GSA and SECRET SERVICE SCANDALS — Righteous Indignation or Avoidance?

By Kevin

 
Congress is outraged over the GSA and Secret Service scandals — utterly outraged! The General Service Administration held a 2010 conference in Las Vegas that cost taxpayers $822,000. Unbelievable! A dozen members of the Secret Service advance team hired 20 prostitutes to party for an evening in Cartagena, Colombia. Impossible! Darrell Isa, Republican Chairman of the House Oversight Committee is outraged. Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is outraged. On the right and the left in both houses of Congress everyone is viscerally and vocally outraged — so outraged that some are “sick to their stomachs” while others just cannot find words to express their horror at these unforgivable infractions — these very common and widespread sins of the flesh — partying – indulging in too much luxury, entertainment, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Congress is obsessed by these tabloid misbehaviors and so are all the news outlets. Capitol Hill has launched investigations and hearings that have almost certainly already spent more valuable human hours and taxpayer money than both scandals put together, and it has only just begun. We are a nation of Puritans who just love a good prurient scandal that allows us to express our disdain, outrage and moral indignation against anyone who does not adhere to sufficiently chaste and modest conduct, while we ignore our most compelling needs and issues.

The GSA was stupid to hold a conference in Las Vegas in this economy. Secret Service members were playing with fire when they hired prostitutes. The “optics” are very bad. Nobody should eat caviar or entertain prostitutes when some of us are starving and all of us worry about terrorism and security. But $822,000 is an infinitesimally tiny droplet in the bucket of our economic misadventures. Would that amount even pay for one tenth of a stealth bomber? No, it would not. The investigations and hearings Congress has launched into these matters will cost many times more than the transgressions did. This is an absurd waste of time and money. So, here is my advice to Congress:

 

Dear Congress,

 

 

After you recover from your shock and amazement over learning that a government agency, GSA, spent too much money on a conference in Las Vegas, perhaps you will need some real economic issues against which to direct your outrage? Well, how about focusing on the fact that the Census Bureau reported 46.2 million Americans living at or below the poverty line in 2010? That number includes 22% of all our children. And it has gotten worse since 2010. One in six citizens of the most powerful country on earth struggle with poverty and hunger! Where is your moral outrage about that, Congress? Why don’t you spend your hours, investigations and hearings on the hunger and homelessness right under your own noses, instead of wasting your time and ours screaming about the GSA paying for expensive breakfasts and hiring a “mind-reader” to entertain their troops. Or if poverty and hunger at home bore you, why not focus on the fact that four million families have lost their homes to foreclosure right here in the USA in the last four years? Four million families were pushed out into the streets and many of their homes quickly fell prey to mold, decay and vandalism. Whole neighborhoods in Detroit and elsewhere had to be razed. Nobody is benefiting from these foreclosures — not the banks, not the wider economy, and certainly not the evicted families. Where is your moral outrage about that, Congress?
 
Then there is the matter of the Secret Service’s advance team to Cartagena hiring 20 prostitutes to party for an evening. I am concerned about the possibility that the safety and security of the president and his team might have been compromised by this sleazy activity. But if it turns out that these Secret Service party personnel followed protocol and cleansed their rooms of all information and material that could have been used against the president, then what they do in their free time is none of my business or anyone else’s. Unless they really did endanger the life and safety of the president and his party, then in my opinion special sexual services for the Secret Service ought to remain the Secret Service’s secret. I certainly feel sorry for their wives and families. But prostitution in Cartagena is legal and partying with prostitutes must surely be one of the oldest and most popular forms of self-indulgent debauchery in all of human history. It’s not new.

 

Give me a break, Congress! These Secret Service and GSA scandals are naughty play and foolish self-indulgence — not national emergencies, and they simply do not descend to the level that ought to arouse this much Congressional and national inquiry, time and outrage. Congress, do you need a national emergency to obsess about? How about a global emergency?… Try this one: Planet Earth is rapidly dying as an environment that will support the human species and other forms of life. According to the International Energy Agency, if we do not arrest and reverse Global Climate Change within the next few years, greenhouse gasses will exceed sustainable levels and pass beyond the point of no return. Where is your moral outrage about that, Congress? Don’t you care at all about your children’s and grandchildren’s future? Where are the investigations and hearings about Global Climate Change? Where are the hours of news coverage about the fact that extinction is on our doorstep? Wake up Congress! The sexual dalliances of overgrown adolescent boys guarding the president, and the excesses of government conference attendees, may be titillating and troubling and certainly beneath the level of behavior we expect of them, but our house is burning down and we are ignoring the fire in favor of punishing bad boys for masturbating in the bathroom! Don’t you smell the smoke? Where are your priorities, Congress? 

 
Expensive travel and conferences on the taxpayer’s dime are dead wrong and they need to stop. Secret Service agents must learn not to indulge in any behaviors that might endanger the lives of our presidents and the security of our nation – partying with prostitutes included. But these very human indulgences are among the oldest behaviors in the history of our species. Congress is acting like the GSA and the Secret Service just now invented waste and lechery, and if we heap enough scorn and outrage on them we might have a chance of nipping such bad habits in the bud. Get real, Congress! We have bigger fish to fry. We have heard your very pious and puritanical righteous indignation, and we are duly impressed. Now, please turn your attention to our real problems and spend your time and our money on issues that truly matter, like feeding and clothing the masses living in poverty among us, and housing the homeless while preventing more families from being thrown out of their homes, and saving the human race from extinction due to Global Climate Change. Can we get back to reality again and stop all of this avoidance of the devastating crises right in front of our noses? Can we focus on resolving some of these real issues and saving ourselves – now?! Thank you.

 

P.S.: If you address real issues, Congress, your approval rating could rise from 8% to 18%!

Love, – Kevin

WATCH OUT SISTERS, THEY’RE AT IT AGAIN!

 By Paul

 Well, the Vatican has done it again.  The Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith recently gave American nuns a damn good scolding for not toeing the line.  For those of you who may not be so familiar with some of the more arcane practices of the Catholic Church, a Prefect is a cardinal who heads up one of the main bureaucratic branches of what is called the Roman Curia, the principal administrative arm of the Catholic Church.  The former Prefect of this particular branch was Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.  The current head is William Levada, former Archbishop of San Francisco, who is famously known for having said that Catholic theology does not recognize the right to dissent.  This organization, by the way, used to be known back when I was a kid as the Holy Office.  But before that, and up to the very beginning of the twentieth century, it had a name with a more distinctive ring.  It was called the Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.  Now, does that sound familiar?

The beef that Cardinal Levada has with American nuns (also known as “religious”) is that he seems to think they’re guilty of deviating from Church teaching and promoting what is being called “radical feminist themes.”  Really?  Women who have dedicated their entire lives to teaching children, tending to the sick, caring for the poor, the dispossessed and the homeless, and generally helping those in need, are criticized for doing what many people think Christ, himself, came here to do?   I mean, didn’t he?  Or please raise your hand if you think that Christ came instead to run a bloated bureaucracy, or to mercilessly harangue people for leading so-called “immoral lives,” or in order to hide priests who spent years harassing children, so that the bishops might protect the property and the reputation of a rich, inflated and soulless administrative structure. 

But just what exactly did these devious and obstructionist nuns in fact do to so bring down Cardinal Levada’s wrath on them?  It seems as though Levada and company think that these American religious were not sufficiently fervent in their condemnation of women who choose to terminate a pregnancy, that’s sin number one, and the other unmentionable act is that they apparently were too lenient, too cozy with those horrible gay people, who want to marry each other. 

Now, it almost does not matter what you think about either of these topics.  I can imagine, for example, that good people might think that abortions ought not to take place, because they are utterly convinced that fetuses are living human beings.  I don’t agree with them, but I can at least understand their point of view.  The opposition to gay marriage thing, on the other hand, is a complete mystery to me.  What in the world can anyone have against two people who love each other deciding to enter into a civil marriage?  It is simply a complete falsehood that such a thing could ever, in any way, weaken heterosexual marriage.  I’ve read a lot about this, and I have never yet found one credible argument that would serve to substantiate this claim.  But I’m getting off track a little.  We’re here to talk about Catholic nuns.  Some will say the fact remains that, for better or for worse, both of these activities are against official teaching and that the Church condemns them.  So, isn’t that enough?  Isn’t it sufficient, and reasonable, that their bosses in Rome should have every right to come down on those who profess to be special status members of the organization, but who don’t jump on the band wagon with the same degree of enthusiasm as is required? 

Well, I guess the answer to that is yes, IF you believe that the Church is a bureaucratic organization only.  Personally, I do happen to believe that, and so I was not in the least surprised when I heard that the cardinal who runs the team that used to be called the Inquisition might come down in this way on a bunch of deviant and recalcitrant sisters.  I mean, how dare these women get so uppity?  Let’s face it, men are in charge of the Catholic Church.  It’s always been that way, and from what I can see, it probably always will be.  So, it was clearly time for these ladies to hear from the guys in charge and to feel a little bit of the lash of discipline. 

But let’s take another tack, shall we?  What if the Catholic Church were something different?  What if it were actually some kind of spiritual organization, dedicated to love and to compassion and to helping people who need assistance getting through the tough times in life?  What if it were a bunch of people who actually took Christ’s teaching seriously, and even lived by those teachings?  What if it were made up of individuals who genuinely wanted to find some connection with the Divine, and to help people in need, and who didn’t much care who those people were, since everybody is a reflection of Christ and of the Divine Spirit? 

I actually know some Catholics who are like that.  Again, I’ll admit to being not so enamored of the Church, or of any organized religion, and would rather just do things on my own.  But not everybody thinks like me.  Lots of people want to belong to an organization that they feel helps them personally and that helps other people at the same time.  These good friends I have belong to a parish in upstate New York, which does wonderful work reaching out to the homeless and helping to feed the poor.  They even tell me there are gay couples who are members of the parish, and that they are accepted just as if they were regular humans like anyone else.  These friends of mine have never had a problem with my being gay, and frankly I don’t know what they think about abortion.  But the point really is that it doesn’t matter much, does it?  They are doing something that they feel feeds their souls, and which also reaches out and helps people around them.  And guess what!   The local bishop is totally exasperated at them for doing this!   He’s angry and annoyed that they don’t toe the line, and that they spend their time helping people, rather than condemning them.  Hmm, now is this beginning to sound familiar?

It kind of sounds like what Cardinal Levada has to say about women religious, doesn’t it?  It sounds like the big bloated bureaucracy speaking, the so-called magisterium, coming down hard on people who are trying to do the right thing.   Personally, I really hope that the Catholic laity AND the nuns are furious at the hierarchy for missing so totally and so woefully what the whole point of the Church really ought to be.  I gave up on the Church a long, long time ago, and so it’s longer capable of disappointing me.  But some people haven’t.  Some people need it, and still think highly of it; they even love it.  These are the folks I feel sorry for.  I feel for all the nuns and the laity, and maybe even a couple of priests here and there, who actually get what the Church is supposed to be about. 

But they’d all better watch their p’s and q’s, these dissenters, these radical feminists, these true believers.  Or the likes of Cardinal Levada will come down on them like the avenging angel.  And after all, he’s got the power, he and the rest of the red-robed cardinals, and the pope himself.  As I see it, in the end the Church actually does not trust anyone who really believes in Christ’s teachings, or who tries to live by them.  He was, after all, a radical, a dissenter, a lover of the poor and the dispossessed.  He came to help those in need, not to support the administrative status quo of the day.  And look what happened to him.  So, sister, it’s time to sit up and fly right, follow the leader, and get in line, or – God help you – who knows what will happen to you next!

WHERE’S MY CELL PHONE?

By Paul

I’ve had several experiences lately which have taught me the power of gadgets.  They’ve all had to do with people whom I know well, very intelligent women in each case, who have recently acquired a brand new I-phone.  I can’t say for sure if any of them had already had an earlier variant of the thing, but according to them all, this new version was – wow!  They were eager to show it to my partner and me, along with all of the tricks, all the nifty, spiffy stuff these miracles of modernism could perform.  It made my head spin a little, I have to admit, to witness their legerdemain, what these contrivances, these paeans of technological prestidigitation were capable of. 

But before I continue, I do have one shameful confession that I feel I have to make.  In doing so, I realize that I ought to be hanging my head a little, although somehow – and no doubt perversely – I cannot find it within myself to do so, but anyway, here goes:  neither my partner, nor I, has a cell phone of any kind, let alone one of the newest and chicest variety!  There, I’ve gotten it off my chest.  Why that is we’ll perhaps get into a bit later.  For the moment, though, I hope it will just suffice to say that we’ve decided against it.       

Now, I understand that this confession may come as something of a shock.  The two of us are, in fact, quite literally (well, alright, except for one other person) the only people among all those whom we know who are bereft of this archetype of twenty-first century communications.  But what will happen, people often say to us, if your car breaks down?  What would happen if you are on the freeway and are possessed of an overpowering desire, an unyielding yen, for a veggie burrito, but know of no credible Mexican restaurant in the area?  How would you look one up?  And what if you were lost, or separated, in a busy terminal, how in God’s name would you ever go about finding each other again?  Isn’t it dangerous, they say?  Isn’t it tempting fate; isn’t it just plain dumb (let’s use the actual word they’re probably thinking), NOT to have a cell phone?

Well, all I can say is that, so far at least, we seem to have gotten along just fine without it.  Oh, well, except for that one time, I guess!  We were in Paris, staying in a cheap hotel, one without a computer in the lobby for public use, and were planning on leaving next morning.  We wanted to arrange for our boarding passes in advance, so in my best French I asked the attendant at the desk where the nearest internet café was located.  He had to ask someone else, who in turn asked another person, but nobody seemed to know.  Such an emporium hardly seems to exist anymore.  After much searching, we did finally find one not far from the Sorbonne, but I think that it may well have been the last internet café operating in all of Paris.

Of course, I’m not saying that having a cell phone would have saved us in this case, although I’ll admit it may have been of some small assistance.  But, other than that, so far we have never really needed one.  More to the point, though, I have to say that there’s something about these tiny devices that, frankly, I find to be more than a little annoying. 

How many times have you seen people with their noses in their cell phones, when you might just think, why aren’t they talking with the people they’re with, or why aren’t they looking where they’re walking, or why aren’t they just experiencing the world around them?  It’s especially annoying when you see people looking at the world around them THROUGH their cell phones!  Just as one example among many I could cite, we were at a very interesting art installation recently at the LA County Museum of Art.  It’s called “Metropolis II,” and it consists of a huge kinetic model of a city that has a thousand miniature cars racing along at high speed on what can only be called tiny freeways.  It’s an amazing sight; everyone was mesmerized.  And then there was the group that seemed to only be able to experience it through the lens of their cell phones.  It was as if they were holding up some kind of electronic shield in front of their faces, protecting them from the actual experience of seeing the thing, with the putative objective – I suppose – of maybe being able to show it to somebody later, who would also experience it only “virtually,” just as they had, in fact, done.  I don’t get it.  We saw the same thing a couple of years earlier, too, in the Louvre.  There they were, dozens of people crowded in front of the Mona Lisa (i.e., La Joconde) looking at one of the world’s iconic paintings through a tiny gadget.  Can it be said that they really experienced the painting? It didn’t seem to me as though they had.  Instead, it looked as if they were experiencing their cell phone looking at the painting.

And as you see, I’m not even talking about those people who illegally text or talk on their cell phones while driving.  Dante, I am sure, would have found a special place in one of the lower circles of hell for them.  I’ll give you one example, though, just because it was egregious beyond even what I thought I could have imagined.  There she was, this chic-looking blond woman probably in her early forties, sitting in a giant SUV, talking on a cell phone, which she held to her ear with her left hand, while at the same time applying make up (I am not exaggerating!) to her face with her right hand, all the while “driving,” if it can be called that, ostensibly steering, with her elbows!  I swear to you, I actually witnessed this, and I am not exaggerating just to make a point. 

The answer to my title question, then, about the whereabouts of my cell phone is a simple one:  it’s nowhere to be found, because it doesn’t exist!  I don’t have one.  I’m not looking for it, and I don’t regret its absence, nor am I pinning away for one.  If I had to, I guess I’d probably agree with you if you were to call me a bit of a Luddite, you know, one of those anti-technology people who rail against the latest new gadget, which in reality is such a huge wave as to be utterly unstoppable.  Still, I’m maybe not such a hopeless case.  After all, Kevin and I are publishing a BLOG!  And here I am, sitting at a computer each day and typing this stuff out.  Kevin and I frequently write back and forth to each other, too, on email (email, mind you, not snail mail, so called).  Although the messages we send ought more properly to be called “letters,” you know, in that quaint, now almost embarrassingly old-fashioned nineteenth century style.

But there’s no doubt that gadgets are powerful devices.  They have a fascination and an intoxicating, hypnotic, almost obsessive hold on lots of folks.  I’ve even heard people say those very words: “I am obsessed with my I-phone!” But isn’t that a shame?  Wouldn’t it be better to be obsessed with – oh, I don’t know – maybe literature, or art, or even let’s say exercise?  Or am I wrong?  Do you find me hopelessly obsolete in my thinking?  It may be so.  But I’d rather a thousand times take a walk in an actual forest than in a virtual one.  And if I were ever to meet someone famous, say Pres. Obama, I hope I would reach out and shake his actual hand, and not instead stick a listening device between him and me.  So, for now I’ll stay the way I am, although I should no doubt stop haranguing people about how they choose to be.  After all, I’m just an old liberal, that is, an old-fashioned kind of guy, as much as I am typing this on a computer.  And if in the end you do choose to keep your cell phone, just promise me one thing:  please, promise me that I won’t be driving down the street one fine day, only to look over and see you driving with your elbows!  And that’s really about all I have to say on this topic.  Thanks, though, and have fun (I guess) with your latest app.

“Salvator Mundi,” a Priceless Leonardo, or a Fake?

By Kevin

 

In early November when I opened Paul’s envelope containing an L.A. Times article entitled “The Lost Leonardo,” I looked at the stunning color photo of “Salvator Mundi” and felt thoroughly confused. It immediately struck me as being both an authentic Leonardo, and NOT a Leonardo. The masterpiece was shown at The National Gallery in London from Nov 9, 2011 to Feb 5, 2012 as part of their exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.” This beautiful portrait of Christ as “Savior of the World,” depicts His face softened by the master’s famous sfumato dry-brushing technique. However, the drapery, embroidery, right hand raised in benediction and left hand holding a crystal orb representing the world, are painted in clear detail. The face is so hazy as to seem like a vision or an image in a dream. Many art historians and experts question the origin of the painting. Its source is the subject of significant controversy. I request indulgence to add my ideas to the debate.

I wrote to Paul immediately, as I often do when trying to sort out my own thoughts, feelings and logical arguments about virtually any subject:

Yesterday your card with the article and photo about “The Lost Leonardo” arrived in the mail. I have spent some time considering it. The painting is compelling and very well made, but I have serious doubts that it is entirely a Leonardo. Actually, what I think is that this painting is from the studio of Leonardo and that the master’s hand is in it, but that it may have been largely painted by one of his apprentices. While the image is very haunting and beautiful, it has some serious problems that Leonardo never exhibited:

  1. The eyes are not exactly at the same level and each eye has a subtly different gaze. As you face the painting, the eye on the right is lower and looking down somewhat at the viewer’s mouth, by comparison with the other eye which is higher and gazing directly out into the eyes of the viewer. Leonardo never had this kind of trouble focusing the gaze of his faces.
  2. One hand is actually somewhat crude — the hand holding the orb. The thumb is especially rigid and wooden. The raised hand is much better and looks like Leonardo’s work, while the hand holding the orb does not.
  3. The orb is not well-defined. It is hard for me to imagine that Leonardo would not have developed more highlighting and definition in such an important part of the painting.
  4. Although the sfumato technique is very typical of Leonardo’s work, it is overdone here, as if a struggling younger artist is attempting to camouflage some problems, especially in the eyes, which are nearly dry-brushed out of existence.

 Now, having listed my concerns, I must quickly add that there are some elements of the work that are very Leonardo-like:

  1. Many parts of the face, the chest, and the ringlets of hair at both sides of the chest, feel very much like other paintings by the master.
  2. The mouth is quite reminiscent of Leonardo, and that’s where I looked first, because the corners of Leonardo’s mouths are especially distinctive. This painting has such a corner on the side near the raised hand, but not the other. I just have to observe that while this mouth is very beautiful, only half of it is a Leonardo mouth.
  3. The hand raised in blessing is utterly characteristic of Leonardo – organic and alive with flesh and bones. But the execution of the orb-holding hand is surprisingly immature and wooden.

Finally, stepping back and taking in the overall effect of the painting, it feels both overly dramatic and too rigid for a Leonardo to me, and I still have the feeling that it was largely executed by one of his apprentices under the guidance of Leonardo. It feels like a painting made by a younger artist than the others we know are from the master’s hand. This beautiful image is extremely dramatic in its ghostly quality on a dark background, and especially in the gauzy quality of the not quite matching eyes. And yet the lower half of the painting — the drape and ornate border ribbons are so rigidly and meticulously rendered as to seem like they might belong to a different painting altogether. The more I look at this work, the more I see the marks of two artists — the master’s hand is in part of the face and the raised hand. The apprentice is more and more obvious in the rest of the painting.

I was still very bothered by the painting and continued to stare at it for hours and meditate upon it. Suddenly I saw an answer – an explanation that completely satisfied me. As I stared at the “Salvator Mundi,” I found myself transported in my mind back to Leonardo’s studio, where several paintings were being produced by the master, with the “help” of his apprentices. In his studio Leonardo was a teacher, seeking ways to instruct his young apprentices. The “Salvator Mundi” commission presented a perfect teaching moment because it was an uncompromising full-face, symmetrical pose. If I were Leonardo, I would have drawn a line right down the middle of the painting, completed one half of it and given it to an apprentice to complete the other half in the same manner as a mirror image. As I scoured the painting for evidence supporting my hypothesis, I was compelled to write to Paul again:

Leonardo’s work                           an apprentice’s work 

I contend that the left side of the painting with the raised hand was painted by Leonardo, and the right side, with the orb, was painted by an apprentice, because everything on the left is much more expertly rendered than everything on the right. By “everything” I mean:

  1. The left eye is perfect and expertly formed and gazes straight into the eyes of the observer, while the right eye is badly formed and lower than the left eye, and gazes at the observer’s mouth.
  2. The left eyebrow is nuanced and very Leonardo-like, suggesting the contours of the brow behind it, while the right eyebrow is an uncompromising arc lacking in such subtleties.
  3. The line connecting the bridge of the nose to the eyebrow on the left is a diagonal line, again showing an understanding of anatomy, while the same line on the right is a rigid vertical line.
  4. The left mouth corner exhibits the distinctive Leonardo dimpled indentation and shadow, creating an enigmatic inner smile. That signature detail is missing on the right corner.
  5. The left hand as we look at the painting (the raised hand) is much better rendered than the other hand. We see and feel the anatomical detail of the raised hand, but not the other.
  6. The orb on the apprentice’s side of the painting is not detailed at all. It looks unfinished.
  7. The drapery is much more nuanced and advanced on the raised hand side of the canvas, where it falls naturally and looks photographic. On the orb side it is stiff and forced.

Again, it is my theory that Leonardo used this uncompromisingly full frontal pose to draw a line straight down the middle of the canvas and paint one side of it himself (the raised hand side) while instructing an apprentice to copy his work on the shaded side. The only exception is that I believe the apprentice was instructed to do all the intricately detailed ribbon and jewel and front fabric panel work. It looks to me like Leonardo painted the entire raised hand and arm including the drapery as well as that side of the head and face, while the apprentice did his best to finish the other side.

After discussing all of this with Paul by phone, I was truly hooked by the compelling mystery of this disputed “Lost Leonardo,” and several months of information gathering have ensued, during which I have become more and more convinced that the painting is a “collaboration” between Leonardo and one of his apprentices. One of the techniques I used to consider my theory was to flop the painting and cut it in half down the middle, matching the two Leonardo halves together and the two halves that I believe were painted by the apprentice as well. The results are rather striking:

This is the Leonardo half of “Salvator Mundi” paired with its own mirror image. To my eye this is clearly a Leonardo painting in every respect – the confident and focused gaze looking directly into the viewer’s eyes, the organic eyes and eyebrows, the refined nose, the mysteriously half-smiling mouth, the hair, the anatomy of the hands. All of it is quintessential Leonardo, and the result is a powerful, commanding, confident image of Christ.

 

By stark contrast, here is the apprentice’s half of “Salvator Mundi” paired with its own mirror image. The eyes, eyebrows, nose, and mouth, while compelling, do not look like Leonardo’s work. Moreover, the combined effect depicts a thin, weak, worried face with a flat nose and pursed thin lips. Leonardo’s faces are almost always sublimely serene with full sensuous lips, dimpled in the corners to provide that signature enigmatic inner Mona Lisa smile. That trademark characteristic of all Leonardo faces is entirely missing in this mirrored pairing of the apprentice’s side of the painting. While we can clearly see that this side of the painting is heavily influenced by Leonardo, it is not the master’s work, even though some may prefer it to the more robust and serene Christ image entirely by Leonardo.

According to www.italian-renaissance-art.com/Salvator-Mundi.html, there are 20 versions of “Salvator Mundi.” It is evident that 19 of them are copies of this painting produced in Leonardo’s studio, because infrared imaging has shown several “pentimenti (artist’s alterations) in Leonardo’s painting. Those final changes are mimicked in the 19 copies, but, of course, infrared imaging shows no changes in their painting process. The Leonardo image is composed of pigments characteristic of his work, and it is painted on a walnut panel that was produced in the correct era, consistent with other Leonardo paintings. His depiction of a crystal “mundus” is a unique innovation that also links the painting to the master, because he was something of a rock crystal expert.

There is strong documentary evidence that in 1506 Louis XII of France commissioned Leonardo to produce a painting entitled “Salvator Mundi,” which was completed in 1513. The work is documented to have been in the collection of King Charles I in 1649 and sold at auction by the Duke of Buckingham’s son in 1763. The painting fell upon hard times after that, and was lost until 1900, when it was purchased by the British art dealer Sir Frederick Cook. Several very poor restoration attempts made the painting very difficult to authenticate, and it was sold at auction for about $125 in 1958. In 2005 it was acquired by a consortium of U.S. art dealers and properly restored. After a seven-year authentication process, “Salvator Mundi” is now generally believed to be a Leonardo da Vinci painting worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 to 200 million. For its recent exhibition, The National Gallery in London cataloged the painting as a newly discovered Leonardo.

To all of these inquiries, studies, disputes, discussions and controversies, I add my own humble little theory that Leonardo used this full-face portrait of Christ as an opportunity to teach an apprentice his techniques, by asking the student to copy the master’s work from the left side of the painting as a mirror image on the right. After all… the right side was in shadow, and if necessary there was always the possibility of obscuring it further with more sfumato blurring – the 1510 version of Vaseline on the camera lens. The resulting two-artist painting is powerful, mysterious and both aesthetically and spiritually moving. In this disciplined exercise the apprentice learned a great deal from the master, and so can we when we deeply concentrate upon the transcendentally beautiful “Salvator Mundi.”

THE BIG QUESTIONS, OR HOW I OUGHT TO FILL MY DAYS

By Paul

For whatever reasons, I have long been fascinated by what I think of as the “Big Questions.”  Is there a God, and what is he like, or He, if you will (using the masculine for want of a better, more inclusive pronoun)?  What happens after death?  Is there eternal life, a thing taught by most religions?  What, if anything, is the meaning of life, and how do we understand or achieve it, or align ourselves with it?   Why are we here in the first place?  Who created us?  What sustains us?  What do we actually mean when we say that we are alive?  What is consciousness?  How did life come about?  How did the universe itself begin, and will it someday end? 

I have read whatever I could find in both scientific and what might be called mystical literature, and I have meditated as well for most of my adult life, trying to grapple with even one of these questions.  I cannot tell you that I have found the answer.  Perhaps it is not given to any human being to be able to lay such a claim.  I believe there will, in fact, always be mysteries that we cannot grasp and fully understand with our limited human intelligence.  Having said that, however, I still believe that this in no way means that we ought not to keep on trying. 

As I get older, I have become more comfortable with the idea of mystery, (or again Mystery, if you prefer), what some mystics of the Middle Ages called the Mysterium Tremendum.  Nietzsche famously claimed that God was dead.  What could he have meant by that?  Some consider Nietzsche to be a kind of secular mystic, an individual who had somehow gotten beyond the need, if that is the right word, for a personal God.  If that is so, what he was able to achieve was an understanding of a Being beyond all characteristics that can be assigned by mere human categorization.  In that sense, it could be said that any anthropomorphized view of God that he may once have held had died.

But today philosophy itself is, in a sense, also dead.  The big questions that philosophers like Nietzsche and Kant, all the way back to Aristotle, once concerned themselves with have been taken over by scientists. Aside from the great mystics, physicists like Stephen Hawking now hold center stage in delving into the Great Mystery.  And the answers they give, as well as the questions they pose, must give all of us pause. 

Let us look for a moment, as an example, at the beginning of the universe.  Unless one posits esoteric and not well understood notions of so-called imaginary time, most scientists think that there was a beginning to the universe at an event called the Big Bang.  This event is thought of as a “singularity,” meaning a point in space-time at which the space-time curvature is infinite. What “came before” the Big Bang is therefore not a question that science can grapple with, inasmuch as all known laws of physics break down.  Who is to say that a Divine Spirit may have not have been, as it were, the initial energy of this initial singularity?  And, as to the question of who (or Who) made the Divine Spirit, such a question makes little sense, inasmuch as it assumes a “time before time.”  This puts us back again to an anthropomorphized view of “God,” that is, of some being (or Being) who operates within the limits of human understanding, or even of the laws of physics. 

The question all this raises, at least in my mind, is what may be the possibility of knowing this “God beyond God”?   Mystics the world over, of every religious stripe and tradition, as well as outside of any religious tradition, all point to experiences they have had which seems to answer “yes” to this question.  But this ultimately has to be left to each individual to know or to experience for him or herself.  If it is to happen, every mystic must ultimately be willing to “kill God,” that is, to move beyond formerly constructed conditions, notions, or images of God, to what is beyond, or more than, or simply outside of all such every day human categories. 

And what of life, too?  I recently read a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times about subterranean bacteria found in a portion of the Lechuguilla Cave deep within Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.  There scientists have discovered bacteria which have lived and thrived for at least 4 million years in total darkness with almost no water.  Life has been known to thrive, too, at great depths in the world’s oceans under conditions which we normally consider to be totally inimical to it.  The question this raises is not so much how that is, but more so, why that is. What does it mean?  If virtually all of our experience points to the fact that life requires sunlight in order to exits, how do we explain life that needs no sunlight?  And what does that do to our definition of what it means to “be alive”?   Does living mean being able to grow?  If so, are crystals alive, since we know that under the right conditions they grow?  Indeed, everything that is physical consists of atoms and molecules and their smaller subparts, elementary particles such as protons and neutrons and quarks.  These in a sense grow by combining with each other, and they move as well.  Indeed, they are in constant motion.  Could it be that everything, all matter, is in some sense alive?  Could it be said that it is imbued with the life or the energy of the Divine Spirit, that God who is beyond all of our notions of God?

As I’ve said above, I have no absolute answers to these Big Questions.  However, I believe that grappling with them is one of the most meaningful things that a human being can do.  Of course, at some point it is necessary to accept the fact that we will never be able to plumb such questions to their very core.  Not that this is an excuse for ceasing to try, or for throwing up our hands and saying that it’s all impossible. 

Mystery and our attempts to understand it have always been and will always be a sublime part of what it means to be alive.  In my view, most religions are inclined to give simplistic answers to the Big Questions.  We are told to believe in this dogma or that, in this incarnation of the Divine or that, and that He (almost always masculine) is the one and only true God.   I do not wish to claim here that there may not also be some good found in organized religion.  And if people feel that they need the support of a structured system, of a hierarchy that interprets for them, or of a book that is believed to be inspired, then who am I to say they are wrong?  But what I am talking about is beyond questions of right or wrong; I am trying to address what lies beneath, or beyond, or outside the categories we normally associate with religion. 

That is surely what is meant by the Mysterium Tremendum, the Holy Grail, the Cup that endless refills itself.  This knowledge is what is most worthy to strive for in life, even as we know that, at least with our every day human intelligence, it is a goal beyond our reach.  But if the great scientists of the world are right, we need to strive all the same, although this may be one place where science and mysticism part ways.  Scientists reason and make hypotheses, they test and experiment and observe and verify, while mystics sit and look within.  Both approaches have their champions, as well as their benefits.  In the end, perhaps it all comes down to intent.  What is it that we think is most important? 

There’s no doubt that humans seem more inclined to talk and to act than they do to sit and listen.  But either way, the Big Questions remain with us, and they await our humble and our thoughtful consideration.

WHAT ARE YOUR VALUES? AND WHY DO YOU HOLD THEM?

By Paul

Can’t we all just get along?  These are the now famous words of Rodney King, the Black man whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles police was the spark that ignited the 1992 riots/civil unrest (choose your term), which engulfed the city for three days.  The answer to that iconic question may unfortunately be, apparently not. 

Now twenty years later, Los Angeles is surely a calmer place than it was back then, but one that is nonetheless still divided.  Just as the country is, and the world, for that matter.  Rick Santorum rails against all manner of evil abortion and gay rights activists, Mitt Romney and Republicans generally seem to believe that nothing the president has done could ever possibly have been for the good, the Supreme Court justices appear to be split along ideological lines over healthcare reform, and all this reflects a country where the overall division between Red and Blue reflects an almost even 50-50 split. 

But let’s not stop there.  The reforms of the Arab Spring, so hard-fought and so hoped for, now seem to be devolving into a series of sectarian struggles between those who want western style democracy and those who favor Sharia law. Egypt, for example, centuries ago a paragon of peace and stability and learning in the Arab world, is struggling these days over how to define itself.  Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who might just become the next Egyptian president, believes that women should be veiled and segregated from men in the work place, that adulterers ought to be stoned to death, and thieves have their hands cut off.  Similar struggles are happening in places like Morocco and Yemen, and who even knows what will take place in Syria, once its current bloody dictator finally gets his well deserved comeuppance?  The St. Petersburg, Russia, city council has just passed a law making any open positive reference to homosexuality illegal, and in Uganda they are deciding whether gay people ought to be jailed, or simply put to death. 

The world over, religious leaders from the Pope in Rome to the Ayatollah in Iran to any number of fulminating right-wing preachers here in the United States inveigh against the destructive evils of secularism.  God will in the end win, we are told, and the godless shall reap their just deserts.  Meanwhile, liberals too often think that those who disagree with them are either sadly misinformed or, well let’s admit it, just plain dumb!  Which, to be sure, probably does not help matters much (as tempting as it may seem), and in the end it drives a bigger wedge between us. 

So, the question in my mind is whether or not there is any way to bring us together.  And the stakes, by the way, are not small.  Leave aside for now the whole question of religion, or of hand-cutting, or of condemnation of homosexuality, bad enough – God knows (does God know?) in itself – and let’s focus for a moment on the very fate of the planet.  ExxonMobil, the archconservative oil company that made more than 40 billion dollars in profits last year (yes, billions, with a “b”), has an “enemies list” of Washington politicians who do not agree with its policies.  Like the religious right, they have now become an almost exclusive backer of Republican politicians, and want desperately to get Obama out.  Mitt Romney will be much more pliable, they conclude, and friendlier to their needs, and he has in fact promised that he would be delighted to cooperate.

All of the above may seem a little disparate and disconnected, but I believe the theme that holds the whole mishmash together comes down to one simple word: values.  Religious people like to think of themselves as those who “vote their values,” but as a matter of fact that is exactly what everyone does.  You do not have to be religious to have values.  Indeed, it is virtually impossible to live in the world without having some sort of value system.  Even criminals have values.  They may not be yours, or mine, but they have values. 

What are values, after all?  You don’t need to be a philosopher to answer that question.  Values are very simply those ideas, those ideals if you will, which each of us considers to be right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, fitting or unfitting, seemly or unseemly, proper or improper.  Values are a kind of internalized ruler, a yardstick that we all carry around within us against which we measure the world, the people in it, and their actions, as well as our own.  Whenever we say “That guy was a jerk,” what we are saying is that he did or said or espoused something that is contrary to my value system.  And I damn well don’t like it! 

That’s the thing about values, in fact.  They really mean something to us.  We very much believe them, despite the fact that too often they may be held at an unconscious level.  One way or another though, whether we are fully aware of them or not, they are deeply, profoundly imbedded in our consciousness.  This is not a game or a mere academic exercise.  These are the very “rules according to which people live their lives,” and you’d better watch out if you cross those rules.  At one end of the spectrum, people kill each other because they have different values.  They stone dissenters, or they cut off their hands, or they imprison them.  At a somewhat milder, though still dangerous enough level, they just call each other names, or put those names on “enemies lists.”  All because what the other guy did or said is not right; it’s improper, it’s inappropriate, it’s unseemly, it’s sinful, it’s – well – it’s downright wrong

What follows from our values is not just how we lead our individual lives, but how we believe that society ought to organize itself.  In my own value system, for example, while the individual reigns supreme, we also ought to mitigate our more selfish instincts, treat each other politely and with respect, and give one another some space.  But not everyone puts individuals at the top of the heap.  There are lots of societies in the world where the collective is far more important than any individual’s needs.  That may come off as sounding too abstract.  What I mean, for example, is that maybe the family, or the tribe, or the religious group is what ought to call the shots, and it’s incumbent on each individual person to bend him or herself to the will of that group. Let’s say that Abu Ismail does get to be president of Egypt some day, and you happen to be gay.  Well you’d better hide that fact and not espouse all those western (individual) style desires to express who you are.  Best just shut up, marry a woman, and have kids, because religion and “the family” (read: one man and one woman) are the things that are valued here – or else! 

And who’s to say that I am right, and that Abu Ismail is wrong?  This very question, in fact, takes us right back to the issue of values once again.  As soon as you see those words “right” or “wrong,” you know immediately what territory you have strayed into.  Which is why I’m glad that I live in the United States after all, because in theory at least this is where all men, and women, too, presumably (note we are talking about individuals here) are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And if that’s not a statement of values, I don’t know what else it might be. 

Unfortunately or not, each person also believes firmly and beyond any shred of doubt that his or her values are the best values that there are.  Otherwise, after all, we wouldn’t hold them in the first place!  Which in the end is the reason why it may not be so easy to get along.  Of course, the opposite side of the proposition is, what other choice do we have?  We can wage war, we can cut people’s hands off, we can imprison them, or we can try to come to some kind of compromise whereby I’ll let you live by your values, if you’ll let me live by mine.  That’s what I thought we were trying to do here in this country, by the way.  That’s what I thought they meant when they said that we were all created equal.  That’s what I thought was meant by the rule of law. 

And maybe it is.  Maybe it’s as simple and as uncomplicated as live and let live.  Except this too comes down to a statement of values.  What it means is that it’s proper to give individuals their space.  After all, I have my rights, don’t I?  If Abu Ismail would only listen to reason, if ExxonMibil would only see how destructive their policies are, if the Supreme Court would only recognize that each of us has a right to healthcare, if the St. Petersburg city council would only let people live their lives.  It’s all so obvious, isn’t it?  Anyway, I think so.  And, God help us, let’s just hope that I’m not wrong!

WAITING FOR WHAT? WHAT TO DO WHILE “WAITING FOR GODOT.”

By Paul

This past weekend, my partner and I went to see a wonderful production of Samuel Beckett’s iconic so-called Theater of the Absurd play “Waiting For Godot” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.  Anyone who has ever seen or read this magnum opus of Beckett’s knows that, in one sense, it’s not an easy play to sit through.  By that I mean that it does not have any immediately recognizable through line that tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; there’s no build up and dénouement, no catharsis, and you don’t walk away whistling any tunes when it’s over either.  If you’re  whistling anything, in fact, it’s maybe the old “dies irae,” from the black funeral mass of my Catholic youth. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s a depressing play either.  In fact, in an odd sort of way, I found it rather uplifting.  One of the things that kept running through my mind during the play was: what does it exactly mean “to wait”?   This is not the first time I’ve pondered that question, but Beckett certainly drives the point home over and over.  The character Gogo (Estragon) says repeatedly to his friend and helper Didi (Vladimir) “What are we waiting for?” And the reply comes back each time: “We’re waiting for Godot!”  Gogo then always answers with the same world-weary sigh, “Ohhhh!”  Exactly who or what Godot might be is of course never revealed in the play, just as more often than not the things that we wait for and anticipate so keenly in life either never come to us, or when they do come, it’s in a form that we don’t quite recognize. 

Over dinner later on, my partner asked me what I would say if someone asked me what the play was about.  I was frankly a little surprised at my reply, because I hadn’t actually thought it through.  What I said was that the whole thing seemed like a dream to me.  And I know at least a little bit about analyzing dreams, since I’ve been doing it for myself (and for a few close friends) for years.  Before getting in to that, however, it might be helpful if I say a few quick words about the play itself, in case you’re unfamiliar with it.  There are only five characters total.  Aside from the above mentioned Gogo and Didi, the two sad clown protagonists, there is Pozzo and Lucky, with a tiny part played by someone referred to only as Boy.  Pozzo and Lucky are two mad men with a sadomasochistic relationship.  Lucky is Pozzo’s personal servant/slave, who crawls about almost on all fours with a rope tied around his neck carrying Pozzo’s luggage, while Pozzo is a high-handed bit of a dandy, who clearly thinks very well of himself and of his role in life.  Boy is a sort of innocent angel in white who appears exactly twice, very briefly, in order to bring news to our two protagonists that Godot sends his regrets that he is unable to come this evening, but will not fail to do so tomorrow.  Of course by that time, we in the audience already know that neither tomorrow, nor Godot, will surely ever arrive.

In one sense, I suppose, I hesitate – or maybe I ought to – before giving any “dream interpretation” of the play, inasmuch as Beckett himself always resisted what he thought of as reducing his great work to a mere symbol or metaphor.  And there is no doubt that it is much more than that, just as dreams are, by the way.  Still, I don’t think people can help but try to assign some meaning to things, and surely Beckett himself must have meant something in writing this sometimes inscrutable, but also marvelously entertaining and funny piece of theater.  So, here goes. 

One axiomatic approach to dream interpretation is to assume that all of the characters, in fact all the things, that appear in a dream (animals, objects, scenery etc.) are you.  That is to say, they are all various parts of who you are, of what makes you you.  If we apply this methodology to “Waiting For Godot,” we might then say that Gogo and Didi, in a sense, stand for the parts of each of us that bumble through life.  And, really, who does not do so?  No matter how well we may present ourselves to the world in the bright light of day, secretly and silently in the darkness of the fear-filled night each person knows that he or she struggles mightily with awful apprehensions and terrible doubts.  This is the human condition, and therefore it is inescapable.  Each of us awaits.  What are we waiting for?  What are we hoping for, what are we expecting, what are we fearing?  Who knows?  It is the sum total of all of those fears and hopes and desires and dreads and premonitions and insecurities that sit there just beyond our reach.  This is the unconscious mind, that huge mystical, mythical creature that lurks below, the unnamed fear of children the world over lying hidden beneath the bed, ready to pounce and do who knows what.  Later in life, we chide ourselves for fearing monsters, and yet great, unfathomable beasts continue to lie in wait all the same, though we now call them by different names.

These two, in fact, the conscious mind of work-a-day reality and adult presentation to the world, and the enormously powerful and wonderful, but too often anxiety-filled world of the unconscious mind are Pozzo and Lucky to a tee.  In the first act Pozzo prances about lording it over this person, this thing, that he believes he has full control over, this slave of his that is “lucky” to be taken charge of and ordered about to do his bidding and to carry his luggage.  Even so, Pozzo is never as fully in control as he thinks, and this other part of him erupts from time to time and spews out a torrent, a phantasmagoric jumble of rage-filled words that stun and mesmerize everyone within earshot.  In the second act, Pozzo appears again, still leading his slave by a rope, but this time Pozzo is now blind.  The intellect, and what I sometimes call the “presentation-self,” thinks with great pride that it is fully in charge, but in fact it bumbles about blindly, as badly as Gogo and Didi, those other parts of ourselves that while away the time engaged in the chores of everyday life. 

What are we waiting for?  We are waiting for Godot.  Ohhh!  We are awaiting some better, some higher, some Supreme part of ourselves that will come and finally rescue us from all those things that we mean when we say “everyday life.”  Everyday life is sometimes hard, sometimes funny, sometimes it’s violent, sometimes terribly painful, sometimes alluring and amusing, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes filled with horror, and sometimes just plain boring.  Didi and Gogo live through it all, just as each of us does, the two occasionally separating, though not for long, only to come back together again after maybe getting beaten up a bit, the yin and yang of optimism and pessimism. 

And yet, in the end, they continue to hope.  What else is there after all, in spite of all of our lapses?  Yes, to be sure, it occasionally dawns on each of us that what we are waiting for is perhaps not going to come.  Still, there is an innocence in us that still clings to a faith, to a trust, a belief that, just maybe tomorrow, it will all happen as we wish.  Surely, tomorrow Godot will not fail to arrive!   

Becket was apparently adamant that Godot was not God.  But who is he to say?  He has set his wondrous dream afloat on the sea of our consciousness, and as such he has lost all control.  So, let us hope on, in spite of anything and everything.  Let us continue to await what we know is our highest destiny.  How each of us defines and interprets that is the personal choice of every individual.  Isn’t that what it means to be human?  Isn’t that what it means to be self-fulfilled?  Isn’t that what it means to wait?