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Sunday surprise: peering digitally around corners 1: Holbein

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a saunter through London’s National Gallery with Holbein’s Ambassadors, a skull and a psalter ]
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Let’s begin with Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors:

Holbein Ambassadors

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First up for consideration is this anamorphic skull detail:

Holbein detail anamorphic skull

The very oddly misshapen object in the foreground is in fact a skull, visible as such from the right position vis-a-vis the painting. It has puzzled countless people for ages, and no doubt considerably increased the painting’s fame in the process. The simplest explanation I’ve found is this one:

It has also been hypothesized that the painting is meant to hang in a stairwell, so that a person walking up the stairs from the painting’s right would be startled by the appearance of the skull. From such an angle, the skull appears in its correct aspect ratio.

Here’s the skull, resolved — to show it as it appears from the correct viewing angle — an angle from which the rest of the painting makes no sense, mark you:

Holbein_Skull

**

That’s the most striking detail in the painting, but also of interest is this Psalter detail:

Holbein psalter detail

The psalter is depicted in the painting in the same perspective as the two figures, globe, carpet and so forth, but it’s at an angle to the viewer — and an enterprising fellow therefore decided to work computationnal magic and show us the psalter rectified, as we might see it if we were in the room, went over, and looked down at it:

Ambassadors_Lutherian_Psalms

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All of this reminds me of another brilliant work of art, featuring an analogous shifting of viewpoint: Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner, which I’ll explore in Part II of this two-part post.

Nesting Buddhas and insubstantiality

Monday, July 25th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — from the Buddha’s Diamond Sutra via matrioshka dolls and koans to Sun Tzu and Wittgenstein ]
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From Karl Brunnhölzl, The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever, in today’s Lion’s Roar:

Besides being a meditation manual, we could also say that the Heart Sutra is like a big koan. But it is not just one koan, it is like those Russian dolls: there is one big doll on the outside and then there is a smaller one inside that first one, and there are many more smaller ones in each following one.

After reading that, I wasn’t exactly expecting to find illustrations of Buddhas in the form of Matryoshka dolls on Google, but in fact there are quite a few variants on the theme. Here’s one, original source unknown:

matryoshka_buddha

Buddhism actually has a doctrine of the Trikaya or three bodies of Buddha, as described in the dictionarily dry words of the Britannica:

Trikaya, (Sanskrit: “three bodies”), in Mah?y?na Buddhism, the concept of the three bodies, or modes of being, of the Buddha: the dharmakaya (body of essence), the unmanifested mode, and the supreme state of absolute knowledge; the sambhogakaya (body of enjoyment), the heavenly mode; and the nirmanakaya (body of transformation), the earthly mode, the Buddha as he appeared on earth or manifested himself in an earthly bodhisattva, an earthly king, a painting, or a natural object, such as a lotus.

— and point you to a deeper reading as set forth by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, whose understanding far surpasses anything I could muster.

I don’t. however, believe these three bodies are “nested” quite the way the Russian dolls are..

**

Now let’s get down to business. In the same article, Brunnhölzl writes:

Many people have complained about the Prajnaparamita Sutras because they also trash all the hallmarks of Buddhism itself, such as the four noble truths, the Buddhist path, and nirvana. These sutras not only say that our ordinary thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are invalid and that they do not really exist as they seem to, but that the same goes for all the concepts and frameworks of philosophical schools—non- Buddhist schools, Buddhist schools, and even the Mahayana, the tradition to which the Prajnaparamita Sutras belong.

That’s by normal western standards, is pretty strong philosophical meat. But Brunnhölzl continues, asking:

Is there any other spiritual tradition that says, “Everything that we teach, just forget about it”?

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I sense a slight “my path is edgier than yours” tinge to that question, so I didn’t treat it as rhetorical, I pondered it — and in my googling ran across this rather neat pair of DoubleQuotes, which had been put together by Noah Greenstein in a blog-post titled Wittgenstein and Sun Tzu (on throwing the ladder away):

DQ Sun Tzu Wittgenstein ladders

and which I’ve presented here using one of my own DoubleQuotes formats.

