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Theology for artists and musicians, Buddhist & Christian

Monday, April 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — with side-trips to China, ancient and modern ]
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The-Bach-Window-Saint-Tho-007
Bach window in the Thomaskirsche, Leipzig, where Bach was Cantor

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The Dalai Lama has a fascinating article out about reincarnating lamas (“tulkus”) which has direct relevance to discussions of what happens when he died — whether he decides to reincarnate as a new Dalai Lama, whether the Chinese decide to do it for him, etc.

I learned a lot — but the piece that really caught my eye was this:

The Emanation Body is three-fold: a) the Supreme Emanation Body like Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, who manifested the twelve deeds of a Buddha such as being born in the place he chose and so forth; b) the Artistic Emanation Body which serves others by appearing as craftsmen, artists and so on; and c) the Incarnate Emanation Body, according to which Buddhas appear in various forms such as human beings, deities, rivers, bridges, medicinal plants, and trees to help sentient beings.

I love the ontology that gives us “human beings, deities, rivers, bridges, medicinal plants, and trees” and which reminds me of Borges‘ scheme, allegedly derived from a Chinese encyclopedia, The Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge, for the classification of animals:

In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

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But really, that’s a bonus.

It’s the inclusion of “craftsmen, artists and so on” as being potentially Artistic Emanation Bodies of Buddha that gets me. I see it as a viable counterbalance to the current emphasis in the west — and in the westifying east — on STEM topics, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as the ultimate desirables in education.

And for what it’s worth, the idea is not without comparative equivalents. July 28 is the commemoration, in the Episcopalian Calendar of Saints, of “Johann Sebastian Bach, 1750, George Frederick Handel, 1759, and Henry Purcell, 1695, Composers” — while the Lutherans on the same day commemorate “Johann Sebastian Bach, 1750; Heinrich Schütz, 1672; George Frederick Handel, 1759; musicians”.

From a set of Episcopalian lectionary readings:

Almighty God, beautiful in majesty and majestic in holiness: Thou gavest to thy musicians Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, and Henry Purcell grace to show forth thy glory in their music. May we also be moved to sound out thy praises as a foretaste of thy eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Arthur Waley, in his slim volume on Li Po, puts a somewhat ironic spin on the idea, telling us:

It was commonly believed that immortals who had misbehaved in Heaven were as punishment banished to live on earth for a fixed time, there they figured as wayward and extraordinary human beings. They were what was called ‘Ministers Abroad of the Thirty-Six Emperors of Heaven.’

Falling, drunk, into the Yellow River while attempting to kiss the moon would appear to qualify one for this honorific.

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Not to worry, btw. According to an announcement issued yesterday:

The Tibetan spiritual leader told a group of abbots not to worry as he is in good health and still has recurring dreams indicating that he will live for at least 113 years.

Istigkeit, approximately

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — classification, impropriety, and a concept pretty much unique to Meister Eckhart ]
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First, here’s what I call a DoubleTweet, juxtaposing two tweets for the resonance between them — and juxtaposing two thoughts for the resonance between them is about as simple a way of demonstrating the whole being greater than the sum of its parts as I can think of.

Take 1, Obama is slippery with words:

Take 2, the Europeans outbid and finesse him:

I don’t actually know if you can outbid and finesse while playing Bridge, but you can in metaphor.

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There was also a DoubleQuote that sprang to mind, but Patti Brown got to it first, so I’ll just copy her tweet here:

Lawyers — the Clintons & POTUS.

Compare philosophers, poets, native speakers, natural language processors.

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Also worth taking into consideration here:

  • Mark Stout, War on the Rocks, Were Hillary Clinton’s emails classified? Where you stand depends on where you sit:

    the uproar about the Clinton email server ignores the reality that, for very good reasons, the CIA and the State Department have different approaches to classification and classified information. These different approaches result from the different functions of the agencies.

  • Cory Bennett, The Hill, Clinton emails reveal murky world of ‘top secret’ documents:

    The watchdog [IG] said it found a number of Clinton’s emails that currently contained “classified intelligence community information.” But the State Department has said it did not consider that language classified at the time those emails were sent.

    Both sides can be correct, said several former officials.

  • And that’s enough hipbonish excitement for one post.

    Conkers (the game) and Deep Learning

    Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — offered to 3QD ]
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    This is my second submission attempting (and failing) to become a regular contributor at the fine web-aggregator known as 3QD — you can read my first here. On rereading this more recent attempt, I am not sure I would have selected it myself had I been one of the judges — it perhaps expects too mych “British” knowledge of its readers, who are as likely to come from Hoboken or Pakistan as from Oxford (hat-tip there to my two 3QD friends, Bill Benzon & Omar Ali). For those of you, therefore, who may not know what conkers is, here’s a brief video introduction, with the actual game demo starting around the 1’35” mark:

    I’ll add a fantastic passage from Seamus Heaney at the end of my post, to give it the final mahogany polish a conkers post deserves.

    ____________________________________________________________________________________________

    Three Quarks Daily submission:

    Conkers is for kids. So what does it have to do with computers, AI, “deep learning” or robots?

    It’s a very British game, conkers, played with the seeds of horse chestnut trees, of which Britain counts almost half a million, pierced and strung on string. I suppose you could think of it as a primitive form of rosary bashing, with each player’s rosary having only one bead, but that might give others the wrong impression since conkers (the game) is sacred the way taste is sacred before anyone has told you, “this is strawberry”, not the way sanctuaries are sacred after someone has put an altar rail round them, or screened them off with a rood screen.

    Even giving the game the name Conkers with a capital C puts it on a pedestal, when all it’s about is gleefully finding a suitable conker, maybe loose on the ground or maybe encased in its prickly green shell, drilling it through with some sort of skewer or Swiss Army device, threading it (stringing it) on string, finding a gleeful or shy playmate, and whazzam! conking their conker with your own so their falls apart and yours remains triumphant. Battered perhaps, but victorious.

    conkers in the wild - bbc

    An artificial general intelligence, left to its own devices and skilled in “deep learning”, will surely figure out that play plays a significant role in learning, by reading Johan Huizinga perhaps, or figuring out “the play’s the thing” – or noting that play is how learning develops in mammalian infancy and expresses itself in human mastery. And since learning is what artificial general intelligence is good for and would like to be even better at, you can bet your best conker that artificial general intelligence will want to learn to play.

    Okay, computers have played, and beaten humanity’s best, at such games as Pong, Space Invaders, Draughts, Backgammon, Chess, Jeopardy, Rock-Paper-Scissors, and Go

    Rock-Paper-Scissors

    — and apparently one set of AI researchers is considering Texas Hold’em as a plausible next challenge. I want to see them try their hands (hands?) and minds at conkers, though.

    Consider: they’d need more than brainpower, they’d need mobility. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist but a robot to do the trick – locating chestnut trees, okay, with a judicious use of Google maps for targeting and drones for close observation, agility to get around the trees (climbing ‘em?) gathering and evaluating nuts, their sizes, densities, colors and weights, testing different angles of attack and types of needles for threading, the respective efficacies of polished (ooh like mahogany!) vs unpolished nuts (somewhat more in the spirit of sabi-wabi), styles of rough or silken string — and then the dexterity to swing the strung nut at its similarly strung and loosely hanging sibling-opponent!!

    conkers - sun

    Ah, but there’s a child to find first, shy or enthusiastic, and the very approach of a disembodied brain or robot might scare or enchant said child. Your successful robot will need to avoid the uncanny valley of too close resemblance, in which a machine garners the same emotional thrill as Chucky the scary doll from Child’s Play and its endless sequels…

    All this, to beat the poor kid at the kid’s own game?

    Perhaps our robot overchild will have read the bit about “It matters not who won, or lost, but how you played the game” – and will have the good sense and humility to build itself an arm that’s not quite as strong as a child’s arm, and will eventually have played enough child opponents to develop a style that wins only fractionally more games than it loses – say 503 games out of a thousand.

    What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou playest conkers with him?

    Oh, conkers isn’t the only game I’d like to see the computers try for -– in fact it’s one of two games that has been outlawed in some British schools –- and to live outside the law you must be honest, as Dylan says. Another banned — and therefore extra-interesting — game is leap-frog. How do you win and how do you lose at that? You don’t –- you just play.

    That’s when things will begin to get really interesting, I think –- when an artificial general intelligence, with or without robotic body, learns playfulness. There will need to be constraints of course, of the Do no Harm variety -– a fireproof Faraday cage playpen perhaps?

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    But play is by no means limited to infancy, it also finds an outlet in genius. So here’s my more serious, though still playful, question for the AI folks out there, and Monica Anderson with her “Intuitive AI” in particular:

    When will an AI be able to play Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game?

    After all, it’s the only game design that has arguably won its designer a Nobel Prize. And at the moment, it’s brilliantly undefined..

    Grail for Game Designers

    Hesse conceptualized the game as a virtual music of ideas – contrapuntal, polyphonic. Its origins were found in musical games, mathematicians soon added their own quotient of arcane symbols to those of musicians, and other disciplines followed suit until as Hesse puts it:

    The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

    Various people, myself among them, have proposed playable variants on Hesse’s great Game, and with a little further precision, definition and development, one of us might be able to propose a specific GBG format that would challenge AI to, essentially, produce profundity, beauty, perhaps even “holiness.” For when all’s said and done, that’s where Hesse’s game inexorably leads, as his Game Master Joseph Knecht tells us:

    Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a truly meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

    Joshua Fost GBG sample
    Sample “island” of moves from Joshua Fost‘s Toward the Glass Bead Game – a rhetorical invention

    3QD is a polyphonic glass bead game of sorts, and comes far closer to Hesse’s ideal than the internet as a whole, since it curates the thoughts and insights it delivers — so maybe the challenge will be for an AI to win a place at the 3QD table by providing an essay, 1,000 to 2,500 words in length, to Abbas, by email at or before 11.59pm New York City time on some Saturday yet to be announced.

    GBG cover Hesse

    Preferably, such an AI will also have a stock of essays available, touching on a variety of subjects with passion, clarity, and at least a hint of quasi-human humor, for posting on specified Mondays. And before it writes in, it may need to think itself up a nom de plume.

    ____________________________________________________________________________________________

    So that was my 2QD submission, with a couple of additional images thrown in. As I say, I’m not convinced I got it right — and next time. if there is a next time, I’ll likely avoid the Glass Bead Game and pick on some other topic. To give you a “rounded experience”, however, I am going to return now to conkewrs and chestnut trees, and offer you that quote I promised from Seamus Heaney, taken from his essay The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh:

    In 1939, the year that Patrick Kavanagh arrived in Dublin, an aunt of mine planted a chestnut tree in a jam jar. When it began to sprout, she broke the jar, made a hole and transplanted the thing under a hedge in front of the house. Over the years, the seedling shot up into a young tree that rose taller and taller above the boxwood hedge. And over the years I came to identify my own life with the life of the chestnut tree.

    This was because everybody remembered and constantly repeated the fact that it had been planted the year I was born; also because I was something of a favourite with that particular aunt, so her affection came to be symbolised in the tree; and also perhaps because the chestnut was the one significant thing that grew visibly bigger by the year…

    When I was in my early teens, the family moved away from that house and the new owners of the place eventually cut down every tree around the yard and the lane and the garden including the chestnut tree. We all deplored that, of course, but life went on satisfactorily enough where we resettled, and for years I gave no particular thought to the place we had left or to my tree which had been felled.

    Then, all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind’s eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the young tree.

    Watch out, or the DoubleTweets will get you

    Friday, April 8th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — Hillary Clinton hoist as the contrapuntal mind springs into action ]
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    Hilary Clinton recently tweeted:

    That was March 26th this year.

    I have a certain fondness for the Medici, who sponsored the Platonic Academy under Marsilio Ficino, and more or less gave us the Florentine Renaissance, and for Paul and Mary Conover Mellon, who sponsored the magnificant Bollingen Series of books, starting with Where the Two Came to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial, Joseph Campbell‘s collaboration with Jeff King and Maud Oakes..

    But then I’m also highly appreciative of St Francis, the poverello of Assisi.. go figure.

    Thing is, Bernie Sanders had tweeted pretty much the same thing just a week earlier:

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    But hey, wait a minute, Hilary had also tweeted in June of 2015:

    — so now who has the “first mover” advantage? — plus she had graphics!

    — and hold on, even that tweet drew an almost immediate tweet-back in refutation:

    — from the redoubtable Marc Andreessen, no less.

    **

    Nor are those the only ways those tweets of hers can bounce back on the Clinton campaign. Here’s another:

    I suspect, btw, Xavier Perez swiped that from Kevin Tulppo on Facebook a couple of days before..

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    I’m not really much of a political animal — feeling powerfully drawn to Justin Erik Halldór Smith‘s remark today

    some questions have complicated histories and there might be no right side to take

    — but in this entire by turns provocative, hilarious, sad, infuriating, and by now deeply fatiguing campaign season thus far, there has only been one image giving me a sense of quiet delight in one of the candidates..

    Bernie Sanders reads Rimbaud

    On the left, Bernie Sanders as a far younger man — I can vaguely recall being a far younger man myself — and on the right, the book he was about to read, or had just been reading..

    Rimbaud, poetry. Ah, youth.

    Bach and the sacramental arts

    Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — closing out a thread that began with anoither recent post of mine ]
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    Berlin Cathedral
    Organ, Berlin Cathedral

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    The immediate occasion for this [second] post is my reading about the book Eucharistic Poetry: The Search for Presence in the Writings of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Geoffrey Hill, by Eleanor J. McNees. Her subtitle names four poets I greatly admire, and whose company I would aspire to keep:

    Though widely separated chronologically, all four poets use the Anglican and Roman Catholic doctrine of eucharistic Real Presence (the literal embodiment of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion) as model for their own poetry. Each poet seeks to charge his words with a dual physical/spiritual meaning that abolishes the gap between word and referent and so creates an immediate presence that parallels Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.

    **

    That pasage, in turn, reminds me of some words John Eliot Gardiner spoke on the topic of Bach and grace,
    on the DVD of a rehearsal of Bach’s cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (BWV 63) right after Sara Mingardo sings O Selger Tag. Gardiner first quotes Bach, then translates him:

    Nota bene: Bei einer andächtigen Musik ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart.” Now I find that very, very significant. That he’s saying wherever there is devotional music, God with his grace is present.

    How close is that to the poets McNees talks about, creating with their poems “an immediate presence that parallels Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist”?

    And then he comments —

    Which, from a strict theological point of view is probably heresy, heretical, because it’s saying that music has an equivalent potency to the word of God.

    I’m not so sure about the heresy, but this is the point at which I turn to Lexington Green‘s comment on a recent post of mine, in which he quoted the Cathecism of the Catholic Church:

    1374 The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” “This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.”

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    Whether in the performance and hearing of Bach, Christ can be said to be “wholly and entirely” or “devotionally and musicially” present is a delicate question, one part ontological and absolute, I’d suppose, and one part epistemological and subjective.. but I find myself in warm agreement with Gardiner’s elaboration of his theme..

    And I think that in essence is why Bach is so attractive to us today because he is saying that the very act of music-making and of coming together is, in a sense, an act which invokes the latency, the potency, the potentiality of God’s grace, however you like to define God’s grace; but of a benediction that comes even in a dreadful, overheated studio like Abbey Road where far too many microphones and there’s much too much stuff here in the studio itself, that if one, as a musician, puts oneself in the right frame of mind, then God’s grace can actually come and direct and influence the way we perform his music.

    I really must read me some Hans Urs von Balthasar.


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