zenpundit.com » Charles Cameron

Archive for the ‘Charles Cameron’ Category

The remaking of angels, their rank and sweep

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — on, i suppose, the uphill slog or seduction of genius — or a very different take on complexity? ]
.

Paul Klee‘s Angelus Novus — described by the Verso writer Stuart Jeffries as “this goofy, eternally hovering angel with hair that looks like paper scrolls, aerodynamically hopeless wings and googly if rather melancholy eyes”:

was admired and bought for a thousand marks by Walter Benjamin, and moved with him from one lodging to the next until her fled Germany and the onrushing Nazis. It is also:

Benjamin’s most famous image, in the 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: the “angel of history” who is blown backward into the future by the storm of progress.

or to quote Benjamin himself:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

**

At a time after Darwin, Marx and Freud have dissolved the basics of fundamentalism, and before the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the brilliant Christopher Hitchens proclaimed “the new atheism” in an easily-won contest with that same low, popular religiosity — all but ignoring the retreat of angels from Renaissance tryptich to Hallmark Card — we might do well to carry the God-NoBoDaddy debate up an octave, and consider the possibility that once angels have been more or less erased from modern western consciousness, they may, as in a palimpsest, reappear in new-old guises..

**

Principally, I think here of Rilke‘s angels in the Duino Elegies:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.

Ah!

Rilke told one of his translators that she should not make the mistake of understanding the angel referred to in the elegies as a Christian angel. To the contrary, this angel was quite distinctly drawn from an Islamic tradition. Rilke writes that in the months before his trip to Duino, he had traveled in Spain and had been consumed with reading the Qu’ran and a book on the life of the Prophet Mohammed. It seems fairly clear that this occurred under the influence of his friend Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose husband, Friedrich Carl Andreas, was a leading scholar of Islamic culture in the Russian Empire, particularly including Naqshibandiyya.

**

Let Rilke have traveled next to India or China, the apsarases and gandharvas of Hinduism and Buddhism might have affected him, with their sensuality, their song, their dance..

**

But while gandharvas and apsarases capture us by their powers of seduction — in some ways like the houris of Islamic paradise — with Rilke’s angels, drawing no less on the Old Testament than on the Qur’an, our surrender is to elemental force:

I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

**

Constantly greater beings, with which we may if we are spiritually fortunate, wrestle — these are Rilke‘s angels, and they fill the gap in the once-dominant Great Chain of Being paradigm, on a rung above human usualness, demanding, promising, skirmishing, delivering…

To be carried in the arms of an apsara, to be swept by the gale-force storm of an angel, these are human experiences of the transhuman kind, and we need words for them, both forgetful of any surrounding dogma and delighting in their strength as imagery — gandharvas and angels named as such, and constantly revivified by the poetic imagination.

Klee, Benjamin, Rilke, but also Jacob wrestling with — who? a man, angel, God? — and becoming IsraelGiotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo who wrestled form from Carrera marble, Dogen Zenji for whom mountains were the sages into whom, living among them, he blended.. Kalidasa with his yakshas in Cloud Messenger and perhaps supremely in the gandharva marriage in his Shakuntala..

Isaac becoming Israel, Shakuntala the mother of Bharata.. Of such are sacred nations born.

**

Yet this world is wide and deep, the beings above us multitudinous, and the humans touched by them more than a single mind can comprehend. And:

The problem of god is a problem in ballistics, Icarus discovered this,
that to shoot for the sun is to fall short of it, those who shoot
for beauty achieve prettiness, there is a gravity in aesthetics as there is
in physics, and theology too has its fall, the problem of god being
that the mind falls short of what is huge enough to conceive it, give
conception whatever relevant definition you choose, too vast
to think of, give birth to it — no, no, mind has sheer cliffs of fall, and
to shoot for a conception of god is full speed ahead to fall, fail ..

I bow, salute, prostrate, pranam, bow gassho.

One of England’s Freedoms

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — an amused defense of sacred measures such as the foot, yard, and acre — against the atheistic and idolatrous metric system ]
.

**

You can trudge uphill, you can run up hill and down dale as the saying goes, you may march from pillar to post, church spire to spire, you may follow ancient foot- or bridle-paths or ley lines — all these, if pursued on foot, are covered by the word rambling, and in England, if you follow well-trodden or half forgotten paths, it’s your right. It is one of England’s freedoms.

**

Sam Knight, in the New Yorker a couple of days ago, The Search for England’s Forgotten Footpaths:

Nineteen years ago, the British government passed one of its periodic laws to manage how people move through the countryside. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act created a new “right to roam” on common land, opening up three million acres of mountains and moor, heath and down, to cyclists, climbers, and dog walkers. It also set an ambitious goal: to record every public path crisscrossing England and Wales… [ .. ]

Between them, England and Wales have around a hundred and forty thousand miles of footpaths, of which around ten per cent are impassable at any time, with another ten thousand miles that are thought to have dropped off maps or otherwise misplaced. Finding them all again is like reconstructing the roots of a tree.

Now that’s all numbers, and numbers are, d’oh, quantitative. The thing is, walks in the English countryside are primarily qualitative affairs, with mud, styles to clamber across, flash thunderstorms and after-storm greenery, oaks with mistletoe or a thousand rooks high in their branches, willows, snails, birdsong, conversation with a friend or two.. Plato, Brahms, Ann Patchett, Feynmann, Hitchcock, .. with picnics and sandwiches along the way..

Freedom!

Qualitative beats quantitative all to smithereens.

**

If you look at the photo that accompanies Sam Knight‘s New Yorker piece [above], it belies the “unremarkable walk in the English countryside” mentioned in its caption — clear on the horizon is Glastonbury Tor, hardly an unremarkable location for English walkers.

Ever since my friend the late British hedgerow philosopher John Michell [above] — hedgerow and British Museum Reading Room philosopher, that is — wrote his startling best-seller The View Over Atlantis [below] —

— ever since that book appeared, new-agers and ramblers have rambled along ley lines and in search of standing stones — I was one such rambler, along with Michell himself and our mutual friend, the photographer Gabi Nasemann, though I fear I was the slowest and most complaining in our small party — where was I? — Glastonbury Tor has been a sort of seekers’ central for those whose imaginations project ley lines — equivalent to Chinese dragon-paths — across the actual lay of the land.

Another friend, Lex Neale, penned this piece, Glastonbury: King Arthur’s Field, giving an overview of Glastonbury and the supposed zodiac spread out around it —

for my then guru’s in-house magazine, lo these many years ago. By then I was in America. And we were young.

**

Why do I so love my memories of John Michell?

He was a William Blake returned, wrong by the mechanical standards of the age, right in imaginative reach.

It was in the Spring 1978 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly that I first read the text of John‘s A Defence of Sacred Measures. He’d published it as a pamphlet — the first in a series of “Radical Traditionalist Papers” to which our mutual friend the recently deceased Heathcote Willians also contributed — Heathcote {below] —

do watch this clip, it’ll only take three minutes of your lifetime, and they’ll be three minutes well-spent! —

— and Stewart Brand must have snagged it for CoEQ. Anyway, you can get the gist from the full title, in the format the pamphlet gave it, as you may have seen at the head of this post:

I’m deeply grateful to Zenpundit friend Grurray for pointing me to that cover and the full text of John‘s essay, which my own web searching hadn’t turned up. Grurray took particular pleasure in this excerpt:

the use of the foot locates the centre of the world within each individual, and encourages him to arrange his kingdom after the best possible model, the cosmic order. The ancient method of acquiring this model was not astronomy but initiation

For myself, it’s John‘s description of the cubit and sundry other measures — and their rationale — that gets me:

Cloth is sold by the cubit, the distance from elbow to finger tip, and other such units as the span and handbreadth were formerly used which have now generally become obsolete. Of course no two people have the same bodily dimensions, and the canonical man has never existed save as an idea or archetype. These traditional units are not, however, imprecise or inaccurate. Ancient societies regarded their standards of measure as their most sacred possessions and they have been preserved with extreme accuracy from the earliest times. A craftsman soon learns to what extent the parts of his own body deviate from the conventional standard and adjusts accordingly.

**

Oh, you may think this all a pretentious, anachronistic attempt to revive a moribund system. But consider this, from the LA Times in 1999:

NASA lost its $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter because spacecraft engineers failed to convert from English to metric measurements when exchanging vital data before the craft was launched, space agency officials said Thursday.

A navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the metric system of millimeters and meters in its calculations, while Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, which designed and built the spacecraft, provided crucial acceleration data in the English system of inches, feet and pounds.

As a result, JPL engineers mistook acceleration readings measured in English units of pound-seconds for a metric measure of force called newton-seconds.

In a sense, the spacecraft was lost in translation.

The Times assumes the correct procedure would have been “to convert from English to metric measurements” — but who says? One might equally argue the translation should have gone from metric to English.. the mother tongue, so to speak.

John Michell would lead us along that path..

Better angels and air traffic controllers

Monday, January 14th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — the curious, little noticed replacement of the heavens by the sky ]
.

In the introduction to my What sacred games shall we have to invent? — one of my favorite instance of the HipBone Games, take a look — I wrote:

The great German engraver Albrecht Dürer’s illustrations of the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) differ from contemporary televised images of warfare not only in terms of the armor and weaponry used, but also and more importantly by recording two worlds, the visible and the invisible, where the television camera records only the visible. The sky in television reports of war contains missiles and warplanes, and if anything “invisible” is depicted, it is invisible only by virtue of being viewed in the infra-red portion of the spectrum via night scope. Dürer’s sky is not merely “sky” but also “heaven”, and thus depicts that “war in heaven” alluded to in Revelations 12: 7, with its angels and demons and dragon, its Lady clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and crowned with the stars…

A crucial shift in the way in which we envision “reality” has occurred between Albrecht Dürer’s time and our own, and that shift has indeed largely deprived us of a real sense of the existence of an “invisible world” — whether it be the invisible world of faerie or sacrament, of poetic vision or apocalypse. That great modern prophet William Blake both predicted and lamented this loss, and his entire corpus of poetry and paintings can be viewed as a singular attempt to replace in our culture that visionary quality that our increasing scientism so easily deprives us of.

This shift in our understanding becomes exceedingly important when we come to consider the awesome potential of weapons now in the human arsenal: and nuclear weapons in particular. For while the “rational” conscious mind is considering Hermann Kahn’s Ladder of Escalation and other more recent “scenarios” and “game plans” in the “theater of war” with characteristic dispassion, the imagination by necessity views the imaginal… and our dreams, our hopes and fears are filled with those same ancient forces that John of Patmos perceived in his visions, and which Albrecht Dürer depicted in the imagery of his own time. As a culture, we are now largely “unconscious” of the war in heaven — but it has not ceased to influence our lives.

I remembered this when MSNBC host Bryan WIlliams told the presidential biographer Jon Meacham a day or two ago:

if you’re going to clear those better angels of yours fo takeoff, remember the air traffic controllers are working without salaries..

I don’t suppose Williams‘ mind made a big deal of the mildly ironic conflation of heaven and sky, angels and air traffic controllers, he’d managed here in what was surely a passing comment — but the juxtaposition is in fact a significant one, as significant as John Donne’s celebrated juxtaposition of the pre-scientific square earth and the scientific spherical one in the brilliant opening lines of his sonnet:

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels,

**

Of such juxtapositions are light laughs and great poems made..

Borders as metaphors and membranes

Monday, January 14th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — i continue in the opinion that limina, thresholds borders, have an archetypal importance that transcends and is embodied in individual cases ]
.

With the Wall the dominating issue of the current US government shutdown, tracking the penumbra of borders is all the more important: things look very different when you squint at them.

**

Previous posts in this topic area:

  • Zenpundit, Liminality II: the serious part
  • Zenpundit, The Korean border / no border dance
  • Zenpundit, Borders, limina and unity
  • **

    Alexis Madrigal, A Border Is Not a Wall:

    Borders are an invention, and not even an especially old one. Predated by the printing press by a good 200 years, borders are constantly under revision. Even the zone of a border itself, the Supreme Court has held, extends far beyond the technical outline of a nation. Imagine a border as the human-made thing that it is, and it’s no longer surprising that it takes a multitude of forms: a line on a map, a fence, a bundle of legal agreements, a set of sensors, a room in an airport, a metaphor.

    As Elia Zureik and Mark B. Salter explain in a book on policing, a controlled border creates the notion that domestic space is safe. Protecting “the border” safeguards the home, the family, and a way of life. This idea of safety is so potent that it has shut down the United States government.

    But the border itself—the line on a map, or the gate at a crossing—isn’t what’s at issue; it’s the idea of the border, a membrane that defines a nation while maximizing its market power.

    **
    _
    Humanitarian concerns:

    Dr John Sullivan‘s paper, Determining Reasonable and Proportional Use of Tear Gas offers a number of provocative insights, including the prohibition on the use of tear gases (CN> CS< CR), pepper spray (OC, capsicum), and sleeping gas on battlefields -- provocative since we normally think of battlefields as "worse" than peacetime situations, and thus that what's prohibited in wartime should be so a fortiori in times poof peace..

    Here’s the border-specific instance / comment that caught my eye:

    In the border control setting, the recent use of tear gas by CBP agents against migrants seeking asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), among others. The cross-border issues are also controversial and Mexico has demanded an investigation into the use of nonlethal weapons in the Tijuana incident.

    **

    In another post I hope will follow quickly on the heels of this one, I quote MSNBC host Bryan WIlliams telling Jon Meacham:

    if you’re going to clear those better angels of yours fo takeoff, remember the air traffic controllers are working without salaries..

    That’s an interesting juxtaposition if you think about it: angels and air traffic controllers f unction in two different above-earth atmospheres — heaven and sky, respectively — which used to be one at a time when myth and history were one, astrology and astronomy, alchemy and chemistry.

    Might we say there’s now a border between heaven and sky? If so, that next post can be considered an entry in this series, too.

    **

    Addendum, 1/15/2019:

    An excellent set of photos under that title educates us via our visual sensibility on the history and variety of walls:

    The current debate in the United States about building up and reinforcing the border wall with Mexico may have distinctly American roots, but the problems, and the controversial solutions, are global. Growing numbers of immigrants, terrorist activity, continued drug trafficking, and protracted wars have sparked the construction of temporary and permanent border barriers in many regions worldwide.

    Recommended!

    **

    Additional addendum:

    Ha, yes!

    GOV Employees Can Now Attend Suits and Spooks DC During Gov Shut Down

    Friday, January 11th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — i’ve always thought Suits and Spooks would be a great conference to attend, but finances & health have never quite permitted me.. ]
    .

    Over to you:

    Jeffrey Carr has opened Suits and Spooks DC to government employees for a nominal $5 donation to some mutual support group. So I raise my cup to toast him for an excellent response to the shutdown, and am passing his message along to any Zenpundit readers who may be interested:

    Read Jeffrey’s pitch on his blog here:

    GOV Employees Can Now Attend Suits and Spooks DC During Gov Shut Down


    Switch to our mobile site