Saturday, 14 April 2018

Lord Peter Death Wimsey

It rhymes with “stairs”. At least, this is how Dorothy L. Sayers preferred it. And she also preferred to be considered not as a writer of light crime fiction but as a serious scholar, with her translation of Dante her masterwork. Readers will perhaps know her in both these guises but might never have made the connection. This was the case with the present author, anyway. Her rendering of the Divine Comedy in the Penguin Classics series has been on his bookshelf for decades, and at a later point he became acquainted with her novels and stories, but without at first realising that these were the work of the same author. Indeed, the two undertakings are, on the face of it, very different: a serious, elegant, scholarly translation of Dante, and curious detective tales set in 1920s England. One can appreciate that Professor Tolkien, a northern European philologist, was the author of Lord of the Rings – the two undertakings are clearly related – but in the case of Miss Sayers there is no such obvious relation. It takes a stretch to see any connection. One might be inclined to dismiss her crime fiction as a mere hobby. 

Yet there is some connection to be made. Her medievalist concerns are not entirely remote from her contemporary tales. This is especially true regarding her most famous literary creation, the unlikely sleuth Lord Wimsey. The connection, in a word, is chivalry. It is with predictable tiresomeness that critics – that over-rated snob George Orwell being the most notable of them - have attacked this character in terms of popular sociology. They say, apart from his name being “embarrassing”, that his “classist pretensions” are ”appalling.” They dismiss Miss Sayers hero as a “caricature” of the British upper class. Certainly, he is not for democratic tastes, and those who are irredeemably poisoned with disdain for the British aristocracy will despise him without a second thought. Lord Wimsey, with his side-kick man servant Bunter, is a toff, an upper class twit, an anachronism, an unwelcome representative of a dying class system from another era. For many readers this is enough to doom Miss Sayer’s stories from the outset. The Lord Wimsey mysteries have been and continue to be analysed and understood – or misunderstood - through this narrow and claustrophobically modern lens.

But let us remember that the character’s creator was steeped in medieval literature, the medieval romances, tales of knight-errantry. Aside from her life-long dedication to Dante, Miss Sayers wrote extensively of the Song of Roland, the Arthurian cycle, Chaucer and more. Just as we need to understand Professor Tolkien’s tales of hobbitry through the lens of his dedication to Norse saga and northern European epic, so we need to understand Miss Sayer’s fictive creations through the lens of her immersion in medieval romance. For Lord Wimsey – eccentric and resoundingly British and modern though he might be in other respects - is assuredly a deeply medieval character. It is obvious especially in his relation to the heroine Harriet Vane. We see it at once in the foundation story ‘Strong Poison’. Lord Wimsey – as per the conventions of courtly love, and very much reminiscent of Dante’s entrancement by Beatrice – falls madly in love with Miss Vane on merely glimpsing her photograph in a newspaper. She has been accused of murder and is set to be tried and hanged. Instantly, like a medieval knight, he determines that she could not possibly be guilty and sets out to rescue her. This is the whole premise of the tale. The novel concerns Lord Wimsy’s efforts to find the true murderer and to save his beloved from the gallows.

Moreover, like Dante’s love for Beatrice, this is an enduring, instant, eternal love, not a mere infatuation. Lord Wimsey seeks an audience with Miss Vane in prison and proposes marriage to her two minutes after their first meeting. She, being a modern woman – she has had a long and “irregular” affair with the lover she is accused of murdering – declines. Thereafter, Whimsy persists with uncommon patience. He proposes marriage again and again, throughout these novels, for a period of over five years, never once wavering. This constancy is again deeply medieval. In terms of any realistic characterisation of British aristocracy his character might seem overblown (this is what irked Orwell, whose real name was the working class name of "Blair") but in fact what we see in his character is an elaborate, chaste, transcendent chivalry shaped by the conventions of medieval courtship, suitable recast in a modern form. Such a character could only have been created by a medievalist. Lord Wimsey’s gallantry is medieval through and through. This is what makes him such a wonderful creation – and also what makes him so despicable to modernists who are constitutionally unsympathetic to the whole medieval mode. 


This, at least, is one useful way to approach the crime fiction of Miss Sayers. Critics similarly despise Miss Sayer’s Christian themes and are inclined to find them in her stories. But again, her Christianity is thoroughly medieval – as we see in her scholarly work on the Divine Comedy especially – and it is wrong to cast it as excessively or exclusively modern. There is not much of it in Lord Wimsey, in any case. He is not an overtly Christian character, except that his virtues are transmuted by courtly manners in the way of the medieval knight. He has been damaged (psychologically) by service in the First World War. He is thus like the knight who has returned from the Crusades. And his bond with Bunter – a splendid character indeed! – is entirely akin to the knight’s feudal bond with his servant. Modernists and Marxists will hate it, for sure. The great thing about Dorothy L. Sayers, though, is that she recasts these medieval themes into faithfully modern forms. There is no nostalgia or moralism. Harriet Vane – a portrait of Miss Sayers herself, surely – is an altogether modern woman. Yet a medieval lady too. 

One is always reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s parallels between the calamitous XIVth century and the early XXth in the celebrated study A Distant Mirror, and similar observations in the work of the Dutchman Johann Huizinga. Miss Sayers, on these grounds, should be placed in this same company. It is remarkable that she has been able to draw such unstrained parallels and render them into the murder mystery genre. 

We are missing the keys to Lord Wimsey’s character if we overlook his deeply medieval background. The present author has remarked previously that the British were the last remaining chivalrous culture to extend into the barbarous chaos of modernity. No doubt, by Miss Sayer’s day it was all in tatters, and this is not by any means glossed over in her stories. Yet Lord Wimsey is a medieval man as much as he is modern. His creator provides many clues to this. Amongst his numerous hobbies, for instance, is his predilection for illuminated medieval manuscripts. He hones his skills as a sleuth on the puzzles presented by such documents. And then, perhaps best of all, we find that his middle name is “Death” – Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. He remarks in one tale – “Murder Must Advertise” – that those afflicted with the name usually pronounce it “Deeth” but he thinks it is “rather more interesting if it rhymes with ‘breath’.” It is surely a medieval touch – the gallant hero, in pursuit of the distant damsel, marked with the momento mori. More generally - contrary to the critics - if Miss Sayers has anything to say about that most dreary of modern obsessions, gender, it is through the lens of her medievalism.

* * *

There have been two very different portrayals of Lord Peter Death Wimsey in popular culture. He was played ably by Ian Carmichael in the BBC’s Lord Wimsey series in the 1970s. Decades later he was played by Edward Petherbridge. For the tastes of the present author, the latter portrayal is the better. The earlier portrayal is too jolly. The latter captures better the knight-errantry remarked upon above. 

Lord Wimsey and Bunter

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Kenneth Denton Shoesmith - Madonna of the Tall Ships

There is a charming story concerning the naming of the 1930s ocean liner the HMS Queen Mary. Constructed by the Cunard Line to run services across the Atlantic during the great age of ocean travel, it was first proposed that the ship be named the Queen Victoria. This was in keeping with the Line’s previous policy of having all of their fleet take female names ending in the suffix –ia. It was necessary, however, to seek royal permission for the use of Queen Victoria’s name, and so Cunard dutifully approached the reigning sovereign King George V with this formal request. According to the story they posed the request as permission to name the vessel after “England’s greatest queen” and King George – on a misunderstanding? - responded that his wife and consort, Queen Mary, “would be delighted” to have the ship named after her. Cunard Line was then bound to name the ship the Queen Mary, and thus it was.

The story comes to mind because it is on the Queen Mary, now preserved and docked as a maritime museum, that we find the masterpieces of the very fine but much neglected English artist and illustrator Kenneth Denton Shoesmith. An appreciation of his work is today largely confined to the small band of connoisseurs of maritime art, but it is deserving of a much wider audience, and for the present purposes, in keeping with the preoccupations of these pages, it deserves to be appreciated for its many orientalist and religious themes. Mr Shoesmith was destined to go to sea from an early age. While still a teenager he enlisted to be trained as a merchant marine at the Conway College; he was a so-called 'Conway Cadet' who graduated from the college then located on the HMS Conway docked in Liverpool which served as a training institute for British merchant sailors. At the same time, however, he found a passion for painting and eventually this talent led him to become a full-time artist. Here is his early painting of the Conway:

As readers can see, it is very competent work for such a young man - he was entirely self-taught other than completing a brief correspondence course - but conventional, realistic and unremarkable in style. As he continued painting, though, and found employment producing poster illustrations for maritime companies, his style matured and he adopted the methods and manners of the so-called 'Symbolist' and Art Deco schools in vogue prior to the Second War. In this mature style he produced many truly worthy works, many featuring exotic lands, before he died at the age of forty-eight in 1939. His master work followed a commission by the Cunard Line to produce murals for the new Queen Mary. 

Here is another early work in his more realist style:

And another, this being a somewhat more impressionist watercolour rendering of the P & O steamer Strathmore:

During the Edwardian age, of course, steamers of many great ocean lines - P & O (Pacific & Orient), Royal Mail, Blue Funnel, Cunard-White Star, Canadian Pacific and others - connected the many corners of the British Empire and east with west. As both a sailor and an artist Mr Shoesmith had the opportunity to travel the seven seas and never tired to sketching and painting both the ships that he loved and the distant lands to which they journeyed. His art is one of the most complete and lovely records of that regrettably by-gone age. As already mentioned, he made his living in the main producing images for travel posters such as the following:

Aside from, or incidental to, this commercial work he also produced paintings and illustrations for his own enjoyment. There are, for instance, such exceptional images as these of Egypt, North Africa and the Near East:

The most memorable images tend to be nocturnes; ships in exotic harbours at night seem to have been his forte. At best his style is as luminous, his colours as deep and as compelling, his subject as evocative as the work of his better known contemporary Nicholas Roerich. Three examples of Mr Shoesmith's nocturnes:

Also outstanding are the paintings he made of ships travelling the arctic passage, images of the midnight sun:

In the years 1934-36 he worked on murals for the Queen Mary. In these works we see him at the height of his powers. He produced a series of octagonal designs with literary themes and, for the first time, he turned to religious subject matter. Among the requirements for the Queen Mary were special installations for Catholic altars, altarpieces and reredos, provisions for the pious traveller. Mass was celebrated in the first class drawing room. He painted several images of the Virgin Mary for this location, as well as a screen that covered the altar when not in use. These are now regarded as his finest works. His most famous painting is that dubbed the 'Madonna of the Atlantic'. Here is a photograph of the artist working on it:

The prudish Cunard officials, however, took exception to the Christ child unclad (Good God! You can see His divine penis!) and demanded that Mr Shoesmith paint a drape over His nakedness. Thus the finished work appears as follows:

The folded panel covering the altar is a mediterranean sailing scene:

The work known as the 'Flower Market' in the first class cabin was a favourite of Winston Churchill. Below, the painting and a photograph of Mr Churchill giving a press conference in front of it:

The stand out work among the Queen Mary murals, however, is surely another Madonna, the so-called Madonna of the Tall Ships. It is the same Madonna as the Madonna of the Atlantic, this time giving a benediction, and the Christ Child is suitably attired, but in the background is an array of tall sailing ships - in the foreground (rich in symbolism) three anchors and a lantern:

To the mind of the present writer, at least this is a work that unites religious and maritime themes more successfully than the Madonna of the Atlantic and represents the pinnacle of Mr Shoesmith's art. It has perhaps received less attention because it was painted for the library of the second class (tourist) quarters. The colours are more brilliant and direct and as a painting it demonstrates better than the other work on the Queen Mary his full command of the technicalities of seafaring as well as his (self taught) command of the (Renaissance) European painting tradition. The serene majesty that he found and captured in the great ocean liners of that era is now matched by the serenity and majesty of the Blessed Virgin herself. 

* * * 



Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Reciting the Hymn to Pan

The recitation of poetry - poetry as vocal presentation, live on the breath - is about as lost as a lost art can be. Poetry itself can be classified as "all but lost", but the proper, effective, artful presentation of poetic recitation is dismally lost - great recitation is very, very rare. No one knows how to deliver the spoken word anymore. This, at least, is the reluctant conclusion of the present author. With few exceptions (Tegan Gigante is one) it is devilishly hard to find people who know how to read poetry. It makes an interesting test, to ask a group of the poetically inclined to read a poem, say, Eliot's Prufrock, aloud. It is hard to find a single convincing reader. The art of reading aloud is as neglected today as the art of fine handwriting. 

Given that, here is a real test. Who can offer a convincing rendering of Aleister Crowley's celebrated and ecstatic 'Hymn to Pan'? Many try, and many fail. Frankly, it is a dreadful poem with very few redeeming features, which is true of nearly all Crowley's poetry. There may be grounds for reconsidering the character and importance of Mr Crowley, now that we are over one hundred years into the Aeon of Horus, but his poetry, surely, is beyond saving. His 'Hymn to Pan' is widely known because it was anthologized in the Oxford Book of Mystical Verse, and it caused a public stir about "paganism" when it was read at Crowley's funeral. Crowleyphiles make inflated and unwarranted claims for it - "the greatest poem in the English language!" - when in fact it reads like it was written by a man addled on cocaine, and it probably was, although not even cocaine excuses the lame rhymes that it bumps against from start to finish. There's not a decent, original rhyme in the whole thing... or maybe "fetter/all-begetter", just. At best, we might admire its energy. 

Crowley was a fine - well, entertaining - prose writer, but his verse is tiresome and derivative (and usually obscene. He is at his most poetic when he is being scatological). The Hymn to Pan is arguably among his better poems, all the same. We might even call it a signature poem - in style and content it is pure Crowley. What we have here is a bad poet drunk on transgression. 

(A point: his poetry is Victorian and rooted in the conventions of nineteenth century verse. He never embraced modernism. Yet, this is not true of his paintings, whereby he embraced expressionism; his is a modern art. And a further aside, he never embraced film either. The Prophet of the New Aeon was often stuck in nineteenth century modes.)

But how to recite 'Hymn to Pan'? That is the question. All those exclamation marks!!!

Here is the poem:


Thrill with lissome lust of the light,
O man! My man!
Come careering out of the night
Of Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan! Come over the sea
From Sicily and from Arcady!
Roaming as Bacchus, with fauns and pards
And nymphs and satyrs for thy guards,
On a milk-white ass, come over the sea
To me, to me,
Come with Apollo in bridal dress
(Shepherdess and pythoness)
Come with Artemis, silken shod,
And wash thy white thigh, beautiful God,
In the moon of the woods, on the marble mount,
The dimpled dawn of the amber fount!
Dip the purple of passionate prayer
In the crimson shrine, the scarlet snare,
The soul that startles in eyes of blue
To watch thy wantonness weeping through
The tangled grove, the gnarled bole
Of the living tree that is spirit and soul
And body and brain — come over the sea,
(Io Pan! Io Pan!)
Devil or god, to me, to me,
My man! my man!
Come with trumpets sounding shrill
Over the hill!
Come with drums low muttering
From the spring!
Come with flute and come with pipe!
Am I not ripe?
I, who wait and writhe and wrestle
With air that hath no boughs to nestle
My body, weary of empty clasp,
Strong as a lion and sharp as an asp —
Come, O come!
I am numb
With the lonely lust of devildom.
Thrust the sword through the galling fetter,
All-devourer, all-begetter;
Give me the sign of the Open Eye,
And the token erect of thorny thigh,
And the word of madness and mystery,
O Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan Pan! Pan,
I am a man:
Do as thou wilt, as a great god can,
O Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! I am awake
In the grip of the snake.
The eagle slashes with beak and claw;
The gods withdraw:
The great beasts come, Io Pan! I am borne
To death on the horn
Of the Unicorn.
I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan!
I am thy mate, I am thy man,
Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god,
Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod.
With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, Maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan!

Readers are invited to put it to the test. Try reciting it, and ask your friends to try. How is this poem to be recited? 


Below are various attempts, mainly offered from the swelling ranks of contemporary Crowley pretenders. Some of them have merit, but most of them are limp. Only the last of them (Version Fourteen), below, even attempts to capture the poem's ecstatic qualities (and its author's beastliness.)Version Seven, recited in the ruins of the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, at least has atmosphere.

Version One

Version Two

Version Three

Version Four

Version Five

Version Six

Version Seven

Version Eight

Version Nine

Version Ten

Version Eleven

Version Twelve

Version Thirteen

Version Fourteen

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Don Mei and the Tea Revolution

As readers of these posts may gather, the author is - amongst other things - a tea obsessive. This is unfortunate because over the last decade or so the society in which he lives has degenerated into a hipster-driven coffee culture (using the word 'culture' in the loosest possible sense), and it remains next to impossible to purchase a decent cup of tea anywhere in the entire country. There are endless pretentious coffee outlets - coffee, the drug that smells like heaven but tastes like sump oil - but no 'tea culture' of which to speak. You can buy an overpriced artisan coffee from a twat with bad tattoos and a man bun almost anywhere, but if you want tea instead of coffee the same venues will serve you a miserable Lipton's tea-bag scalded with boiling water and shamelessly charge you $5 for the privilege.  Coffee fuels the PC set. It is the beverage of choice for establishment progressives. Everywhere today the latte is synonymous with the smug and self-righteous shallowness that has infected the whole of the body politik. 

Then there is Don Mei. Don, often accompanied by his lovely wife Celine, is conducting a tea revolution through his tea store in London and through a series of highly informative short video presentations. Here he is:

His motto is 'No one should have to drink bad tea.' Millions do. Globally, tea consumption continues to decline as coffee caffinates the global elite and as the evil purveyors of Big Tea fill supermarket shelves with chinzy flavoured tea confections and bags full of tea dust. It is a staggering injustice that the tea bag was recently named as one of the greatest inventions of the XXth century. In fact, the tea bag is a modern monstrosity - a mass-market perversion of a once sacred drink - and is the single greatest obstacle to people having a genuine tea experience. Don Mei reigns as the tea bag's most ardent opponent and as the most articulate advocate of real tea. 

He is the son of one of the legendary pioneers of acupuncture in Europe, Man Fung Mei. Initially, Don shunned his father's profession and took up a career DJing in dubious night clubs. Eventually - realising the precarious nature of the music industry and the impact of too many late nights - he became involved in his father's business importing Asian herbs and medicines into Great Britain, and from there began specialising in importing Chinese tea. He brings a deep knowledge of Chinese traditional medicine, and a comfortable acquaintance with Western pop culture, to the traditional arts of tea drinking. There are no doubt many tea gurus abroad, but Don Mei is - in this writer's opinion - the most accessible of them. His knowledge of tea is vast and he communicates his knowledge in a fresh, fun format (Celine by his side). 

As evidence of this, readers need only peruse his video on how to get 'tea drunk'. Don's experience with night club psychotropics has clearly been put to good use. He is an expert on the entheogenic properties of tea and how to extract the maximum blood-to-brain chemical phantasmagoria from the humble camelia sinensis. Caffeine is not all that is going on. Here is the video:

Primarily, though, Mr Mei is a vocal advocate for changing the way in which tea is prepared. That is the key to better tea drinking. There are two general methods for preparing tea; the Western method and the traditional 'gong fu' method. Don never misses an opportunity to urge tea drinkers to switch from the former to the latter. Here is his video on why "tea heads" (as he refers to his viewers) should make the switch to 'gong fu' - it is one of the most informative videos in the series:

The video explains everything you need to know, but in summary 'gong fu' is prepared in a small pot, using quite a bit of tea leaf, and is steeped in hot (but not boiling) water for short periods of time, usually ten or twenty seconds. The tea is poured off, sipped in small cups, and then further extractions are made. The flavour (and chemical goodies) in the leaf is stripped back by infusion in a series of layers, each layer having slightly different properties. The Western method involves using less tea and more water (usually boiling) and letting it steep in one infusion for several minutes. There is, to be honest, something to be recommended in the Western style now and then - an English cup of tea with milk and sugar is a unique delight - but for general purposes, and a far better tea experience, the 'gong fu' method is superior. Suddenly, a whole new world of tea opens up. Suddenly, the different virtues of oolongs and whites and pu'erhs become apparent. You'll never drink Lipton again. (Actually, Liptons are tea blenders. James Lipton was a tea blender, and he made his fortune blending a uniform product much as McDonald's brought uniformity to the hamburger. Lipton's Earl Grey is OK.) 

Once you have mastered the 'gong fu' method you can thereafter concern yourself with the great range of distinct flavours (and other properties) of teas from China, Japan, India, Ceylon, and a host of other places. The variety is astounding. (The present author currently fancies a green tea from the Vietnamese highlands.) There are subtleties to the coffee bean, of course, but there is nothing in the profile of coffee to compare to the botantical amplitude of the tea bush. This extends to the psychoactive components of the two plants as well. Superficially, tea and coffee have a similar effect due to the caffeine in both, but in fact they are really quite different. Previous posts to this present site have mentioned this before. To put it another way, coffee (we are talking about its impact on the human psyche here)is the drink of the journalist, while tea is the drink of the diplomat. Coffee is a horizontal drug. Tea evokes vertical and heirarchial levels of consciousness - thus its use in a sacred context in the Asian spiritual traditions over many centuries. Coffee is an externalising drug. Tea has the unique combination of stimulating and internalising effects. It stimulates and internalizes. It is the preminent drug of watchfulness as a spiritual state. Coffee is crude and secular by comparison (unless you are confusing insomnia for watchfulness) its alleged use by certain Soofi groups among the Mohammadans notwithstanding. Coffee fuels the restless journalistic mood of modernity. Tea is a gateway drug into the essential moods and modes of Asian spirituality. 

This is going a bit further than Don Mei, but he touches on the history and spirituality of tea now and then as well. If you are looking for a living tea guru you cannot do better than Don Mei. All of his videos are worth watching. They will give you a complete education in tea basics, and then some. You will then begin a journey into the world of real tea, a world of which most tea drinkers are unaware. The task ahead is one of education. The public is woefully uninformed. Only when people awaken to what real tea is like, and how to prepare and drink it, will there be sufficent demand for tea to undergo the sort of cultural gentrification - if we can call it that - that has transformed coffee drinking in the last few decades. Tea has an historical reputation as the beverage of choice of the British Establishment, but in fact its prestige is much diminished and coffee has replaced it as the drink of the elite. This is an opportunity for tea to be rediscovered in a new context, perhaps even as a subversive drink. Don Mei's tea revolution awaits. 



Monday, 18 September 2017

The Square Art: A Quick Guide to the Square Horoscope

In recent times a friend requested - not for the first time - that the present author provide a quick guide to the square horoscope, a device that he insists on using even though it is unfamiliar to almost everyone. The astrology of the modern era uses the circular horoscope; today the round chart is almost universally accepted. A. T. Manne named his widely read study of modern astrology The Round Art; he regards the circular horoscope as integral and paradigmatic to the whole art itself. 

In fact, though, up until the XIXth century, and going back thousands of years, and extending beyond just Western astrology to Indian and Chinese astrology as well, astrological charts were always cast as squares, not circles. In historical terms, astrology is the Square Art, not the Round Art. Traditionally, the data of an astrological calculation, made at a nativity or for whatever other purpose, was illustrated upon the structure of a square design, and anyone familiar with astrology would be able to read such a chart with ease. The modern chart displays exactly the same information, but modern tastes prefer to display it upon a circular structure rather than a square one. Modern people cannot make sense of the square design since they are comfortable with the circular one. This is not insignificant in itself, and bears some reflection. The modern embrace of the round chart and rejection of the square symbolizes a shift from a Realist to a Nominalist cosmology. The round chart depicts the open universe of astronomical space whereas the square chart depicts a concrete cosmology in which the sub-lunary world is itself a symbol.

So, how does one read or make sense of a traditional square chart? We will use a chart ascribed to Plato as our example and will go through it step by step. The ultimate origins of this horoscope of Plato are unknown. It is reported in the Mathesis of Firmicus Maternus. We can best describe it as 'traditional' too, bearing in mind that we have not the slightest clue of the actual date of Plato's birth, let alone the time of day! Most of what we know of the life of Plato comes from biographers writing several hundred years after his death. as horoscopes go, this one is particularly fanciful. 

First, a general remark. The geocentric world is traditionally conceived as rectalinear. This is why we demarcate four directions: north, south, east and west. This fourness is the explicit visual basis of the square chart but is largely lost in the round chart (which posits a world without corners. As if!)It is a truism of traditional symbolism that circularity is a charactetistic of the heavens. The planets and the stars, the whole sky, moves in circles. The Sun and Moon are circles. But terrestrial (sub-lunary) symbolism is square. Our buildings (our temples) are essentially boxes. There are circular buildings, certainly, (usually architectural references to the sky) but there is something inherently earthly about the right-angle. We use a square horoscope because it depicts a traditional cosmology. It shows the transposition of objects in the circular heavens onto the rectalinear frame of the sub-lunary realm. Sacred architecture often shows exactly this: a dome upon a square base is a depiction of the traditional, geocentric astrological cosmos. See here. The square horoscope is a two dimensional view of this symbolic structure. You can think of the square chart as like the floor plan of a temple. 

Nevertheless, just like the round chart, it is of value only because it allows us to see what the heavens were like at a particular time and place. The square chart may be a symbolic device, but it is also accurate enough to be of practical use. It shows the positions of heavenly bodies as seen from within set terrestrial coordinates at a particular time and place. To read a square chart one just needs to know the coordinates that provide the frame in which to place the planets and other heavenly bodies. 

The eastern and western horizons are located on the square chart as follows:

The Ascendant is in the east, the descendent in the west. 

The Midheaven (and the Immum Coeli) - corresponding to north and south, up and down, a vertical axis - are marked as follows:
These four points are the essential coordinates of a square chart which depicts them set at right-angles to each other. These denote risings, settings and culminations. 

The greatest advantage to the square presentation is that one can see, at a glance, planets that are rising, setting or culminating. Planets in the First House are rising. Those in the Seventh House are setting. Those in the tenth are culminating in the heavens, and those in the fourth are culminating in the underworld. In all traditional astrology, planets in these houses - the 'angular' houses (such planets are said to be 'on the angles') - are magnified in power. 

In Plato's case, we see that Venus, Mercury and Mars are rising in the First House (Ascending). (Venus as morning star!) Jupiter is setting in the Seventh House. The potency of these planets is amplified. This follows from an astrology based in direct observation. Objects in the sky on the horizons (east and west) tend to be enlarged by certain optical effects. The rising moon is bigger than a moon fully risen. And objects at culmination seem brighter (because we see them without the dust and humidity in the atmosphere nearer to the horizons). In traditional astrology, risings, settings and culminations are the crucial factors. The square chart emphasises them accordingly. The closer planets are to these points the stronger they are and conversely the further planets are from these points the weaker they are. 

This is the basis of the House system which is what is being depicted in the divisions of the square. There are twelve Houses, thus:
 With the square chart, we can see these strengths and weaknesses at a glance. We can instantly see what planets are on the angles, and we can very easily assess the potency of a planet by seeing its House position. The Houses are the important divisions in this system. In modern times, there is much confusion about Houses. In the traditional system, the Houses are a way of showing how close a planet is to rising, setting or culminating. 

Where the Houses are ascribed zodiacal signs - say, in Plato's chart the sixth House is assigned to Cancer - this designates the zodiacal sign on the cusp of that House. The House is therefore coloured by this zodiacal influence. The zodiacal signs, in fact, are somewhat less important than they tend to be in modern astrology. Their influence is mediated through the Houses. It is the Houses that are important. 

Note, especially, that not much emphasis is placed on planets in zodiacal signs. What is important is the zodiacal influence mediated through the House (i.e. via terrestrial symbolic space.) In Plato's chart, for example, it does not matter (very much) what zodiacal sign Jupiter may be in; what matters is that the Descendant (the 6/7th House cusp) is in Leo. Jupiter is to be seen through that filter. We say: Jupiter, in the Seventh, with Leo on the cusp. (It is quite possible that Jupiter may not be in Leo. No matter. What matters is that Jupiter is in a House with Leo on the cusp.) 

In modern times, too, there is much confusion about so-called 'aspects'. Modern astrology - it follows from the world-view of the Nominalistic round chart - uses what are properly called "bodily aspects". Traditional astrology does not, or rarely so. Instead, in the traditional method as it is built into the square chart, "aspects" are a series of "faces" or relations between Houses. The square chart enables seeing such relationships at a glance. At most one merely needs to count how many Houses the planets are from each other. "Aspects", of course, are views, like the several views that one might have of another person, such as, for instance, the 'aspects' used in portrait painting... 

