Siege Diaries 11/9/2020


Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: What principles will steer me through the flow of change? 

I love the quotation from Marcus Aurelius in the associated Daily Stoic meditation: “The universe is change. Life is opinion.”    It goes on to notice that the body is continually changing–nails growing, hair growing, etc.  The interesting thing about those two is that both nails and hair are actually relics of the past–they are not living cells.  On the other hand, things like blood cells are continually manufactured by the body–and so life is continually renewed.    And at an even more microscopic level, the reason why it’s often stated that we are made of the stuff of stars is because at the atomic level, as we breathe and exist, atoms themselves renew themselves.  An atom is not a hard little ball of matter, but a thing full of empty space and constantly moving and changing particles.  So the universe, quite literally, is change.  And when he says “Life is opinion,” Marcus Aurelius is, to me, saying that our judgements do not impact what happens in the universe.  The universe is neutral; it is us who determines whether things are “good” or “bad”, because such judgements are part of human society.  I’m thinking of a story I just read about a wasp that has evolved a particular way of stinging a cockroach in order to lay an egg on it–an egg that will hatch and consume the cockroach, not unlike those eggs laid by the facehuggers in Alien. Is the wasp evil?  If a human did that, it would certainly be perceived that way–but the wasp is not a human; it’s doing what it has evolved to do to propagate its species.  We humans are the ones that see this as sinister. 

So what principles steer me?  For one thing, I refuse to anthropomorphize nature.  To use a current analogy, you can’t reason with a virus.  And viruses aren’t “evil.”  They can’t think. They can’t plan. They’re not even actually alive.   On the other hand, we can seek to better understand how a virus spreads, and we can design strategies–based on science–to thwart it.   

Knowing what belongs to the universe and what belongs to human society is key.   Humans cannot live with just one of the two, because humans are part of the universe, and the interface with universe is part of humanity.  We are self-aware.  We’re able to understand what impact our actions create, whether on other humans, on our fellow living organisms here on Earth, or on that very tiny piece of the universe that our actions can touch.  Yes, it’s tiny–but to us, it’s everything.  

So to me, being cognizant that I am part of this whole, that I am utterly reliant on this whole, is my core principle.  If I am isolated–truly isolated–I would die.  I live because this place where I was born has an atmosphere I can breathe, and because my body has been adapted over many millions of years to make use of the resources that are on this planet.  I live because human beings have learned how to work together to produce food and other necessities, to build shelter, to work to heal each other, and to make art.  And if we cannot do these things, society fails. 

In a surprising turn of events, my new car is red.  Apparently, there were no blue Civic sports touring hatchbacks with manual transmissions left in Ontario, and the red one we got was the last one of those.  The hatchbacks are not being manufactured next year, so we were limited to 2020s.  (As a result, we also have a sunroof).  We also had to pick up wheel covers (what would have been called “hubcaps” at one time) for the snow tire rims, since the all-season tires are 18″ and the snows are on 16″ rims.    

Four years ago today, I wrote this, in the wake of the 2016 US election.  Today I remember that while my candle flickered, it did not go out. 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

I have been a Canadian citizen since 1995. It has come to define who I am in so many ways–a citizen of a country that while not perfect, at least strives towards an ideal of compassion, respect, and kindness, a country born not of war or revolt but of peaceful evolution and growth. But like so many of us in Canada, I am a dual citizen, and the country of my birth also defines me.
The election saddens me, because we can–we have–been so much better in times of real crisis. The United States aspires to have a government of the people, by the people–although in the beginning, who was considered a person was not what it is today. And too often, we have been dragged kicking and screaming into changes that boiled down to being kinder to your fellow human beings.

I woke up this morning saddened, and angered, and yes–fearful of the future. But as the day has bloomed crisp and clear, a gorgeous fall day, I realize that the future is exactly that–the future. Each day brings the potential for me to make what small difference I can in the world. Yesterday’s events may put more obstacles in the way, but I refuse to give up hope. And I come from some place of understanding of the real obstacles facing many of those who cast their vote to elect the next President–and what I know to be true is this: they are as in need of compassion and hope as I am, probably even more so. I sit here in a home that I own, with a sportscar in the garage. I have never lacked for support from my family. I have never been in massive debt. I have never seen a way of living that supported my parents and grandparents dry up and disappear. I have access to excellent medical care, and will not be driven into bankruptcy trying to pay for it. Hope, too often, is a luxury afforded only to the rich, and those who have never had it will too often grab onto fear as a way to fill the hollow place–and from that fear grows ignorance and bigotry, violence and hate.

