History, Philosophy, Religion, Art, Science

56:07 Van Gogh’s Infinity

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I was recently reading Pascal Bonafoux’s excellent biographical sketch of Van Gogh when I came across this arresting line, drawn from one of the artist’s letters: “Painting harnesses infinity.”

The line stuck with me as I worked my way through Taschen’s two-volume Van Gogh and reviewed most of his surviving work. These three words seemed to epitomize his entire passion and endeavor as an artist – to render a vision of infinity in the everyday by the careful, controlled amplification of sensual experience.

Whether painting a chair, a pair of shoes, or a sunflower, he could see and show us what it is that is alive in that sunflower, shoe, or chair, and in ourselves.


William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

I’m the kind of person who is incapable of reading any fewer than four books at any one time. It’s a habit I picked up in college, and I’ve never lost it – the rewards are too great. I’ve learned to expect unforeseen synergies and reflections that echo across time and space, unifying disparate domains of inquiry into a single insight. It’s what comes of comparative study.

So I wasn’t surprised when I moved from Van Gogh to Eternity’s Sunrise, Leo Damrosch’s outstanding new biographical study of William Blake, to find precisely those resonances. I could imagine no keener or more precise gloss on the function of Van Gogh’s art than Blake’s poetry.

Take these lines from his early work There is No Natural Religion:

Man’s Perceptions are not bounded by Organs of Perception; he perceives more than Sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.

Reason, or the Ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.

The Bounded is loathed by its possessor. The same dull round, even of a Universe, would soon become a Mill with complicated wheels.

If the Many become the same as the Few, when possess’d, ‘More! More!’ is the cry of a mistaken soul: less than All cannot satisfy Man.

If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, Despair must be his Eternal lot.

The Desire of Man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite, and himself Infinite.

He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.

God becomes as we are, that we may be as He is.

Van Gogh helps us to see the infinite in all things.

This morning I was out in Redwood Shores in California and saw this landscape – the kind of view I normally wouldn’t think twice about.


I couldn’t help but see the cypress trees and fields of Van Gogh’s Arles.



“I do my best,” he wrote to his brother Theo. “I draw, not to annoy people, but to amuse them, or to make them see things that are worth observing and that not everybody knows.”

Written by Mesocosm

October 15, 2016 at 2:58 pm

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52:06 – John Heartfield: Politics as Art

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I destroy the drawers of the brain, and those of social organization: to sow demoralisation everywhere, and throw heaven’s hand into hell, hell’s eyes into heaven, to reinstate the fertile wheel of a universal circus in the Powers of reality, and the fantasy of every individual. – Dada Manifesto, Tristan Tzara

Sometimes you get lucky, walking into a museum. It’s one of the best reasons for museum-going – the opportunity to chance upon something marvelous and unexpected, like the time I happened upon a huge retrospective of Bill Viola’s artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago. I stopped in between trains on a cross-country journey, and my life was unexpectedly changed.

I had a similar experience, stumbling into a gallery of photomontage works by the Dadaist political artist John Heartfield at the Tate Modern in London in 2011.

Imagine having the courage to create a piece like this in 1935, while hiding for your life from the Gestapo:


“Also a Propaganda Minister” proclaims this leering montage of Hitler imploring a coquettish Goebbels, looking like two figures at a high school dance. The caption below reads “Hitler: ‘Goebbels, Goebbels, give me my millions back!”

There is so much scorn in this work, one can easily see why Heartfield was number five on the Gestapo’s most wanted list in Czechoslovakia.

To me this work is like the sol niger of the medieval alchemist – the black sun epitomizing the Great Work, embodying the transmutation of base matter into spirit. The brilliance of its humor is directly proportional to the ponderous darkness of its subject, and its defiance sounds a clarion call to retain one’s own character, and one’s own sense of life, even in the face of crushing forces of silence. It’s a heroic gesture.

