Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ghosts and Quincunxes

 Frontispiece to 'Urn-Burial' by Paul Nash

In the deep discovery of the Subterranean world, 
a shallow part would satisfy some enquirers.

It’s testimony to Sir Thomas Browne’s antiquity as well as his originality that throughout the centuries, thinkers, writers, artists and composers have responded to his art and thought, including the English artist Paul Nash (1899 -1946). 

Paul Nash was one of the leading English artists during the first half of the twentieth century. He was recruited as an official war artist during the 1920’s and promoted modernism in Britain as well as the avant-garde styles of surrealism and abstraction. In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and the art critic Herbert Read. 

When  in 1932 Nash was invited to illustrate a book of his own choice he unhesitatingly chose Thomas Browne’s Discourses 'Urn-Burial' and  'The Garden of Cyrus', providing the publisher with no less than 30 illustrations to accompany Browne’s text.  Titles included among Nash's thirty designs include - 'Tokens',  'Buried Urn', 'Funeral Pyre', 'Mansions of the Dead', 'Ghosts' and 'Sorrows'.

In his essay ‘Browne and Paul Nash : The Genesis of Form’ Philip Brocklebank notes that Nash studied Browne’s text carefully and had an exact command of it. According to Brocklebank, Nash's art

‘encourages a readers scattered perceptions to coalesce into new orders; and he contrives to create in colortype and watercolour  a visual equivalent to the prolific allusiveness and the aphoristic immediacies of Browne’s style’.

Brocklebank also noted that Nash responded sympathetically to the themes of death and human mortality in ‘Urn-Burial' ; indeed, both Browne and Nash witnessed the slaughter and horror of war in their life-time. Browne's Discourse 'Urn-Burial' itself has been described as a threnody to the waste of human life during the English civil war.

'When the Funeral Pyre was out, and the last valediction over,
men took a lasting adieu of their interred friends'. 

 'the souls of Penelope's Paramours conducted by Mercury chirped like bats and those which followed Hercule's made a noise but like a flock of birds'.

Nash was equally sympathetic to  the themes of optics, the geometry of nature and Browne's perspicacious observations upon sundry subjects in 'The Garden of Cyrus'. Illustration titles include 'Vegetable Creation', 'Poisonous Plantations' and the running title sub-sections of the Discourse 'The Quincunx naturally considered', 'The Quincunx artificially considered',  and 'The Quincunx mystically considered'. 

A like ordination there is in the favaginous Sockets, and Lozenge seeds of the noble flower of the Sunne.

Nor is it to be overlooked how Orus, the Hieroglyphick of the world is described in a Network covering from the shoulder to the foot.

And beside this kind of work in Retiarie and hanging textures, in embroideries, and eminent needle-works; the like is obvious unto every eye in glass-windows. Not only in Glassie contrivances, but also in Lattice and Stone-work...

Book consulted -

Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne, The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays. edited by C.A.Patrides pub. University of Missouri  Press 1982

Saturday, March 26, 2011

4th Duchess of Norfolk

Today I discovered that the church of Saint John Maddermarket at Norwich now has a page on Wikipedia. The church has memorial stones of several notable people, including the marine artist  Joseph Stannard  (1797-1830) and the theatre director Walter Nugent Monck  (1877-1958) founder of the Maddermarket Theatre nearby. There's also a large funerary  monument to the memory of    Margaret Howard 4th Duchess of Norfolk (1540-1564) which can be seen  high up towards the clerestory at Saint John's.

Here's the  magnificent portrait  of her by the Flemish painter Hans Eworth (c. 1520–1574).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Femme Fatale

The French phrase femme fatale (lit. deadly woman) represents male sexual fantasies and fears as well as the sexual empowerment of women. Although portrayals of the femme fatale in literature and film have altered considerably, as a mythic creature she continues to endure. Sociologically the role of the femme fatale can be interpreted as embodying female independence and rebellion against traditional female gender roles. In Jungian psychology the femme fatale is an archetypal figure who represents the lowest manifestation of the anima in the unconscious contents of the male psyche.

