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April is poetry month! Poetry allows us to say afresh things which need to be said (but which are not being heard properly because of popular conventions or dark political malfeasance).  Yet once these truths are framed in sacred beautiful language and hung up in the great library of human endeavor, they take on an enduring character which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the past can no longer suppress (and which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the present do not understand).

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Portrait of Swinburne (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1861) Watercolor, chalk, pencil on paper

For example, here is a short poem by Alernon Charles Swinburne, a sort of half-forgotten poet who was so exceedingly popular during the Victorian era that his work was set aside during the subsequent anti-Victorian backlash (which seems like a pity, since his poetry is lyrical and beautiful…and has a haunting & desolate sadness beneath all of its rich, fulsome opulence).

Swinburne was fascinated by Christianity and by the great Christian art and literature of antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Yet a comprehensive reading of his poems makes it fairly clear that he himself was not devout.  He harbored particular reservations about the afterlife and his sophisticated contemporaries saw him as a sort of “poet laureate of atheism.”  Despite this (or…because of it?) Swinburne wrote a poem about Christian persecution as anathema to Jesus.  The poem was not about persecution of Christians, but persecution by Christians.  Here it is:

On the Russian Persecution of the Jews

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

O SON of man, by lying tongues adored,
By slaughterous hands of slaves with feet red-shod
in carnage deep as ever Christian trod
Profaned with prayer and sacrifice abhorred
And incense from the trembling tyrant’s horde,
Brute worshipers or wielders of the rod,
Most murderous even that ever called thee Lord;
Face loved of little children long ago,
Head hated of the priests and rulers then,
If thou see this, or hear these hounds of thine,
Run ravening as the Gadarene swine,
Say, was not this thy Passion, to foreknow
In death’s worst hour the works of Christian men?

Written in 1882, the poem is addressed to the “Son of Man,” which is Christ’s appellation in the gospels.  Swinburne describes the savagery of contemporary Christians and poignantly asks whether the cruelty of Jesus’ followers towards Jews, foreigners, and outsiders would hurt Christ more than the physical agony of the passion.  Since the apotheosis of compassion was the exact point of Christ’s ministry and his death, the answer is clearly a resounding yes. However, the poet (and, implicitly, his sophisticated reader) both recognize that contemporary Christians often overlook the meaning of Christ’s words and actions in their zeal to attain a piece of some imaginary paradise.

The poem is aimed directly at Russian Orthodox Christians, who were indeed guilty of terrible pogroms against the great Jewish communities within the Pale of Settlement. Since Russia was the hated national adversary of late Victorian England, the message would be roundly appreciated by Swinburne’s readers. Yet the poet perhaps casts a wider net upon the lord’s flock than it initially seems. The poem’s title aside, these lying tongues, slaughterous hands, and profane precants could almost be found anywhere in Christendom.  Perhaps the eagerness of the reader to attribute such sins to other Christians is its own clue. Did not Christ ask his followers “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?”

And like all great poetry, the message is hardly trapped within its time.  A clear-sighted observer might be able to look at any Christian period or any puffed-up sanctimoniously “Christian” nation and find terrible cruelty to Jews and foreigners enacted by zealots incapable of grasping the fundamental message of the gospels.  Such acts could even be encouraged by self-interested czars who not-very-convincingly pretend to be Christian!  Great art lives in timeless modernity after all.

At any rate, I will leave you, dear reader, to contemplate Swinburne’s real meaning on your own (maybe after you peruse the news of the day).  Oh, also the Gadarene swine were the herd of pigs which Christ cast the demons into as recounted in Matthew 8:28-34. It is worth remembering that the Gadarenes begged Jesus to leave after the incident…as though they preferred money and security to the actual Son of God! Shocking!

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Imagine a colony of little shrimp frolicking on the bottom of the ocean when suddenly the earth opens up its mouth and swallows one of the shrimp: the sandy substrate was actually a lurking flatfish hunting for dinner.  In the shadowy depths even bigger predators are in turn hunting the flounder.  Glistening hooks with sparkling bait descend from unknown realms above.

The Great Flounder of Babylon (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) Ink on Paper

The Great Flounder is a symbolic avatar of the worldwide ecosystem–a seemingly adversarial realm of constant cutthroat competition.  Yet closer study of ecology reveals that living things are far more dependent on each other than the predator/prey relationship makes it seem.  If a flounder eats a shrimp, the world moves on.  If all of the shrimp vanish, or if all of the flounder are fished out of the ocean, other dominoes begin to fall and the whole web of life starts to dwindle and fold inwards.

This brings us to humankind, a worldwide collective of cunning primate colonies which are in ferocious violent competition with each other.

Fluke Baby (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Mixed Media

If there were ever an aymmetrical animal, t’is surely us.  Our history and our science have given us a unique place in the world ecosphere–but we are not dealing well with our new prominence. This piscine artwork reflects our past and our present.  In the flounder’s tragicomic eyes we can perhaps glimpse our future of glory, grandeur, and doom.

Heav’n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib’d, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleas’d to the last, he crops the flow’ry food,
And licks the hand just rais’d to shed his blood.
Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv’n,
That each may fill the circle mark’d by Heav’n:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurl’d,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.

An Essay on Man: Epistle I, Alexander Pope

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Happy Year of the Earth Pig!  Today (February 5th 2019) marks the beginning of Lunar Year 4716 in the Chinese calendar.  I really meant to write more dog-theme posts last year during the year of the dog: how did it run off so quickly? But no matter…we can always write more about man’s best friend. Today belongs to the pig and, despite a somewhat grubby nomen, the earth pig has a great deal to recommend it!

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In the Chinese zodiac, pigs are water sign animals. The easygoing and affable earth pig thus betokens a year of friendship, camaraderie, and social success.  Pigs love having fun together, so, in addition to social delights, the year will feature plenty of luxuries, treats and opulent spectacles.   Friendship and social bonding are one thing, but romance is quite another, so, although the year may be marked by new friendship and bonhomie, it is not likely to be especially happy one in terms of love and intimacy (which is fully in line with broad international trends).

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Financially speaking, the Earth Pig moves slowly yet inexorably towards abundance.  The ground is the root of all wealth and this pig has all four feet squarely upon the earth. The online oracle which I consulted states “This zodiac sign has a solid work ethic and is willing to put in the hours to get ahead. Patience and willpower are the name of the game for anyone wishing to get ahead in 2019. And don’t forget the power of building friendly alliances with colleagues.”  I suppose that sounds pretty good, but I have been to farmyards and seen how things work out for pigs.  I would probably paraphrase this: your financial year will combine a great deal of hard work with some foolish lapses due to inattention, greed, and other people’s guile.  Be careful! The rewards of your labor could be enjoyed by someone else…

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Sadly, all pig years come with an admonition not to overdo it with sweets, rich foods, and alcohol, but I hardly see how gluttony could be a problem here in [checks notes] oh…um…yeah, I guess we will also have to keep a careful eye on what we are eating.

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Speaking of gluttony, no conversation about pigs would be complete without a mention of China’s literary superstar pig, Zhu Bajie, one of the three animal heroes of “The Journey to the West” (well, actually there are four, but the horse is usually just a horse and only jumps into the game in moments of true duress).  Zhu Bajie is an immortal pig monster with enormous strength and bravery…but he is also cursed with constant hunger, laziness, and a desire for other joys of the flesh.  Zhu’s earthy passions cause substantial trouble to both him and his sharper companions (although, ironically, the monkey, who represents intellect, will, and arrogance, usually gets in even more trouble by leaping out ahead of everyone).   This is of course o remind everyone that we need the intellect in the upcoming year, but we also need the tolerance, soft-heartedness, and the optimism of the pig.  Humans are monkeys after all.  Like Sun Wukong, the monkey god, we tend to be rather cruel to pigs.  Let the Year of the Earth Pig remind you to be more gentle and compassionate to our big-bellied curly toed friends…or even to yourself if love of luxury or your hungry belly leads you astray.  The great lesson of the Chinese zodiac is that we are all animals, but animals have a celestial magic! Be wary but embrace your inner pig and have a wonderful year 4716.

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America loves Marie Kondo, a self-help author and lifestyle guru who has exploited people’s insecurities (and our culture’s dark codependent relationship with disposable consumer goods) in order to become enormously rich.  If you have somehow missed the fuss about Kondo, she wrote a book called “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”, which is typical cultish self-help waffle about how you should throw all of your things away, paint your walls white, and fold your few remaining textiles with chilling robotic precision.  Kondo has leveraged her success into a “brand” and now appears on Netflix, going through people’s lives and discarding everything that does not “spark joy.” In one recent episode, she caused great anxiety to intellectuals and bibliophiles when she applied her methodology to book collections. In her worldview, unread books should be discarded, as should books which you wish to read again, but are not presently reading. Kondo said that her ideal library was, at most, thirty books.  If there are parts of a book you love, you should cut out the relevant pages and throw away the rest (although it seems this may have been an experimental Kondo methodology which didn’t work out even for her).

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As you can imagine, these ridiculous & harmful ideas have caused book-lovers (and idea-lovers) to become apoplectic.  The history of people who destroy books or encourage their elimination is not very splendid or happy. It is hard not to elide Kondo’s claptrap with some of these sad episodes. Fortunately for Kondo, there are few intellectuals and booklovers in contemporary society, but there are legions of people who are angry in one way or another about identity politics. To the eyes of these Kondo apologists, the scholars and bibliophiles spluttering indignantly about the importance of books or whatever are racists who are lashing out at a successful Asian-American woman because of her wealth and influence.  As with everything in America in 2019, the entire episode has made everyone furious and left all parties looking bad.

In Kondo’s defense, I can sympathize with how difficult it is to create new material every day.  If you are forced to continuously churn stuff out, sometimes your material is not always terribly good. It is all too easy to say or do stupid things.  That is one of the reasons we throw things away. Indeed, I haven’t watched the offending episode, but have only read about it.  Maybe she was tossing out shelves of Dilbert cartoon books, Ayn Rand novels, or 1850s books about the glories of colonialism and slavery.  Since the show is about people appealing to her for help, she might have been throwing away hundreds of tendentious self-help books!

Also to her credit, Kondo identifies the information inside the book as the important part, and admonishes us not to idolatrously love unread books for their own sake or use them as props.

But, and this is the critical part: it is unclear how one would ever extract this knowledge if they discarded the book before reading it.  The things that “spark joy” in my life right now are different from the ones that will spark joy in my life a year from now.  When I was growing up, my parents had mysterious and compelling shelves of books from their college days.  Every day I walked past the diseased eye on the cover of Camus’ “The Plague” and wondered what was going on in that book.  Looking at the troubling dissection on “Gray’s Anatomy”, the dandy on “Vanity Fair”, the strange Van der Weyden portrait on “Masterpieces of the National Gallery” and the magnificent sperm whale on “Moby Dick” made me curious about the contents of those books too.  Sometimes I would pick them up and try to understand them.  Eventually I picked them up and read them.  If my parents had thrown those books away, maybe I would have found them later and read them on my own, or maybe not.  Maybe I never would have become as interested in reading to begin with.

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Also, books are our cultural heritage.  “Moby Dick” was universally unloved when it first came out in 1851.  It took 70 years before it found success.  What if 1890s Marie Kondo (I am sure there was an analogous busybody) had come along and thrown away the copy that caused a critic to love it and rescue it from obscurity.  Books are not knick-knacks or ill-used toiletries, they are bigger and have bigger meanings which are not immediately evident. Kondo seemingly fails to understand or acknowledge this.  Also I love books! Imagine if some third party went into Marie Kondo’s life and started throwing away the things she cares about most (dollars & followers) until she only had thirty of each left: I bet she would be pretty dissatisfied.

Beyond these obvious and cursory points about the nature of writing and thinking, Kondo’s insistence on shoveling this tripe into our face right now so she can become richer and more important speaks to the nature of now (when every business is busy making shortsighted decisions in order to maximize profits and our leaders are clinging to power even if it causes the republic to founder.).  Her unwise advice also increases our country’s dangerous love affair with anti-intellectualism, a perennial scourge, which, in the Trump era, is becoming a threat to the continued existence of the nation.

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I have been meaning to write about Kondo as part of a larger polemic against minimalism (an undying aesthetic movement from the 21st century which is not just ugly, but which is morally injuring us).  However, the fact that Marie Kondo is apparently openly attacking knowledge itself, temporarily derailed my anti-minimalist essay.  We need to defend literature and the accumulated knowledge of humankind against the ridiculous menace of the gentle Japanese art of throwing everything away (or whatever this crap is called).  Don’t worry though, I haven’t forgotten my original point and we will get to minimalism and oversimplification tomorrow some time next week. Events on the ground complicated my plans (because the world is complicated and not simple).

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Today I was riding home on the subway after a loooong day of Monday office work.  I was drawing in my little book when a friendly stranger asked me about the drawing I was working on (which was the surreal cartoon about modern dystopia which is pictured  above).  Uncharacteristically we started talking about dystopean fiction…and then the other people in the train joined in the conversation about favorite works of epic heroic fantasy, and Jungian archetypes, and science fiction as it relates to day-to-day society.  It was quite amazing and restored my faith in the world.  As ever, I was particularly impressed by Millennial-age people (by which I mean the cohort of younger American adults–not 1000-year-old-humans) who are much-maligned in turgid journals, but who strike me as polite, eager-to-learn, funny, and kind.  Anyway, the cartoon is about the unfortunate direction which society is going in at present (and it pokes fun at the inane yet somehow compelling Kevin Costner science-fiction movie),  however my unexpected book talk with strangers on a train makes me think the world might be headed in a much better direction!

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I am still thinking about Lady Xia’s pet gibbon, the first and last known representative of its kind, and the subject of yesterday’s post.  After I wrote about the interwoven fates of rice and trees and men and apes, I spent a long time looking through Ferrebeekeeper archives for the beautiful gibbon poem which I alluded to in the essay, but I came to realize that I never did write about it, so today’s post is another post about pet gibbons in ancient China. Bear with me, for the poem is an exquisite piece of history, and a remarkably soulful examination of pets…and of the winsome sadness of life itself.

The poem was written by Wen Tong (1019–1079AD), a scholar-artist of the Northern Song Dynasty who was famous for his bamboo paintings. Allegedly he could simultaneously paint different stalks of bamboo with both hands, and lovely examples of his work are still extant a thousand years after he painted them…as is poetry about his favorite pet (As an aside, medieval China featured a class of learned polymaths who were masters of writing, erudition, gardening, and “painting without financial reward”: there is no clear career analogy in the modern western world although the painting without financial reward part sounds rather familiar).

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Wen Tong wrote about his love and admiration for his pet, and the poem quietly reveals a great deal about the household mores and emotional norms of well-to-do life in the Northern Song dynasty (note how the painter has so many retainers that he just passingly assigns one to look after the gibbon).  It is a lovely and heartfelt window into a vanished world which is well worth examining line by line. As a poetic device, the back-and-forth switches from first person to second person keeps readers attentively off balance and yet draws them closer to both Wen Tong and his gibbon.  Although, the writer’s privilege and possessiveness shine through, so does his kindness, playfulness and curiosity (perhaps there is a reason he got on so well with his remarkable pet that we are still thinking about it all of these centuries later). However, the final stanzas transcend the writer’s time and place.  The poem speaks to the uneasy and fraught relationship we have with our fellow life-forms.  For animals have their own lives and hearts and spirits, no matter how much we want to love and possess them. Wen Tong also delves into the realm of the existential, questioning the apparently painful randomness of fate, which mocks notions of ownership and control.

Don’t let my clumsy words put you off reading the actual poem (coincidentally I have taken the whole translated work from “Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: Understanding the World’s Most Intriguing Animals” By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson).  It really moved me greatly and I hope you will also find it to be equally enchanting and sad.

it really is extraordinary and I think it will move you

Last year a Buddhist Monk of Hua-p’ing, in the Min mountains,

Obtained a gibbon for me and had it delivered from afar.

On arrival he was already tame and accustomed to captivity,

And his swift and nimble movements were a delight to watch.

He would come and go as told, as if he understood my speech

And seemed to have lost all desire to return to his mountains.

Put on a leash he was not interesting to watch,

So I set him free and let him romp about as much as he liked.

On a moonlit night, he would sing, swinging from a branch,

On hot days he would sit by the flowers and doze facing the sun.

When my children were around or my guests showed their interest,

He would hang upside down or jump about showing his tricks.

I had told a man to look after all his needs,

So that he never even once lacked his seasonal food and drink.

Yet the other day his keeper suddenly told me the gibbon was ill.

He stood on my steps, the gibbon in his arms, and I went to look,

Offered him persimmons and chestnuts, but he didn’t glance at them.

Legs drawn up, head between his knees, hunched up with folded arms,

His fur ruffled and dull, all at once his body seemed to have shrunk,

And I realized that this time he was really in great distress.

Formerly you were also subject to occasional slight indispositions,

But then after I had fed you a few spiders as a remedy,

After having swallowed them you would recover at once.

Why did the medicine fail now, though given several times?

This morning when a frosty wind was chilling me to the bone,

Very early I sent someone to inquire, and he reported you had died.

Although in this world it is hard to avoid grief and sadness,

I was tormented by repentance and bitter self-reproach.

You could be happy only when near your towering mountains.

You had been yearning for far plains and dense forests.

You must have suffered deeply being on a leash or chain,

And that was why your allotted span of life was short.

I had his body wrapped up well and buried deep in a secluded corner,

So that at least the insects would leave his remains in peace.

Mr. Tzu-p’ing, my western neighbor, a man of very wide interests,

When he heard about this, slapped his thigh sighing without end.

He came to inquire several times, in deep sorrow over my loss,

Then, back home, he wrote a long poem of over a hundred words.

Reading those lines my lonely heart was filled with sadness.

Well had he expressed the grief caused by my gibbon’s death!

He also tried to console me by referring to life’s natural course, “That

Meetings result in partings, subject to the whims of fate.”

I took his poem out into the garden, read and reread it

Then, looking up at the bare branches, I burst out in tears.

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April is poetry month!  Just thinking about it makes me recall wilder, grander (younger) times when I spent my life carousing with poets, drinking infinite goblets of wine and talking all night about the great unfathomable mysteries of life and love.  Those days are gone, those friends have all vanished to wherever poets go, and the great mysteries remain unsolved (of course).  Yet, anon, it is spring once again.  There is a cold breeze blowing clouds across the white moon.  The garden is empty and dead, but the buds are starting to form on the cherry tree.

To celebrate these wistful memories and to celebrate the eternal art of poetry here is a very short poem by the original drunk master, Li Po, a roving carouser famous for descriptions of the natural world combined with intimations of otherworldly knowledge.  This poem is a good example–and a good spring poem.  The Chinese original is probably filled with cunning homonyms and allusions of which I am ignorant (at this point, everyone might be ignorant of some of them…Li Po lived in the Tang Dynasty from 701 AD to 762 AD).  But it seems like Jasper Mountain is an allusion to the court intrigues of the capital.  It also helps to know that peach blossoms are associated with celestial/fairy folk not unlike the Ae Sidhe.  Enough prose, here is Arthur Copper’s translation of Li Po’s succinct masterpiece:

IN THE MOUNTAINS: A REPLY TO THE VULGAR

They ask me where’s the sense

on Jasper Mountain?

I laugh and don’t reply,

in heart’s own quiet:

 

Peach petals float their streams

away in secret

To other skies and earths

than those of mortals.

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What with the holiday crush and the end of the year, I have had less time than I would like for blogging, but I will put up some Christmas posts and year-end thoughts here in the coming days.  For now, here is an illuminated page of William Blake’s 1794 volume “Europe a Prophecy,” a dense symbolic poem about the benighted state of Europe (and humankind) at the end of the 18th century.  I won’t get into the text but suffice it to say the magnificent crowned serpent seems to hold unusual sway over the affairs of men.

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Thanks for bearing with me during last week when I took a much-needed break from blogging. Sadly, it does not seem like misinformation, social manipulation, distortion, and outright fabrication took a break during Ferrebeekeeper’s absence…they are more popular than ever! So I have decided to get with the program and add a new topic much in keeping with this trend. Well I say “new”, but this subject is profoundly ancient and originated before cities or even agriculture. This ancient practice has always given people exactly what they want…often to their terrible detriment. If one is looking for chicanery, mendacity, wish fulfillment, and showmanship untethered from life’s hard truths (and a cursory look at bet-sellers, infomercials, politics, and society itself indicate that a lot of people want exactly that) then here is a subject I predict will suit perfectly: I am speaking of the ancient and manipulative art of PROPHECY!
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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884, oil on canvas)

A prophecy is a sort of supernatural prediction about what will happen in the future (or a pretense of access to some otherwise inaccessible truth). The trappings of prophecy are many—entrails, crystals, special numbers, magical talismans, star signs, geomancy, demons, ghosts, gods and goddesses, etcetera etcetera. I hardly need to tell you that empiricists have never found any statistically meaningful evidence that such things work beyond the level of general platitudes (discounting inside knowledge and deception). Yet magical predictions endure and flourish in all societies. From the rudest hunter gatherer tribe, to the greatest globe-spanning empire, this “magic” has been present. Throughout history, oracles, scryers, prophets, augers, diviners, and astrologers have proliferated like, well, like human wishes.
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So why am I writing about this? Why do we need to look again at (sigh) astronomy and “The Secret” [spits] and at the ridiculous chickens of Publius Claudius Pulcher? First of all, as Freud knew, our wishes reveal so much about us—they provide a true dark mirror where we can see who we are with terrible clarity if we have the courage to really look. If prophecy does not necessarily have empirical merit, it often possesses immense artistic value. The essential dramatic truth of literature or scripture is frequently revealed in augury. The witch of Endor, the Delphic oracle, John the Baptist, and the witches in Macbeth set the action going (while at the same time foreshadowing/explaining how things will ultimately work out).
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But beyond the artistic merit of oracular truth, augury is related to prediction—the ability to think abstractly about the future and to shape outcomes by making intelligent choices based of guesses. I said that prophecy predated cities or agriculture (a breezy claim for which I naturally have no written evidence…although there are plenty of artifacts that are probably scrying tools and enormous amounts of similar circumstantial evidence): perhaps prophecy was a necessary step on the way to those things. Without being able to imagine the future, there is no need for seed corn or brickyards. The seeds to real inquiry can often be found in fantasy inquiry. Looking back across the breadth of history we see how religion became philosophy; geomancy became geology; astrology graduated to astonomy; even psychics and physicists have something in common. So follow along in this new topic. I confidently predict you will be surprised and delighted (and even if I am wrong we will at least have learned something).
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Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter.  It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary).  Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry.  The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.

I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful.  The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power.  Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages.  However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration).  The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.

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Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)

This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival).  Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention.  There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.

Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness.  The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food.  The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict.  Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea.  Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers.  His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden.  Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy.  Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden.  The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.

Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness.  That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power.  Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement.  Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).

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