Mirror Images

mirror broken

(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four illustrations by Susanne Rempt).

All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realised that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence.  It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All that was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.

Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples)voodoo mirror

are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’

In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon the artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.mirror hand

One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’

However, for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. _20180102_164940 (1)Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.

Cosmic Emblems

Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra Emblem 5-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme

The German shoemaker, mystic and visionary Jacob Boehme’s dense theosophical writings are filled with alchemical references and allusions. These taken together with elements of Gnosticism and the Kabbalah make Boehme one of the most occult inclined of Christian writers.

The following illustrations are taken from the appendix to William Law’s four volume edition of Boehme’s writing translated into English. Law was an Anglican priest who lost his position when he refused to give an oath of allegiance to King George I and therefore become a private tutor. Among his students were Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall Of the Roman Empire and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, (though they fell out over Law’s admiration of Boehme).

The illustrations were undertaken by the London based German mystic Dionysuis Andreas Freher, whose work was a major influence upon the English poet, painter and prophet William Blake.

The complete series of emblems included above and below tells of Creation, the fall of Lucifer followed by the fall of Adam and man’s redemption through Jesus. Interestingly Sophia, a figure found in Gnosticism features prominently (the top S contrasting with the S of Sathan down below). The drawings of Hieroglyphica Sacra are unusual with their  near geometric abstraction, minimalism and pared down symbolism. It is alchemical art taken to its most cosmic level, an allegory of the War in the Three Realms of Heaven, Earth and HellDionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 3-William Law edition of Jacob Boehm

Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 1-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme

Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 2-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 2-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 3-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 3-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 4-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 4-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 6-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 6-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 7-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 7-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 8-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 8-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 9-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 9-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 10-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 10-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 11-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 11-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 12-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 12-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 13-William Law edition of Jacob Boehm
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 13-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme

 

 

 

 

Philosophy in the Boudoir

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Tomer Hanuka-Cover of Philosophy in the Boudoir

To Libertines

Voluptuaries of all ages, of every sex, it is to you only that I offer this work; nourish yourselves upon its principles: they favour your passions, whereof coldly insipid moralists put you in fear, are naught but the means Nature employs to bring man to the ends she prescribes to him; hearken only to these delicious Promptings, for no voice save that of the passions can conduct you to happiness.

Lewd women, let the voluptuous Saint-Ange be your model; after her example, be heedless of all that contradicts pleasure’s divine laws, by which all her life she was enchained.

You young maidens, too long constrained by a fanciful Virtue’s absurd and dangerous bonds and by those of a disgusting religion, imitate the fiery Eugenie; be as quick as she to destroy, to spurn all those ridiculous precepts inculcated in you by imbecile parents.

And you, amiable debauchees, you who since youth have known no limits but those of your desires and who have been governed by your caprices alone, study the cynical Dolmance, proceed like him and go as far as he if you too would travel the length of those flowered ways your lechery prepares for you; in Dolmance’s academy be at last convinced it is only by exploring and enlarging the sphere of his tastes and whims, it is only by sacrificing everything to senses pleasure that this individual, who never asked to be cast into this universe of woe, that this poor creature who goes under the name of Man, may be able to sow a smattering of roses atop the thorny path of life.

Marquis De Sade-Philosophy in the Boudoir 1795

I have included the above dedication to Philosophy in the Boudoir in full (see The Moment for further information concerning the libertine tradition that it is the culmination of) to give a taste of the style and concerns of the Divine Marquis (see Citizen SadeYet Another Effort, and The Blood of a Single Bird). As the title suggests, Philosophy in the Boudoir features a lot of sex and philosophical conversation yet it remains the most accessible of his major works, with very little physical cruelty (well, at least until the shocking, Grand Guignol ending) and contains many examples of fine, though somewhat, black humour. However it is the Marquis De Sade, so it is not for the squeamish as the language is frequently coarse and crude, while it contains vivid descriptions of sexual practises that are still shocking today, over 220 years after its initial publication.

