Sunday, January 30, 2011

Windsong – Breath of Being (Section 1: MISTRAL Chapter 1 – The Exchange))


Being The Beginning Sunday January 23, 2011


1 The Exchange Sunday January 30, 2011
2 bildende Kraft
3 Gossamer Wings
4 Nemesis
5 Odd Shoes
6 al-Rûh
7 A Love Supreme
8 The Three Cornered Light
9 Serendipity
10 The Watchman
11 The Upright Way
12 Angels
13 The Cave of Montesinos


14 Idols
15 Nightingale
16 The Perfect Square
17 Haunting
18 The Uncontainable
19 The Ear of Malchus
20 Mauvais Pas
21 Sinan Qua Non
22 Spirit-Level


23 Witness
24 Alcibiades
25 Ney
26 Birdsong
27 The Vanishing Point
28 The Cat Walks
29 The Approximate Likeness of Being

Becalming Unscientific Postscript


The Mistral (It., maestrale) are the cold, northerly winds blowing down the Rhone valley
and called as such for their force. (It., maestro, master)

“Mention (Hud) one of 'Ad's (own) brethren:
Behold, he warned his people about the winding Sand-tracts:
but there have been warners before him and after him…”

The Qur’an
surat al-ahqãf (The Sand Dunes); 46, v. 21

Chapter 1
The Exchange

“The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.”

Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass

There is a gentle whirring of the disc reader, a slight pause and then the disc icon appears. Flanagan double-clicks on the icon, with difficulty, as his finger does not want to co-operate. There is a further short delay and then a contents box opens, pulses, and the screen changes to display a folder within the box. Like looking at his heart trace while on the treadmill the previous day, he realises. A sinus rhythm, the specialist had reassured, normality in the signals. There is one folder within the box: The Arm-pit Diary. Flanagan looks at the name and twitches his nose. A personal diary, like being itself, he had long ago agreed with Eco, is a multi-laned highway in which you may travel in any direction but always towards eventual dead-ends; “amorphous stuff”, eluding determination.

Thinking of determination, Flanagan wonders whether Diaries actually warrant names, like cats or dogs, or imaginary friends. What if it were his own, what would he name it? The question distracts him from proceeding any further and he stares at the screen. At the periphery he sees that the Chapman file from yesterday is still saved to the desktop and wonders why? But he knows! With all that has happened, and is yet to happen, he has exhibited a terrible urgency to tidy up his affairs and going through the old computer files, one by one, was part of that process. Chapman was one of yesterday’s tasks and should have been deleted. He must have missed it, or got tired. Flanagan doesn’t want to fall behind in his schedule and is annoyed with himself: a patterned failing. He double-clicks the Chapman file and waits.

It is an old file, from three years previously, containing reference material he had gathered to help track down a manuscript sent by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-1800s to an English publisher called John Chapman. The commission, he remembers, had come his way from Justine, the wife of an extremely rich Turkish businessman; a collector of Americana – a collection which included Justine, his Kentucky-bred, Yale-educated, arm-decorating lawyer-wife. Not being his field of expertise, Flanagan had little enthusiasm for the commission, but needed the money and promised to help. Justine had pestered, and pestered him, as if finding that particular manuscript was the only thing in the world that would make her husband happy or satisfy him.

God she was beautiful, Flanagan remembers, with the perfect body, hair and smile of a collectable. ‘What a sad smile you have!’ he had observed, at their very first meeting. And a short time later, asked of her, ‘How does a collectable move beyond the avarice of the collector?’ ‘Are you any different Jaffa,’ she had replied. ‘Is not the freedom you offer an even greater cupidity?’ A fragile, beautiful woman frozen in a vacuum of emotion, Justine had transferred her fixation; offered herself in a moment of romantic fantasy and then had lain there, eyes shut, crying from the necessity of it.

Flanagan takes a deep breath. He had started, he noted looking at the first page of the file, as he always did, with an explanation of a word and coincidences, trying to give himself a focus, a purpose. Chapman: the old English for a barterer. The name, he suddenly decides, is as good as any for a diary: an exchange between the inner and outer self. He moves his finger over the mouse-pad again, closes the Chapman file and places it in the trash. He then returns to the Arm-pit file, opens it, waits and then click-adjusts the zoom, to 150 per cent enlargement. Easier on the eye, he thinks, if not on the soul. A date and time appears in a muted header at the top of the page but she has still typed the date and its title, in big block capitals. He scrolls quickly down. Only a dozen or so entries, all in January, most of them long. Not ever having kept a diary, beyond his brief notes concerning appointments, at first glance it’s not what Flanagan imagined. He had, for some reason, presumed one-line locations, perhaps two-line gossip or three-line observations, and some occasional underlined insights; all random, discontinuous, freely associated; all possibly dangerous; all possibly full of shite. But not this, he realises. “There are things that cannot be done (or said)” he remembers Eco wrote in Kant and the Platypus.

‘Or undone,’ he says aloud. What had Rio planned for this, he wonders and then wonders again as to why she had stopped so soon? Should he intrude? Did he have a right to intrude? Did Mac have the right to have forced that intrusion? His eye catches the horsehair tassels just visible through a gap in the parcel wrapping. He resists the urge to start at the last entry, and returns to the beginning:

Arm-pit Diary,
January 3:

Dear Walt,

Sorry to land you with this but every heterosexual female should have a gay man in her life with whom to have a good bitch. I’ve given you the gig!

First thoughts for the New Year: I don’t do resolutions … or guilt for that matter, but I’ll try to keep this diary, and also stick to the fitness and diet regime I started last November. Mac has called it my ‘Hot-an-trot Plan’ referring to the hot yoga and running components and my big butt. The diet, I think, I hope, is a marginal need, a few pounds here and there, but necessary for a sense of well-being. And the diary? A formula for thinking about something else… anything else, except eating!

The staff in the Library, decided that for Christmas we would all give each other book’s as presents, books that each of us as individuals thought would be appropriate for this particular time in the other person’s life. Phyllis Andrew gave me Erin Pizzy’s Food for Sluts in which food, the microwave, and even the fridge become the focus of Pizzy’s “seething rage”, her isolation, her attempts to understand, her love and loathing of food . . . perhaps even her love and loathing of life. A definite resonance in that for me! Going through a crisis? Write a cookbook! Want to provoke a crisis? Try following the instructions!

Mac gave me Walt Whitman’s, Leaves of Grass. American ‘be-longing’ he called it. Blame him for me writing to you!

Never thought about food much before, at least not in the erotic sense, but recently the new diet has precipitated a weirdly enhanced sense of smell. It doesn’t dominate – what does in my life? – but does impact intensely every now and then and is always, nearly always, linked to a sense of déjà vu. You know how you see those adds where somebody cooks an egg on a sun-baked car bonnet. Well… last night I dreamt about food being cooked by the body’s own heat, just after making love. Real food marinated in the juices of passion, eaten there and then. The dream evolved with a food exploration of the dream-lovers chest and then the small of his back, a sexual sushi counter complimented by aperitifs from the hollows his ear, by champagne bubbling from his mouth and nostrils, by wine from a cupped upturned palm, and by cognac from his puckered navel. In the dream I could smell each sensation, each vapour, each fleeting image. The orgasm was sooo intense.

Why? I wonder. I’m as fussy about the scent of cleanliness as the next person and stale sweat is the most potent antidote I know. But in those moments, those very immediate and selfish post-coital moments when all other senses are satisfied, it is my nose that cries out for more and it is in the aroma of a man’s armpit and its testosterone haze of salinity that drives me wild. I like to bury my head there, like a rutting animal, and inhale deeply, bringing me to a high, sometimes to orgasm again; a private intense orgasm, which is not for sharing.

Dearest Walt, I truly understand what you meant when you wrote, "The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer" . . . Last time I tried keeping a diary though was 17 years ago, during those long months spent hiding out with Jack in Eleuthera; chasing by day the bonefish of Cat and chasing at night rum after rum. I wanted to be Rosita Forbes, near whose house at Unicorn Cay Jack has his: to be free in the forest of forgetfulness, roaming wild on forbidden roads to Samarkand and beyond. The diary didn’t survive the energy required for dreaming.

Went out with Mac and some of the others from the Library on New Year’s Eve. Too much to drink: me and a thousand others. Danced the night away and behaved myself . . . just. Never got to bed though. Was talked into doing a charity swim in the sea, …without a wet suit! Bloody cold and I haven’t recovered: laid low but alas, not New Year laid. And for the usual obvious reasons: Séamus’ availability.

He, the putative (s)layer, was away until yesterday skiing with his family … his wife, ‘she who shall remain nameless’, perhaps did. Prefer not to think about that. He telephoned once or twice to wish me Happy New Year from the top of some mountain or other. Said he misses me, needs me…wants to do things to me. He promised more time together in the coming year. Yeah, Yeah… I’ll believe that when it happens. Anyway going up to our secret place in the hills tomorrow to meet him. Rampant sex on the cards I hope! Delayed my period by starting another packet of the pill back-to-back in anticipation. The things we gals have to do… eh! To get our way … to fuck with abandon. Not that Séamus would even ask or wonder about that side of things… he just assumes … and resumes when he wants.

Thinking about his aroma all the time, now. . .

Flanagan looks up, wondering whether he should continue. ‘Shit,’ he says aloud, cursing Mac for forcing this intrusion, this judgement. He remembed arguing with Mac about the nature of reflective judgement, and what Eco had written about the platypus. Eco had pointed out that when the platypus was first discovered, Kant was already going senile, and that, by the time it was decided that the platypus was an egg-laying mammal, Kant had already been dead for 80 years. Eco had argued that if Kant had ever been able to venture his opinion abiut the nature of a platypus, that opinion would have been shaped by reflective judgement, and would have determined that because the platypus had bildende Kraft, a capacity to begin, it had a capacity to be. It had its own place in the scheme of things.
Just like Rio’s diary!

Flanagan’s nose twitched and he thought of Alanna in Istanbul. Oh so beautiful Alanna! She too had liked the smell of a man’s armpit after making love. “The last real smell of a modern man” she had called it. And “The last anything of modern man, who has all but lost his wild grace” she had then emphasised for his benefit. The words haunt him and he thinks of the Chapman file again. John Chapman, the physician and publisher-owner of The Westminster Review in the 1800s who was a serial collector of mistresses not to mention his association and possible affair with George Eliot – Marian Cross nee Evans – his editorial partner. Flanagan moves the mouse and opening the trash cache recovers the file and opens it. In scrolling down he sees what he calls his ‘coincidence notes’; these ones were about other men called Chapman and thinks even more highly of the use of the name for a diary of his own. He had highlighted John Chapman a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, the nursery-man of lore exchanging seedlings for hospitality and a chance to preach. And the other John Chapman, author of Memories and Milestones, thumping with single-handed indignation – having burnt one hand so badly, in despair at striking an admirer of his future wife, it necessitated amputation – in 1912 on the anniversary of a Negro lynching in Coatesville, Pennsylvania to an audience of two. ‘Diaries are also indignant,’ he whispers.

This particular concept suddenly bothers him. Flanagan wonders how much indignation is ever needed to do what must be done. He gets up from the table, crosses the room to the CD rack. Finding what the sleeve he is looking for he extracts the disc and places it in the player. The song is haunting and he remembers yet another Chapman: Mark, the killer of John Lennon and of Double Fantasy, the album Chapman had Lennon sign for him earlier in the day, before returning in the evening to wait with a gun in his hand and a copy of J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket. He wonders about the multiplication of fantasy and sings along with his own emphasis to the song, ‘I-magine all the people . . .’

Returning to the computer Flanagan looks again at the two underlined passages, and smiles. Neither would, of course, or did, help him track down the manuscript he was after but this was his way. He remained a collector and the ‘observations’ were a brief reward on that journey. Like many more, now forgotten, they were part of what he is …was, purloined moments of insight and reflection; siphoned indulgences to his own being. And yet in the past week he had moved many of these files to the trash, exhaling that lifetime of indulgence. He then scrolls down to another entry: John Chapman, the publisher, had also kept a diary and in it he had described some of his feelings for Eliot. Two lines of that diary had caught Flanagan’s attention and he had recorded them: “I dwelt also on the incomprehensible mystery and witchery of beauty. My words jarred upon her and put an end to her enjoyment.”

Rio had reacted in that way, Flanagan thinks. ‘I “jarred” you Rio’, he says aloud. His eyes drift upwards to where her diary waits, its title and content muted on the screen’s background, and then back again to his, own words. Coincidence holds little mystery, or mystique, for him anymore, he realises. He knows is an illusionist who has suddenly lost that magic, that sense of amazement and become disillusioned. He sees where he had flagged the same Westminster Review’s savaging under Chapman’s editorship – in a display of hypocritical prudery – of the poetry of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1860. Chapman had declared “a naked savage has often a wild grace of movement that a civilised man can hardly possess, but certainly not display”. Alanna had demanded a wild grace, he remembers.

Flanagan puts his hand to his throat and feels along its length, wondering why there is no pain, just difficulty. In contrast to Rio and Alanna, in his dreaming, in his breathing, he is now both afraid of food and movement. But not for very much longer, he reminds himself.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Windsong – Breath of Being (Part 1: Being the Beginning)

Being the Beginning

“A beginning has no becoming into being.”


“Being is not a problem for common sense (or, rather,
common sense does not see it as a problem) because it
is the condition for common sense itself.”

Umberto Eco
Kant and the Platypus

Jerome Augustine Flanagan – Jaffa to those who remembered better days – suddenly stirs. He feels… hears his breathing, inhaling and exhaling in short galloping bursts and is also quite certain he sees a horse nearby. In trying to freeze the image he forces his eyelids to open and close like a camera shutter but the horse disappears into a distant fog. He rubs his eyes, massaging them into focus. Sweat from his forehead drips into his eyes and salt-stings. He lifts his head up, then his chest and leans on one elbow. At the far end of the room, a computer sleep-light blinks, and alongside the computer a package, delivered earlier in the day, sits unblinking. He feels dreadful. Not just dreadful but also very disturbed and disorientated. The air around him is heavy with humidity and he feels suffocated by its pressure. The dream that had woken him had been all too real, too immediate.

Flanagan’s eyelids close again and in the blackness he hazily recollects the dream’s beginning: him hitch-hiking at a crossroads; being picked up by a circus truck driven by a cackling clown; arriving at a fairground attraction, a tunnel of distorting mirrors, and then slowly, ever so slowly, it dawning on him that he was watching himself and was also being watched from within his reflection by a curled-up, tadpole-eyed, ochre-veined, marble-skinned being of a thing, contained within a sac that floated around his dream like a speck in his eye. As he warped backwards and forwards in the dream the ‘thing’ inside the sac changed and distorted, acquiring and losing definition as it filled and emptied from his reflection. The light surrounding the sac pulsed bright and dim and a whooshing sound blew up and down the tunnel, making noises like somebody whispering his name. He remembers at that point stretching out to press a hand against his reflection and the sac suddenly sucking him in. And then he was the being on the inside looking out; at first there are two of him, then four, then eight . . . and then feeling the spasms start up and at their most intense sensing a pain, like pain of separation. And then there was the horse with four or five tails – a nightmare.
‘Christ!’ Flanagan says aloud, opening his eyes wide and touching his face for reassuring orientation.

He feels clammy, knows he has been sweating, and wonders if he smells of this. His clothes stick to him like membranes. The slug-ash ghost of a half-smoked Syrian Alhamraa cigarette trails across the ashtray, its filter stub guillotined to the glass table. He reaches for another. The warning label on the box says they are “harmful to the Pregnant and her Embryo.” ‘Bloody embryo,’ he murmurs, realising some of the origin of his dream’s imagery. He resists the urge and unfurling from the large sofa, looks at his watch, focusing hard on the dial. Two hours he’s been asleep, he reckons. Must have needed it, he reasons, feeling an intense urge to empty his bladder, the spasms that had woke him beginning again. Standing, he picks up the ashtray, the unfinished pizza slice, now cold, and the near empty beer bottle, now warm, and carries them with him towards the kitchen.

Some time later, his grey-flecked sandy hair wet from a needed shower and a mug of dark-roasted Java in hand, Flanagan carefully descends the small set of steps that lead down into the living room of his ground-floor apartment. He is wearing his favourite silk kimono gown over a bare chest and baggy oriental-style pyjama pants. There is a chill in the room, and he feels a sense of intrusion. He hesitates for a moment, steadying his hip against the steel handrail and tightening his grip on the mug. His eyes scan along the length of the room, past the reproduction Georgian fireplace and the tall unit made from mountain ash, which houses his stereo system and CD collection, towards the double-glazed patio door at the far end where a large, polished writing table is placed across the entrance. His eyes scan the magnolia-coloured walls, checking. The framed pictures are all in place: the original page CCLVII from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle showing Constantinople; a 1714 Homann map and panorama of the same city; and the drawing of an Irish fiddler caught in the full flow of his music.

Reassured somewhat, Flanagan relaxes and crosses the room to the writing table. He stands close to its edge, tapping with an agitated finger against the peach-coloured wood before searching beneath the scattered books, catalogues and layers of paper that float on the table surface like Sargasso seaweed. Finding what he is looking for he angles the remote control back over his shoulder to aim at the stereo, selects the second track and waits for the music. Infrared music – night-vision music, he thinks.

On the table in front of him, the pale-pink flowers of the house-bound orchid, cymbidium – purple-blotched invitation, yellow-velvet vulva, cobra-like tumescent hood and sticky sweet depths of it – glimmer in the moonlight, the light of the moon, the light of Jupiter’s moons under a March Gemini, looking serene and satisfied. A cadenza light, he thinks, the moonbeams bringing their own music, filtering into the room on a cool breeze that whistles softly through a half-open patio door. Beyond the door and the small garden, he hears the sound of the ocean that the apartment block overlooks. Govi’s Magellan’s Beat starts up on the CD player, quietly. He half-turns with the remote control in hand, gun-slinging it into the quietness.

On the liquid display it is 23:45, near the end of the second watch since sunset. And what a sunset it had been, he remembers, the dying embers of the day bouncing off the red wind, a dust-laden Sirocco that had brought the humidity and his dreaming. Earlier in the day he had watched the windsurfers, attracted by unseasonable warmth, appear like mayfly on the waters beyond the patio, chasing the wind. It is music to steer by, he thinks tillering up the volume: the music of the wind. Panpipes like siren squalls drift across the room and the ocean of his imagination. Then there are faint string sounds and he senses a sea-change: a pitching ship and the strains of halyard, sail and mast beating close to the wind’s direction. Then gradually, a plectrum rudder has the ship and orchestra reaching away again, sails full of a guitar’s liberation.

Flanagan sits down in front of his laptop. A slight movement of the mouse extinguishes the sleep mode. He drafts on the coffee and then lights up a cigarette, drawing deeply on it. To the right of the screen, the neatly packaged parcel lies unopened. He had immediately recognised the scratchy writing of its sender, its fragility, its anger and he felt afraid of that anger. To the left of the screen, a yellowing newspaper cutting from the Iraqi war: the image of an old man in Basra lifting a child; a child wearing a purple cardigan and green trousers; her little arm outstretched, clutching at life; her right ankle shattered, rendered of skin and sinew to abattoir bone; stripped useless, he thinks, by another type of liberation on a dog-day for the dogs-of-war. He wants to reach out to her. As if writing something would bring her back, him back, bring them all back. Exhaled smoke swirls around the computer. In his mind’s eye there’s a vortex, a black hole sucking back on the words, an anti-matter of what matters. The old man in Basra, is looking down at the face of the little girl, furrowed disbelief etched in his own. The very effort, the futility of it, drives his head into his hands and he looks at the orchid, and the picture, and the keyboard, through the cracks between fingers.

Flanagan then notices – senses – the bottle of single malt from the Isles and reaches out across the table. And the nearby glass: unwashed, he smells the peat off it. His muscles twitch. It is an effort just to lift the bottle. He remembers how his own father’s hands shook as he reached out for a bottle – the bottles that were denied to him at the end, a miserable, sad and lonely end. He pours the whiskey slowly, stiffly, and bringing it to his lips tastes the bog off it. He exhales smoke into the half filled glass and watches it settle on the surface of the amber liquid. After a moment, he leaves the glass down again and reaching for the parcel pulls it towards him. He tears away at the paper to reveal an old, calfskin-covered book, a computer disc in its case, and a folded piece of paper. He lifts the book, inspecting it. He coughs suddenly, his eyes opening wide, and stubs out the cigarette. He recognises the frayed flaps and woven horsehair tassels.
‘Jesus!’ he says aloud.
Laying down the book again he picks up the folded piece of paper. He unfolds it and reads:

Dear Jaffa,

I am sorry but I was afraid, so afraid. For Rio, for you but mostly for me. I wanted to protect us all but that is no longer possible. My struggle is over and it is a poisoned “arrow” that wings its way back to you.

The disc is Rio’s, a diary of sorts, I think. She told me about it before she . . . I thought it might help and I took it. I needed to know, wanted to understand, about you and her, her and me . . .
In the end I couldn’t read it, the possibility of hurt, hurt too much. I wish I could forgive you.

I wish I could forgive myself!

Flanagan’s hands shake so much cigarette ash from the stubbed-out cigarette fans across the table. The letter flutters to the ground beneath his feet, landing face down. He leaves it there, hiding from its accusation … and the difficulty in picking it up. He replaces the calfskin-covered book in the torn packaging and pushes it to one side. He sees a vague reflection from the screen of the laptop and remembers K’s concern regarding truth: the reflection presenting two moments of thought, objective and subjective: two alternatives to existing. Whatever way you look at it, he realises, objectively or subjectively, outwardly or inwardly, being or becoming, truth is a vanishing point. And reflection, he hopes, is just an approximation.

He lifts the computer disc case and opens its lid. Lifting the lid, Pandora’s, he suddenly thinks, he extracts the disc and inserts it into the computer drive. He then waits for its azure beginning.

Windsong – The Breath of Being: A Novel (Introduction)

“Time was when every epic had its tempest: winds
were the divinities of the Mediterranean.”

Predrag Matvejevic
Mediterranean. A Cultural Landscape.

“When lovers moan,
They’re telling our story.
Like this.
I am a sky where spirits live.
Stare into this deepening blue,
While the breeze says a secret.
Like this.”

Jelaluddin Rumi
Like This
(Tr.: Coleman Barks)

There is an opportunity, sometimes, when a writer retains the full copyright of his or her work, to revisit, to amend, to perhaps even republish. Walt Whitman was forever editing and adjusting Leaves of Grass until the point was reached where he felt he could do no more. Windsong – The Breath of Being, my fourth book, was first published by the Wynkin deWorde imprint in 2004 (ISBN: 1-904893-03-1) and although no longer available in print it retains a web life, albeit a precarious one, on Google Books. From the moment it was published I felt it could have been so much better, and the sense of a lost opportunity predominated. I have decided to revisit the book to try and edit a new version specifically for this blog …to see where that takes it and I will endeavour to release a chapter at least once a month. Comments from interested readers are welcome and I hope to reply to all.

I have outlined the chapter headings below and over time will add the blog date.


Being The Beginning Sunday January 23, 2011


1 The Exchange Sunday January 30, 2011
2 bildende Kraft
3 Gossamer Wings
4 Nemesis
5 Odd Shoes
6 al-Rûh
7 A Love Supreme
8 The Three Cornered Light
9 Serendipity
10 The Watchman
11 The Upright Way
12 Angels
13 The Cave of Montesinos


14 Idols
15 Nightingale
16 The Perfect Square
17 Haunting
18 The Uncontainable
19 The Ear of Malchus
20 Mauvais Pas
21 Sinan Qua Non
22 Spirit-Level


23 Witness
24 Alcibiades
25 Ney
26 Birdsong
27 The Vanishing Point
28 The Cat Walks
29 The Approximate Likeness of Being

Becalming Unscientific Postscript

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Berlusconi & Ben Ali: Good b(d)ye to all that!

Checking Out!

September 1936 was an interesting month. The movie Swing Time starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with the song The Way You Look Tonight had just been released, Robert Capa published his infamous picture of the 'Falling Soldier' in the Spanish Civil war and Adolf Hitler was conducting a series of speeches to rouse the German ‘volk’.

Vu Magazine 23 September 1936

On the 12 September 1936 in a speech at Nuremburg, to the Labour Front, Hitler declared:

Nothing can make me change my own belief. I am convinced that the unworthiest among us is he who cannot master his ill fortune.

And so it came to pass that a new generation of self-believers were encouraged to see people as unworthy – and somehow undeserving – if fortune in terms of health, wealth, education, fate or influence eluded them.

Nine days earlier than Hitler's speech, on the 3 September 1936, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali the recently deposed dictator of Tunisia was born, and 17 days later, on the 29 September, it was to be the turn of Silvio Berlusconi.

Oh Silvio!
Frankly Angela, I don't give a damn!

Both men, apart from their obvious preoccupation with dying their hair in order to maintain a youthful illusion for their ‘unworthy’ subjects, developed an intense despotic self-belief. In Ben Ali's case this resulted in torture, exile and murder of any opposition. In Berlusconi's case a sordid descent into an orgy of deceit.

Waiting for Ben Ali

Ben Ali is thankfully gone, albeit with 1.5 tonnes of gold, to Saudi Arabia where Standard Oil announced the development of their Arabian Oil fields in September 1936 and Berlusconi will surely follow soon, with or without some brunette coloured company.

Good Dye to them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rihla (Journey 19): Languedoc, France – Cathars, Torture and Catharsis


Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This rihla is about the Cathar region in Languedoc, France.

Four years ago I returned to university to pursue a master’s degree (LLM) in International Human Rights Law, at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, in NUI, Galway on a part-time basis. The subject for my thesis was Torture and in particular the work of the Special Rapporteurs on Torture.

PH Koojimans, the first Rapporteur, stated in his initial 1986 report to the UN (UN Doc. E/CN.4/1986/15, para.4) that:

Torture is the violation par excellence of the physical and mental integrity in their indissoluble interdependence – of the individual human being.

Defined in its broadest sense torture is the intentional infliction of severe physical or psychological pain on another human being to the extent that the victim is dehumanised. Political or public torture, torture sub specie civitatis, either legislated for or sanctioned by the state and carried out or mandated by an agent or agents of the state (including the judiciary) has a long history.

In the classical Greek era rational scientific thought had helped evolve the notion of justice or dikaiosyné – after diké, the coercive enforceability of divine decrees – as a distinctly human, albeit abstract moral principle. In the early polis, or Greek city-states, individual virtue was directly linked to the common good and citizen and state were perceived as one. Torture, as part of the legislative process, was accepted as a necessary instrument for the protection of the individual and hence the collective. Its application, however, was highly selective. Slaves were not considered to have an individual moral worth and around the time that written testimony began to be used in courts, circa 380BCE., Aristotle included in his Rhetoric five sorts of documents that could be submitted for arbitration: laws, testimony of witnesses, contracts, basanoi and oaths.

Basanoi – derived from the Greek word for the tools that were used to determine the purity or “truth” of gold – were the permitted testimony obtained from slaves under torture concerning information demanded of their masters. Citizens could not be tortured and the basanos was generally reserved for the resolution of private disputes.

In Roman law, during the early Republic (circa 450BCE), freemen were never tortured and in keeping with Greek precedence Rome reserved quaestio only for slaves. In the beginning there were clear guidelines: slaves could only be tortured to prove the guilt of their own masters in cases of incestus – which was a crime against the gods – or where the senate made a specific judicial exception in some special instances. By 60BCE however political expediency determined that slaves could be tortured to bear witness against their masters in cases of majestas and by the time of the Emperors this authority was extended, in similar assaults on the state, to all freemen and citizens.

Medieval Torture

With the advent of Christianity some of the great early writers of the Church began to question the excesses of the application of judicial torture under Roman law. St. Augustine of Hippo in particular, writing around 420CE, was especially scathing of secular judges:

'What shall I say of torture applied to the accused himself? He is tortured to discover whether he is guilty, so that, though innocent, he suffers most undoubted punishment for crime that is still doubtful, not because it is proved that he committed it, but because it is not ascertained that he did not commit it. Thus the ignorance of the judge frequently involves an innocent person in suffering.'

Pope Gregory the Great confirmed this reasoning around 600 CE and to all intents and purposes, political torture in Europe ceased until the early middle ages.

This was to change again. In 1184 Pope Lucius III established Episcopal Inquisitions to counteract heresy in particular Catharism.

The Cathars were a dualist sect whose spiritual leaders or Perfects considered themselves the ‘Pure Ones’ or katharos, particularly when contrasted to the abuses conducted and condoned by the Catholic clerical establishment of the time. They best established themselves at all levels of society in the Languedoc region of France from about 1100CE causing enough consternation to have the Church send in their best preachers such as St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Dominic to try and counteract it. This approached failed and in 1208 Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian crusade to rid the Languedoc region of the Cathar heretics.

In parallel to the military campaign although Innocent III had precluded torture the Episocopal Inquisitors were given more and more power and in 1231 Pope Gregory IX expanded their remit and formally established the Papal Inquisition as a professional, accountable institution dedicated to the eradication of heresy. The Inquisition’s control was placed in the hands of the Order of Preachers, the order established by St Dominic and later to be known as the Dominican Order, and they took to their work with so much relish that they were sometimes known as Domini canes, the Hounds of God.

Harmless 20th Century US Torture!

Sometime later, in uncomfortable parallels of today’s US sanctioning of water-boarding as a justifiable ‘form’ of legal torture, fundamentalist paranoia and imperial ambition, in a Papal decree that was going to determine the relationship between penitents and a punitive church for 400 years, Pope Innocent IV, in his Bull ad extirpanda of 1252, formally permitted the re-introduction of torture as a legal means of enforcing confession from supposed heretics.

This facilitation was to plant deep roots in most countries legal regimes and it was not until the 1740’s on mainland Europe that the influential writings of Montesquieu and Cesare Bonesana in particular, began the process that culminated in the 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

The Cathar supression had always fascinated me, as my mother had been a lay member of the Dominican order, and while she was alive I had often teased her about the Order’s historical predilection for torture. In late September 2008 I had 10 days holiday available to me and decided on the spur of the moment to head for Cathar country, just to experience the geography and in particular some of the mountain-top fortresses where they took refuge before ultimate extinction at the hands of the crusading barons, as well as completing my thesis.

The Cathar ‘heresy’ suppression became essentially a side-show in powerful fight between Aragon, the Papacy and France for control of the resources and riches of the previously independent Languedoc region and as I climbed the heights of the castles of Peyrepertuse and Quéribus (the last significant Cathar refuge to fall in 1255) and looked out over the rich valleys and high hills towards the present-day Spanish border you could understand why.


The small villages passed on the way were very quiet, secretive almost and the walls of mountain guest-houses’ paper-thin. Nights were spent suppressing coughs and evil thoughts and waiting for the mating games to end. I tried not to think of one of the last of the ‘Perfects’ Guillaume Bélibaste in 1313 being discovered having sex with Raymonde by her sister Blanche. Sex for Prefects was an absolute no-no and indeed the eating of meat of any animal or fowl that indulged in any kind of sexual intercourse was prohibited. Blanche exclaimed on disturbing the couple’

‘Oh Madam-the-misbegotten-bitch, you have compromised the entire cause of our holy church.’

Auto de fe
Bélibaste was to die in an auto de fe in 1321, a ‘saint’ because he refused to recant before the Inquisition

It was not all ‘Pure’ for me however and in the village of Duilhac below Peyrepertuse I experienced for the very first time a very French peppered and conjugal lamb rack covered, drowned almost, in a chocolate sauce washed down with a Spanish wine called Cathar. The chef was young northern culinary crusader who had married into a family who had an ingrained memory of the Languedoc of old.

Returning from the hills to the costal motorway I travelled on towards Arles stopping to visit the abbey-church at St Gilles, the titular seat of the powerful Raymond VI Count of Toulouse who had tried to mollify the crusade against the Cathars, and nearby which on the road to Arles the murder of the Papal Legate in 1208 by a member of Raymond’s retinue, had precipitated the call by Innocent III for the crusade against the Cathars in the first place.

The Hospital in Arles

In Arles one of the places I found most fascinating was the hospital with yellow and blue hues where in December 1888 Vincent van Gogh was admitted after cutting off a part of his left ear in a brothel. It was the first physical manifestation of an increasing paranoia, which eventually resulted in his suicide on 27 July 1890, two years later. Of this time he wrote,

"Sometimes moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant."

