December 21, 2023

Scribo, Ergo Sum

You don’t have to know much Latin (I myself am a Latin dunce, never having studied it in school) to figure out the meaning of my title. “I write, therefore I am.” Whether I write to live or live to write, or possibly both, writing is what I’ve been doing for most of my life. But as I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find things to write about, especially during these dark times for our world, I’m beginning to wonder whether if I stop writing my blogs, will I continue to exist? Maybe I think that as long as I write, I can stave off my death. I’m not ashamed to admit I will cleave to any superstition I can get.

As some of you know, I recently managed to survive my 88th birthday, a three-day extravaganza during which I received many kind greetings from my family, friends, ex-students, and even a few of you fans of mine for which I belatedly thank you. I gained several pounds in the process, as I had also received a chocolate cake and other sweets, and am now in recovery (and on a diet!). Anyway, here I am at 88.

As we approach the nadir of the year and Christmas, now a week away as I write, this should be a joyous and celebratory time, but apart from my birthday festivities, I don’t find I have much joy in my heart, only sadness and dismay about the present and apprehension about the future. So it’s hard for me to write the kind of upbeat and humorous blogs I like to craft at such a downbeat time for our sorry and imperiled world.

Case in point: Gaza.  

If you’ve read any of my blogs about Israel and the current war, you will know that my sympathies lie with the Palestinians now crowded and trapped like rats in a cage in Gaza while being subjected to relentless attacks by Israel, which so far have killed a number fast approaching twenty thousand, many of them children.

I think of them at night, in the cold and rain, shivering without food or shelter, and without hope, many of them on the verge of starving, fearful about the next attack, wondering if they will live or die or, if they survive, whether they will be maimed for life. And even if they do survive, all of them will suffer from post-traumatic stress, probably for most of their lives.  

And where will they go, once the carnage finally stops? Their houses are destroyed, Gaza is quickly turning into a mountain of rubble and reeks of stench, and the Gazans have no outlet. They are refugees, millions of them, with nowhere to go.

Can one die of heartbreak? That’s how I feel most of the time, and certainly whenever I think of those poor souls, huddled together, with mothers screaming and weeping over the death of their children.

Still, these are abstractions, statistics, nameless persons we can never know. But there’s one man whose misfortunes I have been following from the outset. His name is Mosab Abu Toha. He is a 31-year-old award-winning poet, married, with two children. 

I first came across him by reading one of his articles in The New Yorker, which was heartrending. At the time, he had just discovered that his house in Gaza had been destroyed, and his precious library of books that he had spent years collecting and gone to great lengths to preserve, had all gone up in smoke. I felt so terrible about that, knowing how much my own books mean to me, I immediately tried to send him some money to replace his lost books. I tried to do so through a poetry foundation to which Mosab belonged, but it was all in vain.  

Later, I read that he had been detained, imprisoned and tortured, having been (falsely) accused of being connected with Hamas. He was eventually released, but the damage had been done.  

This morning, over my breakfast, I began listening to a podcast of an interview with Mosab that was conducted by the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick. In the first part, Mosab tells how he was detained, forced to strip naked before a young solider, beaten, kicked in his face, sworn at and brutalized before being arrested. Horrible. (I couldn’t listen to the rest; I had to take a break.)

But I don’t only think about people like Mosab and his fellow Gazans. I also think about the Israelis who were killed in the October assault by Hamas and of all those families waiting in fear about the fate of the hostages that Hamas abducted, some of whom we now know have been killed, including, most recently, three by mistake by IDF soldiers. The Israelis, too, are suffering grievously and many of them are still enraged with Netanyahu and his government. Israel, too, will be a long time recovering from this.

Hard to be full of good cheer when one is mindful of what’s going on the Middle East. And, there is still Ukraine, too, whose hopeless war, stalemated and stuck in trench warfare like that of the First World War, has almost been forgotten. From all that I’ve read and seen, there is no chance that Ukraine will survive intact as a country. Their soldiers fought and still fight valiantly, but it seems clear that Putin’s forces will outlast them and that Putin has already won, even if he hasn’t been able to conquer and subdue the Ukrainians.

I was only two years old in 1938, but it seems like 1938 to me, the year before the world was engulfed in the conflagration of the Second World War that would last six years, during which sixty million people died, and which wasn’t even over when it was over.  I really fear what lies ahead in the years to come.

And then there is all this turmoil on our nation’s campuses, including some of our leading universities, which has caused such difficulties for university presidents who are trying to walk a fine line in contending with all the forces that seem to be raging on our campuses, including my own university, UCONN, where I taught for many years.  

On many of these campuses, an organization called Students for Justice in Palestine has been very active and vocal in pressing the case for Palestinians, and many Jewish students are involved in this movement, too. But other Jewish students, who support Israel, are often afraid to wear a kippah on their heads lest they be assaulted or otherwise threatened. Fear and turmoil and unrest continue, though these may abate during final periods and then the holidays. But they will not stop. It’s hard to see where this will go, and meanwhile rancorous debates continue about settler colonialism and Israel’s savage warfare.   

When we look at the dismal and depressing state of politics in America, we find no relief from the dark clouds that hover overhead that also presage worse times to come.

I’ve never been a fan of Biden, and for many reasons, but in the next election, we seem to have a choice of a doddering and etiolated President, a wacko conspiracy theorist with a famous name, and a would-be dictator with a foul mouth who is bent on vengeance and who, if elected, would probably sound the death knell for democracy. To say nothing of the obstructionist and mostly delusional Republicans in Congress who seem like fractious children playing in a sandbox. Is this what America has come to? A land of mass murders every week, mendacious and ineffectual politicians, and an electorate, half of whom, seemingly in thrall to a deranged cult leader, have gone off the rails?

I grew up during a very different time in the fifties when my cohort was called “the silent generation,” as we slept through the Eisenhower years. I did go to Berkeley, but that was before the sixties broke out all over and Berkeley had its moment with the Free Speech Movement. How different things seem now when mayhem and raucous dissension threaten to turn into violence as the fabric of democracy continues to unravel.

Didn’t the great historian, Arnold Toynbee, say something to the effect that most empires start to rot from within after a couple of centuries or so? Perhaps that is what’s happening to our country even before we mark the 250th anniversary of its founding. Sit transit gloria mundi.

I used to take solace in my reading, but lately even there, I find myself reading about even worse times and people even more vile than those who vie for our attention on the stage of our dysphoric times.

I’m currently reading two books (and various articles) about the Congo, both written about twenty years ago.  One is a book called King Leopold’s Ghost. Do you know about the Belgian King who raped the Congo beginning in the mid-1880s, and over more than twenty years enslaved millions of Blacks and in the process of extracting ivory and rubber, killed about ten million people? Leopold, who oddly enough never set a royal foot in the vast region he plundered, was motivated by an overweening amount of cupidity. He was a moral monster of almost unparalleled brutality. And he had many others whose help he enlisted who also enriched themselves of the spoils to be extracted from the Congo’s rich resources, including the famous explorer, Henry Stanley, who discovered Dr. Livingstone to whom he definitely didn’t say, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” He is another odious and hateful figure in this mostly now forgotten genocide.

The other book is actually a novel written by Barbara Kingsolver, who lived in the Congo as a child. Her book is called The Poisonwood Bible. I’m only partway through it, but so far, it deals with a later period of the Congo’s history, but one still marked by the effects of Leopold’s malign legacy. It, too, is a sad tale of what that stricken land and its people have suffered.

And the suffering goes on today. There is still an on-going war that is being waged by various contending forces during which it is estimated that as many as six million people have died. Today others toil to scratch out a living.  The Congo, you see, is still rich in copper and especially cobalt, which is used in your smart phones and in the batteries for your electric vehicles. Exploitation is still the name of this wretched game, long after King Leopold went to his grave. The West still profits while the Africans suffer and die. 

What a world. Please let me off at the next stop. I don’t really want to continue to live in such a benighted and doomed planet, which has far too much toxicity and not nearly enough love.  

Well, sorry for this rant, my friends. I hate to be such a downer at this time of year when we are all supposed to be cheerful and whoop it up at new year’s when the ball falls and the confetti flies. But, at least for me, and perhaps for some of you, this does not seem to be the time for rejoicing and seasonal hoopla.  

Please pray for peace, and for those who continue to suffer from the tragedies and horrors of our own time. 

But for now, I will leave you with this image of hope:


  1. The true test of a civilization may be the answer to a basic question:
    Can it keep its children alive?
    It’s a test America is failing.

    By Derek Thompson in The Atlantic 4/21/23

  2. Dear friend, please call to mind the lesson shared by Beverly Brodsky (among countless others):

    "I do remember this: There was a reason for *everything* that happened, no matter how awful it appeared in the physical realm. And within myself, as I was given the answer, my own awakening mind now responded in the same manner: 'Of course,' I would think, 'I already know that. How could I ever have forgotten!' Indeed, it appears that all that happens is for a purpose, and that purpose is already known to our eternal self."