First of all, let me stress that The Wrong Side of Eden is not an updated version of the story of the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. It is a “radical approach to theater” as promised by the subtitle of the (self) published edition of the play.
I would argue that the best way to experience how the play is ‘radical’ (‘from the root’) can only truly be experienced in its performance. But I will try to show at least one part of the complicated equation here, for those of you who are patient enough to read on and then to reflect about the how this show is different from other theater you have seen. The words presented here are only the beginning….
The idea for The Wrong Side of Eden came to me as I was writing a textbook for a college acting class; I had finished much of the manuscript in various phases and had decided on the title: Acting-Out Theater History: The Origins of Theater in Ritual, Myth and the Improvised Performance. I was re-reading Aristotle looking for pertinent quotes for the chapters and stumbled on this: “To consider whether tragedy is fully developed by now in all its various species or not, and to criticize it both in itself and in relation to the stage, that is another question. At any rate it originated in improvisation—both tragedy itself and comedy. The one came from the prelude to the dithyramb and the other from the prelude to the phallic songs which still survive as institutions in many cities” (Aristotle, Poetics 1449 a. 1). From that point on, the idea of the play took over; I started re-writing the book.
I started writing the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk”–then all hell broke loose….
[From SCENE ONE:]
(JACK and the PEDDLER enter from opposite sides of the stage, and proceed on strong diagonals DC.)
….yeah—you…. You see anyone else?
(Voice over; like a golf announcer. JACK and the PEDDLER look puzzled…)
Now, at this point, not much is happening; but, anything could happen. At this point, the players need to decide where the scene is going to go… In order to do this we can either ask a series of “what if” questions; we can stipulate that something is going to interrupt the apparent stasis of the scene; or we can simply let the scene go forward…
(puts his arm around him)
where ya headed?
…I’m going to the market…why?
Why?—I should be asking you that—Why Jack? Why are you going to market?
…why?—why to sell my mother’s cow of course—
and my name’s not Jack…
–of course—of course—you look like a Jack to me, Jack…. My mistake…. —Off to market to sell the family cow… eh? Well that’s just fine…. –Mind if I tag along with you for a bit—
Well, I don’t know… my mother says—
–and your mother seems like a wise woman too! –just so happens I too am on my way to market….
…Oh? Wait a minute—weren’t you going that way…
— very sensible woman your mother… sending you off to market to sell the family cow….say that’s a nice hat you have there Jack—where did you get that hat?
–it was my father’s hat—
–your father gave you that hat, did he?
…well no, my mother gave it to me…
–well that’s fine—just fine…and your father—how’s he feel about that—you’re mother giving you his hat?
–okay, I guess—he’s dead—
Odd people kept cropping-up (as it were) and before I knew it, poor Jack was beaten, stripped naked and left for dead; a young girl found him they fell in love… . Long story short–all hell broke through again–this time Jack was seduced by the Queen of the Underworld–strapped to a gurney and hauled away–The young girl Jenny had to find him–in order to do so she must [like Innana–the Babylonian queen of Heaven] confront a series of seven gates—at which each of her seven garments are removed–she faced the Great, Sexy Queen of the Dead (Ereshkigal)– naked and was cut into seven pieces–the girl, not the queen–The scene changed again– and Her father (the Sky God, Ea) [Where did he come from?–from another part of the story –of course!!] intervened and both Jack and Jenny (the young girl) were restored to life–they sang a duet about “A Land of Once Upon A Nevermind”–and before I could write “happily ever—after” they were thrown into chaos once again–and landed smack dab in the middle of the Garden Of Eden! Here the old Queen of the underworld was now the beguiling snake who seduced Eve–who then –well you get the idea….
It all makes perfect sense when you see it! A little music, a little screaming–it’ s a comedy!
The Cowpers’ Play
Courtesy of Gerard NeCastro (2007) From Stage to Page, http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/drama/york/play_05.html, accessed 5 December, 2011. (Used with permission.)
Satanas incipit dicens.
001 For woo my witte es in a were
002 That moffes me mykill in my mynde;
003 The Godhede that I sawe so cleere,
004 And parsayued that he shuld take kynde
005 Of a degree
006 That he had wrought, and I dedyned
007 þat aungell kynde shuld it noyot be;
008 And we wer faire and bright,
009 þerfore me thoght that he
010 The kynde of vs tane myght,
011 And therat dedeyned me.
012 The kynde of man he thoght to take
013 And theratt hadde I grete envye,
014 But he has made to hym a make,
015 And harde to her I wol me hye
016 That redy way,
017 That purpose proue to putte it by,
018 And fande to pike fro hym that pray.
019 My trauayle were wele sette
020 Myght Y hym so betraye,
021 His likyng for to lette,
022 And sone I schalle assaye.
023 In a worme liknes wille Y wende,
024 And founde to feyne a lowde lesynge.
025 Eue, Eue.
026 Eva. What es thare?
027 Satanas. I, a frende.
028 And for thy gude es the comynge
029 I hydir sought.
030 Of all the fruyt that ye se hynge
031 In paradise, why ete yoe noght?
032 Eua. We may of tham ilkane
033 Take al that vs goode thought,
034 Save a tree outt is tane,
035 Wolde do harme to neyghe it ought.
036 Satanas. And why that tree, that wolde I witte,
037 Any more than all othir by?
038 Eua. For oure lord God forbeedis vs itt,
039 The frute therof, Adam nor I
040 To neghe it nere;
041 And yf we dide we both shuld dye,
042 He saide, and sese our solace sere.
043 Satanas. Yha, Eue, to me take tente;
044 Take hede and thou shalte here
045 What that the matere mente
046 He moved on that manere.
047 To ete therof he you defende
048 I knawe it wele, this was his skylle:
049 Bycause he wolde non othir kende
050 Thes grete vertues that longes thertill.
051 For will thou see,
052 Who etis the frute of goode and ille
053 Shalle haue knowyng as wele as hee.
[From Scene 9: pp 85-87 The Wrong Side of Eden a play by Kelly Knox]
Satanas incipit dicens.
SATAN (Played by the same Actress who plays JANE)
My brains are wracked and my body pained,
With stifling thoughts my might is drained;
That God could be so petty and contrite
That he could make a creature just to spite
Me, from the purple dirt and dust of his decree!
It is I whom He made first and now am shamed;
It is I among His Heaven’s Angel hosts,
Whom He made fair and sure and bright;
It is I who am among them all, the uppermost;
I who am stricken, cursed and cruelly cast down thus
From golden frame, to Godforsaken flames and fust;
I will not bow and scrape nor stoop to serve and smile
Before this heap of bones and gore, pus and guile!
Not for one damned moment of his bloody little while!
But God has made another fleshly-peckish trifle here,
One whom He and Adam/Mutt hold dear.
She is perfect, pure and pink, she may be the pawn I seek;
From her sweet mouth, the words I speak
Can make mischief strong and Adam weak!
My little works and words are just the thing
Both to shed some light and to some darkness bring
That I will end his pleasure in all of this
With just the simple promise of eternal bliss
With Serpent’s tongue and Wisdom’s eye
Will I trace and tempt his fragrant little miss!
EVE (Played by the same actress who plays JENNY)
ooh…and what are you? …Have you a name?
Alas, not yet—but I am a friend—and to
Your comfort I’ll attend; for I was sent to look for you…
And here you are—at my journey’s end!
Why look at all these splendid trees!
So thick with fruit the branches bend—
Please say you’ve sampled all of them!?
…of all the best and ripest we’ve taken some….
From all these trees except for one…
It’s fruit is death to taste or touch…
Is death a thing that we should fear?
I’ve seen the oceans deep and wide,
And traveled much on land beside,
I’ve known all wonders far and near,
I’ve never heard of death my dear….
No, my –friend, the Lord was clear
The man and I should not venture near
If I eat the fruit borne of that tree,
Then God would surely punish me…
Sweet, sweet girl, be not afraid,
About the things the old boy said;
I’m sure he says a lot of things—
But never all the things he means;
None of us means the things we say—
Everyone knows he’s just that way!
When he says to eat the fruit of all the trees
He means all the fruits –and even these;
And when he says there’s danger here—
He means to say you should take care.
Would he ever deny you this?
I hear it tastes like eternal bliss!
So, this sample represents the basic contrast between the Cowpers’ play (as it was performed in York and the surrounding region in the 14th Century) and my transliteration; I began by playing with the sounds of the Middle English (which is closer no doubt to what is spoken in the North today—than say in London) which is a polyglot of Germanic languages—until after 1066; I played too, with the way theater developed after it was made legal again by the Church (of Rome) in the 10th Century. Once the plays got kicked out of the Choir lofts and into the public square, a class of professional actors began to train itself to the difficult task of transforming the doctrines of the Church, the stories from the Bible, into presentations which eventually turned into skits and then plays for mass consumption.
A dozen or so stock, chthonic characters emerged—character types—and the actors playing the character types carried with them in their heads a set of standard ‘speeches’, ‘songs’, ‘Latin and foreign language’ phrases—as well as a basic ability to juggle, play an instrument, dance or perform acrobatics—and if need be, in some cases turn a “trick” or two. The structure of my play—and the potential for improvisation depends on the nature and abilities of the actors I find to play the parts.
The Wrong Side of Eden is fully scripted in eleven scenes—there is a musical score (by a professional composer/musician) we have a director (me) but no place to hold auditions, rehearsals or the performances—yet. As we (pompous for ‘I’) cast the show, we will know how the modifications can be made—where the actors can improvise and how the show can be staged to maximum advantage—and the most entertainment for one’s proverbial buck!
For the most part, the script is ‘set’—125 pages or so—and I estimate that we will need to cut about 12 pages of dialogue over all to keep the show taut.
There you have the Cliff’s Notes version of the approach to this play—and to my sense of theater— at least for this play! The interruptions during the play—the intrusions by the ‘real world’ into the illusory world of the play—by the director, the chorus, the prologue and so forth, are a nod to the impossibility of ‘mystery, miracle and moral’ plays today….and a direct reference to the structure and content of the Greek plays—not to mention the Greek audience (who might have gotten into a fist fight over the diction in a play—even though the penalty for doing so was death or banishment…) You ask if others are excited about the show? There are so few others who know about the show right now—because I am keeping it somewhat secret—that I would say no. Although I say I am keeping it somewhat secret—the script is available at Amazon.com—I have formed a small group to do the promotional video—the music of course—and some of the other details of preproduction –but even with all I am telling you—no one has the ‘whole picture’ of what I am doing—except for me. This way—if one part falls away, or is ‘stolen’ by someone else—it doesn’t adversely affect the entire project…because it is only one piece.
Why do I believe that you should invest in The Other Side of Eden? Why should you contribute to the PARADOX project at all? The short answer to this question is because both are Unique. We believe that our outreach efforts are unique as well. We are looking to find the little red button on the back of the collective unconscious hard drive—the one that says DO NOT PUSH –and we are asking “what if we do?”
Art History~With Soup!
The Twisted Gourmet™
Kelly W. Knox, M.A.
All Rights Reserved
Conceptual art did not begin in the ’60’s with the post-modern, contemporary gallery Art movement. There is some controversy about its exact nature and beginning. The origins of conceptual art are different from the origins or nature of abstract art: all art is an abstraction; not all abstraction is conceptual. It really is as simple as that. To say that all art is an abstraction is to recognize that art is a thing in itself quite apart from that which it is intended to represent.
The movement from perception to representation is a mechanical act that requires thought and ability. Every one can see a chair, an apple, a flower, a face or a figure; not everyone can represent in a two or three dimensional form, the object or person they perceive with the same degree of precision.
Every year for eight years at the beginning of the semester, I gave my High School students the same assignment. I placed two chairs on a table at the front of the room, gave each student a pencil and a piece of paper and told them to “draw the chairs”. On average I would estimate that out of a class of thirty-five students, two or three had actual talent, four or five had some ability; about ten would actually make an earnest attempt to draw the chairs and the rest would actively or passively avoid the assignment altogether. This is not unusual. By the time most of my students reach my classroom, either in High School or in College, they have already settled for themselves the question of whether or not they can draw or whether or not they are an artist. I maintained that while “talent cannot be taught” everyone can be taught to draw. Drawing is after all, a mechanical process. Talent for drawing is like any other talent an inexplicable and innate ability possessed by some and not by others. So, whereas everyone who can hold a pencil can learn to draw, no one can learn to be talented.
This being said, we can turn to conceptual art (concept art, art with text or art that requires an explanation–some might say elitist or insider art); conceptual art challenges the basic tenets of conventional thought about the arts, that they must be either plastic or performed and that some tangible product must result from the artist’s actions. (You’ve probably noticed by now that I have cleverly avoided defining art to this point. Let me take this opportunity to warn you that I will probably remain that clever throughout this entry.) In theory conceptual art could exist in the artist’s mind alone. But because I believe that all art requires communication, I don’t believe that this is true.
All art, all forms of communication require at least two parties and an intermediate agent that both can perceive in some way. I can have lots of thoughts in my head about a variety of subjects, I can imagine any number of pictures or visions, unless I convert those to some intermediate (“some thing between”) agency that an other is able to somehow perceive–those thoughts and images die with me or in my fading attention span.
So, to continue, all art requires communication. Concept Art is no different. Concept Art also requires a medium (something that stands between the artist and her or his audience as an intermediate language or object or action that if properly transmitted and received can convey the concept). If I absentmindedly leave a shoe in my front yard [I don’t have a front yard, I live in an apartment, but for the sake of argument let’s say I had a front yard] and if one of my neighbors happens by and sees the shoe. What is he or she likely to think? They probably won’t think much of it at all except perhaps to “register” somewhere in the back of their mind–“hey, there’s a shoe on the lawn here. A shoe doesn’t belong on the lawn….” and they would continue on their way. Now, if I were to take the same imaginary shoe (actually I don’t wear shoes, I am either barefoot or I wear boots] or boot and I put it on a plinth in a gallery or a museum with a little brass plate that reads ” The Artist’s Boot” and further the plate is dated “2009” and maybe it has my name “k knox” inscribed on it; the same neighbor happens into the gallery looking for directions, or maybe to use the facilities, sees the boot on it’s plinth with its brass plate…. [And she thinks, “When did Kelly get his boot off of the lawn, and why the hell is it here?”] Now the boot is transformed into ART [___yes ___ no–pick one….]–or is it? This is perhaps the concept behind pieces like Jim Dine’s Shovel (ca. 1954?). If I or Jim Dine take an ordinary shovel out of the garage (although I don’t have a garage–I told you I live in an apartment–pay attention!) put the shovel in a gallery on a plinth with a title and an attribution to the artist, it is transformed into art. In other words the context of the gallery is enough to transform an ordinary object into an extraordinary one.
When I demonstrate this idea in my classroom, I use the example of a chair. I put a chair on the table and declare that it is “Chair” by “k knox” and give the appropriate year. The class (quite naturally) is stunned. Most teachers don’t rearrange the furniture during class, let alone declare that they have thereby created art! (Imagine their surprise if I took off one of my boots!) Any way, the point is that concept art requires the context provided by the gallery or the museum (or a similar “platform”, setting or occasion usually reserved for “art”) in order to be considered “art”. This is almost always true; although there are some cases where even more is required, a context is almost always the minimum requirement for concept art. (While you busy yourselves thinking up exceptions, I’m going to go make coffee–you can consider it a kind of “performance art”…)
My favorite concept artist, all time, might object (well he’s dead now so he can’t really object) to being called a concept artist, was Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp is known primarily for his enigmatic “Large Glass” [“The Bride Stripped Bare, by her Bachelors even”] and his “Nude Descending a Staircase” (the latter ca. 1912 was shown at the infamous Armory Show in New York–the critics called it among other things, “an explosion at the shingle factory”) In particular I like three of his concept pieces. The first is a doodle he made on a post card as he crossed the Atlantic on his way to the Armory Show in New York. He took a little post card (about 7″ X 4″) and drew a mustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa, underneath he wrote the letters L.H.O.O.Q. Which latter inscription was a pun he stole from his friend the photographer Paul Elouard. (This on the whole was not as bad as what Salvidor Dali stole from Elouard–namely his girl-friend Gala.)
When pronounced in French the letters become “el” “ache” “O” “O” “kewl” or if you run it all together and say it with a phony French accent and just the right sneer: “Elle a chaud au cul” which translates as “she has a hot ass!” Believe it or not, there are (or at least were ten years ago) Art History books out there that try to read this literally as “la hook”! (Probably nuff said about Art History text-book authors, huh?) Any way, my point is, the single most famous act of defilement of a historic icon of art is completely lost without the subtext or context provided by the pun (and arguably the unfortunate fate that befell the hapless Elouard….) This is I think an example of dada at its most refined.
Dada was an art movement that lasted in Europe for only about four years; its adherents refused to take anything seriously, except themselves–too much so–except for Duchamp [Other names you can look up are Tzara, Heulsenbeck and Arp–all of whom claimed to have founded or named dada–but that’s another story]. [dada is the proper term, it is almost never capitalized and is never an “ism”. It was replaced by Surrealism–except for the career of Duchamp, who remained quietly dada, in spite of everything else that was going on in the art world or in the room around him.]
The Second work by Duchamp that is undeniably concept art is Fountain from 1917 and later 1965 in reprise. [The original was lost.] Fountain required the audience to engage with the artist in an act of imagination. Ostensibly, Duchamp presented a urinal signed by him with the manufacturer’s name “R Mutt” and dated “1917”. But the urinal was not the fountain, we are not supposed to imagine water issuing forth from it, but a stream (of urine) flowing into it. Fountain is incomplete until the viewer imagines the man standing in front of it peeing into it. Despite its graphic nature, Fountain, for me, is quintessentially concept art: it requires the context of the gallery or the museum and it requires the viewer to participate in an act of imagination. If in fact the viewer just passively observes the urinal and thinks that Duchamp has meant it literally as a fountain–he or she misses the point (and worse, the joke).
The third work by Duchamp is perhaps less provocative than the other two, but is no less evocative. In Advance of a Broken Arm, provides us with the third element of concept art, that is the requisite text we need to understand it. Literally the piece consists first of a snow shovel, in the context of a gallery or museum, accompanied by its title, artist’s name and year (which you will have to look-up because I’ve forgotten it). Duchamp wants us to remember a time when we shoveled a sidewalk missed a patch of ice and fell and hurt ourselves. It is not that we are shoveling snow and the snow is so heavy that breaks our arm, it’s that we were shoveling badly…. at least that’s my interpretation. Or, alternately, we might wish to avoid the act of shoveling all together because of the threat of bodily injury–the snow shovel then becomes an ominous warning–either way, the shovel is not just a shovel because of the title or text that accompanies it.
I think that we have seen that concept art is more than just objects randomly chosen and provided with titles in the context of a gallery or museum. Concept art is a means of communicating about art, about the artist and about ourselves, ultimately. And while everyone can have concepts, just as everyone can draw, not everyone is equally talented at either conceptual art or drawing. A deeper, more profound question then, given that all of the elements may be required (of object or intermediary, context and perhaps text) and all may be available equally to everyone, how are we to determine what is “good” conceptual art, and what is not? That may be a topic for another blog.
[Now if you’ll excuse me, after all of that coffee, i have to go pee–what do you mean “what about the cat?” –Go look it up!!]
Tomato Basil soup And Gratuitous Nudity.
This soup is really very simple to make.
½ stick of butter (melt it in a heavy pan—like a cast iron skillet)
1/3 cup of flour (sprinkle over the top of the butter when it has melted—stir with a wire whisk)
1 ½ teaspoons of salt—for god’s sakes —don’t measure with a spoon, use the palm of your hand (cupped to make a little depression) use less salt if you use canned tomatoes. Use more salt if you are trying to become bloated and unattractive. [They promised gratuitous nudity, did I miss it?] Many too many [is it “many too many” or “much too many”—screw it! “Plenty of”…will do….] grinds of fresh black pepper. If you don’t have a pepper grinder yet—what the fuck is wrong with you!?
2 ½ cups of stock (vegetable or chicken) (more if you don’t have juicy tomatoes) heat the broth or stock up before you add it to the roux or you will get lumps. If you get lumps, please see your doctor—no, strain the soup or gravy through a fine mesh strainer—duh!! Whatever you do, don’t serve lumpy soup or lumpy gravy to your guests (well not if you like them—)
Three dozen (or so) Roma tomatoes (I juice mine if I’m in a hurry, but you can use a blender—you can use canned— two of the30 oz cans should do—if not, use another 15 oz can—after blending or juicing or pulsing together in a food processor, use a sieve to strain out the seeds, stems, and severed factory workers’ fingers—use a blender or food processor to blend them till smooth)
One medium size bunch of basil (use the cello box from the store—or buy it fresh from the market in a bunch) (cut it into strips or shreds —chiffonade—save it for later) A chiffonade is made by simply stacking and rolling the leaves up into little “cigars”, and then slicing each roll into thin circlet’s, that unravel into little shreds of basil or whatever….Why the fancy name? It’s French! Don’t argue with the French about food, food preparation or the names they give to things….If you must argue with French, argue about their hygiene like everyone else does. The English make fun of the French; the French make fun of the Germans; The Germans make fun of the English. That’s all very fair—The Italians are always in the kitchen cooking—so no one knows what they smell like….
One tablespoon of dried oregano add it now.
Four or five large cloves of garlic; six if they’re medium; seven or eight if they’re small—if you need more than eight—get some bigger garlic—what are you an idiot! (Smashed, peeled and chopped as finely as you can)
At this point everything should be simmering a large pot on medium heat. If you aren’t going to eat the soup today, once it has simmered take it off of the heat, let it cool to room temperature and then refrigerate it for up to four days. If you are going to eat it tonight, reduce the heat and add:
One to two cups of cream, half and half, or just whole milk. (I’ve used soy milk in the past with veggie stock to make a vegan alternative—substitute the roux with cornstarch and wine or stock—but put it in at the end not at the beginning—shouldn’t you be taking notes? Oh, yeah—never mind…. Don’t add this until after you add the tomato juice/sauce/puree, and bring it to just a boil—the cornstarch will not cook unless it’s boiled—unlike some people I know who won’t cook unless they’re baked—but that’s another story— and no longer illegal in California….)
¾ cup of wine (theories differ—red if you don’t use milk or cream, white if you do—dry sherry if your mother in law is coming over for lunch…. If you don’t like the adverse effects of alcohol, no worries; the alcohol cooks off. If you don’t like the taste of alcohol—what the fuck is wrong with you, now!? I’ll bet you don’t have a pepper grinder either!)
More fresh basil for topping—croutons for topping—cheese is good for topping—chopped onions are good, peppers—pickled or fresh jalapenos are nice…. Plenty of freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste—unless you have high blood pressure like I do—maybe splash on some hot sauce or a spoon or two of salsa fresca . Don’t serve soup with crackers—I’ll hear about it; and I will hurt you….
The Canary in the Coal Mine:
What is “subversive art?” Subversive art is at least in part a movement without a center and with no leaders (in any real sense). It began in the plastic arts with the Impressionists i suppose. They wanted to paint pictures that would deliberately undermine and overturn the works being created in and approved by the French Academy of the Arts. The impressionists competed openly with the French Academy so successfully, that within a few years their painters became successful enough to begin to exclude or “refuse” painters who wish to join their “Salon of the refused”! One of the more notable painters originally rejected by the Impressionists was Georges Suerat–who painted with little dots of contrasting colors taken from the impressionists own palette. Eventually, they did decide to allow him to display his works with them, but they still relegated the work to a corner of the exhibit. Oddly enough though almost all of the leading lights of the impressionist movement tried their hands at painting in Seurat’s Pointillist style most of them failed. As the Impressionists quickly gained ground on the French Academy and became the “establishment” among French Artists other groups emerged in a subversive response to them. The Impressionists, and the related offshoots of Post Impressionists, Early Expressionists and a few other related non-academic but accepted schools of painting lasted from about 1865 to 1900.
At the turn of the twentieth century three groups emerged that would challenge the Impressionists for supremacy in the art world in Europe. The Cubists were Picasso, Bracques, and Gris; The Surrealists were mostly a Literary movement but they brought awareness to painters like DiChiraco (sp) and Salvidor Dali; and the Futurists. These latter groups it might be argued were formed as the French and Italian factions of a schism that split the dada movement that was popular especially in Switzerland before the First War. The Surrealists rallied around Andre Breton who saw himself as the spiritual heir to Guillaume Apollinaire the Symbolist Poet–and was the only one waving a banner with any conviction (he also provided punch and cookies); The Futurists all took pen names: Marinetti was the nominal leader and many of their manifestos were probably his work.
T he goals of the Surrealists and of the Futurists were vastly different. The Surrealists wanted to explore Freud’s new theories of the subconscious mind; and the Futurists were pretty much against the future of art as they foresaw it. The Futurists wanted to reflect the fast pace of their contemporary urban centers and all of the wonderful machines given to us by the recent advances of the industrial revolution. The fatal flaw (or at least tragic flaw) that afflicted the Surrealists was that it was led by Breton who wanted everyone to dig his poetry, couldn’t paint and couldn’t stand any opposing views. He tried to recruit Picasso–Picasso turned him down flat. He successfully recruited Dali, who refused to do what he was told, stole Breton’s friend Paul Eluard’s wife from him, and generally was a colossal pain in Bretons large flabby ass. The fatal flaws in Futurism were many–too many to enumerate before my blog disappears, so I’ll just give you the two i find the most onerous: they wanted to outlaw painting the nude for ten years (there goes my career) and they were almost all, to a man Fascists (there goes the neighborhood). dada you will remember, only lasted for about four years. It was a controversial anti-art art movement. They would hold sintesi–little scenes or performances that made Theater of the Absurd look perfectly sane. The Futurist picked up on this nastiness and tried to perfect the form. For both the dada performers and the Futurists, it was a successful night if a fist fight erupted and noses were bloodied, the police were called and people were arrested.
Still, on the painterly front, one doesn’t really get the full gist of what was going on in the art world in Europe or how the Surrealists, dada and Futurism figured into some of the changes. Basically one could argue that for the first time artist were deciding for themselves what was and wasn’t to be considered art. They stopped listening to critics, scholars and audiences and took the rather radical stance that they would decide what was art and how it should be made and for whom. All of the Surrealists and Futurists were largely idealist or ideologues: this fact had and has ramifications for art in all of its forms following from their lead, but the chief concern is that now all of a sudden anything can be art–because I/WE say it’s art–and there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it. The only other part of the equation that had to be added was added by Kandinsky in painting and all of the plastic arts–paintings no longer needed to represent subjects, they became subjects in themselves. All of the “isms” of the “ism”-laden 20th Century have their genesis here in this catastrophic combination: Paintings don’t have to be representational (“of” something); and “It’s is art because I say it’s art”…. We still live today, with the fall-out from the combination of these explosive concepts. I believe that this combination damn near killed art. (Sit down, for god’s sakes I can prove it–before I’m done I’ll have you believing it too and telling your friends!)
Art in the hands of the Surrealists, Futurists and dada performers became reactionary. This much seems certain; but what were the artists reacting to? They were reacting in large part to the accessibility and acceptability won by the Impressionists, whose work had moved from the fringes of the academy to the mainstream in less than a generation. [The Cubists were off in their own little worlds and we’ll take up their influence at another time. Now i should feed Schrödinger’s cat.] Duchamp more or less invented the idea of “found object art” with his “fountain”: Rauschenberg perfected it (See his taxidermy goat in the tire–I forget the name–it’s late). Pollock took Kandinsky’s ideas and turned them into “action painting”: Alan Kaprow and others saw in Pollock’s action painting the gestic moment of art in performance. Kasimir Malevich created a new style (relying on Kandinsky’s theories i suppose–but also based on Lenin’s version of Marxism; Malevich was going to be Lenin’s Art Czar–but Lenin died and Stalin didn’t get it) that he coined “Supremetist”: he meant that it was “Supreme” or “Superior” among other kinds of art–because it was free of bourgeois subjects and from representational forms. Few people remember his name but almost everyone can recognize the name of one of his pieces as the paradigmatic punch line for all abstract art: the infamous “White on White”–yes he painted a white canvas with white paint…. Nonetheless, i think we all have Malevich to thank for the minimalist movement which was no doubt started by art school students who paid attention one day in art history class and decided they could have the rest of the semester off from the studio–if they only became minimalists! [Later after a nap and a trip to the post office]
[For those of you who didn’t look up the Rauschenberg piece’s name, it’s “Monogram.” –imagine that on your hankies!]
So what have we learned so far? We know that contemporary “isms” owe their existence to two ideas that flowed out of dada, Surrealism and Futurism: Art is what I say it is; and the subject of Art is Art as defined by the Artists. [I’m sure i said it better last night, I’m about a quart low on coffee yet this morning…] The particular threads that we have been following have led us in serpentine fashion from Kandinsky to Pollock to Kaprow and others (performance art); from Kandinsky and Lenin’s Revolution to Malevich; and from Duchamp to Rauschenberg (minimalism and Found Object art). Our investigation began of course with the French Impressionists turning over the French Academy of Art; and we reasoned that the former were so successful that they became an art establishment worthy of being over-turned (subverted) themselves.
In order to go on [aside from having copious amounts of coffee] we must think back, way back to the beginning of the current semester when i introduced you to Schrödinger’s cat and the idea of context. Outside of the gallery a shovel or a urinal are two useful items, although hardly interchangeable, inside of a gallery, they are art, as long as they are properly displayed, labeled and signed by the artist. Context also plays an important part in minimalist and performance arts. Both minimalist and performance arts are innately subversive–and sometimes their subversive ness is all of their charm and their content as well. Two examples will serve, the first is real–more or less and the second is contrived but plausible and derived from numerous similar examples.
Imagine that you have been invited out to a night of Performance at a local theater. [It’s the late 90’s, Los Angeles, New York or maybe Newark–i forget; you’re getting ready to meet with some friends at a local oxygen bar for drinks (water mostly) and you’re much younger than I am–probably better looking too…] You learn that the performance is a one woman show by Annie Sprinkle [her real name–for those of you too young or good looking to remember–was Ellen F. Steinberg] former porn star; you’re not quite sure what to expect–maybe some good natured “schwanz” jokes, maybe a song or two or perhaps even a heartfelt monologue…. After some O2 at the go to bar, you’re all off to the gallery/theater/performance space and prepared to make a night of whatever it is to be.
The crowd looks and behaves like a normal crowd, many of them seem to know each other in that annoying West Hollywood sort of way. You and your friends are shown to a table near the front and you sit and order drinks. At length, the lights flash and then dim, thus calling the room to order and signaling that the show is going to start. You all adjust yourselves in the darkness and the crowd grows quiet in anticipation. The lights come up and there on a gurney equipped with gynecological stirrups lies Annie, legs akimbo with a speculum protruding from her [if you don’t understand this reference don’t run and ask your mum–phone a friend instead….] She is casually inviting people up to view her vagina in her very quaint but oddly proper British accent. Didn’t see that one coming did you?
Now a few weeks later, after you have sufficiently recovered from your Annie experience, another group of friends invites you to an opening featuring the work of the promising young savant Hymie Hugivsaschitz. His installation is titled “A Scream at the Wailing Wall” and is supposed to be about a young Jewish man’s angst. You decide to go, and this time you are to meet your friends at the venue. You arrive about nine, thinking if the show is a bust you can still catch a late movie, and you look around for your friends. The crowd is very animated: Lots of people, lots of big teeth, lots of black clothes. Everyone seems to have a drink in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other [it’s the 90’s, smoking is legal, it’s just not permitted.] You make your way through the crowd which has congealed between the doorway and the first bank of overhead gallery lights. [The move you execute is something between a shuffle and a two-step: “one, two–slide slide slide–three, four; and back slide hold, back slide hold–two, three and one….] You find yourself next to an unassuming bench along one wall a ways away from the crowd and so you sit down and decide to wait for your friends. Suddenly out of no where a fussy little man with black readers on a silver chain appears in a flurry of knees, elbows and wrists; he lunges towards you snarling in a fit of feline rage; just as he reaches you he draws his upper lip and nose into a contorted sneer, as through clenched teeth he shrilly announces to you: “Sir! You’re sitting on the Art!” [… say goodbye to Schrödinger’s cat as his fuzzy little ass scampers away up the stairs to the (March Archive in the) attic….]
Three further examples might serve to cement the point that i want to make about Subversive Art: How deadly serious it can be; how much fun it can be; and how fickle it can be.
For the first example we can go back to Ancient Greece and the plays of Aristophanes. If you have never read a good translation of Aristophanes’ plays you should at least read the Macculate Muse by Jeffrey Henderson (i think–i know the title is right so you can surf it). Henderson (if that is his real name) makes the point that most of us have only read very sanitized versions of Aristophanes unless we were once British grammar school boys in which case we would have had the opportunity to experience the full-on decadence and absolute filth (by some standards other than mine) of the original. Henderson is not the first to note that Aristophanes belonged to a different generation than Socrates, and more importantly he wrote for a different, younger hipper audience than Socrates’ contemporaries [were]. Unfortunately for Socrates, Aristophanes’ audience may have been the “cool kids” but they couldn’t buy a clue among them. Aristophanes’ audience–many of them didn’t really understand that Aristophanes’’ subversive humor was sarcasm and parody…. Like all satire, Aristophanes’ comedy was and is “morally ambiguous” or “indifferent”; truth in satire is the first victim of the Humor. There were three charges against Socrates: that he was a sophist (argued that the “lesser cause was greater”), “spoke against the Gods of the State” (was an atheist,) and that he “corrupted the youth with his ideas.”
Aristophanes painted Socrates as a lay-about purveyor of folk wisdoms–like “rain is Zeus peeing in a sieve”, and a pedophile (sp) that corrupted youth with more than his ideas and encouraged them to “corrupt” each other for his entertainment. The Athenian council believed the Satiric version–even though it cleaned up its language a bit. Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to die. At the last minute, Socrates was offered, as the story is told by his students, a reprieve–a fine or exile instead of death, but Socrates (whom the oracle had proclaimed the wisest of men) decided that he didn’t want to live in a society that was so stupid as to believe its comedians over the truth. His friends held a party for him, and at the end of the night he famously drank the poison that had been dutifully prepared for him. Even at the end, Socrates didn’t blame the comic–he blamed the Athenian Council. I suppose the lesson here is, even if it might be funny, one shouldn’t yell “fire” in a theater full of dumb people.
The Theater in Shakespeare’s day was just as subversive, almost as dangerous (but to the playwrights, not the objects of their jokes and jibes) and a lot more fun. Under Queen Elizabeth at various times, seditious literature could result in imprisonment, hefty fines or even death. One could not even at some times portray a Roman Catholic Priest on stage unless within a very narrow context or as a clown. There is a lot of scholarship that I think successfully argues that Shakespeare was a Catholic–in sympathies at least–a very careful Catholic…. All of the plays were screened by the Queen’s censor (ironically called the “master of the revels” he could get your head cut off–and not in a good way). The City fathers of London, many people in the Royal Court and especially the worshipful Lord Mayor of London and the Lord High Sheriff were always trying to get the theater district shut down. It was after all a place frequented by actors, sailors, prostitutes, cut purses, cut throats, and young academics and politicians looking for a good time.
We all know that for a penny you could stand on the ground in front of the stage; for two pennies you could sit on the steps leading to the seats; for three pennies you could have a seat on a bench, for four pennies you could rent a pillow to sit on. For a few schillings you could sit on stage and show-off for the crowd until one of the actors either shamed you or threw you off the stage–while not missing a beat of his iambic pentameter. but for a mere 12 pennies (about half a schilling i think) you could go backstage to the “gentlemen’s room where you couldn’t see or hear much that was going on onstage–but maybe more importantly, no one out front could see or hear what you were up to or whom you were with…. For a slightly hire uh higher fee you could arrange to have company (of either sex) to eh-hum–attend you….as usual, the house got half…. Shakespeare and his partners–at the time of Shakespeare’s retirement (back to the “trouble and strife” at Stratford) [cockney rhyming slang–trouble and strife–wife; apples and pears, stairs–so forth] became very rich.
There were eight equal partners; Shakespeare had enough to buy the best house in Stratford on Avon. Of course they were all artists, so no one kept track of what money came from where–I’m sure that the pillow concession must have accounted for most of their profits. Shakespeare’s plays to were not the paragons your High School English teacher extolled to you–she probably didn’t tell you about the scene right after Hamlet tells Ophelia to get off on her way to a brothel (nunnery) that before the play within the play (that Hamlet has arranged to catch the conscience of his deranged step father/Uncle Claudius) he and Ophelia enter into a little banter in which he asks for some (yes the “some” fabled in song and story) She tells him off and says get over it–you’re just horny (“keen” is the word she uses which meant “horny” in Elizabethan slang) and Hamlet offers to go down on Ophelia…. Well, maybe you were just out sick the day that Mrs. Brittlewits covered all that.
So much for plays as subversive literature: Playwrights are dangerous and generally not to be trusted. Lets go back to painters.
[maybe on a par with “Piss Christ”, the controversial photograph by Andreas Serrano–of a jar with a crucifix in it, filled half way to the top with the artists urine. I’ve been trying to make this reference for two days and ten tries–each time the machine messes up and i lose the whole blog. If you want to know more send a stamped self addressed envelope and $9.95 to:
That’s not Funny You Bastard
666 Mockingbird Lane
Toulees, AZ 90210
–for a little more i’ll even pee on the envelope for you].
The picture shows us two women and a little black cat. (This sounds like the set-up for a bad joke, but they are not on their ways to a bar.) One of the women is white (oh my) and Naked in bed (oh my) and the other woman is black and fully dressed (whew) she holds in her hands a bouquet of flowers (oh my) as the little black cat sits upright on the end of the bed, barely visible except for his little gray ears (ahh). The painting is of course “Olympia” by banker-turned painter Edouard Manet. The white woman on the bed is his very “good friend–with benefits” Victorine Meurende (sp) and she shocked Parisian society, not because one in five men knew her –name– not because she is white and naked in the presence of a black woman or a black cat–she shocked Parisian society because she is painted in broad strokes of flat color with no real attempt to show her womanly figure–and for gods’ sakes she is staring–like–right at us like–like–like she’s human or something!! Quelle terrible!!
So your assignment for this week is to first locate and then read Emil Zola’s account of the rhubarb in the city over the cheek of this Parisian tart and the painter who perpetrated it upon us (although his prose are not quite so purple, they’re more lavender i suspect). Write 3-5 pages in MLA style, Marquis of Queensbury rules notwithstanding, have it on my desk by Monday close of business.
[We’re not done with subversive art just yet, but I have to think up something else to write–in the mean time I’m going to the store to pick up some aspiring actresses…oh, and some smokes.]
Portobello Burgundy soup
About two or three pounds of Portobello mushrooms (wiped with a damp cloth—or just brush off any clumps of dirt—use cremini (sp)if you have to—they are called “baby bellas” in some stores.) chopped coarsely
6 cloves of peeled crushed minced garlic
Yes I said six you wimp—no— shut it —or I’ll put in the whole head
A small bunch each of fresh tarragon, chervil, parsley and a bunch of thyme (if your thyme is “woody” —you’re having too good a time—no; tie it up in a piece of cheese cloth with a bay leaf—figure it out—just don’t let any of the sticks get into the soup or grandma may choke on them! Hit the bag of thyme leaves and stems smartly with the blunt side of your knife or a cleaver, rolling pin, croquet mallet, tennis racket, lead pipe, sex toy—whatever you have—until you see green)
(grab the bunch of herbs—except thyme— firmly with your good hand—with the other hand –using mostly just your fingers, grab and twist off a bunch—chop this roughly and then rub your fingers under your armpits for two minutes—you’ll attract French girls this way!
If you are a French girl—we’ll see you in about half an hour or so….)
Sauté the mushrooms and garlic in a whole stick (one whole stick) of butter and three tablespoons of olive oil. (The olive oil should keep the butter from burning—but watch your heat anyway!)
Meanwhile you should whack up some yellow (or brown) onions—about six—throw them into a large empty pot with ½ a stick of butter and some olive oil (again, about three tablespoons should do) throw the onions in skins and all when the peels start to curl and the butter turns brown (brown not black) throw in (pour in) about a quart of clean water (bottled is best but use tap if you must). Heat this until it boils, turn down the heat and simmer for twenty minutes. While the onion broth is simmering, throw in one whole carrot. (no you don’t have to peel it—if you can’t find your carrot—go ask the French girl if she’s seen your carrot? Maybe she slaps your face—maybe we’ll see you both back here in about twenty minutes… (okay, well maybe five….)
Turn off the mushrooms when they start to “sweat” and reduce in volume in the pan.
Go have a smoke.
If you don’t smoke, start.
If you don’t have any cigarettes, ask the French girl, she stole a pack off of my dresser this morning while I was in the shower.
Put out your stogie and shut off all of the burners.
Turn on the burner under the pan with the mushrooms in it to medium low heat. Slowly sprinkle about 1/3 of a cup of flour over the mushroom and garlic mixture. Stir this in with a wire whisk—if I catch you using one of those plastic things you buy at the dollar store—I will come over there and –hold you up to public ridicule…. As the flour is mixed into the mushrooms, let it cook for a minute or two before you start to add the onion stock to it. You can use a ladle; you can use a strainer and pour it from the pan; you can use your garden hose as a siphon—just don’t add the stock all at once—and make sure the stock is still warm. If you add cold anything to a warm something—in this case a roux, you will get lumps (I said this already—have you been paying attention!?) When the mixture is thoroughly mixed, let it simmer until it starts to boil and thicken a bit. If you have done all of this correctly it should look like thick gravy with mushrooms in it. If you have not done this correctly it will look like what Gomer scraped off his shoes. Do it right!
Add two teaspoons of salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper and the herbs (remember the herbs….. don’t forget the whacked bag of thyme and bay leaf)
Now once the soup begins to boil again after you’ve stirred in the herbs, pour yourself a half of a glass of decent Burgundy –(you can substitute Pinot noir, or Cabernet Sauvignon—but you may not substitute anything that comes in a box—let alone something that says “delicious red”, “chill-able red” or “kick my fanny white”—if you do I will have to beat you to a very fine pulp while singing Les Marseillaise—believe me I know all of the verses, too!) Here is a lesson for you: a bottle of wine (the kind with a cork not a cap) holds about three cups of wine—the average wine glass that is suitable for red wine holds about 8 ounces. If you restrict yourself to one half of a glass of wine, you should have two and a half cups of wine for the soup—this sounds like a lot of wine, but—A) Just stop your whining! B) We are going to reduce the volume by 1/3 or so—(about twenty minutes at a good boil); C) all of the alcohol will be “burned off” D) it’s called “Portobello Burgundy” not “Portobello Bob’s your Uncle, or Portobello How’s your mother?”—get over it!
When the soup has simmered and cooked down to about two-thirds of its original volume we’re going to serve it with good bread and stinky cheese. That’s pretty much a given it’s French! —well the bread anyway—if you don’t have or don’t like stinky cheese—ehh, maybe just sit next to the French girl. [I’m kidding—some of my best friends are French girls—my grandmother was French Canadian for gods’ sakes! I have nothing against the stinking French! I love the French! All right?!…so let’s go pick on the Italians for a while—whom I love—I love the Italians….Especially Rachel Ray and Giada De Laurentiis!
Let’s make some Minestrone eh? It’s poor peoples’ food—and like all “poor peoples’ food these days, it costs a fortune. No problem! We’ll make it—later.
The Accuracy of Silence
There were arguably three artists in the last Century who did more to advance the cause of non-representational Abstract Art than any others. They are not among my favorites, but they are among the most important simply because their visions prevailed. As I have maintained elsewhere, all art is “abstract”; some abstract art is representational and some is non-representational . Just as there is a lot of bad representational art “out there” there is also (considerably more) bad non-representational art as well. Although some of us would prefer to believe that the differences between good art and bad are to be determined objectively according to universal rules or principles. While there may be rules and principles that are more or less universal, the problem is there is little agreement about them: what they are, and how they should be applied to art. Generally speaking most people who don’t know any better (but perhaps they mean well anyway) think that non-representational artists and thus their works transgress against “all the rules”. There are some artists, who believe that as long as they are applying these rules to their work that they are creating art. A fair assessment and compromise might suggest that all art consists in certain elements; all of the elements of art can be described as either conforming to or transgressing against certain principles that are fundamental to their existence.
I’ll go get some warm milk and a little coffee while you go back and read the last paragraph. If you get tired part way through, I suggest that you give up and join a palates class.
So (although others will disagree with me) i recognize five elements and five principles of design. (I am irreligious when it comes to most things and refuse to even pretend to spiritualism of any kind–I am very Old Testament when it comes to Art and Design: Much as the Old Testament gave us five do and five don’t commandments, i give you five elements and five principles for art and design. The elements are Line, Shape, Mass, Texture and Color; the five principles are Contrast, Balance, Unity, Rhythm and Proportion. (The mnemonic devices i give my students are to take the first letter of each word and contrive some silly little sentence that will at least point you to the first letter of each word: for elements “L”ousy “S”ex “M”akes “T”ina “C”ranky; and for Principles “C” or “See” principal “BURP”. If you don’t know Tina, and or you never had a High School principal, you’re on your own.)
Line is the same here as it was in Math class, the thing that connects two or more points. Lines are descriptive of shapes in that all shapes can be reduced to component lines. Mass is a kind of volumetric displacement of a given space defined or described by a given shape or shapes. Texture is something that can be felt through the senses, especially sight and touch; but i would like to think that there are rough and smooth smells, sounds and tastes as well–but that could just be me. Color is perhaps the most subjective of all of the elements of design and therefore of art; no two people experience the same color as the “same”. The best way to explain color, is to use the examples of black and white. There are no true blacks or whites; there are only infinite variations of darker and lighter grays. (If you have any doubts about this fact, you need only to look in my closet and my sock and underwear drawers.)
Principles of design are somewhat less straightforward than their elementary counterparts: Contrast can mean a contrast of color, lines, textures, sizes and so forth; but basically a contrast presents two or more elements or principles each relative to the other so that it may be said that one is this, and the other is not this but is that. Balance is the presence or absence of some quality shared by two or more things in relatively equal amounts. (There are eight black squares and eight white squares on a black and white chess board. If your chess board is any other color than black and white–throw it out and buy a black and white one, so that this may still be said to be true in the generations yet to come–i’m very Old Testament about these things.) Unity is related to balance; whereas balance moves toward equality or parity, Unity moves toward sameness; balance is more quantitative and unity is more qualitative. Breasts may be of different sizes but they are all still breasts (you use your examples, I’ll use mine….).
Rhythm is an analogy of (in visual arts) on shape to another. A shape that tends to repeat is said to create a visual rhythm: for example the vertical lines and spaces that are and are between the slats of a picket fence. Proportion is probably the easiest principle to recognize but also the most difficult to interpret. Proportion can be the size of one thing relative to another; disproportion can be the absence or presence of one thing relative to another; we sometimes need to question the artist or her work to discover why things in her work are the way they are? Why does Michelangelo’s David have a large head, hands and feet, but a small penis? I don’t know–that must be a New Testament sort of thing….
The se Elements and Principles were and are used by both Representational and Non-Representational artists, not necessarily through the Artist’s intention, but because the elements and principles inhere in our understanding of the nature of the world around us. Our three Non-Representational Artists: Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, all argued that their arrangement of the elements of design and art (in their works) adhered not just to the physical principles that are immediately apprehended by the mind, but also, somehow to greater spiritual “truths” or “realities” as well. Kandinsky’s best known book is in fact called “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” Kandinsky was of course a product of the late Nineteenth Century which consumed most of Europe and the United States in a kind of maelstrom of Spiritual huckster-“ism”s. Jackson Pollock was a product of American Early Twentieth Century psychological huckster-ism, art school, alcohol and his own bad temper.
Mark Rothko was a product of the New York School (not really a school at all) Judeo-Christian guilt and huckster-ism and a misguided sense of anachronistic mysticism mixed with alcohol and tobacco. And yet as tragic as the lives of these three men were, they were possessed of (perhaps by) a curious sense of hope and optimism that marked them squarely as the descendants of the Romantics. As we will see, contrary to popular opinion, Non – Representational (abstract expressionist) art is not a progressive movement, but a conservative backlash with (pretensions toward) “spiritual” overtones.
Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. (1866.) He was trained in Law and Economics; he taught law for a while and then moved to Berlin, where inexplicably he turned to the study of Art. Most famously, he co-founded the Blue Rider (mostly a series of written manifestos that were influential but not a fully-fledged art movement;) and he taught art and architecture at the Bauhaus until it was closed by the Nazis in 1933. He became a French Citizen in 1936 or 1939–and lived the rest of his life in France. [ In an interesting side note, his apartment in France was found for him by Marcel Duchamp.] He died in 1944 of what has been called a cerebral-vascular disease. The tragedy in his life was not the age at which he died, nor the cause of his death. The real tragedy was that he led his entire artistic life suffering under the delusion that the non-sense platitudes of Theo-sophistry had something to do with reality in general and art in particular.
While art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and whereas anything can suggest or inspire art, Kandinsky set about trying to prove an almost mechanical correspondence between the elements of art and the emotions they arouse in us: as if to say “all blues are cool and recede from our view”, all “yellows are hot and advance toward the viewer”, “curves are soothing” and “all acute angles are angry”; if one were to properly order the elements predictable emotions would occur quite apart from a subject but none of this is true. “Black Lines” is a partially descriptive title of one of his works. And the work does have some black lines in it. So the title is at least partly descriptive. “Improvisation” a partial title of many of his works is misleading at best. His “Improvisations” were the result of numerous studies that one can only presume, even he felt failed to meet the result he desired.
Nor could these improvisations meet Kandinsky’s expectations. Our assessments of art and our responses to it, emotional and otherwise are entirely subjective. As we have seen previously the elements and principles of design, and therefore of art inhere not in the things themselves, but in our perceptions of things. They are observationally defined not intrinsic to the referent object: be it a point, a line, a plane, a color a shape or whatever. Theosophy and the theories that Kandinsky and others derived from it proved yet again that no matter how enthusiastically one embraces or espouses a positivist-ic philosophy one’s enthusiasm alone is not enough to prove it true. [A positivist-ic philosophy is one that merely asserts the truths of things without actually investigating them–like Pre-Socratic Philosophy or Republican Social policies.] I suppose in the end that what Kandinsky taught us was that art itself can be a proper subject for art making and art makers. I can’t help but wonder though, what he might have created had he not been so obsessed with proving his theories. Oh well, like most of us, sometimes he hit the nail, sometimes he hit the board–but all too often he just hit his thumb.
Jackson Pollock’s story is perhaps quintessentially a Post Modern American Tragedy. The model he chose for his art grew out of his manias and his attempts to assuage them. He saw “action painting” as an end in itself and not as a means to create art. He likened the process to the sand paintings of the native Americans of the southwest. The Shaman enters another realm, with his patient that is expressed by the fashioning of a mandala with sand. When the painting is finished it is swept away and the patient is cured. The action of painting is only a metaphor for the actions one undertakes in one’s life–as are the images created in colored sand by the Shaman.
Pollock located himself “inside” his painting in what i have elsewhere referred to as the “gestic” moment of the painting. He is both the Shaman and the patient. Pollock was “treated” or at least diagnosed as a manic depressive and an alcoholic; unfortunately for him his Psychiatrist probably knew less about his affliction than Pollock had intuited for himself, and was even further baffled as to the cure. Pollock succumbed to his disease in a single car accident that was reportedly alcohol related at the young age of forty four. He can truly be said to have died too young. His mistress died in the accident with him; a family friend survived the crash; and his wife Lee Krasner who was not in the accident lived for another forty years and did much to advance his work and the work of their foundation.
Pollock’s legacy doesn’t really flow from the paintings he created, nor from the tragedy that ended his life. His true legacy is in the idea of the gestic moment of creation where the act of creation becomes the created. This idea was picked up by Performance Artists like Allan Kaprow and John Cage. Pollock coined a new vocabulary for artists who strove to create a new art form. What Kandinsky could not do convincingly because his approach was mechanistic, Pollock achieved through organic means.
Mark Rothko was a New York Russian Jew who rejected formal religion and formal “contemporary” art. Many critics have commented on his Russian-ness or his Jewish-ness as important to understanding his art. I don’t believe this to be so in either case. I think that Rothko understood his spirituality to be located in a more Zen like apprehension of the silence that accompanies sound than in the sounds themselves. [Indeed one of the tenets of the New York School’s Manifestos, published in 1943 in the New York Times was “Silence is so accurate” [If this program would allow me to add emphasis without turning the whole rest of the blog into italics i would emphasize the word “accurate”.] How can silence be accurate? Isn’t silence there by being absent–a non-registered observation of privation and not of fulfillment? “Silence is so accurate” is a Koan. One is not meant to understand it rationally–if one tries, one necessarily fails because it exists only in a realm where logic no longer applies and the only possible point of reference is the still point (“immovable spot”) from which the Buddha could not be moved.
Rothko’s great masterpiece, some might argue his only masterpiece is the chapel that bears his name in Texas. (1964-1967 or perhaps 1969.) The fourteen panels are all over-sized perhaps intended to be black rectangles–that are intentionally not black (although they are composed of colors that suggest black in combination, and most experiences of the chapel would lead one to believe that the panels were black at some point but had faded– suggesting that Religious truths that were once “black and white” have now faded–that’s just my reading of them.)
Rothko, ironically, was not healthy enough to work on the panels himself, instead he hired two assistants to grind and mix pigments and lay in the carefully controlled color washes. The circumstances surrounding the commission of the chapel, its completion, eventual installation and dedication are still hotly discussed among art history scholars. Some points of agreement have been reached however: Rothko intended it to be a Roman Catholic Chapel, based on a Byzantine predecessor; and that the chapel would not be dedicated or consecrated as a Catholic chapel because Rothko committed suicide. I generally end my discussions of “the Post Modern” era with Rothko’s suicide. He was found by an assistant on his kitchen floor, lying next to a razor in a pool of blood with slashes on both arms, February 25, 1970, he was 63. His chapel was dedicated February 28th the following year as a non-denominational chapel perhaps consecrated to “the accuracy” of Silence.
Minestrone—I have no idea what it means in Italian (all right I’m lying—but go look it up anyway you lazy bastard!) Minestrone is basically a “leftover soup” or ‘stew’ made from beans, vegetables, stock and pasta. The key is to throw the pasta in during the last 5-8 minutes of cooking so it doesn’t overcook. Another key is to have enough stock left in the soup to cook the pasta and still be a soup. Another key is to chop your vegetables about the same size. Another key is to –that’s too many keys—that’s why I’m not a singer—I keep adding keys, changing keys, losing keys—where was I? ….
Start with a good vegetable broth (today I’m cooking for vegetarian types so no meat—you can use chicken stock or broth at home. (Do you know the difference between broth and stock? I do. What—you think I’m telling you! Buy my book!—God!! Do you know the difference between vegetarian and vegans? You can’t eat vegans on Friday!)
Roughly chop two onions—keep the peels on, one extremely large carrot or two medium ones, three ribs of celery and the leaves, several (5 or 6) cloves of garlic peeled and verbally abused; sauté everything in olive oil (about three tablespoons) when the onions start to sweat and the celery wilts, add two quarts of water—bring to a rapid boil then reduce the heat until it is just scampering away, without a care in the world….[Do you cook in the nude? Well, knock that shit off! People are going to be eating later!] Throw in a bay leaf –two if they are small and a hand full of red-pepper flakes (about a teaspoon), about a teaspoon of whole fennel seed, several grinds of black pepper, two teaspoons of salt and a rock—
I’m just kidding about the rock. (God some of you guys!)
Now there is the matter of beans—traditionally cannelini (sp) beans, kidney beans, white beans, great northern beans are all good. You can cook these yourself or you can buy canned (if you don’t know how to cook beans yourself—tough shit, I’m using canned today) rinse the beans thoroughly to get all of the salt and goop off of them. Use two cans (15 or 16 oz) and reserve a little over half of one can of beans for mashing and adding later to thicken the soup.
Chop all of the following:
One bunch of kale
Three ribs of celery—leaves and all
Six cloves of garlic
Sauté these in a large pot in olive oil.
Drain and strain the veggie stock we made earlier onto these veggies when the onions start to turn translucent. Throw the old soggy vegetable into the compost bin, the garbage can or the dog’s dish. They are done. I know this seems wasteful—that’s why I suggested the compost bin. Keep up, will ya?
Blend a large can of whole tomatoes in a blender or food processor until the fibers disappear or the cows come home, never mind—
Strain through a sieve into the pot of simmering veggies. Add a tablespoon of dried oregano and a couple of branches of fresh rosemary; add the strained beans (except for the ½ can or so that we’re saving to mash later. Add one and one half cups of red wine (see the caveats above—you can use Chianti—but I wouldn’t if I were you) Pour a glass for yourself-for your lover, for the neighbor; Have a smoke—talk about old times—
“Do you think it’s gonna rain?”
“smells like rain”
“got any threes”
“ain’t you supposed to say ‘go fish’?”
“Were playin’ hold ‘em”
All right—well, go watch TV—or something! The soup has to simmer for half an hour—see if Judge Judy is on!
You got to love Judge Judy:
“Do I look like an idiot!? <She jumps in her chair>
“Cuz I think you think I’m an idiot?!” <she points to herself and then to him>
“Byrd, Am I an idiot?!” <She leans back in her chair—pursing her lips in a scowl>
<She jumps a little and points a boney finger> “He thinks I’m an idiot—<jumps a little and draws herself up in her chair>
“Sir! They don’t keep me here because I’m five foot ten and gorgeous!!” <She slaps her hand on the podium in front of her for emphasis>
Yeah…Judge Judy will never retire—never be cancelled—one day she’ll be sitting on the bench going off on some guy in a wife-beater and pork-pie hat –and she’ll just explode!! That’s it. End of story. Put a period.
Back to the soup.
It’s simmering away. We put out our cig. We reach into the cupboard for whatever pasta we have: no whole wheat, nothing too fussy like radiatori or fuselli or gods’ forbid “bow ties!” –I like shell macaroni—or better yet, ditalini (sp—could be an “a” could be an “e” could be another “I”—could be one “n” could be two “n’s” who knows—I can’t spell in five languages—I’m too old to start now—and I know it when I see it….) (they are short, little tiny tube shaped noodles) Throw a little less than half the box in and hope for the best.
When the noodles are done (al dente—to your dentist’s satisfaction) throw in the mashed beans, some chopped fresh basil, and some grated parmesan or Romano cheese. (“Parmesan comes from Parma—Romano
comes from Rome—I buy the one that’s cheapest –and take my fat ass home!”—you can sing this in the cheese aisle—no one will mind.)
I like to serve my Minestrone with lots of wine and lots of Garlic bread—maybe a little salad—Caesar (dressing) of course.
By mere juxtaposition, one might suppose that i intend to argue that if one were to combine elements of Temporary Art with those of Subversive Art one would arrive at Transgressive Art. This is not entirely true. Subversive art wants to overturn an existing order, all art is in a sense temporary, but Transgressive art violates an existing morality. Because Transgressive art takes place against or in spite of an existing morality, the event or artifact of the art may be temporary but the effects are intended to last for a long time. Subversive Art may be created and exist in theory alone–but Transgressive art requires action. As Aristotle observed, actions may be complete or incomplete–and for him, art must consist in complete actions; although this may be true, the actions of the Transgressive artist need not be complete to be successful. [Go back and re-read everything you’ve read so far. I know you didn’t follow it. This is not because you are slow, not because you are drunk, drinking or suffering from heat exhaustion–it’s because i need another cup of coffee, and am in a hurry because i have to pee. so re-read the above… I’ll be back…]
Two examples of Transgressive artists are Antonin Artaud and Hermann Nitsch. They also represent respectively (and conveniently) the two instances described above. Artaud never realized his Theater of Cruelty in anything more than a rudimentary way; Nitsch completed many transgressive acts that were indeed cruel, but left us wondering if they were art. Artaud today is regarded as something of a hero in the counter culture [this is an old fashioned term left over from the 1960’s and ’70’s to describe people who wanted to reform society by abandoning it–and as it turned out they were unorganized to the point that few of them could agree on much of anything; and so, eventually they all went home and took showers, started their own businesses, bought mini-vans and got old.] Artaud is probably best considered as a poet. His writing in French is virtually impenetrable and when translated into English, is worse. Yet there was something strangely compelling about Artaud.
His parents were first cousins: Artaud was one of only three of nine children in all, to survive to adult hood. He had headaches from an early age, was treated for mental instability over fifty times with Electro-Current-Therapy. He was addicted to laudanum and Chloral-Hydrate (?) and tried several times unsuccessfully to detoxify himself at various asylums. In his early (acting) pictures, he looks like a lost Barrymore Brother; in his later years he looks more like Keith Richards. He became famous among those in this country (artistic types who were looking for reasons to drop acid–or whatever else) mostly because of his accounts of his use of peyote. His most important contribution to artistic theory is his idea that the moment of artistic “arrest” can best be compared with the death throes of someone who has contracted the Plague. His most influential written work is “The Theater and its Double”; in which he sets forth his ideas about a rigorous theater that absorbs the spectator into the performance to the extent that the “fourth wall” is obliterated and therefore meaningless. His most important written and performed work is an extended poem [that was performed as a radio play] that is usually [unsuccessfully or ineptly] translated as “To have done with the Judgment of God.” [I think that a more faithful–albeit transliterate–rendering might be “To Be Fed-Up with God’s Judgments!”–but that’s just me; look at the work in French and see what you think!] He was found dead, by a care-giver, at the foot of his bed, sitting with his eyes wide open–apparently trying to put on a shoe– ready-ing himself for something–i don’t know what…. [But i dare not say “God only knows” what….]
Artaud summed up his life several times throughout his career; probably the best and most moving of these summaries was his “Post Scriptum” to “The Theater of Cruelty” [typically i think posthumously published….]
Who am I?/Where do I come from?/I am Antonin Artaud and/ if I say it as I know how to say it/ immediately/ you will see my present body/ fly into pieces/ and under ten thousand/ notorious aspects/ a new body/ will be assembled/ in which you will never again/ be able/ to forget me” (323).
[For some reason this program won’t allow me to break the lines where they need to be broken hence the “/’s” ….]
[“Watchfiends and Rackscreams: Works from the Final Period of Antonin Artaud.” Ed. and Trans. Clayton Eshelman with Bernard Bador. Exact Change. Boston: 1995.]
If nothing else the postscript is an encapsulation of Artaud’s Gnosticism and relentless optimism. The duality of his theater, of his own corporeal and spiritual nature, and even his concept of God, is expressed in the form of a simple incantation: For Artaud, there was a better God, a better world, a better self and a better body always at once, absent and present; each waiting to be ushered into the present moment through the solemn whispers and anguished, plaintive screams of the dead and dying.
[Please wait until i am finished to read this–i feel as though someone is reading over my shoulder as i type…. the last time that happened–boots were thrown, noses were broken….it wasn’t pretty….]
Artaud’s work must be regarded as Transgressive; even though he never fully realized a coherent and complete version of his Theater of Cruelty. In his view, [i am being very careful here not to say “in his mind”] God himself drew a line in the proverbial sand–and Artaud crossed it–repeatedly.
Hermann Nitsch was born in Austria in 1938. He graduated from a prestigious art school, worked for a time as a graphic designer and began to establish himself as a part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Unlike more conventional artists, Nitsch was drawn to “actions” or performance art. In particular Nitsch’s performances imitated (some might say mocked) religious rituals and sacrifices. His paintings are “splatter” works for the most part, the paint is intended–i suppose– to represent blood and viscera left over after a ritual sacrifice. Early in his career (roughly 1963 to about 1968) Nitsch had a lot of trouble with the law (so much so that he was forced to move to Germany and become successful there and in America)–including several arrests and imprisonments for, among other things “blasphemy”. [sorry i have to pause a bit to wrap my head around the concept of someone being imprisoned for “blasphemy”…. you should too….]
Nitsch is a curiosity. I suppose if we were to stand in the basement of his castle in lower Austria as he performed a ritual or a painting we might better understand the work he has been doing for the last almost fifty years–as an individual work–it is difficult for me at least, to understand a body of work, spread over fifty years that has to do primarily with the evisceration of small animals and the staging of mock crucifixions. Nor can i imagine myself or anyone else moved to anything more than a pitying shrug in contemplation of these events. If we are looking for esoteric meanings in Nitsch’s process, he seems to lack a fundamental understanding of what ritual is supposed to mean and how rituals and ritual magic are supposed to work. In ritual, for a rather gruesome example, blood spilling or letting has to connect with either the earth–or with the ritual participants and priests or priestesses. The life force was thought to be contained in the blood itself–by returning it to the earth or by ritually consuming it one either recharges the cycle of death and rebirth directly (into the ground) or indirectly (by ritual communal consumption). Merely killing and skinning a lamb for instance, isn’t accomplishing anything symbolically that isn’t done actually on a daily basis by cooks and butchers around the world. The actions involved in Nitsch’s mock rituals do not rise to the level of blasphemy or of transgression–simply because they are so ordinary. Of course the other favorite method of releasing the life force in ancient religious thought and practice was to burn the animal’s carcass–the Old Testament is full of that stuff…. Nitsch doesn’t really deal much with the images or associations surrounding burnt offerings; he seems more intrigued by Christian symbolism–especially crucifixions.
If Nitsch’s actions or “rituals” were more extreme or authentic, they might begin to meet the standard he himself proposes–but i don’t believe that they would rise even then much above the level of a futile gesture–or an exercise in make-believe. We simply have to wade through too many levels of abstraction and distraction to get to something that might move us (to fear or awe or reverence–or indeed something other than a slight queasiness and mild revulsion–which–former– seems to be the point that Nitsch was trying to make or the effect that he was striving after….) Of the many symbolic “levels of removal” that we must wade through most are so trite and obvious as to scarcely warrant a mention here: sacrificial lambs, scapegoats, symbolic or ritual transference of collective or communal guilt onto the sacrificial victim and so forth. What really diffuses Nitsch’s entire process and I believe totally undermines his work is that he seeks to transgress (something) through or by (re) enacting rituals meant to appease (that same something)!! Rather than be offended by Nitsch’s “art” or “actions” i should think that the gods, God, (and the authorities in Austria) should be laughing their asses off at him.
If we return to our previous discussion of transgressive art, we recall that in order to “transgress” the artist must literally “cross a line”–Sometimes, the artist not only crosses the line, but he or she asks or dares us to cross it with him or her. Furthermore, the line that is to be crossed must have been established by a [sufficient] moral authority. The Austrian State–or any government is not a sufficient “moral” authority. States, regardless of their delusions to the contrary are established by people, not by gods and have at best a “civil” authority or an “ethical” authority. [The difference is of course that civil authority is established and maintained by rule of law and of arms when necessary, and ethical authority is established by logic and reason.] Imagine if you will, Hermann Nitsch dressed in his robe; he turns to us and announces “there” he points “I have drawn a line” and then turns away; “Now I will cross the line that I have drawn”. He takes one giant “uber” step; and then, he turns back to look at us, beaming: “See–I have crossed the line!” Even in German it sounds stupid because it is stupid–although in German there is a considerable amount of spitting that can be involved…. If you go to his next “six day play”, don’t stand in the front row….
So we have seen two examples of transgressive art: the art of Antonin Artaud and his unrealized vision of the Theater of Cruelty; and the Orgies and Mysteries of Hermann Nitsch. (That’s how he describes his ritual performances–or at least how his description is usually translated.) We have discussed briefly the nature of transgressive art–that is that it is art or activity that crosses the proverbial “line”. In Artaud’s case he was certain that the line was being drawn by god; in the case of Nitsch, he conveniently drew the line for himself and then repeatedly crossed it for fifty years or so. This it seems is the fundamental problem with transgressive art: who draws the line and when do we realize we have crossed it?
I might argue along with Hunter S. Thompson, that “the only people who know where the [line–he says “edge”] is, have already gone over it.” Thompson would argue (as have many others) that once that line has been crossed that there is no easy way back. On the other hand, we might say with Artaud that the line is constantly moving especially with respect to our position relative to it, until finally we no longer can be certain which side of the line we are on. We need only look for an example to the word “pornography”–it is cobbled together from two Greek words to mean “writing about prostitutes.” The word was coined in English in the 18th century to describe the archaeological finds at Herculaneum and Pompeii. In fact, the word didn’t even exist in prior to that time in reference to anything. It is problematic if it was at all helpful in pursuit of the task for which it was coined. If we dig into English and World literature we find that there was plenty of writing about prostitutes, by Shakespeare, for example and before him by Chaucer and Boccaccio.
Apparently people of the 14th and 17th century were sophisticated enough to know what was being discussed or presented without having to have a term for it–either that or they simply took these types of discussions and rhetoric for granted. [For a complete discussion see Walter Kendrick’s The Secret Museum among others–Kendrick is the recognized expert though–as of 1996’s first California Paperback edition, he was still teaching English at Fordham University….]Probably the most famous or infamous statement about what “pornography” is or isn’t, was sputtered-out by Justice Potter Stevens “…I know it when I see it.” In a legal sense this is of course a useless standard. As a purely logical consideration or standard, it is of course laughable. Although, if you ask most people today–and this is the result of serious surveys, conducted by serious researchers–about 85-90% will say something remarkably close to this. In almost every English speaking country, throughout Europe and in fact almost everywhere except the totalitarian Regimes in China, North Korea and the Theocratic Islamic states, mere nudity never rises to the level of either pornography or obscenity in the various courts of law. In fact most courts have ruled in favor of even sexually explicit material, that is expressly sexual and only intended for the purpose of “arousing prurient interests”–this is especially true in the US. The easiest way to understand the principle that underlies most of these court’s rulings, is that since “pornography” has not been satisfactorily defined, it cannot be out-law-ed, only discouraged.
Some of the ways that lawmakers have tried to discourage pornography include the prohibitions against selling or distributing “it” to minors. There is however universal agreement that nude images of minors may not be distributed or sold–this is not covered under laws concerning the control of images related to sex, but rather under the laws related to violence against children. [Similar to laws in most places that hold that children cannot consent to sex, thus any sexual acts involving children are considered rape by statutory law and any argument put forward suggesting that the child agreed to those acts is thereby rendered moot] All this is as it should be. On the other hand, nudity (especially the female nude) has figured prominently throughout the history of art both in the east and in the western traditions of art.
Thomas Jefferson (yes THAT Thomas Jefferson) at the time of his death, was in possession of the largest private collection of erotica–most of which centered around the female nude form or images of couples engaged in various acts of copulation–in the world. The collection is today housed in the Smithsonian’s “general collection” (no doubt in a very dark, quiet corner in the back somewhere.)So, in so far as our discussion of “transgressive” art, it would seem that what for many might be a logical candidate: i.e., “pornography”, must be excluded: first, because it cannot be defined successfully; and second, because does not cross a discernable line (if there ever was one, any such line has been successfully erased in the two hundred or so years since the term was coined. Another, alternative art form, proposed as a species of transgressive art was “street art”, also referred to as “tagging” or simply “graffiti.” Taggers, or graffiti artists who put their work in dangerous or forbidden places, have claimed or have had claimed for them a kind of recognition as transgressive artists.
“After all” they argue “if you can get arrested for doing it, it must be transgressive.” But this doesn’t pass the test we stipulated at the outset–that artists who are truly transgressive don’t know where the “line” is. The whole point of tagger style art, is that one could be arrested for doing it (although the usual charges amount to little more than trespassing or even criminal trespassing); according to the Taggers, they experience a rush or adrenaline high because they know what they are doing is wrong. That high will, I’m afraid have to be its own reward–because of itself, the recognition that the tagger is crossing a line, in order to experience his (or her) “rush,” is enough to exclude it as “transgressive art.” The truth is i suppose, in the last analysis, we may not be capable of an art form that is truly transgressive–no more so than we are capable of a form that is truly “transformational” or “transformative”. Robert Hughes was arguing at least this latter point some forty years ago–even before he became famous in this country for his PBS series and several books.
[The only reason Hughes wasn’t knighted by the Queen shortly after the ground breaking series aired on the BBC–was before she had a chance to bring the sword down, Hughes admitted publicly to smoking pot. Technically he has been awarded the status of “Officer of the Order of Australia”; Most of the Imperial Orders (the rules governing the bestowal of knighthoods and the like) were suspended in Australia in 1985. Before that happened at least a dozen men were named to the Knights of the Order of Australia–or AK’s–Hughes was not one of them. Had Hughes stayed in England and established a permanent residence there in the late Seventies or Eighties, instead of moving to New York to take a position at the Times, he could have been made a Member of the British Empire or even a Knight of the Realm, as other Australians have been. The best that he can hope for now is an upgrade to a Companion of the Order of Australia–AC–or perhaps even a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order–RVO–which as Aussies say, is “Betty Windsor’s” sole prerogative. In any event it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be called “Sir Robert” any time soon. The last time i saw him, he was having trouble breathing and walking; perhaps additional honors will come posthumously. Most recently he’s been busy pissing off the British by debunking Damien Hirst, of whose work, “the Virgin Mother” he said “isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce?” He pisses off Americans –American producers anyway–by asking for money to do documentaries; and he pisses off Australians by saying things about Australia like “they can tow it out to sea and sink it for all I care”.]
Finally, (for this outing anyway) it’s only fair that if Art cannot transform us (make us better than we are) that there shouldn’t be a form of art that is transgressive. Whatever this century holds for us (well, for those of us who will see much of it anyway) a defining movement will have to wait, until we have had enough time to clear our heads from the disastrous results of the efforts of those who failed to adequately respond to the failed optimism(s) of the last century. [Hey– has anyone seen that canary?]
[(borsht) n. etym. Rus. Chick Food that can get you laid….]
Borscht means “beet”; beet soup is a middle European classic dish; many people, myself included, object to the strong, musky taste and odor of cooked beets. For some reason I’ve always liked this soup. This soup is not a typical borsht; by weight it has more cabbage in it than beets, it is made with tomatoes and the final product is seldom the familiar deep maroon color that is typical of most beet soups. If you are a strict vegetarian or a vegan you can make this soup with only minor variations; the strange thing is, that it will still taste almost as good as when I make it!
First make a vegetable stock (Fry onions, celery and carrots in about three tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot. When the onions are translucent, add about a gallon of bottled water—what? You’re vegan and you drink LA tap water? Anyway…. Toss in a bay leaf, a dozen or more cracked peppercorn and a small palm full of salt (about a tablespoon. Bring the pot to a boil, go smoke a bowl, come back turn the heat down; let the pot simmer until –well, about 45 minutes. Cut a whole head of cabbage in half—shred one half of the cabbage into thin strips. Sauté the shredded cabbage in butter or oil until they begin to wilt; turn down the heat, cover the skillet or whatever with a lid. Continue to cook until the wilted cabbage shreds have started to caramelize. (Yes you can do this while the veggie stock is simmering—if you are not—eh—busy…..) While the stock is simmering and the cabbage is caramelizing, chop the rest of the cabbage roughly. Dice some carrots—about three medium ones should do; dice three onions, two potatoes, one very large beet. You also need to find dill weed (no, dill weed): you will need two tablespoons dried, or four tablespoons fresh, chopped fine dill weed. You also need some left-over mashed potatoes (about a cup). If you don’t have mashed potatoes—go make some. [We’ll wait here—uh, yeah, could you um…leave the pipe maybe?—thanks!] Finally, you need two cans of whole peeled tomatoes (15 or 16 oz each); or one large can (30 or 32 oz). If you don’t use canned tomatoes—you really are a pain in the ass! Chop and stew twenty tomatoes in about two cups of water and ½ cup of white wine. (If you don’t cook with wine—why don’t you just go home—you’re harshing my mellow, dude!)
To put the soup together:
Drain the veggie stock into a large stock pot—discard the vegetables and the bay leaf they rode in on.
Add the wilted, caramelized cabbage; all of the chopped vegetables including the rest of the cabbage and the beet—do not space out on the beet. Add the canned or stewed tomatoes (puree the tomatoes in a blender and strain them if you like—otherwise just let them go in “butch”); add the dill weed and the mashed potatoes. Stir everything together in the pot, bring the pot to a boil; turn down the heat and simmer the soup until the beet-chunks lose most of their color (about 1 ½ to 2 hours). Don’t fall asleep on the couch! Play video games or something.
I always serve this with a good Russian or Jewish rye bread. I top the soup with sour cream and more dill. If you don’t use sour cream you can top it with tofutti. (Do they even still make “tofutti”?—or whatever else you can think of that is a vegan alternative to sour cream. This is not intended to be a “blended” soup; it is meant to be rustic (chunky—with its chunks in tact) if you want to blend your soup for religious or whatever reasons—feel free. I don’t know about you but I’m getting hungry…got any chips—er something?
Vincent Van Gogh was not the greatest painter of all time. (Sit back down!) One of his teachers complained about him that he painted furiously, paint flew everywhere around the room! Vincent was covered in paint, the floor was covered in paint, the people next to him got splashed with paint! It was so bad the teacher said he had to go back to the back of the room, to check to see if any paint made its way onto the canvas. When he looked at Vincent’s painting, it looked as if he had spent hours meticulously applying every stroke. The teacher of course was shocked. Vincent was not the best painter of all time–he would have been the first to admit it too. But he was probably the most sincere and passionate painter of all time–hands down.
Vincent saw painting as his job. No matter what else he was doing at the time, painting was always first in his thoughts. His family (his Uncle and later his brother Theo) were heirs to the largest and most reputable art dealership in Europe. Vincent’s Uncle, also named Vincent, tried to bring Vincent and his younger brother Theo into the family business. While Theo thrived at picking saleable art and selling it at a good price, Vincent would sit around with the artists and talk about painting. This irritated his family to the point where they eventually asked him to find another line of work.
Vincent’s Father was a Minister and Theo helped Vincent secure a position as a lay-clergyman; a sort of teacher and social worker who was assigned by the church to work with the poorer members of the community. The Pastor had to fire Vincent eventually, because as he complained to Theo, Vincent would give his pay (all of it) to the poor, so he had nothing left to live on for himself. Theo told the pastor not to give Vincent money, just to provide him with the clothes, food and furniture he might need. The pastor tried this, and then later wrote Theo again to tell him that this wasn’t working out either, because Vincent was giving these away too.
Early on Vincent fell in love and decided to marry. Theo was a bit surprised, but tried to be supportive, even though the woman was somewhat older than Vincent and she had nine children. After about six months of marriage, the woman disappeared with all of Vincent’s belongings and her nine kids. At about this point, his family decided that Vincent should move to the country and seek professional help. Psychotherapy had not really been invented yet–but even simple folk could tell when someone was “a little off”, and Vincent certainly was that…. We know too, that Vincent probably had a drinking problem–there was an interview several years ago that aired on European and eventually American TV of the then, oldest person in the world. As a young woman, this person had worked as a shop girl in Provence. It was the kind of shop where one could buy tobacco and paint. The woman recalled in the interview that she knew Van Gogh as a frequent customer–when the interviewer asked her what he was like she responded that he was “ugly and stank of wine and tobacco.” (And yes, it sounds better in French.)
Probably the most known and often cited fact about Van Gogh (even my students here out in the God Forsaken desert know it) is that he cut off his ear. Now this may seem a bit eccentric in the extreme but to be fair, it might have made sense to Vincent at the time. In the one-man show “Vincent” popularized by Leonard Nimoy years ago on PBS, the author describes a situation where Vincent would find himself night after night at the local bar, where one of the–how should we say–chanteuses would taunt the men by saying “five francs, or cut off your ear”. But the story is not quite that simple–there were events leading up to this incident.
Van Gogh had on a trip to Visit Theo in Paris, met with several painters including Paul Gauguin–who was “hot” at the moment in painterly circles. Vincent and Gauguin hit it off right away and it was decided that Gauguin would join Vincent in Provence and the two would open a school for painters. In Anticipation of the great man’s arrival, Vincent painted furiously to brighten up his little apartment and make it fitting for someone so important. (Or whatever.) At first the two got on well, they painted, they caroused, they drank and then they began to fight. [In a paper i wrote as a grad student i chronicled the whole thing through Vincent’s paintings of his room, letters to his brother and paintings of two of the chairs in his room: one was Gauguin’s chair, and the other was his…. you can read this paper and buy a copy at www.getafreekinlife. com….]
On Christmas Eve [I’m not kidding] the two were at their favorite bar (the red one in Vincent’s painting) the fighting came to a fevered pitch, push came to blurry shove, Gauguin stormed out and Vincent went home to his little room. Sometime in the night Vincent cut off the lobe of his ear, put it in a box and sent it with a note to one of the girls who worked above the bar. The note said only: “take care of this, it is very precious”.
Probably the most poignant story about Vincent’s life, concerns his death. One bright day in 1890 Vincent was probably drinking all night, he went out into the meadow behind the house where he was staying, and shot himself in the stomach with a revolver. He was found brought back to his room, Theo was sent for and arrived. Theo talked to the Doctor, the Doctor told Theo that Vincent had shot himself in the stomach but had not lost too much blood and that there was no reason to expect that he shouldn’t make a full recovery. Theo sat with Vincent for three days. For no apparent reason, Vincent died. Among his effects they found a half-finished letter to Theo. An apparent suicide note; in the note Vincent apologized to his brother and his wife Johanna for all of the trouble he had caused them; he apologized for all of the money he had borrowed (he would often end his letters, which were usually about his art or the art of other painters he knew with “oh, and by the way, could you send me fifty francs–Theo always did) he apologized for failing at everything he ever attempted. The letter ended abruptly with “So, how is it with you?” Theo fell ill, shortly after Vincent’s death, and died a year later.
The only reason that we know as much about Theo and his more famous brother Vincent is because Theo’s wife had carefully collected all of their letters to each other; she published these along with several other letters about the two by friends or other artists, after Theo died. During his lifetime, Vincent never really sold a painting (he traded one for rent and offered sketches to some of the people he lived with in exchange for food.) Instead Vincent sent all of his work to Theo, who stored them in a spare room. From time to time Theo would offer his older brother a showing, but Vincent always declined declaring that “the work isn’t ready yet”.
Tortilla Soup (Vegetarian style)
Tortilla soup is not really something I grew up with. Okay, I never even heard of it until I moved to Los Angeles. This is no doubt “food of the people”—left-overs. Like most soups you need to start with a stock. Do not use bouillon cubes, granules, powder packets or the flavoring packets from ramen noodles. Make a stock from vegetables (we’ve done this before people—you should be able to do this in your sleep) or you can buy canned: Chicken (I won’t tell, promise) or Vegetable. I recommend ½ gallon, or two quarts. (If you try to figure this out on a calculator in the middle of the soup aisle at Ralph’s or Safeway—people will talk; tempers will flare and names will be called. If you use a calculator at Whole Foods—no one at whole foods knows what a calculator is—they have people who do that kind of thing for them!)
The soup, as nearly as I can figure can be broken down into four basic flavor components: The Stock; The Tortillas (corn not flour); Tomatoes; Everything—Anything— Else. The stock should be simmering away by now; add the tomatoes—again for convenience I used canned, whole tomatoes—the large can or two small ones. Break the tomatoes up with your fingers—before putting them into the soup, because handling boiling hot anything is a bitch! Add a table spoon of dried oregano, a tablespoon of dried ground cumin, several grinds of fresh black pepper and about a teaspoon of salt. Now, if you don’t have left-over tortillas, take a few minutes to fry some in hot oil in a skillet until they are crispy but not burned. You can also bake them in a 400 degree oven for about 10-15 minutes until they are crisp. While the tortillas are draining or cooling you can put together everything else.
Chop one medium onion, three or four clove of garlic. (into the stock with them.)
One medium bottle of beer for the soup; one medium bottle of beer for you! [Try Modelo Negro™—very nice!]
Chop a small bunch of cilantro (half in now, half saved for service.)
Open a can of black beans—drain and rinse—dump
Open a package of frozen corn—dump it in 5-8 minutes before serving
(yes you can use fresh—cut it off of the cob or cut the cob and all into circlets)
Chop one small onion into the chopped cilantro for garnish
Chop one small tomato for garnish
Slice ten (not 9 not 11 but exactly 10) radishes for garnish
½ head of shredded cabbage for garnish
About 12 (one dozen) limes cut into wedges (for the beer, or the kids)
Shred ½ pound each of cheese for service (cheddar, jack, queso anjejo—)
Open a can of sliced jalapeno’s; or slice pickled jalapenos for garnish
Hot sauce—Tapatio™—if you have it
Five minutes before serving, crush, slice or chop the tortillas into pieces that can be navigated with a spoon. Drop the tortillas into the simmering soup let the soup continue to simmer. Arrange as many bowls as you need for the number of people you are going to serve. Place a modest amount of each of the garnishes into each of the bowls and fill with ladles full of soup until everyone has one bowl. Now the only problem you have is how to get the bowls to the table. If you don’t have kids—have everyone converge on the kitchen to get their own bowl, a bottle of beer, a few lime wedges. Women may kiss the cook—guy’s can shut up get soup and a beer and sit down.
And from the first declension of the flesh
I learnt man’s tongue, to twist the shapes of thoughts
Into the stony idiom of the brain,
To shade and knit anew the patch of words
Left by the dead who, in their moonless acre,
Need no word’s warmth.
I have previously defined art as a basic form of human communication. I was not sure if that adequately covers it, so I added—and design is a plan. Every semester when introducing the students’ research paper assignments I warn the students not to run to the dictionary for their definitions of words like Art and Beauty. I want them instead to be creative and think of their own “working” definitions. Years ago when I was on the debate team in High School we used to use a cop-out when it came to defining terms in our proposals. We used to say “our terms will be operationally defined.” In other words, when we explain our plan the meaning of our terms will be obvious. A working definition is one that demonstrates the meaning of the word includes an approximate definition and can change and become more complete as one goes along. To say that art is a basic form of human communication and design is a plan, says nothing about skill, craft or artifice as a dictionary might (e.g. New Century Dictionary 74). Skill, craft and artifice are all judgments about art, not art.
Since I did not re-shelve my stacks of Art History and Humanities books (now sitting on the floor in four stacks instead of two) we might consult the experts to see if we can find a more complete or a better definition of Art. I also retrieved another book I overlooked in my previous discussion of the Norman Conquest. The Humanities Through the Arts was written by F. David Martin and Lee A. Jacobus in 1974. Martin was a Professor of Philosophy (he retired in 1983) and Jacobus was an English Professor (I don’t know when he retired, but he’s listed in the University of Connecticut’s Emeritus Directory). They wrote:
Three of the most widely accepted criteria for determining whether or not something is a work of art are (1) that the object or event is made by an artist, (2) that the object or event is intended to be a work of art by its maker, (3) that important or recognized experts agree that it is a work of art. (19)
Obviously I have problems with each of these three criteria. The first begs the question. How do we know who is and is not an artist? The second also begs the question because we still do not know what art is, so how can a maker intend his or her work to be art? The third criteria begs the question and adds another conundrum, how do we know which experts are “important” or “recognized.” In fact, outside of their fields and their book notwithstanding I do not recall Martin and Jacobus being recognized as important or recognized experts on art. Furthermore what exactly do they mean by “important”? My Master’s degree says that I am a “recognized” expert in the Humanities, but does it mean that I am “important”? We simply do not know and Martin and Jacobus are not telling us anything useful about what art is. [They do not even mention the Bayeux tapestry or the Norman Conquest, by the way.]
Hartt begins his Introduction with the same question that heads this chapter, “What is Art?” He begins by saying that the answer was different in “every epoch of history” (2nd ed.10). He too alludes to the fact that art need not be beautiful to be art (10). He concludes: “It is this ability to embrace human experience of all sorts and transmit it to the observer that distinguishes the work of art” (12). That is about as close as Hartt comes to giving an actual definition of art. Hartt relies on his reader’s ability to synthesize a definition from his two pages of discussion, for him or herself.
In her first chapter, Adams wrote, “…art is a window on human thought and emotion” (14). A bit later she is more to the point: “‘Is it art?’ is a familiar question, which expresses the difficulty of finding a universal definition of ‘art’ and of recognizing the esthetic value of an object” (17). Both Adams and Hartt are a bit vague in their discussions but Adams gives us the reason that most discussions of what art is are so vague.
Bersson discusses various definitions of art at various times by various people; he sets art in the context of the cultures that produced it; and then he gives-up: “From this array of possibilities, you yourself will ultimately determine, like an aesthetician, your definition or concept of art” (4). It seems to me that Bersson is giving people permission to say things like “well, I don’t know much about art; but I know what I like.” There must be some sort of objective, universal criteria that we can use to determine what is and is not art.
Fiero does not define art in her text Landmarks in Humanities; or if she does I could not find it. Also, someone at McGraw-Hill should have noticed that the book does not have a blurb about who the author is and her credentials. She holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the University of Florida.
Lamm’s text provides us with a variety of definitions from a variety of famous people like Aristotle, “Art is a higher type of knowledge than experience”; Jean Anouilh, “The object of art is to give life a shape”; and Oscar Wilde, “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known” (5). What his discussion boils down to is that artists experience the world differently than we do, and they communicate these different perceptions through their art (5-6). These are all statements about art but they are not definitions of art.
In their preface, Perry, Baker and Hollinger imply that art is a “visual” interpretation of a culture (xiv). They obviously mean to say that the plastic arts are a visual interpretation of culture. Obviously not all art is visual. This is the kind of “little thing” that slips past editors and fact checkers. I know from experience that it is very difficult to edit one’s own work; it’s relatively easy to edit someone else’s. An editor who is perhaps an expert with words but who does not specialize in the Humanities might look at the sentence: “The art sections reveal how people in each era interpreted their culture visually” (xiv) and not think there is anything wrong with it. In addition to the above correction, I would think that culture should be plural to agree with people.
Cunningham and Reich discuss in their introduction, “How to Look at Art”, “For What Was This Piece of Art Made?”, “What if Anything, Does This Piece of Art Hope to Communicate?”, and so forth; but they do not discuss what art is (XXIV-XXV).
Stockstad, in Art a Brief History in a section called “Starter Kit” quotes Suzanne Langer “Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling” (11). And Georgia O’Keeffe, “I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things that I had no words for (11). She concludes “in basic nonphilosophical [sic] terms” that “art has two components: FORM and CONTENT” (11). Of all of the definitions we have surveyed thus far, these seem to be the most satisfying; and coincidentally, closest to my own definition.
We probably do not need to go through all four stacks. Instead, we probably should take some time to discuss form and content. The content of a piece is “what” and the form is “how.” We have already visited matters of form in our chapter on the elements and principles of design. So some discussion of content is in order. Content for representational pieces is easy to determine. The content of abstract art is not quite so readily available to us. As we will see, what the artist intends is often very idealistic or even out of touch with the reality we perceive. [Something tells me that I’m about to get very academic…. Don’t worry, if I get too boring, I’ll throw in some more pictures.] The artist’s intentions, theories and the broader context of the society he or she lives in are all a part of the content of the work he or she produces.
Wassily Kandinsky, in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (written in 1910 and published in 1912) offers a complicated explanation of the effects of color and shape on the human psyche. The origins of many of his ideas about the nature of art and the effects that he chronicles in some detail are obscure or uncertain. When Kandinsky turns to authority for his arguments, he refers to a physician, a pathologist, a composer, a philosopher, or a “scientist”; in 19th century Europe, all of these experts might have concerned themselves with similar issues and theories. Colors, sounds, shapes and words were all thought to be possessed of quasi-mystical properties, that when apprehended by the senses, rendered them capable of moving the emotions. Most of Kandinsky’s conclusions are arrived at through logic, personal experience and reflection. We must remember that in 1910 Freud’s ideas were still unseasoned and though widely disseminated, not understood for their implications. Carl Jung was only beginning to develop the controversial theories that marked much of his career. Cezanne had been dead only four years and his paintings were not yet fully appreciated. The Impressionists had succeeded only to the extent that they had replaced the older “academic” sensibilities of what painting could be, with a new “divisionism” in temperament and a dominant, newly struck aesthetic. The members of this new school were to become yet another old guard against which still newer voices would arise in protest. As Kandinsky wrote:
There are…aestheticians who write about an art which was condemned yesterday. In these books they remove the barriers over which art has most recently stepped and they set up new ones. They do not notice that they are erecting barriers not in front of art, but behind it. If they do, they write fresh books and hastily set the barriers a little further on. This process will go on until it is realized that the most advanced principle of aesthetics can never be of value to the future, but only to the past. No theory can be laid down for those things that lie in the realm of the immaterial…. That which belongs to the spirit of the future can only be realized in feeling, and the talent of the artist is the only road to feeling. (31)
The two key ideas that are of primary concern for the present examination are first, that “the most advanced principle of aesthetics” is of value only to understand the past; and second, that the “talent of the artist is the only road to feeling”; feeling is the agency whereby the “spirit of the future” is to be “realized”. An artistic break from the past is for Kandinsky an alignment with hidden continuities, unperceived by and imperceptible to all except the sensitive, spiritual artist. These continuities cannot be contained by theory but are communicated from the artist to the spectator who is willing to receive them. Furthermore, these continuities are resident (as content) in art of every age and form, what is for Kandinsky a tradition of persistent essences that transcend particular moments or “movements” of a “popular”, “mechanical”, or “materialistic” art. These latter adjectives refer to a type of art (plastic or performance) which may only be a pale and transitory expression of the far greater “moment” of the “pure” and “spiritual” in art. [I warned you it was complicated; and it’s only going to get worse; but not tonight.]
Kandinsky’s work was relatively unknown in France in 1910, and his first “non-figurative” painting dates from the same year. Throughout much of his career many critics received his work coolly, skeptically and from the distance afforded them, by a perpetual sneer. Kandinsky was well known in Russia; in Germany he was known among the intelligentsia; he was also discussed by certain members of the French Avant-Garde (Le Targat 13). As a teacher of art, a theorist and as a practitioner of non-representational art, Kandinsky’s influence was most keenly felt by the younger and emerging artists: Leger, Marc, Klee, Delauney, and Gleizes are examples. Apollinaire set the tone in 1913,
I have often spoken of the works of Kandinsky, on the occasion of his exhibition in Paris. And I am only too pleased to take this opportunity of expressing my very high opinion of this painter whose art seems to me to be as serious as it is important. (Quoted in Le Targat 13)
As Francois Le Targat points out, however, many German critics “were dismissing the same art as ‘idiocy’” (13). [I do not know, and Le Targat is silent on the subject of whether or not these “German critics” were “important”.]
The first Blaue Reiter exhibition and the Almanac of the same name, expressly announced the intentions of its founders, as portrayed in the words written by Franz Marc:
We are going to found an almanac which we intend to make the organ of all the worthwhile ideas of out age. Painting, music, theatre, etc…. Its main purpose will be to explain a great many things with the help of comparative documents…. We are hoping to gain such salutary, stimulating benefits from it—both in the way of elucidating ideas and of direct utility to our own work—that it has become our all-absorbing dream. (Quoted in Le Targat 14)
Bruce Altschuler, writing in The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century, credits Kandinsky with the origin of the project (46). The name, Blaue Reiter, was arrived at due to a mutual interest in horses and riding, as well as a fortuitous association with St. George; the color blue was chosen because both men attributed to it an association with spirituality (46). Altshuler also points out that Kandinsky had already formed a new school of artists called “the Phalanx,” in 1901 (42). This followed only five years after his arrival in Munich, having left his “promising legal career in Moscow” (42). Altshuler reminds his reader that Munich was second only to Paris as a cosmopolitan center of the arts and especially of the Avant-Garde (42). Six years later Kandinsky and Alexie Jawlensky would be instrumental in making the second exhibit of the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen—the NKVM [not even the Germans know how to pronounce this—they just clear their throats several times and pretend to be otherwise occupied] the New Artists’ Association of Munich—September 1910, “one of the first large group shows of the European avant-garde, prefiguring the 1912 Cologne Sonderbund and the 1913 Armory Show in New York” (45). Franz Marc joined the group the following February (1911). Altshuler’s accounts of Kandinsky’s success and recognition seem at odds with Kandinsky’s own statements concerning the role of the artist as disliked and spurned by society. On the other hand commentators like Le Targat seem to apply to Kandinsky his conceit of the artist as struggling outcast.
Altshuler implies that the break with the NKVM was precipitated by Kandinsky and Marc, purposely staged by the latter two, to gain momentum for their joint endeavors concerning the Blaue Reiter. Kandinsky deliberately submitted a painting that exceeded the size specifications set by the jury for the exhibit, (Composition V, 1911. Oil on canvas, 74 ¾ x 108 ¼ in. Private collection). The first Blaue Reiter exhibit was installed, although in adjacent rooms, in the same gallery provided by Thannhauser for the NKVM exhibit; and the two shows ran concurrently. Altshuler also relates that Herwarth Walden, the “avant-garde impresario of pre-war Germany”, mounted Kandinsky’s first one man show in October of 1912, which he then toured throughout Eastern and Western Europe for the next several years. Once again, this seems to diminish the characterization by Le Targat and by Kandinsky himself, of the artist as a despised outsider.
The Blaue Reiter exhibit and the Almanac were conceived as complimentary artistic endeavors, mutually beneficial and interdependent by design. Marc looked to create an aesthetic “organ” capable of “explaining” if not uniting the plastic and performing arts under the aegis of “all the worthwhile ideas of our age.” How the worth of an idea was to be determined was not set down by Marc, nor was it specifically defined by Kandinsky. At best, the pronouncements concerning the characteristics of colors and shapes offered by Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, offer anecdotal evidence; examples drawn from experience are relied upon frequently as “proofs” for Kandinsky’s arguments. Kandinsky appeals to “common sense”, he bases his assertions of these carefully selected observations, and a wide variety of “representative samples”: his conclusions are orchestrated to support his eclectic themes. The selections from his writings by Herschel Chipp are telling.
Chipp excerpts passages from Concerning the Spiritual in Art and from an article in Der Blaue Reiter , “On the Problem of Form” (152, 155). Kandinsky gives as examples in the first selection, the observation of colors straight from the tube, as in the artist’s studio: “Some colors appear soft (madder-lake), others hard (cobalt green, blue-green oxide), so that fresh from the tube they seem to be ‘dry’” ( Chipp 154). He refers also to “chromotherapy” the tenets of which espouse the belief that “colored light can influence the whole body”, the practice of which attempts to “treat various nervous ailments. Red light” he continues “stimulates and excites the heart, while blue light can cause temporary paralysis” (154). He adds “it is unquestionable that color can exercise enormous influence upon the whole body as a physical organism” (154). His conclusion, however, betrays a virulent fallacy: “Generally speaking, color directly influences the soul.” While we may be convinced that the influence of color on the physical body is reasonable, given the examples he cites from documented, clinical experimentation, his leap to the realm of soul is unfounded and improbable. Kandinsky continues, using his conclusion as a premise for yet another conclusion, one that he claims to be central to his “principles of internal necessity”; those principles must fall under suspicion as well: “It is evident therefore that color harmony must rest ultimately on purposive playing upon the human soul….” (His emphasis. Chipp 155). This statement remains unproven and is perhaps not provable.
While most reasonable people might be willing to accept an emotional designation for the color blue as “cool” and red as “warm”, even black as mournful or somber, it seems less likely that most would immediately understand the values Kandinsky attaches to acute angles, squares and circles, as anything other than axiomatic. It seems too, following from the previous discussion that spectators cannot be counted upon to be sensitive to the “inner” truths expressed by Marc or Kandinsky, any more than they might be expected to immediately apprehend the subtle complexities of Kandinsky’s compositions that are based on his “higher ideals”.
To try to summarize a general theory of color from Kandinsky’s writings is difficult. He has written not only about the characteristics of individual colors, but also about the attributes and effects of colors in combination. Consider the following:
Generally speaking warmth or coolness in a color means an approach to yellow or blue. This distinction occurs on one level so to speak: i.e., the color preserves its basic quality, but this quality is, now more, now less earthy. It represents a horizontal movement, the warm colors approaching the spectator, the cool ones retreating from it. (57)
What Kandinsky is trying to say is not intuitively obvious. Why for example, should there be any kind of shift from any color to any other color? What kind of shift is Kandinsky referring to? Colors do not really have “qualities”, “earthy” or otherwise, other than the associations we make based on what we think or feel. Some people like blue and do not like pink. Those who like blue may attach positive qualities to various shades of blue but those qualities do not inhere in blueness. [I find pink shirts and pink ties repulsive; pink nipples and pink lips, not so much! So pink does not have repulsive qualities that are inherently “pink”; except by the associations I make with or attach to it. By the way, I’m not playing as much in this chapter because I want the students and teachers reading this book, to have an example of academic writing, written in an academic tone with proper citations. I’m playing as much as I am, because even academics find academic writing to be rather dull. That and my date flaked tonight.] Kandinsky continues:
Yellow and blue have another movement which affects the first antithesis—an eccentric and concentric movement. If two circles are drawn and painted respectively yellow and blue, a brief contemplation will reveal in the yellow a spreading movement out from the center, and a noticeable approach to the spectator. The blue, on the other hand, moves into itself, like a snail retreating into its shell, and draws away from the spectator. The eye feels stung by the first circle while it is absorbed into the second. (57)
[“My mind is on fire and I can’t put it out! More blue! More blue! Shift! dammit, shift!”]
Kandinsky does not make his case any clearer. He attributes movement to the colors, as noted; when we consider the more specific case of the agency to which this movement is attributed, we are left once again, with more questions than answers. As we shall see, Kandinsky lacks physical “proof” for his conjectures, so in lieu of proof, he offers theory:
In the case of light and dark colors movement is emphasized. That of the yellow increases with an admixture of white, i.e., as it becomes lighter. That of the blue increases with an admixture of black, i.e., as it becomes darker. This fact has a greater importance if we note that yellow inclines to the light (white) to such an extent that there can be no very dark yellow. The relationship between white and yellow is as close as between black and blue for blue can be so dark as to border o black. Beside this physical relation, there is also a spiritual one (between yellow and white on one side, and blue and black on the other), which marks a strong separation between the two pairs. (57)
In fairness, Kandinsky’s note from this same page warns that “all these statements are the results of empirical feeling, and are not based on any exact science” (57). Kandinsky further contradicts the “empirical” nature of his inquiries with an allusion to the spiritual “relationship” between the two pairs of colors, which “marks a strong separation between the two pairs.” We may have intuitions about spirit, we may believe that spirit exists, but we cannot experience spirit “empirically”. To posit then, that colors exist somehow in a spiritual relationship to one another, even if in “separation” from each other, seems to be the height and depth of lunacy. Nonetheless, Kandinsky continues:
An attempt to make yellow colder produces a greenish tint and checks both horizontal and eccentric movement. The color becomes sickly and unreal, like an energetic man who has been checked in the use of his energy by external circumstances. The blue by its contrary movement acts as a brake on the yellow and is hindered in its own movement, and , if more blue is added, the contrary movements cancel each other and complete immobility ensues. The result is green. Similarly white, when mixed with black, loses permanence, and the result is gray, which is spiritually similar to green (57).
One hardly knows where to begin to break down these preposterous statements. Yellow and blue do make green, but some greens are pleasant and not at all “sickly” or “unreal”. [Although I still maintain that there are no good yellows!] The simile comparing the color green to an “energetic man” is pure nonsense as is the idea that colors are mobile or immobile. How or why or that green and gray could be “spiritually similar” is utterly incomprehensible. Still, if we are going to consider the “content” of Kandinsky’s work as co-equal to his theories, we need only to admit that these are his theories, not that they are true. Kandinsky is arguing for a “new art”. He offers a summary lament for the current state of society and the existence of “true” and “false” artists:
The artist seeks material rewards for his facility, inventiveness and sensitivity, his purpose becomes the satisfaction of ambition and greediness. In place of an intensive cooperation among artists, there is a battle for goods. There is excessive competition, over-production. Hatred, partisanship, cliques, jealousy, intrigues are the natural consequences of an aimless, materialist art.
The public turns away from artists who have higher ideals, who find purpose in an art without purpose. (26)
Here Kandinsky launches the first part of a two-pronged attack. He focuses first on the causes of dissension and disagreement among artists themselves. He sees the struggle among artists as a competition that is rooted in “ambition and greed”. These are both product and perpetual cause of a “materialist art” that is antithetical to the “higher ideal” of artistic cooperation. Competition and greed alienate the “public”, who then avoid artists who pursue an interest in art, only for the sake of art. The second point of attack for Kandinsky is the idea of “popular art”. He reasons that if “comprehension” is a matter of “educating the spectator to the point of view of the artist”, and that such an art is “a child of its time”, then an artist is only able to reiterate (in his or her own art) what is already “clearly realized by the contemporary”. Kandinsky insists that to say that an art is “only a child of the age” is at least the wrong metaphor; furthermore, as “only the child of its time”, “it is not germinative, and unable to become the mother of the future, it is a castrated art. It is transitory; it dies morally the moment the atmosphere that nourishes it alters [it]. “It” depending on our reading, may refer equally to ‘comprehension”, to an “art” that is a “child of its time”, or even to the “point of view of the artist”. As we read the elements of Kandinsky’s passage in context, we find that the most likely referent is to the “castrated art” whose relevance and coetaneous nature must be explained to the spectator:
“Comprehension” is educating the spectator to the point of view of the artist. It has been said that art is the child of its time. But such an art can only repeat artistically what is already clearly realized by the contemporary. Since it is not germinative, but only a child of the age, and unable to become a mother of the future, it is a castrated art. It is transitory; it dies morally the moment the atmosphere that nourished it alters. (26)
Kandinsky imposes his own system of values onto the very system of exchanges that he is describing. He feels that his is the morally superior position, so he finds no fault in himself for participating freely in the faults of another. Kandinsky sets out to do precisely what he eschews in the written polemics of his predecessors and contemporaries alike; as a consequence, a contradiction arises:
There is another art capable of further development, which also springs from contemporary feeling. Not only is it simultaneously its echo and mirror but it possesses also an awakening prophetic power which can have far reaching and profound effect.
The spiritual life to which art belongs, and of which it is one of the mightiest agents, is a complex but definite movement above and beyond, which can be translated into simplicity. This movement is that of cognition. Although it may take different forms, it holds basically to the same internal meaning and purpose. (26)
Within the space of a few paragraphs Kandinsky has succinctly distinguished between “Materialist” art and “Spiritual” art.
Kandinsky envisions a transformation that can be brought about by the artist, following a perceived “necessity to move forward and upward” and “through sweat, suffering, evil and torments” toward a realization of “another art”, “which also springs from contemporary feeling” (26). Contemporary art is for Kandinsky a spiritual battle between good and evil; “comprehension” is identified as the key to winning or losing the battle. Comprehension is likened to art as “transitory” he claims—by this reading—that both may die “morally the moment the atmosphere that nourished [them] alters”. If comprehension is taught to the spectator, and if comprehension is the key to winning or losing the battle; and further, if we assume (as Kandinsky does) that the battle is currently being waged and won by artists motivated by greed and selfishness who “educate” the “spectators” in their own avarice, what will induce these spectators to become disenchanted with their current teachers and to seek new instruction? One of the driving principles at the heart of his new art, is “inner necessity”, yet Kandinsky has not supplied an example of how this “inner necessity” is made manifest in this matter of “comprehension”.
Kandinsky holds that a “movement above and beyond” is accomplished through “cognition”; he insinuates that “spiritual art” is based on cognition, generally. Specifically, he argues that the spiritual artist cognitively applies the principles he is setting down as standards for all art (good and bad). The spiritual artist avoids the traps of a “transitory” and “castrated” materialist art simply by seeking “true” art. Kandinsky also holds that the spiritual artist does not expect the recognition or rewards of his materialist cousins, but “scorned and disliked, he drags the heavy weight of resisting humanity forward and upward” (26). Robert Hughes’ comment is on point as he says, regarding Kandinsky’s expressionism, that
Expressionism was, so to speak, a fossil of the ancient Judeo-Christian belief in a moral conflict between the world and the spirit. To rise above the material world, to subdue it by using its contents as emblems or abstractions, was to chalk up a victory for the spirit—even when the worship of God, the original stake in the battle, had been replaced by the cult of the imperious ego. (310)
Hughes does not really make the link for us but it seems implied in what he wrote, part of the content of Kandinsky’s work is Kandinsky’s ego. At the very least, we can feel safe in our conclusion that the content of abstract non-representative art is more than what is on the canvas or the plinth. Even though we have found fault with what he wrote, we must consider it as a key to understanding why he painted the way he painted. Kandinsky’s theories assert a cognitive basis for—we would call it psychological—the spectator’s responses to color, shape and line. These theories offer us a point of entry into Kandinsky’s paintings and into the works of those whom he influenced.
[Some material writes itself; this shit has been surgically extracted like wisdom teeth.]
I believe that we should view Kandinsky as a poet in both his writing and his painting. Jean Arp observed (about Kandinsky’s paintings) “through the poetry of Kandinsky we witness the eternal cycle, coming into being and disappearing, the transformation of this world. His poems make evident the absence, the nullity, of perception and reason” (Quoted in Le Targat 27). We should not be surprised then, if in his attempts to guide us through the subtle territories of his paintings, that the artist himself stumbles over “reason”, he has set for himself the task of describing that which may defy description. Kandinsky wrote:
The most modern musicians, like Debussey, create a spiritual impression, often taken from nature, but embodied in purely musical form. For this reason Debussey is often classed with the impressionist painters, on the ground that he resembles these painters in using natural phenomena for the purposes of art. Whatever truth there may be in this comparison merely accentuates the fact that the various arts of today learn from each other and often resemble each other. But it would be rash to say that this proposition is an exhaustive statement of Debussey’s significance. (35)
It would be a mistake to claim from Kandinsky more than a similarity between painting and music. Music and painting have an implicit correspondence that does not prevail as an exhaustive statement of worth or significance for either. “The various arts of today learn from each other” (my emphasis), not by virtue of their similarities as arts, but because they belong to the same age: “we recognize at once his [Debussey’s] work the flawed, vocal soul of the present, with all its harassing anxiety and jangled nerves” (35). With regard to rules that may apply to the arts, and especially to music, Kandinsky quotes Schoenberg: “Every combination of notes, every advance is possible, but I am beginning to feel that there are definite rules and conditions which incline me to the use of this or that dissonance” (Quoted in Kandinsky 35). Following Schoenberg’s insights concerning artistic freedom, Kandinsky concludes “that the greatest freedom of all, the freedom of an unfettered art, can never be absolute. Every age achieves a certain measure of freedom but beyond the boundaries of its freedom the mightiest genius can never go” (35-36). Music, painting, poetry and art, as seen by Kandinsky, should not be a matter of the ear or of the eye but of the soul (36). Kandinsky began his analysis with a rejection of the external (“outer”), and its emphasis on the materiality of the world as it is received by the cognitive faculties (“inner”); then he perceives an elevation of this experience through interpretation and feeling “upward” to the “divine” and “inward” to the “spiritual”.
Kandinsky’s system of painting (after 1921) has been criticized as somewhat less than inspiring; as Hughes describes it:
In his effort to fix a symbolic language of shape and colour, which went beyond all depictive efforts in its attempt to show direct Symbolist correspondences between form and feeling, Kandinsky produced a mass of worthy but rather dry and solipsistic painting. There was no guarantee that a black-edged purple triangle on a sea-green ground could “represent” the same emotions for any spectator as it did for Kandinsky, and his zeal to cook up a universal grammar of form was like the enthusiasm with which Esperantists argued their case in Kandinsky’s day (301).
Hughes’ critical sneer is tempered (this time) with a good-natured wink at Kandinsky’s efforts to create a new language for art. We may conclude with Hughes that such an attempt was well meaning, however misguided or even naïve. We should not lose sight of the fact that ever since Gustav Courbet declared himself a “Courbetist”, artists have been similarly attempting the reinvention of art in their own oneirocritical images. [This time I’ll save you the trip because were finally on a roll: O-nI-rO-krit-ik-al—“pertaining to the interpretation of dreams” (New Century Dictionary 1185).] Kandinsky’s shapes may be seen as snatches of melody, mere phrases of song or poetry that are only half-remembered, amid a background of noise that substitutes for certainty. This certainty is a “known” commodity that is encroached upon by a “field” of the unknown and uncreated. Lines allude to form, without describing or becoming it.
In a note to his excerpt from Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger’s book, Cubism, (1912) Chipp urges us to remember that Suerat also made blanket statements concerning color, line and tone in relation to the emotions that they call up in the spectator. “Compare [Metzinger’s statement] with Suerat’s theory that colors could be considered on a scale of cool to warm, lines on a scale of passivity to activity, and tones from light to dark, and that these were evocative of moods from sad to gay” (213).
Kandinsky is most profound and convincing in his discussion of black and white. “White” he says, “is a symbol of a world from which all colors as a material attributes have disappeared. This world is too far above us for its structure to touch our souls” (59). Here Kandinsky leans on the edge of the mystical, as if to peer up into the distant spiritual realm he longs to participate in through his art. He continues, “there comes a great silence which materially represented is like a cold, indestructible wall going on into the infinite” (59-60). We realize that the wall he is describing is not at all some vague supernatural wall; it is the same wall that Kandinsky described in the notes to his manuscript:
Van Gogh, in his letters, asks whether he may not paint a white wall dead white. This question offers no difficulty to the non-representational artist, who is concerned only with the inner harmony of color. But to the impressionist-realist it appears a bold liberty to take. Van Gogh’s question marks a transition from impressionism to an art of spiritual harmony. (59, n.19)
Kandinsky returns to his comparison of painting with music and color with sound, in this case “white… acts upon our psyche as a great absolute silence, like the pauses in music that temporarily break the melody. This is not a dead silence, but one pregnant with possibilities (60). White is generative and beguiling, it holds our attention, it “has the appeal of nothingness that is before birth, of the world in the ice age” (60).
We return to Hughes for his interpretation of Kandinsky’s Black Lines, No. 189, 1913, (Oil on canvas 51×51 ¼ in., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.):
By the end of 1913, however, Kandinsky’s more Expressionist abstractions defied most efforts to find an allegorical content in them. One can see three scratchy black peaks, which may be mountains, in the top half …but these hardly count as a subject. What does count is the sense of well-being, springlike joy, induced by the bloom and transparency of its primary color patches—red, blue, yellow, white—softly expanding towards the eye like halation-patterns in fog. Such works represent Kandinsky at his best, and their conviction as painting rises above the eager fatuities of Kandinsky’s own philosophizing. (301)
What Hughes does not see is that analysis must end where these Black Lines begin. Black lines, No. 189, might be seen as a color poem, full of visual skips, lapses in the continuity of the “pure form” that had been established by the poet through his use of reason, color and sound, on his way to some “forward” and “upward” spiritual dimension that is beyond the life and death imagery of a literal interpretation. Black Lines forgets its author’s intentions, until “content” itself is forsaken, not in favor of pleasant patches of color as Hughes suggests, but as indolent scribes struggle to recall passages from scripture. Pure fields of color eventually succeeded in establishing the “truth” of Kandinsky’s paintings and (to an extent) his theories about art. Other artists found new ways of reading the poems that Kandinsky crafted. In the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, the silent color fields of Mark Rothko, one can still hear rumors of Kandinsky’s successes and failures, as an artist, as a teacher of art and as a theoretician, philosopher and poet.
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Mark well: in the art of our magisterium nothing is concealed by the philosophers except the secret of the art, which may not be revealed to all and sundry. For were that to happen, that man would be accursed; he would incur the wrath of God and perish of the apoplexy. Wherefore all error in the art arises, namely, because men do not begin with the proper substance.
“And on a later page”
So I have not declared all that appears and is necessary in this work, because there are things of which a man may not speak…. Such matters must be transmitted in mystical terms, like poetry employing fables and parables.
Rosarium philosophorum, Quoted in Campbell, J. (1968), The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, New York: Penguin Group. (pp.263-264).
[One of the unfortunate realities of reading Campbell’s seminal work on mythology, is that it is a book compiled from his notes; as a result, for example the above cited passage includes the little diagram copied from the Rosarium, and the text of the note in Latin; however the Latin text from Campbell’s addition and rejoinder from “the later page” is missing from the book. Without the requisite continuity, we cannot be sure if the author of the Rosarium intends for us to surmise that the “secret” of his art is that unspeakable thing that can only be rendered poetically—or if the secret is simply that some matters are communicated best by poetry? In either case the author of the Rosarium has provided us with some sense of the great antiquity of the argument for the current chapter—and indeed the philosophical foundation for and aesthetic lens of the book.] Campbell makes the connection between or among Psychology, Painting and Alchemy explicit at least by analogy, if not by citing specific examples:
Dr. C. G. Jung, who devoted some forty-odd years to a study of alchemical symbology, has demonstrated beyond question that in all its authentic practicioners, whether in Europe and the Near East or in the Far East, Alchemy was as much an unconsciously psychological as consciously physical proto- or pseudo-science. In a manner broadly comparable to the relationship of a painter to the colors and materials of his palette and studio, the alchemist projected psychological associations, of which he was neither fully conscious nor in full control, into the metals, retorts, and other materials of his laboratory. The empty retort, like an empty stretch of canvas, was a vacuum for the reception of whatever demon within was pressing for manifestation without, and the work progressed through an interaction of impulse (spontaneity) and judgment (consideration) in relation to the physical acts of mixing, heating, adding, subtracting, cooling and observing metals (pp. 267-268).
Campbell then moves to an extended analysis of the examples given by Jung of the “actual work and meditations of seriously practicing alchemists” (p.268). We will return to the first two of these “The Creation” and “The Heavens”, presently. However, Campbell’s note at the bottom of page 269 returns us first, to his previous discussion, now of special relevance as we pivot from our remarks concerning the traditional plastic arts, to a theoretical consideration of Performance Art—as one of the plastic arts. It is another, rather long selection –but I have omitted all but the most essential parts for our purposes here: [I will unpack some of the parts as I go along…. Just as Campbell is describing the 15th Century Neoplatonic drawing—his figure 13– by Gafurius]
For just as the serpent—
[shown with three heads and a long body that bi-sects the entire piece. The heads are a lion (center) a wolf (our left) and a dog (right); these symbolize, we are told “Devouring Time in its three aspects—Present (the lion—“violent and sudden”, Past (the wolf –“which drags away its victims” and deprives us of our memories) and Future (the dog “fawning on its master” and “ceaselessly beguiles us with hope” –Campbell is quoting Macrobius’s Saturnalia Book I, Caput XX; and notes that it is from the 5th Century (Campbell, p. 101).]
–is not opposed to the Lord [in this case Apollo] but the vehicle of his down-going grace, so are the Muses—clothed in the garments of this world—not opposed to the unclothed Graces, but in triple rhythm (3 times 3) the earthly heralds of their paradisial dance. And they are nine because…their root… [ the number 3] is in the trinity above. [In this case the naked representations of Euphrosine (“joy”), Aglaia (“beauty”), and surda Thalia (“bringer of flowers”) (they are shown respectively to the left-to the right-and in the center and slightly behind the other two) positioned as a group to the right of Apollo at the top of the illustration (p. 100).]
Beyond the frightening visage of all-consuming time, the arts—the Muses—initiate us to the enduring harmony of the universe, the planes or aspects of which are controlled by the planets and their spheres. … Thalia below, is of the earth [Thalia is shown above and below] so Clio, (lower left), the muse of History, presides on the plane of the moon, controller of the tides of time, while Calliope, Heroic Poetry, matches Mercury (Hermes), the guide of the souls beyond the temporal sphere. Next come Terpsichore, Muse of the Dance and Choral Song, in the sphere of Venus and Cupid; Melpomene, Tragedy, who purges and illuminates with the fire and light of the Sun; and Erato, Lyric and Erotic Poetry, on the plane of Mars, god of war. Beyond this central, tragic triad, then we are released by the power of music from all visible forms whatsoever. [He notes a link to Schopenhauer—that we can ignore.] Euterpe, the Muse of Flute Music, elevates the mind to the plane of Jupiter, where the soul…is turned to the protecting aspect of the Lord. [Ritual initiation—not a “Jesus” moment] Polyhymnia, the Muse of Sacred Song, celebrates the aspect of the Father in Saturn, wielding the scythe that cuts us free from this world controlled by the planetary spheres, after which in the sphere of the fixed stars, the Muse Urania, Astronomy, transports us from the body of the serpent altogether (the loop of whose tail suggests the sun door), to the very feet of the highest transformation of the Father, sheer light. [Again, more like Apollo—than like Jesus…] (Campbell, pp.102-103).
I will interrupt Campbell’s charming, folksy prose, to explain that he tells us also that the Sun door is represented by the Lion’s mouth—“the flaming sun door of the present, [that we must enter] absorbed totally in the living here–and-now, without hope, without fear” (p102). And the path of the Muses that lies behind that door leads us to “that summit of Joy”,,, “beyond hope [and] beyond fear” (Ibid). The serpent then, is reminiscent of Tiamat—and the Leviathan from whose bones the world is made and in whose belly mankind is transformed. The ominous door / tri-head of the serpent as past, present and future lies in the field of time and is framed by the elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire—The door opens again in Paradise at the feet of Apollo and in the presence of the three Graces. Our Journey “above” is our journey within—along “this ladder of the planetary shells” –accompanied by the music of the spheres. Campbell quotes Garfurius “as he declares, ‘that the Muses, Planets, Modes, and strings correspond with one another’ “(p.103). Campbell also notes that this idea too is of great antiquity: “It was known already to the Stoics and is developed in Cicero’s ‘Dream of Scipio’ [I omitted his note] where the spheres are named in this order and said to produce a loud agreeable sound by the motion of their revolutions” (Ibid). I will spare the reader the list of names of the notes of the tetrachord—but if you are familiar with the A-Minor scale, you should be okay. If you know the difference between a ”hypaton”, a “meson” and the “Mese”—I would say you were “golden”…. To return to Campbell’s text [I promise, we are almost through at least on this point….]
Assigned, furthermore, to each sphere is a metal whose symbol is that of its planet: to the moon silver, quicksilver to Mercury, copper to Venus, gold to the Sun, iron to Mars, tin to Jupiter, and lead to Saturn. The soul descending from its heavenly home, takes on the matter and weight of these metals and, ascending, casts them off, to arrive naked again above. Hence the symbolism of nakedness—the naked soul—before God: the naked Graces before Apollo…. Hence, too, the “dance of the seven veils” performed by Salome before Herod, the earliest extant version of which symbolic “stripping of the self” is the Old Sumerian “Descent of Inanna to the Underworld” of about 2500 B.C. [I have omitted his note] (pp.103-104).
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the banner over the head of Gafurius’s Apollo; it is emblazoned with the motto “Mentis Apollineae vis has movet undique Musas” , which Campbell renders “The energy of the Apollonian mind sets these muses everywhere in motion”. I prefer a more literal reading: “The force of Apollo’s mind—sets the Muses in motion everywhere.” In either translation it is easily argued that the sense of the motto is wrong and hopelessly patriarchal. The creative energy or force of all of the Muses is feminine. I should point out, for those who want a more compelling argument—consider that The nine Muses, three Graces, three Fates [to whom even the Olympians must succumb], the three Furies are all conceived as Feminine forces; many of whom are older and more powerful than any of the Olympian Gods. Consider too—that among the Olympian gods—Aphrodite is not Zeus’s sibling or his sire-ling—she is his Aunt! [While you’re pondering that –we can get back to the point, and to Campbell’s book.]
Now in the course of the long five centuries of the Roman occupation of Gaul and Britain (c. 50 B.C. to c. 450 A.D.), the myths and rituals of the Hellenistic mysteries were not only carried to those colonies but associated syncretically with appropriate local gods (p.105).
Although the appearance of the Pagan Mysteries in Gaul and Britain paved the way for the later anemic Christian Mysteries; the cosmic and mythological importance of the feminine creative principle was well understood by the former, and completely lost within the context of the latter. The disastrous consequences are summarized by Campbell nicely:
Moreover, a certain almost ridiculous difficulty has followed upon this exclusion of the female principle from its normal cosmic role. The mythological females of the Christian myth have had to be interpreted historically: Mother Eve, before and after the Fall, as a prehistoric character in a garden that never was; and Mary, the “mother of God,” as a virgin who conceived miraculously and was physically assumed into a place called “Heaven above” that does not physically exist (pp. 108-109).
[Take a break—come back with fresh eyes this next point is key. One should try not to react too strongly to the characterization of Christianity as mythic in nature—it is a well established point, Campbell is an expert—and if you were offended by that—it’s about to get worse.]
Throughout the history of the Christian cult, the liability of its historicized symbols to reinterpretation in some general mythological sense has been a constant danger; and, reciprocally, the susceptibility of the Greek—and even Buddhist, Hindu, Navaho, and Aztec—mythologies to readings approximately Christian has also been a threat, of which advantage has been recently taken by T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake, and Thomas Mann in Joseph and His Brothers. Many artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods likewise took advantage of these possibilities…. In fact, this possibility and the knowledge of it are what I have termed the secret stream, below ground, of our classical heritage of symbolic communications (p.109).
[These are long quotes, and I don’t apologize for them. If you are not familiar with Campbell’s work, then you should be; and if you are, then you probably really don’t mind recalling just how insightful he was. Many of my quotes, through this book have been too long. I don’t really think that it is much of a problem—because I don’t think that the books I’m quoting from are on everyone’s shelf—and even if they are, I doubt that anyone is “reading” them exactly the same way that I do….all right—enough of that; on to the analysis.] In Campbell’s work then, I see the possibility of a formulation for understanding both the processes and content of much of contemporary art and perhaps especially Performance Art. The idea of alchemy as a matrix (or a lens) for art is in some cases implied, as in Rothko’s Chapel or Kandinsky’s Improvisations and associated writings—but it is explicit in work by Duchamp: as in his 50cc’s of Parisian Air, The Large Glass, The Chocolate Grinder and Etant Donnes—for example. At the very least, there seems to be a point of intersection, at which the words that artists use to describe their works, is roughly analogous to the incantations and meditations of the alchemists—relative to their “works”.
Take of common rainwater a good quantity, at least ten quarts; preserve it well sealed in glass vessels for at least ten days, then it will deposit matter and feces on the bottom. Pour off the clear liquid and place in a wooden vessel that is fashioned round like a ball; cut it in the middle and fill the vessel a third full, and set it in the sun about midday in a secret or secluded spot.
When this has been done, take a drop of the consecrated red wine and let it fall into the water, and you will instantly perceive a fog and thick darkness on top of the water, such as also was at the first creation. Then put in two drops, and you will see the light coming forth from the darkness; whereupon little by little put in every half of each quarter hour first three, then four, then five, then six drops, and no more, and you will see with your own eyes one thing after another appearing by and by on top of the water, how God created all things in six days, and how it all came to pass, and such secrets as are not to be spoken aloud and I also have not power to reveal….
…By this you will see clearly the secrets of God, that are at present hidden from you as from a child. You will understand what Moses has written concerning the creation; you will see what manner of body Adam and Eve had before and after the Fall, what the serpent was, what the tree, and what manner of fruits they ate; where and what Paradise is, and in what bodies the righteous shall be resurrected; not in this body that we have received from Adam, but in that which we attain through the Holy Ghost, namely in such a body as our Savior brought from Heaven (Abtala Jurain, Quoted in Campbell, pp. 268-269).
The powers described in the above text, by its anonymous author, are couched in the only accepted “powers” and widely understood language of his day. Jung exploited the text for its psychological depth, Campbell for its mythological content; I propose to use these passages as a basis for understanding and exploring contemporary art, as Campbell suggested in the passage quoted previously, above. However, Campbell lecturing, collating, compiling sources and working with his editor’s pen, could not have foreseen all of the artistic forms that would emerge from the alchemists’ furnaces. He may have correctly sensed, at least if our reading is not too expansive, that the impulse to create was the same at Lascaux as it was in Paris in the years before World Wars I and II; as it was in the “Happenings” of Kaprow and in the Silence invoked by Cage. Artists have however, separated themselves from society, and secreted themselves and their work away from the “uninitiated.” The secrets of the alchemist were passed from “master’s book” to “master’s book”; and the medieval accession of generational painter’s knowledge and art, passed from “master’s hand” to “master’s hand”; in academies and galleries today, the occluded and occult knowledge of the past has been replaced by impulse and desire. Our test of course will measure if these differences are “progress” or “declension”; and if they are due to latent strengths and universal truths or simple human frailties of instinct, mind and body. First, we must follow Campbell and Jung once again; and allow the anonymous master to complete his “process”:
You shall take seven pieces of metal, of each and every metal as they are named after the planets* [Campbell’s note included here for the reader’s easy reference: “These are, Mercury (Mercury), Copper (Venus), Silver (Moon), Gold (Sun), Iron (Mars), Tin (Jupiter), and Lead (Saturn). Supra, p. 103” (p.269).] and shall stamp on each the character of the planet in the house of the same planet, and every piece shall be as large and thick as a rose noble. [note omitted] But of Mercury put only the fourth part of an ounce by weight and nothing stamped upon it.
Then Put them after the order in which they stand in the heavens into a crucible, and make all windows fast in the chamber that it may be quite dark within; then melt them all together in the midst of the chamber and drop in seven drops of the blessed Stone; and forthwith a flame of fire will come out of the crucible and spread itself over the whole chamber (fear no harm), and will light up the whole chamber more brightly than sun and moon, and over your heads you shall behold the whole firmament as it is in the starry heavens above, and the planets shall hold to their appointed courses, as in the sky. Let it cease of itself, in a quarter of an hour everything will be in its own place (Abtala Jurain, 1732. Quoted in Campbell, p.269).
By way of a summary, Campbell is describing a drawing from an early manuscript of two alchemists kneeling in their room:
Between the two alchemists are the furnace, the vessels, and other materials of their ambiguous art, wherein the various transformations will occur to which the mythological names and interpretations are to be attached. That is to say, it will be in those vessels and materials that the solar king and lunar queen will be known to be reaching their left hands to each other, and the dove will be descending , as the metals and other materials—mercury, salt, sulphur [sic], consecrated wine, rainwater, and what not—work upon each other, combine, separate, change color, et cetera. But, as we have seen, the alchemists will have to accompany these effects with appropriate sentiments and fantasizing meditations of their own, if the desired results are to be achieved. The fermentation, putrefaction, and sublimation of the metals will have to be matched by analogous motions in the conjoined, harmoniously cooperating hearts of the artifex and his soror mystica, the fundamental idea being that divinity is entrapped, as it were, in the gross physical matter of the bodies of men and women as well as in the elements of nature, and that in the laboratory of the alchemist the energies of this immanent spiritual presence are to be released (p. 271).
Campbell adds a further dimension to the process and to the benefits accrued, in a quote from Jung:
For the alchemist the one primarily in need of redemption is not man, but the deity who is lost and sleeping in matter. Only as a secondary consideration does he hope that some benefit may accrue to himself from the transformed substance as the panacea, … [and] what comes out of the transformation is not Christ but an ineffable material being named the “stone,” which displays the most paradoxical qualities apart from possessing corpus, anima, spiritus, and supernatural powers. One might be tempted to explain the symbolism of alchemical transformation as a parody of the Mass were it not pagan in origin and much older than the latter.
The substance that harbors the divine secret is everywhere, including the human body. It can be had for the asking and can be found anywhere, even in the most loathsome filth (Quoted in Campbell pp.271-272). [ Jung, C.J., Psychology and Alchemy, pp 299-300; see Campbell’s note 35 p. 695.]
Campbell makes this idea more explicit, in case we missed it, with the following explanation. He also adds an attendant sense of prohibition that dogs all of our arts and supposed freedoms of expression. The shift is subtle, apparently defended by and descriptive of Christian sensibilities, and a part of the contemporary cultural dialog:
Essentially the idea is the same as that by which the obscene Love Feasts of the Phibionites and other deviant early Christian sects were inspired, against whom Paul, Tertullian, and numerous other preachers of the gospel were compelled to take corrective steps. There, however, the method by which the energy of the incarnate divine substance was to be released from its dual, male and female entrapment was as crassly physical as could be imagined, whereas here the main emphasis was to be—for the human participants—psychological. The physical aspects of the distillation and union of the male and female energies—the coniugium, matrimonium, coitus, or coniunctio oppositorum, as it was variously named—took place within the vas Hermeticum, the sealed hermetic retort, and whatever acts on the part of the artifex and his soror might have accompanied these developments were as between two intimately associated, emotionally interlocked, mutually respectful personalities—not comparable at all to the indiscriminate, anonymous Agape-in-the-dark of the earlier Christian redeemers of the Redeemer (p. 272).
And the product of both unions—the profanely sacred and the sacred alchemical—were the “lapis,” “rebus,” and “philosopher’s stone” (p. 272). Although, as Campbell points out in the same passage, the result of the unions among some of the early Christian cults, [“the divine child or children”] were often “ritually consumed”—and he notes too that the “stone” itself was considered “hermaphroditic” (Ibid). We begin to see the nexus developing for and among the participants in the ancient mystery rites, the alchemist’s laboratory and the contemporary artist’s studio or performance gallery. The actions, the terms and the materials may not all be the same, but the terminology, the processes, the contents and essences are all familiar to us.
* * * * * * * * * *
[“All art is founded on faith, and inevitably the Greek faith in harmonious numbers found expression in their painting and sculpture; but precisely how we do not know. The so-called canon of Polykleitos is not recorded, and the rules of proportion that have come down to us through Pliny and other ancient writers are of the most elementary kind. Probably the Greek sculptors were familiar with a system as subtle and elaborate as that of their architects, but we have scarcely any indication as to what it was. There is, however, one short and obscure statement in Vitruvius that, whatever it meant in antiquity, had a decisive influence on the Renaissance. At the beginning of the third book, in which he sets out to give the rules for sacred edifices, he suddenly announces that these buildings should have the proportions of a man. He gives some indication of correct human proportions and then throws in a statement that man’s body is a model of proportion because with arms or legs extended it fits into those ‘perfect’ geometrical forms, the square and the circle. It is impossible to exaggerate what this simple-looking proposition meant to the men of the Renaissance. To them it was far more than a convenient rule: it was the foundation of a whole philosophy. Taken together with the musical scale of Pythagoras, it seemed to offer exactly that link between sensation and order, between an organic and a geometric basis for beauty, which was (and perhaps remains) the Philosopher’s stone of aesthetics.”]
[Below are the proper citation forms for a book by a single author in a list of references; and three varieties of in-text citations.– “Learn them, know them, live them.”] [Reference Page Entry
Clark, K. M. (1956). The nude: a study in ideal form. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- According to Clark (1956), [Insert the paraphrased material].
- [Insert the paraphrased material] (Clark, 1956).
- Clark (1956) stated, “[Insert the quotation]” (p. 15).]
“…it is simply a fact …that poets and artists who are dealing every day of their lives with the feeling –as well as thought-values of their own imageries of communication, are endowed with a developed organ for the understanding of myth that is too often lacking in the merely learned; so that when the artist or poet is also learned, he may be a more dependable guide to the nuclear themes of a given mythic complex, and a much more profound interpreter of their relevance to life, than even the most respected of its specialized academic elucidators” ( Campbell 309).
If we read enough about mythology, or systems of mythological beliefs, including alchemy, astrology and tarot, we begin to see the same sorts of ideas and images appearing over and over again. We always have a sense of the great antiquity of these ideas and the images that represent them, but we can never quite be sure which are the oldest, and what their exact place of origin is. If we look for example at the origins of a traditional deck of cards, or of the games of chess, we find that no one is quite certain. There are specific points in history where we will notice that decks of cards, card games and chess games are referred to in historical or literary records.
Why we play games may be obvious, why the images resident in those games are analogous to each other, and why they still resonate in us, is not so obvious. The association between decks of playing card and the chess board is readily apparent at least on its face. There are “court cards” and “court pieces”; there are “counting cards” and “pawns”. We can easily see the correspondences between a King and a King, Queen and a Queen and a “Jack” or “Knave” and a “Knight” [the Bishop, and Rook or Castle are not as easily identified but have associations or parallels as well—but perhaps with the Major Arcana or Trumps of the Tarot, and not with ordinary ‘playing cards’.]
The colors that dominate both games [at least in the West] are black, white and red. These colors have long been associated with esoteric traditions, the cults of the Goddesses, Egyptian art and Mythology, and many other traditional belief systems around the world. Some of the arguments are readily apparent, and some are considerably more subtle. Our approach here must be to try to make the subtle more explicit, and to soften the sharp edges of the obvious. Why for example, is an ancient Celtic gaming board considered one of the thirteen legendary “Treasures of Briton”? The board itself shares its name with the game that is played on it: Gwyddbwyll is a Welsh name that translates roughly to “Wood-sense” or “Wood-knowledge”.
The rules are disputed by scholars of the Welsh texts and gaming historians alike; but the thrust of the game seems to have been a contest between a King and a few defenders, versus a larger, opposing force. The King and his Defenders started at the middle of the board—the opposition at the corners, or centers of each side (variously). The numbers of the defending pieces vary from four to eight plus the king, and the attackers (roughly double either number, minus the king). The board itself is said to represent the Land (Kingdom), and the principle contestants are always the sitting king and an otherworldly king. The game itself “belongs” to the Empress—a representative of the Goddess Sovereignty (to whom the Kings of Britain have long been ‘wed’, a by whose auspices they rule.)
“Sovereignty” has a dual meaning; the goddess Sovereignty has a triple nature, represented by her three colors: White, (Maiden) Red,(Matron) and Black, (Crone). I see the game as a representation of the endgame in chess. All of the powerful pieces have been captured, and the king struggles to win a stalemate (surviving thirty moves, by rule; or exhausting his opponent, by agreement). There are differences: in gwyddbwyll the king may capture pieces, and may not be captured—only trapped. The king can ‘win’ by reaching one of the corner squares of the board without being immobilized. The game, in legend is played to determine serious matters of Sovereignty (Matthews 87). That the board has been said to be made of gold, and the men of silver, probably doesn’t refer to actual boards and pieces, but to the symbolic or mytho-poetic importance of the game itself.
Caitlin Matthews book Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain: King and Goddess in the Mabinogian (1989), is scholarly and authoritative on the Matters of Britain, and the many roles and guises of Sovereignty. The material is dense and multi-layered; I will try to do some justice to it here, in service to the ‘greater picture’ of our “Oldest Stories” and how they resonate with us today—through what is left of them in our Astrology, Tarot Decks, Playing Cards, and (here, especially) the game of Chess. [And the discussion of chess and the Welsh myths will undoubtedly lead us back through the deck of playing cards, and to the ‘trumps’ of Tarot.] Matthews notes the possible connection between the two games and even the similarities between the folk histories surrounding the mythical Kingship of Arthur; the two opposing forces, the two games or battles and the various game pieces or mythical players.
“These two sets of messengers may represent the different moves that were possible upon the gwyddbwyll board: a game which no one has yet reconstructed. Owain’s messengers in their tents may remind us of rooks or castles, while Arthur’s messengers may seem identical with the knights of modern chess, but there can be no such identification, since the two games are culturally far removed from each other” (100-101).
The association is not exact (as Matthews points out) but is perhaps analogous (i.e., “close enough” to invite the comparison). For our purposes here, we don’t need an exact match, we need only wonder why two or more diverse cultures would attach such importance to two games that are so similar and that play similar (symbolic) roles?
If Matthews is too cautious in her comparison, Marie-Louise Franz (the most important student of Karl Jung and founder of the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich) is explicit in hers:
“In ancient China, sometimes the emperor would play chess with his head general; the moves were noted and those of the winner were taken as military tactics, for in them the victory was thought to be prefigured.[her note omitted] The chess game was considered an earthly enactment of the ‘battles’ of the stars in heaven, what we call in our language the archetypes. The Celts, too, were familiar with the divinatory chess game before a battle. This was seen as a mixture of predestination and the free will of men” (265-266).
The Black and White squares of the board itself are thought to be representative of the “good” and “evil” dichotomy that exists in most major religious systems, but is perhaps most akin to the split energies of Gnosticism and Alchemy. In most theories or systems of Gnosticism, the Universe is created by an Evil God, and is Ruled by a Benign God, or vice versa. The exact nature of each is not really important, just that there are two and that they are opposed—and that harmony results from the act of bringing the opposites together in mystical (or actual) union. It seems that for whatever reason the principle processes of the Alchemist are heat and sex. Of course, in the broader view, both heat and sex are analogies—they stand in for ‘process’ or processes that is or are unknown and perhaps unknowable.
In other words, the alchemist knows that matter must be transformed, that a process must be involved, but doesn’t know what that process is… It has long been thought, or imagined that fire transforms what it consumes. It has also long been noted that sex has both immediate and long term possibilities for transformation—both emotional and physical. As we have seen, one of the ‘magical processes’ of the alchemist is the ‘conjunctio oppositorum’ or ritual sex with his “mystic soror”. Ritualized sex preceded alchemy by several millennia, and indeed is a part of almost every cosmology. On a very simple level then, the black and white squares of the chess board symbolize a mystical, sexual union that is also implied by the partnerships between and rivalries among the Kings and Queens.
In the Celtic version of the game, the Queen, is missing from the board, the pieces ‘play’ or ‘move’ themselves, and the King is chosen by the Queen as her ‘defender’ and ‘champion’; and the Raven’s (pieces or men) of the unseen King (often the Otherworldly King) are all pretenders. The King in the traditional game is always passive—until the endgame; the king in Celtic Chess is always active—and arguably the most aggressive player in the game (capable of both defense and offense, simultaneously). The raven is a bird identified with the goddess Sovereignty; it is often her messenger and most often signifies doom for the opposing force. On the more esoteric level, the King is the chosen champion of Sovereignty, and the attacking Ravens are her servants—thus reinforcing the idea that the game is a challenge or a test of wills and character, not an actual battle. The outcome is still uncertain, despite the fact that all of the players are more or less on the same team. …
As Matthews points out, the Kings of Britain are wedded to the Goddess herself, and thus to the land itself—this reinforces the interpretation of the chessboard as emblematic of physical union (sex). The “dark” and “light” pieces or men, reflect the relationship of his vassals to the kings and to the land to which he is mystically wed. There can of course be only one true king (at any time—although Sovereignty can ‘change her mind’ and her champion, should the need arise) and the one true king must always have a foil. The king’s foil is often his Mirror-Self: thus the kings and all of the pieces are identical—except for their dark and light natures or ‘colors’. One player “wins” not so much by overpowering or outmaneuvering his opponent, but by reconciling his darker or lighter nature to himself. This is, I think the ‘great lesson’ of the Welsh myths of the Goddess Sovereignty—the Hero’s quest and perhaps too the ‘secret strategy’ for war, business and the games of chess as well: If we think of the opponent as other, we will lose more often than not; if we think of the other as an estranged part of ourselves, we cannot lose.
The King’s prize for winning is his mystical union with the Goddess. Now, the more subtle part of the argument includes and extends the Chinese notion of the game representing the battle played-out in the heavens. Most mythical systems have astrological associations—constellations or groups of visible stars are recognized as various heroes or creatures that are in some way significant. The Chinese system is unfamiliar in the west, and the more familiar Greek system really belongs to the Babylonians. What we need to look at, I think is the habit of recognizing iconic figures from stories, myths and fables, in the night sky, that is shared to one degree or another in many cultures. What I am looking for in particular is the record in the sky of specific stories that retain some resonance in the mythic record over time, from one culture to the next.
For example, not too many people recognize the twins of Gemini as Castor and Pollux—the one mortal son (of Tyndareus and Leda) and the other immortal son (of Zeus) and Leda; that they were born or hatched from a single egg and “died” or “half-died” at Troy. (Castor was killed in battle—Pollux was immortal –so the twins spend half of their time in the underworld of the dead, and half of their time with the immortals on Olympus. The other egg hatched Helen and her twin Clytemnestra…. Helen, as you’ll remember was the whole reason –almost—for the Trojan War in the first place….) If we reflect on other signs of the Zodiac, in several cases, we encounter similar problems. The Zodiac that we are most familiar with has 12 signs and each sign has a characteristic emblem, icon, animal or figure associated with it. These images were based on the system first imagined by the Babylonians and later modified by the Egyptians and Greeks. Mackenzie tells us, in Mythology of the Babylonian People, that the “signs of the Zodiac were fixed in the year 2084 B.C.” [His note omitted.] (322). A few longer quotes—some involving Mackenzie’s references to even earlier texts, are instructive:
“The Babylonian Creation myth states that Merodach, having fixed the stars of the Zodiac, made three stars for each month. [note omitted]. Mr. Robert Brown, jun., who has dealt as exhaustively with the astronomical problems of Babylonia as the available data permitted him, is of opinion that the leading stars of three constellations are referred to, viz.: (1) the central or zodiacal constellations, (2) the northern constellations, and (3) the southern constellations. We have thus a scheme of thirty-six constellations. The ‘twelve zodiacal stars were flanked on either side by twelve non-zodiacal stars’. Mr. Brown quotes Diodorus, who gave a resume of Babylonian astronomico-astrology, in this connection. He said that ‘the five planets were called ‘interpreters’; and in subjection to these were marshaled ‘Thirty Stars’ which were styled ‘Divinities of the Council’…The chiefs of the Divinities are twelve I number to each of whom they assign a month and one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac.’”(307-309).
Mackenzie and Brown are describing what is known as the “Euphratean Lunar Zodiac” which was “the parent of the seven ancient lunar zodiacs which have come down to us, namely, the Persian, Sogdian, Khorasmian, Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Coptic schemes” (309). He tells us also that:
“The three constellations associated with each month had each a symbolic significance: they reflected the characters of their months. At the height of the rainy season, for instance, the month of Ramman, the thunder god, was presided over by the Zodiacal constellation of the water urn, the northern constellation “Fish of the Canal”, and the southern “the Horse”. In India, the black horse was sacrificed at rain-getting and fertility ceremonies. The months of growth, pestilence, and scorching sun heat were in turn symbolized. The “Great Bear” was the “chariot” =”Charles Wain”, and the “Milky Way” the “river of the high cloud”, the Celestial Euphrates, as in Egypt it was the Celestial Nile” (309). [Here I have tried to maintain Mackenzie’s quotation marks, capitalization and so forth, even though it seems to be inconsistent, and should have been cleaned-up by his editors.]
The basic themes I suppose are two: each of the signs of the Zodiac has two companion constellations; and the original Babylonian system predates all others, and may be that from which those others were derived. In addition to these main points, we should note the association of the five planets with the signs as “interpreters”. This last bit seems key, the god associated with the planet “interprets” or “divines” the meaning of the constellation—and presumably can relay that interpretation to a human counterpart on Earth. What is even more important to our discussion here however, are the mythical, imaginary or emblematic associations of the various signs—fortunately Mackenzie provides a chart that I can summarize.
Ares (the Ram) 20th March/Nissan The Laborer or Messenger
Taurus (the Bull) 20th April/Iyyar The Divine Bull of Heaven
Gemini (the Twins) 21st May/Sivan The Faithful Shepherd
Cancer (the Crab) 21st June/ Tammuz Crab or Scorpion
Leo (the Lion) 22nd July/ Ab The big Dog
Virgo (the Virgin) 23rd August/ Elul Ishtar (with grain)
Libra (the Balance) 23rd September/ Tisiri The Balance
Scorpio (the Scorpion) 23rd October/ Marcheswan Scorpion of Darkness
Sagitarius (the Archer) 22nd November/ Chisleu Man-Horse with Bow
Capricornus (the Goat) 21st December/ Tebet Ea’s Goat Fish
Aquarius (the Water Carrier) 19th January / Sebat God (ess) with water urn
Pisces (the fishes) 18th February/Adar Fish tails in canal.
[The Babylonian months are lunar months, they correspond approximately by date with the dates described in part above from the Gregorian Calendar used in the west: Thus Nissan runs from approximately 20th of March to the 19th of April. Not given is the “sign” of Ophiuchus—the Snake Handler; he is probably a representation of Marduk—Merodach –who defeated the primordial serpent/dragon goddess Tiamat and constructed the vault of the heavens from the latter’s carcass. His sign is variously interpreted or interjected somewhere in the latter part of our year—September through December. The reason I mention the constellation here, is that it will prove important later.] The origins of these signs are of course of great antiquity, the date was fixed by Brown’s and others’ computations of the Earth’s wobble on its axis, and then projected backwards.
The story that was told based on the images may be related to one of the oldest myths we have of Ishtar/Inanna’s descent into the underworld to sue for the return of her dead lover from Ereshkigal (Inanna’s sister) the Queen of the underworld. If you have been following my discussion attentively, you might be able to extrapolate from it, my conclusions that the Babylonian Zodiac, the Myth of the two Sister Queens (light Inanna /and/ dark Ereshkigal, the chess board and the various games of chess, and the Trumps of Tarot are all related. The problem is of course that we have some of the pictures, but the all of the words are missing. The story itself, at best seems to have parts missing, or seems to be several stories.
Imagine, for example that you are an archeologist some thousands of years in the future; you and some colleagues stumble upon a library cache of small books. In the books you have what remains of the illustrations of (unknown to you, of course) once popular nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Let’s imagine too that the books seem to have been combined into a series or collection. You don’t realize it, but you have several seemingly related stories (bits of them anyway) with similar characters; so you set about to put them all together—the question remains are they all parts of the same story, or are they similar types of stories related by themes and similar characters, but yet distinct. We can imagine a few specific images from familiar stories to illustrate the point. Let’s assume that the original stories included: “Jack the Giant Killer”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Jack Sprat”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Miss Muffet”…. Because we found the book in a single collection, we assumed that the story was all the same, or that the stories were all related.
So we contrived a list of the characters depicted. We found:
Three young girls (Little Red, Miss Muffet, Gretel)
Three adolescent boys (the first two Jacks and Hansel)
Three “Princes” or “heroes”
[how do we know they are “Princes”? –see Monty Python and the Holy Grail… “How do you know he’s a king?”—“…well, he hasn’t got shit all over him!”]
The Princes from Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella; the Woodsman from Red Riding Hood.
Comic male/female figures –expedient to the plot, but they only show up once or twice in the iconic record: The man with the magic beans; Hansel and Gretel’s Father; Jack Sprat; Grandma; the Fairy Godmother; Various supernumerary Kings and Queens and others….
Villains: The Wolf; The Spider; The two evil Stepmothers; the wicked stepsisters; The Witches and Old Women of Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, the two Giants…. And so forth….
[The list could continue, depending on how detailed you want to be, for our purposes here, this seems to be enough.]
If we look at some of the other images on the pages of the books, still without commentary or captions, we find various castles, cottages, paths in the forest, clumps of trees, clearings in the woods, and other settings or various furnishings that seem to play some sort of role(s) in the stories, and to carry associative meanings, but what meanings and which roles specifically, we can’t be certain.
[Mackenzie validates this search for meaning in fairy tales and nursery stories by recalling the twin children of the Babylonian Moon God and his consort Nin-gala, whom he also relates to Ishtar: “The twin children of the moon were Mashu and Mashtu, a brother and sister, like the lunar girl and boy of Teutonic mythology immortalized in nursery rhymes as Jack and Jill” (53).]
Once we have composed our lists, then we have to sort these images, characters and settings into coherent stories. When we look at the 36 or so constellations of the (ancient) night sky, this is precisely the task we have before us. We are looking at a picture book—with pictures only—the narratives have been lost. We can choose to try to recover the story (ies) in part; or we can develop new stories from the fragments we have. Both approaches are fraught with danger, but are nonetheless compelling from a strictly hypothetical point of view (for entertainment purposes only—please, no wagering!)
If we look at the Zodiac objectively, and working only from the associations of which we are certain, from one source or another, we find
the image of Ishtar/Innana/Virgo,
The Scorpion/Men guardians of the underworld from the Gilgamesh epic,
and the Goat-Fish Familiar of Ea, from the Creation Epic.
We also note, that Ares is associated with a “Farmer” or “Laborer”—a “Plough” and a “Furrow” from various sources;
the Divine Bull is eventually slain by the hero Mithra;
the Scales of Libra are used to judge souls in the afterlife or otherworld by various gods—like Anubis in Egypt, for example.
Aquarius is equated with ‘the Waters of Life’ which can be interpreted variously as blood, semen, spit, water, and ambrosia—depending on the myth—the urn or vessel that contains them is more of a “fountain” or “well spring” than it is a “water jug.”
I always think of the “Waters above and Waters below” of several myths of Genesis–because the sign is symbolized by two wavy lines. [Mackenzie discusses this theme throughout the text, beginning at around page 44-46.]
Also a key: the fact that in Babylonian Myth—as recorded by Mackenzie, the soul enters the world through the sign of Cancer and exits through Capricorn. How this works exactly, is not made explicit, but we can imagine that there are stages or gates (seven in number) that are represented either by the seven spheres of the alchemist (the planets are the guardians) and /or the signs that lay between Cancer and Capricorn (counted inclusively).
On the chessboard the seven gates may be symbolized by the seven squares directly in front of each of the Queens (and King and Court pieces) –counted exclusively. [In the Celtic games it is thought that the ‘king’ starts at the center of a board with nine or seven squares to a side—thus he moves to the corners three or four squares on the diagonal in either direction—counted three (exclusive of the starting point) and four (inclusive of the starting point).
I haven’t substantiated some of these points from the various texts yet, but I will. I know that these points are probably true; I know where the sources can be found for further research or verification—at least of the disputes involved; I’m lazy and on a roll—and will get to it later, so shut up…–please.]
The symmetry of the traditional chessboard emulates that of the body; the symmetry of the body extends to through the temporal realm to the cosmos itself. The King is the physical body, the Queen the mind and soul (Animus, Anima); the bishops are right and left legs, knights the knees, and castles the arms. The pawns can be seen as fingers and toes. As play proceeds, the pieces form complex patterns like the constellations in the night sky. For the ancient Babylonians the ‘as above’ and ‘so below’ connection was made even more explicitly bound to the body itself, as Mackenzie explains:
“ As he made progress in his calculations, the primitive Babylonian appears to have been struck by other details of his anatomy besides his sets of five fingers and five toes. He observed, for instance, that his fingers were divided into three parts and his thumb into two parts only [his long note is omitted here, but it is worth reading]; four fingers multiplied by three gave him twelve, and multiplying 12 by 3 he reached 36. Apparently the figure six attracted him. His body was divided into 6 parts—2 arms, 2 legs, the head, and the trunk; his 2 ears, 2 eyes and mouth, and nose also gave him 6. The basal 6, multiplied by his 10 fingers, gave him 60, and 60 x 2 (for his two hands) gave him 120. In Babylonian arithmetic 6 and 60 are important numbers, and it is not surprising to find that in the system of numerals the signs for 1 and 10 combined represent 60” (310-311).
“In fixing the length of a mythical period his first great calculation came naturally to the Babylonian, and when he undertook to measure the Zodiac he equated time and space by fixing on 120 degrees. His first Zodiac was the Sumerian lunar zodiac, which contained thirty moon chambers associated with the “Thirty Stars” of the tablets, and referred to by Diodorus as “Divinities of the Coucil”. The chiefs of the Thirty numbered twelve. In this system the year began in the winter solstice….” (311).
And further, but more to our point:
“…The later Semitic Babylonian system had twelve solar chambers and the thirty-six constellations.
“Each degree was divided into sixty minutes, and each minute into sixty seconds. The hours of the day and night each numbered twelve.
“Multiplying 6 x 10 (pur), the Babylonian arrived at 60 (soss); 60 x 10 gave him 600 (ner), and 600 x 6, 3600 (sar), while 3600 x 10 gave him 36,000, and 36, 000 x 12, 432,000 years, or 120 saroi, which is equal to the ‘sar’ multiplied by the ‘soss’ x 2. ‘Pur’ signifies ‘heap’ –the ten fingers closed together after being counted; and the ‘ner’ signifies ‘foot’. Mr. George Bertin suggests that when 6 x 10 fingers gave 60 this number was multiplied by the ten toes, with the result that 600 was afterwards associated with the feet (ner). The Babylonian sign for 10 resembles the impression of two feet with heels closed and toes apart. This suggests a primitive record of the first round of finger counting” (312).
[If you want to take off your shoes and socks and try out this counting system—I’ll go in the other room, or take a walk –phone a friend, or go see a movie…. Otherwise keep your socks on and keep reading.] Mackenzie shows the relationship between the Babylonians calculations and the Yuga system in India, including the “Day of Brahma” and the “Kali Yuga” [Actually all four—the Kali, Dvapara, Treta, and Krita Yugas].
What is more important to our discussion is that the Irish and Indian Ages have the
“same colour sequences: (1) White or Silvern. (2) Red or Bronze, (3) Yellow or Golden, and (4) Black or Iron.” And he adds that “The Greek order is: (1) Golden, (2) Silvern, (3) Bronze, and (4) Iron” (313). To this he adds notations that we might recognize from the earlier discussion of Alchemy: “The Babylonians coloured the seven planets as follows: the moon, silvern; the sun, golden; Mars, red; Saturn, black; Jupiter, orange; Venus, yellow; and Mercury, blue” (313).
Mackenzie also relates the numerous associations among the various similar gods of Egypt, Greece, Rome and Babylon, the planets that were named for them and the general idea that the number seven was associated with them. We are also told that they were addressed simply as the ‘sevenfold’ as was the ‘sevenfold’ constellation Orion.
[Mackenzie’s example is not more explicit, but the stars Sirius A and Sirius B appear in that constellation, and figure prominently in the myths of the Dogon people of North Africa—as well as in Ethiopia.]
In short Mackenzie summarizes that the “fates” of mankind were determined by the stars according to the ancients, and that the stars were seen as “gods” even before the gods had names (316-317). This last line is something of a curiosity—at least in its phrasing; one can perhaps think of a time before man knew of the gods….but if we assume the gods were immortal, and presumably eternal—and that they existed long before mankind –and indeed created mankind; how could a man conceive of a time “before the gods had names?”
Someone must have thought about this problem, somewhere along the line. By the time the Hebrew Priests and Scribes had combed all of the “foreign gods and goddesses from their own pantheon (leaving only awkward linguistic traces behind) the god of Moses introduces himself, as Ehyeh Ashur Ehyeh –but only after and as a part of the debate concerning his actual name. The real name of the Hebrew god was known and pronounceable only by the High Priests, and only within the Holy of Holies deep within the temple complex. Ehyeh Ashur Ehyeh is difficult to translate—some Rabbis offer “I am that I am”, or “I am what I will be” or even, “I am what I am becoming”. None of these is of much help—and when “I am” claims to be the god of Abraham and Isaac—the matter hasn’t become much clearer, when we realize that Abraham is from Ur—in Babylon.
Nonetheless, the story survives as a part of the mytho-poetic record for a reason, specifically, to explain the confusion of gods, the conflations of powers and names—and in fact the absence of names altogether at some distant past; a time out of memory, ‘before the gods had names’. Although “Moses” is an Egyptian name—or perhaps epithet or honorific, meaning the “son of…”; Moses’ god tells him in the book of Numbers, when his people are suffering some sort of ailment caused by stinging snakes, to set up a brazen image of a ‘fiery serpent’ in the center of the camp—that ‘they may look on it and be healed’ –the name of the serpent is Nehushtan—the Babylonian messenger of the gods and god of healing….[see Numbers 21: 4-9; esp. 21:6; and also 2 Kings for reference.] So scarcely after god has given Moses the Ten Commandments (only two books later), I am is already telling him to violate one or both of the first two! Babylonian astrology also makes an appearance in the books of Job and Amos, as quoted by Mackenzie (324). I will gloss the first two references with the third:
“…Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion [elsewhere identified as Orion-Nergal] and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night. Amos, v, 8” [5:8]. (324)
We see the association even here in the “Old Testament” and the book of the Prophet Amos, to the “the sevenfold” and in the “sevenfold Orion” from a time before the gods had names. Nergal, by the way—associated by Mackenzie with the constellation of Orion— is the “lord of the great dwelling”, the head of the Pantheon, the god of war, the “raging one” he is symbolized by the Lion—[Leo] he presided over the ‘dead-season’ of summer, was a consort of Ereshkigal, and was so powerful and so feared that the Babylonians did not worship him per se, there was only one temple built and dedicated to him.
[Because speaking the name was to invoke the god and perhaps his wrath—in a sense he became the war god of the Hebrews—who ‘had no name’ or at least a name that could not be spoken!]
In our survey of the mytho-poetic connections among the games of chess, Nergal-Orion is the “Otherworldly” and “Kingly” unseen opponent of the Celtic game—the master of the board itself—against whom all of Sovereignty’s chosen champions must contend
[but Sovereignty is still the possessor of the game—and to some extent the rules]; he is the judge of the living and the dead—and the key to the white and black squares of the board—itself symbolic of ‘the great dwelling’; he who ‘turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night.’ Another aspect of the myth that may drive the games of chess also derives from the ancient Babylonian rivalry between Ishtar (Inanna) and her sister Ereshkigal. Ishtar is an earth goddess [although she seems equivalent to Inanna or “Nin-Anna”—Lady or Queen of Heaven]
and Ereshkigal is the goddess of the underworld. Mackenzie refers to her several times as the Babylonian Persephone. Ishtar and Ereshkigal are in love with the same young shepherd Tammuz. Tammuz spends half of his time on the Earth as a youthful god of spring, and half of his time with Ereshkigal in the underworld among the shades of the dead. Ishtar’s descent through the seven gates, [associations with the dance of seven veils, the seven planetary spheres, seven metals and seven colors etc.— will be shown] begins with her search for him. As it is with many Mythologies, Ishtar’s parentage is doubtful.
She is in some traditions the daughter of the Moon god and his consort—or the Moon goddess and her consort; in other traditions, she is the daughter of the Sky god Anu. For clarity we might look to the parentage of her sister Ereshkigal…. Anu is generally regarded as Ereshkigal’s father—so perhaps the confusion arises because in both cases the mother is uncertain. One of the accounts has Anu assigned a consort , Antum—whom he abandons in favor of conducting various wars on Earth, defending mankind. While on Earth he meets Innin—who in later myth becomes Ishtar. So—we must note that Anu had several consorts—three seem to be most important “Ki”—“Earth”, “Nammu”, and “Uras”; by Ki, he was father of the Annunaki; by Uras, he was the father of Nin’Insinna—the mother of Gilgamesh and teacher of Gudea; Nammu is identified as the primeval sea—or Tiamat—the mother of both Anu and Ki….
[You see what happens when you forget to write things down people!]
As implausible as the genealogies are, they are significant of questions and answers that are easily asked, but inevitably difficult to answer. All creation myths are hopelessly mired in Mothers giving birth to sons—who become Husbands of their Mothers…. [to use an actual Egyptian phrase]. The problem arises because we are trying to understand the beginnings of things in terms that we can understand based on what we know. So when we ask the questions ‘who am I’ –‘how did I get here’ –and ‘what does it all mean’ or ‘how did it all come to be’ we reach various points where understanding, reason and observation necessarily fail us—so we just make it up.
The truths in myths are psychological and not physiological—allegorical and not actual. So If you go looking for the True Eden, Noah’s Arc, a splinter from the True Cross—you’ve simply missed the point; you could more easily find Jack’s Beanstalk—or a wolf who tries to imitate little old grandmas. The lessons of the myths are in the central ‘action’ of the stories, not in the genealogies or in the lists of who begat whom [or even in the lists of laws, taboos and prohibitions!].
Those lists are markers that stamp the story as peculiar to a given people at a given time and place—and nothing more. In the next section, we will look first at the story of the “Black Woman’s Castle”, as retold by Marie-Louise von Franz; and then at the [versions of the] myth of Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld.
[Once again, I will note that the quotes will be extraordinarily long—for which I will not necessarily apologize, since I have already confessed my laziness—and for which I will obtain the necessary permissions should it prove necessary.]
We looked briefly at fables, parables, fairy tales and myths. We (collectively) do not often distinguish among these very effectively; we tend to forget I think that they are in fact different. Fables usually are associated with a kind of folk wisdom or folkloric and unsystematic ‘popular wisdom’. Fables are stories that are told to entertain, the messages are simple and somewhat innocuous; as contributors to the cultural meme or set of memes they are not very successful. Parables are fables—they are usually protracted versions of older and longer versions of well known stories and are presented to summarize one point or another on a given subject. These are an epigrammatic appeal to the authority of an accepted folk-wisdom.
Fairy tales are often synthetic forms of earlier myths—condensed and conflated for local or regional purposes—then broadcast, based on popular appeal or sentiment. Often they have been so stripped of content, so as to render them simple-minded; although, we might argue that the older the fairy tale is, the more mythic content it retains. I would also argue that the more humans are endowed with magical powers, or in possession of magically endowed objects, and the fewer extra-worldly agents that are present in the story, the older and closer the fairy tale is to a myth. As a corollary to this precept however, I would caution, that if we can recognize a specific religion [i.e., especially Christianity] in the imagery of the magical agency we must conclude that the imagery has been corrupted and compromised—and an older belief has been ‘converted’ to something ‘recognizable’ and therefore less powerful.
[In Western and Eastern European myths, for example various Saints or members of the Holy Family will often show up in cameo roles, as a part of much older stories. Sometimes, the myth associated with the saint was stolen from a much older story, although the original heroes and villains of the source story may have been totally supplanted and thus lost to memory. The myth of St. Denis is probably one such story, for example. St. Denis was decapitated by Roman soldiers—for refusing to denounce his faith; and then, according to the myth, picked up his head and carried it for as far as he could—the Cathedral that bears his name is supposed to mark the spot where he eventually dropped his head and his body finally collapsed….]
A myth is not part of a religious system as we normally think of it. Myths were not canonical—there were many versions of the same myth, depending on who was telling the story, where they were telling it, to whom they were telling it, and of course, when it was written down. The myths about various gods exist apart from or ancillary to the religious worship of the gods about whom the myths were told. Religious ritual, for instance, enacts a particular myth or aspect of a myth—but does not contain the entire record of the myths surrounding the observance of the mythic figure at the center of the ritual. The Roman Catholic mass is a ritual observance of the “Last Supper”—it commemorates the meal shared among Jesus and his followers shortly before Jesus was crucified.
The ritual re-enacts the breaking of bread, the sharing of the cup of the “new covenant”; it does not re-enact all of the ministerial elements related elsewhere in the canonical and extra-canonical texts. [The canonical elements of Jesus mythic ministry included healing the sick, giving to the poor, counseling the rich, raising the dead and turning water into wine. The extracanonical elements serve mostly to secure his nature as divine: i.e., creating sparrows out of clay, then animating them, as a small boy—causing a another young boy to fall to his death off of a rooftop—and then bringing the boy back to life at Mary’s insistence…and so forth.] These other ministerial elements are conveyed in the homilies or ‘lessons’ of the mass, which are more didactic and less ritualistic in nature—but nonetheless integral to the Mass itself. Christian myth differs from other mythic systems in that an ‘accepted’ canon of myth is recognized and celebrated, while an ‘extracanonical’ body of myth is excluded and branded as anathema.
As is true of most myths and many fairy tales, the two I have chosen to relate below, exist in other versions—and as we shall see, at some length, the two appear to be related, or at least are of the same genre. Many myths and fairy tales seem to take place on what begins as an ordinary day, but the story, the protagonist and we are soon transformed or ‘bewitched’ into experiencing something extraordinary and eventually otherworldly—thus involving the mediation of , or interference by, otherworldly agents that can restore the ordinary to its preferred, but now perfected, original state. In other words—“happily ever after” is a somewhat better version of the situation as it existed, “once upon a time”, for the central figure of the story, and by extension, for us.
Von Franz begins her discussion of the Black Woman’s Castle myth with an explanation of the similarities between myths (or fairy tales) and an individual’s dreams. In her discussion, she sets forth the idea that the dreaming self stands in approximate relation to the actions or sequences of actions in her dream, as the waking self exists in relation to the actions or sequences of actions in myth. The circumstances surrounding the dreamer in her waking life are a place to start when interpreting her dreams, but the dreams can be interpreted without these conditions as a point of reference; and further, it is this type of interpretation that we are engaged in when we interpret myths. Von Franz writes:
“One would have to interpret the dream purely on its own ground, without any reference point ‘outside’ the unconscious material. And indeed the mythologem is actually the form taken on by an unknown event, which is played out full within the collective unconscious itself, purely between archetypal contents” (176).
She continues by explaining that there must be events or factors that exist as a “trigger causing this particular psychic process and not another to appear as a sequence of images on the threshold of consciousness”(176). Because the content of dreams and that of myth behave in similar ways, can be understood or interpreted by similar means, “the roots of the mythologem are, mutatis mutandis, the same as those in dreams observable in individuals [her note omitted]”(176). Von Franz gives us four or five categories into which the roots of myth may fall. I count them as three or four, because some of her categories are so heavily dependent upon, or elucidate others. The first category is of dominant religious or philosophical ideas and associated images [which includes perhaps, counter or compensatory images: her examples of Christianity as a dominant religion, and Alchemy as a compensatory alternative form of that myth, is apt (177) ; the second, are ideas and images that are the result of creative unconscious processes; the third [remember that I am summarizing here, and combining her points into more general categories] is a category of those images and ideas that are “unconscious reactions to physical and psychic environmental conditions” (177). Of particular interest to me, and to us in this present study, are those ideas and images associated with the second category [her third], of which she writes:
“He [Jung] showed in that work [Aion] that, at the time of the changing of so-called astrological ages [note omitted] something like a creative moment in the collective unconscious occurs, which is manifested in historical time, inter alia, as synchronicity phenomena. It would be rewarding for a scholar of mythology to attempt an ordering of myths in terms of such ‘ages’” (177).
We can, for example establish the date [at least as a range of dates] of the night sky at the time the Babylonian Zodiac was set, some 4500 years ago; it seems considerably more difficult (as described previously) to associate specific myths with that specific time. However, we may find that certain enduring mythologems belong to a ‘nexus’ of similar motifs, persist quite apart from our ability to locate their exact origins or by date or by culture. This is in fact von Franz’ fifth or “further” consideration, following from her enumeration of the categories she provided. We are currently only seeking the possibilities for connections among and between the various myths and their more tangible representations; we need not accomplish these connections by date, but simply by association and through an iconographic interpretation.
Von Franz also presents us with a set of interesting caveats or qualifications which might guide our inquiry going forward. She provides that:
“…on the one hand, every single archetypal image occurring in a mythologem is a latent representation of the whole, and on the other, the just-so-ness emerging from the sequence of the many images is also a whole.”
To this she adds:
“Accordingly, through amplification of the individual images, on the one hand, and the meaning of the entire context grasped as a unity, on the other, one arrives at two complimentary results—results that are mutually exclusive logically [note omitted] but which nevertheless represent the best possible description of a ‘transcendent’ reality [note omitted]” (179).
Where we begin our interpretation, tells our readers or listeners more about us than about the story we are interpreting. [This is one way to summarize what von Franz is telling us, and she makes a similar point.] Von Franz advises us therefore, that we should consciously decide where to begin, and to tell our readers where we began (if not also why) so that they can take our ‘jumping-in point’ into account, as they read our interpretation (179-180). As von Franz retells the myth or Fairy Tale, and later interprets it for us, her presentation and interpretation are expansive; as I represent her telling of the story and offer my own limited comparisons, my efforts are perhaps “reductive”, but enough of the original content will remain in both or all of these, so that the integrity of the mythologems are not compromised, thus the transcendent nature of the myth will stay intact.
In The Black Woman’s Castle
As told by: Marie-Louise von Franz,
[based, according to her note on “Fairy Tales from the Danube Valley” in the Collection of F. van der Leyden and P. Zaunert (eds.), and found in Fairy Tales of World Literature, Jena: Diederichs Verlag, 1926 pp.92ff. Re-told by her ‘a shortened form’; abbreviated here somewhat by me—as indicated, for brevity. I have also broken up her block of text to make it easier to read….]
“Once upon a time there was a crofter (Keuschlegger) [note omitted] who had seven children. When his oldest daughter was twelve years old, he wanted to find her a place as a maidservant, so he packed up her clothes and set out with her. As they were going along the road, a wagon without any horses drawing it came toward them and stopped in front of them. It was completely black, and a woman who was just as black looked out of it and offered to take on the girl as a maid. She gave the father some money and promised him a further sum if he brought the girl back to the same spot in eight days. ‘If she’s a good girl, things won’t go badly for her,’ she said.
After eight days she took the girl off with her to a castle in the forest and showed her to a little room right next to the entrance. The black woman told her that if in that room she thought of anything she wanted, that thing would immediately appear before her. She also gave her the keys to the house, which had a hundred rooms. Each day the child was to sweep and tidy up one of the rooms, all except for the hundredth. ‘If in three years,’ the black woman said, ‘you haven’t gone into the forbidden room, your fortune will be made.’ At first the ‘wench’ followed these instructions, but fourteen days before the end of the three years, she could no longer contain her curiosity, and she unlocked the hundredth room.
There she saw ‘the woman inside; but she was already completely white except for the tips of her toes, which were still black.’ Quickly the girl slammed the door shut and ran to her room, but the woman was already there, and she asked her if she had been in the hundredth room. In spite of the black woman’s horrifying threats, the girl lied steadfastly and said she hadn’t been there. Then suddenly she was in the middle of a wild forest, wretchedly dressed and with nothing to eat and nothing to drink. ‘There she stayed for a while.’
Nearby in the royal capital, the young king was dreaming that he should get up, go hunting, and whatever he found, he should love like himself. When the dream had repeated for the third time, he finally obeyed. His hunters found the girl in a cave, the king fell in love with her, brought her home, and soon made her his wife. A year later she gave birth to a wonderfully beautiful little boy. But the third night after that, unexpectedly, the black woman came to her and said, ‘Now you are queen. You have your child, and now I am asking you, were you in the hundredth room?’ ‘No, no,’’ said the young queen. ‘I’ll take your child away, and you’ll go deaf.”[the black woman threatened her] Still the queen kept up her denial. The black woman disappeared with the child, and the queen went deaf. This happened twice more. Again and yet again the black woman took a child, and the queen also became dumb and blind.
For a long time already, the king’s mother had been angry; now she persuaded the king that his wife was a witch and child murderer. And after the third disappearance of a child, the king heeded her and condemned his wife to be burned at the stake. She was already at the stake and the fire was about to be lit when all of a sudden a black wagon came driving up, in which sat the black woman, holding the three children. She approached the queen and said, ‘Now I am asking you for the last time. You’re about to be burned. Were you in there or not?’ But this time, too, no was the answer. And hardly had the queen said it when the strange woman turned completely white like snow and said, “All right go back up to the castle. Everything is again now as it was before. I already know you were not in there; you only looked inside. If you had once said that you were inside, I would have reduced you to dust and ashes. Now you have completely redeemed me. The castle is yours, and she who has slandered you shall be burned at the stake.’ So the king’s evil old mother was burned as a witch, and the young royal couple with their three princes lived happily ever after” (180-182).
The numerological aspects present themselves almost immediately, because we are told that the crofter had seven kids. As von Franz points out eight is a doubling of four, and is a number usually associated with completion and self awareness. The number four appears throughout the story, as does some version of the number three, the number most often associated with the Great Goddess, and the Goddess Sovereignty. In fact the trinities of most great religions owe their number to the earlier belief system. The Christian tradition could not be a quaternary system of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, perhaps due to the prevalence of the other ‘cults of the goddess’ that competed with Christianity early-on.
Mary, Isis and Ishtar all belong to Father-Mother-Son trinities, and the association would have been (probably was) irresistible to converts to the “new religion”. In addition, Mary, Isis and Ishtar share the epithet the “Queen of Heaven” and various associations with the sea, in the iconography, literature and cult observances dedicated to them. In The Castle of the Black Woman, we are told nothing of the mother—her place is usurped by the Black Woman, and by the young wench; these two characters represent two aspects of the triune goddess: Maiden, Matron and Crone. The missing matronly aspect will eventually be assumed by the young woman as she marries the king and bears him three sons. The young Queen will also eventually take the place of the Black Woman, as she returns to the castle at the end of the story, to live happily ever after.
The question that bothers me, coming out of the story is how did the young girl, now a queen, now wife has and mother of three, “redeemed” the Black Woman? Didn’t she lie about being in the hundredth room? Well, it is true that she only looked in, but how is that better than going in? I suppose it could be argued that she only ‘half-transgressed’ in that she opened the door but did not go into the room. We should note, as does von Franz, that she is tested four times or questioned four times by the Black Woman; this reinforces the idea of process and completion, as signified by the number four, but it still seems like the prohibition was violated. Then, we must wonder if standing at the threshold is the equivalent of passing over it? In other words the trial can’t begin until the door is open, once the door is open; the test becomes then, the questions and the answers. We might also argue that the prohibition was not related to what the girl might see once the door was open, only to the act of crossing over the threshold without the questions of her ‘guide’ the Black Woman.
The Black Woman assures the girl, at the end of the story that had she given the wrong answer, she would have been ‘reduced to dust and ashes’. We still have no idea what the penalty might have been, had the girl entered into the room.
So, the transformation of the girl into the Black Woman of the Castle is complete after four reiterations of the ‘truth’, and a partial transgression…. It is a very particular and peculiar set of conditions. I will leave the reader to play with most of the various meanings, themes and other associations at least for now. I want to play with the transformation of the two main female characters. [I don’t count the king’s evil old mother—she is important, but that’s another story….] In the room, once the door is open, the girl sees the woman there—she is pure white except for her toes…. The redemption is not yet complete; once the girl completes her transformation, the Black Woman is fully redeemed, and turns pure white. The girl/ Queen takes the Black Woman’s place at the Castle, with the assurance that ‘everything is as it was before’—to me, that’s not a very ‘happy’ happily ever after. It seems to me, that [in the logic of mythology and fairy tales] the Black Woman has been redeemed only by finding someone else worthy enough to take her place—as another Black Woman of the Castle—who will have to find yet another worthy [a “good girl”] girl to take her place, in her turn….
[Consider for example a correlation from Celtic –in this case Scottish myth of the Cailleach Bheur, made by Mackenzie, quoting from Kuno Meyer’s book Ancient Irish Poetry—who has “’seven periods of youth one after another, so that every man who had lived with her came to die of old age, and her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races.’” Mackenzie continues the thought after his quote: “When old age at length cam upon her she sang her ‘swan song’, from which the following lines are extracted:
[I’ve included only the last two, which sound very much like the Black Woman’s “redemption”]
“…I must take my garment even in the sun:
The time is at hand that shall renew me”
(Meyer’s source is as quoted in Mackenzie; and with Mackenzie’s remarks included, the entire passage I quoted spans pp. 101-102).]
What if we looked at the story in the light of what we have learned so far about the game of chess? The Games are between otherworldly and worldly opponents; the board has 8 x 8 squares—similar to the eight day waiting period, multiplied by the man and his seven children. And the Black Woman’s transformation is from Black to White; the Girls transformation is (presumably) White to Black…. In a sense, the two compliment each other to the extent that they cancel each other out. Or we could extend the earlier analysis and see one as a part of the other, that is our proxy self. The pieces of the chess board are represented perhaps by the father and his seven children; or we could see the same image as Mother Earth and the seven planets.
If we see the girls father as one king, and the king (the girls husband) we must still explain the evil old woman—the king’s mother, who is another Queen…. The Black Woman is roughly equivalent to the ‘otherworldly’ king of the Gwyddbwyll board games—she is more or less the other worldly agent that plays the game (where the pieces move themselves) The Old evil Queen –the King’s mother is the ‘captured’ or ‘conquered’ queen in the game. And the girl/ Queen/ Matron is our proxy self…. Just as Gwyddbwyll only approximates part of the earlier and more ancient game of Chess, the story of the Black Woman and her Castle, only approximates the game, and perhaps also the earlier myths of redemption, transformation and symbolic substitutions.
In the older myth, the Descent of Ishtar/Inanna, I think we will find that many of the players appear the same, but although the basic plot is compellingly similar, the points of comparisons are not exact in their details…. [I’m not going to connect all of the dots for you…. Maybe there are no connections; maybe there are just strings of colorful coincidences, complete with quirky characters…. Jung might call it synchronicity—or Piaget an association of (cognitive) dissonances, but I think these things belong to that group of ideas and images that lie dormant in the subconscious mind or the collective unconscious—awakened only in part, from time to time (not necessarily at the start of a new astrological age,) and only by chance.
These instant memories belong to all of us, only most of us just don’t ask the right questions when we stumble across them. At the very least, we can enjoy the occasional hypothetical exercise that takes us beyond mere speculation and into the deeper realms of the psyche. The images and people we find there, the ones that resonate with us most, the furnishings we find the most pleasing, and the situations we find most alarming or reassuring—are often much the same—for all of us. They are the people, things and images from a time out of memory, at once strange and familiar; the self annihilating or self fulfilling promises and prophecies; the many dying and resurrecting gods and demons of and in stories never told to us at bedtime, and experienced only in our dreams and in our works of art.
First, we should look at a brief list of the players, as described by Mackenzie; and with the first, Tammuz, we will discover the complexities and contradictions apparent in the myths, and the need for a re-crystallization of the characters and their stories. Mackenzie doesn’t organize his book as a standard catalog of deities and powers; he presents the material in serial snippets that correspond with and further elucidate points of comparison of one god to, or among other gods, and within other cultural references. [In other words, we shall have to do the best we can to piece together a coherent narrative from what he has provided. I am not suggesting that Mackenzie’s account is flawed or incomplete, just complex to a point of incoherence.] Consider the following account first:
“In Babylonia the agricultural myth regarding the Mother goddess and the young god had many variations. In one form Tammuz, like Adonis, was loved by two goddesses—the twin phases of nature—the Queen of Heaven and the Queen of Hades. It was decreed that Tammuz should spend part of the year with one goddess and part of the year with the other. Tammuz was also a Patriarch, who reigned for a long period over the land and had human offspring. After death his spirit appeared at certain times and seasons as a planet, a star or constellation. He was the ghost of the elder god, and he was also the younger god who was born each year” (xxxvi).
The important bits to remember from this account are 1) Tammuz is loved by both Ishtar and Eresh-ki-gal; 2) he is a ‘dying and resurrecting god/king’; 3) after ‘death’ he appears as a star, planet or constellation. I skipped past the part of the story where he became the ‘Husband of his Mother’ –but that is relevant in this and in many ancient myths, because it explained how the next generation of gods came to be, with so few players on the scene. The story is also part of the dying and resurrecting god/king myth; the sun and moon are consorts of the earth and chase each other throughout the year—each taking turns being sired, born, then slaying or slain by the other, in correspondence with the cycle of Solstices and Equinoxes.
We should also note that none of these myths describes an actual situation, person or god — they are explanations that tend to anthropomorphize events, so that they can be told, remembered and then re-told in ‘human terms’. Of course in Egypt, the DNA records seem to be showing, in part that intra dynastic marriages patterned after the intra familial pairings of gods, seems to have significantly weakened the gene pool. Perhaps this was due to the considerable ‘remove’ of history from the times out of memory; perhaps it was only the result of a too literal reading of the myths. We cannot be sure. By comparing accounts concerning similar gods, from different eras, we can sometimes gain additional insights, as Mackenzie demonstrates in the following passage:
“The myth regarding the father who was superseded by his son may account for the existence in Babylonian city pantheons of elder and younger gods who symbolized the passive and active forces of nature.”
[and as he continues in the next paragraph….]
“Considering the persistent and cumulative influence exercised by agricultural religion it is not surprising to find, as has been indicated, that most of the Babylonian gods had Tammuz traits, as most of the Egyptian gods had Osirian traits. Although local or imported deities were developed and conventionalized in rival Babylonian cities, they still retained traces of primitive conceptions. They existed in all their forms—as the younger god who displaced the elder god and became the elder god, and as the elder god who conciliated the younger god and made him his active agent; and as the god who was identified at various seasons with different heavenly bodies and natural phenomena. Merodach, the god of Babylon, who was exalted as a chief of the National pantheon in the Hammurabi Age, was, like Tammuz, a son, and therefore a form of Ea, a demon slayer, a war god, a god of fertility, a corn spirit, a Patriarch, and world ruler and guardian, and, like Tammuz, he had solar, lunar, astral, and atmospheric attributes. The complex characters of Merodach and Tammuz were not due solely to the monotheistic tendency: the oldest deities were of mystical character, they represented the “Self Power” of Naturalism as well as the spirit groups of Animism” (xxxvii).
This last bit should remind us of von Franz’ discussion of the “self power” and “spirit groups” represented and evident in the story of the Black Woman of the Castle. Our way of reading, following von Franz, the number eight in all of its forms, is as a symbol for the ‘empowerment of the individual’ or the ‘coming of age’ of the girl in the story. [James Hillman, another prominent student of Jung, would call this ‘self power’ “ensoulment”. The “spirit groups” are for Hillman, von Franz and Jung, no doubt, the personal totemic personal deities that inhabit the psyche, rather than the unseen agents that populate the forests, or that propel mysterious black wagons.]
We must suspend our discussion of the male gods for the moment and consider the conflict between the two queens or female gods. The mythic descent of the queen of heaven to the court of her sister the queen of the Babylonian underworld is a story that seems to have been recorded in the iconography of the Zodiac, the games of chess and the Trumps of Tarot. But before (presumably) any of these developments, the story was a series of complicated myths. The first and oldest of the myths always relate the imagined shift of power from chaos and chaotic forces, to order and hegemony. Arguably, the price of order is domination, control and the subservience of man to the gods. [But I am getting ahead of the story.] Mackenzie wrote:
“The Babylonian chaos spirits, Apsu and Tiamat, the mother and father of the gods, resolve to destroy their offspring, because they [the offspring] begin to set the Universe in order. Tiamat, the female dragon, is more powerful than her husband Apsu, who is slain by his son Ea. She summons to her aid the gods of evil, and creates also a brood of monsters—serpents, dragons, vipers, fish men, raging hounds, &c. –so as to bring about universal and enduring confusion and evil. Not until she is destroyed can the beneficent gods establish law and order and make the earth habitable and beautiful.”
“But although Tiamat was slain, the everlasting battle between the forces of good and evil was ever waged in the Babylonian world. Certain evil spirits were let loose at certain periods, at they strove to accomplish the destruction of mankind and his works. These invisible enemies were either charmed away by performing magical ceremonies, or by invoking the gods to thwart them and bind them” (64-65).
Babylonian myth, like Egyptian and Indian mythic systems, existed over the course of millennia, and thus countless retellings. These systems are at once complicated and yet apparently, but deceptively simple. One can easily become sidetracked in a minor theme which seems familiar and is therefore compelling—as, for example, in a brief encounter with the biblical figure of Lilith, Adam’s ‘first wife’—according to Talmudic interpretations of the Rabbis—one of many exegetical traps one might fall into when mining the depths of complex mytho-poetical ideological systems. What we should glean from the passages above is fairly simple, for now. We should note that Chaos preceded Order, but also ‘gave birth’ to it, and later sought to destroy it— for coming into being. [Or for ‘just being itself”! as they say…] We should also note, that Tiamat, the feminine chaotic principle, is stronger than Apsu, the masculine chaotic principle; and that the masculine chaotic principle is slain by his son, the masculine principle of order.
This latter part of the story, reiterates an earlier part of this discussion we have already visited some of the stories concerning younger gods who overturn the older gods, and then become elevated to their status. This is a kind of generational warfare that is at play in Freudian analysis as well as in the human psyche, and during the course of which or in its aftermath –as Freud says– ‘we must all bury our fathers’. Finally, at least here, we must note that whatever the motivation, it seems that “She started it!”; Tiamat the feminine chaotic principle set the battle into motion and the struggle between good and evil, order and chaos continues even to this day…. Tiamat is not slain by Ea—her son, but by her grandson Merodach—who later will fashion the physical universe (sky and Earth—Mackenzie pp. 145-147.) from her spent carcass. This story, as far as I can tell is consonant with the constellation Ophiuchus—the tamer or handler of the serpent. The constellation is generally depicted (if at all) by a bearded figure and two segments of a snake—the head and tail…. Tiamat is too terrible to describe or to depict, but she is often referred to at least analogously as a Sea Monster—a snake-like “dragon” creature, drakon (Greek), the Anglo-Saxon ‘fire-drake’ or even as the Leviathon (157). Mackenzie tells us:
“Then the lord of the high gods split the body of the dragon like that of a mashde fish into two halves. With one half he enveloped the firmament; he fixed it there and set a watchman to prevent the waters falling down. [Mackenzie’s note says the reference is to the waters above.] With the other half he made the earth. [Note omitted] Then he mad the abode of Ea in the deep and the abode of Anu in the high heaven. The abode of Enlil was in the air” (147).
We should note too, that after Tiamat is slain, her army of demons was thwarted—they scrambled and tried to get away, but Merodach casts his net over them, broke their weapons and their wills—and from the god Kingu (a son and later consort of Tiamat), he took the tablets of fate, that were given to him by Tiamat (146). From this seizure or power taking, we should note especially, that the tablets of fate were in Merodach’s possession as he set the stars and constellations in the sky (147). We have already seen how he divided the year into twelve months, assigned three stars to each, and 30 lunar chambers…. There has been very little written (that I have found so far—that is credible) about the tablets of destiny. We know who has them (Merodach), but not how many there are or what secrets they hold. The presumption often has been (implicitly or explicitly) that somehow the tablets of destiny or fate were somehow transferred or transmitted to those who first transcribed and illustrated the trumps of the Tarot deck.
From what we know so far, we can surmise, that if there is in fact a connection between the trumps and the ancient myth, we should expect that their number (22) is to be read either as 2 x 11 or 2 x (10 + 1) –and that there might be hidden meanings: e.g. 2+2=4 the number of personal perfection, the cardinal directions, 2 equinoxes and 2 solstices, four elements and four corresponding suits of ordinals in the common deck; and also in the number 60, since, as we have seen, the number ‘sixty’ is composed of the Babylonian signs for 10 and 1. We can further hypothesize that since the trumps are twice eleven in number, each subset of eleven might correspond to good and evil forces in perfect balance, as are the 32 white and 32 black squares of the chess board. [There is a conjunction of Mars and Venus every 32 years in the same Zodiacal sign.] We should also not forget that the planet Mercury (Thoth) the messenger of the gods has 22 synodic cycles in 7 years; and 22/7 = PI…. [Venus circles the sun 13 times in 8 years, thus there are 5 synodic cycles in the same period…. And the cycles of Venus trace a pentagon or pentagram in the sky…the star of Venus….every eight years….]
This number is suggestive of the ‘highest ordinary degree’ attainable by members of the Freemasons—the 33rd degree denotes a ‘special mastery’ or secret knowledge not attainable otherwise—thus perhaps, 32+1. In my classes, if the subject arises, I tell my students—regarding the so called secrets of the Freemasons, that it is likely that any secrets they might have once had have long since been dispersed into the mainstream –albeit in a somewhat diluted form—but also that it is far more important for ‘Secret Societies’ to proclaim that they have a secret, than for them to actually possess one….
What else might we surmise from what we know of the myth? I suspect that within each of the sets of eleven cards we should find at least one powerful representative of the feminine principle, The High Priestess and the Empress come immediately to mind. When we consider the trumps more fully in a later section, we will sort out the rest of the associations and oppositions within each of the groupings… for now, we should return to the general discussion, and the descent of Ishtar/ Inanna …Queen of Heaven, and the rivalry with her sister Eresh-ki-gal…Queen of the Underworld
A long passage from Mackenzie will help to introduce the reader to Ishtar and to her sister Eresh-ki-gal:
“Ishtar in the process of time overshadowed all the other female deities of Babylonia, as did Isis in Egypt. Her name, indeed, which is semitic, became in the plural, Ishtarate, a designation for goddesses in general. But although she was referred to as the daughter of the sky, Anu, or the daughter of the moon, Sin or Nannar, she still retained traces of her ancient character. Originally she was a great mother goddess, who was worshipped by those who believed that life and the universe had a female origin in contrast to those who believed in the theory of male origin. Ishtar is identical with Nina, the fish goddess, a creature who gave her name to the Sumerian city of Nina and the Assyrian city of Nineveh. Other forms of the Creatrix included Mama, or Mami, or Ama, ‘mother’, Aruru, Bau, Gula, and Zer-panitu [his note omitted]. These were all ‘Preservers’ and healers. At the same time they were all ‘Destroyers’ like Nin-sun and Queen of Hades, Eresh-ki-gal or Allatu. They were accompanied by shadowy male forms ere they became wives of strongly individualized gods, or by child gods, their sons, who might be regarded as their ‘brothers’ or ‘husbands of their mothers’, to use the paradoxical Egyptian term. …The gods…might die annually: the goddesses alone were immortal” (100-101).
After a great deal of discussion concerning similarities with the other goddesses of love and war, Mackenzie summarizes, regarding Ishtar, that she
“Like Tiamat…is also a great battle heroine, and in this capacity she was addressed as “the lady of majestic rank exalted over all gods”. This was no idle flattery on the part of worshippers, but a memory of her ancient supremacy”(106).
And later in the same discussion:
“Ishtar, as Queen of Heaven, was also adored by the backsliding Israelites as a deity of battle and harvest. [as found in Jeremiah, xliv; Mackenzie’s note.]” (106).
The great antiquity of the creatrix goddess has been well established, as has been her associations with the sun and especially the moon. Whereas the sun may serve as a consort figure, husband of his mother, a brother or a beloved, the moon is seen as an extension of herself, a mother and self re-generating and self-destroying entity. The oldest calendars are of 28 days and thirteen months and were reckoned by the observations of priests (and perhaps even earlier by priestesses) in service of the goddess. In essence the Great Goddess is capable of ‘dying and resurrecting’ once each month, the solar god only mimics this procedure badly, once each year: From Midsummer to Midwinter the sun rises in a slightly different spot on the eastern horizon relative to a static observer. His procession moves southward over the half year, until at midwinter his rise occurs three times in the same spot on the horizon. When we compare this southward march with the ‘vanishing act’ and miraculous daytime appearances of the moon, there can be little wonder that our forebears regarded the moon as magical. Observation would have also confirmed for our ancient ancestors the natural correspondences between the monthly flow of menses and the daily rising and falling of the tides—also linked with the ‘magical properties’ of the moon.
The wholly natural and irresistible tendency would have been for early mankind to link these correspondences either with all women, or with women who were serially marked as somehow in control of the processes within their own bodies, and by extension there from, with all of the observable world: The young woman before or at the onset of menses; the woman during pregnancy and childbirth; and the mature post menopausal woman. The Maiden, The Matron, The Crone—as the three phases of womanhood, must have been seen as mirroring the three phases of the moon: Crescent to Waxing Half; Full; Waning Half. The “new” moon would not have ‘counted’ because there would have been a time before it was fully understood… A more powerful conception would have included the idea that the moon could disappear at will and then seemingly initiate the sequence all over again. As we will see, another possible (and likely) interpretation would present (a perhaps later, more refined version of the myth) or cast Ereshkigal as the Lunar (half-dark/ half-light, ever changing and mysterious) goddess and her sister Ishtar, as represented more completely by the planet Venus.
The introduction of the “Sister Goddesses” Ishtar and Eresh-ki-gal, may well have developed from an early theoretical cosmology in which the moon was conceived as dual natured; i.e. at some point, the moon may have been thought to be beneficent while waxing and sinister while waning—literally a light and dark side of the moon. If we look at the mythological record, this idea seems to be borne out: The maid is almost always innocent, until sexually mature; the sexually mature matron is both motherly and nurturing, but also the goddess of war; the Cailleach or Crone aspect of the Goddess is almost always seen as old, withered, wise, although sometimes she is also evil.
‘Folk wisdoms’ from many traditions attributed to the first appearance of the first sliver of the crescent moon, the most propitious circumstances in which to begin new ventures, for example. The rites performed under the full moon were auspicious, while the dark of the moon was reserved for darker purposes. The putative ‘lunatic’ and ‘bestial’ associations with the full moon were probably a later, medieval and specifically Christian invention, intended to discredit the powerful ritualized associations made by earlier traditions with the moon and its ‘magical’ properties. Certainly if these suspicions and superstitions existed before Christianity, they were greatly magnified and widely disseminated alongside the Christian doctrine. In this same way, all healing that took place outside the sanctioned methods and practices of the Church “Doctors” or prayer, came to be regarded as witchcraft.
We read several rather comical episodes in the Christian Acts of the Apostles, of the New Testament writings of the early Christian Church. Simon Peter squares off against his nemesis Simon Magus, in a kind of “magical pissing contest”; this is in imitation of the earlier “Old Testament” account of Moses versus the ‘Pharaoh’s’ Magicians’. And in fact, all of the “miracles” performed by Jesus during his “ministry” were the standard fare for itinerant healer-miracle workers of the ancient religions. Two things are worth noting about the ancient cults of the mother goddess: First, we don’t have very many accounts in the written record of direct confrontation of one goddess, priestess or Sybil and her magic, versus the powers of another goddess, priestess or Sybil. And, second, the magical powers of creation and restoration natural to women cannot ever be accomplished by men: men will never menstruate, give birth or nurse a child.
In matters of myth and magic at least, if not of the human mind, it seems that Freud got it exactly backwards! Although I suspect that Jung diagnosed this flaw in Freud’s argument, and developed his theory of the psyche as an integration of anima and animus through the downward and inward reflective and reflexive processes of individual consciousnesses, as they express themselves individually and communally. Freud looked to Greek myths to explain some of his great truths of the subconscious mind at work or play; Jung looked to Alchemy and especially the alchemical union of opposites, for his. We are perhaps taking one step further, and one step back to look at myth, astrology, tarot, the games of chess—and in art…for something of their same purpose, albeit without their depth of experience.
The abduction of Eresh-ki-gal/ Persephone may be a way to explain the sudden disappearance of the moon from the sky for the three days, but perhaps this is a later patriarchal interjection into an earlier paradigm. The descent of Ishtar/Inanna is written (or danced) as a contest between the two rival sisters. It is unclear what the exact nature of the rivalry is or was. We know that the two were at one time both interested in the worker Tammuz; sometimes he is a field worker, sometimes a shepherd. Ishtar describes him as the lover of her youth, Eresh-ki-gal doesn’t seem to reference her own relationship with him at all, but once Ishtar has been humbled before her (stripped of her garments and dismembered, a reference perhaps to the waning moon) she simply orders her servant to reassemble Ishtar and to pour the waters of life on both her and Tammuz. (Apparently, according to some versions of the myth, she has been ordered to do so by her Father Anu or is it Enki or Enlil? At some point, I don’ think it really matters, because this part of the story seems to have been a later addition. [In what Universe does a wise father intervene between two quarreling sisters, let alone prevail when having done so?]
Let’s look at the story or stories again, through the lens of the Eurydice and Orpheus myth. We will have to dislodge some of the story we have established so far, even while we retain some key elements. Then, by looking at the sky again, not necessarily at night, but at morning’s first light, we may be able to reconstruct some of the more problematic elements of the myth. Eurydice was abducted by Hades—lord of the underworld (like Eresh-ki-gal) Orpheus plead with Hades to have her released, he charms Hades with music and the Dread lord agrees to let Eurydice follow him out of the underworld, if only Orpheus will not look back to see that she follows him.
Could this myth contain some of an earlier story from Ancient Babylon, although retold from a more paternalistic view? Instead of a story about Eurydice’s abduction, could Eresh-ki-gal have somehow seduced Tammuz to join her in the underworld—during the three days of the new moon? Could Ishtar have then descended to claim her lover? It seems possible. As we know from the Greek myth, Orpheus looks back and Eurydice is lost to him forever. I suggest that in an earlier alternative, maternal version of the myth Tammuz, as the rising sun—follows Ishtar –as Venus, the morning star—out of the underworld, successfully. Since both might have been seen as emerging from the ocean to the west, this would certainly accommodate the idea and image of the ‘waters’ of life having resurrected both of them. The moon and Venus sometimes appear in the sky together—and other times Venus appears to rise just before the rising sun….
Of course, there are other logical associations—perhaps Venus and Mercury, both of which can act as “morning” and “evening” starts; or perhaps the movements of Venus and Mars, in various conjunctions, could have been used to illustrate the story…. For example, even present day astrologers interpret the coincidence of Venus and Mars in the sign of Cancer as a strong sexual and romantic influence in an individual’s natal chart; and many returns to this conjunction, would of course bode well or ill for current and future relationships for those individuals. Consistent with our previous numerological analysis, relative to the importance of such celestial movements and observations, Venus and Mars enjoy cycles of 77 (7 x 11) months, and recurrence cycles every 32 (1/2 of 64) years. All of this is a subject worthy of further study or reflection by people with considerably more knowledge of astrology than I have. I have presented some of the possibilities in outline form, in order to provide a bare framework for the mythological explanations. I will depend on others to determine how useful such an explanation may be…. More important, I think at least for my purposes here, we should note the summary provided by Mackenzie:
“The obvious deduction seems to be that in ancient times women everywhere played a prominent part in the ceremonial folk worship of the Great Mother goddess, while the men took the lesser part of the god whom she had brought into being and afterwards received as “husband of his mother”. This may account for the high social status of women among goddess worshipers, like the representatives of the Mediterranean race whose early religion was not confined to temples, but closely associated with the acts of everyday life” (108).
What we should have gleaned from the discussion so far, are the associations between and among ancient myths, folk wisdoms and fairy stories; the fundamental philosophy that informs the games of chess (i.e., the division of the board into 32 black and 32 white squares, the importance of the “Queen” –the hapless character of the “King”); as well as some remaining numerological and astrological associations that hang in the night sky as if they are the tattered fragments of a once fuller and richer cosmology. In the following section we will begin to apply some of this analysis, to the ideograms of the Trumps of the Tarot deck.
Campbell, J. (1968), The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, New York: Penguin Group. (pp.263-264).
Clark, K. M. (1956). The nude: a study in ideal form. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mackenzie, D. A. (1915) Mythology of the Babylonian People. London: Gresham Publishing Company.
Matthews, C. (1989) Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain: King and Goddess in the Mabinogion. London: Arkana.
von-Franz, M.L. (1997) Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche. London: Shambala