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Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
(James Joyce, The Dead)

Can you understand people’s fascination with death? We all know that it’s going to happen, and don’t know what happens after it. Some cultures take it as a cue to mourn, or celebrate.

The requests people make when they’re dying, though, can be so silly. Bury me here, wearing this dress/suit, and put this in my coffin … spread some of my ashes overlooking my favourite view, and some on the street I grew up in, and the rest on the beach … blah blah blah … do this, do that. You’re dead. Who cares what happens here afterward. I’m not going on a road trip with an urn. If there is an afterlife with people looking down on the living or any of that stuff, the ones who burdened their families with these requests are probably thinking it was pretty stupid of them: it’s all material world stuff that you probably won’t care about anymore.

But you could look at it this way: those final requests involve the living in a structured process of mourning and closure, a process of materially showing final respect for the deceased’s wishes. It lets the living know that they’ve personally carried out a loved one’s last desires, even at some cost to themselves. True love is about self-sacrifice for another, not doing what is reasonable or comfortable for you.

And whilst the body will decay, and the soul might travel to some next life, in a practical emotional sense, something of the deceased is very much still here for those who interacted with and loved him or her. All those connections aren’t instantly sundered and erased as if the dead had never lived. To pretend that a person’s wishes matter in life but not in death is to deny that fact.

I won’t be leaving any chores for those left behind. However, I can see why these rituals exist and have for thousands of years. It is because humans require some sense of closure about everything, even those things that they aren’t there to experience personally. And those around them will do these things because they feel like when they are in that situation, they will want someone to do it for them. If it means a way to prove one last time that they are loved, or whatever personal philosophy that they hold to that is being fulfilled, then so be it. It isn’t anything to be hostile about. Death is the fulfilment of life. No more, no less.

Brown bread is brown bread.

In 1968, in the Saint Denis section of Paris, an elderly White Russian female emigré, a former maid in czarist St. Petersburg, and later a follower and lover of the Siberian holy man Grigori Rasputin, kept a polished wooden box, 18 in. by 6 in. in size, on top of her bedroom bureau.

Inside the box lay Rasputin’s penis. It “looked like a blackened, overripe banana, about a foot long, and resting on a velvet cloth,” reported Rasputin’s biographer Patte Barham. In life, this penis, wrote Rasputin’s daughter Maria, measured a good 13 inches when fully erect (one might ask how she knew … indeed , one might ask why anybody would own up to being Rasputin’s daughter).

According to Maria’s account, in 1916, when Prince Felix Yussupov and his fellow assassins attacked Rasputin after unsuccessfully poisoning him with food and wine laced with arsenic (apparently Rasputin ate and drank heartily, declaring the meal excellent, which must have pissed them off), Yussupov first raped him, then fired a bullet into his head, wounding him. As Rasputin fell (remember, he was drunk, had ingested arsenic, been buggered and shot in the head), another young nobleman pulled out a dagger and castrated Rasputin, flinging the severed penis across the room.

One of Yussupov’s servants, a relative of Rasputin’s lover, recovered the severed organ and handed it over to the maid. She, in turn, fled with it to Paris.

Other versions of the death of Rasputin are available, but I like this one.

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Meal Beach, Burra Isle

A late night discussing this with Professor Bain, who is inclined to try and disprove the existence of God after a few drinks. As far as I remember, this is the kind of ground we covered:

As Richard Dawkins has said:

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in – Zeus, Thor, Baal, Apollo, Ceres, etc., etc. Some of us just go one god further …”

I think that’s a nice way of putting it. Understanding that God does not exist is simply a matter of maturity. We all believe and want to believe in god(s) and other made up fairytale creatures when we are young. That’s just the way it is, the way we are constructed mentally. Then when (if) we get older and mature, we start seeing it’s not that simple.

The reality we find ourselves in is infinitely more complex. God is nothing but a human subconscious invention that makes it easier for us to grasp the complexity of the world we are dropped into. Such mythical creatures and stories do have immense value as they help us focus emotionally and psychologically, but they are nothing but simplifications, and if they are mistaken for realities, things can get very nasty, and they invariably do.

It is also obvious that gods don’t exist in the way a lot of people picture them because they are so much like us. At an earlier stage in human cultural evolution, that seemed to make sense, but we now know that our world is so much bigger than we are.

So cultural evolution and personal maturing are actually very related phenomena. We all go through the same stages in our personal evolution as our species in general did over the ages, only much faster, in about 20 years or so. A lot of people get stuck along the way and stay simple, immature minds, and they still need that kind of childish spirituality, usually for the rest of their lives.

It is very easy to prove that all the gods that people have enshrined culturally are nothing but human inventions and definitions.

Beyond that, it is impossible to absolutely disprove the existence of God but also absolutely irrelevant. Beyond that, we aren’t talking about the subject any more because it is impossible to define what that word or concept is supposed to mean. You can think of it as a placeholder for the power of nature, for the spirit of the cosmos, whatever, those are all just human definitions and cannot approach what they try to express.

That stage of consciousness is actually already there in most more complex religions, when they tell us that we are not supposed to picture God in any way. But people still do, if not in actual pictures, then in their definitions what God is and wants and all that. In doing that, they act completely against the expressive commands of their religion. But they still do, because they simply can’t grasp what is meant by it, and there are still a lot of people who are stuck at that stage.

This brings back memories of my alma mater Charterhouse.

The chapel at Charterhouse was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed Battersea Power Station.

These cause earthquakes

A senior Iranian cleric says women who wear revealing clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes. Apparently, he’s serious.

“Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes,” Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

He went on: “Now, if a natural earthquake hits Tehran, no one will be able to confront such a calamity but God’s power, only God’s power … So let’s not disappoint God.”

His challenge has been met. Today is International Boobquake Day.

Jen McCreight on her blog Blag Hag responded to this remarkable claim by urging women to dress immodestly to try and trigger global seismic events:

On Monday, April 26th, I will wear the most cleavage-showing shirt I own.Yes, the one usually reserved for a night on the town. I encourage other female skeptics to join me and embrace the supposed supernatural power of their breasts. Or short shorts, if that’s your preferred form of immodesty. With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake.

My Personal Assistant, Miss McKenzie, is way out in front of the sistaz on this one, but I haven’t felt anything yet.

Related:

A long strange history of understanding earthquakes as a punishment for other people’s sex lives

There mid the dust of dying creeds
Christ starves, while Venus feasts;
She holds the people’s hearts and leaves
To Him – the mumbling priests.

(G.A. Studdert Kennedy, Idols)

My own experience with people who suddenly go the “born again” route is that it’s not possible to be open-minded and to lend a sympathetic ear to them, because for the first couple years after their rebirth, it seems like all of their interaction with those who aren’t born again involves proselytising. I simply won’t spend time with someone whose every statement is an effort to convert me.

However, once they’ve been born again for a couple years, they tend to calm down and understand that they’re alienating more people than they are converting by being so aggressive.

I lost a very close friend for a while because of this. When he calmed down after a couple of years, we were able to at least meet up with each other on occasion again, but things were never the same. He’s a better person now than he was before he found religion (he stopped drinking and is a better family man). So I’m happy for him in that respect. But I still just have a difficult time feeling close to him when I know in the back of his mind, he thinks I’m damned to an eternity of misery because I don’t share his beliefs, and that our value systems and societal views are from different planets (he now holds a very traditional view of women and will occasionally use the word “fornicate”, not to mention his views on homosexuality and other such topics – I just can’t identify with such a person). Actually, he was over recently and saw all of the Darwin/Evolution stuff I put up on my walls. I’m guessing he won’t be coming back down for a while.

So, should I have continued to spend time with the guy, sitting there and listening to him try to convince me that my ancestors weren’t apes, that the Earth is about 10,000 years old, and that I have to accept Jesus as my saviour?.

I don’t think that’s uncommon for people who suddenly go head first into a fundamentalist brand of religion for at least the first year or two after their conversion.

I’d rather spend my time with people I consider reasonable and rational.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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