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Stereocognition, intelligence and the movies

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — Zero Dark Thirty & Manhunt, fact and fiction, that old saw about who it is that gets to write history, thence onwards to theology & the arts, von Balthasar & Tolkien, winding up watching UK & US versions of House of Cards with son David ]
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How’s this for stereoscopy?

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You may know I’m preoccupied with the notion of extending the stereo concept — using twin sources to add a depth dimension to one’s perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally.

Nada Bakos‘ image above shows a cinema in which documentary and fictional versions of the story of the hunt for bin Laden are playing simultaneously. The fiction, Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty, I saw a couple of days ago, and neither I nor son Emlyn, 17, were terribly enthused: the Camp Chapman scene was the one that touched me most deeply.

I’ll no doubt want to see both films, but it’s Greg Barker’s documentary, Manhunter, that will interest me the most, the more factual of the two. And yet that’s curious in and of itself, because as a poet I’m usually interested in the mythic and imaginative as much as or more than the “merely” factual, and I tend to think of the movies as providing a mythology for our times.

Okay, let me give you the two quotes that get to the heart of my sensibilities about fact and fiction at the movies.

What, after all, happens in a movie theater after the lights dim and the curtain rises? F Scott Fitzgerald tells us what happens in the mogul’s screening room, but it’s the same with us peons, isn’t it?

Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed — to be dreamed in crowds or else discarded.

And I’m also with the poet Kathleen Raine, who said:

Myth, when a real event may be the enactment of a myth, is the truth of the fact and not the other way around…

So where does that leave me?

Right now, it leaves me feeling that in the case of these two filmic treatments of the same “true story” — and no doubt many others — history will likely be “written” by the entertainment makers, not the documentarists. Paradoxically, a sad thought.

But let’s go beyond that.

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I said I’m preoccupied with the notion of using twin sources to add a depth dimension to perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally. Another way to say that is that I’m interested in figuring out how to think contrapuntally, and how to score contrapuntal thought — thought which holds two or more potentially conflicting concepts in mind simultaneously, so as to arrive at a deeper understanding than one perspective alone can provide…

I’ve talked about these modes of stereoscopic / contrapuntal cognition before, in posts such as Form is insight: a musical experiment and Silent reading, silent thinking, bifocal glasses, and I’m always delighted when I run across a new very bright thinker (Glenn Gould, Edward Said [Power, Politics, and Culture p. 447}, Wm Blake) playing with these ideas — today it’s the late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Truth Is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, who speaks of “the entire polyphony of revelation”, suggests that:

In his revelation, God performs a symphony, and it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his composition or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it

and states that “Even eternal Truth itself is symphonic.” The only stronger statement I know of concerning the contrapuntal nature of the world from within the Catholic tradition is JRR Tolkien‘s extraordinary short masterpiece of a creation myth, The Music of the Ainur [scroll down at link], with which he begins the Silmarillion.

So the contrapuntal idea is present in theology, as well as the arts…

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Stereoscopy, counterpoint.

I’ve been watching the TV series, House of Cards, with my fourteen-year old, David – we’ve now seen the whole first series of the UK version together, and the beginning of the US version, and it’s fascinating to notice the differences.

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey):

Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson):

See both shows, form your own conclusions…

And their source?

Now I shall have to watch Richard III with David, too.

The zen of Cage II: from the A Train to Liverpool Street Station

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — two performances of Cage’s 4’33” in the New York and London Times: an interlude in my review of Where the Heart Beats, with a brief meditation on contrapuntal listening ]
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I began to review Kay Larson‘s Where the Heart Beats in a post here last week, and am not done yet.

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London:

photo credit: Chris Harris for the London Times

In John Cage’s sound of silence… at Liverpool Street station [London Times, subscription required], Igor Toronyi-Lalic describes performing John Cage‘s silent work 4’33” in what Cage himself — but few others — would have recognized as a concert venue, London’s Liverpool Street Station:

My rendition isn’t going down well. “This is doing my head in!” groans a drunken West Ham supporter as he watches me at the piano outside Liverpool Street station. I hear shuffling. “I can’t dance to this,” someone shouts. The restlessness is in danger of turning to anger. And I probably should have guessed it would. Presenting a performance of one of the most controversial works of music yet written in a rowdy Central London station forecourt on a Friday night on a public piano (one of several that made up the City of London Festival’s Play Me, I’m Yours artwork) was always going to be ambitious.

The work itself is hardly over before it begins — again, a paradox Cage would have enjoyed:

At my Liverpool Street Station performance, there was a symphony of rush-hour noise: commuter patter, train announcements, drunken heckling and the screeching of taxis stopping to pick up fares. Not everyone appreciated the music in this.

“When’s he going to start?” asked one lady as I finished the final movement. Others felt like they’d been had. “I thought you were going to play,” they shouted.

There’s more, and if you can get past the pay-wall you should read it all. I’ll just quote one more snippet here, though, because it leads directly into one strand of the book that I’ll be discussing in Part III of my review of Larson’s book:

“Classical musicians don’t know about Cage. They don’t perform it. We aren’t taught it in schools,” Volkov says.

But, for visual artists, Cage is a revered figure, a key part of the 1950s and 60s New York arts scene and godfather to conceptual and sound art, a connection cemented by Cage’s 40-year creative relationship with his lifelong partner, the late choreographer Merce Cunningham. “Cage worked with Rauschenberg and Cunningham and, at Black Mountain College, he mainly taught music to artists,” observes Volkov, “So, today, in art schools, they teach Cage properly. They teach his ideas.”

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New York:

photo credit: Christian Hansen for the New York Times

From London’s Liverpool Street Station we pass to New York City’s subway system. I don’t know what it is about trains, but there you are and there you go. Or perhaps the transit is from Times to Times?

Allan Kozinn‘s John Cage Recital? Take the A Train [New York Times] starts by defining “Cage moments”:

You know about Cage moments, don’t you? We all have them, whether we think of them that way or not. They occur when happenstance kicks in, and surprising musical experiences take form, seemingly out of nowhere. They can happen anywhere at any time.

Listening. Listening as though all life is music.

Kozinn is a listener, a listener to music — but he doesn’t always listen for the music in his daily life. This time, as it happens, he did:

On the A train I wasn’t thinking about Cage at all. I had just heard an exquisitely turned, energetic performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C at a church in Greenwich Village, and Cage could not have been further from my thoughts. Nor did the crowded subway car bring him to mind at first. But I noticed that it was unusually noisy.

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Then something shifted:

Typically, most of the noise you hear comes from the subway itself: its din drowns out conversations, and people tend to stare at their feet, or at whatever they are reading, and listen to their portable music players. But this Tuesday evening just about all the people were talking, and working hard to drown out both the subway and the chats taking place around them.

I would normally have tuned all this out, but instead I sat back, closed my eyes and did what Cage so often recommended: I listened. I made no effort to separate the strands of conversation or to focus on what people were saying. I was simply grabbed by the sheer mass of sound, human and mechanical. It sounded intensely musical to me, noisy as it was, and once I began hearing it that way, I couldn’t stop.

Okay, this is where it get’s interesting. You remember that I pointed to the pianist Glenn Gould in my Said Symphony posts, and quoted this passage from David Rothenberg‘s Sudden Music:

Gould set himself up to hear the world in a new way. In diners he ate his lunch alone, eaves dropping closely on the voices around him. He learned to hear conversation as music, the lilting lines, the rhythms everywhere up, down, and around, what Bach does to our sense of talk. There are two part inventions in words, themes and variations in the quarrels of couples and the tales told by friends. Gould met the world on his own terms, and he was fascinated by this way of listening to human voices as if they were a musical interplay, not participating in a conversation but taking it all in, as an audience.

What Gould sets out to do — and records for Canadian Broadcasting — Kozinn finds himself doing:

Strand upon strand of the chatter was animated and midrange: there were neither basso profundos nor soaring sopranos in this choir, but after a moment the pitch levels began to sort themselves out as a kind of orchestration. Argumentative voices created driving, punchy rhythms that sailed over more smoothly floating narrative tones.

At least three languages were being spoken, each with its own melodic lilt and rhythmic character. To my left, a woman’s laughter momentarily changed the coloration of this vast choral tapestry and offset the argument to my right.

Within it all, squeaking metal yielded a high-pitched ostinato, and the ever-so-slightly-clattery rumble of the train was the high-tech equivalent of a Baroque basso continuo. As the train pulled into each station, the muted squeal of the brakes, the opening and closing of the doors and the slight shift in the balance of voices as some people left and others entered, already talking, suggested shifts between connected movements.

Again, I recommend reading the entire piece, but will close with just one more short clip:

I have heard “4’33” ” performed by pianists, percussion ensembles, oboists, cellists and orchestras, but none of those versions were as exciting as what I now think of as “4’33”: The Extended Subway Remix” by the A Train Yakkers, an ensemble so conceptual that its members had no idea they were in it.

Cage would have understood.

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And wherever:

Listening — and listening to the world around us as music — can happen anywhere and everywhere. But as usual, I’d like to take this a step further.

As I never tire of repeating, Edward Said — pianist and music critic as much as writer on Israeli-Palestinian issues — carries the idea of listening to multiple voices a step further, when he suggests:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out.

Said’s proposed manner of listening to the many voices of life in counterpoint involves listening to the words, their meanings, their stories, their histories, and thus to a simultaneous listening across time itself — not just to a harmonious blur, “Strand upon strand of the chatter .. a kind of orchestration .. driving, punchy rhythms that sailed over more smoothly floating narrative tones.”

It goes way deeper: my life and concerns, and yours, and yours, heard together — separate and interwoven — in polyphony, in a many-voiced music — in counterpoint.

In conflict, and in hope of resolution.

At the round earths imagin’d corners

Friday, July 20th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — mapping, holding two worldviews in mind at one time, a conductor’s score, complexity thinking ]
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About a year ago, the Atlantic reported that the Library of Congress had been given a map of the flat earth, designed according to Biblical principles — yet showing knowledge of the border between the United States and Canada…

Thanks to a post from Jason Wells, I saw it today.

The view that the earth is flat is one worldview, of course, and no longer the prevailing one. As Nicholas Jackson noted at the Atlantic:

The interesting thing about the map is that it was created about 120 years ago by Orlando Ferguson, then a practicing physician in Hot Springs [South Dakota]. This is more than 500 years after most educated people gave up on the idea of the Earth as flat and accepted the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks.

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It is, however, possible to hold two worldviews in mind at the same time. John Donne manages it in the first line of his extraordinary poem, written at a time when the two views were clashing:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow

AT the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

Donne accomplishes the task of holding two worldviews in mind at one time with four simple words: “round earths imagin’d corners”.

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I don’t know how many melodic “lines of thought” the mind can hold in counterpoint at once. I do know it’s an important cognitive skill for us to cultivate. A classical conductor must surely be able to hold as many lines as there are in this page of Olivier Messaien‘s Oiseaux:

As I pointed out in a recent comment here, “somewhere above three and before eleven there’s a point — Miller’s ‘magical number seven, plus or minus two‘ where the human mind can’t hold any more detail, so that’s a cut-off of sorts.”

Well, Messaien clearly imagines the conductor’s mind can follow more than eleven paths…

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And then there’s Bob Milne.

I’ll let the Philosophy Compass take it from here:

Bob is predominantly known for his piano concerts of Ragtime and Bogie-Woogie music – and was given the moniker of ‘National Treasure’ by the United States Library of Congress. It was at one of these concerts that drew the attention of Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann. At his concerts, Bob often carries on conversations, telling stories and jokes, while simultaneously modulating key signatures over the polyrhythmic Ragtime music. In their broadcast, Radiolab discusses with Dr. Bettermann why this is so surprising.

Language use and musical competency often use the same neural resources: the prototypical language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain, and the working memory circuit that keeps information available and rapidly accessible for a short-period of time. Our ability to use language and engage with music should, on most models of the brain, be competing for these neural resources and interfere with one another. Not so with Bob – he appears to be able to tackle both tasks with ease. Further, while most people can approach this kind of competency in multi-tasking, it usually involves many learning trials, a process of sedimenting the learning into what psychologists call procedural memory, which may have its roots in a different brain region, the cerebellum. But Bob can hear a tune just once, and play it back with commentary.

But that’s not all Bob can do.

In their interview, Dr. Bettermann heard Bob claim something extraordinary. He claims not only to be able to hear a symphony in his head, but that he normally does this with two symphonies simultaneously. Where most individuals would only hear a cacophonous mess – Bob claimed he could dial the relative volume of either symphony up or down, and could zoom in or out of individual instrumentations. To return to the considerations above, Bob further states on the Radiolab website that he does this while driving – another procedural memory task and presumable source of interference. But when Dr. Bettermann challenged him, Bob reluctantly claimed that he could probably do the same (not while driving, mind you) with four simultaneous symphonies.

The claim is something like this: Bob states that he can hold and listen to four symphonies with different keys, instrumentation, tempo and style in his working memory at the same time. And what is stunning is that when they put Bob into an fMRI machine, they verified his claim. Bob could be stopped at any time during his imaginative trip through the four simultaneous symphonies, and hum out the exact phrase that the original recording would be on. Remarkable.

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This in turn takes us back to that point Edward Said made, which gave me the basic concept for my Said Sympohony (must get back to that soon):

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 447 — from the section titled “My Right of Return,” consisting of an interview with Ari Shavit from Ha’aretz Magazine, August 18, 2000.

I asked in a post yesterday how good we now are at modeling or simulating ideas in the “war of ideas” — just for a moment, suppose we could think through all complex geopolitical issues in this polyphonic, contrapuntal way…

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Okay, you deserve a reward for faithful reading if you’ve come this far with me. Here’s the incomparable Richard Burton reading Donne’s poem — the text is up above, if you want to follow along:

Having eyes to see…

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — looking through the eyes of tech, math, art, flies, and intelligence ]
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Imaging the winds and the waters

I’ve been raising questions about the varieties of ways of seeing here — asking whether guardian angels can be more than guys on night watch and if so what that “more” means, invoking William Blake’s fourfold vision [see move 4], and so forth. And I tend to emphasize the visionary over against the material.

I thought I’d do something different this time, and show you two views of the world that science brings us, that we couldn’t have seen half a century ago unless you were Theodore von Kármán (below, upper image)…

let alone a century ago, unless you were Vincent van Gogh (lower image).

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In descending order, these four images are:

  • the winds over a portion of the Americas, as depicted by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg a few days ago, see also their current live feed
  • a NASA image drawn from the Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio‘s Perpetual Ocean animation, hi-res Gulf Stream image
  • a diagram of a Kármán vortex street, from Arthur E. Bryson, Jr., Demetri P. Telionis, “Kármán vortex street,” in AccessScience, ©McGraw-Hill Companies, 2008
  • and Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The gentleman in the meditation goggles — he calls them “eye-bags” — featured in the “mini-SPECS” section of the Winds and Waters SPECS is my friend David Woolley, who alerted me to these simulations on his Just think of it blog today. David, btw, is the fellow who designed and wrote PLATO Notes, the first permanent, general-purpose online conferencing system, back in 1973.

The eyes features in the “mini-SPECS” of the Kármán / van Gogh SPECS are a fly’s “compound” eyes — “compound meaning that each eye has hundreds of facets (ommatidia or simple eyes).

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And that’s the point, isn’t it?

We as the human community have many eyes, many perspectives — the visionary, the technological, the abstract, the photographic, the artistic, the consensus, the minority opinion — such as that of Mr Justice Douglas in Sierra Club vs Morton, perhaps? …

Our intelligence — our intel too — should build on a rich and wide array of ways of seeing. After all…

… unless the above is just a recruitment slogan.

The Said Symphony: move 19

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron – extended analytic game on Israeli-Palestinian conflict — for those who wish to catch up, our game thus far consists of an intro to the game and game board, followed by moves 1-5, 6-9, then moves 10-11 which together constitute a meditation, moves 12, 13-15, 16-17, and most recently before this, move 18 with cadenza ]

Move 19: The view from above

Move content:

Discussing strategy, the very canny LTG (USMC, Ret’d.) Paul Van Riper had this to say:

What we tend to do is look toward the enemy. We’re only looking one way: from us to them. But the good commanders take two other views. They mentally move forward and look back to themselves. They look from the enemy back to the friendly, and they try to imagine how the enemy might attack them. The third is to get a bird’s-eye view, a top-down view, where you take the whole scene in. The amateur looks one way; the professional looks at least three different ways.

A bird’s-eye view, a hawk’s eye view, a top-down view, an overview, a view from 30,000 feet, a God’s eye view, a view from above, a zoom…

If move 18 and its cadenza gave us a view of the depth of vision or insight that is necessary for a full and rich understanding of the world we live in — its qualitative or spiritual scope, if you like — this next move, with its picnic and drone-sight, addresses its breadth in space and time — materially and quantitatively speaking.

The classic expression of the sheer material scope of the universe was put together by Charles and Ray Eames in their justly celebrated film, Powers of Ten, from which the lower of these two images is drawn:

Here are some other relevant scans of the scope of things, in terms of time and space:

The Scale of the Universe 2
A Brief History of The Universe
The Known Universe
A Time-Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945

These are impressive videos to be sure, but as an aside I’ll invite you to ask yourselves how well they compare with this zoom in words, a poem by the zennist, ecologist, essayist and poet Gary Snyder, from his book, Axe Handles: Poems:

Such breadth of vision, such craft.

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If this “material scope of things” too has a cadenza, it would be that all of this is shot through with some primary oppositions, dappled as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would have it, with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim — as indicated in the drone-sight and picnic double image at the head of this move.

This dappling, this constant flux of opposites, takes many forms — day and night lead to the more abstract light and dark, which can then be interpreted morally as good and evil, to which we respond with repulsion and attraction as the case may be, building our worldviews from love or fear…

At different scales the opposites that matter most to us may have different names and shadings, but here I’d just like to draw attention to the dappling of our world with:

competition and cooperation
Darwin‘s natural selection and Kropotkin‘s mutual aid
duel and duet (ah! — a favorite phrasing of mine)
war and peace

Provocatively, we find this dappling in scriptures, too, wherein the ripples of such verses as “The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name” (Exodus 15.3) dropped like a stone into the pond of the human mind, meet with the ripples of other verses such as “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (I John 4.16).

There are times when we take such oppositions literally, perhaps too literally, and times when we begin to see oppositions as abstract and theoretical end-points to what is in fact a yin-yang process continually unfolding…

Which brings me by a commodius vicus of recirculation to this image of the great opposition between war and peace, its dappling, its unfolding:

Links claimed:

To the Lamb, move 18: this move presents the material scope of the universe in counterpoint to its visionary scope as laid out in move 18 with its cadenza.

To Revelation, move 17 — the word revelation means unveiling, as we have seen, and our sciences and technologies, with their spectra of telescopes, microscopes, cameras and zooms, are unveiling and revealing to us much about the physicality of the world we live in — much that was accounted for in other times and places through intuition, vision and poetry.

This scientific and technical revelation of material existence, for many of us moderns, has largely eclipsed the mode of visionary revelation of move 17 — yet it cannot eradicate it. Implicit in this move, then, is the sense that we carry with us both subjective and objective, inner and outer, qualitative and quantitative understandings — though the data that “sight” and “insight” provide us with may be different in kind, and resolving them may be something of a koan to us, the deep problem in consciousness as philosophers of science have named it — and that we can discount neither one if we are to have and maintain a rich sense of our situation.

Comment:

If the two previous moves have shown us the scope of the universe we co-inhabit, perhaps we should now make our own zoom in, much as James Joyce did when he had the schoolboy Stephen inscribe his name and address in his geography book as Stephen Dedalus, Class of Elements, Clongowes Wood College, Sallins, County Kildare, Ireland, Europe, The World, Universe – an address that Stephen then read both forwards and backwards, finding himself in one direction, and finding in the other that he had no means of knowing what might lie beyond the universe…

Imagine then, skipping rapidly from (unimaginable) cosmos via such things as the intriguingly named End of Greatness to galaxy or nebula…

…solar system and planet — whence we can slow down and zero gently in on the Middle (or as my friend Ralph Birnbaum would call it, the Muddle) East, Israel / Palestine, Jerusalem / Al Quds / the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary – and to such matters of contemplative vision and tribal passion as the first, second and projected third Temples, the al-Aqsa mosque.

Our increasing focus will bring us, then, to that the rock which Jews believe marks the place where Abraham bound his son Isaac (the Akedah), and which Muslims believe to be the place of ascent of the Prophet to the celestial realms (the Mi’raj) on his Night Journey (Qur’an, Al-Isra).

Here again myth and history collide, and both visionary and material considerations merge in the heart of the what my friend the Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg has justly called “the most contested piece of real estate on earth”.


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