The son of a socialist father and activist mother, Helmut Herzfeld was born in Schmargendorf, near Berlin. In a characteristic display of international solidarity and contempt for prevailing political sentiments, he changed his name to John Heartfield at the height of World War I in 1916. The following year he joined the Berlin Dada club, and for the next 15 years he worked as an artist, collaborating with luminaries such as Bertolt Brecht.

After the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the Nazis came to his apartment to arrest him on Good Friday. He escaped by leaping from his balcony and hiding in a trash bin. He fled to Czechoslovakia, then to London, returning to East Germany in 1950 and remaining there until his death in 1968.

This 1934 piece reads “As in the Middle Ages … so in the Third Reich!”


Further Resources

Written by Mesocosm

October 8, 2016 at 7:12 am

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Yup’ik Animal Mask 52:05

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This week I want to take a quick look at a beautiful mask from the remarkable collection of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver. If you ever find yourself in the area, it is well worth making the trip – their collection of art of the Pacific Northwest will leave you gaping in wonder and disbelief.

The Yup’ik are an Eskimo people native to southwest Alaska, and their wonderful tradition of wooden mask-making has been attested by anthropologists for more than a century.

What we have here is a human face with a toothy mouth turned down in a frown. Two concentric loops project forward and enclose the face, and the whole is set squarely in the center of the body of a deer. Decorative elements radiate out from the center, including feathers, several carved fish, a wooden hand, and a lower leg with foot. Several of the feathers are capped with wooden pegs.

Yup’ik masks have been used in a variety of secular and religious contexts, including preparation for hunt, and shamanic dances held during the long, dark winter months. For more on masked shamanic dances in the Pacific Northwest, see Dancing at Time Zero.

According to the sources I have reviewed, many elements of this mask are common, such as the toothy down-turned mouth, the radial bands, and the very restrained use of colored paint. But the individual meaning of these elements varies substantially depending on the use to which the mask was put by its creator. They sometimes express elements of a myth that were recounted, or they may have a ceremonial meaning tied to a petitionary end, such as the desire for a good hunt.

Since we have no context or provenance for this piece, we can only speculate about its meaning. What do you see in this piece? It might be fun to formulate your own ideas before I share some of my thoughts.

My own provisional interpretation finds great significance in the placement of the face, the center of awareness and the personal consciousness, in the middle of the concentric bands, from which various signs of life project.

The circle, evocative of the endless path of the stars and the heavens, is associated with the cosmic cycle in many cultures – take, for example, the ouroboros symbol we looked at in our last piece on Gravity’s Rainbow. The circle conveys the recurring temporal round of the seasons, evocative of the horizon that rings around us, open to the sky.

So reading from the center outwards, we have the individual ego at the heart of the cycle, and set in the heart of a food animal (deer), projecting symbols of human activity (feet, hands), then more food animals (fish). In this I see the individual in the round of life and death found in the mythology of many hunting cultures, uniting the dual culture of life-giving and life-taking in the uniting sign of a single circle.

It reminds me in fact of a classic Tibetan motif in their religious painted scrolls or thangkas, called the bhavacakra, or wheel of existence: 

In this motif we have the endless cycle of death and rebirth symbolized in a series of concentric zones subdivided into bands by similar radiating lines. At the center of the cycle is the driving force of the endless cycle of reincarnation as understood by Buddhism, represented pictorially by the snake, the pig, and cock, which represent the three root afflictions of anger, ignorance, and attachment, respectively.

We also see transmigrating souls moving up and down in the wheel, the six realms of existence, and the twelve links of dependent arising, and the whole is encircled by Yama, the Lord of Death, who encompasses the transience of all that exists within his realm.

Both the mask and the thangka depict the projection of the cosmos out from the center of the ego in a round of birth and death, with the individual firmly embedded within it.

But if a symbolic resonance may be detected, the specifics of the mask remain nonetheless obscure. It would be plausible to interpret it as a mask related to a ceremony for the hunt, or a mask expressive of a human transformation into a meat animal, possibly as part of an etiological myth explaining why humans have the right to hunt their pray. Both would be consistent with Yup’ik traditions.

