On Memory

Monday Musings for Monday June 5, 2017
Volume VII.  No. 23/335

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The Science Series: Memory

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

Part I The nature of Memory

The print and broadcast media have made the diagnosis of post traumatic disorder (PTSD) ubiquitous. 15 years of war in Afghanistan, wars in Iraq and Syria have produced veterans who indeed suffer form PTSD and brain trauma. We will devote the next three “MM”s to the understanding of memory and recent advances in understanding and treatment of PTSD.

The Faithful readers of this space recall our review of the book “Searching for memory” by Daniel Schacter, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) alumnus and professor of psychology at Harvard.  In that book with an outline of different types of memory Schacter devoted a broad section to persistent memory which is the hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder. Recurring unpleasant memories. In this piece, after describing and discussing the phenomenology and architectonics of memory and its types, I will focus on post-traumatic stress disorder,

Schacter’s research explores the relation between conscious and unconscious forms of memory, the nature of memory distortions, how individuals use memory to imagine possible future events, enhancement of online learning, as well as the effects of aging on memory. In general, there are four large categories of memory which are always included in psychiatric evaluation and standard mental status examination. They are:

1)    Episodic memory: dealing with the patient’s ability to recount biographic data such as dates, places of significant events of life, marriage, birth of children, service in the Armed Forces, travels and jobs

2)    Somatic memory: which has to do with the functions of various parts of the brain, and the reaction of those brain structures to the cascade of neuronal hormones sweeping over them. Somatic memory is often affected by anxiety and depression

3)    Procedural memory: how well the patient can repeat a series of numbers or objects forward and backward immediately or after a given time lapse. Also, how well the patient may recall a seven part story.

4)    Verbal fluency memory: such as testing the a patient’s ability to generate words starting with a given letter such as “O”. The number of words generated in a given time, let’s say one minute and the quality of the words generated reveal much about the patient’s memory and general fund of knowledge and vocabulary. For example, if a patient is asked to generate in one minute words starting with the letter ”o”  and he goes like a machine giving words in alphabetic order, “octave, octennial, octet, octillion, octillionth, October, octodecimo, octogenarian, octomerous, octoary, octoploid, octopod, octopus, octoroon, etc…” you know that he excels in verbal fluency memory and is of superior intellect.

Schacter characterizes memory in a different way.  He calls these the seven sins of memory The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets .

  • 1)  Transience–the decreasing accessibility of memory. Schacter cited as a somewhat facetious example former President Bill Clinton’s “convenient lapses of memory” during the Monica Lewinsky investigation. Clinton claimed in the hearings that he sometimes couldn’t remember what had happened the previous week.
  • 2)  Absent-mindedness–lapses of attention and forgetting to do things. Examples, said Schacter, are forgetting where you put your keys or glasses. He noted a particularly famous instance in which cellist Yo-Yo Ma forgot to retrieve his $2.5 million cello from the trunk of a New York City cab.
  • 3)  Blocking–temporary inaccessibility of stored information, such as tip-of-the-tongue syndrome. Schacter recounted the embarrassment of John Prescott, British deputy prime minister, when a reporter asked him how the government was paying for the expensive Millennium Dome. Prescott struggled to find the word “lottery,” trying “raffles” instead.
  • 4)  Suggestibility–incorporation of misinformation into memory due to leading questions, deception and other causes.
  • 5)  Bias— For example, research indicates that people currently displeased with a romantic relationship tend to have a disproportionately negative take on past states of the relationship.
  • 6)  Persistence–unwanted recollections that people can’t forget, such as the unrelenting, intrusive memories of post-traumatic stress disorder. They become a tragic prisoner of memory,” and eventually committed suicide.
  • 7)  Misattribution–attribution of memories to incorrect sources or believing that you have seen or heard something you haven’t.

Next week, Part II, we will discuss post-traumatic stress disorder which has to do with sustained unwanted, obsessive intrusive memory.

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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 Memorial Day

“Monday Musings” for Monday May 29, 2017
Volume V. No. 22/334

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Memorial Day, Pericles, Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

 

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

Today is Memorial Day. Some reflections:

In so many great books and in so many great bodies of literature, we are told that “to die for one’s own country is the noblest deed.” The conceptual architectonics of this notion goes back to 5th century BC Athens and to mid-nineteen century AD America. The architects are two superb statesmen, Pericles of Athens and Abraham Lincoln of America separated by almost 2500 years. The occasion was the funeral oration by Pericles for the war dead in Athens 404 BC, and the funeral oration by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1865 AD for the America’s civil war dead.B oth speeches proclaim that democracy is worth sacrificing lives and spending the nation’s financial and material resources. In their speeches, Pericles and Lincoln forcefully and eloquently submit that “to die for the cause of democracy and national unity is the noblest act.”

Pericles and Lincoln, these two incomparable souls had qualities that set them apart as statesmen. They were not merely politicians. They both had bedrock principles and solid foundation of beliefs that did not change with public polls and political expedience. They both had a moral compass and had a sense of absolute right and wrong. They each had a vision for their nation as a model for the world and humankind, and they had the ability to build consensus. Pericles and Lincoln both led their respective nations, Greece and America, into civil wars. Pericles led his nation to war between Sparta and Athens (431 to 404 BC), and Lincoln led America to our Civil War (1861 to 1865). The Athenians and Spartans spoke the same language and worshipped the same gods. So did the Confederate soldiers and their brethren to the north. They spoke English (or according to H. L. Menken they all spoke ‘American’) and worshipped the same God. As an aside: you will enjoy reading H.L. Menken’s “American Language” which gives a deep analysis contrasting British English with American English.

The Origin of Memorial Day

The journey starts with Pericles and his funeral oration of 404 BC. Later Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC to 19 BC to ), usually called Virgil or Vergil in English, the celebrated Roman poet in his famous epic poem in Latin, Aeneid, translated the words of Pericles from Greek to Latin. Lincoln, an intellectual and scholar, had read Aeneid as much as he had read the Bible. Aeneid is a poem about war. It spells out the conduct and the protocol of man at war. Virgil came to the conclusion that men who gave their lives to their country should be memorialized. Virgil popularized Pericles’ of views some 400 years earlier, laying down the roots of what we today know as Memorial Day.

Lincoln used Virgil’s concept of memorializing the dead soldiers. He also emulated Pericles who with unparalleled eloquence and clarity concluded that “to die for one’s nation is the noblest deed”. Almost 2500 years after Pericles, Abraham Lincoln, on November 19, 1863 in his funeral oration in 272 words Gettysburg Address told the nation why the war, where he was going with the war, and what the outcome of the war would be. He clearly articulated why 620,000 soldiers have given their lives. He told the nation that the ultimate goal was to ensure the unity of the nation and guarantee freedom for all Americans.

The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s marvelous use of words loaded with religious and Biblical symbolisms such as “fourscore, dedicate, consecrate, hallow, and sacred ground” invoked the spiritual dimensions of his persuasive message. And Lincoln did not have a team of speech writers and spin artist pollsters on his staff… In contrast, it is unclear to us why the ill-defined Iraq and Afghanistan wars now going on 14 years, at a cost of thousands of lives, and the expenditure of hundreds of billions dollars, continue. America is still waiting for an explanation of why we are there. Would not it be nice if we had a living Lincoln who could use 272 words to give us this reason?

Memorial Day as we know it today, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. Memorial Day was born out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. Memorial Day is now observed in almost every state on the last Monday in May with Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971. This helped ensure a three day weekend for this Federal holiday, though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead.

Salute to the veterans for the noble act of sacrificing for America and condolences to their families of the deceased.

