Sunday, November 27, 2011

Self-analysis: Nietzsche and Browne

Man is very well defended against himself, against his own spying and sieges; usually he is able to make out no more of himself than his outer fortifications. The actual stronghold is inaccessible to him, even invisible, unless friends and enemies turn traitor and lead him there by a secret path. - Friedrich Nietzsche
 *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
The noblest Digladiation is in the Theatre of our selves: for therein our inward Antagonists, not only like common Gladiators, with ordinary Weapons and down right Blows make at us, but also like Retiary and Laqueary Combatants, with Nets, Frauds, and Entanglements fall upon us. Weapons for such combats are not to be forged at Lipara: Vulcan's Art doth nothing in this internal Militia: wherein not the Armour of Achilles, but the Armature of St. Paul, gives the Glorious day.        - Christian Morals Part 1:24

On first consideration, it would appear that the thoughts of the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche have little in common with those of the seventeenth century English philosopher Sir Thomas Browne. Both however, were Classical philologists as well as profound, original thinkers. They also shared an awareness of the strong presence of self-deception within human nature. Both philosophers here likening the attainment of self-awareness to an internal battle of military-like combat.

Browne penned Christian Morals late in his life, primarily as an advisio for his children but applicable to humanity in general. The whole work is permeated by many short, perceptive aphorisms upon life. It's interesting to note that in his old age Browne advocates the supremacy of Christian faith over alchemy which was known as Vulcan's Art. His phrase, 'the Theatre of ourselves' in particular, is one of great insight and originality.

Curiously, Nietzsche shared with Browne an interest in the notion of eternal recurrence, that is the idea of Time and History being of a cyclical, repetitive nature. Probably the best novel in modern times which explores the concept of eternal recurrence is P.D. Ouspensky's The Strange tale of Ivan Osokin (1915)  a novel written during an age of heightened interest in mystical ideas in Russian history.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Rudolf and the Rulands

The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) was an avid collector of art and a devotee of alchemy. When he relocated the Hapsburg court from Vienna to Prague he attracted many talents both scientific and artistic, including the Elizabethan mathematician John Dee, the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and skilled painters such as Bartholomeus Spranger, Adrian de Vries and Giuseppe Archimboldo.

Among the most original of artists at Rudolf II's court was the Milan-born Giuseppe Archimboldo (1527-1593). Rudolph II commissioned Archimboldo to paint what are probably his best-known works, a series of Four Seasons using his 'double meaning' technique. Archimboldo even applied his 'double meaning' technique to a portrait of his patron, painting the Holy Roman Emperor as Autumn, rich with the abundance of the fruits of the harvest (Above). Often afflicted with profound depression, the solitary-inclined Rudolf must have had a strange but confident perception of himself to allow such an experimental portrait. Archimboldo's 'double meaning' technique was imitated centuries later by Surrealist artists, notably by Salvador Dali.

Although nowadays Emperor Rudolf II is credited as being a major patron of the arts, in particular of Northern Mannerist art (one suspects that the four intriguing statuettes of the Layer Monument with their hidden esoteric symbolism would have appealed to Rudolf's taste) it's also been argued that his life-long collecting of art combined with his complete disinterest in politics and diplomacy contributed towards the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and European political instability during the thirty years war (1618 -1648). A more positive interpretation of Rudolf II views him a major sponsor of the scientific revolution and an aspirant towards a united, polemic-free Europe.

Rudolf II also kept a menagerie of exotic animals, cultivated a botanical garden and collected a variety of curio's in what was to become Europe's most extensive 'cabinet of curiosities' or Kunstkammer. Rudolf's primary preoccupation however was the fabled philosophers stone of alchemy and he commissioned both scholars and alchemists in his quest. Foremost among scholars at the Prague court were the Paracelsian physician-alchemists Martin Rulands, the name of both father and son. Martin Ruland the elder (1532 -1602 ) compiled a dictionary of alchemical terminology, primarily orientated towards a Paracelsian and metallurgic nature. It must have been held in high esteem by Emperor Rudolf  for he conferred the status of nobility upon Martin Ruland junior (1569-1611) in 1608. Martin Ruland's definition of meditatio is a good example of how devout Hermetic philosophers such as John Dee and Sir Thomas Browne augmented their Christian spirituality.
MEDITATIO - The name of an Internal Talk of one person with another who is invisible, as in the invocation of the Deity, or communion with one's self, or with one's good angel.
In  Religio Medici (1643) Browne declared -
Therefore I am so far from denying their existence, that I could easily believe, that not only whole Countries, but particular persons have their Tutelary, and Guardian Angels: It is not a new opinion of the Church of Rome, but an old one of Pythagoras and Plato; - R.M. Part 1:33
Incontrovertible evidence that Browne consulted  Ruland's dictionary can be found in his allusion to Ruland's entry -
QUANDROS -   a Stone or Jewel which is found in the brain and head of the Vulture, and is said to be a bright white colour. It fills the breasts with milk, and is said to be a safeguard against dangerous accidents. 