**

It should be noted, however, that the Sun Tzu translation quoted here is the 1910 Leonard Giles version, that the text with a little more context reads:

At the critical moment, the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him. He carries his men deep into hostile territory before he shows his hand. He burns his boats and breaks his cooking-pots..

and that Giles‘ own comment on “the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him” reads:

literally, “releases the spring” (see V. § 15), that is, takes some decisive step which makes it impossible for the army to return—like # Hsiang Yü, who sunk his ships after crossing a river.

Sun Tzu as quoted here, then, is not in fact a great match for Wittgenstein — but Wittgenstein, who can indeed be said to have “thrown away” his own early philosophy as outlined in the Tractatus before acquiring the new one outlined in his Philosophical Investigations, comes far closer in spirit to the Diamond Sutra as discussed above.

**

Did I say the Heartv Sutra was “pretty strong meat”? I did. Perhaps this excerpt from Brunnhölzl’ piece will bring the point home:

There are accounts in several of the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras about people being present in the audience who had already attained certain advanced levels of spiritual development or insight that liberated them from samsaric existence and suffering. These people, who are called “arhats” in Buddhism, were listening to the Buddha speaking about emptiness and then had different reactions. Some thought, “This is crazy, let’s go” and left. Others stayed, but some of them had heart attacks, vomited blood, and died. It seems they didn’t leave in time. These arhats were so shocked by what they were hearing that they died on the spot. That’s why somebody suggested to me that we could call the Heart Sutra the Heart Attack Sutra.

Now that’s serious philosophy.

**

Okay, this has been an early morning meander, sufficient to drive away both fatigue and insomnia. On with the insubstantial day..

Sunday surprise: Bach BWV 998

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — with a ramble via his peerless peer, Shakespeare ]
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What’s a piece of music worth, on paper?

BWV 998 MS image

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I had the good fortune some decades ago to be invited to attent Dr Homer Swander‘s seminar at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Dr Swander is notable among Shakespearean scholars for his insistence that the texts we have of the plays are not themselves works of art, but serve the same function with respect to actual performances that an anrchitect’s blueprints serve with respect to a house, or a musical score to the performance of a work of music. Dr Swander dedicated much of his life to Shakespeare‘s plays, so we should not imagine that he thought little of the First Folio — or indeed of the First Quarto of Hamlet with its truncated soliloqy beginning:

To be or not to be, ay there’s the point,
To die, to sleep, is that all? Ay all:

[for the original spelling, see this facsimile ©The British Library]

— it’s simply that he saw them as prelimiaries, not the thing itself. This in turn allowed him to “see” aspects of the plays from a director’s standpoint, with intriguing results:

Swander Caesar
Hugh Macrae Richmond, Shakespeare’s Theatre: A Dictionary of His Stage Context

You should have seen Dr Swander stab that point home!

But to return to Johann Sebastian Bach.. Similarly, we may ask ourselves, what’s the manuscript score of a great work of music worth?

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Christie’s auction house in London has one answer for us in ther case of Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in E-flat major, BWV 998 — $3.3 million:

Valuable Bach manuscript goes under the hammer

The manuscript’s value was originally estimated at between 1.5 and 2.5 million pounds (between 2 and 3.3 million dollars). At the auction on Wednesday (13.07.2016) in London, the final bid came in at the high end of expectations.

Likely written between 1740 and 1745, the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat Major (BWV 998) is a favorite among both harpsichords and lutenists. Like many works by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), it can be played on different instruments, which is expressly indicated on this score in the composer’s handwriting: “Prelude pour la Luth ò Cembal” (for lute or keyboard).

That’s its current cash value as judged by the market.

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But what’s it worth — to you, to me, to life?

Nicholas Harnoncourt
explains:

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I am grateful as always to my friend Michael Robinson of Ornamental Peasant for pointing me to the sale at Christie’s — and to this remarkable piece.

Destructive Witnesses: JW, IS, Saudis, Brits, Byzantines

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — religions taking other religions apart, stone by stone, image by image, song by song ]
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Some recently converted Jehovah’s Witnesses appear to have destroyed the altars of indigenous Otomi people in Mexico, an anthopologist has stated:

Assailants have damaged an ancient Otomi Indian religious site in Mexico, toppling stone structures used as altars, breaking carved stones and scattering offerings of flowers, fruit and paintings at the remote mountain shrine known as Mayonihka or Mexico Chiquito. [ .. ]

“I don’t know what religion they belong to, but they destroyed several images that were there,” said Daniel Garcia, the municipal secretary of the nearby township of San Bartolo Tutotepec. “The thing is, there are some religions that don’t believe in using idols.”

Luis Perez Lugo, a professor at the University of Chapingo, visited the site in May and talked to residents of a nearby hamlet, El Pinal, whose residents said they had carried out the attack.

“I was there, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses said they had done it,” Perez Lugo said, noting some were recent converts to the religion who used to go to the site for Otomi ceremonies.

See upper panel, below:

JWs and IS destroy sacred sites

In the lower panel, above, we see a detail from a National Geographic listing of sites attacked by the Islamic State. Three quick notes:

  • the JWs, if they were JWs, were recent converts; converts often have a zeal all their own
  • the IS, like the Taliban at Bamiyan, destroys ancient religious sites even if no longer in use
  • see Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage for threats to Muhammad‘s birthplace & tomb
  • **

    Why?

    You already know this, but for the record — because Scripture:

    DQ 600 Graven Images

    In the upper panel, Jewish and Christian scriptures — from the Jewish Ten Commandments in Exodus, and St Paul‘s address to the Athenians, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles.

    In the lower panel — a hard-line contemporary Islamic commentary, citing two ahadith.

    **

    So it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses and hard-line Muslim literalists who approve of the destruction of monuments to false gods, is that what this means?

    They are not alone. In the upper panel, below, recent news of the Chinese — avowed atheists — continuing their attacks on Tibetan Buddhism, this time by mandating the dismantling of Buddhism’s largest monastic university at Larung Gar:

    DQ 600 Larung Gar Glastonbury

    In the lower panel, above, we see some of what remains of the great Abbey of Glastonbury, torn down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII.

    Glastonbury has strong associations with Arthurian and Christian traditions:

    William Blake’s dramatic poem ‘Jerusalem’ familiar nowadays as an inspirational hymn, draws on the myth that Christ himself may have visited Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea and ‘walked on England’s mountains green’.

    The Gospels record that Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy follower of Christ who buried Christ’s body in his own tomb after the Crucifixion.

    In the Middle Ages Joseph became connected with the Arthurian romances of Britain. He first features in Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, written in the twelfth century, as the Keeper of the Holy Grail. He receives the Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper) from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain.

    Later Arthurian legends elaborated this story and introduced the idea that Joseph himself travelled to Britain, bringing the Holy Grail with him and then burying it in a secret place, said to have been just below the Tor at the entrance to the underworld. The spring at what is known as Chalice Well is believed to flow from there. In their quests King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table searched for the Grail.

    Glastonbury retains its place in English hearts to this day, albeit in contemporary guise — it is the Yasgur’s Farm of England’s ongoing Woodstock — mud, sex, drugs, rock and all — the yearly Glastonbury Festival

    It is also — in the form of Blake‘s hymn “And did those feet in ancient time” — a part of such ceremonial events as the Last Night of the Proms — and Royal Weddings:

    But more on Blake’s poem — known as Jerusalem, and taken from his preface to Milton a Poem — in an upcoming post, Creek willing.

    **

    Finally, what an exceptionally lovely early DoubleQUote is this, returning us to the topic of sacred places and images and their destruction:

    Clasm_Chludov

    What we have here is a page from the Chludov Psalter — ask Wikipedia for that what means, I only just ran across it in the course of writing this piece — but it’s a 9th century Byzantine prayer book, illuminated with illustrations attacking the iconoclasts — those Christians who wanted to destroy icons and other Christian images for reasons not dissimilar ton those of the Taliban.

    Wikipedia, Chludov Psalter:

    In the illustration to the right, the miniaturist illustrated the line “They gave me gall to eat; and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink” with a picture of a soldier offering Christ vinegar on a sponge attached to a pole. Below is a picture of the last Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Grammarian rubbing out a painting of Christ with a similar sponge attached to a pole.

    Let’s take a closer look:

    Clasm_Chludov_detail_9th_century

    Both verbally and visually, then, we have a direct comparison of the Roman soldier mocking the dying Christ, and the icon-hating Patriarch erasing Christ’s image from a wall.. And they call him the Grammarian!

    But let’s proceed:

    John is caricatured, here as on other pages, with untidy straight hair sticking out in all directions, which was considered ridiculous by the elegant Byzantines.

    No punks, apparently, these Byzantines!

    And the coup de grâce? House the sacred book in a state museum..

    Nikodim Kondakov hypothesized that the psalter was created in the famous monastery of St John the Studite in Constantinople. Other scholars believe that the liturgical responses it contains were only used in Hagia Sophia, and that it was therefore a product of the Imperial workshops in Constantinople, soon after the return of the Iconophiles to power in 843.

    It was kept at Mount Athos until 1847, when a Russian scholar brought it to Moscow. The psalter was then acquired by Aleksey Khludov, whose name it bears today. It passed as part of the Khludov bequest to the Nikolsky Old Believer Monastery and then to the State Historical Museum.

    No monks will sing from it there..

    **

    Sources:

  • The Guardian, Jehovah’s Witnesses accused of damaging Otomi religious site in Mexico
  • National Geographic, Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed
  • The American Muslim, Saudi Destruction of Muslim Historical Sites
  • Islam Question and Answer, Obligation to destroy idols
  • Lion’s Roar, China to displace 5,000 Tibetan Buddhist monastics
  • Of sundry musicians and their moon walks

    Sunday, June 12th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a jeu d’esprit, really, because i already have my sunday surprise for this week lined up, and this was too much fun to miss ]
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    I ran across this tweet this morning from Husain Haqqani, former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and author of Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military and Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, currently with the Hudson Institute:

    Neil Armstrong? Heard the Islamic Call to Prayer? On the moon?

    **

    Poets love the moon, almost by definition — the Chinese poet Li Po supposedly drowned while attempting (under the influence) to kiss her face in the Yellow River — so this alleged, though dubious, story was definitely too rich in possibilities for me to ignored. And the Islamic Call to Prayer? According to Nicholas Kristof in the NYT:

    Mr. Obama described the call to prayer as “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset.”

    You may or may not agree, but if you want to hear the Call and judge for yourself, you could try listening to one of these videos:

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUHDYlJHaOQ
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otdgbR3yso0
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8o6WKTQpMc
  • **

    That’s what led me to my second discovery –one which might be excused by blaming autocorrect, twice, for suggesting that Neil Young — he of the voice, upper panel below — and Louis Arnmstrong — he of the trumpet, lower panel — were each the first man to land on the moon, per (in both cases) NBC.

    Tablet DQ 600 at 75 blank Musicians on Moon

    In all fairness, it’s worth noting that other candidates for moon walks include Buzz Lightyear, Lance Armstrong, and Michael Jackson.

    **

    Sources:

  • Mix 104.1, Twitter Confuses Neil Armstrong With Lance and Louis
  • Buffalo News, Ch.4 moon landing is historic mistake; Best to avoid NBC’s “The Slap”
  • **

    None of these mistakes are critical, however, if you believe the late Srila Prabhupada, who introduced Krishna Consciousness to the United States. As someone fascinated by different cosmologies and theologies, I remember reading of Prabhupada’s claim that the moon landing was faked in a California film studio in his magazine some time in the 1970s. No longer having access to the magazine, and looking for confirmation of that memory, I found this page, Srila Prabhupadas statements about the moon landing, of considerable interest:

    Srila Prabhuapda himself said different things at different times. Sometimes he directly said they didn’t go and it was some kind of hoax. And at other times he said they didn’t go to the moon because they didn’t experience the higher dimensional nature of the moon planet, which is a rational way to harmonize the Vedic perspective with the idea of three dimensional space travel. At other times he just said the whole idea was foolish and a waste of money. He saw material space travel as a foolish attempt to reach higher dimensions which can only be reached by yogic practice.

    Bear in mind too that both Joseph Smith and L Ron Hubbard also taught their followers about significant planets that do not form part of the standard astronomical account of deep space — or the heavens, in other words.

    And Charles Williams — the brilliant Dante scholar, Arthurian poet, novelist, theologian of Romantic Love, and friend of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis — offers a striking near-contemporary Christian example of the genre in the opening paragraph of his book, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

    The beginning of Christendom, is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of the Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology.

    See also my post, A metaphysical trigonometry.


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