Monday, September 7, 2009

Axis Monday in the Former Soviet Bloc

The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania:

Click here for the full-sized image.

Lithuanians have been placing crosses on this hill since 1831 or so, for various reasons: as a symbol of peaceful resistance to the Soviet Union, in honor of loved ones killed during Lithuania's various battles for independence, as a testament to their Catholic faith. No one started documenting how many crosses were there until the 1900s. The first recorded statistic is 130 crosses, the latest number is over 55,000 and still growing. The USSR tried to dismantle it a few times, and there was talk of damming the Kulvė River so as to completely submerge it, but noting ever came of it and the hill persisted throughout. Pope John Paul II even paid a visit to the site, and in 2000 a Franciscan hermitage opened up nearby.

Who would have thought what just one cross on a hill would start?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Found it

Quoted in part before, but I found the video online. Well worth spending two minutes watching.

Axis Mundi, sic transit gloria mundi, memento mori, and all that jazz, it's all there:

Sunday, August 30, 2009

액어스서 문디

"Axis mundi" roughly translated to Konglish. (Koratin?)

The N Seoul Tower is probably the tallest building in the Seoul skyline, 777 (symoblism!) feet from base to top. Situated on the top of the mountain in Namsan Park, it stands over 1,500 feet above sea level and dominates the surrounding landscape:

Koreans seem to have an innate appreciation for the connection between the mundane and the mystical here. The Tower has, over the years, become a requisite date destination for any serious Korean couple. The base of the tower features a sit-down candlelit sort of restaurant, "couples' benches" that bend in the middle so that lovers can cuddle with ease, and a stand where you can buy locks.

Wait, what, locks? Just so. Check this out:

Those are all padlocks attached to the cyclone fencing around the base that keeps you from falling into the wilderness of Namsan Park below. As a token of their undying love, Korean couples come here and write their names on padlocks and attach them to the fence, as if attaching a symbol of themselves to the axis mundi will bestow upon their love some of the eternal nature of the heavens to which the axis points and connects.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Benefits of Living in a Society With a Free Press

"During the Cold War, the Semipalatinsk Polygon, located in the steppe of northeast Kazakhstan, was the site of a secret Soviet nuclear testing programme. Over the course of forty years, over four hundred nuclear weapons were test detonated in the atmosphere and underground. The locals were used as guinea pigs to test the effects of radiation on human populations." (No imagery in this link, I promise)

I take back everything bad I've ever said about capitalism. Though I am of the opinion that profanity is the mark of one who lacks sufficient vocabulary to express themselves, all I have to say is:

Holy Fucking Shit.

(There is a series of photographs linked on Metafilter that accompanies this, but I will not link to them seeing as how certain readers of the blog (myself included) lie awake at night in terror of this sort of thing.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

No, THEREin Lies the Source of All Our Woes

Sorry for another Fox post, but I thought that that guest referring to Mr. Rogers as an "evil, evil man" was the stupidest thing that could have ever been said on Fox. It appears that this comment has not just been exceeded, but lapped.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Thoreau: the Original Hipster?

The case for:

1. Despite an Ivy-League education, chose to practice the affectations of poverty. This segues directly into:

2. Wrote a book about self-sufficiency and solitude in the wilderness while regularly visiting town and entertaining guests. In other words, he wrote an entire book ironically.

3. Participated in a futile act of protest, the repercussions of which his relatives bailed him out of.

4. Spent far more time writing about and justifying aforementioned act of protest than actually protesting.

5. Neckbeard.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How to Be a Perfect Gentleman

A book of unspeakable hilarity, all of it unintentional.

My favorite passages so far:

"There are those, no doubt, who will say that they have something better
to do than waste their time wondering why they like to stay in bed,
which they don't."

And for extra double-entendre hilarity:

"Carlyle defined the feeling when he said, 'To sit still and be pumped into is never an exhilarating process.' But pumping is different. How often have I myself, my adieus seemingly done, my hat in my hand and my feet on the threshold, taken a fresh grip, hat or no hat, on the pump-handle, and set good-natured, Christian folk distressedly wondering if I would never stop! And how often have I afterward recalled something strained and morbidly intent in their expressions, a glassiness of the staring eye and a starchiness in the smiling lip, that has made me suffer under my bed-cover and swear that next time I would depart like a sky-rocket!"

He is, of course, referring to conversation.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Axis Moonday

Can you spot the axis mundi in this picture?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Castles in the Sky: Tiny State's Tiny Tower

Here's a cute and tiny little axis mundi on a forested cliff overlooking San Marino, the smallest of the European states by population. San Marino has the oldest constitution in the world still in effect--it dates from 1600. America's is the second oldest.

There is a surreal, sublime effect of seeing the world from so far above--from a single manmade tower on a high mountainside, with no other human landmarks near it, except far, far below. The tower itself is hardly even part of our world. And it can see into the world beyond, miles and miles, almost surely into ancient Italia, by which San Marino is entirely surrounded.

It is also worth mentioning that this tower is built on the summit of Mount Titano, the highest point in San Marino, and that the entirety of San Marino is built on Titano and its nearest neighbors. The entire state is built on mountains--far above the mundane concerns of the world below.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Link: Nostalgia in Post Soviet Ice Cream Packaging

No Memento Mori today beyond the simple statement of 'memento mori', but take a gander at this great piece about Nostalgia in the wake of the Soviet Union.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturdays With Memento Vita

Just remember, it could always be worse.

I refer, of course, to the "Year Without Summer". I'd heard of this a while back but always assumed it was historical fiction, it's that nightmarish. Anything that can be referred to as "the last great subsistence crisis of the western world" in a non-hyperbolic manner would have to be.

The short of it is, abnormally cold temperatures brought about by a volcanic eruption so massive it altered the global climate killed the bulk of crops produced that year and caused food prices to skyrocket. After copious rioting, the ensuing winter set in, one of the coldest ever recorded. The waters around New York City froze so hard that a journey here:

View Larger Map
Could be made solely via a horse and carriage.

It was such a pivotal event in western history that it is believed to have influenced the creation of both the Mormon Church and the novel Frankenstein. Make of that what you will.

The point is, things could always be worse. Memento Vita. That's "know that you are alive," right? Also, what's Latin for "forgive my terrible Latin I've never studied the language?"

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A little respite after yesterday's bleakness

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tuesdays with MM, Orson Welles

"Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash - the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die. "Be of good heart," cry the dead artists out of the living past. "Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing." Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."

-Orson Welles, F for Fake

"Seth: It was the peak of my ass-getting career and it happened way, way too early.

Evan: You're like a young Orson Welles.

