Sunday, December 31, 2006


I've had a hard year, and so have many of you. I would like to think I've made the world a better place for each of you who have stopped by here. Yet, I'm fully aware that I have not; in fact, that I have made the world more confusing, more exasperating, more enraging and less pleasant for some of you. I wish that it were otherwise, and I wish I were wiser.

Nevertheless, anonymity notwithstanding, I still have to thank many of you, in groups and as individuals, for doing things which made me a better person (or at least, feel better). I suppose I shall have to do this personally, but here, I am going to do it by pseudonym and cryptonym, by synonym and by euonym.

Three rings for leaders of the first elect
Seven for the others in that room of stone
Nine years might not a better crew select
One now has the privilege of choice alone
One ring to serve them all and set the tone

Three stars for thinkers of the atrament
Intellect and silliness in equal part
Some added spiciness a sacrament
Passion and emotion burning from the heart
Still unresolved is science over art

Three cheers for a genesis of wonder
Seven points for chronicles of dire sense
This whole year like judgement day of thunder
Drowning the ceremony of innocence
In cold-forged steel of shining excellence


I am glad that I have had the privilege of serving you all. And here, as my anonymous friend also does, I can think of no better message to leave you than one of time, and the prospects thereof.


Ecclesiastes 3

A Time for Everything

For everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under heaven.

A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to sow and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
A time to gain and a time to lose.
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace.

What profit is there for the one who labours? I have seen the travail that God has given to us all.
He has made everything beautiful in its own time. Yet He has planted eternity in the hearts of men, that they might not see the work of God from beginning to end.
So I concluded there is no good but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, for it is the gift of God.

And I know that whatever God does is final; nothing can be added to it or taken from it - this is done that people should fear Him. That which has been is now; and that which is to be has already been; and God requires an accounting for all things.


I wish all of you a most enlightening new year. May God help your burden, your shadows, the darkness of your times, the gravity of the days, and the heaviness of your hearts all seem lighter. For all our troubles are light and momentary ones, leading in the end to the light of His presence. Amen.

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Over the years, I've consciously and deliberately attempted to immunise my brain against illusions. However, since 1995 or thereabouts, the amount of research on the way the human brain works has expanded vastly. We now know so much about the way the brain works that illusion and reality are more and more coterminous. It is all rather vexing at times.

For example, check out the illusions linked here. I suppose people like Speedcuber will want to try at least one of the phenomena out, if he hasn't already.

Optics and midwinter — the two are so very similar in so many ways. Can you think of some?


And of course, what would life be without poetry? Here is one of my favourite carols. Christina Rossetti's In The Bleak Midwinter is one of those rare pieces which is cold, warm, bleak, elevating, and evocative of both cheer and tears all at once. Enjoy!

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Ah... poets should write more songs.

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Reading is a beautiful little university town in the south of England. It is also a pursuit which may bring wisdom, which offers material for reflection, which allows one to look at the thoughts of another and capture the resonances thereof. You can read music, you can read for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. One person can read another, by form, finger, face, or feeling.

And yet, we are overwhelmed with the visual image and the soundbite, day after day, dreary session after dreary session. To encourage people to read, you must sequester them; you must deny them cheap and easy recourse to the graphic, the acoustic, and the mundane. For whereas sound, action and visual image bring knowledge in their own ways, only the written word stands any chance at all of faithfully reproducing sequential, intelligent reasoning. And if this is what is required, we must read, make others read, and set up places where reading might be fruitfully accomplished.

It makes me feel rather unhappy when material which can be presented to the reading intelligence of people who presumably have the ability to read, and which is best perused carefully and referred to as necessary, is presented as quick slides and talk - especially when the slides are not optimised for knowledge transfer and when the talk is much the same in quality. One ought at least to get a performance equal to the combined power of the text and the intelligent re-enactment of it from the reader's mind. But one doesn't. And it galls. It galls in all three parts, as another Caesar might have said.

