Revenge!: “What’s Left?” December 2020

Anytime somebody bullies you, you should thank them every day. Right now, this bully is the only person in your life who’s giving you an actual challenge. Everybody else is anesthetizing you; hugging the power out of you; making you weak. You think the struggle of living in the world gets easier? People stop giving you a hard time? Learn to stand up for yourself now and give it right back to them. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

—“D” (“Darius Pringle”), character, TV show Chance

Nothing inspires forgiveness quite like revenge.

—Scott Adams

I was a Sunday school Catholic. My parents were Catholic enough that they wanted me to get all the pre-majority sacraments—baptism, penance, holy communion, and confirmation. But they weren’t Catholic enough to send me to parochial school. So I went to public school and learned what rigamarole I needed to acquire those sacraments by attending Sunday school. Of those first four, penance and communion were a most peculiar combination. Once it was explained to me that we confessed our sins secretly to god via a priest and were absolved by saying x amount of Hail Mary’s and eating a wafer, I realized how rife for corruption that arrangement was. Penance, followed by communion, meant that any sin could be conveniently pardoned. Or as Grigory Rasputin played it—the greater the sin, the greater the repentance, the greater the spiritual salvation.

Rituals of forgiveness are part of various religious traditions. Christians are told to consider “what would Jesus do?” and then follow his teachings to “turn the other cheek.” Nelson Mandela is thus exalted as Christ-like for forgiving the apartheid criminals who held him in prison for 27 years. Quasi-religious organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous insist on “making amends”—per AA’s Steps Eight and Nine—in order to make a full recovery from drug addiction. I didn’t buy into AA to get sober, and I gave up Catholicism for Lent long ago. So I’m leery of the white bread Christian advice for victims to “forgive and forget.”  I’m more favorable toward Jewish customs of forgiveness, typified by Yom Kippur, because Judaism puts the onus to forgive and forget onto the perpetrator rather than the victim. The point is not “WWJD?” but “doing the right thing.” First, unlike the private and personal aspects of forgiveness in Christianity, forgiveness in Judaism is a communitarian affair, practiced publicly as well as privately in front of the whole congregation. The perpetrator is obligated to do everything in their power to make a sincere effort at repentance (teshuvah, or “return”) in order to earn forgiveness, apologizing not to god but directly to the people they have harmed. The perpetrator is commanded to ask for forgiveness three times and enjoined never to forget the wrong they have done. Only then is the victim required by Jewish law (halakhah) to forgive.

Finally, certain crimes like the Nazi Holocaust cannot be forgiven. According to Yerachmiel Gorelik no individual Nazi has ever demonstrated the level of “remorse, contrition and superhuman determination to make amends” worthy of forgiveness. So to forgive the Nazis for their crimes would be to dishonor their victims and debase our own sense of right and wrong. Compare this to the Catholic attitude that all “sins”—including murder—are forgivable through the sacraments, provided that the perpetrator sincerely repents and promises not to do it again. The only sin that cannot be forgiven is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Yet one more reason why I’m no longer Catholic.

I rarely forgive and I never forget. This has nothing to do with morality or ethics. I just think that forgiveness is overrated. I don’t buy the crap that forgiveness is needed in order for a victim to heal, move on or get closure. Forgiveness is not divine.

I don’t accept the psychology behind the notion that forgiveness is a good thing. The process of forgiveness requires the mutual acknowledgement that an offense has been committed and that the perpetrator is wrong while the victim is right. But the perpetrator and their victim never really see the crime in question the same way. The perpetrator often doesn’t see what they did as wrong, or as really wrong. They may even feel justified in doing what they did, and they may not be as grateful for the victim’s forgiveness as does the victim. And although elated at being right and thus holding the moral high ground, the victim often doesn’t see their own forgiveness quite as thoroughgoing as the victim would want. This leads to unconscious resentments that manifest as frustration, irritation, impatience, aloofness or unwillingness to assist. Given the impossibility of ever truly forgetting the offense, the victim may harbor an unrequited desire for revenge. None of this is healthy, conducive to moving on, or amenable to closure.

If it’s impossible to forgive and forget, then are there alternatives?

The first option is to understand the perpetrator without forgiving them. However, knowing one’s enemy is important, but not very satisfying. Paul Jacobs, co-founder of Mother Jones, soundly dismissed the notion that communication and reaching out to talk to one’s foes are any kind of panacea. “Whenever I ‘communicate’ with my enemies I realize they’re the sons-of-bitches I knew they were from the start.” Understanding the enemy is good for planning an attack, or in this case revenge.

Revenge is actually a quite satisfying solution. One that I’ve had lots of experience dispensing. As a late hippie I used to say “I’ll be mellow when I’m dead.” And as an early punk I identified with the Johnny Rotten/PiL lyric “anger is an energy.” I’ve always had a strong aggro streak. Combine that with rarely letting doubts get in the way of taking direct action, and revenge has been my preferred response. Anger isn’t necessarily bad so long as it has an outlet and isn’t allowed to fester. Gandhi may or may not have said “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” but I’ve tried to be a little more creative with my revenge than straight up tit-for-tat retaliation. I’ve been known to counterattack in the heat of the moment but I’m also a big fan of the sentiment that “revenge is a dish best served cold.”

But in taking stock of the trail of mayhem I’ve left in my life I’ve concluded that revenge is not the best response. So let’s explore two more choices, given that forgetting is never an option and forgiving may or may not have anything to do with healing, moving on, or finding closure.  Feeling hurt, betrayed or abused for myself or others engenders a sense of loss and grief that needs to be dealt with in its own right.

One possibility is traditional ritual which has been updated with the concept of process. Returning to Judaism, there is a well-defined ritual of mourning, from aninut and sitting shiva to reciting the Kaddish and observing Yom Kippur. Rituals of bereavement have been secularized and modernized with the “five stages of grief” model first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. When my parents died I lit candles, joined a grief support group for almost a year and wrote a novel. Both ritual and process involve time, which validates one more old maxim: “time heals all wounds.” I don’t forgive in lieu of a sincere apology, but time does soften the outrage I feel for the harm and injury I can never forget. Over time, as acceptance replaces forgiveness, the desire for revenge lessens.

I’m a recovering Catholic who admires the Jewish approach to forgiveness and grief. I’m also an atheist who takes a lot from Buddhism. The Buddhist approach to grief is to accept it as a terrible gift that, if denied, “rob[s] ourselves of the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion” according to Joan Halifax. Detached compassion is recommended instead of forgiveness in a parable cited by spiritual leader Ravi Shankar. A businessman abused Gautama for leading the man’s children astray. When the businessman subsequently asked to be forgiven, Buddha said ‘No! I cannot excuse you! Why should I forgive you when you have done nothing wrong!” Gautama suggested that the person the businessman abused “is not here now.” To say “I forgive you” is to trade on the perpetrator’s guilt, while compassion means ignoring the issue of guilt altogether. Finally, Ken McLeod writes in “Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist” that the “meaning of forgiveness is grounded in the language of debt” and self-interest. “[B]y importing the foreign (to Buddhism) notion of forgiveness, contemporary Buddhists are unwittingly importing a very different system of thought and practice and undermining the powerful mystical practices in Buddhism that may have inspired them in the first place.” Instead of forgiveness, McLeod recommends a proper understanding of how karma works, and practices of unceasing spiritual purification.

Grief work and detached compassion reframe the issue of forgiveness. I’ll conclude with another “Darius Pringle” quote: “Life gives us choices, defines us by the ones we make. And yet we make them all in complete uncertainty.”


Personal recollections
On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
, TV series by Kem Nunn and Alexandra Cunningham
“Exploring the complexities of forgiveness” by Yerachmiel Gorelik
“Why Forgiveness is Overrated” by Erica Manfred
“Why Forgiveness is Overrated” by Hannah Braime
“Why Forgiveness is Overrated” by Tim Hoffman
“When Buddha Refused To Forgive” by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
“Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist” by Ken McLeod





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The take off that didn’t: non-canonical codicil to MRR #443

I’m a proponent of world systems theory as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (Wallerstein, Amin, Arrighi, Frank et al). This theory is based on the analysis of longue durée commercial/industrial/financial “secular cycles” by Fernand Braudel who posited interlinked Venetian/Genoese (1250-1627), Dutch (1500-1733), British (1733-1896), and American (1850-present) cycles in the rise of the modern world capitalist economy. The so-called first Industrial Revolution (1750-1914) can be positioned firmly within the context of these cycles as a period of dynamic, sustained economic growth that Walt Rostow characterized as the “take-off” stage of world capitalism. Rostow’s analysis of the Industrial Revolution’s origins, in turn, reads remarkably similar to economic developments associated with the ebullient High Middle Ages (HMA; 1000-1300) when “urban life reemerged, long-distance commerce revived, business and manufacturing innovated, manorial agriculture matured, and population burgeoned, doubling or tripling” according to David Routt. So why didn’t European protocapitalism “take off” in a prequel economic explosion during the HMA?

One reason, of course, was the Great Famine (1315-17) and the magna pestilencia of the Black Death (1347-53) which together wiped out between one quarter and three quarters of Europe’s population. But I would argue that the worsening relationship between Christian Europe and the Jewish diaspora dating from the collapse of the western Roman Empire (300-476) through the Late Middle Ages (LMA; 1300-1500) was also a factor.

The Early Middle Ages (EMA; 500-1000) is sometimes called the Dark Ages. The EMA witnessed Europe slowly, painfully emerge after the collapse of the western Roman Empire and various Germanic barbarian invasions due to a consolidation of the Catholic Church with Charlemagne’s conquests that formed the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Neither holy, Roman, nor an empire (per Voltaire), the feudal HRE did try to reconcile Christianity and Judaism through various papal/imperial sicut Judaeis policies of religious toleration in western and central Europe. This resulted in installing the ethnic Jewish diaspora in its midst as a “middleman minority” to serve as an engine for protocapitalist development. The economic success of this “middleman minority” strategy in turn fostered resentment and reaction among Christian Europeans. The HRE’s costly Crusades (1095-1270) to recapture the “Holy Land” (the Levant) from Islam resulted in 50,000 Jews being slaughtered in the First Crusade’s (1095-99) Rhineland and Danube massacres and the siege of Jerusalem. The First Crusade is often considered a turning point in European Christian/Jewish relations.

Thus began an inchoate effort starting in the HMA to fully Christianize Europe’s feudal economy and its protocapitalist component by liquidating the Jewish “middleman minority.” This diffuse movement was associated often with growing if embroyonic national identities and sometimes with efforts at state formation. Jewish occupations were severely restricted, Jewish livelihood was marginalized, and the Jews themselves were massacred, then had their property confiscated through exorbitant taxation before being expelled from various feudal territories in western and central Europe. (Crimea, 1016, 1350; Silesia, 1159, 1494; England/Wales, 1290; France, 1306, 1322, 1394; Germany, 1348; Hungary, 1349, 1367; Austria, 1421; Cologne, 1426; Provence, 1430; Lithuania, 1445, 1495; Bavaria, 1450; Spain/Sardinia/Sicily, 1492; Portugal, 1497.) Marxists might notice the parallels of this with a process called primitive accumulation which preceded the formation of nation-states and national capitalist economies in Europe.

Ever worsening antisemitism became the order of the day. Jews were ghettoized, forced to wear special humiliating clothing, and forbidden contact with Christians. By the beginning of the LMA, the German and Russian cities of the Hanseatic League (1250-1650) were judenrein even as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gave refuge to Jews through the Statute of Kalisz. “That German commerce does not need the Jews is proven by the Fuggers, the Welsers, and the Hanseatic League, none of which succumbed to Jewish influence” wrote Konstantin von Gebsattel. Fernand Braudel noted: “There was no truly international economy before the Hanseatic League,” and also wrote that: “Genoa and Venice, in a parallel way, held the Mediterranean space necessary for their grandeur by force, or through the medium of merchant colonies.” He argued that “the world victory of the Atlantic” economy accounted for “the mortal blow to the Mediterranean space which surrounded Italy,” not the erratic persecution, restriction and expulsion of Jews in the Italian territories that marked “the displacement of chains and networks of Jewish merchants. But is it not rather that the success of Amsterdam attracted the Jews to settle there?”

Along with bankrupting Holy Crusades, a decimating Great Famine and the Black Death pandemic, other factors contributed to European protocapitalism not experiencing an industrial-style take-off by the end of the HMA/beginning of the LMA. These other factors included the Mongol invasion and the Hundred Year’s War. Oh yes, and feudalism itself was a major contributor, with its woefully immature state formation even in the LMA. Both the Baltic Hanseatic League and the Venetian/Genoese Mediterranean powerhouse were comprised of politically weak federations of rival city-states. But the often violent expropriation of minority Jewish capital by majority Christian capital certainly figured into the equation.

Raul Hilberg, in his three volume opus The Destruction of the European Jews, argued that the expropriation of the Jews was a necessary, connected precursor to their destruction. Yet he also wrote: “But what began in 1941 was a process of destruction not planned in advance, not organized centrally by any agency. There was no blueprint and there was no budget for destructive measures. They were taken step by step, one step at a time. Thus came about not so much a plan being carried out, but an incredible meeting of minds, a consensus – mind reading by a far-flung bureaucracy.” The same can be said about the history of the Jews in Europe throughout the Middle Ages up until the Nazi Holocaust, albeit as an even more dispersed process.

Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg both identified the primitive accumulation needed for the development of European capitalism with the expropriation of the peasantry starting at the end of the LMA. Let’s consider the expropriation of the Jews during the HMA a kind of primeval accumulation, one that actually hindered the transformation of European protocapitalism into capitalism proper. Whereas primitive accumulation relied on nothing more complicated than the direct expropriation of peasant lands through practices like the English enclosure movements, primeval accumulation required the wide ranging yet scattershot expropriation of highly networked Jewish diasporic capital that was commercial, industrial and financial. This Christianization of Jewish diasporic capital—along with Crusades, famine, pestilence, war and feudal insufficiencies—disrupted the continental economy, destroyed the wealth of the HMA and hindered capitalism’s take-off for several centuries.

Travels with Synesthesia: “What’s Left?” October 2017, MRR #413

I stood on an outdoor train platform surrounded by snow in my fever dream. The sky was black, speckled with white, either stars or snow. The ground was white flecked with black, and as I looked more closely at the snowy ground I grew distraught. It was like looking at white skin dotted with black pores, only the skin was like a sheet of greasy virginal Crisco and the black pits were putrefaction personified. I was deeply disturbed by the dual view, the juxtaposition of silky white as seen from a distance and black rot seen up close, and this ugly double vision had a smell, like burned hair.

It was a nightmare actually, the product of a bad case of measles when I was seven years old. When I startled from the terror of that dream, the combined view persisted well into my wakefulness and I had to shake myself, blink a number of times and crane my head back and forth, to finally dispel the affect. The fever produced a couple repeats of the nightmare while I was sick, but it was more upsetting when the night terrors returned when I was no longer ill. For a few years afterwards I had the horrible dream intermittently, complete with the frightening double vision and associated smell that continued after the dream woke me. I had to get out of bed each time and move around my room to make the hallucination dissipate.

It was my first experience of synesthesia. The twisted visual dream was intertwined with the smell, two senses linked together as one, the visual creating the olfactory. I was so freaked out about the double vision thing and preoccupied with preventing future nightmares that I didn’t notice the connection until well after I had managed to suppress the dream’s reoccurrence. I accidentally singed my hair as a fourteen-year-old adolescent pyromaniac playing with freelance rocket making and the stench immediately triggered a brief episode of double nightmare vision.

My second instance of synesthesia happened after I turned 18. I had just registered for the Vietnam draft, enrolled at Ventura Junior College in anticipation of transferring as a junior to UC Santa Cruz, and started hanging out with some high school friends now attending college who were part of Campus Crusade for Christ. They gently badgered me to attend prayer circles and bible studies, triggering my latent Catholic guilt feelings about everything from masturbation to experimenting with drugs. One Saturday afternoon, as I walked through the lemon and avocado groves near my home in deep, troubled contemplation, I was visited by god.

At least that’s how it felt at that moment. Everything around me became brilliant, clear, and sparkling. I felt immersed in everything around me, and simultaneously elevated above it all. I had a sense of personal calm, but not of peace. And there was a burning firewood and slightly fruity smell. I had the sensation of being in the presence of something vast and powerful and absolutely frightening, something with which I was in communion, something that was about to change my life. For the first time I understood the meaning of the word awe, a feeling of reverence and respect mixed with fear and trembling. It was not in any way a pleasant sensation. I was simultaneously overwhelmed, exalted, and terrified.

Thus began my brief stint as a born-again Christian, where being touched by god was inextricably linked to the smell of the burning bush. It quickly evaporated into my longstanding atheism as I ultimately tried to explain away my experience. The smell, well I was in the middle of a lemon grove so maybe there was some brush burning nearby. I eventually started taking psychedelics and noticed the similarity between those chemical experiences and my spiritual one, including lots of drug-induced synesthesia. But to call my mystical experience biochemically based doesn’t say much as all our experiences are ultimately biochemical in origin. Only when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Living with a Wild God much later did I reconcile myself to the possibility there are still mysteries to the universe to which I’m not privy.

I may never have been touched by god but I have been hammered by the migraine devil, a surefire cause for my synesthesia nowadays. I started getting migraines when I was around 43. They were rare, and both classic—with prodrome, aura, and excruciating headache—and intense, incapacitating me for 8 hours minimum. I became dissociative to the point of verbal and mental incoherence until I just went to sleep for the rest of the day, to wake sometime later with a horrific migraine hangover. Over the years, my migraines increased in frequency and decreased in severity, so that I now get one every month or so, each just a little bit of an aura and no appreciable, immediate headache. I have tried botox treatments and now do a micro-dose of an anti-convulsant drug.

A recent migraine started with sensitivity to light, then a dizzying head rush when I stood up, quickly converting to a sparkly scotoma complete with scintillating lights and jagged black-and-white anasazi lines, all sharply bordered into a blindspot that slowly floated across my vision. I had errands to run, but I took the time to let the brief aura dissipate. It did not automatically turn into a headache, but the disassociation started on the drive down the hill to a nearby commercial neighborhood. Everything appeared simultaneously vaguely familiar and utterly strange. I seemed to be in a Tyrolean Alpine village, odd and quaint, at the bottom of a deep, dark mountain ravine. And the crisp air was saturated with the odor of burnt metal.

The Greek prefix syn- means united, with, together, at the same time. Thanks to my migraines, I experience low level hallucinations and synesthesia intermittently, where my senses run together. Nothing like my childhood fever dreams or my adolescent altered states of consciousness, yet still a departure from reality. Even without the outright instances of synesthesia, I grasped that my sense of smell was somehow linked to my other senses, as when the shape of the trees in Golden Gate Park seemed connected to the park’s loamy smell, triggering vivid childhood memories from when I lived with my parents in San Francisco between the ages of three and six years old.

I realized early on that the real world wasn’t what it seemed to be, and might actually be much more than it seemed. I certainly didn’t arrive at the absurd belief that we create our own reality or that mind is the only reality, and I’m particularly disdainful of the post-truth assertion that simply believing something makes it so. Climate change, like gravity, is real, whether we believe in it or not. But it would be too facile to claim that my ability to juggle different points of view comes from these experiences of altered reality I’ve had throughout my life. I haven’t become any less tolerant of fascism simply because I can understand fascist ideology or comprehend where a fascist is coming from.

I also don’t doubt that my unconscious capacity to synthesize sensory input in part accounts for my artistic and literary creativity. But as a conscious basis for originality, synthesis is overrated. Both Alice Yaeger Kaplan and Kevin Coogan cited the French fascist Robert Brasillach who wrote that Communism and Fascism would one day be seen as “the two poetries” of the twentieth century. We now seem to be inundated by attempts to synthesize leftwing and rightwing ideologies in efforts to “go beyond” Left and Right. These calls to transcend the orthodox Left/Right political model almost all come from the Right, it must be noted. Current Left/Right crossover politics should also be pointed out for having originated in nightmare with the goal of ever greater nightmare. The separate totalitarian horrors of Communism and Fascism only anticipate greater horrors in some terrifying synthesis to come. This political combination is entirely voluntary. My fever dreams and migraines are not something I wish to relive, and even my spiritual experience was unpleasant. Plus, they were not of my choosing.

But enough about the sick joke that equates poetry with indiscriminate terror and mass murder.