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On the history of the selfie

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — on self representation, avatars, and what we may be missing ]
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Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen, aka The Conversion of the Magdalen

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Where to begin?

The Washington Post doesn’t like selfies much, according to Galen Guengerich in the Religion, yes, the Religion section — in a post titled ‘Selfie’ culture promotes a degraded worldview he writes:

The 2013 word of the year, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, was “selfie,” which Oxford defines as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” The first use of the term, according to Oxford, occurred when a young Australian got drunk at a friend’s 21st birthday party and fell down the stairs. He hit lip-first and his front teeth punched a hole in his bottom lip. His response was to take a photo of himself and post it online for his friends to see. “Sorry about the focus,” he wrote, “It was a selfie.”

Okayyyyy…

As usual, the Kierkegaard / Kardashian combo that tweets as @KimKierkegaard manages to straddle the worlds material (in the Madonna sense) and spiritual (in the sense of the Madonna):

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I wanted to dig deeper — the WashPost Religion section, Kierkegaard, how could I not? I often want to dig deeper, and today I was driven to do so because today — not or the first time — I ran across a terrorism analyst and blogger named Cristina Caravaggio Giancchini, who uses a detail from her namesake Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s Martha and Mary Magdalen (above) as her avatar…

Avatars are a kind of selfie, aren’t they?

In any case, I found myself looking for the particular Caravaggio that contains that detail, discovering it was the Martha and Mary Magdalen, which you see that the top of this post — then kept on digging via Google to learn a little more.

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Here’s what I found in a blog post titled Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome:

The inclusion of the mirror asks viewers to enter into a dynamic conversation about their own delight in the rich textures of the picture; alongside a powder puff and comb, it points us to Mary’s vanity, and her concern with the things of this world. Rather than showing Mary to herself, however, the mirror captures a diamond of light — a visual representation of the divine grace that inspires Mary to look beyond her earthly passions. The flower that Mary clutches to her chest is an orange blossom: symbol of purity.

As Debora Shuger realises, in a stimulating essay on early modern mirrors, for Renaissance viewers ‘the object viewed in the mirror is almost never the self’ (22). Such mirrors are, Shuger suggests, if not totally Platonic (reflected an absolute ideal), at least ‘platonically angled, titled upwards in order to reflect paradigms rather than the perceiving eye’ (26). Renaissance mirrors, she concludes, ask us to think differently about the mental worlds and self-awareness of people living in this period: ‘they reflect a selfhood that … is beheld, and beholds itself, in relation to God’ (38).

Pilgrims who travelled to Aachen in the fifteenth-century appear to have purchased small convex mirrors as souvenirs: as relics were carried through the thronging crowds, travellers held up the mirrors to catch a glimpse of them, and then preserved the mirrors as objects which, according to Rayna Kalas, ‘betokened that moment when the pilgrim had a vision of and was visible before the sacred relic. … Every subsequent glance at this mirror memento might serve to remind the believer of that glimpse of sacred divinity’. In Caravaggio’s painting, though, Mary looks away from the mirror which might capture her reflection (the ‘dark glass’ of Corinthians?), and towards her shadowed but persuasive sister.

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We began this post with the idea that our 21st century ‘Selfie’ culture “promotes a degraded worldview” — and here by way of contrast, in the use of hand-held mirrors in 15th century Aachen, we see what we are missing…

… a glimpse of the sacred, in which the sacred glimpses us in transcendent return.

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Happy Birthday, Sir Isaac Newton and …

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — season’s greetings in a couple of different contexts ]
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Lapis Philosphicus / The Philosopher's Stone, from Sir Isaac Newton, MS 416

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It is Sir Isaac Newton‘s birthday today, December 25th, and that’s surely cause for some celebration.

Shakespeare‘s birthday is unknown, but was probably around April 23rd, Bach‘s is celebrated on March 31st, Galileo‘s on February 15th, Buddha‘s is mostly celebrated on April 28th, and HM the Queen‘s on April 21st, making April — TS Eliot‘s “cruelest month” — a powerful time for moving from womb into world.

If you’re a cricketer, you might celebrate WG Grace‘s birthday, 18th July, it takes all kinds to make a world. But December 25th? If you don’t also make a big deal about Leibniz on July 1st, what’s so special about Newton on December 25th?

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There are some great aggregator blogs out there, and frankly I favor 3 Quarks Daily for their blend of culture, science and an accent from the subcontinent.

Today, as in other years, 3QD is celebrating Isaac Newton’s birthday, and I’ll raise a toast to him too. There are a great many things in our world that I am grateful for, that wouldn’t have been possible without his great and inquiring mind — though it’s his alchemical and apocalyptic interests that capture my own imagination.

What hath Newton wrought? You could do worse than to consult 3QD on this day across the years, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 — but you know, part of celebrating Newton’s Day (rather than that of Shakespeare, Leibniz, WG Grace, Dante, Marilyn Monroe or whomever) is that you can celebrate it on Christmas Day, on the day assigned conventionally to the birth of Christ — without getting all religious.

So it’s a sort of escape hatch for seculars, in a sacred season. As if all the gifts we give to commerce and each other weren’t enough.

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In honor, therefore, of the child whose nominal birthday makes Sir Isaac Newton’s so much more easily memorable — this poem:

The birth of phoenix bliss
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Gallows humor was implicit from the start
in the tiny child, in the newborn universe, in the
very heart of all that breathes and hopes,
evident then, at that first beginning, more so
in the tool shed behind the motel, most
now if we clear the rubble of malls and ads
from our eyes, blink a bit in the light, so
steady, so other than flash and glitter, so very

divinely human unfolding in each folded heart:
for oh, we are pilgrims, zeros traveling in
from earth to infinity, infinity itself
two zeros, two virgins intersecting, breeding,
filling the abyss: believe me, no phoenix
bliss is born, save from the ashes of crucifixion.

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I know, I know, some of you will wonder WTF Charles is on about.

A lot of people have folded their Sunday suits away and mothballed them, I know — I just happen to think that the finest story in the world tells of an infant conquering men at arms, mighty empires, with love alone in his eyes.

I am not of the opinion that this obliges me to expect greybeards in space, to follow the culinary restrictions of some desert tribe, or to condemn those whose attitudes are different from mine: on the contrary, I find liberty in the childlike gaze, liberty and clarity, depth and profundity, and at bottom a deep mystery.

I wish you all whatever blessings may befall you, now and always.

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