In Museum Clausum, Browne's bizarre inventory of lost, imagined and rumoured books, pictures and objects there can be found -
A noble Quandros  or Stone taken out of a Vulture's Head.
Although I've written on this before there's now the possibility of offering a link to the complete text of   Rulands Dictionary of Alchemy.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Kauto Star

With the National Hunt season firmly underway this November, today's result from Haydock Park was truly heart-warming. Kauto Star ridden by Ruby Walsh returned to form with a brilliant display of jumping prowess, bravery and determination  to win the Grade 1 Betfair Chase by 8 lengths over his nearest rival and last years Gold Cup winner, Long Run.

The many fans and supporters attending Haydock Park wearing the same silk colours of Kauto Star are a clear sign that he's loved by the racing public, perhaps in a once-in-a-lifetime way not seen since Desert Orchid in the late 80's or Arkle of the 60's. There were emotional scenes as the winner returned to the ring to a hero's reception of loud cheers. Uniquely, Kauto Star, now aged 11,  has been versatile as a chaser to be champion at different race-distances and the only horse to have ever regained the Cheltenham Gold Cup for owner Clive Smith. In a racing career now spanning over 5 years, he's also won the blue ribbon of the Xmas season, Kempton Park's King George VI chase four consecutive times. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I'm All Right Jack

John and Roy Boulting's  I'm All Right Jack (1959)  is a hilarious satire on society and industrial relations in post-war Britain. With a script full of witty dialogue and with consummate skill, the Boulting brothers portray all levels of a once rigid British society, greatly assisted by the cream of British actors of the time. The star-studded cast of I'm All Right Jack includes Ian Carmichael, Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Richard Attenborough, Dennis Price, Margaret Rutherford, Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier and Liz Fraser. 

The comedy begins when affable but naive upper-class Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael, above) is finally obliged to embark upon a career. His uncle finds him employment in a missile factory where he meets pseudo-Bolshevik trade Union leader Mr. Kite (Peter Sellers). Stanley quickly accepts Mr. Kite's offer of accommodation upon sighting his glamorous daughter (Liz Fraser, above) who works at the ammunition  factory as a so-called 'spindle-polisher'. 

The collective British work-force are depicted in  I'm All Right Jack as intent upon doing as little work as possible and ever eager upon the slightest pre-text to strike. The humour is subtle but effective. When on strike, after a morning of playing cards and darts, the lunch-bell sounds. "Blimey, it's all go today, mate" declares one worker. The power of the Trade unions, led by the fanatical and ideologically-blinkered trade union leader Mr.Kite is shown in a most unfavourable light. In a role which won Peter Sellers a British Academy Best Actors award, Mr. Kite's rigid adherence to supposed Bolshevik principles is fatally flawed. He's never travelled to Russia and is ignorant of the true human cost of the 'Glorious Revolution' and its consequences under Stalin. When Kite's wife herself decides to go on strike, withdrawing all home labour, leaving him to live alone, he soon sinks into utter domestic squalor. In the meantime, Kite's one-time lodger Stanley Windrush refuses to strike and continues attending work. The media applaud his strike-breaking and crowds throng  outside the home of his aunt Dolly, (Margaret Rutherford) calling out his name and hailing him a National hero. The  film's denouement occurs at a  live TV debate hosted by Malcolm Muggeridge. With his eyes finally open to international business corruption within his family, Stanley Windrush declares money to be the only source of interest and motivation to all concerned. Opening a suitcase full of bribery money he casts handfuls of bank-notes into the air. A mad scramble among members of the TV studio audience ensues. 

Although it's a film over 50 years old,  Roy and John Boulting's social satire retains its relevance. Indeed such was the film's success that its title lives on in common parlance as a cheeky quip of self- interest and complacent indifference to the circumstances of others. I'm All Right Jack  also questions dubious aspects of British culture and morality; the Boulting brothers primary target being the notorious ineptitude of British management which is portrayed as corrupt at all levels. At the heart of the film lies the under-stated question about the moral integrity of manufacturing and export of military weapons, an export which effectively contributes no small percentage towards Britain's GDP today. Filmed after the Suez crisis of 1956 which demoted Britain's place in the world, the character of Mr. Mohammed, a Fez-wearing diplomat engaged in acquiring a large shipment of missiles, takes on a more than stereotypical role in the comedy, hinting that Britain even sells weapons to its enemies, as indeed it does. The  rise of the media and its power, along with youth culture in the form of a skiffle-based theme music and the vacuous intellect of matinee glamour girl Cynthia (Liz Fraser) are also featured. But above all else, as with all good satire, the Boulting brother's film clearly highlights moral decline, in particular the relatively new trend of self-interest in British society. 

