Category Archives: The Writer

The writer is a Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill. He is the Founding Editor and Editor in chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).

On George Washington

Monday Musings for February 18, 2019
Volume IX, No.7/422

Gilbert_Stuart,_George_Washington_(Lansdowne_portrait,_1796)

Washington (Landsdowne) by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

Books  About  George  Washington, The  Father  of  Our Country

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DFLAPA*

(Editor’s Note: Today, February 18, is the Presidents’ Day. Four days hence, February 22, will mark the natal anniversary of America’s first President.  The proximity of the two dates is a divine coincidence.  Therefore, today, It is our honor to observe the birth of the father of our country, the great patriarch and the first President of the United States of America, the Great George Washington, or as the French call him ‘George Washington Le Grand’ by reviewing the literature about him).

In spite of the rivers of ink spilled on and about America’s founding fathers, the pantheon of these towering and majestic intellects remains relatively untouched. For example, few know George Washington’s reading list. Few know the favorite books that Thomas Jefferson found to be page turners and to which he referred repeatedly. Few know the pocket edition of which author was the constant companion of Benjamin Franklin, the scientist, the politician, the diplomat, the bon vivant and the ladies’ man of Paris. Few know where Patrick Henry learned his gift of oratory and rhetoric of which Thomas Jefferson was jealous. I am proposing some young entrepreneur PhD candidate in English literature to collect the names of all America’s Founding Fathers, research their preference in reading, theater, literature, the arts, music, composers, theology, and science, and give us a 24 volume each 1000 pages collection to satisfy their PhD dissertation. After all, Eusebius of Pamphili, Josephus, accomplished this exact feat, writing 24 volume biography of Moses and Jesus in Aramaic…

In this space over the past few years, we have made periodic and sporadic efforts to answer some of these issues for the curious. The article on “Thomas Jefferson, the Fiddler”, published several years ago, brought us enormous volume of mail. The response to the article on what GW liked in plays and books, published four years ago, reflected enormous interest in the topic and almost overpowered our inbox capacity. This article is a focus on who and what biographers and historians have written about the Founding Father and CEO of the American enterprise, the Captain of America’s soul, and the righteous George Washington.

The latest biography of George Washington is by Ronald Chernow, the American biographer who is the author of Alexander Hamilton, The House of Morgan, and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., among other works. Author Ron Chernow, born in 1949, is a Yale and Oxford educated lad. He studied English literature and is now a freelance author. Washington: A Life, the Penguin Press, 904 pages, $40.00, is remarkable in that it examines best Washington’s personality and instincts. In my opinion, this is the best book ever written about Washington in one volume. The purpose of this essay is not to review Chernow’s book, but to offer our readers a fairly complete compendium of books written about GW from 1800 until now.

The efforts of Douglas Southall Freeman and James Thomas Flexner (yes, he was related to Abraham Flexner of 1910 who revamped American Medicine about whom we have written extensively}.  The authors have offered a multi-volume work on GW which brought the Pulitzer Prize to both authors. Flexner has a one-volume Washington: The Indispensable Man which is a must read if one wishes to know how GW’s mind worked.

We all know the Washington myth of cutting down the cherry tree perpetrated by Parson Weem’s 1800 tale. Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of GW is the closest work to a psychobiographical account of George Washington, factually reporting on GW’s hot tempered youth, his narcissistic and self-adulating tendencies, gradually being replaced with concerns for his country. Flexner tried to outdo Freeman in his four volume work written 1965 to 1972. However, Freeman’s seven volumes (1948-1957) collected work remains unsurpassed. Both authors completely debunk all myths about GW, and offer the reader a naked and brilliant account of a vulnerable human being. Reading these volumes gives one the feeling that GW was not only a General, a leader, a father figure, but he also had a theological sense of himself. He demonstrated how the powers of introspection and self-examination bring about abundant possibilities, hope, and redemption to our lives. This is very much consonant with Pauline theology in the New Testament. GW lived a life that clearly represents transformation of a self-serving narcissist to a public serving altruist. After all, is this not the primary purpose of all world religions?

There are other GW’s biographers: Joseph Ellis’s “His Excellency”, a rather comparatively short biography, 320 pages (reviewed for our readers in 2004), and Richard Brookhiser’s elegiac and elegant “Founding Father” in 1996. The author called it a “moral biography” in the tradition of what some reviewers such as Carl Rollyson call “a biography in the tradition of Plutarch”. Mr. Rollyson opines that “Washington dominated the national scene far longer than Abraham Lincoln and FDR, and scholars have been loath to take on the whole man within the covers of a single volume…” Mr. Chernow ought to be congratulated to have triumphantly accomplished the feat in one 960 page volume. We have still other books about GW:  the admirable, if truncated, 2005 book by Edward Lingel’s “General George Washington” and 2006 Peter R. Henrique’s thematic “Realistic Visionary”.  Having critically read and studied all these books about the Father of our country, in my view the Freeman and Flexner volumes are the most comprehensive and intellectually stimulating of all.

Finally, for students of George Washington, and for that matter, for every person who proclaims to be an American, from school children to the Justices of the US Supreme Court, it is not only desirable but necessary to know and possibly memorize George Washington’s’ Farewell Address, along with the other three essential components of what is known as America’s political literature. They are the US Constitution, The Bill of Rights and the 85 articles comprising The Federalist Papers.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.  He is the 2011 inductee to Raleigh Hall of Fame; 2015 Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony and 2016 recipient of the NC Award, Fine Arts
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On Valentine’s Day

Monday Musings for February 11, 1919
Volume IX, No. 6/421

 

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An Essay on Valentine’s Day

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DSc (Hon), DLFAPA*

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

(This year’s Valentine’s Day is  three days away, Thursday February 14. Some reflections on history and biochemistry of Valentine’s Day):

 History and Origin:

The word Valentine has to do with human sacrifice. Self-sacrifice and martyrdom are not new. They go back to the Iron age when Virgil in his Book IV, dramatically depicted the departure of Aeneas for the Trojan war leading to Dido’s plunging a knife into her breast and sacrificing herself for the love of Aeneas. And we know that during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-311 AD) Christians were caught and fed to the lions. Were those professed Christians who risked their lives and became dinner for the Emperor’s hungry lions on a suicide mission as are today’s fanatic suicide bombers of Islam? A good question to reflect upon…the martyr sacrificed self. The fanatic bomber(s) sacrifices self and kills innocent others. That is murder. Fortunately, things got better for Christians after Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) converted to Christianity in 313 AD. The same persecuted Christians under Diocletian were now pampered and given cushiony jobs under Constantine. What a difference a mere 75 years make!

