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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).
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…
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).
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.
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.
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!
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 found 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 tabley features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.
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 he 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.
The Last Judgement (Alex Gross, 2007, oil on canvas)
I failed to write a post for Martin Luther King Junior Day because I was out enjoying the holiday….just off gallivanting around the 19⁰ city (I guess that translates to -7 degrees in Celsius, in case my European readers mistakenly think I moved to Rangoon). To make up for the omission, here is a historically charged contemporary artwork by Alex Gross. Gross is a Los Angeles based artist who is part of the pop-surrealism movement which is based out there (aka “Low Brow” art). This painting is titled “The Last Judgement” and it portrays an anachronistic union between the races occurring in 1930s New York…among other things.
In the painting, Frederick Douglass, the great human rights leader and voice of abolition, weds a Chinese bride…or perhaps he is giving her away (the ceremonial import of his great sword and strawberry ice cream are unclear—although they suggest he has finally obtained power and leisure). The bride has left Chinese tradition behind enough to wear white, the bride’s color of purity in the west but the color of mourning in China. There is an anxious cast to her features which suggest that she may be with Douglass as a symbolic rebuke to the racist and xenophobic immigration acts which bedeviled the United States in the late nineteenth century (reactionary laws which do not show the American democracy or melting pot at its strongest).
Around the two figures ancient WASP ghosts rise from the ground, but they are joyously photographing the moment and releasing butterflies. A coral snake curls at the couple’s feet, for the way forward is always filled with perils. In the background a blimp crashes into the Chrysler building…for the conturbations of the greater world continue, irrespective of the state of relations among our citizenry. I have no idea what the goat means: is she an outcast figure of disunity? A happy pet? An ancient agricultural figure showing up along with the resurrected dead? Who knows?
I am a big fan of pop-surrealism (aka “Low Brow”) art, though I hate both of its names. I like the ambiguous symbolic literary meld of figures from history and natural history. Such paintings must be interpreted, and there is often plenty of room for ambiguity which gives the mind great scope to contemplate aesthetics and the direction of human affairs. Gross’ emphasis on style, technique, and beauty is telling. This is a painting by someone who can paint well. It has beauty and narrative although the absurd anachronism of its cast and its implicit polemic threaten to overwhelm its winsome charms. Contemporary critics, distrustful of beauty and meaning, accuse the style of being intellectually facile. To them the symbols become merely pictorial and lose their meaning. I feel like that may sometimes be true of Mark Ryden, who does indeed seem to have lost sight of what Lincoln and pre-pubescent girls mean. Yet that isn’t true here. This painting is not located in the great morass of “irony” (where today’s art establishment wanders, phony, lost, and alienated). Instead this hearkens back to Puritan symbolic painting—if that had not been lumbered with the problems of the past. It is a vision from the artist’s heart of a more perfect America.
One day, Marsyas saw the radiant god Apollo playing his lyre (which, in Greco-Roman society, was the instrument of the aristocracy). Lord Apollo was clad in the costliest raiment and equipped with the finest gold trappings. He was inhumanly beautiful…dangerously beautiful. Marsyas was overwhelmed: he was a crude goat-man, and Apollo was the god of music (and sunshine, and medicine, and prophecy). At this juncture, Marsyas made a fateful choice–he decided to challenge glorious Apollo to a musical contest. The winner would be able to “do whatever he wanted” with the loser. Marsyas, a satyr (synonymous, in the classical world, with lust) thus imagined that he would “win” or “be won” no matter which way the the competition worked out.
Apollo grew oddly enflamed by the challenge and agreed readily–with one stipulation of his own. The muses, the goddesesses of art, would judge the event. Now the muses were daughters of Apollo, both figuratively and literally. To a disinterested observer the arrangement might smack dangerously of favoritism, but Marsyas was blinded by longing and besotted by hist art.
The two musicians set up beside a river and began to play. Apollo played a complicated piece about laws and lords and kings. It sparkled like sunshine. It grew oppressively magnificent like the great gods of high Olympus. It ended like glittering starlight in the cold heavens. Next Marsyas played and his music was completely different–it spoke to the longing of the weary herdsman coming home at sundown. It was about the mist rising from furrowed farmlands, about fruit trees budding in the orchard, and about the soft places where the meadows run out into the rivers.
The muses listened closely to the music and made their choice. “These pieces are played by opposite beings on dissimilar instruments. The works have completely different subjects, but both pieces are perfect. Neither is clearly “better” than the other.” Sublime music had won the contest!
But Apollo was not satisfied. There are two versions of the story: in one he turned his lyre upside down and played it as well as ever (Marsyas, of course, could not do the same with the aulos). In the other version, Apollo played the lyre and sang (also impossible with the aulos). “I have two arts, whereas Marsyas has only one!” he proclaimed. The muses halfheartedly assented: Apollo had officially won the contest.
This was the moment Marsyas had planned for. He was shaking with excitement as Apollo took hold of his unresisting form and shackled him to a tree. Then Apollo picked up a skinning knife and started flaying the saty’s skin off. Marsyas screamed and bleated in horror and pain, but Apollo kept cutting and peeling until he had removed the satyr’s entire hide. Then the lord of music sat and watched while Marsyas bled to death, before hanging up the horrible dripping pelt in the tree and departing. Vergil avers that the blood of Marsyas stained the river everlastingly red–indeed the waterway was thereafter named the Marsyas.
Apollo and Marsyas (Bartolomeo Manfredi, ca. 1615-1620, oil on canvas)
The artistic thing to do, would be to leave the story as it stands–to let readers mull the troubling tale on their own. However I have been thinking about it a great deal…Every artist thinks about it a great deal. Museums are filled with interpretations of the story by history’s greatest painters and sculptors. There was a version of Apollo and Marsyas painted on the ceiling of the Queen of France (in that version, the skinning is done by underlings as Apollo languidly points out how he wants things done). Since I have seen plenty of museum-goers blanch when looking at pictures of Marsyas and hastily turn away, I will provide some ready made meta-interpretations to start the conversation.
First, this story is a tale of masters and servants. The lyre is the instrument of the rich. It was expensive to own and required tutors to learn. The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, smallfolk, and slaves. The tale of exploitation is a very familiar one throughout all of history. It always goes one way: somebody gets fleeced.
Also this is self-evidently a tale of forbidden sexuality. It was immensely popular with Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian artists from the west because of the opressive mores of society. By presenting this story as a classically varsnished picture, people could represent forbidden ideas about same-gender relationships which society would literally kill them for saying or acting upon. Indeed the story’s ghastly climax represents exactly that!
In a related vein, philosophers and writers interpret the story as “reason chastening lust.” The former is more powerful than the latter: ultimately the mind subjugates the passions. Perhaps this is why the picture was above the queen’s bed–maybe the king commanded that it be painted there. Yet the reason of Apollo does not strike me as at all reasonable. If this is what rationality accomplishes, then reason is monstrous (and it often seems so in the affairs of men). I wish I could sit with Jeremy Bentham and talk about this. Utility and pragmatism oft seem as ruthless as cruel Apollo.
It is also a tale of artists and their audiences (and their art). Marsyas does not clearly lose the contest. His music is as beautiful as that of Apollo–maybe better. However the game was rigged from the start. Art is a mountain with infinite facets but the sun of fashion only shines on a few at a time. The greatest artists are not necessarily appreciated or loved. I can’t imagine a single artist who painted this story imagined themselves as Apollo. Unless you have personally rigged the game with money and power, it will not benefit you. You must prepare for operatic destruction at the hands of the world. It is a terrible part of art. The world’s inability to discern true worth is one of life’s most disappointing aspects.
Above all, it is a story of gods and mortals. For daring to step on the field with the divine, mortality is punished with the ultimate penalty–mortality. I don’t believe in gods or divinity (people who literally believe in such things strike me as dangerous lunatics). Divinity is a myth–but an important one which informs us concerning humankind’s ultimate purpose and methods. We have strayed into vasty realms. I’ll come back to this theme later but for now let’s say that the defeat of Marsyas reveals something. Would you prefer if he just gave up and groveled before Apollo? No, there would be no story, no striving, no art. There is a divine seed within his failure–a spark of the celestial fire which animates (or should animate) our lives.
Anyway, for putting up with this rather horrible week I have a Halloween treat for you tomorrow. Remember, I am not just a moral and aesthetic philosopher but a troubled toymaker (and a lost artist) as well. Happy Halloween!
Longtime readers will remember that Ferrebeekeeper has a great fondness for the magnificent art and pottery of the Moche, a civilization noted for sophisticated agriculture, ultra-violence, and, um, magnificent art and pottery. The Moche lived in the rich coastal lands of what is now northern Peru. In the past we have written about their art of sea monsters and human sacrifice, and of waterfowl. Today we look at Moche bat-themed art.
Bats were beloved subjects of much pre-Colombian art (I owe everyone a post about the bat in Aztec art and myth). Although they were great artists, the Moche were scary people who were always sacrificing and garroting and flaying (more about that next week) and excarnating and hanging corpses everywhere. Yeesh… Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bats of Moche art are scary creatures with grimacing monster teeth and near-human expressions of malice and grief.
Sadly we don’t know precisely what place the bat held in Moche mythology. In fact we don’t know anything about Moche mythology except what we can intuit visually. However there are lots of bats to visually interpret and it seems like a safe bet that they had a chthonic underworld meaning (as they do in Western art and culture). These bats are demons and monsters born of the dark night-side of the human spirit.
All of these grimacing fanged bats with bared claws and anguished eyes make me think of the Moche people themselves—caught up in their centuries-long game of bloody worship and savage status. I wish I could help them, or even understand them, but they are gone. All we have are their skeletons and their beautiful dark art.
I have been thinking a great deal about beautiful & meaningful allegorical paintings (indeed, you can go to this gallery of my own art and look at the strange seething world of symbolic paintings I have been creating under “Allegories”). Here is a very lovely painting from the nineteenth century American master Thomas Cole. This is a study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” the first painting of his magnum opus “The Voyage of Life,” a series of four huge paintings which portray a human life as a river running through the four seasons (I have put the relevant detail from the finished painting at the bottom of this post, but, for reasons unknown, I like the study better)
This is the beginning of life—an angel is launching an infant out of celestial darkness into the world. The little child is frolicking in delight among a fulsome bouquet of spring flowers little aware of the waterfalls, rapids, and sluggish poisonous bends which lie along the great river. What the painting lacks in symbolic subtly it makes up for with its boundless energy, personality, and immediate glowing exuberance.
Cole was not a pessimist—he viewed life as a dazzling sojourn of pellucid joy. This is a view which has fallen out of fashion in art (and maybe in larger realms of thought and endeavor), but the jubilant baby in this picture and the tender solicitous angel from suggests that we might want to revisit Cole’s worldview.
So, over the holidays I gave some coloring books to my friends’ daughter. It was gratifying to see how the coloring books, by grace of being the last presents of Christmas Day, stole her attention from the electronic doodads and the flying fairy which could actually fly (although, as a toymaker, I am still thinking about that particular toy). In gift-giving, as in gymnastics, going last is a position of strength! The little girl, who is four, graciously let me color one of the illustrations–a sacred elephant which was composed of magical spirit beings from Thai mythology–which I colored in fantastical fluorescent hues (while she colored her way through a collection of amazing animals from around the world). As we were coloring, the adults at the party made various observations about coloring—about who colored inside the lines and what it indicated about their personality and so forth.
I think my elephant turned out pretty well (although since, I failed to take a picture, you’ll just have to believe me). Also I think my friend’s daughter was inspired to try some new techniques—like darkening the edges of objects. It also seemed like she tried to pay more attention to the lines.
The experience took me back to my own childhood when I loved to color coloring books, especially with grandma or mom (both of whom had a real aptitude for precise coloring). However I was also reminded of being deeply frustrated by the books on several levels as a child. First of all, I was exasperated by my traitorous hands which would not color with the beautiful precision and depth that the adults could master. I always saved the best picture in coloring books for later when I was grown up and could color it as beautifully as I wanted it to be colored. As far as I know, these pictures all remain uncolored—somewhere out there is that 1978 Star Trek coloring book picture with all the crazy aliens, just waiting for me to come back with my Prismacolor pencils and nimble adult fingers and finally make it look good…
Most importantly, I was frustrated that the most amazing pictures—the ones that were exactly as I wanted them to be–were not in the coloring books at all. You have to make up the ones you really want and draw them yourself.
Aesthetics have gone wrong—it has been taken over by charlatans who cannot think up good pictures. Instead today’s marquis artists are obsessed only with provocatively going outside the lines. Like the kid in first grade who always did what he thought would be shocking, this quickly becomes tiresome. Additionally, I think we all discovered that the “shock value” kid was easily manipulated. So too are today’s famous artists who all end up serving Louis Vuitton (I’m looking at you, Takashi Murakami) or other slimy corporate masters who simply want free marketing. Art and aesthetics should be more than ugly clickbait! Our conception of beauty shapes are moral conception of society and the world. Therefore my New Year’s resolution is to be a better painter… and to explain myself better. Next year I promise to write more movingly about beauty, meaning, and humankind’s place in the natural world (which I have finally realized is the theme of my artworks). Avaricious marketers and art school hacks are not the only people who can take to the internet to explain themselves!
And of course there will be lots of amazing animals and magnificent trees and exquisite colors and crazy stories from history (and we will always keep one eye on outer space). The list of categories over there to the left is becoming restrictive! It’s time to bust out and write about all sorts of new things! Happy New Year! 2015 is going to be great! Enjoy your New Year’s celebrations and I’ll see you back here next year!
Orpheus was a Thracian…and a mortal. His mother was Calliope, Muse of heroic poetry. Different versions of his story differ as to whether his father was a Thracian king or Morpheus, god of dreams. Thanks to the tutelage of his parents, or perhaps because of his own astonishing gifts, Orpheus could play music more beautifully than words can express. Wherever he went, people would fall under the spell of the golden notes flowing from his lyre and the unbridled beauty of his divine voice. Animals were transfixed by his music and even trees would lean in closer to hear his songs. Because of the power of his art, Orpheus had a pleasant life which was largely free of care. He grew up doted upon by his mother and his many gifted aunts. He met a beautiful woman, Eurydice and the two fell deeply in love. Their pastoral wedding was an event of unbridled happiness and Orpheus, beside himself with delight, played the most joyous music the world had yet known.
In merry abandon, the bride danced bare-footed in a meadow and there she stepped on a snake which reared up and stung her. Eurydice sank to the ground and the guests, not seeing what had transpired, laughed at her intoxication, but Eurydice did not rise. She was dead. Her spirit had fled away.
Then Orpheus went mad with grief. He wandered off from his home and trod the gray world as an outcast ever seeking an entrance to the land of the dead. Finally at the dim edge of the earth he found the entrance to the underworld—the realm where the spirit of his beloved wife was imprisoned. Summoning all of his passion and all of his talent, he began to sing and play his lyre as he walked into the kingdom of Hades.
The breath of life and hope was in the music of Orpheus and, for a shining moment, the denizens of the underworld forgot their pain and sorrow. Cerberus lay down on his back and frolicked. Each flickering spirit recalled the warmth and love of living. Tantalus was not tortured by his eternal thirst and the Erinyes, stunned by unknown emotions, set aside their scourges and spiked whips. The damned knew a moment of blessed respite in their endless torment as Orpheus passed. Persephone’s haunted garden of poplars and willows burst into bloom as though spring had at last come, and the queen of hell herself wept silent tears.
Even Hades, god of death and the world beyond, was moved by the music of Orpheus. After listening to the remainder of the song and hearing the musician’s desperate entreaties, the dark god agreed to let Eurydice return from death to the land of the living, but with one condition: Orpheus must not look backward until after he left the underworld. Eurydice would follow him silently. Only in the sunlight of life could they properly be reunited.
Tormented by doubt, Orpheus made his laborious way back upwards. Without his music, the underworld again became dreadful and strange. In the Stygian gloom, fear gnawed at him. He worried that the lord of the dead had tricked him and nobody walked behind him. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of fear and darkness he spied the sunlight, and then, suddenly he could bear the overwhelming doubt no longer. As though unconsciously, he turned to see if Eurydice was behind him. For a moment he saw her ghostly beautiful face, and then she was gone, her spirit dragged back to the underworld. All that was left was her final whisper, “I love you.”
The world held no joy for Orpheus. Inconsolable he sat down beside a river in the wilderness with nothing left but his music, and that had turned impossibly sad. All he could do was play dirges of surpassing melancholy. Beasts, men, plants, insects, even stones were overcome by tears.
The heavens themselves wept at the laments he sang. Then a tribe of wild maenads came down from the hills. The inebriated women were frenzied by wine and orgies. They beat tumbrels and screamed in drunken ecstasy. Their shrieks of delight and delirium drowned out the dolorous music of Orpheus. His sadness had no place in their revels, and he likewise wanted no part of their besotted celebration. Offended by his demurral, the Bacchantes ripped him to bloody pieces and cast his head into the river. Still singing a lament, the severed head drifted out to the sea.
So goes the story of Orpheus, which everyone knows. He is one of a long list of heroes, mystics, and even gods who braved the underworld in order to attain a boon or complete a quest. Stories of the descent to the realm of death date back to the very beginning of writing (and presumably to fathomless prehistory before that). The tale of Innana’s descent to the realm of death is one of the first known written things of any sort. Gilgamesh, Osiris, Dionysus, Psyche, Hercules, Pirithous, Odin, Baldr, Lemminkäinen, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, Obatala, Arthur, Emperor Taizong of Tang, even Jesus Christ…all had to descend to death and go down questing into darkness. Only some came back again with the secrets of destiny and eternity.
It is the oldest story because it speaks most directly to us. We are all mortal. Alas, there are no magic herbs, secret songs, or forbidden elixirs (or cryogenic procedures) which can halt our inevitable death. Oblivion awaits all humans. Only imaginary folks like deities or made-up heroes can die and come back. Only art can surmount death.
I have told the story of Orpheus because Orpheus is the avatar of art. His music stands in for all human imagination and creativity. His katabasis story is sadder and deeper than the tale of simpler heroes like Hercules (who used divine strength to go down and come back) or Tammuz who was killed but came back to life because he was really a god. The myth of Orpheus is an allegory of the creative arts: it is the mythmaker’s myth about mythology. Even in the story, Orpheus was a mortal and his quest was a glorious failure. He had power over all beings only because of the verisimilitude of his music. He made it to hell and back with the emotional strength of his craft but ultimately failed to regain his love.
This is the story of art—a failure, a singing ghost which has no power to truly change anything. Art only makes us feel–it does not give us things. Look at Chardin’s peaches and bread rolls as long as you like. You will never taste them. The glowing nude goddess wrought in tempera will never embrace you. And yet, and yet, art provides us a reason to go on…an emotional catharsis which contextualizes the multi-generational struggles which make up the true tale of humankind.
There is no underworld. It is all made up. There are no deities there (or probably anywhere). Look around you at the room where you sit reading a computer screen—you are as close to the numinous as you are likely to get. But these ancient symbols of death and transcendence still hold profound meaning for us. We have the ability to imagine things–tales of what never was and never can be. Over the long generations as our skills at science and engineering grow, it is still our creativity which endows life with meaning. The imagination lends its transfigurative magic to the more concrete disciplines and drives us all forward, even though individually we might perish in the wilderness (torn apart, like Orpheus, by our own demons and tragedies).
Though all paths through the world lead to one place, do not despair. The singing lyre of Orpheus leads us again back to the light…to the pains and the hopes of life.
Ferrebeekeeper is quickly coming up on its 1000th post (this one, which you are reading is the 990th). Before we get to the thousandth post, we’re going to have a special top ten countdown to look back at some of the highlights of all the topics we have covered so far. Then I’ll write something really super special for the millennial post! After that, it will be Halloween-time, which always features some of our best material…so it’s going to be a great autumn! However, before we get to these thrilling special events and celebrations, I wanted to address some of the issues raised by this blog and also ask the readers a few questions.
Most importantly, what is the purpose of this blog…or any blog? I actually started writing Ferrebeekeeper merely because a friend set it up for me. Also my blog-hero Andreas Kluth (who has seemingly stopped writing his blog, now that his book is published) recommended blogging as a way to organize one’s thoughts, feelings, and creative impulses. Ferrebeekeeper has 29 topics (you can see them right there to the left) and I try to write about one of them each day. Sometimes I can combine several—like when I write about Chinese snake art, or Ancient Egyptian bee-crowns. Those are happy days! Other days I can’t think of anything that fits any of the listed topics—so I write something random and chuck it under “uncategorized.”
So I started this blog to share interesting and meaningful things with you–and that is still my wish. I want to use it to push forward my ideas about art, science, and human progress. I also want to keep this blog exciting and relevant—and growing. Yet now I am also stumbling about accidentally on the threshold of a career in journalism. Writing articles a certain way in exchange for money is causing me to reassess the purpose and future directions of Ferrebeekeeper. The media world has been changing with vertiginous rapidity. Sadly, for someone who is a technophile with dreams of space colonization, I have minimal web-savvy—so I didn’t get into the blogging game until the golden age of blogs had passed. Yet the idea of blogs is uniquely powerful and democratic. Ferrebeekeeper is a sort of one-person magazine about life, art, science, and history. Yet when one compares it to a real magazine, the differences become abundantly clear. Magazines are made to make money. They are large corporate entities with marketers, logisticians, and advertisers (in addition to all of the artists, writers, and editors who make the content).
Instead of a whole team of highly paid artists, illustrators, writers, editors, marketers, and photographers working together to churn out exciting highly produced content, there is just me in my pajamas trying to create a daily post [editor’s note; he doesn’t actually have pajamas…or, for that matter, an editor]. I do the best I can, but some days the research does not pan out and the topic ends up a bit flat (like, erm, cough, this bland post about the color viridian).
Of course a few blogs (or tumblers or twitter accounts or whatever) are making it big. If you specialize, you can sell to special advertisers. My friend always tells the story of his cousin the Korean food blogger who was able to retire from her day job of being trapped in a beige cubicle. All she does now is write about delicious Korean food every day as sponsors fight each other to giver her money! Can you imagine?
But I suppose the point of writing a blog isn’t to seek out wealth and fame (which is what twitter and reality TV are for). Instead I write this blog to explore the world (the universe?) in two ways. The first and most obvious is that I have to find out something every workday and write about it. Some posts, like the ones about parthenogenesis, brown dwarf stars, or alternation of generations are especially interesting and challenging. I am forced to learn all sorts of new things to write effectively about science, history, and geography. However, even the rapidly slapped together “list” posts of mollusk mascots or gothic clocks offer precious and unexpected insights into what is beautiful, intriguing, and meaningful. There have been points where I felt like everything was going to come together in some amazing epiphany–Chinese painting, turkeys, invaders, art, astronomy, and history would all become the same thing and I would understand the world. That larger understanding of how everything fits together always ends up eluding me, yet writing helps me try to weave wildly disparate threads of knowledge into a coherent weltanschauung.
The second way that this blog allows me to explore the world is through the readers who are always making unexpected connections, or asking questions. Since I can not travel the globe in person, I do so through this blog. Intelligent people from all sorts of different countries have written comments to me (and, according to the analytics tool, even more of you are reading). I am poor at quickly responding to people’s submissions, but I always try to respond cogently. Please keep writing comments! I know that wordpress makes it hard to respond, but I really esteem your input.
I guess the point of this blog is you–the readers! Of course, like all writers, I want to be read and to reach more like-minded souls! The fact that someone is actually reading Ferrebeekeeper is what makes it different from being a diary or a weird set of notes. I am constantly thinking about how I can make this effort more appealing while not selling out and using misleading click-bait to write about worthless celebrities.
It comes down to this paradox. This blog is not about selling something (although I guess WordPress sometimes puts ads on it), yet I do want it to be better and reach more people—which involves selling myself more effectively. What can I do to improve? How can I make this space better for you? Please write to me with your concerns, suggestions, and comments. Working together, we can make the next thousand posts even more astonishing and beautiful!