Sunday, December 27, 2015

In search of the book 'Surprise Balls' by Yoav Tsoor

The information below is from Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by Eyal Press (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

In 2003, Israeli soldier Avner Wishnitzer signed a letter that says "we will no longer give our hands to the oppressive reign in the territories and the denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians. We shall no longer serve as a shield in the crusade of the settlements. We shall no longer corrupt our moral character in missions of oppression." (p. 110) He and his fellow soldier co-signers were asked to renounce their signatures, but they did not, so they were dismissed from the army.

Eyal Press describes this man's subsequent health crisis:

Two years later, Avner began to feel a nagging ache in his groin. He complained about it to his girlfriend, Hagit, who teased him about how little tolerance men had for certain kinds of bodily discomfort. He mentioned it to his father, a pulmonologist, who assured him it was probably nothing. The discomfort continued, so Avner made an appointment with a doctor, who ran some tests that explained why it hadn't gone away. Not yet thirty, Avner was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Before he was able to process the news, he was admitted into the hospital to have a cyst removed form the gland in his body responsible for the production of the male sex hormone. He spent several weeks recuperating at his parents' house, where he limped around like a geriatric and urinated into a bottle. When he laughed, a stab of pain shot through his body. At night, his mind raced with fears that the disease had spread. He dreamed of his own death, imagining his eyes hollowed out and his neck withered.

Since only one of his testicles had been removed, Avner was told he would still likely be able to have children. He drew comfort from a saying he'd learned from a Tae Kwon Do grandmaster he'd met in Korea who'd lost his son to cancer: 'Fall seven times and get up eight,' the grandmaster had said. But about a year later, in July 2006, Avner felt the pain in his groin again. He went back to the doctor for more tests, which revealed that the disease had spread. 'Fall seven times and get up eight.' Avner ran the adversity-defying phrase through his head while bracing himself for a second surgery, straining to hold his emotions together while feeling himself come undone. One night he rubbed the testosterone cream the doctor had given him into his arms and shoulders, and sobbed until daylight broke.

It was only at our second or third meeting that Avner mentioned anything about this. 'I had cancer,' he said, 'twice.' I was startled, not least since everything about Avner – his steely gaze, the muscles roping his arms – made him seem not just strong but indestructible to me. He was a level-three black belt who still practiced Tae Kwon Do six times a week, and also taught it. I asked Avner what kind of cancer. 'Testicular,' he murmured, eyes lowered. I didn't pry for additional details, and Avner didn't offer any, but the awkwardness of the exchange hinted at the peculiar vulnerability I imagined he must have felt. (pp. 117-118)

Avner Wishnitzer wrote a book called Surprise Balls. (In Hebrew letters, the title is ביצי הפתעה under the pseudonym יואב צור. Transliterated, the title is Bay-tsay Haf-taah and the author is Yoav Tsoor.) According to Press, the book is about Wishnitzer's experience with cancer and of the "macho culture" in the Israeli army. There does not seem to be an English translation available.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The embodiment of language

Alan Watts:

For the question "What is it?" is really asking, "In what class is it?" Now it should be obvious that classification is, again, a human invention, and that the natural world is not given to us in a classified form, in cans with labels. When we ask what anything is in its natural state, the only answer can be to point to it directly, suggesting that the questioner observe it with a silent mind.

C. J. Ducasse:

You learn the English word "pain" by being taught English, and you learn the biological process of pain by being taught biology, but you learn pain when you are stuck with a needle. It is possible to experience pain without knowing the English or the biology.

Elaine Scarry:

Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.

Jon Kabat-Zinn:

See if you don't become more mindful by becoming more "bodyful."

Marco Iacoboni:

The main idea of embodied semantics is that linguistic concepts are built 'bottom up' by using the sensory-motor representations necessary to enact those concepts. Let me give you an example. When we talk, we often use expressions involving actions and body parts: the kiss of death, kicking off the year, grasping a concept, can you give me a hand with this, that cost an arm and a leg, and probably hundreds more. According to the embodied semantic hypothesis, when we say, hear, or read these expressions, we actually activate the motor areas of our brain concerned with the actions performed with those body parts. When you read or say 'the kiss of death,' your brain activates the motor cells you activate when you actually kiss someone.

Taking language too literally, however, is a disability. Douwe Draaisma:

Sherashevsky's thought, by contrast, was invariably childishly concrete and visual. Nor did he have any feeling for metaphor or poetry. That may sound odd in someone for whom words conjured up concrete images and associations. On closer examination it is easily explained. Metaphors can only be understood by reference to a meaning, but Sherashevsky merely saw pictures in the imagery. When, in a poem by Tikhonov, a peasant is said to be using a winepress to make a 'river of wine', Sherashevsky can see a red river flowing past in the distance. The meaning of the metaphor has been replaced by the picture.


Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman, (1958), New York: Vintage Books, 1991. p 35.

C. J. Ducasse, The Belief in a Life After Death, p 65.

Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. p 4. Quoted in "Torture and Photography: Abu Ghraib." Andrew J. Mitchell. Radical Philosophy Review (Journal of the Radical Philosophy Association). Vol 8, No 1, 2005. p 11.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are. p 116.

Marco Iacoboni. Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. pp. 92-93.

Douwe Draaisma. Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. (2001) Translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans in 2004. Cambridge University Press, 2005. p 69.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The 'castration' (beheading) scene in 'Masque of a Savage Mandarin'

In Philip Bedford Robinson's novel Masque of a Savage Mandarin, the character Nicholas Coad seeks a human brain on which to experiment.

