Thoughts on Harmony on the Equinox

Emma-Kunz

It was incredibly lucky that around the time of the Autumn Equinox I got to make a trip to Emma Kunz Centre, where this nineteenth-century-born Swiss healer and painter lived and worked. Quiet and secluded, it was an ideal place to reflect on balance and its role in healing. A collection of her artwork oozed tranquility. It was beneficial to focus on single pieces and let them work through the mind and the body. Each of them was a remarkable feat of balance. Emma Kunz believed that healing was tantamount to activating the powers that lie dormant in everyone. She described her work as “design and shape as dimension, rhythm, symbol and transformation of numbers and concepts.” (“Gestaltung und Form als Mass, Rhythmus, Symbol und Wandlung von Zahl und Prinzip”). She used the pictures, which she completed in non-stop creative phases, when she would not eat or sleep, not only for healing but also to answer numerous esoteric questions her restless mercurial mind (she was a Gemini) produced every day. She preferred to refer to herself as a researcher rather than a healer.

The Centre is located in the old Roman quarry in Würenlos. There Emma Kunz discovered rock which she believed to have healing powers. She called it Aion A, the Greek word for age and eternity. For Plato, Aion was the eternal world of ideas – the true reality behind the manifest world of illusion. In the middle of the complex stands a magnificent stone cave. Emma Kunz claimed that the place had enormous harmonizing and balancing powers.

As I stood there, I had a feeling, banal perhaps, that, despite all the chaos in the world, harmony is the natural state of being. Two quotes capture that fleeting understanding:

“To have inner harmony is to be in accord with the eternal, and to be in accord with the eternal is to be enlightened.”

Lao Tsy

“Although the opposites flee from one another, they nevertheless strive for balance, since a state of conflict is too inimical to life to be endured indefinitely.”

C.G. Jung, “Mysterium Coniunctionis”

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Link:

https://www.emma-kunz.com/en/

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“The Guardian Angel” by R.M. Rilke

“You are the bird whose wings came

when I wakened in the night and called.

Only with my arms I called, because your name

is like a chasm, a thousand nights deep.

You are the shadows in which I quietly slept,

and your seed devised in me each dream,—

you are the image, but I am the frame

that makes you stand in glittering relief.

 

What shall I call you? Look, my lips are lame.

You are the beginning that gushes forth,

I am the slow and fearful Amen

that timidly concludes your beauty.

 

You have often snatched me out of dark rest

when sleep seemed like a grave to me

and like getting lost and fleeing,—

then you raised me out of heart-darknesses

and tried to hoist me onto all towers

like scarlet flags and bunting.

 

You: who talk of miracles as of common knowledge

and of men and women as of melodies

and of roses: of events

that in your eyes blazingly take place,—

you blessed one, when will you at last name Him

from whose seventh and last day

shards of glory can still be found

on the beating of your wings …

Do I need to ask?”

Translated by Edward Snow, found in R.M. Rilke, “The Book of Images”, Kindle edition

Leonardo da Vinci, detail from “Madonna of the Rocks”

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Osiris, Master of Silence and Renewal

path_hands_osiris

Osiris rising

Three giant statues of Osiris, Isis and Hapi, the Nile god of fertility, have been placed at the entrance to Museum Rietberg in Zurich. They were recovered from the sea bed by Franck Goddio, a French underwater archaeologist, who directed excavations of the site of Thonis-Heracleion, a long-forgotten sunken city which played a key role in Egypt before the establishment of Alexandria. It was here, in the trading hub, that the Greeks and the Egyptians first came into contact and where they forged a close relationship. Hapi, “god of fertility, lord of the river, life-giving steward of its floods,”

Hapi

“stood for centuries at the very edge of ancient Egypt, gazing down imperiously upon the trading ships as they blew in from the Mediterranean. … And, on his plinth at the western mouth of the Nile, a massive red granite gatekeeper to one of the greatest port cities on earth.

Until one day, probably towards the end of the second century BC, there was a tremor and the ground began to churn and liquefy at Hapy’s feet. He wobbled, lurched, and then six tonnes of intricately carved stonework crashed into the sea.”

From https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/15/lost-cities-6-thonis-heracleion-egypt-sunken-sea

A recreation of Thonis-Heracleion

The exhibition “Osiris, Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries” is a rare treat. Its most outstanding part is devoted to the mysteries of Osiris, celebrated in the month of Khoiak, which was the last month of the inundation of the Nile, when the fields were fertilized and ready for cultivation. Those elaborate ceremonies commemorated the god’s death and rebirth. Though I thought I was well familiar with the myth of Osiris, never before had I pondered and experienced it so deeply as at the exhibition. The curators managed to recreate an eery underwater ambience with subdued light and scant use of new technologies. Somehow, despite the crowds, the atmosphere was quite intimate, the connection with the Master of Silence very palpable.

impressionen-aus-der-ausstellung-osiris-im-museum-rietberg

Museum Rietberg

The threat of the sea was very real in ancient Egypt, where a number of cities sank beneath the waves. Seth, the brother and assassin of Osiris, as can be read in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition (written by Franck Goddio and David Fabre), “was the incarnation of that element of disorder (chaos) that is intrinsically embedded in order and is necessary for its dynamics. The pharaoh, in fact,“assembled and united in his person the two incessantly warring gods who found their balance in him.” Any order is always threatened with dissolution, as all human structures are fragile. Yet in every death there is a seed of rebirth and regeneration. As Plutarch put it, “Osiris is the Nile uniting with Isis the earth, and Seth is the sea into which the Nile rushes, disperses and vanishes.”

The dismemberment of Osiris by Seth was into 14 or 42 parts, depending on the source. Fourteen represents “the days of the waning moon as parts of it are subtracted from the full disk.” The waxing phase is Isis’ quest to reconstitute the body of Osiris, “culminating in complete reapparance of the full moon.” An alternative source talks about 42 parts which represent 42 Egyptian nomes, i.e. administrative units. Because the body of Osiris was the body of Egypt. His dark skin was the dark fertile earth and a cradle for the crops. As vegetation comes out of decomposition, so did Horus came into the world from the posthumous union of Osiris and Isis. Thus the dismembered corpse became the source of life and nourishment.

The valley of the Nile with its black fertile earth gave birth to the word alchemy, from the old Egyptian word kemet, i.e. the Black Earth. The Canopus vase, representing Osiris, contained “water from the inundation mixed with the bodily fluids  of the god resulting from the putrefaction of his corpse, to fertilize the black earth of Egypt.”

Osiris Hydreios statue

In their wisdom, the Egyptians connected the agricultural cycle of death and regeneration with the experience of the soul in the afterlife. All the dead “participated in the course of the sun, which like Osiris, perpetually regenerated and triumphed  over darkness.” As it often happens, when the mind is occupied with a subject, answers start coming unexpectedly from various sources. I was pondering the life and death cycle locked in the myth of Osiris, when I came across an article entitled “Sacred Soil” written by Stephali Patel for the new issue of the Parabola magazine (Fall 2017). He opens his article like this:

“SOIL IS BORN FROM THE CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH. Soil is about 50% air and water, 45% minerals, and 5% organic matter. Soil mineral is formed from the wearing of bedrock that is birthed from core of the earth. This weathering takes thousands of years and much of our present day agricultural soils are more than 10,000 years old. But before there was an Earth, there was just universe. The universe was originally composed primarily of the lighter atomic elements hydrogen and helium. The rest of the heavier elements, including carbon and oxygen, were fused in the hearts of the giant floating nuclear reactors we call stars. When a massive star is dying, it becomes hotter and hotter; its pressure-fueled expansion culminating in a violent explosion, a supernova. These massive explosions blow the heavier elements in the star’s core out into space, where they are incorporated into the formation of other planets, moons, and stars. The minerals within and on the earth come from stars that died when the universe was young. All living matter on Earth is composed of this ancient debris. And stars are still dying and exploding. Every year, 40,000 tons of cosmic dust rains down upon us, erasing all validity of human conceived borders. This cosmic dust settles everywhere, particularly in our soil. The chemical elements in the cosmic dust are taken up by plants, which are then eaten by us. Our bodies are constantly being rebuilt and nourished by dying stars.”

Book of the Dead showing ploughing with oxen

Osiris was the son of Earth (Geb – male) and Sky (Nut – female). The heliacal rising of Sirius was used annually to predict the coming of the Nile flood. This heavenly event marked the onset of earthly celebrations of Osirian mysteries down below. First, the sacred drama was staged – Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth. Officiants placed a mummified figure of the god in a tank garden. The statuette, made with barley and the black silt collected from the rising Nile, was watered until it germinated and turned into “Osiris vegetans.” Simultaneously, another figure of Osiris was made from precious stones and resins.  This latter effigy was later transported in a barque greeted by a jubilant crowd:

“The divine barque navigated from Thonis-Heracleion to the holiest of holies in the Osireion – the ‘tomb of Osiris’ – in Canopus. The liturgical procession observed the course of the sun and the moon (moving from east to west). The course of the festivity merged with the cosmic trajectory: in the divine morning, the god crossed his town in rejoicing: he had triumphed over death and came forth entire, just like the moon had crossed invisibility to triumph in its fullness. The journey on water which followed symbolized the passage from the world of the living to the Afterlife (the west).

At the onset of the inundation, the offering of the primeval water was an evocation of the original birth of Osiris, prelude to the quest for the body, dismembered, reconstituted, interred, and returned to life.”

In every great mythical drama the strands of opposites are constantly being woven and unravelled while nature seeks to transmute itself. Osiris taught humans agriculture, provided them with laws and brought them civilization. But he would not have done any of these things without the nourishing power of  darkness, chaos, passivity and wetness.

Grain growing from the body of Osiris, via https://cowofgold.wikispaces.com/Osiris

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In Defense of the Primeval Forest

“The edge of the cancer
Swells against the hill-we feel
a foul breeze-And it sinks back down.
The deer winter here
A chainsaw growls in the gorge.

Ten wet days and the log trucks stop,
The trees breathe.
Sunday the 4-wheel jeep of the
Realty Company brings in
Landseekers, lookers, they say
To the land,
Spread your legs.

The jets crack sound overhead, it’s OK
here;
Every pulse of the rot at the heart
In the sick fat veins of Amerika
Pushes the edge up closer–

A bulldozer grinding and slobbering
Sideslipping and belching on top of
The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes
In the pay of a man
From town.

Behind is a forest that goes to the Arctic
And a desert that still belongs to the
Piute
And here we must draw
Our line.

As the crickets’ soft autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills.”

Gary Snyder, “Front Lines”

The ancient Bialowieza forest, home to 800 bison and one of Europe’s last primeval woodland, is under serious threat. The Polish government has ordered massive logging operations, justifying them with half-baked excuses about an alleged bark beetle threat. Although the European court of justice has issued a ban on the logging operations, the nationalistic, anti-EU Polish officials are determined to ignore it. The motives of the government are not merely financial. The war waged in Poland is first and foremost cultural. This has been lucidly explained by a Polish blogger here  He claims convincingly that the Bialowieza conflict is part and parcel of an ideological war. The right-wing, Catholic government views nature as separated from humans, who are in the right to do with it what they will. In their eyes, nature is not wise or self-regulating. It needs human control and intervention. The current Minister of Environment declared the following recently:

“We cannot allow for humankind to be perceived as the greatest threat to natural resources; we do not accept that the ban on logging trees or killing animals, promoted by Satanists on the one hand and kind-hearted people with little knowledge about the natural world on the other, is the only way to protect the environment.”

Unregulated, wild nature is Satan’s domain. It needs to be subdued and exorcised so that it can serve humans. How far we are here from shamanism and the wisdom of indigenous cultures. As David Abram puts it in his wonderful book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World:

“The traditional or tribal shaman, I came to discern, acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth.

Magic, then, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives—from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself—is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.”

Balowieza is a place of primeval magical intelligence. It does not need humans to flourish. As Alan Weisman wrote in The World Without Us, it is:

“Europe’s last remaining fragment of old-growth, lowland wilderness. Think of the misty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Here, ash and linden trees tower nearly 150 feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangled understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi. … The air, thick and cool, is draped with silence that parts briefly for a nutcracker’s croak, a pygmy owl’s low whistle, or a wolf’s wail, then returns to stillness.

The fragrance that wafts from eons of accumulated mulch in the forest’s core hearkens to fertility’s very origins.”

And here comes the key passage:

“In the Bialowieza, the profusion of life owes much to all that is dead. Almost a quarter of the organic mass aboveground is in assorted stages of decay – more than 50 cubic yards of decomposing trunks and fallen branches on every acre, nourishing thousands of species of mushrooms, lichens, bark beetles, grubs, and microbes that are missing from the orderly, managed woodlands that pass as forests elsewhere.”

Culling and selling mature trees prevents them from becoming “a windfall of nutrients to the forest.” If we want nature to continue nourishing and sustaining us in the same way, the best course of action is to let her do her magic unencumbered.

Caspar David Friedrich, “The Chasseur in the Forest”

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Redeeming the World by the Mystique of Words: Tibetan Prayer Flags

“The cairns of piled stones that mark the high passes are spiked with poles where prayer flags fly. Who hung them in these lonely defiles we cannot tell. As the wind funnels through the passes, their inscriptions stream in faded tatters. With every flutter, it is believed, the wind disperses their prayer into the world, to ease the suffering of all sentient beings. And they will propitiate whatever capricious mountain gods control the pass. I touch them gingerly: the Tibetan script that I do not understand. I have seen them before in China and in regions of Tibetan exile, and every time they stir a poignant wonder. They glare in five primary colours, embodying earth, air, fire, water and sky. Like the prayer wheels that circle holy sites or turn in the hands of pilgrims, they redeem the world by the mystique of words. Some, near monasteries, are even turned by flowing water. Many are stamped with the wind horse, who flies their mantras on his jewelled back; others with the saint Padmasambhava, who restored Buddhism to Tibet. Iswor circles them reverently, clockwise. I follow him, glad, for some reason, of his faith. Sometimes the flags are so thinned that their prayers are as diaphanous as cobwebs. But this, Iswor says, does not matter. The air is already printed with their words.”

Colin Thubron, “To a Mountain in Tibet”

 

 

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The Sublime Silence of Stonehenge

“Pile of Stone-henge! so proud to hint yet keep Thy secrets, thou that lov’st to stand and hear

The Plain resounding to the whirlwind’s sweep,

Inmate of lonesome Nature’s endless year.”

William Wordsworth’s , “Guilt and sorrow; or incidents upon Salisbury Plain”

 

By John Constable

Never mind the busy motorway nearby, never mind the throngs of tourists, Stonehenge was a consciousness-shattering experience. The horizontal lintels placed on massive vertical posts looked like portals, which, though ruinous now, are still capable of transporting the mind beyond itself. The Romantics so rightly spoke of the “sublime terror” of the monument; while contemporary authors, such as John North, marvel at its embodiment of spiritual forces. This undeniable sense of awe and wonder is not shrunk by the awareness that we may never know why it was built, and what purpose it served. The scholarly consensus is that it was a place of burial, that the stones were aligned in astronomically significant ways, and that it always attracted great numbers of people, even from most distant places. In an article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Ed Caesar talks to archeologist Vince Gaffney, who compares the experience of Stonehenge to Jerusalem Syndrome, “the feeling of intense emotion experienced by pilgrims on their first sighting of the Holy City.” The eerie, “cathedralesque” monument has always sparked utmost awe and devotion.

The Heel Stone

It is perhaps universally known that the so-called Heel Stone aligns with the rising sun on the summer solstice as seen from the stone circle. It is perhaps less known that on the same day the sun rises along the Avenue, a pathway which in present time is cut off from the henge by a road. However, some authors, notably Paul D. Burley, have suggested that there exists a deeper correspondence between the Stonehenge Landscape and the heavens above. His findings have not been scholarly acknowledged; nevertheless, they are worth considering. He sees Stonehenge and an extensive area surrounding it as a ritual landscape, place of healing and domain of ancestors. A similar assumption has also been made by renowned professors and experts on Stonehenge, Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright. According to them, people came to Stonehenge to be cured. The so-called blue stones, which are smaller and located in the centre of the monument, were believed to have healing properties. They came from an unbelievable distance of 200 miles and were brought from a mountain in Wales. To this day, it has not been established what methods were used to transport them to the Salisbury Plain.

