Saturday, April 30, 2011

Art is Revelation

"God is in the details." The quote is commonly attributed to the German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but it has also been attributed to Gustave Flaubert, to my mind the more likely candidate. Vladimir Nabokov had his own variation: "Caress the detail, the divine detail." And I've always liked the ditty by the obsessive Michelangelo: "Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle."

While God may be in the details, it seems the devil is in there, too. In her entry in the Spectator DIARY, Jenny McCartney is struck by this "appealingly casual" drawing by Watteau (currently on display at the Royal Academy of Art).

"It calls to mind the difference between pornography and eroticism: pornography imposes the uniform of desire upon its faceless subject; eroticism teases out the particular allure of the person already there."

Particulars turn us on. They're keyholes into the mystery, the rousing essence of art.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Libya and the Oracle of Delphi

As the British classicist Peter Jones explains in Ancient and Modern, The Two Libyas, the famous Oracle of Delphi played an instigating role in the initial colonization of north Africa by the Greeks:

"Herodotus tells the story. A deputation from Thera (modern Santorini) had gone to Delphi to consult the oracle on various matters and was told to found a city among the Libyans. By Libyans, Greeks meant the people who inhabited north Africa. But since no attention was paid to this command, Thera suffered a seven-year drought.

"A mission to Delphi to discover the reason was reminded of that command, and, after some help from Crete and many false starts, a settlement was finally founded at Cyrene in 630 BC. Despite some hostility from local Berbers, other Greek towns sprang up — one was Berenice, modern Benghazi (c. 250 BC)—and the whole region became known as Cyrenaica. Cyrene itself was the jewel in its crown, a magnificent city famed for its medical school and philosophers."

Temple of Zeus, Cyrene

Meanwhile, the western area of Libya had been settled centuries earlier by the Phoenicians. Under the Romans it became known as "Punic" Africa, and it grew into a large and flourishing settlement, much as did its later Greek counterpart to the east. The two regions were 1200 miles apart by land, 700 miles by sea, but because of the strong trade winds and notorious dangers of shipping along the coast, they remained largely separate from one another throughout their long history--up until 1911 when the Italians invaded and consolidated both into modern Libya. Cyrenaicans resisted for years, but were finally quashed by Mussolini in 1934.

According to Jones, if the two Libyas once again split into what they had always been prior to il Duce, it would be "a very sensible idea."

I wonder if the Oracle of Delphi would agree?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jack's Dream

“Wake up!”
Awaken to the rustle of her silk skirts, to the scent of jasmine oil on her wrist, to the clink of her coins in the alms bowl, to the young bride’s whispered prayer.
I sit in the dust of the village road, grinning under closed lids despite my hemorrhoids. The biting flies, the woman’s scent, the hunger pains, the lust—all come and go like night and day: All things must pass away.
“Wake up!”
Awaken to the creak of the wagon wheels, to the odor of the defecating horses, to the wife's farewell to her warrior, to the clatter of the armor and swords.
I sit in the mud beside the village road, grinning under closed lids despite the pouring rain. Though I live in every passerby, there’s nothing I need do. Just sit in silent testament: Peace comes from within.
“Wake up!”
Awaken to the smoke of the funeral pyres, to the futile pleadings of the mourners, to the wail of the grief-stricken widow, to the chant of the senile priest.
I sit in the dark along the village road, grinning under closed lids despite the falling snow. Though demons circle, they pose no threat. Grief cannot devour me; the cold can only bite. I am the Buddha, and I am free. Free from want, free from fear, free from the bondage of birth and death: There is no joy like the joy of freedom.
“Wake up, Jack—you’re safe.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Goliath or Hercules?

Mujahedin resistance to the Soviet invasion becomes kitsch myth, with echoes of David and Goliath, in a recently unveiled diorama in Herat's People's Museum [click to enlarge]. An Afghan boy on a rooftop takes aim with a slingshot, while a Soviet tank erupts in flames below. (from THE SPECTATOR, 12 March 2011)

Although Goliath makes a brief appearance in Chapter 2 of the Koran, it's an adaptation from the original story in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). Hence Muslims aren't the only ones attracted to the myth:
"To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom."
--President Ronald Reagan, March 21, 1983
With what myth will the Afghans paint the U.S. intervention? Let's hope it goes something like the Second Labor of Hercules:

"For his second labor, the hero had to kill the Lernaean Hydra, a creature with nine heads that lived in a swamp. One of the beast's heads was immortal, and the others grew back when cut off. With the help of his friend Iolaus, Hercules cut off the Hydra's eight heads and burned each wound, which prevented new heads from growing back. Because he could not cut off the ninth head, he buried the creature under a great rock."

Apparently, to vanquish the hydra-headed Taliban, all we need to do is find a big enough rock!

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Michael Ramirez's update of the famous Japanese painting, The Great Wave, by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Here's the best image of the original I could find [click to enlarge for a fabulous view]: