myth of the washrag

Western culture as we know it, has been influenced to a great degree by the ancient cultures of Greece and Israel whose histories were an example and an ideal for the many countries of Europe and the Americas. Of course, culture is fluid, and change is constant, and every generation added something of value as societies evolved and developed. The Roman empire and its establishments still influence us today alongside the Christian ethic which spread some of the values of Israel while serving as an antithesis to early Roman culture. Through history, we defined and redefined our values, and these values found their way into art and history and the many different cultural expressions that were part of our education, recreation, politics and social services.

I felt the holy spirit in the joy of the multitude

Even today, a youngster might have heard of Achilles. If not by way of Homer’s Iliad, then he might have met the hero in the pages of a comic book, or in a poem or a movie. Throughout history we have been influenced by heroes as an ideal. We loved Socrates for his questioning conventions, and Ulysses for his adventures, and learned that the first had a wife who made his life miserable, and the second, a wife who threw a party in his absence. Our heroes were strong and committed to ideals. They had to overcome certain disadvantages, and that is part of what made them heroes. Achilles was invincible except for his heel. Moses was a stutterer who, though extremely modest led a revolution against the pharaoh of Egypt. David was a small statured redhead, a guitar player who faced a warrior giant and defeated him before becoming king of Israel.

These heroes and the many who came after them were often flawed. They had to rise above their flaws. But it seems that in contemporary culture the flaws have overcome the hero. The more flawed the better. In literature and films, the anti hero is more popular than the heroes of old. I saw this process of changing direction in my own area of expertise some years ago, when photography became attracted to the banal. What was revolutionary at first when Marcel Duchamp challenged the decorum of museums by installing a urinal as a piece of art (called the ‘Fountain’) became quite tiresome as more and more artists extolled banality. One is just as likely to see an old washrag or used tire in a photo exhibition as once we saw the wonders of nature. That urinal was installed in the museum 100 years ago. Stephan Hawking took pride in the fact that he was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death, and now that he’s died on the birthday of Albert Einstein, there seems little question that he was an extraordinary scientist. Whether he’s the greatest ever is still not decided. What we can be sure of, is that he is the ultimate hero of this generation: a flawed hero who could not walk, and could not write. Couldn’t even talk. He was our first real bionic man, with a computer built into his wheel chair to talk for him; a mind bereft of a body. He was the embodiment of the myth we were looking for; the victim of evolution gone wrong saved by artificiality.

D2685_070and I felt the holy spirit here too, in the desolation

Unlike Albert Einstein to whom he’s often compared, his theories have yet to be proven. But like John Lenon (who said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and that rock n’ roll might outlast Christianity), he had the temerity to state plainly that god didn’t exist. His theory regarding the creation of the world was that gravity could create the universe out of nothing. Now I have always had great affection for this man for no other reason than that he kept on going, regardless of the body that had betrayed him. Sigmond Freud, the inventor of psychology as science, faced a similar physical challenge. When cancer had decimated his jaw, and he was forced to sacrifice half his face in order to stay alive, he continued to hold on to life, wearing a veil to hide his disfigurement. At the end though, he did choose to die by an overdose of morphine rather than suffer the cruelty of nature.


35 responses to “myth of the washrag

  1. A wonderful statement on Steven Hawking. I sure do agree with the decision of Frueds choice of leaving. I looked forward to every bit of news from Hawking, and I will certainly miss that. Being a physician, I am sure everybody muses on his demise but as a physician, experiencing it in almost every manner possible, we are curious as to just how it will happen. Will it be painful, will others be involved. How long will it take, and most certainly…is there anything more. We live in interesting times, and bodys.

    • That’s a very interesting subject, Bob, contemplation on the manner of death. There is a long list of possible deaths in one of the prayers of the day of atonement, in our religion. I will never forget one of the times I prayed that prayer, and went over the list without skipping. It was the same day the Yom Kippur war started, before the actual war started. I remember actually reading those lines, and wondering which and wondering when… and then a couple of hours later the sirens started, and soon there were jeeps picking guys up to take them to reserve duty… on a day when nobody usually drives. It seems to me that quite a few people banish the subject from their mind. You can hear it in their voices when they say, ‘but he could die’; as if it was something that could only happen because of illness or an accident. It’s hard for some people to internalize their mortality. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Great tribute to Steven Hawking. He was truly an extraordinary man with many extraordinary ideas. Minds like that are truly rare. Interesting that this rare mind would die on the anniversary of Galileo’s death and Einstein’s birthday. Synchronicity at work?

    • I suppose that what sticks out the most is the rarity of his will to live. Most people with his symptoms would have been glad to die. I know I suffered a lot less than he did, and was already thinking of death as salvation. But he had a lively imagination, and a desire to take what he could from the living experience… and lived a full life despite his limitations. That’s what I admire about him. Wishing you a very good day, Bev.

  3. Exactly great writing, and interesting day his death, on the day of Gallieo’s and Einstein’s birthday he dies..and also remembering Sigmund Freud… Life is an enigma actually… Thank you dear Shimon, have a nice day and weekend, Love, nia

    • Actually he was born on the anniversary of the death of Galileo and died on the birthday of Einstein, though since he didn’t believe in god, I can’t imagine who else could have arranged such a thing. Yes, life is a great mystery. We can get used to it. We can turn it into routine. But we can’t ever really understand it. We’re all here on loan from the creator. When I was a boy, I used to search out the company of old people thinking they could explain it to me. And you know, Nina, they had a better perspective. thanks for the comment.

  4. I enjoy reading your post and the links you made between great scientists. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Lovely writing Shimon and a beautiful evocation for Steven. In this world where we label and measure just about everything, who’s to say what is flawed. Hugs for you. Xxx

    • I agree with you that we should look at each person as a world unto itself, but I think it’s okay too, to recognize how severely handicapped he was. There are some people who hide their flaws or handicaps, but he didn’t. It was an important part of his persona. It seems to me that in the generation after the world wars, people tried to hide such things, but lately there has been a reawakening to the plight of those of us who’ve been handicapped. Thanks very much for your comment, Jane.

      • Yes, Shimon, a softening towards each other. To show vulnerability is not weakness. We are all a mixture of strengths, weaknesses, flaws and qualities and that makes the whole rich. To hide vulnerability is to disconnect from ourselves. Hugs for you Shimon. It’s a pleasure to hear your wisdom. Xx

  6. Good morning dear Shimon. Two thoughts come to mind as I read this post. When you talk about the myth of the washrag – I immediately think of the Romans arriving on the British Isles to find a bunch of dirty barbarians:) I grew up in Kent very close to Pilgrims Way (to Canterbury) and also the great Watling Street a road built by the Romans – and although now turned into a ghastly super motorway….it is still there.
    The second thought is about Stephen Hawking. Like you, I admire any human being who battles on through great adversity….and he certainly did…seemingly in amazingly buoyant spirits. I do find what he had to say fascinating, although must also admit, that I don’t understand a lot of it. I tend to be one of those people who somehow gets through life using intuition and feelings as my rudder. I do however, through my painting, (especially these rapid watercolours) understand the interconnectivity of everything and for me that life is like a jigsaw puzzle.
    OK enough for now. Have a wonderful weekend with the beautiful Nechama. Janet 🙂 x

    • I know you have a strong intuition, Janet. I too have a lot of respect for that particular sensitivity. Don’t see book learning as an alternative, exactly. To me, it seems that intuition complements any other type of study or awareness. As for his theories, though they were embraced by some scientists, I think that so far, they are more visionary than scientific. But, as people continue to study, we’ll learn if there is any evidence for his visions. Thanks so much for your comment. It was very good to get back together with Nechama after my trip to the north. xxx

  7. A great tribute to Stephen Hawking, Mr. Shimon. Like many, I don’t understand his theories on universe. I always think the computer built into his wheel chair “to talk for him; a mind bereft of a body…” enabling him to communicate with the world is fascinating.

    • Yes, he was a fascinating man, Amy. And he had some very interesting ideas. He was very good at explaining difficult scientific propositions to the general public, and he might be remembered mostly for that. But his love of life, and how he managed to make good use of what little facilities he had made him a legend.

  8. Love reading u, friend Shimon … also in between the lines … smiles … Love, cat.

    • Thank you so much, cat. I am pleased though not surprised that you read between the lines… and under one of those lines, you might just discover a peck on your cheek. love

  9. Quite a few wash rags in this interesting post. I Iearned of the travails that some of the individuals had, who have become known from the unknowns they dwelt upon, which they manipulated from intangibles into the tangibles that we are still studying today.

    We don’t know if Stephen Hawking was the most physically flawed of the heroes, but, in our living memory he is. As you astutely point out, it has been the science of artificiality that enabled this world to gain from the theoretical scientific powers of the thought processes of his brain. In that, he probably was unique.

    Without the peculiar personalities that these specialist thinkers have, label them what you will, and without the cerebral capacity they have to present what they theorise and surmise, the discoveries we learn of, some of which we enjoy in our lives, would not yet exist.

    Talking of arty artists: I once saw a major Picasso exhibition in London UK. One landscape framed work had a virgin cream coloured wash rag stretched across it. It was a net construction, held by tacks. The tacks secured it to a white background. The title of this piece of Picasso’s perverse train of thought was…..”Ecstasy”

    • I respect Picasso and have admired much of his work. Not everything has appealed to my taste though. When visiting a gallery or a museum, I look for things that I can enjoy and relate to, but don’t expect to like everything an artist produces, even if I like the artist. When it comes to science or technology following the dreams of thinkers, I think we owe thanks to the many science fiction writers who proposed many of the inventions that improved our lives in the 20th century, and the process continues today. Thank you for your comment menhir. For some reason it was placed in my spam folder, and I just found it.

  10. True that our heroes are flawed and rose above their imperfections. I am glad that he defied all odds with ALS unlike Sue Rodriguez, a Canadian became famous by going to court the right to die. That’s the first time I’ve heard of ALS and never thought that Hawkings has the same disease. She tried her best all the way to Supreme Court. She was denied but with the help of Swiss doctor she received her wishes. I agree with you, Shimon, that Holy Spirit is present in desolation. Perpetua

    • You bring up a very interesting issue, Perpetua. In some ways our society is improving, but growth often moves in waves; there are ups and downs. One of the downs is the exaggerated focus on the individual. And that gave rise to the fashion of celebrity. And with it, the desire to attract attention. Some people are in our face. If a person really wanted to die, there were always kind people who would help him. If a person had some unique characteristic in his personality, he could usually live outside the standard and not be bothered. But these days, people make a big show of some of their differences.

  11. Stephen Hawkings will become better known and more understood in death. I don’t think many people understood his theories. Before the big bang there was nothing, he said.

    • I agree with you, Peter. As time passes we’ll see some of these ideas better. Most of us know, that not everything about life or about the universe can be explained. Through history, there’s been many attempts to explain, including parables and folk wisdom. Maybe some of his explanations will become the scientific version of folk wisdom. In any case, he was a good explainer of other scientific theories, and an example to us of the will to live.

  12. A very fine essay, Shimon. I am with you at every turn.

  13. … feel like a wash rag at times, friend shimon … the other day i hung up some laundry and had them standing up stiff in ma kitchen … Love always, cat.

  14. I noticed your comment about finding it good to be back with Nechama after your travels. I’m so happy that you have her continued companionship. Dixie Rose’s death affected me more than I realized, and for a couple of weeks I was, as my grandmother would have said, “Not myself.” Things are better now, and I’m catching up with much that was allowed to slide during that period of adjustment.

    I think this was a lovely tribute to Hawking. His creativity and perseverance no doubt went hand in hand, in ways that we never will fully understand. I don’t think a person could endure what he was forced to endure through sheer teeth-gritting effort. I suspect he found some creative ways to cope: perhaps even profiting from the grace he denied.

    I do think that, in this country at least, some of the adulation he received was less for his scientific theories and personal courage than for his refusal of religious faith. I’ve known a few who have supported their own professed atheism by appealing to Hawking’s arguments: one of the strangest forms of proof-texting I’ve ever seen. In time, some of those issues may be resolved, too — but it surely won’t happen in this lifetime. At least, I don’t think so.

    • Hi Linda. That feeling I had about it being good to come back to Nechama was influenced by the death of Dixie Rose. I had read the sad story about her end while away from home, and I was thinking a lot about the sort of intimacy we have with friends across species lines. Sometimes when I’ve been away for a long trip, she’s in a bad mood when I return, and takes a while to forgive me. But this time, she seemed to catch on right away to my mood, and we spent some very close time together. For me, it was sort of a memorial to Dixie Rose.

      I see Hawking as an exceptional man not so much for his ideas about physics or astronomy, but because he had the talent and the desire of life so that he could keep on going against all odds. I sympathize and identify more with those who give up after a while. I’ve asked myself many a time, and realized that I was not one of those who would put up a great fight. But I do admire him for his will.

      • You’ve reminded me of one of my most amusing (if briefly frustrating) experiences with Dixie Rose. She, too, grew irritated when I’d leave, and usually expressed it by staying under the bed for a time when I returned home. But once, she was especially angry after an especially long trip of mine, and when I attempted to go to bed on my first night home, it wasn’t going to happen. She plunked herself in the middle of the bed, and any move I made toward it was met with teeth, claws, hissing, and growls.

        I am not a stupid woman. I’ve slept on plenty of sofas in my life, and I slept on the sofa that night. By the next day, having expressed herself, all was well with my kitty. It’s one of my favorite memories.

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