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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 Wagner, and Opera

“Monday Musings” for Monday May 22, 2017
Volume V, No. 21/332

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Bayreuth Margravial Opera Stage

Happy Birthday to Richard Wagner: A Few Thoughts about Opera

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

Today is Richard Wagner’s 204th birthday (May 22, 1813- February 13, 1883). We celebrate his natal anniversary with joy and some added reflections: Wagner was a German musician, opera composer, and a disciple of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, (Feb 22, 1788- September 12, 1860) with whom he split over the issue of “toleration”. Wagner was truly a genius. But he hated the Jews and the Italians, all of whom he called barbarians. He also hated the word opera because it is an Italian word and he thought Italians are of a lower race. Instead, he called his work “Music Drama“. Wagner was a contemporary of Verdi (October 10, 1813-Jan 27, 1901), the world famous and renowned Italian Opera Composer. Toward the end of his life, Wagner had a change of heart about Italians and had some good things to say about Verdi. But he remained a staunch anti-Semite.

Richard Wagner, the ruthless, racist and megalomaniacal genius not only composed his own opera but wrote the libretto (pleural, libretti), designed the stage, and conducted the work. His compositions are not just opera but an all encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk, like the Super Bowl halftime show! In addition to writing the libretto, composing the music, and designing his sets, he was a brilliant prose writer. I recommend getting a hold of some 12 volumes of his original work and read them for the sheer power of their syntax and thematic composition.

He also architecturally created the Bayreuth Opera House where his work was produced and staged.  After 204 years, almost all of his operas including the Flying Dutchman, Ride of Valkyries, Tannhauser, and Die Meistersinger Von Numberg are a steady diet of most opera houses and symphonies throughout the world. From time to time, North Carolina Symphony plays Wagner.  The colossal  program of Wagner and Russian music which featured in the first half, Prelude to Act I, Lohengrinn and the second half the memorable performance of virtuoso violinist, Itzhach Perlman playing Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35, by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky remain vivid in memories.  As an aside, the world renown violinist, Joshua Bell, played Jean Sibelius’ Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 27, with North Carolina Symphony to a standing room only crowd in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall. And there will be other special programs of Wagner’s music in the future.  Raleigh has an extraordinarily rich cultural life.

Wagner’s writings and Teutonic operas tell us that he had a deep knowledge of history. His operas, especially Tristan and Isolde, and the “Ring Cycle” consisting of four operas, 18 hours, are full of Zoroastrian parables, Buddhist reference to “nothingness” before becoming “something” and the writings of Rumi, Shams Tabrizi, and Baba Taher Oryan. He loved Aryan Persians as much as he hated the Jews. He spoke of the Jews as inferior creatures preoccupied with usury, money changing, and nothing else. He made fun of Jewish cantorial music and ridiculed the religious tradition of the Jewish synagogue.

Delving into his personal life, one discovers that he was an illegitimate child of a Jew, Ludwig Geyer. He was born in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner who died six months after Richard’s birth, following which Wagner’s mother began living with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer with whom she had a longstanding relationship. Ludwig was a friend of Richard’s late father. Richard almost certainly suspected that Geyer was his natural father. He and Ludwig whom he publicly called “Dad” shared a love of theater, opera and language. Around age 14, however, Richard changed his name from Richard Geyer back to Richard Wagner.

In his early life, Wagner was heavily influenced by Shakespeare and Goethe. He was determined to set the writings of these two illustrious authors into music. In 1826, at age 13, he started to take music lessons. By 1827, the family had moved back to Leipzig. Wagner’s first lessons in harmony were taken in 1828-1831. In January 1828 he first heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and then, in March, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony performed in the Gewandhaus. Beethoven became his inspiration, and Wagner wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony. Regarding his obscure genealogy, He often kiddingly said “May be Beethoven is my dad!”… Wagner was also greatly impressed by a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. From this period we have Wagner’s early piano sonatas and his first attempts at orchestral overtures. In 1829 he saw the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient on stage, and she became his ideal of the fusion of drama and music in opera. In his autobiography, Wagner wrote, “If I look back on my life as a whole, I can find no event that produced and left so profound an impression upon me.” He had an unsuccessful marriage to his second wife, Cosima, and had disastrous relationships with other women including Minna Wagner.

In Wagner lies an enigma. He was a truly brilliant artist with gifts in music composition, writing, poetry, and deep knowledge of history who was pathologically intolerant of others, especially Jews. Yet he was the son of a Jew and had Jewish DNA. His profound anti-Semitic rant has given to millions of words of psychobabble attempting to explain that his hatred of Jews was deeply rooted in self-hatred. As a person, he had no shred of decency and no touch of sublime humanity. He broke up with his idol and mentor, philosopher Schopenhauer, because of Wagner’s extreme hatred of Jews. Schopenhauer could not take Wagner’s extreme intolerance of the Jews. Personally, I take and enjoy Wagner’s rich and lasting contributions to the arts and literature, and merely ignore the rest of him.

On the local scene in Raleigh, the transfer of Dix property to the city of Raleigh was accomplished on May 5, 2015,   I am looking forward to the day we will have an opera house built in Dix Park, NC’s answer to the NY’s Central Park. With such a venue, we can not only do the more lavish and demanding Wagner operas, but stage 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. I have yet to see any opera in America by Michael Tippett, Hans Verner Henze and Olivier Messiaen (I saw his Saint Francois D’Assie in Paris several years ago), and other composers.

Meantime, Happy 204th Birthday to Richard Wagner!

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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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“Monday Musings” for Monday May 15, 2017
Volume VII, No. 20/332

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INTELLECTUAL HISTORY

CRITIQUE, REVIEW AND COMMENTARIES ON JAMES O’DONNELL’S BIOGRPAHY OF SAINT AUGUSTINE, THE GREAT THEOLOGIAN OF THE 4TH AND 5THCENTURY.

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

Augustine, A New Biography
By James J. O’Donnell
USA $26.95
336 pages of text
Four pages of explanation of abbreviations, 36 pages of notes and 20 pages of index
HapersCollins, Publishers Inc., NY

If there were a Mount Rushmore for scholars of Saint Augustine, the four heads would be the likeness of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) Benedictine Monk, Guibert de Nogent  (1115-1195) Thomas Merton (1915-1968) and James J. O’Donnell (1950-) the author of this deeply scholarly, yet delightful book.

But there is something different about O’Donnell.  He is an Augustinian scholar with an attitude.  His day job is the difficult and demanding post, Provost of Georgetown University in DC, dealing with faculty hiring, appointments, administration and all the things provosts of vast and complex universities do.  Besides, he serves on many boards dealing with the classics and the humanities, among them the National Humanities Center Board where as a fellow Board member, I came to put a face on the vast body of his writings on various subjects, including Augustine, philology and classics. O’Donnell is a product of Jesuit education.  He seems to be on a mega dose of intellectual steroids.  I have attempted, yes, attempted, to read his extensive commentary about Augustine, in Latin, which he edited in three volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992) with only a moderate amount of success.  The first volume of this monumental work contains the Latin text of the thirteen books that comprise Augustine’s Confessions.  The second and third volumes are a systematic, line by line commentary, with particular emphasis on the relationship between Confessions and other works of Augustine.  Some of the Augustinian scholars, including the very learned Maria Boulding, O. S. B., refer to O’Donnell’s three volume work as “magisterial writings.“ “Professor James J. O’Donnell’s three volumes…Will transform the task of translation for generations to come…” she said.  I am still reading them, and will let you know when I finish.  You are in for a treat when my review of those three volumes comes out.

The book starts with a prologue, followed by 12 chapters, and an epilogue.  We are accustomed to think of Augustine’s Confessions as his autobiography with the first nine books as narratives and the last four books, meditative and reflective.  The last four books discuss philosophical and theological issues of timeand memory.  They expose the reader to Augustine’s deeply moving and intellectually rich Biblical interpretations.  In this book, O’Donnell brings the essence of Augustine’s Confessions on stage, just like the unfolding of a theatre masterpiece, with intact dialogue and superb scenery.  It demonstrates Augustine’s painstaking attention and almost obsession with confession of sins, confession of faith and confession of praise.  O’Donnell, a master rhetorician, himself, skillfully demonstrates his subject’s reverential devotion to the notion that it is the redemptive power of God which ultimately brings mankind grace and salvation.

