Archive for August, 2013


The Philosophical Sphere or the Wonder Eye of Eternity

August 26, 2013

The Philosophical Sphere or the Wonder Eye of Eternity

Jacob Boehme’s Representation of his Cosmogony in ‘Vierzig Fragen von der Seele’ or Forty Questions Concerning the Soul (1620).

From here


Grace Lake, ‘Bernache nonnette’ and the ‘sweet nunsongs’ of Finnegans Wake

August 26, 2013

Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese

Coriolanus, Act 1, Scene 4

Reading Andrew Duncan’s 1997 review – ‘Nine fine flyaway goose truths‘ – of a pamphlet of poetry, Bernache nonnette (1995 Equippage), by Grace Lake, I was struck by the metaphors of metamorphosis aligning Lake’s poetry and James Joyce’s novel, Finnegans Wake, in a pattern of wingbeats. This uncanny resonance accords with the evanescent ‘something’ I’m seeking to grasp with this blog: the fleeting wisps of social hope hidden in ‘these secret workings of natures’ (FW 615. 14), ‘the chaosmos of Alle anyway connected’ (FW 118.21-22) that James Joyce sought to imitate in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Elements, I suppose, of what Walter Benjamin called ‘the mysterious in the everyday’, or Joyce’s ‘great myth of everyday life’. These gossamer-drifting threads of passage out of this world are invisible to a more instrumentalist emancipatory perspective enchained to the idea of progress. Homologous with the capitalist society to which it is the loyal opposition, this perspective of a ‘forward march’ of socialised capital requires a rational language of functionality – information (‘the poetry of power’) – with which the rhythms of life are out of step, a dissonance recognised by Joyce: ‘One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot’. Joyce’s reference here to Finnegans Wake in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver (24 November 1926) could as easily describe the elusive language of poetry, which could be regarded as a ‘usylessly unreadable’ (FW 179.26-27) luxury in the workaday utilitarian world.

Grey Lag Geese, Geneva

Grey Lag Geese by Lac Leman, Geneva – ‘that greyt lack’ (FW 601.5).

I suppose the easiest way to illustrate the resonance is to quote at length from Duncan’s review (the bits of indented text in bold)…

Bernache is a barnacle goose, so called because its young were supposed to grow out of barnacles which then became eels (in a variant, the barnacles grew on trees). Nonnette is also a kind of goose- actually, the same kind of goose- called “little nun”  because its nests were nowhere to be found in northwest Europe, being safe in Greenland, and consequently its sex life was a mystery to Europeans. Tales about gooseberry bushes probably have the same folk-myth source. The theme is sexuality, coming into season, bearing, breeding, dreaming about the child’s growth and birth, but only by periphrasis, substitution, fantasy, and camouflage. I think the phrase ‘jars of tadpoles for aversion therapy’ is a reference to the male essence. Grace wrote to me that “‘Bernache Nonnette’ is a concept that has found a name- Barnacle Goose, St. Bernach was an Irish monk who tried to settle a fight in the South of Wales. Nonnette is also gingerbread, & 9 of anything.”

Already, there is a rich mother lode of mythical material in this passage, so consonant with the ‘sweet nunsongs’ (FW 457.29) of Finnegans Wake, with its invocations of the riverine habitats of geese: ‘O loreley! What a loddon lodes!’ (FW 201.35-36), and its allusions to the mysteries of generation, revolving around the person and ‘good mothers gossip’ (FW 316.11) of ALP, herself an avatar of Joyce’s partner and wife, Nora Barnacle. Indeed, one of the names of the depiction of the ‘sixuous parts’ of Nora/Anna Livia Plurabelle – the ALP diagram on page 293 – is ’round Nunsbelly Square’ (FW 95.35-36), the two circles which ‘dunloop into eath the ocher’ (FW 295.31-32).

It was the unfindableness of barnacle goose nests which led to the saw about a wild goose chase, and indirection, elusiveness, looping around, wild flights, resolutions withdrawn by subterfuge at the last minute, are structural rules in this book. The mystery nesting sites full of fluffy barnacle goslings are a figure both of some Mother Goose fairytale land and of a terrain of poetic fantasy, perhaps the society where we want to live. The goose story is in Pliny’s Natural History and this reminds me of Maggie O’Sullivan’s An un-natural history in 3 incomplete parts, also (I think) an attempt to challenge organised knowledge with personal experience. Fairy tales about female sexuality and reproduction, a kind of Mother Goose Gorgon; on waters where the wild tales spawn. Human sex life is a mystery too.

Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel in Dublin, eloped with James Joyce in 1904, the couple taking flight from Ireland like many ‘wild geese’ before them: ‘Since nozzy Nanette tripped palmyways with Highho Harry’ (FW 117.16-17). That the starry path of souls, the Milky Way, is known as Birds’ Way (Linnunrata) in Finland echoes the finality of their departure to a new life, ‘while he mourned the flight of his wild guineese’ (FW 71.4). In the looking-glass writing of salices (willows, the arboreal symbol of sadness and regeneration) is found the transformation of an individual life: ‘Secilas in their laughing classes become poolermates in laker life’. I don’t know whether Anna Mendelssohn laughed in class – though she was ‘a brilliant and unruly pupil‘ – but ‘in laker life’ she became Grace Lake. A metaphor of transformation in Ulysses, set on the day that Joyce first went out with Nora Barnacle, rehearses this theme of the transmigration of souls in the context of a drowned man being washed ashore: ‘God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain’.


A tessellated image of transformation by M.C.Escher

The liminal inter-tidal zone of the shore is a place of transformation, as I learnt from my grandmother. Her Edinburgh-born mother told her that when the tide goes out, people who are close to death slip away. Perhaps such an idea of transition is suggested by the two carved faces of a water-worn slab, forming part of a cist grave at Easterton of Roseisle near the Moray Firth. One face shows a broken sceptre, two crescent motifs and a mirror and comb. The lunar association of the crescents suggest the moon’s influence over the ebb and flow of the tide, while the mirror and comb are the accoutrements of those uncanny women of lakes, rivers and the sea – sirens and mermaids – recurrently associated with luring unwary sailors to their fate, much like the Lorelei, associated quite recently with a rock in the Rhine, who was consigned by the bishop to a nunnery as punishment. The other face shows the engraved images of a goose and a fish, anticipating the goose-fish transformation depicted by M.C. Escher.

Pictish Stone

In ‘his fiery goosemother, laotsey taotsey’ (FW 242.25-26), ALP is presented simultaneously as fairy godmother, tale-telling Mother Goose, transformer of the alchemical elements of fire and water and agent of Lao Tzu’s philosophy of Tao. In terms of the wearing down of the stone-cold certainties of patriarchal authority, a potent expression of Tao is the phrase, ‘Nothing in the world is as weak as water, but nothing is as effective in overcoming the hard’. Likewise, ALP’s ‘gidd-gaddy… gossipaceous’ (FW 195.3-4) speech pattern, transcribed in the Wake, overflows any ‘cutanddry grammar’.

Aboutness is not one of BN’s main qualities. It’s hard for me to talk about it, knocking nails in with my head, without crumpling its lighter than air swing.

The challenge to scriptural authority and the ‘goahead plot’ of political rationality is present in Grace Lake’s poetry too:

Grace wrote,

“‘She Walked’ is me, frogmarched off the Essex campus in 1970 by a fellow poet who didn’t want me to be either single, younger than him or a Writer (…) I had been handed over-in the middle of a vast lyrical metropolitan exequy’s composition (incepted by me & in the process of being incised upon paper) by a group who were writing for Tariq Ali’s ‘Black Dwarf’ who wanted Politics not Poetry- to a strange flat in Stamford Hill where I was seized by a group armed with stolen chequebooks & weapons.”

At one level, BN, and I think the whole of Lake’s poetic work, is a critique of the determinism of left-wing discourse around 1970 and ever after, including official feminism, how it creates a new imaginary State which imagines the population in the bureaucratic terms of the old one, how it skimps the impossibility of imagining 58 million people as human agents by imagining them as quantities, like money, which can be housed and planned for.

In the spring pool... attendant geese.

Poolermates in laker life – Geese in the spring pool at the Temple of Leto at Letoön

Tragically, Anna Mendelssohn died in 2009 of a brain tumour. Andrew Duncan, again:

Grace constantly writes as if she were talking to children, a Mother Bernache Goose; I find this incredibly comforting. Julian Symons, one of the bity-whiny little communist geeks who hung around in the late Thirties (or was it the Seventies?) sneered at Cyril Connolly for printing “odd fag-ends of the Twenties bound together by no organised view of Life and Society, no stronger thread than his own erratic intelligence”. The poetic history of the past 60 years has, it may be, been the exchange between the endeavour to make life monotonous, artificial, and governable and the passive task of writing poetry which is irrational, shimmering, and realistic. The cosmos is illogical when viewed on a small scale. So its large-scale logic is a failure of definition, an optical smear. ‘Organisation’ here means making your inner life artificially monotonous, and repressing deviance.

Cupid&GooseThe souls of geese continue to slip through the entrapments of police reality…



Kissing Swans, Lac Leman

August 24, 2013
Swan Kiss

‘through neck and necklike Derby and June’ (FW 454.31-32)

These brilling waveleaplights! Please say me how sing you them. Seekhem seckhem! They arise from a clear springwell in the near of our park which makes the daft to hear all blend. This place of endearment! How it is clear! And how they cast their spells upon, the fronds that thereup float, the bookstaff branchings! The druggeted stems, the leaves incut on trees! Do you can their tantrist spellings? I can lese, skillmistress aiding. Elm, bay, this way, cull dare, take a message, tawny runes ilex sallow, meet me at the pine. Yes, they shall have brought us to the water trysting, by hedjes of maiden ferm, then here in another place is their chapelofeases, sold for song, of which you have thought my praise too much my price. O ma ma! Yes, sad one of Ziod? Sell me, my soul dear! Ah, my sorrowful, his cloister dreeping of his monkshood, how it is triste to death, all his dark ivytod! Where cold in dearth. Yet see, my blanching kissabelle, in the under close she is allso gay, her kirtles green, her curtsies white, her peony pears, her nistlingsloes! I, pipette, I must also quicklingly to tryst myself softly into this littleeasechapel. I would rather than Ireland! But I pray, make! Do your easiness! O peace, this is heaven! O, Mr Prince of Pouringtoher, whatever shall I pppease to do? Why do you so lifesighs, my precious, as I hear from you, with limmenings lemantitions, after that swollen one? I am not sighing, I assure, but only I am soso sorry about all in my saarasplace. Listen, listen! I am doing it. Hear more to those voices! Always I am hearing them. Horsehem coughs enough. Annshee lispes privily.

Finnegans Wake (571.1-26)

Swan Kiss 2


Our Time is Fix’d and all our days are numbered

August 24, 2013

“Our Time is Fix’d and all our days are numbered.”

This illustration by William Blake (1805) for Blair’s ‘The Grave’ was rediscovered in Scotland in 2001 along with 18 other illustrations for the poem, having been kept together for 200 years. Incredibly, the whole collection was broken up when it was sold by Sotheby’s for maximum profit in 2006. Talk about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.





Hyacinth and Rosebud: Treading a Path to a Parable by Novalis via Thalmann’s Literary Sign Language of German Romanticism

August 22, 2013

Marianne Thalmann The Literary Sign Language of German Romanticism Figure 2 Novalis Hyazinth (1798).

This amazing little exposition of Marianne Thalmann’s Literary Sign Language of German Romanticism (1967) I found when trying to track down an image by Novalis which inspired Joyce’s diagram on page 293 of Finnegans Wake. It could be that I’m completely mistaken about the existence of such an image (‘something’ I vaguely remember reading about ‘somewhere’, years ago), but the pathway it’s revealed looks very promising. Novalis is very much neglected in Anglo-American intellectual culture, partly because he doesn’t accord with its pragmatic, utilitarian outlook. This is a bit of a journey into the unknown for me, the parable of Hyacinth and Rosebud (Hyazinth und Rosenblütchen) seems like a good place to start.

Long ago, there lived far to the west a very young man, good, but extremely odd. He tormented himself continually about this nothing and that nothing, always walked in silence and straight before him, sat down alone when the others were at their sports and merry-makings, and brooded over strange things. Caves and woods were his dearest haunts; and there he talked on and on with beasts and birds, with trees and rocks–of course not one rational word, but mere idiotic stuff, to make one laugh to death. He continued, however, always moody and serious, in spite of the utmost pains that the squirrel, the monkey, the parrot, and the bullfinch could take to divert him, and set him in the right way. The goose told stories, the brook jingled a ballad between, a great thick stone cut ridiculous capers, the rose stole lovingly about him from behind and crept through his locks, while the ivy stroked his troubled brow. But his melancholy and gravity were stubborn. His parents were much troubled, and did not know what to do. He was in good health, and ate well enough; they had never caused him any offence; and, until a few years ago, he had been the liveliest and merriest of them all, foremost in all their games, and a favourite with all the maidens. He was very handsome, looked like a picture, and danced like an angel. Amongst the maidens was one, a charming and beautiful creature, who looked like wax, had hair like golden silk, and cherry-red lips, was a doll for size, and had coal-black, yes, raven-black eyes. Whoever saw her was ready to swoon, she was so lovely. Now Rosebud, for that was her name, was heartily fond of the handsome Hyacinth, for that was his name, and he loved her fit to die. The other children knew nothing of it. A violet told them of it first. The little house-cats had been quite aware of it, for the houses of their parents lay near each other. So when Hyacinth stood at night by his window, and Rosebud at hers, and the cats ran past mouse-hunting, they saw the two standing there, and often laughed and tittered so loud that they heard it and were offended. The violet told it in confidence to the strawberry, and she told it to her friend, the raspberry, who never ceased rasping when Hyacinth came along; so that by and by the whole garden and wood were in the secret, and when Hyacinth went out, he heard on all sides the cry: “Little Rosy is my posy!” This vexed him; but the next moment he could not help laughing from the bottom of his heart, when the little lizard came slipping along, sat down on a warm stone, waggled his tail, and sang–

