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Heart Line — a response to Bill Benzon

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — design fascination — including a Mimbres rabbit with a supernova at its feet ]

Bill Benzon has been blogging a remarkable series of posts on Jamie Bérubé‘s drawings as recorded in the online illustrations to Michael Bérubé‘s book, Life As Jamie Knows It: An Exceptional Child Grows Up.


I wanted to respond to Bill’s latest, Jamie’s Investigations, Part 5: Biomorphs, Geometry and Topology, which included this illustration:


and these comments, which I’ve edited lightly for clarity and simplicity:

I emailed Mark Changizi, a theoretical neuroscientist who has done work on letterforms. He has been making a general argument that culture re-purposes, harnesses (his term), perceptual capacities our ancestors developed for living in the natural world. One of his arguments is that the forms used in writing systems, whether Latinate or Chinese (for example), are those that happened to be useful in perceiving creatures in the natural world, such as plant and animal forms. I told him that Jamie’s forms looked like “tree branches and such.” He replied that they looked like people. His wife, an artist, thought so as well, and also: “This is like early human art.”

You’ll see why that-all interests me — letters and life forms — below.

And then:

Yes, each is a convex polygon; each has several ‘limbs’. And each has a single interior line that goes from one side, through the interior space, to another side. The line never goes outside the polygon .. Why those lines? I don’t know what’s on Jamie’s mind as he draws those lines, but I’m guessing that he’s interested in the fact that, given the relative complexity of these figures and the variety among them, in every case he can draw such a line.


Two thoughts cross my mind.

The first is that one of these forms, Benzon’s Biomorphic Objects 6a, bears a striking resemblance to the letter aleph, with which the Hebrew alphabet — or better, alephbeth — begins:


There may be some connection there, I’m not sure — though Jamie also has a keen interest in alphabetic forms, as illustrated here:



But it’s my second point that interests me more.

These “biomorphic objects” with “single interior line that goes from one side, through the interior space, to another side” remind me of nothing so much as the Native American style of representing animals with a “heart line” — best illustrated, perhaps, by this Acoma Pueblo Polychrome Olla with Heartline Deer:

The image comment notes:

One generally associates the use of heartline deer with pottery from Zuni Pueblo and that is most likely the origin. The fact that it appears on Acoma Pueblo pottery has been explained in a number of fashions by a number of contemporary Acoma potters. Deer designs have been documented on Acoma pottery as early as 1880, but those deer do not feature heartline elements. Some potters at Acoma have indicated that Lucy Lewis was the first Acoma potter to produce heartline deer on Acoma pottery. She did this around 1950 at the encouragement of Gallup, New Mexico Indian art dealer Katie Noe. Lewis did not use it until gaining permission from Zuni to do so. Other potters at Acoma have stated that the heartline deer is a traditional Acoma design; however, there is no documented example to prove this. Even if the heartline deer motif is not of Acoma origin, potters at Acoma have expressed that it does have meaning for them. It is said to represent life and it has a spiritual connection to deer and going hunting for deer.

Here’s a “heartline bear” from David and Jean Villasenor‘s book, Indian Designs:


And here’s an equivalent Mimbres design for a rabbit with heartline, in which the line passes completely through the body from one side to the other, as in Jamie’s biomorphs:


Again, the comment is interesting — it cites a 1990 New York Times article, Star Explosion of 1054 Is Seen in Indian Bowl:

When the prehistoric Mimbres Indians of New Mexico looked at the moon, they saw in its surface shading not the “man in the moon” but a “rabbit in the moon.” For them, as for other early Meso-American people, the rabbit came to symbolize the moon in their religion and art.

On the morning of July 5, 1054, the Mimbres Indians arose to find a bright new object shining in the Eastern sky, close to the crescent moon. The object remained visible in daylight for many days. One observer recorded the strange apparition with a black and white painting of a rabbit curled into a crescent shape with a small sunburst at the tip of one foot.

And so the Indians of the Southwestern United States left what archeologists and astronomers call the most unambiguous evidence ever found that people in the Western Hemisphere observed with awe and some sophistication the exploding star, or supernova, that created the Crab nebula.