Additional Resources 

Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2016 at 7:50 am

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52:04 It’s Postmodern Time! Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

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“She has turned her face, more than once, to the Outer Radiance and simply seen nothing there. And so each time has taken a little more of the Zero into herself.” – Gravity’s Rainbow

ouroboros-benzeneGravity’s Rainbow is a novel about nothing. More specifically, it chronicles the emergence and proliferation of disembodied systems of mechanized thought and control which have no ultimate ground, and no ultimate purpose.

And this indeed is how the book is written – continually positing and then undermining its own plots, moods, and meanings, until the reader, like many of the book’s characters, are ineluctably thrown back into paranoid uncertainty regarding the meaning of the book, and of life itself.

The novel takes place in the final days of World War II, primarily in the European theater. Pynchon persuasively locates the roots of postmodernity in the strategic, bureaucratic, mechanized fragmentation of information and communication as it was collectively expressed on unprecedented scale by the confounded pedants, zealots, and office workers who prosecuted the war in the midst of the shattered European heritage.

In one reading, the novel is a grotesque celebration of the totality of the collective psyche insofar as it had advanced at that time. Conflicts, patterns, and mysteries arise, only to be meticulously deconstructed in a frenzy of verbose rhapsodizing, and the action moves on without any sense of progress or closure to the next theater of action. The story unfolds with a mechanical logic while signs and meanings arise, multiply, and vanish, much like the war itself:

The War needs electricity. It’s a lively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes – gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival.

Pynchon suggests the rocket as the sign of a new kind of worship for a new kind of God, and its handiwork is a cathedral to nothing. The bombed-out architecture of the London Blitz is described more than once as openwork, likening the networks of cracks and fissures to the tracery of Gothic cathedrals. How this is to be read – as atheism, nihilism, solipsism, or an apophatic theology which denies the knowability of God – is held in permanent suspension, signifying a crisis of meaning that still holds the Western tradition in its grip.

In hoc signo vignes,” Constantine saw in his prophetic dream of the Cross on the advent of Christianity’s ascension in Rome: “By this sign, conquer.” Thus, Pynchon:

Outside, through the dirty periscope, gnarled fog unloosens from the bright zone of frost that belly-bands the reared and shadowy rocket, where the liquid-oxygen tank’s being topped off. Trees press close: overhead you see barely enough sky for the rocket’s ascent. The Bodenplatte—concrete plate laid over strips of steel—is set inside a space defined by three trees, blazed so as to triangulate the exact bearing, 260°, to London. The symbol used is a rude mandala, a red circle with a thick black cross inside, recognizable as the ancient sun-wheel from which tradition says the swastika was broken by the early Christians, to disguise their outlaw symbol. Two nails are driven into the tree at the center of the cross. Next to one of the painted blaze-marks, the most westerly, someone has scratched in the bark with the point of a bayonet the words in HOC SIGNO VINGES. No one in the battery will admit to this act.

Note that again we see life’s primary action proceeding from the root of the world tree – it turns up again and again, wholly unlooked for.


Gravity’s Rainbow is famously about the V-2 rocket, but it is no less about the concept of zero, which serves as the point of origin and return.

In one arresting image, the zero is imagined as the ouroboros, or serpent devouring its own tail. It forms a zero with its very body, in an age-old symbol of the self-subsisting character of life itself.

In a well-known legend, the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé is said to have discovered the chemical structure of benzene after a night of fitful sleep while he was feverishly working on the problem. He had a vivid dream about the ouroboros, and awoke with the realization that the benzene molecule forms a ring. Pynchon uses this striking image:

Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity — most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to being with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life.

This is one of many overpowering images that seem to encompass the totality of the book in a single sign. These images frequently appear to the book’s enormous cast of characters, who are often paranoid, drugged, stupid, or mentally unstable, and who expend enormous energy gratuitously interpreting and theorizing about their meaning.

The central puzzle involves a mysterious link between the sexual conquests of Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrup and the sites of V-2 bombings in London during the Blitz. The sexualized/phallic character of the rocket plays like a book-length parody of the German Romantic motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which goes back at least as far Gottfried von Strassburg’s 13th-century masterpiece Tristan, but is better known today as the core motif of Wagner’s great opera. In this symbol, love and death are combined in a single image, uniting temporal existence in a dual expression of generation and extinction.

Obvious musicological parallels between Wagner’s method in Tristan und Isolde and this book may be drawn, particularly regarding the opera’s famous overture based on the “Tristan chord.” It progresses but never resolves, leaving the listener in a constant state of suspension, waiting closure like Vladimir and Estragon.

For Wagner, this endless chromatic progression implies the insatiable character of romantic love, but Pynchon elaborates it into an image of metaphysical estrangement. I believe the fact that the word Liebestod never appears in this book is a minor joke.

Music and its meaning is obviously of interest to Pynchon. One of my favorites of several ongoing philosophical arguments in the book is the debate between Gustav Kerl and Säure on music. Kerl argues that the new “atonal” style of Schoenberg and his disciples is the future of music, while Säure unapologetically argues for the sentimental music of the 19th century. In this scene, they wrangle over the Row, which is the basic compositional unit for Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition:

“You’re caught in tonality,” screams Gustav. “Trapped. Tonality is a game. All of them are. You’re too old. You’ll never move beyond the game, to the Row. The Row is enlightenment.”

“The Row is a game too.” Säure sits grinning with an ivory spoon, shoveling incredible piles of cocaine into his nose[..].. “Sound is a game, if you’re capable of moving that far, you adenoidal closet-visionary. That’s why I listen to Spohr, Rossini, Spontini, I’m choosing my game, one full of light and kindness. You’re stuck with that stratosphere stuff and rationalize its dullness away by calling it ‘enlightenment.’ You don’t know what enlightenment is, Kerl, you’re blinder than I am.”

This struggle between the human and the abstract may tell us something about a divide within the author. This book is, after all, extremely abstruse, and the very names of its characters often calculated to keep us at a distance in high Brechtian mode. Characters often evidence little interiority or personality and strike me as little more than pieces on a great board, or ciphers for theories or ideas.

Yet the interiority that Pynchon denies to his characters is evident in the voice of the novel itself, and may be sensed in how it focuses its attention. Gravity’s Rainbow often betrays its author’s deep concern with the real human cost of bad ideas, evidenced by numerous lacerating jibes at war, such as “Don’t forget the real business of War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals.”

One can only read real human feeling in such bitterness – a sentiment that the author clearly goes to considerable lengths bury in his book, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.


Although Gravity’s Rainbow is obviously a work of genius, in many important respects it is not a book that I enjoyed reading or would lightly recommend. It pointedly and continually poses deep aesthetic and interpretive challenges to the reader, and not always in a manner I found rewarding or enjoyable.

Indeed, it is often unpleasant. Like a bad acid trip, the book inventories the repressed contents of the European collective unconscious at punishing length, with numerous hateful scenes of debauchery and vulgarity that to me were exceedingly tedious – but not as tedious as the witless lyrics that fill this book in inexplicable songs that crop up repeatedly, caricatures of something that I think never existed. Here is one of the first:

Colder than he nipples on a witch’s tit!
Colder than a bucket of penguin shit!
Colder than the hairs of a polar bear’s ass!
Colder than the frost on a champagne glass!

The point of these hateful songs is beyond quite me.

Pynchon revels in obscenity, and the book is crowded with long, repugnant descriptions of scatological fantasies and S&M orgies that left me equally revolted and mystified.

Perhaps these scenes serve the artist’s need to deal with the totality of humanity’s physical and psychic life in the same way that the novel Ulysses unflinchingly accompanying Leopold Bloom into the outhouse. But Joyce was concerned with people in their totality, while Pynchon’s use of the Freudian Id feels arbitrary to me – neither illuminating or amusing. To be sure, if I never see the word “cunt” in print again, it will be too soon.


Many of us are unlucky in the year of our birth, and it can be a diverting meditation to ruminate on which time one would have preferred. Perhaps one would have been happier living in Elizabethan London, rubbing elbows with bawdy playwrights and playing high-stakes political chess. Or one might have lived in Baghdad during its Golden Age, gathering in the great mosques alongside Neoplatonist philosophers and Central Asian spice merchants bound for the Tarim Basin.

When I play this idle game, I would like to have come of age in the 1920s, which saw the appearance of Ulysses, “The Waste Land,” Being and Time, To the Lighthouse, The Magic Mountain, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Bliss it would have been in that dawn to be alive, but to be young would have been very heaven!

Alas, I’m a castaway on the rocky shores of the late 20th century, having formed my worldview within the horizon of postmodernism, and I can only look back with wistful longing at the golden age that lies almost within reach. And in some sense, we are still in the wake of the great creative age of modernism, for the questions and concerns that haunt postmodernity were all well known to the modernist. It is only that the center of gravity has shifted – where the modernist was creative, the postmodernist is critical – and that is the tragedy.

parmigianino_-_madonna_dal_collo_lungo_-_google_art_projectI sometimes think this must have been what it was like to grow up in the time of Mannerism, so close to the Italian Renaissance, and to see the profound epiphany of Da Vinci and the theophany of Michelangelo debased into Mannerism in works like Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck.

But postmodernism is where we live, and if I doubted it before, I could doubt it no longer, having made my way through Thomas Pynchon’s novel, for it is just like the present, only more so.


I have three primary complaints about postmodernism. The first is that its fixation on a critical posture makes it reactive and alienates it from a truly generative creative impulse. It elaborates and responds, but never affirms, never becomes what Nietzsche refers to in Zarathustra as “a wheel rolling out of its own center.”

My second problem is with postmodernism’s critical engagement with epistemology and metaphysics. The central theoretical preoccupation of postmodernity is how to deal with structure and meaning in a world devoid of any transcendental basis or framework for understanding either. In my view, structure and value are not arbitrary, but emergent. That is, they arise from the interaction of elements of complex dynamic systems, and cannot be reduced to the individual elements.

The absence of a reductive or transcendental ground poses a crisis of meaning to the postmodernist, who sees values as arbitrary, historicized creations of human culture. In my view, they are not arbitrary, they follow the logic of systems. This problem was already largely solved in postmodernism’s heyday: Bertalanffy wrote General System Theory in 1968, and Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action appeared in 1982.

My third problem with postmodernism is that it’s often boring. I have never encountered a postmodern work that did not wear out its welcome, because once the rules of the game have been established, it can only continue to play, embracing its arbitrary quality as an aesthetic virtue. The reader absorbs the point, and then they’re just along for the ride while the artist pontificates like a Free Jazz soloist.

Gravity’s Rainbow would have benefited enormously from aggressive editing – I believe it would have worked far better at 400 pages than 750, and it was often tedious, repetitive, and dull.


I could imagine no more fitting testimony to Gravity’s Rainbow timeliness and success than the fact that it was literally awarded no Pulitzer Prize.

That is, the Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction unanimously voted for Gravity’s Rainbow to receive the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but their selection was vetoed by the board, and no prize was awarded that year. If you view the Pulitzer website, look for the Fiction award for 1974, and you will find nothing there.

Written by Mesocosm

September 24, 2016 at 12:23 pm

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52:03 Picasso’s Le Printemps

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Pablo Picasso’s Le Printemps hangs in the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

A woman sleeps on the ground while a male goat rears up to eat the proffered leaf. Her expression conveys ease and rest. Is that her hair in a dark cloud around the root of the tree, or the tree itself?

She appears as the passive principle, life-nourishing and supporting the activity of the goat by her being, not by her activity.

One thinks, of course, of the artist, so inspired by feminine beauty, and driven in his later years to numerous sexual liaisons with much younger women. This gendered dialectic may reasonably pose a problem for the contemporary observer and is open to critique, though it’s perhaps worth noting that the female figure, at least, remains human.

It’s interesting to compare this week’s piece with the Celtic statue of Artio we looked at previously, where many of the same elements combine in a similar way to convey a different meaning. In this case it is the woman directly linked to the tree’s root, not the animal.

The stylized presentation of the forms reminds me of the late Gothic style, where figures are arrayed to amplify their allegorical function. I feel echoes, for example, of works like van der Weyden’s Deposition, where even realistic figures are presented in stylized poses to convey the real truths that were of primary concern to the artist. Or one thinks of the allegorical paintings of William Blake.

Clearly we’ve moved through the enhanced subjectivity that inspired the Impressionists and on into something quite different.

And, naturally, one thinks of Stravinsky. If you have a moment, you might want to spend a little time with Pina Bausch’s almost overpowering interpretation of his Sacre du Printemps.



Written by Mesocosm

September 17, 2016 at 6:58 am

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Hugh Eakin on the Destruction of Antiquities in Syria

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Although the gratuitous destruction of antiquities by IS has garnered almost all public attention, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and a lot of the destruction that’s being largely ignored would be far easier to prevent. According to Hugh Eakin’s compelling article Ancient Syrian Sites; A Different Story of Destruction in the New York Review of Books:

As long ago as December 2014, well before ISIS captured Palmyra, the United Nations released a report showing that nearly three hundred historic sites in Syria had been damaged since the beginning of the war, most of them by groups other than ISIS. Of these, twenty-four had been “totally destroyed” by different militias or by the Assad regime itself, including twenty-two in Aleppo alone. As of this year, all of the six sites in Syria that were supposedly protected by UNESCO World Heritage status have been damaged, including, along with Palmyra, the Krak des Chevaliers, Syria’s most important crusader castle, the remains of the Hellenistic city of Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates, and the Roman city of Bosra. A number of the destroyed monuments, like the Temple of Bel frieze at Palmyra or the majestic, eleventh-century minaret in Aleppo, toppled amid fierce fighting in early 2013, were unique works with no known parallels.

For many Syrians, the international response has been baffling. While speaking constantly of ISIS, whose destructive acts they can do little about, Western leaders and cultural officials have mostly overlooked the grave damage that is occurring in many other parts of Syria—often in areas where preventive steps can be taken.

This reminds me of little-noticed destruction of key sites in Iraq, such as when the US army used the ruins of Babylon as a military base in the invasion of Iraq, or when unexcavated ground at the same site was unceremoniously dug up and used for an oil pipeline.

Eakin also highlights the importance of supporting vital local efforts to preserve artifacts in war zones, and calls for these efforts to be directly supported. For example:

During the civil war in Beirut (1975–1990), when the National Museum of Beirut was on the front lines of the conflict, it was the museum’s own curator, Emir Maurice Chehab, who saved much of the collection, including Phoenician sarcophagi and monumental statuary, by encasing them in concrete in the basement. In Afghanistan, the Bamiyan Buddhas were lost, despite huge international outcry; but the National Museum’s Bactrian Hoard—more than 20,000 extraordinary gold, silver, and ivory objects from a Bronze Age burial site—was quietly saved, thanks to the courage and ingenuity of a group of Afghan curators who kept them hidden for years in a vault under the Central Bank in Kabul. And in Timbuktu, when jihadists overran the city in 2012, intent on wiping out the city’s extraordinary medieval Islamic heritage, it was local librarians who spirited away to safety thousands of rare manuscripts—by truck and canoe.

The whole article is quite thought-provoking – I highly recommend it.

Written by Mesocosm

September 16, 2016 at 6:45 am

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52:02 Humbaba of the Cedar Forest

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This week’s artifact is a small clay mask of the Sumerian mythological figure Humbaba, which comes to us from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk. It dates to around the second millennium BCE, and is housed at the British Museum.


Humbaba is primarily remembered as an antagonist in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most engaging and imaginative pieces of literature from the ancient world. If any reader hasn’t had the pleasure of making its acquaintance, I enthusiastically recommend Stephen Mitchell’s fine rendering in his  Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Mitchell does the casual reader the favor of smoothing out the ragged text, which is pocked by lacunae, presenting it as a graceful running narrative.

The heart of the epic is the fast friendship between the Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and the wild man Enkidu. When our story opens, the people of Uruk lament that the king has no respect for the social order and runs amok among the people, taking what he will and generally acting in a dreadful manner. The gods hear their prayers, deciding that someone of his verve requires a foil, a companion against whom he can wrangle, and with whom he can adventure.

After various machinations, Gilgamesh meets, fights, and eventually befriends Enkidu, a true child of nature who has never been tamed or subdued by the arts of civilization.

After declaring their mighty friendship, the two warriors resolve to set out to the cedar forest sacred to the great god Enlil, and there to face and slay the forest guardian Humbaba. So they travel beyond the fields they know, and after many adventures and a series of oracular dreams, they come to the forbidding forest, to meet and challenge their foe.

Humbaba has long been regarded in the scholarship as a figure of ambiguity. He is accused by our heroes of being a diabolical force that they are tasked to destroy, and he does seem to have a horrible, ogre-like appearance. But he also appears as the guardian of the forest and sacred to the gods. His slaying cannot but impress the reader as wanton, and is if to amplify the point, once the heroes have slain him, they lay waste to the precious cedar forests with their axes.

I often wonder if Humbaba was the inspiration for the Forest God in Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful film Princess Mononoke. Both figures embody an ambivalent status as lord of life and death.


In 2011, an important new clay tablet came to the attention of scholars. It contains a previously-unknown portion of the Gilgamesh epic, and sheds new light on the character of Humbaba and his forest. A full translation and discussion may be found in the fascinating short paper Back to the Cedar Forest by F. N. H. Al-Rawi and A. R. George.

The passage describes the entrance of Gilgamesh and Enkidu into the forest in one of the “very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape.” Here is a short excerpt; the remainder may be read in the paper cited above:

They stood there marveling at(?) the forest,
observing the height of the cedars,
observing the way into the forest.
Where Ḫumbaba came and went there was a track,
the paths were in good order and the way was well trodden.
They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain,
dwelling of gods, throne-dais of goddesses:
[on the] face of the land the cedar was proffering its abundance,
sweet was its shade, full of delight.
[All] tangled was the thorny undergrowth, the forest a thick canopy,
cedars (and) ballukku-trees were [so entangled,] it had no ways in.
For one league on all sides cedars [sent forth] saplings,
cypresses […] for two-thirds of a league.
The cedar was scabbed with lumps (of resin) [for] sixty (cubits’) height,
resin [oozed] forth, drizzling down like rain,
[flowing freely(?)] for ravines to bear away.
[Through] all the forest a bird began to sing:
[…] were answering one another, a constant din was the noise,
[A solitary(?)] tree-cricket set off a noisy chorus,
[…] were singing a song, making the … pipe loud.
A wood pigeon was moaning, a turtle dove calling in answer.
[At the call of] the stork, the forest exults,
[at the cry of] the francolin, the forest exults in plenty.
[Monkey mothers] sing aloud, a youngster monkey shrieks:
[like a band(?)] of musicians and drummers(?),
daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of Ḫumbaba.

This particular mask is inscribed on the back with a cuneiform inscription pertaining to rites of divination. Its features are traced from one long, continuous coil, suggesting viscera that were probably used in the associated rites. You can see the inscription on the British Museum research website here.

Written by Mesocosm

September 10, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized