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Sunday surprise – a British Query

Monday, June 26th, 2017

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

The importance of Albrecht Dürer in grokking ISIS

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — because the world of the jihadists resembles Dürer’s more than it does our own? ]
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It’s extraordinary the insight that an appreciative acquaintance with Albrecht Dürer provides, in attempting to understand ISIS not just theoretically but imaginatively, and thus viscerally.

Under the title ISIL Boasts: America will go down to defeat in the Streets of Mosul Juan Cole blogs [emphasis mine]:

AFP is reporting that a news agency linked to Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), “A`maq,” is carrying a video of a Daesh fighter who swears that he and his colleagues will inflict a decisive defeat on the US in Iraq, as the guerrillas spread through the streets of the city. He addresses the camera saying, “As for you, America, we promise you that which our honored elders promised you, God bless them, such as Abu Mus`ab (al-Zarqawi) and Abu `Umar and Abu Hamza [etc.].”

The threats don’t make any sense. The US does not have infantry combat troops at the front lines, and is mainly intervening with fighter jets and bombers. If you are a small guerrilla group, you really cannot match that firepower. There is no obvious way in which Daesh could inflict harm on the US in Mosul.

How about a non-obvious way?

**

For the apocalyptic true believers of ISIS, these verses (ayat, which also refers to “signs”) from the Qur’an ring true today:

When thou saidst to the believers, ‘Is it not enough for you that your Lord should reinforce you with three thousand angels sent down upon you? Yea; if you are patient and godfearing, and the foe come against you instantly, your Lord will reinforce you with five thousand swooping angels.’

Qur’an 3.124-25

We may have lost sight of the angels, and for that matter the dragon, the horsemen, the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” and the “Lamb which is in the midst of the throne” — in our western mostly post-Christian tradition, but John of Patmos and Albrecht Durer saw them, in what we now think of as “the sky”, familiarly known in their days as “the heavens”.

But is that our clarity or our blindness?

**

If we are to understand ISIS, we need an analytic framework which doesn’t automatically exclude angels from its purview — as I argued somewhat more broadly in my essay The Dark Sacred: The Significance of Sacramental Analysis in Robert Bunker‘s Blood Sacrifices [Kindle, $3.99].

We are dealing with a subset of that culture wherein poetry is as highly valued as it is lowly valued in our own — as Shahab Ahmad tells us in What is Islam, “the poetical discourses of Muslim societies” are “the form of speech regarded as the highest register of human self-expression and social communication.”

And we are easily blind to such things. Thomas Hegghammer, in his Paul Wilkinson Memorial Lecture at the University of St. Andrews, Why Terrorists Weep: The Socio-Cultural Practices of Jihadi Militants, writes:

It took me a long time to even notice these things. I’ve studied jihadi groups for almost fifteen years, and for the first ten, I was addressing standard questions, like, how did group A evolve, what has ideologue B written, who joins movement C, etc. The thing is, when you study one type of group for a while, you take certain things for granted. I knew that these groups were weeping and reading poetry, but it didn’t really register – it was background noise to me, stuff I needed to shove aside to get to the hard information about people and events.

Hegghammer goes on to comment that “soft” activities — he names weeping, reading and reciting poetry, dreaming — “pose a big social science puzzle, in that they defy expectations of utility-maximising behaviour.”

We tend to the “utility-maximizing” end of a philosophical spectrum (running, as per my example above, from “heaven” to “sky”) but they do not.

Oh, no. They do not.

**

To understand the poetics of jihad, and thus the passions it arouses, we must first glimpse the visionary faculty that is implicit in our own so easily disregarded poetry.

Thus William Blake, in his A Vision of the Last Judgment:

“What,” it will be Questioned, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight: I look thro it & not with it.

Sunday surprise the third & last — BlakeQuake

Monday, July 4th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Blake, Britain, and Blake again — among the angels ]
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The irrepressible William Blake can’t keep himself from coloring outside the words:

Milton a Poem Huntington Library

**

Okay, here’s the poem as poem — a very curious poem celebrating “arrows of desire” to have made its way into the hymnary of England, its royalty, and the Proms:

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?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

**

I posted the patriotic hymn-version of Blake’s Jerusalem earlier today in It’s not one pole of polarization that’s the problem, as part of a comment on Brexit, very very British.

Happily the United States — whose birthday is tomorrow — didn’t exactly lose ye olde English tradition, as is readily apparent in this rendition — this one by the West Point Cadet Glee Club:

**

Oops, but England, my England — see what has become of it!

Like every generation since Ahab begat Behab right in the beginning, I fear for our young, even those now middle-aged, I fear for their young.. I fear for the future so fast spiraling out of our past.

**

Blake himself had a high esteem of his work and purpose. He wrote:

I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels.

And he could paint the archangels’ likenesses by memory, too, with angelic felicity:

**

A tip-of-the-hat here to David Auerbach.

And a shout-out to Michael Horovitz, who published my first poems in book form in his richly Blake-influenced 1969 Penguin anthology, Children of Albion.


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