CHAPTER NINE: IMAGINARY VALUES
1. THE QUEST
"IT IS OBVIOUS"
THE COSMOGRAM IN THREE TIMES
1. THE QUEST
The journey outward to infinite distinction is Quest and Tragedy. The journey inward to Zero and the Void, is Pilgrimage and Comedy. That is why, for Dante, it was the Divine "Comedy." To speak of a quest as TRAGIC-- particularly in association with the "Quest for the Holy Grail"--may be misleading, since it would only be tragic if misdirected outward to the temporal world of name and form, materiality and death. That search for the Grail most inclined to succeed is a journey of Consciousness inward through Existence, Truth, Indication, and Form, into the Void. It may be confounded with the notion of a "tragic quest" in the (mistaken) sense that one (erroneously) believes a trip into Eternity takes a "very long time," which it does not.
The etymology of GRAIL is uncertain; the modern word is from the medieval Latin gradalis, which was a dish or bowl, perhaps one like the ancient krater of the Greeks in which the sacred kukeon "mixture" was actually mixed and from which, at Eleusis, it was dispensed to all who entered the sacred precinct. By their liquid nature, symbolic of vital fluids and human sexuality, the Italian Liber and the Greek Dionysus or Bacchus were connected to the grape juice (from which the wine was made), to the vine, and to the plant itself in the belief
that a particular human is the vegetation spirit incarnate. To it Homer most nearly approaches in his picture of the blameless king "under whom the black earth bears wheat and barley and the trees are weighed down with fruit, etc." The varying legends of the Grail appear to concern such a king associated particularly with water. By the failure of the Quest he lost his virility and the land with its plants dried up and became waste, and by the achieving of the Quest he was restored to health and youth and as one version says "the waters flowed again through their channel and all the woods were turned to verdure."
[Onians, The Origins of European Thought, p. 219 f. See, the Odyssey, XIX, 109 ff.; and Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, Doubleday Anchor Books (1957), pp. 13, 58, and pp. 25 ff.]
The Reverend Walter William Skeat (1835-1912), Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Christ's College, and one of the great philologists, authored An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Our knowledge about the Indo-European and Proto-Indo-European roots of English has both broadened and deepened in the century passed since the Reverend Walter's study was originally published-- the first edition was issued in the years 1879-1882--but students of the language still frequently reach for "Skeat" on the corner of the desk, or lodged on a convenient shelf of the bookcase. His comments in the entry on GRAIL are intriguing:
See my Preface to Joseph of Arimathie, published for the Early English Text Society. It is there shown that the true etymology was, at an early period, deliberately falsified by a change of San Greal (Holy Dish) into Sang Real (Royal Blood, but perversely made to mean Real Blood).
[Walter W. Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Oxford University Press (Impression of 1963), s.v. GRAIL, p. 247.]
What makes the Holy Dish (Bowl, Cauldron, Chalice, or Krater) HOLY, is the way in which it represents, symbolizes or manifests a quality of sanctity as "wholeness." The Old English word halig derives from the Indo-European root kailo; related Germanic words have given us also the modern: WHOLE, HALE, WHOLESOME, and WASSAIL with which to drink one another's HEALTH. To express comparable concepts of health, Romance languages use words related to our SANE, SANITY and SANITARY, having a different etymology through the Latin sanus, from the Indo-European sanos. There is, however, in both lexical lineages the obvious and intimate connection between ideas of wholeness and health, or basic sanity. In the Latin verbal form, sano "to make sound, to heal, cure, restore to health" we may discover the same essential function--although understandably expressed more in material terms--implied by the word ART, the Indo-European root of which, ar, means "to fit together." A work of ART "works" as a thing made with craft or skill, fit together following principles of REASON and ORDER, so as to express a fundamental HARMONY, in which all of the constituent parts resonnate as within a whole system. Art can and does heal, just as it also reveals; at the deepest levels what a work of art does reveal are properties of formal relationships also expressed by those thoughts and systems, whether of mathematics, theology, or the Music of the Spheres, taken to represent the divine.
For Dante, as for Plato before him, and for many mystics from diverse cultures, speaking various languages, and wearing strange clothing or sometimes none at all, music has meant the experience of communion with the divine spirit: in the audible relations of rhythm and harmony reflecting the wholeness of one's being with the order of the cosmos, with the Unity, or with that which people conventionally call God. The "Whirling Dervishes" or Mevlevi Sufis--wearing garb of white wool in a tradition that stems from Mowlana ("Our Teacher"), Jalaloddin Rumi--seek to embody through ritual dance and rhythmic chant in their musical dhikr, the rembrance of God ("re-membering," i.e. fitting all the pieces together again), a state of fana` ("annihilation" from human qualities in God). It is in just such an ecstatic, primordial Unity with the First Presence, that one may receive a glimpse or a gleam from the Void, as if before 'twas cleft.
One day--thus legend tells--a man objected to Rumi's interest in music; an interest which was, indeed, not justified by orthodox standards. But our master Jalaloddin replied:
"Music is the scratching of the doors of Paradise."
Said the man: "I don't like the sound of scratching doors!"
Whereupon our master answered: "I hear the doors as they open--you hear them when they close...."
Musical imagery permeates his whole work from the very moment that Shamsoddin's love carried him away from bookish learnedness and his heart, instead, "learned poetry, song, and music." The most famous expression of this love of music is the eighteen introductory verses of the Mathnavi, commonly known as she`r-e ney, "The Song of the Reed." ...The reed flute was known to Islamic musicians from the beginnings of their history; it belongs to the oldest instruments used by man. The ancient Greeks spoke of the melancholy sound of the Phrygian flute, and the role of this instrument, as well as of musical therapy for mental diseases, was known to them and was inherited by the Islamic peoples: the Shefa'iyya asylum in Divrigi, completed in the very year of Rumi's settling in Konya, in 1228, contains a wonderful basin in which the melodious sound of falling water-drops was utilized for mental treatment.
Jalaloddin certainly knew the psychic effects of music, and of the role the flute played in such rituals. On the other hand, the story of the reed which divulges the king's secrets can be traced back to the tale of King Midas of Gordium...
[Annemarie Schimmel, The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi, Fine Books, London (1978), pp. 10, 210 ff.]
In this reference to healing is yet another suggestion of ancient teachings, the transmission of which was broken--as symbolized in the cutting of the Gordian Knot--by the imperious and brutal hand of a general, Alexander of Macedon, called the Great by apologists for ethnocentric, post-Hellenic Western cultural hegemony. The true sense of health and a wholistic understanding of the healing process, in all societies that have maintained more than tatters of their spiritual integrity, embraces with wisdom and compassion the entire mind and heart of mankind. Among the most powerful techniques for healing in Sufi traditions are the tassaruf exercises, by which one penetrates the relatively superficial aspects of individual personality--the personae are literally "masks"--in order to affirm the Unity of Consciousness, experientially demonstrable by the special "clarity" with which minds can interact. If there is a single key to understanding--and transmitting one's understanding--of this process, it lies in the realization that humanity has one spirit, the idea of one "great soul," as expressed by Rumi and by other inspired Sufi masters and teachers including the Spaniard Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), long before Carl Jung's Western theories of shared archetypal consciousness.
[See, Idries Shah, The Sufis, p. 370 f.]
Rare mathematicians such as Spencer Brown also share the vision of poets like Dante who "was privileged to be called to stand witness to the First Presence...[in] that his description of it, in the final canto, is a true account, in so far as any such accounts can be true, of his divine experience in respect of It." For, to say that Dante's vision of God was genuine is not the result of mere irresponsible guesswork, but rather "the result of a careful checking of his account with known holocosmic principles."
[Keys, Only Two, pp. 107, 118. An earlier version of ideas in this section was written with Walter Clifford Barney.]
Dante himself supports such an objective approach, for we may take--as the poet's own initiation into the "Laws of Form"--the remark of Beatrice in the first canto of Paradiso:
We are being told here that archetypal forms exist and can be experienced directly. Dante also concurs in the conception of the inward journey as toward a confusion of what the outward quest distinguishes. His vision-- and the one which Brown, incidentally, validates--is described in the translation by Laurence Binyon:
[Paradiso, I, 103-105; XXXIII, 85-92; in Paolo Milano, editor, The Portable Dante, Viking Press, New York (1947), pp. 370, 542.]
Dante's vision of the Form expressess the "confusion" of this ecstatic union literally, as being "fused together." We may also see this by noting the Form (of distinction) with a nexus of meanings collapsed in it. The actual term in the medieval Italian used by Dante was conflati, "blown together," eliciting an image shared by poets from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Spelt From Sibyl's Leaves," to Ezra Pound's Cantos, or from the fluttering of pages in James Joyce's image of "the bluest book in baile's annals" of "our herodotary Mammon Lujius in his grand old historium," to the carnival/chaos Library scene in the movie Black Orpheus (1959), directed by Marcel Camus.
Language gives homonyms, homophones, puns and double entendres. Whatever "substance and accidents" might have meant in the medieval theological terminology of Thomas Aquinas, from whom Dante apparently borrowed the phrase, today we may identify with the mathematical terms constants and variables, respectively, of the Arithmetic and Algebra; whereas the Form, un semplice lume, we may know as a token of the primordial mode, a flame from the point-source: a gleam of light.
This gleam, this point of dazzling light, this flame, may also call to mind the poetic image of another, earlier, great and eccentric Sufi teacher, the tenth century mystic, saint and martyr, Hussein Ibn Mansur al-Hallaj. In one of his most famous poetic images, he compares the self to a moth, circling about the flame of a candle, desiring to achieve through its fana`, the ultimate Unity with God.
The moth flies about the flame until morning, then he returns to his fellows and tells them of his spiritual state with the most eloquent expressions. Then he mixes with the coquetry of the flame in his desire to reach perfect union.
The light of the flame is the knowledge of reality, its heat is the reality of reality, and Union with it is the Truth of reality.
He was not satisfied with its light nor with its heat, so he leapt into it completely. Meanwhile, his fellows were awaiting his coming so that he could tell them of his actual vision since he had not been satisfied with hearsay. But at that moment, he was being utterly consumed, reduced and dispersed into fragments, and he remained without form or body or distinguishing mark. Then in what sense can he return to his fellows? And in what state now that he has obtained [Union]? He who had arrived at the vision became able to dispense with reports. He who arrives at the object of his vision is no longer concerned with the vision.
["The Ta-Sin of Understanding," The Tawasin of Mansur al-Hallaj: The Great Sufic Text on the Unity of Reality, translated by Aisha abd ar-Rahman at-Tarjumana, Diwan Press, Berkeley (1974), p. 24 f.]
The followers of Hallaj were viewed by the orthodox establishment as politically threatening and, if his teachings were not religious heresy, his refusal to recant when so charged compounded the issue as a provocation juridically defined as blasphemy. For, even as he said, the attempt to express Reality in ordinary terms is an impossiblity.
Hallaj, the greatest representative of early Sufism was creully put to death in 922. The reasons were mainly political--not so much, as one usually tends to believe and as legend asserts, orthodox aversion to his utterance ana'l-haqq "I am the Truth" or, "I am God."
[Schimmel, The Triumphal Sun, p. 5.]
The name he took, Hallaj, with typical Sufic double entendre, refers to the vocation of carding wool (as-suf), but as Idries Shah points out, the H-L-J root in Arabic is also shared by a verb meaning "to let forth lightning."
He taught that Sufism was the internal truth of all true religion, and because he emphasized the importance of Jesus as a Sufi teacher, he was accused by fanatics of being a secret Christian. One of the counts against him was that he had a number of books, wonderfully embellished and decorated....
On Tuesday, March 26, 922, Hallaj walked to the place of his execution, condemned by the Inquisition of the Caliph el-Muqtadir. He was tortured and dismembered, but showed no fear. This was his last public prayer, while he could still speak:
O Lord, make me grateful for the baraka [spiritual energy or inspiration] which I have been given in being allowed to know what others do not know. Divine mysteries which are unlawful to others have become thus lawful to me. Forgive and have mercy upon these Thy servants assembled here for the purpose of killing me; for, had Thou revealed to them what Thou hast revealed to me, they would not act thus.
[Shah, The Sufis, p. 374 f.]
The knight who did finally win the Grail, Parsifal ("Pierce-the-middle") was successful only when, like Mansur al-Hallaj, he proceded with awareness. The first time he saw the Grail, not recognizing it, he lost it again. Spencer Brown's achievement in Laws of Form is to show us how the whole journey may be traced, from an original intention to cross a state or boundary, to create any universe we please...taking care only that our commands do not conflict by confusing what they intend to distinguish. In much the same way, T. S. Eliot characterized Consciousness in its elemental act:
[T. S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages" from "Four Quartets," Collected Poems 1909-1935, in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950, Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York (1952), p. 136.]
Shakespeare's Globe Theater was conceived as a Renaissance expression of an important theme in the ancient Vitruvian ideal vision of architecture. In this view, the forms of physical architecture were intended to embody the spirit of the Theater itself, thus designed to effect those holocosmic principles by which the microcosmic-- the most subtle functions of the human mind and the most intimate of its perceptions--could be magnified symbolically through dramatic action. Theater, like poetry, attempts to transmit worked examples of grand themes and cosmic harmonies, awakening and reaffirming the spiritual sensibilities of people who, like the moth-fellows of Mansur al-Hallaj, are waiting for reports about the candle's flame. In her engrossing study of Tudor and Jacobean society as documented by the literature of the theater--and, in particular, by cosmic ideas expressed architecturally--Frances Yates explores this popular theme where the life of Man is seen either as a circus or as a great play. Shakespeare spells it out in As You Like It, when he has Jacques say the famous lines:
While surviving documentary evidence does not permit an archaeologically accurate reconstruction of the Globe Theater the way it may actually have been, we can--following the remarkable work of Ms. Yates -- approach the "Idea" of the Globe, which may well prove to be of even greater value and importance to our theme.
A theater with a name such as the Globe, and which was recognized as representing the world ("See the world's ruins" exclaimed Ben Jonson when surveying the charred remains of the first Globe after the fire) must, in my opinion, have been based on the classical theater plan of the equilateral triangles within the circle of the zodiac....A theater, the plan of which expressed in simple geometrical symbolism the proportions of the cosmos and of man, the world's music and the human music, is surely one which would have been a worthy vehicle for the genius of Shakespeare. It is always in terms of music that he thinks of man's destiny in its cosmic setting. That the plan itself of his theater might have been, in this profound sense, musical, is surely an illuminating thought. For the first time we can begin to envisage a theater strong enough and subtle enough to contain his vast Renaissance imagination.
The Theatrum vitae humanae [Theater of (Human) Life] is an emblem or an allegory, not a plan or representation of a Renaissance adaptation of the ancient theater. Nevertheless it is interesting as a representation which combines the classical element in its evocation of the auditorium of an ancient theater with medieval allegory and suggestions of Heaven and Hell in a manner perhaps not incompatible with the atmosphere of the English Renaissance theater. It shows very clearly that an ancient theater could be a religious theater; that above the stage heavens was Heaven itself; that below the stage was Hell and the Devil's realm.
[Frances A. Yates, Theater of the World, University of Chicago Press (1969), p. 134 f., 168.]
One might suppose that any number of other dichotomies could serve for interpreting the two brass plaques almost as well as those of Freedom and Slavery, or Heaven and Hell. For example, the Taoist Chinese concepts of Yin and Yang, or the dynamic, symbolic interaction between the Essence ("Fool") and the Magician ("Magus") cards of the Tarot pack would prove fruitful. In the cosmic dialectic of the Yin and the Yang, first they combine in doublets, then in the eight trigrams which generate the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching, and eventually, inevitably, there comes into being "the ten thousand things." The whole of the Tarot, some say, may be read from the interrelationship--at subtle levels--between the Essence and the Magician. Norse mythology provides another similar example of a world view in which Midgard (the Earth inhabited by ordinary human beings) is locked between Asgard above (the realm of the gods, who quaff wassail in Valhalla), and Hell below.
It may be that we can more easily sense the manifold global reverberations and the harmonies of cosmic order and the divine spirit in works of architecture than in the modest dimensions of sculpture, or as constrained by the formal limitations of painting. To be sure, in some works of art, whatever the medium, we encounter such density of content, richness of reference, beauty of conception, and elegance of form that we are led to perceive in it, or to feel it inspire within us some resonnance of cosmic harmony, the Music of the Spheres.
Even so, it seems that only the most extraordinarily accomplished work of architecture can succeed in moving our soul. But the truth is that we are fortunate when an architectural expression survives at all in anything like a finished state (as designed) because, ironically, the larger the structure and the more its builders intend to defy the eventual disintegration of its elements, the sooner that a monumental work of architecture succumbs to the ravages of change. Almost all of the Egyptian pharaonic tombs in the Valley of the Kings-- constructed with the explicit intention of perduring through the ages--had already been broken into and robbed in remote antiquity. Succeeding Pharaohs stole stones from predecessor's temples and monuments for their own use. The city of Cairo was constructed using the Pyramid complex as a quarry for stone. And there have been other, far worse ravages... despoilations that have left nothing in the place of once-grand concepts and realizations but an expanse of rubble and dust breeding.
No more than filaments of myth remain from the Labyrinth or from the palace at Knossos, less even than the left-overs from the Muslim destruction of many Byzantine and Visigothic churches, when their columns were recycled to support the ceiling of the Grand Mosque at Cordova. How we treasure all the more, then, the eloquent stone ruins of those magnificent (presumably non-thieving) architectural examples of grand conception and wholistic design: the caves at Lascaux, the temple complex of King Zoser at Saqqara, the Great Pyramids, the Capitoline Hill, Hagia Sophia, Hosios Lucas, the Sistine Chapel, and the Cathedral at Chartres. Structures of reed these days are still built only in southern Iraq; and, constructed like the Second Little Piggy's house, the Globe Theater, unfortunately, left only ashes.
"IT IS OBVIOUS"
Obviously, the physical scale does not have to be of melodramatic proportions, nor the materials sumptuous and rare, in order for a work of art to spark within us the same flames of the ignis spiritualis (the spiritual fire) that inspired its creator. This again, is indeed amazing. It is precisely how art works: GREAT art, anyway, always works to provide a model or paradigm that speaks of wholeness, and expresses a marvelous fitting together. Hence, it often comes with high humor and ultimately helps to reaffirm a context of basic sanity.
There was a mathematical lecturer, a professor at Cambridge in my college, Trinity, who was giving a lecture...and he was just coming to the end, he was just rounding off and saying "It is obvious that...." "But Sir, I don't see that it is obvious." So he had a look at the blackboard formulae and did a few calculations, and time for the lecture was finished and everyone got up and went away. This student who had asked the question still stayed on. He tried something else, and then said, "Excuse me just one moment, I must go back to my room and look up some books." So he went back to his room, and then five hours later he walked back into the lecture room and there was the student, still waiting. And he got up triumphantly onto the platform and said, "Yes, it IS obvious." That is what is obvious in mathematics--the more obvious it is, the longer it takes to find it.
[Spencer Brown, AUM Conference Transcript, p. 83.]
Our suggestion, which by now should be perfectly obvious, is that Marcel Duchamp's With Hidden Noise (1916), is a sculptural cosmogram. Of course it does not--nor could it--work in the same way that ancient temples defined their precise place on the face of the planet...often marking as well the time and circumstances of both their construction and dedication. Even knowing such details about With Hidden Noise, we may observe they are not relevant in the same way as an awareness of the winter solstice sunrise may be for an appreciation of Stonehenge, or as the light of the summer solstice sun may increase our sense of wonder when it shines through the clear pane in the window of Saint Apollinaris to illuminate the singular, pale, offset pavement stone at Chartres. With Hidden Noise is an Easter piece, but naturally not in the same way that the light of the equinoctal sunrise and sunset, shining on the carved sides of the Citadel steps of the the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, makes the stone snakes look as though they were wriggling.
To help Duchamp's sculpture work in magical way, we have had to bring to it something of the same inspiration and inventiveness the original collaboration brought to its creation. That is the nature of the BAR[G]AIN in accepting the gambit offered by Duchamp, and the present essay is a gesture intending to provide one worked example of such an interactive aesthetic enterprise. Justifiably, one might ask whether or not Duchamp could have intended ANY of the references or allusions we have presented. This might be an appropriate question if we intended to publish a biography, or an account of the artist's life with some concocted chronicle, in turn, of HIS creative intentions... but such problems of intentionality--for us, anyway--are very largely, if not totally, beside the point.
