Sunday, November 30, 2008


Just like happened with The Secret Life of Puppets, several friends and acquaintances began mentioning to me a novel by a contemporary writer, John Crowley (see photo). Or rather, a series of four novels called the Aegypt cycle. I just finished the first of them, The Solitudes, amazed not only at how Giordano Bruno keeps turning up (we've seen him before in this blog), but mostly at the depth, beauty and subtlety with which Crowley speaks about history.
His main character is a historian, Pierce Moffett, who begins to suspect that perhaps "there is more than one history of the world":

Why must I live in two worlds, Pierce asked, why. Do we all, or is it only some few, living always in two worlds, a world outside of us that is real but strange, a world within that makes sense, and draws tears of assent from us when we enter there.

Contrary to common assumptions, it is not rationality and science that have caused the "disenchantment of the world", but historical consciousness. But history is a strange thing, with a double face. On the one hand, in the wake of 19th century historicism
it seeks to describe "what really happened": "one damn thing after the other", as Moffett observes elswhere in the novel, all of which is as true as it is meaningless. But on the other hand, the mark of a good historian is his ability to imagine the past: to enter it imaginatively, like a story, and somehow imbue it with meaning and significance. There is a deep paradoxality here: although historiograpy leads to demythologization, good historiography requires the powers of the imagination.
I do not yet know how Crowley is going to resolve the paradox (if he is going to resolve it at all), but I'm reminded of a famous quotation from Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism:

For the mountain, the body of things, needs no key; it is only the nebulous wall of history, which hangs around it, that must be traversed.
... True, history may at bottom be an illusion, but an illusion without which no perception of the essence is possible in time. The wondrous concave mirror of philological criticism makes it possible for the people of today first and most purely to receive a glimpse, in the legitimate orders of commentary, of that mystical totality of the system, whose existence, however, vanishes in the very act of being projected onto historical time.

In a very different way, John Crowley's novel seems to be about the same problem, which is ultimately that of nihilism.
One of Scholem's close colleagues, Mircea Eliade, juxtaposed myth and history as the domains of the sacred and the profane, and hoped that a revival of archaic mythological consciousness could be an antidote to a meaningless world ruled by the "terror of history". Scholem was grappling with the same problem, but his answer is much more subtle: it is not by escaping from history but by confronting its challenge that, like Moses, we might receive a "revelation from the mountain". Is the illusion of history the only reality by means of which we can glimpse a mystery to which our emotions assent intuitively, even though (or perhaps: precisely because) our reason denies it?
I'm very curious how Crowley's answer will be. In The Solitudes he sets the stage, brilliantly and in powerful prose. But there are three more volumes to follow: Love and Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things. I can't wait...

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I was looking through my old collection of LP records and found an album by Nana Mouskouri that my parents used to play when I was a kid. Putting it up again, I was deeply touched by this superb chanson, "Le jour où la colombe", the memory of which has been lying dormant in my mind for so many years (and which, strangely enough, has never been covered by others, as far as I can see). Listen to it here

Je ne sais pas où sont partis ces hommes
que d'autres sont venus chercher.
Ils ont disparus par un matin de Pâques,
des châines à leurs poignets.
Combien d'entre eux vivront encore
le jour où la colombe reviendra sur l'olivier?

Je ne sais pas comment tiendront les pierres
dont j'ai réparé la maison.
Quand je suis devant ces murs qui se délabrent
je pense à la maison
où dort celui que je verrai
le jour où la colombe reviendra sur l'olivier.

Je ne sais pas comment vivent les arbres
que les orages ont crucifiés,
et j'ai peine à croire que sous les champs de neige
dorment des champs de blés.
Que restera-t-il de mon coeur
le jour où la colombe reviendra sur l'olivier?

Je ne sais pas quoi dire à mon enfant
lorsque bientôt il parlera:
des contes de fées ou des histoires de grands
qu'il ne comprendrait pas.
Mais quel âge aura mon enfant
le jour où la colombe reviendra sur l'olivier?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Solar Music

I knew that the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was one of Leonora Carrington's closest friends, but only today did I realize what a great artist she was. In a bookshop in Mexico City I found a brandnew book (in Spanish) about Varo, beautifully and very richly illustrated and with large essays on her work, influences and so on: Cinco llaves del mundo secreto de Remedios Varo (Artes de México 2008). Leafing through it I fell from one rapture into another: so much beauty, all in one single book...
Here is just one picture from it, Solar Music. I've scanned it from my book, so you'll get a good high-resolution picture if you click on it. If you want to see more of her work, here's a portal.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Behold, the rivers are running backward...

I'm sitting on the beach of Tulum, Mexico, reading Gore Vidal´s historical novel Julian, and I find it hard to put the book out of my hands. What a story. Vidal describes the life of the emperor Julian, who ruled the Roman empire for a brief period in the later part of the 4th century, and tried to reverse the tide of history by returning from Christianity back to the "pagan" polytheism of Hellenistic culture. It's one of the most fascinating and dramatic life stories known to me, and if it has not been turned into a blockbuster movie yet, the only possible explanation I can think of is that it would raise storms of protest among the Christian right in the U.S.
When he was still a small child, Julian's father had been murdered by his older cousin Constantius, the Emperor of the East. The very Christian Constantius had systematically killed all family members who might threaten his claim to absolute dominion over the empire; and Julian and his half-brother Gallus were spared only because they were too young to pose a threat. But they grew up knowing that the Damocles' sword was always hanging above their head: at any moment, and particularly as the two approached adulthood, the Emperor might decide it would be safer to have them killed after all: for what would be more logical than that Julian would want to take revenge for his father's murder? What probably saved them was the fact that Constantius wife did not get pregnant, and unless she were to produce a heir to the Emperor, Julian and his brother would be the only ones left to continue the bloodline.
Julian and Gallus could not have been more different: Gallus was an empty-headed, cruel brute, hungry only for power, but so handsome and charming that many people were taken in by him. Julian was the opposite: far from handsome, and a typical bookish intellectual, he showed no interest in political power and only wanted to devote his life to philosophy. He was in love with Greek classical and Hellenistic culture, and although nominally raised as a Christian, in his heart he embraced the worship of the "true gods" of paganism. He despised the "Galileans", with their intolerant exclusivism, their cult of dead martyrs, their irrational trinitarian theologies, their heresy-hunting (the Arian and the Athanasian party were fighting like cats and dogs over the question whether Christ was of the same substance as God, or only similar in substance...), and their implacable hate against everyone who did not share the "true faith". Gore Vidal describes beautifully how finally, in secret, Julian was initiated by the theurgist Maximus into the mysteries of Mithras, and later into those of Eleusis as well. This seems to have made an enormous impression on his, and henceforth his true mission was to restore the worship of the "true gods". His was a mystical religion that worshipped God as the one source of light from which all things had emerged and to which all would return. As Maximus tells Julian:

... each god has many aspects and many names, for there is as much variety in heaven as there is among men. Some have asked: did we create these gods or did they create us? That is an old debate. Are we a dream in the mind of deity, or is each of us a separate dreamer, evoking his own reality? Though one may not know for certain, all our senses tell us that a single creation does exist and we are contained by it forever. Now the Christians would impose one final rigid myth on what we know to be various and strange. No not even myth, for the Nazarene existed as flesh while the gods we worship were never men; rather they are qualities and powers become poetry for our instruction. With the worship of the dead Jew, the poetry ceased.

Constantius finally decided to raise the opportunist Gallus to the rank of Caesar (just one step below that of Emperor), but later ended up having him murdered after all, leaving only Julian as a potential competitor. Again and again his life hung by a thread, but Constantius finally decided to make him Caesar and send him on a mission to pacify Gaul. He must have believed that this unworldly philosopher would easily be kept in check by the hardened military commanders with whom he had to work; and if he were killed during the campaign, which was more than likely given the weak state of his armies, well, so much the better. But things turned out quite differently: to the amazement of everybody, including himself, Julian proved to be a brilliant military commander and strategist, and he was so successful in fighting the "barbarians" that his own soldiers finally forced him, literally, to accept the title of Augustus (emperor) and challenge his cousin. Having brought the entire Western part of the empire under his command, he marched East to confront Constantius in battle; but before they could meet, Constantius had died of a fever, leaving Julian as the legitimate Emperor.
During his short reign as Emperor, Julian waged a systematical campaign to restore pagan polytheism. Although the Galileans fully expected him to smother Christian worship in blood, he was surprisingly mild; he declared that although the Galileans had an irrational and inferior religion, they were free to practice it if they liked, as long as they respected the laws of the empire and left other religions and their worshipers alone. In other words: Julian preached religious tolerance, whereas the Galileans saw it as their mission to destroy anything "pagan" and convert all the world to their beliefs.
For a while, it looked like Julian would be successful. He was fully aware that he was in the process of reversing the tide of history: meditating on his reforms, one day he is supposed to have said "behold, the rivers are running backward". But in the end, the reversal proved only an interlude. On a grand military campaign against the Persian empire, one day Julian had to rush from his tent and did not take the time to fix his breastplate properly (according to Vidal's fictional account, he wore no breastplate at all because it was being fixed; the whole thing turned out to be a setup, and he was murdered by one of his own confidants). He was hit by a spear, and died. Legend has it that his last words were "you have won, Galilean..."; undoubtedly he never said this, but it is true that his successor restored Christianity right away, and the rivers started running forward again, finally leading to the suppression of Hellenistic paganism.
Reading about the life of Julian, one if forced to contemplate the mystery of historical contingency, for it is impossible not to ask oneself "what if...?" If Julian had waited a few more seconds to fix his breastplate that morning... or if he had borrowed another one..., or if the spear had missed him..., he could have survived. He might have lived and reigned for decades; and if he had, it is absolutely certain that the very world in which we are living today would look very different. Conceivably, we would now live in a world dominated by "pagan" religion, and Christianity would be merely a chapter in the history books, describing a strange intolerant sect that was surprisingly successful for a time, but did not make it in the end. Or Christianity might have survived, but it would have developed differently, in ways that are now impossible to imagine.
In any case, Julian's life is captivating, and I can only have sympathy for his character and personality. Of course he did make mistakes (for example, towards the very end of his reign his enthusiasm for ritual sacrifices got rather out of hand) but all in all, he was a voice of tolerance and reason in a period ravaged by murder and bloodshed, hate and religious fanaticism.
PS. I wrote that before I had finished the book completely. Generally I still stand by it, and Julian does compare very favourably with contemporary rulers, but if one reads Vidal's final chapters (consisting of Julian's fictional field notes during his fatal campaign to conquer Persia and beyond), the picture changes. Not only do we get a grueling view of what the military realities of the times must have been like, but we also clearly see how Julian began to be corrupted in a rather alarming manner by the absolute power he wielded, how his megalomaniac dream of outdoing Alexander the Great and conquer the whole of Asia got the better of him and undermined his sense of sound judgment (leading to a huge strategic blunder that destroyed the credit he had with his army), and how his sincere faith in the gods degenerated ever more into blind superstition that made him a toy in the hands of Maximus. Most generally, it is quite disturbing how the philosopher did turn into a military commander, and how well that role turned out to fit him. There is no way of telling how his personality would have developed if his military ambitions had been successful, and if he had returned from Asia as the Emperor whose victories proved that the gods protected him. Would it have made him mild, or have turned him into a tyrant? We will never know. What happened was, of course, the opposite: the Christians saw his death as divine punishment, and later generations called him "Julian the Apostate"

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Messenger to the Deep

Today (June 3) was a day I will never forget. At her home in Mexico City I visited Leonora Carrington (b. 1917), a living legend of surrealism and my favourite 20th-century painter. As if in a dream, I found myself sitting in her kitchen for hours, drinking many cups of black tea without sugar (that´s how she likes it), and marveling that the kind 91-year-old lady across the table was the very same one who had once been Max Ernst´s lover and embodied (much against her liking) the surrealists´ very ideal of the "femme-enfant".
Leonora Carrington was born to wealthy parents in England but proved a born rebel and nonconformist from her early years on. Painting was all she wanted, and when one day she came across a reproduction of Max Ernst´s Deux enfants menaces par un rossignol, this sealed her destiny: it touched her like a lightning-bolt, with a sensation that felt like a burning in her body. Soon after, Ernst himself came to England and Leonora (then nineteen years old) had an opportunity to meet the famous artist. The two fell in love instantly, and ran off to France together, where the brilliant and beautiful Leonora became a kind of muse to the surrealist movement. There are many delightful stories about her indomitable spirit and unconventional behaviour (for example, invited to a constume party, Leonora once decided to impersonate Eve). For an idyllic year or so, Ernst and Carrington lived and worked together in a village in Southern France, but this ended in 1939, when Ernst was arrested because of his German ancestry. Leonora herself had to flee to Spain, where the sorrow and stress proved too much for her: in her Down Below, she describes in chilling detail what happens when one descends into a severe psychosis, and how she spent a period in a Spanish sanatorium for the incurably insane. But she did find her way back to sanity, and eventually emigrated to Mexico, where she married and had children, while continuing to produce a stream of incredibly impressive paintings (for a good sample, see here) that has not fallen dry up to the present day: high up in her atelier, reached by a steep and gothic-looking circular staircase attached to the outside wall, she showed me two canvases on which she is working right now.
Very unfairly, many art historians still seem to perceive Leonora Carrington primarily as "the lover of", instead of recognizing her as an important artist in her own right, and she is not very well known to the broader public. But I consider her one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, and deeply admire her for her free and nonconformist spirit. Moreover, she is the real thing: an authentic Twilight Traveler whose work is all about exploring boundaries. So you can imagine I was somewhat nervous about meeting her in the flesh. I had been told that it was useless to try and make an appointment, and my best bet was just to turn up and hope to be lucky. This proved to be good advice. Since I could not find a doorbell I called her with my cell phone, and she right away agreed to a meeting later the same afternoon. When I arrived, she stood in front of her door talking with workers who (as I found out later) had been assisting her with a sculpture. I had been told that she could be difficult at times, but she flashed a big smile at me and I knew right away that we would be alright. And so we were.
We talked about everything you can imagine, and more: painting and sculpture, hermeticism and alchemy (a major influence on her work), her years with the surrealists and the other great visual artists of her time (but as noted by Marina Warner in an essay on Carrington, she is not given to reminiscing, and does not go into details), her deep horror of Hitler and Nazism (a theme to which she returned again and again), her even deeper love of animals (her favourites are cats, horses, elephants and, interestingly, hyenas), the experience of growing very old and losing one´s memory (but otherwise her mind remains sharp as before), the mystery of death (as to whether there is anything after death, she professes to be agnostic: we simply do not know), and more generally, the mystery of existence itself. As could be expected, given the nature of her work, she struck me as wholly unsentimental: what ultimately matters most in life, she stated with great emphasis at one point in the conversation, is honesty to oneself and others.
What I had already learned from the literature about Leonora Carrington was confirmed in my conversation with her: one will not learn anything from her about the deeper motifs of her work or what its arcane symbolism and hermetic references mean to her. She insists that she does not consciously plan or design her paintings, and there are no hidden messages for the initiated: "it just happens to me", she says, and she has no idea where the content comes from. This is true even of the intriguing titles that she gives to some of her paintings. One of them (a vertical triptych that evokes shamanic associations) is called "Took my way down, like a messenger, to the deep", but here too, Leonora Carrington will not tell you why she painted it or where that title came from. Above the door of her house there used to be a text (I could not find it anymore) put there by an artist friend: "This is the house of the sphinx". It is indeed. But what a lovely sphinx, and what a privilege to have met her!

