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emphaty

OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (thousands of years worth) of these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are true and, indeed, worthy of great respect), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

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To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or not more than we humans are anyway).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

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uhhhh….

 

 

Let’s talk about the most difficult lesson I encountered in class in grade school. To be honest, I feel like I never really mastered it…or perhaps the lesson is still ongoing.  It might not just be me…

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“These are the times that try men’s souls…”

Although I had no natural affection for numbers, I was always successful at middle school because I read everything insatiably and yet still wanted to know more about existence.  School isn’t really set up to sate this desire (except for the IB program, which is amazing and would solve all of America’s problems in a generation if only it were adopted everywhere).  Sadly, success at school generally involves the same sort of things which bring workplace success: showing up on time, giving people the answers which they want to hear, and completing tedious busy-work tasks.   But, back then, I was competent enough at doing those things, because I knew it was mission critical to getting into a good college–which was the ultimate culmination of existence.

All of that is backstory for explaining the most difficult lesson I ever had in grade school. It is one which I still struggle with, because it involves some paradoxes at the heart of knowledge, meaning, and success.  It also bears on life’s true lessons (the fact that I was a bookish twerp lacking popular esteem was probably the true lesson of middle school, but it was extracurricular, whereas this particular failure was enshrined in a report card). Back in the 1980s I had a blithesome free-spirited art teacher.  She was a good art teacher and I still recall the assignments she gave (copying a bird exactly by means of a grid; making a random squiggle and then expanding it to be a drawing; watercolor on a wet paper; exactly copying a piece of money).  Her opinion was also valuable to me, as I am sure any good student (or 15-year-old boy with a pretty teacher) will understand.

Now I worked harder in art class than at any class because I loved it, but a lot of students regarded it as a sort of free period where they could chat, flirt, and maybe doodle a bit if they felt like it. Back in those days I was still smart and hard-working. At the end of the semester, it was time for grades, and the teacher gave us a last strange assignment: give yourself the grade which you feel is appropriate.  Now I was a 15 year old lad, but I had read enough fables to recognize a trap. “This must be a lesson in how to behave with modest decorum!” I gave myself a B plus, because, although I tried extremely hard (much harder than the louts who spent every class socializing), and although my drawings were better than most everyone else’s, I had never succeeded at the level which I wanted.  I could see every feather out of place on the sea eagle I drew (and the overworked beak with an unsatisfactory little hook).  I can still see that sea eagle, damnit.

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The oafs (who didn’t even complete the art assignments!) naturally gave themselves perfect marks.  I assumed that the degree to which I had tried (which was substantial) and my abilities as compared to my classmates (also substantial) would be recognized by the teacher who would correct everything into a familiar bell curve.  This was an unwarranted assumption.

The final report card revealed that the teacher gave us all the same grade we had given ourselves.  The teacher said: “art is about what you think of yourself!” My horrifying B+ became a finalized part of my permanent record! The oafs all got A pluses which they are probably still savoring (in workcamp, prison, General Electric, or the White House) to this very day.

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Anyway, I survived that 9th grade “B” in art class.  Thanks to my parents’ profound generosity and to my love for reading and writing (which was probably also a gift from my parents), I ultimately got out of school with a “golden ticket,” a degree with general honors from the University of Chicago!  Of course, instead of becoming a crooked hedge fund manager and basking in the world’s envy, I ripped up my ticket and I live as an insolvent artist.

“Art is what you think about yourself.” It is a terrible definition of art.  Yet it somehow passes muster in New York’s contemporary art scene which is more self-involved than a Kanye West song.  I have tried to master that sort of pure self-involvement (just look at this essay), yet I still can’t think of art as merely a solipsistic musing on self-identity (nor as a badge of hierarchical status).

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Success in America is defined as making a huge amount of money.  It is humorous how often people cite this completely inaccurate definition to explain things: “Oh it was my job” or “We made a great deal of money” as though this has anything to do with wisdom or knowledge or what is useful or right.  Society is having a great deal of trouble comprehending what is wise, useful, and right. I blame our education system (though perhaps I should instead blame artists…or myself).

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Today, when I was looking at the comments, I noticed that a perspicacious reader asked  the question which is most important to me! Wow, I guess I had better answer that, but it is going to take more than a few sentences, so I might as well make it into a whole blog post.

Before we get to this question and answer, let’s provide a brief high-level overview of Ferrebeekeeper’s weltanschauung.

My philosophy of life is premised on a single transcendent belief.  Earth life must evolve and move into the cosmos like the hundreds of millions of fertilized eggs of a great sunfish disseminating through an ocean of stars.

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Humankind needs to put aside tinpot dictators, idiotic religious wars, disposable plastic consumer goods, luxury vehicles, and all of our other (horrible) favorite things and dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to this task or else, before you know it, everything is going to look like the opening scene of “Wall-E” and our chance will be gone.  In fact the opportunity is passing us by right now as you read this and everybody talks about 5G phones, Nipsey Hussle, and Jared Kushner.

Yet one of my stubborn readers looked at this premise and asked “why?”.   To be exact they said “Can you explain your viewpoint that humans must become space travelers for redemption? To me, it seems that would be a kind of interplanetary metastasis…”

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If you had an adult bull elephant stuffed in your Manhattan studio apartment it would seem like a nightmarish monster, but out on the veld, the elephant’s habits would make sense, and its beauty, strength, and noble nature would become apparent. Humankind has become like the elephant in that scenario (I really think we are more like 7.5 billion giant smart termites, but bear with me). We are meant to explore and build at a stupendous scale, but we can’t because we have used all available resources to the point that we are unmaking the complicated webs of life which all eukaryotic Earth life relies on (and maybe because we are hijacked by our own primate nature, too). We can’t keep doing what we are doing. We will destroy ourselves and countless other living things. Our hideous fall might even reset life back to a point from which it could never properly attain its complexity and beauty (I am speaking of all known Earth life here–for I think it is all one thing).

We can’t let go and turn back either.  The ultra-competitive world we have made does not work that way. Even if America collectively says, “we chose to not compete, we will close our borders, dream of past greatness, and eat our young” China or India will come sprinting up with new dreams of global empire.  Even if we all became organic free-range hunter-gatherers it wouldn’t work.

Yet the things we truly need in order to flourish–space, energy, and freedom from the dreadful hegemony of other people’s idiocy–are super abundant in the larger universe. Imagine a future where Earth is a protected park and we hover above it like dark angels carrying out crazy cosmic wars and far-flung projects and warped super experiments and doing whatever we want…with the stipulation that anyone or anything which threatens Earth is instantly subject to our collective wrath.

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I am not sure any of this is possible.  In fact it seems like getting back to the moon may be beyond us to say nothing of building flying cities in the atmosphere of Venus or torus colonies orbiting around Jupiter.  Yet those things are at least theoretically in the realm of possibility.  Traveling beyond the solar system may truly be impossible, even if we built worthy superhuman thinking machines as our offspring and successors (coincidentally I never promised the answer to this question would be easy or even sane).

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But I think the reader’s fundamental moral question remains unanswered.  If humankind is so savage and dark, would we not bring our rapacity and carelessness with us no matter where we go?  Inventing tools and language never made us better.  Sailing across the great oceans never taught us compassion.  We are the same tragic fire-wielding apes as always.  It takes real imagination to conceive of a human starship  decelerating into Fomalhaut or orbiting Wolf 1061C, yet it takes no imagination whatsoever to imagine the political appointee in charge of such a craft looking at his “S.M.A.R.T.” terraforming spreadsheet, shrugging, and pushing a button to wipe out the cowering Fomalhautians or the little adorable Wolflings.  “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely”...that Fomalhault branch of Goldman Sachs won’t build itself if we wait around to determine whether the natives are delicious or not! (let me know if I have captured your thinking, hooftales).

My initial answer was that it is necessary to move beyond Earth…because we are so violent and disorganized that we are dangerous to ourselves and others–a cancer, like hooftales said.  But, although in moments of duress, I sometimes think of humans as baboons with motor cars, I don’t think of us a cancer.  We are not outside of the web of nature: we are part of it.  An elephant in a tiny coop would be a travesty, but elephants are magnificent and sympathetic.  Humankind is having an awkward adolescence to be sure, but I don’t think we have fully manifested as ourselves yet.

Let me answer a different way. Bamboos form clonal colonies. These giant grasses are intrusive, fast-growing and aggressive plants. Sometimes a single bamboo will take over a whole region–almost the entire forest is one connected living thing.  These bamboo can live for a long period–40 to 130 years–but when they flower, the whole clonal colony flowers.  In some species, the whole species flowers…no matter where they are in the entire  world.  Then they produce seeds/fruit called bamboo rice.

And then they die.

Whole forests die in a short time, sometimes causing starvation and mayhem to other living things that rely on the bamboo. Sometimes a whole bamboo species will die off and all of its offspring are so different that they aren’t even the same thing.  But then they grow anew–bigger and better and more competitive and they create whole new forests.

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A bamboo flower rat

This is not a perfect analogy, since humankind is even more competitive and aggressive and heterogeneous than bamboo, yet there is an appropriate metaphor here. We are taking and taking and taking from Earth.  We are pruning down other branches of the tree of life.  We are undermining the roots of the tree we are part of.  I feel like our destiny is like the bamboo or some colossal ant colony or fungi—but with even bigger ramifications and higher stakes.  We can’t stop or turn back–we must spend everything in a great flowering.  That is why life has created us.  Only a species as reckless, greedy, cunning, and ruthless could marshal the resources necessary to make the tree of life flower beyond the tallest mountains or highest clouds. We are not just tragic apes, we are a space flower for the whole planet.

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Not all flowers bloom (just ask the beheaded crocuses in my back yard) but we must try with all of our might to carry the precious seed of life into the heavens.  If we can’t do that–if, perhaps, it can’t be done–at least our striving will not have been for nothing.  And if we succeed…well… to live in the boundless abyss of emptiness all together in great fragile terrariums that could die if we get a wire crossed, we will have to truly change.   I for one am heartily sick of what we have been doing lately and I relish the challenge. What about you?  Do you want to go on a colossal multigenerational adventure to the stars themselves, or do you just want to sit here eating snack packs while we use up the planet?

 

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Since the year is pretty new and my bright hopes and shining dreams for 2019 are still intact, here is a Friday evening blog post!  I have been worried that I have not been devoting sufficient time to blogging.  In particular I have lately been especially bad about responding in a timely fashion to anybody gracious enough to post a comment.  I promise I will work hard on doing a better job writing and responding this year, so keep those comments coming!  In the meantime, kindly find a picture of the first sculpture which I finished in 2019: “Galactic Fluke,” which is carved out of wood and adorned with a handmade polymer galaxy and plastic stars.  When I pulled that galaxy out of the oven it looked like a millipede with hairy waving legs…and it was no picnic making it adhere properly to the fluke instead of to my fat fingers.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize the flounder as the quixotic avatar of all Earth life in my recent artworks. Concerned friends and relatives have asked why the Pleuronectiformes have so completely infiltrated my ouevre–so I will answer that question in greater depth in 2019 (the emotional side of the story involves a confessional story about my life, and the intellectual side of the story involves a treatise on environmentalism and musings about the future of all of humankind).

This sculpture however transcends such concerns–this is, after all, a galactic fluke…a very great flounder indeed! It represents the apogee of my desires–life transcendent and all-present at an incomprehensibly vast scale.  One of my friends said that his mother, a devout Muslim, was worried that my art is idolatrous (!) which is difficult to respond to, but I do certainly try to imbue my conception of the numinous  into my flounder works.  I have never found a bunch of rules from ancient near-eastern sages to be particularly supernatural…but the interlocking destinies of lifeforms living together in complex ecosystems does inspire me with feelings of transcendent awe.  The great web of life on Earth is the closest thing we know to divinity–save perhaps for the celestial grandeur of outer space with all of its scope and mystery.  This small sculpture is an attempt to bring these two sacred concepts together in poplar, paint, and plastic.

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Lately I have been extremely fascinated by seeds.  Not only do I garden (remember when this blog started out sort of as a garden/musing blog?) but I am increasingly fascinated by the seed as a symbol of enormous unknown potential of the future.  This is a controversial and contentious way to look at things. Lately the anxiety-fueled news seems almost utterly pessimistic about the future (unless it is a glorified ad for an i-phone or a watch that tells your heart beat or some such tech garbage ).  I can certainly understand why thoughtful forecasters are downbeat: the California wildfire (and all other ecological news) is a wake-up call about climate change and the detrimental effect of our exponential growth species/lifestyle on the planetary ecosystem.

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Yet without hope and an objective (above and beyond selling more plastic junk and dodgy financial services to each other) what do we have?  Looking at my proposed long-term mission statement for humankind, I notice the word “seed” is the prominent object (and perhaps the most ambiguous & figurative word in an objective filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Oh! I should provide that mission statement:

to bear the seed of Earth Life beyond this planet and upwards into the heavens

That’s, um, a big goal.  We’ll circle back to it in future posts (long-term and short term).  For now though, I want to show you a few actual pictures of seeds so that you start thinking about the future too…and because they are possibly even more beautiful than flowers.  Two of these images (the ones at the top and the bottom) are from the remarkable Rob Kesseler (robkesseler.co.uk) a master of microscope photography (I just ordered his book on Amazon, so hopefully he won’t care that I took two of his meticulously photographed and hand-colored images for this post.  The seed at the top is a Delphinium pergrinum (a member of the Larkspar family).  The iridescent seed in the middle of this post is a Portulaca (moss rose) seed as photographed by Yanping Wang from the Beijing Planetarium in Beijing, China.  The scary spiky seed at the very bottom is a Daucus carrota (wild carrot).  Seeds have not just been on my mind.  They are invading my art as well–so watch for them on a flounder near you!  We’ll talk more about this in the depths of winter when sleeping seeds will be on everyone’s minds.

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After the launch of my website at Brooklyn’s annual mermaid parade, I can’t seem to quite escape the theme of mermaids.  Of course, this is arguably the symbolic point of mermaids, which represent the intensity of an impossible longing which can never be escaped.  Most of the mermaid pictures from the 19th century show sailors leaping to their doom in the watery depths, unable to resist the siren song or the beautiful & unreal people who live in a different realm.  The besotted swains die in beautiful pale arms which may not even exist…watery arms which may represent strange ideas, inimical to the patterns of life.  Like the tale of Apollo and Marsyas, it is a theme which artists come back to again and again.  Painters know what it means to embrace self-annihilation following an impossibly gorgeous song which nobody else can seem to hear…

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To illustrate this aspect of the mermaid theme…and of art itself–I am returning to Franz Von Stuck, the cofounder of the Munich Succession.  Stuck’s mythological themed art transcended the chocolate-box aesthetics of turgid 19th century academic art.  It spoke directly to the doom and sadness and impossible dreamlike beauty of life.  The mermaids in his art seem to have a carnal energy & bestial strength which is taken directly from human struggle.  They embody the wild energy of symbolism and the avant garde as art broke from the glacial forms of 19th century realism. Yet, like the mermaid, which is half one thing and half another, Stuck’s art directly partakes of 19th century realism too.  It is superb figurative art and the 20th century would embrace a much different form.  Stuck was a transitional artist, and when he was old, his work was regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant to a generation of artists who witnessed the horrors of industrial warfare in the trenches of the Somme and Verdun.

Most of the successful artists of the 19th century were disgusted by the raw broken forms of early 20th century art, but Stuck, to his enormous credit, recognized that success means being left behind.  He taught the next generation of artists the forms he knew so that they could break them to pieces.  He used his connections to uplift the careers of his students Hans Purrmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee.  It is ironic that the figurative painter taught a generation of rebels who fractured art and brought it to strange abstruse realms.

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There is a dark shadow cast by Stuck’s art as well.  The art professor who was married to an American divorcee and taught diverse students from across Eastern Europe had a shadow disciple he never knew about. Stuck was Hitler’s favorite artist from childhood onwards.  How different the mermaid’s song sounds in different ears!  Did Hitler look at these same sea maidens and see Teutonic beauty? Was Hitler angry that the nostalgic art of the German Empire was debased by 20th century abstraction? It must have been so.

This brings us to a large question which I wish to address more frequently: what is the point of art?  People who dislike art will say “there is none” and people who love art will be speechless at the temerity of the question. Yet it is a question which must be asked every generation. Indeed the answers vary from generation to generation, just as the art varies (although I suspect the ultimate answers are of a similar transcendent nature).

When I was younger I imagined that art was like homework…perhaps like an essay.  You went home and created the best work which you could in solitude.  If you crafted a sufficiently dense tapestry of artistic, literary, and scientific allusions with appropriate bravura and craftsmanship, the world would take note of your ideas.  It is a Disney princess view of art, where the pure spirit disdains the ghastly politics of the world until a prince swoops in and takes her to the apex of society… but life has taught me otherwise.  Art is like politics…it might BE politics.  It is about finding an effective way to share ideas and meaning with a group of people.  It is about organizing social networks in order to do so.  Perhaps that involves painting mythological allusions from Greco-Roman society or perhaps it involves dance or performance or the internet or even more experimental and unexplored forms.

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Art is the mermaid’s song.  It is where our ideas of beauty and meaning come from.  It is how we conceptualize the world as it is and as it should be.  I am unhappy with the world.  It seems to be drifting along the way Stuck’s world was when he died (in Munich in 1928 amidst a time of political rancor and a hollow economic boom which was followed by a crippling depression).  His true students were busy representing these problems in abstract forms which nobody understood.  His shadow student found a more direct way to move people by standing up in Munich and saying “Germany First!”  So what is the good of art?  How can we stop the would-be-Hitlers.  How can we save the fish of the ocean from going extinct?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am working on it and thinking about it.  You should be too.

Artists need to stop navel gazing and concentrating on social problems solved back in the sixties. and look at our real global-sized problems of the Anthropocene.  The environmental and economic problems of the world are leaving the corporate and identity art which fills up Chelsea’s galleries far behind. In a hundred years nobody will care about who Tracey Emin slept with, but they might well wonder why the oceans have no fish or how America became a imperial principate.  I don’t know if art can help solve these problems, but maybe talking about them can help.  In the meantime don’t listen to the corporate siren song of infinite growth and absolute greed which says sit at your cubical 15 hours a day and do what you are told and you might have leather bucket seats.  Listen to the artist’s siren song which says “Why? Why? Why?  Oh can’t we do better?  Oh can’t we come up with new things?”

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Loteria is a bingo-style game of Latin America (although it descends from an Italian game of the 15th century).  A designated frontperson pulls cards from a deck and calls the images out to players with boards/cards marked with the same images. The players are trying to get markers on four squares in a row to win a prize.  The card-reader often talks in riddles or humorous rhymes to present the cards–which are appealingly heterogeneous.

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As with many other card games through the ages, loteria cards are also used as a mechanism for divination.  This brings us to today’s subject: “la sirena” the mermaid card in the lottery game. La sirena is represented as a classical mermaid—a beautiful nude woman with a green fish tale in lieu of legs.  As you might imagine, the siren can mean many things when she crops up in divinatory readings—representing all sorts of distaff beauty and beguiling opportunities–but the main message is the one which is read in the boilerplate riddle associated with the cards:

Con los cantos de sirena, no te vayas a marear.

A (bad) translation might be “Don’t let the songs of the siren disorient you.”  In Spanish “sirena” is synonymous with dangerous beguilement: the bewitching song and the sea-maiden are one and the same.  The mermaid’s tempting beauty disguises a dangerous situation or is, at best, an illusion. This is a standard truism of the prediction business: It is indeed wise to look carefully at all aspects of an apparently desirable opportunity.  This is especially true in our mercantile world which has become a rigged marketplace.  Anyone looking at the internet will know that every worm online has a hook in it.

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Yet look at the siren: she is the standout knockout of the loteria cards.  Additionally, she has a mythological gravitas which the flowerpot, the boot, and the saucepan (other loteria cards) sorely lack.  Surely her otherworldly beauty (and the beauty of her ocean habitat) have a worth which transcends a sententious admonition about temptation. It is true that mermaids are fantasy, but that doesn’t mean the longing they represent isn’t a puissant force.

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Such thoughts also bring us to the dangerous misogyny inherent in mermaid concepts.  In classical art and literature, beautiful sea maidens are most often an allegory for the trouble which lust brings men into. This seems unfair to mermaids who should be free to be who they are without being chastened as temptresses.  Perhaps the real message of the mermaid is in her fundamental irreconcilable juxtaposition—she is a being who is one thing above and another thing below—a hybrid entity who lives in two incompatible worlds.  That sounds like most people torn by the conflict of pursuing our own dreams and being forced by wage capital to help other people work on awful alien dreams which mean nothing to us.  Perhaps we should spare some sympathy for the mermaid.  That doesn’t mean we should let pretty flippers blind us to the perils of the ocean.  Maybe when we look into her lovely features we shouldn’t see a trap, we should see a mirror–ourselves in an impossible predicament we have always been in.

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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met.  This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.”  It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520.  The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy.  From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino.  Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.

But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green.  Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands.  Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports.  The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance.  You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).

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Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus.   The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling.  The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity.  I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals.  With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…

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The ancient Babylonians looked up at the glittering night stars and saw the shapes they knew from nature and from the myths of Mesopotamian civilization: a lion, a maiden, a scale, a scorpion, a centaur archer, a water goat (?),  a water bearer, a pair of fish, twins, a ram, a bull, and a solipsistic crab.  For thousands of years, these ancient emblems fascinated the imagination and represented the changing influence of the heavens upon humankind throughout the year.   Roman astronomers and calendar makers formally enshrined the twelve symbols as a circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude: a calendar for the whole year.  This zodiac has been with us for a long time. The twelve figures lie at the center of the fun pseudoscience of astrology (which has no rational validity but which is a great way to strike up conversations and analyze the most fascinating subject of our times: the self).

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But what if the Babylonians and the Romans got it wrong?  There was always some awkward wiggle room in their calculations.  Was there a 13th zodiac sign which ancient magi/natural philosophers skipped out of ignorance, fear, or fascination with the number 12?  This is the provocative but largely meaningless question posed by NASA in a spectacular announcement of a newly found thirteenth constellation!  Well actually they have not so much found this constellation Ophiuchus, as reinstated it in the circle of the night sky as illustrated in the stunning graphic below.

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Orpiurchus, “The Snake-bearer” has long been in the heavens—although it is hard to see from northern latitudes–and astrologists and iconographers have flirted with the idea of including him in the classic zodiac (which kind of only works in the northern hemisphere anyway).   The snake bearer does have an emotional resonance with Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, AND Judaeo-Christian cultures, all of which have intense snake-themed myths about knowledge, hubris, and humankind’s uneasy place in the cosmos.

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ZodiacBooks.com presents us with an overview of the emotional traits of these new snake carriers as, “spirited, magnetic, impulsive, clever, flamboyant, and at times jealous, power-hungry, and temperamental [people born in this sign] want to heal the world of all ills and bring everyone closer together.” Hmm, it sort of sounds like everyone I know except for my crabby Cancer friend.  Obviously shoehorning a whole 13th symbol into the calendar has moved everything around, so here are the new dates, if you are afraid you might actually have some other personality than the one you have always had:

Capricorn: January 20-February 16

Aquarius: February 16-March 11

Pisces: March 11-April 18

Aries: April 18-May 13

Taurus: May 13-June 21

Gemini: June 21-July 20

Cancer: July 20-August 10

Leo: August 10-September 16

Virgo: September 16-October 30

Libra: October 30-November 23

Scorpio: November 23-November 29

Ophiuchus: November 29-December 17

Sagittarius: December 17-January 20

Of course a cynical natural scientist might surmise that random patterns of stars (which lie many many light years from each other) have no influence whatsoever on our little lives.  NASA, which deals in real science and engineering, but which desperately needs ATTENTION to thrive in our chaotic late-stage democracy says as much on their website.  They have essentially slapped a “for novelty purposes only” asterisk on this entire story (AND on astrology). We will see if Orpiurchus becomes a lasting part of the heavens or if he slinks back into dark obscurity like he did in the 1970s (or in this beautiful Rouseeau painting below which has nothing to do with this attention-seeking story). In the meantime, this is a fine opportunity to talk to people about their personalities and their birthdays and about what they want from the world. Whatever his nature, the snake-bearer can thus help us fulfil the true purpose of astrology!

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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who founded dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tablet features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.

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The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V, the heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

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