Backing out of a parking space on this always grey and sometimes rainy day, I thought that if the day were a chord, it would be the one above, a major seventh with a raised fourth. It’s a Monkish chord (as in Thelonious), and to my ear it suggests wet streets, bare trees, and the need for lamplight, even if it’s only the early afternoon.

Thanks to Elaine for the chord’s name and notation, and for thinking that it sounds good (because of the wide voicing).

[If you don’t read music, the notes from bottom to top are C G F# B E.]


Tamas in our time

Ancient texts often resonate with startling relevance. Teaching the Bhagavad-Gita for the first time in many years, I read the following passage with new eyes. The context: Krishna teaches that tamas is one of the three gunas, the movers of all action, “the bonds that bind / The undying dweller / Imprisoned in the body.” Tamas binds with “bonds of delusion, / Sluggishness, torpor.” When tamas prevails, one is “lost in delusion.” Here I think of the folly that has given us a war in Iraq:

The act undertaken
In the hour of delusion
Without count of cost,
Squandering strength and treasure,
Heedless of harm to another,
By him who does not question
His power to perform it:
That act is of tamas.

[Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood.]

Some related posts
Homer then and now
Homer’s Rumsfeld
Not dead yet
, ,
Tamas in our time

As a child, Mr. Newman decided to pursue a career in bio-technology. This vision lasted until he landed a biotech internship the summer before college. “I soon discovered that this was a place where people told jokes with the punch line: ‘And that’s why they call it reverse-transcriptase,’” says Mr. Newman. “I was like: Get me out of here.”

So now listen up. We need to get these boxes the hell out of the warehouse. Meaning, if you are thinking of buying a set of figures, stop thinking, stop thinking immediately, and just do it. Feel, don’t think. Spend, don’t think. Be an American. Spend money you don’t have on something cool you don’t need. It’s only money. You’ll make more. I assure you, you will. But we might not make more of these Chinese-produced plastic hate effigies. Really, now, what would you rather be – safe, sane and sad, or devil-may-carefree and (momentarily) happy? Think about it. No wait, don’t think, stop, just do it!

Hey, someone finally said it!

From the New York Times:

Nationally… more than one third of mortgage holders — 37 percent, up from 35 percent in 2005, or a rise of more than 1.5 million households — spent at least 30 percent of their gross income on housing costs, the level many government agencies consider the limit of affordability.

“Maybe it all means that housing is not as smart an investment for as many people as we thought,” said Matt Fellowes, a scholar in metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution. “Stocks perform better than houses over time. Maybe the American dream should be building wealth in general, not building a certain type of wealth, which we see is narrow and dangerous.”

Hey, someone finally said it!

Quote of the week, bonus edition: The Panic of 1907

From the new book The Panic of 1907, about the great banking panic of 1907, by Robert Bruner and Sean Carr, page 2 (!):

To understand fully the crash and panic of 1907, one must consider its context.

A Republican moralist was in the White House.

War was fresh in mind.

Immigration was fueling dramatic changes in society.

New technologies were changing people’s everyday lives.

Business consolidators and their Wall Street advisers were creating large, new combinations through mergers and acquisitions, while the government was investigating and prosecuting prominent executives – led by an aggressive young prosecutor from New York.

The public’s attitude toward business leaders, fueled by a muckraking press, was largely negative.

The government itself was becoming increasingly interventionist in society and, in some ways, more intrusive in individual life.

Much of this was stimulated by a postwar economic expansion that, with brief interruptions, had lasted about 50 years.

Bring, then, a sense of irony informed by the present to an understanding of 1907.

Quote of the week, bonus edition: The Panic of 1907

Armenian Manuscript

manuscript in armenian script

aremenian manuscript

armenian illuminations

illuminated manuscript

armenian manuscript page

12th cent. manuscript page

manuscript illuminations

4 illuminated miniatures

medieval manuscript

manuscript - armenia


illuminated page

illuminated page

Lviv manuscript detail

detail from medieval manuscript

2 illuminated manuscript details

You will be doing yourself a favour by clicking to enlarge these images - the detail is exquisite (the manuscript measures 32cm x 30cm [13 x 12 inches]).

This late 12th century illuminated manuscript in Armenian script is online in the Digital Library of Poland. [or: direct link to 800+ thumbnails = big pageload] {Thanks to Tomasz for the translation help!}

Whilst this exceptional Gospel work is in the Armenian language, it was actually produced in a Lviv scriptorium (in the west of modern Ukraine, not too far from the Polish border) in 1198. [modern Armenia is on the opposite side of the Black Sea] [wikipedia: Ukraine, Armenia, Lviv]

The complex history of the region is fairly baffling - the Kingdom of Armenia (which was the Kingdom of Cilesian Armenia at the time the manuscript was produced) never extended further west than the eastern side of the Black Sea as far as I can tell. Conflating language and country perhaps? Please enlighten me via a comment or email.

I feel fairly confident that this work is known (at least in Germany) as the Lemberg Gospel (Lemberg was the German name for Lviv). The manuscript was rediscovered at the end of hostilities in 1945. [Das Lemberger Evangeliar - translation]

Ornamental Arts in Armenian Manuscripts is an excellent site from Hayknet which is associated with the Yerevan Academy of Fine Arts and has a large gallery of manuscript decoration motifs and if I’m understanding correctly, plates 41-45 are indicative of the style of the probable illuminator of the Lemberg Gospel (Grigor). [see the essay]
Armenian Manuscript


You will be tempted to skip over this post because it has the word “moderation” in the title, and instead search for a blog with “wild extremism” in the title. Moderation just ain’t as much fun.

You should resist that temptation, at least for a few paragraphs.

We tend to bristle at anything smelling like censorship or restraint. Moderation is contrary to the freedom that all artists crave, even when they have no important use for it.

I chatted in a recent post about the
Futurist Manifesto which ushered in the art of the 20th century:

We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks….Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry…To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action…. We want to demolish museums and libraries [and] fight morality… .
True to this theme, much of 20th century culture grew up worshipping novelty and extremism above lasting value that required patient consideration.

People who focus on what is new and hot often develop short attention spans. They lose patience for moderation, nuance and context. But the old masters recognized that moderation is all there is. As Shakespeare exclaimed, everything is a matter of degree:

Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what dischord follows! Each thing meets in mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores And make a sop of all this solid globe
In this painting by Vermeer, the girl’s earring is not extremely white nor is her eye extremely dark. Viewed in isolation, both colors are quite moderate.

Yet, both colors seize your attention because Vermeer has placed the light earring against a dark shadow and the dark eye against light skin. That’s the way to achieve real highs and lows. In art and in life, context is everything.

The metaphors of extremism in art and sex are are lovely and alluring; imagine a painting made up of nothing but highlights, or a state of perpetual ecstasy without all those boring parts in between! But as George Eliot warned, “all of us get our thoughts entangled in metaphors and act fatally on the strength of them.” Pornographers and artists who need to chase novel forms of licentiousness inevitably become colossal bores.

Those who say “I’ll try anything once”
Seldom try anything twice
Or three times
Arriving late at the Gate of Dreams Worth Dying For.

—Carl Sandburg



Paper Gods

folk devil god

Zhong Kui

chinese calendar of gods

Da Zhonghua Minguo ba nian Zaojun zhi shen wei

zhong shen - colourful folk figures

Zhong shen

votive realm of gods

Guansheng Dadi

chinese folk god woodcut

Hu fa Weituo zun shen

bright coloured menshen folk god


stylised folk figure on horseback


chinese folk god and attendants


angry folk god scaling wall

Fu zai yan qian

chinese male folk figure holding scroll

Fu zi tian lai

male god and attendants

Ganying Yaowang

2 chinese folk religion scenes

Guang han gong

Ancient folk religions of China include elements of Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, ancestor veneration as well as mythological deities and astrology. Worship of the hundreds of Gods and Saints is regarded as complementary rather than conflicting with a person’s chosen religion.

The ubiquitous public face of Chinese folk religions are the New Year’s woodblock illustrations (‘nianhua’) which have been produced for more than a thousand years. These (generally) inexpensive prints are said to bestow luck on the household or ward off evil spirits and are either displayed prominently throughout the year and then burned and replaced, or are burned as part of ceremonial practices on auspicious dates.

The longer lasting prints (usually the more elaborate and colourful) are conspicuously displayed on the front, back and bedroom doors, in the household shrine and in the kitchen (the ‘stove God’), often in association with a calendar.

Anne Swann Goodrich (1895-2005) became entranced by the paper folk art traditions when she worked as a missionary in (the then) Peking. In 1931 she bought the whole colletion of ‘nianhua’ available from a print shop and spent much of the rest of her life studying the history and meaning behind the paper art forms. Her collection was donated to Columbia University sixteen years ago and represents a snapshot in time of the printing styles and imagery that constituted the popular visual culture of 1931 Peking.

Paper Gods