Saturday, November 27, 2010


Agora, a film by the Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside), revolves around the life of Hypatia, the greatest mathematician, scientist and philosopher of her time, played admirably by Rachel Weisz. In her native 4th century AD Alexandria she was much esteemed for her dignity, intellect and virtue. Many of her students, both pagan and Christian, rose to positions of political power, which meant that she was seen as a woman of great influence, putting her into the crosshairs of the power-hungry. Her death, to some historians, marks the end of the Classical Era, although Hellenistic philosophy did survive her for a few hundred years in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire.
The villain of the piece is Cyril, patriarch/pope of Alexandria, a man described, even by Christians of his day as "a monster, born to destroy the church". He persecuted the Jews and other non-Christians of Alexandria, as well as Christians who disagreed with him, and probably incited the mob of zealots who brutally killed and mutilated Hypatia for her refusal to kneel to his power. Historians disagree over the extent of his responsibility for these events, but the Church's own resistance to his canonisation is telling.
Amenabar certainly has an agenda - firstly to warn against the overthrow of reason by ignorance, and secondly to show that so-called Christians have been, at certain times and places, no better than the Taliban. The second part of the message has infuriated certain reviewers allied to the Church. Agendas tend to distort historical accuracy, but the inaccuracies of the film are not as great as commentators, with their own ideological agenda, have made out. For example, some have deplored Agora for apparently blaming Christians for the destruction of the great Royal Library of Alexandria. There were several libraries in the city, and the film deals with the destruction of the library in the Serapeum temple, not the burning of the great library. The Serapeum was destroyed by either a Christian mob or by Roman soldiers, depending on which ancient account one reads. We will probably never know who was responsible for the tragic loss of the more famous library.
I saw the film with my librarian sister, which was quite appropriate.

Hypatia as imagined by Raphael

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Spiral Time

David Pearson is a plastic surgeon who enjoys using Photoshop to distort clock faces into spirals.
There's something a bit worrying about a plastic surgeon who likes distorting things with Photoshop!

The Left Brain as Narrator/Interpreter

"We are our narratives" has become a popular slogan. "We" refers to our selves, in the full-blooded person-constituting sense. "Narratives" refers to the stories we tell about our selves and our exploits in settings as trivial as cocktail parties and as serious as intimate discussions with loved ones. We express some in speech. Others we tell silently to ourselves, in that constant little inner voice. The full collection of one's internal and external narratives generates the self we are intimately acquainted with. Our narrative selves continually unfold.

State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our "selves" through narrative. Based on a half-century's research on "split-brain" patients, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga argues that the human brain's left hemisphere is specialised for intelligent behaviour and hypothesis formation. It also possesses the unique capacity to interpret - that is, narrate - behaviours and emotional states initiated by either hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the left hemisphere is also the language hemisphere, with specialised cortical regions for producing, interpreting and understanding speech. It is also the hemisphere that produces narratives.

Gazzaniga also thinks that this left-hemisphere "interpreter" creates the unified feeling of an autobiographical, personal, unique self. "The interpreter sustains a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. The interpreter is the glue that keeps our story unified, and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent. To our bag of individual instincts it brings theories about our lives. These narratives of our past behaviour seep into our awareness and give us an autobiography," he writes. The language areas of the left hemisphere are well placed to carry out these tasks. 

Full article a
New Scientist

Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi has identified the left hemisphere of the brain as the area of the subtle body in which the ahamkara (ego) accumulates.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The narrator or the ego?

Drawing Hands is a lithograph by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher first printed in January 1948. It depicts a sheet of paper out of which rise, from wrists that remain flat on the page, two hands, facing each other and in the paradoxical act of drawing one another into existence. Although Escher used paradoxes in his works often, this is one of the most obvious examples.

The lithograph may signify mutual constitution; that is, the principle of one entity being formed by the other and vice versa (e.g., the state vs. the demos, predator–prey co-evolution, the subject and objects, "chicken or the egg?", agency-structure).