History tells us that there were three Saint Valentines and the one we westerners strongly identify is the Saint Valentine of Rome who was a priest martyred in 269 AD by the orders of Diocletian. Some 200 years later Pope Gelasius I (he was the Pope when Saint Augustine ’345-430 AD’ became the Bishop of Hippo) decided to recognize Saint Valentine’s love and devotion for Christianity and established by papal order the Saint Valentine’s Day. It was not until Chaucer days in the fourteenth century England when the feast of February 14 first became associated with romantic love, a pure Anglo invention.

For this was on seynt Valentynysday Whan euery bryd cometh there to ches his mate.”

Chaucer Parlement of Foules, circa 1381.

Our Saint Valentine comes from mid-15th century, “sweetheart chosen on St. Valentine’s Day,” from L.L. Valentinus, the name of an early Italian saint (from L. Valentia ”strength, capacity;”). Choosing a sweetheart on this day originated 14th century as a custom in English and French court circles- meaning “letter or card sent to a sweetheart”. The romantic association of the day is said to be from it being around the time when birds choose their mates.

For the past seven centuries the invention has served us well. Imagine the number of weddings that have been facilitated and children conceived by Saint Valentine. Incidentally, the etymology of Valentine is from Latin valentines means valence, and the word value takes its roots from the same origin.

Biochemistry:

Many people think that falling in love mimics a state of psychosis- a confirmation of this notion comes from Shakespeare’s insistence of the “fine frenzy” of the poet- the madman and being in love are indistinguishable insanities. We all have done the crazy “falling in love” things that there are to do-up all night, romantic breakfasts at dawn, impulsive trips to exotic isles, heartfelt torrents of vows, and suddenly becoming a poet fluid with sentiments and expressive powers… There are a whole host of brain chemical and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, catecholamine, indolamines, endorphins etc., involved in libidinal activities.

Recently however, we have begun to associate the phenomenon of falling in love with a chemical that churns in our body causing us to do crazy things. The molecule is called Phenylethylamine (PEA), a first cousin of amphetamine, which the body produces in its adrenal glands. PEA causes excitement just as amphetamines do. However, it is not as disruptive as amphetamine. Leading scientists and neuro-endocrinologists insist that biochemistry and psychiatry have a definite place in explaining the phenomenon of romance and falling in love. Why should this be left exclusively to poets and Harlequin romance writers. Scientists, too, have a lot to say about it.

There are people who are in constant need of excitement and romance. These are probably the people who have affairs outside of marriage, or those who have multiple marriages while chasing their need for constant stimulation and excitement. These individuals engage in many love affairs. It is suggested that high PEA victims may be suffering from a bipolar affective disorder (manic depressive) form of illness. In order to reach their highs, they must be in love and constantly enjoy the infusion of PEA in their body and brain. Examples of famous PEA levels are folks like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Some years ago, British psychiatrists coined the appropriate diagnosis of hysteroid dysphoria to explain the phenomenology of high serum PEA. It was never accepted by the American Psychiatric Association and as to what it leads people to do. A male reader, an emeritus university professor wrote and suggested that we should include the male genre. After all, we have had our share of sustained elevated PEA in males, folks such as Don Juan, Machiavelli, Bill Clinton…And do not forget our current President…

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association; Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He was the 2011 inductee to Raleigh Hall of Fame; 2015 inductee, Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony and 2016 recipient of the NC Award, Fine Arts.

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On Otello…and the Super Bowl

Monday Musings for February 4, 2019
Volume IX No,5/420

Maestro Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello and Super Bowl LIII 

Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

Super Bowl LII1 (53) was played yesterday, Sunday February 3. We are a bit late to offer some reflection: Super Bowl has become an unofficial National Holiday. The following first appeared in The Fayetteville Observer, Sunday January 31, 1988, and since reprinted every year in various publications. The style is owed to the best story teller of all time, the late NC actor, Andy Griffin But first, a word about Verdi’s’ Otello:

Verdi-photo-Brogi

Guiseppe Verdi

I: Verdi’s Otello

This year’s super bowl fell on February 3, two days before Verdi’s Opera, Otello, opened at Teatro Alla Scala, Milan, Italy, February 5, 1887. By the way, Shakespeare’s play is Othello, but Verdi’s opera is Otello. The opening of Otello was just as spectacular and hyped up as is the super bowl sporting event. Arturo Toscanini (March 25, 1867 – January 16, 1957, lived to be almost 90 years old and died on Mozart’s birthday) held the first chair cello in Maestro Verdi’s orchestra at the premiere of Otello. The opera was received with a tumultuous public endorsement. Verdi was not only a beloved composer and the quintessence of the 19th century Italian opera, but he was hailed as a hero capable of bringing various semi-independent political hegemonies under one government and one king. The political pundits promulgated Verdi as an acronym for Viva Emanuel Rei (Reign) D’Italia (Long live Victor Emanuel King of Italy). Yes, the war-torn Italy was united because of the work of a composer, the beloved Maestro Verdi. At the conclusion of the opera, near midnight of February 5, 1887, there were thousands of people in the streets shouting Viva Verdi. Toscanini, the young gifted cellist, was very excited about the triumphant premiere of Otello. He wrote “I went home after midnight. I was very excited. I knelt at my mother’s bedside, and woke her up with a scream ‘Mama, Otello was a success.’ Maestro Verdi is a miracle maker. Viva Maestro Verdi, Viva Verdi…” That evening Verdi could not sleep, because throngs of people gathered outside of his window chanting Viva Verdi. Otello, just like Nabucco, debuted in 1842, was an unbelievable triumph. We will devote several essays to Italian Operas in the months to come.

