Friday, November 29, 2013

The Lost Mariner and the Keys to the Holographic Theatre

By Brian George


In chapter two of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” Oliver Sacks tells the story of “The Lost Mariner,” an alcoholic ex-sailor named Jimmie G., who was 49 years old in 1975, the time of their first meeting. For Jimmie, the Second World War had just ended in a triumphant Allied victory. FDR was dead. Truman was at the helm of the freshly painted ship of state. Silk stockings were again available. Radios blasted boogey woogey. New aerodynamic cars were getting ready to roll. Girls could be expected to spontaneously kiss servicemen on the street. It was 1945. The free world loved us. There were great times ahead.

Bounced from Bellevue to a nursing home in Greenwich Village to The Home for the Aged, where Sacks worked, Jimmie came complete with a cryptic transfer note. It read, “Helpless, demented, confused and disoriented.” At first suspicious of 1945 as a cut-off point—as a year that seemed too symbolically sharp—Sacks went on to diagnose the mariner as a victim of Korsakov's syndrome, resulting in near total short-term memory loss, in this case compounded by extreme retrograde amnesia. For Jimmy, there would always be 92 elements in the periodic table, as he would be glad to demonstrate by drawing you a chart. The “transuranic” elements would never be included. 

Navy records indicate that he was functional until his discharge in 1965. A born sailor, he was well liked by his friends, who gladly made excuses for his reluctance to grow up. His casual good humor was contagious. For sure, there was a taste for alcohol. Now and then a few missing days. A tendency towards impulsive action. It was not like he was a mama's boy; he pitched in, followed orders, and did not complain when the going got tough, but the dream of perpetual youth was already active in this macho Peter Pan. A mariner is meant to be at sea, braving dangers, responding to sirens, perpetually setting off in search of a lost continent. Jimmie was not able to translate water into earth. He should have stayed in the Navy, which provided some structure for this happy go lucky being. 

He never knew how good he had it. You never know what you have until it's gone. Who knew that the Second World War would turn out to be so much fun? After being discharged, he started to drink heavily, quit several jobs and, according to his brother, one day just “went to pieces.” He was never again the same. Around Christmas of 1970 he “blew his top,” became deliriously excited and confused, and at that point was taken to Bellevue. Soon, his pleasant attitude returned. His memory did not. The years flew backwards until 1945, where the pages of the calendar stopped turning.

According to Sacks, intense verbal energy is needed to maintain this constant re-imagining of the present as the past. Events, of course, cannot be trusted to cooperate. It is of no importance, since, in several minutes, no memory will be left of this lack of cooperation. You are, let’s say, a 19 year old sailor, glad to be on shore leave, and the good doctor has just handed you a mirror. Your breath stops—as you stare in horror at the face. Who is this gray-haired stranger so intently looking back at you? Is this some demonic joke? Are you dreaming? Kids can be heard playing baseball in the park outside the window. A man in a white lab-coat sits before you. He seems to be a doctor. It is just possible that you have seen him somewhere before. 

No. You are an expert in Morse code, a trained observer, who during sleepless nights with binoculars on the bridge has scanned the horizon for ME 262s, the latest of Nazi aircraft. You would never forget a face. Is there something wrong? Your heart still seems to be pounding. It looks like your breath has stopped. The good doctor has directed you to look out of the window. The trauma disappears, as though never having existed. Across from you, a man in a white lab coat has asked if you know what city you are in. Your hand shakes, and there seems to be a mirror in it. Just a few hours ago you had cut yourself shaving. So why is there no cut on this puffy clown mask in the mirror? You have two days to get back to your battleship at the San Diego Naval Base. First, you must deal with this jerk off in the mirror, who seems to be repeating every word that you say. 

An informative conversation with the man in the white lab-coat follows. It is, however, quite disturbing. How is it possible that you have never heard of a submarine called “The Nimitz?” Are there Reds in Hollywood? Are you the victim of a secret government mind-control experiment? It is again time to look at the kids playing ball outside the window. No. It can't be. Some girl has hit the ball out of the park! The year is 1945. Things are good all over. Villagers laugh—having overcome their fascist ways—as they hang by the heels the ox-like Mussolini. Hitler and Eva Braun have been hosed out of their subterranean bunker. Budweiser is the king of beers. You not only would but have walked a mile for a Camel. You have just been discussing baseball with that man in the white lab-coat, who you first met at a bar called “Sleepy Joe's.” He is a physicist, perhaps. Does he work at Los Alamos?

You are glad to be a 19-year old sailor out on shore leave. From household appliances to the female body, everything has been redesigned for maximum acceleration. They are just about to take off. Who knows, in 50 years it might be possible to send a rocket to the moon, or is that way out science fiction, Flash Gordon stuff? There are 92 elements in the periodic table. Uranium is the last, but not the least. It was fun to think about atomic energy, which might one day be employed to more efficiently boil water. The splitting of the atom would soon turn us into gods! “Hula-hoops” have appeared in someone else's dream, inexplicably, since they have not been invented yet. Immune to current photographs, you are never hung over at the end of even the wildest shore-leave binge. Although subject to subject to the occasional black out, it is true, and sometimes oddly creaky at the knees, it was good to be an intelligent young man in the pre-Sputnik era!

Is there anything to be done, a way to orient the Lost Mariner? The subject enjoys games, such as tic tack toe and checkers, which do not require long term concentration. Easily bored, it is often hard for him to say if he feels anything at all. Music and art, however, are able to reach inside to touch him, and he is moved to tears by the celebration of the mass. A dove appears. The music of the spheres invades Normandy. Against the bow-ramps of the Higgins landing craft, machine gun bullets ping. Brave soldiers run into them. Pillboxes explode. Kamikaze pilots in their A6M Xeros fall like cherry blossoms on the Leyte Gulf. At Iwo Jima, flame liberates the once human shadows from their maze of underground tunnels. There are no noncombatants. Heads break apart, but not in a bad way, as the light within them reaches out to deconstruct the horizon. Harmony in great waves washes every beach. Time future and time past now turn like a tornado, lifting what they kill. 

Up, and then further up, beyond the smoke-clouds of the Pacific and the European Theatres, beyond the network that the Fates wove from fake archeological artifacts, to the realm of the Ideal. A seizure will instruct the Mariner in the art of bi-location. Shock upon shock overtakes him; he is neither here nor there. Doors to a transparent city open. From its data-banks there is no one who has, in all of History, departed. Passionate in concentration, he waits for the host to land upon his tongue. 


Sacks comments on the therapeutic value of this state of total attention. He first quotes Luria: “A man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibility, moral being. It is here that you may touch him, and see a profound change.” Sacks then says, “Seeing Jim in the chapel opened my eyes to other realms where the soul is called on, and held, and stilled, in attention and communion. The same depth of absorption and attention was to be seen in relation to music and art: he had no difficulty, I noticed, following music or simple dramas, for every moment in music and art refers to, contains, other moments.” Though the author does not use the word, the concept of the hologram is implicit in this passage; however blurred, perhaps the story of each life is a hologram, which refers back, first, to the already completed pattern of that life, and, beyond that, to the larger story of the world. 

The study of disease may yet provide a key to open the locked doors of the memory theater, which, for unknown reasons, has been boarded up since the Renaissance. In every niche of the rotunda is a cue that serves to activate an engram.

If, as folklore and some contemporary research has it, a person’s life flashes before his/ her eyes as the moment before death, we must ask where this Tsunami of information has been stored. It seems strange, indeed, that a process of such scope and power should be able to get underway so quickly. Not that the shutting down of the body is a trivial event, yet it can seem as though the process is just waiting for some pretext to occur.

