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Nina Paley’s OTSOG genius

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Nina Paley is as strong an argument as I know both for the idea that individual genius exists, and (not so paradoxically) that it arises OTSOG -- "On the shoulders of giants" as Robert Merton has it ]
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It’s always a delight to find the same rich insight in divergent cultures — in this case, from Airborne, Down to Earth: words of Wallace Black Elk, which I collected and arranged in The Greenfield Review, vol 9 ## 3-4, Winter 1981-82 (upper panel):

SPEC WBE Paley

and in the latest film offering from Nina Paley (lower panel).

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I have said before that I vastly and deeply admire Nina Paley’s animated feature based on Valmiki‘s Ramayana, Sita Sings the Blues. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the first six and a half enchanting minutes… and the whole film will be here for you when you have just under an hour and a half to spend:

Nina also is a paragon of the movement to make cultural works available without the current restrictions of copyright, as she explains, and has placed Sita Sings the Blues in the public domain..

You’ll hear all about her upcoming feature about and around Passover / Pesach — from which the corpse > become mummy > become flowers image is taken — when the time comes…

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h/t Bill Benzon at New Savanna

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Tables and the Mozart Requiem revisited

Monday, October 27th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Castoriadis brings in the Requiem (redux) as Eddington compares the physical table and the physics table -- plus a note on education, attn: Zen ]
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rustic elm kitchen table angle
French 19th century provincial kitchen table in elm, photo: Haunt Co NZ

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Philosopher of science Charlie Huenemann quotes Schopenhauer in the opening of his provocative piece Reality is Down the Hall on 3 Quarks Daily today:

It is therefore worth noting, and indeed wonderful to see, how man, besides his life in the concrete, always lives a second life in the abstract.

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In the course of his discussion, he quotes Sir Arthur Eddington‘s two descriptions of a table.

Eddington’s first description:

It is a commonplace object of that environment which I call the world. How shall I describe it? It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial. By substantial I do not merely mean that it does not collapse when I lean upon it; I mean that it is constituted of “substance” and by that word I am trying to convey to you some conception of its intrinsic nature. It is a thing; not like space, which is a mere negation; nor like time, which is – Heaven knows what! But that will not help you to my meaning because it is the distinctive characteristic of a “thing” to have this substantiality, and I do not think substantiality can be described better than by saying that it is the kind of nature exemplified by an ordinary table.

Eddington’s second description:

It is part of a world which in more devious ways has forced itself on my attention. My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself. Notwithstanding its strange construction it turns out to be an entirely efficient table. It supports my writing paper as satisfactorily as table No. 1; for when I lay the paper on it the little electric particles with their headlong speed keep on hitting the underside, so that the paper is maintained in shuttlecock fashion at a nearly steady level. If I lean upon this table I shall not go through; or, to be strictly accurate, the chance of my scientific elbow going through my scientific table is so excessively small that it can be neglected in practical life.

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Huenemann’s point is that, as he puts it:

Our official position on the matter, as educated beings, is that Eddington’s second table – the scientific one – is ultimately the real one. .. The concrete table turns out to be an illusion. It arises somehow from the abstract world as does a mirage from heat and the bending of light.

Hunh? But then again, as Howard Rheingold said back in 1990:

We habitually think of the world we see as “out there,” but what we are seeing is really a mental model, a perceptual simulation that exists only in our brains. …

Cognitive simulation — mental model-making — is what humans do best. We do it so well that we tend to become locked into our own models of the world by a seamless web of unconscious beliefs and subtly molded perceptions. And computers are model-making tools par excellence, although they are only beginning to approach the point where people might confuse simulations with reality.

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And I am reminded once again — how should I not be? — of that remarkable quote from Cornelius Castoriadis:

Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

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Also on 3QD today, and of likely interest to Zen: Emrys Westacott, How the “Culture of Assessment” fuels Academic Dishonesty

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Breaking the Tablets, Breaking the Vessels

Monday, October 27th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from Oklahoma via Moses in Egypt and Lurianic Kabbala in Safed to the contemporary understanding of tikkun olam ]
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Broken Commandment Tablets

A deranged man drove his car into a 6′ representation of the 10 Commandments near the Oklahoma state Capitol a day or two ago. He apparently said the devil made him do it, which might be taken to imply belief in God, no? Tom Ricks at FP commented, aptly enough:

I am getting tired of the suspects blaming Satan.

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It is not by any means the first time the Tablets of the Law have been broken, however: Moses himself broke them when he returned with them to the people of Israel and found them worshipping the golden calf, as Exodus 32.19 tells us [edited to use the new JPS version here]:

As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

The motives in the two cases were entirely different, as were the contexts — but there’s a follow-up to the first breaking of the tablets, and it might be worth pondering now that we’ve been faced with the recent event in Oklahoma City. For myself, I find it more profitable to contemplate this follow-up and its implications than the furious political battle around public religious monuments here in the US — or the unhappy behavior of a man who stopped taking his meds and believed the devil possessed him, telling him to smash one such monument.

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A second version of the Tale of the Broken Tablets is found in Deuteronomy 9. 15-17, and it goes like this:

I started down the mountain, a mountain ablaze with fire, the two Tablets of the Covenant in my two hands. 16 I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you. 17 Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes.

Thus far the two narratives agree, the main point of interest being the Deuteronomic statement that the mountain was (still) “ablaze with fire” — a point which will find its resonances later in this post. But Deuteronomy 10. 1-5 also tells us what happened to the broken shards of the first tablets:

Thereupon the Lord said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.”

I made an ark of acacia wood and carved out two tablets of stone like the first; I took the two tablets with me and went up the mountain. The Lord inscribed on the tablets the same text as on the first, the Ten Commandments that He addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. Then I left and went down from the mountain, and I deposited the tablets in the ark that I had made, where they still are, as the Lord had commanded me

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The rabbis have commented extensively on the eventual fate of the broken tablets, ie their placement in the ark. Thus R Natan of Nemirov, a student of the great R Nachman of Breslov — grandson of the Baal Shem Tov — writes:

And this is the meaning of the verse “Which you broke and place in the Ark”, about which our Sages said: “the Tablets and the Broken Tablets are placed in the Ark”. By means of the aspect of broken tablets, broken faith, by means of that brokenness itself the faith returns and amends itself, which is the second tablets. Because thanks to the existence of a shard of the broken faith, by keeping that shard he is fulfilling the advice of the faith itself which was broken – and he can return and repair that faith which is the aspect of receiving second tablets.

while the earlier Kabbalist, R Eliahu Devidash tells us:

The Zohar teaches that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the Tablets and the Broken Tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah… and similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for the Shekhina. For the Shekhina [divine presence] only dwells in broken vessels, which are the poor, whose heart is a broken and beaten heart. And whoever has a haughty heart propels the Shekhina from him, as it says “God detests those of haughty hearts”.

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This brings us to what Howard Schwartz writes in his How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism::

For many modern Jews, the term tikkun olam (repairing the world) has become a code-phrase synonymous with social and environmental action. It is linked to a call for healing the ills of the world. Indeed, tikkun olam has become the defining purpose of much of modern Jewish life. What many of those who use this term do not know is that this idea is rooted in the last great myth infused into Jewish tradition, a cosmological myth created in the sixteenth century by the great Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari (1534-1572). Here the term “myth” refers to a people’s sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors and heroes.

What was this myth? Schwartz describes it thus:

At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.

In this way God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere, but more fell on the Holy Land than anywhere else.

Notice once again the motif of ten containers of the divine generosity which are shattered… a connection which Schwartz makes explicit:

The second stage, that of the shattering of the vessels, may have been inspired by the biblical account of Moses throwing down and breaking the first tablets of the law (Exod. 32:19), which, like the holy vessels, were crafted by God on high. So too is there a biblical passage about scattered sparks, found in Ezekiel 10:2, where fiery coals from the Temple altar are scattered by some angelic figures over the city of Jerusalem: “Fill your hands with glowing coals from among the cherubs, and scatter them over the city.” This passage manages to work in the scattering, the sparks, the concentration of sparks on the Holy Land (especially Jerusalem), and the holiness of the sparks, since they come from the altar.

Schwartz concludes with the imperative of Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world:

That is why we were created — to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendents of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles — to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.

And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete.

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I learn as I go, and I go as the world unfolds.

I am grateful, besides Howard Schwartz, to Rabbi Mishael Zion, Co-Director and Director of Education for the Bronfman Fellowships for his Broken Tablets: A Study Guide for Shavuot, and to Dr. Lawrence Fine for his Tikkun in Lurianic Kabbalah.

And I am more than grateful for the two volumes of Martin Buber‘s Tales of the Hasidim, without which I might know nothing of the Baal Shem Tov. His story too is a tale of the wondrous fire.

It seems to me that Tikkun Olam is the task before us, believers and unbelievers alike, in whatever way the works of love may be accomplished.

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Ukraine and the Churches

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- playing catchup with a world that seems to spin faster as it gets older, unlike my weary self ]
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tent_chapels_on_Maidan_Square_in_Kiev__Jakub_Szymczuk
One of two tent-chapels on Maidan Square in Kiev, February, 2014. Photo credit: Jakub Szymczuk

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Here’s a backgrounder from the Ukraine, excerpts from several key articles & letters, in roughly chronological order.

ecumenism in ukraine

First, George Weigel, from January 14, 2014, writing under the title The Exhaust Fumes of Stalinism:

The religious dimension of the EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine these past two months has gone largely unremarked. Yet in Kiev and elsewhere, the day’s activities at these oases of civil society are punctuated with prayers offered by clergymen of a variety of Christian communities: Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Protestant. That fact in itself says something about the nascent civic community that is being born in Ukraine today. Ecumenical fellow-feeling and cooperation have not been a prominent feature of Ukrainian religious life in the past. Yet now, with the future of the nation (and no small part of the future of Europe) being contested amids snowstorms, tent cities, flying universities, and police brutality, Ukrainian Christians have discovered a common cause: the moral and cultural renewal of Ukraine, which the brave men and women of the various EuroMaidans understand is essential to free politics and free economics in the future.

The-Exhaust-Fumes-of-Stalinism
Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halych, Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

Letter from His Beatitude Sviatoslav (Shevchuk), Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, on the very difficult situation in Ukraine, dated August 29 2014:

All of the Churches and religious organizations of Ukraine stood together against the violence of the Yanukovych regime, the annexation of Crimea, and the division of the country. On the Maydan-Square for months, every day, and hourly in the night, in common prayer they insisted on respect of civil rights, non-violence, unity of the country, and dialogue. This civic ecumenical and inter-religious harmony and cooperation has been an important source of moral inspiration and social cohesion in Ukraine.

In annexed Crimea and in the Eastern war zone some of the Churches and religious communities have been targeted for discrimination, enduring outright violence. In Crimea the most exposed have been the Muslim Tatars. The Tatar community as a whole is in daily danger. Some of its leadership has been exiled, barred from their homeland. The existence of Greek and Roman Catholics ministries, Orthodox parishes of the Kyivan Patriarchate, and the Jewish community in Crimea has been variously menaced.

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Here’s Timothy, Cardinal Dolan, September 15, 2014:

The Catholic Church in Ukraine is young, alive, growing, and prophetic. This, from a worldly point of view, is illogical, near miraculous, as Greek Catholics were viciously persecuted by Stalin in the years of Soviet oppression. Even after the breakup of the communist empire, and the restoration of freedom in Ukraine, Catholics were not given back their former churches that had been given to the Russian Orthodox, and the courageous yet decimated community almost had to start afresh.

Through the optic of the Gospel, we know that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith,” so believers are hardly surprised by the vitality and growth of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine.

and John L Allen Jr, reporting from the 2014 Synod of Bishops in Rome, October 16, 2014, under the striking title Synod is more and more like a soap opera:

On a different front, Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church used his speech in the synod today to take a shot at the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, basically telling them to stop complaining about Russian foreign policy and the support for Russian incursions in Ukraine voiced by Russian Orthodox leaders.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was sufficiently outraged that be grabbed Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church, who was also in the synod hall, and immediately taped a segment for his radio show in New York to object to Hilarion’s rhetoric.

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Putin and Kirill

On the other side of things, there’s the close alliance of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church in the person of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to consider:

After weeks of defying international pleas to free eight European officials they had captured in May, pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine released them unexpectedly in June following a public appeal by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.

The role Kirill’s resurgent church played in the release of the monitors, who were from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), sheds light on how a close cooperation between the state and the church in Russia is now playing out in Ukraine.

What the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) presents as its humanitarian mission in east Ukraine, Western diplomats see as a pattern of cooperation in which the church is acting as a “soft power” ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During the OSCE monitors’ captivity, Moscow gave no public indication that it was heeding calls to help their release by using its influence with the rebels fighting to split east Ukraine from Kiev.

But what looked like a solo venture by Kirill was the culmination of a flurry of diplomatic contacts that, behind closed doors, involved the OSCE, Russian and church officials, separatist leaders and a rebel Cossack unit, according to interviews with parties to the talks.

With questions lingering over Moscow’s role in the turmoil in east Ukraine that has killed more than 3,500 people, European diplomats say the ROC was used to strike a deal and conceal Moscow’s influence with the rebels.

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There have been church destructions — perhaps the most note-worthy being that of the all-wooden Chuch of the Annunciation in Gorlovka in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, which is reported to have gone up in flames after being hit by an artillery shell:

Cathedral of Gorlovska

I should note here that the only reports of this incident I have ound have been from RT, the English-language Russian state new source, and Daily Stormer, a white nationalist site — caveat emptor.

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And then there’s propaganda, notoriously a grey area as far as authorship is coincerned. According to RT’s piece, War on religion: Orthodox Christian priests, churchgoers face threats in Ukraine:

Using both the years-long strife between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its breakaway Kiev branch, as well as allegations of the Moscow-tied Orthodox priests particularly supporting anti-government fighters in eastern Ukraine, radical activists have distributed leaflets with alarming threats addressed to the clergy and parishioners.

The rhetoric is worth noting:

Every coin given to the Moscow Patriarchate Church – is a bullet for a Ukrainian soldier. Every candle burnt in a Moscow Church – is your citizen burnt alive.

and:

For every Ukrainian soldier killed in Crimea, one priest from Moscow Patriarchate will be killed. Blood for blood.

As to authorship? Even RT admits it is uncertain:

As the fliers have been widely distributed, the Security Service of Ukraine has issued a warning, saying that citizens should not “fall for this primitive provocation.” Some Ukrainian mass media went as far as saying that “Russian special forces” were behind the distribution of the leaflets.

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Mary Qualit and Martha Quant

Friday, October 24th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- quality and quantity, subjectivity and objectivity, the hard problem in consciousness, and what truly counts ]
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quantbyquant
Mary Quant, as Wikipedia has it, was “one of the designers who took credit for the miniskirt and hot pants” — a quantitative approach to fashion, albeit minimalist.

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I’ve written a couple of post recently with the qualit and quant tag [1, 2], in fact in one of them [3] I referred to “quantity and quality” as a great koan.

I don’t pretend to know how they work together, but a question has been hovering in the back of my mind for a while, and cropped up as I was making those recent posts — what’s that quote about quantity being a form of quality, and where does it come from? And today, reading some more from DigitalTonto, I ran across this:

  • As Stalin said about armies, “quantity seems to have its own quality.”
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    So I started searching, looking to see if anyoine had a Stalin reference — and found this, on a Marxist site under the heading

  • Dialectical Materialism:
  • Dialectics explains that change and motion involve contradiction and can only take place through contradictions. So instead of a smooth, uninterrupted line of progress, we have a line which is interrupted by sudden and explosive periods in which slow, accumulated changes (quantitative change) undergoes a rapid acceleration, in which quantity is transformed into quality. Dialectics is the logic of contradiction. [ .. ]

    The transformation of quantity into quality was already known to the Megaran Greeks, who used it to demonstrate certain paradoxes, sometimes in the form of jokes. For example, the “bald head” and the “heap of grain”—does one hair less mean a bald head, or one grain of corn a heap? The answer is no. Nor one more? The answer is still no. The question is then repeated until there is a heap of corn and a bald head. We are faced with the contradiction that the individual small changes, which are powerless to effect a qualitative change, at a certain point do exactly that: quantity changes into quality.

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    Then I found…

  • Clausewitz, On War, II, On the Theory of War, tr. Howard & Paret, pp. 194-195:
  • “Superior numbers, far from contributing everything, or even a substantial part, to victory, may actually be contributing to very little depending on the circumstances…But superiority varies in degree…it can obviously reach the point where it is overwhelming…so long as it is great enough to counterbalance all other contributing circumstances

  • Well, quantity has a quality all its own, as Napoleon liked to say
  • The quote credited to Mao, Lenin and Trotsky, “Quantity has a quality all of its own”, continues to have resonance at a national level, especially in regard to military force.
  • As Stalin said about armies, “quantity seems to have its own quality.”
  • and finally:

  • Quiddity has a qualia all its own, Eric Raymond.
  • **

    The story of Mary and Martha is one of the more interesting in the Gospels, since it effectively DoubleQuotes the contemplative and active aspects of life. Jesus visits two sisters, Mary and Martha, and while Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word”, Martha “was cumbered about much serving”. Luke 10. 38-42 tells the story:

    Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

    Martha enacts the spiritual life in service, while Mary directly enhances her own in listening. Martha, if you like, represents the virtues of the outward life, Mary of the inward.

    I mentioned the British fashion designer Mary Quant at the very top of this post. Her name has stuck in my mind from the sixties, giving rise to my coinage, used in the title of this post: Mary Qualit and Martha Quant.

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    Here’s a discussion of the hard problem in consciousness, which may be the same koan as that of quality and quantity, of our inner and outer lives, diferently phrased:

  • Keith Frankish on the Hard Problem and the Illusion of Qualia
  • And I am brought back once again to that powerful quote by Castoriadis:

    Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

    The more I contemplate it, the more I see that quote as a pithy summary of my own weighing of the balance between the imaginative and physical worlds.

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