He pens an “Ode to the Nuclear Syndrome,” a malady he has invented. Note the references to "a five-inch length" and to "martyred Abelard," a medieval man who was castrated as punishment for an illicit sexual affair.

Thymus of a new-born whale,
Pigeon’s peritoneum,
Mix with sliminess of snail
In a hypogeum;
Belly of Sir Thomas Browne
(Urn’s a little dusty)
Spread with daffodil’s down
Till the mixture’s musty.
Take a small atomic bomb,
Say an inward prayer,
Wrap it in a toilet roll,
Throw it in the air;
Pick your entrails off the tree,
Stick the guts together,
And if you have a five-inch length
You can say you’re clever.
Send a rocket to the moon,
(mind the Fourth Dimension!)
Tie your member on the end
And calculate the tension.
The British Association
Will be loud in approbation,
And martyred Abelard
Will envy your apotheosis –
A constellation or a star
Perpetuate the new psychosis...

He advises a man that the human brain is formed from congealed semen that traveled up the spine. He persuades this man – who happens to be a preacher – that he suffers from Nuclear Syndrome, characterized by inappropriate sexual thoughts. In a move evoking the beliefs and practices of the Russian Skoptsi, he persuades the man that he must "castrate" himself, although, in this case, he is not referring to the sexual organs, but to decapitation. Thus Coad gains access to the recently deceased man's brain for his research purposes.

‘What must I do?’ he cried hoarsely. ‘What must I do to be saved? Tell me, Master!’
* * *
’You must castrate yourself,’ he said in a low, sombre voice.
The preacher started.
‘No, not in the vulgar sense,’ went on Coad, ‘but in the spiritual. The organ which is most sinful – the cerebral organ – that it is which must be excised, that it is whose vile, suggestive sinuosities must be utterly destroyed!’
‘Cut it off, I say! Cut it off and save thy soul!’
He drew a long knife out from under his cloak.
‘Take this,’ he said. ‘Take this and purge thyself.’
The preacher stared at the knife.
He took it by the handle.
* * *
He pulled it across the flesh, with a sound like the tearing of parchment.
There was an immediate gush of blood.
‘I – can’t – do – it!’ he gurgled. ‘Help me!’
Cold reached up and held the man’s hands in his own.
They sawed together. Blood spouted over Coad’s face and streamed to the ground, but with their combined strength – the preacher’s inhuman strength of martyrdom, Coad’s sublime strength of purpose – the job was done at last.
The head separated from the body and thumped to the ground, the body keeled over and lay on the roof like a heap of old clothes.

Philip Bedford Robinson. Masque of a Savage Mandarin: A Comedy of Horrors. (1969) Great Britain: Panther, 1974. Ode on p. 94. Beheading on pp. 116-117.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Being the change for peace you which to see in the world

In a 1931 sermon, Joseph Fort Newton said that war "destroys not only human lives, but human ideas, emotions, attachments, spiritual values, taste, culture, almost everything that unites individuals into a unity more important than themselves; war is the suicide of civilization."

Some believe that our "true nature" is peaceful, and that war is a kind of mistake resulting from illusions. Daniel Condron: "At the source of all creation is peace and love. It is only here in the physical experience that we experience discord, strife, confusion, and refusal to remember where you came from."

It is commonly said that violence and hate cannot defeat themselves; the only way out is through their opposites. Buddha said, "Hatred never ceases through hatred in this world; through nonviolence it comes to an end.
" A. J. Muste said, "There is no way to peace – peace is the way."

If one takes this strong position, then it may seem unnecessary and counterproductive to spend time in debate acknowledging dissenting opinions. Umberto Eco wrote of the first U.S. war in the Persian Gulf:

"...if someone puts forth an opinion contrary to the expectations of someone else, he or she is promptly labeled an intellectual traitor, a capitalist warmonger or a pro-Arab pacifist. ... In a form of ritual exorcism, those who supported the conflict were obliged to begin by stating how cruel war is, while those who were against it had to begin by stating how cruel Saddam is. In each of these cases we have certainly witnessed a debate between professional intellectuals, but what we have not seen is the practice of the intellectual function.

Whether or not one spends time acknowledging another opinion, talking is often time-consuming and difficult. One approach often advocated is to talk less and model more. Frank Schaeffer:

"The wisdom and mercy of our headmaster was what I followed, not a theory. He did not try to convert me to a better way. He was the better way. His teaching me didn't depend on my believing what he believed. It depended on his setting an example for me to follow – an example that cost him a night's sleep. Mr. Parke spoke no grand words. He traveled with two scared little boys a few steps down a path to greater kindness, to empathy, to learning to walk in another's shoes. That is the purpose driven life."


Dr. Joseph Fort Newton, "What Can I Do for World Peace," delivered 1931. In Kleiser, Grenville. Vital Sermons: Model Addresses for Study. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1935. p 234.

Daniel Condron, Superconscious Meditation: Kundalini and the Understanding of the Whole Mind. Windyville, Missouri: SOM Publishing, 1998. p 130.

Umberto Eco, "Reflections on War" (1991). In Five Moral Pieces, translated by Alastair McEwen. Harcourt, Inc: 2002. p 2.

Frank Schaeffer. Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism). Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2009. p. 142.