Interview with a Poet: Reflections on the Work of Bruce Whiteman

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9 (Melpomene) 

Lack of belief is the tragedy. It’s not that God’s ineffable face is gone. It’s out there somewhere like a star, like a childhood memory fated eventually to rise. It’s counting on the smaller things that come to be the hardest: poetry and its adagio truths, the tick-tock of love interminably out of reach and bound to fade away in any case, cocks and clocks and every squalid aspiration for eternity.

Bruce Whiteman, The Invisible World is in Decline, Book IX (p. 33). ECW Press. Kindle Edition. 

Bruce Whiteman lives in Peterborough, Ontario, where he is a full-time poet and book reviewer. Most recently he is the editor of Best Canadian Essays 2021 (Biblioasis). His selected essays and reviews will be published in 2022 by Biblioasis. Book IX, the conclusion to his long poem, The Invisible World Is in Decline, appears this April 2022 (ECW Press). His book reviews appear in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Canadian Notes & Queries, The Toronto Star, Quill & Quire and elsewhere.


Published this year (2022) The Invisible World is in Decline, Book IX is the last of nine books in your long poem of the same name which you began in 1981.  Congratulations on the publication, and thank you for allowing me to interview you.  As a writer who focuses on the metaphysical, particularly cycles of time and how they are expressed in culture, I find your work compelling, as it represents a concerted effort of vision which you have managed to sustain over a considerable time period.  Poetry is difficult work, as the matters of life, love, loss, hope can be onerous points of focus which many prefer to avoid. The Invisible World is in Decline represents an oeuvre of continual, concentrated self-awareness that is remarkable, and I am grateful that you are willing to share some insights. 

In Opus Posthumous (1957) Wallace Stevens says:  “The poet is the priest of the invisible.” The poet’s invocation of words charges our perception of hidden reality with power not otherwise available; through poetry, we are allowed to commune with subtleties which lie in places normally unknown.  Poetry’s precise reflectivity provides impressions of the invisible world with a power that is akin to that of visual arts such as photography, painting or sculpture, but poetry goes beyond what those arts offer, as the power of language is specifically human.  Good poetry has a visceral impact that forever changes the reader. Through the work of a skilled poet such as yourself, we are allowed to view the shape of the ethers underpinning our world, and we come away with new knowledge in apprehending a perspective not normally seen.

To be a poet takes great strength, and speaks of a love of life that encompasses a willingness to not look away and hide from tenderness of this world, but rather revel in it, transcribing impressions for the benefit of all.  I hope my questions here are not too personal, or vague, but rather represent what others may find salient in considering your poetry.  Your work and insights are deeply valuable, and much appreciated. Thank you Bruce.


#1 Define “Invisible World”

The phrase “invisible world” brings many things to mind, and as a person who tends to look at things metaphysically, I was quite struck by this concept.  For me, this phrase refers to the subtle current of energies which underpin what we consider consensual reality.  What do you mean when you use the phrase “the invisible world”?  Are you specifically referring to the world of the aesthete, the artist and musician, a world little perceived by the majority of humanity, or is it perhaps a spiritual reference? 

BW:

There have been times over the last forty years when the title of my long poem has seemed a regrettable limitation. Perhaps I should have chosen something less specific, broader, more capacious, like The Cantos or The Divine Comedy. And almost necessarily the poem sometimes strays quite far from the central armature, perhaps most especially at those times when the personal irresistibly comes back into the work, through passion or trauma or whatever is the case.

No, the title is not aesthetic; yes, it’s more spiritual. If you look back over the history of thought since the Enlightenment, it’s pretty obvious that the invisible world is in decline. Call it God, or the world of the spiritual generally speaking, its centrality to our lives has eroded. We see this in Locke, in Hume, in Nietzsche among the philosophers. In poetry, Wordsworth’s The Prelude announces the future dominance of the personal that will continue to be at poetry’s heart through Whitman and on into Modernism. Some Modernist art will aspire to be impersonal—T.S. Eliot wanting to derogate private experience, etc.—but really almost all art in every genre is personal after Wordsworth, after Berlioz, after Blake and Turner, after Freud. So the world of the spirits, as opposed to the world of the spirit, comes to be left behind or at least to decline in relevance. I chose such an idea as the central theme of my long poem precisely so I could get away from lyricism, from the ego as the source of poetry. I freely admit that over nine books and forty years, I didn’t always succeed in keeping the ego out of the poem.


#2 Is poetry confessional or impersonal?

It seems it is the poet’s task to delineate ephemera, showing us what they have retrieved while in communion with energies that ultimately transcend the personal.  The poet transcribes delicate perceptions into a transpersonal form, allowing the sharing of material which is larger than the individual. How much of your poetry has served as personal testament as opposed to representing collective considerations, or vice versa?  I understand that you have converted to the Catholic faith, and you are surely aware of the importance of confession to the life of a practicing Catholic.  How, throughout your career, has poetry served in place of that formal sacrament, if at all?  

BW:

I converted in 2019, so the bulk of my poem was composed before I became a Catholic, at one of the worst moments in Church history, I might add! As far as confession goes, both in the Christian sense and the psychotherapeutic sense, when I began to write The Invisible World, I had reached a point as a poet when confession had become boring, and it was precisely to get away from the confessional mode that I turned to the prose poem and the long poem. I suppose, now that you ask, that poetry WAS a kind of sacrament when I was young and writing lyric poetry, poems about feelings largely, the sorts of things one talks to a priest or a psychoanalyst about. The seven deadly sins writ large or secularized. With my long poem I wanted out of therapy, and into a kind of language that engages larger issues that are not at heart personal. Book IV is about light, for example. Inevitably, and even against my better judgement, personal feeling got back into the poem, especially at moments in my life when I was devastated by something–a love affair gone bad, the death of a parent, etc. I even allowed the “lined” poem back in twice, once at the end of Book VII and again in Book IX, where one whole section consists of poems—translations in fact—of conventionally structured poems. So I guess the short answer to your question is, inevitably, both.


#3 Does decline imply a fall from grace, or is it a matter of cyclical change?   

To consider that the invisible world is in decline is sad, and also somewhat alarming.  The question that comes to mind is this: why is it in decline? Is saying the invisible world is in decline a statement of hopelessness, or cynicism?  Or is it a clear-minded, objective assessment?  Does this concept of decline encompass the idea of falling from grace? Do you believe that decline is inevitable, a condition of mortality, or is there a turning point which can be found somewhere?   Is decline a permanent state, or do you believe it is a cyclical affair? 

BW:

That’s a hard question to be definitive about. The metanarrative of continual human progress is not easy to argue for, when you take a cold hard look at the planet today. The climate crisis feels like just the latest demonstration that somehow we humans have wasted our opportunity as a species through egotism. Of course, when you think about progress in concrete ways, it’s hard not to agree with the statements that we should be glad not to be forced to have dental work done in the 18th century, or that the elimination of smallpox is a wonderful thing. But spiritual progress? Not really. A geographer named Carl Sauer once pointed out that the first time humans did something really bad to the Earth was during the Renaissance, when humanism came to the fore; and in that sense, it has been downhill ever since, as far as our relationship with nature is concerned. And maybe our relationship with God too. But it’s complicated, and I’m not sure that the idea of a fall from grace is historically accurate. Emotionally, though, it kind of feels apt. It’s hard to imagine that we will ever return to the sort of integrated world view of earlier periods in human history. But hope is a very human emotion, so who knows?


#4 Are poets psychopomps?   

In Book IX, you say:

“Part of a poet’s job is to journey to hell. Seeking dear ones gone into pitch. Wanting the smell of love, the touch of a moving body. Missing hoarfrost and starshine, glabrous light, polyphonic voices.” (p. 14)

And:

“Remembering the dead, our lot is to walk carefully forward. Not to fall headlong from hour to hour, from day to day, hurled like water from edge to edge, into the darkness that yawns beneath our steps. Like a man on a wire we don’t look back and can’t look down, but focus straight ahead.” (p.16)

Your use of the psychopomp as a recurring character is fascinating. For those not familiar, a psychopomp is a divine or semi-divine being who is able to traverse the borders between the land of the living and the land of the dead, travelling back and forth to the underworld usually to fulfill a specific task, relay information or retrieve something lost.  Very few have been allowed by the gods to travel to make this journey and return to tell the tale, and success usually involves not looking back at that which we wish to bring to the surface. In looking back, we express doubt, and we scorn a divine gift, yet it is such a temptation to do what we have been decreed not to do. As a poet, how do you relate to the figure of the psychopomp? Are poets psychopomps in their own way, and should they be?  What temptations does the poet entertain in traversing the invisible landscapes of the underworld?

BW:

I took the idea of the psychopomp from Jung, for whom it is much as you say—a kind of spiritual cicerone. Some of the great works of western literature describe the visit to the realm of the dead—The Odyssey in Book 11, The Aeneid in Book 6, and of course Dante’s Inferno, the first great book of The Divine Comedy. The Orpheus myth as told by Ovid and others falls into this narrative as well. All of the seekers return to the world or rise upwards, sadder but wiser. Dante has to leave his psychopomp behind, because he—the poet Virgil—is a pagan, and not qualified to enter Paradise. Orpheus of course loses Eurydice because, as you say, he lacks faith and looks back to ensure that she is following him–just exactly what he has been told not to do. As I say in a note to Book IX, the psychopomp in one way is the master of dreams. Several of my poems engage with something I literally heard in a dream and recorded–the statement, for example, “I have an immortality problem.” I was hesitant to use dream material this literally, but decided in the end that there is so much poetry in dreams that it was stupid or ungenerous to ignore it. Dreams often do feel like an expedition to Hell, and what we can learn there, and from them, seems worth registering. Are poets psychopomps in this sense? The ancients would have answered in the affirmative for sure, and I do too.