To see how well With Hidden Noise might be read as a cosmogram, we have applied an admittedly arbitrary, symbolic interpretation to it, associating the material forms of the sculpture with historical and philosophical issues involving freedom and slavery or heaven and hell. The interrelated real and imaginary constructs framing these issues could also be charted by their dynamic reflections between, for example, the abstractions of Renaissance Neo-Platonic philosophy and Michelangelo's marble "Slaves," or with Dutch still-lifes and early seventeenth-century mercantilism, bourgeois capitalism and nation-state colonialism. Such associations may help to define a still larger frame of reference for our poetic interpretation. The piece may then become a cosmogram expressing crucial ways in which the world has changed, from the end of Classical antiquity--and there are several intriguingly different ways to figure THAT--up to Duchamp's death, to the present, or to the year 2000, the end of the current millennium.
However, pursuing the same issues much further back in time, to the long stretches of Neolithic and Paleolithic culture, we tend to lose accurate references for ideas of freedom and bondage, or heaven and hell. For such a scope we must expand our reading to address more general issues of consciousness or phenomena of fundamental evolutionary change to be symbolized by the organic element, the ball of twine, pressed between the brass plaques as if by the parameters of time.
THE COSMOGRAM IN THREE TIMES
Our text recurrently refers to the phenomenon called the precession of the equinox, a refined intellectual abstraction the original perception of which must have been based upon many years, many generations, many linked lifetimes of precise observations, accurate record-keeping and a sustained continuity of cultural values that resulted in a rigorously respectful transmission of information. This fascination with cycles of time and number was probably one of the deepest mysteries of awareness for the Paleolithic mind...an awareness we have all inherited, and so not utterly beyond our capacity to reconstruct. In the social domain it was guarded as a "secret" requiring initiation, instruction and dedication to ritual observances in order to guarantee continuity of the transmission, so as to correct, preserve, and pass along this data. All the numbers and cycles were imagined to token some essential importance for human consciousness in the attempt to discover significance in, and to reflect upon Being: that is, to contemplate Reality in the ultimate.
Desiring to place With Hidden Noise in temporal contexts appropriately grand, we shall interpret the two brass plaques and the ball of twine between them as corresponding, symbolically, to the three different time spans (or multiples) associated with the aion:
In viewing With Hidden Noise as a cosmogram--even proposing a "universal" reading--we must confide first what order of turning, what periodicities we have in mind, and how far back we must reach into our collective memory; for, we may take a universe to be "one turn around" either as we spin around it, or as it spins around us. Whatever a phrase like "the Buddha of the three times" might mean, here we find that three quite different (although not necessarily contradictory) interpretations of the piece result from the different spans of symbolic time: three ways in which we may understand an aion.
We propose to use the term aion, with the Greek-derived spelling, in order to distinguish the special sense intended here from the term "eon" (the more common modern spelling, from the Latinized form aeon). The basic concept is that of an human lifetime, although demographic studies produce varying estimates of how long this might be, as do different traditions: for example, the Buddha's lifetime is reckoned to be 80 years. The "ideal" aion--understood as 72 years--has the virtue of being earth-commensurate, that is, dervied from measurements marking periodicities of the Earth itself. This figure of 72 nestles comfortably in the tradition of the precession of the equinox, as it is the number of years in which the sun (at the rate of 50 seconds of arc--not quite one minute--per year) will have precessed one full degree (60 minutes) of arc. Applying these numbers to the historical life of Marcel Duchamp's piece of sculpture, the first (short) aion, or "lifetime" of 72 years, spans the period of 1916 (counting either from Easter when it was conceived, or decembre when the "mass-production" project seems to have been completed, and the piece duly inscribed) to 1988 when (as it happens) this present writing began.
The concept of the aion on a larger scale corresponds to one of the twelve periods that comprise the Great Year: ideally 2160 revolutions of the earth around the sun, but at various times figured with a wide margin of latitude, giving or taking some 300 years, either way. This is the span of time commonly called an "age," as in "the Age of Pisces" now coming to a close, or the imminent "Age of Aquarius."