Seth: I honestly see now why Orson Welles ate himself to death."


Orson Welles' life-story is the stuff of heartbreak. It has often been noted that the bookends of his film-acting career are a poignant reflection of this. It begins with:

"It's the sled! It's the name of the sled he had as a kid! There, I just saved you two long, boobless hours." -Family Guy

and ends with:

I could not make this up if I tried.

As for his directing career, he was thwarted at every turn by every force imaginable. Money constantly ran in short supply, studios regularly re-edited his films, and distribution issues plagued him at every turn. His revolutionary noir film, Touch of Evil, considered to be one of the finest of the genre premiered on the second half of a double-bill at a drive-in. His skilled adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Chimes at Midnight, has yet to be distributed in the United States to this day and can only be acquired by special-order from Brazil.

Chimes at Midnight, the greatest film you will never see.

F for Fake was the last film Orson starred, directed, and (to an extent) wrote. It's a wandering, postmodern documentary about a real-life art-forger named Elmyr whose Mattise, Picasso, and Modigliani paintings hung in galleries for decades. Being consistently financially screwed by the businessmen who sold his artwork, I imagine Orson saw a bit of himself in Elmyr. Elmyr's biographer, Clifford Irving, is the other subject of the film, Irving himself being most famous for a forgery as well: an autobiography of Howard Hughes.

Irving being Edited. IT'S SO META

The movie is, in a word, brilliant. It is both a documentary and a commentary on documentaries. Orson's first appearance is as a stage magician, deceiving a crowd of spectators, paralleling his role as filmmaker. He constantly reminds us of film-as-deception by showing shots of himself editing the movie together, and of the movie as it is being editing. Additionally, he so regularly and actively takes fragments of footage out of context and repieces them together that the documentary might as well be of the Kuleshov Effect as much as it is of Elmyr and Irving (comically so, at one point he's alternating between shots of a beautiful woman walking and photographs of Picasso, who is supposed to be obsessed with her).

If ever there was a day to rue being a photograph. . .

The most powerful and moving part of the film has to be when Orson takes an intermission from the story of the forgers to talk about his own life and his own early career, all the way from lying about his being a famous performer to land a stage-role in The Gate Theater in Dublin at the age of 17 to making Kane. It is here he divulges a crucial piece of information, the thing linking him to Irving: an early draft of Kane based him off of Howard Hughes, not William Randolph Hearst (or so he claims, after all F for Fake is the title of the movie).

During the bit where he talks about War of the Worlds, there's a montage of horribly cheesy flying saucers destroying national landmarks in DC. It is, without a doubt, the greatest thing ever.

What would Welles' life have looked like if he'd made the movie about Hughes? Hughes, a notorious recluse, took weeks to respond to Irving's book, which wasn't a work of fiction but a complete lie claiming to be true. It seems unlikely he would've done much in response to a fictionalized representation loosely based off of himself.

Hearst, on the other hand, did everything in his power to sabotage Orson's career, and Hearst was a powerful man. The moment Welles turned down Hearst's offer to burn the prints of Kane for a large cash sum was the moment his career began its unending downward spiral.

Would he have gone on to be an even greater God of filmmaking? Would he have megalomania that spiraled out of control and burned him out after four or so films, like Francis Ford Coppola? Who knows. Either way he makes that first movie that revolutionized the way films would be made for the rest of cinematic history, and either way he ends up part of the ultimate and universal ash. "Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much" indeed. MM.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

TWMM: Russia's Canal

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union undertook a massive construction project. England had Suez. America had Panama. The USSR's White Sea-Baltic Canal was just as massive an undertaking.

The massive canal starts at Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, travels up the Neva River and into the massive Lake Ladoga before it cuts overland for many miles until it reaches another massive and more remote freshwater lake, Onega, and from there it heads due north, through even more remote regions and through smaller lakes until at last it reaches the White Sea not too far from Archangel'sk, Russia's great northern port.

The canal doesn't save nearly as much time as the other two great canals of the world, but it allows purely domestic transport from Russia's second largest city to anywhere along the northern coast, without any need for routing past Germany and all of Scandinavia--and in the 1930s, finding a shortcut around Germany had its advantages.

The canal took less than two years to build and was hailed as a wonder of Soviet engineering, a triumph of the Five Year Plan.

Over 100,000 laborers, most of them conscripts against their will, died in the construction of the canal.

A popular brand of cigarettes, Belomorkanal, commemorated the epic feat for the Soviets for decades to come:
These unusual cigarettes were 'papirosas'; they were very strong and had no filters. They are still made today.

And for many years the canal, like the cigarettes, thrived; its yearly tonnage peaked in the late days of the Soviet Union, in 1985, when over 7 million tonnes passed through the canal.

But those days are over. Because the canal is too shallow, and because Russia is a shadow, and because the route is not so necessary anymore, this once-great waterway wrought by human hands at the cost of a hundred thousand lives sees hardly thirty ships a day plying its lonely route toward the vast northern reaches of an empire resurgent only when its past decline is ignored.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tuesdays with Memento Mori: Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney has done quite a good job of maintaing his joie de vivre despite his advanced age. Nevertheless he is no starry-eyed youth, and despite all the wealth and accolades his high position can provide, the work that made him famous is 40 years behind him, there are no more journeys of wonder to the Orient, no more mysteries to solve, and of course two of his ancient collaborators and friends are dead, one for almost 3 decades. He was made a Member of the British Empire by the Queen when he was just 23.

He may still tour and perform and support good causes, but he is still an old man, and the glory days of his youth are forever gone.
Memento Mori.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Forget You'll Die

Apologies for those offended by the lack of a memento mori yesterday.

Sometimes joie de vivre can sweep you away and you forget that you'll ever die.

The Romans didn't want this to happen, but I think we can let it slide for once.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Rejoice in the Paschal Feast, for Christ has broken the barrier between the sacred and the profane!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sunday is Adventurer Day

To spice things up, add a human element to Axis Monday, and get me to actually post again, it's time to announce a new weekly column. Every Sunday is Adventurer Day, and I will profile an Adventurer.

Adventurers are normal men who do the extraordinary. Their deeds invariably involve defying the norms of society and forsaking mundanity to explore a less well-charted world. Their transgressive quests catapult them from initial obscurity to much stranger heights. The best achieve renown. The worst fail ignominiously. But all of them are adventurers.

Some--like Alexander, who is far too well known for this series--try to shift quite obviously into the realm of the wondrous, in his case by believing he was a god, and getting the priests to go along with it. In most cases, the adventurers in this showcase will not do something so dramatic as that. But they will show that they stand outside the normal realm of men.
You haven't heard of our first adventurer:

Boris Skossyreff
Flavor: Conqueror
Century: Early 20th
Feat: Singlehandedly Tried to Conquer A Sovereign Nation

No one knows quite where Boris Skossyreff was born, or when. He used far too many fake passports during the course of his career for such information to be pinned down. He was from the Russian Empire, as his name reveals clearly enough, and he was born presumably in the 1890s. The date of his death varies even more--from the 1940s all the way up to a venerable (and rather likely) old age in 1989.

For most of his life he was a con man. He passed bad checks, committed fraud, lied habitually about his place of birth. He spent time in Spanish prisons, American military interrogation camps, French detainment camps, German jails, and Siberian gulags. Par for the course for an adventurer.

But Boris was no mere ne'er-do-well.

He spent much of his late 20s and early 30s living in the shadow of the Pyrenees. Sometime in the 1930s he moved to Andorra, one of the European microstates. In late 1933, he even earned Andorran citizenship. It only encouraged further civic involvement.

In 1934, Boris showed just how much he wanted to help the Andorran government. He formally proposed an overhaul of the tiny principality's bureaucracy. Magnanimously, he suggested that several new offices be created, and suggested that he be appointed to all of them.

The government politely declined and tossed him out of their high valleys in May 1934.

No adventurer takes such setbacks lying down, though. Boris took matters into his own hands and decided to take on the corrupt state directly.

In July, Boris declared himself Boris the First, Sovereign Prince of Andorra, and regent to His Majesty the King of France, even though there hadn't been a French monarch for nearly 70 years, since Napoleon III Bonaparte's days.

Not only that, he declared war on Andorra's head of state--the Bishop of Urgell, nominal co-ruler of the mountain realm along with the French President (not King). Was Boris a devout secularist? A crusader against religious corruption? A mere opportunist?

History never gave us the chance to learn. His reign as "Prince of the Valleys of Andorra, Count of Orange, and Baron of Skossyreff, Sovereign of Andorra and Defender of the Faith" was short-lived. After a little more than a week on the job, the vast apparatus of the Spanish state descended upon him.

Why would Spain overthrow their new neighbor?

Perhaps because he swore allegiance to the French King. Perhaps because he overthrew the Andorran General Council and placed himself in its stead. Perhaps because of his new constitution--by all accounts just!, or the new provisional government, or the new courts.

Regardless, the Baron did not languish long in Spanish prison. By November he was free for new adventures, none of them as exciting, and Andorra by all appearances was behind him.

Or was it?

Mere history suggests he never returned to Andorra.
But in Russia, he became a figure of legend. Newspapers reported on his reign long after it had ended. According to their stories, Boris ruled as sovereign of Andorra until 1941, when the Vichy government overthrew his righteous state.

It's not true that he ruled for 8 years--just 8 days. But that hardly matters.

He may not have succeeded in everything he wanted. But he certainly tried to rule, and justly, and what more can you ask?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Axis Friday

Obligatory. Don't need to say much about this one. Trinitarian, hierophanic, liminal. The Sacred tower, the Sacred mountain, the Sacred man:

Monday, April 6, 2009

Therein lies the source of all our woes

The valiant vanguard of cultural purity, our beloved Fox News, has finally isolated the cause of our overpowering sense of entitlement as a nation:

"This evil, evil man," Fred Rogers.

I am having great difficulty wrapping my head around this. Every day I am more firmly convinced that whoever pulls the strings at Fox is one of the greatest performance artists of all time. Dadaists, surrealists, modernists, postmodernists, and The Onion alike would weep before material of this caliber.

In a totally unrelated photo, here's Fred Rogers getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

It's Tuesday again!

Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, one of the great memento mori texts of all time, and also the only thing by Tolstoy most people get around to reading (it's mercifully short), is linked above. The free translation isn't great, but hey, you get what you pay for.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

C'mon, what do you think a tower is supposed to symbolize?

Now THAT is an Axis Mundi anyone can get behind. Or in front of. Or beneath. Or if you're feeling particularly creative. . .

Little does the budding artist know, he is carrying on a noble, centuries-old British tradition. Though that phallus is a mere 36 feet.

Comicality aside, the phallus as an Axis Mundi is not a particularly new idea. See: the title of this post.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tuesdays With Memento Mori: Vidiotic Interlude:

Passage, linked above, is a most unusual game. I insist you play it before reading this because, well, text doesn't do a very good job at describing the sensation of gameplay. It only takes a few minutes.

Now, in Passage you begin with your avatar at the far left of the screen. Immediately at the beginning of the game you see a female companion for your avatar, who you can run to or ignore. As you walk to the right your score goes up, and if you find some treasure chests your score goes up more.

The more you walk to your right, the more the seasons change. The landscape gets greyer and wintrier as your avatar (and the female if you got her) gets older. Eventually you die. The end.

There's no goal, there's no end boss. If you get the companion you can't access the treasure chests, but it doesn't matter, your score is totally irrelevant, a large bunch of numbers. You always die in the end. Thus the reason for posting this on Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tuesdays with Memento Mori: Musical Interlude

Let's try something a little different today. I've embedded a song in the post, so you can listen to it right here. This song, "Losing Haringey" by The Clientele, embodies nostalgia and the inexorability of change.

Losing Haringey - The Clientele

Lyrics worth noting:

It seemed unlikely that anything could hold much longer. The only question left to ask was what would happen after everything familiar collapsed, but for now the sun was stretched between me and that moment.


I held my head in my hands, feeling like shit, but a sudden breeze escaped from the terraces and for a moment I lost my thoughts in its unexpected coolness. I looked up and I realised I was sitting in a photograph.

I remembered clearly: this photograph was taken by my mother in 1982, outside our front garden in Hampshire. It was slightly underexposed. I was still sitting on the bench, but the colours and the planes of the road and horizon had become the photo. If I looked hard, I could see the lines of the window ledge in the original photograph were now composed by a tree branch and the silhouetted edge of a grass verge. The sheen of the flash on the window was replicated by bonfire smoke drifting infinitesimally slowly from behind a fence. My sister�s face had been dimly visible behind the window, and yes- there were pale stars far off to the west that traced out the lines of a toddler's eyes and mouth.


Strongest of all was the feeling of 1982-ness: dizzy, illogical, as if none of the intervening disasters and wrong turns had happened yet. I felt guilty, and inconsolably sad. I felt the instinctive tug back - to school, the memory of shopping malls, cooking, driving in my mother�s car. All gone, gone forever.

