Wednesday, May 30, 2012


 Men that look upon my outside, perusing only my condition, and fortunes, do err in my altitude; for I am above Atlas his shoulders.

Another illustration from a book once in the vast library of Sir Thomas Browne Opticorum libri sex philosophis juxta ac mathematicis utiles or 'Six Books of Optics, useful for philosophers and mathematicians alike' by Fran├žois Aiguilon (1567-1617) a Belgian mathematician, physicist and architect . 

Aiguilon's book Optica (1613) was notable for containing the principles of stereographic and orthographic projections, as depicted above. He gave the stereographic projection its current name in his 1613 work.  One of the most important uses of stereoscopic projection was in  the representation of celestial charts which were increasingly necessary for  accurate navigation, exploration and trade-routes, especially for the empire-building of sea-faring nations such as the Dutch and British nations during the 17th century.

Aguilon commissioned the famous Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) to illustrate his book. Throughout Aigulion's treatise on optics, Rubens depicts three cherubs who act as guides and tutelary figures to reveal the nature of optical phenomena to the enquirer into Nature's properties. 

Just as the study of botany aided the physician in the field of medicine, enhancing his appreciation of the senses through scent and beauty as well as his understanding of nature's organic properties, so too the study of optics held both a scientific and a mystical dimension for the Natural philosopher. The study of optics with its emphasis upon Light and Dark, the visible and  invisible worlds and the deceptive nature of appearances has much in common with the spiritual symbolism of Gnosticism and Hermetic philosophy; symbolism involving Light and Darkness, one of the most richly-developed forms of spiritual imagery can be found in the sacred texts of all world religions, including Christianity. One of the most famous of all optical-spiritual imagery often cited as Gnostic in origin, occurs in the words of Saint Paul -

For now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;  then we shall see face to face. - 1 Cor. 13 v. 12

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Master and Margarita

Earlier this year I read once again The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece is considered by many to be a major 20th century novel and a seminal work of a genre loosely defined as magical realism. However, it's not always an easy novel to read in either its volume or thematic scope. Because of its many-facted nature, Bulgakov's masterpiece is both a metaphysical fantasy and a satire upon life in 1930's Soviet Russia, which alternates between comic and profound, mystical and satirical with seamless ease. It’s also a novel which inter-twines history with politics and religion, as well as a testament to the triumph of artistic self-expression in the face of State censorship and oppression.

Mikhail Bulgakov (May 15th 1891-1940) studied medicine and travelled extensively throughout Russia before settling in Moscow as a theatre director and writer. He worked on and developed, never quite completing his masterpiece right up until his death in 1940. Due to censorship and the controversial nature of his subject-matter, his novel was not published in its entirety until 1967. Its recorded that Bulgakov spoke personally to Joseph Stalin on the telephone requesting permission to travel, a request which was inevitably refused. Given the Zeitgeist of 1930's censorship in the Soviet Union it was also inevitable that Bulgakov's out-spoken attack on the bureaucracy of Stalinist Russia would not see light until decades later. As the Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovitch also discovered when Joseph Stalin visited the theatre to hear his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District the Soviet dictator was the supreme State censor of the arts.

The Master and Margarita describes the visit of a mysterious character named Woland accompanied by a bizarre entourage who play tricks upon Moscow's citizens. The irony being the Devil and his entourage's conjuring of pranks in what was once the world capital of State-endorsed atheism. The novel's comedy is supplied by the antics of a walking, talking, fat, cigar-smoking cat who accompanies his master Woland and much of the satire is centred upon Woland's exposing the greed, lust, vanity and pride of Moscow's citizens. The novel's rapid action is set in a theatre, both on-stage and back-stage, a psychiatric hospital and the apartments of ordinary Moscow folk and interspersed in the narrative are episodes transporting the reader to Roman-occupied Jerusalem during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. These are told from the perspective of Pontius Pilate and his tormented conscience. Not least among the novel's triple and inter-related story-lines is the love story of the Master and his redeemer, Margarita.

The Master and Margarita  is prefaced with an epigram from Goethe’s Faust-

                                         ‘…who are you, then?’
‘I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good’.

The myth of the scholar who barters his soul to the devil for knowledge has a peculiar place in the Western psyche, representing as it does, inverted questions of the individual’s relationship to God. Bulgakov's novel is in many ways a development and variation upon the Faustian legend which various playwrights have been attracted to, including the Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe, author of The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1604). Several historical persons in the esoteric tradition have been proposed as a prototype of Faust. In the British esoteric tradition the Elizabethan magus John Dee is often proposed. A more likely figure from the country of the legend’s origin would be the Renaissance figure of Paracelsus.

The medieval legend of the questing scholar who barters his soul to the Devil was developed by the German genius and polymath Goethe in Faust I and II. The figure of Faust in Goethe’s drama, his gambling his soul with the Devil at risk of losing it, was of particular interest to the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung. In fact, there’s sufficient material in Jung’s collected writings for a full-length essay on his interpretation of Goethe’s drama. Digressing slightly, I cannot resist quoting Jung's summarizing of the Faustian spirit and it's relevance to modern-day man -

It was from the spirit of alchemy that Goethe wrought the figure of the “superman” Faust, and this superman led Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to declare that God was dead and to proclaim the will to give birth to the superman, ‘to create a god for yourself out of your seven devils”. Here we find the true roots, the prepatory processes deep in the psyche, which unleashed the forces at work in the world today. Science and technology have indeed conquered the world, but whether the psyche has gained anything is another matter.  -CW 13: 163

As in Goethe's Faust Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita asks questions on individual destiny, fate and redemption. Crucially, Bulgakov raises the relevance of the Faustian myth in his novel to modern times, holding up a mirror to the responses and moral choices available to the individual when faced with the temptation of evil when living under stifling State bureaucracy, censorship and economic hard times.

In his 1997 introduction Richard Peaver stated no-one has ever been able to explain why several minor characters in The Master and Margarita share the names of famous composers.  In  what may be a world first, I believe I can in fact explain why Bulgakov's minor characters are named after composers.

The Master and Margarita opens with a literary professor named Berlioz meeting the Devilish trickster Woland one evening shortly before being decapitated by a tram, slipping under its wheels from spilt sunflower oil, just as Woland predicts. The psychiatric hospital in which the Master is a voluntary resident and where several victims of Woland's diabolic tricks end up insane from their disbelief from encountering the Devil, is maintained by a suitably cold and clinical doctor named Stravinsky. The theatre where Woland first performs magical tricks upon an astounded Moscow audience is run by a much harassed director named Rimsky-Korsakov.

Quite simply, all three of these characters are named after composers who wrote music in which the Devil is prominent. The Romantic composer Hector Berlioz wrote a free-form oratorio entitled The Damnation of Faust. Igor Stravinsky in 1918 wrote a jazz-style chamber work The Soldier's Tale in which a soldier trades his fiddle to the devil for a book which predicts the future of the economy. The Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov famously re-arranged and orchestrated Modest Mussorgsky's tone-poem A Night on a Bare Mountain a musical portrait of a mid-summer Walpurgis Nacht and witches sabbath, as also occurs in a central chapter of The Master and Margarita.

The British author Salman Rushdie once stated that The Master and Margarita was an inspiration for his own novel of magical realism The Satanic Verses (1989). Twenty-three years since first reading Bulgakov's love-story fantasy I recognise echoes of my own life's love-history to certain characters of the novel; my first copy of it was a birthday present given in 1989 from someone special to my heart over decades. Every time I read Bulgakov's landmark novel of magical realism another meaning within its comic and tragic pages illuminates my understanding of my own progress in life. Bulgakov's masterpiece is capable of striking a deep chord on the themes of individual destiny and the relationship between creativity, love and mental illness.

The Master and Margarita has been served well in translation since its first publication in 1967. It's also been a rich source of inspiration to numerous artists, attracted to its strong characters and magical scenes. I've chosen only two images from a wide variety of art available on-line. There are also several Russian productions of The Master and Margarita on Youtube which are well worth checking out.

Harvill Press 1967 translated by Michael Glenny
Collins Havill 1988 reprinted (twice)
Picador 1997  translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine O’Connor
Penguin 1997 reprint 2000 trans.Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Also recommended
Mikhail Bulgakov -  Heart of a Dog (1925) first published 1968
A novella/long short story equally comic and profound. 
Wiki-links -  The Master and Margarita     Mikhail Bulgakov

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Julian of Norwich

Portrait of a Young woman wearing a Coif  (c. 1435)
                     by Roger van der Weyden

The ancient city of Norwich has the rare distinction of being the home to two Christian mystics, namely the physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) and the anchoress Julian of Norwich (circa 1342-1416).

Browne has been a perennial bloom of English literature. Diverse writers have responded to his creativity, including in modern times, Jorge Borges and W. G. Sebald. In contrast, Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love  has from being little-known in the early 20th rapidly become recognised as a work of world spiritual literature, better known than either Browne's Religio Medici (1643) and certainly more than his advisory essay Christian Morals (circa 1670).

Julian of Norwich's fame as a writer of profound spiritual insight, and as the first woman to write a book in the English language, was however, not established until the 20th century. Her Revelations of Divine Love only fully entered public consciousness through a sympathetic edition published in 1901 by Grace Warrick and later when T.S. Eliot famously quoted her in his poem  'Little Gidding' of the Four Quartets in 1942.

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well

Julian of Norwich lived during the last years of the Black Death which devastated the population of Europe by one third. The later years of the 14th century were also an age of cattle disease, social unrest in the form of the Peasant's Revolt and several years of bad harvest; the harvest of 1369 being the worst in a 50 year era. Against this historical background, on May 8th 1373 aged 30, when seriously ill and preparing for her Last Rites, Julian experienced a series of  'showings' or visions of the Passion of Christ. Miraculously recovering from her near death experience, she spent many years contemplating the meaning of her Revelations which she believed were a spiritual message to be shared with all Christians.

Although describing herself as 'unlettered', the early Short Text and the later expanded Long Text of the Revelations of Divine Love are testimony to the long journey which Julian made in her life-time from visionary to profound and original theologian. Indeed, Julian's Revelations have been described as, 'the most remarkable theological achievement of the English late Middle Ages'. Throughout her Revelations of Divine Love Julian insists upon, and emphasizes her conformity to the doctrine of Holy Church.

Her mystical imagery includes the hazelnut as symbolic of God's love for humanity-

And he showed me more, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, ‘What is this?’ And the answer came, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate; it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer, ‘It exists, both now and forever, because God loves it'.

It's also in Revelations of Divine Love that Julian, like Jesus in the gospels, uses the medium of parable involving a lord and a servant. Julian describes her vision of lord and servant as a parable of Man's relationship to God thus-  

The first kind of vision was this: the bodily likeness of two people, a lord and a servant, and with this God gave me spiritual understanding.... The lord looks at his servant lovingly and kindly, and he gently sends him to a certain place to do his will. The servant does not just walk, but leaps forward and runs in great haste, in loving anxiety to do his lord's will. And he falls immediately into a ditch and is badly hurt. And then he groans and moans and wails and writhes, but he cannot get up or help himself in any way. And in all this I saw that his greatest trouble was lack of help; for he could not turn his face to look at his loving lord, who was very close to him, and who is the source of all help; but like a man who was weak and foolish for the time being, he paid attention to his own senses, and his misery continued..

Julian believed that the servant in 'good will and his great longing were the only cause of his fall', and throughout the Revelations there's an emphasis upon humanity's basically good, but flawed nature. Today, on at least three accounts, Julian is considered to be a theologian of significance. Her declaration-

'Just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God.'

- places her as a staunch supporter of the Christian feminist movement. Disassociated in gender from dubious and negative traits of patriarchy, Julian's highly original depiction of God as a caring and nurturing mother as well as father has resounding implications for Christian feminist theology. 

Secondly, according to Grace Jantzen, Julian's insights into spiritual growth and wholeness anticipate modern interest in psychotherapy and the attendant quest for spiritual insight which has dominated the 20th century. Thirdly, Julian's total lack of condemnation of humanity, far removed from standard medieval concepts of damnation and notions of God's wrath and judgement, distinguish her as a radical theological modern. There is no wrathful or angry God in Julian's merciful and compassionate theology,  she herself stating-

'For I saw no wrath except on man's side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love'.

God's love for humanity is described by Julian as - 'our clothing, wrapping us for love, embracing and enclosing us for tender love'.

For Julian, sin occurs in human life not as stressed in medieval theology, because people are intrinsically evil, but because they are ignorant and lack self-knowledge. Through sin (a heavily-loaded word which many protest and recoil from upon hearing, without any real understanding of its meaning moral and spiritual wrong-doing) and the resultant consequences of sin in one's life, suffering humanity draws closer to an awareness of Christ's own suffering. In Julian's theology sin is necessary in life as ultimately it brings one to self-knowledge which in turn leads to acceptance of the role of Christ and God in one's life.

Julian of Norwich's vision of love and joy ruling God and Christ's relationship to humanity, her emphasis upon the feminine aspect of God and insistence upon orthodoxy are positive factors which will continue to attract new admirers to her spiritual classic Revelations of Divine Love throughout the world.

Julian's feast day is celebrated on May 8th in the Anglican and Lutheran Church and on May 13th in the Roman Catholic tradition.

Recommended books
Julian of Norwich  Grace Jantzen SPCK 1987 new edition 2000
Revelations of Divine Love trans. Elizabeth Spearing Penguin 1998

The English Mystical Tradition  David Knowles Burns and Oates 1961
In search of Julian of Norwich Shelia Upjohn pub. Darton -Longman-Todd  1989

Web-Links   Wikipedia - Julian of Norwich
Web-site on Julian, her life and contemporaries Umilta
Essay on Julian and Sir Thomas Browne's literary and spiritual affinity at Umilta

Monday, May 07, 2012

World Snooker Championship 2012

Today after 17 days of tournament play, Ronnie O'Sullivan won the 2012 World Snooker Championship at the Crucible, Sheffield beating Ali Carter by 18 - 11.

Played on a table measuring 12 feet by 6 feet, Snooker was enormously popular during the 1980's and has since declined and revived in popularity as a spectator sport. It was once a guaranteed certainty that the Snooker World champion would be a British player but the sport now has a growing following in China with many top-ranking players waiting in the wings to win prestigious tournaments such as the World championship.

Ronnie O'Sullivan, known as 'The Rocket' for his swift play, is one of a number of enigmatic and temperamental characters of the green baize table and arguably one of the Sport's greatest players ever. It's his fourth World championship title winning previously in 2001, 2004 and 2008. At the age of 36 Ronnie O'Sullivan has become the oldest player since 1978 to win the World Championship with its prize money of  £250,000. 

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Guido Bonati

It's always exciting whenever identifying an esoteric book hitherto undetected in Sir Thomas Browne's library, especially when the opportunity arises to share an image which the physician-philosopher once cast his eye upon. This fantastic medieval illustration of Mercurius with his caduceus and chariot wheels depicting the zodiac signs of Virgo and Gemini is from the astrologer/astronomer Guido Bonati's De Astronomia.[1]. 

According to the Wikipedia entry Guido Bonati of Forli, Italy (d. circa 1300) was the most celebrated astrologer in Europe in his century. His book De Astronomia, written around 1277 was reputedly the most important astrological work produced in Latin in the 13th century. Bonati's mentioned in Dante's Inferno Canto 20 line 118.

There seems to be some ambiguity over how his name is spelled, both Bonati and Bonatti occurring in sources. The entry in the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne's library states Bonati, however Dante writes of him as Bonatti. Either way, it's yet more evidence of Browne's predilection towards the reading and study of esoterica as the Wikipedia list of  esoteric books in Browne's library  highlights.

Another illustration from the 1550 Bonati edition owned by Browne. The counterpart of Mercurius in alchemy is Saturnus ruler of Capricorn and Aquarius depicted here upon his chariot wheels. Note how each planetary chariot is towed by quite different creatures. Saturnus holds a scythe symbolic of his links to agriculture and a remnant of  his association to Father Time who appears on New Year's Eve.

[1] 1711 Sales Catalogue page 28 no.10 
Full entry - Guido Bonati de Astronomia Tract x. universum quod ad Indiciariam rationem Nativatum, &c attinet comprehend. 1550 

Wiki-link -  Guido Bonati