“Little Rosebud, good and wise,
All at once has lost her eyes:
Taking Hyacinth for her mother,
Round his neck her arms she flings;
Then perceiving ’tis another–
Starts with terror?–no, but clings–
Think of that!–fast as before,
Only kissing all the more!”

Alas, how soon was the grand time over! There came a man out of strange lands, who had travelled wondrous far and wide, had a long beard, deep eyes, frightful eyebrows, and a strange garment with many folds, and inwoven with curious figures. He seated himself before the house of Hyacinth’s parents. Hyacinth at once became very inquisitive, and sat down beside him, and brought him bread and wine. Then parted he his white beard, and told stories deep into the night; and Hyacinth never stirred or tired of listening. This much they learned afterward, that he talked a great deal about strange lands, unknown countries, and amazingly wonderful things; stopped there three days, and crept with Hyacinth down into deep shafts. Little Rosebud execrated the old sorcerer pretty thoroughly, for Hyacinth was altogether absorbed in his conversation, and paid no heed to anything else, hardly even to the swallowing of a mouthful of food. At length the man took his departure, but left with Hyacinth a little book which no man could read. Hyacinth gave him fruit, and bread, and wine to take with him, and accompanied him a long way. Then he came back sunk in thought, and thereafter took up a quite new mode of life. Rosebud was in a very sad way about him, for from that time forward he made little of her, and kept himself always to himself. But it came to pass that one day he came home, and was like one born again. He fell on his parents’ neck and wept. “I must away to a foreign land!” he said: “the strange old woman in the wood has told me what I must do to get well; she has thrown the book into the fire, and has made me come to you to ask your blessing. Perhaps I shall be back soon, perhaps never more. Say good-bye to Rosebud for me. I should have been glad to have a talk with her; I do not know what has come to me: I must go! When I would think to recall old times, immediately come thoughts more potent in between; my rest is gone, and my heart and love with it; and I must go find them! I would gladly tell you whither, but do not myself know; it is where dwells the mother of things, the virgin with the veil; for her my spirit is on fire. Farewell!” He tore himself from them, and went out. His parents lamented and shed tears. Rosebud kept her chamber, and wept bitterly.

Hyacinth now ran, as fast as he could, through valleys and wildernesses, over mountains and streams, toward the land of mystery. Everywhere he inquired–of men and beasts, of rocks and trees,–after the sacred goddess Isis. Many laughed, many held their peace; nowhere did he get an answer. At first he passed through a rugged wild country; mists and clouds threw themselves in his way, but he rushed on impetuously. Then he came to boundless deserts of sand–mere glowing dust; and as he went his mood changed also; the time became tedious to him, and his inward unrest abated; he grew gentler, and the stormy impulse in him passed by degrees into a mild yet powerful attraction, wherein his whole spirit was dissolved. It seemed as if many years lay behind him.

And now the country became again richer and more varied, the air soft and blue, the way smoother. Green bushes enticed him with their pleasant shadows, but he did not understand their speech; they seemed indeed not to speak, and yet they filled his heart with their green hues, and their cool, still presence. Ever higher in him waxed that same sweet longing, and ever broader and juicier grew the leaves, ever louder and more jocund the birds and beasts, balmier the fruits, darker the heavenly blue, warmer the air, and more ardent his love. The time went ever faster, as if it knew itself near the goal.

One day he met a crystal rivulet, and a multitude of flowers, coming down into a valley between dark, columnar cliffs. They greeted him friendlily, with familiar words. “Dear country-folk,” said he, “where shall I find the sacred dwelling of Isis? Hereabouts it must be, and here, I guess, you are more at home than I.” “We also are but passing through,” replied the flowers; “a spirit-family is on its travels, and we are preparing for them their road and quarters. A little way back, however, we passed through a country where we heard her name mentioned. Only go up, where we came down, and thou wilt soon learn more.” The flowers and the brook smiled as they said it, offered him a cool draught, and went on their way. Hyacinth followed their counsel, kept asking, and came at last to that dwelling he had sought so long, which lay hid among palms and other rare plants. His heart beat with an infinite longing, and the sweetest apprehension thrilled him in this abode of the eternal seasons. Amid heavenly odours he fell asleep, for Dream alone could lead him into the holy of holies. In marvellous mode Dream conducted him through endless rooms full of strange things, by means of witching sounds and changeful harmonies. All seemed to him so familiar, and yet strange with an unknown splendour; then vanished the last film of the perishable as if melted into air, and he stood before the celestial virgin. Then he lifted the thin glistening veil, and–Rosebud sank into his arms. A far-off music surrounded the mysteries of love’s reunion and the outpouring of their longings, and shut out from the scene of their rapture everything alien to it.

Hyacinth lived a long time after with Rosebud and his happy parents and old playmates; and numberless grandchildren thanked the wonderful old wise woman for her counsel and her uprousing; for in those days people had as many children as they pleased. (Translated by George MacDonald. Found here).

Priestess Tarot Crowley

The veiled figure of Isis depicted by Lady Frieda Harris in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (1944)

As Robert Lee Wolff points out in The Golden Key (1961 New Haven: University of Yale Press, p.86), Hyacinth lifts the veil of Isis (Wisdom) and discovers Rosebud (Erotic love).


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A Milky Way Trapped in Stone

August 17, 2013


In this article I explored the cosmological dimensions of something as mundane as the herding of animals, finding in the paths of migratory and driven animals on earth the course of the stars and planets in the night sky. This manifestation of the old idea of the macrocosm and the microcosm, expressed in the phrase, ‘As above, so below’, is crystallised in the bluestones used to construct the original circle at Stonehenge, a structure I identify as integral to a pastoral cosmology. Remarking on this stone, with its white feldspar inclusions, the archaeologist Timothy Darvill uses a wonderful metaphor here to describe the quality of this stone – spotted dolerite – which unifies the celestial and mundane planes in a poetic way: ‘a rockbound equivalent of the stars of the night sky, a Milky Way trapped in stone’. Its astral character is emphasised by its deeper shade when freshly quarried or made wet.


Nine polished pieces of spotted dolerite from Preseli, showing the starry quality of this material.
Three nines of hillocks
On each hillock three nines of stakes:
To each stake three nines of polled, dun cows tied.

The ‘inner space’ of this rock can be seen extended towards infinity in this, the deepest image of the far Universe ever taken in visible light, the Hubble Extreme Deep Field – serendipitously, an image I  drew from the website of Jodrell Bank, the workplace of Colin, a character from Alan Garner’s novel, Boneland, who searches among the Pleiades for his lost sister, Susan.


The Hubble Extreme Deep Field (NASA, ESA, UCSC, Leiden Obs and the XDF Team). Image from here.

As suggested in ‘Till the Cows Come Home’, the bluestones from Mynydd Preseli likely followed the same route to Salibury Plain as many of the cows which were driven there in the Neolithic, conceivably being regarded as animate beings, as cows. For such a long journey, there would doubtless have been a few stops for refreshment along the way… Unfortunately, not here any more:

The Spotted Cow, North End Avenue, Portsmouth.

The Spotted Cow, North End Avenue, Portsmouth.





The citye of Is is issuant (atlanst!)

August 15, 2013


Bring about it to be brought about and it will be, loke, our lake lemanted, that greyt lack, the citye of Is is issuant (atlanst!), urban and orbal, through seep froms umber under wasseres of Erie.


Hwo! Hwy, dairmaidens? Ashtoreths, assay! Earthsigh to is heavened.

Finnegans Wake (601.4-9).

Isis unveiled

‘Meet the Mem, Avenlith, all viviparous out of couple of lizards. She just as fenny as he is fulgar. How laat soever her latest still her sawlogs come up all standing. Psing a psalm of psexpeans, apocryphul of rhyme! His cheekmole of allaph foriverever her allinall and his Kuran never teachit her the be the owner of thyself’ (FW 242).

Submerged for over a thousand years, the ancient gateway to the Nile, the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion, near Alexandria – ‘Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given!’ (FW 628.15) – was rediscovered in 2000. See here. These pictures have been replicated across the internet (I suspect they are © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation/Christoph Gerigk). Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), appears to celebrate the dispelling of the aura of the object through its mass production. What he is saying, however, according to this critical interpretation, is that the object is released from the hold of tradition to be reactivated in new contexts.

*I’ve also found out that the name Isis is a Hellenised version of the Egyptian goddess’s name, Aseut, drawing Issy/Iseult/Isolde of Chapelizod (‘couple of lizards’) deeper into the mysteries of the Chapel of Isis/Aseut.