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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.


Shorts 5: Apocalypse to Almond blossoms

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — mostly about beauty — let’s start with apocalypse and end with the blossoms, eh? reverse engineering! ]


Putin’s apocalyptic blackmail

In the Orthodox tradition, the Book of Revelations has not been among the most important texts. Yet there is something positively apocalyptic about the recent speech of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most important convert, Russian President Vladimir Putin. A nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile that could circumnavigate the planet avoiding US missile defenses! A nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarine drone! And, most of all, a hypersonic “meteorite” too fast for American interceptors, a mighty ognennyi shar, a great “ball of fire”! (Jerry Lee Lewis was not credited, but then Putin’s Russia is not known for overly scrupulous honoring of property rights.)


Jerry Lee Lewis ? That’s a pop refeerence in an otherwise serious context. Let’s see..

Pop paradise:

Religion (Zen??) in games:

Following the massive initial success of Alto’s Adventure, the team released a major update that added a Zen Mode to the title in 2016, which removed obstacles to create a more relaxing experience for players who simply wanted to drift off into the game world. It was around that time that Cymet moved his family from Vancouver to Toronto to work more closely with the team at Snowman, and he said that the ordeal helped “give me a sense of groundedness in this emotion we’ve tried to capture with the game, of going outside your comfort zone and putting yourself somewhere completely new that’s beautiful and interesting, and trying to find the beauty there.”

IMO, and with ref to the above and to zen, seeking beauty leads to prettiness, whereas seeking truth leads to beauty.


Placing that game art in a binary context:


Like many émigrés, Adorno was initially disoriented by US mass culture, which had not yet overrun Europe as it would after the war. This disorientation became a principled distrust. He claimed that capitalist popular culture – jazz, cinema, pop songs, and so on – manipulates us into living lives empty of true freedom, and serves only to distort our desires. Popular culture is not the spontaneous expression of the people, but a profit-driven industry – it robs us of our freedom and bends us to conform to its needs for profit.


When Metallica appeared at the 2014 Glastonbury festival there was a wake-up moment of this kind – the recognition that these guys, unlike so many who had performed there, actually had something to say. Yes, there are distinctions of quality, even in the realm of pop.


Okay, and to close with authentic beauty, art, culture….

A brilliant DoubleQuote in a single tweet:

Encouragingly, there are just such blossoms outside my window.

Shorts 04: Books, and a personal pic

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick treasury of treasures, what else? ]

Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion

Abbasid Baghdad did produce its own semi- legendary criminals. Many tales were told of the ingenious exploits of the ninth-century master-thief, al-Uqab (‘the Eagle’), among them the story of a bet he had with a certain doctor that within a set period of time alUqab could steal something from the doctor’s house. Although the house was closely guarded, alUqab drugged the guards. Then, posing as an apparition of Jesus and making use of hypnotism, he succeeded in stealing off with the dcotor himself.

Robert Irwin was an Oxford contemporary & fellow-traveller.


Kim Wagner, The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857

In 1963, a human skull was discovered in a pub in south-east England. The handwritten note found inside revealed it to be that of Alum Bheg, an Indian soldier in British service who had been blown from a cannon for his role in the 1857 Uprising, his head brought back as a grisly war-trophy by an Irish officer present at his execution. The skull is a troublesome relic of both anti-colonial violence and the brutality and spectacle of British retribution.

Ooh, grue! Cf. the food of that served in the Arkansas penal system.


Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction

We know next to nothing about the author of the poem which has come to be called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was probably written around 1400. In the early 17th century the manuscript was recorded as belonging to a Yorkshireman, Henry Saville of Bank. It was later acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, whose collection also included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf . The poem then lay dormant for over 200 years, not coming to light until Queen Victoria was on the throne, thus leapfrogging the attentions of some of our greatest writers and critics. The manuscript, a small, unprepossessing thing, would fit comfortably into an average-size hand, were anyone actually allowed to touch it. Now referred to as Cotton Nero A X, it is considered not only a most brilliant example of Middle English poetry but also as one of the jewels in the crown of English Literature; it now sits in the British Library under conditions of high security and controlled humidity.

Hat-tip: Hanne Elisabeth Storm Ofteland


Rennie Davis, The New Humanity: A Movement to Change the World (Volume 1 of 3)

This first book returns to ‘Our Roots’ with a behind-the-scenes look straight from the eye of the social-change hurricane that swept North America during the turbulent times of the 1960s. Rennie Davis was the coordinator of the largest coalition of anti-war and civil rights organizations during that era. Now in vivid detail, he explains how the Sixties movement ignited and expanded, growing in strength and staying power. A compelling, riveting story, it was written to inspire today’s generation to stand on the shoulders of those who came before and arise again to change the world. Like a snowball tumbling down the mountain to become an avalanche that takes out the concrete wall of fear and divide, today’s movement will not be ignored or stopped.

This book is today’s must-read gift to yourself and your friends to uplift humanity and change the world.

Rennie is an old friend, story for another day. Hat-tip: Rennie Davis.


This just in:

Bernard Faure, The Fluid Pantheon: Gods of Medieval Japan, Volume 1

Written by one of the leading scholars of Japanese religion, The Fluid Pantheon is the first installment of a multivolume project that promises to be a milestone in our understanding of the mythico-ritual system of esoteric Buddhism—specifically the nature and roles of deities in the religious world of medieval Japan and beyond. Bernard Faure introduces readers to medieval Japanese religiosity and shows the centrality of the gods in religious discourse and ritual; in doing so he moves away from the usual textual, historical, and sociological approaches that constitute the “method” of current religious studies. The approach considers the gods (including buddhas and demons) as meaningful and powerful interlocutors and not merely as cyphers for social groups or projections of the human mind. Throughout he engages insights drawn from structuralism, post-structuralism, and Actor-network theory to retrieve the “implicit pantheon” (as opposed to the “explicit orthodox pantheon”) of esoteric Japanese Buddhism (Mikky?).

Hat-tip: just in from friend Gilles Poitras.


Enough of books — heres a personal photo — friend Neil Ayer with a Rothka at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

Au ‘voir!

Face to Face, Google-style reSemblance

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted from Sembl.net ]

Google, apparently, has an app that some people, apparently, believe responds to a selfie with a same-looking portrait from one of the world’s great museum collections. It is, in short, a Sembl-like app for faces. Uh-oh.

The Washington Post titled their piece on the topic Somewhere in the world, there’s a painting that looks like you. And Google will find it.

Though the Google Arts & Culture app has been available since 2016, the find-your-art-lookalike feature was released with its latest update in mid-December. …

“We’re always trying to figure out cool and interesting ways to get people talking about art, and this was one of them,” Lenihan said.

In recent days, scores of people — including plenty of celebrities — have shared their often hilarious results on social media, helping Google Arts & Culture climb the App Store’s charts to become the most downloaded free app.


I thought most of the examples shown disproved the assertion in the WP post’s title. TThe museum items Google suggested didn’t look anytthing like the selfies people had submitted. My apologies. Until I saw Sarah Lyn Rogers‘s tweeted example:


Sembl! That really does strike me as a fine case of resemblance!

Poet to painter, my twin: Jan Valentin Saether

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — Jan Valentin Saether, requiescat in pacem ]

Jan Valentin Saether, priest and painter extraordinaire


Hanne Elisabeth Storm Ofteland wrote, bless her:

I am devastated! On the 11th of January at 11:45 pm my beautiful partner-in-insanity, Jan Valentin Saether, left this planet. Safe journey back to the Andromeda Galaxy, my sweet, precious, wonderful husband. I love you so much


Jan Valentin Saether was — it is hard to claim such kinship in the midst of so many others with their own griefs — my twin, poet to painter. We both regarded our respective arts as gifts to be given onwards, and emphasized creative innovation within continuing tradition.

I am so sad.

This runs deep — and meanwhile I am doing fine, writing other unrelated things and allowing my grief to well up from time to time, between paragraphs, between breaths.


Such lovely artwork — two pieces here featuring the vesica piscis, among the most elegant of mathematical and significant of archetypal forms. My first example comes from his book, The Viloshin Letters, which I helped him with in the early days. Here the vesica shows the bursting forth of the radiance into ordinary life — key to all of Jan’s work:

The second, perhaps subtler work, was indeed first called Vesica and now Epiphany. Here the breakthrough is shown in shadow-and-light — chiaroscuro — of which Jan was such a master:

The actual work is wall-sized — depending on your wall.

I am in awe of this painting.


Today another dear friend, Mitch Ditkoff, beauttifully and powerfully told the story of his father’s death on FB, and wrote in conclusion:

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance that someone close to you has died: your mother, father, grandparents, child, or best friend. And there’s also a good chance you have witnessed something profound in their passing, whether you were physically with them at the time or not. Be willing to share that story with others! It is not ego to tell this story. On the contrary, it’s the dissolution of ego – your opportunity to remind another person, without preaching, just how sacred each and every breath is.

I would like to tell my story of Jan Valentin Saether, to say how much I loved him, learned from him, and felt when I heard of his passing. And to mention the sacredness of breath.


I must have met Jan sometime in the earlyn 1980s. He was teaching in Malibu, I was living in Malibu in a friend’s house, and saw some paintings of his in a folio, one of a naked woman reaching towards the viewer — and I thought he was a rock-n-roll-star type, not only not interesting but downright unpleasant.

Next thing, I was over at his place for an evening, and discovered a fellow artist, a fellow admirer of CG Jung and the mundus imaginalis, a fellow lover of the sacred in every moment. We were still talking when his then wife brought the pair of us breakfast.

Our parallel views on the sacred gifts of the arts, and the need to combine traditional and contemporary means of expression in service to the sacred — it forged a friendship, a kinship, a twinning between us.

Later, Jan asked me to take over his Sunday lecture series while he went to Oslo for a month or so. A few Sundays later, I was in mid sentence in a lecture on poetry when Jan came into the room. I got up out of the chair and offered it him, and he sat down and continued my own half-formed sentence seamlessly, turning the metaphor from sacred poetry to sacred art.

Later still, he invited me to teach creativity at Bruchion — the school of the sacred his studio in Culver City had become, named for the area in ancient Alexandria that housed its celebrated library. It was during one of my talks on creativity there that I began to play around — on the table-tennis table — with the elements that would decades later become my HipBone Games.

Jan Valentin Saether was the priest — of the Ecclesia Gnostica — who celebrated my marriage to Annie, mother of my sons.

Jan was my last and best fellow artist and friend — my twin.


Years ago I wrote a paragraph about his paintings:

Jan Isak Saether’s work bears little resemblance to current fashions in the world of art. At first glance perhaps, it reminds us of the works of the old masters. But as we peer deeper, we sense a curious quality: Saether’s work does not bring us the easy, settled feel that we associate with the old, but a disturbing hint of drama, of the unexpected. It is as though one of the old masters had rejoined us in this latter part of the twentieth century, and after studying and absorbing all that the great moderns from Kandinsky to Francis Bacon had to offer, has turned his mind and heart to the stormy times in which we live, and out of that thunderous darkness has generated lightning. Recent currents and fashions in art have brought us visions of what it is to be human that are by turns bleak, comic, deranged, and superficial. In Saether’s work, by contrast, we find a portrayal of our humanity that contains both glory and shadow. Saether is no throwback to the past. He is a Velasquez who has learned from Bacon, a true student of both modern and ancient masters who now turns his hand to the great synthesis. It is often said that we can recognize the true artists because they give us new eyes with which to see the world, and create new worlds for us to see. Jan Saether’s work faces the future as only a work rooted in the past can, and we are the richer for his courage in bringing his deep dreams into our lives.

That captures my admiration, but not my love.

My love for Jan Valentin Saether can only be told by the loss, the grief I shall feel in my remaining days.

Each breath we have is sacred.

I shall miss him, in my quiet way, furiously.

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