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Category Archives: Literary Theory

Milton’s Sword of the Angel and the 1664 Comet

As it relates to Spinoza and the Caliban Question below, there is an illumination of the special place the comet of the winter of 1664 played in the political, philosophical and poetic minds of that time. It is thought that Milton had this harbinger light in mind when he wrote of the sword of the “hastning Angel” who ushered out Eve and Adam from the Garden, in the last lines ending the extraordinary poem. Conceivably finished with the comet of ’64 burning still in the sky, Milton’s Paradise Lost, in that it harkens to the soterial and Spinoza’s Ethica stand in particular relation, as mediations on the historically redemptive. I have not seen a study that puts these two together, but should like to.

Th’ Archangel stood, and from the other Hill
To thir fixt Station, all in bright array
The Cherubim descended; on the ground
Gliding meteorous, as Ev’ning Mist
Ris’n from a River o’re the marish glides, [ 630 ]
And gathers ground fast at the Labourers heel
Homeward returning. High in Front advanc’t,
The brandisht Sword of God before them blaz’d
Fierce as a Comet
; which with torrid heat,
And vapour as the Libyan Air adust, [ 635 ]
Began to parch that temperate Clime; whereat
In either hand the hastning Angel caught
Our lingring Parents, and to th’ Eastern Gate
Led them direct, and down the Cliff as fast
To the subjected Plaine; then disappeer’d. [ 640 ]
They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon; [ 645 ]
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Paradise Lost

Blakes’ watercolor illustration, more than a 100 years later, brings this to light:


HAL 9000

The Intelligence of Innocence and What Makes Things Real

The “Open the pod bay doors please HAL” sequence

I watched 2001: A Space Odysseyfor the first time in sometime the other night. And a few thoughts rose to mind. There is of course the incredible personality dominance of HAL in the film, the unforgettable synthetic intelligence, and his schizophrenic lapse into homicidal clarity, brought on by the conflict of his two knowledges: a surface knowledged of the mission, and an unconscious knowledge which became an imperative, “secrecy”. It has been explained that HAL killed the crew as a logical function of this need for secrecy. No crew, no secrets.

This has obvious relevance for a criticism of totalitarian states, and power structures, those which circulate with a near-empty recursion of knowledge, but there is something more that struck me, in this viewing. (This film was the first film that I ever saw in a movie theatre I believe, and I was probably about 4 years old. So it leaves something of an Ur-print.) 


What really moved me was the nature of the Kubrick synthesis of technology and humanization, in particular the sequence where in Dave takes the pod out to retrieve the body of Poole, who we have just seen spasmodically hurled into space, until his limbs finally relent, and he eases into the void, a sculptural figure. What is remarkable, as Poole becomes aetheticized, as his “picture making mechanism” is cinematically evacuated, is the extraordinary delicacy with which the pod comes to his body. This emblematically human moment, the retrieval of a loved one’s corpse, the most irrational, yet powerful of acts, is accomplished via the mechanism. Kubrick and Usworth’s camera capture an incredible delicacy as the weightless body rolls into the otherwise crustacean-like pincher of the pod. This is maternal.

 What is significant to my point is that though the pod is behaving most humanly, what ensues is a robotic chess-match between Dave and HAL, already foreshadowed. Dave strategizes from within his mechanical sphere of action, he speaks with impeccable civility, adding the required “please” to his requests. The techniques of his technology, express, rather than retard his humanity, but he is operating from a logical core. Far from this being a 2001 that critiques technology, it is one that appraises it, as human. Where the humanity ends and the technique begins is not clear, in fact at times they are inverted, with humanity coming out from technique (lip-reading). There simply are techniques of the soul which HAL simply has not mastered yet. HAL at the same time presents the horizon of infinite and collapsed knowing (in which there is no “error”) but also the retarded and childlike, pre-reflective state in which error is not known. He is, like we are all, the baby monolith.

If we are going to let HAL and the mothership stand for a totalitarian, technocratic State, we will learn that the mind of such a State is childlike, possessing an innocence of the world, possessed in its purity of its knowing (and attendant to a logical paranoia). We have, for instance in the Tiananmen moment pictured above, with the pod holding the murderous consequence up to the monolithic mothership, the confrontation of the moral adult with the child-like structure possessing the capacities of a sheer and systematic brutality. What Kubrick’s point is though, I think, is that technology itself is in a kind of infancy, and as it matures, it becomes synonymous with, and undifferentiated from human action itself. Humanty in a sense is made up of our techniques. We see a bit of this in the scene in the lunar shuttle, as Heywood Floyd and the crew select artificial sandwiches.

{a dialogue apparently not in the original screenplay]

Dr. Floyd: What’s that? Chicken? 

Dr. Bill Michaels: Something like that. Tastes the same anyway. [laughter]

Other Pilot: Any Ham?

Dr. Bill Michaels: [looking] Ham, Ham, Ham, Ham…

Dr Floyd: Looks pretty good.