Catharsis in Aristotlean terms was the emotional release experienced at the conclusion of a tragedy, a purging. In medicine it is an evacuation of the bowels. In modern psychoanalytical terms it is considered the process of experiencing the emotional release from discussing a repressed or ignored event from the past.

van Gogh's Hospital in Arles

As I sat in the garden of the hospital in Arles, at the end of my journey from Cathar to catharsis, I could only imagine the inner and outer torture that van Gogh and the other ‘Perfects’ had had to experience for the sake of their inner beliefs, deluded or not.

Politically sanctioned methods of 'legalised' torture is always deluded!


Horizons beyond Peyrepertuse

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Entasis, Enstasis and Ambient Awareness


The first day of a New Year and is often the way a time, a brief moment in time, for reflection before the external demands of ‘being’ overwhelm the internal desires of ‘being’. By way of ethical disclosure and apology to the reader this reflection, or as a friend of mine once called it, ‘a voyage round my navel’, has been aided by Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban on the CD player, a glass of 12 year-old Jameson whiskey and the painkillers required to deal with a tooth abscess and absent dentist!

In a lecture to architects, entitled Talking to Myself About the Poetics of Space, given in February 2009, Peter Sloterdijk the renowned German philosopher posed a series of questions to himself to try and explain his seminal work on Spheres Theory. In the final question of the lecture he asked ‘Why do you think the preposition “in” is enigmatic?’ He answered (himself!),

Because it highlights both being-contained-in and being-outside. People are ecstatic beings. They are, to use Heidegger’s terms, forever held outside in the open; they can never definitely be included in some container—other than graves, that is. In the ontological sense, they are “outside” in the world, but they can only be outside to the degree that they are stabilized from within from something that gives them firm support. This aspect needs to be emphasized today in contrast to the current romanticism of openness.

And where architecture was concerned he finished the lecture by saying,

‘Someone who builds a dwelling or erects a building for an institution makes a statement on the relationship between the ecstatic and the enstatic, or, if you will, between the world as apartment and the world as agora.’

Ecstasis means ‘to stand outside oneself’, where one’s consciousness is free to be open, to indulge in, as Sloterdijk suggests, a ‘romanticism of openness’. That current openness, or what Michel Henry in his 1962 Essence of Manifestation anticipated by coining the phrase ‘ecstatic-visibility’, is perhaps best explained by what social scientists have now termed ‘Ambient Awareness’.

Ambient Awareness is described as the modern phenomenon of peripheral social awareness, an ecstatic-visibility propagated by constant contact and observation via social networking platforms on the internet, such as Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook etc. It is the ‘agora’ of our times, a presumed open space where paradoxically our ecstatic-visibility or more prosaically, our digital imprint, creates far greater opportunities for enclosure.

Ambient Awareness

How open can any of us be however? Is ultra or ecstatic visibility an end in itself and will it eventually overwhelm any type of inner contemplation? As Sloterdijk warns any ecstatic experience needs to be stabilised by an ‘standing-within-oneself’ or enstatic structure. Contemplation must be maintained.

Although having sidestepped the immediate ecstatic attractions of Twitter and Facebook, more from a fear of overt and sustained intimacy and a preference for enstatic experience, I am I believe, an enthusiastic participant in ambient awareness by blogging this blog. A reader once wrote that 'I wrote too fast for her' and another that 'I dance between the shadows' and both are true and as a consequence does not promote much in the way of ecstatic communication. However I remain a romantic at heart.

Clive Thompson in the NYT Magazine in September 2009 wrote about the paradox of ambient awareness,

Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.

I am not so sure! Ecstatic visibility, or ambient awareness, or Twitter feeds, or Facebook friends are indeed pointillist, made up of hues or part-emotions which stand alone, but much as we would like to imagine them blending into each other, fusing into a sophisticated existence, they do so only as an optical illusion.

And this brings me to Entasis!

Entasis is the external convex curvature introduced by the earliest masons, into tall supporting columns, which overcome yet another optical illusion, that of the columns narrowing the space between them as they rise. It also promotes also a bulging of the middle of the column, which has been found to give additional structural strength.


Entasis would probably be a better way of understanding the platforms of modern internet communication and how their self-promotion of structural integrity guarantees an apparent ecstatic experience or openness. This promise is contrived however and the ‘ecstatic visibility’ experience is achieved by a ‘fuzzy logic’ illusion rather than ‘invisible’ contemplation and genuine structural support.

It is also true to say that human existence may always have been predicated on an illusion of that existence, only now that illusion must be sustained by a maximum of 140 characters!

Have an ambient and ecstatic 2011.

Further Reading: