Sunday, November 28, 2010


Nothing is really small. Algebra applies to the clouds. The radiance of the star benefits the rose. No thinker would dare to say that the perfume of the hawthorn is useless to the constellations. Who can calculate the path of a molecule? How do we know that creations of worlds are not determined by the fall of grains of sand?

In this inexhaustible whole, from sun to grub, there is no scorn; all need each other. Light carries the terrestrial vision into azure depths, night casts the stellar essence to the sleeping plants. 

Every bird which flies has the thread of the infinite in its claw. Germination includes the hatching of a meteor and the tap of a swallow’s bill breaking the egg, and it all leads forth to the birth of the earthworm, and the advent of Socrates.

Who understands the flux of the infinitely great and the infinitely small, the echoing of causes in the abysses of being, and the avalanches of creation? The small is great, the great is small, all is in equilibrium in necessity. Fearful vision for the mind.

Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which has the grander view? Choose. A bit of mould is a pleiad of flowers, a nebula is an anthill of stars.

In the vast cosmical changes, the universal life comes and goes in untold quantities, rolling all in the invisible mystery, losing no dream from no single sleep, sowing a gnat here, crumbling a star there, oscillating and winding, making a force of light, and an element of thought, dissolving all, reducing everything to the soul-atom, save that geometrical point, the Me.

Entangling all, from the highest to the lowest, in a dizzying mechanism, hanging the flight of an insect upon the movement of the earth. A machine made of mind. An enormous gearing, whose first motor is the gnat, and whose last wheel, is the zodiac.

My edit of a favourite passage from Les Miserables, that I read along with some poetry at the 25 November Campaign Dinner in Leura for Janet Mays, independent candidate for the seat of the Blue Mountains at the forthcoming New South Wales state election, to be held on 26 March 2011.

Monday, November 22, 2010


In October 2002 a major exhibition opened at the Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome, The Borgias: The Art of Power. It drew together more than two hundred artworks from museums around the world. In addition to Pinturicchio, who decorated the Borgia apartments in the Vatican, and who painted Giulia Farnese as the Virgin Mary for Alexander’s bedchamber, other artists who met the Borgias, and whose works were part of the exhibition, included Michelangelo, Titian and Bellini. One room was dedicated solely to Cesare Borgia’s military costumery. 
Intent upon the question of whether the Borgias really were as bad as history has presented them, the exhibition’s curators were keen to mount a strong defence. Co-curator and Borgia scholar Learco Andalo said at the opening, ‘The aim of the show is to put the record straight. The Borgias are the victims of biased historical accounts based on malicious rumour.’1

While few could deny the ruthless machinations of Rodrigo Borgia - Pope Alexander VI - and his son Cesare, the organisers in particular cast doubt upon the more shocking stories, such as incest with Lucrezia. Co-curator Carlo Alfano said many alleged crimes of Lucrezia were untrue, adding: ‘Nor were claims that she had had an incestuous relationship with her father true, probably'2, and attested to the view that rumours of Borgia incest were spread by Lucrezia’s jilted and disgruntled spouse, Giovanni Sforza.

Many historians concur that the accounts of incest were probably fabricated by Sforza, but that is not to say Alexander and Cesare did not behave in a scandalous manner in other respects, in particular the strong suspicion that Cesare raped Caterina Sforza. But it would appear with regard to Lucrezia at least, some basic human taboos were observed by the Borgias.

Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia 

Various accounts deem Lucrezia a woman wronged by previous generations whose stories became mingled with luridly colourful fictions about her, growing into a literary cottage industry which flourished during the nineteenth century. The Lucrezia industry shows little sign of slowing down. With new books, stage productions and films still being developed and released about her life, the name would appear to return its mystery and allure for authors, directors and public alike.

What then is the truth of the popular reputation of the Borgias as poisoners, which has rightly or wrongly persisted for generations? It seems again that an intermingling of history and Romantic fiction, and the fact that poisoning was common during the Renaissance, may have led to the prevailing view.

The Borgias are said to have killed up to seventy of their rivals through poisoning, with some accounts of them killing people at a rate or one or two a week. In some versions Lucrezia’s chef and poisoner worked side by side in her kitchens - surely very dangerous if they got their mixing bowls confused.

Their poison of choice was popularly a white powder called cantarella, said to have had a pleasant taste but be extremely toxic and leading quickly to death. Its purported use grew into the stuff of proverbs - which may have come from the Borgia’s political foes - such as “tasting the cup of the Borgias”, being a synonym for sudden, mysterious death. 

Cesare Borgia

According to the more macabre accounts, Alexander and Cesare experimented in applying arsenic to the entrails of freshly slaughtered beasts, from the decaying flesh of which they later harvested the fabled cantarella, less detectable and far more powerful than arsenic itself. Another version has the Borgias force-feeding arsenic to a bear, and extracting cantarella from its vomit.

Borgia biographer Marion Johnson, while pointing out that many people at the time were interested in trying to poison others, believes it was at best a very imprecise skill. ‘Poisoning was an art practised all over Italy... The science however, was defective, and more was attempted than accomplished... Legend portrays Cesare as an inveterate poisoner. No doubt he was interested, but the method was far too unsure for one who aimed to practise an efficient terror.’3 

Lucrezia Borgia
The curators of the The Borgias exhibition refuted any inference that Lucrezia was a poisoner. ‘Lucrezia poisoned no-one,’ Learco Andaro stated. ‘She was poisoned by the pen of history and nineteenth century Romanticism. She was instead a gifted stateswoman. She even ran the Vatican in her father’s absence.’4 
It would appear the jury is less decided, however, about whether Cesare was a poisoner. Nineteenth century historian Jacob Burckhardt considered that in addition to his fixer Don Michelotto, Cesare employed his own personal poisoner, a Spaniard called Sebastiano Pinzon.5 Here too is historian Garrett Mattingly’s assessment of Cesare:

‘It was said that he was his father’s rival for his sister’s bed. (Almost certainly false.) It was said that after the horrible sack of Capua he seized forty beautiful highborn maidens and added them to his personal harem. (Highly unlikely, Cesare does not seem to have shared his father’s excessive appetite. The maidens were probably commandeered by Cesare’s captains, though perhaps in his name.) It was said that he seduced that gallant youth Astorre Manfredi, and when he tired of him had him murdered. (Possibly, but the motive for the murder was more probably purely political.) It was said he murdered his brother, the Duke of Gandia. (Probable. At least his father seems to have believed it.) And that he had his brother-in-law, Lucrezia’s second husband, murdered. (Pretty certainly true). But it was a dull week when one, at least, of the embassies of Rome did not chalk up another murder to Cesare’s credit, sometimes by poison, sometimes by the hands of hired assassins, sometimes by his own dagger. Probably he really was responsible for a fair share of those bodies hauled out of the Tiber... As he marched through the anarchic Papal States, seizing one town after another, by bribery or trickery or the sheer terror of his name, his legend hung over him like a thundercloud.’6

That thundercloud lifted with the deaths of Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia. The final judgement on Rodrigo fell to the men entrusted with his corpse, their feelings of whom may have mirrored those of other ordinary Romans. ‘...the body was carried to the Chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre and placed in its coffin next to the wall in a corner by the altar. Six labourers or porters, making blasphemous jokes about the pope and in contempt of his corpse, together with two master carpenters, performed this task. The carpenters had made the coffin too narrow and short, and so they placed the pope’s mitre at his side, rolled his body up in an old carpet, and pummelled and pushed it into the coffin with their fists. No wax tapers or lights were used, and no priests or other persons attended to his body.’7

Actress Anne Lambert in the role of Lucrezia Borgia

1. The Borgias: The Art of Power
2. ibid.
3. Johnson, M., The Borgias, Penguin Books, London, 2001, pp186-187
5. Burckhardt, J., The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Mentor, New York City, 1960, p109
6. Mattingly, G., in Plumb, J.H. (ed), Renaissance Profiles, Harper Torchbook, New York City, 1965, p23
7. Testimony of Johann Burchard, papal master of ceremonies, in Walsh, M.J., he Popes: 50 Celebrated Occupants of the Throne of St Peter, Quercus Publishing, London, 2007, p155

The Medici and the Murder In the Duomo 

from my book, Tales of the Popes: From Eden to El Dorado.

