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The reversal of Maugham’s Samarra

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — how British and American literature, a Talmudic tale and a Sufi teaching story conspire — twice — to illuminate current events in Iraq and Syria ]
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Let’s start with Somerset Maugham‘s telling of the Appointment in Samarra, which John O’Hara borrowed as the epigraph of his novel by that name:

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

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Here’s the version of the same story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 53a:

R. Yohanan stated: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted. There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, of Solomon (I Kings 4:3). One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was distressed. He asked him: Why are you distressed? He responded: They have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here. [Solomon] gave them over to the demons and sent them to the district of Luz. When they reached the district of Luz they died. On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was smiling He said to him: Why are you smiling? He responded: To the place where they expected them from me, there did you send them!’ Solomon immediately began to say: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted.

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In February 2014 in the US Jewish magazine Forward, writer JJ Goldberg made fine use of this tale, applying it to a then-contemporary news event in his piece, Lesson of the Talmud in an Iraq School Suicide Bombing:

School massacres have become so commonplace that they scarcely shock us anymore. And yet, occasionally mayhem invades the sanctity of the classroom in a way that can still puncture our complacency. At these moments we’re reminded how fragile is this thing we call civilization. Such was the case February 10 in a rural schoolroom outside Samarra in north-central Iraq, where a terrorism instructor teaching a class in suicide bombing accidentally detonated a live explosive belt. Twenty-one students died along with their teacher. It happened in a training camp run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Sunni terrorist group that was recently expelled from Al Qaeda for, of all things, its excessively brutal extremism in the Syrian civil war. [ .. ]

The location of the suicide school in Samarra has layers of poetic resonance, probably unintended by ISIS. Though predominantly Sunni, the city is revered by Shi’ites as the place where the last caliphs are buried and the Mahdi disappeared. Its name resonates in medieval Islamic lore with mysteries of suicide and predestined death, echoed in modern Anglo-American literature and linked to Talmudic legend.

After discussing the Talmudic and Maugham versions, Goldberg concludes:

Thus, the lesson of Samarra. In Arabic lore, we’re drawn helpless to our predestined deaths. In the Talmud, it’s kings who dispatch us with the best intentions to what they assume will be a cakewalk, but it’s we — or, per the Talmud, the king’s black soldiers — who do the dying.

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The Afghan Sufi writer Idries Shah tells the story in his brilliant little book Tales of the Dervishes, under the title When Death Came to Baghdad:

The disciple of a Sufi of Baghdad was sitting in the corner of an inn one day when he heard two figures talking. From what they said he realized that one of them was the Angel of Death.

“I have several calls to make in this city during the next three weeks,” the Angel was saying to his companion.

Terrified, the disciple concealed himself until the two had left. Then applying his intelligence to the problem of how to cheat a possible call from death, he decided that if he kept away from Baghdad he should not be touched. From this reasoning it was but a short step to hiring the fastest horse available and spurring it night and day towards the distant town of Samarkand.

Meanwhile Death met the Sufi teacher and they talked about various people. “And where is your disciple so-and-so?” asked Death.

“He should be somewhere in this city, spending his time in contemplation, perhaps in a caravanserai,” said the teacher.

“Surprising,” said the Angel; “because he is on my list. Yes, here it is: I have to collect him in four weeks’ time at Samarkand, of all places.”

Shah attributes his telling thus:

This treatment of the Story of Death is taken from Hikayat-iNaqshia (Tales formed according to a design’).

The author of this story, which is a very favourite folklore story in the Middle East, was the great Sufi Fudail ibn Ayad, a former highwayman, who died in the early part of the ninth century.

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All of which brings me to this Kurdish news story published yesterday, ISIS captive begs Peshmerga to kill him for 4 o’clock appointment

DUHOK, Kurdistan Region — An Islamic State (ISIS) militant caught in fighting near Mosul last week begged his Peshmerga captors to shoot him dead on the spot so he could reach paradise the same day, a frontline Kurdish soldier said.

“The militant’s own suicide vest had failed to explode but he had sustained injuries from his friends’ vest explosions,” Peshmerga Captain Salim Surchi of the Spilk base told Rudaw. “He kept saying, ‘kill me, you infidels kill me.’” Cpt. Surchi said the militant was captured by the Peshmerga during last week’s fighting in the Christian town of Tel Skof, 28km north of Mosul. The militant was eager to be killed on the spot because it was a holy Islamic day known as Isra an Mi’raj, the day that marks Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven as mentioned in the Koran. [ .. ]

Cpt. Surchi lost three of his close friends that day and had others wounded, he said, but he still rushed to help a wounded ISIS militant to save his life. “I was filming the dead ISIS with my cell phone when I saw one of them moving his leg and I placed my hands on his chest trying to help him breathe,” the Peshmerga commander said of the moment following the fighting. “He breathed heavily a few times, he was conscious and he could even speak,” he added. Cpt. Surchi said that despite the militant’s pleas to be shot dead, he went ahead and treated his leg wound.

“When I was treating him I asked, ‘where’re you from?’ and he said, ‘I’m from Samarra and came here for jihad.’ The militant then said, ‘We were 50 suicide bombers altogether and we wanted to be in paradise by 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Cpt. Surchi recounted. [ .. ]

“The wounded one kept asking us to kill him till the end of the day.”

Which in turn brings us full circle. In Maugham’s telling, our traveller makes his way to Samarra to avoid death, who finds him there. In yesterday’s version, the jihadist leaves Samarra to meet his death, who refuses, on the night of all nights, to oblige him.

Echolalia?

Monday, March 7th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Jefferson and Adams reverberating still ]
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For your current interest: words eschanged between two candidates for the Presidency of the United States some two centuries back, as presented in a neat DoubleQuote today by John Robb:

I can’t improve on John’s presentation of thesse two quotes — but I might perhaps point out that they were similarly relevant to poiitical discourse in 2010, when ReasonTV posted the following video on YouTube:

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As a conoisseur of coincidence, I appreciate the fact that Jefferson and Adams died within hours of each other — fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As Jorge Luis Borges observed of the rival theologians Aurelian and John of Pannonia, “The end of this story can only be related in metaphors since it takes place in the kingdom of heaven, where there is no time.”

On form and beauty

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — capable photographers capture “form” in their viewfinders, not just “content” ]
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A toothy sea
A toothy sea

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I have just been browsing someone’s choice of the “100 best photographs ever taken without photoshop”, and was struck by the ways in which form in general, and contrasts in juxtaposition more specifically — two of my recurring interests, form and the DoubleQuotes respectively — kept cropping up. I’ll get to them, and offer some stepped-down images from the series —

but first, take a look at the whole series as posted at The 100 best photographs ever taken without photoshop. Even the reduction to 60% of published size necessitated by the ZP column width loses much of the beauty — and imagine how they’d be as actual framed prints, in their original full sizes!

Someone’s choices? Yes, and by no means necessarily the best choices — this selection no doubt answers to a selection bias in the individual who put the series together — so the patterns I’m seeing here may belong either to that individual, or to the general human delight in contrasts, parallelisms and oppositions.

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Earth and Sky, Heaven and Earth:

Waterspout on Lake Victoria, Uganda
Waterspout on Lake Victoria, Uganda

Fickle moods
Fickle moods

Volcanic eruption in IcelandVolcanic eruption in Iceland

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The seasons: time as change

An autumn forest. 50 percent Downloaded
An autumn forest. 50 percent Downloaded

Autumn and winter meet in Colorado, USA
Autumn and winter meet in Colorado, USA

Autumn and winter meet in Miklukhin, Rostov region, Russia
Autumn and winter meet in Miklukhin, Rostov region, Russia

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Human impact observed:

Two worlds divided, New York, USA
Two worlds divided, New York, USA

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder
Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder

An Italian beach
An Italian beach

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On reflection, sheer, simple symmetries:

The aftermath of a flood in Ljubljana, Slovenia
The aftermath of a flood in Ljubljana, Slovenia

An eagle soaring over a lake in Canada
An eagle soaring over a lake in Canada

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And that’s only a fraction of what the whole series of a hundred photos offers us. Each of these, I’d submit, is what I’d term a DoubleQuote in the Wild.

One final shot, color against grey — perhaps the loveliest of all:

A temple covered in ash from the Ontake volcanic eruption, Japan
A temple covered in ash from the Ontake volcanic eruption, Japan

So much humanity, so much pathos there.

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Brilliant minds in both the arts and sciences focus as much on form as on content — on patterns, repetitions, symmetries for their own sakes, as much as on the particulars of the fields they study and in which they find them. At heart, this is a matter of aesthetic cognition.

We would do well to cultivate this kind of double vision — the awareness of form as well as content — across the board, from education and the arts to the sciences and strategy.

The moment we become polarized, however, in terms of a political or other form of partisanship, content becomes all we see (and agree or disagree with), and form effectively evaporates. In terms of the images above, we see earth or sky, summer or autumn, town or country — left or right — but not — but no longer — the whole.

It is more important to have equations in your beauty..

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — musings on PAM Dirac and Hedy Lamarr ]
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PAM Dirac once famously said, “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations that to have them fit experiment.” I was reminded of that quotation while musing over this DoubleQuote in the Wild celebrating the birthday yesterday of Hedy Lamarr — stunningly symmetrical movie star and frequency-hopping inventor:

Hedy Lamarr DQ Wild

To the left, the beauty herself, and to the right, the equations in the beauty — if one may take the liberty of saying that thoughts are “in” their thinker’s body — shown here in the form of the patent application Lamarr and composer George Antheil submitted fora “a system for the radio control of airborne torpedoes”.

I put that last phrase in quotes because that’s the way a New York Times piece described their joint invention. Me, I haven’t the foggiest about their inner workings, whereas the outer face of Hedy Lamarr I can see with utmost clarity.

On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: five

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Hofstadter Langdon Kim — for Gabi Nasemann, & in recognition of Gödel Escher Bach ]
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My friend the photographer Gabi Nasemann recently inquired whether I knew John Langdon‘s book, Wordplay, and I responded, DoubleQuote-style, with Scott Kim‘s Inversions:

SPEC kim langdon

I had the pleasure of meeting Scott Kim lo these many years past at the Computer Game Developers Conference, and he was kind enough to say of my HipBone Games:

Your game does seem to really call to mind the Bead Game. Almost a divination system, much more metaphorical than most games.

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Scott Kim and his friend Doug Hofstadter both have a keen interest in Bach, so I thought it might be neat to see Scott’s treatment of the name — an ambigram, lower panel below — and how John Langdon might treat it — upper panel:

SPEC bach

Langdon’s Bach I assembled from his own typeface, Biform, which apparently seeped from his grasp into the wider world under the entirely irrelevant name Lampoon.

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Of all Langdon’s ambigrams, the one that’s no doubt best known — since Dan Brown used it in one of his execrable books — is his square of the four elements, upper panel, below:

SPEC langdon oronce

It was a nice touch, though, that Brown offered Langdon an hommage by naming his professor of symbiology after him. No doubt the fictional Robert Langdon would be familiar with the glorious diagram of the elements created by Oronce Fine, which he’d have run across in a 1549 Harvard Houghton Library volume, Le Sphere du Monde, and which I have elsewhere compared with Jewish and Christian diagrams:

Sembl and HipBone gameboards are in the same genre.. being games of linkage that you play with your mind:

games you play in your mind

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Sources and further readings:

  • John Langdon, Ambigrams
  • Scott Kim, Ambigrams on Google Search

  • Scientific American, Remembering Martin Gardner, with Douglas Hofstadter
  • Slate, Can You Really Be a Professor of Symbology?
  • The New Yorker, Harvard_ No Symbology Here
  • Wikipedia, Robert Langdon
  • Random House, The Official Website of Harvard Symbologist Robert Langdon

  • John Langdon, Biform
  • John Langdon, Lampoon

  • Triple Canopy, This is your brain on paper

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