William Blake Meets Isaac Newton Meets Blaise Pascal

earthrise

 

 

Held in orbit
by Newton’s Forces;
hardly a foothold
on an accidental Sphere!
Can we Forge
our own Purpose
from the Furnace of Fear?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I consider. . . the immensity of space of which I know nothing. . . I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there, now rather than then.  No 68 of Pensees by Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662

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Listening to Mozart

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As it is national poetry day in the UK here is a poem of mine. Oops! Poetry day isn’t until October, I’m jumping the gun!  Anyway my confusion made me post so all’s well and good.

Amadeus Mozart is the quintessential prodigy-genius. Along with Beethoven and JS Bach, he is regarded as among the greatest composers of all time. When he was on his death bed Mozart had the score of his last Requiem at hand. In fact there is a painting showing assembled friends and family round his bed singing the Requiem! He was 35 when he died on 5 Dec 1791; the exact location of his burial is unknown.

Listening to Mozart

I place the CD in its tray   press play      and settle down

to listen       my mind wanders off-key                wonders

about greatness                        and perfect sonata form

how to value time spent here                             soon

otherworldly strains startle me into the sufficient      Now

but soon      too soon cat’s paws claw at the window pane

now I fall out of the moment’s grasp       wonder if his cat

scratched at windows too. . .

on and on the wandering goes                an hour or more

since I passed                              a dead cat on the street

now I measure deaths of great and small          remember

his death-breath whispered      drumbeat of his last score

Bruegel for today

 

 

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Most people have admired the widely reproduced paintings of Bruegel the Elder. Paintings such as Children’s Games have even been made into jigsaw puzzles. However, his worldview and naturalistic style are no longer in favour so much. This is a pity as I believe his paintings and drawings still have much to say to us.
In 16th century Netherlands proverbs which illustrated the vices and foibles of humanity were popular. And this is our main stumbling block. Nowadays we don’t like being told what to think, let alone how to live! Some of the proverbs of Bruegel’s day may seem quaint to us but I’d argue that his broader worldview has a timeless quality more akin to Shakespeare’s view of humanity. In particular the notion of Theatrum Mundi (Theatre of the World), in which all human life is seen as an absurd spectacle acted out on a vast stage, is a view just as appealing today as in the 16th century.
In a short article it is impossible to do justice to Bruegel’s fecund imagination and vision. I’m only going to discuss two of his small drawings but would urge those interested to carefully examine in particular such works as Netherlandish Proverbs, Allegory of Pride, Allegory of Lust, Allegory of Avarice and Battle Between Carnival & Lent.

Bruegel’s countrymen and women were well aware of the moral temptations of a commercial society, particularly where greed and selfishness were concerned. Folk theatre of the age dramatized such follies. Elck was a sort of Everyman figure popular at the time. Elck’s spiritual blindness is depicted in a drawing of Bruegel’s done in 1558. In this exquisitely detailed 8×11 inch drawing an elderly man searches through a pile of barrels, tools, a chessboard and other objects – all of which represent the distractions of the world and the danger of too much ambition and insatiable greed. The broken globe at Elck’s feet is a traditional symbol of vanity. The drawing illustrates two sayings, Elck seeks himself in the world, and Elck tugs the longest end. This latter is depicted by two figures tugging on a strip of cloth. Elck’s lack of awareness is further illustrated by a picture hanging in the background. A fool gazes at his image in a mirror. He is Nemo or Nobody, another popular folk character. The inscription below translates as, Nobody Knows Himself. Pageants of the day portrayed Elck in a series of tableaux and moreover, the saying, Elck seeks himself and comes to grief because he cannot judge himself clearly, was one of the tableaux. Here we are far from quaint proverbs; we are more in the spiritual and psychological realm of Socrates’ Know Thyself.

 

 

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The Alchemist (12×17 in) is another drawing done in the same year. Alchemists were held in low esteem by the Netherlands’ increasingly rational, humanist intelligentsia and merchants. Stories circulated about people being fleeced and losing life savings.

