Mercury Rising

Alchemical Symbol

Now where are you at? Where have you gone to?
Now that I’ve need and I’m on the move,
Searching the city streets for a way to prove,
That I’m actually alive and as real as you.

But you know I’ve a thing (among other things)
For all the wayward waifs and straggling strays,
With all their tender brokenhearted ways,
It makes my blood surge and my soul to sing.

If I was to ever find you, run you to ground,
I would whisper in your ear a different story
In a new language, where out is in, up down,

And the darkest hour illuminates with glory,
Never again need we be lost and lonely,
If you promise that it’s all for my eyes only.

Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons

Piranesi-Carceri d'invenzione (Imaginary Prisons)-1745-1761
Piranesi-Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons)-Title Plate-1745-1761

In the mid-eighteenth century, the would be Venetian architect, etcher of Roman views and manufacturer  of hybrid artefacts, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, produced a remarkable series of prints entitled Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The Imaginary Prisons can be classed as capricci, architectural fantasies, however these astounding visions would have an impact far beyond the narrow limits of this particular genre.

The first plate of fourteen prints was published between 1745-1750 and later revised with two additional etchings in 1761. It’s most obvious and immediate influence was upon the craze for the Gothic novel that swept throughout Europe in the late 18th Century. The Prisons would also exercise a considerable hold upon the imagination of the English Romantics. Not only do we find the two original gentleman junkies, Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Coleridge, discussing Piranesi at length in De Quincey’s classic autobiography and drug memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, but De Quincey’s entire writing style can be seen as an attempt to replicate Piranesi within literature. Critics have found echoes of the Prisons in the works of Byron, Shelley and Victor Hugo.

In the 20th Century, the Surrealists saw in the Imaginary Prisons a visual metaphor of the mind and hailed them as an important precursor of their own explorations of the unconscious. Aldous Huxley linked Piranesi to Kafka and certainly such stories as In the Penal Colony seem to be set in the world of the Prisons.

In the visual arts Piranesi direct heir was M.C Escher, complete with paradoxical geometry and labyrinthine structures that offer a vertiginous glimpse of an infinity that may well also be infernal. For the most terrifying aspect of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons, is the suggestion, re-enforced by the fact that we are only seeing a section of the whole and that the buildings are never fully enclosed, that the portrayed Prison is conterminous with the world, or indeed the universe.

Piranesi-Carceri II-The Man on the Rack 11745-1761
Piranesi-Carceri II-The Man on the Rack 11745-1761
Piranesi-Carceri III-The Round Tower
Piranesi-Carceri III-The Round Tower-Second Plate 1761
Piranesi_-Carceri IV-the Grand Piazza 1761
Piranesi_-Carceri IV-the Grand Piazza 1761
Piranesi-Carceri V-the Lion Bas Relief-1750
Piranesi-Carceri V-the Lion Bas Relief–First Plate-1745-1750
Piranesi-Carceri VI-The Smoking Fire-1761
Piranesi-Carceri VI-The Smoking Fire-1761
Piranesi-Carceri VII-The Drawbridge-1745-1750
Piranesi-Carceri VII-The Drawbridge-1745-1750
Piranesi-Carceri VIII-The Staircase with Trophies-1761
Piranesi-Carceri VIII-The Staircase with Trophies-1761
Piranesi-Carcerri IX-the Giant Wheel-1750
Piranesi-Carcerri IX-the Giant Wheel-1750
Piranesi-Carceri-X Prisoners_on_a_Projecting_Platform-1761
Piranesi-Carceri-X Prisoners-on-a-Projecting-Platform-1761
Piranesi-Carceri XI-The Arch With the Shell Casement
Piranesi-Carceri XI-The Arch With the Shell Casement
Piranesi-Carceri XII-The Sawhorse
Piranesi-Carceri XII-The Sawhorse
Piranesi-Carceri XIII-the Well
Piranesi-Carceri XIII-the Well
Piranesi-Carceri XIV-the Gothic Arch
Piranesi-Carceri XIV-the Gothic Arch
Piranesi- Carceri XV-the Pier with the Lamp
Piranesi- Carceri XV-the Pier with the Lamp
Piranesi- Carceri XVI-the Pier With Chains
Piranesi- Carceri XVI-the Pier With Chains

 

 

 

 

 

 

A & O

Leonora Carrington-Artist Dining Room
Leonora Carrington-Artist Dining Room

The ending is not the end
The end is the beginning…
Now hold on,
Wait a sec…
I’m not sure that
I have it quite right:
It doesn’t seem just so,
Maybe I have got it backwards
And the beginning
Is actually the end:
What you just begun to begin
Is in a certain sense
Already over and done with,
Or perhaps I am confusing
My alphas and omegas,
My lasts and firsts,
Not to mention
All the spaces
In between times.
I do have that tendency
To get lost in
Mental labyrinths
Of my own masochistic devising
I think I should start over,
Come on;
Let’s do it again,
But surer and better this go round;
(Hopefully you’ve got the pills)…
To begin is an end in itself
Though this ending hasn’t yet begun
The beginning is just the end
And the end is just the beginning.

Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted

William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs

Attributed by legend to the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of the Nizari Isma’ilites and the founder of the Order of Assassins (Hashshashin), Hassan-i-Sabbah, the line ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted‘, is first found in print in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, and was later taken up in a book entitled Le Grand Maître des Assassins by Betty Bouthoul, where it was discovered by the hit-man for the Apocalypse, William S. Burroughs, who was very fond of quoting it. From there it has infiltrated into popular culture, via movies and video games, and now appears to be the guiding maxim of 21st Century political irreality.

With its perplexing and gnomic quality, the phrase could be read as merely a particularly nihilistic variant of the Liars Paradox. While I am willing to concede that this approach has claims to validity it also shows a lack of imagination, a certain tone-deafness. One can only echo Nietzsche remarks about the labyrinthine consequences of such a proposition as ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’. So we can safely leave the logical positivists to their sterile linguistic games and pursue an investigation into its meaning and potential implications.

Karl Jaspars warned in 1936 that the statement found in Nietzsche, if removed from its context and taken by itself  ‘…expresses complete lack of obligation; it is an invitation to individual caprice, sophistry, and criminality.’ Hannah Arendt illuminatingly remarked in The Origins of Totalitarianism that, ‘In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.’

However others saw in the statement not a dire warning but the possibility of freedom; after all, if nothing is true then everything is permitted. The idea that the world is illusionary is one of the certain tenets of Gnosticism (see my ongoing series, starting with A Heresy for the 21st Century), and the second part of the maxim could easily have been part of the philosophy of a particularly radical and  libertine Gnostic sect. But then the early Nizari, although not Gnostic, certainly seems to have been one of the more esoteric and heretical of Islamic movements, as the following story of the qiyāma (resurrection) illustrates.

In 1164 on the seventeenth day of Ramadan, Hasan II, a student of Sufism and the descendent of Hassan-i-Sabbah, gathered Assassins from the Nizari territories at the mountain stronghold of Alamut. The crowds are carefully positioned around the pulpit so that are facing away from Mecca. Behind the pulpit are tables covered in the finest silk clothes. When the sun reaches its zenith in the sky, Hasan II enters through the gates of the citadel, dressed all in white. Addressing the audience he states that he is God’s khalifa and declares the qiyāma (which is supposed to only happen at the end of time). As the esoteric aspect of religion has now been revealed and Paradise is actualised in the corporeal world, sharia law is abolished and those that continue to adhere will be punished. As a coup de grace Hasan II has the silk clothes removed to reveal tables laden with dishes of pork and flagons of wine. The crowd, fearing a test, do not make a move until Hasan II helps himself to a glass and a plate. Then they begin to realise that nothing is true and everything is permitted: there are no laws in Paradise.

Burroughs, who would return to the statement time and time again, interpreted it in a somewhat Gnostic and Blakean sense, with special relevance to artistic creation, stating, ‘Not to be interpreted as an invitation to all manner of unrestrained and destructive behaviour, that would be a minor episode, which would run its course. Everything is permitted because nothing is true. It is all make-believe . . . illusion . . . dream . . . art. When art leaves the frame and the written word leaves the page, not merely the physical frame and page, but the frames and pages that assign the categories.

A basic disruption of reality itself occurs. The literal realisation of art. Success will write apocalypse across the sky. The artist aims for a miracle. The painter wills his pictures to move off the canvass with a separate life. movement outside of the picture and one rip in the fabric is all it takes for pandemonium to break through.”

But taken literally in the 21st Century with its hyper-mediated and conflicting levels of reality, where truth has become something of an unknown quantity, depending upon your own personal, subjective point of view, the maxim has become a political tool in the hands of media-savvy opportunists. We expect politicians to lie, but we are far beyond that stage now. Our precarious sense of reality has eroded to such an extent that nothing is true, everything is permitted, is no longer just a verbal paradox but a damning assessment of the situation it which we find ourselves.

As for me, well, I have Gone to Persia.