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Friday, December 29, 2006


I have, courtesy of Neil Gaiman, become hooked on this nefarious webpage. Key in a book title. Identify your book from the list of things that could be your book (or not), and it will return a list of books you probably don't have.

Of course, there's a normal recommendation page. But where's the fun in that?

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Nothing But Rain, Dear

Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
Comet and Cupid and Donner und Blitzen

Yes, we're all familiar with these, from that silly commercial Rudolph song.

But here are some things to think about, although they might be nothing but reindeer.

1. Dasher, Prancer, Comet and Donner are male; Dancer, Vixen, Cupid and Blitzen are female. Yes, some don't seem to have their gender right. But then Donner is the Teutonic Thunder-God, not the Italian 'Donna'. And Blitzen is of course Lightning. Cupid ought to be male though. And Comet (from Latin coma, 'hair') ought to be female.

2. Why are there eight? There is a simple answer to this, of course. The whole of the Northern European Christmas symbology comes from Norse myth. Odin, the All-Father, is both a Christ figure (he hung upon Yggdrasil, the World-tree so that he would receive the wisdom to save the world from destruction) as well as the White Rider on the eight-legged conquering steed, Sleipnir. It's hard to believe in an eight-legged flying horse. I suppose eight flying reindeer must make better sense.

3. Midwinter is traditionally a gateway between the death of the old year and the life of the new year. Odin, white-bearded and one-eyed, is a power of gates and of death. He is also a power of winter and of storm. One of the older Norse deities was Üller, whose name is commemorated in the word 'Yuletide'. The time we call Christmas is an attempt to sanctify pagan winter rituals all over Europe by the power of the name of Christ, just as Easter is an attempt to sanctify pagan spring rituals.

And a Happy New Year to all!

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Santaic Verses

See! Red-capped and scourging
The heathen defiler
At his frenzied urging
The reindeer leap clear

Bring in the new year
Throw out the old
He is like Kronos
Lord of the cold

With merciless blackness
His eyes gaze out shrewd
Enduring no slackness
Or thinking ungood

Chastise the children
Reward the good
Unthinking offspring
With games and food


I have always loved the Anglo-Saxon poetic heritage. It is also, because well-loved, a good target for parody.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006


Here I am at the family Christmas reunion. This is a single room. There is a lot of food here: four kinds of salads, five kinds of cold cuts, a variety of sushi, field mushroom soup with rolls and butter, lamb, fish, prawns, beef, mixed vegetables, sliced fruit, seven kinds of Christmas cookies, a pudding, longans with almond jelly, a log cake.

Suddenly, I am filled with the odd sensation of knowing that most of what I am depends on my relationships with others. Who is here with me? Who are they in relation to me? I try to think of these relations first in their simplest terms - bonds of siblinghood, parenthood, marriage.

I am here. My wife is here. My father (+ wife (my mother) + second son (my brother)). My father's eldest brother (+ wife + eldest daughter (+ husband) + third daughter (+ husband + son + daughter) + son). My father's father's brother's son (+ wife + son). My father's mother's third sister's eldest son (+ second wife + third son). Some family friends. It is an odd gathering because so many are away. My sister (+ husband) on the phone. It's difficult to think of how much these people mean to me and still reduce them to simple data structures.

And so, this is my family at Christmas. And yet, not.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006


Over the years, one develops a sense of deep community with certain groups of human beings. Of course, to put up links identifying my older communities might be embarrassing to some people who do not belong, some people who do, or some people who just get easily embarrassed.

Here are two of my latest communities - do check out the work of the NYAS and the SHS.

I strongly believe that all professionals, to be considered so, should be members of their own professional bodies. It's one of the ways you show that you consider yourself not beneath your profession or above it - but part of it as a member of the community of your peers. And to widen your circle of professional bodies or interest groups merely makes you more human a person, more entwined in the fabric of humanity and committed to the tapestry of life.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Acronymous Rex

I have been a fan of Guy Kawasaki for more than twenty years now. Of course, when some people hear that, they think, "Ah, another Apple freak." But I assure you, my liking for Mr Kawasaki runs deeper than any relationship he might have to fast motorcycles or shiitake mushrooms. It is somewhat related to posts like this.

