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Two alchemical substance-scapes

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — the material world meets the immaterial in our humanity — cognition & language ]

I came across two views of what you might call “alchemical substances” today — one mixed and one unmixed — and in each case the wording of the description fascinated me.

SPEC scapes

The upper panel is taken from the late Oliver Sacks‘ description of the elements as he found them in his childhood, displayed in London’s Science Museum. There’s alchemy in that description, in the fusion Sacks achieves between scientific observation and poetic insight.

In the lower panel, we have an overtly alchemical fusion, this time achieved by the interweaving of words from the language of the material (tobacco, leather, oak) and the immaterial (mystery, wisdom, knowledge) — both under the rubric “materials” — the work of Marcus McCoy.



  • Oliver Sacks, Mendeleev’s Garden
  • House of Orpheus, Cunning Man sample vial
  • **

    Any self-respecting legal desk will contain both pigeon-holes and loop-holes.

    We’re a legacy industry in a world of start-up competitors

    Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Chautauqua ]

    chautauqua haqqani daveed


    From the outset, when cheers went up for Daveed’s birthplace, Ashland, Oregon, and Ambassador Haqqani’s, Karachi — and for the brilliant meeting of the minds that is Chautauqua — it was clear that we were in the presence of two gracious, witty and informed intelligences, and the seriousness of the conversation between them that followed did nothing to reduce our pleasure in the event. Daveed called it “easily the best experience I have ever had as a speaker.”

    I’ll highlight some quotes from each speaker, with the occasional comment:

    Amb. Haqqani:

    None of the countries except Egypt, Turkey and Iran, none of the countries of the Middle East are in borders that are historic, or that have evolved through a historic process. And that’s why you see the borders a straight lines. Straight lines are always drawn by cartographers or politicians, the real maps in history are always convoluted because of some historic factor or the other, or some river or some mountains.

    You’ll see how neatly this fits with my recent post on borders, No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?

    And now that whole structure, the contrived structure, is coming apart.

    Then most important part of it is, that this crisis of identity – who are we? are we Muslims trying to recreate the past under the principles of the caliphate .. or are we Arabs, trying to unify everybody based on one language, or are we these states that are contrived, or are we our ethnic group, or are we our tribe, or are we our sect? And this is not only in the region, it’s also overlapping into the Muslim communities in the diaspora..


    If Amb. Haqqani emphasized the multiple identities in play in the Arabic, Islamic, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and tribal worlds in his opening, Daveed’s emphasis was on the failure of the post-Westphalian concept of the nation state.

    Daveed G-R:

    In the economic sphere there’s this thing that is often called “legacy industries” – industries that fit for another time, but are kind of out of place today. Think of Blockbuster Video, once a massive, massive corporation.. that’s a legacy industry. So when Ambassador Haqqani talks about how it’s not just in the Middle East that we have this crisis of identity, I think the broader trend is that the Westphalian state that he spoke about, the kind of state that was encoded after the Peace of Westphalia, looks to a lot of people who are in this generation of the internet where ideas flow freely, it looks like a legacy industry.

    Why do you need this as a form of political organizing? And what ISIS has shown is that a violent non-state actor, even a jihadist group that is genocidal and implements as brutal a form of Islamic law as you could possibly see, it can hold territory the size of Great Britain, and it can withstand the advance of a coalition that includes the world’s most powerful countries including the United States. And what that suggests is that alternative forms of political organization can now compete with the nation state.


    The Ambassador then turned to the lessons we should take from 1919’s US King–Crane Commission, reporting on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire — they concluded that it gave us

    a great opportunity — not likely to return — to build .. a Near East State on the modern basis of full religious liberty, deliberately including various religious faiths, and especially guarding the rights of minorities

    — down to our own times.

    Amb. Haqqani:

    What we can be sure of is that the current situation is something that will not be dealt with without understanding the texture of these societies. So for example, when the United States went into Iraq without full understanding of its sectarian and tribal composition, and assumed that, all we are doing is deposing a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and then we will hold elections and now a nice new guy will get elected, and things will be all right -– that that is certainly not the recipe. So what we can say with certainty in 2015 is .. over the last century what we have learnt is: outsiders, based on their interests, determining borders is not a good idea, and should certainly not be repeated. Assuming that others are anxious to embrace your culture in totality is also an unrealistic idea.

    The sentence that follows was a stunner from the Ambassador, gently delivered — a single sentence that could just as easily have been the title for this post as the remark by Daveed with which I have in fact titled it:

    Let me just say that, look, he ideological battle, in the Muslim world, will have to be fought by the likes of me.

    Spot on — and we are fortunate the Ambassador and his like are among us.


    Daveed then turned to another topic I have freqently emphasized myself.

    Daveed G-R:

    The power of ideas – we as Americans tend not to recognize this when it falls outside of ideas that are familiar to us. So one thing that the US has been slow to acknowledge is the role of the ideology that our friend and ally Saudi Arabia has been promulgating globally, in fomenting jihadist organizations.

    And one of the reasons we have been slow to recognize that. I mean one reason is obvious, which is oil. .. But another reason has been – we tend to think of ideas that are rooted in religion – as a very post-Christian country – we tend to think of them as not being real – as ideas which express an ideology which is alien to us –as basically being a pretext, with some underlying motivation which is more familiar to us. That it must be economics, or it must be political anger. I’m not saying those are irrelevant, they’re not – but when Al-Qaida or ISIS explains themselves, taking their explanation seriously and understanding where they’re coming from – not as representatives of Islam as a whole, but as representatives of the particular ideology that they claim to stand for – we need to take that seriously. Because they certainly do.


    Amb. Haqqani:

    The world is not a problem for Americans to solve, it’s a situation for them to understand.

    This makes a nice DoubleQuote with Gabriel Marcel‘s more general aphorism:

    Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.


    Toward the end of the discussion, Daveed touched on some ideas of recurrent interest to Zenpundit readers..

    Daveed G-R:

    Looking at the US Government, questions that I ask a lot are: Why are we so bad at strategy? Why are we so bad at analysis? Why do we take such a short term view and negate the long term?

    He then freturned to the issue of legacy industries and nation-states:

    Blockbuster is a legacy industry. And the reason why legacy industries have so much trouble competing against start-up firms, is because start-ups are smaller, it’s more easy for them to change course, to implement innovative policies, to make resolute decisions – they can out-manoeuver larger companies. And so larger companies that do well adapt themselves to this new environment where they have start-up competitors. Nation-state governments are legacy industries. Violent non-state actors are start-up compoetitors.

    — and had the final, pointed word:

    We’re a legacy industry ina world of start-up competitors.


    Having offered you these tastes, at this point I can only encourage you to watch the whole hour and a quarter, filled to the brim with incisive and articulately-stated insights:

    Doors within doors: Ibn Arabi, Henry Corbin and Tom Cheetham

    Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — a response to, and endorsement of, Tom Cheetham ]

    Interior of the Touba mosque


    If I only had one book to take with me, I’d pick Henry Corbin‘s Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, also available under the title Alone with the Alone. And I’d pick it, because — well, this poem of mine says it best:

    No Place Special

    I am baffled:
                     your muezzin calls me
    with a call more resonant than any command
    of sensible business, any
    instrument, nay, of corporeal music,
    to prayer in no place visible,
    as if defining by example what
    eyes in the back of the head might mean,
    might see, ears on the inside
    of the skull
    mean, what
    their music, not being
    ears or eyes in the habitual sense at all.

            Not the sheer cliffs of fall
    Of Hopkins’ poem, but cliffs sheer without any
    word-hold by which to climb
    celestialwards — as if
    adamant, as if obsidian,
    oblique to terrestrial gravity, this cliff
    of hearing the call without seeing the mosque
    without turning
    around, inwards, some new way within.

    I have ignored the lures, chased breath,
    pressed my life into service, and —
    as if a pressed life, even in service, were
    death on display, a pinned butterfly —
    withdrawn from pressing,
    taken ease in the swell and ride
    of life, loved much, seen
    many to my great joy and felt richly
    to my grief…
                      and the
    muezzin yet calls, the baffle, the cliff
    still between me and the attainment of garden,
    tree and spring.

    Corbin’s book is too high for me, but I feel the call. And Ibn Arabi — beyond my knowing.


    Ibn Arabi is known as the Shaykh al-Akbar, the greatest shaykh, because his work towers higher and digs deeper into the soul than that of any other Islamic writer, saving only (perhaps) his contemporary the poet mystic Jalaluddin Rumi.

    Stepping down from his heights, up from his profundities, we have in Henry Corbin an interpreter of great power — and since I find even Corbin requiring of me a depth of insight I can not yet grasp yet must read again and again across the decades, I am happy to have found his interpreter, Tom Cheetham.

    And thus Tom Cheetham is a doorway for me into the doorway that Henry Corbin is to Ibn Arabi, himself a doorway into the profoundest mystery.


    You can find Tom Cheetham’s four books here — I’d start with The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism, and read them in the order of publication.

    I have written this post to draw the attention of any who may be interested to Tom’s offer of an online seminar in Corbin’s work: The World of Henry Corbin – Online Learning.

    I am considering the possibility of offering some kind of online learning program.
    I would like to know:

    (1) if there is interest,
    (2) what topics people would be most interested in,
    (3) what format or formats might be most useful, and
    (4) whether people might be willing to pay a modest fee.

    Any other comments or suggestions are welcome.

    Contact me by commenting on this post or emailing me at
    subject heading “Corbin Online Learning”

    Very highly recommended.

    Of ID cards and innermost mysteries

    Thursday, November 29th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — just another angle on personal identity and ID, nudged on by two news pieces I saw today, and written to set the thought juices flowing ]

    Life’s four deep questions are often listed thus: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? and Where will I go? We humans can spend a lifetime in search of the answers, and Paul Gauguin made three of them them the title of what some consider his greatest painting:

    Paul Gauguin: D'où je viens, qui je suis, où je vais?


    These are deeply personal questions — and now governments and bureaucracies everywhere would like to know the answers to them, too:


    The poet Hopkins, in his tightly compressed way, teaches us that we are not our driving licenses, we are not files in a desk drawer or on a computer, we are not our photos, we are not numbers, we are not even our names, we are… that which is most natural to us, that which is most essential about us, what you might call our “true natures”:

    Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
    Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
    Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
    Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

    We selve, we go ourselves — most precisely, we deal out that being which dwells within us.

    And to learn what that being is, that mystery which most richly propels us, is our life task.


    In our desire to identify, classify, count and track everybody and everything, our governments and bureaucracies keep losing track (!) of the simple fact that a person’s person is that person’s innermost mystery.

    Pussy Riot, Holy Foolishness and Monk Punk

    Sunday, August 19th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — mystery beyond the senses, holy of holies behind the veil, altar beyond the iconostasis, and other considerations bearing on Orthodoxy, Pussy Riot, holy folly and monastic punk ]

    Life is full of surprises.

    glorious photo credit: choir punk by teosartori under cc license


    Okay, I started fishing around the web the way I do because when I first ran across the Pussy Riot story, I kept seeing press reports that said the grrls had been protesting on the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral [Russian Orthodox] in Moscow.


    What surprised me about this was that the altar in an Orthodox church would be behind the closed doors of the Iconostasis, because what takes place on the altar is too mysterious for us to grasp through the unaided senses.

    Aside: there’s a lot of religious “clash of civs” going on in the Pussy Riot affait, so let me untangle some of the interesting threads, and then see where that leads us.

    You may recall that when Christ died on the cross outside the City walls, there was a parallel incident inside Jerusalem: “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent” [Matt 27.51]. This could, it seems to me, be an involuntary gesture of mourning on the part of the earth and temple — but it also opens the holy of holies..

    In very broad strokes then, there are three spaces in Orthodoxy, separated by two doors, and they correspond to three ways of knowing.

      • Outside the church, there’s the realm where the senses and rational mind can be pretty much relied on for the kinds of transactions that humans mostly engage in, food, drink, shelter, exchange of goods…
      • Passing in through the church door we are in a space of devotion, the nave, in which attention is focused on the second doorway, that of the iconostasis, where the icons are presented. Here the mental activity is typically one of prayer, and the icons are available to lead the senses and mind towards that which the mind cannot comprehend.



    • And passing, as only the ordained may, through the doors of the iconostasis into the Sanctuary, we enter the space of the altar and the sacramental transformation of the Eucharist — which neither rational mind nor senses can apprehend, and which is accordingly the realm of Mystery properly defined.

    The Pussy Riot grrls are clearly dancing (and singing and prostrating and crossing themselves in the video) in front of the doors of the iconostasis — not “on the altar” — a big difference, which I would suggest is comparable in kind to the difference between human prayer and divine revelation.

    No, they were not “staging an anti-Kremlin protest on the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral” [Telegraph], nor “performing what they called a ‘punk prayer’ on the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral” [ABC News].


    By way of giving you some context, Eurasia Review has the religious politics:

    The actions of Pussy Riot inspired indignation on the part of Church leaders and regime officials. Patriarch Kirill called their action a “mockery of a sacred place.” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said it was “blasphemy.” The women were described as “satanic devils” and “prostitutes” and there were calls for them to be ripped to pieces on the ancient execution site in Red Square.

    What was lost in all this was the identification of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Putin regime. Putin’s inauguration was marked by the ringing of church bells in the Kremlin. Kirill held a special prayer service for his “health” and “success in government,” in the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin. In the Novodevichy Monastery, the nuns sang psalms round the clock for Putin’s health.

    And then there was that 2009 London Times article:

    The Russian Orthodox Church will choose tomorrow between three alleged former KGB agents as its next spiritual leader.

    More than 700 priests, monks and lay representatives will decide who should become the new Patriarch in the first Church election since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    The contest at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow pits the favourite, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, against two rivals who also rose through the heirarchy at a time when the Church was under strict Communist control.


    Here are the lyrics to the “punk-prayer” Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away that they were singing:


    Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
    ?ut Putin away, put Putin away

    (end chorus)

    Black robe, golden epaulettes
    All parishioners crawl to bow
    The phantom of liberty is in heaven
    Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains

    The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
    Leads protesters to prison under escort
    In order not to offend His Holiness
    Women must give birth and love

    Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!
    Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!


    Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
    Become a feminist, become a feminist

    (end chorus)

    The Church’s praise of rotten dictators
    The cross-bearer procession of black limousines
    A teacher-preacher will meet you at school
    Go to class – bring him money!

    Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
    Bitch, better believe in God instead
    The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass-meetings
    Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!


    Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
    ?ut Putin away, put Putin away

    (end chorus)

    Here’s a linguistic comment, which I can neither affirm nor refute, from The Economist:

    “The Lord’s Shit!” is a literal translation, while the expression “Sran’ Gospodnya” found in the lyrics is an equivalent of English “holy shit”, which is a totally diferrent matter.

    And then there’s this:

    But prosecutors sought to downplay the political angle and highlight the blasphemy, overriding the defense’s objections with the help of Syrova’s many “question disallowed!”

    “Do you believe it acceptable to say ‘Holy sh*t!’ in the church?” a prosecutor asked a father of one of the defendants in the courtroom.

    The man denied it, pointing out Russia’s ancient tradition of skomorokhi – traveling actors afforded the degree of freedom of speech that apparently exceeded that allowed to Pussy Riot. Of course, the skomorokhi sometimes faced burning at the stake, but this was not mentioned at the hearing.


    Which brings us to the entire issue of holy fools in Orthodoxy…

    The holy fools are understood to “feign madness in order to provide the public with spiritual guidance” — but I wonder if that’s a rationalization of behaviors that were simply sane, direct and challenging at the time. Consider this description from the National Catholic Register:

    In Russian history the greatest of the “holy fools” was Basil the Blessed, a man so revered that the famous Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square next to the Kremlin was named in his honor. Basil walked through Moscow wearing nothing more than a long beard. He threw rocks at wealthy people’s houses and stole from dishonest traders in Red Square.

    Few doubted Basil’s holiness. Tsar Ivan the Terrible feared no one but Basil. Basil was also given to eating meat on Good Friday. Once he went to Ivan’s palace in the Kremlin and forced the tsar to eat raw meat during the fast saying, “Why abstain from eating meat when you murder men?” Countless Russians died for much less but Ivan was afraid to let any harm come to the saintly Basil.

    And the grrls explicitly claimed the Holy Fools inspired their mode of protest:

    Nadia said. “We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk.”

    Well, there are similarities, and there are differences. The canonical Holy Fools were presumably orthodox in their beliefs, which the Riot may not be — but on the other hand, they are clearly “speaking truth to power” to use the admirable Quaker phrase.

    Folly is a tad under-appreciated these days.


    On the other hand, maybe it’s demonic possession. From the examination of “altar warden Vasily Tsyganyuk, classified as a victim because he claimed to have suffered psychological trauma as a result of the performance” during the trial:

    VICTIM: “Those who are possessed can exhibit different behaviors. They can scream, beat their heads against the floor, jump up and down…”


    VICTIM: “Well, no.”

    JUDGE: “Stop questioning him about those who are possessed. Tsyganyuk is not a medical professional and is not qualified to render a diagnosis.”

    Nah, not possessed — possession would be a medical diagnosis.


    Hey — the name Pussy Riot is a riot — and riots are not always comfortable.

    Who would have imagined the name “Pussy Riot” would appear on the digital tongue of Archbishop Cranmer — who only the other day was chastised for saying that British Olympic athletes had “given the nation a veritable golden shower of success after success” when the kind of golden shower he was thinking of was presumably the kind Zeus showered on Danae.

    But the good Archbishop — or at least the conservative Christian blogger who has taken that name — has in fact been vociferous in support of the Pussy Tribe, their name notwithstanding:

    This is foolish. If history teaches us anything about the murky fusion of religion and politics – the spiritual with the temporal – it is that you cannot persecute the prophets of truth without multiplying the message and spreading the cult. These women had no bombs or bullets: they are not terrorists, but anarchic artists. The more inflated and preposterous the charges laid against them, the more they are elevated to martyrdom. The longer they rot in prison at the behest of a puffed-up Patriarch, the more that martyrdom becomes a cause.

    Pussy Riot have nailed their 95 Theses firmly to the door of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. You can’t kill a movement by crucifying the radicals.

    That’s theology!

    But look, ecclesial nomenclature can be ambiguous in its own right. The original Archbishop Cranmer was a Puritan divine, and Richard Hooker the latitudinarian divine who wrote the classic Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie.

    I think we can be safely if secretly amused that one of Cranmer’s respondents in the Pussy matter has chosen the online moniker “The Judicious Hooker”. In fact he’s the one who posted:

    I realise that YG was rather plain in the chancel department (praise God for the Laudian revival!) but the ‘prisoners of conscience’ were not dancing on the altar. The Orthodox Holy Table lies behind the iconostasis screen and access is confined to sacred ministers.

    The Orthodox – of all Christians – still maintain the sense of the sacred. The Cathedral’s iconostasis – where icons of our Lord and his Saints are displayed for veneration – looks rather impregnable and its doors firmly shut against profanation.

    But I digress, I contain multitudes, I know.


    One of the more interesting blogs I’ve run across discussing the Putin Pussy event has been Khanya — here’s a taste:

    Is there an Orthodox culture, and does it have anything to say about this?

    Yes, I believe there is an Orthodox culture, and it is well expressed in one of the hymns we sing repeatedly in the Paschal season.

    Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered
    Let those who hate him flee from before his face.

    Does that apply to Pussy Riot?

    Yes, I believe it does.

    But you have to come to the end of the hymn to see how it applies.

    This is the day of resurrection.
    Let us be illumined by the feast.
    Let us embrace each other.
    Let us call “Brothers” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry:
    Christ is risen from the dead
    Trampling down death by death
    And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

    So what do we call the members of Pussy Riot?


    And what do we do with them?

    Embrace them, forgive them by the resurrection and tell them that God loves them and we love them too.

    That’s Orthodox culture.


    Another insightful blog has been Registan, where Sarah Kendzior came at things from a different angle:

    Media outlets that regularly cover Russian politics have noted how male Russian dissidents have been ignored as Pussy Riot draws world sympathy.

    Removing Pussy Riot from the broader problem of political persecution in Russia is a mistake, but the case also raises specific questions about gender, media and politics.

    In the same week that Pussy Riot was profiled in the New York Times style section, the Boston Review republished a 2010 interview with Hillary Clinton, in which she was asked who her favorite designer was. “Would you ever ask a man that question?” she snapped. “Probably not, probably not,” the reporter replied. The American media embraced Clinton’s riposte, reprinting it widely. But when it comes to foreign female dissidents, they promote the values Clinton rejects.


    Meanwhile — and I mean meanwhile, since this has nothing directly to do with Pussy Riot, and a great deal to do with them in indirect ways — in my own beloved California:

    In the wilderness of Northern California, Monks John and Damascene searched in hopes of finding a way to reach out to the Punk scene, which John had escaped. Seeing that the scene was full of kids that were sick of themselves and crippled by nihilism and despair, the Monks set out to give them the same hope that they found in Ancient Christianity. To do this, they decided to submit an article about Father Seraphim Rose in the popular magazine, Maximum Rock and Roll.

    When Father Damascene read over the magazine, he knew that they would never publish something like it. Struggling to show truth to the darkened subcultures, they tried again, but this time only placing an ad for Saint Hermans Brotherhood. They got a response from the editor, saying “What the @#*% is a Brotherhood?” and the Monks were told “We only run ads for music and ‘zines*.” A light bulb went on and thus, Death to the World was born.

    The first issue was printed in the December of ’94 featuring a Monk holding a skull on cover. The hand-drawn bold letters across the top read “DEATH TO THE WORLD, The Last True Rebellion” and the back cover held the caption: “they hated me without a cause.” …


    The first issue, decorated with ancient icons and lives of martyrs inside, was advertised in Maximum Rock and Roll and brought letters from all around the world. People from Japan, Lithuania, and Ireland wanted to get their hands on this new radical magazine. The mailing list grew and grew and the ‘zine was distributed at punks shows and underground hangouts. It was photocopied and passed around by hundreds who wanted to read about the radical lives of the lovers of truth and the mystery of monasticism. It was estimated that at one time, there were 50,000 in circulation.

    Father Paisius, who is a Monk at the monastery, said, “This subculture is raucous and deeply disturbed because of their own pain. They see life as worthless. We want to show them an ideal that is worth their life. These are marginalized youth who are wounded, and Death to the World is meant to touch with a healing hand that wound.”

    Writing and putting together issues 1-12, the Monks lived in the forests of Northern California in the midst of deer, bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes, translating and publishing wisdom from the holy fathers and mothers of ages past. The Monks and friends of the monastery also went to rock concerts and festivals, distributing Death to the World ‘zines and t-shirts, together with icons and other books that the monastery published. The Monks did not put out any issues after issue 12, but they continued to share and hand out back orders of Death to the World.


    That may be where the guy up there in the choir with the shocking pink mohawk comes in.

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