 

 

 

bruegel alchemist
The drawing depicts an ill-clothed alchemist seated at his ‘laboratory’ bench; his wife sits behind him pointing to her empty purse showing that in spite of her husband’s occupation, it is not a money-spinner! Her child sits in a cupboard with an empty cooking pot on its head, further evidence that the family is trading in nothingness. A scholar sits at a desk and tells a fool to pump bellows on a charcoal burner. The learned man points to an entry in his large book which is a pun on the word, ‘alchemist’- all is lost! Through an opening in the back of the room we see the alchemist taking his family to a poorhouse. Exposing fraudulent merchants and enterprises was a popular pursuit in Europe. Today we see the same appetite for ridicule in expose-journalism and the satirical cartoons depicting politicians and celebrities. Also, although there are no alchemists around nowadays, all we have to do is switch on the TV to see yet another scam where someone has fleeced someone else out of thousands (or millions) of pounds. And there are many more kinds of exploitation nowadays where gullibility is involved.
In this short article I have focussed on the message or ‘moral’ of these two drawings as if they were literary forms instead of visual. I think it goes without saying that Bruegel shows his many draughtsmanship and compositional skills in these pictures; skills which would serve him well in his later paintings. (There are, of course, many other qualities to admire in Bruegel, his use of striking composition and colour for example. He was no mere moralist.) It must be remembered that he was working at a time when narrative and literary ideas figured strongly in paintings, etchings and prints.
It is a cliché that human nature never changes. I think that is why Bruegel’s work can still resonate today if we make the effort to really look. We may not know whether to laugh or cry at the world’s follies (Democritus was the optimist in the ancient world and Heraclitus the pessimist!) Perhaps there is a third choice; to see ourselves in the Theatre Mundi, to have compassion for ourselves and others, and live the best we can without causing too much mayhem.
In case it is thought that Bruegel was an out and out pessimist focussing on vice rather than virtue, he did depict The Seven Virtues too, and I should emphasise that his work, above all, celebrates life in all its richness, humanity and folly.
I would recommend using a magnifying glass to examine Bruegel’s work reproduced in books. If you are fortunate to see the originals you could always go armed with a magnifying glass! (I’m sure in Bruegel’s day people would spend considerable time ‘reading’ his paintings. In our world of instant-sensation we may spend a few minutes in front of a painting in a gallery if we are lucky.)
I am indebted to Walter S Gibson for the light he sheds on Bruegel in his excellent Thames & Hudson book, Bruegel, published in 1977.

Eric Nicholson – Cert Ed.
https://erikleo.wordpress.com
Twitter@erikleo8

Epictetus for today

Here are two passages from Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 55 to 135 CE. He was born a slave, but with the permission of his wealthy owner was able to study philosophy, for which he had a passion. After he gained his freedom, he taught in Rome; the Emperor Hadrian was one of his friends. He was known to have lived a life of great simplicity, with few possessions. The core of his teaching was that we have no power over external things and that the good we all long for is to be found only within ourselves; if we wish for nothing but what God wills, we will be truly free, and our lives will be perfectly serene.

1. Some things are in our control; others are not. These things are in our control: opinion, impulse, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever actions are our own. But these things are not in our control: the body, possessions, others’ opinion, and, in a word, whatever things are not our own actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and limitless; the things not in our control are weak, hindered, restricted, and belong to others. So remember: if you regard as free the things that are hindered by nature, and if you consider your own what actually belongs to others, you will be thwarted, depressed, and frustrated, and you will blame both gods and men. But if you realize that what is yours is really yours and that what belongs to others really belongs to others (as in fact it does), then nobody will ever compel you, nobody will hinder you, you will not find fault with anyone or accuse anyone, you will do nothing against your will, you will not have an enemy, and you will never experience any harm.

2. People suffer not because of what happens to them, but because of their thoughts about what happens. For example, death has in itself nothing terrible about it (if it did, it would have seemed terrible to Socrates as well). Rather, it is our thoughts about death that cause our terror. So when we are hindered or frustrated or upset, let us never blame anyone else for it, but ourselves, that is, our own thinking. It is the act of an unaware person to blame others for his own suffering. Someone who has gained a little awareness blames himself. Someone whose awareness is complete blames neither others nor himself.

Thanks to Byron Katie website for this.

Northumberland church with a war-time story

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This is a Saxon church I painted in acrylic. It is St Andrew’s church in Bolam, Northumberland. It has an interesting war-time history. During the Second World War a German bomber was flying over Bolam being attacked by RAF Beaufighters. Willi Schludecker, the German pilot, decided to drop his remaining bombs to lighten his Dornier 217E2. One dropped outside the church and bounced through a window landing on the floor. It, however, didn’t explode. Many years after the war the pilot somehow got in touch with the church as he wanted to apologise to everyone. He travelled to England to apologise in person and there were various newspaper articles about him. The spot where the bomb dropped is marked inside the church with copies of news reports. A memorial window was put in place after the war.

 

Joy Scott was just 22years old and living at Bolam Low House Farm when she was awakened by all the noise. She recalled that as she watched, a huge bomber thundered overhead, braking branches off the treetops of her parents’ farm and pursued by Beaufighters. She heard several explosions and in the morning she went up the hill to the church to see what had happened. The second bomb had broken through the churchyard wall, bounced off a gravestone and through the wall of the church.