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Captain Cook’s “Discovery” 250 Years On

Hugh O’Neill

Captain James Cook (1728-1779) by Nathaniel Dance

CAPTAIN COOK

Abridged from a lecture by Professor Bernard Smith (1916-2011)

The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interr’d within their bones.”
Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2

That’s one way to start isn’t it, but in Cook’s case it misses the point rather badly. Because his bones were not properly interred, they were carried around for over forty years in a reliquary bundle at Hawaii (at the carnival time of the god Lono, the time of the god’s harvest festival) as a sign that the god had returned, and a sign perhaps too that the god was now an Englishman.

In Cook’s case, both the good and evil aspects of his astounding achievements have been keenly debated since his death. Cook’s three Pacific voyages had immense consequences because they changed the world so radically that their good and evil consequences continue to be debated e.g. is modern industrial society a blessing or a curse? We enjoy the benefits even as we become increasingly apprehensive as to the costs. Cook was unquestionably a great formative agent in the creation of the modern world.

Amidst the collapse of the colonial empires, it is highly important that Cook and his achievements be seen and judged in a less Eurocentric fashion e.g. Cook discovered little in the way of new lands, that wherever he came he found people already settled for centuries, that his discoveries could even be described as a useful eighteenth-century English legal fiction. The peoples he encountered in the Pacific provided him, through trading, with the provisions essential for the successful prosecution of his ventures.

The discovery of the world is really a subject for pre-historians. Cook was not a discoverer of new lands in any fundamental sense. He was the highly successful and highly efficient leader of three scientific research teams, a communications man, instrumental in bringing a mixed bag of goods, ironware and syphilis, written language and centralised government, and much more, to the Pacific.

Cook helped to make the world one world – not an harmonious world as the men of the Enlightenment had so rashly hoped, but at least a more interdependent world. His ships began the process of making the world a global village.

Nor must Cook be viewed as an innocent agent of history. Already by the Second Voyage he was well aware that he was bringing evils as well as benefits to the Pacific. He became aware how the Polynesian desire for iron tools and nails, for example, was beginning to break down their traditional moral values – he grasped the connection between trading and syphilis.

He did what he could to minimise such evils but, as he knew, it was beyond him. Sometimes he could behave with great brutality – as when his boats were at risk, sometimes, as in the annexation of New Zealand and Australia, his desire for patriotic achievement may have exceeded his instructions.

Yet when his actions in the Pacific are assessed in both human and moral terms it can still be said that he behaved better than any who came from Europe before him and better than most who came after him to convert, trade and conquer; he was the leader remarkably able and successful scientific teams. For it was these men who provided Europe with its first intellectual and visual conceptions of the Pacific world. Furthermore it was these artists and scientists who were the first to realise that the problems and the significance of culture-contact would in the end become of greater importance than the imperial ambitions of possession and occupancy.

Cook’s voyages posed sharply the problems of living in a multi-cultural world. He did what he could to face the daunting problems of living in such a world. Today we are still learning to face the kinds of problems he had to face daily in the Pacific.

COOK’S BROTH

“The proper study of Mankind is Man”
Alexander Pope

Professor Smith (above) quoted Shakespeare’s eulogy for Caesar – the ultimate challenge to historians: to see beyond the constraints of our own cultural and political prejudices requires an attempt at self-awareness. Furthermore, we can apply different lenses (and mirrors) to examine the Human Conditions of past and present to think about hierarchies intrinsic to notions of culture, race and political systems.

Despite what Professor Smith says about God being an Englishman, Cook’s father was a Scottish farm labourer in Yorkshire (thus Cook had a chip on each shoulder). His father’s employer paid for Cook’s primary education, but thereafter, Cook was an autodidact, determined to better himself despite the obstacles of class and wealth. By diligent perseverance, Cook rose in the hierarchies of both Merchant and Royal Navies to be appointed leader of these global expeditions. Cook cared for his men, as evidenced by no deaths from scurvy, the plague of seafaring: he ‘tricked’ his crew into eating the anti-scorbotic Sauerkraut by saying it was reserved for the officers and gentlemen i.e. too good for sailors.