#5  What advice do you have for the young poet?

For one last question, I ask broadly – what do you have to say to the young poet?  What advice do you have?  What would you like to say to those who would follow in your path, taking up the life of a poet?

BW:

I would try to be positive, though the real-world rewards are few. I would say, read as much as possible, poetry and other literature too. You cannot write well if you do not have a rich reading experience among the poets who came before you. Poetry doesn’t begin with Mary Oliver or Leonard Cohen. Read Homer and everything or as much as possible of what comes after him. Read translations if you don’t have other languages, though knowing another language is a very good thing for a poet. And as a poet who emphasizes the musical elements of poetry, I would recommend knowing at least something about how music works. Read aloud a lot. Read and re-read the same poems to know them well. Hang out with other creative people—musicians, painters et al. They will provoke you but also be good readers of your work. Learn about where words come from, as this will enrich the ways in which you use them. Poetry isn’t much of a living, honestly, but it’s a rich way to engage with life.

Beauty Will Save the World: Full Moon in Libra 16 April 2022, with forecasts for each sign of the zodiac

Walter Crane, The Renaissance of Venus, 1877 at Tate Museum (not on display)

“Is it true, Prince, that you once said ‘beauty’ would save the world?  Gentlemen,” he cried loudly to them all, “the prince insists that beauty will save the world!”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, Part III, Chapter V

The Moon enters Libra on Thursday April 14 at 21:46 UT/16:46 EDT, and the Full Moon in Libra will be exact at 26º45’ on April 16 2022 at 18:55 UT/14:55 EDT.  After it reaches fullness, the Moon only remains in Libra for approximately six hours before scurrying off into Scorpio, and the last aspect it makes is a square to Pluto at 22:57 UT/17:57 EDT.  This is the first Full Moon of the astrological year, fleetingly short, a tight blend of tension and inspiration.

Libra is a sign known for its diplomacy and desire to maintain harmony. This Full Moon, in its opposition to the Sun in Aries, is captured in a tight T-square with Pluto, putting at odds the harmonious will to personal power, the importance of relationship and the need for catharsis and renewal.  This T-square is a portrait of interpersonal tension, as people feel under pressure to determine what is theirs and what belongs to others – psychologically, spiritually, practically and emotionally. Pluto, lord of the underworld, is a difficult energy at the best of times, and here, embroiled with the forces of emotion and ego, its cathartic influence creates a profound urge for upheaval and renovation of the existing state of affairs.  Add to this the sense of compulsion that is natural to Pluto, and we have a yearning for deep transformation, an itch that needs to be scratched even if we leave ourselves raw in the doing.  The accommodating Moon in Libra feels oppressed by the heavy-handed energy of Pluto in Capricorn, and it needs help from the Sun in Aries to find its way free.

The energy of Aries versus Libra can be seen like this.  Imagine getting up in the morning, not picking up your phone, not looking at your computer, or the television, not switching on the radio – not connecting with the outside world at all.  You only check in with yourself.  You sit down and write a few notes in a journal – consider how you are feeling, what you want or need to do with your day as you focus on yourself only.  That’s Aries energy, all “Me”.  In contrast, you can immediately look to the outside world for information, direction, inspiration, entertainment, all of which modifies how and who you are in any given moment – that’s Libra – all “We.” When we add a square from Pluto in Capricorn, we are challenged by forces outside of our control.  It’s like sky debris hurtling from space, landing on our front doorstep, energy that comes from the world beyond our personal lives, and impacts everything across this spectrum of “Me” and “We.” Collectively, Pluto indicates that our very foundations are being remade, and this impinges on how we understand everything about “Me” and “We” – who we are as individuals, and our relationships with others.