During my student days at College Saint Louis, a French Jesuit school in Tehran, I bought a copy of Augustine’s Confessions not for scholarship and a burning desire to acquire wisdom, but for the purported sexual and salacious material.  I was disappointed that I did not find any, and to this day I have not found any.  I am happy to report that reading the Confessions invariably makes the reader a better and a wiser person!

Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, born November 4, 354, in Tagaste, modern Souk Ahra, or Annaba, was an extremely intelligent young man, an “A” student through and through.  His father, Patricius, not a Christian, was a minor landowner and middle class citizen.  In Confessions, he is only a bit player, although often praised for providing money to buy his son a superior education.  However, Augustine’s mother, Monnica, a Christian by birth and upbringing, was an influential woman in her son’s life.

Having been exposed to many religions including the mysticism of Sufi, Transcendence of Buddhist; persuasive, disciplined and focused approach of the Jesuits, consequential and pragmatic teachings of Moses and his followers, stoicism of monastic monks, in my mind, the road to matters Godly may be through mysticism, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, faith, and even physical fusion with God.  What I have learned from Augustine and his writings is that it is possible to embrace all these modalities at once.  Augustine teaches me, while thinking about the destination, how to enjoy the trip and the process of getting there.  Augustine is a consummate planner, traveler and traveling companion.  It is perfectly fine to get addicted to Augustine, as it is permissible to get addicted to opera, classical music, poetry and dance.  The tapestry of erudition, eloquence and faith, woven by Augustine is all of that to me.

Augustine died in 430, after a most interesting and fruitful life.  His influence, not only in the life of the church, but in literature, philosophy, linguistics and shaping of the intellectual lives of many generations after him, is remarkable.  While enamored by the teachings of Mani, he explored the ancient Greek philosophers and Platonists to find wisdom and truth, the truth, the ultimate truth.  He eventually found them in Christianity and was converted at the age of 31 in 386 A. D.

Many politicians and leaders who are war mongers, to justify their hostile policies and actions, often use the phrase “just war” which Augustine coined.  He coined another phrase, “original sin,” the bread and butter of generations of theologians to this date, and possibly for eternity, and “concupiscence” tendency for humans to be attracted to evil.   These commonly used concepts remain Augustine’s leitmotifs, just as Kleenex is to “tissue,” Freud to “psychoanalysis,” and Ford to “automobile.”  Augustine’s name is also eponymous with grace and salvation.  Regardless of what religion one practices, or in what part of the world one travels, when it comes to discussing grace and salvation, even in India and Southeast Asia, the name of Augustine surfaces automatically.  One can not resist admiring Augustine’s courage to lay his life on line, air all his dirty laundry, and tell all, including fathering a “bastard son,” discussing his “sexual addiction,” having a hard time resisting temptation.  The first nine books of Confessions are narrative and reportorial delving at length into his dalliance, and sexual misconduct.  By telling his life story, he wanted to altruistically benefit his fourth century Christian flock, immediately, and future generations of believers subsequently, if not eternally.  Stealing from his parents, having two mistresses and fathering a son out of wedlock, as will follow, occupy a great deal of space inConfessions.

Yet, O’Donnell brilliantly argues that Confessions is not about Augustine, his life, or his biography.  It is about his god (interestingly, god with little ’g’, and not ‘God’.)  The author claims that everything Augustine wrote, the corpus of his work exceeding 5.3 million words, compiled in more than 48 volumes of written work goes back to his god.  O’Donnell calls it Augustine’s “obsession.”  The author calls Augustine’s Confessions,written between 397 and 401, completed when he was 46 years old, “the first modern biography, and a classic of modern literature.”   The way O’Donnell presents Augustine’s writings is very interesting in that ultimately Augustine makes “god the center stage character of the discourse…”

Confessions” does not start with some lofty mystical premise, pontificating, preaching, or sounding like a commencement address, given by some wise and renowned theologian.  The entire 13 books is really a prayer that starts with the humble declarative sentence “inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te,“ “our heart is restless, until it rests in you,” and 80,000 words or so later, it ends with “Amen.”

In the course of searching  the ultimate truth and wisdom, Augustine struggled with Manicheans, Donotists, Pagans, Arians and studies of Caecilianism, pelagianism and Platonists.  These studies and encounters led him on the path of maturing intellectually, quieting down his temper and impulsive nature, and ultimately to the satisfying experience of conversion.  Augustine’s work in philosophical reflection of time, memory, and his book on “Trinity,” suggesting Father as memory; Son, as time; and Faith as the Holy Spirit and eternity (time frozen in the present) as well as his pamphlet ,“Teacher,” a dialogue with his son Adeodatus, are penetrating and stimulating reading.  Dante used Augustine’s perception of time in “Inferno,” Circle VI, canto IX and X to describe the nature of purgatory and hell through Augustinian prism.  As indicated above Dante would not be, if there were no Augustine.  As a footnote, another great, Martin Luther who was trained as a lawyer but turned into a theologian and musicologist/composer, and a Augustinian Friar, heavily incorporated Augustine’s style and theology in his prolific output

A Summary of the 13 Books of Confessions:

We must know that in 4th century Carthage was the center of the Roman Empire, which then spanned from the Irish Sea to the Persian Gulf.  Hippo, modern Algiers, was very much a part of Pax Romana.

Book I of the Confessions deals with Augustine’s birth, infancy and childhood.  There are many revealing stories in the pages of this book.  Also, there are many stories that arouse the readers’ antennae that are skillfully unwritten.  To do justice, the uninitiated should take a course on “how to Read Augustine’s Confessions!” The unwritten innuendoes are as important as the written stories.

As a child, Augustine went to a very good private school.   He was an excellent student.  He feared his teachers’ regular beatings. He recalls his first prayers as a child were to besiege god, “Don’t let the teacher hit me!”  He later refers to his childhood prayers as “selfish and self-serving,” concluding that it may be that many of our prayers throughout life are in that childish, self-centered and self-serving mold.  Similarly when in Book 4, he loses a very close friend to an untimely death, he becomes very sad and grief stricken.  Later, he realizes that his sadness was his anger for losing a loved one who was “good to me.”  He considered the whole process of grieving selfish and self-consuming.  The grieving process was not to benefit the lost friend, but to meet his own narcissistic needs.

He reports stealing pears from a neighbour’s yard, not because he was hungry, not because he needed the pears, but because it was “fun” for him and his buddies to steal.  He reports that he felt a sense of independence and freedom when he did what he wanted to do and he knew that he was not supposed to do.  He stole from his parents because it was “cool” and he could brag to his friends about his misdeeds.  Later on in Book VIII, after his conversion, he stated that he truly felt independent and free, what he longed for in childhood by stealing….  The notion of narcissism versus altruism, without using the words, dominates the theme of all 13 books.  In Augustine’s words, he had to struggle between good and evil all of his life.  He repeatedly talks about his prayers in his early youth as “god, what can you do for me?”  This goes on until book IX in which the death of his mother, Monnica, occurs.  He describes the scene with tenderness, shedding tears and experiencing a deep sense of loss.  It was only then that he realized that he was grieving the loss of his mother unselfishly.  This spiritual and personal growth continues through book XIII where his prayers change to “god, what can I do for you?” instead of his previous mode of “god, what can you do for me?”  If spreading the fruits of a penetrating intellect, unwavering faith and influential writings are any measure of unselfish giving, Augustine has given much not only to God, but to hundreds, if not thousands, of generations of mankind.   O’Donnell quotes Augustine, “I sinned in that I sought pleasure, exaltation, and truth not in god but in his creatures, and so I fell into pain,depression, and errors…”

Books II through V deal with Augustine’s adolescence and sexual awakening.  He elaborates on his sexual addiction, taking two mistresses, and engaging in affairs with married women.  He also speaks of his close friend Alypius’ addiction to violence frequenting gladiatorial games, and enjoying the sight of blood.  He also refers to his mother Monnica’s “wine swelling” habit, driving home the issue of addiction comparing it to links that formed a chain of evil suffocating him.

In Book III, Augustine goes to Cartage, a city of 400,000, much more sophisticated than Tagaste, population 44,000.  Possibilities of sexual intrigue were such that Monnica kept telling him not to have affairs, and to marry if he could not handle his sexual impulses.   “To Carthage I came and there crackled around me all sides the sizzling frying pan of sinful loves.  I was not in love, but I was in love with love…”  He took a mistress, lived with her, had a son Adeoditus (God sent) and continued his studies in rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, something akin to our law schools.

By the age of 28, Augustine had become a famous and able rhetorician.  In Carthage, he had a job as a high paying teacher to the children of the rich.  However, he was restlessly intrigued with philosophical issues, such as the nature of evil.  In the Book of Genesis, at the end of the sixth day, God proclaimed that all which He created was “good”.  This was puzzling to Augustine because he could not understand how evil can be good, simply because God created it. And all things created by God are supposed to be good.

This daunting puzzle made Augustine to intellectually fall in love with Manicheans, a branch of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, who espouse the dualistic theory of good and evil.  At the age of 18, he also ran across a book, Hortensius, by Cicero, the famed orator and rhetorician (106-43 BC),which is a brief biography of Quintus Hortensius Hortalus (114-43 BC), and fell in love with Cicero’s writings.  Augustine notes this event “a turning point of my life.”  He had other encounters with significant persons including a highly thought of and famous Manichean Bishop, Faustus.  He found him to be “empty.”   He described Faustus as a “false prophet,” with impeccable style of delivery and command of language, but his sermons and speeches had “no content.”

His road to intellectual inquiry led him to read Platonist philosophy recently translated from Greek to Latin.  Augustine was most impressed by the writings of the Platonists.   He is credited for establishing the historical connection between Athens and Jerusalem.  “I learned the truth of Christianity by reading pagan philosophers,” he professed.  However, while very impressed by the writings of Platonist philosophers, thinking of Socrates and Plato as “saints” of their days, Augustine remained restless and dissatisfied.   He had heard of a fellow rhetorician and colleague, Bishop Ambrose of Milan.  He decided with his friends, Victorinus and Alypius, went from Rome to Milan.  Augustine wanted to check out Bishop Ambrose (b. 337-340; d. 397) and see for himself if he is another phony Faustus, or is he really good as his reputation suggested.  If this were the case, he then wanted to learn to improve his own style.  He wanted to gain more skill in the art of persuasion.  He attended several sermons delivered by Ambrose, and became fascinated not only by Ambrose’s eloquence and style, but also by the content of his speeches.  This was the second most significant “turning point of my life,” he wrote (the first was reading Cicero’sHortensius.)

Books VII and VIII are the culmination of Augustine’s finding Paul, a Fellow convert (From Saul to Paul). In a mysterious possibly hallucinatory moment, he hears the voice of a child or children in a garden telling him “pick it up and read!”  And he did pick up the Bible.  It so happened that he opened the Bible to Paul’s passage in Romans 13, the famous command against “debauchery and lewdness.”  From this point the road for his conversion was wide open.  He, his close friend, Alypius, once addicted to gladiatorial violence, and several other friends, in the presence of his mother Monnica, converted to Christianity. Bishop Ambrose whom Augustine admired and saw as “the beacon of truth” officiated.  After a period of semi-monastic life style reminiscent of his hero, Saint Anthony of Desert, on his way back to Tagaste, Augustine was stopped in the strange city of Hippo.  It was a complete strange place to him.  However, his fame had preceded him.  The townspeople and the ailing Bishop Valerious asked him to stay in Hippo and succeed him as the next Bishop.  Thus was the beginning of Augustine’s service as the Bishop of Hippo (395-96).

Finally, the four meditative and reflective books IX-XIII dealing with time, memory, and theological and biblical issues cap this most fascinating compendium.  O’Donnell’s gift in taking a psychological scalpel and minutely dissecting the individual passages and lines written by Augustine takes the reader into the heart, brain and mind of the famous Bishop.  Augustine often reminds one of another genius, intellectual par excellence, who, too, was a convert.   Lorenzo Conegliano converted from Judaism to Catholicism at age 14.  You might know him as Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist for the three operas, Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutti.  Lorenzo, too, became a Catholic priest.  He, too, was addicted to sex and had many wives; concubines, paramours and mistresses while a priest.  His behaviour caused him to be excommunicated from the Church and defrocked from priesthood.  However, the parallel stops at the conversion.  De Ponte used his conversion narcissistically to advance himself.  Whereas Augustine’s conversion was a cleansing ritual after which he became a Bishop and served his flock.  Augustine chose celibacy and priesthood.  He wrote clearly that an addict can not and may not go back to moderation, and saw priesthood and celibacy as antidotes to his sexual addiction. After his conversion, he lived a semi-monastic life for a few years, and then began writing 48 volumes, more than five million words, now translated into more than 200 languages, in addition to his daily demands of being a Bishop.  There is no book, perhaps except the Bible, that has attracted more world wide attention than Augustine’s work, especially his Confessions and his other work of colossal proportion, over one thousand pages, “The City of God which he completed in 426, four years before his death.

In my daily clinical practice, treating any form of addiction, alcoholism, drugs, sex and our modern obsessive compulsive disorder, I frequently use Augustine’s writings to illustrate ways of correcting an errant and defective will.  After all, Augustine rid himself of his sexual addiction. He saw to it that his mother, Monica, give up her addiction to alcohol and his friend Alypius liberated himself from addiction to violence and gladiatorial fights.

The final colloquy which occurred before Monica’s death is a touching tribute to the uniting of the souls of Monicca and her son Augustine:

”If the tumult of the flesh fell silent for someone,
and silent too were the phantasms of earth, sea and air,
Silent the heavens,
And the very soul silent to itself,
that it might pass beyond itself by not thinking of its own being…”

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

For further reading:

If you wish to read the original text of Confessionsin Latin by Augustine himself, that would be the finest feat.  There is another version by Paulinus of Milan, who was the original biographer of Augustine.  It, too reads well.  The volume, of course, is available only in Latin.  In English: of all the translations I have seen (and there are literally hundreds of them) the one by Sister Maria Boulding (Vantage Book, 1997) has the highest fidelity to the original text.  Maria’s is a translation and not interpretation.  It is available in paper back.  Another author, Gary Wills, a scholar, has written 13 books each commenting on the individual 13 books of the Confessions. Gary is erudite, wise and “cool!”  I am sure you will enjoy visiting his volumes.  The Confessions are immortal, just like the Iliad and the Odyssey (see the allusion to both in the ‘Sacred Space’ column in the October 2007 issue, of WCP) and Aeneid and Dido…Other sources which I recommend are Pierre-Marie Hombert’s Nouvelles researches de chronology Augustiennes, and Francois Dolbeau.

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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 Mother’s Day

“Monday Musings” for Monday May 8, 2017
Volume VII, No. 19/331

mother

Happy Mother’s Day

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

(Editor’s Note: This year, Both Mother’s Day, May 14, and Richard Wagner’s birthday, May 22, deserve observance. We will devote today’s Musings to Mothers and the next week’s Musings to Richard Wagner, the anti-Semite genius whose character as a person was as loathsome as his music was admirable, if not transcendental.)

Mothers have a special place in the construction and fiber of every society– Western, Eastern, Northern, Southern. Way before the prophets of the Old Testament, Avesta, the Zoroastrian Bible, recorded the “lofty status of mothers before the shrine of Ahoura-Mazda . . .” In the writings of Cyrus the Great, the liberator of Jews from Babylon, who reigned nearly 2600 years ago, he repeatedly insisted that “The wisdom and love of mothers should be employed in all ranks and posts of the government…”

Mothers indeed were more than slaves who cooked and kept the children clean. In the court of Cyrus the Great, there were many mothers as high functionaries and Viziers (ministers). In the personal notes of Benjamin Franklin, credited for founding US Postal Services, he refers to Cyrus the Great the inventor of the postal service, and his first Postmaster General who was a woman by the name of Mithra.

In biological terms, the relationship between a mother and her fetus is unique and unparalleled. This is the ultimate in intimacy: fusion of two human beings, loving, protecting and nurturing of one person, the fetus, who is in the process of becoming, by another person, the mother. A pregnant woman–prospective mother– offers such an in depth and stirring example of “giving-of-one’s-self-totally-to-another” (altruism) that no psychiatrist or behavioral scientist has ever been able to fathom and explain. Freud has written much about women’s penis envy. I am afraid we men cannot have that ultimate form of intimacy in a relationship that women have. Only in recent years have we been looking at, and talking about, this form of ubiquitous pervasive envy that men unconsciously have, being blind to the fact that many men have womb (uterus) envy, that they hold for women.

Frankly, a pregnant woman is angelic in sight. The rich hormones estrogen, progesterone, oxytocin, and oodles of other corticosteroids make her soft, loving, lovable and pure. The mere appearance of a pregnant woman stirs all kinds of noble and altruistic feelings in others. We want to reach out and help, carry their baggage, compulsively ask about how far along they are, and many other brotherly and platonic gestures of love and compassion. I don’t know of any other sight that evokes more noble and altruistic feelings in mankind than the sight of a mother-to-be.

Mothers are saints. Have you noticed that at times of extreme stress, even the most powerful people immediately think of their mothers? This is almost a reflex reaction as commonplace as the knee jerk. When Napoleon Bonaparte was captured in Russia, he cried vociferously, “ou es tu, maman? . . .” “Mother, where are you?” In our own era, when the late former President Nixon was forced out of office, while almost crying, he spoke of “my mother was a saint …”, while 100 million people watched on TV. Much attention has been paid to this fairly inappropriate remark. However, it was most appropriate; because at the time of stress we tend to call on our most intimate and powerful friends. One’s mother, at the time of total impotence and distress is indeed the most intimate powerful and rescuing force.

Being a mother is the most important job on earth. It is also the least rewarded and the least recognized job by the western societies. It takes the nurturing, the selflessness, the staying up all night, the love and care of a mother to raise a child. No creature, under any circumstance, gives so much, so unselfishly, so constantly as does a mother.

My own mother, with whom I share the same birthday died in 1994 at the age 101. Kobra, who was always called Janbibi– means BiBi or Lady of the world-was never, ever, by any one in our family called by her given name Kobra, which would have been blasphemous–loved life. She loved music, dance, poetry, singing, chansons, and parties. And yes, she loved to travel. Like her parents, she, too, fed the poor and there were regular intervals when they made rice and lamb and served them in huge copper trays to the masses that would come to their vast court yard. Our mother was equally serious about knowledge, learning, education, and studying. She had us all memorize Hafez, Saadi, Rumi and of course, the Holy Quor’an. Right up to the last days of her life, when I would talk to her on the phone, after the preliminary exchange of greetings she wanted to know “What did you learn today?” or “What are you reading today?”…

A Personal Note

One of the myriad of things my mother has done for me is to sharpen my sense of observation and awareness. Often when climbing stairs together, when we reached the top of the stairs, she would say “Ageh gufti tchand ta pelleh? Can you tell me how many steps? We travelled together much and she counted the steps in all places- we climbed the 898 steps to the top of the Washington Monument; we climbed the 710 steps of Eiffel Tower in Paris, not only once, but several times; we climbed the 354 steps to the crown of the Statue of Liberty in NY, not to mention the 463 steps going up to the top of Duomo in Florence, Italy and the 285 steps separating the upper hilly Buda and the lower Pest, in Budapest, Hungary, just to name a few adventures…

Well, my mother’s gift, in addition to the gift of medical education which puts extremely high value on observation and encourages paying attention to detail of what one sees, as well as memorizing facts, have made me a quite aware human being. We (my brothers and sisters) have all read the Holy Quor’an over and over. Do we know how many times the name Allah has been invoked in the 114 Surahs –2,698 times. How many times the name Buddha is invoked in Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy book? Do we know how many words are in the 66 books of the Old and the New Testament, especially in the 1611 King James Translation? In the Old Testament there are 593,493 words and 181,253 in the New Testament giving a total of 774,746 words in the 66 books. I know many members of our families have travelled extensively. Well, in celebrating my heritage, I have set out to count the number of times the names of the Kings of Persia are invoked in the 66 books of the Bible. The result is astounding. Isaiah is the best press for the Old Persian kings. For example, Isaiah 45 is almost singularly devoted to the doings of King of Persia whom they called Messiah. Isaiah is pure PR and good press for the liberator King of Persia…In the book of Esther 3, Haman, assistant or Vizier to King of Persia, Ahashuerus, who hated Mordecai, shows how the wise king handled the dispute…At any rate according to my count there are dozens of references to the Kings of Persia in the Bible. The origins of the Persian months starting with Nisan (see my Monday Musings for Nowruz, March 21, 2017 which lists all the months of the Old Persian calendar) are all recorded in the Old Testament.

Today, as I recall my mother and with intoxication and spiritual élan, I celebrate that lady’s birthday. I wish all to be infused with love of knowledge, love of wisdom, love of sensitivity to the needs of others with beneficence and altruism. That would satisfy Kobra Meymandi, our Janbibi, and our Lady of The World. She was a magnificent teacher and learner. Right up to the last moment, she sang and wrote poetry. She had faith in herself, in her God and in her children.

Salute to all mothers.

Kobra Hanjari Meymandi died in 1994 at age 101. The Raleigh Concert Hall, home to the North Carolina Symphony which opened on February 21, 2001, was named for her.

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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 Significant Birthdays

“Monday Musings” for Monday May 1, 2017
Volume VII, No. 18/329

Liszt

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 now Advent leading to 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. 

Maestro Llewellyn conducted Beethoven ninth on three occasions last week 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 Dan Hauser. 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. His 9th 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.

Beethoven 9th is scheduled to be performed by the North Carolina Symphony and NC Master Chorale on April 20, 21, 22, 2017 in Raleigh.

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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 2016 recipient of the NC Awards, fine Arts.

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On the Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Monday Musings” for April 24, 2017
Volume VII, No. 17/328

Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – His Legacy of Noble Writing, Justice and Moderation

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

 

We could not let April to pass without remembering the phenomenal life of theologian Detrick Bonhoeffer:

Seventy two years ago April 9, 1945, on a gray morning during Easter week, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged. He was 30. Germany was on the verge of total defeat. But Hitler’s killing machine was still operating. Bonhoeffer was charged as a traitor to Hitler and to the Nazi regime. We are dedicating today’s “Monday Musings” to honor the memory of this outstanding scholar, theologian, Lutheran pastor and writer. Bonhoeffer was the son of a well to do and prominent German neurologist, professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Berlin and the director of the psychiatric clinic at Charité Hospital in Berlin, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer. Dietrich, with his twin sister, were the fifth and sixth of eight children. His mother, Paula von Hase, was a daughter of Klara von Hase, a Countess by marriage who had been a pupil of Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt Paula was a college graduate and home-schooled the children. The family was full of classical musicians and music advocates. He was in America in 1930, and later pastored miners and common people in Barcelona as a pastor and not academic theologian. He was interested in ecumenism. He concentrated on removing and neutralizing Hitler and his despotic regime.

Dietrich was an exceptional pianist, and his parents thought he might pursue a music career. He was also athletic and played championship tennis and chess. He was expected to follow his father into neurology and psychiatry, but he surprised and dismayed his parents when he decided by age of fourteen to become a theologian and later a pastor. When his older brother told him not to waste his life in such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the Church”, 14-year-old Dietrich replied: “If what you say is true, I shall reform it!” What we learn from his later life, he was a martyr, too. Just like Socrates who had a chance to escape the prison where he was awaiting death sentence on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens, Dietrich, too, had a chance to accept the help of the World Council of Churches and flee to US. But he did not. He waited his trial, spending two years in jail before his execution. During his time in jail, he wrote a series of articles and treatises about human rights and humanities that approach Socratic dialogues in their eloquence and Plato’s Republic in the beauty of poetry and linguistic supremacy. From prison, he also wrote love letters to his twin sister. The collection of these letters and the ones written to other members of his family and friends provide superb reading to understand the potential strength of conscience and man’s devotion to the truth. And the truth to him was that the Nazi Regime was despotic in need of elimination. He was a participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism and a founding member of the Confessing Church. His involvement in plans by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler resulted in his arrest in April 1943 and his subsequent execution by hanging in April 1945, 23 days before the Nazis’ surrender. However, recent research now challenges the assumption that he was directly involved in the assassination attempt. His view of Christianity’s role in the secular world is well-known. He did not advocate theocracy, but strongly suggested that humanity ought to be governed by laws that are fair, righteous and moral. As a matter of fact, the last thing he did before approaching the gallows, he was reading from his pocket edition of Plutarch, and was quoting from Bible. Faithful readers of this space recall that we reviewed Plutarch book “Moralia”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was reading passages from that book before his execution.

Bonhoeffer has written 25 books all worth reading and re-reading. From the collection, I find myself going back to two volumes, Act and Being. Like any classic literature, Bonhoeffer’s writings have a theme, are written with elevated and noble language, and change the lives of the readers. His pen continues to speak to us today.

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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 MacCulloch’s “Christianity, The First 3000 Years”

“Monday Musings” for Monday April 17, 2017
Volume VII. No. 16/327

bible

 A Special Book for Easter

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

Christianity, The First 3000 Years
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
1184 pages
Viking
$40.00

Happy Easter and joyous reading!

Introduction

Faithful readers recall the review of Paul Johnson’s Book History of Christianity, 600 pages long, which we presented previously. In that book, the author has favored Reformation, Martin Luther, and Protestantism. We now have another colossal work, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1184 pages, Christianity, The First 3,000 Years, in which one detects strong anti-Catholic bias.  However, undeniably, the book is a landmark in its field, astonishing in its range, compulsively readable, full of insight and points of interest for the general reader. It is not the over-illustrated coffee-table type book you might expect. The book is scholarly, dense, yet written in a readable and engaging style, but not as well written as Plato’s Republic or Edward Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. The impressive volume provides an excellent overview of Christianity. It is most appropriate reading for Easter.

The book begins with Judaism and Greek philosophy, giving the background to the remarkable historical phenomenology of Christendom.  It is prodigious, thrilling, and gives the reader a master class of a history without leaving one’s chair. MacCulloch is to be congratulated for his accessible handling of so much complex and difficult material. This is a book generous in detail and sound in judgment. It fills the gaps that heretofore existed in history of religion.

The content

The book consists of seven parts. The first part is about “A Millennium of Beginnings” (1000 BCE-100CE).  In this part the history of the Greek beginnings, Rome and the coming of the Roman Empire are discussed.

In the second part Israel (100-1000 CE) is examined. The second part, “One Church, One Faith, One Lord?”, examines the lives of Jesus, Paul, Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation, and the Jewish Revolt and the End of Jerusalem, and finally the Imperial Church, Constantine and Papacy.

In part three, “Vanishing Futures: East and South (451-1500)”, a close examination of Asia and Africa, church fathers such as Saint Augustine of Hippo, emergence of Islam in 620 CE, the Church of China, Mongols and Islam in Africa are scrutinized.

Part four, “The Unpredictable Rise of Rome” (300-1300), the making of Latin Christianity, Latin Christendom and “The church of All People” are painstakingly dissected.

Part five, “The Imperial Faith” (451-1800), the emergence of the new Rome, Orthodoxy and the Russian Church are examined.

Part six “Western Christianity Dismembered” (1300-1800), Martin Luther, Reformation, Papal monarchy, Wittenberg and Luther’s 95 questions/theses, and other reformers are discussed.

Part seven, “God in the Dock”, (1492-present), the author examines the Age of Enlightenment, Judaism, Skepticism, and Deism, crowning the section with a more precise dissection and deeper understanding of the roots of religion in America’s deep south. It also gives the reader an understanding of evangelical fervor and culture wars. The book has 67 illustrations, maps and paintings. The text is 1014 pages, the alphabetically arranged notes are 89 pages, and 49 pages of index, plus introduction, totaling 1185 pages

The title of the book, Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years, is fascinating if not intellectually challenging. We know that Christianity is only 2000 years old. Where does the author get 3000 years of Christianity? At first glance, the reader knows not whether the author is going to address 1000 BC to today or from the beginning of Christianity until one thousand years from now. Well, in this review I will attempt to answer that very question. The title refers to the former, one thousand years before Christ until today. The author skillfully documents that there was Christianity before Christ. There was a Socrates whom many historians and theologians including Soren Kierkegaard call Saint Socrates. As a matter of fact, Soren wrote his PhD thesis “On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates”.  Soren was a Socrates “groupie”!  We know that Socrates is exalted because of his reverential devotion to teaching enlightenment to his young students for which he was accused, tried and executed. MacCulloch’s “alternative” religious history, favoring the Catholic Church, holds that Christianity really began 3000 years ago. He asserts that before Christ there was a Jewish God, Yahweh, and a Greek God. There were prophets such as the Persian prophet Zarathustra and there were other prophets of the Old Testament Bible such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, etc., all of whom he calls precursors to Christianity which came on the scene 2000 years ago.

MacCulloch devotes considerable space to examine how Christianity has spread throughout the globe. He follows this spread, starting with the origins of the Hebrew Bible, tracing the three main religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, filling in often neglected accounts, including conversions and confrontations in Africa and Asia. He also explains the Crusades. Further, Mr. MacCulloch looks at the roots of the faith that galvanized America, charting the rise of the evangelical movement from its origins in Germany and England to the southern plains of America. In his book, MacCulloch explains that Christianity, one of the world’s great religions, has had an incalculable impact on human history. In a systematic manner, the author devotes several chapters to the main ideas and personalities of Christian history. As cited above, other chapters are given to the organization and spirituality of the church, and how Christianity has changed politics, sex, and human society. The author’s range of discussion spans from Palestine in the first century to India in the third; from Damascus to China in the seventh century; and from San Francisco to Korea in the twentieth.

Global History of Christianity

In my view this huge volume is the first truly global history of Christianity. This formidable compendium is the most comprehensive and up to date single volume work in English that presents the development of Christian history differently from any of its predecessors. The author shows how, after a semblance of unity in its earliest centuries, the Christian Church divided during the next 1400 years into three increasingly distanced parts, of which the western Church was by no means always the most important. He observes that at the end of the first eight centuries of Christian history, Baghdad might have seemed a more likely capital for worldwide Christianity than Rome. He concludes that all in all, Christianity is a landmark in the history of the faith that continues to shape the world.

It is comforting to have MacCulloch’s complementary history of the Christian Church.  MacDiarmid MacCulloch is a better writer than Paul Johnson, and his book is a lively and entertaining effort. On the downside, unfortunately, there is a strong anti-Catholic bias throughout his work which is even more disturbing than Johnson’s pro-Catholic stance. In fact, there are several passages in the book that almost give you the impression that MacCulloch must have been writing them with a permanent sneer on his face. In summary, if you are English and Protestant and believe that the best thing that happened to England was the Reformation, then you will probably love this book. If not, the author’s multiple biases and prejudices will probably grate on you. I consider the book a triumphantly executed achievement.

Strengths and weaknesses of this very impressive and comprehensive text are many. I have read Edward Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” starting in my native tongue of Farsi then in French and finally in English, many times. Gibbon’s English syntax is delicious reminding the reader of lyrical poetic writings of Plato in Republic. Well, I found the use of language in this book to be dry and matter of fact. The syntactic enjoyment is lacking! On the other hand I learned more about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire by reading this book, than reading Gibbon’s work. Another weak or prejudicial point is that I found references are lacking or outright non-existent. The scholarly world knows that the father of Skepticism is Al-Ghazali, (1058-1111), the Persian poet, theologian and philosopher. Yet in Part seven of the book, discussion of Skepticism, there is no mention of either Al-Ghazali or Al-Farabi (870-950).

Finally, to the members of my family and close friends who received this review in advance, I wrote “If you want a delicious book, a feast of a book, a sumptuous and exciting intellectual and spiritual banquet for you and for your family, this book is it!—especially if you read it along with Paul Johnson’s book either back to back or simultaneously—“  Another attraction the book has for me is that it is about the Bible, a book which I truly enjoy and admire. In a recent interview for a national magazine, the interviewer’s last question was

“If you were forced to live on a deserted island and were allowed to bring one book, one selection of music, and one piece of artwork, what would they be?”

Book     That book has not been written. It would be a book containing the genomic display of all the biblical (Old and New Testaments) characters including Christ. If it is not written by the time I am assigned to a deserted island, I will take pen and paper to write it myself. Nobel Laureate, Craig Venter, whose book I have reviewed in this space, has given us a taste of that venture. Since I have not written that book and it is not yet available, I guess I will settle for the Bible, an amazingly comprehensive and complex book.  For example, there are 114 references to King Cyrus of Persia alone in the Bible (see Isaiah 45 where Cyrus the Great is called Messiah).

Music:   Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece of transcendent theology, musical genius, bringing the message of hope, promise, possibility and redemption to all humans. I have already devoted space to dissecting this truly miraculous opus magnum.

Art:  Pietà, by Michelangelo.

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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 Potpourri: Literary Concerns

Monday Musings for Monday April 10, 2017
Volume VII. No. 15/327\

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Potpourri: Literary Concerns

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

 

The Birth of Existentialism

I am delighted to know that many of our readers are pleased with our occasional philosophical discourse.  After all, philosophy means literally “love of wisdom.”  Wisdom is not information, it is not knowledge; yet it is both of those, and more.

It is gratifying to receive reader’s mail who ask for more discussion of people who have made a difference in this world.  People like Soren Kierkegaard, born 1813, died 1855, a brilliant sarcastic, humorous and incredibly prolific thinker theologian/philosopher.  He, along with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976—I once went to Berlin to meet and talk with him), Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1950) and Albert Camu (1913-1960) are the four horses of Existentialism, all of whom give credit to St Augustine of Hippo for their start and cutting their teeth in understanding the basic premises and principles of existentialism… Soren used to write books pseudonymously, and then critique them harshly, calling the writer of the books, meaning himself, a no good “oeuf”…

A writer asked about Manicheans.  The reader was stimulated by my review of James O’Donnell’s Book on the life of Saint Augustine which appeared in WCP in this space.  Yes, Saint Augustine of Hippo for 14 years of his life, between ages of 18 (372) and 32 (386, the year he converted to Christianity) was a Manichean.  Augustine was baptized by Bishop Ambrose of Milan on Easter morning 387.

Mani was a Persian. He was born and raised near today’s Basra which was a part of the Persian Empire.  The religion is heavily based on Zoroastrianism and Zoroaster (Zaratustra) dualistic approach to heaven and earth, good and evil, body and soul… He is purported to have gone to China and converted Turan Shah of China (Puccinin’s Turandot which is really Turan-dokht, the daughter of Turan) is based on this Emperor’s daughter.  Manicheans were sophisticated and learned.  They often ridiculed Christians and their ”faith.”  Manichians were highly educated, most master-rhetors, engaged in the art of persuasion, like today’s law professors. They believed in dualism, rationalism and materialism.  Augustine’s corpus of work contains19 volumes refuting Manicheans, Donatists, Palagirists and Arians. It makes for stimulating reading and ultimately giving reader a roadmap to true wisdom.

 Greed/Financial Dysfunction

I need help to understand a few things about our financial system. While stocks have lost about 50% of their value in one year, and many 401 K for the middle class American workers were wiped out, the salaries and compensations of the CEOs who caused this chaos went up. Let me quote some of these salaries from published statistics, US Department of Labor:

Lloyd Blankfein, Chair and CEO, Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. received $68.0 million dollars in compensation, and when the company failed the federal government pumped in $10 billion dollars to rescue it.  Similarly, James Dimon, Chair and CEO, J. P. Morgan Chase & Co., $30.4 million in compensation and $25 billion government bail out; Kenneth Lewis, Chair, CEO, Bank of America Corp., $16.4 million, $25 billion; John Mack, Chair & CEO, Morgan Stanley, $16 million, $10 billion; Vikram Pandit, CEO Citigroup, Inc, $5.7, with $25 billion bail out;  William McGuire, Chair and CEO, UnitedHealth $40.7 million; and another Merrill Lynch high flyer, Peter Kraus, head of strategy, $25 million, just to name a few.

What I don’t understand and would like for someone to explain to me is how could these people run their companies to the ground, cause millions of their shareholders to have their retirements wiped out and yet be rewarded and the government, without shame, bailed them out?  Please help.

Health care disaster in US

Your recent lead editorial was timely and thoughtful. But it failed to identify one of the most egregious and unwelcome causes of health care crisis and cost over-run. And that is the  “middle man”, such as the HMOs and the health insurance companies.  These huge  business enterprises with elaborate bureaucratic staffs and CEOs reward themselves  with millions of dollars a year compensation, bonuses, and fatten up their  pockets with back dating stock options, clearly an illegal and fraudulent  act, are the problem.

Just three weeks ago, United Health ex-CEO, William McGuire,  agreed to pay back 30 million in annual compensation he had received, and  forfeit 3.7 million dollars in stock option backdating. The dollars  that go to boost shareholder value and reward these huge billion dollar companies  should be re-routed to patient care. These Enron-type companies coming between patients and doctors  are many in number. They are poisonous to medical care. I submit  that all health care ”middle man” business entities and health insurance companies  ought to be reined in, if not eliminated, if there is any hope for the  critically ill US health care system. Unfortunately, neither Presidential  candidate’s plan offers much hope.

The Gift of Pistachio and a Pinch of Sufism

This is a personal note.  I know that it should be handwritten. But legibility becomes a problem.  I am writing to tell you how touched I was to receive your thoughtful card with your inserted personal note bearing syntactical elegance and rabbinical wisdom (Rabbi from Aramaic and later Hebrew roots means ‘My teacher’.)

Also thank you for the gift of pistachios, every individual kernel depicting the Hafez poem” Pesteh Khandan.” Pistachios were known to Sumerians.  There are records in cuneioform (spike or Mikhi) alphabet what scholars have interpreted to be pistachio associated with green color.  Sanskrit word PESTEH is the etymology of our word pistachio.  During Achamenid Dynasty, in Persia, Shiraz became the center for growing groves of pistachio trees.  And in the pre-Islamic world, they used to ferment and make a wine from pistachio.  There was and continues to be to this day, one species of pistachio that actually opens in the pod/shell on the tree before they are picked.  They are called “laughing or smiling pistachios.”  The Shiraz poets such as Mosleh-Din Saadi (1210-1290) and Khajeh Shams-Din-Hafez (1337-1406) have romanced this species of pistachio as the smiling or laughing(KHANDAN) fruit.  As one can see, a cracked pistachio looks like a smiling face.

Saadi and Hafez were Sufis.  Sufi philosophy has given birth to the discourse and science of “ontology.”   For the last 1200 years, it has evolved the beatific message“to be in the world but not of the world.”  Sufism invites, encourages, and teaches the art and skill of “being” as a contradistinction of “doing.”  We need to set aside time for introspection and reflection…All one’s “doings” should be in the ultimate service of “being” and “becoming”….

Rumi, one of the most eloquent and influential Masters of Sufi in relation to ontology and being said: “Blessed are those who are in a state of constant worship….for the very act of worship is the essence is self-awareness and self-knowledge…”.  I must assert that Rumi is very much exploited by literary charlatans and marketers who pose as Rumi authorities, yet do not know a word of Farsi language!)

May your faces like Hafez’ Pesteh be Khandan, smiling and happy forever.

 Etymology of the word “religion”,

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and John Calvin (1509-1564), two disparate theologians of the 13th and 16th centuries, along with Persian physician Abu Ali Sina, Avicenna (980-1037), the famed medical diagnostician and clinician of the eleventh century have written independent treatises on the “religion.”  Here is a summary of their work on the topic

The etymology of the word “religion”, re-ligion”; re: again, ligating: binding, connecting (surgeons ligate veins and tie up arteries); thus, re-connecting, re-binding, re-attaching…what to what is the question. Perhaps to the beatific vision of eternity and transcendence of love…

 A Euro for Asia

The wire services just unloaded a very heart warming and personal story: Robert Mundel, Ragan’s Chairman of Economic advisors, father of trickle down Rageanonomics (Ibn Khaldoun ‘1332-1406’ was the real father, Robert Mundel was a promulgator!), but he was the true father of the “Euro”, the 1999 Nobel Laureate in Economics, is now back in the news.  He wants to foster or father the equivalent currency of Euro for Asi Asia.  The name has not been conceived. The Sultan of Abu Dhabi, owner of the multi-trillion dollar “Sovereign Fund” which has been rescuing American Banks and Financial institutions (including Bank of America, UBS, CitiBank, and Washington Mutual) is behind the effort.

A personal note: We had the privilege of having lunch with Dr. Mundel in his Palladian villa in Italy on Friday June 25, 1992.  It was a memorable occasion.

Joy of Death: Is it an oxymoron?

 Many years ago, Randy Pausch’s name was being considered by some members of the National Humanities Center Nominating Committee for membership to the Board before we learned that he was dying. I was fortunate to be in the audience when he gave his “Last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon.  It was a fascinating experience.  He was a picture of health. He did summersaults and push ups during his lecture, and at the conclusion of his speech, carried his wife off the stage. It is very sad that he died. Yet, it is glorious the way he lived and the legacy he left for us.  I am reviewing his book which will appear in a future issue of WCP.

The Dope on Cannabis

In response to a reader’s question about cannabis and alcohol:

The scholarship on cannabis and data-driven research on this controversial drug show that cannabis may and does affect not only the higher cortical structures but also the subcortical parts of the brain, what is known as the Limbic system, causing bipolar disorder (radical mood swings and irrational and impulsive behaviour) but actual psychosis. Alcohol has the same adverse effects on the brain through different pathways.  So, I really condemn both. I am absolutely against legalizing cannabis. I would be happy to give you reference to these studies. A drunken parent should not hypocritically admonish a pothead child.  It does not work. This is one of the astonishing teachings of Saint Augustine of Hippo, the ultimate role model to humankind.  Although he was addicted to sex, after his conversion to Christianity and soon after becoming a Bishop, he had enough discipline to stop sex altogether. The same, I condemn tobacco and its ill effects on the body in general. However, I guess the reason tobacco is not banned is that it does NOT cause bipolar disorder and psychosis.  Some states are legalizing the use of cannabis because it is a cash cow and produces huge tax  revenues.

The ultimate answer to these problems is education which starts in utero.  Mamas must adopt Augustinian discipline to love themselves and their fetus(es), stop tobacco, alcohol and over-eating while they are pregnant, and continue to be role models to their children.

Hypocrisy and Greed of University Leaders

I am opposed to lowering drinking age in college as many, including 100 college and university leaders, promote. While prohibition is often counterproductive, I believe the answer to binging, abuse and unreasonable use of alcohol is education. The answer also lies in curtailing greed and hunger for money. The University leaders ought to cut out advertising of beer from all TV sports. It is sheer greed to have alcohol products sponsoring sports events, and it is sheer hypocrisy for the university leaders to tolerate this practice because it produces revenue for their institutions. Ban alcohol ads from all television sports.

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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.

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On America and the English Language

Monday Musings for April 3, 2017
Volume VII, No. 14/326

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Love affair with the English Language

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

Today’s Musings are imbued with personal memories. They have to do with my choosing to come to America and study medicine, among other things. You see, I was not born an American. I chose to be an American. I entered the US on April 7, 1955 knowing ten English words.

In order to go to college and prepare for a medical education, I knew that I had to learn English rather quickly.  In months between April and September, when college opened, I memorized the 285,000 words of the 1955 edition of the Oxford Dictionary. Later, I expanded this knowledge and learned the etymology of practically every one of those words.  Soon, I learned that Dr. Samuel Johnson, exactly 200 years before my date of entry, namely April 7, 1755, had compiled the first English Dictionary. The very first edition of the Oxford Dictionary was compiled in 1857 a la Dr. Johnson’s original compendium. I found a copy of that precious book through the Library of Congress. The edition contains 50,000 words. I enjoyed memorizing it, also, and forming an adoring relationship with the work of the late Dr. Johnson.  As an aside, the original Dr. Johnson’s 50,000 word dictionary was a part of the personal library of Thomas Jefferson sold to US Government, which became the germinating seed of our beloved US Library of Congress.

Three years were spent in college pre-medical education with majors in English and Chemistry. I entered medical school in 1958. In 1962, exactly seven years after coming to the US, I had earned Doctor of Medicine (MD).

My intense experience with the English language brought me close to much older and wiser linguists and university professors. Among them was the late Samuel Hayakawa, the then Chancellor of San Francisco State University, who in 1977 became A US Senator from California. He used to get a kick out of my referring to him as the semi-somnolent septuagenarian, Senator Samuel Hayakawa. I wrote a letter to Hayakawa, and to our own, then Senator, Jesse Helms, who also knew something about my love of the English language, suggesting that they sponsor a bill to make English the official language of America. I even sent some money to facilitate expenses associated with the authorship of the bill, etc…I believe it was 1979 when they invited me to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee. It never tool place and the bill never passed.

In my testimonies, instead of concentrating on the importance of the subject matter, the solons enjoyed my ability to close my eyes and recite page after page of the Oxford Dictionary, “octave, octennial, octet, octillion, octillionth, October, octodecimo, octogenarian, octomerous, octoary, octoploid, octopod, octopus, octoroon, etc…”

With all my emotional and intellectual resources, I believe making English the official language of America is the most important issue in today’s political discourse. As citizens of this great nation,  we must know about our flag, our Founding Fathers and the US Constitution. I believe that to be an American, one must know the English language, know the bare essentials of the US Constitution, our Republic, the Bill of Rights and the story of the birth of this nation. What are the requirements to be an American? In my view, the catechism of being an American should consist of a good knowledge, if not verbatim memorization, of four documents. They are the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address.

Please feel free to call on me and use me as a reference to further this, what I consider to be a holy cause.

God Bless America!

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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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