Musings by an “antediluvian, bibliomaniac, and curmudgeon”.

From Michael Gilleland:

A few years ago I tried my hand at translating a few aphorisms from Nicolás Gómez Dávila’s Escolios a un Texto Implicito (1977). Unfortunately I didn’t transcribe the original Spanish. Here are a few of my translations:

The imagination is the only place in the universe where it is possible to live. (II, 132)

A cultivated soul is one where the din of the living does not drown out the music of the dead. (II, 195)

The modern world seems invincible. Like the extinct dinosaurs. (II, 226)

To be unaware of the putrefaction of the modern world is a symptom of contagion by it. (II, 451)

Guercino, Et in Arcadia Ego

Guercino, Et in Arcadia Ego 1618

Advice To a Self-Tormentor
Palladas (Greek Anthology 10.78, tr. W.R. Paton):

Cast away complaint and be not troubled, for how brief is the time thou dwellest here compared with all the life that follows this! Ere thou breedest worms and art cast into the tomb torment not thy soul, as if it were damned while thou still livest.

Read more here.

Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego

Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego 1637

‘Et in Arcadia ego’ is a phrase coined by Virgil and used in 17th century Italy expressing, in an elliptical way, the humanistic sentiment: Even in Arcadia I (i.e. Death) am to be found. That is to say, even the escapist, pastoral world of Arcady is no refuge from death. The words feature in paintings from that time inscribed on monumental stonework, especially a tomb, which stands in rural surroundings.

The earliest representation of the theme by Guercino (Galleria Corsini, Rome) shows two shepherds coming unexpectedly upon a skull – the typical memento mori – that lies on a piece of fallen masonry bearing the words ‘Et in Arcadia ego’. In the version by Poussin the skull has disappeared, and the shepherds are trying to decipher the tomb’s inscription.

Source: Web Gallery of Art

What if?

Fortuna opes auferre, non animum, potest. (Seneca, Medea, 176)

Pron = for-TOO-nah OH-pehs ow-FER-ray nohn AH-nih-moom POH-test.

Fortune is able to take one’s wealth away, but not one’s character.

Bellini, Perseverance and Fortune

Bellini, Perseverance and Fortune

Comment by Bob Patrick:

“This is going to sound, perhaps, a bit morbid. I have a trip to Italy coming up with some students, and so once again, I will put my body (life, future, etc) into a large hunk of metal and allow it to be hurled across the Atlantic ocean. And so I will spend some time considering “what if . . .”

It’s a little morbid, but it’s also real. What if . . . something happens to me and I don’t make it? Fortune can take really everything away from me that I touch every day as my life. If that happens, can I still be really who I am? The ultimate example of that is: could I go down in a plane crash and be my real self?

I spent some time while in seminary going every week to visit a Trappist monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. I read his obituary in the paper yesterday. He was 85. He once told me that Trappist monks have this exercise called the “dying daily” exercise. They lie down on their bed and envision themselves dead.

Mei, Allegory of Fortune

Mei, Allegory of Fortune

Morbid. But, it’s a way of letting go of all the stuff. My old friend, the monk, finally made his practice real. He laid down one last time, and did what he had practiced. Eventually, we all do.

This is really not morbid. It’s life. We have today. As I see it now, we live our best life today, and then we lay it down. Entirely.

Let it go. All of it. And if we wake tomorrow, we do that again.

When the last day comes, whenever it is, we will have lived some really full, wonderful days. We will have lived some really difficult, trying days. Even the most ordinary ones will have been really wonderful. Why? Because we lived out of who we really are.”

The Paintings:

The painting above, Perseverance and Fortune, is an unusual theme for Bellini. The panels represent respectively: Lust tempting the virtuous man or Perseverance (Bacchus who from a chariot offers a plate of fruit to a warrior) and fickle Fortune (the woman on an unstable boat holding a sphere).

The second painting, by Mei, is connected with a seventeenth-century documentary reference to a picture of Fortune Subdued by Virtue. The painting treats the stoic theme of the disdain of wealth, a virtue that places the philosopher above the vicissitudes of Fortune.

Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller

Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller

In Caravaggio’s painting a foppishly dressed young man, a milksop with no experience of life, gives his right hand to a young girl whose expression is difficult to define, in order to have his future read. His ideas about his future are effectively influenced by the astute young gypsy girl, whose gentle caress in tracing the lines of his hand captivates the handsome young fool so completely that he fails to notice his ring being drawn from his finger.