Sunday, May 25, 2008


To follow up on my previous posting: one more big player in Jerusalem's battle of the monotheistic gods wasn't mentioned yet, but of course Islam is very present indeed, symbolized by the mosque on Temple Mountain, with its big golden dome that dominates the city.
The first significant thing was that it took me almost an hour to find the entrance: it's right next to the Western Wall plaza, but clearly the Jews are not exactly keen on calling attention to it. But truly amazing was a large board in the official standard style used for all tourist information: "Announcement and Warning: According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site" (signed: The Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem). Only ten meters further on one nevertheless finds another board in the same standard style, which welcomes visitors and gives instructions on how to behave. So much for consistency.
Clearly, then, my decision to pass this boundary and enter the area was an act of transgression. And while another board said that one is not allowed to make photos inside one of the two big mosques, presumably this is meant for muslims only, for I was not permitted to enter either of them at all. This was quite a disappointment, and when I sat down to watch the area (which is spacy and beautiful, radiating a calm and peaceful atmosphere), it dawned on me that nobody - neither the Jews nor the Muslims - wanted me there, in what is believed to be the holiest place on earth - whether it is because the "foundation stone of the world" is present there, or because Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven at this spot. Tourists are barely tolerated, and then only for one hour a day (from 13.30-14.30).
Over the years I had done my share of reading about Jerusalem and its divided population, like all of us, but there's no better example of the fact that "one must have been there to know how it is". We all know that Jews, Christians and Muslims (not to mention secularists) barely manage to cohabitate in this city of contrasts, but how that works out in reality only becomes clear by seeing it with one's own eyes.
Consider this small example: I'm having a drink together with a Jewish-American friend of mine, on a small terrace close to Jaffa gate. The owner of the place tells him that he cannot just have a drink: it's either a full meal or nothing at all. Then he notices me, and realizes that I'm the same guy with whom he had been chatting friendly when I had breakfast at his place the same morning. His attitude changes immediately: of course we are welcome to have just a drink, and will we please excuse him... I do not immediately understand, but my friend does: the owner is of Arab descent, he is a Jew, and I am neither. And that says it all. Needless to add, Jews are doing the same kind of thing to Arabs. On the other hand, both seem to look at the Christian tourists more or less the same way: mostly with a kind of puzzled amusement ("what has gotten into these folks, carrying big crosses along the via dolorosa in the blistering heat?") rather than hostility. And the Christian evangelicals for their sake, of course, see all the others as grist for the mill of conversion.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The many gods of monotheism

I'm traveling, and last week's dominant experience has been the many gods of monotheism. The Egyptologist Jan Assmann has pointed out very convincingly that monotheism is defined less by "belief in one god" than by the attempt to draw a sharp and impermeable boundary between religious truth (the one true God, one's own one of course) and error (paganism and idolatry, a.k.a. whatever is sacred to everybody else). It will not come as a suprise that Twilight Traveler has some problems with such black-whitism (or light-darkism). The irony is that these boundaries invariably turn out to be grey zones, through which monotheists travel to the other side without ever leaving their own territory, and without realizing that they moved at all. Last week in Germany I participated in a beautiful ritual of the (originally Brasilian) Santo Daime community, which blends Roman Catholicism with Amazonian shamanism, and effortlessly combines a firm conviction of having the true doctrine (received by their founder, a rubber tapper known as mestre Ireneu, under the influence of their central sacrament ayahuasca) with an all-inclusive universalism that sincerely wishes love & light to all. Just a few days later I found myself in the city of Meron, close to Safed in Israel, being almost pressed to pulp in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Lag B'omer festivities, when chassidim noisily celebrate the dying day of rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, the supposed author of the Zohar (the classic text of medieval kabbalah). And still the same evening I was sitting in the front row of a meeting of the Kabbalah Center (of Madonna fame), a New Age upgrade of kabbalah created by a rabbi Berg, his wife and their sons, who were all there, dancing ecstatically together with the public, to the music of a Jiddish rock band (see photo below). And if that were not enough, today in Jerusalem I visited the Western wall during shabbat - as solemn and moving as the Lag B'omer feasting had been chaotic and, frankly, aggressive - while the very same morning I had been watching with very mixed feelings how Christian tourists (one of them had a t-shirt that said "property of Jesus") were moving like bees through the "Holy Sepulchre" church in the old city. Unceasingly, visitors were sitting down to touch the "stone of unction'' with their hands or hold objects or family photos against it: although the stone dates from the early 19th century, they seemed convinced that it was connected to Jesus' body and must emit some kind of healing vibration. My Israeli friend Jonatan felt differently: he heard the singing of the monks and just could not bring himself to cross the treshold to that church, least of all on shabbat. I understood his feelings.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Secret Life of Puppets

