Wednesday, August 10, 2016

This is a bizarre hybrid, the last of a long series of curatorial essays, but also a completely autonomous argument, which will be posted on as well as the Facebook event page of the exhibition.

The Garden Of Earthly Delights: My Own Interpretation, Which I Have Figured Out At Long Last, Too Late To Do Anybody Any Good

written on the day after the quincentenary of the funeral Mass for Hieronymus Bosch, and five days after the opening of the Whitespace Gallery exhibition “The Garden of Unearthly Delights: Hieronymus Bosch in the 21st Century”

©Jerry Cullum

I indicated in an earlier essay that I thought that there was something wrong with the art historians’ insistence that Bosch was a good Catholic, therefore he could not have approved of the things going on in the central panel of the so-called Garden of Earthly Delights, and therefore this must not be a Garden of Earthly Delights at all, but rather an allegory of depraved humankind before it was wiped out in Noah’s Flood. (To quote from the International Standard Version of Matthew 24:38-29, “In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage right up to the day when Noah went into the ark. They were unaware of what was happening until the flood came and swept all of them away.” Note that whatever the inhabitants of the Garden of Earthly Delights are doing while being blissfully unaware, their behavior is not anything like the business as usual that Jesus describes in these verses of the Gospel.)

I indicated in that same essay that I was impressed by Hans Belting’s notion that the painting is a speculation about what would have happened if Adam and Eve had never eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Belting thought that the whole central panel was a fantasia on how the world would have been populated if there had never been shame at nakedness and sexual attraction; the Church Fathers in the West of Europe had to cope with a Latin mistranslation of Genesis that described Eden as a Paradise of Lust. (That’s Belting’s translation, and apparently the meaning assumed by the Church Fathers; but “voluptas,” in the dictionary, means “pleasure,” and the classical novelist Apuleius makes Voluptas, the daughter of Cupid and Psyche, not the Goddess of Lust but something like the Goddess of Delight or the Goddess of [generalized] Sensual Pleasure—and the text of Apuleius printed in 1469 derives from manuscript copies made by medieval intellectuals in monasteries.* Hmmm….) The austere Saint Augustine proposed that sexual congress would have taken place in an unfallen world without the desire to possess or conquer the other. But he wasn’t happy about his hypothesis; Augustine had had ample experience of the pitfalls involved in sexual relationships, and he probably couldn’t really imagine how any one of the Seven Deadly Sins could avoid involving all the others.

And since pain in childbirth was part of the fallen human condition, presumably birth in a vast unfallen world outside of the enclosed Garden of Eden would have to be something quite different…Belting doesn’t quote any Church Fathers on this topic, nor on what the Earth would look like if a sinless form of lust were allowed but greed, envy, pride, gluttony, sloth, and anger were not.

Bosch is definitely down on those particular deadly sins; his other paintings are vicious satires on unconscious, sloppy and excessive consumption of all sorts, and of the competitive instincts of a merchant class bent on accumulating wealth, but also of the type of lazy behavior typified by clerics and monastics more interested in food and sleep than in prayer or the study of Scripture. His wary pilgrim through the world looks back at a tavern-brothel where a degraded two-bit version of pleasure is the chief commodity. But the world through which the pilgrim goes is a pretty dismal place overall; there are no flowers, and mostly the trees turn out to be dead, or devoid of leaves because winter is coming on. The choice is between an austere virtue and a sinful realm of pleasure that really isn’t very attractive. Beauty is not an option.
Bosch doesn’t really allow much beauty into his allegory of the Seven Deadly Sins; the panel depicting lust shows two well-dressed young heterosexual couples relaxing with food and drink in a tent out in a not very interesting landscape, and watching lowbrow entertainment. Or does the paucity of beauty just portray the world he lives in, a world in which the religious brotherhood of which he is a lay brother is a bizarre mix of businessmen and monastics in which the members get together a couple of times a year for a Swan Banquet hosted and paid for by one of the more prosperous members? This is certainly the world depicted in Bosch’s version of the Marriage at Cana, in which the platform with the musician and the server offering roast swan appear behind the sumptuously dressed happy couple, and Jesus shows up only at the right-hand margin, seemingly a bit aloof from the whole business even before he expresses annoyance when his mother tells him the banquet has run out of wine and implies that she just knows that he can do something about it. (This suggests that simple annoyance is not anger; the wiser Church Fathers wrote that the tendencies that lead to the seven deadly sins turn into them only when the desires are acted upon or the transient emotions are clung to or pursued to excess. Grasping is the root of all evil.)

