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How myth informs strategy

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — in response to a question from PR Beckman ]

SPEC DQ Ursula Le Guin JC Wylie


Also, Homer.

In Brief: Azzam illustrates Levi-Strauss on Mythologiques

Friday, March 6th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — the geometry of two miracle stories from Abdullah Azzam ]

SPEC DQ Azzam honey & vinegar

These two tales are taken from Abdullah Azzam, Signs of ar-Rahman in the Jihad of Afghanistan.


Binary oppositions seem to be basic to the human thought process, and this simple, elegant observation has in turn given rise to a number of interesting philosopphical explorations, some of which are expressed perhaps most powerully in diagrams. I am thinking here of the medieval square of opposition — as in this diagram taken from Georg Reisch, Margarita Phylosophica tractans de omni genere scibili, Basel 1517:

square_of_opposition SEMBL

Algirdas Greimas developed his semiotic square from this medieval diagram —


— and defines his square as the “visual representation of the logical articulation of any category”. In his “Towards a Theory of Modalities”, Greimas writes:

the terms manifestation vs. immanence .. can be compared profitably with the categories surface vs. deep in linguistics, manifest vs. latent in psychoanalysis, phenomenal vs. noumenal in philosophy, etc.

Then there’s Levi-Strauss and his triangle, essentially a variant on the same idea, applied by LS in his magnificent 4-volume Mythologiques to a wide range of myths — here’s the basic triangle for the first volume, The Raw and the Cooked:

LS culinary_triangle


What Reisch, Greimas and Levi-Strauss are all doing lies in its own distinct area of “visual thinking” at the confluence of logic, algebra, geometry and conceptual graphs — the same area my own DoubleQuotes and the HipBone and Sembl games are found in.

When people think about narrative — and it is or should be as hot a topic in strategy and counterterrorism as it is in myth, story-telling, film and their various related forms of criticism — they tend to think linearly, from beginning to end, noting the emotional expansions and contractions, the narrative shifts, the crescendos before the climax and its resolution.

My own style of thinking leans more to the atemporal or synchronic, which in turn is closer to the logical-algebraic-geometric-graphical mode of visual expression. Thus, for me, the “myth of Narcissus” is not a story-line but a geometry, a narrative formulation of the concept of reflection, or “bouncing back”. To adapt the Levi-Strauss triangle to the Narcissus narrative, then, we have:

Reflection triangle

while the two Azzam miracle tales in my DoubleQuote at the top of this post give us:

Azzam triangle

This in turn can become a square if we allow the four coordinates to be wine (intoxicant, bad), water (sobriety, good), vinegar (sour, bad) and honey (sweet, good). We notice here that water (sobriety, good) is the fourth which hovers unmentioned over the twin tales, just as Jung argued the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven was the “fourth” which “completed” — nb, this is from a psychological perspective — the celestial Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It remains for Jalaluddin Rumi to transcend the duality of the halal (sobriety) and the haram (intoxication) in his praise of his master, Shams of Tabriz:

In Shams al-Din-i Tabrizi you will discover a heart which is at once intoxicated and very sober.


In what sense or senses are Azzam’s two tales two, and in what sense are they one and the same?

Sources & suggested further readings include:

  • The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques, Volume 1
  • Anthropology for Beginners
  • Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences
  • The Dual and the Real
  • Semiotics for Beginners
  • Semiotics and Language
  • Visual Memory (handbags!)
  • Punctualization: Law and Greimas
  • Square of Opposition
  • Visualizing knowledge
  • Signs of Ar-Rahman
  • Mystical Poems of Rumi
  • Sunday second surprise: Ferdinando Buscema

    Sunday, January 25th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — from Tesla to St Augustine is a short creative leap ]

    I recently received a LinkedIn invite from one Ferdinando Buscema, who described himself to me as a Glasperlenspieler, a player of the Glass Bead Game. I must say that pleased me, there’s a quiet humility there that calling oneself Magister Ludi or Master of the Game would lack. He’s a player, I’m a player, let’s play.

    Here’s the BoingBoing video he sent me when I accepted his invite:

    Not for nothing does Ferdinando call himself a Magic Experience Designer.


    As you’ll see, in the video Ferdinando very warmly recommends Erik Davis‘ book TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information — which has also been highly praised by the likes of Howard Rheingold, Hakim Bey, Mark Dery, Bruce Sterling, Terence Mckenna, and Mark Pesce, to which intriguing list you may add myself.

    Erik and I began a never-completed HipBone game many years ago — it was around the topics of Hanibal Lecter, his recreational collection of church collapses, and the origins of the Memory Palace in Simonides‘ encounter with the gods Castor and Pollux — and Erik mentions the HipBone Games briefly in his book. At the moment, I owe him an update on the games, which I’ll post here at Zenpundit in due course.

    It was a particular delight for me, then, to see Ferdinando’s obvious and full-throated praise of Erik’s stunning book in his video, followed up by equal praise of Ramon Llul — one of those writers in the Hermetic tradition whose work precedes not just the Bead Game but much of today’s science, from digital computers via genetics to genetic algorithms and cryptography.


    Ferdinando’s third treasure turned out to be Nikola Tesla, and in particular the remark he made about his mode of creativity. I hadn’t come across this remark before, but it cried out for DoubleQuotation with a remark of St Augustine’s, which I have carried with me since I first read of it in Dom Cuthbert Butler‘s book, Western Mysticism, back in my teens better than half a century ago.

    Here, then, are the two luminous / numinous quotes, from Tesla and Augustine, DoubleQuoted by me for Ferdinando as an offering on first meeting:

    SPEC DQ Tesla Augustine


    It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the word “ictus” which Augustine uses also features in the context of Gregorian Chant, where it indicates the almost simmultaneous touchdown of a bird on a branch and its takeoff on a new curve of flight. I had the honor to learn the word from Dom Joseph Gajard, choirmaster at the Abbey of St Pierre de Solesmes — then and I suspect now the center of the world’s musical paleography and liturgical perormance of the chant, and in my teens my favorite vacation and retreat — under whose cheironomic hand I had the good fortune, once, albeit without much skill, to sing..

    And so the beads are dropped into the lake: we watch as their ripples ripple out and intersect..

    Of morale and angels, Kiev and Ragnarok

    Saturday, January 17th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — not to mention crushing Khomeini, lubing your M16, and that Afghan powerpoint ]

    Andrei Rublev, The Archangel Michael

    Andrei Rublev, The Archangel Michael


    In my previous post, Of morale, angels and Spartans, I raised the question of how our increasingly visual and graphical age could visually represent morale. I noted that the Muslims outfought a larger force at the Battle of Badr, and that the Qur’an suggests that this was because thousands of “angels, ranks on ranks” fought alongside them.

    Dave Schuler suggested the Archangel Michael — which sent me all over in search of a suitable representation. The icon above, by Andrei Rublev, is the most profound and beautiful work I was able to find, but hardly serves our purpose.

    I ran across a politically explicit comntemporary image in which the Archangel wears Airborne insignia:


    — but it was this image from the Maidan in Kiev that came closes to the sense of military power in angelic form —

    Archangel Michael Kiev Maidan

    — although I’m not sure that military power or prowess is necessarily the same as morale or esprit de corps…


    Synchronistically — or coinidentally, as sceptics would say — Justin Erik Halldór Smith headed his blog post Ragnarök on the Seine today with an image of Peter Nicolai Arbo‘s Wild Hunt, or Aasgaardreien. Here’s a detail:

    Aasgaardreien Peter Nicolai Arbo Wild Hunt detail

    And here’s “the big picture”:

    Aasgaardreien Peter Nicolai Arbo Wild Hunt 602

    That’s probably closer to “amok” than to “esprit de corps” — although the relationship between them is worth pondering.


    I’m still not convinced that contemporary minds will “get” morale from any graphic image yet devised.. I can’t help remembering the M-16 manual I picked up one day at a library sale or flea market, titled The M16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventive Maintenance:

    Treat your rifle like a lady

    My guess, however, is that we’ll wind up with something closer to this:

    Powerpoint for McChrystal


    Image sources:

  • Andrei Rublev, icon of Archangel Michael
  • Archangel Michael, Especial Forces graphic
  • Sculpture, Archangel Michael, Kiev
  • Peter Nicolai Arbo, Aasgaardreien
  • M16 manual, DA Pam 750-30
  • Powerpoint, Afghanistan Stability
  • The photo of the Kiev St Michael is by Mstyslav Chernov, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license
  • Grothendieck’s mathematics and Child Born of Water

    Saturday, December 13th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — two approaches to mathematics, two types of heroism, and their respective complementarities ]

    I wish to propose a clear analogy between the mathematician Grothendieck‘s two styles of approach to a problem in mathematics, and the Navajo Twin Gods, Monster-Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water.




    Steve Landsburg‘s post, The Generalist, compares two approaches to mathematics, as practiced by two eminent mathematicians:

    If there was a nut to be opened, Grothendieck suggested, Serre would find just the right spot to insert a chisel, he’d strike hard and deftly, and if necessary, he’d repeat the process until the nut cracked open. Grothendieck, by contrast, preferred to immerse the nut in the ocean and let time pass. “The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months — when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough.”


    In the paras leading up to this one, Landsburg gives us the insight that these two approaches can be generalized as “zooming in” and “zooming out”:

    Imagine a clockmaker, who somehow has been oblivious all his life to many of the simple rules of physics. One day he accidentally drops a clock, which, to his surprise, falls to the ground. Curious, he tries it again—this time on purpose. He drops another clock. It falls to the ground. And another.

    Well, this is a wondrous thing indeed. What is it about clocks, he wonders, that makes them fall to the ground? He had thought he’d understood quite a bit about the workings of clocks, but apparently he doesn’t understand them quite as well as he thought he did, because he’s quite unable to explain this whole falling thing. So he plunges himself into a deeper study of the minutiae of gears, springs and winding mechanisms, looking for the key feature that causes clocks to fall.

    It should go without saying that our clockmaker is on the wrong track. A better strategy, for this problem anyway, would be to forget all about the inner workings of clocks and ask “What else falls when you drop it?”. A little observation will then reveal that the answer is “pretty much everything”, or better yet “everything that’s heavier than air”. Armed with this knowledge, our clockmaker is poised to discover something about the laws of gravity.

    Now imagine a mathematician who stumbles on the curious fact that if you double a prime number and then halve the result, you get back the number you started with. It works for the prime number 2, for 3, for 5, for 7, for 11…. . What is it about primes, the mathematician wonders, that yields this pattern? He begins delving deeper into the properties of prime numbers…

    Like our clockmaker, the mathematician is zooming in when he should be zooming out. The right question is not “Why do primes behave this way?” but “What other numbers behave this way?”. Once you notice that the answer is all numbers, you’ve got a good chance of figuring out why they behave this way. As long as you’re focused on the red herring of primeness, you’ve got no chance.

    Now, not all problems are like that. Some problems benefit from zooming in, others from zooming out. Grothendieck was the messiah of zooming out — zooming out farther and faster and grander than anyone else would have dared to, always and everywhere. And by luck or by shrewdness, the problems he threw himself into were, time after time, precisely the problems where the zooming-out strategy, pursued apparently past the point of ridiculousness, led to spectacular, unprecedented, indescribable success. As a result, mathematicians today routinely zoom out farther and faster than anyone prior to Grothendieck would have deemed sensible. And sometimes it pays off big.


    I no longer have — alas — a copy of Where the Two Came to their Father, the first volume in the Bollingen Series, with its suite of 18 sand paintings beautifully rendered in silkscreen by Maud Oakes, but their respective black and blue colorations lead me to suppose that the illustration at the head of this post, taken rom that series, shows the twin heroes, Monster Slayer (black) and Child Born of Water (blue) whose journeys and initiation are the subject of the rituasl “sing” recorded in that book.

    The theme of two male hero twins is central to the mythologies of the American continent, according to Jospeh Campbell, who contributed a commentary to Oakes’ recording of Jeff King‘s performance of this ceremony, and lacking both the King > Oakes > Campbell book and Gladys Reichard‘s two volumes on Navaho Religion, I must draw on brief quotes from miscellaneous web sources to dramatize the differences between the twins.

    Monster Slayer is the doer of deeds, similar in nature to other masculine, not to say macho, heroes — while Child Born of Water is the contemplative of the pair:

    The Sun [Jóhonaa’éí] gave them prayersticks and then told them that the younger of the two (Born for Water) would sit watching these prayersticks while the older (Monster Slayer) went out to kill the monsters. If these prayersticks began to burn, this would signal that his brother was in danger and that he should go to him to help.

    Reichard explains:

    Monster Slayer (na’ye’ ne’zyani) (I) represents impulsive aggression, whereas Child-of-the-water represents reserve, caution, and thoughtful preparation.

    A measure of their respective strategies, and of the ways in which the insights of Child Born of Water can succeed where the brute force tactics of Monster SLayer fail, can be gleaned from this section of their story, also I believe taken from Reichard:

    When The Twins visited Sun the second time, he said he was willing to help them, but this time he wanted them to return the favor: “I wish you to send your mother to the west that she may make a new home for me.” Whereupon Monster Slayer, believing himself equal to any task, replied, “I will do so.I will send her there.” Then Child-of-the-water reminded them both: “No, Changing Woman is subject to no one? we cannot make promises for her. She must speak for herself? she is her own mistress. But I shall tell her your wishes and plead for you.”


    One commentator glibly suggests that the joint presentation of the hero as twins is “a clever reminder that progress depends upon cooperation between our mind and our heart” — but the psychologist Dr Howard Teich offers a far more depthful interpretation: that the two twins represent two forms of masculine heroism, one the familiar macho hero of war movies, and the other wiser and subtler, the possessor of traits commonly attributed to the feminine — and hugely undervalued — in our culture.

    Dr Teich suggests we must (urgently) abandon the division of virtues into “male” and “female” types, reognize that these types are complementary rather than rivalrous, that both are necessary functions of both males’ and females’ psyches, and begin to integrate the wholeness that both strategies together represent, in our own approaches to our lives in general, to the natural world around us, and indeed to warfare — unsurprisingly, since we first encounter the twins in the ceremonial specifically devised by the Navajo to protect young warriors on their way to battle, and to reintegrate them in harmony and balance on their return.

    As Teich puts it:

    Monster Slayer and Child Born of Water, as these Twin Heroes are called, are the most sacred of all the legendary heroes in Navaho mythology. It is rare for the Navaho even to speak of the twins; their presence is to be felt rather than observed, and their lessons absorbed rather than applied. Although the lessons the twins hold may be countless, their particular manifestation of a deeper, more complex image of masculinity deserves the reader’s especial attention.


    I’d like to suggest that in the same way that there are “zooming in” and “zooming out” styles in mathematics, and “monster-slayer” and “born of water” styles of heroism, there are in fact twin traditions of understanding the world which we might term scientific and poetic, or in Teich’s terms — and those of the alchemists — solar and lunar.

    A unified or “solunary” vision will encompass the virtues of both.


    Dr Teich’s review of the King > Oakes > Campbell book under the title A Dual Masculinity was irst piublished in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1995. He now has a book out treating these themes: Solar Light, Lunar Light.

    Oh, and please don’t expect me to know anything more about Grothendieck’s mathematics than I read in Landsburg’s article.

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