It's been over two months since my last posting....
Anyway, my only reason for writing now is to tell the rest of the world that everybody should urgently read Victoria Nelson's The Secret Life of Puppets (Harvard University Press 2001). Why? What is it all about? Trust me: just read it.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Mount Analogue

I'm reading Mount Analogue by René Daumal, which had been sitting on a shelf unread for years. I find myself very impressed by his way of describing the human aspiration to the Absolute (all the italics are by Daumal):

"... what defines the scale of the ultimate symbolic mountain - the one I propose to call Mount Analogue - is its inaccessibility to ordinary human approaches. Now, Sinai, Nebo, and Olympus have long since become what mountaineers call cow pastures; and even the highest peaks of the Himalayas are no longer considered inaccessible today. All these summits have therefore lost their analogical importance. The symbol has had to take refuge in totally mythical mountains, such as Mount Meru of the Hindus. But, to take this one example, if Meru has no geographical location, it loses its persuasive significance as a way uniting Earth and Heaven; it can still represent the center or axis of our planetary system but no longer the means whereby man can attain it.
For a mountain to play the role of Mount Analogue ... its summit must be inaccessible, but its base accessible to human beings as nature has made them. It must be unique, and it must exist geographically. The door to the invisible must be visible".

Why is this important? Because Daumal shows here with extreme economy how the process of what we now might call "globalization" between Columbus and today - culminating in Google Earth - has profoundly contributed to the disenchantment of the world. Historically, there have been times when Mount Analogue was perfectly conceivable, intellectually and scientifically: who could tell what wonders might be discovered somewhere in some remote, unexplored and unmapped region "at the end of the world"?. Today the whole world is a cow pasture.

At the end of the first chapter we find this splendid vision of the mountain:

"On high, remote in the sky, above and beyond successive circles of increasingly lofty peaks buried under whiter and whiter snows, in a splendor the eye cannot look on, invisible through excess of light, rises the uttermost pinnacle of Mount Analogue

There, on a summit more pointed than the finest needle,
He who fills all space resides unto himself.
On high in the most rarefied air, where all freezes into stone,
The supreme and immutable crystal alone subsists.
Up there, exposed to the full fire of the firmament, where all is consumed in flame,
Subsists the perpetual incandescence.
There, at the center of all creaton, is he
Who sees each thing accomplished in its beginning and its end

So it's all about boundaries again, metaphysical ones this time. The very fact that it is completely impossible to cross this boundary means, to Daumal, that it must be attempted. He describes how a group of people set out on a ship called Impossible to find Mount Analogue and climb it. Daumal died before he could finish his novel. Whether he ever reached the summit of the mountain remains unknown.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fanny, Alexander and Isak

At the risk that this blog is going to turn into a movie review site, here are some words about one of the greatest movies of all times, Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander
I watched the complete TV version (over 5 hours) again last night, and once more discovered that this is a film that never gets boring, but just becomes more fascinating the oftener one sees it. Whereas the Hollywood style forces the viewer to have exactly this-or-that emotion at this-and-that moment, and thus leads him or her through a predetermined trajectory that leaves very little room for any alternative interpretations or reactions, here we have a movie that leaves the viewer endless freedom to look at the same images, the same characters and the same story from ever new perspectives.
There are many amazing scenes in this film, but one part that always impresses me particularly was (I think) deleted from the abridged cinema version. Fanny and Alexander had been kept imprisoned by the sadistic Lutheran pastor who has married their mother, and have just been miraculously liberated by their uncle Isak, the stereotypical Jewish merchant and money-lender, and an old friend of the family (he used to have a secret affair with the grandmother when they were both much younger, they were discovered by her husband, who went for his gun - and the two men ended up becoming friends for life!). Isak now lives in a big house full of magical objects and moving puppets, together with his brothers Aron and Ishmael, who is living in a locked room because he is considered dangerous (and for good reasons, as the viewer finds out). The children have barely begun to recover from the nightmare of the pastor's house, and while they try to get used to the fact that they are now safe, Isak sits down and reads them a story. Modern directors would never dare to even consider a scene like this: 15 minutes at least, mostly consisting of continous shots, showing nothing but the face of an old man telling a story. It's captivating, but I will not try to summarize it here: you'll have to find the DVD and watch it yourself. Alexander's dreamlike vision at the end of Isak's story catches some of the deepest messages that I think Ingmar Bergman wanted to convey. And that means someting, for the whole movie is full of such insights. What a delight to see the contrast between the cold, austere and inhuman asceticism of the Pastor and his household, and the human warmth and colourful richness of the Ekdahl family household, with unforgettable characters such as Fanny & Alexander's uncle Gustav Adolf, whose sexual escapades with the maid servants are known to the whole family, including his wife Alma, but who is such a warm and generous character that nobody can remain angry at him for long. As a whole, the movie is a grand affirmation of life against the life-denying powers represented here by religious fanaticism and moral rigidity. In a key conversation, Fanny & Alexander's mother, Emilie, compares the austere "purity" of her husband's God with her own God, who is fluid and formless, hides behind countless masks and never shows his true face. For a time she is tempted by a desire to see behind those masks and roles, and the message is clear: this quest for spiritual purity, final clarity and definitive answers is deadly - it almost ends up destroying herself and her children.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pre-Rafaelites in Amsterdam

"Mariana in the Moated Grange" by John Everett Millais. I find this a splendid painting. The van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam just opened an exhibition of Millais's paintings.
What more can I add? If you have a chance, go and have a look...

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Will-Erich Peuckert's Pansophia

I don't suppose many English or American readers will have heard of Will-Erich Peuckert (1895-1969), but this German folklorist has written some of the most enchanting books on the history of magic. Many years ago I came across his Pansophie: Ein Versuch zur Geschichte der weissen und schwarzen Magie, and was instantly fascinated. Probably it had as much to do with Peuckert's unique writing style as with the contents: it gave the book a very peculiar atmosphere, which I still find almost impossible to define, but which caused me to recognize the book spontaneously as a Pilzbuch, a "mushroom book". Not only is it very very German, but although it's a difficult monograph about 15th and16th century magicians and mystics there is also something about it that, somehow, reminds you of a botanical collections of magical herbs or plants. I was not surprised at all to discover that Rolf Christian Zimmermann, in a long preface to one of Peuckert's books, calls him a collector at heart, and adds that he was in fact a very knowledgeable amateur botanist who could tell you the name of each and every plant, flower or weed.
Zimmermann also emphasizes that while Peuckert was a scholar of extreme erudition, all his work is somehow intensely personal, because he identified with his area of research to such an extent as to become almost inseparable from it. This is shown even in his strange habit of giving quotations (sometimes very long ones) without quotation marks, so that it's sometimes hard to be sure where Peuckert ends and Paracelsus begins. In 1935 Peuckert wrote a preface to Pansophie which shows how much he loved what he studied:

... I began this book with secret feelings of joy. ... I wrote it mostly for my students - as the history of our longing. As the history of a way of thinking that was right - like every way of thinking was once "right". ... I have devoted a good part of my work to the times that I have described here, and I do not regret it. I have seen what few others have seen; I have seen Faust and Luther and Weigel and Paracelsus and J. Boehme, the great movers of the German spirit; I have sat with astrologers, and have listened to alchemists for hours; I have been allowed to intuit magic as truth. I was allowed to grasp what I believed needed to be grasped; the way of research lay open before me, I was bound no more firmly than Paracelsus was bound in his magic. Only one star stood shining above my road, the star which determined his life: Alterius non sit, qui suus esse potest. I have been allowed to live beautiful years.
I want to be grateful to all the years. For these years, and for this road. It is the only one that fits us. Alterius non sit, qui suus esse potest.

"Let no one that can belong to himself, belong to another". These words are all the more touching if one realizes that they were written in 1935. Peuckert, who never compromised with Nazism, would soon be hit by a publication ban, and one of his books was burned in public. In 1945 he and his wife had to flee for their lives, and his unique library of ca. 35000 books was destroyed. After the war he lost his wife in a tragical accident, later lost his son as well (the Introduction to his book on astrology is dated "20 July 1960, the day I buried my son"), and toward the end of his life he could hardly read and could type only with his left index finger. In seems that those beautiful years were over for him, but across many decades we can still share in his love for a world that no longer exists.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Vanilla Sky

In case you find her beautiful: the photos on the net are nothing compared to how sparkling and irresistable Penelope Cruz appears in Vanilla Sky. How could anyone not fall in love with this girl?
It remains a very strange movie. I saw it again this evening, and began to understand it a bit better than the previous time, when I was utterly bewildered. Again a movie about reality and illusion (like eXistenZ, about which I wrote last month), and again that basic question "who is the dreamer, and where is he?" Essentially this is all about the confrontation with death: it begins and ends with the same line: "wake up!" (not by any chance, I think, the same words that start Neo's adventure in The Matrix). And when we see Tom Cruise jumping off a skyscraper at the very end, we're not sure what that means: waking up from the dream to reality, or from the dream that is reality? What is the psychological baseline? Or is the whole point that there is none? Jumping from the building like that means confronting what psychonauts refer to as "ego death". Very very scary...
What does it mean that so many recent movies are based upon this same theme?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Appointment

This evening I've been re-reading the first part of a short novel by the Dutch poet Adriaan Roland Holst, called De Afspraak (The Appointment, first published in 1925). Such a pity that such great literature is not accessible beyond this small country. I simply cannot imagine how the power of Roland Holst's language could possibly survive translation. The story begins with the author's strange, dreamlike memory of one evening when he was a child, and was traveling with his father. During dinner one of the guests at the table had given him two glasses of wine to drink. He watched the people at the party with a sense of heightened awareness and a deep certainty that he was on the verge of being initiated into the very essence of his life: this was the appointed evening when he was to be reminded of his true self and his true fatherland. A woman walks to the window and begins to sing. And in the middle of the enchantment, suddenly a man appears to have entered the room, who looks him in the eyes; and although he has never seen the man before, he knows that they have an appointment this evening, and the stranger will visit him in his room later that night. And that is what happens. The man sits on his bed, plays with the logs in the fire, and tells him for hours about his true fatherland: the place where he belongs and where he will return one day. Then come the many years in which this memory fades and he betrays his true self - until finally the realization comes back that that this mysterious evening was the key event in his life, which taught him the truth that he does not belong here "among the unwinged ones", and his never-ending nostalgia has always been nothing but the call for him to remember who he is and try and find the way back to his true home.
Perhaps one should not try to summarize such stories... It's the beautiful language that conveys the sense of deep mystery pervading this story. I don't know of anything quite like it in any other language.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Fallen Angel

"Fallen Angel" by Luis Royo. I came across it (and the artist, whom I didn't know) in Paris this Christmas. I find the image very moving: it expresses the tragedy of "the Fall" on several levels at once, and in a way that I suspect defies verbal expression. So I'll say no more.