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II: American Football Loses Something in Translation

A while back, my sports-minded, slim, trim, 67-year-old sister, from Iran was visiting us in America. In her younger days in Iran, she had taught physical education, science and music. So, her interest in American sports was genuine. One day she asked me to explain American football to her. I tried. We sat down on a Monday night to Cowboys/Bears game on television. “The ball, why is the ball egg-shaped and not round? She asked.” “I don’t know,” I said.

Then came the kickoff, the convergence of defense and offense, I could not quickly find an equivalent for “first and ten” in Farsi (the Iranian language) as I translated play by-play. So I set out to say “You see, Khanum Baji-respected form of addressing an elder sister–, the offense, that is the team that has the ball, has four chances to gain ten yards…” by the time I had gotten this far, a Bear defense had intercepted Danny White’s pass with what the color commentator was colorfully and hyperthyroidically screaming on top of his lungs as “a spectacular, fantastic and unbelievable catch’n runback.” Golly, I was getting behind my translating. The interceptor was tackled.

“Why these fellows beating on the guy who intercepted the ball?” she asked “Oh, they are just congratulating him!” I said. “I can’t believe it, look; they are hitting him on the head and pushing him around as hard as they can…” “Khanum Baji, please take my word for it. This is just a friendly celebration of their victory. There are somethings that you just have to take on faith…” I exhorted. She was not satisfied. I could tell from her subtle frown. By now, an injured Bear was being worked on, Frank Gifford guessed that he “must have had the wind knocked out of him,” as I translated faithfully. “What do you mean the wind knocked out of him?” She asked in disbelief, “The guy is half dead. He is not moving. He has been lying on the field for five minutes. I really don’t want to watch this violence…” “Okay, I said.” We started to move when the TV cameras panned Mike Ditka on the sideline. He was spitting all over the place and maniacally pacing the sideline. “Why does that guy spit so much?” she asked pointing at Ditka. “I don’t know,” I replied. The next play was a Bear touchdown, We were ready to change channels, but my sister, hearing the thunderous applause asked me to explain to her what had happened. I did. “Why are these half-naked women doing this lewd dance after the ball carrier spiked the ball?” she asked. What are those fluffy frilly things they are twirling?” she asked. “Pom Poms” I said. “They add to the excitement.” I added. I explained the function of the cheerleaders: Cheerleading is a highly competitive field. Cheerleaders are a national resource honored by Playboy, Penthouse, Presidents, Senators and Congressmen.” She interrupted me: “There they go again, beating the guy who carried the ball and scored,” she observed, “They are celebrating again,” I said. “Will they arrest or penalize those who knocked out the other guy?” she asked. “No, Khanum Baji, they are heroes, they get their pictures in the paper.” I said. People love violence. My sister’s frown got a mite deeper. “Tell me, is this a state supported game?” she asked. “No, Sis, It is private enterprise at work.” I explained. “You see, the players go on strike if they don’t get their way. An average player makes around $250,000 for six months work. Why, one fellow, Steve Young, whose contract called for $47 million,” I continued, my sister’s frown had definitely deepened, She seemed concerned and curious. “What is the salary of high school or college teachers here?” she asked. “In the range of $19,000 to $30,000 a year” I said. She was visibly upset. “What is going on now?” she asked looking at Ditka with an expression of disdain and disbelief. “I don’t know, “I replied. “You sure don’t know much, do you?” She said. I grinned, and we flipped to the concert in PBS-something that both she and I could understand and enjoy.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is the recipient of the NC Award, Fine Arts.

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On a Few Things…

Monday Musings for January 28, 2019
Volume IX. No. 4/419

dore-conversionofsaul

Conversion of Saul to Saint Paul. Discovery of CETP

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

The Feast of the Conversion of Saul to Saint Paul the Apostle:

Many biblical scholars and historians of impeccable credentials including Eusebius of Pamphili, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Ambrose who converted Saint Augustine of Hippo form pagan pursuits and Manichean beliefs to Christianity in 386 CE, and baptized him on Easter morning 387 CE, and Pope Gregory, have written and attested that the conversion of Saul to Paul took place on January 25. Among more modern historians, I recommend a comprehensive and magnificent book published in 1747 by Oxford Press written by the most formidable historian of early Christian era, Lloyd George Lyttleton (1708-1773). The book uses earlier references to lay down the cornerstone of this historic event, namely conversion of Saul to Paul on this date. Saul was a Pharisee with a precise/dry life style, demanding, draconian, exact and unforgiving. Every “t” had to be crossed and every “i” had to be dotted. He lived a life of exactitude with no love and no joy. Paul on the other hand brought the message of hope, faith, love, charity and forgiveness. The two people, Saul and Paul, were extremely opposite in orientation and life style. In many Christian churches including the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches, January 25, is celebrated recounting the conversion. The feast is at the conclusion of the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and International Christian Ecumenism” which began in 1908. The feast is an octave (an eight-day observance, not a musical octave!) spanning from January 18 (observed in Anglican and Lutheran tradition as the Confession of Peter), to January 25.

Here is the collect for the occasion.

“O God, who taught the whole world through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Paul, draw us, we pray, nearer to you through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today, and so make us witnesses to your truth in the world.”

A New Discovery in Health Care. A Plug for Prevention:

Like any other human endeavor, in medicine, we have hype, hyperbole, hysteria and high drama. Charlatans from every corner claim to use their powder on food to make you burn calories and lose weight. Full page ads for miracle treatment of back pain in both skinny and fat people. It should be known to all obese people who suffer from back pain that taking off one pound of body fat takes five pound off the aching back. Incidentally, in my view, doctors advertising in news media, both print and electronic, violate Oslerian ethical mandate of medicine. It is very distasteful. It is more than distasteful. It is really disgraceful. Medicine is not a commodity. Medicine is not a business. Medicine is a calling. Medicine is a priesthood, and we, as doctors, are privileged to be handpicked servants to help our patients (not clients, not heath consumers) for which we should be grateful.