It is referenced in the book Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, who calls it an example of a strange loop.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Gibran Exhibition in Sydney

A few days ago, for no particular reason, I suddenly thought about the Lebanese poet/painter/philosopher, Kahlil Gibran (a Lebanese friend once told me his surname is pronounced with a soft 'g' in Lebanon, and with a hard 'g' in other parts of the Arabic speaking world). His work had inspired me in my early twenties but I had forgotten about it since then. Now I had a renewed desire to study his paintings closely. When I thought about it I felt that cool, refreshing goose-bump feeling of something serendipitous working out in mysterious ways. To my knowledge his work is not in the collection of any Australian Art Gallery, and the reproductions online are not of the best quality, so it didn't seem very likely "my" wish would be fulfilled. 
A couple of days later a friend emailed to let me know about an upcoming exhibition on his work, right here in Sydney where I live!

Kahlil Gibran: The Prophet, The Artist, The Man

4 December 2010 – 20 February 2011
Dixson Galleries, Mitchell Library
This exhibition will introduce audiences to Kahlil Gibran. While many Australians of the baby boomer generation have read The Prophet or heard of Gibran, few know about his life or artworks.

Gibran left 
Lebanon in 1895 at the age of 12 with his mother and three siblings for a better life in America. Settling in Boston, his early artistic talent was noticed by pictorial photographer F Holland Day of the Boston avant-garde. Gibran gradually developed into a romantic who read widely and drew compulsively.

This exhibition provides an overview of Gibran’s artistic output, featuring oil paintings, works of art on paper — including the original watercolours used as illustrations in the first edition of The Prophet — and writings selected from Gibran’s personal collection at the Gibran Museum in Bsharri, North Lebanon.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kahlil Gibran on the Self

Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.

I existed from all eternity and, behold, I am here; and I shall exist till the end of time, for my being has no end. 

Saturday, November 06, 2010


The film Ran (chaos), by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, is a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear but introduces original elements such as the ruthless hi-brow Lady Kaede, whose thirst for revenge plunges the world around her into strife and mayhem.

The story world first begins to descend into chaos when the autocratic warlord in charge decides to abdicate power to his cruel and power-hungry older children. Blinded by ego, he rewards their flattery and exiles those who try to show him the truth, including his youngest child.

King Lear and Ran have both been seen as nihilistic because the chaos and ensuing suffering envelops good and bad characters indiscriminately. However, if seen as a tale of Self-realisation through the deflation of ego, the suffering is not without purpose, and the end is not entirely tragic.

Perhaps the most poignantly tragic figure in Ran is the young lord Tsurumaru, whose family is destroyed when the warlord burns down their castle. Eventually he loses his surviving sister, Lady Sué, a devout Buddhist who is able to forgive the warlord for the ruin of her family.

The film ends with a shot of Tsurumaru, blind and alone on top of the ruined castle, the only survivor of the film's events. Stumbling on the precipice he loses the icon of Amida Buddha his sister has given him for spiritual comfort. Even the gods have abandoned him it seems. Yet, in the often painful stripping away of externals, the Self remains unchanged, here symbolised by the radiant Enlightened One, the witness of the world's endless flux.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Sacred Feminine: Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene, Attributed to the Master of the Mansi Magdalene (Dutch)

The idea that Mary Magdalene was a fallen woman is a falsehood invented by medieval clerics who wanted to make her into an ideal of the penitent sinner, and so had to turn her life before meeting Christ into something sinful.
She was in fact an incarnation of the Purity of the Divine Feminine, which makes the slurs on her character an even greater wrong.

Mary Magdalene is referred to in early Christian writings as "the apostle to the apostles." In apocryphal texts, she is portrayed as a visionary and leader of the early movement, who was loved by Jesus more than the other disciples.

She is often depicted opening a vessel of ointment (which suggests the vessel of the Spirit, the Kundalini) She is also sometimes shown meditating in the wilderness with a skull in one hand, symbolising the renunciation of the body. These depictions are reminiscent of Indian paintings of Shri Mahakali, the renunciant aspect of the Goddess.

The name Mary occurs in 51 passages of the New Testament. There are several people named Mary in the Gospels. There also are several unnamed women who seem to share characteristics with Mary Magdalene. At different times in history, Mary Magdalene has been confused or misidentified with almost every woman in the four Gospels, except the mother of Jesus. "The idea that this Mary was 'the woman who was a sinner,' or that she was unchaste, is altogether groundless." There is no scriptural or historical evidence that Mary’s relationship with Jesus was anything other than that of a disciple to her teacher, definitely not a lover or wife. Although in the past she has suffered from a case of mistaken identity, Mary Magdalene was never reviled, demeaned or dismissed.
Here's a link to an apocryphal text mentioning three Marys in the circle of Christ: Sahaj-A-Z