The current Jupiter/Neptune conjunction in Pisces sees the two rulers of that sign united, and that could be a glorious thing, but it adds a sense of deception to this time by creating the illusion that nothing is real, nothing is important, and that pleasure and idealism are all that matters. These two planets travelling together must be handled with great care, lest we get loss in the swirling mass of mythic powers. As a culture, we have been anesthetized with time-wasting habits, and it is so easy to just disconnect from the real world – click, surf, move on. What a luxury it is to be able to deny reality!  Just remember to consider the following concepts:  how do we fall prey to illusion, in self-concept, and in relationships with those closest to us, and the world at large?  What does “reality” mean? What do we hide from ourselves and others? What is being hidden from us? While the possibility of delusion is high with this Jupiter/Neptune conjunction, there is also so much inspiration available which we can use to build a better world for ourselves and others.  As such, we cannot give up and fall into despair or delusion. There is too much work to do people! We must continue to shine light into the darkest places of our collective experience, even if all you can muster is the smallest gesture of peace and consideration, a prayer in the dark.  This is an intense time, and frightening for so many who are in the midst of conflict. Remember the ideals which lead us to strive, and hold them close. Consider this as a period of renovation; we are going through the ugly, messy, seemingly hopeless stage of tearing down what is old and useless, and things don’t look good right now. We have to keep in mind our highest ideals and what we want to see emerge from all this mess. 

The quote at the beginning of this article is from the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, from his book The Idiot, written in 1869, a time of much turmoil for the author, as well as the world. Sadly, we see how recently the actions of one particular Russian have resulted in the misery and horror of millions of people.  As a result, world opinion of all things Russian has plummeted to a state of hatred and revulsion, and even Russian contributions to literature, art, philosophy, and science are being removed from education curricula the world over. I hesitated to use this quote, given what is happening, but we cannot deny the impact that writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy have made to the body of literature. Some of the most profound creativity the world has ever seen comes from Russia, and we must give credit where it is due.  This small five word sentiment is one which is particularly valid at this time:  beauty will save the world.   Beauty, art, aesthetics – these are universal pursuits which elevate humanity and give us hope and the will to survive.  This is a fitting remembrance for a Full Moon in Libra, Venus-ruled sign of all things beautiful, erudite and refined.

In the spirit of Venus-ruled Libra, be a warrior for beauty.  Do something beautiful in your life – whether it’s dressing up in your best clothing, using color that pleases you in your fashion or environment, buying some flowers or delicacies, visit an art gallery, listen to some exquisite music – do something to honor the spirit of beauty, and share it with those you love.  Do your part, be a torch-bearer and shine the light of beauty into the world now, as it’s needed most.  Remember that the only way to shut down negativity is by being positive, and you don’t have to entertain negativity in your life, even if it’s the devil you know best.  Be open to inspiration and wonder.  Look for beauty in this world and it will find you. Embrace beauty, and let it inspire you as you let the delicate light of this Full Moon in Libra fill your heart with the gentle grace of Venus.


Aries:  Even warriors need time to heal and rest, Aries, and that is perfectly fine.  You are feeling full of spit and vinegar, and ideas for expansion of what you hold most valuable are flying faster than you can catch them.  Take the time to record all this good stuff, you’ll be surprised to review it all later.  This Full Moon is a good time to take a long hard look at your relationships and consider how they are affecting who you think you are.  You want the world to see a different you – alright, it’s going to take some serious soul-searching, a solidifying of your act, and courting some more mature playmates.  The inspiration is there, and your dreams are beautiful.  Let go of the reins, and let them come to life they way they want to, once and for all.

Taurus:  Your persona is crackling with innovation, and hell, maybe just a little bit of genius, but you need to stabilize that good stuff.  You like stability, remember Taurus?  It’s time to get serious – really serious about how you want the world to see you, and that is going to take work, work and more work, but in a new way that reflects this emerging worldview. Are you up for it?  The spotlight is on your habits, your daily routines, and your health.  How could subconscious material be tripping you up?  What are you hiding from yourself, what needs to be uprooted to free up the energy you can put to better use elsewhere? Old stuff impacts how the world is seeing you; that’s not necessarily bad, but structure could be useful.

Gemini:  The spotlight is on your creativity Gemini.  Embrace the beauty in your world and let yourself be a channel this Full Moon.  Share something that makes your heart sing, and let your sense of beauty inspire how the world sees you.  Much energy is available for you to capture your inspiration – look to your dreams, flashes of vision, and let the creative juices flow.  Zingers from your subconscious mind will surprise, but could very well lead to new directions as you work on solidifying your personal philosophy.  Control issues could prove discomforting, as you work through what’s mine and what’s yours.  Stand your ground, but don’t be a bully either.

Cancer:  This Full Moon, the spotlight is on your home/career axis, Cancer.  What does home mean to you?  Partnerships compel change, and you look to your worldview, philosophies, higher learning and your sense of justice to inform the decisions you make about how your power and that of those around you impact your sense of personal mission.  Expect surprises from your social scene, you may meet new people who shake you up with their innovative ways.  On the career front, your ego is in the game, even though you feel a bit put upon by the past, expectations that just won’t seem to leave you alone.  Some things cannot be changed, and it is wise to acknowledge what that means to you, and make peace.  Seek the solace of your inner sanctum, and make it beautiful.