Hamish Fenton, Looking along the Avenue to Stonehenge, via http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=2146413920

Burley, however, goes even further and deeper in his claims about the symbolism of Stonehenge, which was built around the same time as the Egyptian pyramids. While I do not share his absolute confidence that lo and behold we have solved the ancient mystery, I found his book worthwhile. Personally, I have no doubt that Stonehenge, equally to the pyramids, holds the key to astounding secrets and truths about the dawn of our civilization. Burley puts forward an intriguing hypothesis of a translocation of the Winter Hexagon, the Milky Way and Orion onto the Stonehenge Landscape. The Winter Hexagon, an egg-shaped asterism, was, as Burley writes, perceived by ancient and indigenous cultures as the source of life – “where life began and where life returns.” Further, Burley sees the Greater Cursus (a long trench-like structure) as representing the Milky Way, or “the pathway for the spirit’s return to its home in the cosmos.” The Avenue, in turn, is supposed to be “the product of translocating the right arm of Orion onto the Stonehenge Landscape.” The arm of Orion receives the body of the dead, welcoming it to the Netherworld. I find the following passages from Burley’s book particularly significant:

The Winter Hexagon

“There is notable difference in shape between the Greater Cursus and the Avenue built centuries later. The cursus appears to be very much inorganic in form, constructed of straight lines and sharp corners, like broken ice, sherds of pottery, flakes from toolmaking, triangles formed by the astral nodes and links of constellations. It is the spirit’s gateway between Earth and sky. Conversely, the Avenue has no sharp corners. It is organic in shape, curved, flowing, getaway to the end of life made manifest.

The Greater Cursus is immense. Its size, shape and outline in white … was meant to be seen from above, the cosmos and Creator looking at earth and seeing a reflection of themselves.

The Winter Hexagon is where spirits come from, and where spirits return. Upon death the body was interred to Earth, while the spirit took to the spirit path – the Milky Way beginning at Sirius – on its return journey from Earth to the centre of the Winter Hexagon. That is where Orion as the psychopomp Sky King or Queen (perhaps both) waited to welcome the spirit in his right hand.

Sunrise occurred in the constellation Cancer during summer solstice morning in 2500 BCE. … if we could see below the horizon at sunrise on summer solstice Orion would appear with right arm raised, pointing directly toward the sun, as if bringing forth the sun into the sky… In this capacity we see why Orion … is called the ‘Bringer of Light.’”

In Greek myth, Orion assaulted Merope and was blinded in revenge by her father. He recovered his eyesight thanks to the rays of the sun god Helius after being guided in the direction of the rising sun. There he fell in love with Eos, goddess of the dawn. For Ancient Egyptians, Orion was a manifestation of Osiris, while Sirius was associated with Isis. Together they brought to life Horus, the New King. Burley sees an analogy between a Late Neolithic festival and the ancient Egyptian myth of death and rebirth. The germinating seed, the zygote, so intimately associated with Osiris and Isis in Ancient Egypt, seems to be a universal symbol, connected across times and cultures to the area of the sky known as the Orion constellation. Says Burley:

“There are cultural traditions which may explain a sacred ritual-based transfer of Orion from sky to Stonehenge. The connection may be associated with a Late Neolithic festival and ritual similar to the Iron Age Celtic Lughnasadh. In ancient Irish mythology Lugh is a hero and a High King. The bright One with the strong hand , related to Latin lux light.

…the beginning of a prototypal two week Lughnasadh celebration ca. 2500 BC coincided with the first appearance (heliacal rising) of Orion, ending with the joining of Orion with Earth at Stonehenge during mid-August. For the people of Salisbury Plain… this intercourse ensuring new life in the following year was between Lugh … and the Earth Goddess.

With appearance of the symbolic king (Lugh as Orion) the people may have begun anticipating consummation of life by the new king and Earth inside the goddess’s enclosure – the womb – the centre of Stonehenge.”

It never ceases to amaze me how consistent religious symbolism is across cultures. Can there be any other explanation than the Jungian collective unconscious churning out symbols from within individual psyches across time and space? And yet, I would like Stonehenge to be free of any reductive explanations. It may be that forcing all kinds of symbolic robes on the bare and primal Stones is an exercise in futility. What if the Stones, like constellations, precede all such attempts? They come from the times before gods were named, when sacred symbols were only emerging. They have that numinous quality so beautifully described by Rudolf Otto:

“…we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, mysterium tremendum. . . . The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. . . . It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.”

Via https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rudolf-Otto#ref226756

 Perhaps all we can do is bow before them in silence.

By William Blake

 Sources and links:

Paul D. Burley, Stonehenge – As above, so below: Unveiling the Spirit Path on Salisbury Plain, New Generation Publishing 2014

Ed Caesar, “What Lies Benath Stonehenge?”, via http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-lies-beneath-Stonehenge-180952437/

Jesse Harasta, History’s Greatest Mysteries: Stonehenge, Charles Rivera editors, Kindle edition

Jonathan Morris, Stonehenge: Solving the Neolithic Universe, Kindle edition

John North, Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos, Kindle edition

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/sep/23/archaeology.heritage

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/apr/25/stonehenge-tunnel-desecration-prehistoric-traffic-jams

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Let Your Beauty Manifest Itself

By Susan Seddon Boulet

I. “Let your beauty manifest itself
without talking and calculation.
You are silent. It says for you: I am.
And comes in meaning thousandfold,
comes at long last over everyone.”

Reiner Maria Rilke, “Initial,” translated by Edward Snow, in: The Book of Images, Kindle edition

II. “The crown chakra is the thousand-petaled lotus. Most people think of the petals as reaching up into the heavens; actually, the lotus petals turn downward like a sunflower, dripping nectar into the crown and down through the chakras. In this way, the two ends of the spectrum are profoundly connected. … The crown chakra is a two-way gate to the beyond. It opens outward, beyond ourselves to the infinite, and it opens inward and downward to the world of visions, creation, and eventual manifestation.”

Anodea Judith, “Eastern Body, Western Mind”

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The Swelling Sound of Beauty Arriving: The Writing of Elena Ferrante

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Two girls grow up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Naples. To merely describe them as friends would be an understatement, for they share a ferocious bond. It all started while they were playing with their dolls alongside each other:

 “We saw each other in the courtyard more and more frequently. We showed off our dolls to each other but without appearing to, one in the other’s vicinity, as if each of us were alone. At some point we let the dolls meet, as a test, to see if they got along. And so came the day when we sat next to the cellar window with the curled grating and exchanged our dolls, she holding mine and I hers, and Lila abruptly pushed Tina through the opening in the grating and dropped her. I felt an unbearable sorrow. I was attached to my plastic doll; it was the most precious possession I had. I knew that Lila was mean, but I had never expected her to do something so spiteful to me. For me the doll was alive, to know that she was on the floor of the cellar, amid the thousand beasts that lived there, threw me into despair. But that day I learned a skill at which I later excelled. I held back my despair, I held it back on the edge of my wet eyes, so that Lila said to me in dialect: “You don’t care about her?” I didn’t answer. I felt a violent pain, but I sensed that the pain of quarreling with her would be even stronger. I was as if strangled by two agonies, one already happening, the loss of the doll, and one possible, the loss of Lila. I said nothing, I only acted, without spite, as if it were natural, even if it wasn’t natural and I knew I was taking a great risk. I merely threw into the cellar her Nu, the doll she had just given me. Lila looked at me in disbelief. “What you do, I do,” I recited immediately, aloud, very frightened. “Now go and get it for me.” “If you go and get mine.”

 

The inner workings of the psyche are scrutinized by Elena Ferrante with raw honesty rarely found in literature. In one of the rare interviews, she expressed a conviction that good books do not change your life, but rather, if they are really good, they hurt and bring confusion. Or, as Kafka put it in a celebrated quote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” The titular brilliant friend is Lila, whose story is retold by Elena when they are both in their 60s. Lila’s charisma is palpable throughout the novel; it is hard not to share the same feeling of awe which Elena always felt towards her friend:

 “Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.

…she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.

But there was nothing to be done: something had begun to emanate from Lila’s mobile body that the males sensed, an energy that dazed them, like the swelling sound of beauty arriving.”

This kind of raw feminine power and agency is rare in literature and has a brilliantly refreshing quality to it. All the more so that the neighbourhood where they grow up is full of violence, both direct and covert, as Ferrante pointed out in another interview.

Another striking quality of the Neapolitan novels is that their author, presumably a woman, has chosen to remain anonymous. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. The only interviews she gives are in written form. She stated in one of them: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” In this way, the books gain a mythical aura, similar to ancient volumes through which the gods spoke.  In one of the most memorable passages, Elena is taken to see the sea by her father:

“Finally he said that he would show me Vesuvius from close up, and the sea. It was an unforgettable moment. We went toward Via Caracciolo, as the wind grew stronger, the sun brighter. Vesuvius was a delicate pastel-colored shape, at whose base the whitish stones of the city were piled up, with the earth-colored slice of the Castel dell’Ovo, and the sea. But what a sea. It was very rough, and loud; the wind took your breath away, pasted your clothes to your body and blew the hair off your forehead. We stayed on the other side of the street in a small crowd, watching the spectacle. The waves rolled in like blue metal tubes carrying an egg white of foam on their peaks, then broke in a thousand glittering splinters and came up to the street with an oh of wonder and fear from those watching. What a pity that Lila wasn’t there. I felt dazed by the powerful gusts, by the noise. I had the impression that, although I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them.

Perhaps no other passage better describes the effect Ferrante’s prose has had on me. The psyche is viciously powerful, and yet lyrical and beautiful, like the “pastel-colored” volcano.

Links:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/12/18/italys-great-mysterious-storyteller/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/06/elena-ferrante-frantumaglia-extract-books-no-need-authors

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Greed and Minimalism

Hieronymus Bosch, “Greed” (from the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things)

“Take greed. Do you know what greed is? It is eating more food than you need, wanting to outshine others at games, wanting to have more property, a bigger car than someone else. Then you say that you must not be greedy, so you practice non-greed – which is really silly, because greed can never cease by trying to become non-greed. But if you begin to understand all the implications of greed, if you give your mind and heart to finding the truth of it, then you are free from greed as well as from its opposite. Then you are a really intelligent human being, because you are tackling what is and not imitating what should be.

So if you are dull, don’t try to be intelligent or clever, but understand what it is that is making you dull. Imitation, fear, copying somebody, following an example or an ideal — all this makes the mind dull. When you stop following, when you have no fear, when you are capable of thinking clearly for yourself — are you not then the brightest of human beings? But if you are dull and try to be clever you will join the ranks of those who are pretty dull in their cleverness.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

According to the doctrine of enantiodromia, introduced by C.G. Jung and inspired by Heraclitus, the superabundance of one thing creates its opposite. If the pendulum swings to the furthest right, it will inevitably swing to the left. A documentary Minimalism (http://minimalismfilm.com/watch/), which I have recently seen on Netflix, asks all the important questions while providing a true diagnosis of rampant consumerism. It is true that we live “on the hunt” for bigger, better and more stuff. It is a valid point that advertising and fashion trends create and feed the need for the new. It is hard to argue that consumerism feeds and feeds off the lowest human instincts – greed, competitiveness, egocentrism, insecurity, and so on. Time is definitely ripe for downsizing our excessive lifestyles.

The Minimalists are two men who used to be enormously successful in the corporate America standard manner while now they are equally successful as mentors to humanity. As can be read on their website, they “help over 20 million people live meaningful lives with less through their website, books, podcast, and documentary. The Minimalists have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Forbes, TIME, ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, CBC, and NPR.” It is notable that all the newly-converted minimalists interviewed in the documentary used to be highly successful in the conventional understanding of the word; as if minimalism was an exclusive club where the poor have no access.  It is ironic that the Netflix documentary’s final scene features the two Minimalists addressing a crowd in LA (of all places), who are visibly moved by their words. It seems as if for the two men too much minimalism has created space for maximum success.

Minimalism appeals to me as an idea. I sympathize with the thought that by focusing on what we can achieve and acquire in the outside world, we turn away from the pressing needs of our Selves. However, the quote by Krishnamurti, which I have included as my motto, invites to look deeper at the issue. The real challenge is to grow beyond greed and its opposite, which in this case is minimalism. In this pure awareness lies the true freedom of the soul. Otherwise, we will be just swinging with the pendulum of the current trends – be it minimalism or consumerism.

Morris Graves, “State of the World”

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Living the Question: the Voynich Manuscript

Voynich manuscript excerpt (via Wikipedia)

It is astonishing how ideas often appear in our awareness in curious juxtapositions. While working doggedly and hopelessly on fathoming the mystery of Stonehenge, my mind was sidetracked by an article on The Voynich Manuscript – an enigmatic medieval volume whose script has never been decoded. Like Stonehenge, the notorious manuscript has fascinated and eluded the finest minds for centuries. Written in a language not known to humans, containing images of fantastical plants not to be found on the earth as well as a plethora of baffling astronomical and astrological images, it richly feeds imagination but laughs at the face of reason. There have been theories about the alien origin of the manuscript. Terence McKenna referred to it as “an object from another dimension.” It has been quite firmly established that it was written in a language rather than a code. This explains why the most renowned cryptographers have had no success with it. If it is indeed written in a natural language, the manuscript is the only available written record of it in the whole world. The National Security Agency has published a volume devoted to numerous futile attempts on cracking its code, preceded by an inspiring quote from Roger Bacon: “Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, nor does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience… Therefore reasoning does not suffice, but experience does.” It is curious how the manuscript speaks to us as if beyond the rational mind could ever grasp. We experience its magnificence in the same way as we are captivated by the ca 7000- year-old circle of stones on the Salisbury Plain.

The manuscript can be viewed in its entirety on the website of Yale University (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/voynich-manuscript) as well as on its Wikipedia page. Eamon Duffy wrote an interesting article on it for the current issue of The New York Review of Books. I appreciated the author’s fascination with the flamboyant Polish-Lithuanian bookdealer, who discovered the manuscript. If books have personalities, then the quirky manuscript could not have chosen a more original persona as its name-giver. Wilfrid Michael Voynich (known as Wojnicz before he anglicized his name) was born in a noble family and given stellar education in Krakow, Poland. He acquired several doctorate degrees and vast knowledge of several languages. As a plotting revolutionary, he was arrested by Russian authorities and sent to Siberia, from which he managed to escape on a forged passport. He travelled through Mongolia, China, Germany, finally reaching England utterly destitute, having even sold coat and glasses to pay for the passage. It came to pass that in England he utterly reinvented himself into a rogue and brilliantly successful “buyer and seller of rare books.” He managed to acquire numerous books which were coveted by the British Library itself. Among his clients were the most prestigious collectors and institutions, not only the Bristish Library but also the British Museum. He owned a few prestigious shops in London and later in the USA, where he settled.

Voynich

Last year in January, a Spanish company Siloe bought the rights to make 898 official replicas of the manuscript, which has been locked in the vaults of Yale University since 1969. It was supposed to take 18 months to make the first facsimiles. Will the multiplication of the volume increase the chances of fathoming its mystery?  Will the replicas capture a fraction of the original’s mysterious aura? Juan Jose Garcia, director of Silos, said in an interview that “touching the Voynich is an experience. It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe.” Rather than focus on an intellectual solution to the riddle of the manuscript, perhaps we should “try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language,” as Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet.

Links:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/04/20/voynich-manuscript-secret-knowledge-or-hoax/

http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/FeaturesEurope/EasternPoland_Voynich01.htm

http://www.history.com/news/exact-replicas-of-the-mysterious-voynich-manuscript-to-be-published

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