Projecting this duration backward in time, we arrive at the juncture between the earlier Hellenic world of Plato and Athenian democracy (such as it may have been), and the later Hellenistic world of Alexander and the beginnings of a Western notion of global empire, based upon military subjugation, economic exploitation, and cultural hegemony. The price to be paid for this new, qualified vision of unity can be computed, in retrospect, as an extended, aggressive program of information control involving the destruction of architecture, art, literature, historical chronicles and scientific data along with those institutions or traditions feared as sources of potential competition for the beliefs and practices of the conquering, totalitarian state. This transition, some 2160 years ago, had many features of a "paradigm shift" with eventually global consequences, much like the process described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
A third span of time reckoned as an aion would be that full precessional cycle of 25,920--almost 26,000--years. As we discussed above, for example, 13,000 years ago the pole star (viewed from the Earth) was Vega; 13,000 years hence, it will be again. We may recall that, by modern astronomical calculation the rate is subject to subtle fluctuations; it may be counted rather more scrupulously as 25,784 years, while the ideal, mathematical cycle of 25,920 years--although it does come surprisingly close to the modern figure based on observations--is a "harmonic" number derived from computing simple multiples:
25,920 = 12 X 2160 216 = 432 2
2160 = 2 X 1080 216 = 2 X 108
= 4 X 540 108 = 9 X 12
= 8 X 270 = 2 X 54
270 = 3 X 90 54 = 6 X 9
25,920 = 60 X 432 90 = 3 X 30 = 2 X 27
30 = 3 X 10 etc.
Whatever tally-markers of antler or ivory may have been used, we know that--right up until the advent in the West of printing with movable type, as a matter of practice--the written notation served only as an adjunct to the oral tradition, providing a parity check, as it were. Let us now do a little time-check: we have enjoyed this vehicle of the printed word for some 540 years. That is approximately one-fourth of the period assigned to each sign of the zodiac as 2160 years, one-twelfth of the Great (or "Platonic") Year, the aion of 25,920 years: reckoned as the interval between the rising of the sun at the equinox before the same distant stars, a precession appearing to move "backward" (vis-a-vis the direction of the sun's apparent path before the stars of the zodiacal band in the course of a solar year), precessing through 360 degrees, making a complete circle, marking a once-around, thus defining, in one objective sense, a "universe."
Such precise, astronomically based reckoning has been recorded in notational form since Sumerian times--that is, from the earliest evidence of objective documentation using formal systems of notation that we conventionally recognize as writing and counting, or in other words, from very beginning of what most people take to be recorded history. We note here the argument (carrying with it, we feel, some conviction) that the Paleolithic cave paintings also deserve respect as formal systems, and that the tally of lunar periodicities on stones and bones--some of which may very well date from 25,920 years ago-- we might also consider evidence of "counting."
One criticism of contemporary scholarship--where it has noticed the profound cultural importance of the precessional phenomenon at all--has to do with just these numbers. In the generally laudable attempt to communicate clearly, and perhaps also hoping to avoid the appearance of pedanticism, many authors cannot resist "rounding off" this strange number: 25,920. The whole point is that certain numbers were--and still are, in some quarters--imagined to express, by their unique, intrinsic specificity, qualities of cosmic order. This rather insistent view is not merely persnickety, for it is in keeping with a redundant maxim of modern science, and-- as Duchamp sensed--with a widespread aesthetic disposition. Now, "26,000" is fine for reminding a reader about the approximate duration of time, but it simply will NOT do in order to convey the quite precise idea which underlies the precession's significance in all those elegant, abstract notations for the music celestial that draw historical inspiration from the root perceptions of Sumerian civilization. This is attested eloquently by Joseph Campbell in his commentary on the work of Samuel Noah Kramer, who first identified Sumer, having conducted the principal archaeological excavations at Ur and other Sumerian sites.
Dr. Kramer has drawn from an ancient Sumerian clay tablet an interesting partial list of the virtues [me's, the Sumerian equivalent of the Sanskrit Dharma, the Chinese tao, or the Egyptian maat] that in those earliest days of systematic thought were supposed to constitute the order of the universe....
These were the archetypes of being and experience fixed in the fourth millennium BC for all time. And the emphasis upon music is interesting. It will be recalled that there were a number of harps found among the suttee burials of the royal tombs of Ur that bore as ornament the figure of the dead and resurrected moon- bull, Tammuz, with lapis-lazuli beard. For the inaudible "music of the spheres," which is the hum of the cosmos in being, becomes audible through music; it is the harmony, the meaning, of the social order; and the harmony of the soul itself discovers therein its accord. This idea is basic to Confucian music, to Indian music as well; it was, of course, the Pythagorean belief; and it was a fundamental thought, also, of our own Middle Ages: whence the continuous chanting of the monks, who were diligently practicing in accord with the choir of the angels. Not only music, however; all art--all archaic and Oriental art--partakes of this mystique. It is an epiphany of the Form of forms.
[Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 113 f. See, Samuel Noah Kramer, From the Tablets of Sumer, The Falcon's Wing Press, Indian Hills, Colorado, (1956), p. 92 f.]
A period of 25,920 years might seem to be a very long time--and it is for most of cultural history, although it is but a wink of the eye for geology, and less than that for astronomy. However, we do find the fascinating evidence of cave paintings, relief and small-scale decorated sculpture, and the archaeological testimony of site excava-tions that provide intelligence on the activities--and some clues as to the state of mind--of our High Paleolithic, very human ancestors. Since, in this context, we address evidence from a time BEFORE the discovery by the Sumerians of cosmic periodicities articulating the importance of the exact number 25,920, we may allow rounding it off. The duration of approximately 25,000 years then, taken as a "standard stoppage" or measure of time, we shall use to mark off time extending back into the history of human (or hominid) activity to highlight whatever might possibly relate to With Hidden Noise.
The concept of "rounding-off" itself represents an obvious effort to achieve a sense of wholeness which, in most languages, is linked intimately to the idea of health. This suggests the obvious corollary: that we are all in the same planetary boat, Spaceship Earth--meaning that the most vexing, intractable problems challenging mankind as a whole must be framed in a context that is global. Threats to stability of the Earth's biosphere have arisen primarily as consequences of human action, such as pollution and radiation. These perils could be arranged according to a Medieval/Renaissance scheme of the Four Humors as shown in Albrecht Dürer's engraving,The Fall of Man (1504), or in his frightening woodcut, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498).
The enterprise of the Apocalypse was novel in two respects. First, it was the earliest book designed and published by an artist as exclusively his own undertaking.... Second, the Apocalypse was a new type of illustrated book as such.
[Panofsky, Dürer, p. 51, fig. 78.]
Again, among all the associative schemata available, new wholistic approaches to articulating environmental problems resist compartmentalizations in terms of media and mechanisms, stressing instead the interrelatedness of the problems, just as the solutions to them must also involve coordinated and integrated consciousness. Still, we may find it instructive to consider categories according to the Four Elements, corresponding to the four suits of the Tarot Lesser Arcana, now commonplace as clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades:
FIRE -WANDS (CLUBS)
Urban, forest-and wildfires, slash and burn farming, global warming, radiation: nuclear and solar ultra violet.
EARTH -PENTACLES (DIAMONDS)
Topsoil erosion, desertification, salinity from irrigation, toxic wastes, non-recyclable materials, leaking landfills, disease, general misuse of land e.g. housing on farmland.
WATER -CUPS (HEARTS)
Damming wild rivers, draining wetlands; pollution with human waste, agricultural runoff and toxic chemicals, acid rain, oil spills, oceanic pollution, overfishing, loose driftnets, and general scarcity of fresh, pure, potable water.
AIR -SWORDS (SPADES)
Carbon dioxide levels, depletion of ozone layer by CFCs, methane, nitrogen and sulphur compounds, carbon monoxide, increased air traffic, space debris, noise pollution.
The QUINTESSENTIAL problem becomes clear when we realize that almost every one of these hazards or threats is a direct consequence of (or will be severely worsened by) the Earth's exponentially increasing human population. In the old symbolism this quintessential, fifth "element" was known as ETHER. By extension of the above scheme, the issues of life and death and the evolution of human consciousness may be indicated by the Major Arcana cards of the Tarot deck, the idea for which has been carried over as TRUMPS in some games played with the modern bridge deck. We might also include a couple of JOKERS: upsurges in terrestrial volcanism, unusual solar activity, meteorites, galactic cosmic ray fluxes, or the acts of transnational corporations.
These problems thread the loom of our common fate, our present web of interrelatedness woven upon the warp clews from our historical past like a textile patterned with manifold karmic effects. To the extent we have ceased to live in harmony with principles of basic sanity and respect for Mother Earth, however, several rips and rents and rotted threads have appeared, and some serious patchwork needs to be done. As a purely practical matter, we must begin by affirming our essential unity as the basis for common action directed toward achieving harmony and well-being for all life on this planet.