Philosophy in the Boudoir describes in seven dialogues, the sexual and very unsentimental education of Eugenie (as critics have noted, the very name is chosen with care) over two days by a group of libertines: Madame De Saint-Ange (though they is nothing remotely saintly or angelic about her) whose boudoir is the setting of the piece, Saint-Ange’s younger brother Le Chevalier (who is involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister) and the archetypal libertine Dolmance., who is often thought to be somewhat of a self portrait of the Marquis himself.

All the characters, as is often the case in De Sade, are bisexual by principle. Dolmance provides most of the philosophy, stating that religion, morality, modesty and compassion are all absurd notions that stand in the way of the ultimate and only goal of human existence: pleasure. Saint-Ange and Dolmance further elaborates to Eugenie that it is impossible to feel true pleasure without pain. Sex without pain is like food without taste for De Sade.

Eugenie proves to be a quick and enthusiastic learner. In the middle of the fifth dialogue all the characters take a break to listen to Dolmance read out a pamphlet he found in the street, the famous  Yet Another Effort, Frenchman, If You Would Become Republicans, which is a distillation of De Sade’s philosophy and hopes for Revolutionary France. De Sade devotes a lot of time to beseeching  the Republic, now that it has deposed of the tyrant on the throne to banish forever the worship of God. Only then can they truly become Republicans. Once the dead hand of religion has been lifted, then morality surely has to follow. De Sade argues that theft should be applauded as private property is a source of evil. Prostitution will be encouraged and adultery by both sexes is permitted. There should be no law against homosexuality as it both natural and normal. The death penalty must be abolished. Basically De Sade upends every moral precept of the age and declares the less laws a State has, the better. He then goes on to warn that if these innovations are not followed then France will relapse and become a monarchical society again (he was right on this point).

After this lengthy discourse, the narrative resumes towards its jaw dropping denouement, and the reader is left to ponder the radical and horrific nature of De Sade’s thought. I will leave the last word to the man himself, who, for all his many faults and inconsistencies, possessed a lucid self-awareness.

 “Either kill me or take me as I am, because I’ll be damned if I ever change.” 

 

Tyger Tyger

The Tyger, written and illustrated by William Blake
The Tyger-Written and Illustrated by William Blake from Songs of Experience 1794

The Tyger which was first published in 1794 in  William Blake’s Songs of Experience  was later merged with Blake’s previous collection of 1789 Songs of Innocence as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. As with all of Blake’s work it was illuminated and printed by himself.

The Tyger is probably the most famous of Blake’s poems and justifiably so. It is a magical distillation of Blake’s major themes and metaphysics in a short poem of six, four line stanzas with a miraculous melding of form and content. It is in my opinion, the one poem in English literature that comes closest to achieving absolute perfection.

At the time of writing tigers would still have possessed a near mythical status. It is possible that Blake may have seen a tiger cub that was exhibited in a travelling rarity show, hence the childlike and rather cuddly tiger depicted in the plate. The poem is a different matter altogether though. The beauty and the ferocity of the Tyger prompt Blake to question the idea of a benevolent God and leads to a vision of the sublime.

Blake’s Tyger is a Platonic Ideal Form which explains the idiosyncratic spelling. The poem opens with a reiteration, pointing towards the symmetry which plays such an important part in the poem. The rest of the line and the next highlights the duality of the Tyger, who shines with the intensity of the sun (blazing bright) and its nocturnal nature (in the forest of the night). The following couplet that completes the stanza asks what kind of creator could fashion such a violently amoral animal, a question that is reiterated with greater force in the fifth stanza when Blake wonders, Did he who made the Lamb make thee? . The Tyger companion piece in Songs of Innocence  is The Lamb, an animal that has obvious connotations to Christ. The sixth and final stanza repeats the opening stanza with one important difference, dare replaces could in frame thy fearful symmetry.

Blake developed his own personal mythology and his view of God the Creator was idiosyncratic and complicated to say the least. He equated the Old Testament Jehovah with the Gnostic demiurge whom he called variously Urizen and Nobodaddy in his writing. The Ancients of Days is his most famous artistic representation of the Divine Architect of the material universe.

the-ancient-of-days-1794[1]
William Blake-The Ancient of Days 1794

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.