Typical descriptions include her being mysterious, subversive, double-crossing, unloving, predatory, tough-sweet, unreliable, irresponsible and manipulative. She is often portrayed as a woman who is extremely attractive with a sultry voice, a provocative body and a complex character. She tends to be very intelligent, in addition to her beauty she often speaks, behaves and dresses in an unusual and striking manner designed to attract male attention. Most importantly, she is extremely dangerous; an entanglement with a femme fatale often involves devastating consequences for a man.

From the enchantress Circe’s transformation of men into pigs to the alluring song of the Sirens in Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’, to Biblical characters such as Delilah’s emasculation of Samson to Salome’s erotic dance, examples of the femme fatale occur throughout  world literature. Other notable literary characters  include Sheridan Le Fanu’s  ‘Carmilla’ and De Quiros’ Genoveva in  The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers  but there's many other portrayals of the femme fatale  scattered throughout world literature, too numerous to mention.

Depictions of the femme fatale often proliferate whenever there is rapid social change and upheaval. An early cinematic portrayal of the femme fatale can be seen in Von Sternberg’s 'The Blue Angel'  (1930) in which the infatuated fall of school-teacher professor Rath through night-club singer Lola (Marlene Dietrich) occurs. Another historical epoch  in which the role of the femme fatale  was prominent was after the social upheaval caused by World War II  in American society, as depicted in film noir cinema. Notable femme fatales in film noir include Rita Hayworth in  ‘Gilda’, Lana Turner in ‘The Postman always rings twice’ and Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Double Indemnity’.

The writings of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung provide an illuminating  understanding of the psychological significance of the femme fatale. In Jungian psychology the femme fatale is a somewhat negative manifestation of the anima (it’s corresponding term in a woman being defined the animus). It’s worthwhile refreshing one’s understanding of the Jungian concept of the anima. Jung defined the anima as the feminine component in a man’s personality and the totality of all the unconscious feminine psychological qualities that a male possesses. In his words, woman has carried for man the living image of his own feminine soul and likewise man has carried for woman the living image of her own spirit. 

Central to Jungian psychology is the concept of projection, that is, active but unconscious thought  towards another, often towards the opposite sex. Projection in itself is neither good or bad, but an unconscious activity, it is what one does with the projection which matters. Negative effects of projection upon the anima (animus in a woman) are directly related to a man’s unawareness and devaluation of his feminine side, and vice-versa in a woman. 

According to Jung the entire process of anima development  is about the male opening up to emotionality and to a broader spirituality, this includes intuitive processes, creativity, imagination and psychic sensitivity towards himself and others. Just as the anima is the master of a man’s moods and irrational behaviour, so too the animus  is the master of opinions and judgements in a woman. Its important here to emphasis that woman is as much in the unconscious grip of her animus as man is of his anima, resulting in unconscious  judgements, opinions and over-intellectualism  at the expense of feeling in her.

Jung proposed that there were four stages of the anima in man’s psyche, these being Eve, Helen of Troy, the Virgin Mary and at the apex of development of the anima the spiritual wisdom of Sophia.  The character of the femme fatale in literature and film, the lowest rung in the sequential development of a man’s anima equivalent to the temptress of Eve takes on a clearer understanding and profounder meaning in  the light of Jung’s psychology.

The problem of relationship and  the frequent misunderstandings between the sexes  according to Jung arises from the fact that, more often that not, rather than accepting and listening to the real  and flawed person facing one, there frequently  arises unconscious  and projected anima or animus activity which overtake true relating. Whenever a man or woman fascinates us we can be sure that a projected content of the unconscious is at work. For a man, this means recognising that his moods, compulsive sexual fantasies, and insatiable restlessness have a dark feminine side at their source. For a woman it means recognising that the opinions and destructive criticisms that suddenly come into her consciousness have the inner figure of the animus behind them. 

Woman as a femme fatale  in Jung's psychology is none other than an immature and undeveloped aspect of a man's anima figure. The misunderstandings between the sexes are succinctly stated  by Jung thus -

‘no man can converse with an animus for five minutes without becoming the victim of his own anima…. The animus draws his sword of power and the anima ejects her poison of illusion and seduction’.  - CW 9 ii 29

The persona of the femme fatale divides opinions amongst sociologists. Some consider the femme fatale to be closely tied to male misogyny, while for others the role of femme fatale remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles. for it, ‘expresses woman's ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm’. 

Some have argued that Jung's psychology, based upon mythology, simplifies the complexities of  relationships between the sexes. What is certain however is that many years before the American pop-star Britney Spears (b. 1984) entitled her new seventh album Femme Fatale,  the German-born chanteuse, Gothic uber-fraulein and prodigy of Andy Warhol, Nico, (1938-98 photo above)  accompanied by the Velvet Underground, sang Lou Reed’s song entitled Femme Fatale in 1967. Like many self-styled femme fatale’s Nico died prematurely.

The modern femme fatale is as likely to have the same self-destructive tendencies and mental health problems which are usually associated with men, that is, problems arising from alcohol abuse, drug addiction, violence and aggression, negative effects from empowerment not resulting in true equality for women.

Jung's psychological  observations, although less fashionable than once, when fully comprehended, continue to clarify the often confused relations between the sexes today. 

Recommended reading and quotes from - The Invisible Partners: How the Male and Female in Each of Us Affects Our Relationships by John A. Sanford 1979

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Cheltenham Festival

                          Water-jump at Cheltenham race-course

This year sees the staging of the 100th Cheltenham Festival, a truly unique event in the world sports calendar. It’s the  apotheosis of the British National Hunt horse-racing season. The atmosphere at the Festival  today is considerably enhanced by the fact that it’s Saint Patrick’s Day, with as many as 10,000 Irish fans travelling over the sea to join in the festivities. In fact Irish-trained horses and jockeys seem to be winning almost every race at this year’s Festival. The fabled luck of the Irish with all its fickleness seems to be shining on the Irish, deservedly so for all their recent economic woes.

For many years the climax of the Festival, the Gold Cup, coincided with the British budget day until it was finally realized,  there was a far greater interest nationwide in who would win the Gold Cup than government economic policies. The Budget day has since been shunted to another week. The Cheltenham Festival itself has an enormous financial turn-over, with an estimated half-billion pounds gambled during the 4 day Festival. It would appear that  people gamble as much, if not more, during times of recession, although nowadays football generates a far greater percentage of gambling in total than horse-racing. However, until the advent of mass-spectator sports such as football in the 20 th century, horse racing, the 'Sport of Kings' was in many ways the true National sport of Great Britain, uniting the whole spectrum of British society in participation.

When once a dedicated gentleman of the turf, I had the pleasure of witnessing Imperial Commander win at Cheltenham. He progressed further to win  last year's Gold Cup. And though at present the unlucky star of fast women and slow horses seems to be my ascendant along with a moderating of my stake, I still enjoy the spectacle and thrill  of  watching  man and beast united in equestrian competition and bravery. Actually I do believe I am up a few pennies this week so far, backing both Sizing Australia and Sizing Europe. Who says names are unimportant factors in selecting a winner ?  My earliest Cheltenham memory ? Desert Orchid winning the Gold Cup in the mud in 1989.
Jockey of the day on Tuesday at the Festival was surely the champion Ruby Walsh, the reigning Irish National Hunt champion jockey. He was the leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival in 2004 - 2006 - 2008 - 2009 and 2010. Returning to the saddle after  a 4 month lay-off from a broken leg,  Ruby Walsh won no less than 3 races on Tuesday. What other sportsmen frequently  suffer cuts, bruises and broken bones yet repeatedly  return to the saddle risking injury ? 

Although moral objections are sometimes made about a sport which involves both animals and gambling, in truth National Hunt jump racing is one in which animals are  lovingly cared for by owner and stable-staff  alike. As for gambling, well not every person who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic. Gambling can even, as the late Clement Freud observed, teach a few moral lessons, such as how to forebear loss, sharpening an indecisive mind, teach how to live with the consequences of  greed and how to be  modest and magnanimous in winning. Indeed many aspects of  life are a fated combination of  good or bad  fortune supplemented by good or bad decision-making. In brief a gamble. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011


                                 Photo of Uranus taken by Voyager 2
230 years ago today the German-born British astronomer Sir William Herschel observed a new planet. (March 13, 1781). Herschel’s discovery expanded the known boundaries of the solar system. At first the new planet was named after its discoverer, but was later named after a Greek god as other planets of the solar system. The name of the new planet was chosen  from mythology as the logical progression in genealogical sequence; for Mars was believed to be the son of Jupiter, who in turn was the son of Saturn, who was born from Uranus.

In Greek mythology Uranus (from Greek Ouranous, sky) personifies the heavens and the night sky. Believed to have been born from chaos, Uranus was the primogenitor  of all Greek gods. He was castrated by Cronos or Saturn with a sickle because of his  fathering of monstrous progeny.

Astronomically, Uranus is the seventh planet in orbit from the sun and the third largest of all planets. It was detected as having a ring-system similar, if less spectacular than Saturn on March 10, 1977 by an American astronomical  team led by James L. Elliot (b. 1943 – d. March 3, 2011). Only a little more than 200 years since its discovery, the American space-probe Voyager 2 reached Uranus in 1986, its closest approach occurring on January 24, 1986.  Voyager 2  which was launched in 1977 encountered  the Jupiter system  in 1979, Saturn in 1980 and finally Neptune in 1989. It was the first space probe to provide detailed images of the  ice-giant  planets Uranus and Neptune.

 Astrologically, Uranus is associated with individuality and eccentricity, new and unconventional ideas, discoveries such as electricity, television and invention in general. When Uranus was discovered the events of the French and American revolutions along with the Western Industrial revolution  were shaping the modern world of today. Uranus is also believed to govern societies and any group dedicated to humanitarian or progressive ideals. It  is also the planet associated most with sudden and unexpected change, ruling freedom and originality. Above all planets Uranus rules genius and the characteristics of the zodiac sign of Aquarius. Astrologers noted that the slow-moving  planet of Uranus which takes 84 years to orbit the Sun, entered the zodiac sign of Aries on March 12, 2011. The orbit of the planet Neptune is even slower;  first observed in 1846 it will have completed just one full circuit of the Sun since its discovery on July 12,  2011.

The Mutiliation of Uranus by Saturn by Vasari circa 1560
 Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

 Book  -   Uranus by John Townley  pub. Aquarian Press 1978

Monday, March 07, 2011


The strongest evidence that Sir Thomas Browne was a Chess-player occurs in his spiritual testimony and psychological self-portrait   Religio Medici. Browne not only displays a familiarity with the game of Chess, but also apprehends the impending schism in the western intellect between scientific reason and religious faith stating-

 Thus the Devill played at Chesse with mee, and yeelding a pawne, thought to gaine a Queen of me, taking advantage of my honest endeavours; and whilst I labour'd to raise the structure of my reason, hee striv'd to undermine the edifice of my faith. -  R.M. Part 1:19

The game of  Chess is mentioned in the lesser-known half of  the 1658  Diptych Discourses,  The Garden of Cyrus. Aptly to his theme of   pleasurable delights, Browne alludes to several pastimes, including Backgammon, skittles and  the little stones in the old game of Pentalithismus, or casting up five stones to catch them on the back of their hand.

In The Garden of Cyrus Browne orbits beyond the ordered patterns of games such as Chess  and Backgammon (Tables)  into a near stream-of-consciousness rapture, utilizing dense layers of cosmic and Hermetic symbolism-

In Chesse-boards and Tables we yet finde Pyramids and Squares, I wish we had their true and ancient description, farre different from ours, or the Chet mat of the Persians, and might continue some elegant remarkables, as being an invention as High as Hermes the Secretary of Osyris, figuring the whole world, the motion of the Planets, with Eclipses of Sunne and Moon.