CHAPTER NINE: IMAGINARY VALUES
8. THE CUBE AND ALCHEMY
THE HEART OF ALCHEMY
8. THE CUBE AND ALCHEMY
We cannot cite all of the many cultural and artistic cubes and boxes that may provide moving metaphors or expressive analogues for With Hidden Noise, but a brief account of the Sufi Ibn 'Arabi's illumination may serve as a hint or reflection of one special relationship to the heritage of Marcel Duchamp. The most sacred shrine of Islam, and the focal point of pilgrimage required of all Muslims who are able to perform that ritual obligation, is the temple of the Ka'ba in Mecca, believed to have been built by Abraham. Externally it is a cubical structure, in one wall of which is set the mystical Black Stone, probably a meteorite; in the secret interior were once housed the idols purged by Muhammad. The Arabic root KA-'AIN-BA yields words with the generic meanings of "die" and "cube," and also, curiously, words associated with "virginity," or the swelling of female breasts (DES SEINS). This conjunction of meanings also suggests ideas of spiritual nurturing in the way mystical philosophers like al-Ghazzali describe, or great Sufi poets such as Ibn 'Arabi sing of, the divine energy associated with the rite of circumambulating the Ka'ba.
Ibn `Arabi, like Ghazzali a mystic with a knowledge of the tradition and the law, journeyed in the year 1201/2 from his native Spain to Mecca and there, while walking around the Ka`ba, the famous cubical temple, had the crucial experience of his life. As he passed the Black Stone in the eastern corner of the Ka`ba, he found, as he tells us, "the eagle stone of the youth zealous in devotion, of the silent speaker who neither lives nor dies, the encompassed encompasser who is eloquent and does not speak, who enquires concerning what he knows." We are reminded of alchemy by the "eagle stone" and to an even greater degree by the paradoxes that are supposed to explain it....If only we are sufficiently familiar with the philosophical content of alchemy to acknowledge the foundation of its seeming contradictions....
Up to this time the relation of Ibn `Arabi to the Ka`ba was that of his body to the mass of the building and that of his reason to the abstract concept Ka`ba; but now that the abstract concept man has been transfigured throught the meaning of the experience he embodies, there descends upon the Ka`ba the Pentecostal fire of the meaning which it represents. Its dead form--"And astonishing is a dead man round whom a living man revolves!" says Ibn `Arabi--becomes, through its relation to the faithful who circle round it, the vehicle of a spiritual content, which like the mystic youth cannot be derived by logic but is accessible only to the heightened perception of the mystic.
[Fritz Meier, "The Mystery of the Ka`ba: Symbol and Reality in Islamic Mysticism," The Mysteries [Papers from the Eranos Yearbook, Volume 2], Bollingen Series XXX.2, Pantheon Books, New York (1955), pp. 155 f., 161 f.]
A New Zealander, later to receive the title of Lord Rutherford, first achieved the real transmutation of elements in 1919. Within five years chemical gold (Au 79) was first produced--although not by very cost-effective means, it should be admitted--from the transmutation of mercury (Hg 80). In traditional alchemy, the powerful transmuting agent was the mysterious Philosopher's Stone, which was thought to cure the imaginary illnesses of the base metals, thereby enobling them to attain the perfected status of silver and gold.
From the postulate of the unity of matter it followed that such an agent should also be effective in healing the infirmities of man and prolonging his life.In this guise the Philosopher's Stone was regarded as the perfect medicine of man, under the name of the Elixir Vitae, or Elixir of Life.
Thus, according to alchemical theory, all forms of matter are one in origin; these forms are produced by evolutionary processes; matter has a common soul which alone is permanent, the body, or outward form, being merely a mode of manifestation of the soul and therefore transitory and transmutable into other forms. In their essentials these views bear a close resemblance to those of modern physical science. Indeed, in the twentieth century, "modern alchemy," to use a term coined by Rutherford, has shown the possibility of bringing about many transmutations of elements.
[Read, Through Alchemy to Chemistry, p. 15 f.]
These transmutations may come about both naturally, as the by products of radioactive decay, or as deliberate products of experiments in the modern science of nuclear physics. Apart from the secret, and petrifyingly inimical applications of this science to the development of nuclear weapons systems, the children of today and the general public of the future will certainly have to confront the implications of this modern alchemy as the disturbing and deadly legacy from all kinds of nuclear activity generating radioactive wastes. The obvious and immediate perils of nuclear warfare ought to be clear to any rational human being; gradually, people have come to recognize that any philosophy of "mutually assured destruction," if not a symptom of utter insanity, then at least betrays the mark of a committed sociopath. A less obvious (and therefore possibly even more insidious) threat, is posed by attempts to put a happy face on revived plans for nuclear power plants, upon which bilions of research and development dollars have already been spent--presumably as a "sexy" idea--without any sound scientific or economic rationale. If such judgments are indeed true, then the appeal of "hot-box" nuclear plants, still may be contemplated as expressions somehow fundamentally aesthetic in nature. Out of respect for Duchamp's cool stance about questions of taste and beauty, in performing this exercise we must be prepared to transcend other judgments that may, rather self-righteously (though with understandable cause), tend to enflame non-aesthetic passions.
The elegance of the concept for nuclear power depends upon having breeder reactors, which once offered a fascinating and beautiful promise of effectively limitless fuel. Providing such fuel requires the complex and dangerous process of isotope separation; for, whereas ordinary fission uses "slow" neutrons and is now fairly easy to control and contain, a breeder reactor uses "fast" neutrons, presenting far greater hazards and uncertainties. Spent nuclear fuel cannot be reused in "conventional" reactors. In theory, breeder reactor fuel could be produced from "recycled" spent fuel by laser beam isotope separation processes; but other high-level waste is also produced that cannot be used. In addition, there is further generation of new low-level nuclear waste, since every bit of the machinery, the pipes, the worker's clothing, the trucks, and so forth--every bit of it--is contaminated with radiation, and must be dealt with appropriately. It does not go away. Therefore, more--and not less--waste is produced, contrary to some of the rather naive assumptions people might harbor.
Nuclear waste transport is another special problem, apart even from the problems associated with establishing storage sites and providing for their secruity. These considerations are routinely avoided by promoters (both entrepreneurs and politicians) who claim false properties for nuclear energy, hoping to make it so by lying enough, and apparently coming to believe their own lies. Pernicious interests in government are plotting to revive nuclear power schemes, but most of the utilities have learned their lessons and will not invest; the scam is to privatize the nuclear industry with huge subsidies, hoping to lure vendors into the field--opening the door to many who would not, in any case, have the know-how to operate such plants safely, if that could be done at all. But there is not even public pressure to dispose of our already over-filled nuclear waste box. People imagine there is no clock ticking. Yet, at nuclear sites around both the country and the world there ticks, indeed, this hidden noise!
Another perennial problem plagues all nuclear enterprises: no one has yet come up with anywhere near an adequate answer to the question of what to do with the "spent" fuel that with certainty will continue to emit biologically threatening, cancer-causing and mutation-inducing radiation throughout the lifetimes of all our conceivable posterity, and beyond, and beyond the beyond, and even beyond that. In Europe today, there is a considerable amount of weapons-grade radioactive material simply missing from inventories. In the "new Europe" following the collapse of Communism, many of the controls and constraints on nuclear fuels unfortunately have also collapsed, and the frightening proliferation of such material is assuredly bound to increase.
Compared with the US government (which seems to lack a real sense of risk) the nuclear industry in America, in general, has shown a more responsible attitude. Even so, nuclear waste is routinely pumped to holding ponds surrounded by simple fences. Although any individual interloper would incur serious personal risks, access to extremely dangerous material nevertheless would seem to be shockingly easy.
So far, there has been no reported incident of this kind, but here seems to be an incident waiting to happen. This problem cannot be solved simply by building newer and better plants, for there is no real basis for fool-proof guarantees. Yet, because of the security requirements to allay the potential danger of sabotage or terrorist incursions, the rest of society--should it choose to live with nuclear energy--must reckon the prospect of living in a virtual police state as among nuclear energy's very substantial, future social costs.
The democratic response from American voters has been to reject programs for nuclear power; accordingly, most public utilities are not willing to finance such ventures. There are many problems with investments in generating nuclear energy, not the least of which is insurance. Early on, the government had to set--by legislative fiat recalling that of Elizabeth I--maximum limits of liability, otherwise no one would insure any aspect of the venture. One of the present principle difficulties appears to be capital costs, and the unknown number of years that can ensue, pending licensing. No new nuclear power plants are on order--as of this writing--because of the huge potential disparities that face a corporation trying to balance costs and revenues, in part the consequence of extreme uncertainties about licensing: delays could be for one year or they could be for a decade.
