Hemlock Club

“The Death of Socrates” by hemlock, a painting by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

The Hemlock Club is a free weekly meeting in Bakersfield to discuss literature, philosophy, and religion, sometimes science, or art. We usually meet on Saturdays at 10:00 AM at various locations, and meetings often run as long as four hours. Most commonly, the meetings include three old white men. This page will be updated rarely to include a summary of the most recent meeting (names have been changed to protect the guilty).

If you’d like to attend, you’d better call me at 203-5723 (area code 661), or send me an email if you have the address (I’m reluctant to post it here because of spam).

Alan Nicoll

Hemlock Club today [Saturday, 6/12/21].  Started with me reviewing the two shows that greatly impressed me this morning, one an interview with Tariq Ali, the other an interview with James Howard Kunstler, an economist.  Ali spoke impressively about foreign affairs; Kunstler spoke impressively about the American economy.  Specifically, Kunstler described America as a “hospice,” where the function is to print money to ease the pain of the population, presumably ending with death.  He also talked about our medicine and education as being racketeering which eventually “the government” will pay for.  Also, fracking, it turns out, does not earn profits.  Finally, he mentioned “woke hysteria” without saying much more than that the military whistleblowers are complaining about being taught critical race theory, and that our budget this year will be ten trillion dollars, dollars which our economy is not providing.  Much of our economy is based on buying from giant corporations which import goods from where they’re manufactured (i.e., elsewhere), and this is unsustainable—an economy must provide jobs which produce goods and wealth in addition to providing goods to buy.  Something like that.  I was greatly impressed by Ali, and only slightly less by Kunstler.

Pablo arrived after I’d been talking for ten or twenty minutes, and I filled him in a bit.  We then moved on to other subjects, and Gertrude joined us soon thereafter.  Pablo talked about the F-150 EV, the electric truck, and about the history of someone who was not present.  After Gertrude said that the Earth is a water planet, Nog talked about the aquatic ape theory and Japanese pearl divers.  Joe Henry came by and spoke to us with some difficulty; as he is only a passerby, I made no attempt to take notes about his talk.  When The Isaiah Effect was mentioned, I suggested that maybe I should read that, and Pablo and Nog should read books that I normally read.  Nog took to this suggestion, and Pablo suggested a discussion between the positions of Bertrand Russell (“simple-minded”) and A. N. Whitehead (“muddle-headed”) [see quote below]; I said that since none of us knew enough about their positions, that we should rather talk about “philosophy’s rejection of mysticism,” a subject I had read about in The Philosophy Toolkit that morning.  This seemed acceptable to all, but nothing definite was settled.  Nog told us about having previously been in the hospital to be treated for MRSA, and a nurse told him that “the eagle needs both wings to fly,” referring to the Western and the “natural” or traditional folk medicine approaches to health.  Nog expressed some hesitation about trying to express a difficult thought, and I said that you don’t want to avoid communicating because it might be ineffective.  I told of a story of Chekhov, “Daydreams,” that I had read last night, and I read the last few paragraphs of the story and we talked about “what it might mean” and “what Chekhov meant.”  Pablo read a poem [of his].  There were other things mentioned, including my idea of writing a Hemlock Club novel, since Synchronicity seemed to be at a dead end.

The Sunday 5/3/21 Hemlock Club meeting was somewhat centered on Pablo’s Ramadan fasting, Islam, and his “choosing to believe” in some God or other.  I asked “why is truth important,” wanting to lead into discussion of “matter is mostly empty space” and how the definition of “solidity of matter” relates one’s goals: is the table “mostly empty space” if you want to walk over there (i.e., you can’t walk through it) or if you want to measure cosmic rays (i.e., you can ignore it).  In a conversation about the “solidity of the table,” what’s important isn’t the truth of the matter, a very contentious subject, but rather why you ask—the contemplated action determines the meaning of the concept.  This segued into talk about words and “In the beginning was the word,” etc.

Other topics included:  the Toltec “four agreements,” Nog’s rickshaw, Johnny Ramos’s Modern Gigi gallery, Nog’s silver spoon (which was only plated), whether I toss out the baby with the bathwater when rejecting belief in e.g., Yogananda’s miracles, The Godfather and Navajo godfathers, Drunvalo Melchizedek: The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life Workshop, how Taco Bell links Salomé and Z in Pablo’s seeking synchronicity, and Nog’s procrastination and “mind traps.”

Quips:  “If I weren’t full of myself, what would I be full of?” (Alan) and “Once you think you’ve got humility, you don’t” (Nog).

Hemlock Club meeting of Sunday, 4/24/21:  “A thing isn’t valuable because it lasts.”  The quote is from Avengers: Age of Ultron, spoken by Paul Bettany as the Vision.  An experience isn’t valuable because it creates memories.  I’m telling myself this because I looked at my notes from the last Hemlock Club meeting (a fancy name for meeting Nog for four hours) and couldn’t remember a lot of it.  I didn’t want to write up the meeting for the blog, in part because our discussion was more personal than usual—but not that personal.  So?