However, there are some medical discoveries reported in peer reviewed journals that are époque making and worthy of note. The recent discovery of Cholesteryl Ester Transfer Protein (CETP) or Evacetrapib is one. A bit of explanation is in order. In America, cardiovascular diseases are the biggest killers followed by cancer. For over a half of century scientists have implicated excess circulating cholesterol, especially low density cholesterol or “bad” cholesterol is responsible for occlusion of coronary arteries, leading to heart attack. We have produced a class of drugs call Statins that lower the bad cholesterol and increase the good. However, Statins have undesirable side effects. The side effects include muscle and joint pain and muscle damage. In some cases Statins have been known to cause lysis or eating away of muscles called rhabdomyolysis. Other side effects of Statins are liver damage, kidney failure and fatigue/depression. Liver damage caused by Statins occurs by increasing production of digestive enzymes. Other serious side effects may be low libido and pancreatitis. I see quite a few patients with neurological side effects, such as memory loss, depression and sometimes more serious neurologic conditions.

More On Cholesteryl Ester Transfer Protein (CETP):

A recent paper published in the medical literature describes a new chemical that assists cholesterol lowering drugs or Statins to become more effective and biologically efficient. the name of the agent is Cholesteryl Ester Transfer Protein (CETP) Inhibitor. It is potentially capable of replacing use of Statins altogether doing away with Statins’ side effects. But the best life style is prevention, proper diet; exercise and discipline of what one puts in one’s mouth are the ultimate answer to good health. Medicine does have its genuine miracles. In America, a pill taking culture, we have been brain washed that for every ill there is a pill. A pill to sleep, a pill to stay awake, a pill to focus and concentrate, a pill to cure erectile dysfunction, a pill to cure irregularity, a pill to regulate too much regularity. A pill to cure depressed mood, a pill to tone down elevated mood. Aram Khachaturian or Leonard Bernstein could have done well to compose a piece of music like Saber Dance or Candid to express our ominous pill taking culture. I submit that we should pay more attention to prevention. With 80% Americans ranging from fat to very obese and morbidly obese, no wonder we have so many cardiovascular deaths, diabetes, musculoskeletal, that is back and joint problems. I believe we must invest in prevention and have a major national program of awareness to seriously address health issues most caused by fatness. One of the things that I think is most discouraging is to see so many doctors and nurses (health care providers) who are obese. This is truly an ugly and unacceptable site. Instead of putting something in our mouths, we must learn to take something away from our mouths..

Surely, here we are celebrating the discovery a chemical that will potentially help millions. But the main message is to celebrate prevention. We have had luminous achievements in this field. Salk vaccine against polio is a good example. 2011 was the first year no polio was reported in India with a population of one billion. Malaria is on its way to extinction, same as some 25 other infectious diseases including the big killer small pox. To take responsibility for one’s health is not only a civic, but a moral responsibility. Tobacco, alcohol and obesity kill without discrimination.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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On “Carmen”…

Monday Musings for January 21, 2019
Volume IX. No. 3/419

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Georges Bizet

A Few Words About the Opera

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

History of Western Opera

Opera is an Italian word. It means work. In the late 16th Century, a group of Florentine scholars decided to get together every week and study the music and writings of the ancient Greek. They called themselves the Florentine Camarata. It was very much like our modern day book clubs, except that these people were very serious about their work. The culmination of these studies and discussions was Jacobo Peri’s composition of Orpheo which was performed at 8:00 PM, October 6, 1600, at Pitti Palace in Florence. Of course, in 1607, Claudio Monteverdi gave us his version of Orpheo. It marks the beginning of Opera. We have enjoyed 418 years of opera as result of the intense work of this group.

There are five powerful instruments used for introspection and research on self. One can learn more about one’s self through psychoanalysis, which is usually very expensive and time consuming. The other tools are studying history, theater and poetry. The last but certainly not the least is through understanding and studying opera. Opera, a combination of words and music, offers us the most comprehensive and potent introspectoscope. Opera gives the participant an opportunity to become aware of one’s unconscious in dynamic gradation. Do we, as viewers, possess at least some of the evil and sexual identity confusion that eclipses Iago and Othello (in opera Otello)? Are we endowed with passion that made Don Jose kill Carmen? Are we capable of transcendence that come with the Zoroastrian parables in Wagner’s Ring Cycle? In order to get to know ourselves better, I believe opera should be an integral part every citizen’s cultural and intellectual diet. It is much less expensive that psychoanalysis, and while being intellectually stimulating, it is more enjoyable and entertaining.

Types of Opera

Italian opera dominated Europe throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries. Around 1670s, French opera with its founder and inventor, Jean Baptist Lully (1632-1687) emerged. Lully was an Italian orphan who immigrated to Paris at age 14. He rose to become the court composer for the Sun King, Louis 14th, who reigned for 73 years. Lully gave us the French Overture, and its dotted rhythm brings on grandeur, pomposity and majesty meant for Louis 14th. Other French composers followed: Jean-Philip Rameau, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Christoph Willibald Von Gluck, Giacomo Myerbeer, Bizet etc. There are German, Russian, Chinese, and now many third world countries operas. Also, there are lyric opera, grand opera, opera buffa and opera seria, just to name a few.

Carmen

Carmen is an opera comic in four acts. It was written by Georges Bizet. He was a genius. He died penniless at age 38, exactly three months after Carmen was first staged. Had he lived three more years, he would have reaped immense wealth because of Carmen’s success all over Europe. Perhaps Bizet and Van Gogh were soul brothers. They lived in poverty, yet after death, their work’s value increased immensely. Bizet knew music and composition. His musical compositions at age 17 easily compare to the music of Mendelssohn and Mozart. His one act opera in 1857, Le Docteur Miracle, shows his mastery of operatic idiom at an early age. In Act II of Carmen, the accelerating gypsy dance is an orchestral tour de force in which dissonance and sliding harmonies paint the scene of Lilla Pastia’s underworld tavern. Bizet knew human nature. He was as keen as Shakespeare when it came to assessing human nature. The famed German philosopher, Fredrick Nietzsche in an essay on Carmen wrote that he saw the opera 21 times. “Every time I see Carmen, I sit still for five hours, I become more patient which is the first step of true holiness…”

Carmen is a story about love, not of higher order, but as futility, cynical, cruel and at best deadly hatred of two sexes. Love translated in the horror proclaimed in Don Jose’s last cry “yes, I have killed her…I have killed my adored…” Carmen, the epitome of carnal desire, temptation and primal raw sexuality, is the eve and the serpent rolled in one. In act III she sees her mortality in the cards that she and her gypsy friends were reading. She gave into her fate and led a reckless life. Don Jose, a decent and simple soldier when he first met Carmen, turns into a love crazed killer. He is Adam. He is Kane. He would not have been transformed into a killer if the violence and killing were not in him to start. There is a bit of Adam, though deeply hidden, in all of us. Don Jose is Adam. Jose’s unrestrained male sexuality and machismo ultimately caused his destruction.

Perhaps, unlike Nietzsche who claimed to become a better philosopher every time he sat through a performance of Carmen, we can see this very deeply moving and instructive work as a beginning. NC Opera Company will be performing Carmen this week on January 25 and 27.

Opera, Sufism and Buddhism

To read the 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), whose writings are very much imbued in Sufism and Buddhism: “To be, one must first not be…” might help us to understand Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the genius anti-Semitic German musician, composer of opera (he hated the word opera because it is an Italian word and he hated Italians!, and called his work “Music Drama”), who was a disciple of Schopenhauer. His operas, especially Tristan and Isolde, and Der Ring des Nibelungen, or Ring Cycle, consisting of four operas, 18 hours, are full of Zoroastrian parables and Buddhist reference to “nothingness” before becoming “something.” This ruthless, racist and megalomaniacal genius not only composed his own operas, but wrote the libretto and conducted the work. His compositions are not just opera but an all-encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk, like a Super Bowl halftime show!

The writings of Rumi, Shams Tabrizi and Baba Taher Oryan, all Persian Sufi Poets, assert the Buddhist notion of the issue of “being”, the western concept of which is called ontology. Western opera takes us beyond “doing” and introduces us to “being”, a singularly Buddhist and Sufi concept.

In my mind, opera continues to be the most complete art form. It has the greatest capacity for communication and impact per second of any other art form including my most favorite art form, classical music. What I wonder is when, and where, in NC we will see some modern operas, the list of which is approaching 90. I have noticed and admired the Met’ s willingness to add some of the modern operas such as Cyrano de Bergerac with Placido Domingo as Cyrano, Sondra Radvanovsky (Roxanne), and librettist Henry Cain, this season. I yet to see any opera by Michael Tippett, Hans Verner Henze and Olivier Messiaen (I saw his Saint Francois D’Assie in Paris several months ago), and other composers. Perhaps NC Opera will meet the challenge.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a dramaturge. Received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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On a Classical Music Primer…

Monday Musings for January 14, 2019
Volume IX. No. 2/418

no_9

The Joy of Classical Music

 By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

We are privileged to receive many letters from our faithful readers, a source of much learning and stimulation. Several readers have written to ask our opinion about our favorite top ten pieces of classical music. I found the task of picking favorites very daunting and complicated. I felt like being asked which of my children would I pick and favor. After much thought and listening with both my physical ears and the ears of my soul—metaphysical ears—here is my conclusion: Talking and writing about music and the arts is a delight to me. Thank you all who wrote and asked.

My number 1 pick is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It is an elegant piece of not only music, but theology, humanity and spirituality.

Number 2 is Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony in C Major.

Number 3 is Brahms’s Violin Concerto.

Number 4 is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. This amazing, technically complex with over 30,000 notes is an exercise in exploring the soul.

Number 5 is Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3  with soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Number 6 is Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Number 7 is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathetique (his No.6). This was my late mother’s favorite. A word of explanation: This work is imbued with passages reminiscent of “Marsyeh”, cantorial rendition of a “joyful” mourning and grieving. What a delicious Nietzschean oxymoron! It is the closest thing to Biblical polyglossia. The music speaks in thousands of languages used by children of God from all walks of life, and all religions, all over the planet.

Number 8, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, opus 35.

Number 9: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila and his opera Saint Francis D’Assi  (I have had lectures and seminars by Maestro Messiaen in Paris). Robert Chapman played the opera on Classical station, WCPE, one Thursday before Easter Sunday.

Number 10: the music of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Dvorak’s Cello Concerto.

Number 11: Brandenburg Concerti Nos. 1-6

Number 12: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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On a Few Things…

Monday Musings for Monday January 7, 2019
Volume !X. No. 1/417

bronze statue of kaibara ekken at his gravesite (kinryū-temple, fukuoka-city, japan)

Bronze Statue of Kaibara Ekken at his gravesite (Kinryū-Temple, Fukuoka-City, Japan)

 

 On A Few Things…

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

(Editor’s Note: One of the pleasures of writing ‘Monday Musings’ is the considerable feedback from our learned, curious, and generous readers.  Today is our 9th birthday,  We celebrate it by publishing one such gracious letter.)

Thank you for your kind if not extravagant words.  I am humbled.  Unfortunately, I do not know much about Japanese and Chinese philosophy and cannot offer a scholarly opinion.  I only superficially know the work of Buddha and Confucius to the point that there is much Buddha in Sufism, and much Sufism in Freemasonry (1717)…  And Mozart knew about both!  However,  I know of several things:

I have been involved with the art and craft of polyglossia and translation and interpretation.  There are vast ethical and moral implications and responsibilities  in this profession/craft.  I used to work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) while in medical school (usually after midnight translating documents at Langley) and UN during the summers of my pre-med years (as a simultaneous translator).  I have seen consequential errors and inaccurate translations that endangered the fate of an important ongoing discussion.   I also know that quite a bit of the Bible translated from the original Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and the language the Synoptic Gospels were written and later translated into Greek, Latin and finally English (King James Bible 1611: OldTestament: 39 books, 593,493 words; New Testament , 27 books, 181,253; total 884,647 words) are full of errors most likely unintentional that in some instances radically and universally change(d) the meaning of the message.  Not to mention innumerable other bibles such as Vulgate, Wycliffe and many others.   Several years ago, I reviewed the book Secretaries of God in which I pointed out some of these errors.

Now to the question at hand: Who was Ekken, his philosophy and whether the translation form Japanese into English is authentic.  The most prominent translator of Ekken’s work is the linguist/scholar, William Scott Wilson,

Well, Kaibara Ekken, Ekken also spelled Ekiken, original name Atsunobu, (born Dec. 17, 1630, Fukuoka, Japan—died Oct. 5, 1714, Japan) was a remarkable man.  He was originally trained as a physician but left the medical profession in 1657 to study the thought of the great Chinese neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200), under the teachers Yamazaki Ansaiand Kinoshita Jun-an.  He became a recognized neo-Confucian philosopher, travel writer, and pioneer botanist of the early Tokugawa period (1603–1867) who explicated the Confucian doctrines in simple language that could be understood by Japanese of all classes. He was the first to apply Confucian ethics to women and children and the Japanese lower classes.

I also know that William Scott Wilson is an ethical, knowledgeable, and accurate translator who does not sacrifice translation for more attractive interpretation.  Therefore, I fully sympathize with Ekiken or Ekken and his assertion that folks should have read the work in the original Japanese.

I maintain that if one really loves opera, it is a moral imperative to learn Italian and ignore the inadequate and “artificial” subtitles!  Even though he was a blatant amoral psychopath, I’d rather Listen to the words of genius Lorenzo di Ponti as they were minted in his fascinating brain in original Italian (he wrote in Latin also), and not to some accommodating Joe Blow who commercially created the subtitles.

Finally, regarding the related topic of prevention elaborated in Ekken;s writings, I agree with the content of the essay.  Prevention should come first.  On a panel discussion in a town meeting, I asked the North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services what percentage of his vast multi-billion dollar budget is spent on prevention.  Answer: less that on half percent, mostly for inoculation, etc.

Love and Joy to all

AM

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a dramaturge. Received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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On the Holy Week…

“Monday Musings” for Monday December 31, 2018
Volume VIII, No. 52/416

Liszt

Lizst at the Piano, by Josef Danhauser

 

Holy Week: Beethoven and Al Ghazali’s Birthdays

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

(Editor’s note: There are many Holy weeks throughout the year. Starting with the fall season, there is Raas-ol- Sana (Rosh Hashana), Yom Kippur, Ramadan, Thanksgiving and we just competed Advent celebrated Christmas, followed by Easter. But I submit that there are other Holy weeks, among them Beethoven’s birthday. Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770, and the incomparable Persian Theologian and poet, Al Ghazali was born on December 19, 1058. This edition of Monday Musings, a reprint, is dedicated to Beethoven and his glorious interpreter, our own North Carolina Symphony (NCS) Music Director, Maestro Grant Llewellyn. who conducted Beethoven ninth on several  occasions here in Raleigh which prompted me to write him this note:

Dear Friend, Maestro Llewellyn:

‘…I have deep regards and respect for your talents, dedication to your family and profession, combining knowledge of music with Maazalian precision and Bersteinian facility and passion to communicate. What a marvelous combination. Good for us, your loyal and loving audience.

Throughout of many years of watching you conduct, I believe Beethoven and Mahler extract the most out of you. I am privileged to not only watch you conduct, but also while watching, take a tour of your brain. I write this note to celebrate these delightful tours, your brain and its trillion plus synapses. A brief explanation is in order:

We have powerful instruments for viewing what is going on inside of the skull, namely visualizing the anatomy of this truly wonderful but mysterious organ, the two to three pound brain. These instruments are Magnetic Resonant Imaging (MRI), Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and functional MRI (fMRI) which not only enable us to view the anatomy of the brain but see and learn how the brain functions, NO, it is NOT with these instruments that I view your brain fully engaged while you conduct, but with the knowledge of neuroanatomy and neurohormonal circuitry of the brain.

It is an enchanting and marvelous site to see your brain’s biochemical neruonic interplay and the anatomical juxtaposition of your brain’s vital organs, such as the Limbic system, thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, fornix, mammary bodies and the length of your corpus colosseum. Watching you conduct,, especially the music of Beethoven and Mahler, infuses the viewer with spirituality and invites entrance to the ether of transcendence…What a feat! Thank you for those fascinating tours and thank you for bringing your gifts to North Carolina by being Music Director to our most talented and admirable NC Symphony artists/musicians. Below is for your reading enjoyment,,,’

Love, Joy and Blessings

AM

 

Beethoven 9 Connects my soul with deepest humanities. Here is an explanation:

The next time you go to Musee d’Orsay in Paris, that unpleasant piece of railroad station, that the former Minister of Culture of France, the late Andres Malraux, transformed into a magnificent museum, go all the way down the hall to the last gallery on the left. There, you will see several paintings of various groups. One of them that stands out is a painting by the 18th century French painter Danhauser. It is the picture of a Parisian salon in the 1830s. It shows Franz Liszt at the piano, and at his knee with her face covered is Countess Marie D’Agoult, a socially prominent Catholic lady who left her husband and children to be one of many Liszt’s mistresses-scandal galore– Next to Marie is Alexander Dumas, next Chopin and his inseparable girlfriend Aurore Dudevant (George Sand) smoking her fat cigar; next to her, the violinist magician contortionist Nicholas Paganini; next, Rossini, the bell canto opera composer (he composed Barber of Seville in 1816), and Victor Hugo. They are all gathered to hear Liszt play Beethoven, and way on top above everybody’s head is a bust of Beethoven in the background of clouds roiling into infinity. Yes, the painting shows Beethoven high above with the Gods…This is how Beethoven was worshipped after his death.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born December 16, 1770, fourteen years younger than Mozart. His childhood was dreadful. Almost every night, he and his brothers, Kasper (Karl) and Nickkolaus had to go on the streets and cajole their drunken father to come home. The gentleman was a severe alcoholic and on a church pension. The family was one step ahead of welfare. Beethoven fought suicidality most of his life and at one point after becoming deaf he actually planned suicide. He wrote a long letter, Heiligenstadt, complaining bitterly about his miserable life and reasons for ending it. But thankfully, he did not go through with his plans. It was after 1799 that he began composing his famous nine symphonies culminating in the incomparable Ninth. Beethoven’s music is not classic, it is not romantic, it is just Beethoven, expressive, full of power, full of life and full of promise and possibilities, something like the writings of Paul and Pauline theology.

Beethoven’s immortal 9th Symphony composed in 1824 is a summation of his life, a summation of all he had learned and had lived for. Almost anywhere in the world, reference to the 9th is without doubt or question Beethoven’s 9th. It is NOT any of the other symphonists such as Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, etc. It is always Beethoven’s Ninth. No matter where on earth from Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa, to countries of Eastern and Western Europe, and to the countries of South America and down under, Australia, in the circles where there is the slightest familiarity with classical music, when you mention the 9th Symphony, the listener will reflexively say Beethoven. They might not know his full name, they might not know how to spell his name, they might not know anything about his birth date, birth place, the miserable childhood he had with a drunken father, a long suffering violated and abused mother and several younger brothers, but they know it is Beethoven! The 9th Symphony became immortal when it was chosen/adopted to be the National Anthem of the United Europe in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Later, because of the national pride and momentum of the newly adopted National Anthem, the currency of Euro was created which is now being used by 320 million people. Beethoven’s nine symphonies are eponymous with might, excellence and inimitability of Beethoven style. In word association games, tissues are associated with Kleenex, cars with Chrysler, psychoanalysis with Freud, chewing gum with Wrigley and yes the 9th with Beethoven. The dean of music critics, Joseph T. Kerman, ordinarily parsimonious in praise and use of adjectives, refers to Beethoven “as belonging to the same salon with Gods, and merging with Gods.”

In the annals of human history, the power of Beethoven’s music, especially his symphonies, most of them curiously composed in minor key, is unparalleled. His9th is indeed the apotheosis of vigor, vitality, hope, redemption, and possibility, yet it is imbued in sublimity, transcendence and beauty. Reviewing other notables’ remarks about Beethoven’s 9th is equally interesting. Hector Berlioz, a failed medical student, yet brilliant composer and writer, admitted that in some ways the 9th “remained unfathomable to me.” He continued, “In composing the 9th, Beethoven broke some musical laws, and frankly it is so much worse for the law!” Stuart Isacoff, a contemporary NY music critic suggests that “Beethoven’s new forms, new visions, explored new ways in what music could do and what music could say. Beethoven had begun early in his career to construct his compositions out of small cells, which are organically, as if governed by a kind of musical DNA, matured. The 9th unfolds a psychological drama in which themes are declared only to become subsumed in the flame of heavenly bliss.”

The NC Symphony recently performed the 9th under the baton of its talented and energetic music director, Maestro Grant Llewellyn. Beethoven’s 9th, with its final movement for chorus, four vocal soloists and orchestra set to Fredrick’s Shiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” left the audience ecstatic with extended spontaneous ovations. The RTP audience was blessed by the hundreds of voices of the NC Master Chorale, directed by Dr. Alfred Sturgis, and the Choral Society of Durham Chamber Choir, directed by Rodney Wynkoop, and the four soloists, soprano Jane Jennings, mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi, tenor Richard Clement and bass Raymond Aceto. When the celestial voices of the Chorales were singing “Freude, Tochter of Elyzium, deine Zauber binden weider was die Mode stren geteilt; alle mencchen werden Bruder who dein sanfter weilt.” “Joy, daughter of Elysium, your magic again units all that custom harshly torn apart, all men become brothers beneath your gentle hovering wing.” I felt like I was floating among myriads of angels of hope, comfort, promise and beauty. The magic of the 9th approaches Biblical mystery of how miracles occur.

The extensive literature compiled by theologians of repute, among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the German theologian imprisoned and executed by Hitler in Flessenburg Concentration Camp at age 39) and the late Paul Tillich of Harvard University, refer to Beethoven’s music as an essential intellectual tool to understand how “magic” turns into “miracle.” The miracle is described as a man, Beethoven, in 1824, at age 53, in spite of his deafness, cantankerous and increasingly world weary and clinically depressed, living in an apartment with leaky roof and minimal toilet facilities, “he bared his soul in a work so stunning in originality, scale and emotional power that virtually every great composer who followed has lived under its shadow.” And in my view, the miracle continues the shadow cast by the 9th is protective and not destructive. It is nurturing and not condescending, it is life giving and not burdensome. That is the miracle of Beethoven’s music. Some theologians compare Beethoven’s personal life to the life of Job, the violated, abused and tortured soul in the old Testament. Yes, Beethoven’s music, especially his 9th, is a miracle.

I have been fortunate to have heard the 9th since my childhood conducted by greats of the music world, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, George Schulte, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein (he conducted the 9th in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down), Loren Maazel, just to name a few. I believe what Llewellyn and the NC Symphony musicians and the combined Raleigh and Durham chorales produced in Raleigh’s Concert Hall with its superior acoustics, was a memorable and transcendent experience, comparable if not superior to other programs.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a dramaturge. Received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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On Jesus…

Monday Musings for Monday December 24, 2018
Volume VIII, No. 52/416

GustavoDoreJesusesbajadodelaCruz

Gustave Doré

 

To Ponder the Birth, Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon.), DLFAPA*

[Editor’s Note: to observe with reverence the birth of Christ, we are reprinting below article which was originally written and published in the Fayetteville Observer on Christmas Day 1966. It has been reprinted in several publications, including ‘Monday Musings’, every year since then.]

From the nostalgic days of the Sorbonne where I was a student of arts and literature, a memory stands out. A professor assigned to our class to visit the Louvre Museum and report to him, in written form, our impressions.

