pico Iyer from the half known life: excerpts | wrong dream

Find a heaven within, Rumi had written–and it came back to me now as Ali, the driver and I sat on a platform in the sun, munching on chicken with barberries–and you enter a garden in which

It had long been too easy to say that Jerusalem is our world in miniature: the family home in which everyone is squabbling with his siblings over a late father’s will.

Yet Jerusalem spoke for a peculiarly twenty-first-century challenge as well, as the dissolution of borders meant that more and more conflicts were internal. In Kashmir, in Belfast, in Tibet, I’d witnessed one belief system against another; in Jerusalem, the fighting was not just between traditions, but within them. Orthodox Jews were spitting at their secular brothers, while those brothers were pinning posters of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus on synagogue doors to affront their sensitive coreligionists. Sunni Muslims lived harmoniously together within the country’s borders, but they were ringed on every side by Shia, who were pledged to committing Israel to oblivion. Far right often made common cause with far left here–ultra-Orthodox Jew aligning with Palestine Liberation Organization–on the grounds that my enemy’s enemy must be my friend.

The Pope himself had, in my lifetime, been denied permission to pray in the Greek chapel of what is often regarded as the holiest site in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And doubters could always point out that the emperor who had ordered that church’s construction, Constantine, had murdered his own wife and son. An English traveler in the nineteenth century who’d gone to observe “Holy Fire”–the apparently miraculous appearance of a light in a crevice in the church on the Saturday of Easter Week, announcing the rebirth of the world–had found himself stepping over “a great heap of bodies” after a stampede in which “soldiers with their bayonets killed a number of fainting wretches, the walls splattered with the blood and brains of men who had been felled like oxen.”

Jerusalem was a parable that had turned into a cautionary tale, a warning about what we do when we’re convinced we know it all. A Jonathan loses his temper and every Jew is condemned to perdition; a Salman misspeaks and every Muslim is assaulted. Even those who had worked to turn the place into a long-planned New Jerusalem could not wish away the bloodstains all around. It was Theodor Herzl, the spiritual founder of the Jewish state, who had written, as to the holy city, “The musty deposits of 2,000 years of inhumanity, intolerance and foulness lie in your reeking alleys.” It was the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, who had observed of Jerusalem, “Anything done to desecrate and defile the sacred has been done. It’s impossible to imagine so much falsehood and blasphemy.”


… to find ourselves in a rich and barely lit Tibetan Buddhist compound. Its chapels were thick with the smell of centuries of melted yak butter; its white terraces …

Ladders led up to rooftops that dropped off into an almost allegorical landscape of sand and space and blue emptiness. Every door through which we passed led to thangkas swarming with skulls, furious depictions of the contest within each one of us of light and dark. Mandalas, often sacred diagrams representing a paradise of Buddhas, lined up in rows or arrayed in receding squares, presented maps for every visitor to awaken a Buddha inside.

Dalai Lama

I remembered how the Dalai Lama, with his emphasis on facts and empiricism, often suggested that the seclusion of Himalayan cultures had perhaps allowed them to develop skills in meditation that had resulted in spiritual technologies not so refined yet in the West.

Whenever someone stood up–this happened after almost every large public lecture–and asked him what to do after you’ve been disappointed in some dream (to bring peace to the Middle East, to reverse climate change, to protect some seeming idyll), the Dalai Lama looked over at the questioner with great warmth and said, “Wrong dream!”

We humans, William James would write …, are akin to dogs in a library: we’re surrounded by extraordinary wisdom and knowledge, but entirely in a form we cannot decipher.

Along the walls were painted orange faces, laughing monkey gods, sacred looming phalluses. Shops on every side were selling sandalwood paste, and clarified butter for dead bodies, tiny clay urns for ashes.

The city of death had once been known as “Kashi,” or “City of Light.” The English writer Richard Lannoy, who had all but lost his soul to Varanasi, had called it a “city of darkness and dream.”


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… take the only tree that’s left/ stuff it up the hole in your culture … or, my robot left home to solve the world’s problems

… in January 2020 Greta Thunberg went as far as to specify just eight years [to avert a global castrophe].

Just a few months later, the president of the UN’s General Assembly gave us 11 years to avert a complete social collapse whereupon the planet will be simultaneously burning (unquenchable summer-long fires) and inundated with water (via a rapid sea-level rise). But, nihil novi sub sole: in 1989, another high UN official said that “governments have a 10-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effect before it goes beyond human control,” which means that by now we must be quite beyond the beyond …

Such predictably repetitive prophecies (however well-meant and however passionately presented) do not offer any practical advice about the deployment of the best possible technical solutions, about the most effective ways of legally binding global cooperation, or about tackling the difficult challenge of convincing populations of the need for significant expenditures [the] benefits [of which] will not be seen for decades to come. …

Why should we fear anything–be it environmental, social, or economic threats–when by 2045, or perhaps even by 2030, our understanding (or rather the intelligence unleashed by the machines we will have created) will know no bounds and hence any problem will become immeasurably less than trivial? Compared to this promise, any other recent specific and intemperate claim–from salvation through nanotechnology to fashioning new synthetic forms of life–appears trite. What will happen? An imminent near-infernal perdition, or speed-of-light godlike impotence?

Based on the revealed delusions of past prophecies, neither. We do not have a civilization envisioned in the early 1970–one of worsening planetary hunger or one energized by cost-free nuclear fission–and a generation from now we will not be either at the end of our evolutionary path or have a civilization transformed by Singularity.

–Vaclav Smil, How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future, 2022, pp. 212-213


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Баба-Яга … lives with her two sisters also called Baba Yaga in in a forest hut that spins continually on birds’ legs

… Baba Yaga is also the name used by an Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance unit under the command of Ruslan Mazovetsky, known as “Barmaley.”

At the end of Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma two things happen. Dederer admits to her own monstrosity. She’s a drunk. The other thing is less predictable, Mark Fisher. Fisher lets her off the hook because it’s the system to blame for making us think our ethical decisions–who is deserving of cultural approbation and who of opprobrium and cancellation–are important.

The system makes us individual consumers, us consumers individuals. We are individuated as nothing other. And so the system elevates our individual choices to the level of ethical decisions. It makes them mean something but all the system is really doing by making whether we can stand to watch a Polanski film knowing what he did seem important is reinforcing the only choices it allows us, to consume or not.

Whether yes or no, our vote is for the system. Saying we have ethical responsibility as consumers limits ethical responsibility to consumption. Nothing more.

Cancellation is another spin. It doesn’t remove Woody Allen from the mix. The only freedom is to consume


still, what does this say about the freedom we afford the art monsters with whom most of Dederer’s book is consumed?

What has this to do, rather than with its cancellation, with the creation of culture?

— Dora Maar, Portrait d’Ubu, 1936

“Allow me to mention here that a stupid girl, one who spends the whole day picking her nose and lazing on the stove, and eventually becomes a princess or a queen, is completely unthinkable in fairytales! The imagination of folktale-tellers created an equivalent of male heroism in the characters of Slavic Amazons (the Russian Sineglazka or the ‘Giant Girls’, Div-devojke, in Serbian folksongs), but grubby, idle, and stupid girls are usually punished with death. Wealth, a throne and love are only conceivable as rewards for grubby, idle, stupid guys!”
― Dubravka Ugrešić, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, trans. MS Ellen Elias-Bursac, 2011


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this is …

I was so struck by this photo of Fritz Haber, I have done a … that thing where a lecturer or speaker shows a slide and then simply says, This is … in this case Fritz Haber. In the case I’m thinking of, it was Martin Heidegger which, in that case was a redundancy. The audience already knew it was … and met the announcement with gales of laughter. In the case of Fritz Haber I doubt that they would do the same or know him from his photo. This is Fritz Haber.

He is the first figure in Benjamín Labatut’s literary project exploring the crack in human experience, between science and literature, the void and singularity, the shifting imperceptible boundary between madness and creation, destruction and reason. Paul Barach (here, whence also the photo) describes Haber, after a note warning, graphic descriptions of war, on the German front in 1915, spring,

“Small, bald, and potbellied, … Wrapped in a fur coat against the chill of the late April evening, the German-Jewish chemist … In front of him were 6,000 metal tanks … At six in the evening, the wind was just right to put his plan into action. With his typical Virginian cigar hanging below his trimmed mustache, he gave the signal. …

“168 tons of chlorine gas was released into the world.”

The father of chemical warfare–without whom there would be no Zyklon-B–Faber won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for chemistry, the same year Max Planck won for physics. The prize was awarded for his discovery of a method of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere, the single most important contributor to human population growth. Without the Faber-Bosch method, and the production of artificial fertilizer, only half the current world population is sustainable.


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Liberal Democracy

= truth defined by market competition.


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— Benjamín Labatut, eating god

What I admire most about science is that it is completely unwilling to accept the many mysteries that surround us: it is stubborn, and wonderfully so. When it comes face to face with the unknown, it whips out a particle accelerator, a telescope, a microscope, and smashes reality to bits, because it wants–Because it needs!–to know. Literature is similar, in some respects: it is born from an impossible wish, the desire to bind this world with words. In that, it is as ambitious as science. Because for us human beings, it is never enough to know god: we have to eat him. That’s what literature is for me: putting the world in your mouth.

–from here

Really, if I’m honest, I … shattered into many pieces and became odd.

the following excerpts are from …

an interview with Frederico Perelmutter, here

My lack of roots has certainly affected my literature. Though I’m Chilean, and can’t deny it (well, I can, actually, and do so frequently, mostly to mess with my compatriots), I don’t feel identification with my country, or its literature, or nationality. But I don’t feel Dutch either. Argentine, even less so, though many people believe I am when they meet me for the first time, because I share their typical character flaws. I’d love to say (like Bolaño did) that I feel Latin American, but that too would be untrue.

I feel like Pinocchio. Not the dictator

—I feel like the wooden doll: someone unsure of who he is, but diametrically certain of what he wants to become.

–dir. Matteo Garrone, 2019

What do you want to become?

I won’t tell you. Not because I don’t know, but because I’m a superstitious man. People should not know who you are, at least not really. And more importantly, they should never know what you want. Life is at stake in desire.

I write in English and Spanish. It depends on the project. And my fancy. But if I had to choose between the two, I’d take English.

Betrayal is important for writing. For life too. One must always betray something. And since I’m unwilling to betray my parents, my friends, or my country, I prefer to betray my tongue.

I don’t think anyone, anywhere, writes like Sebald. I reread his books every year. His melancholy and humor, the density of information that they hold, the beauty of his prose—which has a deeply strange effect, somniferous and hallucinogenic, that prevents you from remembering everything you’ve read, no matter how much you try—make him a complete exception. His oeuvre is an unreachable monolith, a summit that exits our world.

Sebald’s books (about which I can say nothing negative) all have the same absolutely characteristic narrator, who is very present: though he’s talking about real events, his gaze, and a horrifyingly lucid and beautifully melancholy perspective, drenches everything he narrates. In my book, that’s almost entirely absent. I try to avoid appearing in what I write.

… with Calasso: his books are a path to enlightenment and an aesthetic pleasure all at once, but they can also be rather boring, overly cerebral, dry, and theoretical. Erudition is like that, because it doesn’t regard entertainment as the only measure of value.

I’m surprised how “entertaining” Borges is. Such a lucid, winged intelligence that extends toward transparency.

A similar thing happens with Bolaño: he never says anything clever, in the sense that he isn’t crafting a literature of ideas. And yet, one feels the talent and the genius behind every feint.

What I dislike about poetry is the author’s voice, which is usually far too present. That exhausts me. I’m attracted by the impersonal. I prefer the rare beauty one can find in a good Wikipedia entry to the cries and cackles of a poet who feels like they must always relay what lies deep in their heart.

Sebald, Borges, Chatwin, Bolaño, Burroughs: they’re all deeply Romantic writers. I dare say your work is, too…

I don’t feel like a Romantic. Nor have I ever thought about what Romanticism might represent for me. Those ideas and debates that look to categorize a writer or aesthetic movement don’t interest me in the slightest.

