"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

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Truth and Beauty

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"Girl with a Mandolin", Pablo Picasso

“Girl with a Mandolin”, Pablo Picasso

From Thomas Mann’s “On Schopenhauer,” translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter:

“The pleasure we take in a metaphysical system, the gratification purveyed by the intellectual organization of the world into a closely reasoned, complete, and balanced structure of thought, is always of a pre-eminently aesthetic kind. It flows from the same source as the joy, the highest and ever happy satisfaction we get from art, with its power to shape and order its material, to sort out life’s manifold confusions so as to give us a clear and general view.

“Truth and beauty must always be referred the one to the other. Each by itself, without the support given by the other, remains a very fluctuating value. Beauty that has not truth on its side and cannot have reference to it, does not live in it and through it, would be an empty chimera — and ‘What is truth?’ Our conceptions, created out of the phenomenal world, out of a highly conditioned point of view, are, as a critical and discriminating philosophy admits, applicable in an immanent, not in a transcendent sense.”

Written by Mesocosm

February 15, 2015 at 9:26 am

Posted in Ephemera

Two Renegades

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The art of reading consists to a large degree in developing the ability to find works to which you will respond deeply.

As I’ve tried out my new reading chair, I’ve discovered profound rewards in reading two under-appreciated geniuses of the twentieth century, the playwright Heiner Müller and the Tibetan “renegade monk” Gendun Choephel. Although their backgrounds could not be more dissimilar, they were kindred spirits – relentless independent thinkers who were able to drink deeply from their respective traditions, and to let those energies and ideas pour through their own creative processes, without being overwhelmed or determined by them.

Reading a series of interviews with Müller, compiled in the Semiotext(e) edition Germania, one encounters the fascinating perspective of an intellectual who remained in East Germany by choice, not as a dogmatist, but as an extremely resourceful analyst of history and culture.

For Müller, the Berlin Wall was one of the great monuments of the world. Here, you could come and see it – this is our historical situation, and it’s right there, in concrete. The world that he foresaw after the disintegration of the detente between the US and the Soviet Union was one in which history would cease to exist, not because things would stop happening, but because it would no longer be possible to describe events in a way that made sense.

Gendun Choephel was brought up in one of the last generations to go through traditional training in the monastic universities of Tibet. His prodigious powers of debate were notorious, and he had a tendency to argue against traditional Buddhist doctrine with a tenacity and insight that stunned his contemporaries. In one instance, he shocked his teacher into silence with a virtuosic proof that Buddhahood was impossible, and was subsequently beaten up by some of his fellow monks who tried to force him to recant.

I can’t help but remember Stephen Dedalus being beaten up at Clongowes for praising Byron over Tennyson in “Portrait of the Artist.”

It is extremely rare to find someone deeply immersed in Tibetan scholasticism who is nonetheless not programmatically determined by its traditions, capable of asking real and penetrating questions of long-accepted conclusions. His interest led him into a Quixotic attempt to help modernize and democratize Tibet, which primarily seems to have resulted in getting him thrown into the dungeon of the Potala Palace, where the young Dalai Lama XIV was in residence.

When the Dalai Lama reached his majority, his first act was to declare general amnesty, and Choephel was released, a broken man addicted to opium and drink, who lived just long enough to see the Chinese army march into Lhasa. He died three weeks later.

His newly-translated book Grains of Gold is a masterpiece and is to my knowledge completely unique in Tibetan literature. It consists primarily of his travel log as he spent more than a decade traveling through India, visiting the sights, and confronting the vast gulf separating the heavily-mythologized perception of the Land of Sages held by his compatriots and the realities of a post-Mughal colonial state. His travels and observations are mixed with a heady blend of lyrical descriptions, including a proclivity for quoting the Sanskrit poet and playwright Kālidāsa, one of my most-cherished literary authors.

Curiously parallel, both men drank from the same well, and were alert to different concerns. Müller recalls attending a production of one of his own plays in Cologne, in which a dialog was staged between a man and a woman, and every time war or murder was mentioned, the man would throw a cake between the legs of the woman. I was immediately vividly reminded of Choephel’s account of a Nepali king who was treated for a karmic obstacle by being placed inside a large gilded statue of a woman and emerging from her womb.



Grains of Gold

Mesocosm on Heiner Müller

Mesocosm on Kālidāsa

Written by Mesocosm

August 14, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Ephemera

How many are there, anyway?

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The other day I was trying to remember a pluralization rule in Tibetan when I started to wonder if there could be a language that had no concept of plurality. The concept of individual instances of general types is so deeply ingrained in my concepts and language, I can’t conceive outside of it.

In his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche reflected on the formation of abstract concepts on the basis of individual unique experiences:

Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted – but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model. (1)

If this is so, where does this idea come from, this phantom “leaf” concept that seems so compelling? What is it in our experience that so persuades us that there exist, in the world, many instances of particular kinds of things?

Thinking about experience, and perhaps influenced by my long familiarity with Nietzsche’s fine leaf example, I think about the biological world first – we encounter many apples, but they are all so similar by reason of their biological similarity, that they vividly give the impression of all being the same thing.

But a moment’s reflection suggests that it’s more than that, because long before there were apples, there were galaxies and stars, which exist on a continuum, but there are a great many stars of similar size, composition, color, and life cycle. Trillions of stars, stars without end.

So what is it about our universe, that things are organized in this way? Things are composed of atoms, which are more or less the same. And I wonder, are they identical? That is, if you take two helium atoms and compare them, is there any way whatsoever that they can be differentiated from one another, other than, say, their temperature and location? What about electrons? Do electrons have hair? I have no idea.

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, Vidagdha Shakalya asks the sage Yajnavalkya “How many gods are there?”

Yajnavalkya replied, “Three thousand, three hundred, and six.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Thirty three.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”


“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”


“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One and a half.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”


1) Nietzsche F. trans. by Daniel Breazeale. Philosophy and Truth; Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Humanities Press. 1979. p. 83.

Written by Mesocosm

November 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Posted in Ephemera

Various Matters

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"Idole cloche," Thebes, c. 700 BCE (Louvre)

“Idole cloche,” Thebes, c. 700 BCE, Louvre (click to enlarge)

What we have in this image is one of my favorite pieces from the Greek antiquities collection of the Louvre. This goddess “bell statue” comes to us from Thebes c. 700 BCE, and it’s a stunning example of the Geometric period of Greek art. The sense of the goddess as all-encompassing is conveyed by her bell-shape and is amplified by the inscription on her surface of various marks typically expressive of the round of life and death in that age, such as the Swastika.

In unrelated news, sounds like I’m late to hear this, but I’m excited that The Diary of Malcolm X: 1964 is due to be published this week, assuming it isn’t successfully blocked by some family members. I certainly hope it appears in print as-scheduled – 1964 is the year Malcolm X undertook the Hajj, which was a milestone in his own life, and for the course of civil rights activism in the United States as a whole. I also very much see Malcolm X’s spiritual journey as textbook case of Jungian individuation, so it’s fascinating to study in that light as well.

Let’s see … what else? I’ve been working on a mammoth post on the Gothic cathedrals for some time, but have been bogged down by the magnitude of the topic. Even to point in a cursory way to a handful of the key features is an enormous job, but I hope to get it up soon.

Via the always-excellent, I give you Catṡlechta and other medieval legal material relating to cats, a study of medieval Irish laws pertaining to cats. It contains gems such as:

BREONE i.e. This is a cat and she has purring and protecting (or an inarticulate cry) and three cows are paid for it if it has both, purring and protecting. If it has one of the two, it is a cow and a heifer or there might not be anything for purring at all and that obtains whenever it is more than or equal to that which it protects.

Read, and enjoy.

Written by Mesocosm

November 10, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Ephemera

Continuity of Images

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One of the primary themes of this blog is the astonishing continuity of certain primary cultural forms, which Adolf Bastian referred to as Elementargendanke, or elementary ideas, and which Carl Jung later termed archetypes of the collective unconscious.

In my reading this morning, I came across a marvelous Elamite alabaster statue depicting a regal male subject bearing a sacrificial goat. Currently housed at the Louvre, it comes to us from Susa (in present-day Iran) from the Early Dynastic, circa 2450 BCE.

Jump ahead nearly 2,000 years, and we find an exceptional Attic marble sculpture of a bearded man carrying a calf offering to the goddess Athena, from the Archaic period circa 570 BCE. It is housed at the splendid Acroplois Museum in Athens, which is one of the great museums.

And, nearly 2,000 years after that masterpiece was carved, we find a beautiful statue of John the Baptist carrying Christ in the form of a sacrificial lamb, which decorates the North Transept Portal of the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres, completed in the mid-thirteenth century CE.

Written by Mesocosm

March 9, 2013 at 11:51 am

…and then I woke up

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Last night I dreamt that I was talking to a friend about Superman, and how much his selfless heroism meant to us as children.

Before I fell asleep, I was thinking about my old post on the orphan hero, and I guess it put thoughts of Superman in my head.

I remember being really moved by the Richard Donner Superman movies as a kid. I recently saw the director’s cut of Superman II, and had forgotten how much he really seemed to care about people, and how frightened he was that they might be harmed. It’s rather moving, especially in a world of bad-ass anti-heroes.

That bodhisattva-like altruism also came across beautifully in Grant Morrison’s superb limited run The All-Star Superman.

Morrison is pretty much my favorite comic book author, but he’s hit or miss when it comes to established titles. He can’t help bringing his personal oddball interests into play, and that works great in a series like The Invisibles, which is built for it, and is, incidentally, the best comic book series ever written. But when Batman starts talking about Dzogchen (as he does in Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. run), it comes across as forced.

Somehow, in his Superman run, he really nailed the essence of the character in a wonderful way. And if you ever see the documentary Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, you can hear about how he was meditating on how to treat the character and the story, when he ran into a guy on the street dressed in a Superman costume. Morrison approached Superman and asked him a lot of questions about himself, and the guy replied completely in character, saying some remarkable things, like “Batman is a great man, but he doesn’t truly believe in people.”

Anyway, the point of this story is that later on in the dream, I received a dream notification from D. C. comics, warning me not to use Superman’s likeness in my dreams without their permission (really). I was unsure how concerned I should be, but it was a little anxiety-provoking.

Most likely, D. C. comics, possibly in collaboration with NSA, has developed the technology necessary to monitor dreams for copyright violations.

Written by Mesocosm

February 13, 2013 at 9:25 am

Posted in Ephemera

Quote of the Day: James Joyce

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Mouth of the Seine, Honfleure
Claude Monet

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings, merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on to the dim tide.

A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green.


Written by Mesocosm

January 3, 2013 at 11:55 am

Posted in Ephemera