“Thinking about the immortality of the crab”

Via the Wikipedia page devoted to Miguel de Unamono, I came across this  wonderfully evocative Spanish idiom: 


Thinking about the immortality of the crab (SpanishPensar en la inmortalidad del cangrejo) is a Spanish idiom about daydreaming. The phrase is usually a humorous way of saying that one was not sitting idly, but engaged constructively in contemplation or letting one’s mind wander

The wikipedia page also features two poems entitled Immortalidad del cangrejo, one by Unamuno:

El más profundo problema:
el de la inmortalidad
del cangrejo, que tiene alma,
Una almita de verdad …

Que si el cangrejo se muere
todo en su totalidad
con él nos morimos todos
por toda la eternidad


translated (on the same wikipedia page) as:


The deepest problem:
of the immortality of the crab,
is that a soul it has,
a little soul in fact …

That if the crab dies
entirely in its totality
with it we all die
for all of eternity


The other is by the Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco:

Y de inmortalidades sólo creo
en la tuya, cangrejo amigo.
Te aplastan,
te echan en agua hirviendo,
inundan tu casa.
Pero la represión y la tortura
de nada sirven, de nada.

No tú, cangrejo ínfimo,
caparazón mortal de tu individuo, ser transitorio,
carne fugaz que en nuestros dientes se quiebra;
no tú sino tu especie eterna: los otros:
el cangrejo inmortal
toma la playa.




Of all the immortalities, I believe in
only yours, friend crab.
People break into your body,
plop you into boiling water,
flush you out of house and home.
But torture and affliction
Make no apparent end of you. No…

Not you, poor despicable crab –
brief tenant in this mortal carapace
of your individuality; fleeting creature
of flesh that quails between our teeth;
Not you but others of your eternal species:
infinite crab:
take over the beach.



What do you want? (or, You Are What You Want)

From Gil Bailie‘s “God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love”:

“In any case, they were hardly prepared for a colloquy with the Lamb of God, the one poised to take away the sin of the world. Not wanting to make complete fools of themselves, perhaps they tried to quickly formulate questions that might at least appear to be worthy of so exalted a figure, serious questions about the Law, for instance, the weightier and more imponderable the better. In our mind’s eye we can imagine them hastily rehearsing the enigmatic puzzles they think commensurate with this man’s stature in John’s eyes. But suddenly something quite shocking happens: Jesus turns to them, and before they can get a word out, he says: “What do you want?” (Jn. 1:38).

There are many ways this question might be verbally inflected, each decisive for assessing its implications for the two men who stood for a moment speechless before Jesus. “What do you want?” “What do you want?” “What do you want?” However inflected and whatever its nuances, in the hands of the most theological evangelist, the question resounds with universal meaning, and we ourselves should ponder it further. What do we want?”

It can hardly be dismissed as merely fortuitous that the first words spoken by Jesus in the most theological and in many respects the most historically reliable of the gospels are: “What do you want?” It would not be too much to say that Jesus came into the world to help humanity come to grips with that question. We spend much or all of our lives wanting, punctuated only momentarily by fleeting moments of satisfaction, rarely pondering the implications of this gigantic fact of our existence or realizing that it is what defines our species. Other creatures don’t want as humans do; they don’t desire. They try to satisfy instinctual appetites: hunger, sexual release, exhaustion, survival.

Wanting is not what defines them as it does us. Even the mimeticism of our pre-human primate ancestors is constrained by appetite and/or limited to the immediately obtainable. We want. But what do we want? A magazine cartoon comes to mind, one depicting a small child surrounded by toys and clearly pampered by parents who are anxious to satisfy every wish of the child, who nevertheless is obviously bored by the resulting largess.

Noticing the child’s sullen dissatisfaction, the exasperated mother asks: “Well, what do you want?” To which the child, somewhat confused by the question, replies: “I want… I want… I want to want!” As Dante among others testifies, we are desire. We are creatures who have inexhaustible and insatiable wants. In truth, man’s discrete wants or desires are but kaleidoscopic refractions of the single desire to which his teeming desiderata of longings must be properly ordered if he is to flourish and find fulfillment.

Writes the Stanford neurobiologist, William Hurlbut: “Desire is essential to having a mental life at all. In California we used to say ‘you are what you eat.’ It is, perhaps, more true to say ‘you are what you want.’ Desires, more than pleasures, define and sum up personal identity.

Widespread and unconvincing assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, desire today is weak and altogether tenuous, the more tenuous the more fickle, the more fickle the less any object is desired and the more necessarily dramatized is the desire for it. Though testimonials to desire are everywhere to be found, they betoken its attenuation, not its vibrancy. The word, like so many others, has been debased as fast as have the moral constraints that once protected it from debasement. Much that passes for desire today is so ephemeral and evanescent that it must be acted upon posthaste before it dissipates or is replaced by yet another mimetic enticement. Such feeble desires are quickly recycled, each giving rise, phoenix-like, to yet another effervescent faux desire.

Girard has shown that as mimetic desire moves from model to model, with each new mediator the subject surrenders some of its psychological coherence and ontological weight. In advanced stages of this mimetic promiscuity, such as we find in Western post-modernity, the halfhearted impulses that pass for desire are likely to grow more fickle, more impatient, and more in need of external stimulants and pharmacological enhancements. All the more must such evanescent desires be flamboyantly exhibited and promptly—if perfunctorily—acted upo

Cosmic Walk, Cabragh Wetlands Centre, Tipperary

Cosmic Walk, Cabragh Wetlands Centre, Tipperary

Near Thurles, on the road to Holycross, one finds Cabragh Wetlands Centre, which is the site of the transformation of the marshes around an old Irish Sugar factory into a wildlife sanctuary:

Like many heavy industries of its time, however, it had an unwelcome environmental footprint. Sugar beet was washed before processing, and the sludgy effluent was, at first, released directly into the River Suir.

Initially, this was considered of little consequence when so much wealth was being created locally. But the Suir was renowned for angling, and during the 1960s the almost inevitable happened, and the effluent wiped out many fish. The series of kills drew attention to the untreated discharges, and a local angler, Bob Stakelum, spearheaded a campaign to clean the effluent before it was released.

In response lagoons were built that allowed the sludge to settle before the waste water was discharged. These “settling ponds” stopped the fish kills – and brought an unintended but welcome consequence. Waterfowl took an immediate shine to the lagoons, and wigeons, plovers, lapwings, gulls and curlews began to overwinter there.

Cabragh is a wonderful site which I have visited many times. It has a great variety of fauna and flora and recently has added a new feature – a Cosmic Walk.

The Cosmic Walk concept is influenced by the thought of Brian Swimme, and indeed this approach to reconciling evolutionary, cosmological and religious mindsets features in Peter Reason’s“In Search of Grace”, much-cited on this blog.described here:

The Cosmic Walk is a ritual created by Dominican Sr. Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm in New Jersey. It has been modified and facilitated by many people around the world. The Cosmic Walk is a way of bringing our knowledge of the 14-billion-year Universe process from our heads to our hearts.

There is a leaflet on the Cabragh walk available here. One doesn’t necessarily have to embrace the concept overall to enjoy a walk around some striking sculptures … but the overall concept gives these works a deeper resonance.

“the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want” – Adam deVille on prayer and psychoanalysis

I have linked before to Eastern Christian Books, the blog of Adam de Ville. One of deVille’s recurrent themes is the unnecessary and unhelpful perceived antagonism between psychoanalysis and religion.. I recently linked to a brilliant post on the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas and the idea of the “normotic” self.

DeVille’s most recent post is a particular highlight. Again he draws on Bollas, but also the theologian Herbert McCabe. I particular love the line on prayer from McCabe that deVille cites here, contrasting the worthy things our superegos tend to direct us to exhort the Almighty to do with the “vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want”:

The beauty of this, as I have long appreciated it, is that “psychoanalysis does not provide ready answers to patients symptoms or lives,” as Bollas admits. This, he recognizes, is “disconcerting” for those who think that clinicians are supposed to be experts. In fact, Bollas … says that the free associating of the unconscious of both analyst and analysand “subverts the analyst’s natural authoritarian tendencies as well as the patient’s wish to be dominated.”