Leo:  The spotlight is on your closest confidants, your buddies, your immediate environment and how you communicate on a daily basis.  You have ideas brewing about the world, and you want to share them, though issues of power, sexuality and control add spice to the mix.  Partnerships are either solid, stodgy or downright withholding right now – take your pick and work with it, even if it’s no fun. Go for what suits you, but don’t shy away from structure.  Remember, not everyone can keep up with your shining ways.  Work, routine and health provide an arena for change – what can you do to eliminate bad habits and start on a new path? Expect surprises in career, perhaps an announcement about a sudden change in direction.  It could even come from you.

Virgo: What do you hold dear, Virgo, and how does that measure up with what those closest to you value most? This Full Moon, allow your closest relationships to inspire you as your passion principle gets an overhaul. Partnerships and intimacy show you where your dreams lie, and beauty is found in higher thinking, learning, art, law and foreign travel and influences. Inspiration comes in surprising flashes as ideas you’ve been chasing suddenly become available for review. This is an excellent time to tighten up on any bad habits, do an overhaul of your health and domestic routines. If you want to start a new path and clean up your act, now’s the time to do so as you will be able to clearly see what needs work.

Libra:  The spotlight is on your persona this Full Moon, Libra, as you stand face to face with issues of how others influence the way you put yourself out into the world.  You are going through deep inner changes, revamping what security means on the deepest level of home and body; old traditions are sometimes the best, but if you want to put a spin on things, now would be the time to materialize your visions and kick up the old ways a bit.  Creativity feels hard to come by, but when it does come, it sticks and what you make is solid.  Don’t let yourself overindulge in workaholic tendencies; you need to rest and recuperate, and remember, lots of work happens in downtime too.  In fact, that’s often when the best inspirations strike.

Scorpio: This Full Moon, connect with your dreams, Scorpio. It’s like there’s a light shining into your subconscious mind, and you have the opportunity to feel wonderful inspiration in your creative self expression, and in your experience of beauty and pleasure. Sounds great, but materializing your inspirations will take looking at your daily habits, your routines and your approach to work to unlock that good stuff. Home life could pose some restrictions, or on the other hand, allow you to feel the support you need to let that inspiration unfurl. Career is out there for all to see, though how (and what) you talk about it is in a state of transformation. Expect surprises in relationships and partnerships, or even an appearance from an old flame or enemy.

Sagittarius:  The spotlight is on your society, Sagittarius.  Who do you rub shoulders with?  Who inspires you?  What do you wish for most dearly?  How do the people in your social scene affect your ideas of pleasure, joy and creativity?  Do they help, or hinder?  Communicating about this stuff feels tough, but if you have something important you’ve been wanting to say, now’s the time, because the message will be perceived as important and will be respected.  Home life is dreamy, and you feel inspired by your inner sanctum.  How you access the resources you need to keep those dreams alive needs some renovation.  Don’t be afraid, your value structure is changing.  Look for surprises in domestic, work and health routines as a new approach becomes apparent; pay attention, it could be a stroke of genius.

Capricorn:  The spotlight is on career, Capricorn, and how your very roots affect what you put out into the world.  Home offers you the foundation you need, but it can feel like an eternal compromise.  Your persona is in the midst of total renovation, and your value structure is solidifying; you want to see the money, long-term and you are willing to do the serious, long-term work. Make peace with what you can’t change, and seek beauty in your daily world.  Communications with those closest to you are inspired and you have much that is wonderful to consider.  Joy, pleasure and creative output are supercharged; pay close attention to any brainwaves that come through over the course of this Full Moon.  You are plumbing the depths; keep a record of this stuff, you will find it valuable in the future.

Aquarius:  The spotlight is on your philosophies, Aquarius, and how foreign ideas, teachings and people from other places impact how you communicate.  Your daily routines, interactions with those closest to you, and short-distance travel become amplified and you could find yourself quite busy as you seek to ground what you value in closer alignment with your outward persona.  This is a good time for manifesting your dreams, though do be careful if you are taking out a loan that you don’t overextend yourself now.  Home life and ancestry pose surprises; information comes to light which could change a lot about what you thought you knew, and material you’ve been carrying with you for some time.  Keep a close record, you will want to review later.

Pisces:  The spotlight is on power, power plays, how people hold things over you, and how you in turn like to control others, Pisces.  Your value structure is what it is, for better or for worse, and you know it – but now’s a good time to look at how your values mesh or not with those most important to you.  Expect surprising communication from relatives, siblings, neighbors and a lot of zooming around over the next few weeks.  Old material that’s been buried in your subconscious mind feels like work as it maintains a heavy presence just below the threshold of consciousness.  Your persona is inspired and you want to express your sense of blissfulness to the world.  Let it unfurl, share what you know to be beautiful, and expect your social scene to respond in kind.  Changes in your hopes and dreams are brewing.  Take care of the daily stuff first, the rest will follow.