If chemicals, such as DMT, flood the brain as death approaches, the skeptical reductionist would argue that the visions that result are no more than hallucinations, of a particularly detailed sort. They may look dramatic, yes, but they have no objective significance. A depth-charge of neurotransmitters has disturbed the locus coeruleus, and has caused the right temporoparietal junction to short circuit; “tunnel vision” can occur when blood and oxygen flow is depleted from the eye. The only truth revealed pertains to the abnormal functioning of our cells. It would be just as reasonable to argue, however, that these chemicals purge, prepare, and then activate the brain centers for an alternate mode of processing. In this mode, we may witness the reversal of all previous frames of reference, as consciousness attempts to break from the space outside us in, and not, as is habitual, from the space inside us out. 

So, let us grant that our brains go through chemical changes when the moment of death approaches, as they do during every other aspect of our lives: this is hardly some sort of revolutionary insight. In fact, things could not be otherwise. Let us say that you are diving with your family in a car and, quite suddenly, a tractor trailer turns the wrong way onto the highway and is just about to flatten you. Your brain will no doubt undergo some significant chemical changes. This does not mean that the truck does not exist, that you will not, within a few seconds, be in a catastrophic wreck, or that your neurotransmitters have somehow caused the accident. No, it is simply that death approaches, and that this prompts certain changes in our chemistry. Correlation is not the same thing as causation, as every skeptical reductionist should know. Because a set of chemical reactions may be present in the brain, it does not follow that an NDE must be caused by that set of chemical reactions.

If this flood of information is somehow able to self-organize, and is a purely physiological process, we must ask why such a talent took so long to reveal itself when, in countless situations, we might have put it to good use. If we can access a talent only when we will soon cease to exist, what possible evolutionary purpose does this serve? How utterly perverse: to be able to gain access to the key facts in our story at the exact moment when we are powerless to put such knowledge to practical use. We might theorize that such knowledge is not meant to be practical, or that it is practical, in its own way, but only in regards to ends that we have long been prevented from seeing. Life itself, not only Korsakov’s Syndrome, can create lacunae large enough for whole worlds to pass through, as well as occult blocks that we do not dare to touch. When we are deaf, dumb, and blind, and our hands still seem to work, there is no end to our enthusiasm for grand self-defeating projects. Our hyperactivity drives us to reach the far side of the hamster wheel. When our vision is at its widest, however—and quite maddeningly—we may pause to note that there is no life in our hands.

If this death flash video is other than an accident of biology, a set of haywire neurotransmitters, a massive overstimulation of the temporal lobe, this expanded state might point to the existence of an alternate self, with which we, under certain conditions, can communicate, and of a parallel system in which all events are stored. If this backup system is outside of time/ space as we know it, then there is no reason that s syndrome such as Korsakov’s, as devastating as it is, should be regarded as more than a foreground inconvenience. 

Jimmie, the lost mariner, seems to intuit the existence of this alternate form of memory, of a backup system to the all too human one, and to be fully at attention only during the celebration of the mass. No longer scrambled, his mind was absorbed by each necessary action. His feelings were transformed. His consciousness became one-pointed. If, as Parmenides asserted, there is actually only ONE—one body that is coextensive with its mind; one databank whose limit is the circumference of a sphere; one seed that contains the genetic code of every species; one tongue that twists the grammar of the universal language, so much so that it makes no sense at all; one oceanic dodecahedron that has gone in search of our fingers—then there may be no detail so insignificant that upon it the whole sphere does not depend. Still unable to gain access to its breadth, the lost mariner was nonetheless reassured: It would not be long before he stepped back through the aperture that just yesterday had clicked shut behind him at his birth.

Is Jimmie a lost soul, and if so, what does this imply? Has he lost his soul or has he lost touch with his soul? Towards the end of “The Lost Mariner”—about a different patient, who had suffered a sudden thrombosis in the posterior circulation of the brain—Sacks writes, “Forthwith this patient became completely blind, but he made no complaints. Questioning and being tested showed, beyond doubt, that not only was he centrally or cortically blind, but he had lost all visual images and memories, lost them totally, yet had no sense of any loss. Indeed, he had lost the very idea of seeing, and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words such as ‘seeing’ and ‘light.’” Sacks presents this as a clinical description; we could, however, choose to interpret this type of blindness as a metaphor. Like this patient, we have forgotten what it once was like to see. Our vision is quite different than it was, before the pineal gland became no more than a vestigial appendage, before Earth’s Guardians locked the top part of the skull and then threw away the key. 

Six ages or more back, before the Deluge redrew the coasts of every continent, we possessed both local and nonlocal bodies, which together functioned like a kaleidoscopic field. The ocean was a womb, and our incantations were the catalytic seeds. Vast energies danced on the head of every pin. It came as something of a relief when we first noticed that our bodies had grown dimmer, for the world had come to seem too overwhelmingly bright. 

Now, for unknown reasons, we prefer to exist in a contracted state, which to us seems the definition of good health. Life means moving forward. We experience the one all-encompassing moment as a threat.

Dead-end circumstances require desperate means, and invite the use of unconventional technologies. Unconventional technologies do not necessarily imply technologies that are new. We humans have suffered from metaphysical brain damage for millennia. Some technologies that are new to us may be actually very old. If there is no hope for a cure, we should, perhaps, question the assumptions upon which our diagnosis is based. If the physical brain has, in fact, been irreversibly damaged, we should not assume that we have the power or the breadth of vision to begin to figure out what to do. True healing may depend less on what we know than on what we do not and can never know. It is possible that healing may be waiting only for the right pretext to occur. To provoke a near-death experience, for example, initiates from ancient Greece would sometimes throw themselves from cliffs into the sea. Our problem with this method would be twofold: we would prefer to avoid pain and we do not want to die.

If time/ space is a construct, a mere tragicomic convenience, a kind of crutch that assists us in crossing from one lacuna to the next, it could be that any necessary healing may have long ago taken place. If we are deaf, dumb, and blind, we are not well positioned to even begin to form an opinion on the intricate, nonlinear clockwork of the time-cycle. It is always possible that the Mariner may not actually be lost, that some aspect of his consciousness may have never been diminished, and that he may be doing exactly what he had once agreed to do. Let us say that the Mariner has been picked up and transported: Death’s aperture clicks open, and the light, quite unexpectedly, no longer hurts his eyes. An epileptic ocean heaves, and his memory expands to all horizons on its currents. Events that, while he was alive, might have vanished into the depths, might there be again visible down to the smallest of details. With his left foot in one world and his right foot in the next, it seems nonetheless possible that he might have been informed, “No, this is NOT your time. Your mission is not yet complete.”

(Illustrations: Philip Guston)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Departure/ Section 7 of "Maps of the Metaphysical Double: In the Footprints of de Chirico"

By Brian George
The future world had once sent heralds to a dream beyond the sunset. Springs had promised wonders to the metal fish. Out of brontosaurus bones the ancient birds built stadiums. “This is the scary part,” said the Eight, “crowds across many lands are to rearrange your toys.” On the tenth day of October, the clock struck three. It was almost time to go. The year was perfect. The human crop had been cut and stored in the silos of the Institute. The seed of chaos had been planted.

In those days there were giants on the Earth. Some served as lighthouses. Others were disguised as flying snakes. If they spoke, their words would harden into objects, sometimes living, which would then take on an almost separate existence. Their heads were as bright as suns. Their energies were vaster than supernovas. Although young at heart, they were older than the current version of the solar system. There were dwarves, also, who were ironworkers, whose most important job was to insure that the Earth could, during fetes or in times of emergency, be folded up, stored in a pouch, and then effectively reassembled. The monk recorded the experiment on his great prehensile tail. Telescopes wheeled, prompting vertigo, on mountain peaks that were themselves little more than portable stage-sets. Just born babies danced and shouted out instructions. Their learning curve was a logarithmic spiral, and, in short order, they were able to access the powers of almost every other species. They could read the histories that were written on a leaf, and were able to plot the smallest movements of the stars.