Compassion and hope are also needed for those who now fear that it will be confirmed, because of their skin colour, sexual orientation or gender identity, religion, ethnicity, or possession of a uterus that their lives do not matter. This is a chance for those of us who believe differently to show our humanity. No law or government policy has the power to overcome love. If we believe this to be true, we must be willing to stand by it.

I do not know how much time will be given to me. I cannot control others. My challenge will be to be true to myself, to not be afraid to speak up even if it makes me uncomfortable, and to be, above all, an advocate for kindness. The darkness is real. I light a candle against it, a symbol of hope and light–and defiance.

“She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”
–Adlai Stevenson, funeral oration for Eleanor Roosevelt.

Today is also the 31st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Last year, I wrote this.  

And lest we forget, it is also the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht.  

Today’s Reddit post was about Shostakovich’s The Execution of Stepan Razin (link below):

This isn’t quite the deep cut that some of the other works I have posted is, but in my opinion this work is massively underrated and under-performed, and shows how brilliant Shostakovich was as a choral composer.  In some ways you could almost consider it the 13 1/2th symphony, with its text by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and its composition two years after the 13
th but before the 14th symphony.  The orchestration has the same basic feel as the 13th symphony as well.  But unlike the 13th symphony, where Shostakovich kept all of Yevtushenko’s poems largely intact, he did made adaptations for this one.  In a letter to Isaak Glikman, he said “I find it interesting that when I was composing the Thirteenth Symphony, I felt myself at one with almost every word the poet had written. But in the Execution of Stepan Razin…there are many lines that I object to, in fact I find myself almost engaging in polemics with them. Also some lines are simply not very good, and these I have cut out.”  He went on to say, “Quite often I descend to coarse naturalism…. Not to mention that the whole idea of the piece is essentially depraved.”   In a subsequent letter, he continued, “I have the greatest admiration for this poet. What draws me above all is the ethical basis of his poetry. His brain may still have a few holes in it, through which leaks the occasional foolishness, but in time the holes will be darned.” 

The piece premiered with Kondrashin conducting on December 28, 1964.  Per Elizabeth Wilson: “History repeated itself on that occasion, when the bass soloist, Ivan Petrov, without any prior warning, failed to turn up at the morning dress rehearsal. Again it was Vitali Gromadsky who stepped in and sang that night. Although the cantata did not evoke the public furore of the Thirteenth Symphony, its official reception was cool, and its performance was met by total silence in the Soviet press.”

This is the premiere recording of the piece, with Kondrashin conducting and Gromadsky as the soloist.

As to the history—because as a historian, of course, I had to know—Stepan (or Stenka) Razin is an absolutely fascinating figure who led a Cossack revolt in the 17th century.  The Cossacks were self-governing societies based around military conquest and colonization in the steppes regions.  “Cossack” was not an ethnicity, but more of an occupation—Cossack communities included both descendants of Tatar and Slavic origin, and often drew in peasants from the regions where they came to dominate. One of the largest of these were the Don Cossacks, who allied with the Russian Tsars and who created a huge allied buffer state on the borders of Russia. Razin led the first major rebellion of the Don Cossacks, an uprising that combined traditional Cossack plunder raids with revolt.  He couched his rhetoric as backing the peasants vs. the traitorous boyars, not vs. the Tsar (who employed the Cossacks). When he attacked the city, he specifically told the peasants that he would treat them like brothers, but towards the boyars he was brutal and relentless.  At one point, he managed to capture one city by disguising his troops as pilgrims visiting a cathedral in the city.  He later attacked Persia, at one point disguising himself as a merchant in one of the cities for a couple of days before plundering it.  He became so powerful that he was pardoned by the Tsar for his earlier revolts.  But eventually he raised another revolt, taking Astrakhan and declaring a Cossack republic.  He took two more cities before being defeated, but he continued provoking the lower classes to revolt against the boyars until he was captured by Don Cossack elders and turned over to Tsarist forces. He was sentenced to be quartered, and they got about halfway until he told his brother, who was declaring that he was willing to go over to the Tsarist side, to shut up, after which the executioners skipped right to chopping off his head.   

One of the more interesting facts about Razin, at least to me, was the fact that one of his atamans (military leaders) was an elderly former nun, Alena Arzamasskaia, who pretended to be a man, relying on skills in archery and medicine to organize the fighters of her village.  She was captured and tortured, giving up no information before she was burnt at the stake.