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Time In all his tuneful turning (ii)

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — Dylan Thomas’ vision of time to set beside Stephen Hawking’s ]


I’m arguing here that Dylan Thomas is at least as great a thinker about time as Stephen Hawking, and his masterpiece, Fern Hill is my proof text to that effect.

I’ll borrow here from a piece I wrote called That HyperText is Linear: it’s the Northrop Frye applied to Dylan Thomas bit that’s of relevance here:


I get much of my thinking in this area from the literary critic, Northrop Frye, who says somewhere that you can (and should) read a poem through from beginning to end, and that this will give you what he calls the “diachronic” meaning — the sequential meaning “through time”: but when you have done this, you should also perceive what he calls the “synchronic” meaning — the meaning that comes from the poem as a whole, with all its parts simultaneously present and influencing one another, in a way that is impossible in a first sequential reading, but is possible in a meditative way afterwards…

Take Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Fern Hill”, for example. It’s an incredible tour-de-force, moving from the poet’s sense of wonder and praise at the natural world around him in childhood, to the moment when time takes him

Up to the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of my hand

and he wakes

to the farm forever fled from the childless land…

— his “lamb white days” are over, and he realizes finally that

as I was young and tender in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying…

That is, so to speak, the throughline, the sense of the poem from start to finish — as I child I was young and easy under the apple boughs, I was green and carefree: and yet, all the while, my childhood was slipping away from me, for Time itself held me green and dying…

That’s the “diachronic” reading…

But the “synchronic” reading is quite different. It doesn’t depend in the same way on a process through time. Instead, it works by the piling up of similar phrases:

the sun that is young once only…
All the sun long…
the sun grew round that very day…
the sun born over and over…

These phrases, scattered throughout the poem, seem to build on one another, almost imperceptibly, in a very remarkable way. Suppose that it was life, rather than the sun, that was at issue here:

A phrase like “life that is young once only” would clearly emphasize the freshness of youth and the decay that age brings — and thus be very much in line with the diachronic meaning of the poem. But a phrase like “life long” would emphasize the enduring quality in life, maybe even its eternal quality (“eternal life” even), while “life born over and over” would capture the cyclical feeling that’s present in the rotation of the seasons (and in the idea of reincarnation) — and “the sun grew round that very day”, while it doesn’t make sense to read it as “life grew round that very day”, clearly means that each moment is itself the moment of sunlight, in a way that’s akin to the zen sense of living in the moment…

So it’s as though the poem moves from beginning to end along a track that emphasizes initial innocence and its eventual loss: but read in the wholistic, “synchronous” sense, it quietly suggests that time can be viewed as a slowly entropic and degenerative process, as an endless and unbroken wholeness, as always and only the instant, and as a cyclical recurrence…

To me, that’s mind-blowing. Thomas isn’t presenting one of these as “the truth” — to the extent that there’s a “main” way to view time in the poem, it’s certainly in terms of a slow and not so slow process of the loss of innocence — but as four complementary ways in which we can see it. Four major philosophies of time in one poem, phrased in terms of the sun, and thus slipping almost unnoticed into our consciousness while we’re busy following the “throughline” or “plain sense” of the poem… four major philosophies, not contradicting one another, but spoken together, as in a polyphony.

There are some similar phrases relating to the moon, too, and they need to be similarly weighed and considered if you want to go deeper into “Fern Hill” — but that’s another part of the story, for another day…


That’s from That HyperText is Linear, not currently available on the web.

Four major philosophies of time, each seen from a human perspectove, voiced together as a polyphony, and presented “subcutaneously” — beneath the surface of the poem, and of the reader’s conscious awareness.

That’s what I admire in Thomas’ poem, and what I would compare with Stephen Hawking’s analog of another great scientist’s “Single vision & Newton’s sleep!” — for the juxtaposition of Dylan Thomas vs Stephen Hawking is indeed an age-old one, finding its classic instantiation in William Blake‘s antipathy towards Isaac Newton.

William Blake, Isaac Newton, The Tate Gallery

I’ll let Alan Moore, he of the comics [Watchmen, eg], explain:

For Blake, the boundaries of Newton’s thought were the cold, stone parameters of an internal dungeon to which all humanity had been condemned without its comprehension or its knowledge. Despite the invigorating consequences Newton’s influence would have for a then-nascent industry, Blake would elsewhere describe this rigid and reductive pall as ‘Newton’s Sleep’, a drowse insensible to vision or to ethical restraint beneath which it appeared the world had fallen. Goya to the contrary, here the monstrosity was birthed not by the sleep of reason, but instead born from that sleep which reason represented. From our own industrially despoiled and bankrupted contemporary perspective, Blake’s view surely seems a product of extraordinary prescience rather than of the angel-addled madness which some of his less insightful critics have attributed.


What’s the distance between inside, and within — and politics?

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — eerie distances between thus and so, this and that — and Trump, Wolff ]

Speaking practically: switching between the delicate details of the North Korean situation, and those of the Iranian situation, each of which involves a potential nuclear adversary and some deterrent balance, and each of which contains the other as a subset — what’s the mental distance between those two mindsets? How fast can a sharp mind switch betweeen them. Or, for that matter, between foreign affairs and domestic politics? Or between dealing with House and Senate? Or between treating with Democrat and Republican?

Is there a zoom at work here, between these difficult distances?


I’d been wondering recently about some mental distances that illustrate the difference betweeen qualitative and quantitative realms, subjective and objective realities..

I’ve been asking myself, what’s the distance between inside and within, between x-ray and insight, or sky and heaven?

Wm Blake, Newton (left); Angel (right).

And what scale should we use to peer into such questions? — the compass Blake’s Newton uses to parcel out earth is purely terrestrial, purely rational, and Blake’s own blazing angels would have no place in it. Should we perhaps use Taleb‘s Wittgenstein‘s ruler?

Unless you have confidence in the ruler’s reliability, if you use a ruler to measure a table you may also be using the table to measure the ruler.

Here, the distance between the measurer and the measured is itself in flux.


Back to politics.

How do those whose entire lives have been concerned with the largely substantial, ascertainable or verifiable facts of focus groups, polls, votes, election results, majorities, minorities, policies and so forth — with no time for Rilke‘s “angels’ hierarchies” — function when weighing the “mental stability” or “very stable genius” of a President with that same President’s policy with regard to — gasp — Kim Jong-Un?

Who has his own issues of “very stable genius” or “mental stability”?

And who doesn’t even have a semi-reliable chronicler like Wolff to illuminate the swathe he is cutting through ideology, dogma, doctrine, advisors, generals, and.. Juche?

How many minds do we have among the generals, among the punditry, who can roam at all scales of the relevant realms, psychological and political, blatant and nuanced, knowable and profoundly unknown?

Sunday surprise – a British Query

Monday, June 26th, 2017

[ By Charles Cameron — William Blake asks, David Jones responds ]

William Blake asks:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

I won’t quote the rest of the poem, because it’s those last two lines that interest me:

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?


Is there a glimpse of Jerusalem to be had, among the mills and chimneys of industry? David Jones, I think, takes the question very seriously, not looking for an answer to some Glastonbury Festival site, but to the contemporary manifestation of those mills — the skyscrapers of the city — not turning his gaze away from them but peering into them, questioning the very assumption that paradise cannot be found among them.

And here, I think, Jones answers — his quest unsatisfied:

I said, Ah! what shall I write?
I enquired up and down.
(He’s tricked me before
with his manifold lurking-places.)
I looked for His symbol at the door.
I have looked for a long while
at the textures and contours.
I have run a hand over the trivial intersections.
I have journeyed among the dead forms
causation projects from pillar to pylon.
I have tired the eyes of the mind
regarding the colours and lights.
I have felt for His wounds
in nozzles and containers.
I have wondered for the automatic devices.
I have tested the inane patterns
without prejudice.
I have been on my guard
not to condemn the unfamiliar.
For it is easy to miss Him
at the turn of a civilisation.

I have watched the wheels go round in case I
might see the living creatures like the appearance
of lamps, in case I might see the Living God projected
from the Machine. I have said to the perfected steel,
be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I felt
some beginnings of His creature, but A, a, a Domine Deus,
my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible
crystal a stage-paste …Eia, Domine Deus.

It is, I think, a very great poem. Eia, Domine Deus.

Dank ponds and high places in the garden of forking paths

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — Borges’ finest fiction, read with an eye to serpents within serpents ]

The pre-conscious mind, it seems to me, runs innumerable options before providing a single, first conscious selection, an initial thought, which we can then ourselves choose or dismiss, swaying away from whatever tendency we might dislike in that first choice, with alternatives then provided until we settle on a thought we can live with — whether because it suits our lust, our liking, our laughter, our love, or — simplest — love itself. The whole enterprise resembles, literarily speaking, Jorge Luis BorgesGarden of Forking Paths [link is to a deliciously annotated version, see more below].