So I’m going to “cherry pick,” surely a better approach than what I’ve been doing:

I gave Nog this quote to read:

“The story is told that one day while [Bertrand] Russell and [Alfred North] Whitehead were still collaborating on Principia Mathematica, Whitehead remarked to Russell, ‘You know, Bertie, there are two kinds of people in the world—the simple-minded and the muddle-headed.  I am muddle-headed; you, Bertie, are simple-minded.’

“The muddle-headed look at the complexities of things and write obscurely; the simple-minded cultivate clear and distinct ideas but miss the complex depths of sheer matters of fact.”

It’s quoted in my “Bleak Philosophy” essay, q.v. for source.  I had tried to explain it to him previously and made a hash of it, so this was to “complete the gestalt.”  We discussed bird flight and song because of the Mourning doves and Rock doves flitting about.  He asked if I knew of Gary Snyder and I mentioned Turtle Island, and we got onto Plato’s cave, none of which strikes any sparks (or makes any sense) for me now.

Nog quoted Kermit the Frog:  “It’s not easy being green.”  I wrote that down, but what does it mean?  I mentioned the Goethe quote that I got by way of John Burroughs, no longer a household name, about when people can’t have science and art, they should be allowed the popular religion.  Then we moved on to the Tao Te Ching, and I read him a quote from Lin Yutang, from The Wisdom of China and India—I had copied it into my “Words” notebook so I’ll always have it available; I’ll copy it here:

“Briefly the ideas are:  the rhythm of life, the unity of all world and human phenomena, the importance of keeping the original simplicity of human nature, the danger of overgovernment and interference with the simple life of the people, the doctrine of wu-wei or ‘inaction,’ which is better interpreted as ‘non-interference’ and is the exact equivalent of laissez-faire, the pervading influence of the spirit, the lessons of humility, quietude and calm, and the folly of force, of pride, and of self-assertion.  All these will be understood if one understands the rhythm of life.  It is profound and clear, mystic and practical.”  p. 580.

This is dense and obscure, and we didn’t really talk about it.  Nog said he’s living in the crate that his rickshaw came in; I told him of Thoreau’s recommendation that people live in boxes, though I didn’t mention that HDT didn’t do it himself.  I talked of my attraction to “fringey stuff” like General Semantics (Korzybski) and Gestalt Therapy (Fritz Perls), and said that “I might have done better in a world without books.”  Nog said, “When you can’t hug a tree, hug a treehugger.”  He’s rather casual about the whole COVID thing.  I talked about “my book problem,” which will be familiar to readers of my diary here.  And this concludes the HC meeting report.

Okay, time to tackle the Hemlock Club meeting last Saturday (4/17).  Nog said something about chastity and celibacy, but I don’t know why.  Pablo is observing Ramadan.  Nog talked about the origins of “red light district,” “hooker” (from General Hooker), and etymologies in general.  Pablo said he “chooses to believe,” though not the specifics—Islam, I suppose.  Nog raised “strong and weak anthropism,” and accused himself of being wishy-washy and fake, and something about evolution versus creationism; I could say much about that, but chose not to.  He also mentioned the native American word, “Manitou,” which is “the great mystery.”  Pablo talked about The City of Falling Angels, which is about Venice, Italy, a book he just finished, and he had Hesse’s Steppenwolf, a perennial topic.  Nog mentioned John Denver, “Calypso,” “Gypsy jazz,” and Django Reinhardt (sp?).  Pablo talked about The Real Lolita (a true-crime book) and San Jose, where she was finally released from her captor.  I talked about my “bleak philosophy” at some length, mentioning General Semantics and Alfred Korzybski.  Nog talked about Mesmer, automatic writing, and Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine, also B. F. Skinner.  We talked about Buster Keaton, Jean-Paul Sartre (I recommended his Nausea to Pablo), quanta, Michael Chertoff, and x-ray machines—I don’t remember why.  I mentioned the study showing that horses can recognize themselves in a mirror, wondering how this could be demonstrated, and Nog said something about “DMT”—a drug?  Clearly, I should have written this yesterday, and should have taken better notes!

The Hemlock Club meeting yesterday (4/10/21) was good.  I was first to arrive, at Raising Cain’s, so I wrote a bit [see below] about Maslow’s Motivation and Personality, which I had brought with me because I wanted to review it.  Pablo arrived, and talked about “topics,” listing:  writers’ block; pitfalls of writing about those you know; jealousy; and the Lazy Susan method (expressed in my words).  I talked about my disgust with my novel project and that I was abandoning it.  Nog arrived and told us about wolf berries that he had with him and gave us samples, and showed us the silver spoon handed down to him by his parents—it was only silver-plated, he said.  Pablo raised the issue of “balm in Gilead,” because I had been reading the novel, Gilead, and elaborated on the meaning of the word in the Bible.  Nog talked about Victor Borge’s “inflationary language,” explaining the word “fivehead” as a joke substitute for “forehead.”  Nog had with him The Wisdom of Native Americans, which he’d bought at Barnes & Noble, and talked about Ohieyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman); he read a couple of quotes from the book, which included “development of personality” as a goal of education; I said that our original model of education included “the repression of personality” or perhaps “standardization.”  Pablo said he had finished reading Shantaram and that he was planning to leave early.  I talked about publishing a book on my blog, free but with a request for donations; Nog said this would be a “Go Read Me.”  He also said, “I’d rather be a happy doormat than a miserable foot.”  After Pablo left I stopped taking notes, but Nog and I talked for a couple more hours.

The Hemlock Club meeting yesterday (4/3/2021) started and ended with Pablo talking about his current reading, Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, which he had gotten from Nog.  In between, Nog talked of an incident at an ATM, where a man attempted to cut in line and Nog tried to stop him, leading to the man hitting him with his motorcycle helmet.  I quipped that it was probably good that they weren’t in Texas.  Nog concluded, “I was an idiot.”  Pablo talked of drivers who are out to run over pedestrians—I disputed this—and that he wrote down their license plate numbers so that if he ever came across the car again he could key it.  He was less than half serious.  Pablo and Nog talked of the building pressure in the population.  Nog brought up The Isaiah Effect, that it had information about salivary immunoglobulin-A, a beneficial chemical in saliva that boosts immune function, and a study that showed that the amount of it increased when a person thought of love and happiness, decreased when they thought of anger and hate.  I noted the prevalence of women customers at Panera, where we had a table outside, and that women were on the whole more nutrition-conscious than men.  Nog had a copy of Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, which all of us had read some of, but none of us had finished.  Pablo mentioned a disagreement he and I had had previously about the book; I was dismissive of the book, but admitted that I had a habit of throwing out babies and bathwater in haste.  Nog said something about using the club as group therapy, and I said that I had “an undercurrent of rage” that I wanted to work on, but nothing was decided.  Nog said that skepticism had served me well, but I wonder if that’s true.  Nog told of a guru who had come to the US during the Presidency of Lincoln because he wanted his portrait.  Petra arrived late in the meeting; she said something about mockery being the worst form of verbal abuse, and that it was a “desecration”; I didn’t quite get her point.  Then there was discussion between Pablo and Petra about a book by Arthur Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe, and Petra talked a while about Ashkenazy Jews.  Nog raised the issue of good and evil and Plato and Aristotle, but it was not pursued.  Finally, Pablo returned to Shantaram, as mentioned.

The Hemlock Club meeting yesterday (3/27/21) started with the arrival of Pablo, “welcomed back to the fold” after being barred from the previous meeting for bad behavior.  He wanted to buy chicken fingers, and did.  The meeting went well, with Nog arriving shortly after that.  Nog talked about seeing roadrunners and their intelligent behavior in apparently trying to lead him away from a nest.  He said that he has more will to live than the average person, and that he’s “crippled by compassion” and so doesn’t like to win, i.e., to beat others at the task at hand.  He also talked about the Facility for Animal Care and Treatment at CSUB and said that I would like it.  Bernd arrived; he told us that “corporatism is fascistic collectivism,” which I found obscure.  He and Nog talked over some local history and Nog talked about his “running a marathon” the day before and mentioned a pond “at the end of Venus Lane” and seeing “great white egrets”; sounds like a place I might visit.  He also read a bit on prayer from Pablo’s book, The Isaiah Effect and went on about rock circles and native Americans.  Bernd said he wanted to walk around the world.  Nog said, “The mother of God is inertia—she travels the universe,” which I also found obscure.  Bernd talked about entanglement, artificial intelligence, and that chimpanzees are “like human gangs,” which Nog seconded, and they were compared to bonobos, and “humans are halfway between those two species,” in reference to levels of aggression, I think.

I talked about the wooden puzzle box which I had brought to a previous HC meeting, which had been totally ignored by J and Pablo, to my astonishment at the time.  There was some discussion of “gorilla in the midst,” a well-known psychology demonstration, and I talked about Pablo and I discussing the novel Gideon, which in fact is titled Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson—another example of blindness due to inattention.  I talked about “the meaning of life” and how “meaning” requires a subject, i.e., that something must be meaningful to someone—it is not “meaningful in the abstract” or “objectively meaningful”; once you see that, you stop worrying about “the meaning of life,” or so I believe.  Nog said that “life is the only thing worth dying for.”  I talked about a dream in which I woke, then woke a second time.  Bernd mentioned vitiligo and how it affected his sister’s hair, and his own, and about Michael Jackson’s makeover.  There was more, but I think this covers the highlights pretty well.  We talked for four hours and then some, including celebration of my birthday.

Copyright 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
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