So what would a world look like in which voluptas was allowed but the other deadly sins were not? (And is voluptas even a deadly sin? The word for “lust” in the Latin version of the deadly sins is luxuria.) I think that whether Bosch really believed it or half-wished for it or just set himself the task as a whimsical joke to please his aristocratic patron, he set out to make a picture of what would have happened if humans hadn’t eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thus remained innocent of the consequences of excess or even the possibility of it. The goings-on in the central panel certainly would be grounds for damnation in the world as we know it; but at the same time the inhabitants are so innocent that they fail to notice any anomalies in the strange paradise they dwell in, or reflect upon it no more than they reflect upon their innocently transgressive behavior. They are uniformly unaware, and live in some alternate universe in which birth takes place by peculiar means if it takes place at all, but their cluelessness means that they do not experience envy, greed, pride, or anger, and all of them seem too blissed out to make their active indolence into sloth or their pleasure in gobbling up gigantic fruit into gluttony. Nobody is demanding a more interesting form of gourmandizing. Naked women are wearing birds on their heads without making this interesting form of minimal attire into competitive couture. Everyone seems delighted by what everyone else is doing, although it looks like the boisterous behavior of the males cavorting on odd animals might be on its way to upsetting the applecart.

The central panel has retained the na├»ve pleasure shown in the left-hand panel of the Garden of Eden, which shows Adam’s bewildered delight at finding that a God Who looks like Jesus has provided a female companion, who also looks baffled but rather pleased at the arrangement. Perhaps the God Who appears in human form is pleased to know that because His newly created beings will avoid self-destructive desire for more than is good for them, He will not have to be born in Bethlehem or suffer death on a cross. (This is the paradox with which church intellectuals tortured themselves: if God could know all possible futures, why didn’t He simply make it impossible for beings who were created with the power of choice never to make the choice He didn’t want? But then God would be incapable of creating “choice” at all, and God can create anything He chooses. But then God cannot both create choice and create the inevitability of the outcome He would prefer, which means that God prefers choice and thus prefers the possibility of the outcome He would prefer not to have happen, and thus He prefers to make something despite the prospect of thereby not getting some other thing that He really wants, and we are in that downspin of mythology masquerading as theological logic that will lead, half a millennium later, to Carl Jung’s weirdly mythological Answer to Job.)

Assuming, after that parenthetical excursion into church history, that Bosch portrayed a sinless Paradise of Lust in the left-hand and central panels, this is not the world we live in; our forebears ate of the tree of knowledge, and therefore we have the option of self-awareness to keep us from the excess that leads to the deadly sins; and thus the right-hand panel shows the doleful consequences of a life spent in idle gambling, persistent drunkenness, continuous lechery, and the elaboration of liturgical music far beyond the simple plainchant that produces spiritual depth instead of pride at one’s own sophistication.

Excess leads to torment of one sort or another. One wonders if Bosch was aware of the excessive pleasure he was taking in producing his own form of the worst aesthetic excess imaginable. I like to think that he did, whether he chortled at the conundrum or felt guilty at his own sin of imagination run rampant.

I am quite certain that I am projecting thoughts and emotions into Bosch that are probably impossible for a fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century painter in northern Europe, no matter how many books he read in the library of that business-friendly religious brotherhood, and that the art historians’ plodding explanations are closer to the truth. But we never know our own minds, or the ultimate consequences of our fantastic notions, and I wonder if in The Garden of Earthly Delights we are not witnessing the birth of a concatenation of ideas that will lead, three centuries later, to Heinrich von Kleist’s imaginary dialogue “On the Marionette Theatre,” with its proposition that self-awareness is the original sin that leads to the fall from Paradise, and that only awareness of the problems caused by self-awareness can bring us back to Paradise again. If I may conclude by quoting from the translation by Idris Perry:

“’Misconceptions like this are unavoidable,’ he said, ‘now that we've eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back.’ [….]

"’Does that mean,’ I said in some bewilderment, ‘that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?’

"’Of course,’ he said, ‘but that's the final chapter in the history of the world.’"

*This speculation wasn’t supposed to be a scholarly essay, but it seems to have turned into one in the parenthetical digressions. I got the textual transmission of Apuleius’ tale of Cupid and Psyche from a quick online reading of bits of Robert H. F. Carver, The Protean Ass: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2008). Hans Belting, Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights, 2003, 2005, new ed. Prestel, 2016. C. G. Jung, Antwort auf Hiob, 1952, English tr. Answer to Job, 1954. Idris Perry tr. of Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theatre,”

Friday, July 22, 2016

Regarding "The Garden of Unearthly Delights: Hieronymus Bosch in the 21st Century," an exhibition curated by Jerry Cullum for Whitespace Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia, August 5 - September 3, 2016

I have written this to the point of boredom on the Facebook page for my exhibition of 25 or so artists responding to the legacy of Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Unearthly Delights: Hieronymus Bosch in the 21st Century,” but for some reason it seems not to have been fully understood that Hieronymus Bosch really was part of an incipient cultural and political shift that stretched halfway across Europe, and then halfway across the globe. So it makes sense to post a bit more publicly this summary of the genesis of the exhibition, which is partly about Bosch and partly about the cultural parallels of a time in which the context of culture is on the cusp of truly dramatic change—and what Bosch’s example might have to say about that.

When Bosch is born (assuming 1450 as the most probable date) the Gutenberg Bible is still a couple of years in the future. It will be forty-plus years before anyone knows there is a whole new quarter of the world to be conquered and colonized. Martin Luther, born when Bosch was in his thirties, won’t post his Ninety-Five Theses until the year after Bosch’s death, but in Bosch’s time there is already ample upset over clerical shenanigans and papal manipulation of princes and vice versa. The Low Countries were unified enough to benefit from increasingly global trade (Asia plus the Mediterranean and West African littorals) but they were crawling with wealthy dukes and princes not yet duking it out in wars of religion—an ample market for high-class cultural production, and a sophisticated one. All of these things together soon plunged the world into a cascade of change.

The century after Bosch’s death is an endless succession of “I have good news, and I have bad news,” but the roots of it all are visible in Bosch’s lifetime, and maybe in Bosch’s art.

Which is not to say that Bosch caused anything except a sudden fashion for strange little creatures. But there are forces afoot in his work that explode much more spectacularly, and destructively as well as constructively, in the decades after him, when new developments have released what in Bosch’s time was only potential or pent-up energy.

And as the new work begins to be completed for “The Garden of Unearthly Delights,” I feel the same about the composition of this present show. I don’t pretend to understand everything that is going on in it, but the overall effect is more unsettling than I had anticipated.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Send-Ups, Scholarly Fantasies, Playful Hoaxes, Pernicious Hoaxes, Undecidable Historical Reconstructions, and the Great, Formerly Great and Not Yet Great Fictions of the Seventeenth, Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

another set of digressions by Jerry Cullum

Last night, I had an extremely detailed dream in which I was in the (actually existing) shop of an elderly philatelist in Atlanta, only in place of the ancient volumes holding individually priced stamps, there were rank on rank of faded blue-covered paperbound volumes of reference books printed for British colonial postmasters—the first one I perused seemed to be an anthology of maps of the Falkland Islands and related South Atlantic colonial holdings, presumably relating to locations of post offices and postal routes. Except that the choice of things bound into the volume, in different sizes and printed at slightly different times, didn’t quite make sense; there seemed to be only a presumed relation between different items, such as a brochure containing only photographs of seaplanes (which presumably actually were used? or could be used? for postal transport).

Other similarly sized books contained assorted offprints of numbingly technical governmental brochures, all on similarly yellowed paper and in various sizes of 1920s or 1930s typefaces. Then a similarly formatted offprint, with seemingly old-style photographs set forth in identically vintage format, discussed in similarly numbing fashion the new influence of Italian canzoni on the compositional style of the young songwriter Bob Dylan.

In a moment of stunned realization I saw that the entire wall of faded books from His Majesty’s Stationery Office were perfectly produced fakes, all of them printed on actual or artificially aged paper with actual or replicated lead type, all of them complete or partial fictions. When I awoke, it took me a moment to reconstruct the layout of the old gentleman’s stamp store and confirm that no similar wall of resources for postal history existed.

And now for a recent story from Facebook, related to the foregoing only by the presence of postage stamps: Various Facebook friends were circulating a photograph of a 1907 letter from the University of Bern informing the young Albert Einstein that his application for the position of associate professor was being rejected because his hypotheses were not even Physics (capitalization in original). The letter was quite well photographed, with creases (and shadows caused by them) cutting across the typewritten text. There was, unaccountably, the edge of a modern-looking stamp lying across the upper corner of the letter, with the partial text “Ein” and “US” visible alongside a bit of a portrait.

It was obvious to anyone (but not to quite a few other anyones) that a letter written in English from a Swiss university to a fellow German-speaker in which the name of the university was also in English was a fake. The entire image from which the one being circulated was extracted simply hit the viewer over the head with the intended message: the block of stamps laid across the sheet of paper was a fantasy based on the actual Einstein commemorative stamp issued by the United States.

It’s possible that someone printed the anomalous letterhead and typed the letter on a vintage machine, but I would assume the whole thing was constructed digitally. Why they would go to such lengths to create an obvious fantasy that a growing part of the Internet was taking with absolute seriousness, I have no idea.

Perhaps my dream was triggered by the combination of that fantasy (a hoax would have been the same document written in German, minus the imaginary postage stamps) with a completely serious Internet rant reproducing the text of a possibly (but probably not) adopted nineteenth century amendment to the United States Constitution, in which the writer twisted the poorly constructed grammar of the amendment to argue that the entire U.S. government was now completely illegitimate, a conclusion that did not follow from the premises of his initial misreading of an ambiguous set of historical events.

The dream reminded me, however, that I have a sizable number of essays in the uncategorized 900+ pages of my largely abandoned blog that relate to the topics of epistemology and hermeneutics—not just how we interpret historical documents, but how we interpret the physical facts of the world via philosophy and analytical academic disciplines. And I could start discussing that last-named topic by describing a number of recent books about why we have systematically misinterpreted the inner emotions and mental lives of animals—but I don’t choose to do so. The essays (and quite a few of the versions of them) are famed for going off into seeming digressions that eventually are used to buttress the argument that has been dropped completely for the previous thousand words or so.

There are quite a few documents from the past that occupy an uncertain status as to genre—The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz being a recent case in point, as John Crowley declares it “the world’s first science fiction novel” rather than a hermetically obscure Hermetic allegory. The Voynich Manuscript is either an undecipherable mystery or a made-up piece of visual nonsense masquerading as an illustrated text. The page of hand-copied text that Morton Smith declared contained passages from the Secret Gospel of Mark was either a passage from a real letter of Clement quoting a real secret gospel, or a passage from a real letter of Clement making up a fictitious secret gospel for purposes of his own, or a purported passage from a completely imaginary letter of Clement written by a bored Byzantine copyist for purposes of his own, or a purported passage from a completely imaginary letter of Clement forged by Morton Smith for purposes of his own.

These are three examples in which fantasy and reality blur because we don’t know the intent of the author. In other cases, we know that texts were created as fantasies or allegories but taken with deadly seriousness by others—let’s leave those to one side because I haven’t written much about them, and others have.

En route to the twentieth century, there are a handful of novels in which a narrator presents a frame tale about how he comes to be transcribing for us a tale written or told by someone else—a very different genre from The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, in which the frame tale never purports to be the historical actuality in which other historical documents are presented. But other people have written ample numbers of words about those, and I haven’t, although I’ve always meant to get around to reading and analyzing The Manuscript Found at Saragossa. (You can find a very interesting discussion of that book on, incidentally.)

Jorge Luis Borges, who had read most if not all of his precursors, created fictions in which it was impossible for the average reader to disentangle improbable historical fact from complete fiction, and either one from systematic misinterpretation leading off in unreliable directions—a Garden of Forking Paths in which the Library of Babel held all the answers in forms that made them completely useless, with the maps presenting the truth in such detail that the map obscured the territory. (In latter-day actual mapping of such territories of the mind, we now have maps that are considerably larger than the territories to which they provide guides—maps that we could trust as completely reliable, were it not for the fact that the comprehensive maps contradict one another.)

From there, much followed. On a third- or fourth-generation metalevel, Catie Disabato’s first novel The Ghost Network combines contemporary pop culture, the history of alternative political movements, and the method of reportage used by contemporary media; she creates an entertainingly convincing mash-up of methods that owes much to Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme and David Foster Wallace but does not imitate them, and that entwines self-evident fakery with subtle satire in a network of narrative that makes you (or me, at least) believe that this preposterous story really could be real if it weren’t telegraphing its intentions so blatantly, except maybe it isn’t doing that.

This is a good place to start (and there are parallel strands of visual art doing such things, which I won’t take the time to enumerate), because of the importance of keeping one’s stories straight. There are too many deadpan fictions in which the parts don’t add up for anyone who knows the real story.

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions got the ball rolling for the postwar American version of this kind of thing, and I am reasonably certain I’ve written about that novel somewhere in my interminable-seeming (but eventually terminable) blogs.

I recently began to wonder if Gaddis had added a level of indeterminacy to his novel of counterfeits and originals that even he didn’t realize. I have been following the acrimonious dispute over which paintings ascribed to Hieronymus Bosch are by Bosch and which by his workshop, and whether the workshop paintings follow Bosch’s instructions or are freely created fantasies done with Bosch’s permission. (This is remarkably similar to the dispute over how much A. E. Waite directed Pamela Colman Smith when he commissioned her to paint a Tarot deck, but that topic, about which I have written, would be a digression.)

Imagine my surprise when I uncovered my long-lost copy of John Johnston’s book about Gaddis, Carnival of Repetition, and discovered that the cover illustration is a photograph of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, by Bosch (or by Bosch’s workshop?). It turns out that a plot device in The Recognitions is the copy of this Bosch painting that the forger protagonist creates and substitutes for the original in his employer’s art collection, an original that itself turns out to be a copy.

Well, I haven’t consulted the text of the novel, but Gaddis was obviously aware of the existence of various copies of Bosch’s paintings—eleven known examples of The Garden of Earthly Delights alone. The issue then becomes which ones are authorized copies from Bosch’s workshop and which ones are later copies created as such, versus ones created to pass for the real thing by art forgers. (As Rumi wrote, “Counterfeits exist because there is such a thing as real gold.”)

The issue today shades off into an art historical version of Baudrillard’s simulacrum, a copy without an original. Enormous issues of interpretation rest on details of The Extraction of the Stone of Folly in one case or The Marriage at Cana in another, or a version of The Last Judgment that differs substantially from the one indisputably attributed to Bosch. Clearly it matters whether Bosch painted it, or his workshop painted it according to his instructions, or someone else made it up out of their own heads, adding details in a faultless imitation of the style of Bosch but incorporating ideas that never occurred to him. But we don’t quite seem to know how to resolve these questions beyond dispute.

Can we at least get at the ideas, even if we don’t know who had them? Maybe, maybe not. But in Gaddis’ novel, we know that Wyatt knows he is making a fake, although Wyatt himself begins to wonder if when he puts himself into the mindset of an Old Master, he himself is not inhabiting the soul of an Old Master. In which case the soul of the Old Master is mingled with his materials. ("His" because in Gaddis' 1950s novel, the Old Masters being imitated were male, as was Wyatt.)

On some level, intention makes a difference; so many fakes are obvious a generation later because they seem like imitations redolent of the decade in which they were made up—Art-Deco-like busts purportedly from ancient Egypt, for example. The forger was making something good enough to fool the experts—but the experts were also people of their time.

There are whole essays to be written, and I am among those who have written them, on the issue of playful seriousness—something that starts with the jokery of The Chemical Wedding and proceeds on to, say, the Cthulhu Mythos begun by H. P. Lovecraft and elaborated through a host of successive writers and makers of plush toys, video games, and other Lovecraftian paraphernalia. I have written about this in “History of Religions and Cultural Fashions Revisited,” an essay that can be located on or perhaps downloaded as part of From Influence and Confluence to Difference and Indifference if one searches hard enough on the Cluj University Press website.

So there is clearly a lot to be unpacked here, and I wish I had time to analyze what is wrong with a large quantity of contemporary visual and conceptual art that riffs off of such topics. But there are smaller deadlines to be met. Feel free to follow my traces, for I won’t be following most of them.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Chemical Wedding of John Crowley Finds Its Way onto Kickstarter

I have no illusions that this blog has a substantial readership (I can read statistics as well as anyone else) but for the sake of reaching perhaps one or two additional people I am posting this Kickstarter campaign from Small Beer Press, to publish an extraordinary edition of the classic Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz in a new translation by John Crowley.

Although Mr. Crowley has been quite well introduced on my earlier joculum blog,, I shall have to assume that readers of this post who have not already contributed to this campaign will be attracted by the excellent book design and the reputation of the original text, which Mr. Crowley has called the world's first science fiction novel.

In any case, here is the URL, and your attention to same is appreciated:

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Wherein J. C. Explains Almost Nothing: Intellectual Folktales of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries Revisited, April 2016

(On which Jerry Cullum is keeping some kind of assertion of intellectual property rights, although he would like to have the actual information circulated)

It would be wonderful to be able to write the kind of magisterial essays that George Steiner turned out at age thirty-five or so, because there is a need for them. However, Steiner himself hasn’t turned out many of them at age eighty-five plus, so perhaps I will be excused for turning out blog posts instead in my own advancing age.


It has occurred to me in the past couple of days (as it has on several previous occasions) that nearly all the contemporary explanations for things turn out to be less interesting than what we thought were the explanations fifty or sixty years ago. This in turn makes me vaguely suspicious of the present-day explanations, for it seems all too convenient that our explanations, based on new interpretations of evidence, should fit so well with our current inclinations towards cynicism leavened with witty irony.

But let that pass, as Shakespeare says. Some people are still defending interesting explanations; after I had rushed through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Botticelli Reimagined” exhibition in which subsequent centuries’ shallow imitations of Botticelli are multiplied ad infinitum, I found that the museum shop had Eugene Lane-Spollen’s 2014 book Under the Guise of Spring: The message hidden in Botticelli’s Primavera, wherein Lane-Spollen presents the idea that Botticelli’s painting contains a systematic symbolism based on the Renaissance Hermetism of which Warburg Institute scholars such as Edgar Wind and Frances Yates made so much, and which more recent scholars have so systematically tried to debunk as not really being much of an influence on Renaissance art and literature at all.

The history of esotericism is being rewritten, sometimes more interestingly as well as defensibly—although how occult groups in the Enlightenment became proto-socialist in some cases and proto-authoritarian in other cases may be so obscurely entwined in eighteenth-century culture and politics as to make the eyes glaze over.

But by and large, the fascinating assumptions once made about a host of mysteries now seem to be almost entirely wrong. The Hieronymus Bosch quincentenary exhibition in his hometown seems devoted to proving how immersed Bosch was in the order of late-medieval society; while in the 1960s everyone supposed Bosch was encoding the secrets of a fifteenth-century heretical order, now it is thought that Bosch was a respected artist fulfilling commissions from religious orders and creating allegories about the road to hell that may have owed much to hallucinations born of psychedelic moldy bread, but nothing to heretical doctrine.

That interpretations seems to raise more questions than it answers, but today’s scholars seem content to let the questions sit there. The cognitive status of the Garden of Earthly Delights still seems puzzling to me; why the multiracial nudity in a blissful condition set between a lost Paradise on the one side and a thoroughly humorous and theatrical Hell on the other? The Haywain’s variation on the Ship of Fools seems more acceptably orthodox, as well as comic—many are the readily recognizable roads to damnation through lust, greed, and sheer lack of paying attention.

And what’s with the disturbingly imperfect Garden of Eden, in which Eve and Adam are in communion with the Trinity, but the animals are doing their Darwinian thing, killing one another with blissful abandon? Bosch’s prelapsarian paradise is as opposed as can be imagined to the postmillennial vision of Isaiah that Edward Hicks turned into the Peaceable Kingdom—and maybe this fits into the pessimism that Huizinga limned so long ago in The Waning of the Middle Ages, so at odds with the apocalyptic optimism of the radical wing of the Reformation. But I am not sure I have time any longer to figure out the exact relationship, which will be overturned by later decades of scholarly opinion, anyway.

Bosch (1450-1516) and Botticelli (1445-1510) were contemporaries (which is an interesting thought; Primavera, 1477-1482; The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503-1515). Both of them seem to have had workshops engaged in learning how to copy their greatest hits; viewers annoyed at having to go to Madrid to see the original Garden of Earthly Delights will find in the North Brabant show an acceptable version from the hands of Bosch’s own studio assistants. Botticelli set his apprentices to making versions of Venus minus the backgrounds, and two of these paintings are set side by side in the Victoria and Albert, one of them instructively awkward.

John Dee was another story, a full century later (1527-1608 or 1609). Although he made some memorable marginal drawings in some of the few thousand books in his library, he was not an artist, although this seems to be one of the few things that he wasn’t. Developing new tricks of navigation that suited well his advocacy of British settlement in North America, he researched widely in history, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, the Greco-Roman inheritance that was still being rediscovered, and occultism. There was, however, nothing all that hidden about the occultism; since it was taken for granted that angels existed and had communicated with human beings in ancient times, Dee supposed that if they could be made to disclose their own superior knowledge, it would speed his own researches immeasurably.

Hence the presence of magic mirrors and crystal balls in the exhibition of John Dee’s Lost Library, the Royal College of Physicians’ contribution to this early-2016 concatenation of reinterpretations of history. Dee’s penchant for conjuration did cause discomfort among more conservatively orthodox types, and some of his traits may have found their way into the Elizabethan version of the myth of Dr. Faustus.

This exhibition, at least, accepts that Dee’s multidisciplinary quest for global explanations has to be taken seriously as making sense within the intellectual purview of his time, rather than reduced, as in one scholar’s recent remark, to the sniffily dismissive “today we think of him as the progenitor of the idea of the British Empire, rather than as a magician.” [Paraphrased from memory, as I don’t know where to look for the original comment.]

Huh? He cast the queen’s horoscope, and he tried to put together an expedition to what are now the maritime provinces of Canada. Anybody got a problem with that, apart from the postcolonial question? He did lots of things, all of which seemed like good ideas at the time.

While I am on the topic of more disappointing explanations of once-romanticized phenomena, I should mention Ronald Hutton’s summary in Pagan Britain of present-day debunkings of the Green Men and sheela na gigs of whom Margaret Murray and Lady Raglan made so much circa 1934—interpretations that had considerable cultural consequences thirty or forty years later. Seems now that the leaf-and-branch-sprouting men may be souls lost in the forest of the world, or turning into it; and the females spectacularly spreading their legs in church carvings may just be typical misogynistic warnings against the temptations of lust, after all.

Labyrinths are a little more complicated. Have a look at Hutton.


[This is where we shift topics just a bit. Since readers of similar blog posts in past years seem to be puzzled, or convinced I have gone off chasing rabbits, I am reverting to the good old stratagem of using Roman numerals to alert my prose-dazed readership to a slight change in focus.]

I spent most of 2015 writing a prolix essay about shifts in cultural fashions in the fifty years since Mircea Eliade wrote a rather off-the-cuff lecture on the topic. (The precipitous decline of Eliade’s reputation, not always for defensibly analytical reasons, is one of the cultural fashions in question.) I needn’t try to summarize what was already a grotesquely condensed summary, but I should mention that that essay (which the truly committed can download for free from Cluj University Press as part of Mihaela Gligor, ed., From Influence and Confluence to Difference and Indifference: Studies on History of Religions) took for granted the old sociology-of-knowledge assertion that what we wrongly think of as “reality” is socially constructed, although the physical world itself is not.

So I started puzzling yesterday over the question of just how much could be rescued of the vast intellectual synthesis propounded by several almost completely forgotten books. I have puzzled over this previously, and realized that the answer itself is likely to be unproductive, because just because a hypothesis is correct, it does not mean it is plausible. (See: “plausibility structures,” in Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s classic, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.) This is not quite the same as the famous argument in physics over whether a hypothesis is crazy enough, because it is taken for granted in the physical sciences that certain types of hypothesis are intrinsically counterintuitive. In less mathematically based sciences, the deceptions of ordinary language ensure that prejudice masquerading as intuition will typically make certain that the conclusions reached will be expressed in the rhetoric of a contemporary cultural fashion. This does not mean that the conclusion is completely without validity. It means that even when we devise experiments in les sciences humaines, we are necessarily dealing with soft evidence (but why do we assume that mathematically based evidence is “hard evidence,” itself an emotionally comforting metaphor? The cognitive status of speculative mathematical extrapolation is itself in contention among physicists.).

So maybe I shouldn’t try to compare the various editions of Herbert Read’s Icon and Idea: The Function of Art in the Development of Human Consciousness, a book that, like Andre Malraux’s The Voices of Silence, pretty much tried to correlate everything we knew about art with everything we knew about the development of the successive stages of consciousness. (That there were such stages was an idea set forth by Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness, to cite only one such book from the middle of the twentieth century.)

The history of consciousness is a notion that has been, as they used to say, problematized. For the most part, the day is long gone when the neurobiologists and the art historians and the psychologists got together to compare notes as they did in the heyday of the now much diminished Eranos conferences (see Hans Thomas Hakl, Eranos: An Alternative Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century). For this and other reasons, a major problem of recent books about what used to be called the human condition is that the evolutionary biologists writing about art and literature don’t know much about art and literature, and the dogmatically social-constructionist theorists of art and literature don’t know very much about the biology they are at such pains to refute. As I said above, what we call reality is socially constructed, but the world in which we live, and about which we have inevitable illusions, is not.

But because I simply cannot learn enough to evaluate the various cross-disciplinary analyses being put forth (I cannot even learn enough to manipulate the rapidly changed permutations of the digital technology by which we learn about such developments and by which we have machines on which to write about it), I don’t know what to do with such fascinating just-published books as I find in the Spring 2016 MIT Press catalogue (the rediscovery of which finally coalesced all the disconnected reflections I had been striving to put into some kind of sequential order).

Todd E. Feinberg and Jon M. Mallatt give us The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience, the hypothesis of which is that “simple reflexive behaviors evolved into a unified world of subjective experience” in the “’Cambrian explosion’ of animal diversity.” To continue to quote the catalogue description, “From this they deduce that all vertebrates are and have always been conscious—not just humans and other mammals, but also every fish, reptile, amphibian, and bird. Considering invertebrates, they find that arthropods (including insects and probably crustaceans) and cephalopods (including the octopus) meet many of the criteria for consciousness. The obvious and conventional-wisdom-shattering implication is that consciousness evolved simultaneously but independently in the first vertebrates and possibly arthropods more than half a billion years ago.”

To distinguish human consciousness from all these other forms of consciousness (and this seems to be the year in which suddenly a plethora of books attempt to analyze the inner lives of other species), we would have to go to another book in the MIT catalogue, Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky’s Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, with the understanding that agreeing with it depends on accepting the tenets of the Minimalist Program for defining what constitutes language, and that the biolinguistic evidence for the evolution of human language may demand the study of “evidence from nonhuman animals, in particular vocal learning in songbirds.”

And that, whether coincidentally or not, brings us to the book listed on the page facing the announcement for Feinberg and Mallatt’s book: Tim Hodgkinson’s Music and the Myth of Wholeness: Towards a New Aesthetic Paradigm. Here we have a contribution from someone working in the field instead of in the laboratory; Hodgkinson was the 1968 co-founder with Fred Frith of “the politically and musically radical group Henry Cow.” (So here we have, also, someone else from the ‘60s trying to bring the dialogue up to date by “discard[ing] the conventional idea of the human being as an integrated whole in favor of a rich and complex field in which incompatible kinds of information—biological and cultural—collide. It is only when we acknowledge the clash of body and language within human identity that we can understand how art brings forth the special form of subjectivity potentially present in aesthetic experience.”

So this appears to be something like a contemporary attempt to bring Herbert Read’s intellectual program up to date. But Hodgkinson is belaboring a point that many thinkers take for granted these days, that “wholeness” is a myth and our lives are a succession of contending influences rather than the peregrinations of a single unified entity called the self.

As I have said many times before now, nobody knows enough. And I am not sure that my own knowledge would be significantly expanded if I attempted to go beyond the capsule summaries in the MIT catalogue, for I lack the interpretive apparatus to judge the adequacy of the evidence these books present.