[Thanks to for realizing that proper punctuation and lyrics sites do not have to be mutually exclusive]

This song, unlike the rest of the album 'Strange Geometry' (of which Losing Haringey is the penultimate track), is chanted more than sung; even though 'there is no way to go except back,' the voice advances inevitably at the same pace. His continuing even pitch and pace separates him from the real world, filled with life, which he is describing. It is of course when he heads somewhere he has never been before that he is transmuted into a situation of decades past.

Life floats past the speaker until he falls into a situation in which that is natural. The revelation of this photograph and the days of his youth and happiness at first is 'inconsolably sad.' Immense weariness holds him down as his past traps him.

But at last he walks away; by seeing the past exactly as it was, he is revitalized in his own life.

On last week's subject:

The city of Seleucia/Ctesiphon was the capital of Persia for over 700 years. Alexander's general Seleucus founded it; it outlasted Greek rule, and was the seat of both the Parthians and Sassanids in their long reigns. For a time it was the largest city in the world.

But like most cities in the Fertile Crescent, its river was its lifeblood.

And over the centuries, something so immutable as the River Tigris shifted, and Ctesiphon was left high and dry. And the largest city in the world drained away. The Arabs came, saw, and conquered, and founded a new city along the river's new course: Baghdad.

Only one structure in Ctesiphon survives today. The rest is gone, or buried in sand:

Nothing beside remains.

Memento mori.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Every Blog Links xkcd Sooner or Later.

Courtesy of xkcd. Click on the picture, or just go to the website, because Blogger doesn't love big pictures.
Not only a perfect twist ending, but a gradual drawing out of the highly improbable and eventually the whimsical from the sheer mundanity of electricity generation.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesdays with Memento Mori: Ozymandias

In honor of Watchmen, which is the most nostalgic film ever to score a $50m+ opening, you should read this poem, which you probably have not read.

Everybody knows Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous "Ozymandias" poem, which (not surprisingly) is one of my four or five favorite lyric poems.

Many people know he wrote the poem in competition with his friend, a fellow named Horace Smith. They both took Ozymandias as their subject and title. Shelley won, not least because his is better, but because it is remembered. His work and name endures in many minds; Horace Smith is a much farther cry from being a household name.

Horace Smith

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand." The City's gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Always remember that, like Ozymandias (whether in Egypt or Watchmen), all things shall come to ruin, and the glory of the world shall pass.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Axis Monday: Castles in the Sky

Towers or spires are the most common manmade form of the axis mundi. However, in certain cases a castle or palace may take on the same characteristic.

Now it is obvious that certain castles or palaces--Versailles is the most apparent--hold some of the same traits as the axis mundi, just as the U.S. Capitol does today. But these are political axes mundorum. They do indeed represent the center of all things for a nation or culture, upon which all converges, but solely in that political sense. These structures, or similar ones, are also metonymous for the government itself (e.g. 'The White House today released a statement that..." and similar ubiquities).

But these two castles do not bridge the mundane and the symbolic in that particular way. These are more naturalistic axes. They form central poles less because of their history or importance than their position. Both are situated halfway between Earth and Sky.

Swallow's Nest
Swallow's Nest has no political importance. It is not particularly large (65 ft x 33 ft), nor particularly old (1911). But it is nevertheless spectacular. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Crimea. And it forms a triple bridge between Earth, Sea, and Sky:

Much of Swallow's Nest's power comes from the continuity between cliff and castle. The natural rock transitions quite smoothly into the artificial stone. The castle appears to belong exactly where it is; indeed, it would be shocking if it wasn't there.

From a different angle:
This photograph emphasizes sea and sky over stone. The sea forms a nearly perfect line with the bottom of Swallow's Nest, which emphasizes the castle's liminal standing at a junction of three worlds.

The small size of Swallow's Nest--despite its great stature--suggests that it is a conduit or a bridge between the world. But the next palace is not so humble. Quite simply, it reigns from on high.


The archetypical fantasy castle on a far-off hillside is real, and rules over field and forest from a high peak in Bavaria.

The location of the castle speaks for itself but the castle holds other secrets which make its existence even more wondrous.

This photochrom of the castle dates from the 1890s, shortly after its completion. As the photos suggest, it stands upon a high pinnacle (like Swallow's Nest) and behind it lie endless misty mountains which give way only to sky. The first photo shows Neuschwanstein as a local axis; the second, however, presents it entirely within the realm of the sacred--the extremely romanticized print leaves out everything of humanity, except the castle itself. And the castle, though made by human hands, does not seem out of place.

The castle's background shows that I am not all smoke and mirrors:

-Ludwig II, King of Bavaria--also known as the Swan King, the Mad King, and the Fairy-tale King--commissioned the palace. He did so on behalf of Richard Wagner, to whom he wrote a letter about the castle:
"It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin at Hohenschwangau near the Pollat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles... the location is the most beautiful one could find, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world."
Neuschwanstein--named for the palace of Wagner's Swan Knight, Lohengrin--is thus not an axis because it provides a conduit or link between the worlds, but because the castle is itself a sacred object, made manifest in our world. The hierophany, the revelation of the sacred, appeared to Ludwig, and he revealed the already extant spiritual power of the mountaintop.

Other points of note:
-No architect designed the castle. A theatrical set designer drew the plans. Wagner himself hired the man.
-Even today, no one may take photographs inside the castle. The only way to see what the inside looks is, quite simply, to go there.
-Ludwig did not live to see the castle completed. A doctor commissioned by the state declared him insane in 1886, and the king was arrested and dragged out of Neuschwanstein. Both the doctor and the king were found drowned not long after.

Neuschwanstein is, in short, straight out of mythology, and wrought from pure archetype.

But, although it is almost without question the most fabulous (i.e. out of fable) castle in the world, and holds great wondrous power, it is still just an axis. It is a product of human design, and it must pale always before the true natural sacred, the Holy Mountain, before which Neuschwanstein is next to nothing:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sleep and Phrygians

1. A man from Vietnam caught the flu back in the 70s and hasn't slept a wink since, with no adverse health effects, not even--by all appearances--complete madness.

2. According to Herodotus, the Pharaoh Psammetichus wished to discover whether the Egyptians were truly the world's most antique people. Here's the story:

Now the Egyptians, before the reign of their king Psammetichus, believed
themselves to be the most ancient of mankind. Since Psammetichus,
however, made an attempt to discover who were actually the primitive
race, they have been of opinion that while they surpass all other
nations, the Phrygians surpass them in antiquity.

