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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A commonplace posting

It was my friend Zoë who introduced me to the idea of a Commonplace Book. Consequently, I can lay the blame for this strange collection on her, even though she has no idea she did it.

   On her blog, there's a link to many other blogs, and one of these is called A Commonplace Blog. A definition of the original Commonplace Book is given in this blog.

   To me, it's a very appealing idea. What it means is that you collect thoughts, ideas, sayings, or bits and pieces from other sources that strike you as interesting or relevant to your life. In the days of pen and ink, they used to write down these things in a book that resembled a diary. It reminds me of Sei Shonagon's the Pillow Book.

   When I read articles or books, I make my own notes of selected pieces from these sources. It's easy to do when I'm on the Kindle reader, because I can simply command it to make a note of whatever it is that interested me. 

   This is as close to a Commonplace Book as I get. It's not quite faithful to the original idea – but it's mine.

   I thought I might make a blog posting here of selections from things I read in the last few weeks. I have several files of these from past months, and I probably should go through some of the earlier ones as well, but to keep it simple, here are just a few selections from my latest reading. I hope you enjoy at least some of them.

The History of Mr. Polly (H. G. Wells, 1866-1946) 
[In which Mr Polly, portly, middle-aged drapery shop-owner, attempts to engage in fisticuffs with the equally portly, middle-aged proprietor of the neighbouring shop.] 
There on the pavement these inexpert children of a pacific age, untrained in arms and uninured to violence, abandoned themselves to amateurish and absurd efforts to hurt and injure one another — of which the most palpable consequences were dusty backs, ruffled hair and torn and twisted collars.
[In which Polly muses with his friend, the Fat Lady, of the Potwell Inn. 
He tried again. “One seems to start in life,” he said, “expecting something. And it doesn't happen. And it doesn’t matter. One starts with ideas that things are good and things are bad — and it hasn’t much relation to what is good and what is bad. I’ve always been the skeptaceous sort, and it’s always seemed rot to me to pretend we know good from evil. It’s just what I’ve never  done. No Adam’s apple stuck in my throat, ma’am. I don’t own to it.”
Why War: Einstein and Freud’s Little-Known Correspondence on Violence, Peace, and Human Nature 
I am convinced that almost all great men who, because of their accomplishments, are recognized as leaders even of small groups share the same ideals. But they have little influence on the course of political events. It would almost appear that the very domain of human activity most crucial to the fate of nations is inescapably in the hands of wholly irresponsible political rulers.
Political leaders or governments owe their power either to the use of force or to their election by the masses. They cannot be regarded as representative of the superior moral or intellectual elements in a nation. In our time, the intellectual elite does not exercise any direct influence on the history of the world;...
... Chaplin’s iconic speech from The Great Dictator, proclaiming that “we want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.”
Why docs don’t do death? (MD James Salwitz) 
Doctors get the clear message from medical schools that they do not have permission to “give up.”
Neglected in teaching, death is a humiliating failure, and doctors learn none of the skills and attitudes to help patients in the last days of life.
Because of our society’s global phobia and lack of intimate experience with death, families may have little personal understanding of end of life events and therefore unrealistic expectations for cure.
Physicians fail to understand that end of life care is a core part of medicine and that all their patients really want is honesty, symptom control, and the reassurance that the doctor will not desert them.
Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome) 
[This story is about the perils of nineteenth-century self-diagnosis by indiscriminately reading about medical matters, as do people these days on the internet.] 
So I went straight up and saw him [his doctor], and he said: “Well, what’s the matter with you?” I said: “I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me. Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished. But I will tell you what is not the matter with me. I have not got housemaid’s knee. Why I have not got housemaid’s knee, I cannot tell you; but the fact remains that I have not got it. Everything else, however, I have got.” And I told him how I came to discover it all. 
Then he opened me and looked down me, and clutched hold of my wrist, and then he hit me over the chest when I wasn’t expecting it — a cowardly thing to do, I call it — and immediately afterwards butted me with the side of his head. 
After that, he sat down and wrote out a prescription, and folded it up and gave it me, and I put it in my pocket and went out. I did not open it. I took it to the nearest chemist’s, and handed it in. The man read it, and then handed it back. He said he didn’t keep it. I said: “You are a chemist?” He said: “I am a chemist. If I was a co-operative stores and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you. Being only a chemist hampers me.” 
I read the prescription. It ran: “1 lb. beefsteak, with 1 pt. bitter beer every 6 hours. 1 ten-mile walk every morning. 1 bed at 11 sharp every night. And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.” I followed the directions, with the happy result—speaking for myself —that my life was preserved, and is still going on.
Magical thinking about death [David Myers]
We think too much of death and not nearly enough of dying. There is a reason for that. Dying is a mental discipline, which entails many hours of training in (among other things) the renunciation of fantasies that death will be anything other than it is—the cessation of consciousness—and the bitter facing up to the reality of that fact. Those who prefer daydreams of impossible release from what awaits them will leave themselves (and those they love) tragically unprepared for the conclusive Bustle, which is “almost consequence.”
Now this last one I originally had in, then I took it out, and now I've decided to put it back in. It was a book of high interest to me. Alexander was in a coma for seven days from what he claimed was a condition that medical science said was impossible to return in anything but a vegetative state. 

I became skeptical when some of the claims made about the state of his consciousness or what he claimed was totally beyond consciousness were not relating to mystical experience on a level I understand. This may be my failing but it is something central to my philosophy of life.

His knowledge of brain function makes sense, but the relationship of his personal experience with the science became more and more extreme and highly disputed by many of his peers

In my opinion, he was hallucinating. If so, to me it's an interesting exercise in turning hallucination into something people long to believe. The bits I recorded were more on the medical side. It may seem a strange little collection.
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (Dr. Eben Alexander) 
 ...the brain is the machine that produces consciousness in the first place. When the machine breaks down, consciousness stops.
I was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed completely free of the limitations of my physical brain.
My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave.
E. coli are also highly promiscuous. They can trade genes with other bacterial species through a process called bacterial conjugation, which allows an E. coli cell to rapidly pick up new traits (such as resistance to a new antibiotic) when needed. This basic recipe for success has kept E. coli on the planet since the earliest days of unicellular life.
Further tests revealed that the bacteria living in the man’s large intestine had acquired the KPC gene by direct plasmid transfer from his resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae infection. In other words, his body had provided the laboratory for the creation of a species of bacteria that, if it got into the general population, might rival the Black Death, a plague that killed off half of Europe in the fourteenth century.


  1. I, too, thought that the Eben Alexander book was a bit over the top. I was very disappointed in it, having read widely in the area and hoping for something more “scientific” from a brain surgeon practising in a prestigious hospital. I was especially disappointed in the religious/Christian interpretation of his experience, but then he is a practising Christian, so I guess it’s to be expected.

    And then it occurred to me that he had survived a brain infection that he was not expected to survive, and if he did, it would be with considerable brain damage causing him to live the rest of his life in a vegetative state. It was one of those medical miracles that he regained consciousness, recovered from his illness, and went on to return to work. Considering this remarkable situation, it occurred to me that perhaps he had suffered some brain damage that compromised the rationality of his explanation of his experience and resulted in an exuberant, nearly messianic/evangelistic tone to his book and his desire to spread the news. I am reminded of Jill Bolte-Taylor, also a brain scientist, who certainly took on a messianic tone after recovering from a stroke that temporarily obliterated the functioning of her left hemisphere, leaving her in a blissful, ego-less, thought-less state, which she likened to descriptions of nirvana.

    Of course, the sketpical scientific view of Alexander’s experience is much easier to accept, for it accords with our current world view. For people who are interested in this subject, I recommend more sober reading found in books such as Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, written by Pim van Lommel, M.D., a cardiologist who conducted a trialled experiment on cardiac patients. His initial view was the accepted scientific one, but he came to think differently after listening to his patients, conducting detailed research into the subject, and performing the experiment.

    Also worth considering is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s talk, “Is There Life After Death?”, which is available on CD. As we know, Kubler-Ross spent her life working with the dying, and as an M.D., she also initially held the conventional scientific view on death. Over her lifetime, however, her experience, especially with dying children, caused her to moderate her view considerably.

    A fascinating topic, and possibly inappropriate to discuss here, but you did bring it up, Denis, and I couldn't resist.

    1. Somewhere I have, uselessly, since I no longer have a video player here, (although I do have one in Budapest, she added, irrelevantly), a video tape of a documentary on near-death experiences. Several people were interviewed in the prog, and all their experiences were explicable, except that of one woman who had floated above herself during an operation in which, for some medical reason, her eyes had been covered so she couldn't really have been seeing with her actual eyes, and somehow she had seen things she could not possibly have seen - things hidden from her view where she was lying, even had she had the use of her eyes, plus activities of people in the operating theatre that she couldn't have seen or known about. The medical staff were all baffled by it - they were interviewed too. She left the room, she reckoned, after a bit, and was going towards some other state, but she was told she must go back, and so, very reluctantly, as it was nice there, she did. Meanwhile in the operating room there'd been a crisis and then they'd pulled her back from the brink. I've no idea what that story means, but I am very respectful of the mystery that is life. I think being a religious believer is merely acknowledging human humility in the face of all that is unknown and strange and marvellous - the very fact of existence, I suppose, ultimately. Anyway, enough blathering. I'm away to read Mr Polly, (a commonplace book is a marvellous thing - and so is Three Men in a Boat, scarcely an unfunny word in it, don't you think? The hanging picture incident, the cheese buried in the sands at somewhere or other? The comic song? All of it, one long hilarious solace)

    2. Joan: "one of those medical miracles" I believe will still turn out to have a rational explanation at some stage. That's one of the functions of science – to demystify and make intelligible the ‘mysterious’ as far as that's possible. Romantic visions are fine, but we also benefit from explaining things according to best-known scientific principles and adjusting the notion of a satisfactory explanation if new evidence eclipses the limits of presently held views. The world of illusion misleads and distorts, and makes for misunderstanding amongst people. We're all slaves, albeit willing ones, to our beliefs. We must, of course, admit what and where we do not understand, and leave it in the realm of mystery, whilst happily hypothesising and gathering evidence. But we have to accept also that we don't have adequate ways of measuring some phenomena. I'm not sure we ever will. we’re in a relative world and the human brain doesn't cope well with absolutes. It just switches over to faith.

      I'm aware of the fascinating experience of Jill Bolte-Taylor, the brain scientist who suffered a massive stroke and talks about her remarkable experience here

      Hers is in its way another window on this same discussion, and enlightening for me with my stroke-like experience caused by the brain tumour.

      I'm very familiar with the Kübler-Ross books, having read them many years ago. It would probably be interesting to read them again now, when I see death from quite a different perspective, but there are only so may hours in a day. She made very good sense to me, and did a good job of demystifying death. She died nearly a decade ago, and if only she could give us a lecture now, she could tell us a lot more! [Or could she? We could easily come up against the frog-talking-to-tadpoles phenomenon.]

      It's a very appropriate topic for discussion. There should be far more of it, but especially with people who have experience with dealing with death or face.

      ZMKC – who upstaged me today with a beautiful CB posting here - that first sentence is a work of art on a par with anything Lawrence Sterne might have written. I am also very respectful of life. It was explained on a TV programme how life evolved, and I understood it, and then forgot it, for which I'm blaming short-term memory loss but may mean I didn't fully understand it in the first place, like some terms in philosophy. I'm going to go further and further out on a limb here and say that a near-death experience may confuse the issue as to what happens in the process of dying and may vary wildly from person to person while some things seem constant. Furthermore, I'm of the opinion [and opinion means belief] that as dying takes place there is a dissolution of consciousness, where all the elements of id start to drift apart and create that unity or oneness which characterises all mystical experience. Those who ‘come back’ have the id pulled together again to a greater or lesser degree and I'm going to sleep now!

      Almost. You will adore Mr Polly and questions will be asked, and I have to finish Jerome before I venture too far with an opinion.

      Oh well. Sleep overtook my ranting. Still, I'm unwisely posting anyway.

    3. "where all the elements of id start to drift apart and create that unity or oneness which characterises all mystical experience. Those who ‘come back’ have the id pulled together again to a greater or lesser degree" yes, yes, yes. But I still stand by wonder plus humility in the face of mystery and the unimaginable - by which I don't mean I'm trying to stick up for fluffy cloud fantasies - it entails. And I wasn't taking the mickey, just making a reference to the greatest -gratest, that is - work of literature of the 20th century, which I didn't know you weren't fully au fait with. It's called The Compleat Molesworth. Now I know you live in Allingham Street, I can probably feel reasonably safe in directing an Abebooks parcel full of same to you, without street number. Hmmm. May do so. Perhaps I'll await your reaction to this - (and apologies I seem to be rather tediously self-promoting today, but only out of an eagerness to share my favourite things with one of my favourite persons) - before laying down hard cash.

    4. I agree, Denis, that all phenomena will have a "rational" explanation, whether we discover it or not, but it just might not be a logical explanation. A non-rational explanation is also possible, but this topic is probably more suitable for another blog. Certainly the quantum world is full of non-rationality, which baffled Einstein's sense of logic and led to a new paradigm.

      I am heartened by scientists such as van Lommel and Sam Parnia, whose research led them to question the accepted paradigm on the relationship between the brain and consciousness As van Lommel said in discussing Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), "All research results that cannot be accounted for by the prevailing worldview are labeled 'anomalies' because they threaten the existing paradigm and challenge the expectations raised by this paradigm. Needless to say, such anomalies are initially overlooked, ignored, rejected as aberrations, or even ridiculed." Thomas Kuhn said that such paradigms are "essentially a collection of articles of faith shared by scientists." Like religious articles of faith, they are exceedingly difficult to overturn, even with a considerable amount of evidence. I also think it was Kuhn who said that theories are not disproven; they die with their believers and are replaced with new holders of new theories that explain the evidence more convincingly.

      That Sam Parnia got a substantial article published in the NewScientist recently suggests that the paradigm on consciousness could be shifting. I was hoping for another scientific voice in Eben Alexander, but it seems his scientific rationality got overwhelmed by the power of his experience. As I suggested, this could also have happened to Jill Bolte-Taylor. As far as I know, Kubler-Ross did not publish her conclusions on death until late in her career, possibly for fear of being ridiculed and losing her credibility. Many questionable voices are heard on the band wagon of alternative experiences in consciousness. I agree that it's important to listen to the rational voices, and especially those who have faced death, if not their own, then the many thousands of patients they have treated and lost, as did van Lommel, Parnia, and Kubler-Ross.

    5. zmkc:

      Firstly, never feel embarrassed about directing anyone to other parts of your blog. I think it's rare for people to backtrack much through any blog, no matter how good it is. I understand this. There’s only so much time in a day. I was shocked, though I shouldn’t be, at how much I had forgotten, and I'm blaming short-term memory loss for it. This may seem too convenient, but these lapses are getting scary.

      Anyway, the chiz posting. His output is extraordinary, in all sorts of ways. His collaboration with Willans, from what I can see, has achieved something unique and from what you’ve both said I can see how important it's been to you both. The ‘preview’ pages you directed me to give me some insight into Molesworth and thereby his creator. I can see how much you want to share it with me. Regrettably I have terrible trouble holding books with just one working hand and turning pages is sheer frustration.

      Even worse, with the latest seizures I find I'm losing clear vision quickly. That’s where ebooks have come to my rescue because I can increase font size and choose whichever typeface works best. So however much I'd like to hold a book in my hand, I now find it impossible to enjoy. I'm really touched by your kind offer [and I have seen the price of ‘the lot’] but I fear I wouldn't enjoy it in its original form.

      I have a lawyer friend who’s an Anglophile in terms of exactly this sort of literature. I'd like to have a chat with him about it. The online pieces were a whet-your-appetite taste.

      Oh btw, our street is a very long one going from north to south and broken by the railway and creeklands. They can't even get deliveries right with the correct address on it!

    6. Chiz, chiz, chiz - and triple chiz, because I left a comment on your latest post that seems to have disappeared. Anyway, you will always be my grate frend - (I love Molesworth's understatement: "actually he not bad" he says more than once, which is code for devotion, I suspect [tho we argue a lot saying am am not am not...])

  2. Denis this has been a fascinating read - and I include the commenters' in that - so thank you. I have over the years saved bits and scraps of both my own and others' thoughts in some now bulky MS Word documents (times and tools, how they change) so reading your bits caused me to go back over my past scribblings. I offer a couple of those, in friendship:

    “The world is passing through troubling times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they know everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behaviour and dress." Peter the Hermit, 1274 AD.
    Not all prisons have walls; some are built of other people’s expectations; and some are made of past griefs.
    Men abstract from situations, omit details, until they can make a decision. If it goes wrong, they unabstract back in what seems to have made it go wrong. They don't unabstract more than they have to.

    Women add complexity until it's interesting.
    My life is a child’s scribble
    in warm breath on a cold window pane: as
    permanent as snowflakes; significant as tears.
    What do you see from the outside; the reverse of reserve?
    - and lastly, something I wrote to my family the night my first grand daughter was born:


    I hope she is allowed to skin her knees, playing in the park. I hope she will see the beauty in small things – flowers, rockpools and dragonflys. I hope she makes one true friend or two. I hope she is taught by example the meaning of honour, and love, and humility. I hope she laughs more than cries, even though crying is good sometimes.

    I hope she is gentle with animals; I hope she has patience for stories about forebears she cannot meet, but carries inside her. I hope she has the wisdom to see faults, and the compassion to accept them. I hope she is protected, but only so much as needed; and then is set free to leave her footprints in the sand, dancing to her own particular music.

    I hope she loves me; I hope I am worthy of that love; and I hope her life is like this email: long and unedited for correctness.



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