Beauty in action, standing against oppression. In the streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine-22 March 2022 – Bach Cello Suite no 5 in C minor BWV 1011, Prelude.
“My name is Denys Karachevtsev, I am a cellist and a citizen of Kharkiv. I love my heroic city which is now struggling to survive the war. I deeply believe that we can help. I believe we can restore and rebuild our city and our country when the war is over. I am launching my project in the streets of Kharkiv to raise funds for humanitarian aid and for restoration of the city’s architecture. Let’s unite to revive our city together!”

Ukrainian Artist Ilya Repin, the Narodnik Movement, and the Power of Propaganda

Ilya Repin, Ukrainian Woman, 1876


Artist Ilya Repin was born in 1844 in Chuhuiv, Russian Empire, in an area which, after the February Revolution of 1917, was declared the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and then in 1991 became independently known as Ukraine.  Most recently, Chuhuiv was bombed on February 24, 2022, as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine which began on the same date, but which has been an ongoing threat since February 2014. Presumably, Russia is seeking to regain territory it lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and so the world watches as it invades Ukraine with impunity, destroying the peace and lives of families throughout that nation. This area of the world has a long and rich history, but has suffered from the terror of war for centuries.  At one point, during the 10th and 11th centuries, Ukraine was the most powerful state in Europe, and its capital, Kyiv, was the center of Kievan Rus, until Kyiv was destroyed by the Mongols in 1240.   With centuries of shifting nationalities, borders and political alliances all based on the productivity of one of the richest caches of natural resources in the world, Ukraine’s position in European history cannot be understated.

Ilya Repin was highly influential and prolific, and remains one of the leading artists associated with his day.  Due to the inflammatory nature of some of his art, as well as his ideological differences with the Russian government, Ilya Repin lived much of his life in exile, in an area of Finland which was later allocated to Russian Saint Petersburg.   His paintings depicted the some of the most important political moments of Russian history, ranging from the murder of Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich by his father, Ivan IV Vasilyevich, known as Ivan the Terrible and the first declared Tsar of Russia, to the documentation  of the Narodnik Movement, which was active in Russia after the abolition of serfdom in 1861.

Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16th, 1581, oil on canvas, 1885, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The painting below, Arrest of a Propagandist, depicts the betrayal by an informant and subsequent arrest of a propagandist in the Narodnik movement which grew among Russian intelligentsia and focused on redistribution of capital, and social revolution. After the overthrow of serfdom in 1861, agrarian-based socialist sentiment became widespread among middle and upper-class Narodniks, with the belief that if the peasantry, newly released from serfdom, could be organized, then the aristocracy could be overthrown, paving the way for a new form of socialist egalitarianism.  

Ilya Repin, Arrest of a Propagandist, oil on canvas, 1892. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. A Narodnik propagandist is betrayed by an informant, and arrested by authorities.

The fervor and idealism of these sentiments developed into a movement known as  Going to the People. Organized by the intelligentsia, notably Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Lavrov, and focused on educating and uplifting the peasants to overthrow the aristocracy, Going to the People was a mass phenomenon of social unrest.  While having no centralized leadership, intelligentsia encouraged idealistic students to leave their university posts, abandon their studies and go live among the peasantry, inspiring them to rebellion and eventual overthrow of the ruling classes.  Students were to guide the peasants in ideological education and development of propaganda networks, promising that participation would lift up their station in life, allowing the development of greater equality. At its height in 1874, between 4,000 and 6,000 impressionable students from the upper classes quit their studies and flocked to the countryside, brimming with idealistic, revolutionary sentiment meant to see through an economic and political transformation of Russian society. Differences within the Going to the People movement arose as to whether it should remain peaceful and idealistic, or more overtly revolutionary, and adoption of the peasant lifestyle proved too onerous for many used to the comforts of upper class urban life. 

Ilya Repin, They Did Not Expect Him, oil on canvas, 1884-88, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. This painting depicts the return of a Narodnik revolutionary to his home after imprisonment and exile.

Nevertheless, the Narodnik movement ultimately resulted in the successful assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, after four previous attempts by radicalized Narodnik agitators failed in 1866, 1867, 1879 and 1880.  The movement, while achieving its goal of destroying Tsar Alexander II, was ultimately not effective because of the disconnect between the ideologies of learned intelligentsia and illiterate peasants. The upper classes overly idealized the peasant lifestyle, as well as the willingness of the peasantry to participate in revolutionary activity.  Many former serfs were suspicious of the interference of the urban agitators, and actually supported those in power as their rightful overseers, believing that the aristocracy acted on Earth acted as representatives of God, not to be opposed or aggravated in any way. The ideals behind Narodnichestvo, however, had taken hold strongly enough to influence the later Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and it is speculated that the ideology influenced the Bolshevik Revolution that resulted in the destruction of the Russian Royal Family. 