To read more about the Borgias, please go to another of my postings on the subject:

Monday, November 15, 2010

AUNG SAN SUU KYI Nobel Prize speech


Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest last weekend has raised hopes yet again for a peaceful transition to democracy in Burma. This optimism is tempered, however, by the past behaviour of the ruling military junta, of re-arresting her at will.  

The daughter of Burmese national leader Aung San who was assassinated while she was still an infant, Aung San Suu Kyi has become recognised worldwide for her selfless and unremitting struggle over two decades for Burmese freedom from military dictatorship.
Now aged 65, she was educated at Oxford before returning to Burma in 1988. She soon became the leader of the democracy movement, and was subjected to house arrest and threatened with assassination before the 1990 elections, in which her National League for Democracy party won more than 80 per cent of seats. 
The military junta refused to honour the result, and she was again placed under house arrest. In the nearly two decades since then, much of the time spent under house arrest, she has gained enormous international support, and become one of the world’s best-known advocates for peaceful change. 

Among her many honours was the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, which the military junta prevented her from attending to receiveHere is her acceptance speech, delivered on her behalf by her son, Alexander Aris, in Oslo on 10 December 1991. 

‘The Burmese people can today hold their heads a little higher in the knowledge that in this far distant land their suffering has been heard and heeded. We must also remember that the lonely struggle taking place in a heavily guarded compound in Rangoon is part of the much larger struggle, worldwide, for the emancipation of the human spirit from political tyranny and psychological subjection. The Prize, I feel sure, is also intended to honour all those engaged in this struggle wherever they may be. It is not without reason that today's events in Oslo fall on the International Human Rights Day, celebrated throughout the world.
Mr. Chairman, the whole international community has applauded the choice of your committee. Just a few days ago, the United Nations passed a unanimous and historic resolution welcoming Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar's statement on the significance of this award and endorsing his repeated appeals for my mother's early release from detention. Universal concern at the grave human rights situation in Burma was clearly expressed. Alone and isolated among the entire nations of the world a single dissenting voice was heard, from the military junta in Rangoon, too late and too weak.
This regime has through almost thirty years of misrule reduced the once prosperous “Golden Land” of Burma to one of the world's most economically destitute nations. In their heart of hearts even those in power now in Rangoon must know that their eventual fate will be that of all totalitarian regimes who seek to impose their authority through fear, repression and hatred.

When the present Burmese struggle for democracy erupted onto the streets in 1988, it was the first of what became an international tidal wave of such movements throughout Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Today, in 1991, Burma stands conspicuous in its continued suffering at the hands of a repressive, intransigent junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council. However, the example of those nations which have successfully achieved democracy holds out an important message to the Burmese people; that, in the last resort, through the sheer economic unworkability of totalitarianism this present regime will be swept away. And today in the face of rising inflation, a mismanaged economy and near worthless Kyat, the Burmese government is undoubtedly reaping as it has sown.

However, it is my deepest hope that it will not be in the face of complete economic collapse that the regime will fall, but that the ruling junta may yet heed such appeals to basic humanity as that which the Nobel Committee has expressed in its award of this year's prize...
Although my mother is often described as a political dissident who strives by peaceful means for democratic change, we should remember that her quest is basically spiritual. As she has said, “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit”, and she has written of the “essential spiritual aims” of the struggle. The realisation of this depends solely on human responsibility. 
At the root of that responsibility lies, and I quote, “the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end, at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitation...” And she links this firmly to her faith when she writes, 

“...Buddhism, the foundation of traditional Burmese culture, places the greatest value on man, who alone of all beings can achieve the supreme state of Buddhahood. Each man has in him the potential to realise the truth through his own will and endeavour and to help others to realise it.” 
Finally she says, “The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community. It is part of the unceasing human endeavour to prove that the spirit of man can transcends the flaws of his nature.”’

The campaign Aung San Suu Kyi leads remains one of the world’s most pressing struggles for freedom and democracy. The Burmese military junta’s ruthless suppression of dissent led by Buddhist monks in late 2007, refocussed world attention upon the terrible plight of the Burmese people, as have the recently staged elections, with any meaningful opposition banned, and voters urged to boycott the poll.

*Aung San Suu Kyi's speech is from my book, "Speeches of War and Peace", published by New Holland Publishers

Monday, November 8, 2010


During his recent visit to Britain, Pope Benedict advanced the Catholic Church’s latest excuse for the child abuse suffered by children at the hands of its clergy. He blamed lack of proper vigilance by the Church for what he agreed were the “unspeakable crimes” perpetrated upon its youngest and most vulnerable. 

Yet, as has been revealed, Australia’s newly canonised saint, Mary MacKillop, suffered excommunication in 1871 after reporting child sex abuse by a priest at Kapunda, north of Adelaide. 

So it would seem that the Church has exercised that lack of vigilance against sex offenders within its own ranks, for nearly a century and a half, or longer, and the Pope’s claim would appear disingenuously ill-informed at best, and at worst, a lie. 

The truth, affirmed by the revelations regarding Mary MacKillop, is that the Church has long tolerated criminals in its clergy, and either shuttled them around to other parishes where they remained free to molest other children, or intimidated their victims into silence. Indeed, thousands of Catholic clergy now stand accused of sexual crimes, against a vast number of children around the world.  

The real question we should ask, and that the Church will not honestly do, is why? How has this happened, and been allowed to happen, if we discount the Pope’s excuse of lack of vigilance? 

Nearly all religions, cult leaders, authoritarian regimes and fascist dictators, enforce their power by exerting control over sexual among their functionaries and followers. The vow of chastity, and the prohibition of marriage for the clergy, fill that function within the Church. 

But the frustrating of human sexual desire, while possibly fulfilling the goal of entrenching power for authoritarian elites, can lead to other potentially tragic consequences. 

Anyone who visits a men’s prison can see what happens to male sexuality when denied. The prison blocks get their male inmate floozies, and they become the sexual outlet for the others. 

Appallingly, the Church has long treated the children of its followers as little more than prison floozies, so that it can enforce its sexually prohibitive authority over its clergy.  

That is what lies at the core of this most ghastly of serial crimes, the pragmatism of the Church itself, which is why it has tried so hard to deflect attention from itself. 

When confronted by child abuse over many decades, it has denied, smeared, bought off, covered up. 

Called to account at last now, it tries to blame lack of proper vigilance, just as previously it blamed the evils of modern society, blamed child molesters who had somehow joined its ranks in numbers undetected, blamed homosexuals taking holy vows.  It has blamed every one and every thing, except itself. 

It steadfastly refuses to recognise still its own complicity in these crimes, because to do so would require it to act, to end celibacy, and to end the patriarchal misogyny, with women excluded from any real power within it. 

The Church knew what was going on. It did nothing. 

In essence, its leaders didn’t think it was a problem, except in terms of public relations. 

The sad truth is that it has been far more concerned about any loss of its authority, prestige, power and money, than about the systematic rape of children entrusted to it over many decades, if not centuries. 

It has chosen to tar and feather individuals as deviants, perverts and monsters, when in fact the Church itself created them through its institutional culture of totalitarian control over their sexual urges, for its own selfish ends.

What the Church still fails to recognise, is that it cannot be trusted, because its clergy cannot be trusted not to rape children given into their care. Who in their right mind now would let their child to go on a camping trip in the company of a Catholic priest - even down the street to buy an ice cream? Who in their right mind would enrol their child in a Catholic school without a written agreement that they be informed first of any visit to it by a priest, and an undertaking that their child must never, ever be left alone with a priest? 

It is not a matter of an apology or excuse for the Church any more, but of credibility, of trust, belief and faith. And what is a religion without faith? 

Larry Buttrose is the author of Tales of the Popes: From Eden to El Dorado, published by New Holland.