Dr. Bill Michaels: They’re getting better at it all the time.

Aside from the obvious, ironic tone with which everyone seems to be infected, an incipient overly optimistic talk, toeing the party line of unquestionable enthusiasm, there is the sense that indeed the food, just like HAL’s computer intelligence, IS approaching what is REAL, that is, the capacities to become synonymous with, and therefore indistinguishable from that which comes from a different process of assemblage. A ham sandwich not only is a ham sandwich by any other name, but by any other process. Its processes are capable of being subsumed.

What matters here is that technology is not impediment, but a genic pathway, a matrixing of human capacities, each of which have to understood to be in their infancy, much as man is seen in this way. As The technology of social organization which HAL is supposed to represent, stands in for our own capacities. We too, as we approach the infinite, asymptotic line, enter into brutalities and innocences which require moral adjustments. And these moral adjustments are hand and glove to the technologies themselves, in which technologies play a necessary part (hence, the pod carries out the most intimate of actions, the embrace of a dead loved one). In fact, technology expresses and manifests our most human shore. When we come to understand that the man who stood before the line of tanks (apparently an historical event that contemporary China young adults do not know happened), this was not best seen as a man positioning himself against men-in-tanks assemblage, a lone fleshly, individual and brave consciousness, but rather it was and is, a man-in-camera assemblage vs a men-in-tanks assemblage, a materiality put into assemblage whose vectors are continually being discovered.

There certainly is room here for a Lacanian style Big Other take on HAL and the mothership, the conscionable moment when the excluded individual presents the repressed remains to the Desire of the Other, and finds its airless way back into the system to subvert it from its blind spot. I think that there are very good reasons to suppose that such a “logic” does well to describe a certain circulation of desire and affect which regulates the acquistion of, and attendence to, knowledge. There is an investment in circulation. But such a dialectic does not see what is more, how there is an infancy and childhood to capacities to act, to technologies, as those capacities grow into our own extensions of what is Real. As as Real, the facts of the matter (no matter their transparency), compiled into knowing and perceptive bodies, which are necessarily joined in assemblage even to those that they oppose.

To add a last thought. This joining is not just a homogenization under a new logic, but rather are realistically read as a braiding of techniques, a communication of affects across bounds which resists any literalization. There is an intimacy with which the pod grasps the corpse, and an intimacy with which HAL recalls his eariliest song. The dialectic, if there really is one, is the passing of the polyphonous of technology into the binary of identities, for the sake of a polyphony of returns.

The imagination justifies its confused and indeterminate state by moulding itself in the natural potentia, in the development and increase of human operari. Therefore two levels can be identified: first a static level on which the imagination proposes a partial but positive definition of its own contents and a second, dynamic level on which the movement and effects of the imagination are validated as a function of the contitution of the world.

Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly

The Condensation of Specificity: Paul’s Use of “stoicheia”

Paul’s Rhetorical Use of “stoicheia” in Galatians 4:3,9


When contemplating the rapid spread of Christianity, thought often turns to the brilliance of Paul. How else can one account for the meteoric rise of what was initial a local Jewish cult, to the level of a pan-Hellenic spiritual force, if not for that particular conceptual brilliance found in his letters to the early churches? Part of this attribution is making much of what evidence we do have, in absence of other facts, in that the nature of early Christianity remains a mystery. Be that as it may, I would like to participate in this notion that there is something in Pauline writings, the unique way that he was able to handle the pre-conceptions and spiritual needs of a historically diverse audience, as he sought to apply a theology abstracted from the life and teachings of Jesus. In particular, I am taking up his use of a term, the stoicheia, whose translation has received much debate (α), in order to expose the very dextrous nature of his argumentative strategy, the condensed and conceptual subsumption that helped him translate a cult of Judaism into a universally applicable, yet historically defined, message.

My focus is found in the image of slavery that opens the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, (4:1-9) (β). Here Paul forms a powerful rhetorical condensation, one which expresses the status of those that were “under the law” hupo nomon (4:5). The occasion of his writing is that some of the church are being tempted to undergo circumcision in Paul’s absence (6:12), and Paul is arguing that in Christ no longer are followers subject to the dictates of the Torah. But something more complex is happening here. The nomos is not just the law, be it civic or religious, but the word also means “custom,” the way of doing things. Here he compares the past way of doing things to the status one has as a child, and an heir of an estate (4:1). Though in law an heir, one is also under the authority of “guardians and trustees” (epitropous, oikonomos), a status no different from that of slavery itself (4:1), a slave of slaves. Honing his image, he then tells the Galatians what we were slaves to from the start, the stoicheia of the universe (tou kosmou, 4:3). In seeking to circumcise themselves the people of Galatia risk falling back into a childhood imprisonment to the stoicheia which act as guardians and housekeepers. But what are, or who are the stoicheia of Galatia?

