ending it with a comment to the effect of his preferring his way to Roshi's. He embraces longing and, later ~ in one of his Conversations with Glass, maybe at the Barbican? ~ even poses the question [albeit humourously] as to what's so great about fulfillment. [Not totally unlike coming out of alcohol rehab and writing a book titled the bartender's guide... not that seeking enlightenment/fulfillment is an addiction, but I guess some might be said to take it to that level ~ if so, Leonard's not one of them]. It would seem that Leonard also may not want the perception, much less 'responsibility,' of being seen/viewed/perceived as a spiritual paragon or guru or leader of any kind [a role which many/some of us have sometimes been quick to assign him], but rather as an ordinary man just trying to make his way like the rest of us. If he's pedestalized, it's not because he's trying to keep himself up there.

Leonard has lived a life that's pretty ascetic/austere by most people's standards. It's his personal preference, and it's been referred to as being zen, but it doesn't mean he wanted to live the life of a zen monk. He entered in to an ascetic world at the monastery, where people were doing it for 'religious' reasons. He seems to have adapted to that aspect fairly well, as it so aligned with his own personal tastes, anyway. His cabin. His table, his chair, his computer, his banjo. A life of simplicity.

Some of his comments about the practices in the early-AM in the cold and the snow and being whacked with a stick were such that it's clear he didn't consider this an ideal life for himself long-term, but certainly a discipline and a rigour and a learning experience for him during the time he was there.

When he was on Mt. Baldy, he wrote music and played music; from my understanding he participated some on the old ng; he took off with some woman in a car; he drank and hung out with Roshi; he called and talked with Anjani; and I believe he made some forays down off the mountain, as well. He had distractions, in which he willfully engaged.

I don't know about Buddhism to be able to talk about Buddhism, yet I know that intention is a major component of any practice. If Leonard didn't engage in the practices on Mt. Baldy with the intention to achieve a state of non-longing that presumably the others were doing, would he somehow have achieved that state anyway, by virtue of doing the practices, by osmosis, so to speak? Maybe yes, but it seems more of a no to me, as intention is part of the deal. With all the willful distractions in the preceding paragraph here, it's difficult to say that Leonard held the intention of achieving or reaching a state of non-longing.

Leonard is known for his 'austere' living environments and his, overall, lack of 'need' and has been for years, long before his time on Mt. Baldy. At the Barbican, he's asked "What is enough" and he answers, "Enough." He's seemingly lived his life in that fashion... period. In the interview in Oslo, he commented on it and, then [as an afterthought, though], he laughs and says in a teasing way, " . . . then there's Anjani" and they both laugh and she teasingly responds, "Yeah, but I don't eat very much" and I think he says something like, "Yeah, that's true."

Could he or did he benefit by it all, though? He certainly had to be very focused and directed and disciplined. He meditated and that's a benefit to one's being, in itself. Still, in the end, he chose to return to Boogie Street... he sent Roshi the card... he's referred to himself as the "useless monk" ~ not the same as a useless man, of course. Would Roshi have loved it if Leonard had been a "useful" monk? Could be. Yet, Leonard has made it a point that Roshi loves people for who they are, and that Roshi loves him for who he is [which implicitly suggests 'different from Roshi']. It seems that Roshi loves it most if Leonard is true to himself and is Leonard. The title of the book is, perhaps, the greatest honour to Roshi; that of Leonard accepting Leonard for who Leonard is... which may have been the greatest benefit of all to Leonard, as the result of his time on Mt. Baldy.

"Longing" ~ as you've suggested, Madonna, seems to me, too, an often 'exquisite' state. It can have elements of sadness, as well... but there's something in it that is an admixture. Pain and pleasure [the anticipation of it] together. [Not S&M, but perhaps in a way S&M of the psyche? Not sure on that... just an afterthought.]

Leonard accounts his lifting of depression to his getting older and that, as you age, the brain cells do whatever... however, the timing of his getting older also coincided with his being on Mt. Baldy; being with his friend, Roshi, in a very real way; meditating; engaging in healthy activities and eating good quality food and, though drinking, drinking nowhere to the extent he had been on tours; living a life of relative peace and calm, a respite for sure; coming to know himself better, and the kind of life that he wanted for himself and ultimately leaving to pursue it. The timing of all this with his depression lifting pretty much coincided.

Leonard apparently achieved a level of practice to where he qualified to become a monk, so did. It didn't mean that was his initial goal, however. As long as he was there, though, he might as well do his best to do what he was doing... well. That seems to be a part of his nature. The discussion that surrounds Leonard's time in the monastery and in the practices of Zen Buddhism seem to me more a matter of trying to make Leonard be something that 'we' want him to be, to meet 'our' expectations of what his time on Mt. Baldy should have been about, rather than who he actually is... the latter being the very positive thing that Roshi brings to Leonard, acceptance of who he is, just as he is, whatever that may mean.

We've all had our preconceived notions of 'who' our favourite artists are, at least to some degree. It's difficult not to. We listen, we read, we process both through our own experience. This seems to be another similar matter. Those who have practiced Zen or Buddhism or meditation or whatever know what their own intention was when they did so, so they try to square that with what Leonard's seems to have been or not to have been or whatever. It's just another facet of trying to guess the person behind the personae. Few seem to have shown the futility of that better than Leonard ;-) ... though, it seems at least the majority [and I haven't heard otherwise] of those who have met him have been pleased to find that he's as kind and giving as they had believed him to be... and, sometimes/oftimes, even moreso.

If everyone wanted a life of Zen, we'd all be living in monasteries. I would like to spend time in a monastery doing practices, as I know I could use the discipline. If I had a friend such as Roshi, I might have done so long ago. At this point, not at all likely. If I had, it wouldn't have been with the intention of becoming an ascetic and living my life in a monastery, though. As Madonna has noted, living a higher quality life is a legitimate goal, as well. Giving love to others. Loving someone well was what I saw once as one man's definition of success. Leonard has returned to do that very thing with Anjani... had a positive, loving relationship; and with his fans, as well. He's produced a lot more work since being there. He basically came down with a book already written... and wrote songs there, as well. The albums have come more closely spaced than they had previously. [Some, of course, may say that his earlier work was better... so he should've kept them more spaced... but there are those of us who say we sure are glad he didn't.] He assisted Anjani with an album. He's working on another album, even as we speak. He may have financial needs that he didn't have previously, due to the debacle, but if he was still in a major depression, he wouldn't be able to do all that he's been doing, regardless of the extent of any financial needs.

I feel that Leonard's depression lifting may be all the justification that's needed for his time on Mt. Baldy... I can't that they're directly related, but I can't say that they're not, either. I don't know what he would say. I feel his time spent there was, overall, consistent with his intention and that he and we benefited by it.


~ Lizzy
"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
~ Oscar Wilde
John Etherington
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby John Etherington » Tue Nov 20, 2007 9:51 pm

Even though I've only had a chance to scan most of the posts, here, it seems that everyone has something interesting to say , and especially Lizzy who makes many important points. However, from my own point of view (which is not based on any inside knowledge but only my own deductions) is that Leonard went to live on Mount Baldy at a critical time. Longing was something that had driven him all his life, and he had recently ended a relationship with a beautiful young woman (Rebecca de Mornay). He was now over sixty and maybe beginning to feel that he had passed his prime (I'm beginning to feel the same way, and I'm only 56!). Furthermore, His friend Roshi was over 80, and the time that they might be able to spend together no doubt seemed limited. Thus, Leonard took the leap and became a monk. This was primarily as he has stressed for the discipline, and largely I suspect to give his life some structure after an important relationship had ended. As he has said himself, many people in his then situation have nothing better to do than retire home alone and watch TV. Whatever the Buddhist ideal might be, I don't think it's possible for people like Leonard (or myself) to totally give up longing. Unless your peronal circumstances are at least fairly comfortable or interesting, there will always be some longing. Most people at least aspire to a loving relationship, an agreeable home environment, and enough money to not have to struggle. The secret is to not fall apart when life does take a turn for the worst and one or more of these things are removed from your life. Even if as Leonard has jokingly said he was not cut out for the spiritual life, then at least his time on Mount Baldy appears to have done him some good. For instance, it seems that he was able to endure his recent financial crisis in the most positive way.

All good things, John E
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby John Etherington » Tue Nov 20, 2007 10:05 pm

I should also add that if one feels some kind of affinity with the Judaeo-Christian tradition (or indeed with neo-Platonic thought) there will always be a spiritual longing for a return to the Divine Source. This is very much rooted in our psyche, and not something that can be thrown off easily, no matter how much time we might spend involving ourselves in Eastern practices.
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby lizzytysh » Tue Nov 20, 2007 10:11 pm

[I meant to mention how right you are, too, Joney, on how deftly Leonard can be cryptic when answering questions, when it appears to be his choice to do so. It's delightful to watch :) .]
Longing was something that had driven him all his life, and he had recently ended a relationship with a beautiful young woman (Rebecca de Mornay).
I agree with this and feel that going somewhere to live and just 'be' with a friend who loves you for who you are, just as you are; yet, where the focus of the teachings and practices would be to detach from longing [including listening to lectures as to the benefits and justifications for this]; would be extremely helpful at a time like this.

There are a couple more thoughts I feel are important about all of this. My bartender's guide analogy might give the impression that I feel Leonard's attitude about coming down off the mountain was cavalier. I don't think that at all. None of this seems to be in disrespect of Roshi and his life. It seems Leonard made a very earnest and honest effort to follow the path of practice in the monastery, on behalf of living there with his friend. When he found he really couldn't do it any longer, from how he phrased his birthday card for Roshi, he seems to have felt genuinely apologetic to him for simply having to go his own way. He cares about Roshi and seems to not want to have disappointed him by leaving. He cares what Roshi thinks and wants him to know his leaving doesn't diminish his love and respect for him and his path... and puts the onus wholly on himself for being unable to continue there.

It seems similar to when any two friends do something together, when one is introducing the other to a new experience, the hope is that they'll take to it. If one doesn't, it's not uncommon that it's expressed in terms such as, "I'm really sorry. It's just not for me." A sort of recognition of the hope that was out there that it would be. It reminds me of Leonard's singing of how he was good at taking out the garbage, good at holding up the wall...
For instance, it seems that he was able to endure his recent financial crisis in the most positive way.
If it's not his time on Mt. Baldy that made this possible, I'd sure like to know what it is... unless it was the whole-hearted support of Adam and Lorca saying the loving things they did at such a crucial time as this. Even so, he has handled what's happened to him financially with incredible understanding, forgiveness, and grace.


~ Lizzy
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby Diane » Thu Nov 22, 2007 2:01 am

Blonde Madonna, I like the way the computer added the title to that picture of Leonard's 'Dear Roshi, I'm sorry note' with the drawing of the woman... I think it's trying to be clever.

Zen is in one sense the study of desire/longing. It doesn't extinguish it, other than for moments. Back on Boogie Street Leonard lives with longing, but that doesn't mean his time on Mount Baldy was wasted. Those who have accomplished many years of deep practice have a stillness, and a sense of peace about them. Leonard seems to have achieved some of that ease and acceptance. He also seems to have gained a lot from having had Roshi love him not as 'Leonard Cohen, the poet and singer' but for who he really is (the man as he is before he has laboriously and selectively remodelled his experiences into poem and song): he spoke about that in interviews. I speculate that the depth of Roshi's acceptance of Leonard might be related to the lifting of his depression. And he also learned from his practice to be less attached to the idea of self; he has spoken about that in a couple of interviews, too (I'll see if I can find the references if I get some time).
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby blonde madonna » Thu Nov 22, 2007 12:30 pm

Diane wrote:Blonde Madonna, I like the way the computer added the title to that picture of Leonard's 'Dear Roshi, I'm sorry note' with the drawing of the woman... I think it's trying to be clever.
Ah yes, attachments. I have envied people who seem able to break free.
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby hydriot » Sun Nov 25, 2007 12:05 am

You don't ever come down from the mountain.

I get the feeling that none of the people posting here have spent time in a monastery. In the seventies, when freaked out friends were popping pills, I chose a different response to my doubts and fears: I spent some weeks in a monastery.

Yes, it was a Christian not a Zen monastery, but its purpose was very much the same: to loosen attachment to things physical through devotion. Nobody hit me, but life was austere, with about six short services throughout the day ending with Compline, lots of hard work in the kitchens, and lots of vegetable-gardening (the monks had made themselves as self-sufficient as possible). It was a silent Order, though the monks were allowed to talk on Sundays, to let off steam.

Lizzy has written "It seems Leonard made a very earnest and honest effort to follow the path of practice in the monastery, on behalf of living there with his friend. When he found he really couldn't do it any longer, from how he phrased his birthday card for Roshi, he seems to have felt genuinely apologetic to him for simply having to go his own way. He cares about Roshi and seems to not want to have disappointed him by leaving."

I really don't think this is true. Monks simply don't think in these terms. Roshi will not have been disappointed in Leonard's leaving, just as Roshi will not have been delighted by his arrival. Leonard may have been disappointed in Leonard's devotion, but not Roshi.

Who I found in the monastery were the least judgemental people I have ever known. You could pursue your spiritual quest at whatever speed and with whatever commitment were right for you. For a 'guest' (as I was classed) nothing was mandatory (except silence). [Of course the fact that nothing was required of me motivated me to accompany the monks through most of their devotions anyway.] You could even declare yourself to be on retreat and stay in your cell all day. I remember reading the Book of Ecclesiastes from start to finish several times and then contemplating those wonderful words.

What I remember best though was the wonderful sense of being accepted into a family, without any preconditions or judgement. And I learned many strange and esoteric things. To this day, I remember some of the readings given at lunch while we ate. Who is aware, for example, that while he was in Venice, Byron stayed in an Armenian monastery and learnt Armenian?

And the monks were not at all out of touch, as I discovered on that first Sunday when they let loose their tongues!

'You never come down from the mountain.' What I mean is that your body may come down, but that is pretty irrelevant. Thirty years on from those few weeks in that monastery, its beneficial effects are still with me.

Leonard has not come down from Mt Baldy. Mt Baldy has come down with Leonard.
“If you do have love it's a kind of wound, and if you don't have it it's worse.” - Leonard, July 1988
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby Diane » Sun Nov 25, 2007 2:50 am

I have attended week-long sesshins/retreats with the Western Chan (Zen)Fellowship, Hydriot, and plan another soon. I find them remarkable, but don't try to explain what they are like, anymore; it's too hard to give an accurate impression. I had wrong expectations when I first attended, despite reading others' descriptions. There is a demanding routine (austere, but not alarmingly so). If it were possible, I would attend once every few months, because like you, I am deeply grateful for the benefits. I can't imagine being in a monastery for four years, as Leonard was. One of the things I admire about him is the extent to which he has travelled the journey of self-confrontation. As well as being a brilliant artist, he is a brilliant role model.
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby lazariuk » Sun Nov 25, 2007 4:23 am

Joshu Roshi once said
When you embrace your lover, do you think about pollution or even Enlightenment? Your lover probably would shove you away if you were thinking about something else while you embraced.
He said that in 1978 at Maitreya on Turtle Island
Everything being said to you is true; Imagine what it is true of.
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Re: Zen and longing

Postby lizzytysh » Sun Nov 25, 2007 5:11 am

Hi Hydriot ~

This is a minor clarification, with maybe major implications. When I spoke of Leonard's seeming apologetic and not wanting to disappoint Roshi, I was referring to only Leonard's side of that equation. Roshi is the one who accepts Leonard for Leonard and all that that means. I could very easily imagine Roshi dismissing it as being no problem at all and something he fully understood. He seems to understand and accept most or all of everything else about Leonard, the person. I'm not surprized that you speak of the lack of judgement you experienced, as it seems Leonard did, too. Still, we sometimes impose our own feelings of guilt with what we do, even if we know another person's going to say, "Hey... no problem." It may be, with Leonard already knowing how Roshi is, that it never crossed his mind, either; feeling apologetic or not wanting to disappoint Roshi. It was the tone of the card that gave me those thoughts as to how Leonard seemed to feel. However, it may have been, as you suggest, that anything having to do with feeling apologetic or disappointment may have been Leonard's own feelings about and expectations of himself. Sometimes, we find that the only one we really disappoint is ourselves. Or, maybe it's none of that. Perhaps, I 'read into'/misread the tone of the message on the birthday card.


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Re: Zen and longing

Postby Poor Alyosha » Mon Jan 14, 2008 8:02 pm

There is a word in Portuguese, 'saudade', which has no direct equivalent in the English language; it is sometimes translated as, 'the longing for that which never was, and never will be'. The ancient Greek word 'pothos' I believe carried a similar meaning; it referred to the yearning towards horizons, and beyond them. Alexander the Great was born on an island sacred to the gods of pothos, and has been described by Heimholtz (the greatest scholar of my native land) as an incarnation of sheer, seething, restless pothos itself. Hence the famous lines, "And Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer." It is even said that Alexander, in his desperate attempt to slake this unslakable longing in his spirit, marched upon Heaven itself.

This longing, this aching bittersweet nostalgia for something we can never name or know - isn't this the essence of the Western religious quest, whether we be Jew or Christian, Muslim or Platonist? Truly, this spiritual hunger for some elusive something, isn't this the ghost in the great juddering senseless consumption-machine of Western culture as a whole?

Forgive my aphoristic tone, friends; darkness has descended like some terrible otter, and I am alone.

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