In general, Cook respected other cultures and their hierarchies; however, his draconian judgement, obsessive materialism and cultural insensibility (whether exacerbated by his physical or mental condition) led to his death. Before Hawaii, Cook had taken to punishing petty theft with the wanton destruction of canoes and homes, incarceration, flogging and the removal of ears. His attempt to take a king hostage against the return of one of the ship’s boats, led to the fatal confrontation on Kealakukea beach (14th Feb 1779). Cook’s crew responded by shooting 30 Hawaiians. The more lasting damage to the Hawaiians was sysphilis from subsequent European contact which (according to G W Bates’ 1854 estimate) reduced the population from 500,000 in 1779 to 90,000. Leprosy gained a foothold in the 1830’s.

Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia gave Britain a dumping ground for unwanted petty criminals. Those first settlers looked down upon the Aboriginal population (who had preceded them by some 65,000 years) and wiped-out the Tasmanian aborigine. When sugar plantations required cheap labour, aborigines were duly enslaved and people-trafficking (“Blackbirding”) became a profitable business throughout the Pacific. The same notions of racial superiority and entitlement which permitted such atrocitities still drives current Australian Foreign Policy to imprison refugees from Western Wars in offshore concentration camps, oblivious to international law. Pacific Islands have suffered the worst of colonial exploitation and their subsequent use as military bases or nuclear weapons testing grounds remains an abomination

Perhaps there were two sides to Cook’s character, which is indeed an all-too Human trait. Robert Burns’ “Man’s Inhumanity to Man, Makes countless thousands mourn!” was written in 1784, just 2 years before he almost embarked for a position on a Jamaican plantation. Can we not listen to those better angels of our nature? There is one such better angel who hails from Hawaii and wishes to bring the spirit of Aloha and respect for Mankind: Tulsi Gabbard is running for US Presidency in 2020, but her pacifism will lead to her destruction by the media, all owned by the masters of war.

Born November 1955 in Scotland, but able to recall both the election of JFK and his assassination. I went to sea in 1972, and was a bystander in Santiago de Chile in 1973, Nicaragua in 1977, same Suez convoy as Yasser Arafat in 1983. Unsuited to the computer age, I retreated to the age of sail and sailed Tall Ships for 10 years. As a Master Mariner, I was able to work as a Marine Pilot, first in London and now in New Zealand. After gaining my pilot’s license in London, I studied for my MA in Maritime History. My profession requires psychological insight which is equally applicable to the study of history. There is a tide in the affairs of men, and lessons a’plenty in History.

Filed under: 18th century, Australia, historical perspectives, latest, New Zealand

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Born November 1955 in Scotland, but able to recall both the election of JFK and his assassination. I went to sea in 1972, and was a bystander in Santiago de Chile in 1973, Nicaragua in 1977, same Suez convoy as Yasser Arafat in 1983. Unsuited to the computer age, I retreated to the age of sail and sailed Tall Ships for 10 years. As a Master Mariner, I was able to work as a Marine Pilot, first in London and now in New Zealand. After gaining my pilot’s license in London, I studied for my MA in Maritime History. My profession requires psychological insight which is equally applicable to the study of history. There is a tide in the affairs of men, and lessons a’plenty in History.

