Tangled web

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A book review (via elck) connects Bruegel, the via negativa, Diogenes and Elck:

The book [Jürgen Müller, Das Paradox als Bildform. Studien zur Ikonologie Pieter Bruegels d. í„. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1999] proposes that Bruegel was deeply influenced by the German theologian Sebastian Franck (1499-1542), who was quite popular in the Netherlands during the sixteenthth century (pp. 21-27 et passim)….Franck was an unorthodox protestant thinker, who advocated a negative theology that was against all institutionalization of the Christian faith. An important publication was his book Paradoxa, in which he treats the impossibility to describe God. Each of the 280 chapters of Franck’s book starts with a baffling statement like “Deum nemo novit, nisi Deum” (God knows nobody, only himself), which is then explained as an illustration of the impossibility to define God’s essence with the help of scripture or any other source of knowledge except one’s innermost personal experience. Anything said about God must be wrong, since it is not possible to say anything about something that transcends human language. The only way to speak about Him is to speak in a paradoxical way, i.e in a self-referential way, which makes it impossible to decide about truth or falseness of a statement. A main proposal of Müller’s book is that Bruegel shared Franck’s unorthodox religious views and his opposition to depicting God. Thus Bruegel was faced with the problem of realizing pictures of God in his artistic medium, which he was only able to do by showing what God is not. Consequently, Bruegel would have been forced to think about how to make paradoxical pictures, i.e. pictures which are demonstrations of their own impossibility…..

The book is well written, the author is original, risk-taking and witty, and his criticism of other interpretations is clear and fair. Unfortunately his interpretations are often not fully convincing. One reason for this is the tendency to find more and more allusions and layers of meaning instead of an interpretation which covers all parts of a representation in an uncontradictory way. Elck is linked not only to the iconography of Nobody but also to Diogenes, the Wandering Jew and to the false pharisees.

“More and more allusions and layers of meaning”: sounds like a man after my own heart! False pharisees of the world, unite!

R.N.C. EXCLUSIVE: In like Flynn!

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If anyone’s been wondering how a street person like our friend Diogenes can be blogging the Republican National Convention, I would draw your attention to the fact that he has occupied his current post outside the 34th Street Station for over five months now. Thus, he is right outside Madison Square Garden and knows it like the hairy palm of his hand.

Yesterday afternoon, the unique possibilities of Diogenes’ position impressed themselves upon the imagination of my buddy Elck, he of the vernacular body – a Manhattan resident and sometime journalist of the gonzo/magical realist school. Elck grabbed pen and notepad and hied himself down to the 34th Street Station, where, by sidling through the crowd like a pickpocket, he was able to approach our convention blogonaut unawares and transcribe a few specimens of his live commentary. Whence this Via Negativa exclusive, permitting the bum to hold forth at somewhat greater length than the pauper’s portion usually allotted him in this blog. Elck claims the following exchange was recorded “almost verbatim.”

The New Out: A Madison Square Garden Exchange

Diogenes: Come right in.

Passerby #1: Huh? You’re outside, how can I “come in” outside?

Diogenes: In that case stay in.

Passerby #1: Don’t you mean stay out?

Diogenes: Nope. The ones inside are the ones out.

Passerby #1: Outside? Wha..?

Diogenes: Out. Of. Their. Minds.

Passerby #1: Oh! You mean in there! (points to the building behind Diogenes). Oh, I get it . . .

Diogenes: Yes. Out there. Out of line. Out on a limb. Out of sorts.

Passerby #1: I’ll stay out here then, I guess.

Diogenes: No, vato. You stay in. It’s dangerous out there. In is in. It’s the new out.

(passerby starts to walk away)

Diogenes: Hey! Spare any change?

When I informed Diogenes about this surreptitious “outerview,” he grew indignant and insisted that I balance it with the following exchange, which he maintains is not only “almost verbatim” but also fair and well-balanced. Whatever.

No Shadows

Diogenes: Good morning, sir. Would you mind stepping a little to the left? You’re blocking my sun.

Passerby #2: Ah! Dr. Diogenes, I presume?

Diogenes: At your disservice.

Passerby #2: Shouldn’t you be busy polishing your tub, or something?

Diogenes: Nah, I ditched the thing. Shopping carts are way more practical. If the Persians are gonna launch a terrorist attack, I’ll need the extra mobility and security that only a modern Safeway cart can provide.

Passerby #2: Ah yes, those impertinent Persians! (chuckling) What’s your take on the convention?

(Diogenes barks and growls like an angry cur)

Passerby #2: Oh, come now! No stories?

Diogenes: Well, O.K. Last night, I sat here holding my big, strong flashlight (mimes obscene gesture). As each gaggle of conventioneers emerged, I shone it full on them like a spotlight, acting like I was Billy Crystal at the Grammies. I had a blast.

Passerby #2: Any honest men?

Diogenes: Honesty is the least of their worries. Two out of three didn’t cast a shadow.

Passerby #2: (laughing nervously, edging away) Well, you take care, now . . .

Diogenes: Thanks. How about some spare change, then?

Passerby #2: (sanctimoniously) Change must come from within, my friend.

Diogenes: Exactly. Now cough up some dough, oh purveyor of facile friendship, or I shall announce to this fine crowd of New Yorkers that you are an undercover Republican.

Passerby #2: No! Wait! I left my wallet inside . . .

Update: Beware of Elck’s own spin. Wheels within wheels. The masked man emerges from the inky shadows . . .

Whose moods these are

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This post has had a brief but troubled history. The first time I tried to post it last night, I lost my intranet connection and it disappeared – and for once, I hadn’t saved a copy first. Lesson learned. So, I reconstructed it from memory and posted again. This time, the post appeared, but every other post I’d ever made to Via Negativa, all my archives, disappeared. “Whose moods these are” sat alone on the screen, grinning at me like the goddamned Cheshire Cat. I hit the “edit posts” page: nothing else there. Archives: blank. But all was not lost – my “High points” links all still worked! I clicked around frantically. Finally I went back to the “edit posts” page, hit “display last 300 posts,” and waited. Success! The house of Via Negativa was back to normal (?) again – no sign of that lousy cat in the stovepipe hat! So I clicked on the next-to-most-recent post, “Quiddity,” and hit publish. Long, deep sigh of relief. Off to bed and a night of stress-free dreams. Or so I thought.

This morning, when I published “Words on the street” (“The zombies ate my homework”), the Blogger zombies returned. Oh no! They killed Henry!

Needless to say, I have no idea what’s going on. But here’s the text of that post again. What bums me out is that it had a couple of good comments, and I don’t know how to reattach them at the bottom. But here’s the link. You can continue to use this thread, if you wish. Haloscan notifies me of every new comment, regardless of where it’s posted.

Rearranging some wise words from The Blog of Henry David Thoreau:

The poet is a man who lives at last
By watching his moods. An old poet comes
At last to watch his moods as narrowly as
A cat does a mouse.

The entry, originally written on August 28, 1851, continues with a paean to “the ordinary,” by which Thoreau means, ultimately, “the eyes to see the things which you possess.”

Ah, was that your mouse I had for supper?

Syllabus, omnibus, blunderbuss

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Tom Montag is busy putting together a course on nonfiction writing – his first time behind the lectern in a college classroom. Meanwhile, Fred First comes back from the undead as a reincarnated professor of biology. Some of the other bloggers I read faithfully, such as Lorianne and Elck, teach college more-or-less full time, as I understand it. With all this in my head, I guess, I had one of those “back to college” dreams last night: you know, it’s final exam week, and you just realize that you completely forgot that you had signed up for Physics 666, and now you have to read and understand the entire textbook in a few hours. If you don’t pass the 8:00 a.m. exam you’ll have to return to high school. Where everyone will laugh at you, because in these “back to the future” dreams you are always your present age – a spry 38, in my case.

“NO! I’m too old for thees boollsheet nightmare! I will slay the dragons of anxiety and insecurity the only way possible – by becoming a professor myself!”

Ha. In your dreams, buddy. Or: in your blog . . .

Herewith, then, my proposed syllabus for a ten-week course in poetry. I’ve given this lots and lots of careful thought, as you can imagine. Please note that everyone who signs up will get an “A” automatically. If you don’t want to do the work, god bless you. Cash up front.

1. Welcome to Poetry (De-)Composition 101. Mina Loy said, “Poetry is prose bewitched; a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea.” Class dismissed.

The rest of the week: play with your words. Play with other people’s words. Mix and match, but no alcohol.

2. You know enough, already.

Get shit-faced every night, and blow off all your classes – including this one.

3. William Carlos Williams was right. An abstraction in the middle of the poem tends to turn into one more object. It can make the whole poem. So, devote your energies to proving Williams wrong. Read Basho and the King James Bible in tandem until your eyeballs bleed.

4. Never carry an umbrella when you leave the house. If it rains, you’ll get wet. But don’t count on that, either. Forget a life, will ya?

5. Stand on one foot: easy, right? Now close your eyes and try to keep your balance.

Think about this for a while, then write a poem about storks.

It would probably help if you’ve actually seen a stork. But without “the stork” you wouldn’t be here, now, would you? Write about that stork.

6. That lamppost where you stand to catch the bus – notice everything about it that seems strange. When you get on the bus, do the same thing with the bus, then with everyone who gets on the bus, then with everything that you can see from the bus.

Practice being a stranger to yourself.

And always take public transportation.

7. Never write as if your life depended on it. This is a grotesque self-indulgence. Writing exists of necessity on the periphery, in the margins. Poetry is superfluous and therefore full of grace.

Construct a life-size natural history museum using nothing but scissors, paper and stones.

8. Always write as if your life depended on it. Because it does, you know. Without grace, you are mere consumer, taxpayer, chipped tooth aspiring to the level of cog.

Take everything you’ve written so far this semester with you on a three-day backpacking trip. Every night, use your poems to start the fire you cook your suppers over. Cook everything you eat from scratch.

9. When you start, be sure to have no clear idea of where you’ll end up. Or, have an idea, but don’t think about it for longer than a heartbeat without saying inshallah, “God willing” – even (or especially) if you don’t believe in God.

Learn how to draw.

10. Everything you have learned is wrong. I am partly to blame for that, of course. As your teacher, it has been my solemn and sacred duty to confuse, bewilder, lie, cheat, cajole and hoodwink.

As Blind Willie McTell said to his future wife the first time they met: “Take me until you can do better!”


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Suddenly, the little tab in the top center of my Yahoo inbox that used to say “Powered by hp,” is fire-engine red and fires a new slogan one word at a time, Burma Shave style.

YOU (with a target for the O)
you + hp

There’s a thought! Interesting timing, too: I hadn’t noticed it until a couple days ago. Right on the eve of the GOP convention, which is described as the most scripted and theatrical ever.

I gather that on Sunday afternoon, as several hundred thousand of the unwashed mashes acted out their own playlists in the streets, the illuminati of the Republican Party were in the theatres enjoying special Republican Party-approved Broadway musicals, such as “The Lion King” and “Wonderful Town.” “No one will be sent to see Mark Medoff’s play ‘Prymate,’ . . . a show that confronts racial sensitivities and has a black actor playing a gorilla. They will not be sent to Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change,” a serious musical about civil rights. In fact, they will not be sent to anything that touches on contemporary issues,” the New York Times reported.

In other words,

you + GOP

Give my regards to Broadway.

The devil in the details

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

All weekend the air hangs thick and heavy. On rare occasions when the sun peeks through the clouds, the woods and lawn turn into a Turkish steam bath. With barely a breeze at ground level or aloft, the numerous thunderstorms move at a snail’s pace, like clipper ships becalmed in the Sargasso Sea. From Saturday afternoon on, one can hear an almost constant rumbling from storms in every direction.

When the storms hit, they bring brief downpours of monsoon strength. I sit on my porch and enjoy the tempest, teacup in hand. It’s just as well that I decide to take a break from blogging on Sunday – the computer is off more often than it’s on. My link to the web is through a wireless, so-called ethernet connection between here and my parent’s house, and my father has learned the hard way – through two fried modems – always to unplug the jack from the wall at the first hint of a storm. The surge protector can’t save the modem from a burst of electrons along the telephone line.

Yesterday afternoon we had two lightning strikes that almost certainly would have cooked the modem had it been connected. This wasn’t one of those storms with lots of cloud-to-cloud lightning, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” It was a thunderstorm that meant business: sheets of rain, long minutes between bolts of lightning that went straight to earth (or in fact, straight to sky, but I’m talking more about perception than reality here). The second close strike hit right behind my parent’s house with an earsplitting crash. Ah, adrenalin! I do love a good storm . . .

I was attempting to read a book called The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power, by Bruce Kapferer (University of Chicago Press, 1997), but it wasn’t easy. The author plunges right into a dense, theoretical discussion in the Introduction, then proceeds to survey the entire field of “Sorcery in Anthropology” in Chapter 1. Only in the second chapter does he begin to get into the nitty-gritty, with descriptions of actual practices in the area where he has conducted fieldwork – among the Sinhalese Buddhists of Sri Lanka. Finally, my head stops hurting and I start finding passages I can sink my teeth into:

The supplicants to the shrines of Suniyam and the other demon-deities unite with the forces of magnified, transcendent, godlike human action. They join with the capacity of this action as a force in the destruction and re-creation of human realities, as a dynamic in the energies of exclusion and inclusion in the orders and relations of the life world, and as the expressive force of alienated and alienating power. When people visit the shrines to Suniyam and the other demon-deities or sorcery gods (usually to ask for assistance for some immediate practical matter concerning their everyday lives), they enter into the vertices of the turbulent power of human being. There they draw upon the magicality of human being and extend themselves into its magicality. This extraordinary potency of human beings is as apparent in lack and dispossession as in possession, to which Suniyam and other demon-deities give marvelous expression. I refer to the capacity of human beings to direct their consciousness actively and transformationally into the world, to make and unmake the realities of themselves and their fellows, to become intimate and influential in the actions of others, and even, as it were, to become consubstantial with the very bodily being of others. This is the potency of sorcery.

It occurs to me that a key phrase in all this is “as it were.” With that last crash of thunder still echoing in my ears, I’m wondering in my usual way just how much it really amounts to, this “magicality” – Sartre’s expression for the power of human intentionality arising from the formation of social bonds. How can you really compare the sparks from a human encounter with the awesome power of Nature? What do “godlike human action” and “the expressive force of alienated or alienating power” really amount to?

But then I remind myself of just how much destruction has been wrought by human beings since their adoption of the mechanistic worldview in the 17th century. Once alienated from the true wellsprings of Creation, the engineers, managers and economists, caught up in their boundless faith in the power and rightness of the human will, have indeed forged a terrifying global reality in which even the weather cannot now be ascribed solely to God or Nature.

The storm moves slowly off. With the last rumbles dying away in the east, it’s time to reconnect the Plummer’s Hollow intranet. But something’s wrong; I can’t get through. I use the pinging software installed by my techie cousin Jeff, and sure enough, there’s nothing passing between the houses. I buzz my Dad on the intercom: is the modem working? Yep, no problem, he says. I run back and forth between the houses, trying this and that, dodging the ever-more-rampant tear-thumb – a moisture-loving plant that has taken over much of the lawn this summer.

We try our usual gambit when the connection fails: turn the main computer off and let it rest for a few minutes before restarting. Neither of us has any idea why this works, but usually it does. No dice this time, though. Finally, it occurs to me to try unplugging and reconnecting both wireless units. I reason that since they are plugged into unprotected circuits, a power surge from the lightning must have somehow knocked them off alignment, even though all their little lights are still glowing green.

It works! Or so the “WS Ping ProPack” suggests. I have to signal my dad to reconnect the modem briefly in order to verify the restoration of my connection. Another storm has already begun to move in.