Friday, January 27, 2006

Pull Out All the Stops!

Okay, Urthshu has been giving himself leave to write abstruse posts about psychology on his blog, complete with bibliography, and has even been stirring up a minor tempest elsewhere by suggesting that "Consciousness isn't." Well, if he can pull out all the stops in his métier, so can I in mine...

(BTW, dude, a thing is or isn't; consciousness, a category rather than a thing, neither is nor isn't, it can merely be judged by whether, as a symbolic form, it is fruitful or not. Fruitful, fecund. Sort of like quality, number, causation, space, time, language, myth, and whatnot else. Not that, as a good post-Cartesian, I mind conceding that consciousness ain't all it's cracked up to be, the mere superficial skin on the apple, "...proud man, Most ignorant of what he's most assured, His glassy essence." And now that I've made like an on-stage impersonation of Ernst Cassirer and Charles Sanders Peirce rolled into one, let's get on with the rant...)

Okay, <rant>
If you, O cobbler, can stick to your last, then I can stick to (or at least not stray too dang far) from mine... Ummmmm, let's start out with a snippet from the Sepher Yetzirah:

עשר ספירות בלימה מדתן עשר שאין להם סוף
עומק ראשית ועומק אחרית
עומק טוב ועומק רע
עומק רום ועומק תחת
עומק מזרח ועומק מערב
עומק צפון ועומק דרום
אדון יחיד אל מלך נאמן מושל בכולם ממעון קדשו ועד עדי עד׃

Sepher Yetzirah 1:5

Or, in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's English translation:
Ten Sephiroth of Nothingness:
      Their measure is ten
      which have no end
A depth of beginning
   A depth of end
A depth of good
   A depth of evil
A depth of above
   A depth of below
A depth of east
   A depth of west
A depth of north
   A depth of south
The singular Master
      God faithful King
   dominates over them all
      from His holy dwelling
      until eternity of eternities.
Note, ten sephiroth of nothingness, ten sephiroth Beli-mah: "This word can also be translated as meaning closed, abstract, absolute, or ineffable. This word occurs only once in scripture, in the verse, 'He stretches the north on Chaos, He hangs the earth on Nothingness (Beli-mah)' (Job 26:7). According to many commentaries, the word Beli-mah is derived from two words, Beli, meaning 'without,' and Mah, meaning 'what' or 'anything.' The word Beli-mah would then mean 'without anything' or 'nothingness.'" (Kaplan, p. 25)

Rabbi Kaplan correlates the ten directions in the passage with the ten sephiroth, thusly:

Beginning: Chokhmah (Wisdom)
End: Binah (Understanding)
Good: Kether (Crown)
Evil: Malkuth (Kingdom)
Up: Netzach (Victory)
Down: Hod (Splendor)
North: Gevurah (Strength)
South: Chesed (Love)
East: Tiphareth (Beauty)
West: Yesod (Foundation)

(Or, to take the ten sephiroth in order: Kether, Chokhmah, Binah, Chesed, Gevurah, Tiphareth, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, Malkuth.)

Okay, out of sheer gall (in tres partes divisa) I've fiddled with the good Rabbi's transliteration just slightly, but don't you worry about that. I'm sort of warp-driving along here, not getting too hung up over detail, self-enwrapped in a veritable mystical Cloud of Unknowing, full stop. I mean, ain't this gonna chap them left-brainers who drifted over here from Dean's World in expectation of some good ol' spockian logic chopping or biblical literalism or something? Might've warned 'em in advance that I'm a double-barreled left-brain/right-brain Presbyterian and not a good ol' boy Alabama Southern Babtiss, but nothing coulda prepared 'em for this! Hoooo-weeeeeee!!!

Am I zenning you yet?! :-)

Don't worry, we'll get there. (I'm reminded of the time someone tried to put Jack Kerouac on the spot by asking him, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Kerouac instantly responded by slapping the fellow in the face. Which, when you think of it, is a pretty damn good "zen" response. :-)

Okay, now. Am I the only person ever to notice that the schema of the ten sephiroth correlates very hand-in-glove nicely with that anonymous poem which appears in the number-one spot at the beginning of the old Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse? To wit, here's the poem:

  I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,
  I am the wave of the ocean,
  I am the murmur of the billows,
  I am the ox of the seven combats,
  I am the vulture upon the rocks,
  I am a beam of the sun,
  I am the fairest of plants,
  I am a wild boar in valour,
  I am a salmon in the water,
  I am a lake in the plain,
  I am a word of science,
  I am a point of the lance in battle,
  I am the God who creates in the head the fire.
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun?

Now let's run through that once again slowly, this time with the "Ten Sephiroth of Nothingness"— "abstract, absolute, ineffable"— in place:

  I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,

  I am the wave of the ocean,

  I am the murmur of the billows,

  I am the ox of the seven combats,

  I am the vulture upon the rocks,

  I am a beam of the sun,

  I am the fairest of plants,

  I am a wild boar in valour,

  I am a salmon in the water,

  I am a lake in the plain, [Water]
  I am a word of science, [Air]
  I am a point of the lance in battle, [Earth]
  I am the God who creates in the head the fire. [Fire]

Ayn Soph Aur:
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Ayn Soph:
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun?

Well, to quote Coach Z in the classic Strong Bad E-Mail about Trogdor the Burninator, "Take a look there, I think she's lookin' pretty good!" (Strong Bad: "I said consummate V's! Consummate! Geez... Guy wouldn't know majesty if it came up and bit him in the face!" Coach Z: "That happened once!") And unlike Coach Z, I do know majesty. Yes, I think those correspondences all pretty much fit; the only one I have some doubts about is Chesed and "the ox of the seven combats."

I mean, "ox of the seven combats," what is that?! Gayomart's primordial ox? Or just something that wanders the depths of the dungeon, "two four-sided hit dice of damage per attack, player character must make saving throw against being gored by ox's horns"? Or something???

Now. Here's my real supposition: I wonder if somebody behind the production of that redaction of the poem (look around on the Internet, you'll find zillions of not-too-similar versions and/or misredactions of "Amergin"), I mean like somebody in late 19th or early 20th century England, went all tinsel-magus Ordo-Templi-Orientis and, like, deliberately redacted that poem in an only-slightly-veiled kabbalistic turn of light... eh, as the world turns... the worm turns... the turn of the screw... blobble-de-globble...

I mean, actually, probably not; but as a surmise and an explanation, it shines in spades, grand slam doubled redoubled and vulnerable, since as an explanation it is at the same time both paranoid and reductionistic. Paranoid conspiracy theory appealing to the anti-fluoridationist gold-hoarding crowd out in Montana. Reductionistic "always belittlin'" explaining-away catering to the tastes of the nihilistic academic-hard-left crowd of Harvard Yard or Duke Quad. And so we have all bases covered, hey presto! Abra cadavera! [sic] All is one, one is nothing, phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny, and philosophy decapitates ontology! By the Saints John of Jerusalem, so mote it be!

Though just between you and me, I'd say the real explanation is, the Ten Sephiroth of Nothingness... Didn't St. Augustine himself say (De Trinitate, III.iv.22) that all God's work in this world, this side of the Incarnation, is through the intermediate agency of angels?

Am I zenning you yet?? Came expecting Bertrand Russell or Francis Turretin, came away with Jack Kerouac James Joyce Tiphareth Charley Peirce and cousin Louie too, roaring cataract of nonsense streaming audio scream of consciousness; though, and don't you forget it too, "Consciousness isn't." Well, except as it's filled with the light streaming down, as if filtered through colored glass bottles, through those Ten Sephiroth of Nothingness. Something in there too about the mending of the vessels, if only I could... remember...



Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation. Northvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson Inc., 1995.

D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.E. Lee, editors. The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is most interesting Paul. I smacked me forehead, took a deep breath and then had fun reading your post.


Saturday, January 28, 2006 5:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love it, just love it. Followed every word, and in fact I think I can help you out with the 'ox of 7 combats', too.
If you don't mind an email, that is.

RE: Amergin - makes total sense that kabbalistic wisdom reaches into our distant past. Our patriarch is Esau, after all. Same thing just wilder, needs to cultivate a manner of forgiveness and not wrath, etc etc.

Saturday, January 28, 2006 9:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(1) Ain't nothing wrong with being a Southern Baptisss :)

(2) There are two kinds of floride. One is good for you as a topical rinse doing neither harm nor good if injested and the other is useful as a topical rinse doing significant long-term harm if injested. Guess which one is super-cheap and is most likely in your tap-water?

(3) Did you REALLY want to discuss St. Augustine, who was a jackass? A cowardly jackass. Hah. Say THAT out loud in a grad class and watch the mouths drop open! Been there. Done that. Got an A+ in the class. Sorry. I'm lapsing. Anyway, its ridulous to say that all God's work is done through angels. It completely disregards the actions of humans. (deleted long rant)

Bah. Now I'm thinking about St. Augustine. I'll probably kill someone in the checkout-line at Walmart.

Saturday, January 28, 2006 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...


(1) There certainly ain't; the Southern Baptissss are among the good guys. I simply remain puzzled, after several years in the blogosphere, at how certain left-brain types of nonbelievers predictably-like-clockwork just cannot get it through their heads that a Presbyterian is a Presbyterian. I suppose that to some of them, all of us Christians look alike. ;-)

(2) LOL! Living way out into the countryside, I get my water from a well, not a fluoride in sight.

(3) Ummmmm, well, I think Augustine was a mixed bag. Brilliant like doesn't come along twice in a century; one of the two weightiest theologians of the Church (alongside Thomas Aquinas); and in fact one of the towering figures of Western civilization. At the same time, he was also a very badly messed up human being, and he was fairly successful at imprinting some of his own personal hangups on said Church and said Western civilization for centuries to come. To take only one "for instance," note how any Augustinian theology, in order to function aright, requires a fair level of individual intellectual freedom; whereas in actuality, Augustine was a prime leader in significantly clamping down on individual intellectual and religious liberty, as witness the Pelagian, Donatist, and Manichean controversies which Augustine got embroiled in.

I cite Augustine (and yes, that citation from him is genuine and not made up) because he is one of the few Christian theologians who has served as a major figure both in orthodox Christian theology and in the various strands of esoteric Christianity which also drew on such elements as the Jewish kabbalah with its ten sephiroth, etc. I think Augustine was not trying to deny human agency— he was simply arguing that God worked his miracles in Old Testament times through angelic intermediaries. Which of course interfaces very neatly with the kabbalistic idea of God's light filtering down into creation through the sephiroth. In either case there's a neoplatonic intellectual influence there: with Augustine, Plotinian neoplatonism; with the kabbalah, Proclan (or perhaps more specifically Iamblichean) neoplatonism.

(Yikes! I've shifted all the way over into academic mode!!!)

If you don't care for Augustine, you may be interested to hear that the British historian Paul Johnson— who I think is a Roman Catholic— wrote a book on the history of Christian theology in which he called Augustine "one of the great heresiarchs of church history." :-)

Saturday, January 28, 2006 11:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, its not like you're a Methodist!

In the little town I grew up in, there actually was little difference in the three. Except that the Presbyterians sprinkled instead of dunked, and the Methodists drank!

The three "big" churches were on three corners near main-street and between SundaySchool and Service everyone would gather on the corners to talk to people from the other churches. It was nice.

Saturday, January 28, 2006 1:54:00 PM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

I wandered over here to ask, have you looked at the Century Dictionary yet? From a hundred years ago. Bigger than the OED. And the whole thing on the Web. And then I saw your rant and thought -- hey, I'll look up "consiousness" and find something striking -- C.S. Peirce contributed over 10,000 entries to the work, according to Joe Ransdell. But its definition of "consciousness" didn't knock me out. Nevertheless, you might be interested in this dictionary.

Sunday, January 29, 2006 12:00:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

That dictionary Peirce contributed all those entries to is available on the Web?! No, I wasn't aware of that. Thanks for the link!

Sunday, January 29, 2006 6:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of Augustine's brilliance was his ability to let his mind/spirit run free to explore the possibilities-- but he was always seeking the confirmation from scripture. I often wonder what he would have given the Church had he allowed himself to follow a mystic path without self-checking. Some of his ideas are very eye-opening if we allow ourselves to step beyond the pale of the limits of scripture and into the world of science and the world as God would have us experience it in fullness. While the scriptures are sufficient for salvation, there is more out there-- especially a living God who would meet us not just in scripture, but in truth and life. While scripture gives us safe boundaries, our spiritual selves allow us the growing edge as we encounter the infinite in a holistic sort of way.
Reading Augustine led me to the conclusion that we keep seeking God by going more expansively. What if we look for God in the infitesimal spaces? Would we find that between the fluctuations of neutrenos there is no time, and in that time-lessness is the very eternity of God?
Just a thought. God did give us the capacity to think... so we really should use it... not just to line our pockets, but to seek the possibilities and limits of life, to touch the unknown and come back with some sense of God that is still being disclosed to us-- just other than scripturally. Jesus said he was the way the truth and the life, that no one could come to the father except by him. He did not leave us the scriptures. He left us a witness of relationship.

I guess, I too, am ranting. Perhaps it has set someone to thinking....

Saturday, March 25, 2006 9:20:00 AM  

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