What I’m fascinated by is delirium, by reason’s mad dreams and the excesses of thought. I feel called toward the contradictions that at once torture and enlighten us. I’m interested in chaos, senselessness, irrationality, randomness, and infinity. If that makes me part of a 19th-century movement, well, there’s not much I can do about it. I’ll never willingly include myself into any group. Unless aliens arrive.

your literature in relation to “the contemporary” in some way, … ?

I’m interested in the past and the future. There’s almost nothing contemporary that fascinates me. The best literature anticipates what is coming or rescues some treasure from the hands of oblivion.

There are better idioms for the contemporary than the literary. Especially now, when we’re so immersed in and invaded by the present. We have to resist that. Think of other times, other ways of being human.

The past and the future are far wider than the present. Comparatively, the present moment is impoverished, practically doesn’t exist. But we’re ailing with the present, and with a present that is particularly miserable. That the contemporary doesn’t seduce me is not strange: this is my time, …



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Dear Greens,

Kia ora Simon,

I can feel it: the green wave is surging.

I’m emailing you today from Tāmaki Makaurau where I’ve been visiting violence prevention organisations, and I can tell you that the momentum is growing. I’m invigorated by the aroha of people up and down Aotearoa, some who’ve never voted, or never voted Green before, or people who have been with us through many elections. …

wrote Marama Davidson,

then asked for money

signing off,

Mauri ora.

Ngā mihi nui ki a koe,

Marama Davidson
Green Party Co-leader

I replied,

No, Marama. 

Give up on carbon credits and marketisation of the ongoing disaster of market capitalism. 

Use and endorse in party policy the power of the legislature to create a legal framework restricting carbon emissions at the point of their emission. Fining emitters use business to adapt to the legal framework. 

UBI should be policy. 

You join the ranks of the enablers if you do anything less. 


Simon Taylor, PhD. 

Kia ora Simon, 

This is it. This is our time. The time is now for the Greens to change the shape and direction of the next government. 

wrote James Shaw to me …

and asked for money,


Today Luxon is backpedalling trying to rationalise how he’ll work with NZ First and ACT. But truth be told, he’s desperate to get into power – and he’ll do anything, work with anyone, to get it. Even if it means putting our country at risk. 

which as a sideline is interesting, sad and ironic: the Greens and the Left by extension (see below) appealing to conservative values and risk-aversion, when taking a risk is what is needed

James Shaw signed off,

I’ve never felt more hopeful about the future of our country. 

Ngā mihi nui,

James Shaw

Green Party Co-leader  

which, receiving an automated reply, I answered,

I would vote for you if you dumped the whole idea of a carbon market. 

What is the purpose of the legislature? 

Introduce a legal framework restricting the level of emissions--at their points of emission. 

Fewer planes, fewer trucks, fewer carbon burning factories, in fact none. 

Use business and the market to adapt to the legal framework. This is the only place where a market is of any positive use. 

Simon Taylor, PhD. 

National Scandal

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Patrick Modiano’s Scene of the Crime bears

this epigraph,

How many names have I etched in memory

like “dog” or “elephant” or “cow”

So long ago now, I recognize them only from afar,

even the zebra–and what was it all for?

— Rainer Maria Rilke

Was hab ich mir für Namen eingeprägt

und Hund und Kuh und Elefant

nun schon so lang und ganz von weit erkannt,

und dann das Zebra, ach, wozu?


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Donald Antrim is determined to come to terms, at last, with the ghost of his old man, & other friends and relations

Donald Antrim’s My Eliot, the author’s first novel in more than 20 years, in which our protagonist “Donald Antrim” sits down to read his late father’s treatise on T.S. Eliot, determined to come to terms, at last, with the ghost of his old man … book rights sold to Random House

from here

Her father is the former Newsweek correspondent Curtis (Bill) Pepper, and her mother is the controversial sculptor (and social steamroller) Beverly Pepper. “Jorie is an amalgam of the two,” one New York editor told me.

that’s poet Jorie Graham, from here

Mother Teresa once rang the doorbell looking for her husband Bill.

that’s the doorbell of Beverly Pepper, Jorie Graham’s mum, from here

When she was a little girl in Brooklyn, so did the Dodgers.

from the same Beverly Pepper piece, here

Cole married his American wife, Elizabeth Lewis, in December 1989.

that’s Lloyd Cole, from here

In 1987, Tim and his wife Sarah played along with lurid tabloid reports that they were incestuous siblings.

that’s Tim Smith of the Cardiacs, here

American poetry is full of ‘Oh, poor me.’ Jorie doesn’t do that. I think she’s carved out such a powerful œuvre that it’s unignorable.

that’s Jorie Graham again, from here

‘Your normal reading habits, which have to do with the follow-through of plot, aren’t going to work here. So let’s let go and see what else we can read with.’ says Jorie Graham, followed by

Can We Decipher a Whale’s First Sounds?

from here

Cole stays in the creep — that space of unresolved circumstances and emotions that has room for great discomfort and some hope, some beauty.

that’s Lloyd Cole again, again from here and it finds it’s way into this list by way of the creep

Or is it simply the onslaught of another dangerous mood?

from here

A screenshot of her comment rippled through social media and many fans, especially those in her sizable LGBTQ fanbase, were met with bewilderment, anger, and disappointment.

although they weren’t met by her bewilderment, anger and disappointment, that’s Róisín Murphy, from here

on which subject, the bewilderment, anger and disappointment of fans, I’ve almost had it with Claire Dederer’s book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, had it after statements like this,

Hemmingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon: “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death.” (Makes wanking gesture with hand.)

had it not because of its disrespect for Hemmingway but Dederer’s disrespect for herself.


A.L. Kennedy’s book On Bullfighting starts with the writer about to jump. Then from a neighbouring building she hears some crap song and decides that that cheesy mor tune can’t be the soundtrack for her going out. The telephone rings. It’s her publisher offering her an assignment to write on bullfighting. She goes, with Federico García Lorca as her guide.

La casada infiel

Y que yo me la llevé al río
creyendo que era mozuela,
pero tenía marido.
Fue la noche de Santiago
y casi por compromiso.
Se apagaron los faroles
y se encendieron los grillos.
En las últimas esquinas
toqué sus pechos dormidos,
y se me abrieron de pronto
como ramos de jacintos.
El almidón de su enagua
me sonaba en el oído,
como una pieza de seda
rasgada por diez cuchillos.
Sin luz de plata en sus copas
los árboles han crecido,
y un horizonte de perros
ladra muy lejos del río.
Pasadas las zarzamoras,
los juncos y los espinos,
bajo su mata de pelo
hice un hoyo sobre el limo.
Yo me quité la corbata.
Ella se quitó el vestido.
Yo el cinturón con revólver.
Ella sus cuatro corpiños.
Ni nardos ni caracolas
tienen el cutis tan fino,
ni los cristales con luna
relumbran con ese brillo.
Sus muslos se me escapaban
como peces sorprendidos,
la mitad llenos de lumbre,
la mitad llenos de frío.
Aquella noche corrí
el mejor de los caminos,
montado en potra de nácar
sin bridas y sin estribos.
No quiero decir, por hombre,
las cosas que ella me dijo.
La luz del entendimiento
me hace ser muy comedido.
Sucia de besos y arena
yo me la llevé del río.
Con el aire se batían
las espadas de los lirios.
Me porté como quien soy.
Como un gitano legítimo.
Le regalé un costurero
grande de raso pajizo,
y no quise enamorarme
porque teniendo marido
me dijo que era mozuela
cuando la llevaba al río.
by Leonard Cohen after the poem by Lorca 

The Night of Santiago 
And I was passing through 
So I took her to the river 
As any man would do 

She said she was a virgin 
That wasn’t what I’d heard 
But I’m not the Inquisition 
I took her at her word 

And yes she lied about it all 
Her children and her husband 
You were meant to judge the world 
Forgive me but I wasn’t 

The lights went out behind us 
The fireflies undressed 
The broken sidewalk ended 
I touched her sleeping breasts 

They opened to me urgently 
Like lilies from the dead 
Behind a fine embroidery 
Her nipples rose like bread 

Her petticoat was starched and loud 
And crushed between our legs 
It thundered like a living cloud 
Beset by razor blades

No silver light to plate their leaves 
The trees grew wild and high 
A file of dogs patrolled the beach 
To keep the night alive 

We passed the thorns and berry bush 
The reeds and prickly pear 
I made a hollow in the earth 
To nest her dampened hair 

Then I took off my necktie 
And she took off her dress 
My belt and pistol set aside 
We tore away the rest 

Her skin was oil and ointments 
And brighter than a shell 
Your gold and glass appointments 
Will never shine so well 

Her thighs they slipped away from me 
Like schools of startled fish 
Though I’ve forgotten half my life 
I still remember this 

That night I ran the best of roads 
Upon a mighty charger 
But very soon I’m overthrown 
And she’s become the rider 

Now as a man I won’t repeat 
The things she said aloud 
Except for this my lips are sealed 
Forever and for now

And soon there’s sand in every kiss 
And soon the dawn is ready 
And soon the night surrenders 
To a daffodil machete 

I gave her something pretty 
And I waited ’til she laughed 
I wasn’t born a gypsy 
To make a woman sad 

I didn’t fall in love. Of course 
It’s never up to you 
But she was walking back and forth 
And I was passing through 

When I took her to the river 
In her virginal apparel 
When I took her to the river 
On the Night of Santiago 

And yes she lied about her life 
Her children and her husband 
You were born to get it right 
Forgive me but I wasn’t 

The Night of Santiago 
And I was passing through 
And I took her to the river 
As any man would do


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surplus human sociality as ghost capital

Charles Tonderai Mudede (his name provides the link) uses Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759 to back up the idea it’s not the past that haunts the present but the present haunting the past. The ghosts are from now and matters of sympathetic identification with the figures of the past, the dead who generally have been done wrong. Smith argues we naturally side with those being beaten down and if they are killed it’s our natural empathy animating us to seek vengeance on their behalf.

Mudede calls this pushing of the social feeling potentially to beyond the death of those in whom we invest it a surplus, a surplus of human sociality. We don’t for the practical purpose of social participation need to identify ourselves with dead people but we do for the same reasons we identify ourselves with living people. Both are in a sense gratuitous. Although it might be said to be a matter of social utility in order pursue our own advantage, for example in producing ourselves as social subjects and in having social identities at all, that we have social feelings for the living if they are the same feelings we extend to the dead, if there is no difference and no distinction made, which practically there isn’t, is there a difference? Practically there is not because the cultural expectation we will side with the victims of historical wrongdoing is as strong as that at work in the social expectation we will show empathy towards those around us who are living.

To recognise as such crimes against humanity of which the victims are dead is as powerful an impetus to, and not just a matter of, correct thinking as the recognition of crimes on those who are alive. In fact in this case the values are inverted.

While the crimes of the present may be questioned those of the past rarely are. Our empathy with the dead of genocide matters more in the present than our identification with victims of the genocides that are ongoing and belong to the present. More surplus human sociality accrues to those who make the right identification, so that, culturally achieved, it goes to their advance in society. In other words, it has current utility and is to their advantage in a more than cultural sense.

Bringing in Adam Smith indicates that the advantage is economic and belongs to political economy. And I agree with Mudede. The ‘ghost’ as a figure of capital needs the emergence of hyper-culturality from ultra-sociality. Despite ants being ultra-social, having not developed symbolic exchange to the same level of ghost capital, they are not hyper-cultural. “There are no ghost ants.” (footnote 15)

The implications to be derived from ghost capital as the figure or value attached to surplus human sociality go in two directions, to the dead foundation and to the haunting of the living. Mark Fisher is famed for the sort of haunting I think being implied here. By the dead foundation I mean that calculation of a sign now marked as a cross or given arbitrary symbolic designation said to start time, said to be the point from which the time, lived and living time, starts. This is the time of inner duration. (see on computus here)


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