Each a sort of promise

23.5 Degrees

Alchemical symbols trigger what feels like happy nostalgia in me. Like remembering when all that is marvelous was still before me, still somehow within reach.

When I look at the image above with fresh eyes and put aside what I was thinking about while I drew it, the rippling liquid suggests to me that something below the surface is moving into or out of awareness. The colors trigger associations. Gold suggests value. Green suggests something vital and alive. For me that sort of musing has always been very satisfying and even emotionally refreshing.

A remain charmed by the visual delights of alchemy, and by the fantastic images evoked by some alchemical texts, which can be fabulously entertaining and generally have me muttering, “What the heck is that supposed to mean?” But over time I find that a layer of cerebral enjoyment is getting blended in as well, proceeding from a growing sense that three rather distinct flavors of alchemical writing are coming into focus.

1. True Believers

There is an alchemical text called The Golden Chain of Homer that gives us moderns an opportunity to deep-dive into the mind of an 18th century alchemist. Unlike many alchemical works that offer how-tos with smatterings of philosophical references, The Golden Chain presents at length, in well-organized and devout terms, the author’s theist worldview from which an alchemical approach proceeds founded upon what appears to me to be sort of eclectic fundamentalism. The book begins…

NATURE is that amalgamation, which is brought together by the Creator, including the visible and invisible worlds, and containing in Itself both visible and invisible creatures, all of which function solely due to the essence (being) and presence of God.

For the better understanding by men of the creation, the natural visible and the supernatural invisible realms are separated, but, in the final analysis, this is of no concern to us, because we believe that all and everything has been naturally made by God, out of the Chaos and the Great No-Thing of Void.

The Golden Chain was written by Dr. Anton Josef Kirchweger and first printed in German in 1723, but it has been lovingly translated into plain-English and edited by volunteer members of the Restorers of Alchemical Manuscripts Society. Perhaps because my thoughts cannot untangle themselves from my understanding of myself as living in a particle accelerator epoch, I find much of the book uncomfortable to read. But that may be the book’s biggest gift to me — a stark reminder that belief in an unverifiable something or someone can persuasively serve as the foundation upon which massive structures of thought can be built. I marvel that late in human history, and very late in the history of alchemy, an accomplished, articulate German doctor’s studies and experiments would move him to compose a work that systematically details his understanding of how formless chaos transitions to all the stuff of physical existence through a process established long ago by a creator and ruler of the universe. Set down at a time when alchemy had lost its glamour and was generally coming to be understood as the old name for chemistry or a scam.

It may be confirmation bias talking, but these considerations bolster my instinct that psychology and physics ever and always careen along parallel tracks, and what ties them together is the human mind’s tendency to frame information in fundamentally human terms…prominent among them that there are beginnings and ends, and that we matter.

2. What they were “Actually” doing

For a wonderful contemporary take on alchemy check out The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700 by Jennifer M. Rampling. One of the fun progressions the book charts is the shift in center of gravity for alchemical authority, at least in England, from the teachings of sages of old to experimentation, especially in the 1400s — three centuries before Dr. Kirchweger’s deist-centric Golden Chain. I find this especially thought provoking since I think it is reasonable to regard Dr. Kirchweger as a rather prominent experimenter of his time. Yet for him, his studies and experiments pushed the origins of alchemical causal principles back beyond the teachings of Aristotle and other revered authorities to assumed divine intentions at an assumed beginning of time. I ask myself, who has intentions and thinks in terms of beginnings and ends? I’m pretty sure human beings do, and I think it’s possible nothing else does. Consequently, I wonder if perhaps Dr. Kirchweger studied what he was seeing as deeply as his capacity and tools permitted, then projected pious intentions upon all antecedent steps back to an assumed starting point of all physical existence.

3. What it all means (in a psychological sense)

The Golden Chain discussed above offer lots of marvelous ideas. For example, fire moves air, air moves water, and water moves earth. Another is the cosmic origins proposition that a warm breath “resolved and thickened” into a water out of which every thing emerged. I’m reminded of a take away from C.G. Jung’s autobiography (another marvelous read) – a modern person might note that someone has projected personal psychological material onto an external object, but that same modern person must not forget to also consider deeply the possible meaning of the image cast by the projection for both the person making the projection and oneself…an exercise that can sometimes trigger a sensation like remembering. Like standing once again before a door that is always and ever opening.

For example, Jung worked with a patient who was 17 years old and catatonic when he first met her; “her hands were cold and bluish, she had livid patches on her face and dilated feebly reacting pupils.” The young patient believed that she lived on the moon where she offered herself to a vampire as a way of shielding the moon’s women and children who had long been victimized by the monster.

Let’s imagine Jung and the patient meeting together, week after week. The patient’s occasional mutterings gradually expanding into intelligible sentences. All the while Jung is entirely confident that he is in Zurich on the earth, and the patient is certain she is on the moon. Chico Marx’s immortal quip, “Who ya gonna believe me or your own eyes?” comes to mind.

On the one hand, Jung the psychiatrist can see that the patient is projecting her personal psychological material upon her earthly surroundings, but he also notes that on the moon she is the hero of an epic adventure…a savior who protects women and children from a horrible fate. A circumstance very different from the abuse her family, and others she should have been able to trust, had inflicted upon her, against which she could not defend herself and had driven her insane. As the patient began to recover an awareness of the earth she explained to Jung, “Why should I return…this world is not beautiful, but the moon is beautiful and life there is rich in meaning.” From their overlapping combinations of inner and outer experiences, layers of meaning emerged for Jung too, who gradually earned the opportunity to also become a redemptive figure in their now shared story. Slowly drawing the young woman back from the “lunacy” that was sucking the life out of her.

In his late 20s, W.B. Yeats gave voice to “the revolt of the soul against the intellect”. I think Jung might have counseled that soul and intellect are fellow travelers. Or as Giovanni/MacDonald might have styled them “pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.”

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Errabundis

Errabundis Cover

If you haven’t already read Errabundis by Carol Budinger, I hope you will consider giving it a go.  It is beautiful, original and very satisfying.  It is also a deeply refreshing counterbalance to the wallow-in-meanness themes that pervade much current epic fantasy.

Errabundis is a love story on personal, social and cosmic levels.  In the face of great peril, through their care and kindness, the core characters discover who they truly are and that what they do matters.  Their actions not only save their world, but also change the underpinnings of all existence for the better.  A fine, timely and comforting work.

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The Errabundis website

Self-Indulgence and Sadism

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In the last chapter of his marvelous and frightening book “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy”, Tom Nichols observes:

But if we have learned anything in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, it is that people will think hard – or they will convince themselves that they have tried to do so – and still come up with incomprehensible and reckless anti-democratic conclusions … if the citizens of modern democracies were the kind of people willing to engage in the kind of honest reflection that leads to a commitment to political maturity, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.

My reading of Professor Nichols’s book suggests to me that he holds out hope that Americans and citizens in other democracies can still decide not to destroy themselves…that we can think their way off the road to ruin.  I’m less optimistic.

The primary reason for my pessimism is that I think human consciousness, like the biological machine that carries it, continues to evolve.  And that an ever-increasing number of human beings are now possessed of a form of consciousness that manifests itself in selfish and fundamentally sadistic behavior.  In what follows I’ll refer to such folks as “always frustrated people” (AFPs for short). 

I hypothesize that way back in time the fundamental human experience of itself was as a group, but since long before recorded history the trend in the evolution of human consciousness has been toward increased self-awareness, with the result that now LOTS of human beings experience themselves as entirely individual.  These are the folks I think of as AFPs because it is inevitable that someone who experiences everything only through the lens of their own feelings and ideas must live in a state of constant frustration.  They can’t have everything they want.  They are constantly confronted with ideas they don’t agree with.  And I’m guessing a great many of their own ideas form around the day in, day out frustration of their desires.

People who are constantly frustrated, and AFPs almost always are, seem to live in a state of perpetual anger.   Since their exclusively individual experience is the only experience they know, they are unable to imagine that others’ self-experience is different.  Consequently, they are certain that whether others admit it or not, everyone else is also deeply, perpetually frustrated and consumed with resentment.  This assumption…this projection on others that they are all also perpetually frustrated and consumed with resentment…makes anyone who challenges them in any way “a lying, weaselly jerk who thinks he’s smarter than me, conspiring with other lying, weaselly jerks who think they are smarter than me, to try to keep me from having what I want.” 

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23.5 Degrees of Sorrow

23.5 Degrees

As I look back upon my own blog posts since 2016 I realize how much of my thinking is tinted with ruin, gloom, and a general lack of optimism. The habits of thought that contribute to this grim perspective include my assumption that we make the world in our image, and that the trajectory of the evolution of human consciousness is skewing sharply toward self-destruction.

I think these events are intertwined:

  • America elected an overtly selfish and self-absorbed man as its leader.
  • The human community knows it is destroying its own habitat and willfully continues to do so.

It’s the behavior of the criminally insane, but a LOT of people are 100% on board with it, passionately endorsing the destruction of institutions that nurture human well-being and the ecosystem that makes human life possible.

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Dickens and Talos

The Shape of Water

When I was a child I couldn’t read. When I tried my eyes resisted. They wouldn’t focus upon the next word in a sentence without extraordinary effort. Being called upon to read aloud in class was a recurring humiliation. Knowing my turn was coming, I would try to guess where the teacher would have the person in front of me stop reading, and before it was my turn I would try to work through the words I would have to read. Even when I guessed right about which sentence I would have to attempt I was always so anxious that I could not remember the two or three words I had figured out.

I would stand, book in hand, staring at the page, trying to get my eyes to stay on the first word of the sentence long enough for me to recognize it, at the same time filled with distress about the lengthening silence I was authoring. Finally, I would see the word and offer a tentatively suggestion. “The.” Then the struggle shifted to the second word in the sentence.

Lots of anxious ideas swirled in my head while I tried to get my eyes to hold still. Maybe the first word was a hint to the second. Everyone else can do this! There must be some trick that I just haven’t figured out. But what was that first word again? “The.” No help there. Could the second word be “cat.” Usually, about this time, the teacher would call upon the next student and I’d sit down, exhausted, wanting nothing so much as to curl up in a corner and sleep.

This went on until sixth grade (1962) at which point my parents and the administration of the Catholic school I attended agreed that I could not be given another pass. At a parent-teacher conference that took place at the front of an otherwise empty classroom while I sat within earshot at the back, it was decided that my willful refusal to study could not be tolerated further. It was time for me to flunk. I would have to take sixth grade again.

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The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

With “The Shape of Water” I think director Guillermo del Toro has composed a timely and marvelously entertaining illustration of the struggle between paranoia and empathy. He has artfully told an allegorical tale that shares with his audience important and complicated stuff much more effectively than reasoned discourse could ever manage.

For example, I think that in general a person in the grips of paranoia sees her or himself as alone in their understanding of their own ongoing personal jeopardy. On the other hand a person unencumbered by paranoia and capable of empathy accepts their own uniqueness as just the way it is…the uniqueness of others is simply some sort of paradoxical commonality. We’re all the same – we’re all different.

To a paranoid person anyone else that appears on their radar in any sort of stressful situation is perceived as a menacing something else, taking on an over-the-top monstrous aspect. And interaction with such loathsome beings, especially unwanted interaction, triggers fear. For paranoid people, the “frightening others”, especially obviously different others, are particularly fear inducing if they are acting like, or being treated like, people. Seeing “those people” pretending they are not loathsome beings…treated as if they were not loathsome beings…is experienced by paranoid people as monsters maneuvering and conspiring to destroy them.

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Pelican

Captiva Pelican by James Hautman

There is a piece of nautical hardware commonly called a pelican hook, or simply a pelican, because it bears something of a resemblance to the neck, head and bill of a pelican. I keep one near my desk at home where my eye falls upon it often. I think of it as an allegorical object in the sense that it implies things beyond the usual uses to which it is put.

I first came across the pelican in a little museum in the Town of Mendocino at the mouth of the Big River (no kidding, that’s the river’s name) – a place from which great red wood logs were loaded onto ships for transport to mills elsewhere on the coast. The logs were floated down the river to the shallows below the bluff upon which the town sits, but the mouth of the river is too rough and rocky for ships of any size to enter. So the way they got the logs onto the ships was to hoist them up onto the bluff, then slide them in slings dangling from pulleys down cables to ships anchored at a safe distance off shore. This worked great but things could get dicey if the sea suddenly kicked up.

As you might imagine if you could not release the cables quickly pieces of the ship could get torn off, or the loading structures on the bluff might get dragged over the cliff onto the rocks below. That’s where the pelican came in. A length of cable was attached at one end of the pelican, and the loop at the end of another length of cable was held in the pelican’s joint, with the pelican locked closed by the ring. If things turned grim it took little effort (even a child could do it) to slide the ring far enough back so the pelican could open and release the cable. I love that. It holds strong and true until it’s time to let go, and then it does.

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This post was composed for Marie F.

The magnificent painting above titled “Captiva Pelican” is by James Hautman.

Antimony

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Before social media, isolation was the heavy tax levied on the luxury of minority views. The daring might attempt to reach out to others of like mind, but it was often risky and the cost was sometimes dear.

Nonetheless, as now, advances in information technology offered options. Starting about 560 years ago enterprising and determined Europeans employed movable type and published under assumed names to hide in plain sight, where only those looking for their own reflection might find each other.

In 1685 a book called Currus Triumphalis Antimonii (The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony), ostensibly the work of a 15th-century Benedictine monk, was published in Amsterdam. A colorful excerpt from the book’s “Dedicatory Epistle” follows here.

Illuminated M


ercury appeared to me in a dream, and brought me back from my devious courses to the one way. “Behold me clad not in the garb of the vulgar, but in the philosopher’s mantle!” so he said, and straightway began to leap along the road in headlong bounds. Then, when he was tired, he sat down, and, turning to me, who had followed him in the spirit, bade me mark that he no longer possessed that youthful vigour with which he would at the first have overcome every obstacle, if he had not been allowed a free course.

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But there’s one thing…

Just One Thing

…perhaps a memory, something seen or heard that all thought inevitably circles back to.

Sanctuary

In 1969, my last year in high school, I worked on the school newspaper. I had heard that the previous year’s class president – his name was Curtis as I recall – had sought sanctuary from the draft in a local Unitarian Church. I visited him and we talked for a while, then I wrote about him and the ideas he had shared with me in the following week’s edition of the paper. About a week later I heard that soldiers in uniform had gone into the church one night, beaten Curtis, and dragged him out onto the lawn where police were waiting and took him into custody. That was in Whittier, California. A sleepy college town where Nixon had spent much of his youth.

Late one Sunday night shortly after Curtis’s arrest I was working alone at school cranking out the Monday edition of the newspaper on the mimeograph machine. The paper’s staff moderator had given me keys so I could come and go at odd hours, and it was after 10. I was not expecting to bump into anyone, so I was startled to discover a guy named Don who I had known since first grade standing in the doorway in army dress uniform. Continue reading

Salvage by Moonlight

Salvage by Moonlight

There is a 2,000-year-old wonder called the “Antikythera mechanism.” I plan to talk about it, but I’ll start in 1993 when I got some nifty drawing software and took it into my head to try to compose an image resembling a coin with a two-faced Janus head on one side. Since the program allowed me to position visual elements precisely I decided to put small circles like a string of beads around the edge of the coin. This proved surprisingly challenging. The diameter of the coin was 7 inches, so its circumference was roughly 22 inches (2 x pi x (7/2)), but the string of circles needed to be just slightly inside the circumference of the circle. And the circumference of each little circle was a line that had thickness, and I wanted those little circles to overlap at their points of contact.

Something I realized pretty quickly was that I would make myself crazy if I tried to draw every single little circle and hope that they would all meet up nicely when the two ends came together over a 22 inch circular span. So instead I divided the 7 inch circle into eight 45-degree slices, fitted the small circles along the curved edge of one of the slices, then made seven copies and arranged them around the circumference of the coin. The result was not perfect uniformity, but it did not offend the eye. And since I was only drawing, and not trying to manipulate solids, or needing to have my work mesh with something else, what I came up with was sufficient.

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