17 janeiro 2007

The Rwanda genocide used no high-tech means, only clubs and machetes. Yet the extent of murder was unlike anything even in WWII.

I have long been preoccupied by the problem of evil. Not being a philosopher, I have no satisfactory explanation of evil to offer, nor even, indeed, a satisfactory definition of it. For me, evil is rather like poetry was for Doctor Johnson: easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. All I know for certain is that there’s a lot of it about - evil, I mean, not poetry.

Why? Is the heart of man irredeemably evil, or at any rate inclined to evil? What are the conditions in which evil may flourish?

My medical practice, admittedly of a peculiar kind, in a slum and in a prison, convinced me of the prevalence of evil. I was surprised. I had spent a number of years in countries wracked by civil wars and thereby deprived of even minimal social order, precisely the conditions in which one might expect evil to be widely committed, if only because in such situations the worst come to the fore. But nothing prepared me for the sheer malignity, the joy in doing wrong, of so many of my compatriots, when finally I returned home. Every day in my office I would hear of men who tortured women - torture is not too strong a word - or commit the basest acts of intimidation, oppression and violence, with every appearance of satisfaction and enjoyment. I would once have taken the opening sentence of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments for a truism:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there is evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

But now I no longer think it is even a truth, let alone a truism. I would be more inclined to write:

How good soever man may be supposed, there is evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the suffering of others… etc., etc.

I have seen so much, both at home and abroad, that I am not easily taken aback. When you have heard of baby-sitters who impale babies on railings in order to quieten them during a televised football match, or of men who suspend their girlfriends by their ankles from the fifteenth floor balcony, and this kind of thing daily for many years, you develop a kind of emotional carapace. One almost begins to take a pride in one’s own unsociability, which one takes to be a kind of sophistication. It is a form of spiritual pride, I suppose. Still, I nevertheless read a book that shocked me. It was about the Rwandan genocide, called A Time for Machetes, by a French journalist called Jean Hatzfeld. He interviewed several men who had taken part in the genocide, probably the most murderous in human history, at least in terms of numbers of deaths per day while it lasted, and were now imprisoned. One of them was under sentence of death.

As it happens, I had been to Rwanda only a handful of years before the genocide. I was travelling across Africa by public transport, so that I could see African life from below, as it were. I passed through several extraordinary countries, for example Equatorial Guinea, where the first (democratically elected) president after independence from Spain had been overthrown and executed by his nephew. Francisco Macias Nguema was one of the great unsung political monsters of the Twentieth Century, the century par excellence of political monsters. He kept the national treasury under his bed, had all people who wore eyeglasses executed on the grounds that they were dangerous intellectuals, introduced forced unpaid labour and killed or drove into exile a third of the population. His nephew who overthrew him, who until then had been his accomplice, was somewhat of an improvement, though still a dictator (and to this day is President): whenever he left the capital, the power supply was switched off as no longer being necessary.

I am ashamed now of the superficiality of my understanding of Rwanda of those days. I knew, of course, that Burundi (through which I had also just travelled) and Rwanda were mirror images of one another: that in Burundi it was the Tutsi minority that massacred the Hutu people, whereas in Rwanda it was the other way round, and that it was rather difficult to decide who had started this most vicious of vicious circles. But by comparison with many African countries, Rwanda seemed a well-run state, comparatively uncorrupt, its people industrious to a fault, and far from wretchedly poor, despite being one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, if not the world, with an astonishingly high natality. I knew, of course, that it was a dictatorship, the dictator being Major-General Juvenal Habyarimana, and that every Rwandan, ex officio as it were, was a member of the one party of the one-party state, the Mouvement national revolutionnaire pour le developpement (MNRD), from birth. But at the time, I was not very optimistic that multi-party politics, of the kind that the dictator was forced to introduce in 1991, would necessarily represent an improvement. In a way, I was right: the most efficient slaughter in human history took place three years later.

In that slaughter, in the space of three months, neighbours killed without compunction those with whom they had been friendly all their lives, only because they were of the different, and reputedly opposing, ethnic designation. They used no high-tech means, only clubs and machetes. Women and children were not spared; husbands of mixed marriages killed wives, and vice versa. The participation of the general population in the slaughter was its most remarkable feature: usually in mass murder, it is the state that does the killing, or rather the state’s agents, since the state is an abstraction without an existence independent of those who work for it. Hatzfeld, the African correspondent of the French left-wing newspaper, Liberation, went to interview some of the perpetrators a few years after the genocide. They were friends who took part in the murder (if that is not too slight a word for it) of 50,000 of the 59,000 Tutsis who lived in their commune.

Oddly enough, being in prison gave them the ability to talk about what they had done, if not honestly, at least with some degree of freedom. I do not know to what degree Hatzfeld, who interviewed them individually and at length, edited the transcript of his interviews, and of course we have no way of knowing how representative his witnesses are: but their testimony is perhaps the most startling ever committed to paper.

There is no real remorse for what they did, only regret that it landed them in their current predicament. They feel more sorry for themselves than for their victims, or the survivors. They are not even altogether unhappy in prison, and look forward to resuming their lives where they left off (before the genocide) as if nothing too much had really happened - or should I say been done by them? They hoped for, and expected, forgiveness on the part of the survivors, amongst whom they would have to return to live, because resentment and bitterness are useless emotions and because they (the perpetrators) had all been gripped by a collective madness. This, of course, absolved them in large part from personal responsibility.

For three months, the men would get up, have a hearty breakfast, gather together, and then go on hunting expeditions of their former neighbours, who had fled to the nearby marshes. They would hack anyone they found to death; and then, when the whistle blew in the evening for them to stop their ‘work’ (they regarded it as such), they returned home, had a quick wash, had dinner and socialised in a jolly way over a few beers. Their wives would be - for the most part, though not universally - content, because Tutsi property was thoroughly looted, and distributed according to the individual efficiency and ruthlessness of the killers. One of the most haunting things in this book, if it is possible to pick anything out in particular, is that many of the victims did not so much as cry out when caught by the murderous genocidaires: they died in complete silence, as if speech and the human voice were now completely worthless, redundant, beside the point. I have often wondered why the people went into the gas chambers silently, without fighting back, but I suppose that when you witness absolute human evil committed by the people with whom you once lived, and who, at least metaphysically, are just like you, you see no point in the struggle for existence. Non-existence, perhaps, seems preferable to existence.

The murderers were pleased with their work, they thought of all the corrugated iron roofing, cattle and so forth that they were ‘earning’ by it. They had never been so prosperous as during this period of slaughter and looting. Unaccustomed to eating meat very often (the Tutsi were pastoralists, the Hutu cultivators), they gorged themselves upon it, like hyenas finding an abandoned kill in the bush. Very few were their pauses for thought.

Let us not console ourselves with the thought that these were unsophisticated Africans, without the mental capacity to know better: in short, mere savages. Again, I do not know how much Hatzfeld has edited their words, but his perpetrator interlocutors seem to me more articulate than most of the people with whom I have had to deal in Britain as patients over the last decade and a half. Indeed, their language occasionally becomes poetic: though poetic language in this circumstance is mere euphemism.