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Chris Williams
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Chris Williams

“The same notions of racial superiority and entitlement which permitted such atrocitities [sic] still drives current Australian Foreign Policy to imprison refugees from Western Wars in offshore concentration camps, oblivious to international law.” Complete BS of course – a typical bleat from the left about any country with the temerity to try and protect their national sovereignty is a “racist” (what a tired self-flagellating trope this has become!). Stick your racism where it don’t shine sucker! The fact is, Australia has been accepting unprecedented numbers of refugees through its humanitarian program for decades – especially since its admittedly stupid decision… Read more »

Hugh O'Neill
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Hugh O'Neill

Great discussions. And I thought Pythagoras invented tangents. I had floated RLS and Robert Burns, but someone threw a Shakespeare which [Alexander] Poped all my bubbles…
History is indeed argument without end, and it is too precious a gift not to be shared widely. The proper study of Mankind is Man. A man’s a man for a’ that. RLS defence of Fr. Damien of Molokai is another great tangent for another day.

intergenerationaltrauma
Reader

It never ceases to amaze me how many of my fellows of European extraction become quite defensive when the brutal history of Western colonization, genocide and occupation is the topic of discussion. As a second generation Polish American I’ve often had people tell me that they “didn’t own slaves” and “didn’t kill Natives” if this topic is even broached. Of course these generally well intentioned people, so willing to distance themselves from our rather unimaginably brutal and sordid collective history, have no idea about more current brutalities such as the recent decades of the “Boarding School era” in America (and… Read more »

bevin
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bevin

” generally well intentioned people, so willing to distance themselves from our rather unimaginably brutal and sordid collective history,” Historically such people have been ‘distanced’ from history by the simpler device of not allowing them to exercise and political power. Most ordinary people have only functioned as the agents of those who have taken decisions. Thus in O’Neill’s story, the ships’ crews either carry out the policies predetermined by their rulers or act, when without guidance, as they believe they are expected to. To be specific, regarding the issue of education and indigenous peoples, these policies originated in the ideology… Read more »

writerroddis
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writerroddis

Good piece. Thanks.

Antonym
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Antonym

“Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia ”

Even though those quotation marks point to the Aboriginals it still is not factually correct: The first known landing in Australia by Europeans was by Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon in 1606. Later that year, Spanish explorer Luís Vaz de Torres sailed through, and navigated, Torres Strait islands.[1] Twenty-nine other Dutch navigators explored the western and southern coasts in the 17th century, and dubbed the continent New Holland. Wikipedia

Missing is that poor white people were also kidnapped by the Anglo elite: crimping and impressment were common practice in London or Liverpool. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghaiing
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressment

Wilmers31
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Wilmers31

I was taken aback by the praise for Tulsi Gabbard for President. It looks like she deserves the praise but i have seen it too often now that what happens after an election doesn’t have much to do with the intentions (genuine or otherwise) expressed in election campaigns. Nothing will change through Presidential elections. I don’t know what can be done but clinging to the belief that Presidents can do anything is silly. The apparatchiks will never let him/her.

UreKismet
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UreKismet

You’re not the only one. The notion that Gabbard could represent the people of Hawaii is farcical, any representative who isn’t an indigenous Hawaiian is a ‘representative’ of the Empire, not a representative of Hawaii. I cannot comprehend why it is that allegedly ‘lefty’ uasains just cannot grasp this. Few are aware of the murder and rape at the behest of a cohort of US senators paid off by capitalists which brought about the invasion and theft of the nation of Hawaii, true, but even among those who do know their history, apologies rather than solutions are all that is… Read more »

Hugh O'Neill
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Hugh O'Neill

Hi Wilmers. Nobody who is anti-war will ever be elected POTUS (or indeed PM of UK) because the Establishment will not allow it, even if a hypothetical 100% electorate desired peace. The problem therefore lies not with the candidate, but the system, on which point we are in agreement. Of all the candidates thus far, only Jill Stein and Tulsi Gabbard have had the courage to challenge the war state. It may be ‘silly’ to hope that sanity might prevail in the age of nuclear weapons, and thus I stand guilty as charged. One irony of Hawaii is Pearl Harbor:… Read more »

mark
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mark

Gabbard is just another synthetic establishment puppet. Her cursory queationing of US aggression and imperialism won’t last long. And she won’t get anywhere anyway.

Fair dinkum
Reader
Fair dinkum

Plenty of white, middle or upper class ‘heroes’ but rarely do we read of working class, indigenous people or folks who chose to work with, and not against, the original inhabitants and the natural environment.

binra
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“Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” by James W. Loewen, a sociologist. It critically examines twelve popular American high school history textbooks against actual documented historical accounts with regard to a few significant events in American history.

It reads well and has a lot of examples of history that did not get told and is not known – both positive and negative. Also shows the way society operates in ways that are more nuanced than ‘evil bastards’ theory.

Informative
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Informative

Good article. OffGuardian is looking great!

Is there anything that can be done, so comments do not vanish due to ‘beyond-our-control’ reasons?

Robbobbobin
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Robbobbobin

The Maori are a proud people, proud of their caretaker role in a land that Pakeha (the rest of us who go to their land to live or to visit) have only despoliated. So where are all the moa?

comite espartaco
Reader

Thirdworldist racism, aka multiculturalism, is a shallow one way street that can only fool those who are already halfway into foolery. To think and say that European explorers (as those of other nations, if the logical argument is to be followed), did not ‘discovered’ the regions they did, shows a complete misunderstanding of the historical situation and an ideological bias of Negative Eurocentrism of the worst kind. The dull and unthinking revisionists of racist multiculturalism, cannot understand that the European exploration of modern times changed the whole human game, linking and opening to the WHOLE world regions until then separated… Read more »

mark
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mark

There is nothing to be proud of in this historical record. Every effort was made to exterminate the Australian aborigines and this came close to success. Shooting parties were organised hunting the natives like rabbits, with women providing picnics. An ancient and fascinating culture posing no real threat to the European invaders was ruthlessly destroyed. The impact on indigenous peoples throughout the Pacific was devastating, with few if any positives. They had so much to offer in terms of knowledge of an alien environment, in return for manufactured goods. But contact followed the same inevitable pattern of exploitation, racism and… Read more »

Jules Moules
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Jules Moules

For many people, if not most, it’s nothing to do with pride. Or even guilt. I am, literally, beyond all that nonsense. I can no longer fit my modern mind into the mores, attitudes, social constructs or constraints of an 18th century Englishman (or Frenchman, or German) than I can put myself into my father’s shoes. Yes, I can attempt to understand and, yes, I can exercise sympathy for his victims at the same time as exercising empathy for Captain Cook’s or my father’s situation. But I am not him. Nor am I Captain Cook. I am, in these matters… Read more »

mark
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mark

There’s no need to apologise or feel guilt for anything you were not involved in and occurred long before you were born. Indeed, people like Blair posturing and apologising for slavery just reveal their own megalomania – as if they can take the sins of the past on their shoulders like Christ himself. But that doesn’t stop you recognising what happened in the past for what it was. That the British Empire was just an extortion racket involving mass murder, racism and exploitation, not something that was in some nebulous way benevolent or altruistic. Like most or all empires in… Read more »

binra
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Freedom from guilt is not only joyous as the qualities of being directly felt, but the extension of these as the spontaneous or natural result of acceptance. Investment in guilt’s conviction always has a pay-off somewhere, and projects to other minds as the wish to get rid of it – or at least the major part – so as to claim a ‘relative innocence’ of moral superiority or self-reinforcement. While I agree with mark – I also recognize a personal and cultural inheritance and acquisition of beliefs, judgements and social conditioning that frame and distort my perceptions and responses in… Read more »

Fair dinkum
Reader
Fair dinkum

‘History is written by the conquerors’
Until that is corrected we will continue down the slippery slope of self destruction, hubris being our fuel.
Guilt is a waste of energy.
Truth diminishes ignorance.

binra
Reader

The purpose or purposes that invoke history are generally support or justification for a present identity or established order. In this sense history is made or framed in the present as the persistence of a selected past into the future that thus denies the unfolding of presence free of asserted or guilt and conflict. That is Orwellian observation – though he dramatised the destructive nature of using projected evils as power to subjugate the human spirit and left his reader under the stamp of such a doublethink. Revisiting the past has to be sceptical or curious as to whether ‘accepted… Read more »