The construction history of nuclear energy-generating facilities has typically involved very expensive technical modifications, because of the relatively small number of units produced, which allows for little saving on volume production. In even the most earnest attempts to comply with rigorous specifications it is easy to miss some detail or another; anxieties are also increased by a stance of tight enforcement by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However carefully designed, some components initially will not work; even when a plant is on-line, any little thing might necessitate repairs that pose relicensing risks. A constant consideration for the industry is that any given nuclear plant could be shut down at any time, perhaps forever, thus presenting investors with the real possibility that an asset could totally disappear--or, even worse, that it might become instantly converted into an enormous, embarrassing liability.
Although difficult to document, other problems have arisen with the actual running of nuclear power plants in the United States from the pressure to develop expedient strategies for pleasing the NRC, thus compromising sound and efficient plant management. How is one to decide between doing what is right according to the paperwork or doing what is right for running the plant? Managers of European nuclear plants react with dismay bordering on disbelief when hearing of such circumstances. Surely, some of the specific NRC stipulations are plain silly, such as protocols about fraternization between white-collar and blue-collar workers. The adversarial stance assumed by regulatory commissions in general (doubtless conditioned by legal procedures in the US) though intended to insure safety, often proves counter-productive.
Internally, companies realize that a clean operation is essential--as a purely practical matter--with an open, honest process of sharing vital information; anyone, whatever their status or position, must be able to "blow the whistle," without blame. But the flow of information to the outside is another matter altogether. Unfortunately this provides incentives to secrecy, with the temptation to cover-up mistakes in order to avoid payment of fines that can be in the rather substantial range of $100,000 on up. Intrinsically, nuclear energy generating plants may also be too big to be run profitably, since the start-up costs must also include extensive means of energy distribution. This distribution function, in fact, appears to be the key to efficient, interrelated energy systems, as generated by all means. Especially within the plant itself, there must be an implicit trust in the capacity to run the operation well: after all the regulations, the minimum safety standards, the log books, and the verifications by inspection, and all the efforts to make it really good and safe, and so forth, it comes down to trusting a company, a crew, or an individual operator to run it. Nuclear plants are too complicated to run by intuition alone--on the other hand, their operation also requires intuition because they are too complicated to be run just "by the numbers." As with any innovative industry, there are always new problems or situations that arise: sometimes a rule is inadequate or, in the particular circumstance, simply wrong. At such times what is needed is the "right call," based on sound judgment.
The regulations of the NRC betray an attitude like that of academics who respect only SAT scores; as the saying goes, "Figures lie and liars figure." The NRC does not much seem to value judgement, intuition, or understanding; perhaps because such qualities (which distinguish the best on-line operators) are difficult to measure, control and enforce, they are inevitably undervalued, although this is the knowledge and expertise upon which might depend the entire safety of the operation in an emergency. In any extreme circumstance there must be some trust, with assurances that the right thing will be done, no matter what the regulations or the manual of technical procedures might say. The situation comes up all the time in movies about heroic acts in the teeth of catastrophe. But all such romance aside, nevertheless, the operating company must realistically create an environment where it is possible, simply, to do a good job. Internally, anyway, most of the nuclear industry's operating plants are up-front about this, but it is hard to specify the factors that create such an environment. The details are many and subtle because most of the relevant information is empirical and, as a practical matter, not subject to enforcement, much less to guarantees.
It should be apparent that with the example of the magical hot box represented by a nuclear plant we are again bound to encounter the old distinction between the exoteric game of abstract numbers and the letter of the law in contrast with the esoteric, practical tradition of applied understanding. A modern historical object lesson on this point is provided by the approach to generating nuclear power in Switzerland. Based on considerations of national security (given great traditional weight in Swiss thinking) no foreign nationals have been employed by the Swiss government in its nuclear power plants. Swiss designers have built the turbines, several of which are now up and running; but the expertise of Swiss engineeers has been historically limited to the design and operation of hydroelectric power generation facilities. Therefore, even though the facilities are among the cleanest today, in the long run the operation of Switzerland's nuclear plants may prove to be the least reliable, having been totally cut off from the flow of knowledge that is only transmitted orally and based on experience. An analogy here might be found in comparisons between the skill and talent of a shipbuilder, and the expertise of a ship captain who must actually sail the ship on the high seas.
THE HEART OF ALCHEMY
The modern computer is also thought of as a magical, electronic box. A principal motive for its development was to solve a problem known as "the tyranny of numbers." In 1961, with Ronald Reagan as its spokesman, the Bank of America (which, at that time, was processing manually some six million personal checks every day) announced that its new computer, dubbed ERMA, would replace most of the bank's book-keepers. Yet another event in the early years of the computer may encourage us to pick up once again the mythic Midgard Serpent of associations, or (better said) to resume a favorite line of bull: a grand champion Hereford bull named Silver Image was positioned so as to push the button turning on a new computer in which had been stored all the files containing information on Hereford breeding, thus effectively becoming the first animal to trace its own lineage. Certainly the computer has become indispensible in the design and operation of complex--or even simple--equipment. It would be difficult to conceive running a nuclear power plant without computers. Nevertheless, in a design sense, the computer is not at the core of such an enterprise.
At the heart of nuclear power plants, which we have considered as actual or potential nuclear hot boxes, is the real alchemical, magical cube: the reactor core itself. Precisely here, we may come closest to the certain problems that are neither social nor political, and neither economic nor ethical but in their essence, aesthetic. For, the crucial problems to be overcome in the design and operation of a nuclear reactor can be represented formally in terms of pure geometry.
Graphically, these problems have to do with the specific shapes and configurations of the fuel bundles. We might imagine the core of a nuclear reactor as an approximately cylindrical volume--more nearly octagonal than circular in plan--containing the water necessary for cooling and control functions. In a typical reactor the fuel bundles must be periodically replaced, since with time they lose reliable potency. It therefore becomes a matter of very important and accurate accounting to record precisely which fuel bundles have been where and for how long. Errors in the plotting of these fuel patterns or mistakes in their implementation may lead to gross inefficiencies, or to potentially catastrophic consequences, in a worst-case scenario involving a core meltdown, the "China Syndrome."
The specific shapes of fuel bundles, as well as their most successful configurations and sequences comprise closely guarded proprietary information, genuine secrets, but within the industry, the basic criteria for well-designed patterns are reasonably well-known. The key to these patterns is a core map, which shows both the history and the pattern of all the respective fuel bundles, resembling the Jain mandalas of India that represent the Triple World and loka-purua or Cosmic Man. The reactor core, thus, can be conceived as a time-factored-- or four-dimensional--volume, analogous in certain poetic respects to the way in which we have approached With Hidden Noise.
[See, Collette Caillat and Ravi Kumar, The Jain Cosmology, Ravi Kumar, Basel (1981), e.g. plates 9, 10; and 54, 59.]
THE MANDALA OF PRESSURIZED WATER REACTOR FUEL LOADING
Each square represents a fuel assembly, which is a tall, skinny bunch of uranium fuel pellets stacked into rods. Each assembly has a square cross-section of several inches, say five inches or so on each side, just as in With Hidden Noise; but each is several meters tall, perhaps like Three Standard Stoppages, end-to-end. All of these assemblies make up the reactor core, which is contained within a pressure vessel. Such a core is surprisingly compact considering that it is capable of producing about 1000 megawatts of electrical power. Water flows through the reactor at all times--a tous les éages.
As indicated in the legend for the MANDALA, each color corresponds to a different degree of enrichment of the uranium. The numbers (3.1, 3.4, etc.) specify the percentage of fissionable U(235) of the total uranium, which itself is composed predominantly of the non-fissionable isotope U(238). One may notice that the the more highly enriched fuel elements are kept toward the perimeter of the core. This helps to keep the flux of neutrons relatively even throughout the core. It is this phenomenon which helps to make the core map so fascinating, and so perhaps requires some further explanation.
Every time a U(235) nucleus fissions, it breaks into two nuclei or "fission products" of approximately half the size. Although the total number of protons and neutrons remains unchanged, their total mass is ever so slightly less that that of the U(235) nucleus, and that mass difference transforms, first into kinetic then into thermal energy, following the principle expressed by Albert Einstein's famous equation, E = mc (exp) 2. This is possible because the mass per nucleon varies depending on the nucleus in which it finds itself embedded; for example, the mass per nucleon has a minimum for iron 26FE(56), the most stable nucleus in the periodic table.
