Sweet Dreams of a Slaver

November 11, 2010

From Eugene Sue’s novel, Atar-Gull:  The Slave’s Revenge

THE MYSTERY.

Brulart had carefully closed, bolted, padlocked, the door of his cabin. Without, not the slightest sound was to be heard, except at times the whisper of the breeze among the rigging, the rustling of the sails, and the murmur of the waves as they beat gently against the vessel’s poop, and opened in her wake into a long furrow of phosphorescent light; no more.

Again he listened; again gazed eagerly to see that no one was watching his movements. Then he advanced toward his great chest and opened it.

At first, you would have thought that the old hutch contained nothing; but, on examining it attentively, you would have discovered that it had a false bottom.

He raised the false bottom, and from one corner of that secret place drew out a little coffer covered with Russia leather.

That small casket, which was richly ornamented, bore a handsomely-emblazoned escutcheon. . ‘ It was, perhaps, Brulart^ coat armorial.

Brulart hermetically closed the curtains of the cabin window, and placed the precious casket upon his foul and greasy table, which he drew up toward the cot .

He stretched himself out in a half-reclining posture, after having disdainfully cast away the hat, the crown, the vest, and the trousers, of the late M. Benoit. Then he lifted the lid of the casket, and his eyes gleamed with a singular fire.

His face, ordinarily rude and savage, seemed to clear itself of its coarse and thick mask, and his powerfully-marked features appeared really handsome, so sudden and inimitable an expression of sweetness was displayed on them. He shook his thick hair, as a lion who scatters his mane from his eyes, parted the long, wild locks, and drew forth from the casket a little flask of crystal beautifully cut, and almost entirely concealed under the gold and jewels which adorned it.

Then he placed that marvellous toy close to the smoky and ill-savored lamp, and by its ruddy light observed its contents.

It was a thick, viscous, dark-colored liquid, at once deeper hued and more brilliant than coffee. It would seem that to him it was almost above price, for his eyes beamed with a sort of celestial joy, when he perceived that the precious flask was still nearly three quarters full.

He kissed it with unction, almost with affection, as one would kiss the hand of a virgin, and eet it down, not on his filthy table, — O, not so!— but on a little cushion of black velvet, all embroidered with pearls and with silver.

He also drew out from the same casket a little cup of gold, and a large flask of the same metal.

But during all these operations, there was on the face of Brulart as much reverence and adoration as there is on the face of a priest who is producing the sacrificial chalice from the tabernacle.

And delicately opening the little phial, he passed out drop by drop the seductive liquor, which fell in gouts brilliant as rubies.

Of these he counted twenty. Then he filled the cup with another liquor, as limpid and as clear as crystal, which thereupon assumed a ruddy, golden tint.

And he raised the cup to his greedy lips, drank it off slowly, with his eyes closed and his broad hand pressed upon his bosom. After this was done, he again locked up the cup and flask in the small casket, and the small casket in the chest, with the same reverence, the same care, the same adoration.

And when he arose, you would almost have lowered your eyes before his glance of inspiration, which seemed to dim the lustre of his lamp. He was handsome, magnificent, nay, admirable. His rags, his long beard, all were forgotten, all seemed to disappear before the incredible consciousness of bliss, which glowed over that brow, of late so dark and frowning, now smooth and pure as that of a young maiden.

“Farewell earth! now come heaven!” Such were his words, as he cast himself into bed.

Within ten minutes he was buried in deep sleep.

He had just taken his nightly dose of opium.

Now, by a singular phantasy, which can, however, readily be explained by custom and the continued practice of taking that drug, Brulart had come at last to take the factitious existence which he procured to himself by means of opium, with all its marvellous poetical creations, all its delirious imaginations, all its ravishing visions, for his true and actual life, the vague and confused memory of which seemed to glitter at moments through his spirit, in the daytime, amid the frightful scenes which were the usage of his days, even as the consciousness of some day of happiness will at times cause our hearts to expand even in the midst of some horrid dream. While, at the same time, he regarded his real life, — the life which he spent in the midst of his brigands, of robbery, and of murder, — almost as a dream, as a hideous night-mare, into which he allowed himself to be carelessly inveigled, and which he mechanically urged onward into the darkest horrors, according to the impulse, the whim of the moment, without reflection, without remorse, nay, even with a sort of secret enjoyment, like that of those persons who say to themselves vaguely, in the midst of some hideous dream, ” What matters it to me ? I shall awake, and all will bo well.”

In one word, it was a life reversed.

The fantastical had taken the place of the positive.

A dream had taken the place of reality.

It is difficult to believe,I know it. But try opium, madam, and you will believe me.

Moreover, it is well to put some confidence in a man of experience.

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Mirrors

September 1, 2010

In Second Part of Don Quixote, chapter LIX, p. 845 in the wonderful translation by Edith Grossman that I am reading, we are nearly at the end of our journey, or the Don’s journey.  He and his squire, Sancho, find themselves at an inn that is, or the proprietor claims it to be well supplied with foods of all kinds.  Sancho is elated, but when he orders dinner, nothing on the menu is available.  He and the Don settle for a simple rustic stew.

While they are eating, they hear through the thin wall a discussion next door.  Some travelers, well fed by their own private cook, are discussing how to entertain themselves.  One suggests that they read the second part of Don Quixote.  “Why does your grace want us to read this nonsense?  Whoever has read the first part of the history of Don Quixote of La Mancha cannot possibly derive any pleasure from reading this second part.

They refer, of course, to a false edition of the Don’s adventures, that was circulating.  In fact, there was a true-false edition.  The Don makes his presence known, and they, delighted to meet the real Don Quixote, invite him to their table.  He takes a quick look at their edition and pronounces it utter trash: there are so many basic errors, one must assume that the entire book is false.  For instance, it refers to Sancho’s wife, Teresa, as Mari Gutierrez.

A translator’s note informs us that this fictionalized error, a jab at the true-false edition, was not true, or completely true, since Cervantes himself, in his own First Part, refers to Teresa Sancho as Mari Gutierrez!


News from late antiquity, early modern

July 7, 2010

 

Moving along in Saint Augustines massive City of God, I think he’s pretty much laid to rest the charge that the adoption of Christianity by the emperor and the citizenry of Rome was responsible for its sack by Alaric and its other troubles.  He gives a thorough review of the calamities that befell the Republic and the Empire long before Christ walked the earth and asks sarcastically, why didn’t your gods protect you?   Obviously, it was not the fault of Christianity, since it hadn’t appeared yet.  Morever, excellent rhetorician that he is, he points out that if Christians had been around during the bloodshed of the Gracchi, the various Punic Wars, the civil wars, and so on, the pagans would have immediately argued that it was the presence of Christians that was bringing down the wrath of the gods on Rome.  So since there were no Christians, shouldn’t they blame their own gods?

It’s entertaining to see the lengths to which Augustine will go to make his points, but we have to recall he was writing for an educated audience that was very interested in these ‘spiritual’ questions, and not above enjoying some sophisticated repartee at the same time.  So, he dwells with glee upon the burning of one temple and the incineration of its sacred idol that claimed the life of a high priest who tried to save it.  What!  Your all-powerful gods not only could not save themselves from a mere fire, but couldn’t even lift a finger to save the priest who tries to save them? What sort of gods are these, he asks?  I’m waiting for the clearcut demonstrations of the beneficent power of the Christian god that comes later on.

1200 years later on, I’m halfway through Don Quixote, the novel, or is it a chronicle?, or maybe just a daydream of a bookworm on drugs, and an argument is underway.  The Don, his squire Sancho, and a few local people with some learning are discussing the first part of The Adventures of Don Quixote which was just published.  Everyone’s talking about it!  The second part is coming soon.  [I am reading the second part.]  The characters compare themselves to their depiction in the novel, pointing out inaccuracies and complaining a bit of how they are shown.  The author of the second part will, it is hoped, be better than that of the first.  After all, it is known that there is another version of the story circulating that is a downright fraud, a blatant ripoff of the idea, written and published by some hacks.  For his part, Sancho is peeved that the story is a little too accurate for comfort regarding his humiliation at the inn, when he was hurled into the air on a trampoline-blanket by some tricksters.  Some verbal trickery from the Don assures him that he wasn’t really there, even if his body was.


Nature & Number, Pythagoras & Fudge

March 16, 2010

A vibrating string, a perfect structure...

In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari writes of Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the great dome on the cathedral in Florence,

…we should never turn up our noses when we meet people who in their physical appearance do not possess the initial grace and beauty that Nature should bestow upon skillful artisans when they come into the world…

Filippo was a great genius, but not all that good looking.  Note the use of the word should in the phrase “…that Nature should bestow upon skillful artisans.”  How can Nature do anything that it should not do?  Just whose rules does Nature obey, if not its own?  The idea here, that Nature has done something wrong, made a mistake, had a little hiccough, in making a great genius an ugly man, or at least, insignificant in appearance, may be common to Italy, or to Renaissance thinkers, but it is also part of an immensely deep and broad current of thought in western culture since the Ancients.  Outward beauty reflects inward perfection.  Personal beauty is a manifestation of the soul’s purity.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats

And if beauty is the emanation of the soul, why should an artistic genius not be beautiful?  How could it happen?  It’s a violation of the nature of the universe, the ordered universe in which truths are manifest in the order and lovliness of things.  And the most beauteous things of all  are the pure things, the mathematical entities, the Pure Forms of Plato, the Ideas.

Historians of  ideas (Man of Roma included) agree that this great torrent of intellectual traditions has its source with Pythagoras, the student of Thales, and a predecessor of Plato and Socrates.  He was a brilliant thinker, a mystic, an analyst, a mathematician, and the founder of a cult that has lived on to our day in various forms.  In the wonderful collection of brief mathematical lives, Gems of Calculus, he is referred to as 3/5 genius, 2/5 sheer fudge . Bertrand Russell appraises him similarly, and that is no small compliment!

From his followers’ mystical preoccupation with Number, and awestruck encounters with the order of the universe, Plato developed his metaphysical notions, Platonists mixed Plato with eastern cults, early Christians mixed Plato with Christ, later Christians mixed it all up into neo-Platonism, the Renaissance rediscovered paganism, Platonism, and mysticism allied to the beauty of art, and secular and mystical philosophers of the succeeding ages remained in thrall to the notions of:

  • A universe explicable in terms of number (Do I have to point out the obvious pop-Pythagorean nightmare – The Matrix, and Keanu/Neo?)
  • Beauty founded on elegance of formulation, mathematical economy, and aximomatic inevitability
  • Truth as proof, as in geometry
  • Knowledge as proof, as geometry, as deductive reasoning – NOT as mere dirty, error prone, contingent experience
  • The nature of the universe revealed through intellectual intuition and analysis and NOT through experience
  • The truth as imminent, but not obvious

Just a listing of these notions evokes so many associations, it’s clear Mr. P. was onto something big.  Did he invent these ideas?  Probably not.  But he was the first to articulate them in a way that had sticking power in the Western tradition.  I would guess that these notions have their roots far deeper, in the human organisms evolution as an information processing being.  The intellectual excitement of these ideas is a refined form of the fundamental “Aha!” feeling that comes with discovery…of food…of the lever…of the power of fire….

In our own day, these ideas live on, certainly in religious rhetoric, but they are also increasingly problematic as I shall discuss later.  Consider just Thomas Pynchon’s novel, V, in which a young woman, Esther, is having an affair with a plastic surgeon, Dr. Shale Shoenmaker (Dr. Shale Beauty-maker). He wants to give Esther a nose job, she is not sure why she should have one.  It’s a popular comic theme from the 1950’s.  The Mad Magazine song goes,

I once knew a girl with such a big schnoz,
she couldn’t get a boyfriend, or a job!
So she got a nose job!
Yeah, yeah, yeah!

The good doctor tells Esther that he wants to bring out the true beauty within her, make her outward experience in harmony with the inward nature of her soul, rectify, improve on the work of nature.  It is a pure Renaissance Neo-Platonic argument about art, truth, and beauty, but he was being ruthlessly satirical.  And of course, in our Botoxed present, who can deny that we have gotten something a bit wrong with the beauty-truth-body equation?

How did this concept get going?  It was the music.  The Pythagoreans noticed that by causing a string to vibrate and sound a tone, they could create pleasing scales of tones by holding down the string at set increments of its length, effectively shortening the string.  Thus, the musical intervals were codified, if not quite born.  Simple ratios, pleasing scales.  In the visual realm, pleasing proportions, the Golden Mean, which lives on in dimensions of our rooms and the size of a standard piece of writing paper.

Something always puzzled me about this, however, since I am not musical.  How did they know the scales were pleasing, were right? They just heard it, but other people heard differently.  Asian tonal scales are not the same as ours.  The de-tuned scales of the blues and other genres are pleasing to their audiences, but hardly classical.  My nom de plume, Lichanos (more in my By Way of Explanation), refers to a particular ancient scale.  Was it a deviant one?    Was there some fudging of the scales at the creation?  Did they weed out the not-quite-right tones so that only the ones with “good” ratios remained?  I await the response of the archaeo-musicologists amongst you!

I said earlier that this current of thought is not always good – it was very much an impediment to the development of science.  Ideas that were not “beautiful” were discarded.  Ideas not deduced from geometry and pure forms were considered suspect.  Even in Newton’s day, he felt he must prove his theories twice:  once as geometrical demonstrations that fill the pages of his Principia, and once in terms of argument that are derived from his laws of motion and his observations. In science, the truth is not always the beauty of Pythagoras and Plato.  Avogadro’s Number, without which we cannot solve chemical equations, is an ugly number.  Planck’s constant is not pretty either.  The acceleration of gravity (32.2 feet per second per second) is not lovely.  Don’t even mention the contant of universal gravitational attraction!  Even so, the lure of number remains, as an obstacle and as a motivation for science.

This split between two modes of apprehending the universe is represented in Raphael’s famous image of the School of Athens.  Plato gestures upward towards the empyrean realm.  Aristotle points downward towards the earth.

Plato dominated western thought until the great resurrection of The Philosopher, as the schoolmen called Aristotle, in the 12th century Renaissance.  He had his own scientific “issues” and the reign of Platonism was by then, in any case, well established.

The seduction of the geometric!  The fact that geometry revealed incommensurable, irrational numbers only placed a slight speed bump in front of the onward rush of the Pythagorean fleet.

If  a=1, and b=1, then c=square root of 2.  Punch that into your calculator and see what a nice, beautiful number you get!  Still, the Numbers as the final reach of truth, the ultimate ground, the thing in itself carried on.  How was it that mathematics could tell us about this earthly realm?  Fire a missile, from a canon or a slingshot, and it follows a parabolic arc (Gravity’s Rainbow) to its final resting place.  We can predict its path precisely – why?  The disjunction between experience and the pure realm of mathematics is bridged in physics, but how?  Kant wrestled with this and concluded…well, another time.

Today, the debased form of this issue lives on, melded with religious fundamentalism, in the argument against Darwin from Intelligent Design.  How could the world be anything but designed, according to plan?  There is a whiff of the old pagan, Pythagoras, here.

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. — Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

William Wordsworth

Postscript:  Giotto and Perfect Circles


Pre-Raphaelite flash

August 29, 2009

drop of milk

In an earlier post, I commented on Art Spiegelman’s remark that comics are time turned into space. Different moments in time are disposed across the page in separate units, or panels.  This idea popped up again in my head as I read what John Ruskin had to say about the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an independent self-styled group of painters who were not “recognized” by the Academy.  Ruskin was very sympathetic to their aims.

William_Holman_Hunt_-_Valentine_Rescuing_Sylvia_from_Proteus

In a letter to the London Times in 1854, Ruskin praises the PRB by saying, “…[it] has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does..,” and he discusses William Holman Hunt’s painting, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia in detail.  Looking at the picture, it’s attention to detail is obvious and remarkable, but it struck me as somehow stiff and unrealistically staged.  That’s when Spiegelman’s comment came to mind.

The Hunt painting shows us what we can never see because the elements of the world are always in motion.  Not until the development of the strobe light was it possible to “freeze” motion completely, or nearly so, in a photographic image to show us the “reality” behind the blur.  Anyone who has been in a disco with a strobe can testify to how bizarre and unreal the dancers look in the light, yet it is their real movement one sees.

Well, what is the real?  For the medieval thinker, and those were the ones the PRB would favor, the real, the essence of something was outside of time.  A Platonic ideal, not the mere appearance one percieved in everyday life.  For an artist, the decision is always, shall I show how things are, or how they appear?  In medieval art, the choice was for the former.  For the Impressionists and Futurists, to name two, it was the latter.  (Of course, each group thought it was depicting the real…)

eat_the_bookSo, in medieval art, the Idea is the real, and that’s what is shown.  Figures are often not to scale – important subjects are bigger, the better to represent what they are. Perspective was not unknown, but not used much, because that was mere appearance.  (The renaissance was preoccupied with mathematically precise perspective.)  Different moments in time are shown in the same picture, as in my favorite from the apocalypse where we see John both receiving and eating the same book, two chronologically sequential events, in one frame. (To us moderns, it seems he’s eating one book and greedily grabbing for another!)

Fabriano_Magi_Uffizi_4764Magi_detail

In later art, the juxtaposition of multi-times is often less explicit.  In this famous painting of the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile de Fabriano, the (earlier) procession to seek Jesus is seen in the back of the picture, while the Magi, at their goal, are shown in front.  Here, in the detail, we see the three Magi in different stages of adoration:  standing, bending to the knee; and on the knees in front of the infant Saviour.  It is almost like a sequence of animation frames, and the juxtaposition is intended to refer to motion and the reality of time.

Hunt’s painting shows us one moment, and one moment only. The figures are frozen as if they had been captured in movement by a strobe flash, and the artist achieves this revelation of the reality by his fidelity to truth, and his shunning of mere appearances.

Do comics, with their straightforward acceptance that the artist must depict the idea, and their more realistic way of representing time, direct us to higher truths?  Does the matrix of time degrade all ideas to falsity?  Is the preoccupation of The Decadents with “the moment” not a decadence, but an aspiration?  What do we see?

I think that practically every thought in my muddled head since I was ten years old has been a variation on this merry-go-round of ideas…


Cloud of (Un)knowing

August 16, 2009

UnionStationRoof

It’s rare that my quotidian work matches my philosophic preoccupations closely, but sometimes it happens.  The Union Station in Toronto has a train shed roof (above) that is a landmark.  The supporting framework (truss) is distinctive, and was a patented design, also used in Hoboken, NJ.

Engineers like to work from plans, drawings, diagrams, like the one below.  Clean, precise, accurate.  Unambiguous…we think.  Problem was, there were no such drawings in existence.  To create them from hand measurements – a huge and expensive task.  Enter the laser scanner. Millions of points, all with (x,y,z) coordinates.  We call them point clouds.  Clouds of knowing (cf. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite on the cloud), points of certainty.  This is there! Information, data, rich enough to make these precise drawings.

cloud4

What is the grain of knowledge?  How granular is reality?  What is?

cloud1

cloud2

Zoom in far enough, and there is only empty space.  As it is inside us, and outside us.

cloud3


Eat the Book

November 9, 2008

eat_the_book

In the Valley of the Loire, at Chateau d’Angers, the Apocalypse.  A tapistry, image thread by thread, fabric mosaic, here transferred to pixels, and come full circle.  Is it the true color?  L’envers & l’endroit:  I saw the front, faded, old, but now they have revealed the reverse, under the linen backing, and the nearly the full color is there.

The Angel gives the Book to Saint John and commands him to eat it.  The word is digested to flesh, after being fixed on parchment.  Is this why I read?  To eat the book and have it become my reality?  Calvino explains “Why we read the classics,” but why do I?  Escape, guilty pleasures.  Later freshened up with appreciation of literary art.  The Book is OF revelation.  I see it several times a year at the Cloisters.  I’d like to see it every day.

No one will let it go. The Revelation trails us everywhere.  The millenium is always being pursued.  Even in 1944, in Cat People. Revelation 13:2 “And the beast which I saw was like a leopard,” which, as the zookeeper says, pretty much describes the panther in the cage, or the woman who is the star?

Was 2001:  A Space Odyssey a revelation?  …and just what is the connection to Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite and the Negative Theology?

It is so much easier and safer to read, to flow down the river of words into the pseudo-reality, to avoid the stillness of now.  Reading keeps me afloat, with my head above water…otherwise, what to do with my time?  Aggghh!  I would have to be..here..how?