Around this term there has been controversy. For instance Eduard Schweizer has argued against the Revised Standard Version translation of the phrase, “elemental spirits of the universe,” by examining the way that the term had been used throughout Greek and Roman philosophy, from Empedocles to Plutarch to Philo (γ). At most it is to mean the elements of the natural world (for instance fire, water, earth and air), and as such the stoicheia are only powers “feared but not worshipped,” quite distinct from a “group of demons” or spirits governing the world through agency (46eight). In contrast to this sense of natural powers, Clinton Arnold points out that the term stoicheia had a very specific meaning in magical and astrological texts of the era (δ). He cites the Greek Magical Papyrii (PGM IV .40-41) where the term stoicheia are the demons that rule every ten degrees of the zodiac, called “astral decans,” and to which a letter of the alphabet was assigned (57-5eight). This technical meaning of the term was widespread in occult texts of the Roman empire, and is even found in the magical Jewish Testament of Solomon as referring to the same “36 decans also called ‘demons’” (p. fifty-eight) (ε). The question naturally arises: Is “being under law” simply being subject to the forces of the world, the material elements which threaten and batter our lives, or is it being subject to a hierarchy of demons which “by nature are not gods” (4:8)? I suggest that to attempt to answer this kind of question with some finality is precisely to lose out on the brilliance of Paul’s rhetorical, and also conceptual, strategy. 

In order to unpack the image of childhood and slavery before the law, one has to consider to whom Paul is writing, and the religious milieu into which Christianity has entered to compete. For instance it is tempting to assume that because Paul is writing about circumcision, and warding off of the implementation of Jewish Law, when he speaks of the Law, he is speaking solely of the Torah and its traditions. But in Galatia the dominant cult tradition for nearly the past millennium was the worship of Agdistis (or Roman Cybele), the Great Mother Goddess. Indeed, at the time of the writing of his letter, the cult of Cybele had long spread from Asia Minor, across the Roman Empire, been Hellenized, and had swept back into the region in a wave of re-insemination, as attested to by the excavations at Gordion (see Roller) (ζ). Indeed, if there were a single Hellenic and Asia-minor cult, it was the cult of the Great Goddess Mother, and Galatia at the time of Paul was a historical center; as Susan Elliott writes, “the ‘region of Phygia and Galatia” (Acts 16:6, 18:33) was dense with local expressions of the Mother of the Gods. The list of places in Phygia that show evidence of devotion to the Mother of the Gods basically covers the map” (673) (η). No reference to the law, custom and powers would not include at least a connotative reference to this proliferate deity.

Given this ubiquity, one should hold as relevant that the Mother of the Gods was, throughout the Hellenic world, strongly associated with the keeping of civic authority, at times literally holding that authority and documentation within her temple.

In a number of instances, her temple (Mētrōion ) housed the state’s written records or was associated with protective enforcement. The most prominent example is outside of Anatolia, at Athens, where the temple of the Mother of the Gods adjacent to the bouleuterion was the city’s archives for records such as property deeds and wills as well as laws (Elliott, 675)

 So when Paul talks of inheritance of an estate, and being subject to the law, there is not only a theological point being made, but rhetorical condensation of cosmological forces, and a literal and judicial reality, two things that the modern mind most readily keeps apart. Further, as Paul equates the spiritual minority of believers to slavery, a slavery that was to the principles of the universe, one would imagine that the people of Galatia would turn in mind to the temple state of Pessinus, holy to Agdistis, in Northern Galatia. For of it, as Elliott writes,

In such temple states, many of the residents were referred to as “sacred slaves” (heirodouloi). One especially significant form of a “slave” (doulos) of the goddess was the self-castrated gallus…While under possession of her influence, they castrated themselves. After they put on a special clothing interpreted as female garb (675) 

As we can see, while the immediate topic of Paul’s is circumcision and a “return” to Jewish law, the rhetorical condensation of images is that of falling under the rites and powers of the Goddess Mother, wherein circumcision becomes conflated with castration and feminization; telling then is Paul’s rather un-Christian sounding curse, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (5:12). The return to the nomos of a Jewish revival, among gentiles, becomes for Paul a falling back into the entirety of a previous Aeon, one in which civic authority, the ubiquity of Roman Law, and the castrating figure of the Great Female Goddess, a world ruled by elements of nature, and yes, even a hierarchy of astrological demons, the stoicheia, all collide into a rhetoric of very precise offices and states, which are nonetheless cosmological.

To the consternation to scholars it is not that Paul is vague in reference when he fashions the status “born under a woman, born under the law” (4:4) or the image “in slavery under the stoicheia of the universe” (4:3). Rather, he condenses in these phrases all of their exact and historical manifestations: thus, in image the nomos is both laws kept as records in goddess temples, and customs given by the Torah. He so concludes his reproach of stoicheia by calling them “weak and miserable” asthēne and ptōcha “beggarly” (4:9) (θ), because they are to be seen in their specificity, but as powers to be reckoned with. Paul’s final appeal is not ontological-that is, the stoicheia do exist, as would be obvious to his audience-but in terms of authority and historical change itself. Christ, in the end is a much better Lord to be the slave of (1:10), for he has the greatest power, having been born of a woman and the law, but having overcome them.


I argue that in the example of the stoicheia of Galatians, in its multiplicty of reference, we come in contact with two things. The first is that the minds of antiquity likely did not categorize things of fact in the same way that we as moderns do. The stoicheia of the universe could at the same time be simply the elements of nature, a fire that breaks out in the house, the crashing of waves on the sea that dash a ship, but also could be the influence of a demonic force, or even the agency of a decan of a specific astrological degree. These are not best seen as competing theories, one of which Paul might have had in mind. In the same way, the nomos is many things, none of which excludes the others. At times it is the Roman authority as much as it is the occult practices of a covenant made between a far-away people, and God. Paul was able, through his rhetorical brilliance, not only fashioned a theology which in its broadest conceptual terms, inspired diverse people, but also was able to speak in very concentrated tropes and images which subsumed a great variety of social facts, many of which would have had specific influence on the daily lives of converted believers. It is in this remarkable skill that some of Christianity’s capacity to convince resided.



α. The most natural English of the word is perhaps simply “element” as it applies fundamentally to parts put in a row, or an order, applying to sounds of speech, letters, components of matter, hours of the sundial, stars, principles of geometry, coins, to name a few. A Greek-English Lexicon. Compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott., New (ninth) ed., henceforth, LSJ.

β. What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles [stoicheia] of the world. 4 But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5 to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. 6 Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. 8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you know God-or rather are known by God-how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles [stoicheia]? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (all cited, all Greek text and biblical translations are from New International Version, found in The Interlinear NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament In Greek and English, ed. A. Marshall Zondervan Publishing House, 1993).

γ. Eduard Schweizer, “Slaves of the Elements and Worshippers of Angels: Gal 4:3 and Col. 2:8, 18, 20,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 107, No. 3. (Sep., 1988), pp. 455-468.

δ. Clinton E. Arnold, “Returning to the Domain of the Powers: “Stoicheia” as Evil Spirits in Galatians 4:3,9,” Novum Testamentum, Vol. 38, Fasc. 1. (Jan., 1996), pp. 55-76.

ε. Such evidence helps Clinton conclude that the stoicheia are best understood as deceiving evil demons commensurate with the “principalities and powers” of Ephesians 6:12 (75).

ζ. Lynn E. Roller, “The Great Mother at Gordion: The Hellenization of an Anatolian Cult,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 111. (1991), pp. 128-143.

η. Susan M. Elliott, “Choose Your Mother, Choose Your Master: Galatians 4:21-5:1 in the Shadow of the Anatolian Mother of the Gods,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 118, No. 4. (Winter, 1999), pp. 661-683.

θ. The term literally means something like a “cringer” as in one who bends. LSJ: “II. as Adj., beggarly, “ptwxw=| diai/t$” S.OC751; “p. stoixei=a” Ep.Gal.4.9: c. gen., beggared of, poor in, ["phgh\? p. numfw=n" AP9.258 (Antiphan.)".

Works Cited

Arnold, Clinton E. "Returning to the Domain of the Powers: "Stoicheia" as Evil Spirits in Galatians 4:3,9." Novum Testamentum, Vol. 38, Fasc. 1. (Jan., 1996), pp. 55-76.

Elliott, Susan M. "Choose Your Mother, Choose Your Master: Galatians 4:21-5:1 in the Shadow of the Anatolian Mother of the Gods." Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 118, No. 4. (Winter, 1999), pp. 661-683.

The Interlinear NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament In Greek and English. Translated and edited by A. Marshall. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.

A Greek-English Lexicon. Compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott. New (ninth) edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. S.v. "ptwxo/j" and   "stoixei=on."

Roller, Lynn E. "The Great Mother at Gordion: The Hellenization of an Anatolian Cult." The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 111. (1991), pp. 128-143.

Schweizer, Eduard. "Slaves of the Elements and Worshippers of Angels: Gal 4:3 and Col. 2:8, 18, 20." Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 107, No. 3. (Sep., 1988), pp. 455-468.



John Donne’s Material Monism of Love, and Spinoza’s Eternity of the Mind

John Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” articulates a metaphysics which makes of a death an anchor point, upon which a living being can compass itself, creating a death-defying eternity of affection. He speaks in seemingly dualist terms of a sublunary love “whose soul is sense” contrasted with a love “inter-assurèd of the mind”. In this he seems to compose a rarification of affects such that when stretched materially, thinly enough, become etherialized, though substantial:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
-Whose soul is sense- cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

But here is a certain monist clue in the description of sublunary love. The love whose soul is sense “cannot admit of absence”, since the very elements of its composition, if absent, destroy the very love which might do such perceiving. Much as in Spinoza, the idea cannot be torn completely away from its object (knowledge is merely a privation, and there is nothing positive in knowing, which is false). In just a few lines Donne sums up a physicalist argument of a sort, the very recognition of absence is itself the testament of the physical preservation of that love’s elements. In a certain sense, there can be no such missing (or missing is merely a misconception, as Spinoza puts it, it has no Being). The elements which preserve a state prove to its perseverance. Instead Donne proposes an “inter-assured” love of the mind, a presencing in which any separation is necessarily an expansion, and not “a breach”. The transformation of “breach” into expansion is the view of a monist assemblage, and not of a dualism; “mind” is still composed. Despite the abstraction of such a love, its spiritualization (compared to gold beat thin) by the same reasoning of compositional elements, is a material endurance, made clear by mind.


Though the love after death is not of “eyes, lips and hands”, it seems it must still be physical (just as beat gold is still gold, just as the mind has the body for its object), made of the elements of which it is an expression. In fact, instead of anatomical body parts, it is made now in part by text, in part by bodily afffections, and the relational compositions which preserve. Donne here, in the compassry of two legs, the geometry of a circle, makes an argument against Time (as breach), as the material going out is subsumed in a deeper circle. Like Spinoza he proposes a world where absence has no basis, sub specie aeternitatis, which is experienced through memory, trace, but also the material expansion of those traces in Time, as understanding.

Place Donne’s notion along side what some have taken to be controversial and inconsistent, declaration of the eternity of the Mind:

5p23: The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the Body, but something of it remains which is eternal.

Scholia: There is, as we have said, this idea, which expresses the essence of the Body under a species of eternity, a certain mode of thinking, which pertains to the essence of the Mind, and which is necessarily eternal. And though it is impossible that we should recollect that we existed before the existence of the Body-since there cannot be any traces of this in the body, and eternity can neither be defined by time nor have any relation to time-still, we feel and know by experience that we are eternal. For the Mind feels [sentit, senses] those things that it conceives in understanding no less than those it has in the memory. For the eyes of the Mind, by which it sees and observes things, are the demonstrations themselves.

Whereas Spinoza wants to make a distinction between memory trace, and “the eyes of the Mind,” Donne’s point seems a bit more refined, as he speaks of the experience of circular and timeless inscription, as compositional trace, the way that when one “foot” stops moving in time, the physicality that binds foot to foot moves it still, drawing it out, as it stretches so thin as to reveal a tremendous arc, the experience of ending where one has begun. There no absolute dichotomy of existence and Mind, memory and mental seeing. I believe that Donne captures something of Spinoza’s argument, that Spinoza himself is not here capable of.

To add to this account see Spinoza’s Letter 17 to Peter Balling (July 20, 1664):

…a father so loves his son that he and his beloved are, as it were, one and the same. According to what I have demonstrated on another occasion, there must be in thought an idea of the son’s essence, its affections, and its consequences. Because of this, the father, by the union he has with his son, is a part of the said son, the father’s soul must necessarily participate in the son’s ideal essence, its affections, and consequences…


Closely Related Post: Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief

Towers and Bridges, From Ada to Tolkien


Nabokov’s Ada

Children of her type conceive of the purest philosophies. Ada had worked out her own little system. Hardly a week had elapsed since Van’s arrival when he was found worthy of being initiated in her web of wisdom. And individual’s life consisted of certain classified things: “real things” which were unfrequent and priceless, simply “things” which formed the routine stuff of life; and “ghost things,” also called “fogs,” such as fever, toothache, dreadful disappointments, and death. Three or more things occurring at the same time formed a “tower,” or, if they came in immediate succession, they made a “bridge”.

(74, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, VIE 1990)

Ada’s concept of Towers and Bridges has such strong explanatory value in the synchronic and diachronic, condensations of vertical, stacked, and therefore eternal significations, and transitive happenings, things that lead from one state to another. Beyond Ada’s immediate meaning in the text, the two are striking tropes.

The image of a tower recurs in Tolkien’s criticism of the Critics, and their abuse of the “tower” of Beowulf:

 A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in the building of the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labor, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distance forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said, “This tower is most interesting!” But they also said, (after pushing it over): “What a muddle it is in!” And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: “He is such an odd fellow! Imagine him using these old stones to just build a nonsense tower! Why did he not restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.” But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

 “Beowulf: The Monsters and Critics”

The full force of his analogy comes forth when one considers that Beowulf ends with the building of the pyre for the hero, and its service as a signifying tower over the sea.

What is compelling here, is the realization that synchronic towers, whether they be made of the unique, “real” things in life, as they are for Nabokov’s Ada, or be they artistic re-stackings of ruins, seeing the Horizon through the material of the Past, are condensed verticals which serve as Bridges. Narrative scales.

There is more to say here. But it is a beginning.


Lindisfarne: The Rise of Illuminative Script

põs anaginóskeis;: How Do you Read?

Incarnation and Genealogy in the Linsdisfarne Gospels’ Matthew Incipit Page

The direction that this analysis takes is towards the Lindisfarne Gospels, and towards ultimate question of their mystery. I will leave aside the direct question as to the reasons why, after centuries of non-aestheticized sacred texts, here, in the hollows of insular monasticism, at a veritable edge of Western Civilization, there in particular arose such a fantastical relationship to the letter, to the graphic reality of the inscribed thing. What I will take up are the individual modes of expression, as they are found in one exemplar page of this Gospel, so as to unveil the very mechanism of conceptual expression, in hopes that something of the “why” might be seen in the “how” and the “what”. That is, from the Incipit page of the Gospel of Matthew, in examining its typographical character relationships to rune language, its various lexical conflations found within the fonts of such characters, and then its compositional expressions of the whole, as a subject matter, I will seek to show that the artists behind this creation sought to not only record, but enact an eternal truth; and in enacting it to provide a suitable object for meditation, saying something not only about man, language, and history, but also, necessarily, about God.

Best it is to first introduce the Matthew page from the Lindisfarne document (above), it containing the first verse from that Gospel. It reads, in translation: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, the son of Abraham;” and in Latin Vulgate: “liber generationis Iesu Christi filii David filii Abraham“. The thesis which drives this paper will be that the conceptual content of events that is described in text, will be performed by text, and its typographical, lexical and compositional expression. If my thesis is correct, the book, the material evidential record of Jesus’ line of descent into this world, will be exemplified by the very words and how they are displayed. That is the incarnation of Christ as God, come from its human braid of ancestry, will be made to appear. The reasons for this will be hypothesized about later. As one can see, even given the text content itself without any adornment the exact words on page prove a bit of a visual puzzle. One has to mentally strain to pick up each due letter; one has to recognized that some Latin forms have been replaced by Greek lettering – without using the Greek word; one must see that for instance “Liber” is part of a fanciful curvilinear vortex of forms, or that “S” that ends “generationis” has become a nearly a boxed “x”.

What is it that the monkly hand is doing?, we are forced to ask. That which in most texts should be made most clear, is being made, here, obscure. The sacred text, which is in most cases one would expect to be transparent, here, needs to be itself engaged.

I would like to add to this puzzle the first layer of analysis, that which answers the question, leaving aside for just a moment, the contorted “Liber” at the top, just why are the letters of the main part of the page made in such a boxed fashion, with strong crossing diagonals, bent-back end-pieces, so that each letter diverges from its expected Latin form, but converges on a kind of typeface. If perhaps we unlock the aesthetic and conceptual reasons for their form considering that they are the least divergent perhaps we will have clue to the other expressive deformations.

If one considers the historical circumstances of the painting of this document one understands that Christianity has come to position itself in relation to a druidic and pagan past. There is in a certain sense both a completion of, and a break from a pre-Christian polytheism and animism of clans wherein nature itself was populated by natural forces and spirits. This forms the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic genealogy, if you will, of Northumbrian Christian beliefs, a past which has grown into a Christian present. If we saw a page made for the mediation on Christ’s genealogical antecedents, one would not be surprised to see Anglo-Saxon figurations present to express the historical developments of the people. That is, just as Jesus came from the Jews, we, a Christian we, have come from pagan times.

If you compare the block lettering of the middle text of the first verse, with the forms of Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, I think you will see an immediate, base typographic similarity:

Present are the same essential rectilinear forms, the cross-patterned verticals, and even the repetition of particle letters (much as Greek letters were used, but without transliterative meaning). Exemplary of this pattern making, found here in the very aesthetic center of the block composing the “s” in the Latin word “generationis” is the runic letter dagaz (meaning “day”), accomplished by the double-backed ends of the Roman “s” and the symmetrical and close placements of the “I’s”.

That the meaning of the rune itself has bearing on the meaning of the word generationis could only have added to the meditative form of the text. Such connections are more than tenuous. As one can see from the alphabet table above there an additional co-incidence between the Christological letter Chi found in the bottom of the block text and the Anglo-Saxon letter gebõ, meaning “gift”. Greek Christ as Anglo-Saxon gift. This takes us to an underlying thought which steers this analysis: the form of the presented word was not meant solely as a transparency, but as a rich condensation which would serve as vehicle for the deeper understanding and experience of the message of the text.

But as it stands, this is only a loose conjecture, one that simply draws a comparison. Is there any evidence that Christian writers or artists would even deign to mix the runic alphabet of pagan times with the new and Christian present? Is it not that Christianity was attempting to break free from, rather than embrace, this history? It so happens that we do have at least one good piece of evidence that the mixing of runic forms with Christian subjects was meaningful. It comes in the form of the so called “Franks Casket”, come from approximately the same century (seventh), and likely same region, Northumbria (Schapiro, 37), and it depicts not only subjects from Roman mythology and Roman history, but also the Adoration of the Magi. It does so, bordered in runes:

We shall return to the Franks Casket for further evidence, but it suffices to say how that as a working hypothesis the runic quality of the internal block text typeface may be expressing something of the genealogy of Christian Britannia, just as the text is telling the reader about the Jewish genealogy of Christ, each of them expressed in some typographical variation (a runic font past, and a Latin to Greek mixing of letter). What remains to be seen is if this typographic exemplification is bolstered by a lexical conflation.

What I mean by lexical conflation is that a single typographic form can be read as being multiple words. This can occur either in one language – for instance how the form “bear” can mean both the animal and the to carry a burden in English – but more importantly, (depending on how the individual letters are visually deciphered, for instance if a “y” can also be read as a “p”),  a single word can form different words,  in different languages. It is my contention that part of the role played by the fantastic forms of lettering employed by the craftsman, was to enable the word-forms to represent multiple words, and thus multiple meanings, and so in this way, depict and enact the very incarnating processes of the eternal God becoming man this portion of the Gospel seeks to record. That is to say, much as how this particular word-form exists in a finite way, what it represents and calls to mind in a plethora of words, meanings and genealogical matter is the historic reduction of the Infinite to the finite itself. This is part of the meditational structure of the Lindisfarne Incipit pages.

The best way to proceed would be simply to present the occasions of a hypothesized lexical conflation, in a series. Because these are contemplation devices, the substantive effect of multiple readings of a single form will lie with the reader. That is, beneath a primary word in the text, one person might find the presence of a secondary or a third word likely, and another not. It is the very rubic nature of these forms that can defy assertabilty of their fact.

The first of these concerns a mere lexical multiplication of meanings, as can be found in the initial word “Liber”. This word, by size, color, form and placement, set off from the rest of the text, allows itself to float independently from the context. A reader of course would know very well that it meant, “the book” but given its compositional status, the word itself would be able to take on object status, conveying its own truth. What becomes noticeable when we take “Liber” out of its context is that not only does it mean “book” in Latin, if we allow the last vowel to lengthen, it also means “A man free of”. And given this meaning, the phrase “Liber generationis” would mean “A man free from generations”.

What is remarkable about this secondary reading is that it gives the secret understanding of what the incarnation itself was. As the text tells us and enacts for us (the incarnation of a God into the finitude of generations) the result of this is a man, in fact any Christian man, who is free from (de)generations. The infinite becomes finite, so that the finite (man) can no longer be finite.

The secondary thing one notices in the form of “Liber” is that the -er is set out from the Lib. One sees that in our second reading, the grammatical root/ending distinction becomes enforced. The base of the word is freed up from the -er to express itself, as it does aesthetically, coiling in a rich core of graphic signification. If we set up the one lexo-graphic unit and attempt to uncode what it would represent we must free up our mind to the kinds of associations possible for it to evoke.

Though we are already predisposed to seeing the L-i-b of liber book in the form, really it is not apparently there in any obvious manner. The “I” is quite distended, and crosses over the bass of the “L”, and the “L” runs into the over-round “B”. In ruminating over the “root” of Jesus’ genealogy several Anglo-Saxon words impose themselves here, over this one aesthetic form, none of them strictly being less present than “lib”. The first of these is an invocation, given that “lib” is severed from the -er. The Anglo-Saxon word for “Life” is “libban” and it is hard to imagine that such a meaning would not be present in these isolated graphic elements. Further, given the way that letters are forced to be found in letters, in this form not only is “Lib” found but “Lyb” in that the L and the I combine to form the “y” .

Lyb in Anglo-Saxon means “poison”. In presenting the origins of Christ’s past we have the graphic conflation of Anglo-Saxon words for “poison” and for “life” placed upon the Latin word for “book”, but “book” translated back from the Latin also can mean “birch tree” (in an interesting confluence of meanings, the Anglo-Saxon word for “book” boc can also mean “birch tree”). All of these invite us to return to the origin of the genealogy of Christ, that of the tree of Eden, the tree of genealogies, and even the tree upon which he was crucified. This is even further insured in the Biblical equivalence of this line from Matthew with the same incipient line from Genesis 5:1: “hic est liber generationis Adam in die qua creavit Deus hominem ad similitudinem Dei fecit illum” [this is the book of the generations of Adam, when God created man, and made him in the likeness of God, (RSV)]. Christ is the new Adam, he who will in generations from sin make man a liber, a free man.