Fifty years after I'm All Right Jack was first screened, the less privileged members of British society, that is, the vast majority, are now suffering the consequences of corruption and greed in high places as humorously depicted in I'm All Right Jack. Nevertheless although its hard to imagine there's much of a joke or comedy to be made from the present-day economic crisis facing Europe, its worth remembering that humour and laughter are good medicine for difficult times.    

Wiki-Link -  Boulting brothers

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Boston Stump

Although Noel Coward once wittily declared, 'Very Flat Norfolk', in fact large tracts of Norfolk are slightly undulating in landscape and even downright hilly in places. Surely the much-loved Norwich poet and performer Timothy Sillence (1944-2002) conveyed a much deeper understanding of the intimate and mystical nature of the Norfolk landscape when humorously writing-  

is a flat land
within easy reach 
of the Himalayas.

Recently on a rare excursion out of the county of  'bootiful Norfolk', I had the pleasure to travel through the Fens, the geographical region of England which is definitely 'Very Flat'. The Fens are a vast expanse of fertile agricultural land situated predominately in the counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Travelling through the many square miles of low-laying land effectively drained and reclaimed from the sea by Dutch engineering in the seventeenth century, one senses how much the Fen landscape with its huge domed skies must have affected the psychology of its inhabitants. This thought is reinforced once arriving at Boston in Lincolnshire and viewing the enormous tower of Saint Botolph's. Long known as Boston Stump or just The Stump, the medieval architects of the extraordinary Perpendicular style tower utilized the flat landscape of Lincolnshire to make their House of God into a bold, enduring statement. Like the so-called 'Ship of the Fens', Ely Cathedral, Boston Stump dominated the landscape during the Middle Ages and was visible from great distance.

The 202 steps and 83 metres which lead up the Boston Stump collectively and discreetly enquire  upon one's assumed fitness, but the views are well worth  the effort !

The windmill (centre) was working with its sails rotating. Its said that from Boston Stump with good visibility and powerful binoculars one can  see the back of one's head ! ( Actually it's claimed one can see over thirty miles from the tower).

The river Haven stretches into the distance. Boston was a thriving sea-port during the Middle Ages until access to the port silted-up over the centuries. As with much of Fenland, Boston is home to a network of rivers, canals and  inter-connecting drainage conduits.

Wiki -link   St. Botolph's Church Boston 

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Norfolk Chalk Reef

Photo:Rob Spray
The ancient coast-line of East Anglia, once the furthest extent of retreating glaciers during the last Ice Age, continues to reveal astounding evidence of early man's activities and prehistoric nature. The North Norfolk coast-line in particular is a rich source of geological and archaeological wonders. These include the Cromer Ridge, a terminal glacial moraine formed during the last Ice Age; the discovery of a fossilised skeleton of a steppe mammoth approximately 600,000 years old in the cliffs of West Runton in 1990, and  a circular arrangement of over fifty split oak tree trunks, an early man-made ritual monument named  Seahenge, dated circa 2100 BCE, which was first exposed at Holme-next-the-Sea in 1998.

It's recently  been announced that the world's longest chalk reef, over 20 miles in length, stretching from Cley to Trimingham along the Norfolk coast, complete with massive two metre high arches and deep gullies has been discovered.  So far three species never recorded before have been found in the Chalk reef including the Leopard Spotted Goby, two rare anemones and an obscure purple-coloured sponge.  The Chalk Reef was the subject of a BBC regional TV  programme which was spectacular in viewing. Here's the link for a 3 minute filmed dive through the Norfolk chalk Reef . The discovery of the Chalk reef was made by Rob Spray who runs the Marine Conservation Society survey project with a team of volunteers.

Even during my hedonistic and ecstatic summers of youth, swimming, sunbathing and reading on the  beach, I never dreamed of a submarine world some 300 million years old just half a mile out from the shore and  just eight metres below  the surface of the North sea.

However, the seventeenth century doctor and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne did dream of submarine worlds. His miscellaneous tract   Museum Clausum  or Bibliotheca Abscondita  identified by W.G. Sebald  in his Rings of Saturn  (1998) as a  curious minor masterpiece of the imagination,  includes among its inventory of lost, rumoured or imagined books, pictures and objects-

9. A Sub Marine Herbal describing the several Vegetables found on the Rocks, hills, Valleys, Meadows at the bottom of the Sea, with many sorts of Alga, Fucus, Quercus, Polygonum, Gramens and others not yet described.

The world of the submarine must have been of great interest to Browne as included in his miscellaneous tract under the entries of  pictures, one reads the worthy doctor dreaming of -

3. Large Submarine Pieces, well delineating the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, the Prairie or large Sea-meadow upon the Coast of Provence, the Coral Fishing, the gathering of Sponges, the Mountains, Valleys and Deserts, the Subterraneous Vents and Passages at the bottom of that Sea ;