In each fission, one or more neutrons don't end up as part of the fission products, but escape on their own. These neutrons emerge in a random direction, and should they encounter another U(235) nucleus, may induce it to fission as well. This is the means by which a "chain reaction" is transmitted: the Great Beast, or to mega therion of modern alchemy. The condition for a controlled and sustained fission reaction requires that, on the average, one neutron from each fission induces another fission. To succeed at inducing another fission, the neutron must (1) strike a U(235) nucleus before it leaves the core, and (2) have the appropriate energy to cause the fission--which means that it must be a "slow" or "thermal" neutron. Since most neutrons produced during U(235) fission emerge at too high a speed, they are slowed down by a "moderator" inside the core. In the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), water plays the role of moderator, by virtue of the relatively light hydrogen atoms in the H(2)O with which the U(235)-emitted neutrons collide, since the neutrons in such collisions do not recoil as fast as in collisions with heavier atoms. The overall fission rate (thus the reactor's power output) is controlled by tinkering with condition (1) above. The fission rate is reduced by interspersing neutron-absorbing materials with the fuel bundles. The element boron, as in 20-mule team Borax of Ronald Wilson Reagan's Death Valley Days, is the neutron-absorber of choice, used both in the control rods in the form of boron carbide, and in the water as a solution of boric acid, the concentration of which is adjusted to control power output.
This is the context within which the core geometries can be seen to play such a critical role. Clearly, if a U(235) nucleus is located in the center of the core, a neutron emitted during its fission will have a greater chance of encountering another fissionable nucleus before it exits the core to be absorbed (hopefully) by the walls of the reactor. Looking at it another way, the neutron "flux" tends to be greatest at the center of the core, where neutrons are coming from all directions. Therefore, if the core had a uniform concentration of fissionable uranium, many more fissions would occur in the center than at the perimeter of the core. In fact, the mathematical description of of the neutron flux distribution in an evenly loaded core (a Bessel function) would have a singularity at the origin. An uneven power distribution is undesirable, however, for several reasons: a resulting thermal gradient would stress the materials, efficiency would be less, and the fuel would "burn" very unevenly.
To achieve a neutron flux that is approximately even across the core, the concentration of U(235) in the fuel is adjusted. This is why more highly enriched fuel elements are placed toward the perimeter, and less enriched elements near the center. For the first fuel load, this is fairly straightforward. A complication arises during refueling, however, because not all of the elements are replaced simultaneously. As usually one-third of the fuel is replaced at any given time, the remaining elements have resided at different locations in the core and have, therefore, experienced somewhat different degrees of "burn-up." The task now becomes one of rearranging the remaining two-thirds of the partially burnt fuel, interposing fresh fuel elements so that the resulting neutron flux will be approximately even.
For successive refuelings, the process becomes more complicated. At least there is some pattern of symmetry-- hence the appearance of a mandala in the core map--because of the basic design (roughly an octagon) and because of the relative statistical symmetries from the center of the core to the perimeter. There are now different groups of fuel elements with different original enrichments and with different histories of exposure to neutron flux. Since this exposure depends upon the operating history of the particular reactor, no two PWR cores are exactly alike. The calculations for the new core loading pattern have to be done immediately prior to refueling, when the operating hours of the old core can be calculated with precision. These core calculations require fairly large computer programs and usually command the attention of an entire department of nuclear engineers.
Technically, one meets with similar formal, geometrical problems of design and configuration, whether the applications are to nuclear reactors or to nuclear bombs. This thought might give us a moment's pause, in which to note that the word EVIL derives from the Indo-European root upo, and is cognate with OPEN, and with various prepositions including UP and ABOVE, but itself comes to American English through the Germanic ubilaz, "exceeding the proper limit."
The goal of closure--which we may express as a sense of sanity, wholeness, harmony, health, integrity, art, and so forth--may be conceived as both within the individual and in progressively larger frames of reference: involving various human groups, and then other species or grander ecological and cosmic scope. We may achieve a sense of this within our own being: as when we have achieved some success in our pursuit of happiness. Then, we may count ourselves blessed to live in a happy, healthy home, and that sense of feeling at home is exactly the key to deciphering the etymology and semantics of words in our language denoting places in which people live together.
The term HAMLET, for example, means a "little home," a VILLAGE is "a small group of dwellings, usually in a rural vicinity." A new and important distinction appears with the term TOWN, as a group of dwellings "around which limits have been drawn, originally fortified." The notion of "fortification" these days no longer implies a ring of thornbushes, nor a bastion of masonry walls, but ordinarily clear geographical limits, and an organized police and fire department. From what we can reconstruct by sorting out the threads of lexical history, in the evolution of collective living, the TOWN seems to have represented--and may still indicate--the idea of "proper limits."
Already with the first kraal, or circle of stones and thornbushes designed to keep away prowling primeval carnivores, there must have been a set of instructions for members of the family, clan, or tribe, regulating proper behavior inside the limits of the encampment. By the same token, conventional wisdom would have prescribed cautionary rules for traveling outside the confines and security of "home base." Permanent settled communities we know began to appear in earnest during the Neolithic period around 10,000 years ago, and quite probably even earlier in some favored sites. The mark of distinction establishing the limits of a fortified town eventually becomes a city wall, which from the very beginning separates "nature" from the social and cultural roots of civilization. In addition to fostering many schisms of profound psycholgical consequence, the long-term empirical wisdom of learning to live in harmony with nature's laws becomes increasingly subject to qualification by the short-term expediency of theoretical and arbitrary rules of conduct, which mankind is also confoundingly induced to call "laws." This dialectic is often softened with tolerance and compassion in a town where people share material and spiritual self-interests, where they "speak the same language."
The phenomenon of the city, however, is different in kind, less homogeneous that a town, and usually much greater in scale. The idea of town boundaries is superseded by the concept of a neighborhood, becoming as it were, the "town" within the patchwork assemblage of the city. One of the important early factors in defining a township, or a neighborhood, was the socially expressive function of language--and we can define a town by appealing to linguistic boundaries, as in groupings distinguished by differences in dialect. On the other hand, people coming into a city have to transcend their local dialects, to learn new rules and the conventional language of civic ordinances. Even in modern cities, a whole neighborhood may party together, as if it were a true town, observing a customary sense of social and psychic unity, and without contradictions. Outside of the immediate neighborhood, on the other hand, people living in the same city might have come from anywhere; some of them, not sharing the social and cultural bonds that tie a town together, still have to get up in the morning to go to work, so there are ordinances usually unnecessary in towns, and loud music after ten p.m., for instance, is an invitation for the police to stop by.
Of course we must associate the idea of CIVILIZATION with the phenomenon of the CITY. The words obviously derive from the same lexical root: the Indo-European kei(1), the essential meaning of which refers to a place where one can receive a night's lodging, a bed or a couch as if it were one's dear and beloved home. In Latin, the word civis, hence CIVILIAN and CITIZEN, originally meant a member of the household. Though a city be large, therefore, it should still feel like home; ideally--in cities that really work--one may have a warm and comforting sense of place and occasion going from neighborhood to neighborhood and still feeling very much at home.
Without a doubt, long before the first cities lent to the concept of hospitality the adjective "civilized," the test of hospitality was in the way one received the traveler, as in helping a stranger to feel at home. After all, there were the formalities of kinship and social status to regulate human interaction in close and familiar quarters, or among other members of the same community. But the stranger was bound to play by somewhat different rules, so a hospitable welcome necessarily entailed some accommodation with respect to language or dialect, or manners and customs, including the relaxation of certain standards of behavior. In time, the term "barbarian" came to represent not just any person who lived outside the walls of one's own city, but someone who did not behave in accordance with a minimum quotient of civilization. Put plainly, for example, a male stranger might either stand or squat while urinating and still be accorded a civilized welcome, but it is a barbarous act to piss in the well.
A CITY, specifically, is distinguished from a TOWN by size, but not just by size, by mere dimensionality alone. A city is defined as a town "of significant size," and so the question of scale is such that a mark or SIGN is made--or left behind--signifying a center of population. The most significant marks left in the past include middens (waste disposal sites), hearths (fire), tamped earth and occasional rubble from construction projects collapsed or otherwise destroyed. Examples of all these have been identified in Paleolithic cave sites, and so they can also be taken as indicators of transient, nomadic, temporary places of human habitation. The essential requirement for continuous habitation, hence the crucial qualification for the first towns, is a year-around source of good water. That is why, in the Chinese oracle of the I Ching, of sixty-four categories represented by the hexagrams, only two are tokened by man-made fluid-containing objects: one of these is the Well (Ching, No. 48) and the other is the Cauldron, the ritual vessel made from bronze (Ting, No 50).
According to the traditional appended commentaries and explanations, the Well presents an image of wood descending into the earth to bring up water, as in the pole-and-bucket well of ancient China. It conveys the idea of "inexhaustible nourishment" and also "refers to the world of plants, which lift water out of the earth by means of their fibers," while symbolizing life's "inexhaustible abundance."