But here’s the thing: my mind, at least, offers me quite a mixed bag of lascivious, laughing, light-hearted and level-headed options, all unbidden, and while the courteous Chinese gentleman in Borges’ fine short story would surely only have a selection of insights suitable for the Yellow Empereor among the branchings of his garden’s paths, and his maze of thoughts itself sums up to a transcendant mind, on the wider, non-literary world stage and usual human level there are some pretty dank pools of stagnant ideation to be found, and some skulls among the living that choose to harbor and indeed nourish those pools, hoping their poisonous atmosphere may prove contagious.


I am driven to these thoughts by a report from yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, Revealing the secrets of one of Australia’s worst online trolls.

Ordinarily I might have scanned this account of an online neo-Nazi and moved on, but it contains a built-in ourboros or snake biting its own tail, when the former pulp magazine editor who lost his job after being persecuted for his affinity with Nazi dolls, and who lived alone in a rooming house, self-published a novel featuring, and I quote, “a former pulp magazine editor who lost his job after being persecuted for his affinity with Nazi dolls, and who lived alone in a rooming house..”

Self-publishing is arguably a mildly neurotic ouroboric loop, but William Blake looped it, as did Martin Luther, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, and Edward Tufte, to name a few..

Self-publishing an autobiographical fiction, however, is more deeply loopy — for the ugly details, see the SMH piece.

Gloriously, Borges reaches as high as the neo-Nazi stoops low: some hope remains for humanity.


Annotation “o” in the annotated version of The Garden of Forking Paths mentioned above offers us a further — and specifically rhetorical — form of ouroboros to contemplate:

Linguists might classify the phrase “labyrinth of labyrinths” as an example of the genitive of gradation, as in the biblical “King of Kings,” from Daniel 2:37 (originally in Hebrew, “Melech ha-M’lachim”), I Timothy 4:14, and Revelations 17:14 and 19:16 (Curme, [6, p. 88]). Here the repetition of words conveys a sense of preeminence or superiority. A similar rhetorical device occurs earlier in line 30. But “centuries of centuries” might be more readily interpreted as a time span of hundreds of hundreds of years, constituting what is known as the partitive genitive, as in the “land of milk and honey.” Both usages are marvelously recursive, like “wheels within wheels,” and like the Thousand of One Nights, alluded to on line 230, which is a tale of a tale of a tale..

Wheels within wheels — indeed, tiny wheels in a footnote to a larger one — at which point we are back at Ezekiel and his vision of the dry bones, from which I derive my own username, hipbone.


Fscinatingly, certain equivalent pieces on opposing sides of xiangqi, the Chinese chess game of the sort Borges’ Ts’ui Pên would have played, have different names, though “pieces on the same row in the table below share the same move and ability”:

Their order of battle at the commencement of the game are as follows:

I’m grateful to Robert R. Snapp, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Vermont, for his outstanding contribution to this (mostly) delightful romp through the forking gardens of ideas..

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in Foreign Affairs, my oblique analysis

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — in which Gartenstein-Ross reminds me of Albrecht Dürer ]

Daveed speaks:

Daveed is worth reading and heeding, especially when he says he’s written something of particular consequence — so read his Foreign Affairs piece.


My topic is triggered by a single sentence in Daveed’s piece, and is orthogonal to his. Daveed writes:

These spaces included both literal ungoverned territory and discursive spaces

In the overall flow of Daveed’s piece that’s a simple introductory remark, an observation of fact. From my point of view, though, there’s more to it than that — it’s a disjunction & conjunction of the two realms of geography and cognition, matter and mind, or “outer and inner space” if you will. And that’s something always worth noting.

In fact, Daveed’s comment reminds me of Albrecht Dürer and his illustrations of Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon, from The Apocalypse:

Here, the supernatural sits comfortably above (Latin: super) the natural.


The physical-metaphysical (body-mind; outer-inner; objective-subjective) disjunction & conjunction is recognizable in Descartes, and takes contemporary form as the so-called hard problem in consciousness. It’s significant that the “war in heaven” of Durer’s vision no longer fills the skies in our contemporary images of war, though heaven and hell are no less with us than before..

And so I note that, en passant, Daveed has alluded to what is perhaps the great schism of our time, that between visionary and factual truths.

Kathleen Raine, poet — and mentor of my youthful self:

Fact is not the truth of myth; myth is the truth of fact.

Witness her distress as we abandon truth of myth shining “above” truth of fact, for truth of fact alone:

Chemistry dissolves the goddess in the alembic,
Venus the white queen, the universal matrix,
Down to molecular hexagons and carbon-chains,

John of Patmos, the alchemists, Durer, Blake, Jung, Raine, have the richer vision.

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