White Stripes, Blue Orchid and Red Hair

The artistry of many music videos is notably lacking, but there are also a lot of very thoughtful ones out in the big wide world of media. The work of Floria Sigismondi is one such gem, whose video for the White Stripes song “Blue Orchid” can be seen above. As far as I can tell, which is to say my very subjective opinion, is that this video has something to do with either Eve, or  Lilith, the fabled first wife of Adam who refused to be ruled by him and was transformed into a demon for her transgression. The apple and snake seem to support an interpretation that the red haired woman is Eve, and its interesting to note her stilted motions down the stairs, perhaps reminiscent of God’s condemnation of the serpent to crawl on its belly. Also, in some versions one way that Lilith rebelled against Adam was to refuse to lay under him, which plays off in an interesting way with the equine imagery and the seemingly violent image at the end of the video.

Apparently Sigismondi’s first feature length film, “The Runaways”, will be coming out soon, and it will be interesting to see what she comes up with.

For More Information/interesting movies by Sigismondi:




Active Life in an Uncertain World: The Epicureans and the Stoics

Of the Socratic branches of thought, the Epicureans and the Stoics stood apart from their Platonic and Aristotelian brethren in that they sought to provide philosophies of an active life, and criticised the other two schools for what they saw as their bookish tendencies. In the Epicurean and Stoic traditions, then, questions had to be asked about the ways to personally address the unknown, particularly as it pertained to the future and the perishable world around us. As such, both branches of thought developed natural philosophies that emerged from their efforts to offer followers a method of addressing the unknown in their daily lives. Whether it is the Epicurean goal of freeing the self from fear or the Stoic one of aligning oneself with the natural order, both philosophies seek these goals in response to the unknown, and ultimately, its avoidance or its removal from the cosmos. Both schools related this to their primary objectives, their relationship to the gods, and to the conflagration or infinity of the universe.

As the Epicurean Lucretius states in his On the Nature of Things: “nature craves for herself no more than this, that pain hold aloof from the body, and she in mind enjoy a feeling of pleasure exempt from care and fear”. To do so requires an understanding pleasure and pain, death, and the nature of the gods. The purpose of obtaining an understanding of these concepts, however, has its roots in the removal of fear. Thus, it could also be said that if this fear can be removed with a proper understanding of certain concepts, then it is first and foremost, a fear based on unknowns. A study of natural philosophy is necessary so that people can understand how to properly avoid suffering and seek pleasure, come to terms with death, and realize how arbitrary, omnipresent forces cannot influence them. As Rist states in Epicurus: An Introduction: “Epicurus regards the study of nature as a necessary evil; without it we are subject to delusions about the role of the gods in the ordering of the world and about an afterlife”. Understood this way, eliminating the fear of the unknown through understanding certain key elements of the world around us is the Epicurean ideal. As Lucretius states more eloquently: “This terror therefore and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature”.

It is important, however, to point out that this method calls for knowledge of the natural world only insofar as it removes fear. There are a few very specific areas that are seen as vital to removing fear (i.e. pleasure and pain, fear of the gods, and fear of death). As Asmis says in her work Epicurus’ Scientific Method: “It is, I think, fair to say that Epicurus was not interested in exploiting his method of inquiry to its full potential”. A substantial portion of nature can be left to its own devices insofar as people do not fear those particular events. One primary example of this is Epicurean astronomy, which lagged far behind its Stoic counterpart. Yet, as will be shown in his view of infinity, even these modest goals resulted in the need for a complex account of the universe.

The Stoic account of the good life differs drastically from that of the Epicureans. It appears to demonstrate an acceptance of the unknown nature of the outside world, particularly as it pertains to the future, since the future is merely the playing out of the divine will. For the Stoics then, the place in which they demand certainty is not in knowledge of the world around them, nor even in what will happen to them, but rather how they will respond to what will happen to them. As Epictetus states: “the gods then, as was but right, put in our hands the one blessing that is best of all and master of all, that and nothing else, the power to deal rightly with our impressions, but everything else they did not put in our hands”. This “blessing” is our own reason that grants us the ability to influence how we respond to the events in the world around us. As Epictetus artfully puts it: “Philosophy does not promise to secure to man anything outside him”, rather it allows him to secure within himself a certainty of how he will react to unforeseen events. The rationality of the world outside of man is what permits the Stoics to have such trust in it. Even though they do not know where that same rationality will lead their individual lives, it both must be and is good that it will be. As such it is both impious and foolish to lament what must in the end come to pass. For the Stoics: “The beginning of philosophy […] is a consciousness of one’s own weakness and want of power in regard to necessary things”.

Epictetus argues from the interdependence that he sees all around him in the natural world that there must be an overarching reason dictating all things. Just as the perfect fit of sword to scabbard indicates reason was used in its construction, it does not seem unreasonable to posit that the fact that colour and light would be meaningless without creatures possessing the power of sight indicates that reason was likewise used in their construction. As such, reason and purpose in nature underlie all things. As opposed to the Epicurean concept of nature as something fundamentally separate from theology, there is no separating the natural from the divine for the Stoics. As Keimpe Algra points out in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics: “theology, according to the Stoics, is just a part of physics”. Indeed, it is this very view that compels the stoics to seek their center of certainty in themselves, for: “[w]e must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it. What do you mean by ‘nature’? I mean, God’s will”.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans agree that we can determine what there is to know about the gods based on our primary conceptions, the natural impressions or definitions with which we defined gods qua gods. For the Stoics the definition of a god is that it is an overwhelmingly rational, blessed, eternal, and providential being. Since the world displays this reason and providence, and we have a conception of the gods to begin with, they must, therefore, exist. As such, Stoic good and Stoic God in this case cannot be separated. Epictetus makes this clear in his segment entitled “How One May Act in All Things So As To Please the Gods”. Reason is God, it is nature, it is the whole progression of human life; thus following nature is no more than accepting what is necessary.

Yet this interpretation of nature also has other connotations, particularly in regards to the unknown. If God’s will is God’s reason, and it expresses itself in the knowable world, then what is to separate human knowing from divine knowing, except in quantity? As Algra states: “Behind all this lies the firm conviction that God’s rationality – or, for that matter, the rationality of the cosmos- does not differ in kind from human rationality”. In the larger scheme of things, then, there is nothing that is truly unknown, for all knowledge is encapsulated in the reason of God, and that reason is no different in kind from human reason. Stoic theology in some respects could be said to have removed the fears that Epicurus sought to conquer, for nothing is truly unknown in the Stoic world view. Contrary to Epicurus this victory over fear finds its removal exactly in an affirmation of the power of the gods. As Epictetus has shown, the Stoic’s primary good is the removal of uncertainty of the self and an acceptance of the world around us. However, this acceptance does not show a trust in the unknown, but rather a belief in its ultimate non-existence. The gods know everything, for things existences cannot be removed from the god’s knowing of them. What Epictetus says of men’s relation to the gods is the same as the god’s relation to all things, as universal reason: “what need have they of light to see what you are doing”, for they have willed what all things are doing.

For an Epicurean, however, this view could not be tenable, for the distinction between God and nature is clearly made. Nature and its laws are the result of atoms playing out their individual natures qua matter. This process is knowable, lacking a set teleology, and constant. The gods on the other hand, by definition, have no part to play in the lives of men. Epicurus’ explanation for why people fall into the error when thinking about the gods is that “many people assign to the gods attributes, such as harming or helping men, that are incompatible with the primary concept, or presupposition, of God as an indestructible and blessed living being”. By their very definition, gods for Epicurus can have no part in the world, for they are blessed, thus not wanting anything outside of themselves, and indestructible, thus playing no role in the generation or corruption of atomic congregations such as people. It is reasonable to see that Epicurus’ doctrine against the gods could be viewed as a natural result of his primary goal of removing fear of the unknown, for if the gods did influence the affairs of men then we would be subject to the seemingly arbitrary and unknowable will of some divine personality. If they did influence the affairs of humans, the gods would cordon off a segment of a very personal and immediate part of human life, namely the knowability of natural causes. There is a great difference between explaining a thunderstorm as an impersonal build up of fire in the air that eventually releases itself, and explaining the same storm as Zeus’ will. The first explanation can be known to work given certain understandable conditions, while the other is up to the seemingly arbitrary will of an omnipresent, alien, mind.

Lucretius seems to be addressing the Stoic position on the gods when he says: “But some […] ignorant of matter, believe that nature cannot without the providence of the gods in such nice conformity to the ways of men vary the seasons of the year”. For Lucretius, the fact that there are orderly elements to the world does not rule out the fact that there are also disorderly elements, given the traditional definition of the heavens this should not be so, and yet it appears to be just that. For, as he continues: “judging by the very arrangement of heavens, I would venture to affirm […] that the nature of the world has by no means been made for us by divine power: so great are the defects with which it stands encumbered”. If reason is to rule everything and nature made for the good of man, then from where do their opposites emerge, disorder and misfortune to man?

Both of these positions reach their logical conclusions, however, in their two most expansive cosmological doctrines, that of infinity and the conflagration. When looking at the cosmos as a whole, Epicurus couldn’t argue that there was nothing like reason in the world, for it presented itself all around him. Yet if matter is ruled by a divine reason, then there is something existent outside of the scope of matter and the senses. This determinism could spell the end for the Epicurean good; for if the will is determined, all hope for a doctrine based on acquiring certainty on specific key themes is lost. In order for matter not to need such divine reason, it must be infinite in extent, for only then would probability ensure that everything that could be must be. It would then provide us with something in the natural world that appears to be reason, but is more like a Darwinian process of selection. Furthermore, the doctrine of infinity strengthens the Epicurean belief that nothing is lost, and nothing fundamentally changes, even though our atoms disassociate. As Lucretius states: “one can easily believe’ that ‘these very atoms out of which we are now composed were often previously placed in the same order that they are now’”. Not only are they placed in the same order, but in every possible order, for “if something can be produced by atoms, it necessarily is produced by them. Accordingly the ever unchanging atoms keep producing ever the same combinations as they have been producing in the past”.

This doctrine allows the unknown to be explained away as a function of probability on the universal level, for everything that can be is, yet still permits of the Epicurean view that there is no afterlife or need for divine reason. Lucretius treats upon this in his On the Nature of Things, as Asmis summarizes: “In an attempt to remove all fear of an afterlife, he argues that if there are future individuals just like ourselves, this matters not at all to our present selves, since our memory will have been severed”. Infinity, unlike the conflagration, is also an expansive cosmological view that still permits of the possibility of a free will. Even though everything has to be somewhere, there is nothing to say that any one thing has to be here. Given Epicurus’ goals and methods, the doctrine of the infinity of worlds seems like a natural conclusion. Thus, from one of Epicurus’ first natural principles, that: “the primary bodies have previously moved with the same motion with which they now move, and will afterward always move in the same way” and his desire for a free will also free from fear of uncertainty, the afterlife, and the gods, we arrive at the eventuality of this doctrine of the infinite.

The conflagration, likewise, is the natural and pan-ultimate expression of the Stoic world view. As Michael White puts it: “With respect to the relation between eternal recurrence [the conflagration] and determinism, it is worth reemphasizing the point that both doctrines were considered by the Stoics manifestations of the all-encompassing divine reason controlling the cosmos”. Indeed, in the accounts given by Marcus Aurelius this seems to be the case, since everything will happen again, man cannot and should not bemoan the length of his life. As he says: “all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, […] it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years […] or an infinite time”. The doctrine served well to demonstrate the reasoning and necessity behind the Stoic virtues to adherents and non-adherents alike. As Long and Sedly note in The Hellenistic Philosophers: “in Stoicism the doctrine [of the conflagration] may have served to underline the necessity of accepting one’s present situation. For that will be one’s situation time and again in the everlasting nature of things”.

Yet the conflagration is more than merely a doctrine justifying the Stoic way of life, it also shows how the Stoics ultimately sought to eliminate all unknowns in the ordered cosmos. The conflagration, then, is somewhat like the fulfilment of the promise of causality and reason. As such it represents the absolute removal of the unknown in an eternal cosmic year that itself is the playing out of reason in the world to its ultimate conclusion. This playing out of the cosmos is finally reabsorbed into reason as it progresses and “returns to the so-called primary reason and to that resurrection which creates the greatest year, in which the reconstitution from itself alone [i.e. universal reason] into itself recurs”. All of universal reason, then, must necessarily be a closed circuit. Its reason being no different in kind from that of human reason it thus sees itself completed in a beginning and an end. Most importantly however, is the point raised by Long and Sedly, they write:

It would be a mistake, however, to think of everlasting recurrence as a purely mechanical consequence of Stoic determinism. God is a supremely rational agent, and the most interesting fact about the conflagration is its omnipresent instantiation of his providence […]. In his own identity god is the causal nexus […]; hence the sequence of cause and effect is an enactment of divine rationality and providence. Since every previous world has been excellent […], god can have no reason to modify any succeeding world.

The repetition of the cosmos is required for cause and effect to substantiate the rationality of God. Since God is the supreme cause, with a hyper-humanlike rationality responsible for the universe, he must necessarily circle back on himself to eternally enact the chain of causality. This chain, built upon a hyper-humanlike rationality will necessarily squeeze out any unknowns from the universe, and establish itself as the ultimate good. This allows the Stoics to trust in that which they do not know, but which nevertheless is the enactment of a human-like reason. Thus, insofar as they are willing what happens to them, and aligning themselves to what is, they are in a real way participating in this great whole of divine reason, and thus amputating the unknown from their lives. This is why Epictetus can state “I am a citizen of the universe”, for: “When a man […] has learnt to understand the government of the universe and has realized that there is nothing so great […] as this frame of things wherein men and God are united” he is a part of a universal all-knowing reason, and has no reason to fear anything as unknown, for he wills it as God wills it and sees that it is good.

As has been shown then, at first glance the Stoic goal of asking certainty within the self and how that self approaches necessity seems to be an acceptance of the unknowns in the world around us; however, with a closer look into Stoic cosmology and theology it can be seen that this is not the case. The Stoics eliminated the unknown by endowing all the cosmos with a human-like rationality that is shared by those who align themselves to it. Since the Stoic in some ways could be said to will the future, it would not be unknown to him. There is the trust that all things are known by God because they exist, for God’s knowing and things being cannot be separated, thus there is a purpose to the Stoic world order that does not permit the unknown. This purpose finds its end in the Conflagration which completes the cosmic year and reinstates the divine will of providence as the perfect replaying of reason.

In comparison, the Epicurean goal of removing fear from the individual’s life through the understanding of a few key principles must necessarily be at odds with the Stoic conception of determinism, for they see it as the mistaken idea of gods who result in a principle of personality beyond matter that arbitrarily influences the lives of men. For the Epicureans, rather, the unknown is defeated on the cosmic scale by probability in an infinite nature that lacks any sort of humanlike reason, but which is still subject to its own primary laws. On the individual level it accomplishes this task by focusing on several key areas of knowledge, the nature of pleasure and pain, death, the gods and showing how all fear can be removed by a proper understanding of these key principles. Everything outside of these principles need not be considered, as they do not inhibit the human from living the good life. Thus the question of the unknown in the individual sphere is in part avoided.

In these two philosophies, as philosophies of active life, the unknown has then been conquered by a myriad of principles and methods. It remains however, for the individual reader to see if these methods are appropriate or accurate, and if there can be any philosophy of an active life that permits of the unknown. Barring that, it would appear that any philosophy of an active life must necessarily find some way to banish the unknown to irrelevance or oblivion if it wishes to allow its practitioners the certainty to act in the world.

For More Information:



Asmis, Elizabeth. Epicurus’ Scientific Method. London: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Greek thought: A Guide to Classical knowledge. Ed. Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey Lloyd. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hicks, R. D. Stoic and Epicurean. New York: Russell & Russel Inc, 1962.

The Hellenistic Philosophers, Long and Sedley, Cambridge U.P., 1987. Vol 1.

Rist, J. M. Epicurus: An Introduction. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Rist, J. M. Stoic Philosophy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Ed. Brad Inwood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers: The Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius. Ed. Jennings Oates. New York: Random House, 1940.

The Cure, the Lullaby and the Nightmare

I was introduced to The Cure by a longtime friend and have come to appreciate their music. This particular video, with its accompanying lyrics, struck me as being very reminiscent of the effects of Sleep Paralysis. While I do have the tendency to read into things, it seems to go along with the strong connection of this experience with artistic expression. In any event, I’ve put it here so others can consider it.

Humboldt’s Lingering Renaissance: Interests and Influences

Few intellects were as expansive and influential as that of the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). The still more famous brother of the famous Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), both served to radically alter the way that science was seen and taught in Germany, and through that, the world. It is a little known fact that in the 19th century, Europeans seeking an advanced degree in science had to go to Germany, and the early system of government funding for science established there was the envy of the scientific world. Thomas Henry Huxley and his group often used Germany as a model for what English science should be, and Alexander von Humboldt, with his expansive, cosmic interest in nature, romantic tendencies, and world traveling adventures, served as a major inspiration for Charles Darwin before the young naturalist decided to go on his voyage on the Beagle. Humboldt’s biogeography was also highly influential in Darwin’s interest in the topic, and thereby was influential in the development of evolutionary theory.

Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his own cosmology, Eureka, to Humboldt, and he lent his name to a score of animal species, most notably the Humboldt Squid, that taloned, intelligent, and vicious cannibal called by the natives of South America “Diablos rojos” Red Devils.

Admired by Goethe, (though less so by Schiller, who is reputed to have said that “Alexander impresses many, particularly when compared to his brother – because he shows off more!”), by Simon Bolivar and Thomas Jefferson, Humboldt was perhaps one of the last of the great Renaissance thinkers who embraced both science and culture with equal interest.

For More Information:


Sachs, Aaron. The Humboldt Current. Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. America: Viking, 2006.

Walls, Laura Dassow. The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander Von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

The Devourer of Time: John Harrison, The Grasshopper Escarpment and John Harrison

To counteract the rampant progress in my previous post, I felt that a contrary internet find was in order. I stumbled upon this adorable monstrosity when look for images by the Spanish artist Salvador Dali.

The beast was unveiled on the nineteenth of September 2008 in Cambridge by Stephen Hawking.

It was created by the inventor John C. Taylor. With two hundred craftspeople and one million pounds of funding, he took five years to construct the Corpus Clock, which features a large gold-plated stainless steel face that was shaped from a single piece of metal using highly accurate underwater explosions in a “secret military research institute in Holland”.

The inscription beneath the clock reads mundus transit et concupiscentia eius “the world passeth away, and the lust thereof”, and above it all is the Chronophage, a demonic grasshopper who eats time minute by minute. The creature serves a double purpose, being a highly decorated “grasshopper escarpment” that helps to regulate the machine, and, on the other hand, it is a jaw-snapping, time-eating symbol of the regular yet random, arbitrary, and ultimately finite nature of life itself.

Yet interestingly enough, the clock’s construction was partly inspired by the work of the English clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776). Harrison developed the first clocks accurate enough to measure time at sea, and thus to determine longitude, perhaps an uninteresting point until one considers the number of ships lost at sea because of navigational errors. Harrison’s story was made into a book and movie some years ago, but what is just as interesting is the story of what happened to some of the first clocks he made to demonstrate his skill. One of them (K2) was on the ill fated HMS Bounty, whose famous mutiny on April 28th 1789 caused such a stir in the British Empire. The clock ended up on the isolated Pitcairn Islands where the mutineers settled (after a brief stop in the Philippines to pick up wives). K2 was only recovered  generations later when a passing sea captain traded some practical goods for the then redundant clock.

More than anything, it seems to me, this fascinating, and macabre tale is the best thread connecting Harrison’s clocks to its most recent, and monstrous child.

For More Information:









Helmholtz, Perception and Progress Naturalized

Herman von Helmholtz, whose name so often conjures images of thermodynamics, electricity or heat death, was also the teacher of of Heinrich Hertz, friend of Lord Kelvin and a major figure in 19th century physics. Despite his proclivity for the physical sciences, though, Helmholtz began his career as a doctor, and during that time invented the ophthalmoscope, for examining the human eye. This beginning is noteworthy, considering Helmholtz’s life-long interest in Neo-Kantian thought and the nature of human perception. When combined with his views on thermodynamics these interests present an unusual picture of progress in human life.

In looking at his philosophy of science it is possible to see an implicit consequence of Helmholtz’s understanding of force, law and knowledge. It suggests a notion of progress, which can be understood as a force produced in an analogous fashion to those produced by steam or wind, but acting on human knowledge as mediated through the senses.

According to Helmholtz, the underlying unity of phenomena is what makes them knowable, for knowledge consist of establishing laws encapsulating isolated facts. Yet it can only do this when there is something common underlying those individual facts. In nature, this commonality is made possible by the law of conservation of force. In light of the impossibility of perpetual motion and second law of thermodynamics; however, this same commonality could allow for a definite direction to the “force” of human knowing, resulting in progress. Thus an interesting symmetry can be seen between human knowledge and nature in which each acts upon the other in terms of forces largely understood in physical terms.

It seems safe to say that for Helmholtz progress occurs in the world, it is characterized by change, and all changes are ultimately changes of motion. Thus, when considering his deterministic views of nature and the human, progress must in some ways be accounted for in naturalistic terms involving a kind of motion. If not placed in the knowledge deriving capacity of a human actor, and the mirroring that capacity must have with the laws of nature to enable the objectivity and coherence of knowledge, we would be at a loss in attempting to account for a naturalized version of progress in a Helmholtzian framework.

In his popular lectures a symmetry can be seen between knowledge and nature made possible by the commonalities underlying forces. We can only see laws amongst the disparate facts of nature thanks to our perceptions. These perceptions are involuntary. They are rooted in natural processes and the unity of forces that make change both possible as well as comprehensible. This has the consequence that all of human knowledge, its society, arts and sciences, are themselves subject to natural laws acting in ways analogous to the more straightforward laws of the physical sciences. These laws have the power to influence human knowledge, both by acting on it as an external constraint, as well as through their actions produced by our knowledge of them. In considering the impossibility of perpetual motion and the second law of thermodynamics, more than merely making knowledge of nature possible, this approach also weds progress and directionality to knowledge as a consequence of the laws of physics. Thus, in this potential reading of Hemlholtz, progress could be seen as a force acting in a deterministic way on humanity, expanding its reaches until, at its final expiration, it achieves its destiny.

For More Information:

Helmholtz, Hermann von. “On the Aim and Progress of Physical Science” in Science and

Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “On the Conservation of Force” in Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical

Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. Helmholtz’s Treaties on Physiological Optics. Ed and Trans. James P. C. Southall.

Vol 3. The Optical Society of America; Wisconsin, 1925.

—. “On the Interaction of Natural Forces” in Science and Culture: Popular and

Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “On the Origin of the Planetary System” in Science and Culture: Popular and

Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “The Relation of Natural Science to Science in General” in Science and Culture:

Popular and Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press; Chicago, 1995.

Secondary Sources:

Cahan, David. “Helmholtz and the Civilizing Power of Science” in Herman von

Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth Century Science. Ed. David Cahan. University of California Press; Los Angeles, 1993.

Dale, Peter Allan. In Pursuit of a Scientific Culture: Science, Art and Society in the

Victorian Age. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1989.

Oxford-Duden German Dictionary. Ed. W. Scholze-Stubenrecht, J.B. Sykes, et al. Oxford

University Press: Oxford, 2005.

Smith, Crosbie and M. Norton Wise. Energy and Empire: a Biographical Study of Lord

Kelvin. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1989.

Smith, Crosbie. The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in

Victorian Britain. University Of Chicago: Press Chicago, 1999.

Die Windsbraut and the Lingering Shadow

The beauty, eccentricity and sorrow of the life of the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka is eloquently expressed in his most famous work Die Windsbraut (The Tempest/The Storm, sometimes called The Bride of the Wind). Expressionist in style, cool in tone, comforting despite the turbulence of the brush strokes. Kokoschka served in the First World War and was eventually diagnosed as mentally unfit after being wounded in action.

The love that inspired this particular work was the widow of the famed composer Gustav Mahler, Alma Mahler. It was a troubled, fleeting relationship, but from it emerged The Tempest, and his poem “Allos Markar”.

Not to be deterred by the vicissitudes of reality, and perhaps an early model for the recent film “Lars and the Real Girl”, Kokoschka had a life-sized doll of Alma created. He took his ersatz bride to the opera on occasion, went to parties with her and had a maid to dress her. There were also, at the very least, insinuations that he was treating the doll… well, in the way that men tend to treat “Real Girls”.

According to Pliny painting originated when a woman traced her lover’s shadow on the wall. He would leave in the morning. He would never return. In a similar vein, many commentators have connected art with loss.

Kokoschka seems to have relived the legend.

While looking up information I also came accros a song by the German neo-folk group Belborn:

For More Information:



The Chemical Wedding of Art and Science, the Secular and Sacred

I still do not know quite what to think of the relationship between Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson and the occult. His fifth solo album “Chemical Wedding”, the single “Man of Sorrows” and his hand in writing the recent film also titled “Chemical Wedding”. The songs on the album are harder than the pieces he worked on with Iron Maiden, but they do evince more than a passing familiarity with occult thought and symbology. I have yet to see his film, but my most respected esoteric friend seems very critical of it. Still, I remain curious.

The occult has had a long and productive relationship with art, which is intriguing for the divide between the esoteric and exoteric demands of the tradition. Yet they both function through similar, metaphorical channels and ways of thinking, and, like Goethe’s claim in Faust, can be hidden openly in the artistic work. Not only hidden, I contend, but addressed and developed as well. Representative of the divide between Newtonian and Goethean alchemy, it has been the primary mode of esoteric exploration in the west since the Enlightenment. Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Peter Birkhäuser, Achille-Claude Debussy, William Blake, and many more besides. At the end of the 19th century the Newtonian interest in the occult, that is to say, the experimental, physical emphasis, looked to be reviving in the work of the London Society for Psychical Research, with William Crookes, Alfred Russel Wallace, Oliver Lodge and the journalist W.T. Stead’s efforts at the scientific popularization of esoteric research. Unlike many other modes of thought, it seems likely that this realm of exploration benefits equally from artistic and scientific exploration, for both its psychological and physical effects on human knowledge, and the primary place of pattern recognition in its myriad manifestations.

For More Information:





Giant Squid, the Alecton, and Recent Legends

It is difficult to find any three accounts of the giant squid that agree on the upper limits of its size. In Deep Ocean, Tony Rice cautiously estimates that they can reach a size of at least 49 feet. Bill Bryson, in his much celebrated work A Short History of Nearly Everything, says that their tentacles can reach a length of 60 feet. While C.P. Idyll, writing in 1964 estimated that the size of Architeuthis can range from 50 to 55 feet. He considered a specimen found off the coast of New Zealand as an entirely new species, Architeuthis longimanus, which measured in at 57 feet (and thus implied that this species may grow even larger). However, Architeuthis longimanus has since been recognized as being the same as Architeuthis dux. Perhaps more incredible than this are modern accounts which have experts claiming that the giant squid could grow anywhere from 150 to 200 feet long. Richard Ellis finds this to be irresponsible and explains that: “Because Architeuthis is such a spectacular animal, those who would include it in their catalog of monsters often increase its length substantially, and often its weight as well”. Thus, more than any property deep sea monsters may actually possess, their designation as monsters always seems to tempt even the most honest and respectable of observers to inflate their proportions to even more monstrous measurements.

According to the modern record, the first verifiable observation of the giant squid was made by the crew of the French corvette the Alecton while sailing between Madeira and Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Yet while this event did not happen until November 30th 1861, sperm whalers knew of the existence of these creatures because the quarry they hunted would sometimes regurgitate pieces of the squid.

The problems facing this encounter with a giant squid are representative of the problems facing deep sea biology in general during the 1800s. Most noticeably, however, are the difficulties involved in ascertaining the historical accuracy of this one event. The condition of the specimen observed, as well as how much of it the crew of the Alecton were able to secure, varies widely in the historical record.

According to Ellis, the specimen was already dead when discovered. This in itself demonstrates a problem that faced early biological studies of the deep sea. Whenever deep sea creatures make an appearance on the surface of the ocean they are most likely dead or dying, which made it difficult for naturalists of the time to observe living specimens . More than this “deep-sea creatures fairly burst with the release of the pressure under which they have lived […] and oftentimes the specimens are scarcely more than detached fragments by the time they can be preserved”.

Yet the story of the Alecton’s squid is far from certain. As Ellis states, the crew, wanting to bring the corpse on board, approached the body and shot it repeatedly as they came (to ensure that the creature was in fact dead): “They got a rope around the animal […] but as they were hauling it in, the body separated from the tail, and they were left with only the tail section”. Writing in 1998, Ellis may have had access to a wider range of sources than most; however, his is the only account I was able to attain which stated that the creature was in fact dead when discovered. Writing in 1964, Idyll gives a very different story. He states that the squid was alive, and if not well, functional enough to evade the pursuing Alecton for some time before they were able to hit it with a harpoon and get the rope around it. This time: “A violent movement by the animal broke the harpoon loose and tore off part of the tail fin. The maimed squid disappeared. The piece torn from it was estimated to be about a tenth [of its weight]”.

An article written in June 1941 by W. Ley for the Natural History Magazine makes the encounter far more violent, and, from the view of science, far less rewarding. In this account the creature was still alive, but far less lively:

Since the Alecton was a war vessel, there was no lack of armament. Cannon balls were shot at and through the lazy kraken […] and harpoons were thrown at it. […] After three hours of intensive naval warfare, the squid suddenly vomited (one of the canon balls must have hit a vital spot).

In this version it is again the weight of the squid, and not its efforts to free itself, which led to the majority of it falling back into the sea. This time, however, the part of the squid that was salvaged was totally unusable and thrown away shortly after.

It is rather remarkable that so many projectiles would have been directed towards this “lazy kraken”, and it is perhaps ironic when considering the statement made by Lieutenant Frédéric-Marie Bouyer, the Alecton’s commander, who wrote: “Finding myself in the presence of one of those strange creatures which the Ocean brings forth at times from its depths as if to challenge science, I resolved to study it more closely and try to catch it”. Again, the sheer size of some deep sea denizens makes them difficult to collect and observe. In the 1800s, it seems, sea monsters were much better studied with the help of projectiles.

Going even further back in articles written by A. E. Verrill and A.S. Packard Jr. in 1875 and 1873, respectively, the encounter of the Alecton is mentioned only in passing along with a number of other sightings, and no mention of any part of the creature being retrieved is given. Despite the new space opened up for the study of history in the natural sciences, there are still difficulties in ascertaining the accounts made by people even a hundred years ago, not to mention a thousand. Furthermore, the very size of some deep sea creatures made the collecting of specimens nearly impossible until comparatively recently. This fact left early naturalists only the hope that something would wash ashore or float to the surface in good condition in order to prove or disprove their theories.

For More Information:

Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck, eds. The Galathea DeepSea Expedition: 1950-1952. London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2003.

Eldredge, Niles and Steven M. Stanley, eds. Living Fossils. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1984.

Ellis, Richard. The Search for the Giant Squid. New York: The Lyons Press, 1998.

Idyll, C.P. Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964.

Ley, W. Scylla Was a Squid. Natural History Magazine. 2007. 25 Feb. 2007.

Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. In Search of the Sea Monster. Endeavour, vol. 30 (2006).

Nigg, Joseph, ed. The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Packard, A.S. Jr. Colossal Cuttlefishes. The American Naturalist, vol. 7, No. 2. (Feb., 1873).


Rice, Tony. Deep Ocean. London: The Natural History Museum, 2000.

The Linnean Society of London. An Essay on the Credibility of the Existence of the

Kraken, Sea Serpent, and Other Sea Monsters: With Illustrations. London: William Tegg, 1849.

Verrill, A.E. The Colossal Cephalopods of the North Atlantic. II. The American Naturalist, vol.9, No.2. (Feb.,1875).


Verrill, A. Hyatt. The Ocean and Its Mysteries. New York: Duffield & Co, 1925.

Wolff, Torben. Danish Expeditions on the Seven Seas. Copenhagen: Rhodos International Science and Art Publishers, 1967.


The Unplumbed Depths of Lovecraftian Philosophy

H. P. Lovecraft’s interests mark him as one of the most scientifically engaged writers of fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. His works demonstrate an awareness of Einsteinian and quantum physics, Freud and psychoanalysis, astronomy, chemistry and the question of progress. He also wrote over a hundred articles dealing almost exclusively with these themes. Despite this, Lovecraft’s importance in the context of the history and philosophy of science has largely been overlooked.

A few examples of this kind do exist, such as S.T. Joshi’s “H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West”, which attempts to place Lovecraft in the tradition of Oswald Spengler’s critique of progress. Overall, however, there has been little written on this topic in any concentrated way, and what has appeared has generally been dominated by the writings of Joshi.

Lovecraft’s philosophy of science has been much maligned by narrow interpreters who see in his exultation of the unknown an anti-scientific nostalgia and an unhealthy, morbid fascination with madness and human frailty. While by the end of the 20th century Lovecraft’s fiction had developed a cult following, this interest and the substantial cultural capital afforded by it has seen little reflection in academic circles, partly, one thinks, for this very same reason.

My recent interests have lead me to a comparison of Lovecraft’s sense of “Cosmic Horror” with Einstein’s description of “Cosmic Religion”. Given Lovecraft’s knowledge of Einstein this connection is tantalizing, more so because of the work I have been doing on science and the uncanny. All three of these concepts are closely related, and are worthy of much further consideration.

Links of Interest:



A Canadian film that interweaves Lovecraft’s life and literature: “Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft”.

If you can get a plushy of it, it must be important:


Nelson, Victoria 2001 The Secret Life of Puppets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.