Rhys Jaggar
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Rhys Jaggar

If there is one lesson from history of the past 2000 years, it is that narcissistic psychopaths prone to delusional bouts of megalomania, racial superiority, calculated culling and generalised ignorance beyond the cunning of brute force warfare will unfortunately prevail over those whose humility and understanding of the complex reality of their place on earth renders them too kind to be genocidal warmongers any longer. It happens at every level of society. Right now, ignorant thugs expect free supply of intellectual insight from those they treat as slaves. They masquerade as doctors and educators, owe their status to joining the… Read more »

Robbobbobin
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Robbobbobin

“Religions were created as solaces for those who recognised such travesties of reality and needed a way to remain functioning having created children.”

Good to know. I wasn’t around when that happened. Did it work or did they need to keep on with the aspirins as well?

binra
Reader

If the Script of the world is seen AS a script – then is it seen from the view of an identity within it. The nature of the Script has indeed been one of separation or segregation and subjection or each other in struggle for power or simply survival as subjects. My understanding is that fully owning the script as a script is its release to an awakening script – which is in the world but not of it and active in willingness to a reintegrative purpose. The segregative or forgetting script is the polarised shapeshifting of good and ill,… Read more »

Helmut Taylor
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Helmut Taylor

Maybe I’m a softy, but reading your essay…. it brings a tear to my eye nevertheless. Abreath of fresh air is so …emancipating; and why did Shakespeare encapsulate the Jewish character in the persona of Shylock – for posterity?

mark
Reader
mark

Shakespeare’s mistress was Emilia Bassano, his “Dark Lady.” She came from a very talented Italian Jewish family of North African extraction, court musicians at the palace of the Doge of Venice, and later at the court of Elizabeth I. She provided the inspiration for the Venetian settings of The Merchant Of Venice and Romeo and Juliet. Jews were not well treated in Venice. They were confined to a part of the city in which a forge stood (“ghetto” in Italian.) Every year a leading Jewish figure had to hand over a sum of money to the ruler of Venice in… Read more »

mark
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mark

Sorry, meant to say Othello.
Romeo and Juliet was set in Verona.
Probably also inspired by Emilia as a setting.

vexarb
Reader
vexarb

Or simply following the Renaissance fashion for things Italian — writing sonnets and such.

Hamlet: The Tragedy of Gonzago, written in very choice Italian.

vexarb
Reader
vexarb

Mark, thanks for that info. So “the Dark Lady” really was a darky! And that her family were court musicians to Elizabeth confirms Shakespeare’s status as Director of a popular London theatrical company which also played at court. And links up with Shakespeare’s genteel start as writer-in-residence at a noble house. “Shakespeare probably wished to reflect these realities”. And succeeded by a mile: Shylock is one of his deepest, most human characters; as is Portia in another direction. That whole play brims over with love of humanity, for our varied faults as well as our varied virtues. I saw it… Read more »

mark
Reader
mark

Yes, some people believed that the Dark Lady was actually black, but Emilia was probably more of North African/ Middle Eastern appearance. I don’t think there’s any surviving portrait of her. His sonnets to her were not intended for public consumption. I always thought Shylock was a very human figure driven a little bit crazy by inhuman treatment. Some present day Jews have criticised the play as anti semitic and refused to watch it. But I think that’s making the common mistake of confusing an author with his characters. He probably wouldn’t have had Emilia as a long term mistress… Read more »

vexarb
Reader
vexarb

The only openly racist remark in Shakespeare that I can recall is made by his vilest character, Iago: “A black ram is tupping your white ewe”. The only really sustained vicious no-holds-barred ethnic prejudice in any Shakespeare play that I know of recurs in the Henry plays, against the French in general and St.Joan in particular; but that was probably just an actor-manager-writer ploy to put British bums on Globe theatre seats. Hacker: Why does Britain need Trident if it’s so useless against Russia?. Sir Humphrey: It’s not meant for use against the Russians. Hacker: Who then? Sir Humphrey: Our… Read more »

Admin
Moderator
Admin

You don’t think The Merchant of Venice is racist?

Besides, it’s redundant to talk in such terms of a man from the mid – late 16th C. Every white western human being was ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ by our definition back then. It was their reality, and it’s patronising and insulting to expect them to conform to our own just because their attitudes make us uncomfortable.

vexarb
Reader
vexarb

Admin, no I do not think The Merchant of Venice is racist; rather, it is a deep and incisive dissection of racism under the guise of comedy. As Binra says above: “The King’s fool alone might venture truths otherwise forbidden. So comedy offers a vehicle to say what cannot otherwise be said.” This is not the place for Eng.Lit.Crit; instead I shall summon a Music Critic: the great Sir Donald Francis Tovey. He names Shakespeare and Homer as the two Sublimely Inscrutable writers who Lead us ever Upward, while appearing to share our primitive prejudices. Thus according to Tovey, our… Read more »

binra
Reader

If racism or any other hated fear projection was to be erased from our mind we would erase ourself. Not because we are the hate, but because hate is a rejection and denial of something we fear or hate to be – and attacking ourself as if to get rid of it – is the way to keep it and make it real in the forms it presents. The fearfully ‘virtuous’ are not at rest in their being and so are beset by shadows – that must threaten their ‘asserted right to exist’ or identity-investment. Computerised braking systems mean that… Read more »

binra
Reader

Once a term becomes a means of virtue signalling or ‘moral’ superiority by accusation in others, it shifts from whatever it may have meant. ‘Self’ (selfism would be an ideology of self), extends to and yet is received from family or group and as such self and other is not merely a body and its ind or personality but a status of equality or embrace with a relative scale of closer and further. Families have particular ways, cultural norms and cues and manners such that we initially see others as different in ways that expand us or contract us in… Read more »

mark
Reader
mark

I’m not sure I entirely agree with that.
The reason why people still read plays written in archaic language over 400 years ago is that they deal with human beings motivated then as now, and in the future, by factors such as romantic love, greed, jealousy, revenge, ambition, and racial prejudice, which have remained remarkably consistent over the centuries.

binra
Reader

Perhaps comedy is the means by which to hide the deeper truths that can only be allowed to consciousness when laughed at.

The cast of mind is a reflection of its inner reality but set out as if a thing apart.

binra
Reader

… continued And if all are cast from one mind and not merely the central character to our play, then all must come home to where they are if the slave should break the chain to the shadow play in Plato’s Cave. The theme that rises from this consideration is that of guilt as usurper, power and protector – raised by others in this page commenting in terms of inherited guilt or guilt for inherited privilege and basis for disempowerment and invalidity set against vengeance as justice for past grievance. Investment in the the self-imaged limits us to competing forms… Read more »

vexarb
Reader
vexarb

Binra, if you mean comedy reflects an inner reality but set out as a thing apart, I would agree. Shakespearian comedy is inner reality insofar as he saw the world through the lens of comedy. But I believe the way he projects it, through charmingly effective creatures such as Portia and Puck, has an effect on outer reality insofar as it makes us laughh where otherwise we might curse. If Shakespeare had a Jewish mistress, as Mark avers, and if Emilia invited him to meet her friends and relations, that would explain the deep (even though also comic) humanity of… Read more »

binra
Reader

The King’s fool alone might venture truths otherwise forbidden. So comedy offers a vehicle to say what cannot otherwise be said. I am speaking to the nature of the mind as a filtering control of a projected acceptable narrative. The ‘inner territory’ of the human heart in conflict of hope and betrayal is a script writ large on the world – where the mind is employed to hide what must be kept hidden for such hopes to be dashed again and yet again in conflict taken to its dregs. I feel I already wrote what I meant. I read a… Read more »