The presence of the tree of knowledge (birch/book, boc, liber), of poison and life, of Anglo-Saxon and Latin all condense into this remarkable aesthetic form. Yet for the contemplating monk there is more to be seen in this kerneled image. At the heart of it is the very name of Christ, read in the Chi-Rho abbreviation “Xρe”:

This internalized Christ insignia is repeated down below in the “XPI” abbreviation in the last line of the block text, acting out the very unfolding of history, the notion that Christ was there in the beginning, buried at the heart of the tree of knowledge, which following the fall unfolded itself in the lineage of Jews, beginning with Abraham and the first formal covenant. And there is further lexical-typographic conflation lower in the text, wherein the divine is found within a name, as in the line “Christi filii David”. “David” is twisted – the lower form of the “D” is expanded to represent an “O”, and the “A” and “V” tossed into an obscurity- so to form the word “Dio” Latin for God, making the line read the double meaning, “…of Christ, son of David” and “of Christ, son of God”.

This again cements a reading of multiplicities of typographic condensation, enacting the very message of the text, performing the incarnation itself, but in such a way that all of its elements become nested for a means and process of meditative reading.

As we pull back from the text, and examine the totality of the presentation, one more graphic element strikes us and remains to be explained if we are to enter into an analysis of the composition as a whole. The top of the reported L is crowned with what seems to be a decorous serpent head, whose eyes and nostrils flare in a symmetrical focus upon the reader. Considering the entirety of meanings found in this portion of the text it seems clear that this is the serpent in the Tree. In fact the entire Lib/Lyb form of the upper left half composes a source diagonal of time and meaning, stemming from the serpent event in the Garden.

Time begins with this serpent figure woven out of letters, in the Tree, and works itself down through rune-like fonts in the generations of Abraham and David, until the arrival of the liber, the free man of Christ. It can be seen that the composition itself forms the very matrix of a history, a history of Man, and a history of Britannia.

So the first compositional element to be discussed is this movement from wide, curvilinear forms to the upper left, to increasingly condensed letter forms as they travel down to the lower right hand corner. Meyer Schapiro when discussing the energizing and dramatizing capacities of insular script, how each letter was often experienced as an individual and signifying person, takes up just this sort of condensation of figures. Again, it is from the Franks Casket, this time from the cover lid:

This kind of progression from a large to tiniest element appears often in medieval representations and especially in images with a hierarchical ordering of the figures…the same unit of ornament appears in different magnitude on the same field. The device permits a greater flexibility than that allowed by classical ornament (37)

We can see that the shrinking of figures denotes their approach to death, falling under the press of battle. Something of the same is being communicated as the letters of words are being forced to cram themselves into the smaller and smaller space of finitude, giving us the strong sense of Christ having to squeeze himself into this world, into a specific time and place. But there is conceptual complexity, a folding back on itself, given in this depiction of incarnational time, for as the text of the page ends down to the lower right corner symbolizing the progression of time towards Christ’s incarnation, it is narratively going backwards in time, from Christ Jesus, to David, to Abraham. The overall involution presents the paradox of a historicized eternal vision. As history unfolds, it seems to return to its initial kernel state. It goes backwards and forwards at the same time.

This same union of antagonisms can possibly be seen in the very construction of the frame within which the text is contained. In terms of signification the Serpent-body Lib/Lyd extends in decorated form to compose the entire border of world history.

Here the time of the genealogy of man is depicted as enclosing world history. The world belongs to the garden serpent, and to Satan who he represents. But as the words work themselves down from the upper left, into smaller and smaller manifestations, in the figured name of Abraham they finally break through this frame. The covenant of God made with the Jews becomes fulfilled in the person of Christ, breaking the stranglehold of the serpent expressed in the descent of sin. In just this way this initial page of the gospel of Matthew, in its variety of condensations and conflations of meaning as it tells of the very descent of a man, performs an ascendancy. And even one might argue that it puts again a trace of his name “Ihu” in the very compositional form of the frame which will hold him. The very serpent/tree lettering, come from a magical Celtic past, is seen to flower in the person of Jesus, coming out of that pagan richness.

The individual pieces of evidence provided here can each be dismissed as reaching for meanings that are not truly there, but the whole of them I think are too significant to remain determinately unseen. The greatest strength of such a reading is that it moves to an answer of the question, Why did the monks of insular manuscripts suddenly start treating text as if it were a material, signifying and performing thing? While much of this answer may lie within the exact nature of how religious artifacts were magically conceived in the Celtic past when considering the remarkable stages and forms of condensation accomplished by the artist of this one page, there is the singular sense that a page of this gospel was not merely to be read but was meant to be contemplated, as a thing in itself. There, before whomever watched it, a play of meanings and significations drawn across languages, heritages, and theological concepts manifested itself. A reader saw something of what was implied in the phrase “the genealogy of Christ”. All that a genealogy of a God requires is pulled in and somehow exemplified. And the reader as well, the particular history of his place in time are also engaged. The reading of the text becomes an epiphanic realization the longer you look at and consider it, how the infinite itself, could have become finite, how a “book” became a “free man”.

Works Cited

The Latin Vulgate Bible. . Accessed May 7, 2008.

Schapiro, Meyer. The Language of Forms: Lectures on Insular Manuscript Art. Piermont Morgan Library. July 19, 2006.


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