In this regard, Bollas puts me in mind of how Maggie Ross describes the mistaken notions behind modern concepts and practices of “spiritual direction,” much of which consists of attempts at “mind control” as she puts it, and the result of which is to reinforce one’s narcissism. Silence, for Ross, whose book shows considerable familiarity with psychoanalytic ideas, is the goal, and is hugely valuable in itself–a point that also becomes abundantly clear in reading the psychoanalytic literature about silent patients who nonetheless get better–start with another fascinating English Anglican, the analyst Nina Coltart, for examples of this; see her Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

McCabe doesn’t come right out and advocate freely associating during prayer, but he very much leans in that direction. This is something I’ll have to think about some more, but it does seem to me a helpful way to conceive of prayer and the problems of being distracted during or bored by prayer, or restlessly wondering about the futility of it all.

Rather than fighting that, McCabe advocates letting your mind wander until you find what you really want to pray about, and then praying about it. Here, again without using the words per se, McCabe seems to me to establish the “fundamental rule” (cf. Freud’s “On Beginning the Treatment”) of prayer outside the shackles of whatever spiritual superegos may be trying to tell us otherwise. If we let ourselves pray for what we are really concerned about, McCabe says, those prayers not only will almost always be, but in fact should be “the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want,” instead of all the pious and high-minded things we think we should pray about.

If we’re distracted during prayer, it’s because we’re not praying for the right things (he notes those on sinking ships never report distractions during their prayers!), and constraining ourselves to pray for the things our superego tells us to–the “proper and respectable and ‘religious'” things. Instead of that, as he drolly puts it, “you could let world peace rest for a while.”And while you’re at it, let your mind run to those distractions because they “are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer.” (Lest we worry that this is an excuse for descending into infantile selfishness, McCabe says that if we are honest in prayer about our desires, the Holy Spirit will invariably lead us deeper, for prayer involves change and growing up.) If psychoanalysis involves, as Bollas argued in his first major book The Shadow of the Object, a certain “ordinary regression to dependence” for a time, does this not also describe how we are in prayer with our Father in heaven as we pray for the things closest to us that matter most to us?

Hearing secret harmonies in Dunfanaghy – Arnold Bax in Donegal, from “Farewell My Youth”


The English composer Arnold Bax wrote a witty, entertaining memoir, Farewell My Youth, in 1943. Bax, prior to World War I, spent time in Dublin and the book has some marvellous pen pictures of various Celtic Revival and Nationalist figures. Bax wrote fiction under the name Dermot O’Byrne, and Ireland served as a romantic dreamland for him – although I found the thrust of this paper by Seamus de Barra – ” I do not believe that the realities of Irish life were, ultimately, realities for him” – a little on the harsh side as Farewell My Youth has some asides which reveal a certain clarity of perception. Indeed, some of the most acute writing deals with Æ , AKA George Russell, and his tendency towards mystical utterance.

There are some fascinating passages, some of which I hope to come back to here, but here is one from towards the end of the book:

I was in Glencolumcille in the autumn of 1912 when I received a postcard from “Æ ” suggesting I join him for a week at Breaghy, near Dunfanaghy where he went every September to paint. A day or two later I set off on my bicycle for that faraway place on the other side of County Donegal. I toiled over the vast wilderness of high bogland between Glen and Glengesh, led my machine down that truly awful hill, loose stones clattering and tumbling after me, and pedalled into squalid Ardara and thence to Port Noo on the sea-coast. Then I came unexpectedly upon a wedding, that of one of the comeliest, gayest, and most affectionate Irish girls I had ever known. I have often thought of you since, Mary Cannon, with your laughing eyes and mouth, and have wondered how you fared with your coastguard, and whether he proved worthy of you.

Next day I started again, riding now into the Rosses’ country (with at first rather stiff thighs) over those strangely red roads that look as though dyed with ancient carnage and that work an almost hypnotic effect upon the eye and brain. From Burtonport of the granite I took train to Dunfanaghy Road, and thence after picking up my suitcase went on to Breaghy by outside car. There at the door of a snug thatched cottage on a hill and surrounded by whin-bushes I descried “Æ ‘s” burly and bearded form, his kindly short sighted eyes peering out in search of me. Within the house we were mothered by a simple apple-cheeked old lady, and fed sumptuously on freshly caught salmon, superb eggs, and a huge and monstrously rich home-made cake.

It was an odd entranced week that I spent there, quite dreamlike in the guttering candlelight of memory. Close by our hillock was the fine house and estate of Sir Hugh Law, a Nationalist M.P. who, an old friend of “Æ “, had loaned him a summer house in the wooded grounds above the sea in which he might paint on wet days.

I have not met with many experiences which cannot be accounted for by a rational explanation, but one of these occurred in that place in the dripping Breaghy woods.

My friend was painting at his easel in the middle of the floor, in his absorption allowing his pipe to go out every two minutes and having to cross to to the mantelpiece for a light, so that between the easel and fireplace there was a rack strewn with hundreds of dead matches.

I was reading in the window seat near the door, and we had not spoken for perhaps a quarter of an hours when I suddenly became aware that I was listening to strange sounds, the like of which I had never heard before. They can only be described as a kind of mingling of rippling water and tiny belles, tinkled, and yet I could have written them out in ordinary musical notation.

“Do you hear music?” said “Æ ” quietly. ” I do, ” I replied, and even as I spoke utter silence fell. I do not know what it was we both heard that morning and must be content to leave it at that.

 A story for Christmas – F. Scott Fitzgerald ,  “The Lost Decade”

When I was 14 or of 15 the Penguin Classics editions of F Scott Fitzgerald short stories made an indelible impression – to some degree the covers (which forged a sense of tragic glamour and wistful style) , but mostly the casual magic of Fitzgerald. Reading them now, many bear the marks of being written in haste and for money, but the magic remains, especially in some passages that flash like meteors. Among these passages are the last paragraphs of The Last Decade, especially the final line which captures something essential about those moments something forces us not to take the wonderful everyday for granted. Not a Christmas story as such, but a story whose message resonates for me this Christmas.

 From this site, the full text of The Lost Decade:

Esquire (December 1939)

All sorts of people came into the offices of the news-weekly and Orrison Brown had all sorts of relations with them. Outside of office hours he was “one of the editors” — during work time he was simply a curly-haired man who a year before had edited the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern and was now only too glad to take the undesirable assignments around the office, from straightening out illegible copy to playing call boy without the title.

He had seen this visitor go into the editor’s office — a pale, tall man of forty with blond statuesque hair and a manner that was neither shy nor timid, nor otherworldly like a monk, but something of all three. The name on his card, Louis Trimble, evoked some vague memory, but having nothing to start on, Orrison did not puzzle over it — until a buzzer sounded on his desk, and previous experience warned him that Mr. Trimble was to be his first course at lunch.

“Mr. Trimble — Mr. Brown,” said the Source of all luncheon money. “Orrison — Mr. Trimble’s been away a long time. Or he feels it’s a long time — almost twelve years. Some people would consider themselves lucky to’ve missed the last decade.”

“That’s so,” said Orrison.

“I can’t lunch today,” continued his chief. “Take him to Voisin or 21 or anywhere he’d like. Mr. Trimble feels there’re lots of things he hasn’t seen.”

Trimble demurred politely.

“Oh, I can get around.”

“I know it, old boy. Nobody knew this place like you did once — and if Brown tries to explain the horseless carriage just send him back here to me. And you’ll be back yourself by four, won’t you?”

Orrison got his hat.

“You’ve been away ten years?” he asked while they went down in the elevator.

“They’d begun the Empire State Building,” said Trimble. “What does that add up to?”

“About 1928. But as the chief said, you’ve been lucky to miss a lot.” As a feeler he added, “Probably had more interesting things to look at.”

“Can’t say I have.”

They reached the street and the way Trimble’s face tightened at the roar of traffic made Orrison take one more guess.

“You’ve been out of civilization?”

