Posted in Books I love, Paintings in Progress

Camillo’s Memory Theatre-an artwork in progress

Francis Yates, in The Art of Memory, tells how Giulio Camillo reinvented memory art in accordance with the renewed interest in Neoplatonism.  Camillo’s conception was also inspired  by the recently rediscovered teachings of Hermetic philosophy which his friend, Marcilio Ficino had introduced into Renaissance Italy with his translation of the Corpus Hermeticism. 

Ficino inspired Camillo in the use of astral talismans to draw down celestial influences into memory images and infuse them with magic power.  This imaginative reinvention of memory art was meant to train the mind to receive celestial influences and  unify esoteric knowledge by holding an inner image that mirrored the celestial harmony.

The Corpus Hermeticum taught the essential divinity of man and that all phenomena have their origin in the realm of ideas (archetypes.)  Camillo’s theatre enabled the “viewer” to recall these first causes, and the essential relationship between man (microcosm,) and the world (macrocosm.)

The first level of manifestation was mediated by the 7 Governors.  These astral beings made up the 7 measures by which the interior man descends into creation, acquires a body whose parts fall subject to the dominion of the zodiac, before he reascends through the heavenly spheres.  It is through the Hermetic religious experience he regains his innate divinity.  The 7 governors have associations with the known planets, 7 days of creation, angelic hierarchy and the lower sephiroth.

Yates says that the greatness of Renaissance art  was largely due to perfect proportion that was in accord with celestial harmony.  Seen in this light, the grace and majesty of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is a result of her status as talisman.

Posted in Books I love

Ah Sunflower!

Yesterday I read a quote from Yeats on the Symbol Reader’s wonderful blog about symbolism, astrology and Jungian mythos and transformative imagery (my tortured words.) Yeats (for my money, the greatest poet of the 20th century,) spoke of the “one adventure that is the image of his secret life,” and the necessity to preserve its motivating influence.

I won’t bore my readers with details of the “adventure” which opened the door to my own secret life-the door to which I feared I’d long since lost the key. Monika’s post reminded me of it- reminding me not to squander the gift on the same distractions which mired the lotus eaters in forgetful apathy .

Many years ago I encountered a book that (while I struggled to understand its convoluted thought) transformed my inner life. It was Henry Corbin’s book on Ibn Arabi called: Alone with the Alone.

He begins with citing the ancient philosopher Proclus’s meditation on the heliotrope (sunflower.) This flower exemplifies, in its continual sun-ward orientation and movement following the solar path, the method of theophanic prayer.

( I think of The great poet Rumi who, in grieving the death of his teacher Shams [the Sun,] began turning as he composed his verse. This lead to the inception of the Mevlevi Sufi order.)

Corbin speaks of the phrase which opens each Sura of the Koran: Bismallah er Rahman er Raheem, (we begin in the name of the One who is most merciful and compassionate.) The spirit of theophanic prayer is not a petition for deliverance from evil, but a practice where all actions are begun with full awareness of our reciprocal bond with the creator. It is a recognition of interdependence. By intoning this prayer, the faithful proclaim their allegiance to the primordial pact which confers existence upon both Lord (Rabb) and vassal. Our breath is united with the existentuating breath of the all-merciful and allows knowledge of God by a mutual sharing of essence. 

As in Buddhist teachings, it stresses the breath-inhalation, exhalation and the vast space between.

I’ve come to see that all creative work depends on this. It reminds me of the need to strike the right balance of egoistic intent I project upon the world, with a receptivity to what the world has to say to me. This holds true in painting, writing and human relations.

This is the wider perspective Yeats’ words reminded me of-that which makes true, angelic inspiration possible.  It is a creativity motivated and vivified by a wish to benefit all beings.

I thank the Symbol Reader for reminding me.

Posted in Books I love

Books I love-Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda

You must give up your personal history.

This terse comment by Carlos Castaneda’s teacher Don Juan, in Journey to Ixtlan, contains the key to this spiritual travelogue in which he renounces his anthropological career to enter the sorcerer’s path.

The drawings done of Castaneda, partially erased by himself, speak more eloquently than revelations of his mendacity or alleged misogyny.

For the sorcerer, reality, or the world we know is only a description.

For novelists (it is absurd to argue which category this work belongs) the world is the reality in which they are immersed at the moment of creation.

My feelings were clear bodily sensations; they did not need words.

Yet he describes, at great length, terrifying encounters in  the intermediate realm. When Castaneda is shaken by these experiences, Don Juan commands him:

Write! Write or you’ll die!

It is an imperative Castaneda takes to heart.   Abandonment of personal history might contradict Don Juan’s statement about writing as survival but, rather than a bid for immortality, Castaneda’s account may be the final act of self erasure.  It resulted, ultimately, in irrelevance.  As he progressed to the rank of Nagual (teacher of sorcery), the fiction stylist was displaced by his persona-his double.  As he was subsumed into the anemic New-Age genre, he became infatuated by his own image (or its absence) and got mired in convoluted explications of sorcery.   Most fatal, he lost his sense of humor.

Unfortunately this seems to be the lot of many successful artists who find endless justification for their surrender to the allurements of the marketplace.

But Journey to Ixtlan is Castaneda in his prime. Take the hilarious scene where Don Juan and his sidekick Don Genaro-as antidote to Castaneda’s attachment to his worldly vehicle-make his car disappear:

“Where’s my car?”

Don Genaro began turning over small rocks and looking underneath them…

“Don Genaro is a very thorough man,” Don Juan said with a serious expression. “He’s as thorough and meticulous as you are. You said yourself that you never leave a stone unturned. He’s doing the same.”

Genaro, puffing and sweating, tries to lift a boulder.

 We could not budge the rock. Don Juan suggested we go to the house and find a thick piece of wood to use as a lever…

Resigned to this insanity, Castaneda lends a hand; with a tremendous effort, they lift the boulder.

 …Don Genaro examined the dirt underneath the rock with the most maddening patience and thoroughness.

“No. It isn’t here,” he announced.

Other passages are suffused with a beauty as stark and dramatic as the desert landscape through which they travel. In the chapter, Becoming a Hunter, the sophisticated anthropologist, Castaneda, admits to the reader his feelings of superiority over an Indian.  Reading his mind, Don Juan says:

“We are not equals.  I am a hunter and a warrior and you are a pimp.”

Don Juan then meets Castaneda’s angry protest at these harsh words with a masterful act of “not doing.”

…when it was pitch black around us he seemed to have merged into the blackness of the stones. His state of motionlessness was so total it was if he did not exist any longer.

It was midnight before I realized that he could and would stay motionless there in that wilderness, in those rocks, perhaps forever if he had to. His world of precise acts and feelings and decisions was indeed superior.

I quietly touched his arm and tears flooded me.

Castaneda has been maligned for having done his field-work exclusively in the UCLA library.  But, for me, this only makes his work more impressive.  No other writer so cannily expressed the manic spirit of the psychedelic era. I am forever astounded by the man who could transmute the dusty anthropological tomes of the UCLA library into supreme works of imagination.