Besides, the few comments of the survivors, mostly women, that Hatzfeld inserts into the text, are of considerable moral and intellectual sophistication, and certainly not those of unreflecting primitives with few powers of cerebration. Here is Edith, a Tutsi schoolteacher, on the question of forgiveness:

'I know that all the Hutus who killed so calmly cannot be sincere when they beg pardon, even of the Lord. [Many now pray fervently: the Rwandans were fervently religious long before the genocide.] But me, I am ready to forgive. It is not a denial of the harm they did, not a betrayal of the Tutsis, not an easy way out. It is so that I will not suffer my whole life asking myself why they tried to cut me. [Cut is the euphemism used by victim and perpetrator alike for ‘kill,’ since most of the death was dealt with a machete.] I do not want to live in remorse and fear from being Tutsi. Of I do not forgive them, it is I alone who suffers and frets and cannot sleep… I yearn for peace in my body. I really must find tranquillity. I have to sweep fear far away from me, even if I do not believe their soothing words.'

Francine, a Tutsi farm woman and shopkeeper, on the other hand, says this:

'Sometimes, when I sit alone in a chair on my veranda, I imagine this possibility: one far-off day, a local man comes slowly up to me and says, ‘Bonjour, Francine, I have come tospeak to you. So, I am the one who cut your mama and your little sisters. I want to ask your forgiveness.’ Well, to that person I cannot reply anything good. A man may ask for forgiveness if he has one Primus [beer] too many and then beats his wife. But if he has worked at killing for a whole month, even on Sundays, whatever can he hope to be forgiven for? We must simply go back to living, since life has so decided… We shall return to drawing water together, to exchanging neighbourly words, to selling grain to one another. In twenty years, fifty years, there will perhaps be boys and girls who will learn about the genocide in books. For us, though, it is impossible to forgive.'

No, it is impossible to console ourselves with the thought that the Rwandans are so different from us that they and their experiences have nothing to say to us. Edith and Francine are, indeed, more dignified, more articulate, more intelligently reflective, than most of the victims of small-scale evil in an English slum whom I have met.

This book penetrates deeper into the heart of evil than any other I have ever read. The author makes no claims for his work: he is still mystified by it himself. But if you want to know what depths man can sink to - an important thing to know, when your argument is that things are so bad that they cannot get any worse, so prudence is unnecessary - read this book. At the very least, it will put your worries into perspective.

A TIME FOR MACHETES, Jean Hatzfeld, Farrar, Straus, Giroux

16 janeiro 2007

No more excuses - Bilingualism Has Protective Effect In Delaying Onset Of Dementia

Canadian scientists have found astonishing evidence that the lifelong use of two languages can help delay the onset of dementia symptoms by four years compared to people who are monolingual.

There has been much interest and growing scientific literature examining how lifestyle factors such as physical activity, education and social engagement may help build "cognitive reserve" in later years of life. Cognitive reserve refers to enhanced neural plasticity, compensatory use of alternative brain regions, and enriched brain vasculature, all of which are thought to provide a general protective function against the onset of dementia symptoms.

Now scientists with the Rotman Research Institute at the Baycrest Research Centre for Aging and the Brain have found the first evidence that another lifestyle factor, bilingualism, may help delay dementia symptoms. The study is published in the February 2007 issue of Neuropsychologia (Vol.45, No.2).

"We are pretty dazzled by the results," says principal investigator Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D., whose research team at Baycrest included psychologist Dr. Fergus Craik, a world authority on age-related changes in memory processes, and neurologist Dr. Morris Freedman, an eminent authority on understanding the mechanisms underlying cognitive impairment due to diseases such as Alzheimer's.

"Our study found that speaking two languages throughout one's life appears to be associated with a delay in the onset of symptoms of dementia by four years compared to those who speak one language," says Dr. Bialystok, Professor of Psychology at York University and Associate Scientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest.

The study follows on the heels of previous published reports by Dr. Bialystok and colleagues showing that bilingualism enhances attention and cognitive control in both children and older adults. Those results inspired Bialystok and her research team to ask, "So what does this mean for the onset of dementia?"

In this present study, researchers set out to answer that question by examining the diagnostic records of 184 patients who came to Baycrest's Sam and Ida Ross Memory Clinic between 2002 and 2005 with cognitive complaints. Of that group, 91 were monolingual and 93 were bilingual. The bilinguals included speakers of 25 different languages, the most prevalent being Polish, Yiddish, German, Romanian and Hungarian.

Researchers found that 132 patients met criteria for probable Alzheimer's; the remaining 52 were diagnosed with other dementias. Patient data included Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) scores (a measure of general cognitive functioning), years of education and occupation. The MMSE scores were equivalent for the monolingual and bilingual groups at their initial visit to the clinic, indicating comparable levels of impairment. The age of onset of cognitive impairment was determined by the interviewing neurologist at the first clinic visit who asked patients and their families or caregivers when symptoms were first noticed.

The researchers determined that the mean age of onset of dementia symptoms in the monolingual group was 71.4 years, while the bilingual group was 75.5 years. This difference remained even after considering the possible effect of cultural differences, immigration, formal education, employment and even gender as influencers in the results.

"There are no pharmacological interventions that are this dramatic," says Dr. Freedman, who is Head of the Division of Neurology, and Director of the Memory Clinic at Baycrest, referring to the four-year delay in onset of symptoms for bilingual patients.

"The data show a huge protective effect," adds co-investigator Dr. Craik, who cautioned that this is still a preliminary finding but nonetheless in line with a number of other recent findings about lifestyle effects on dementia.

The team is working on a follow-up study that will further examine bilingualism and dementia onset. They plan to conduct interviews and cognitive assessments on bilingual and monolingual patients in Baycrest's Memory Clinic and follow them for a few years.

Museums go Green

Buildings in the United States consume 68% of the country’s electricity, produce 40% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and use nearly 40% of its energy according to statistics compiled by the US Green Building Council.

It is not surprising then that a growing number of art museums in the US are incorporating sustainable technologies into their multi-million dollar expansions.

Yet for every ­environmentally conscious museum, there are several leading art institutions that have given limited attention to ecological issues.

A number of museum professionals have never even considered the idea of environmentally sound systems. Some cite the requirements of light and temperature sensitive ­collections as incompatible with green design, while others are put off by the five to ten percent higher costs of environmentally friendly buildings.

According to Ric Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects in New York: “When you talk to museum directors, one of their main goals is to gain more gallery space and additional room for ancillary functions that financially ­support the institution, like the café and bookstore. It’s not that green systems are antithetical to these goals, but it takes a far-sighted director to recognise this.”

Maintaining the strict conditions necessary for collection ­management is the primary reason museum officials give for not building green.

A spokesperson for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which is currently undergoing a $500m expansion and renovation project led by British architect Sir Norman Foster, says: “As stewards of fragile and irreplaceable art, the museum has a unique set of requirements with respect to ­climate and light control. These conditions must be maintained around the clock. Because of the functional requirements of the Museum of Fine Art’s physical plant, we are not seeking LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification.”

This certification is a quantitative point-based rating system developed by the US Green Building Council that evaluates the environmental function of a building according to six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, ­material resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and design process. Very few US museums have been certified and around 81% of all recent and planned museum expansions have not requested approval.

Achieving certification requires rigorous planning from the beginning of the design phase and can be restrictive. Recent major expansions that did not seek official certification include the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, both in New York, and the Denver Art Museum.

In fact, only a handful of art institutions across the country have received certification. They include the Getty Center in Los Angeles, The Grand Rapids Museum of Art in Michigan, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in Massachusetts.

The Art Institute of Chicago is perhaps one of the most ­environmentally sound museums in the country. The institute is seeking a silver certification for its $285m expansion by Renzo Piano, which is now under construction and integrates a range of green features including a photocell lighting system that dims as ambient light gets brighter and a double-window façade that ­provides natural ventilation and light. Nearly ten years ago, the museum had the foresight to install solar panels on its roof and it recently hired a consulting firm to assess if it can save energy by overhauling its heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems.

Some architects such as Renzo Piano are known for using natural lighting and energy-efficient systems having been trained in continental Europe where fuel costs are significantly higher and where energy-related building codes are much stricter than in the US. Since museums require 24-hour humidity and temperature controls, an initial investment in energy-efficient systems could significantly reduce operational costs in the long-term.

The Center for Architecture in New York, for example, installed a geo-thermal heating and cooling system for $100,000. Although the technology was initially more ­expensive than traditional equipment, the investment paid for itself within three years and today the centre saves an ­estimated $30,000 annually. The centre also received a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for the cost of the installation; in other words it saw an immediate return on investment that it would not have received had it used traditional technologies.

MoMA in New York received a $400,000 grant from the same oganisation to defray costs for a chilled water plant that saves the institution an estimated $300,000 a year. Several city and state agencies across the US offer incentives for green design and private organisations such as the Kresge Foundation offer grants to support sustainable environmental design.

With projects currently in design by Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry and Herzog & de Meuron for the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Miami Art Museum respectively, one wonders what path they will take. These projects offer institutions an opportunity to build for the future while having an impact on the organisation’s ­public perception.

According to the American Institute of Architects’ Ric Bell: “Building green shows that the institution is thinking about the future not just on an ethical but on a ­practical level as well.

15 janeiro 2007

New Zealand

Postcards from Cheryl - Thanx ;)

Saint Petersburg and around

Postcards from Kseniya - spassiba ;)

The psychology: Welcome to the paradoxical world of mating intelligence

Let's talk about the most important interview you'll ever be granted. Seated at a well-appointed table, you mull the choice between crab cakes and seared tuna, but truly you are sorting through a mental repertoire of wisecracks and war stories. If you are secure in your improvisational charms, you might use this moment to appraise the cleavage or cufflinks of the woman or man across the table. There's no predicting discussion topics, but you can be sure they'll pertain to your marital status, extracurricular activities, and your job. (There are no verboten questions at this interview.) You are applying for a new and expanded life. Or, you simply want a one-night pass that can be renewed indefinitely. And you need to know whether your dining companion is up to the task.

A date makes us both spectator and performer at a two-ring circus: We troll for wit, kindness, curiosity, and "chemistry," hoping that we radiate these same attributes in the right amounts. From strategic winks and blinks to elaborate grooming to gifts of gorgeous baubles, men and women employ an arsenal of tricks in their romantic lives, all in the service of a demanding master at the far reaches of conscious awareness. Eons of evolution have honed our behavior to aid and abet a reproductive payoff. The sum of the stratagems we employ, and the wisdom of nature in crafting them without our explicit awareness, are now the subject of intense study by evolutionary psychologists.

Our sexual calculations and character reconnaissance, it turns out, call for smart, but not always accurate, judgments. That's because mating intelligence is as oxymoronic as the term suggests. We routinely bring both cold reason and outsized misconceptions to a relationship. Both serve a purpose. A woman will accurately gauge her date's personality on first meeting, but she will grow more convinced of his good humor and charm if they stick together. To woo a woman, a guy will grossly exaggerate his income, commitment, and affection for cuddly creatures. But he may have to correctly read microgestures as fine as tea leaves to discern whether she's truly impressed.

Male and female mating intelligence part ways when it comes to each sex's competing procreative goals. Inscrutable though our machinations may be to our partners (and to ourselves), romantic behavior is driven by a deep logic. Our minds have evolved to warp reality. Even so, we have unique skews in the mating realm. We've all got blind spots about the opposite sex. And sometimes that's for the best.

"She Wants Me" and Other Erotic Errata

Jane Austen nailed women's intricate courtship calculus, but The Onion has the beat on simple male arithmetic: "Area Man Going to Go Ahead and Consider That a Date." The article in the satirical rag details a man's random encounter with a woman that blossomed into a 45-minute conversation. "It wasn't official or anything, but if I had asked her to have coffee with me, and she were to have said yes, the result would have been exactly the same," he says. "It's pretty clear that she's really into me."

Men have a notoriously elastic take on women's romantic receptivity. You might call it a "take-all-prisoners" approach to flirting, so frequently do men presume sexual interest on the part of a potentially available woman. The "She Wants Me" bias serves a convenient purpose for men—it actually increases their sexual opportunities. Because men invest less of themselves in offspring relative to women, it is in their genetic interests to reproduce as much as possible. Therefore, perceptions that promote sexual assertiveness tend to be functional. This inclination doesn't mean the average guy is delusional about his sex appeal, it just means that if he has a great date he will probably report more interest on the part of his consort than she herself reports.

Women, for their part, are biased right back. They skittishly insist that men are more keen on no-strings-attached sex than is the case. This "men are pigs" bias pits suspicious women against oversolicitous men in what Geoffrey Miller, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, labels a "never-ending arms race of romantic skepticism and excess." It could lead to great repartee: Think Bacall and Bogie, Josephine and Napoleon, Condi and Kim Jong Il.

Glenn Geher, an associate professor of psychology at SUNY at New Paltz, who, with Miller, edited a forthcoming volume on mating intelligence, is developing a mathematical model to demonstrate what many a grandmother has long cautioned: Women who are de facto skeptical of a man's intentions are almost always better off than women who spend hours deconstructing the first date. ("He gave me his home number, he asked about my family, he mentioned a concert this spring—he must be into me!") Geher found that if a woman cannot accurately judge a man's romantic designs at least 90 percent of the time, she's better off being biased. "Women using a 'men are always pigs' decision-making rule may be more likely to actually end up with honest, committed, and long-term-seeking males," insists Geher.

We have a radar for opposite-sex interest and intentions that has its own unique calibrations. And it follows Darwinian, rather than Aristotelian, logic, because the very survival of our genes is at stake. Men and women need to minimize reproductive mistakes that could thwart their mating goals: For men, missing a chance to score constitutes an error. For women it is dangerous to trust a man who simply wishes to score and move on.


The opinion: Casual sex is a con: women just aren't like men

The Sixties generation thought everything should be free. But only a few decades later the hippies were selling water at rock festivals for $5 a bottle. But for me the price of “free love” was even higher.

I sacrificed what should have been the best years of my life for the black lie of free love. All the sex I ever had — and I had more than my fair share — far from bringing me the lasting relationship I sought, only made marriage a more distant prospect.

And I am not alone. Count me among the dissatisfied daughters of the sexual revolution, a new counterculture of women who are realising that casual sex is a con and are choosing to remain chaste instead.

I am 37, and like millions of other girls, was born into a world which encouraged young women to explore their sexuality. It was almost presented to us as a feminist act. In the 1960s the future Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown famously asked: Can a woman have sex like a man? Yes, she answered because “like a man, [a woman] is a sexual creature”. Her insight launched a million “100 new sex tricks” features in women’s magazines. And then that sex-loving feminist icon Germaine Greer enthused that “groupies are important because they demystify sex; they accept it as physical, and they aren’t possessive about their conquests”.

As a historian of pop music and daughter of the sexual revolution I embraced Greer’s call to (men’s) arms. My job was to write the sleeve notes to 1960s pop CDs and I gained a reputation for having an encyclopedic knowledge base, interviewing the original artists and recording personnel. It was all a joy for me, as I was obsessed with the sounds of the era. I would have paid just to meet artists such as Petula Clark, Del Shannon, Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson, Alan Price, and the Hollies — and instead I was getting paid to tell their stories. I became the top woman in my (overwhelmingly male) profession. The opportunities for shenanigans were endless.

Rock journalism had an extra bonus for me because I was deeply attracted to musicians — all kinds, though drummers, unused to being appreciated for their minds, were easy marks. While I was unaware of Greer’s injunction to make love freely, I read the supergroupie memoir, I’m With the Band by Pamela Des Barres, envying her ability to drink in everything that was desirable about rockers — their good looks, wit, creativity and fame — without seeming to lose any part of herself in her (extraordinarily numerous) dalliances with them.

I tried to emulate her and I suppose to a large extent succeeded. In some ways, the touring rock musician was my ideal sexual partner. By bedding them I could enjoy a temporary sort of fairy-tale bond; knowing it was bound to be fleeting as we would both move on meant that I never had to confront my own vulnerability about properly making a connection with someone. I could establish a transient intimacy and never have to deal with the real thing — and the real rejection that might entail.

Of course the rejection would come as the latest lover moved on to the next town and the next woman — but somehow, being able to see it coming made me feel more in control. I was choosing, I thought, the lesser pain.

But in all that casual sex, there was one moment I learnt to dread more than any other. I dreaded it not out of fear that the sex would be bad, but out of fear that it would be good. If the sex was good, then, even if I knew in my heart that the relationship wouldn’t work, I would still feel as though the act had bonded me with my sex partner in a deeper way than we had been bonded before. It’s in the nature of sex to awaken deep emotions within us, emotions that are unwelcome when one is trying to keep it light.

On such nights the worst moment was when it was all over. Suddenly I was jarred back to earth. Then I’d lie back and feel bereft. He would still be there, and if I was really lucky, he’d lie down next to me. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling like the spell had been broken. We could nuzzle or giggle or we could fall asleep in each other’s arms but I knew it was play acting and so did he. We weren’t really intimate — it had just been a game. The circus had left town.

Whatever Greer and her ilk might say I’ve tried their philosophy — that a woman can shag like a man — and it doesn’t work. We’re not built like that. Women are built for bonding. We are vessels and we seek to be filled. For that reason, however much we try and convince ourselves that it isn’t so, sex will always leave us feeling empty unless we are certain that we are loved, that the act is part of a bigger picture that we are loved for our whole selves not just our bodies.

It took me a long time to realise this. My earliest attitudes about sex were shaped from what I saw in the lives of my older sister and my mother — especially my mother, a free spirit who was desperately trying to make up missing out on the hippie era.

My parents split up when I was five; a few years later Dad moved across the country, so I was raised by my mother. While my schoolmates’ mothers were teaching them how to bake cookies, mine was letting her goateed boyfriend teach me, aged eight, the complex mechanics behind his water bong for smoking pot. (He thoughtfully stopped short of letting me take a drag on the weed.) My father held traditional values, but he didn’t want to seem prudish and was clearly uncomfortable setting down rules for a daughter he rarely saw. He almost never talked to me about sex. It was simply understood that I would have sex when I was ready — whether married or not.

I learnt from my sister and my mother that a woman can be intelligent and beautiful and yet have a difficult time meeting a responsible, gentlemanly man who wishes to be married for life. This was the 1970s and early 1980s, the age of the Sensitive New Age Guy or aptly named “snag”. My mother attracted them because she was new age herself, doing kundalini yoga and attending lectures by various gurus.

The snags treated her with what passed for respect in that world but they never gave much of themselves and didn’t appreciate Mom in the way I did — I wondered if there were any men capable of valuing inner beauty. In both her search for a husband and her quest for a fulfilling spirituality, Mom was, in my eyes, fuelled by a longing to fill the empty space.

As I hit my teens, I felt the vacuum too and longed for male companionship. But I was determined not to get hurt the way I had seen my mother hurt. Having premarital sex seemed like a surefire way to get burnt. So I decided early on that I would not have sex until . . . marriage? That would be great. However, I didn’t think I could wait until then. Instead, I resolved that I would wait to have sex until I was really “in love” — whatever that meant.

That all may sound simple enough but, growing up, I had little concept of the meaning of sex and marriage. I thought sex was something one did for recreation and also if one wanted to have a baby. (Well, I was on the right track with that last one.) Marriage, I believed, meant that one had a societal sanction to have sex with a particular person. Sex was better when one was in love, I imagined. Married people should have sex only with each other because — well, because it wasn’t nice to cheat, plus cheating could lead to divorce, which I knew meant lots of pain.

As a teenager with no moral foundation for my resolution to save my virginity for Mr Right — other than a fear of being hurt by Mr Wrong — I felt free to push the envelope. No, more than free. I became one of those mythical virgins who does “everything but”. The name Lewinsky was not yet a verb, but if it were, I imagine men would often have whispered it to one another behind my back.

When, at age 23, I finally got tired of waiting and “officially” lost my virginity to a man I didn’t love, it was a big deal to me at the time, but in retrospect it wasn’t really so significant. True, my dalliances became less complicated. When I did “everything but”, I used to dread having to explain why I didn’t want to go all the way; once I started having sex, that was no longer necessary.

But in a wider sense, losing my virginity, far from being the demarcation between past and future, was just a blip on the continuum of my sexual degradation. The decline had begun when I first sought sexual pleasure for its own sake.

Our culture — both in the media via programmes such as Sex and the City and in everyday interactions — relentlessly puts forth the idea that lust is a way station on the road to love. It isn’t. It left me with a brittle facade incapable of real intimacy. Occasionally a man would tell me I appeared hard, which surprised me as I thought I was so vulnerable. In truth, underneath my attempts to appear bubbly, I was hard — it was the only way I could cope with what I was doing to my self and my body.

The misguided, hedonistic philosophy which urges young women into this kind of behaviour harms both men and women; but it is particularly damaging to women, as it pressures them to subvert their deepest emotional desires. The champions of the sexual revolution are cynical. They know in their tin hearts that casual sex doesn’t make women happy. That’s why they feel the need continually to promote it.

These days I live a very different kind of life. I still touch base with old musician pals now and again, but I’m more likely to hang out with members of church choirs. I am chaste. My decision to resist casual sex was, once again, influenced by my mother — though not in the way she initially hoped.

Although she was Jewish, she gave up her new age beliefs for Christianity when I was a teenager. I myself had no such plans at the time. For one thing, I didn’t have faith. I had grown up up in a liberal, Reform Jewish household; but, after being a bat mitzvah at 13, I fell into agnosticism and it seemed like nothing could pull me out.

As far as I could see, Christians were a dull, faceless mass who ruled the world. My mission in life, as I saw it, was to be different; creative, liberal, rebellious. Then one day in December 1995, I was doing a phone interview with Ben Eshbach, leader of a Los Angeles rock band called the Sugarplastic, and asked him what he was reading. His answer was The Man Who Was Thursday by G K Chesterton. I picked it up out of curiosity and was captivated. Soon I was picking up everything by Chesterton that I could get my hands on, starting with his book Orthodoxy, his attempt to explain why he believed in the Christian faith.

That was the first time it struck me that there was something exciting about Christianity. I kept reading Chesterton even as I continued my dissipated lifestyle, and then one night in October 1999 I had a hypnagogic experience — the sort in which you’re not sure if you are asleep or awake. I heard a woman’s voice saying: “Some things are not meant to be known. Some things are meant to be understood.” I got on my knees and prayed — and eventually entered the Catholic church.

One night last year I had dinner with a male friend, a charming English journalist I would have dated if he shared my faith (he didn’t) and if he were interested in getting married (ditto). He peppered me with questions about chastity, even going so far as to suggest that maybe, given that I’d been looking for so long, I might not find the man I was looking for.

“That’s not true,” I responded. “My chances are better now than they’ve ever been, because before I was chaste, I was looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s only now that I’m truly ready for marriage and have a clear vision of the kind of man I want.

“I may be 37,” I concluded, “but in husband-seeking years, I’m only 22.”

The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, by Dawn Eden, was published by W Publishing Group/ Thomas Nelson last month

11 janeiro 2007

Romania wants "Dracula's castle" back

Romania wants to buy back a mediaeval fortress known as "Dracula's Castle" from the former royal family of Habsburg, who won it from the state last year after a long legal battle, officials said on Monday.

The Bran castle, whose jagged towers and remote surroundings earned it its famous name, was one of the first prominent pieces of real estate given back by Bucharest under the new European Union member's troubled property restitution law.

The Habsburgs lost it after World War Two when Romania's communist regime chased them out of the country.

"We will go to Vienna to negotiate the deal with the owners," Aristotel Cancescu, head of the local council in Transylvania where the castle is located, told Reuters.

Cancescu said the Habsburg family wants 60 million euros for the castle.

Perched among forests on the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, the Bran Castle is a major tourist attraction in Romania.

Despite the name, the fortress was never part of Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula". However, Romania's notorious 15th century ruler Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, whose life inspired the book, may have been there briefly.

The castle was built in the 14th century to guard the nearby city of Brasov from attacks by the Ottoman Turks.

Question time

Has Anita Roddick sold out? Absolutely not, she says. Handing The Body Shop over to L'Oréal was the smart thing to do.

Anita Roddick, 64, founded The Body Shop in 1976 and built it into a global brand with an ethical reputation. Last March, she sold her stake to cosmetics giant L'Oréal in a £652m takeover.

Have you sold out?

I've done exactly what the original staff in The Body Shop would expect. I've sold the company, I've sold my shares and given my money away - that's exactly what the system was about.

I felt personally let down [when you sold to L'Oréal]

Well, I don't know if you were personally let down. I think there is a sense of purism that says you cannot grow, you cannot advance. You should have been personally let down when I sold to the stock market, but you weren't because you never saw anything changing. I think there's a sense of "here's another good institution being bought by the French", but then the Brits never liked us anyway, especially the financial journalists, so, the notion that it was an iconic company, that it was a British treasure, was bullshit. We were a bunch of nutty activists who happened to come into this extraordinary idea of selling products and, bloody hell, we were good at it.

Did the backlash surprise you?

The backlash surprised me, stupid me, about Nestlé. I just didn't get it.

What did you not get?

No one was ever curious about who was investing in The Body Shop and so, knowing that they [Nestlé] were 25% investor-owners [in L'Oréal], I couldn't understand why people were worried, whether you liked them or didn't like them. I don't particularly like Nestlé.

Do you understand now?

No, not really, because everybody thinks that any money made goes to Nestlé but it doesn't - it stays within The Body Shop. L'Oréal ringfences the money. It goes to develop The Body Shop.

But if The Body Shop does spectacularly well, doesn't Nestlé still get some money?

I guess they would but that's not changing The Body Shop's values. People lost sight of what we were good at. We were brilliantat campaigning. We changed the economic structure of purchasing. If L'Oréal is going to adopt that, fantastic. I'm at an age when an approximate solution to these problems has got my vote, so I'm not a purist on this stuff .

What's it like having to justify yourself?

I've always had to justify myself. Every time you put your head above the parapet it's going to get knocked down. L'Oréal is not the enemy. I'm too smart and too old to be tricked.

There was talk of a boycott, did that happen?

It didn't happen.

Were sales affected?

There was protest but it was more headlines. Sales didn't drop.

There's no sense of hypocrisy?

No. Why would I consider it hypocritical if I am allowed to do exactly what I wanted?

How much did you make [from the sale]?

I think we made, Gordon and I, about £127m, so £30m straight away is going into our foundation, which will give us about £3m a year to donate.

Is there ever a sense that you've been doing this too long?

Doing what, activism? No. What's the alternative? Death, I guess. No, I think you get more radical as you get older. When you get to my age there are things you are free from. You're not worried about what you look like, that's for sure.


Absolutely. What you want to do is look less tired. You do not spend hours, I guarantee you, saying, "Oh my god, my skin has dropped, I've got wrinkles." The idea of a wrinkle-free face is so horrific to most women my age.


Because it's a plan of your life.

Isn't that the opposite of what the beauty industry says?

The beauty industry can say what it likes, it's all over the place.

But you are part of that industry.

No I'm not. I'm only interested in lives.

Would The Body Shop ever do an anti-ageing cream?

I don't care what The Body Shop does any more. The Body Shop is not my problem, I don't own it. I'm not The Body Shop. Stop talking to me about The Body Shop. Talk to me about my real life.

Do you still go into the shops?

Oh, yes.

Do you still use the products?

Oh, yes.

What's your beauty regime like?

You know, the biggest trick for people my age is exfoliation. Clean like crazy and exfoliate.

Big Sur Without the Crowds

WHEN he moved there from France in 1940, Henry Miller, who had grown up in Brooklyn, called Big Sur his “first real home in America.” Running from Carmel, 150 miles south of San Francisco, to San Simeon, Big Sur's mass of tight mountains pushes brazenly against the Pacific swell. Kelp forests sway at the feet of rugged sea cliffs. Deep valleys shelter some of the southernmost redwoods. The only way through this fastness is along winding, breathtaking California Route 1.

Nearly two decades after settling in, Miller wrote “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch,” a collection of fond, philosophical sketches that expressed a nostalgia for the place born of his fear that Big Sur's magic could only wane as more people came to visit. Certainly, summers can be a crush here, a paradise lost of RV traffic jams and overcrowded facilities.

Yet in winter, nature reasserts itself. Whales, elephant seals and monarch butterflies arrive after travels that have taken them thousands of miles. California sea otters, once thought extinct and rediscovered only in a single Big Sur cove, float among kelp beds as effortlessly as the recently reintroduced California condors soar above redwood crags.

Winter is a refuge, not just for seekers and wildlife, but for Big Sur itself. Some days are so perfect, with golden sunlight burnishing green mountains against the dark blue sea, they are metaphor brought to life. On other days punishing storms scream in from the Pacific. Waves pound the coast like angry fists while torrents of rain howl up the canyons, obscuring the distinction between kelp and redwood.

But even during these times, a cozy lodge and a crackling fire are all it takes to render this side of nature, too, sublime in its way.

Nonetheless, if Big Sur rewards serendipity, it is no place to rely upon it — the few lodgings fill quickly, and most buildings are anyway not visible from the road. After three hours' driving from San Francisco, my wife, Nina, and I were happy we had made reservations at Deetjen's, the coast's original roadhouse. The inn dates to the 1930s when Grandpa Deetjen built a redwood barn here. Being the only place to stay, it became the place to stay, growing into a cluster of rough-hewn cabins under the boughs of a redwood grove.

Our room was dim and cozy, looking out at ropy midtrunk pillars. The trees' upper reaches held the wood smoke drifting up from our chimney, blending it with the mists above. Below, a brook rushed to the ocean.

Though the Pacific is everywhere in Big Sur, the enfolding coast guards access like a jealous lover. Beaches nestle in coves backed by fearsome cliffs, and in only a few places is it easy — or even possible — to set foot on them. Pfeiffer Beach is one: in a bay sheltered from the ocean's full force by chunky offshore rocks, its fine tan sand is streaked with purple minerals.

When we visited, the sun was as warm as the water was cold. A few handfuls of college students basked in sweatshirts and sunglasses like style-conscious sea lions. An arch in the rocks served as a proscenium for the lowering sun and the backlit orange seawater splashes of gentle swells.

Knowing that any winter sunset on this coast could be the only one we'd see on our trip, we left the beach and made our way up to the ridgeline, hundreds of feet above us, where the Post Ranch Inn perches in unobtrusive luxe.

There, cottages are spread tactfully over rolling acres of grass and woods. But as in the rest of Big Sur, the Post Ranch Inn's charm lies in its attitude as much as the landscape. With our rumpled, sandy sweaters and wet pant cuffs we clearly weren't the establishment's target clientele, yet we found a welcoming spirit. At the inn's restaurant, the jovial Mexican bartender took us under his wing and brought us wine at a table on the outdoor deck.

We had the deck to ourselves. As we sipped the fruity Barnett pinot noir from the nearby Santa Lucia Highlands, the ocean far below rippled in the setting sun like a sheet of honey-slathered gold leaf. The smell of sea and fragrant, sun-warmed coastal scrub wafted up to us, and we could see the white breakers against the rocks below, too distant to hear over the quavering birds.

With sunset, and flitting bats replacing the birds, we returned to Deetjen's for the affable restaurant in the original barn. A roaring fire in the low-ceilinged, comfortably crowded space of stone, wood and plaster took the winter chill off the night air. We tucked in to a hearty and perfectly executed mushroom risotto and a solid and delightful cassoulet, glad afterward that we had only to grope our way a few hundred feet into the bracing redwood-scented darkness to find our little cabin.

“The place itself is so overwhelmingly bigger, greater, than anyone could hope to make it,” Miller wrote of Big Sur in 1957, “that it engenders a humility and reverence not frequently met with in Americans. There being nothing to improve on in the surroundings, the tendency is to set about improving oneself.” He could have been describing the Esalen Institute. Founded in 1962, Esalen is a sort of New Age Harvard, the intellectual home of the Human Potential Movement and West Coast gestalt therapy — a place where seekers and celebrities (including, in his day, Henry Miller) gather to experience “energy” and “spirit,” to come to know Deepak Chopra and Atlantis.

Esalen's lush campus tumbles down from Highway 1 toward a precipitous cliff above the ocean — as usual, it's easy to pass by without noticing. But it's just off the road, a summer camp for adults — earnest Californians in their middle years, bent on self-knowledge and self-improvement, people who fall into deep conversation quickly and naturally.

Shortly after we arrived, as I watched a sea otter in the kelp far below the main dining hall chopping at a clam on its belly, a blindfolded man walked by, slowly and with tentative steps. As we stood in line for a lunch of intensely fresh organic kale and fava beans, another man hugged us both. “We're all going to die after lunch!” he announced brightly, before heading off to the afternoon session of the Joseph Campbell workshop that was apparently transforming his consciousness even then.

Esalen's Northern California vernacular architecture of rough filigreed metalwork, raw redwood planks and grass roofs fits in easily with its landscape of lush lawns, spreading cypress trees and beds of organic vegetables. The neat grounds are informal and touched with whimsy. A big ball of vines hides a snuggle perch; here and there, carved benches are set just so: to view the setting sun; for quiet conversation in the cool night; to inhale the scent of the eucalyptus groves.

While the room we stayed in was cramped and a little damp, any complaints we might have had were more than offset by the magnificent hot pools: as much as the hundreds of relationship workshops, inner voice seminars and massage classes held each year, Esalen is known for these legendary tubs. Hugging a seaside cliff, the complex of baths momentarily captures natural hot springs before they pour into the Pacific. Board-formed concrete walls, warm and grippy sandstone floors and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to sea give the place the feel of a celestial point of embarkation.

We took a long midnight soak in the soft, sulfurous water, gazing through the steam at Orion high in a winter sky blacker than we had thought possible. The breakers below shook the cliff, filling our ears with clamor, as though we could hear the machinery of the heavens as it threw shooting stars over our heads. Cool, humid sea air puffed softly into our faces, all part of what Henry Miller called “Nature smiling at herself in the mirror of eternity.”

The world fell away for us; we even forgot about Miller. It was not until we were on our way back toward San Francisco on Tuesday morning that we remembered to stop at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. The small library features a reading room, shop and hot coffee, and is the host of workshops, readings and special events. Nina's father makes a cameo as a toddler urinating on a billiard table in Miller's novel “Sexus,” so we thought we might go and brag about this to whomever we might find inside.

We pulled the car onto the side of the road under the big trees before the library, a modest shingle-roofed house, set back in a hollow. There was nobody around, but the gate was opened a crack, so I slipped inside, not seeing the sign propped against a pile of firewood: Closed Tuesdays. I walked across the wet grass strewn with sculptures and bric-a-brac, put a foot on the wet deck, and looked into the house to see a figure sitting on the floor surrounded by books. He looked up, and our eyes met, and I remembered reading of Miller's annoyance at tourists pulling up to his house and demanding sandwiches.

“One's destination is never a place,” he wrote too, “but rather a new way of looking at things.”



Deetjen's Big Sur Inn (48865 Highway 1; 831-667-2377; www.deetjens.com). Serving hearty breakfasts and solid dinners in a cozy candle-and-firelit space, Deetjen's restaurant has an unpretentious but efficient and friendly feel that seems the epitome of Big Sur at its best. Dinner entrees are around $24, and a gut-busting breakfast of fresh pancakes, sausage and strong coffee can be had for under $10.

The Sierra Mar restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn, on Highway 1, 30 miles south of Carmel (831-667-2800; www.postranchinn.com), serves visitors daily from noon to 9 p.m. in a stylish dining room perched at the edge of a Pacific cliff. Four-course prix fixe dinners of well-executed California cuisine run about $85 a person, not including wine. Lunch entrees are around $15. Reservations are required for dinner.

Nepenthe, on Highway 1, 51 miles south of Carmel (831-667-2345; www.nepenthebigsur.com), has long been a favorite tourist aerie. It is worth a visit on sunny days for the magnificent views and cheery crowd, although the food, served from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., is overpriced and undistinguished. Think of it as the price of admission.


Nestled in a redwood hollow near the road, Deetjen's is the coast's original roadhouse. It is unpretentious and friendly, and the tiny wisteria-shrouded library is the perfect place to read Henry Miller, or to delve into local history. The redwood walls can be thin, so ask for a detached cottage. A room with a private bath and fireplace is $165 to $195.

Hidden just off the road, the Esalen Institute (55000 Highway 1; 831-667-3005; www.esalen.org) seems to exist in its own dimension. Most people come for one of the workshops or courses, which last from a weekend to a month or more. We were able to reserve a one-night Personal Retreat for $150 a person, plus $50 Esalen membership. Personal Retreats, which include room and board plus access to movement and yoga classes and use of the art barn, meditation Round House and hot springs, cannot be reserved more than one week in advance. Visitors without reservations are not permitted.


The Henry Miller Memorial Library (Highway 1; 831-667-2574; www.henrymiller.org) maintains a reference collection of Miller's work, a bookshop and a big wooden deck where visitors can enjoy coffee and Wi-Fi. Special events include readings, concerts, art shows, performances and seminars. The library is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Tuesdays.

The legendary hot springs at Esalen are open to the public for $20 by reservation only from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. each night. Call (831) 667-3047.

State parks are strung up and down the coast. Many offer short hikes to astounding coastal vistas, while others permit access to the rugged mountain wilderness of the interior.

Pfeiffer Beach is 26 miles south of Carmel, a quarter-mile south of the Big Sur Ranger Station, at the end of Sycamore Canyon Road (831-667-2315; www.campone.com). It is one of the largest accessible beaches in Big Sur, and is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Parking is $5.

At Limekiln State Park (Highway 1; 831-667-2403; www.parks.ca.gov), a half-mile stroll in the redwoods brings you to the ominous, mossy ruins of abandoned kilns. The day-use fee is $6 per car, and the park is open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

In Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, on Highway 1, 34 miles south of Carmel (831-667-2315; www.parks.ca.gov), a short trail takes you to McWay Falls, an 80-foot-high cataract that pours straight onto the perfect, though inaccessible, beach at McWay Cove. The park is open during daylight hours, and this particular trail is wheelchair accessible. Parking is $5.

10 janeiro 2007

A Postcard from Neubrandenburg, Germany

Danke, Astrid ;)

Vanity Fair's Year in Photos

New translation for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

'Gawain,' said the green knight, 'By God, I'm glad

the favour I've called for will fall from your fist.

You've perfectly repeated the promise we've made

and the terms of the contest are crystal clear.

Except for one thing: you must solemnly swear

that you'll seek me yourself; that you'll search me out

to the ends of the earth to earn the same blow

as you'll dole out today in this decorous hall.'

'But where will you be? Where's your abode?

You're a man of mystery, as God is my maker.

Which court do you come from and what are you called?

There is knowledge I need, including your name,

then by wit I'll work out the way to your door

and keep to our contract, so cross my heart.'

'But enough at New Year. It needs nothing more,'

said the war-man in green to worthy Gawain.

'I could tell you the truth once you've taken the blow;

if you smite me smartly I could spell out the facts

of my house and home and my name, if it helps,

then you'll pay me a visit and vouch for our pact.

Or if I keep quiet you might cope much better,

loafing and lounging here, looking no further. But

you stall!

Now grasp that gruesome axe

and show your striking style.'

He answered, 'Since you ask,'

and touched the tempered steel.

In the standing position he prepared to be struck,

bent forward, revealing a flash of green flesh

as he heaped his hair to the crown of his head,

the nape of his neck now naked and ready.

Gawain grips the axe and heaves it heavenwards,

plants his left foot firmly on the floor in front,

then swings it swiftly towards the bare skin.

The cleanness of the strike cleaved the spinal cord

and parted the fat and the flesh so far

that that bright steel blade took a bite from the floor.

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth

and the king's men kick it as it clatters past.

Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,

yet the man doesn't shudder or stagger or sink

but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs

and rummages around, reaches at their feet

and cops hold of his head and hoists it high,

and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,

steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle

still gripping his head by a handful of hair.

Then he settles himself in his seat with the ease

of a man unmarked, never mind being minus

his head!

And when he wheeled about

his bloody neck still bled.

His point was proved. The court

was deadened now with dread.

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist;

towards the top table he turned the face

and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead

and spoke this speech, which you'll hear for yourselves:

'Sir Gawain, be wise enough to keep your word

and faithfully follow me until I'm found

as you vowed in this hall within hearing of these horsemen.

You're charged with getting to the green chapel,

to reap what you've sown. You'll rightfully receive

the justice you are due just as January dawns.

Men know my name as the green chapel knight

and even a fool couldn't fail to find me.

So come, or be called a coward for ever.'

With a tug of the reins he twisted around

and, head still in hand, galloped out of the hall,

so the hooves brought fire from the flame in the flint.

From the translation by Simon Armitage

Read all about it The Guardian Books

Seamus Heany translating Sophocles'Antigone

A friend of mine loved to describe a cartoon he had either seen or imagined. The setting is an Elizabethan alehouse, with the Globe Theatre just visible through an open door. In one corner, pale forehead in his left hand, poised quill in the right, sits a well-known contender from Stratford; in an opposite corner, tankard clasped in both his hands, sits a resentful Ben Jonson, with a "thinks" cloud over his head that reads: "Of course, of course. Will doing the work of the imagination."

It was a good spin on Yeats's famous phrase and a good illustration of Jonson's famous competitiveness, but not so good as a take on Shakespeare. By Jonson's own admission, there was nothing voulu about Shakespeare's lines: his imagination was constantly in spate and as far as Jonson was concerned, it flowed altogether too copiously. Shakespeare, he thought, would have been better employed revising his stuff than reeling it out.

Shakespeare, as far as we know, didn't need to think twice. The problem identified once upon a time by Philip Larkin - of the discrepancy that often exists between the poems we would wish to write and the poems we are given to write - doesn't appear to have existed for him. According to the actors: "His mind and his hand went together." He possessed in abundance that "boldness in face of the blank sheet" which Pasternak regarded as the sine qua non of genius.

It is probably the sine qua non of translation also, especially the translation of poetry or poetic drama. Getting started on a verse translation is in some respects not all that different from original composition. In order to get the project under way, there has to be a note to which the lines, and especially the first lines, can be tuned. Until this register is established, your words may well constitute a fair rendition of the paraphrasable meaning, but they cannot induce the necessary sensation of being on the right track, musically and rhythmically.

Readers recognise this rightness too. They take vicarious pleasure in the promise of openings such as "It is an ancient mariner/ And he stoppeth one of three" or "I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree". In such cases, you know that when the poets wrote the lines, they could have said what DH Lawrence says at the start of his Song of a Man Who Has Come Through: "Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me ..." Or, to put it another way, and in the words of a different poet, the gift of the right opening helps the poet and the translator of poetry to escape from what Robert Lowell called "the glassy bowing and scraping of [the] will" into the "maze of composition", led by an "incomparable wandering voice".

When Lowell wrote that, he was thinking of Racine, whom he called a "man of craft", but one who was helped beyond craft when he found a voice for the heroine of his 17th-century tragedy, Phèdre. At that point, the poetry he wished to write suddenly became the poetry he was given to write, so he was up and away.

There's no comparison between Racine's French classic and the job of translation I did on Sophocles' Antigone a couple of years ago - a commission from the Abbey Theatre - but there was at least this one thing in common: I was able to start into the maze of composition only after I heard an incomparable voice. Until that happened, the head was in one hand and the pen in the other, but there was nothing doing. The sheet stayed blank.

One consideration, however, was weighing heavily in favour of a new start. Early in 2003 we were watching a leader, a Creon figure if ever there was one: a law and order bossman trying to boss the nations of the world into uncritical agreement with his edicts in much the same way as Creon tries to boss the Chorus of compliant Thebans into conformity with his. With the White House and the Pentagon in cahoots, determined to bring the rest of us into line over Iraq, the passion and protest of an Antigone were all of a sudden as vital as oxygen masks.

For weeks, I had been reading desultorily about the play in various essays and introductions, my eyes glazing over as again and again the familiar topics came swimming up: individual conscience versus civil power, men versus women, the domestic versus the public sphere, the relevance of the action at different times of crisis in France, in Russia, in Poland, in Northern Ireland - of course, of course, of course. But why do it again? Indeed, how do it again, if there was no tuning fork?

I've written elsewhere what happened next: all of a sudden I heard a note being struck in my head and inside seconds I had the pen in my hand and had done a number of the opening lines. Purchase on a language, a confidence amounting almost to a carelessness, a found pitch - all arrived in a breath. "Not I, not I," I could have exclaimed, "but the wind that blows through me." What had got me going was not study of the text or of the criticism surrounding it, but the words and rhythms of another work entirely.

The tuning fork sounded when I remembered the opening lines of one of the most famous poems in the Irish language, Eíbhlin Dhubh Ní Chonaill's Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire/ Lament for Art O'Leary.

My love and my delight,

The day I saw you first

Beside the markethouse

I had eyes for nothing else

And love for none but you

This stricken, urgent keen for a murdered husband, beaten out in line after three-stressed line, gave me the note I needed for the anxious, cornered Antigone at the start of the play. The wife in desperation provided a register for the desperate sister. Inside a couple of minutes I had the first sample lines to show to the artistic director:

Ismene, quick, come here!

What's to become of us?

Why are we always the ones?

From that point onwards, I had a purchase on the actual writing, and took pleasure in it. Years before I'd made a version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, but mostly in blank verse, which came more and more to feel just like a container for the sense: there was never any great job of fashioning being done. Whereas in the case of Antigone, as a result of that opening donné, I had the idea of making different metrical provisions for different characters and this meant a far greater sensation of working at a verbal face. There was an ongoing line-by-line, eye-to-hand engagement with the material. First came the three-stress line for exchanges between the sisters, then a surge into more or less Anglo-Saxon metre for the chorus, then another change of register into blank verse, but blank verse that was dramatic and suited to the character of Creon rather than simply a metronome.

Antigone is poetic drama, but commentary and analysis had turned it into political allegory. What I wanted to point up was the anthropological dimension of Sophocles' work: I didn't want the production to end up as just another opportunistic commentary on the Iraq adventure, and that was why I changed the title.

I called my version The Burial at Thebes partly because "burial" signals immediately to a new audience what the central concern of the play is going to be: a contest involving the rights of the dead and the laws of the land. But mainly I changed the title because "burial" is also a word that has not yet been divorced from primal reality. It still recalls to us our destiny as members of a mortal species and reminds us, however subliminally, of the need to acknowledge and allow the essential dignity of every human creature. It implies respect for the coffin, wherever it is being carried, whatever flag is draped over it, whatever community is crying out alongside it. It emphasises, in other words, what Hegel emphasised about Antigone, those "Instinctive Powers of Feeling, Love and Kinship" which authority must honour and obey if it is not to turn callous.

An extract:

Burial at Thebes


Love that can't be withstood,
Love that scatters fortunes,
Love like a green fern shading
The cheek of a sleeping girl.
Love like spume off a wave
Or turf-smoke in the air,
Love, you wield your power
Over mortal and immortal
And you put them mad.

Love leads the good astray,
Plays havoc in heart and home;
You, love, here and now
In this tormented house
Are letting madness loose.
The unabashed gaze of a bride
Breeds desire and danger.
Eternal, sexual, smiling,
The goddess Aphrodite
Is irresistible.
Love mounts to the throne with law.

(Antigone is led in under guard.)

But the law and all it stands for
Cannot hold back my tears.
Antigone, you are a bride,
Being given away to death.


Given away to death!
Remember this, citizens.
I am linked on Hades' arm,
Taking my last look,
My last walk in the light.
Soon the sun will go out
On a silent, starless shore
And Hades will step aside.
He will give me to Acheron,
Lord of the pitch-black lake,
And that bridegroom's cold hand
Will take my hand in the dark.


Steadfast Antigone,
Never before did Death
Open his stone door
To one so radiant.
You would not live a lie.
Vindicated, lauded,
Age and disease outwitted,
You go with head held high.


I am like Niobe,
Niobe turned to stone
In the thawing snow and rain,
A rock that weeps forever
Like ivy in a shower
Sluicing down the ridge
Of high Mount Sipylus.


Niobe was immortal,
Sky-born, far beyond us,
For we are born of the earth.
But someone as glorious
In life and in death as you
Can also seem immortal.


Stop. Enough. Don't mock.
Wait, at least, till I'm gone.
I am still in life, and I dread
To leave our groves and springs.
O fortunate men of Thebes,
O my Thebes of the chariots,
Farewell. I am going away
Under my rock-piled roof.
No mourner waits at the mound.
I'll be shut in my halfway house,
Unwept by those alive,
Unwelcomed as yet by the dead.


Ah, child, you were carried away
But now you're halted and hauled
Before implacable Justice,
Paying, perhaps, in your life
For the past life of your father.


There. You have hit home.
Over and over again
Because I am who I am
I retrace that fatal line
And the ghastly love I sprang from.
My father weds his mother.
He mounts her. Me and mine,
His half-sisters and brothers,
Are born in their sullied bed.
These are the stricken dead
I go to meet in Hades.


You go because you were noble.
Nobility mitigates
The offence you gave; but power
And everyone who wields it
Will brook no opposition.
You were headstrong and self-willed
And now you suffer for it.

· Burial at Thebes, a translation by Seamus Heaney, was specially commissioned to mark the centenary of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2004 (March 31 to May 1) and will be published by Faber on March 4.

[It's been done, then, good for us :)]