“In a sense.” The words were spoken in such a measured way that Orrison concluded this man wouldn’t talk unless he wanted to — and simultaneously wondered if he could have possibly spent the thirties in a prison or an insane asylum.

“This is the famous 21,” he said. “Do you think you’d rather eat somewhere else?”

Trimble paused, looking carefully at the brownstone house.

“I can remember when the name 21 got to be famous,” he said, “about the same year as Moriarity’s.” Then he continued almost apologetically, “I thought we might walk up Fifth Avenue about five minutes and eat wherever we happened to be. Some place with young people to look at.”

Orrison gave him a quick glance and once again thought of bars and gray walls and bars; he wondered if his duties included introducing Mr. Trimble to complaisant girls. But Mr. Trimble didn’t look as if that was in his mind — the dominant expression was of absolute and deep-seated curiosity and Orrison attempted to connect the name with Admiral Byrd’s hideout at the South Pole or flyers lost in Brazilian jungles. He was, or he had been, quite a fellow — that was obvious. But the only definite clue to his environment — and to Orrison the clue that led nowhere — was his countryman’s obedience to the traffic lights and his predilection for walking on the side next to the shops and not the street. Once he stopped and gazed into a haberdasher’s window.

“Crêpe ties,” he said. “I haven’t seen one since I left college.”

“Where’d you go?”

“Massachusetts Tech.”

“Great place.”

“I’m going to take a look at it next week. Let’s eat somewhere along here — ” They were in the upper Fifties “ — you choose.”

There was a good restaurant with a little awning just around the corner.

“What do you want to see most?” Orrison asked, as they sat down.

Trimble considered.

“Well — the back of people’s heads,” he suggested. “Their necks — how their heads are joined to their bodies. I’d like to hear what those two little girls are saying to their father. Not exactly what they’re saying but whether the words float or submerge, how their mouths shut when they’ve finished speaking. Just a matter of rhythm — Cole Porter came back to the States in 1928 because he felt that there were new rhythms around.”

Orrison was sure he had his clue now, and with nice delicacy did not pursue it by a millimeter — even suppressing a sudden desire to say there was a fine concert in Carnegie Hall tonight.

“The weight of spoons,” said Trimble, “so light. A little bowl with a stick attached. The cast in that waiter’s eye. I knew him once but he wouldn’t remember me.”

But as they left the restaurant the same waiter looked at Trimble rather puzzled as if he almost knew him. When they were outside Orrison laughed:

“After ten years people will forget.”

“Oh, I had dinner there last May — ” He broke off in an abrupt manner.

It was all kind of nutsy, Orrison decided — and changed himself suddenly into a guide.

“From here you get a good candid focus on Rockefeller Center,” he pointed out with spirit “ — and the Chrysler Building and the Armistead Building, the daddy of all the new ones.”

“The Armistead Building,” Trimble rubber-necked obediently. “Yes — I designed it.”

Orrison shook his head cheerfully — he was used to going out with all kinds of people. But that stuff about having been in the restaurant last May . . .

He paused by the brass entablature in the cornerstone of the building. “Erected 1928,” it said.

Trimble nodded.

“But I was taken drunk that year — every-which-way drunk. So I never saw it before now.”

“Oh.” Orrison hesitated. “Like to go in now?”

“I’ve been in it — lots of times. But I’ve never seen it. And now it isn’t what I want to see. I wouldn’t ever be able to see it now. I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of. And their eyes and hands. Would you mind shaking hands with me?”

“Not at all, sir.”

“Thanks. Thanks. That’s very kind. I suppose it looks strange — but people will think we’re saying good-by. I’m going to walk up the avenue for awhile, so we will say good-by. Tell your office I’ll be in at four.”

Orrison looked after him when he started out, half expecting him to turn into a bar. But there was nothing about him that suggested or ever had suggested drink.

“Jesus,” he said to himself. “Drunk for ten years.”

He felt suddenly of the texture of his own coat and then he reached out and pressed his thumb against the granite of the building by his side.

Dylan Thomas, Poem in October, read by Dylan Thomas

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sunlight
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singing birds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.