That would be the sunburst right at the rabbit’s feet!


Posts in Bill’s series thus far:

  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 1: Emergence
  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 2: On Discovering Jamie’s Principle
  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 3: Towers of Color
  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 4: Concentrics, Letters, and the Problem of Composition
  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 5: Biomorphs, Geometry and Topology
  • My previous comment on #1 in the series:

  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: nine
  • When are look-alikes alike, eh?

    Friday, September 30th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a questiom for Cath Styles and Emily Steiner ]

    It’s my proposal here that look-alikes are in the eyes of the beholder, perhaps more so than other forms of likeness.


    Do they look like Darth Vader and C3PO to you, frankly — or more like each other?


    One really does have to wonder how medieval monastics got hold of copies of Winnie the Pooh:




    With a double hat-tip to the immensely followable twitter feed of PiersatPenn


    And what about this?

    It probably takes some historical knowledge to appreciate the similarities here — the comparison is not entirely visual.


    Are mathematically or verbally juxtaposable similarities equally subject to human comparative bias?

    The Republic of Bloggers, SpiralChris & Pundita

    Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — on music, art, and the double meanings of fruit, bread, wine ]

    Still-life with Lemons, Oranges and Rose, Francisco de Zurbarán, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena


    Chris Bateman, aka SpiralChris, responded a couple of weeks ago to my own open letter to him, beginning:

    Dear Charles,

    The second of my five religions, Zen Buddhism, came about entirely as a consequence of a famous tale you allude to in your wonderful letter.

    After quickly rocounting the tale in question — about the Zen patriarch Hui Neng and the “finger pointing at the moon” which should not be mistaken for the moon itself, he went on:

    I spent a great deal of time that night meditating upon the gloriously full moon, a little about my finger, and a great deal about the space in between. Space. The space between. The space beyond. When I could be any or all of these, I went to bed. I thought to myself: How arbitrary it is that we should see ourselves as the finger, and as not-the-moon, when we might just as well consider ourselves the spaces in between – since without that, we could never be not-anything!

    This lunar encounter served me well until about five years later I hit a terrifying crisis of identity when I lost faith in any ability to use words to communicate at all. I began to fray at the edges… If everyone’s words were their own symbols, how could we ever manage to communicate? Did we? Or were we just braying at each other at random, each one watching a different play on the stage we had been thrown together upon?


    That phrase “the spaces in between” is particularly interesting when you think of it as referencing the space between word and what it refers to, the word “moon” and the up-there orb, the moon. You might think, “there’s no such space between, they’re in different realms, is all” — but there is a between, it’s the relationship. And that’s what all my HipBone & DoubleQuote Games are about — the relationship (mapped along a linking line, aka an “edge”) between two concepts (“nodes”). Because relationship is the essence of their antecedent, Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game. And of all relationships, perhaps those between name and thing, finger and moon, map and territory, moon and enlightenment, are among the most fascinating.

    Consider, though, the relationship between person (genetically understood) and person (memetically understood), as in the case of persons of genius or great charisma.

    Hermann Hesse played the Glass Bead Game himself, he tells us, in his garden, while raking leaves into the fire, and it consisted of figures he admired, talking across th4 centuries — “I see wise men and poets and scholars and artists harmoniously building the hundred-gated cathedral of the mind.” In his book, the Game does not consist of these people, but of their ideas — disembodied, if you will.

    The genetics / memetics difference shows up elsewhere in intriguing ways. Should Peter, the closest disciple, lead the church after Christ‘s death, or James, his blood brother? — that’s the Jerusalem vs Rome controversy that plays out in the background to the New Testament. Should his followers follow Brigham Young, his closest disciple, after Joseph Smith‘s death. or a family member? When Kabir, the poet-saint of India died, his Hindu followers wanted to cremate his remains, his Muslim followers to bury him — when they uncovered his body, they found (so the tale is told) that it had turned to roses, and were thus able to divide his remains and perform both ceremonies.

    Family has a claim to the person, discipleship has a claim to the inspiration. Funny, that.


