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Red mercury as scam and symbol

Friday, November 20th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — CJ Chivers, nuclear nonsense, faux chemistry, and the alchemical imagination, with hat-tip to Cheryl Rofer ]

CJ Chivers, conflict journalist extraordinaire and author of a book about the Kalashnikov assault rifle, The Gun, today posted a remarkable account of what he terms The Doomsday Scam, with the subtitle “For decades, aspiring bomb makers — including ISIS — have desperately tried to get their hands on a lethal substance called red mercury. There’s a reason that they never have.”

A taste:

The Islamic State, he said, was shopping for red mercury.

Abu Omar knew what this meant. Red mercury — precious and rare, exceptionally dangerous and exorbitantly expensive, its properties unmatched by any compound known to science — was the stuff of doomsday daydreams. According to well-traveled tales of its potency, when detonated in combination with conventional high explosives, red mercury could create the city-flattening blast of a nuclear bomb. In another application, a famous nuclear scientist once suggested it could be used as a component in a neutron bomb small enough to fit in a sandwich-size paper bag.


To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world. This is all the more remarkable given the broad agreement among nonproliferation specialists that red mercury, at least as a chemical compound with explosive pop, does not exist.

Indeed, there’s a sidebar in Chivers’ post which sums the topic up nicely:

The shadowy weaponeer’s little helper, red mercury was the unobtainium of the post-Soviet world.

There’s much more, of course — with red mercury rumored to be found in old Singer sewing machines, which briefly raised the price of such machines in Saudi Arabia a thousandfold to $50,000 — and the whole extraordinary piece is more than worthy of your attention. It is also about a concrete, if counter-factual, reading of the term “red mercury.”

Cinnabar, aka mercury sulphide, anyone?


A centuries-old debate concerning alchemy has concerned the literal and metaphorical interpretations of alchemical texts.

Scholars up to and including Isaac Newton theorized about and practiced alchemy in their aptly named lab-oratories, at a time when literal and metaphorical “readings” were much less easily considered separately than is the case today. Alchemy was then for a while widely ridiculed as proto- and indeed pseudo-science — a tendency still prevalent in many circles today. And more recently, alchemy has been explored by Carl Jung and followers (and his predecessor, Silberer) as a field of imaginative, metaphorical inquiry illuminating spirituality, psychology and literature.

  • BJT Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy
  • BJT Dobbs, The Janus Faces of Genius
  • Herbert Silberer, Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism
  • CG Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
  • CG Jung, Alchemical Studies
  • CG Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis
  • Marie-Louise von Franz, Aurora Consurgens
  • Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy
  • Jung’s reading of alchemical texts is a symbolic reading — in accordance with the principle “the stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone” (Psalm 118.22, cf Acts 411), he has taken precisely those materials in the alchemical tradition which modern chemistry rejected as ridiculous, and reclaimed them as symbolic, richly metaphorical expressions of psychological truth.


    It is in that spirit that I turned from Chivers’ fascinating treatment of “red mercury” as an allegedly physical, albeit spurious, substance, with its intriguing narratives of scams from the Cold War to the present day and IS, to take a look at what I might find via a brief search in the Jungian literature. I say “quick” because I have neither the appropriate library nor the time for a more intensive search, but here’s what little I found:

    There’s a “red mercury” reference in Stanton Marlan, The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness, on p. 22:

    The idea is that the raw solar energy must darken and undergo a mortificatio process that reduces it to its prime matter. Only then can the creative energies produce a purified product. In this image the sperm of gold refers not to the ordinary seminal fluid of man but rather to “a semi-material principle,” or aura seminales, the fertile potentiality that prepares the Sun for the sacred marriage with his counterpart, darkness, which is thought to produce a philosophical child or stone and is nourished by the mercurial blood that flows from the wounding encounter of the Lion and the Sun. The blood — called red mercury — is considered a great solvent.

    Marlan then gives us what is effectively a translation of the paragraph above into contemporary therapeutic language:

    Psychologically, there is nourishment in wounding. When psychological blood flows, it can dissolve hardened defenses. This then can be the beginning of true productivity. In dreams the imagery of blood often connotes moments when real feeling and change are possible. The theme of the wound can also suggest a hidden innocence, which is also a subject of mortification. The green color of the lion, which is referred to as “green gold,” suggests something that is immature, unripe, or innocent, as well as growth and fertility. The alchemist imagined this innocence, sometimes called virgin’s milk, as a primary condition, something without Earth and not yet blackened. Typical virgin-milk fantasies are often maintained emotionally in otherwise intellectually sophisticated and developed people.


    And then there’s what Jung would term synchronicity..

  • CG Jung & Wolfgang Pauli, The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche
  • In my twitter stream within 3 minutes of my posting my first tweet re Chivers’ piece, & before I’d tweeted my follow up, I ran across this tweet containing the phrase “Drawing Blood will eat the sun”:

    Drawing Blood will eat the sun — just how synchronistically alchemical can Molly Crabapple and Twitter get?

    Only connect..

    Saturday, March 28th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — mostly light hearted (ie safely ignore) except for Goldman & Arquilla quote ]



    That’s not only a great warning, especially for someone like myself who is prone to analogies amd patterns — it’s also a terrific DoubleQuote, eh?


    Having said that… let’s get serious for a minute.

    The abstract of Cyber Analogies (Feb 2014, 133 pp., Emily Goldman & John Arquilla, eds), which I just ran across, reads in part:

    Our belief it that learning is most effective when concepts under consideration can be aligned with already-existing understanding or knowledge. Cyber issues are inherently tough to explain in layman’s terms. The future is always open and undetermined, and the numbers of actors and the complexity of their relations are too great to give definitive guidance about future developments. In this report, historical analogies, carefully developed and properly applied, help indicate a direction for action by reducing complexity and making the future at least cognately manageable.

    So analogies — they can be useful.


    Associations, metaphors, analogies.. we poets are obsessed with the things:

  • My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
  • How like a winter hath my absence been
  • There are cause-and-effect connections, of course, and they can be pretty important — “he hit me first” explains an awful lot of wars, for instance. And there are “acausal” connections — synchronicities as Carl Jung called them. There are magical connections — stamp thrice and pour a little water on the ground, the rains will come! And then there are the authentic, improbable, delightfully eccentric connections like the one referred to in this tweet:

    I’m old enough, I remember — the top thingie’s what’s called a tape cassette, and when the damn thing unspools…

    Unspools, dad?

    Unh, I’d better not try to explain…


    Here’s another eccentric example:

    Love it.


    Anyway, connections. They’re everywhere, they’re far more interesting than “things” as such, and you can collect them free, just by noticing / noting / annotating them.

    Only connect, EM Forster said.

    For whom the bell Dengs, it Dengs for Lee

    Monday, March 23rd, 2015

    [rang by Lynn C. Rees]

    Elite mouthpiece Charlie Rose once asked former Singapore Prime Minister Lee “Harry” Kuan Yew which of the many, many, many, many world leaders he’d met in his long, long, long, long career he most admired. Lee chose Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Syauping. Lee especially admired Deng for his world-historic “adaptability”.

    Flashback: 1978. Deng makes Deng’s first state visit to Singapore. Deng is flummoxed by Singapore’s prosperity (Deng’s briefings were inadequate). Deng asks Lee how Lee made Singapore prosperous. Lee tells Deng how Singapore climbed the food chain: First, attract foreign direct investment with cheap labor. Second, become subcontractors. Second, became contractors. Third, become competitors. Fourth, learn as you go. Veteran Marxist Deng muses aloud: Singapore’s created an egalitarian society using capitalism. Lee happily seconds Deng’s thought. Deng flies back to China. Deng applies the Lee model to China. Everyone lives happily ever after.

    Appian records:

    10. It is said that at one of their meetings in the gymnasium Scipio and Hannibal had a conversation on the subject of generalship, in the presence of a number of bystanders, and that Scipio asked Hannibal whom he considered the greatest general, to which the latter replied, “Alexander of Macedonia.”
    To this Scipio assented since he also yielded the first place to Alexander. Then he asked Hannibal whom he placed next, and he replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus,” because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general; “for it would not be possible,” he said, “to find two kings more enterprising than these.”

    Scipio was rather nettled by this, but nevertheless he asked Hannibal to whom he would give the third place, expecting that at least the third would be assigned to him; but Hannibal replied, “To myself; for when I was a young man I conquered Spain and crossed the Alps with an army, the first after Hercules. I invaded Italy and struck terror into all of you, laid waste 400 of your towns, and often put your city in extreme peril, all this time receiving neither money nor reinforcements from Carthage.”

    As Scipio saw that he was likely to prolong his self-laudation he said, laughing, “Where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?” Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, replied, “In that case I should have put myself before Alexander.” Thus Hannibal continued his self-laudation, but flattered Scipio in a delicate manner by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.

    Like the great Carthaginian (as framed in Appian’s fable) but with greater circumspection, Lee gives Lee a hearty backslap for the ages here by promoting Deng to virtual Leeness, making Deng almost a Lee Kuan Yew, Jr. Deng is great for”adaptibility”. Translation: Deng is great for “adaptibility” because he adapted by following Lee, who’s also great for “adaptibility”. Deng is great because Lee is great. While Deng did great things, Lee claims, also circumspectly, a greater priority: Lee’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

    There is merit here. If Lee’s memory was as accurate as it was convenient, Lee was one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century. Deng Syauping stepped out of the way of one fifth of humanity’s rise from absolute poverty to genteel poverty. For that, Deng is one of the most adequate leaders of the twentieth century. If Lee helped Deng rise to adequacy, he deserves his adequate share of significance.

    Lee is a frequent candidate for great authoritarian of the late twentieth century, the sort of man that, if they could be produced on demand, would euthanize democracy. That great authoritarians are not produced on demand continues to be a problem. Lee proved resiliently traditional in his attempts to solve the problem: Placeholder minion. Check. Dynastic succession. Check.

    Whether history gives Lee as hearty a backslap as Lee (through Deng) gave Lee will depend upon whether Lee’s great authoritarianism continues to be great authoritarianism without its great authoritarian. Cárdenas’perfect dictatorshipendured 54 years. Stalin’s dead cat bounce reached 1991. Mau’s dead cat bounce carried a Deng, a Jyang, a Hu, and now a Syi. And those cabals had some component of rotation of elites built in. Lee’s die is cast with old school hereditary monarchy. His dynastic successor has an heir and two spares (three spares if Singapore doesn’t follow Salic Law). Time will tell if Lee Kuan Yew wins the genetic lottery now that he’s no longer around to play retired emperor.

    Intelligence vs the Artificial

    Friday, January 16th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — who believes that detours are the spice of life ]

    Craig Kaplan:

    Craig Kaplan

    Maurits Escher:

    M Escher


    There’s a fasacinating article about Craig Kaplan and his work with tiling that I came across today, Crazy paving: the twisted world of parquet deformations — I highly recommend it to anyone interested in pattern — and I highly recommend anyone uninterested in pattern to get interested!

    Kaplan himself is no stranger to Escher’s work, obviously enough — he’s even written a paper, Metamorphosis in Escher’s Art — the abstract reads:

    M.C. Escher returned often to the themes of metamorphosis and deformation in his art, using a small set of pictorial devices to express this theme. I classify Escher’s various approaches to metamorphosis, and relate them to the works in which they appear. I also discuss the mathematical challenges that arise in attempting to formalize one of these devices so that it can be applied reliably.

    I mean Kaplan no dishonor, then, when I say that his algorithmic tilings, as seen in the upper panel above, still necessarily lack something that his mentor’s images have, as seen in the lower panel — a quirky willingness to go beyond pattern into a deeper pattern, as when the turreted outcropping of a small Italian town on the Amalfi coast becomes a rook in the game of chess


    Comparing one with the other, I am reminded of the differences between quantitative and qualitative approaches to understanding, of SIGINT and HUMINT in terms of the types of intelligence collected — and at the philosophical limit, of the very notions of quantity and quality.

    Theory and Practice:

    Friday, November 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — how theory works out in practice, and vice versa ]

    Here’s the first of a pair of “patterns” of interest…

    Theory contradicts practice:

    — with thanks to my friend Peter van der Werff!


    And here’s the second, a delicious serpent-bites-tail tweet re Egypt:

    Practice contradicts theory:


    Okay, there are two more items for the “pattern recognition” / “pattern language” archives…

    And here’s wishing you all a Happy Black Friday — if that’s even concedivable!

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