This king, finding it impossible to make out by dint of inquiry what men were the most
ancient, contrived the following method of discovery:- He took two
children of the common sort, and gave them over to a herdsman to bring
up at his folds, strictly charging him to let no one utter a word
in their presence, but to keep them in a sequestered cottage, and
from time to time introduce goats to their apartment, see that they
got their fill of milk, and in all other respects look after them.
His object herein was to know, after the indistinct babblings of infancy
were over, what word they would first articulate.

It happened as he had anticipated. The herdsman obeyed his orders for two years, and
at the end of that time, on his one day opening the door of their
room and going in, the children both ran up to him with outstretched
arms, and distinctly said "Becos." When this first happened the herdsman
took no notice; but afterwards when he observed, on coming often to
see after them, that the word was constantly in their mouths, he informed
his lord, and by his command brought the children into his presence.

Psammetichus then himself heard them say the word, upon which he proceeded
to make inquiry what people there was who called anything "becos,"
and hereupon he learnt that "becos" was the Phrygian name for bread.
In consideration of this circumstance the Egyptians yielded their
claims, and admitted the greater antiquity of the Phrygians.

It's actually a fairly respectable bit of scientific inquiry, all things considered.
It's not exactly experimentally rigorous, but the pharaoh at least tried to learn the
true answer. Of course, children who do not learn language early on almost never
recover and cannot live normal lives--so it is also terribly cruel. But would you
expect anything less from the pharaohs?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

50th Post: Tuesdays with Memento Mori

"A great verdant jungle valley with long fields of green crops opened before me. Groups of men watched us pass from a narrow old-fashioned bridge. The hot river flowed. Then we rose in altitude till a kind of desert country began reappearing. The city of Gregoria was ahead. The boys were sleeping, and I was alone in my eternity at the wheel, and the road ran straight as an arrow. Not like driving across Carolina, or Texas, or Arizona, or Illinois; but like driving across the world and into the places where we would finally learn ourselves among the Fellahin Indians of the world, the essential strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world from Malaya (the long fingernail of China) to India the great subcontinent to Arabia to Morocco to the selfsame deserts and jungles of Mexico and over the waves to Polynesia to mystic Siam of the Yellow Robe and on around, on around, so that you hear the same mournful wail by the rotted walls of Cádiz, Spain, that you hear 12,000 miles around in the depths of Benares the Capital of the World. These people were unmistakably Indians and were not at all like the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore--they had high cheekbones, and slanted eyes, and soft ways; they were not fools, they were not clowns; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind and the fathers of it. The waves are Chinese, but the earth is an Indian thing. As essential as rocks in the desert are they in the desert of "history." And they knew this when we passed, ostensibly self-important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land; they knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment. For when destruction comes to the world of "history" and the Apocalypse of the Fellahin returns once more as so many times before, people will still stare with the same eyes from the caves of Mexico as well as the caves of Bali, where it all began and where Adam was suckled and taught to know."

-The defining paragraph in On the Road

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sunday, March 1, 2009


I imagine most of us are familiar with the legendary Land of Nod, to which Cain fled after breaking the moratorium on murder. Nod has engendered small amounts of controversy because Cain knew his wife after he moved to Nod, but there is no mention of any women besides Eve to this point. Biblical anti-literalists have cited this as evidence that Adam and Eve were not, in fact, the only humans in the world.

It came to my surprise to learn that The Land of Nod, besides being a place of eternal wandering, is also a Children's Furniture chain owned by the much more reasonably named Crate & Barrel.

Clearly associating yourself with Cain is the new chic. Are they trying to suggest that, like Cain, their customers' children shall be marked with a Mark that means no one may ever kill them? Or that you should eat your vegetables instead of cheaply giving them away to God?

I can't figure this out.

There is also, incidentally, a small hamlet in Yorkshire called Land of Nod.

According to Wikipedia (and I take this with hearty sodium):

"The Land of Nod is also a small forested estate situated in Headley Down, Hampshire owned by the Whitaker family. Its history dates back to the Middle Ages when the owner, Mr Cain, was excommunicated from the Church; he named his home The Land of Nod, thus making direct reference to Genesis 4:16[citation needed]."

Emphasis on 'citation needed'. At least this story, even if apocryphal, makes sense, as does the name of the nefarious organization in the Command & Conquer video games. Children's furniture, not so much.

Lastly, the Land of Nod was famously located East of Eden, a book I haven't read, and won't.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Living Saints

The now-legendary Captain Sullenberger, who famously landed a plane in the Hudson and saved everybody aboard, has one flaw.

Fortunately, it is the sort of flaw that makes saints even more endearing.

He failed to return a library book on time
. The book was on the subject of professional ethics.

But, since he had a very good excuse ('the river ate it'), the library kindly waived the fees.

I have no doubt that, were these the Middle Ages, he would have become a folk saint by now. He sort of already has.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Old Gods and New

The Prophet spoke.

He spoke of dark omens. He spoke of corrupt officials. He spoke of greed, of waste, of hard times for the people. The people who roamed without aim, who had lost their homes and livelihoods, who feared for the health of their families.

But always, the Prophet brought hope. This is why the people followed him. He reassured the people that they were strong, that they had persevered through past troubles, that they carried an inner strength that could see them through the darkness, and that they had abandoned the Old Gods for his messages, his leadership.

There would be hard times ahead, but the Prophet promised he would do everything in his power to ease their suffering, to insure the health of their children, to recover from the malaise exacerbated by the terrible reign of the Old Gods.

But that he could only do so if the people helped themselves, if they forewent lives of leisure and educated themselves in these troubled times, if they could bring themselves to endure the consequences of their wanton excesses.

Then it was the opposition’s turn to speak.

They had sent their youngest, freshest representative, Jyn-dall, to ease the terrified citizenry that they no longer had anything to fear from the Old Gods: the Hand of Marquette, the Bag of Limbs, the Life Right, Rounalragone, and the Society of the Owners, all mysterious and unknowable beings, all who guided the decisions of prophets past.

Jyn-dall had taken long, slow strides toward the speaking box. Perhaps a man of gravitas who commanded authority could have done such with respect, but one so young and ambling invited scorn and disdain with this action, before he had but opened his mouth a priest by the name of Matthew was heard to invoke the name of the almighty to ward himself.

Jynd-all spoke as the former Prophet, in a falsely affected rural manner, despite his education at Oxford. Fucking Oxford, he was a fucking Rhodes Scholar, don’t you dare tell me that’s his natural voice. Anyway, he spoke of baffling miracles: the harmless volcanoes, the floating transports, and the conflation of the Old Gods with all deities, that somehow their errors impugned the entire divine race. He contradictorily reasserted, as the worshippers of the Old Gods always did, that the citizenry should not allow any deities of any sort to interfere with their lives. This despite his personal overseeing of the worst storm and flood the citizenry had seen in generations.

This confused jumble of apologies and blame could not have been spoken at a worse time. The priests would not have it. His fellows who had worshipped the Old Gods alongside him decried his nihilism. Those who were not his comrades made mock of his speaking after the Prophet; that it was like watching an angelic choir precede a band of filthy minstrels. His lone supporter, the Bag of Limbs, was heeded by few but his most devout followers, as his reputation had suffered since the whole Oxycontin thing.

Meanwhile, the Prophet continued unabated with his plans for Iraqi troop withdrawal.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Embarking on a Mission to Increase Illusion

But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence [...] illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.

Ludwig Feuerbach,
Preface to The Essence of Christianity

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tuesdays With Memento Mori

And Ivan Albright:

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Into The World There Came A Girl Called Ida

Monday, February 23, 2009

Axis Monday: The System of the World in a Cartoon

(The above cartoon is by Alex Gregory and first appeared in the New Yorker on 18 February 2002. You can order merchandise here)

According to the explanation on the linked website, the people are Hollywood types in a hot tub.

Allow me to explain this obfuscated cartoon for you. Yup, this essay will be a rather unartistic ekphrasis on wonder. Haven't had one of those from me in a while, despite the promise in the header.

Unsurprisingly, the cartoon's obfuscation comes from its imagery, which is so terribly simple that you dismiss it outright.

All the human elements of the picture, both the people and the objects of their design, are crowded into less than a quarter of the image. The rest is dominated by three objects: the palm tree, the distant mountain, and the endless sky.

The quick and simple lines of these three carefully chosen objects reveal the meaning of the cartoon's captions. Mr. Gregory cleverly tears down the dichotomous wall between the two seemingly far-flung demes of Hollywood Glamour and those Muslims who see the world through a purely religious lens.

The religious see the world in terms of archetypes and revelations of the Sacred. They understand that man and his material world is just a tiny corner of all that Is. Hence the wise relegation of earthly things to the corner of the cartoon.

But although Hollywood does not see the world in the same way, the stories film tells accept that view of the world as though it were true. Campbell explained how the ubiquitous quest narrative is composed of equally ubiquitous archetypes. Hollywood's most traditional--and successful--tales all are versions of this one story, the same story which is shared to some extent or another by all the truly religious of the world.

Thus, the human element of the cartoon is by far the least important. Consider each of the other three images in turn.

First we have the endless sky, which takes up well over half the cartoon. It is self-evident, and corroborated in the literature of every culture which has yet come up in the course of Axis Monday, that the sky is the Sacred Realm, and it is either the emanation of all holy things or that from which they emanate. The world of the Sacred cannot in any way be understood by man; hence the seeming blankness, the pure white, of the inimitable sky in the cartoon. It is only natural that Mr. Gregory's cartoon juxtaposes the incredible force and power of the sacred with the smallness of man.

But Mr. Gregory spoons out the irony in droves, because despite the words of these moguls, only one of them truly understands all the implications of what they say. Only the third figure (of course it is the third. There are three sacred objects, three profane humans, and one prophet, who is third in the line of humans) looks skyward, and because this character faces away from us, we know nothing of her. All we can presume is that she does not speak. She alone stares upwards at the endless sky and understands that she is miniscule in comparison. The others are absorbed in their material objects and their banter. The others look at each other. She looks at Heaven.

The second symbol, of course, is the Holy Mountain. The Mountain is that natural point, the horizon, where the sacred meets the profane. It is vastly distant and vastly high, as evident in the picture. Humans can perceive it but, by and large, they cannot reach it. It is that liminal threshold between the worlds. Once in an aeon a man may stand upon the Mountain (few mortals indeed summited Olympus, by far the most obvious example; even today few humans have seen the heights of Ararat, next week's signature topic). Moses spoke to God upon Sinai's height but he ventured there alone. Innumerable other examples available on request. All great religious acts occur on or in the shadow of the Mountain. Thus it is ineffably remote from the conspicuous consumers, who tell stories in accord with the Mountain even as they themselves deny its veracity and efficacy.

But it is, of course, the palm tree which brings the entire piece together.
So many small elements here:

The palm is the symbol of many of the countries of the Middle East, notably Arabia and its city Mecca where Islam was born.

None of the four people in the picture look at the palm. Not even the fourth woman: her level gaze makes clear that she has eyes only for her compatriots. None of them have room for it in their lives.

Most important of all, note that the palm reaches from level ground, past the line of the Holy Mountain into the Endless Sky. It alone, of all the objects in the picture, reaches both the Sacred and the Profane.

The Palm Tree is the

The Sky is purely sacred. The Holy Mountain is the unapproachable barrier between the worlds. But the AXIS MUNDI, here represented aptly by the palm tree, which through its connotations with Araby evokes the MASJID AL-HARAM, is the only force capable of connecting the worlds. It is the hierophany, the divine revelation of the sacred to the human world, the vibrant and living proof that something exists that is greater than humanity. The Axis Mundi is the very center of the System of the World.

Every religion person knows this, in not so many words. At some point in the history of every religion, a great event has happened which revealed the sacred to man. This hierophany unveils the Axis Mundi, eternal, unchanging, hitherto invisible. And two worlds, at that one holiest place, become one.

Here it is the palm. The "Islamic fundamentalists" of the caption understand implicitly that the world of the Sacred is vast compared to the Earth. The Hollywood folks think they understand this, and thus think the fundamentalists should like them. They think they must be kin.

But all of the figures in the cartoon, save the one who is clearly silent, turn their backs on all three indicators of the sacred: the Mountain. The Sky. The Axis.

It's a great punchline. These earthly moguls truly do not understand why the most extreme among the Islamic faithful do not like them. They think they know the sacred, but all they see are dancing shadows on a cave wall, even though Truth surrounds them.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesdays With Memento Mori

Shakespeare’s lesser-known Memento Mori Speech, the funny one

Shakespeare’s famous mortality speech, about being and not, is perhaps the most well-known line in the entirety of English drama. This is not his only memento mori speech, however; he has another in Measure for Measure. It’s quite funny.

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods or to reside
In thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling!--'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

HAHHAHAHAHAAAHAHAAHHAAHA-wait, what? That’s not funny! Out of context, it isn’t. Here’s the context: Claudio has been condemned to die by the cruel and lustful Angelo. Isabella, Claudio’s sister, has just met with Angelo to beg for her brother’s forgiveness. Angelo has told Isabella that, sure I’ll let Claudio go free, if you’ll have sex with me, that is.

Isabella, in a huff, marches to the prison to inform her brother that he’s going to die.

As all comforts are; most good, most good, in deed:
Lord Angelo, having affairs to heaven,
Intends you for his swift ambassador,
Where you shall be an everlasting leiger:
Therefore, your best appointment make with speed;
To-morrow you set on.

Is there no remedy?

None, but such remedy as, to save a head,
To cleave a heart in twain.

But is there any?

Yes, brother, you may live:
There is a devilish mercy in the judge,
If you'll implore it, that will free your life,
But fetter you till death.

Perpetual durance?

They have this continuing exchange where Isabella dances around the terms of Angelo’s proposal, only saying that it will bring unyielding, unrelenting shame to their family. Finally, she spills it. This is the ensuing exchange, uncut:

Thou shalt not do't.

O, were it but my life,
I'd throw it down for your deliverance
As frankly as a pin.

Thanks, dear Isabel.

Be ready, Claudio, for your death to-morrow.

Yes.--Has he affections in him
That thus can make him bite the law by the nose
When he would force it? Sure it is no sin;
Or of the deadly seven it is the least.

Hm, yeah, well, maybe having sex with a greasy old man isn’t so bad. . .This is where we have the mortality speech. This guy is with increasing desperation begging his sister to fuck some scuzzball so that he can go on living. This is his line right after the mortality speech:

Sweet sister, let me live!
What sin you do to save a brother's life
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.

O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
etc. etc.

Nay, hear me, Isabel!

O fie, fie, fie!
Thy sin's not accidental, but a trade:
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd:
'Tis best that thou diest quickly.


O, hear me, Isabella!

And she walks out on him. The scene is one of the finer pieces of black comedy I’ve read in a play. “You’re doomed.” “Really?” “Yes.” “Really Really?” “Yes, but-” “But? But?!” “Well, if I bang some old guy you can go-” “Do it!” “What?” “Bang the old guy! Please! I don’t wanna die! WAAAH” “Piss off.” “No, don’t leave me, PLEASE!”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The sacred and the everyday

Note: Brevity was never David Foster Wallace's strong point, this is heavily edited. Full speech here.

Kenyon commencement speech, 2005

"The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. This is just a banal platitude -- but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.

The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in, day out" really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.

The traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do -- except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am -- it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line -- maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important -- if you want to operate on your default-setting -- then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship...

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out."

-David Foster Wallace, suicide victim

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tuesdays with Memento Mori

In 1969 the Woodstock Festival became the liminal moment for an entire generation of youth.

Here is that farmer's field today, which in 1969 for a few days held over 500,000 people:

Memento Mori.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Axis Mundis

My posts have digressed more and more away from the idea of the blog, so I'm returning to square one: the Axis Mundi. More specifically, the physical one.

Joseph Campbell once said that an effective rule of thumb for determining who controls a region is to ascertain what the the tallest building is. In the middle ages, the tallest structure was always the church, from the Hagia Sophia to the village parish. In the industrial revolution, the tallest structures became the buildings of the state. Now, the tallest buildings are the skyscrapers, the centers of finance.

Campbell had an unfortunate tendency to overgeneralize, but in the case of the Axis Mundi of the of the French, he is 100% correct. As for the Axis Mundi of the Irish, he's utterly, dead wrong.

The Axis Mundi of the French world is the easiest.

What were you expecting, a giant metal frog?

The Eiffel Tower from its construction to this day has been the tallest structure in Paris. Aside from a few transmitting towers and a bridge, it is the tallest structure in France. It is interesting to note how vigorously the French have defended their Axis Mundi from any possible contenders. The Tour Montparnasse, the lone skyscraper in the city limits of Paris (and still shorter than the Eiffel), was so hated that laws were passed forbidding any future skyscraper construction within the city limits.

The Axis Mundi of Irish Catholicism, and by extension most of Irish history, has been St. Patrick's Cathedral. Though not the tallest, the largest church in Ireland has been deaned by Jonathan Swift. Handel's Messiah saw its premiere in this building. The city with arguably the 2nd largest population of Irish in the world, New York, has its own.

St. Patrick's, lookin' feckin' majestic an' all that bollocks

A comically oversaturated image of St. Patrick's in New York.

It's interesting to compare the two by height. Dublin's dominates its landscape (the picture's a bit misleading, it's in a city), as Irish Catholicism dominated the country up until only the last generation or two. New York's is a midget, lost in the ocean of buildings and people that comprise Manhattan.

Still, the height issue does have some significance. An observational tower is the tallest building one has access to in Dublin today. The second-tallest? The pub atop the Guinness Storehouse. And many hackles are being raised by Bono of U2's plan to make his new recording studio the tallest building in the entire country.

Pax Romana Redux

In March 2007, Switzerland invaded Liechtenstein.

In the middle of the night, 171 Swiss soldiers crossed into Liechtenstein. They penetrated over two kilometers into the country and met no resistance. They entered through a dark and unprotected forest.

After getting 2km into Liechtenstein, the commander of the Swiss guard realized what was happening.

Why did Switzerland invade its tiny and helpless neighbor? To seize its resources? Destroy the liberties of a helpless and tiny principality?

No. The Swiss company had gotten lost in the dense Swiss forest and taken a wrong turn. They had crossed the border by mistake.

They had accidentally launched an invasion.

The Swiss company, heavily armed with rifles but no ammunition, promptly turned around and hastily beat feet back to Swiss soil.

One of the soldiers explained their mistake: "It was all so dark."

How did Liechtenstein react?

They did not even notice until Swiss leadership called them up in the morning and told them, at which point they laughed it off.

One Liechtenstein authority said that "it's not like they invaded with attack helicopters."


Also in March 2007, two British vessels--inflatable boats--accidentally crossed into disputed waters in the Strait of Hormuz. It still remains unclear whether they truly entered Iranian waters.

The Navy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized them and held them in Tehran for two weeks, and relations between the U.K. and Iran became tense.

But, on Easter Sunday, Iran released all the sailors unharmed. According to President Ahmadinejad:

"For the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people — with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial — forgave those 15. This pardon is a gift to the British people."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cows with Names Produce More Milk

A new study by the Newcastle University School of Agriculture shows that cows whose farmers name them and call them by their names regularly produce 500 more pints of milk a year than cows without names.

Farmers in the study found the results unsurprising; one said that treating cows as individuals was "vitally important."

Farmers emphasized that the cows are part of their families and each one has her own personality.

It now appears that, like us, cows want to be recognized not as cogs in a machine, but as individual beings. It makes them happy and more productive.

Somehow, this story awakens my sense of wonder at the world more than almost any other I have posted.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tamerlane's Revenge

Timur the Lame, aka Tamerlane, conquered much of India, Persia, and Central Asia in the fourteenth century.

Here is a timeline of events after his death.

February 19, 1405: Tamerlane dies. His body is returned to Samarkand and buried.

Timur's lavish tomb, the Gur-e Amir, still stands. 1895 photo.

1405, after entombment: A sign is carved into his tomb which warns that whoever disturbed the tomb of Timur bring "demons of war onto his land."

June 19, 1941: Mikhail Gerasimov exhumes Timur's remains for study.
June 22, 1941: Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union.

[N.B. Timur was given an elaborate Islamic funeral and reburied in November 1942; the battle of Stalingrad ended in Russian victory not too long thereafter]

Monday, January 26, 2009

Axis Monday II: Living on Babel


Because "it takes too long to come down to ground level each day to make it worthwhile," a crane operator on the Burj Dubai – the world's tallest building – is rumored to have "been up there for over a year," the Daily Telegraph reports.
His name is Babu Sassi, and he is "a fearless young man from Kerala" who has become "the cult hero of Dubai’s army of construction workers." He also lives several thousand feet above the ground.

Their December article covers a good deal of the symbolism behind this story and is worth a read. Most intriguingly it discusses the mythologization of the construction worker, and uses the true life example of this man living atop the Burj Dubai to hint how real people become transformed into heroes immortalized in folklore.

In this case, the axis mundi transmits that legendary status directly. The Burj Dubai is certainly the profoundest symbol of Dubai (along with its artificial islands, more on those in the future, perhaps), and in a lesser sense of the secular Middle East and the world.

The unique status of the building thus imparts mythological status directly to its sole (?) inhabitant. No one cares if somebody lives in an unfinished three story tenement, except for the Law. But if you live thousands of feet above the ground, literally dwell in the sky, higher above the natural ground than any other human being--it would be shocking if the situation did not impart mystical power to this figure.

The gods which swept Europe and the Middle East as they left nomadism behind as a general rule displaced and replaced terrestrial gods, the Gaias and Earth Mothers of the world (This hypothesis is somewhat controversial and I surely will address it in great detail in the future, but for now take it at face value). These new gods as a general rule came from and lived in the Sky. Mt. Olympus is both indicative and obvious. The gods lived atop the Sacred Mountain--the axis mundi of Greece.

Mr. Babu Sassi, this cult hero of blue-collar Dubai, reigns from his throne in the sky in just the same way.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Quotations on Tea and the Moment

"He took his first sip of tea--always the best one." -Neal Stephenson, Diamond Age

"It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night. Dean was popeyed with awe. This madness would lead nowhere. I didn't know what was happening to me, and I suddenly realized it was only the tea that we were smoking; Dean had bought some in New York. It made me think that everything was about to arrive--the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever." -Kerouac, On The Road

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Two Word Summary of 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'

WARNING: The following post contains significant spoilers for the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The summary below gives away every moment of the entire film, so take caution.

Memento Mori.

End spoilers.

This has been the first edition of the new weekly Axis Monday feature, "Tuesdays with Memento Mori." Look forward to a fuller edition next week!

More Notes and Quotes from the Moment

A headline from

Also from
"This is America happening," said Evadey Minott of Brooklyn, New York. "It was prophesized by [the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] that we would have a day when everyone would come together. This is that day."

Don't hear about prophesy every day in America.

Two million people on the Mall--a full .67% of the population of the United States gathered in this one place to watch the Moment.

By Constitutional decree the inauguration must occur at noon.
Can you even imagine it raining on such a day as this?
Truly that would be an ill omen.


"Bush -- following tradition -- is leaving a note for Obama in the top drawer of his desk in the Oval Office. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the theme of the message -- which Bush wrote on Monday -- is similar to what he has said since election night about how Obama is about to start a "fabulous new chapter" in the United States, and that he wishes him well."

From CNN:

Obama is using the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used for his inauguration. It has not been used since Lincoln's first inauguration in 1861; it's making a special trip out of the Library of Congress for the event.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Axis Monday I: The Inauguration

I'll keep it short since everybody else is talking about this, but it fits right in with the purpose of Axis Monday, so I unfortunately am required to address the inauguration.

This will be the first in a series of Monday posts which celebrate the Axis Mundi. It seemed a fittingly liminal place to start.

Behold the glory of the Capitol, the Axis Mundi of the nation, bedecked for its greatest recurring festival. Even more exciting than Sundance.

The dome pierces the sky; it is in every sense the axis mundi, the heart of the world.

For years the federal Height of Buildings Act prevented any D.C. building from trumping the Capitol's height; a few other federal buildings now rise higher (mostly Cathedrals and Basilicas) but no private building stands taller.

And tomorrow is the hierophany, the revelation of the sacred, at this very space.

Let's talk about the word inauguration for a moment.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1569, from Fr. inauguration "installation, consecration," from L. inaugurationem (nom. inauguratio) "consecration, installment under good omens," from inaugurare "take omens from the flight of birds, consecrate or install when such omens are favorable," from in- "on, in" + augurare "to act as an augur, predict" (see augur).
Romans were big on foretelling the future through birds and other omens. Tomorrow is a day of many omens, a sacred day, which shall set the future for a long time to come.

Will the omens be favorable?

Obama has made them so.

President Obama's journey by train to the capital these past few days has also been wrought with symbolism: deliberate parallels to Lincoln, but also the simple motif of the grand journey. Mr. Obama cleverly saw that a symbolic gesture of this sort would inspire the country more than wasting a few days in the city. He undertook a quest fraught with liminality, and tomorrow becomes actualized.

When is THE liminal moment?
CNN knows:

I don't make this stuff up, folks.

When Obama takes the oath, he shall--for those few moments--pierce the boundary between the earthly world and the sacred realm. He shall be a conduit, for a mere moment, of everything this country believes in.

All such times are transitory. The oath shall pass; its power shall linger through his inaugural address, and then his power shall fade and he will again become a mere man.

No matter what else transpires, it will be the greatest moment of Barack Obama's life, and it shall henceforth always have a hold on him. A second inauguration, should he prove so fortunate, lacks these same trappings. This is the first. This is the one that counts. For him more than other recent presidents, because of the burden placed on him and the hopes of the people.

Come what may--the inevitable failures and disappointments, the utter impossibility of fulfilling his promise--for this one moment he shall be everything, he shall be Perfect.

And once the speech finishes and the balls begin, life will go on for him and for everyone, and the door to the sacred will seal once more.