    Chris was responding to me as part of what he happily terms The Republic of Bloggers:

    During the Enlightenment at the end of the 17th century and the start of the 18th, a disparate group of intellectuals in Europe and the United States engaged in a long-distance discourse that became know as the Republic of Letters, or Respublica Literaria. It was one of the first transnational movements, and scholars have endlessly debated its relevance and influence upon the dramatically proclaimed Age of Enlightenment it heralded. Personally, I feel no need to explain this in terms of cause and effect – the Republic of Letters was simply the written discourse of a movement that was changing the way people thought about their relationship with the world.

    It is a seldom noticed fact that while anyone who can read and write could write a letter, very few actually do – and fewer still in our current era, what it is tempting to call the Age of Distraction. Letters, rather than say postcards and other friendly waves expressed in writing, involve a kind of engagement that has become rather rare these days. A letter invites a response, asks us to think about something, requests insight from another perspective… Letters are conversations at a slow enough pace to allow the correspondents to think a out what they are saying. I would like to suggest that it takes a particular kind of introvert to engage in letter writing in this sense – a quiet soul not content to bury themselves in just their solitary activities, but willing and able to reach out in words to another, similar person. I love a good conversation in a pub or bar, or at a conference, or even on a long journey, but as enjoyable as these forms of discourse may be for me they cannot adequately substitute for the pleasure of the letter.

    For Chris, blog posts are the current equivaoent of letters, and what he terms The Republic of Bloggers is a latter day equivalent of the Republic of Letters of yore.

    It is similar in spirit to Col. Pat Lang‘s Committee of Correspondence, Sic Semper Tyrannis, except that there all the correspondents correspond on the one blog.

    The Republic of Letters is a concept I very much appreciate, and I have tried to embody it both here and in my time at the Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge platform a decade ago.


    At which point, I must introduce blog-friend Pundita, sometimes known as the Julia Childs of Foreign Policy discussion. She and I have been going back and forth on the topic of sacred music — qawwali, gospel, and so forth.

    Recently, Pundita, in a post of August 31st titled O Magnum Mysterium: Why has Christianity declined so much in a land that produces the greatest Christian choirs?, responds in part to my having alerted her to Morten Lauriden‘s gloriously beautiful rendering of the Catholic chant, O Magnum Mysterium:

    Look at the still-life at the top of this post. What do you see? If you tell me you see the Virgin Mary and the Mystery of her giving birth to the Christ, either you are already familiar with the painting, made famous in this era by Morton Lauridsen’s explanation of how it inspired his version of O Magnum Mysterium. Or you are steeped in the symbolism of the High Church and/or the use of Christian symbols in art.

    I’m sorry but the symbolism is so abstract that those are the only ways to read Mary and the Virgin Birth into a painting of fruit, a flower, and a cup of water, although I’ll concede the symbolism could have been understood by well-educated Christians centuries ago in Europe.

    Lauridsen himself did not understand the symbolism of the painting when he first saw it — a point he does not make clear to readers in his 2009 article for The Wall Street Journal about the painting It’s a Still Life That Runs Deep, and its role in inspiring his version of OMM.

    That post was in response to something I’d sent her, recommending Lauridsen’s work. More “Republic of Bloggers” style communication!


    Chance reading the other day brought me to Jacob Mikanowski‘s piece, Camera-phone Lucida, in which i found:

    The first society to experience the problem of having too much money and too much stuff, the Dutch had multiple genres of food-related still lifes, each dealing in a different level of luxury. They began with the humble ontbijtjes, or breakfast paintings, to the slightly more elaborate banketjestukken or “little banquets,” and on to the kings of them all, the pronkstilleven, from the Dutch word for “ostentatious.” The “little breakfasts” were the domain of simple food: a plate of herrings, a freshly baked bun, a few olives, maybe a peeled lemon for a bit of color. The atmosphere in these canvases is orderly and Calvinist. By contrast, in the pronkstilleven, the prevailing mood is one of jubilant disorder. Lobsters perch precariously on silver trays. Tables are strewn with plates of oysters, overturned tankards, baskets spilling over with fruit, scattered nuts and decorative cups. Cavernous mincemeat pies jostle with lutes and the occasional monkey.

    For a century scholars have sought a deeper meaning in these and other still lifes. A half-eaten cheese stood for the transubstantiated body of Christ; walnuts represented him on the cross — the meat of the nut was his flesh, the hard shell was the wood of the cross he died on.

    And so — inside or outside th Republic of Bloggers — the conversation flows..


    And if Morten Lauridsen can wring such beauty from a reading of symbolism in Zurbarán, let him do so!

    Walter & Lady Tramaine Hawkins, Goin’ up yonder:

    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Allah Hoo:

    Morten Lauridsen, O Magnum Mysterium:

  • Morten Lauridsen, It’s a Still Life That Runs Deep
  • Divinely appointed killing in Gita and Summa

    Saturday, August 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — two focal texts for Landmines in the Garden plus the matters of just war / peace ]

    Herewith two quotes, one (upper oanel) from the Bhagavad Gita, the other from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas — each of which expemplifies the notion that someone, in the first case Arjuna, in the second, Abraham — has divine authorization to kill:

    SPEC DQ Summa and Gita

    It is noteworthy that Arjuna does in fact kill those he has been ordered to kill, and that in contrast Abraham is reprieved from the necessity of killing his son by the same divine authority which had first demanded that extraordinary sacrifice — but God (the Father) in the Christian narrative goes on to kill his own Son in what is both the perfection and completion of sacrifice..

    And from the perspective of military chaplains blessing members of the armed forces on their way into battle in a just war, the same divine approval presumably holds.

    But are wars ever just?


    Further Readings:

  • Foreign Policy, What Happens When You Replace a Just War With a Just Peace?
  • National Catholic Repoorter, Pope considering global peace as topic of next Synod of Bishops
  • Rome Conference, An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence
  • United States Institute of Peace, Abrahamic Alternatives to War
  • It is worth noting that a sometime commenter on this blog, William Benzon of New Savanna, has a new, small & handy book out:

  • Bill Benzon, We Need a Department of Peace: Everybody’s Business, Nobody’s Job
  • No Man’s Sky

    Friday, August 19th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a quick blog letter to Chris Bateman, and more broadly to the global God NoGod argument ]


    This post may or many not be of interest to individual ZP readers, so here’s what’s up. The philosopher-game-designer-blogger Chris Bateman gets into blog-with-blog discussions, the rubric with his articles on his own iHobo and Only a Game blogs being “all replies at other blogs will be promoted here to keep the conversation going” – and this ZP post of mine is in response to his No Man’s Sky Roundup post today, and the pieces about the game of that name he led me to.

    It is also an attempt to put the basic insight of that branch of theology called “apophatic” (“other than speech”) theology into, well, written speech. And in a way, it is also my challenge to the entire “God vs NotGod” debate that tiresome long books are written about, since the God described by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa strikes me as the “definition of God” that any worthy attempt to attack the “God” concept on philosophical grounds should be tackling – not such local and verbal matters as whether God prefers seven days to universe completion or a little longer, burkas or bikinis, gays married or chaste, or being embodied or otherwise, three, one or both.

    It’s also written in a language you might term poetico-philosophical or vice versa, you have been warned.

    If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, have at it!


    No Man’s Sky

    Words drag their whatevers with them into some form of presence, which with “table” is not an issue, the table idea is both transparent and vague as clouds, it sits as easy in mind as I sit in a chair – wait, at my desk, a form of table, the word “table” brought table to mind, table brought chair..

    Or was it, “table” brought “chair” and “chair” brought chair, I myself embodied being also enchaired, one might think “enthroned” as I write this.

    At my desk I read these words describing the books in BorgesLibrary of Babel, “every variation of the 22 letters of the alphabet (as well as the additional three symbols of the comma, period, and space” – I read them as illuminating for me the planets, fauna, flora, perils and perceptions players find in the trans-galactic game, No Man’s Sky.

    And words drag their whatevers with them.

    It is the mystery. It is the moon at which the zen finger points, it is the, a, God, whole system, the One and All I wish to speak of – the ineffable – here.

    So it is that the words “the comma, period, and space” drag with them first a tailed dot, a tadpole, a jot, yod in the Hebrew, a tongue of flame, tongue here being fire, language and insight, that descended on certain disciples of someone, arguably, then the dot without tail, a speck, point, blackness minimal – and then, like the zoom from space station window to deep space outside, space.

    In the game, No Man’s Sky. Or at your window, seen perhaps from your desk, imagined at mine. Or dragged, somehow, for I and later, you, with or from these words.

    So: zero to galaxy via a simple “and” less than a second long, short in the life of humans, long enough, it would seem, for some previously unknown game galaxy. Or “galaxy” – game or otherwise.

    The marks, the comma and period, I am habituated to. They are articulation points among the bare bones of the letters, bodying them out into words, langue, langue, language – again, fire and insight, but also scratches, pecked out with pen, keyboard or chisel – but space.

    And I was reading about this game, No Man’s Sky, this game gaming space, deep space, as the books within Borges’ book, within Borges and now shared out among us, game all possible verbal coherences with all possible incoherences, all partials, wholes, and almost nothings, an “a” that may be word or mark, an ‘o” that may close the book, galaxy, universe, be zero, lack sound or howl fury.. and those illimitable periods, commas, spaces.

    Thus: “comma” drags its micro-tadpole with it, I squint, “period” drags it’s point – where is my jeweler’s loup? – and “space” __ I am flung far enough that I stop to take stock, look back from vague, vast imagined space at imagined period and comma, see how far how fast I have come, gasp.

    Now the great mystery, the unknowable more than human mind as human mind is more than speck, galactic cluster more than planetary spack with us specks on it, the whatever the “moon” in “finger pointing at the moon” was, is, pointing at, the stuff and substance of what the word “God” drags in, neither stuff nor substance but, per the good catholic Cardinal, Cusanus, well —

    When we attempted to see Him beyond being and not-being, we were unable to understand how He could be visible. For He is beyond everything plural, beyond every limit and all unlimitedness; He is completely everywhere and not at all anywhere; He is of every form and of no form, alike; He is completely ineffable; in all things He is all things, in nothing He is nothing, and in Him all things and nothing are Himself; He is wholly and indivisibly present in any given thing (no matter how small) and, at the same time, is present in no thing at all. –

    — That!

    The “That” in “Thou art That” with “art” the link connecting them, us, if you’ll allow me to digress into a pun, puny beside that immense No Thing at All.

    You drop the word “space” into an unremarkable remark about “the comma, period, and space” and space, the deep, the trans-galactic space is dragged into mind – mine, anyway, and perhaps now yours – and we ignore it, “space” we know here meaning what “space between letters” would drag with it – we ignore it as though shutting a window, the space station window, the window of mind.

    And God, But God.

    We foreclose the window on God with undue haste, because it is rubbish, garbage, nothing. Or because it is that someone with disciples end of conversation, agree or be damned. Because we’ve got it, we know, we affirm, “I believe”.

    But peer closer at that creed, the longer one, Athanasius’ Creed, skip a few lines and what they drag with them, you’ll find..


    To be specific:

    The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible .. as also there are not three .. incomprehensible, but .. one incomprehensible.

    Or in short:

    Incomprehensible, three one.

    — which drags a certain amount of sense with it, and the someone, and the entire ineffable.

    And that word, struck like repeated blows of a Thor-sized hammer of mind, “incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible”.

    There is no whatever, it says, no thing or person or process our mind can think or process that this word or these words, “incomprehensible”, drag with them. Such a thing, or process, or person – “someone” included – is not subject to mind, cannot be crammed, cannot be cabined, cribbed, confined, into mind, into your, my, or some – any – high priest philosopher’s mind. Or book.

    Of whom or which or whatever it is said —

    He is not one who is ashamed to show his strength,
    and buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
    He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
    and rescues the least one of us.

    –- of which water is exemplary, which “nourishes all things without trying to” and “is content with the low places which people disdain.”

    Humility, then. And to erect a hurdle, you might call it “epistemic humility” –

    But make no mistake:

    Humility is the game. “Humility” is the name of the game.

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