The preexistent race was haunted by nostalgia. A bird spoke, “Follow the thread backward through the labyrinth. Be happy, but do not expect to return alive.” In the city of tall buildings, not one leaf moved. In the distance, you could hear the boom of the big guns, as, overhead, you could see the arc of a comet that was propelled by a sperm-like tail. “This arc seems perfect,” thought the navigator whose eyes had been freshly wrapped with bandages, “although altogether too occult!” Webs of intraocular mist, just ankle-high, inched inland from the depths. The long shadow of a bird led the travelers to a gate. They would be sad to leave everything and everyone they knew. They turned to board the paper sailboat bobbing in the harbor.

The planet was a young girl who had struggled to give birth. Tides, month by month, almost imperceptibly, rose higher up the breakwater. In the spaces in between contractions, spaces that could sometimes last for several thousand years, the hand of silence removed all evidence of her trauma. Against the wharf, the waves lapped like foreign tongues. Already, the keys to every childhood had been lost. Memory was a layer of ashes on the skin. The warmth of home faded, like a world that never was, like the love song of an architect. The music of the spheres became no louder than the surf. With so much sight and hearing being lost, there was no way to envision the beginning of the war, or to speculate, with any accuracy, about the logistics of descent.

On the coast, crematoria glowed. Fate moved the heroes like the clockwork of a mechanism. Each had been charged with the expression of one sign, and with the transformation of its corresponding power. For our purposes, the Twelve do not need faces. There was a figure eight on the brow of every manikin. At sunset, an autumnal sail departed from the gyroscope at Carthage, or, more accurately, from the gyroscope that had been constructed on a prototype, the transplanted version of which their descendants would name “Carthage.” They curved west around the promontory, then known as Mastia, which the Greeks, much later on, would associate with Hermes. There, almost immediately, disaster struck. From beneath those voyagers, the deck flew. The heart froze in each hollow chest. Their instruments were scarred with salt. Coral, at length, covered them, and they took their place among the other baroque wonders of the deep. An abyss had opened; it would not soon close.

Did time pass? Did space move? As the Sons of Ivaldi, they again set sail out of the blackened port of Tyre. They traveled many moons in iron under the ocean. They found the ancient red man floating in a glacier, but, with their now more primitive tools, they were unable to get him out. In a hunt for fuel, they scoured the ancient pipelines of Antarctica. They mapped the ruins of the vast technology that a race of magicians had once hidden in plain view. Fish swam through the long arcades. They did possess an instrument that could diagram the Shadow, the collective presence that, very strangely, had come to be perceived by those who cast it as a threat. Scarred with salt and pitted with rust, the significance of this instrument was far less practical than symbolic; that is to say, it did not actually work. They were seldom able to differentiate the Shadow’s left hand from its right, or to disentangle their first language from the net cast by the Deluge.

The water had indeed provided a good medium for gestation. They were growing, yes, but in numbers only, and they were terrified that, each year, they were actually growing smaller. Letters from competing alphabets were the leaves on branching DNA. They were growing but only in the most horizontal sense, which drove them to violate the subtle etiquette to which they and all of the other Ancients had agreed. With the loss of four of their eight limbs, they had, as the Sibyl at Cumae had predicted, started to act like a bunch of badly behaved boys. They pried a stone from the closed hand of the goddess. “Stone,” they said, “do you talk? Do you know all of history? Are you larger than space?” Sadly, neither spoke the other’s language, and would not for an age, and yet its energy was the source of abundant illumination. They had many more adventures on the wide back of the sea. They saw great cities both on Earth and on the other planets. The records from that period have been eaten by the birds.

On an island at the edge of the known world, the birds chirped in the trees. They had the faces of dead relatives, of unborn children, and of beloved wives who did not as of yet exist. Mist billowed from the ocean, obscuring the, sharp outlines of each object, and they did not, at first, realize that the shore that they had landed on was so far outside the solar system. The manikins did not allow themselves to sleep; neither could they die. Such things were fine for the indigenous populations. For them, it was not acceptable behavior. “If so,” they thought, as they strained against their bandages, “just when had they been transformed into mummies?” In due time—after nine months of ritualized torture, let’s say—certain things became clear. The Earth was a fulcrum. Space acted like a lever. Death had broadened their ability to project the powers of creation. They found, to their amazement, that they could once again move monuments on distant planets with their thoughts.

And then, still further out, they rode the towering wave, as, through a rip in the fabric of the projected world, the sea shot like lightning. The atoms of the boat were rearranged, somehow, and by a method that seemed long ago determined. Their lips and tongues, grown stiff from disuse, were prompted to sound out the almost indecipherable glyphs of all of the epics that they had written, in a multitude of lost languages, through the years. Impelled by childhood training, they knew that, next, they must attempt to chant all of the epics simultaneously, in order that these might interlock and so complete the Ur-text. When they disembarked, they watched their hands move by themselves; act by act, and with a minimum of effort, they disassembled the wheel of history, or rather, some thought that they had just disassembled it, while others thought that they had done this long ago. No longer wrapped, the heads of the manikins turned inside out. They found themselves on a shore beyond the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Biology had petrified. Warriors had frozen in gymnastic positions. They were stone wet-dreams, the playthings of Medusa. Their death-throws were beautiful. Atrocities had been transformed into art.

From offstage, a huge zinc-colored glove floated in, and, with its index finger, touched the lips of one particularly fearsome statue. A sphere, reeking with alchemical force, then erupted from the statue’s mouth, and then another one after that, and so on and so forth, until there was one sphere for each of the 12 members of the crew. Hand extended, out of each sphere stepped a doppelganger. Out of one came two, and out of four came twelve, which now existed not only on a single side of the mirror. The full assembly then collaborated to draft a new plan for the Zodiac. From that luminous height, the path ahead seemed clear: One, out of each pair, would collect and encode intelligence for the coming revolution, while the other would play the role of the agent provocateur.

For the briefest of brief moments, perhaps 52,000 years, the weight of the whole of creation seemed to be suspended. The spheres chose music for the triumphal march of species. Robots made their bodies into instruments. They tuned their heads with hammers. Monkeys hit gongs. Fish played tubas. Dinosaurs blew on hollow tree trunks. Birds played living continent-wide pianos. Snakes waved themselves through the crackling air like banners. Whales performed their modern and almost incomprehensible songs. Skeletons plinked on their xylophone-like ribs. Vast armies juggled the most dangerous of weapons. 

Would the Twelve return to work on the assembly line of the projected world? They would, but not necessarily in a way that others would perceive as being animate. A clock tower stands in the square formed by the four fixed signs of the Zodiac. Every now and then, a loud “BONG!” can be heard. Few now alive can distinguish between the voyagers and their statues, and the great stadium, where once the giants fought, would appear to be almost altogether empty. If so it is written, then so it must appear, for a time, and then the clock’s hands move.

This, the convalescent genius knew, yet it seemed possible that some key part of the mechanism had gone missing. At Volos, in 1894, in preparation for the next earthquake in a series that had been scheduled to take place every evening after sunset, the whole population of the district would bring mattresses, cases of ouzo, small glasses, tables, hookahs, chairs, and cabinets, to be spread out or set up in the square. What a fete! It was wondrous. They desired to experience the cool air and the stars, and, of course, it was good to avoid being crushed by collapsing stonework. Hand in hand, a young boy stood with his mother, as a comet with a long tail arced slowly overhead. For a last time they embraced, and, already, she had begun to disappear, her warmth fading, the memory of her features drifting out of focus. When he turned, he saw only a few doorframes where the houses used to be, and roof-beams lying on the ground in no particular order. Quite strangely, though, there were two chairs, a table, and a cabinet that had not been brought inside, and that were still set up where the men had left them in the square. Silence covered the quaint costal city like a fog.

Two scenes may look very similar, and yet in one there may be something, almost imperceptibly, off. For example: in one scene the participants are living, and, in the other, they are dead.

“Should the signs be regarded as open secrets?” he thought, years later, as he wandered through the Egyptian junkyards. As though pregnant, the Earth stretched out before him. Every breath that she took was inhabited by the millions upon millions that had passed out of existence. The shadow of a leaf, enormous, floated. Prehistoric observatories echoed under strata. Giants fossilized in pots. The trees crooked, with foreign roots. Birds that never came.

(Illustration: Giorgio de Chirico)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Life Returns to the Uroboros/ Space does not Go Anywhere/ Section 19/ Revision

Brian George

“I don't develop; I am.”—Pablo Picasso

In “The Republic, Book X,” Plato writes, “When all the souls had chosen their lives, they went before Lachesis. And she sent with each, as the guardian of his life and the fulfiller of his choice, the daimon that he had chosen, and this divinity led the soul first to Clotho, under her hand and her turning of the spindle to ratify the destiny of his lot and choice, and after contact with her, the daimon again led the soul to the spinning of Atropos to make the web of its destiny irreversible, and then without a backward look it passed beneath the throne of Necessity.”
As you read (or hear) this, my voice echoes in your short-term and then long-term memory. As I speak to myself I imagine your—as of yet—nonexistent face. We both ask, “Who let YOU in here?” Daylight savings time assaults the nocturnal light of dreams. It does no good. Earth suddenly goes black. The transparent moon returns. To what end should we argue about the title of the preexistent death-flash video? Dreams hang on the tree of knowledge. It continues to sprout branches. Images are waiting for whoever stops to try them on.

Though indifferent to their desire, the perfect reproduce. Cities land on clouds. At first, most bodies are approximate, more like holograms. Prone to static, they fade in and out. For this reason, there must be more of them all the time. An epileptic bird damns robots to the labyrinth, where they must labor until they rust and fall apart. In the process, they discover that they are able to shed tears, if only for themselves. Next, they go in search of blood. Their new oyster-like use-once-and-throw-away bodies soon provide them with an ocean of the stuff. In time, they learn to put the extra in a bank. Earth’s rulers act at a distance, as mechanics reverse the pull of the great magnet of dissociation, which, for the past 12,000 years, has arranged our actions in its field. YOU ARE NOT WHERE YOU ARE. Unlike me, you do not see with your eyes closed; no, you keep them open, for they show you many things. Only certain of them are true. Coming face to face with your shadow, you tend to jump out of your skin. This is not good for either one of us, and, too often, I have to surgically remove your shadow from my feet.
Like freight trains derailing, the planets screech from their orbits. But who is this standing at the foot of my bed? You have one eye too many, you are brighter than the sun, and your head is far too conical. We had agreed that you would stay in your own world, and I in mine. Your thin hands violate the precession of the equinox. It is clear to me stranger that your tribe grows monstrous. Your prehistoric boats now dare to take x-rays of Omphalos!
Of course, it is also clear that you do not approve of me. I copulate with a race of questionable gods. A starfish is my master. The most considerate thing would be for each of us to go back where we came from. Symbols exchange fluids. You wake smelling of the ocean. Someone has put seaweed in your hair. A squid snores beside you. Is everything ok? A spell enforces the inviolate order of appearances.
What a strange thing it is for the self to be inhabited by the other. How strange to be almost dead, to be viewed by other subjects as an object. What a strange thing it is to forget one's mother tongue. How strange to be an omnipotent mushroom trapped inside an atom. How strange to find yourself projected into someone else's dream—to know it is not yours, but not be able to get out.
There is a unique horror to such experiences. How odd, since they are nothing if not common. How quickly the disorientation is written off as over. Hermes goes in one ear; a pedestrian falls out the other. Amnesia voids the traveling violation. The ego is a useful construct; it allows us to take possession of even the most surreal of events.
Perhaps each of us inhabits and acts out not one but many dreams. Their intersection allows us to create a role for choice. If the role is real, it is also perhaps more circumscribed than we are willing to admit.
In the physical world each actor sees himself as the enormous central character, without whom no story would exist. The actor is provisionally conscious. Let us say that the ego gets with the preexistent program. The actor conscientiously follows where the death-flash video leads, as the future and the past trade places. You are that actor, the remnant of the shadow of an enigma, the warrior once swallowed by the dream. You will work with the phenomena that present themselves. You will use what is put before you.
Doors open as you pass. Impediments dissolve. Your head cracks like a seed, whose two halves split into four and then into eight and then into 64. Junk DNA becomes an encyclopedia, whose spiral stairway you are free to wander up and down, and whose volumes, A to Z, can be read from back to front or front to back, or from the middle out, or in no particular order at all. It does not appear that your memory is native to the Earth. Your arms reach for the land of no return, where a radioactive treasure blossoms. Again, proving the second law of thermodynamics wrong, the empires that were locked inside of an atom fall up, as do the terrible secrets that were coiled in your coccyx. Your heart is in your mouth. A breeze harvests you.
If you cooperate with the instructions that the Three Fates have embedded in the dream, it is possible that you may actually have fewer choices. Paradoxically, you may also experience a greater wealth of opportunities. Freedom becomes less of a burden in becoming less rational and more intuitive; action becomes an aspect of attention. An instruction manual on ecstatic death appears, a bit wrinkled from the floodwater, perhaps, but just lying on your doorstep and waiting to be picked up. As if we were creatures of habit! As if random events were able to diagnose our trauma and to prescribe a course of treatment before we knew that we had been hurt! As if we and not the Deluge had all along been the problem!
Once, even after it grew bigger than an atom, the world was much smaller than it is today. It was just about the same size as a human eye, although the beings that inhabited it were almost infinitely large. Sex leads us by a thread around each of 28 U-turns, where, in spite of its low status, it is always adept at interpreting the most arcane of symbols. Meanwhile, spirit’s avatars are exposed as being far hornier than we thought. It would seem that the lowest and the highest energies work all too closely together! Boundaries are plastic. Voices interpenetrate. Each time like the first, you meet those that you have met a great many times before. Faces serve as cues to prompt the interest of the dead, who, for the past 12,000 years, have had better things to do, but who, for whatever reason, seem to once again be motivated to collaborate on a project. As you exit the labyrinth, light towers to the sky. You are right at home. The hand of synchronicity throws gifts across your path.
(Illustration: Max Beckman, Journey on a Fish)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

"At the Crossroads: An Astrologer Looks at These Troubled Times"--Review

By Brian George

“The first man must have seen auguries everywhere, he must have trembled at each step that he took.”—Giorgio de Chirico, 1913

I was a great admirer of Jessica Murray’s book “Soul-Sick Nation; An Astrologer Looks at America,” which I regard as one of the most incisive, intuitive, and provocative analyses of the escalating crises faced by the US in the first decade of the 21st Century. I eagerly awaited her next book, “At the Crossroads; An Astrologer Looks at these Turbulent Times,” which was published in June of 2012. In the months that I have been savoring this work, again and again I have found myself—quietly—exclaiming, “Of course, of course, that’s it!” When an author is able to enter into the secret chambers of the Zeitgeist, it is as though she is also reading your own deepest fears and dreams and thoughts.

Murray refers to herself as an “archetypal astrologer”: Astrological transits are analyzed less in terms of their purely personal and predictive aspects and more in terms of the alchemical challenges that they pose. She writes, for example, ““As the transit of Neptune (spiritual yearning) to the US Moon suggests, beneath America’s panic about the economy is a malaise that has nothing to do with the material world. Clients who visit an astrologer these days and insist that all they want to talk about are ‘practical’ issues like their 401Ks are missing the point. As distressing as the financial facts are, the deeper issue is of psycho-spiritual health.” Astrology is predictive, yes, but this has to do with the arrangement and rearrangement of archetypal scenery on the stage. Every stage-set is provisional, and we act within a tiny cone of light, beyond which we must learn to see.

At each moment, a particular thing is waiting to occur—like a half-formed sentence in the unconscious of a writer—yet it is we who must translate impulse into action, and, by pulling a focused image from the Rorschach blot of forces, determine what this moment means. “Astrological archetypes work as an interpretive schema because ‘real life,’ just like dream life, is a flow of symbols. An angry dog barking at you on the day of a Mars transit is a symbol. So are big collective happenings like political movements, oil spills, and tsunamis.” As in a dream, each image has both an inner life and a certain open-endedness: The dream comes fully into existence only as we tell the story of it, which we are simultaneously in the process of enacting in our lives. I would refer to this as the primordial mode of vision: No event is so trivial that it cannot be seen within the context of an archetype. Conversely, no archetype is so great that it has ceased to have a moment by moment involvement—and even, perhaps, interest—in our actions.

James Hillman, in “The Soul’s Code,” writes, “Maybe the invisibles are interested in our lives for the sake of their realization and as such are inherently democratic: Anyone will do…The angel has no way of descent into the streets of the public common except via our lives. In the film ‘Wings of Desire,’ angels fall in love with life, the street life of ordinary human predicaments.”

For the archetypes are just gods that have not yet put on our clothes. Once doing so, they may no longer be able to read by the light of their own bodies, and fall victim to the next fad in full daylight spectrum lamps.

In the mid-1980s, I had a roommate who was very excited by his discovery of Jane Roberts, who, in “Seth Speaks,” was the originator of the meme that “we create our own reality.” This was the phrase that launched a thousand weekend workshops. At the time, however, I was surrounded by quite a number of occultists and ceremonial magicians—a plethora of competing Maguses—so that this idea did not have the impact on me that it did on many others. It did not seem especially challenging or unique. Early on, I came to regard the phrase as a kind of marketing slogan, like “You’re In Good Hands With Allstate” or “Things Go Better With COKE.” The imposition of one’s magical will upon the world did not strike me as a worthwhile goal. I was far more interested in Matthew Fox’s “Creation Spirituality,” and the idea that we are the “co-creators” of the cosmos, whose role within the scheme of things is both key and mercurial. It is this emphasis on the interplay between self and cosmos, in which neither term is more important than the other, which also excites me about Murray’s work.

If our proper role is to serve as catalytic agents in the drama of “world creation,” “world centering,” and “world renewal,” as many Mesoamerican cultures believed, then we should not be especially preoccupied with the fulfillment of our personal desires. We have bigger fish to fry, and, at any moment, the Earth might suddenly be pulled out from beneath us.

Even though, from about the age of 20, I have been fascinated by—if not obsessed with—the idea of time cycles, I tend, for the most part, to shy away from any type of linear predictions. It’s not that we can’t get a good sense of which archetypal forces are in play, but rather that, once we invest our energy in a particular year or date—such as 2012—it can too easily become a blank projection screen for all of our subconscious contents. It is here, indeed, that a trap has been set for us, if we desire to become full citizens of the Commonwealth of the Zodiac. In “At the Crossroads,” Murray does a terrific job of impartially charting the interplay of microcosmic and macrocosmic forces that conspire to create the shifting stage-set we inhabit. To some extent, this may be because she does not hesitate to give darkness credit for playing a central and quite necessary role. As she says, “Out of respect for the mystery of free will,” we should not “second-guess the energies afoot. There is plenty of fear in the air, and we should avoid it like the plague.”

If we desire to respond to the planetary crisis not with fear but with curiosity, “We cannot do this,” writes Murray, “unless we loosen our allegiance to the literal significations of the archetypes. Indeed, many astrologers see the literal level of events as being merely the universe’s ploy of last resort: the means by which the cosmos gets its point across when the recalcitrant human mind fails to comprehend it any other way…For those who believe that everything in life is a symbol, even catastrophic events can be seen as invitations into an unprecedented state of possibility. To view global warming and its attendant Earth changes this way is to see that an infinite number of potential scenarios are at our disposal. The years ahead start to look not like an ending, but a beginning: a tabula rasa.”

In analyzing the pathologies of our cultural moment—a moment that has been millennia in the making—I never feel that Murray is acting out of unresolved psychic conflicts, that she is trying to make herself seem important, or that she is manipulating data to prove some predetermined point. Too often, I find that writers give in to the temptation of using metaphysical concepts as the accessories of a lifestyle—the trap of “spiritual materialism” that Chogyam Trungpa spoke about. Subtle insights become grand CGI illusions. Their fears: a species die-off; their hopes: a paradise that is always just about to happen. They would like to be rock stars, but have somehow ended up as gurus, and, not having come to terms with the real but limited function of the ego, are constantly lecturing others on the need for shattering it altogether. Murray’s work, on the other hand, is the antidote to claustrophobia. It is bracing and, quite naturally, vast. As I read it, I can feel a wind from the edge of space begin to leak through all of my windows. There is nowhere to hide, and yet, curiously, nothing that needs to be hidden. Wounds and all, we are free to be the Promethean children that we are. For the sky is, indeed, a mother.

The sky is tolerant, and it is possible that she knows the end to every story, as do we, in our less combative moments. For better or worse, we must keep to the schedule that she has set.

Given our tendency to project our thinking in straight lines, or, to put this another way, due to our habit of seeing “with” and not “through” our eyes, we might like to imagine that we are “evolving” beyond the personal, whose vehicle is the “ego,” and that, once a critical mass of enlightenment has been reached, we will simply fix, transform, or transcend the planetary crises that we face. Perhaps we will; then again, perhaps we won’t: We act upon a stage-set where no results are guaranteed. But if we do not “create our own reality,” as this is conventionally understood, Murray nonetheless reminds us that we did, before birth, choose to experience our lives exactly as they are, and with whatever peculiar mix of forces are in play. She writes, “As meaning-seekers regarding these intimidating transits, we walk a fine line. We must neither lapse into unrealism about their severity, nor forget that although the trends they suggest are immutable, their specific manifestations are not.” Our attitudes do have some degree of importance, after all. We cannot use them to create “ex nihilo,” but, by finding the balance point of the forces now in motion, we may be able to determine how the megaliths were raised, and, again, with our hands, begin to shift them as they hover.

We have work to do. In front of us, we see footprints that we had left there long ago. If we fail, as well we might, our failure will most probably be due to a split-second lack of attention, and yet success will not in any way depend upon the accident of our survival.

Our freedom of action is moderated by our willingness to learn how to read. Far easier said than done, of course! How odd that simple things, which pertain to our primordial function in the world, can now seem almost infinitely complex, while complex things, which pertain to the development of a technological dream world, can seem, due to all of our dead habits, infinitely simpler than they are. By remembering how to read the language of the stars, and by adapting to the open-endedness of the challenge posed by the archetypes, we might, as Murray says, be able to “respond, rather than merely react, to these turbulent times.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Preexistent Race Descends/ Section 8

By Brian George

Birds plead their case before the presence wrapped in rags: “We obey you. They won’t.” The boy attends the war fought to prevent the Earth’s beginning.


The once great powers argue in a small tent by the ocean.

The wave towers above the boy. The armies led by Archeopterix advance. A few leave wing prints on North Africa. Green, to destruction flung, giants copulate with fish. Turning against light the Earth devolves. Tribes laugh at the god in bondage. Dead kamikazes mass.
The institute above the steps of Asia flares.


The empire falls. On a dock I curl up with my arms around a crate.


She who leads took over when I slept.


It is late at night. Summer. Wind circles my apartment. For the whole season I have watched my vision grow.

My wish was to create. The muse hears. She gives access to more worlds than I could gainfully employ. It has come to my attention that there is no one in my chair. Even ghosts do not believe that I exist. Few can tell that I am pregnant with the shape of things to come. I have less self than the shadow thrown by a disassembled colossus. The door slams as I leave to wander down the railroad tracks. It is late at night.

Smoke billows from the tall stacks of a factory now abandoned. There are thousands of feet waiting for their shoes. If I dared I would untie my own to walk barefoot through the constellations. Clothes also are unnecessary. It is said that humans are the cattle of the gods. I alone am free.


My ear expands! In a bubble the Egyptoid eunuchs buzz.


As the dead project me through the haunted arch I turn to smile at a subject. Giants blink from the effects of too much sacrifice. The winds at Cydonia freeze my bent bones to a plow.

Grand unified conspiracies obscure the monuments on Mars.


Where the snare's architect puts evidence new fissions bare the strata.  We disinter the technocratic phallus of the ancients. My muse shakes me. I watch myself attack the living stone I cling to. Kicking and screaming I am dragged off into hyperspace. The philosopher’s stone has no sense of compassion. It is larger than the wheel of history. It is fueled by Soma. It does not believe that human death is real.

The force preserves. Its surrogate destroys.


Wave on wave they crash against the moorings. The depths discharge the wealth of a lost continent. For the book fight waves of Mesozoic hawks. The horizontal every time looks newer than a dream. The foundations of the dream tilt.


It is a summer made of oceanic scents. I fit my vision in a seed with 8 thousand years left over. A fog settles on my city and its lamps.


The ancient returns from exile leaning on a staff. He burns the aviary.

(Illustration: Adolph Gottlieb)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

After the Bhagavad Gita

By Brian George


They could not grasp him—for he was born. With Brahma Vishnu plays. The planet vanishes. Of  pure stock. Frightening his yoga. I saw the boy test weapons far from his own field.


In those days the omnipotent were beasts. To pervert the teacher's judgment was a challenge. The boy found a head to wear. “Is x-ray vision violent?” he asks. The chant exits the tornado. Vam ! They launch the egg. It burns. The clouds above the destruction are gigantic. The 8-spoked eye of the teacher rolls. Species fed with blood before the institute march.


Tell what my sons and the sons of Pandu did—when they massed at Kurukshetra.


At first there was noise. Forces blew. Suspended animation froze the shouts. Their wheels did not advance.


Krishna says: “Hesitate to kill the gods will laugh at you. Sympathy is seen as fear. The dead call you names. Therefore fight.”


Is what was? Was there once a time when you or they did not exist? The story bring forth.


Declining health made speech approximate. The contraption a work by Visvakarman begs. It wants fuel. Is too much enough? Asia smokes. Visions haunt the creator of industrial descent. Think of others: be. Determine what actors crouch behind your tongue.

Can a robot cause an earthquake with its chrome extensor arm? You have.


Teacher: is direct perception of the self a gift that came between us? The star sat on the head of the Bharata. Is the enemy light? Space junk hovers. Static grows. Knowledge stops. The transplanted wave carouses. In the future you will need a book to read.


I will put the shadow of the giants here—or perhaps there. The city flames. As it was then—now. I appropriate the Soma; it occurs to me that I own your work. Beasts board the departing wheel. Presences consume.


The clouds are anxious. For 36 thousand years we wait for you to come. You are on the way.

Labyrinths march. Lands tilt. Now starts the echo of oceanic flux. The lord of Sthanu appears—to withdraw. A survivor is raped by birds. Castes intermix. Crime commits the Dharma to an institute that flies—where doctors hoard the seeds. Friends don't recognize friends. Good families kill each other.


He hallucinates a gulf. Stage sets blow from crags. His head is a fort inhabited by few. Winds whack Nanga Parvat. Spells from Saturn quarantine the species.


Worlds aimed by the nonexistent science ring as they collide!


You serve. It is we who say if you are marked for death. East the west sends ants to scale the ruins of the Vedas. Unnatural disasters roam. Shake to confront the energies that judge you.


The early plant fossils. Signs race the north. Dig from Tyranosaur's throat the weapon Agni cast. Its unapproachable power smokes. By the thousands the bald creators turn to cows.


Wonders fight the archaic senate. Tornadoes victimized by building codes endeavor to move the Earth. Drunk with harmony the gods roar. Yoga says: perfect the muse of the catatonic self. Arts I test you. I pass for a flying rock. Is the war continuous? Great. Webs advance on the rusted spokes of history. A frightening moon speeds. Says the boy to the Bharata, “Here I am!”


The teacher opens—as if his touch were a vehicle to ride. Death creates joy. Space revolts. I hang a tribe from the wish fulfilling tree. The troops that flatten Saryanavat laugh.

Cities implode. A crowd falls on its face. We kiss the triumphant shadow of the self. Rods and crosses streak the red sky over Earth. Who knows the motivations of Svarbanu? He blots the sun.

(Illustration: Brian George: Shiva, Dancing, 2001)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Art and Ashe in the Yoruba Tradition/ Second Half

By Brian George

Ashe means literally “it is so, or may it be so.” It is sometimes defined as “power, authority, command, scepter” (Abraham),6 “a coming to pass…effect; imprecation” (Crowther).7  It is neither a moral nor an immoral force, but simply the force, by which all things are brought into manifest existence.8 Ulli Beier explains, “Yoruba believe strongly in the power of the word, or rather in a mysterious force called Ashe…that quality in a man's personality which makes his words—once uttered—come true”.9 Says Raymond Prince, “It would appear that their background conception is that to utter the name of something may draw that something into actual existence…not only within the mind and body of he who utters and he who hears the word, but also in the physical world as well.”10

Without ohun, voice, the verbalization or performance or the word, Ashe would not be able to operate.11 This formative action is the human being's contribution to the equilibrium of the worlds.12 The Yoruba do not distinguish between the efficacy of the different forms of art. Music, dance, invocation, story, sculpture, costume, and myth interact as a dynamic whole.

A person who has learned to harness and to work with the force is referred to as an Alaase.13 The sender aims his or her Ashe at the targeted object, and then, if he or she does not wish to incur unintended consequences, asks for permission to proceed.14 This is like the call part of a call and response chant. The initiator asks, “Is it right that you should exist? Am I doing what my soul, at this time and in this place, demands?” If the work of art is successful it will not just sit there on the ground, hang there on the lips, or project itself mechanically through space.

The living work is said to possess iluti, or good hearing.15 It does what it has been asked to do. It should not only inspire or satisfy the aesthetic appetite. It should be able to communicate with its creator(s) as an almost independent being, to answer, “je, “and to respond, “dahun.”16 The work of arts says, “Yes. It is right that I should exist. This is no doubt the beginning of a beautiful relationship, for both the upper and the lower worlds. Here I am. It will be so.”

Art allows the Ashe of the upper worlds to become available for use. It sweetens the ambivalence of the trickster. It focuses the attention, so that the viewer is better able to withstand the influx of other—dimensional force. Ashe, however indispensable for any form of action, is also volatile. It is both the rocket fuel and the chariot of the gods. Eshu wears a hat that is red on one side, black on the other. The force he guards operates in many ways, in many places, and its action never looks quite the same to any two humans. Safe access comes only at the price of calm attention, if the law of unintended consequences is to be avoided. The work of art should possess the dynamic symmetry inherent in the structure of the cosmos from the start. It should act as a landing pad where the mind can luxuriate in coolness. At the same time it should expand the mind by stealth, test it, and provoke it to jump beyond itself.

Lawal asserts, “To tame or pacify is to cool the face (tu l'oju). Thus, providing the non-figurative symbol of an Orisha with sculptured face facilitates the pacification of that Orisha, for what has a face is controllable.”17 Steve Quintana, a Cuban Santero and the godfather to my daughter, would laugh at the idea that an Orisha could be controlled. One might just as well talk of controlling the currents of the sea, associated with Yemaya, the flow of lava from a volcano, associated with Agayu, or the precise tilt of a tornado, associated with Oya. If the energy of the Orishas cannot be controlled it can, however, be invoked. A relationship can be established. Energy can be transduced, through the coils or ritual and art, from one state to another.

If the Orishas act on our behalf it is because, having first established a good rapport, having learned to speak a few words in the language of Ifa, having welcomed, fed and tended to them as beloved guests in our houses, we have then politely asked. A bow and the string of an instrument are brought together at cross purposes, as Heraclitus says.18 A human hand makes contact with the skin of the bata drum. The membrane of the interactive network vibrates like an ear. Feet stomp. Eyes pop open. Breathing swells. Some trauma from a past life bars full access to the hypersphere. Trespassers will be violated. The bald doctor who was old before the deluge pulls one’s hair. Our concept of what it is to breathe should then undergo an upheaval. Again, the mother drum breathes us. There is no self to fear death. The praise song can be heard at least as far as Saturn, beyond which interest in our baby steps becomes steadily more sporadic.

Our other-dimensional counterparts have business to take care of. Like us, they have worlds to make before they sleep. Thus, it is lucky that the influx of Ashe is not required to make sense. Polyrhythms open the ecstatic body like a book. Its pages are the strata of the worlds before our own. Each participant in the bembe should feel free to bend or modernize the laws of nature.

The bond between the human and the other, brought into the present, grows. Since the Yoruba idea of hierarchy does not involve a lesser or a greater, it will at the end be a relationship among equals.19 Each can offer the other what is needed for a more complete fulfillment of the work at hand.

We can offer to the past an alternate history of our species. A glass of rum should be left to wash it down. We can offer an experience in biology to the powers who have almost forgotten the great promise of Pangaea. We can add one piece to the puzzles left unassembled by many an alien civilization.

It is Ashe that weaves the threads of potential into the many colored fabric of existence. Clothes teleported from the upper worlds create a sensation on the Earth. Fashions lifted from the Earth provoke a corresponding stir above. The logarithmic spiral is in charge of a secret system of sizes; one superconscious dream fits all. Ashe connects. By fertilizing the separate, it creates both parts anew. Ashe builds a translucent bridge from the human to the Orishas, from the Earth to the ancestors, from the ego to the occluded parts of the soul.

A scent of sacrificial blood has returned across the ocean to lap the star hub of the 8-spoked city. It is Ashe that yokes the worlds in a constant wheel of communication, a reciprocal exchange of gifts.


Art and Ashe in the Yoruba Tradition
Illustration at top of essay: Eshu, Unknown Artist, 1880—1920, Museum of Science, London
1) James Hillman, The Soul's Code, Random House, Inc., New York, 1996, page 255
2) Migene Gonzales—Wippler, Santeria, The Religion, A Legacy of Faith, Rites, and Magic, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York/ 1989/ page 5
3) Reginaldo Prandi, Candomble and Time, Brazillian Review of Social Sciences, number 2, October 2002, pages 9—12
4) Mgene Gonzales—Wippler, Santeria; The Religion; A Legacy of Faith, Rites, and Magic, Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc, 225 Park Ave, NY, 1989, pages 96—97
5) Judith Illsley Gleason, Clever Eshu, Parabola (Fall), Crossroads Issue, 1993, Pages 41—42
6) R.C. Abraham, The Dictionary of Modern Yoruba, University of London press, 1958
7) Samuel Crowther, A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language, Seeleys, London, 1852
8) Henry John Drewel and Margaret Thompson Drewel, Gelede, Art and Female Power Among the Yoruba, Indiana University Press, 1990, page 5
9) H.U. Beier, Yoruba Poetry, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/ 1970, Page 49
10) R. Prince, Curse, Invocation and Mental Health Among the Yoruba, Canadian Psychiatric Journal 5, 1960, page 66
11) Richard Abiodun, Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, The Concept of Ase/ African Arts, July, 1994, page 73
12) George Brandon, Santeria, from Africa to the New World, The Dead Sell Memories, Indiana University Press, 1993, page 17
13) John Drewel, John Pemberton III, Rowland Boiodun, Yoruba; Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, The Center for African Art and Abrams, Inc., New York/ 1989, Page 16
14) Richard Abiodun, Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, The Concept of Ase, African Arts, July, 1994, page 74
15) Richard Abiodun, Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, The Concept of Ase, African Arts, July, 1994, page 73
16) Richard Abiodun, Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, The Concept of Ase, African Arts, July, 1994, page 73
17) Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, African and Afro—American Art and Philosophy, Random House, Inc., New York, 1984, page 12
18) Philip John Neimark, The Way of the Orisa, Harper, San Francisco, 1993, page 12
19) John Drewel, John Pemberton III, Rowland Boiodun, Yoruba; Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, The Center for African Art and Abrams, Inc., New York/ 1989, Page 18

(Illustrations: Yoruba sculptures of Eshu/ Elegua, artists unknown)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Art and Ashe in the Yoruba Tradition/ First Half

By Brian George

“Why do we believe angels prefer angelic persons? Why assume that the genius (activating spirit) wants only to be with geniuses? Maybe the invisibles are interested in our lives for the sake of their realization and as such are inherently democratic: Anyone will do. Maybe they do not recognize the concept mediocre. The daimon gives importance to each, not only to the Important. Moreover, they and we are linked in the same myth. We are divine and mortal twins, and so they are in service to the same social realities as we. Because of this linkage, the angel has no way of descent into the streets of the public common except via our lives. In the film Wings of Desire, angels fall in love with life, the street life of ordinary human predicaments.”—James Hillman, from “The Soul's Code”1

According to the Yoruba, Ashe is the foundational energy of this world and the other, existing from a time before the worlds themselves were created. Without Ashe the Orishas—the gods or active powers of creation—would be shadows hovering on the edge of nonexistence, the human body would be a corpse, words would be random noises, the greatest work of art would be a shell. When Oludumare spoke the primordial names, by which the Orishas and the stars and planets were conjured into the first light of visibility, without the power of Ashe the body of creation would have been unable to stand or move.2 It would have remained trapped in the memory of worlds before our own, a sad and impotent idea. The great Oludumare himself, eldest of the Orishas, would have less importance than an ant.

Millennia came and went like days, whole ages like weeks. The one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged keeper of the secrets, Osanyin, asked, “Does your mouth open? Do you speak ifa?” The first man answered, “Yes, I understand the code. My body has chosen the head it is to wear. I sweat with joy. Oludumare breathes me. It is necessary that I pour my own blood on the work.”

In Yoruba thought, cosmology and aesthetics go hand in hand. Each clarifies the half-seen purposes of the other. Time moves in cycles, in which species and the stage sets they inhabit may evolve, yes, in that patterns grow from earlier versions of the same, but the Rorschach blot of creation is not at all a random accretion. It is, from its inception, a work of conscious art. Human art is a much later variation of the prototypes. The light inside the void speaks. The myth gets physical. An act of interpretation opens the key signatures, collapsing the wave function and altering time/space. Ashe turns the kaleidoscope of a-causal correspondences. The planets dance. They explode with songs of celebration.

Nature collaborates with the energies of supernature to complete each task that she is scheduled to perform. The world is beautiful. It is almost certain, however, that any ultimate perfection of the artwork would be death. No story would have a beginning, a middle, or an end. It would not be possible to keep any gift in circulation.

There would be no wound to heal. Ashe would not have a catastrophe to remove. The lightning that once transported us would not be cooler than the sun, or as slow as the year is long. Earth with all her oceans would not be bigger than a pinhead. Wave upon wave, birth would not have contracted the full range of our superconductive memory, as hands cut us from an earlier but still beating state of connection. A chicken would not have descended with Obatala on a chain, to then scratch from the ocean the lost continent of Pangaea.

A bata drum summons the other bodies we inhabited. A piece of seaweed must be taken from one’s hair. Such an evolution of live memories is not distinct from repetition, as rerouted by the principle of uncertainty, and is perhaps governed by a return of the repressed. Says Reginaldo Prandi, “What happens to us today and what is about to happen in the near future has been experienced before by another human being, by an ancestor, or by the Orishas themselves… The mythical past, which is remade at every moment in the present, is narrated by the oddus of the Ifa oracle.”3

Aimed like weapons at the navel of the Earth, the concepts of chance and chaos do exist for the Yoruba, but each plays a role that is integral to a process. Without these subversive agents of the trickster, there would be no split between the future and the past. There would be no opening through which our language could emerge. The method by which order and disorder interact is the very thing that makes divination possible, that generates the occult potency of Ifa.

The Yoruba say: “It takes a little bit of everything to make the world.”

By a casting of the opele, the eight-linked iron chain that joins eight pieces of a coconut shell, the Orishas too must struggle to interpret the strange language of Ifa—the system of divination of which Orunmila is the master, but to which Eshu lends his catalytic energy. Each throw results in two columns made up of one or two line units—I or II—arranged four down to a side. At the end, you are left with a single pair of oddus, or configurations of the binary code. Eight x eight links correspond to the 64 codons of the DNA spiral. Eight links x 32 give rise to the corpus of the 256 oddus. Each complex oddu can be subdivided into another 16 subjects, forming a total of 4,096 oddus, and so forth, until we reach a temporary limit of 65,636 oddus. Furthermore, each oddu has 1,680 iterpretations.4

Our view is necessarily partial. To act is to remove one’s full attention from the whole. The most complex of equations are contained within the zero and the one. In the eight-spoked wheel of the city, we should always leave at least one gate open to fresh energies from the bush. Movement gives form to the story that is waiting to be spoken. It is our lack of knowledge that potentiates the fixed signs of the time-cycle.

When the movement of the worlds had once ground to a halt, Oludumare went to Eshu, the Orisha of the crossroads, the trickster who is the guardian of Ashe, to beg him to unblock the circuits, to reestablish the connections between each of the Orishas, between Orishas and their human  vehicles, between the upper and the lower worlds. Eshu saw his chance. He who would often appear as a young boy or a wandering beggar would remind others of his importance. He would become ubiquitous, as honored in art and ritual as he was indispensable in fact. He agreed to carry out the task, on condition that he be granted a portion of the offerings made to each of the other Orishas. Since that day, all rituals must begin and end with an invocation to Eshu, that is, with the generation and integration of Ashe.5

Ashe is the power to connect. Imagine the state of a human being before he or she is born: a sperm, an egg and a human soul each exist in their separate dimensions. Human DNA can be seen as one version of the chain by which a race of primogenitors had once descended to the ocean. Its links connect Ikole Aiye, the House of Earth, to Ikole Orun, the House of Heaven. It is not so much that Ashe creates something out of nothing. It rather brings what separately exists into a new and pregnant conjunction. A rhythm is generated, a meeting place opened, information is translated into form, a system of exchange established, a work of art, first almost inert and then more and more alive, produced.

The human being erupts, loud and kicking, as a three-dimensional object into the world. In the same way a ritual sculpture allows the Orisha a window that opens onto the Earth, a fuel depot, a base of operations from which it can carry out its agenda.

(Illustrations: Sculptures of Eshu, Yoruba, artists unknown)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

After the Rig Veda

By Brian George

There was not the non-existent or its shadow the existent then. There was no space—and less beyond. Desire came at the beginning.

Are you sure that you live—or did the ancients mean something else by death?

Big bird had not unfolded his umbrella above the sky. No hand held it. There was not a body to contain the atom’s force. Was the mouth pregnant? Gods did not have complex clothes to put on or take off. Heaven flapped on a hanger.

Parapalegics blew instruments. Their skeletons were hung from wells. Species screamed at the non-existent waves.

Did the void breathe? The harmonic spheres were not yet hard. Ships were inhabited hallucinations. The Earth had no security force. Cargo was heaped on the docks. Fish flew into hungry mouths. Transparent wealth was free for the taking. Most signs were not difficult to understand. Myths demanded bodies.

Was no news good news? Nada. Sound’s messengers were not (quite) sound. Tornadoes were just embryos. They did not know how to act. They inadvertently swept gold cities off the ocean.  Bad poets developed the most prodigious memories. Chaos plowed the tundra.

Rulers could not separate the spirits from their spears. Pyres grew monstrous. The dead had not yet discovered the hygienic use of flame. Grass sprouted from the bones of decomposing giants. It lengthened like an ascetic's hair. Perfume swept the battlefield where an epochal war was fought. A holocaust echoed.

Bat men like a bow had not bent Asia. Though few its inhabitants the land looked young.

Things were great all over. Masters were generous. Slaves did not keep secrets. Magic was natural. Objects could be taken back from dreams. Paranoia did not sacrifice untouchables to the gods on the cold steps of Mohenju Daru. There was no image not present to the tongue.

Is space large? The lines between stars were mapped by the teachers of a race before our own. To the listener: breathe in and out. Aside from that there was not anything beyond.

That which coming into being was covered by the void- that 1 stood on water through the violence of austerities. What did it contain? Past worlds. Sages found the bond of the existent in the non-existent. Poets danced on the ocean.

Magicians joined hands to impregnate the Earth’s history with their speech. They levitated the inhabited sun from where it slept beneath the ocean. Birth created death. Mists arose to obscure the source of conjuration.

Did the egg dream of a conscious uroboros? Whose voice was it that echoed from above? The gods came after.

The Gayatri meter was the yoke-mate of Agni. Usni was the meter that Savitr contributed. The Viraj meter was the privilege of Mitra and Varuna. Soma was the intoxicant to which the Anu meter corresponded. All partook of the elixir that generated knowledge. They made melodies into shuttles for the weaving of the paradox. Repetitions harmonized the rebellious paths of planets. Nature’s laws are habits.

Is the myth revealed at the beginning of the end—or at the end of the beginning?

Dark the beginning that circumscribed the dark. What did it contain? Under whose protection?

Ecstasy is the god from which the material form of Soma is distilled. Ego annihilation is the press. Acts of memory are the offering.

The emptiness prior to the constellations is spread out like one body. Memories wheel. Space itself is my only mode of transport. Before me appears the trace- of what I in a different place once spoke. Against the night the cities of the Andhakas float like sparks.

(Illustration: Victor Brauner, Prelude to a Civilization)