Above is Van Dyck's triple portrait of Charles I. The subject is seen from three aspects. In astrology, these are measured in increments of thirty degrees: 30, 60, 90, 120, 150, 180. When two planets are in opposing Houses, they are at 180 degrees, which is to say they are looking at each other face to face. At 90 degrees they are in profile. And so on. (One of the best ways to appreciate the traditional 'aspects' is to make a study of portrait painting, an especially rich area of European art.) The question is not the exact (bodily) angular relation of planets in the (circular) heavens, but rather their relative positions vis-a-vis the cardinal points of rising, setting and culminating. This is what the traditional aspects are about. 

As for reading Plato's chart:

As already mentioned, Venus, Mercury and Mars are together in the First House. They are rising/ascending. This makes them very powerful. Indeed, Venus is on the Ascendant rising ahead of the Sun (in the Second House) as the morning star and is the most powerful object in the chart. 

In the traditional method, the seven planets are considered in certain important pairings:

Luna - Saturnus
Luna - Sol
Sol - Saturnus

Mercury - Jupiter
Venus - Mars

In Plato's case we see that Mercury - Jupiter and Venus - Mars are all found on the angles, making these pairings stronger. Whereas the pairings of Luna, Sol and Saturnus are more subdued because they are not on the angles. (Luna and Sol, though, are at 90 degress (3 x 30 deg.), regarded as a constructive aspect.)More importantly, the planets in the First House form triangular relations (4 x 30) with Luna and with Saturnus. 

This, at least, is the beginning of interpretation. The square chart allows us to see what is important immediately. The relative powers of the planets is determined, in the first instance, by the risings, settings and culminations. The traditional chart is designed with this in view. 

For more on Plato's horoscope, see Aaron Cheak's pages on philosophical nativities here.  


H. M. B.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Box of Crazy (or The Tampa Bay Obscuration.)

The Box of Crazy

The exact circumstances are unclear but according to the available accounts a certain person - identified only as a "friend" of a certain person calling himself "TramstopDan" who was himself later identified (by some) as a "Dan Wickham" - of recent years (2013?) came across an old, plain looking box amongst (or near or next to) trash on a road near (or outside of) Asheville, North Carolina, USA, only to discover that the said box was full of strange illustrations concerning an event described by documents therein as the 'Tampa Bay Obscuration'. Mr TramstopDan subsequently posted the illustrations online in two installments and they have since attracted some attention in the lonely dark corners of the internet. They are of sufficient quality and interest to warrant reposting here. 

The collection has come to be known colloquially as the 'Box of Crazy' because the illustrations and assorted documents within the box are of a visionary and religious nature - mixed with 'mad science' - and are not easily understood. It appears that some of the documents go back to the 1930s, but most of them concern quasi-religious visions centred in the Tampa Bay area in more recent decades. The focus of the visions themselves - and the subject of the most notable illustrations - is the Biblical book of Ezekiel. (The box is sometimes referred to as the 'Ezekiel Box'.)

As for the author, numerous documents and illustrations within the collection are signed by a "Daniel Christiansen" with others signed by a "Nesna-it-sirhc", this cryptic name being "Christiansen" written backwards. It is a reasonable assumption, then, that the box belonged to this gentleman, and from the internal evidence and a little detective work he can be identified as a Daniel Samuel Christiansen of St Petersburg Florida, born November 27th 1904, died September 26th 1994. Mr Christiansen, it is known, immigrated to the United States via England in 1927. Not much more is known, and in particular we do not know how his 'Box of Crazy' ended up on a roadside near Asheville NC a good decade after his death (assuming we can believe Mr TramstopDan's account of where and when the box was found.)

The contents of the cache are curious to say the least. The exact nature of the 'Tampa Bay Obscuration' is difficult to ascertain, but it seems as if Mr Christiansen claims to have witnessed a UFO/religious encounter in Tampa Bay which he understands in terms of the prophetic texts of the Book of Ezekiel, although his own notes on this are extremely opaque. He provides detailed illustrations of the encounter, including of the various 'living creatures' described in the Ezekiel visions. The date of the 'Tampa Bay Obscuration' is given as the enchanted date July 7th 1977 or  7/7/77. This is announced in this document:

Text: An Apparition / or / The Tampa Bay Obscuration / July 7 – 1977 / Daniel S. Christiansen / Alias: Ampel, / Nesna It Sirhc.

As some investigators have ascertained, there was in fact a laser light show at Tampa Bay on exactly that date and some have concluded that Mr Christiansen has been beguiled by the show into supposing it to be some manner of alien visitation, but the documentation in the 'Box of Crazy' is extensive and goes well beyond a case of a mistaken laser display. Perhaps the light show triggered Christiansen to have visions, but it would not have been the first time. The contents of the box reveal a lifetime of dedicated exploration of the connections between the Biblical text of Ezekiel and a wide range of strange modern phenomena. The Tampa Bay event was especially important, apparently, but was not isolated. Some illustrations taken from the event follow:

The "Box of Crazy"-Ezekiel's vision of the "living creatures."

"Box of Crazy"--Ezekiel's vision of the "living creatures."
It seems plain that we have some type of personal and eccentric interpretation of the so-called 'Merkabah' mysteries of the Old Testament prophet, but this is elsewhere overlaid with extended rants about flying saucers and futuristic technology. There is nothing new about this in itself. Ezekiel is a favorite text for those who subscribe to the ancient aliens 'Chariots of the Gods' type of theory, but Christiansen offers a unique and idiosyncretic version of it and appears to have devoted his entire life to its explication. He also brings to it considerable skill as a draughtsman. There are many very well executed technical drawings among the papers, thus:

The upshot of the texts concerning the Ezekiel visions is that - according to the author - the vision could not have been understood correctly until recent times. Until recently there has been a "cloud of obscuration" or a "cloud of concealment". (Accordingly, he also has an interest in strange meteorological phenomena.) But now in our own time, it seems, long hidden secrets are being revealed. This point of view is clear from one of the documents, see below. The visions of Ezekiel are not hallucinatory, he argues, but - from the vantage point of our own times - are a very precise account of an alien technology...

Christiansen has an interest in strange technology and moreover seems to have dabbled in it himself. As an example of this, one remarkable item in the collection is a circular disk inscribed with a cryptic text in the form of a spiral thus:

The text around the outside reads (in upper case): 

This turn table for portable T.V. set designed and made by Mr. Nesna-it-sirhc for Nadia, his wife, and is mailed from Plfld, N.J. to St. Pete, Fla. as a Xmas present Dec. 1967. The plastic rolling members of this device supplied by ‘Nady’ in 1952.

And the inner text - a good example of Mr Christiansen's style - reads:

“Additional inform.: The principles of mechanics as here involved correspond significantly to the principles of physic [sic] involved in the by Nady oft. ref. to ‘noise machine’ of the Mt. Pleasant Ave. attic exp. 1951-1952. It was an attempt at ascertaining a possible significant relationship between certain ‘engeneered’ precessions of moment of enertia [sic] of gyrating bodies and that of the basic nature of gravity. A possible outcome of experiment–it was hoped–would be indications that gravity could be generated artificially and applied in fields of a scope and of a degree of effectivenes corresponding directly to to the amount of physical power applied towards generation of such local and limited fields of gravity. Note: if such were to be the case, the question of giving the artificially generated gravity-force any specific direction with respect to universal space was (and still is) regarded as merely a matter of an operator pulling a lever or turning a switch in order to direct or re-direct the specific ‘A.G.’ field generating device. Signed by inventor of alleged device and author of this note of information in N. Plfld, N.J. U.S.A. at 4 A.M. Dec. 16 – 1967. Nesna-it-sirhc.”

What in the blue blazes does all this mean? It is hard to say, except that the letters "A. G." apparently mean "artificial gravity" and that the author - Mr Nesna-it-sirhc - is claiming to have invented some manner of "artificial gravity" machine in 1967! But what happened in the attic in 1952? The sentence: 

Nady oft. ref. to ‘noise machine’ of the Mt. Pleasant Ave. attic exp. 1951-1952. probably to be understood as meaning that his wife "Nady" (Nadia) often referred (oft. ref.) to the 'noise machine" of the Mt Pleasant Avenue attic *experiment* 1951-52. (Or is "exp." short for "experience"?) What are the "plastic rolling members of this device" that "Nady" supplied? The "noise machine"? Much of the contents of the box consist of cryptic notes like this. They were no doubt meaningful to Mr Nesna-it-sirhc but they are far less so to us. 

As well as this, there is a collection of maps which - so it seems - are designed to be superimposed upon one another in some fashion. Mr Nesna-it-sirhc has considerable cartographical skills. The significance of the maps is as unclear as everything else. 

In part, Christiansen's work can be appreciated as a type of eccentric American folk art, an oddment of modern Americana, but a full account of the contents of the box and its background has yet to be made. One curious point stands out, however. If the dating of the documents is to be believed, Christiansen entertained a version of the UFO/Ezekiel theory going back to before the Second World War. This was well before  the modern UFO craze began, and indeed he reports encounters and sightings in the 1940s which is before the first celebrated UFo sightings came to public attention. Certainly, his UFO/Ezekiel theory predates - by decades - the theories of such characters as Eric Von Daniken and others. So whatever else we can say about Daniel Samuel Christiansen, he seems to have been a pioneer. As far as we know, though, all of it was his own private concern, shared with his wife and perhaps a few others. We only know of this strange obsession because someone - a friend of TramstopDan - found the 'Box of Crazy' on the roadside near Asheville. 


Harper McAlpine Black