Source: Web Gallery of Art

Wheel of Fortune

Durer, Fortune 1502

Durer, Fortuna 1502 engraving

Rota Fortuna
No mortal power may stay her spinning wheel.
The nations rise and fall by her decree.
None may foresee where she will set her heel:
She passes, and things pass.
Man’s mortal reason cannot encompass her
She rules her sphere as the other gods rule theirs.
Season by season her changes change her changes endlessly,
and those whose turn has come press on her so,
she must be swift by hard necessity.

Dante, Inferno VII 82-90

Fortune’s Wheel

From Wikipedia: The concept of Rota Fortuna arose in antiquity. The Wheel originally belonged to the Roman goddess Fortuna, whose name seems to derive from Vortumna, “she who revolves the year”. Fortuna eventually became Christianized: the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524) was a major source for the medieval view of the Wheel, writing about it in his Consolatio Philosophiae:

“I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected … Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull-witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune.”

~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

The Wheel was widely used as an allegory in medieval literature and art to aid religious instruction. Though classically Fortune’s Wheel could be favourable and disadvantageous, medieval writers preferred to concentrate on the tragic aspect, dwelling on downfall of the mighty – serving to remind people of the temporality of earthly things.

Fortune's Wheel, Boccaccio

From an edition of Boccaccio’s “De Casibus Virorum Illustrium” (Paris, 1467) MSS Hunter 371-372 (V.1.8-9). Image (vol. 1: folio 1r)

Fortune’s Wheel often turns up in medieval art, from manuscripts to the great Rose windows in many medieval cathedrals, which are based on the Wheel. Characteristically, it has four shelves, or stages of life, with four human figures, usually labeled on the left regnabo (I shall reign), on the top regno (I reign) and is usually crowned, descending on the right regnavi (I have reigned) and the lowly figure on the bottom is marked sum sine regno (I have no kingdom). For a largely illiterate population, visual imagery like this was a much more effective teaching method.

Rota Fortuna

The Wheel of Fortune motif appears significantly in the Carmina Burana (or Burana Codex), over one thousand poems and songs — often profane in content — written by students and clergy in the early 13th century. Excerpts from two of the collection’s better known poems, “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World)” and “Fortune Plango Vulnera (I Bemoan the Wounds of Fortune),” read:

O Fortuna O Fortune,
velut luna like the moon
statu variabilis, you are changeable,
semper crescis ever waxing
aut decrescis; and waning;
vita detestabilis hateful life
nunc obdurat first oppresses
et tunc curat and then soothes
ludo mentis aciem, as fancy takes it;
egestatem, poverty
potestatem and power
dissolvit ut glaciem. it melts them like ice.

Sors immanis Fate – monstrous
et inanis, and empty,
rota tu volubilis, you whirling wheel,
status malus, you are malevolent,
vana salus well-being is vain
semper dissolubilis, and always fades to nothing,
obumbrata shadowed
et velata and veiled
michi quoque niteris; you plague me too;
nunc per ludum now through the game
dorsum nudum I bring my bare back
fero tui sceleris. to your villainy.

Sors salutis Fate is against me
et virtutis in health
michi nunc contraria, and virtue,
est affectus driven on
et defectus and weighted down,
semper in angaria. always enslaved.
Hac in hora So at this hour
sine mora without delay
corde pulsum tangite; pluck the vibrating strings;
quod per sortem since Fate
sternit fortem, strikes down the string man,
mecum omnes plangite! everyone weep with me!

Fortune plango vulnera (I bemoan the wounds of Fortune)

Fortune plango vulnera I bemoan the wounds of Fortune
stillantibus ocellis with weeping eyes,
quod sua michi munera for the gifts she made me
subtrahit rebellis. she perversely takes away.
Verum est, quod legitur, It is written in truth,
fronte capillata, that she has a fine head of hair,
sed plerumque sequitur but, when it comes to seizing an opportunity
Occasio calvata. she is bald.

In Fortune solio On Fortune’s throne
sederam elatus, I used to sit raised up,
prosperitatis vario crowned with
flore coronatus; the many-coloured flowers of prosperity;
quicquid enim florui though I may have flourished
felix et beatus, happy and blessed,
nunc a summo corrui now I fall from the peak
gloria privatus. deprived of glory.

Fortune rota volvitur: The wheel of Fortune turns;
descendo minoratus; I go down, demeaned;
alter in altum tollitur; another is raised up;
nimis exaltatus far too high up
rex sedet in vertice sits the king at the summit –
caveat ruinam! let him fear ruin!
nam sub axe legimus for under the axis is written
Hecubam reginam. Queen Hecuba.

Carmina Burana codex

Codex Carmina Burana manuscript

A fantastic illustration of this theme is the great marbled floor in the Siena Cathedral:

Wheel of Fortune, Siena Cathedral

For more information on this and related concepts, click here.

“To his Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

Ruysch Still Life w Bouquet of Flowers and Plums 1700

Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Bouquet of Flowers and Plums c 1700

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Koloa Cemetery, Kauai

Koloa Cemetery, Kauai

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

St Raphael's Cemetery grave, Kauai

Saint Raphael’s Cemetery graves, Kauai

Monks making Sand Mandala

Buddhist Art and Ritual from Nepal and Tibet

Construction of the Medicine Buddha sand mandala
at the Auckland Art Museum

Beginning February 26, 2001, the Ven. Tenzin Thutop and the Ven. Tenzin Deshek, two Buddhist monks from the Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, New York constructed a five-and-a-half foot Medicine Buddha sand mandala in the Auckland’s Yager Gallery of Asian Art. This process was concluded by March 21, though the mandala continued to be on display through June 8, 2001. On that day, the monks dismantled the mandala and deposited the sand in a body of water. This process symbolizes the transience of life and the ideal of nonattachment to the material world.

Feb 27

Feb 27

Feb 28 b

Feb 28

Feb 28 c

Feb 28 c

Mar 2 a

Mar 2 a

Mar 14 b

Mar 14 b

Mar 20 d

Mar 20 d

June 8 zi

Jun 8 zi

June 8 c

Jun 8 c

Heraclitus by Jorge Luis Borges

The day’s second twilight.
Night that sinks into sleep.
Purification and oblivion.
The day’s first twilight.
Morning that was once dawn.
Day that once was morning.
The crowded day that will become the weary evening.
The day’s second twilight.
That other habit of time, night.
Purification and oblivion.
The day’s first twilight . . .
The furtive dawn and in the dawn
the Greek’s bewilderment.
What web is this
of will be, is, and was?
What river’s this
through which the Ganges flows?
What river’s this whose source is unimaginable?
What river’s this
that bears along mythologies and swords?
No use in sleeping.
It runs through sleep, through deserts, through cellars.
The river bears me on and I am the river.
I am made of a changing substance, of mysterious time.
Maybe the source is in me.
Maybe out of my shadow
the days arise, relentless and unreal.

From In Praise of Darkness, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Happiness by Jorge Luis Borges

Whoever embraces a woman is Adam. The woman is Eve.
Everything happens for the first time.
I saw something white in the sky. They tell me it is the moon, but
what can I do with a word and a mythology.
Trees frighten me a little. They are so beautiful.
The calm animals come closer so that I may tell them their names.
The books in the library have no letters. They spring forth when I open them.
Leafing through the atlas I project the shape of Sumatra.
Whoever lights a match in the dark is inventing fire.
Inside the mirror an Other waits in ambush.
Whoever looks at the ocean sees England.
Whoever utters a line of Liliencron has entered into battle.
I have dreamed Carthage and the legions that destroyed Carthage.
I have dreamed the sword and the scale.
Praised be the love wherein there is no possessor and no possessed, but both surrender.
Praised be the nightmare, which reveals to us that we the power to create hell.
Whoever goes down to a river goes down to the Ganges.
Whoever looks at an hourglass sees the dissolution of an empire.
Whoever plays with a dagger foretells the death of Caesar.
Whoever dreams is every human being.
In the desert I saw the young Sphinx, which has just been sculpted.
There is nothing else so ancient under the sun.
Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.
Whoever reads my words is inventing them.

La cifra “The Limit” (1981). Jorge Luis Borges – Selected Poems. Translation by Stephen Kessler.

Now: from For the Time Being

Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our generations the crucial ones? For we have changed the world. Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is? … No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. Who can bear to hear this, or who will consider it? Though perhaps we are the last generation – now there’s a comfort. Take the bomb threat away and what are we? Ordinary beads on a never-ending string. Our time is a routine twist of an improbable yarn.

We have no chance of being here when the sun burns out.

(Annie Dillard)