One morning I went to the museum and spend many hours looking at the masterpieces for which the Louvre is so well-known. Naturally, walking through the aisles and various levels of the Sully building, where old masters were displayed, appropriate notes were made to report to the professor. At the end of the day, somewhat enchanted, somewhat tired and thoroughly bewildered by the majesty of so much collected beauty and august artistry under one roof, I packed my notebooks and set out to leave the door. Near the exit of the Mezzanine level there was a simple portrait which was partially hidden behind the curtain and the hanging branches of a plant. I approached the painting, exposed it to my sight, and began to study its content. After a few minutes of scrutiny and concentration, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of power, awe and respect.

The painting was done by a 17th century Eastern European artist who had never gained worldwide fame. The very position of the painting in the museum was reminiscent of this fact. The content of the picture was just as simple and unassuming at its frame and the place where it was hung. It showed an emaciated man whose cheeks were hollowed, whose eyes were sunken, whose ribs could be counted one by one with clarity, semi-clad and semi-naked. This man the portrait showed was struggling diligently and arduously. An observer could see the burden of time and the pressure of public opinion written across his furrowed forehead. His lips were dry, but pursed and determined his arms were naked and the flesh was pushed through with the gripping huge fingers of two Roman soldiers who were, holding the picture, holding him? The Roman soldiers were enormous, steady, and through the masterwork of the artist, conveyed an air of contempt and hatred for the man they were holding. On the right side of the tableau, the artist had drawn the picture of a cross. So far, this work of art, like any other, is nothing unusual to chill the spine and overpower the observer. It was, indeed, the picture of Christ being carried to the cross.

This is a known historical fact, and depicted by thousands of artists in various ways. But the thing that made this pictures so powerful and different from any other concept of crucifixion was that the artist with his transcendent imagination, and I am sure, realization of the devotion of Jesus, had inserted a basic difference in this work, the difference was in this picture Jesus was struggling to go toward the cross, not as one would expect to struggle to get away from the cross. The propitious occasion of Christmas, the Lord’s birth, makes the recounting of the memory as a gift to our reader that much more meaningful. In His birth, death and resurrection, he exemplified love, hope, reason and commitment to all mankind.

May we all be good learners and a Merry Christmas to everyone.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a dramaturge. Received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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On Holy Days…

Monday Musings for Monday December 17, 2018
Volume VIII 51/416

Oryan

Baba Taher Oryan

 

Yalda, Hanukkah, Christmas, and King James Bible (1611-2011)

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

This week and fortnight thereafter portend three events carefully choreographed by aligning stars to produce a cosmic feast. The first event, of course is Christmas on December 25. The other two events occurring on the same day are winter solstice, the longest night of the year and shortest day of the year, and Hanukkah, the festival of lights. Although not a religious holiday, like Yom Kippur, Hanukkah is about rededication to the will of Yahweh. Reading religious holy books including Zoroaster’s Avesta; Hindu’s sacred and magnificent book, Bhagavad Gita; Moses’ Torah, Christians’ Bible, especially Paul’s letters in the New Testament; and Islam’s Qur’an, one becomes acutely aware of commonality of the message of these books: love, duty, responsibility, redemption, promise and possibilities for all humans, for all children of God. Here are some thoughts on some of these matters:

I.  SHAB-E YALDA

December 21 is the longest night of the year. In Mede and Persian history and Zoroastrian tradition, it is a holy night, “Night of Birth”, the birth of Mithra, the God of illumination and salvation. The birth of Ahura Mazda.

Persian poets have written extensively about the night of Yalda (Shab-e-Yalda). Here is a stanza from Baba Taher Oryan (950-1019), the mystical Persian poet who roamed the mountains of Hamadan naked

“Shab-e-Yalda is the longest night of they year,
To have more time to read and learn…
To have more time to worship….
To have more time to reflect…
To have more time to connect with the beloved and
To have more time to nurture one’s soul…”

We know that Plato wrote extensively about the soul, Zoroastrianism, and the night of Yalda…

May you have a fruitful and joyous Yalda night.

II.  A Few Words about Christianity: Commercial vs. Spiritual

Christmas as a religious observance and Christmas a secular event may co-exist, woe unto the cynics and to the intolerants. In ancient days of Egyptians, Persians and Romans, they celebrated the winter solstice called the Saturnalia which ran December 17 to 24. They closed offices and exchanged gifts. This is the time when the sun reaches its lowest point and begins to climb, once more, in the sky. In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, Easter was the most important day in the Christian year. In 325, when the Church fathers convened in Nicea, they focused on this issue and decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of the spring, making it a moveable feast. In 354, the year Saint Augustine of Hippo was born, Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the Church calendar. So, it was he who decided to celebrate the birth of Christ on the fixed day of December 25. It was not until the 1800s that commerce got a hold of Christmas and resurrected the ancient gift giving of the Roman Saturnalia. In 1828, for example, the American Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsetta, brought the plant poinsettia to the US. It has been associated with Christmas ever since. We have room to celebrate the secular feast of Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, on the 25th of December. To get us closer to God, eternity and spirituality, observe the mystical and holy phenomenon of the birth of Christ religiously both at the same time. It is unhealthy to engage in extremes of either or and to be cynical and intolerant of others. After all, Christmas and Saturnalia are to enhance love and understanding.

III-Reflections on the end of the year:

To the thousands who read us and hundreds who write us from across the globe, we offer our thanks. We will, from time to time, publish some of the issue-centered letters that deepen our understanding and elevate the level of discourse. After all, that is the primary purpose and the etymological meaning of education, from Latin educata: to uplift and elevate knowledge and understanding…
My greatest regret is that 2018 ended without writing an essay on the King James Bible. In 2018, the Holy Book became 407 years old. In 2011, there were quadricentennial observances of the birth of the Bible throughout Europe. In my view, the King James Bible translated and written by “Secretaries of God” (see my review of the book by the same title in Wake County Physician magazine , Volume IX, July 2004) is a work that ennobles your soul. The accuracy, elegance, and lapidary Elizabethan English and the Shakespearian stylistic influence on the translators are unparalleled. Watch for the essay on King James Bible in 2019.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a dramaturge. Received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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