Archive for January 2012
“Being conventional is worse than all other sins.” – Mary Nohl, the Witch
Whenever I visit my folks in Fox Point, Wisconsin, a North Shore suburb of Milwaukee, I make a point of walking down to the lake to go by the house at 7328 Beach Drive, popularly known as the “Witch’s House.” It stands behind a barb wire fence, surrounded by a striking collection of concrete and wood sculptures, some of them made from driftwood taken right off the beach.
It often feels strangely quiet down there. The vast expanse of nearby lake amplifies the pervading sense of emptiness on the clear winter days on which I often go to see it. The houses seem to pull back a little behind their big lawns, and people seem far off somehow, perhaps in part because the Witch’s House is something of an attraction, and nearby residents may prefer to do without the sightseers.
The sculptures themselves, saddled as they are with the witch association, may seem grotesque at first glance, like goblins or dragons from a children’s book. But, as is often the case with eccentric-looking characters, if you spend a little time with them, their personalities show through. Sure, some of them are a little weird, like the guy with the hat holding the big fish in his lap, but you would search the entire yard in vain for the slightest hint of malice or fear.
Take this dinosaur-looking guy, for example – any hint of danger is immediately eased by his affectionate playmate (click to enlarge).
When I lived in Fox Point, the story in circulation was that the witch’s husband was a merchant sailor on the Great Lakes, until his ship went down with all hands on board during a big storm. The witch, the story goes, was driven mad by grief.
The truth is more prosaic. In reality, Mary Nohl, our eponymous witch, was a reclusive artist of independent means, and if her art was eccentric, her biography is unremarkable in contrast.
Born in 1914 to a prosperous lawyer and an aspiring singer, Mary was already keeping watch for interesting cast-off junk she could play with by the age of five. She grew up in this very house, where she played with friends and built exotic forts, until she graduated and left home for art school in Chicago.
In 1936, Mary earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts combined degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. It was there she was trained to work in various media, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage, and it was there she discovered Dadaism and surrealism, which had a marked impact on her style.
She often traveled during those years but preferred not to stray too long. Three weeks was the ideal length of time for a trip, she said.
On one trip to Paris, she observed of Notre Dame cathedral, “If you believed in God it would have been a lovely place to pray.”
She was hired as an art teacher by the Baltimore County Public Schools, but she didn’t take to the work and resigned in 1941, returning to Milwaukee to live with her family. She briefly worked as a teacher at the local North Division High School, but soon gave it up.
For several years she owned and operated a ceramics studio on Green Bay Road, but it became increasingly evident that she enjoyed the work but not the business. She eventually closed the studio.
“Everything is improving at a great rate here.”
In 1960, Mary began to decorate the house that would become the canvas of her greatest work. She started small, but carried on and on, and gradually marked every aspect of the house, from the china and the crystal to the fixtures and the garage.
When her father died in 1961, Mary inherited the house and a lot of money besides, “too much for me ever to think about,” she said. And so, abandoning her efforts to find a fitting career, she began her life’s real work in earnest, working most days for many hours on sculpture, mosaic, or painting. Her primary creative period lasted until 1973, and most of the works now visible around her home date to this period.
Her diaries show her to be solitary but not introspective. She could be difficult to get along with, and sometimes showed herself to have tough bark on her. In 1960, when she learned of the death of her brother Max, with whom she had never gotten along, she noted in her diary, “New sensation to be an only child. I am sure Mom and Dad know it’s best this way.”
“I couldn’t live without all the things that keep washing up on the beach.”
There is something very childlike about Nohl’s work. Her house resembles what might happen if you gave a five-year-old an unlimited supply of crayons, playdough, and time, and let them completely re-do the house.
It is an art without constraint. She made what she liked, what she felt like making. In the resulting jungle of concrete and clay, we find a menagerie of joyous creatures of an archaic style and primitive type.
Mary drew from what was at hand, not just in terms of material, but with respect to images as well. We can detect certain exotic influences in her Easter Island concrete heads. And the superb paneled gable of her garage may suggest ancient Egypt, with its sun boats and Osiris-like reclined figures.
Her creations seem to signify something unknown, like an impressionistic facsimile of ancient ruins, perhaps belonging to a forgotten people devoted to a forgotten mythology. Consider this little monument, which she called her Pompeii.
The natural response to her enigmatic and suggestive work is is to mythologize the collection, to supply a referent for the symbolism so many of her pieces imply. I think this impulse helps accounts for the stories that have been attached to the Witch’s House.
It is striking that her friendly collection of figures have had such a creepy story attached. I gather the name “Witch’s House” is generally intended in a playful light. Not all witches are seen as malevolent, even in Milwaukee.
Still, I can’t help but feel that in the city’s conservative culture, something about Nohl’s eccentricity is in fact regarded as threatening.
In a way, the name has become a self-fulfilling prophesy – the House attracts sightseers, gawkers, and admirers, but also trespassers and vandals. Several of the wooden works that used to stand on the yard have been damaged or destroyed.
When Nohl passed away at the age of 87 in 2001, custody of her menagerie passed to the Kohler Foundation. A caretaker looks after the collection and feeds the dragon, but sadly, the interior of 7328 Beach Drive, and the many works of art it contains, remain inaccessible. Although it is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, I gather that the neighbors do not wish to see the house become a museum, and have fought plans to such an effect.
If this seems a bit miserly, though, it was the culture from which Mary sprung, and she unmistakably belonged to it. She never went far, for long.
I like the place and find most of her sculptures delightful. I like to imagine Mary living a contented and solitary life, surrounded by just the companions she needed and wanted, a cast of muppety monsters that brought people in from miles around, then kept them at arm’s length.
Most of the biographical and historical information in this article was drawn from the wonderful book Mary Nohl Inside & Outside, by Barbara Manger and Janine Smith, published by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation in 2008. It’s a great way to get to know the Witch a bit better, and to see not only the inside of her house, but her luminous paintings as well.
“Pilgramage to ‘witch’s house’ was a rite of passage,” by Jim Stingl. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Feb. 18, 2007.
All images (C) Barnaby Thieme unless otherwise noted.
My translation of Rilke’s first poem from The Book of Monastic Life. The original may be found here.
As the hour bows down to touch me
with a clear, metallic toll,
shaken by my senses, I feel, I can —
and I grasp the malleable day.
Nothing was complete before I saw it;
a particular, fixed becoming.
My glances are ripe, and to each,
like a bride, comes that for which he longs.
Nothing is too small for me, I love it nonetheless,
and paint it great and against a golden field,
and hold it high, and I do not know from whom
the soul is set free…
Image: Cologne Cathedral, by Barnaby Thieme.
Müller was a genius who deserves a much wider audience in the English-speaking world than he has currently found, and I hope this article will interest some of you.
Here’s an excerpt:
Born in Eppendorf in 1929, Müller spent his childhood under the shadow of the Nazi regime. In “The Father,” an early autobiographical prose-poem, he describes being woken from sleep when he was three years old:
In 1933, January 31 at 4 a. m., my father, a functionary of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, was arrested from his bed. I woke up, the sky outside the window black, noise of voices and footsteps. In the next room, books were thrown to the floor. I heard my father’s voice, higher than the other voices. I climbed out of bed and went to the door. Through a crack I saw how a man was hitting my father in the face. (1)
Two officers of the Nazi SA, the predecessor to the notorious SS, took his father to a concentration camp, where he was held for over a year for his socialist activities. Müller was shunned as the son of a criminal, and other boys in his village were not allowed to play with him.
After he visited the camp with his mother, he was haunted by the image of his father diminished behind the wire mesh fence, and later, by memories of walking for hours in bitter cold to meet his father upon his release.
I wish my father were a shark
Who tore to pieces forty whalers
(And in their blood I had learned to swim)….(2)
1) Müller H. A Heiner Müller Reader. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001. p. 14
2) ibid., p. 15
Two pending pieces of legislation, the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) in the House, and PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate, would, without exaggeration, destroy the Internet as we know it. These laws would require domain hosts to take down websites on the sole basis of an allegation that the website in question hosts material that infringes on copyright.
The history of copyright disputes is, of course, littered with cases in which copyright holders, through malice, ignorance, or intolerance of criticism, have issued threats and even launched legal action against perfectly legal uses of material.
Consider Stephen Joyce alleging that even memorizing portions of Finnegans Wake may constitute infringement, or take the case of the law firm Righthaven, which apparently exists solely in order to capitalize on suing on behalf of rights it does not even own.
Now imagine that litigious parties of this character are empowered by law to force takedowns, armed with nothing more than their assertion that material is infringing.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has provided a useful action page that gives quick access to contact information for your congressional representatives. Please take a minute to register your opposition to these odious pieces of legislation, and if you’re up for it, don’t forget to explain why removing the DNS provisions is not enough.
Picture of the original “Hear no Evil, see no evil, speak no evil motif” from the funerary complex of Tokugawa Ieyasu, copyright Barnaby Thieme.
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions…. Joel 2:28
Yesterday morning I awoke from a dream in which Socrates and the Dalai Lama were having the following dialog:
Socrates: So you will agree, then, that the function of naming is to connect the right word to the essence of a thing.
HHDL: That’s right.
Socrates: But in your system, things have no essence.
Socrates: So in your system, naming is impossible.
My dream Socrates, in a surprisingly Socratic style, assails the Dalai Lama’s anti-realist Madhyamaka philosophy with a reductio ad absurdum argument. How would the real Dalai Lama reply to such a charge? (1)
This morning I had a dream about two bishops arguing, and I woke up with a new framework for interpreting religious and mythological language. I’ve spent the day developing it, and it will certainly appear in future posts.
Where do dreams come from, and how can they provide us with new insight and ideas?
The Tibetan master Je Tsong Khapa is said to have achieved enlightenment in a dream. From Geshe Sonam Rinchen’s brief biography of Tsong Khapa:
One night Tsongkhapa dreamed that he was present at a gathering of famous Indian masters discussing the subtleties of the Madhyamika view. One of them, who was dark-skinned and tall and whom Tsongkhapa recognized in the dream as Buddhapalita, rose and, holding a volume in his hands, approached Tsongkhapa and joyfully blessed him by touching his head with the book. Tsongkhapa woke as it was getting light and opened his own Tibetan translation of Buddhapalita’s commentary at the page which he had been reading the day before. When he reread the passage he at once experienced a seminal insight into the nature of reality, which brought him the understanding that he had been seeking. (2)
The Tibetans have developed an elaborate dream yoga, by which meditators may induce lucid dreaming and perform meditation in their sleep. Tsong Khapa wrote instructions on dream yoga, in which the yogi meditates on clear light during sleep, at which time the coarse conceptual mind has naturally subsided to some large degree. “When one utilizes this as a path,” he writes, “one can induce an amazing experience of the clear light of sleep.” (3)
Tsong Khapa further explains that the process of falling asleep resembles the process by which the mind dissolves at the time of death, and the dream-state is similar to the intermediary state between lives called the Bardo, famously described by Karma Lingpa’s so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Tibetan dream yoga has been developed by dream researcher Stephen LaBerge into a technique for lucid dreaming which, if followed rigorously, has a high success rate in teaching practitioners to gain awareness and control of their dreams. LaBerge describes his work on lucid dreaming at Stanford:
I knew that earlier studies had demonstrated that the direction of dreamers’ physical eye movements during REM was sometimes exactly the same as the direction that they reported looking in their dreams. In one remarkable example reported by pioneer sleep and dream researcher Dr. William Dement, a dreamer was awakened from REM sleep after making a series of about two dozen regular left-right-left-right eye movements. He reported that he was dreaming about a table tennis game; just before awakening he had been watching a long volley with his dream gaze.
I also knew from my own experience that I could look in any direction I wished while in a lucid dream, so it occurred to me that I ought to be able to signal while I was having a lucid dream by moving my eyes in a pre-arranged, recognizable pattern. To test this idea, I spent the night at the Stanford Sleep Laboratory. I wore electrodes that measured my brain waves, eye movements, and muscle tone, which my colleague Dr. Lynn Nagel monitored on a polygraph while I slept.
During the night I had a lucid dream in which I moved my eyes left-right-left-right. The next morning, when I looked through the polygraph record, we found movement signals in the middle of a REM period…. This method of communication from the dream world has proven to be of inestimable value in the continued study of lucid dreams and dream physiology…. We have found that oneironauts can carry out all kinds of experimental tasks, functioning both as subjects and experimenters in the dream state. (4)
Freud famously called dreams the “royal road to the unconscious.” Jung believed that dreams not only reflect the individual unconscious, but a collective unconscious, or a repository of imagery common to all of humanity, formed by the same symbols and motifs as the great religious and mythological traditions of the world. Buddha taught:
All things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightening.
That is how to meditate on them,
That is how to observe them. (5)
Notes and References
(1) I consulted Georges Dreyfus’s Recognizing Reality to review Dharmakirti’s theory of reference, a canonical source His Holiness would surely take to be authoritative. The short version of what I found is that Dharmakirti does believe words, in referring to objects, gesture toward some “time-neutral” quality, but he has an elaborate epistemological theory that allows him to posit objects of reference as “shared fictions,” and thereby avoid positing universals. For Plato’s Socrates, reference entails essentialism; Dharmakirti takes the long way around this problem. (See Dreyfus G. Recognizing Reality. State University of New York Press. 1997. pp. 261 ff.)
(2) Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Lama Tsongkhapa’s Biography. Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. http://www.lamayeshe.com/index.php?sect=author&subsect=bio&id=37. Retrieved 01/07/2012.
(3) Mullin GH. Tsongkhapa’s Six Yogas of Naropa. Snow Lion Publications. 1996.
(4) LaBerge, S. and Howard Rheingold. Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. Ballantine Books. 1990. p. 24.
(5) Hahn TN. The Diamond that Cuts Trhough Illusion. Parallax Press. 1992. p. 25.
Symbolic motifs can help us trace the movements of peoples and ideas, as illustrated by the case of Herakles, who traveled from Greece to Japan.
In the last few posts, we have traced the diffusion of mythological and artistic motifs into Western culture from the Near Eastern civilizations of Mesopotamia and Anatolia, areas generally identified as the epicenter for the emergence of cities, writing, and agriculture.
Of course, in this day and age the word Western must be read with invisible scare quotes. A study of classical history quickly reveals that so-called Western civilization is deeply indebted to cultures that the Greeks would have considered Oriental.
One of the great thrills of intellectual history is discovering the degree to which cultural zones that one had previously considered to be independent show a remarkable degree of inter-penetration. Most cultures show a surprising degree of receptiveness to foreign elements, making the study of religious symbols enormously valuable. Mythological motifs are extremely robust and may persist without significant modification for millennia, long after languages like Latin or Sanskrit have evolved out of existence. By watching how symbolic motifs pass from culture to culture, we gain important evidence for the movements of peoples and ideas.
For the mythologist, then, symbols are like the half-sovereign coin that Leopold Bloom marks in James Joyce’s Ulysses, before spending it out into the sea of commerce, keeping watch for its return.
One of the key cultural boundaries that looms large in popular imagination is that separating the East and the West. We have overwhelming evidence for extensive contact between the Occident and the Orient extending far back into antiquity. Roman coins have been found in Vietnam, and the earliest iconic representations of Buddhism were in an essentially classical Greek style. This beautiful little Buddha Statue, carved in North India in the sixth or seventh century CE, was found in a bog near Helgö in Sweden, giving a sense of the range of the Scandinavian seamen of the Middle Ages.
If one takes the epicenter of Occidental culture to be classical Greece, and the epicenter of the great civilizations of the Orient to be India, then countless channels of connection are immediately evident. One must begin with the fact, universally accepted by linguists since the nineteenth century, that Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit all descend from a single lost language, referred to as Proto-Indo European. Many archaeologists currently follow a version of a theory first postulated by Maija Gimbutas, the famous historian of goddess-cultures, that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European were a nomadic people who originally came out of the Steppes of Russia east of the Black Sea (1).
The philologist M. L. West has analyzed symbols appearing in the philosophy, poetry, and literature of various Indo-European cultures to partially reconstruct the religious belief system of the Proto-Indo-European people, before it broke apart as the population spread into different Asian and European groups (2). To give but one example of the kind of light such analysis may shed on symbols, let’s consider an enigmatic symbol commonly found in Tantric Buddhism to this day, the vajra, as it is known is Sansrkit, or dorje in Tibetan.
The word vajra refers to thunderbolts, diamonds, or an indestructible quintessence. The iconographic symbol that is also called a vajra is prominently featured in contemplative Buddhist art as a representation of the active qualities of Buddha’s wisdom. As the title of the well-known Vajracchedika Sutra suggests, the vajra is akin to a “diamond that cuts through illusions.” But what is the origin of this odd implement?
The vajra first appears as the magical weapon or implement of the storm god Indra in one of the oldest surviving Indo-European texts, the Hindu scripture Rg Veda. For example, one Vedic hymn to Indra begins “Let me now sing the heroic deeds of Indra, the first that the thunderbolt-wielder performed. [“thunderbolt” = vajra] He killed the dragon and pierced an opening for the waters; he split open the bellies of mountains.” (3)
Through comparative analysis, West finds that many prominent Indo-European storm gods wield a similar special thunder-weapon, including Zeus with his thunderbolts, Thor with his storm-hammer Mjölnir, and the Avestin god Mithra with his demon-slaying vazra. (4)
A symbol like the vajra is all-but-incomprehensible until it is traced back to its root as a celestial weapon that penetrates and releases. Then its gradual symbolic evolution, by which it sheds its original aitiological value, becomes self-evident.
The relationship between classical Greek philosophy and the Upanishadic and Buddhist religious material appearing in India at the same time is a topic of monumental importance for intellectual history, and it deserves its own consideration in future posts. For now we will simply note that the doctrines of an endless round of retributive reincarnation broken by a combination of asceticism and contemplative practice appeared in both Greece and India, without antecedent and at the same time. (5)
All of this came to mind this morning when I stumbled upon an interesting article on the Tocharian language, an Indo-European language of western China. I was astonished to read that the Tocharian people have been attested in sources as diverse as the Roman author Plutarch, the Alexandrian author Ptolemy, and the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang (6). All of this suggests to my mind that if a great civilization on the order of China or Rome had ever blossomed in Central Asia, one that persisted and gave lasting shape to the dense zone of interaction that has been in flux for thousands of years, we would not currently think of so-called “eastern” and “western” thought as somehow fundamentally different.
It was a truism among many comparative scholars in the twentieth century, including Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, that the westerner studies eastern religions at great peril, as the religious idioms of the east are intended to produce experiences that the western ego has not evolved to assimilate. I think a historical difficulty in drawing a meaningful line between east and west should pose a serious challenge to this view. I argued in a similar vein in “Nondualism as First Philosophy” that at this point in history, western philosophers can ignore Asian philosophy only to their detriment.
This fact was once pointed out to an acquaintance of mine by no less an authority than the Dalai Lama. My scholar friend asked His Holiness if he should be concerned about studying “eastern religions” as a westerner. His Holiness, with characteristic insight, replied Buddhism is actually closer to European culture than to Tibetan culture. European culture and Buddhism both derive from a common Indo-European source. When Buddhism came to Tibet, it entered a Sino-Burmese linguistic zone of a completely different character, and the native Bon religion had no resemblance to Buddhism whatsoever.
Let’s close with a look at this marvelous image from Wikimedia commons, which illustrates the process of modification by which the Greek hero Herakles, armed with his iconic club, was gradually modified as he passed eastward through Central Asia and China to Japan, where he is now known as Shukongoshin, and may be seen in Buddhist temples to this day.
On the left is a Greek statue of Herakles from the Louvre, and moving rightward (and eastward, geographically), we see a Greco-Bactrian coin showing Herkles, a Greco-Buddhist depiction of the protector-god Vajrapani, and the Japanese Shukongoshin on the right.
Update: After completing this post I learned of this excellent article Heracles in the East by I-Tien Hsing, translated by William G. Cromwell. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the eastward journey and transformation of Heracles. (April 6, 2012)
(1) q.v, for example, Anthony DW. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language; How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the World. Princeton University Press. 2007.
(2) West ML. Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford University Press. 2007.
(3) Rig Veda, I. 42, from Doniger W. The Rig Veda. Penguin Classics. 1981. p 149
(4) West, 2007, pp. 251 ff.
(5) Two important works treating this question are:
McEvilley T. The Shape of Ancient Thought; Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. Allworth Press. 2002.
West ML. Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient. Oxford University Press. 2001.
(6) Narain AK, “Indo-Europeans in Inner Asia”. in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. ed. Denis Sinor. Cambridge University Press. 1990. pp 151-176.