Ilya Repin, Bolsheviks, oil on canvas, 1918, Constantine Palace, Saint Petersburg. A depiction of a Bolshevik soldier stealing bread from a child.

Ilya Repin was a close friend of Leo Tolstoy, whose books strongly focused on their depictions of the lives of both peasants and aristocracy.  Tolstoy was strongly influenced by Narodnik ideology, as can be seen in his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, in the rendition of an idealized rural lifestyle taken up by the discontented but idealistic protagonist Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Levin, as he struggles to leave behind the aristocracy and embrace a more natural, wholesome and spiritual lifestyle as exemplified by the simple yet happy peasantry.

Ilya Repin, Tolstoy Writing at Yasnaya Polyana, oil on canvas, 1891, Pushkin House Collection.

While the Narodnik movement may have begun as a truly idealistic outgrowth of the release of people from centuries of serfdom, with an urge to equalize classes and seek reform for the benefit of all, unfortunately, the romantic idealization of the peasant lifestyle, and the flattering glorification of good, honest hardworking family folk living close to the land still continues to this day. Note the recent “Freedom Convoy” movement, with many adherents coming from the North American heartland – centers of industry based on agriculture, oil and associated resource extraction and transportation. While we no longer openly acknowledge class divisions in the Western world, implicit class distinctions based on education, income and heritage still remain, and people all along the spectrum are easily manipulated by the propagation of increasingly sophisticated, emotionally charged propaganda and disinformation.

Whether in 19th century Russia, or 21st century Europe and North America, power protects itself. Those holding it are isolated from the harsh realities of life, easily deploying common people to spread propaganda which further its interests.  It is sad to see this at play in the world today, spreading throughout the world via social media venues. Peace is an elusive thing, easily fractured and rarely found, but we must strive to achieve it at all costs – except through the horrors of war.  While many changes are needed in our world to effect greater economic equality and improved living conditions, particularly for the most vulnerable, incitement to violence and war should be the very last avenue of approach.  However, when attacked by the power hungry, grabbing for additional resources and terrorizing innocent citizens, unfortunately, there must be a call to stand and fight for the basic right to live peacefully and unobstructed.   It is a travesty that even after the terrible lessons of two world wars, with 40 million dead in World War I and almost 85 million dead in World War II, we are still facing the brutal, horrible realities of war today. 

We must support peace in Ukraine, peace for all people everywhere, and work for an end to war once and for all.

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Astrology: Sun Sign Pisces

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, fresco, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican City. 1508-1512. Michelangelo was a Pisces, b. 6 March 1475.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist, Pisces, b. 14 March 1879 – d. 18 April 1955

The Sun moves through the astrological sign of Pisces from ~February 19 to ~March 20, and in the Northern Hemisphere, this sign marks the last chilly, watery days of winter, when the weather is usually quite bleak, damp and miserable. Nature in the grip of profound changes, and She is busy with activity, but much of it is unseen, occurring deep below the surface. Pisces is Mutable Water, and it is this energy of changeable, pervasive, encompassing moisture which is the stuff of life, primal and foundational. Pisces rules everything from clouds to the depths of the churning oceans, to the enveloping fogs and the serene ponds. The fact that our bodies are composed of 80% water speaks of our dependency on this element, perhaps best manifested in the swirling subconscious mind, and that level of reality which exists just beyond the realm of perception, but which we rely upon for our very lives, in our continual assumption of its presence. We could not exist without water, and while Pisces is typically considered as a rather humble, meek sign, there is tremendous strength within those hidden depths, a pervasive holding pattern that can simply never be avoided.

Pisces Tarot Correspondence – Major Arcana XVIII: The Moon (Rider Waite Smith Tarot)

Traditionally ruled by Jupiter, and in modern astrology ruled by Neptune, Pisces is a sign of paradox, for it encompasses both the absolute heights of inspiration and mystical realization, as well as the lowest depths of fantasy, delusion and debauchery. Thus its symbol is two fishes swimming in opposite directions, itself a reflection of the Taoist Yin/Yang icon so familiar to us all, a marriage of opposites, forever entwined and eternally inseparable. Pisces embraces life in its entirety, feeling, sensing and understanding on a profound level the many divergent paths and vicissitudes which encompass the journey of the soul. Sounds deep? Well it is, but then again, so is a drunk in his cups late upon a Friday night, two sheets to the wind and lost to all reason. Pisces is a matter of both the sacred and the profane, the good and the bad, and Pisces gathers, loves and understands it all. As Mutable Water, Pisces has the ability to adapt and flow with whatever circumstances it encounters, malleable and fluid, ever adjusting, reacting, responding with ever finer tuning of perception and reaction.

Pisces people often say things like “I knew you were going to call”, “I had a feeling that would happen”, “I was thinking about him, and then it was amazing, I ran into him at the grocery store.” Many people just shrug and roll their eyes, often quite accustomed to these “weird” mutterings from their Pisces friends. Pisces people don’t look at the world the way the rest of us do, especially not the Earth signs. To them, nothing is outside the realm of reason, everything is possible, and it is only through our own will that we limit our abilities to perceive and understand the world the way that they do. The more unusual, the more difficult, the more challenging, the better, for many Pisces, as it is in these outer reaches of human experience that they find themselves thriving, where they realize that they have deep insight and much to offer.

Hand a Pisces person a hammer and nails and ask them to fix that bit of loose carpentry, and they may look at you like you are from another planet. Stop to do something practical? What? Tell them that you think you saw a spirit in your backyard last night, or you have a fantastic business deal lined up and they are all ears. Before I make Pisces seem flaky, which is how they are often perceived, don’t get me wrong. If it were not for these folks, the idealists, dreamers, seekers and those with the pure compassion that Pisces offers the world – even to extraterrestrial visitors who may find themselves in need of an exit strategy – the world would surely be a much colder, duller and more impersonal place. In its mutability, a well-developed Pisces can easily understand everything about you, placing themselves so deeply into your shoes that you will feel that they have known you for your entire life. On the flip side, there is that other fish who often prefers to swim upstream, and sometimes you can catch them off balance, overwhelmed, swimming in waters that are too deep and threatening to submerge them once and for all. It is those Pisces who need some of your empathy, for once, for it can be a very hard thing to be so sensitive in a world that can be as cruel as ours, and escapism is often the only option for those who feel too much, too often.

Sometimes Pisces needs a little containment, when things get too far blown, so don’t be afraid to offer some resolution to their perplexity. They may not appreciate it at the time, preferring to lose themselves in dreamy dissolution, but they will remember and thank you, even if it isn’t right away. If you want to feel like the world is as magical as you wished it were, and walk away feeling nourished and renewed by the gentle waters of a fine soul? Find a good Pisces friend, listen to them as they share their thoughts and dreams with you, and consider yourself lucky, because these people are rare indeed.

The often surreal, sensitive Pisces finds its polarity in Mercury-ruled Virgo, a Mutable Earth sign, and it is from Virgo that Pisces can learn to make sense of the impressions that they receive from the depths and nether-regions of life. Virgo can teach Pisces how to distinguish fact from fiction, how to analyze experiences with a critical eye, and through tapping into the Virgoan capacity for discrimination that Pisces can eventually make true art of life, as Virgo helps make manifest all the little details that can so often get lost in the passages of emotion and inspiration.

  • Key words: emotional, empathetic, diverse, sensitive, imaginative, compassionate, kind, inspired, intuitive, insistent, sympathetic, tolerant, caring, escapist, moody, addictive, unrealistic, wishy-washy, secretive, indiscriminate, hedonistic, self-indulgent, delusional, depraved.
  • Rulership: traditional – Jupiter; modern – Neptune
  • Modality: Mutable Water
  • Polarity: Negative feminine
  • Gemstone: amethyst, pearl, chrysolite, coral, moonstone, peridot
  • Metal: platinum, tin
  • Tarot: The Moon
  • Colors: crimson, buff, pinkish-brown, stone, sand, deep colors, blue-green, white
  • Deities: Anubis, Isis, Poseidon, Vishnu, Neptune, Eros, Typhon
  • Flora: coffee, ferns, moss, cucumbers, pumpkins, lettuce, melons, water plants (like water lily, lotus), willow, pussy willow
  • Fauna: fish, dolphin, water animals, large animals, chameleons, jellyfish, lizards, poisonous animals, barnacles
  • Famous Pisces Personalities: George Washington, Emperor Constantine, Mikhail Gorbachev, Michelangelo, Elizabeth Taylor, Kurt Cobain, Spike Lee, George Harrison, Osama Bin Laden, Steve Jobs, Johnny Cash, Rihanna, Tyler the Creator, Trevor Noah, Justin Bieber, Stephen Curry, Antonio Vivaldi, Frederic Chopin, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Ansel Adams, Jessica Biel, Rupert Murdoch, Bryan Cranston, Nina Simone, Harvey Weinstein, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Piet Mondrian, Wilson Pickett, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alan Greenspan, Hubert de Givenchy, Mitch McConnell, Nat King Cole, Wilhelm Grimm, Nicolas Copernicus, John Steinbeck, Dr. Seuss, Levi Strauss, Bruce Willis, Sidney Poitier, Alan Rickman, Jack Kerouac, Daniel Craig.