Thus the well is the symbol of that social structure which, evolved by mankind in meeting its most primitive needs, is independent of all political forms....However, there are two prerequisites for a satisfactory political or social organization of mankind. We must go down to the very foundations of life. For any merely superficial ordering of life that leaves its deepest needs unsatisfied is as ineffectual as if no attempt at order had ever been made. Carelessness--by which the [well bucket] is broken--is also disastrous. If for instance the military defense of a state is carried to such excess that it provokes wars by which the power of the state is annihilated, this is a breaking of the [bucket].
This hexagram applies also to the individual. However men may differ in disposition and in education, the foundations of human nature are the same in everyone. And every human being can draw in the course of his education from the inexhaustible wellspring of the divine in man's nature. But here likewise two dangers threaten: a man may fail in his education to penetrate to the real roots of humanity and remain fixed in convention--a partial education of this sort is as bad as none--or he may suddenly collapse and neglect his self-development.
[Wilhelm/Baynes, The I Ching, p. 185 f.]
We must remind ourselves that, in the translations cited, the word "man" of course refers to persons of either sex, its conventional use in English as independent of current "politically correct" forms. However sexist Confucian society may have been at various times in history, this caveat is important if we read the texts as practical, modern commentaries on those issues common to all of humankind, and bearing somehow upon the fate of our now one global civilization. The hexagram of the Well was associated with life's social foundations; the Cauldron also conveys the idea of nourishment, but now it is directed toward the spiritual and cosmic orders of life.
Here we see civilization as it reaches its culmination in religion. The ting serves in offering sacrifice to God. The highest earthly vlaues must be sacrificed to the divine. But the truly divine does not manifest itself apart from man.
"The supreme revelation of God appears in prophets and holy men," the text goes on to say, but nowadays it seems imperative to expand this notion, affirming the equal validity of such revelations in holy women and in holy, angelic children, or--for that matter--in a drop of dew. Following the indications in the commentaries on the Well, to "penetrate to the real roots of humanity," we may read through the historically later agglomeration of Confucian family-oriented homilies to hear (like a hidden noise) the words between the lines from the earlier Taoist origins of the oracle. They have not been totally obscured; we find them even in the very next passage, the commentary on the Image of ting, the Cauldron, about consolidating one's fate in which we may actually read an uncommon, explicit reference to the secret content of the I Ching Taoist/yogic tradition:
The fate of fire depends on wood; as long as there is wood below, the fire burns above. It is the same in human life; there is in man likewise a fate that lends power to his life. And if he succeeds in assigning the right place to life and to fate, thus bringing the two into harmony, he puts his fate on a firm footing [like the tripodal footing of the cast bronze ting vessels]. These words contain hints about the fostering of life as handed on by oral tradition in the secret teachings of Chinese yoga.
[Wilhelm/Baynes, The I Ching, p. 194.]
As it turns out, not entirely by accident, the hexagram in between those two symbols of civilization is called Revolution (Ko, No. 49). Originally, this Chinese character represented the pelt of an animal during its period of molting, the idea of which was then extended to human activities and "the great revolutions connected with changes of governments." In turn, the social transformations are seen as recapitulating changes of the seasons in the world cycle as declared in the section of the oracle called "The Image":
Fire in the Lake: the image of REVOLUTION.
Thus the superior man
Sets the calendar in order
And makes the seasons clear.
Fire below and the lake above combat and destroy each other. So too in the course of the year a combat takes place between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, eventuating in the revolution of the seasons. Man masters these changes in nature by noting their regularity and marking off the passage of time accordingly. In this way order and clarity appear in the apparently chaotic changes of the seasons, and man is able to adjust himself in advance to the demands of the different times.
[Wilhelm/Baynes, The I Ching, p. 190.]
What then, in the way of advance adjustments, can be done by those of us who live in the city--the big city, the global city--we who fancy ourselves as participants in "civilization?" To phrase the issue in (literally) economic terms, "How well are we tending to our terrestrial housekeeping chores?" How well can we and our posterity expect help from the artistic and cultural clues discovered along our stumbling path? Or will the Math and Science currently charming the nation's--and much of the world's--educational theory serve us better in producing concrete results of real ECONOMIC significance, in ourtask of managing the Earth-household? Or should we turn to somewhere in between: to science ficion, or to a neo-Duchampian "quasi-science?"