Sometimes, acronyms are just so apt. It was decades ago also that I discovered for myself the ancient practice of signing off with 'IHS', which variously stood for 'In His Service' or for the first three letters of the name 'Jesus' in Greek. I remembered that a few years ago. Sadly, not all uses of acronyms reflect the glory of the intended original, for better or worse. Just recall, my friends, when water and other services were controlled by the PUB - Public Utilities Board. Hilarious.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Moving Along

At 0400h this morning, I officially completed moving house for the eighth time in my life. All the while, I determinedly stuck to my plan of deliberate packing, placement and unpacking. And everything more-or-less worked out, even my rewiring. But in the face of this admittedly traumatic event, I discovered a kind of Zen-like detachment as I threw out stuff and ignored the world of work.

Meanwhile, somewhere at the back of my mind, some lyrics just refused to stop playing...

It seems such a waste of time
If that's what it's all about
If that's movin' up then I'm movin' out.

(from 'Anthony's Song' in Billy Joel's album The Stranger)

This one reminds me of a certain Mosaic individual:

Moving along in our God-given ways,
Safety is sat by the fire,
Sanctuary from these feverish smiles,
Left with a mark on the door,
Is this the gift that I wanted to give?

(from 'Passover' in Joy Division's album Closer)

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Sunday, December 17, 2006


what the old soothsayer said
julius ignored the fix was in
a long march that blossomed red
a storm of daggers thrust within

now here we are in winter
beware the ides of december
the gun assails the sprinter
two years past can you remember

we live and die by fractions
each half month brings its quota by
salary saving actions
salutary salvations sigh

the ballad too unsubtle here
a broken sonnet shall appear

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Friday, December 15, 2006


Here is an intriguing character, a choleric and cynical fellow with an uncooperative and violent attitude to life. For Act One of his life, he is brought up as a prince in a polytheistic society. He commits manslaughter and exiles himself for Act Two of his life to a nomadic pantheistic one. And for Act Three, he becomes the unwilling leader of a bunch of stiff-necked monotheists. He has three thousand of them killed on his own initiative in the early years. He dominates them ruthlessly, curses them, accuses them of making his life miserable - and he becomes an icon forever, in the hearts of these same people.

Go figure. And why do some people say I am a bit like him?

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I remember many things people have said about me in my youth; I have reminders of them, having assiduously retained report books and testimonials and diaries. But as I finish my last year as a thirty-something young man, and look ahead into the murkiness of the forties, I wonder how much was me and how much was acting.

Take for example that venerable Myers-Briggs test. For years, comments from relatives and friends, and even successive readings of the MBTI proclaimed me to be an INTJ. But looking at my diaries and notes, I realise that while I was intensely introverted as a child, I also had a naughty streak that eventually became a full-fledged bridge into the external world.

As one ages, one's creativity can variously become a source of inspiration, embarrassment, irritation, encouragement or perplexity to one's colleagues, friends, family and other acquaintances. Mine seems to have tilted the balance between introversion and extroversion - so far, most indicators show the extrovert very slightly ahead. Coupled with other maturing indicators, I seem to have become an ENTP. How very odd!

The judgemental introvert of the past has become a perceptive extrovert. According to this version of the test, the mastermind has been replaced by the inventor; the free-thinker is now the innovator. Does it stop there? Who knows? Perhaps I should just accept suggestions for Act III.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006


It hit me this morning, as I was pouring ground Mocha Africana (from Mövenpick) into the cafetière, that 'gratitude' sounds like a conflation of 'great' and 'attitude', while 'latitude' sounds like a conflation of 'less' and 'attitude'. Then I said to myself, "That's a great idea, but it's a silly one, so I shall just feel good about it for a while and forget it." But then a very present help in time of moving came along, and I remembered to be grateful again, and so I couldn't quite forget the idea.

I am grateful to many people, who I suppose should remain relatively unnamed - this principle has always guided my blogging (except in the case of public figures). But how is it possible to express gratitude without names? With great difficulty. I think however that those who are being deliberately unnamed will know who they are. I elect to use verse, and use it more or less randomly, as namelessness permits.

Dancer and daughter;
Destroyer all black;
Grouchy young elflord
And clearer of stack;
Beckoning binder
And novelty earth;
All arbitrary
Reminder of worth;
Spider at centre,
Despoiler of shelves,
All should be happy
And proud of yourselves.

There are at least ten people hidden there, some more obvious than others. And of course, because it would be unfair or ungainly to try to squeeze more than sixty more names into verse, I must also thank those I have taught this year; none of my official students are (un)named above. I must thank them for bearing the burden of being taught by a strange person whose beliefs about education seem not to coincide with most other people's. I will try to be better next year, and God bless you all.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Greater Trumps: (30) The Universe

This image shows the World, the sum of all that is seen from the human perspective - whether the World, the System, the Galaxy, or the Void which contains all things. At the corners of everything stand four mythical figures, or sometimes six, or eight, or twelve, or thirty, or even sixty - for all these numbers stand for completion in various stories. And in the middle, if one looks carefully enough, one sees a Fool relieved of his burdens and filled with the understanding that has always been latent in him; in many versions, the Fool is not central, but the Mother is, or the Womb, or its equivalent in one of the many symbolic languages of our species.

For this image symbolises Completion, Attainment and Wholeness. Something important is complete, a part of life is whole, a collection has found its last missing piece. It need not be an ending to all things, but to what has been a burden of incompleteness for a long time. It need not mean an end to life, but a beginning for a new phase of it, the threshold of the rebirth of hope - or the hope of rebirth. For all things are become new, and the old has passed away through the vortex of the Singularity, never to be seen again.


Andrew Marvell has never really been a fashionable poet. And yet, one of his poems is extremely oft-quoted, and the English language has been enriched by its numerous felicitous phrases, many of which (sadly) have become clichés. Here is one of the least-quoted (and most awkward) parts of this much-quoted piece:

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Indeed, the Universe image is one which finally combines all things and turns them into a completeness which is in itself pleasure and great gain.


This is the last of the Thirty. Perhaps a review is in order - and perhaps not.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Greater Trumps: (29) The Savant

Here is a person hard at work, surrounded by astrolabe and alembic, canopic jar and retort, text and picture; the central figure is surrounded by all manner of instrument, artifact and item. Sometimes, there are peripheral figures, bearing even more things. What is the Savant to do? The world of the Savant is full, busy, and most important of all - occupied by the act of understanding. In the background, the stars shine in a dark sky; in the foreground is a book that might be the Book of Books.

The Savant image is that which evokes Wisdom. It is not merely knowledge that is represented here; it is the attempt to tease out from it that which is useful, that which can be understood and applied. For this image represents Wisdom, that hard-earned coin of enlightenment. It is not mere reflection either, or imagination. The central figure, often shown as old, either female or male, and with shrewd perspicacity shining in the eyes, actually has come to understand the nature of things, and to do the best with that understanding.


Of course, I understood early that the Savant doesn't know everything. But the Savant is wise, and has learnt how to understand, how to pursue knowledge, how to use that knowledge - and how not to do (or how to not do) any of these. Sometimes, the relative measures of pursuit of knowledge are interesting to contemplate - in the sciences, knowledge doubles every 4-5 years as measured by publications. But is this any measure of wisdom?

Learn from Kipling, and become wiser...

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

The rest of the poem is even more instructive in its own way. It's also instructive that the second word of this poem is often misquoted as 'have' or 'know'. It isn't what (or who) you have or know, it's what (or which company) you keep that counts.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

The Greater Trumps: (28) Judgement

The Trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, says that venerable Book of Books. Indeed, this image shows a sea of graves, a sea of waves, a crystal sea - and the dead rising. Above all things and to one side stands an angel, who looks suspiciously like the Fool of the first trump. For this is the Judgement, and at the vanishing point of perspective, in the hallowed and infinite distance, is a great throne, hidden in pure light.

It is not only the dead who rise, but the images of the past, of all hidden things being called forth to face the Judgement. This is no mere transformation from one state to another, but irrevocable change without continuity - an apocalypse, an apostrophe, perhaps a catastrophe or eucatastrophe. Not everyone wishes for Judgement; some have things to hide. But this image signals that the time for hiding is over, that all things are made plain, and old things are raised so that they will no longer have power. There is no more burden of the past, no more burden of the future, for all things are made present and presented.

Once you have negotiated the Judgement, you have made irrevocable Decision the focus of your action. Where Will and Power are one, so let it be, ask now no more.


When I was young I most enjoyed the Apocalypse of St John, among all the books of the New Covenant. Now that I am older, I realise why that must have been so: it is a book written in symbolic language, easy to understand and accept when you are a child. But the truths it conceals or half-reveals are painful to adults and those who have lived enough to feel guilt, remorse, and antipathy towards things past.

Georg Handel's oratorio, The Messiah, is a truly great work. I remember listening to it live once; my father had decided to play matchmaker and asked me to invite a young lady. I remember she was very pleasant company, but that was our first and last date. Decision had struck again, and it was irrevocable. But one of the great arias of the last part of The Messiah remained with me. The Trumpet Shall Sound will always remain a favourite of mine for its clear and clarion call, evoking the destiny of those who believe.

The trumpet shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption,
and this mortal must put on immortality.

Whereas the image called Death signifies Change, and the image called Temperance signifies Alchemy, both are merely processes. The image of Judgement sounds the call to a pivotal moment, the dividing line between two states, beyond which return is impossible and no longer desired. Terminus est, the old language says.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Greater Trumps: (27) Thought

As the Sun rises and the lights of Star and Moon fade in comparison, so also does Reason look more enlightening to people in the bright light of day. This image shows a brightly glowing and naked Titan holding Chaos at bay, or perhaps supporting the massive burden of the World. Whether Reason alone can support the World is debateable. Intuitively, it is hard for any human to accept that this might be true. But the Titan in the image is more often Prometheus - 'Forethought', and not Atlas.

What this image symbolizes is the strength of pure Reason. Many of the previous images emphasized the more nebulous or mysterious workings of the mind and soul; this one emphasizes the work that goes into building structures with the mind in such a way that others can appreciate them and build further on them. Whether the Titan that is Reason builds bridges ('pontificates'), towers ('a towering intellect'), foundations ('fundamentals') or lights ('illumination', 'enlightenment') in a dark world, the image signifies a source of productive insight which creates new things - or renews old and tired things.

Reason is not always the best option, many will say. But it is always worth considering.


I don't often quote Shelley, and then most often from Ozymandias. But I have a special place in my heart for Prometheus Unbound, quoted in part below:

Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance -
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
Which bars the pit over Destruction's strength;
And if, with infirm hand, Eternity,
Mother of many acts and hours, should free
The serpent that would clasp her with his length,
These are the spells by which to reassume
An empire o'er the disentangled doom.

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life; Joy, Empire, and Victory!

I have long kept these words at all my places of work; they are implicit in my own mission statement. More important to me is that these lines show Reason for what it ought to be, a spectrum of approaches: Gentleness - Reason as primarily non-aggressive, firm without aiming deliberately to cause hurt, declaring only itself; Virtue - Reason as moral and compassionate, declaring what should rationally be for the best; Wisdom - Reason without arrogance, in a spirit of understanding, declaring what ought to be done; Endurance - Reason with determination, declaring its truth in all possible ways until it triumphs over the dark.

Reason isn't just logic, or linear thinking. Reason is more than that; it is the highest ability of humanity, and the most dangerous.

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The Greater Trumps: (26) The Sun

It is an open land, and ever a beautiful one. Nothing hides here; the roads are free and children play without fear - on horseback or afoot. It is always high summer here. And above all things glows the warm and welcoming Sun, triumphant.

Where the Moon is the subversive and deceptive side of creativity, the Sun is creativity brought into the open and made concrete. It is the presiding eminence that watches over a heady blend of fire, wine and song - the fruits of alchemy that come from substance, flux, and mind. Perhaps the only negative side to this image is the fact that it is always the same - it holds no surprises, and therein may lie the seeds of Stasis, rather than Triumph.

In some of the older images, there are other stories - of the Sun burning up the Earth in its enthusiasm, of Phaethon's chariot burning the lands of Africa, of Icarus and his melting wings - which serve as warnings to those who would worship the Sun alone. Perhaps, it is best to let the Sun be, to welcome it in all its guises and not attempt to be its master or come too close to it.


Probably many of us who grew up in those messy decades of the 1960s and 1970s will remember where these two verses come from:

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun,
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right

Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun,
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right

While, as always, my favourite poet of the Welsh Renaissance had his own cautionary note, embedded in that famed villanelle:

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

The Sun, source as it is of all that keeps our world running, beacon as it is of the days and seasons, should not be worshipped. But it is always obvious why men might worship him - for the Sun is a power which simply cannot be ignored.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Greater Trumps: (25) The Moon

Above all things beams the Moon. No innocent face this, but a face both wise and winsome, half in darkness and half in light. Twin pillars frame a gateway beneath it, and a river, its tide both rising and falling, runs through it. At the edge of vision, wolves howl, and odd creatures respond in their own peculiar ways. Everything is secret, and yet everything is seen; everything is possible, and yet everything seems impossible. This is the secret of the White Goddess.

Whether Selene, Diana, or Artemis, the moon in its phases has often been a symbol of fortune and of womanhood. But it would be unwise to see it as unrestrained and random fortune. Rather, just as womanhood is the source of birth, and the moon goes through both waxing and waning phases, the moon is generative and cyclical. You can ride it towards insanity or genius. In this light, the Moon therefore stands for Delusion (Deception?) or the creative productivity of the unfettered Mind.


When I think of the Moon, I am irresistably drawn to the nightmare quality of Robert Graves's scholarship. In his odd anthropological opus, The White Goddess, he sculpts an image of mankind's religious history that is unsettling, and perhaps a little deranged. But oddly enough, I am drawn also to Khonsu, the Egyptian power of the Moon. Unusually, he is male, a god of knowledge and time. He was also a power of healing, and of madness. I think of Khonsu because, quite often, people tend to think of men as sane, stable and boring - hysteria, for example, comes from the Greek hystera, which means womb. But Khonsu shows that a male power can be pretty odd too.

Dylan Thomas was one for the odd visions. Here he is, in an excerpt from I See The Boys Of Summer:

But seasons must be challenged or they totter
Into a chiming quarter
Where, punctual as death, we ring the stars;
There in his night, the black-tongued bells
The sleepy man of winter pulls,
Nor blows back moon - and midnight as she blows.

It's hard to imagine that he could say more about the moon. But he did. You'll have to see for yourself.

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Interlude 5: Research

For ten years now, I've been accumulating data about the place in which I work. I have watched and counted and drawn inferences and listened to people and watched the fabric of history unravel and the palimpsest rewritten. I have seen facts interpreted and misinterpreted, recorded so that they become more artifact than fact. And in the end, who is to say what the truth is, or what it ought to be?

The fact of human existence is that it is malleable. Eternity is something we apprehend but cannot comprehend, and that ruins us for the big picture. So for those who cannot stand to look out into the infinite unknown - and yet know what infinity is about - there is nothing but the small (and ever-decreasing) circles of perception and detail.

We know now that the brain creates its own pictures of reality. The simplest case which can carry this image is this: the human eye does not see anything if it is moving. But we seem to see seamlessly. This is because the brain sees a start picture and an end picture, and interpolates everything else. The brain, we now know, is selective in what it records, and it ceaselessly re-edits memories. The more we emphasize or reiterate or dwell on memories, the more true they become, the more reality we build into them - even if they were never true.

This is the problem of human research. It is based on consensus, and where it is based on fiat, it must fail.

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The Greater Trumps: (24) The Star

The Tower is lost, its rubble far away. But while the landscape is at first sight bleak and sparsely populated, there is a young lady filling and emptying her chalices at a pool beneath the starlight. And what a star it is! Serene and beautiful, it lights up the bleak landscape, softening its features instead of highlighting its contrasts. It seems to say that no matter how despairing the mood of the land, there is yet hope and beauty.

The symbol of the Star is almost always Hope, whether the little extra that helps or the great hope which brings one through the time of disaster. Although sometimes, rarely, the Star brings an air of uncertainty as people look into the murky future in the faint light, there is really nothing to fear. People being people however, they will fear the unknown. But that isn't the concern of the Star.


The classic hymn by Phillips Brooks, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, written in memory of his horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in 1865, best conveys the sense of hope and the slightly unsettled emotions of those exposed to its strength. The first stanza says:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

It never fails to send a thrill down my spine to hear these words sung in the cool echoing dimness of a night-time service.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Greater Trumps: (23) The Lightning-Struck Tower

There is a great Tower standing on a cliff, a Tower on a high place where it looks down upon the plains and waters of the earth. The Tower is built by the hands of men, and years of falsity and human error have seeped into its stones. Some say this Tower is Babel, where God first confounded the languages - some say this edifice is the first pyramid, broken at the top and never completed because higher powers rose against it.

In the image, a mighty bolt of lightning strikes the Tower and casts its inhabitants out as it crumbles and falls. It is a sign that nothing made imperfectly by the faith and work of man will survive the wrath of God's truth and the dictates of Heaven - no matter how grand it seems. In the most ancient readings, it is the work of men who have forgotten the higher truths and raised themselves above others, proclaiming, "Let us build a tower to heaven." These are men who think they can be as God, and the sundering of their Tower denies that presumption.

At the same time, as the thunderbolt lays bare the insides of the Tower and casts its people out, it brings sudden and earth-shaking understanding to those below. What is Disaster in one way is also Revelation in another. It all depends on which side you are on, and what understanding you gain. Regardless, expect upheaval and a different order of things.


I have a subtle appreciation for this image. I can feel the pain of having your foundations shattered, but it is like wound debridement or the re-setting of a broken bone that has healed badly. It will hurt a lot, but with a chance to begin again, and the enlightenment of having finally cleared out the rubbish, things will be better henceforth.

Here is the fourth stanza of a rare poem, translated from the Dutch by Cliff Crego. It is The Wanderer by Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953).

I am a spectator looking out from a high tower,
A space divides me from the rest of the world,
That I see as small and as very far away
And that I cannot touch and cannot hear.

It reminds one of these lines from Chesterton's Lepanto:

The hidden room in man's house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.

The breaking of the Tower brings both Disaster and Revelation, and yet this is where all things become new, and we can start afresh.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Greater Trumps: (22) The Accuser

Here is a high mountain or perhaps, by trick of perspective, a deep abyss. Whatever it is, it enthrones a bat-winged entity of gross but compelling aspect. Around it are strewn chained human beings engaged in all manner of debauchery. This is an unpleasant image altogether.

In Christian symbology, the Accuser, le Diable, il Diavolo, el Diablo - this is Satan, the proud angel who was thrown out of Heaven. In pagan symbology, this is Pan, the all-power, the force of nature given free reign. To many, this is the same thing, and so the image represents Violence and Randomness. The Mayans of old worshipped a bat-god, Camazotz the Night Stalker; in some ways, the modern image of the Batman is parallel.

But what does this image mean? On closer approach, it can be seen that the people at the Accuser's feet are chained by their own chains, their own desires. It is by their lusts and urges that they are forced to remain in his presence. And the odd thing is that he seems as much a prisoner as they, unable to break out of the cycle of natural forces because there is no higher authority present to free them - or him.


The trap of freedom leading to slavery is a subtle one. I've often pondered the paradox that when limitations and constraints are given to creative people (for example: choice of medium, size of work, colour selection), they transcend these constraints and produce more creative work than when they are not given any constraints at all. The same is true for many disciplines - creativity can best be seen against severe discipline and constraint.

As often the case in this particular matter, it is John Milton who best portrays that frame of mind which is the reverse - that freedom must be won at all costs from such restraints:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome.
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power
Who, from the terror of this arm, so late
Doubted his empire—that were low indeed;
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since, by fate, the strength of Gods,
And this empyreal substance, cannot fail;
Since, through experience of this great event,
In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal war,
Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in the excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven.

It's common to humans that the quest for freedom of expression leads us to disdain the idea of hierarchical sovereignty. None of us likes to have a master, and all of us sometimes think that expression without constraint is good. This is what the image of the Accuser teaches us - not all that gleams in this way is gold. A heavy price will be paid for abandoning free will for 'freedom'. I remember saying some things related to this matter a few years back.

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The Greater Trumps: (21) Temperance

This time, there are two chalices. In the background, a lady bears the first chalice, pouring its surplus into the empty second chalice. The chalice is held by a man, nude and muscular, kneeling with his left side facing us. It seems oddly domestic, until we notice the tiny details.

The surplus of the first chalice is fiery gold; the pooling liquid in the second seems to be mercury; more unusually, the flow appears to be from the second vessel to the first! The lady has wings, and seems to be of unearthly beauty; the man's skin is stony, and he is unusually plain. The four elements, it would seem, are all present.

In earlier images of Temperance, water is turned to wine, a magician balances two chalices, a centaur juggles balls of fire and air. At first glance, the image is named 'Temperance' because it seems to be trying to produce a happy medium. But the ancients sometimes called this card 'Alchemy', or 'Transformation'. It symbolises the harnessing of change between two opposites to produce Synthesis. It reminds us that we have two types of choice - synergy or compromise - when asked to choose a middle way between two powerful opposites.


This is one of my favourite images in terms of ambiguity. What on earth is being accomplished here? Will anything ever change? Is any question ever answered?

It is in Yeats's poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus, that we see a synthesis of all four elements and an answer of sorts. It's a rather gloomy poem, I'm afraid. But these closing lines will haunt me for a long time:

And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Piers Anthony calls the image 'Transfer'. It raises a further question: after something is transferred from one place to another, is it still the same thing?

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Friday, December 01, 2006

The Greater Trumps: (20) Imagination

The chalice hangs suspended over the lake. The lake ripples, but we do not know whether what comes forth will be the arm of a lady in white samite, brandishing a sword; or the afanc, roaring anger at being awakened in this age. Behind the chalice, or perhaps above, we see two curiously wise eyes - we cannot tell whether they belong to a man or a woman. The lake might be a river's mouth - we see it banked to the left and right, but cannot glimpse a farther shore.

The scene is too full of imagery, too full of potential, for anyone to see all the possibilities. But one thing is clear, from the wise eyes to the vanishing point of perspective, from the chalice and the ripples: this montage symbolises Vision and Possibility. It isn't the extravagant chance of the Wheel, nor the inner vision of the Hanged Man - it is the outward gaze, with too many things within its scope.


It isn't always hardcore poetry. Sometimes, I'm affected by the power of song lyrics; especially those of Lennon and McCartney. Here are some lines from John Lennon's Imagine:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Of course, it's a somewhat secular utopia which is offered to us. It doesn't convince me, but it does make me think about the ideas which frame our humanity, and what lies beyond that frame.

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