Saturday, December 28, 2019

Rewriting the Story of Gilgamesh: The Cosmic Twins by Stefano Ceccarelli

Novelspace is a parallel universe, fascinating for many reasons, one is of being so easily accessible in addition to being so rich of surprises. So, I have been exploring parallel spaces in the form of Plutonian explorers, diligent waitresses, goats with golden feet, Byzantine-American warriors, and way more. Some of these universes are fascinating, some just bizarre, and some weird in the ugly sense of the term. 

This note is about a recent novel by the Italian author Stefano Ceccarelli, titled "The Cosmic Twins" (in Italian, "I Gemelli del Cosmo"). First of all, let me say that this is deep stuff of the fascinating kind. It was Jorge Luis Borges who said that all individual books are just pages of a great book that humankind is writing. I would add that not all the books written nowadays deserve to be added to that great book, but some certainly do and this is one of them.

Let me start from the beginning and, since if we are discussing a single, gigantic book, we may as well take a look at the initial pages in order to understand what's written somewhere near the end. So, we might start with the Epics of Gilgamesh, possibly the first novel ever written. How does the story of Gilgamesh relate to the story written by Ceccarelli? All good stories are about searching for something -- it was a science fiction writer, Samuel Delany, who wrote that he couldn't think of writing anything but a new version of the search for the Holy Grail. So, that's the point to start with.

But what is exactly the Holy Grail? What are novel characters searching for? And why when they finally find it, the novel ends, or maybe they discover it is a disappointment? Maybe there is something deep here. All this searching is not about something in particular but rather has to do with the way the universe functions. The universe is not a uniform blob: it was created from the beginning by separating the light from the darkness and God herself saw that it was a good thing to do so. If you think about that, light wouldn't be what it is if there didn't exist darkness. Maybe light actively searches for darkness and maybe darkness is eagerly waiting for light to merge with it and become light, too, while maybe light itself lounges to become darkness after having spent itself to spread around. It is the eternal principle of the Yin and the Yang, always turning around each other, always seeking for each other, and never completely merging with each other.

So, what does Gilgamesh search for in his saga? Eternal life, we read. But that's not the real reason. The reason why Gilgamesh travels, fights, struggles, suffers, and keeps going is something that not even Gilgamesh himself understands. Perhaps we can find it in some detail of the saga. Gilgamesh has a friend in the story, Enkidu, but they are both Yang characters. They are both searching for a counterpart, Yin characters and we can find them in the two women of the story. They are not as well known as the two main male characters, but they have their names spelled out in clear: Shamhat, the holy prostitute and Siduri, the alewife. They are supposed to be minor characters but, make no mistake, they are among the very first female characters whose name we know in the history of literature -- that is, female characters who are not goddesses. Actually, these two ladies partake something of the higher sphere of things, but everything in the universe does.

So, perhaps we can read the Gilgamesh saga as a search of the main male character, Gilgamesh himself, for his female counterpart. He just has a glimpse of her when he meets Siduri at a tavern, then he moves on in his unsuccessful research, without even suspecting that what he had been looking for had been so close to him for a while. The same is true for Enkidu, who briefly meets Shamhat in the forest, is seduced by her, but then never meets her again. But so is the mythical search in all his literary manifestations. The object of the search is never fully grasped and, if it is, it is destroyed in the process.

Let's go now to Ceccarelli's Cosmic Twins. The story is about a couple of twin planets, one is our Earth, the other ts twin, called "Serra" that in Italian differs from the term for Earth ("Terra") for just one character. Actually, calling them "twins" is a misnomer. They are different and, for a quirk of creation, Serra doesn't have in its crust mineable amounts of the element we call "gold." But that's not the real point. Terra and Serra are two different planets, with Serra being definitely female as opposed to the more aggressive, male, Terra. Among the several characteristics of Serra, one is that of having had a female Messiah, Yesua Krista, the Yin counterpart of the Yang Terran Messiah, Jesus Christ. A male planet and a female planet, two halves looking for each other, with Krista not dying on the cross on the gentler Serra, while the availability of gold has corrupted men's hearts on Terra.

So, the novel goes on by describing how the inhabitants of Serra engage in a search for Terra. Eventually, a couple of Serrans, Yosh and Laylah, manage to travel to Terra by exploiting a strange space vortex. They arrive there to find a dead planet, destroyed by global warming and pollution. And eventually, they go back home empty-handed, just like Gilgamesh did, unable to complete his search.

That's the story: one problem is that the end of the novel is disappointing with the narration slowing down as it goes on, like an old clockwork toy. But never mind that: like all good novels, this one has defects, it is unavoidable. But, like all good novels, it is a metaphor that you can't really understand in rational terms. You have to feel it. And if you do, this is deep stuff. Extremely deep. It tells us how we are desperately looking for something that we cannot describe, but we know that it is there. It is our Yin counterpart that we lack to become a truly harmonious civilization. The Serrans fail in finding it. Gilgamesh failed in finding it. Maybe we will fail too, but who knows? Perhaps the path is the destination.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Sicut Cervus and the Angst of the West. Music as a Gift to Humankind

Sicut Cervus, by Pierluigi da Palestrina, published in 1604. It sings Psalm 42 of the Vulgata Bible.

With the waning of the Middle Ages, Europe was coming out of a terrible period. The crusades had ended with a series of crushing defeats and the tremendous war effort had backfired generating the famines and the black death pandemics that killed more than 100 million Europeans. It is estimated that around 45–50% of the population perished, in some areas probably closer to 75–80%.

Yet, Europe rebounded from the disaster -- perhaps because of it. As I described in a previous post, with the 15th century the European population restarted growing, faster than before, probably because it could find intact natural resources that the previous collapse had left free to regrow: forests and arable land.

The rebound of the 15th century was the time of the Renaissance, an age that was the start of the incredible expansion that led Western Europe to dominate most of the world after a few centuries of conquests. But the tumultuous expansion was not without internal struggle: every European state wanted a slice of the overseas bounty. Eventually, the competition would generate the great struggles of the 17th century, with Europe turning against itself with the 30-years war, the witch-burning age, and other disasters. Much before that happened, the older European cultural unity had been lost: Latin, the old universal language that had bound Medieval Europe together, was rapidly losing ground: it wasn't needed anymore.

But, before disappearing, Latin had a last moment of glory that lasted a couple of centuries. It was the age of polyphonic music in Western Europe, a kind of delicate, sophisticated, intricate, incredibly beautiful kind of music never seen before in the world. Not that polyphony didn't exist before, it was possibly the most ancient kind of music in human history. But the Western European version was something different. Earlier on, the Gregorian music -- monophonic -- had been mostly an embellishment of the sacred Latin words of the Bible. With polyphony, music asserted itself in an age when Latin was not understood anymore.

To be sure, polyphonic music was still sung in Latin and it often had religious subjects, but it was a completely different story. It was an expression of the European willingness to expand into new realms. Just in the same way as the European galleons were exploring new lands, European polyphonic music was exploring new harmonies and new ways of communications: lacking a shared language, music had to come to the rescue. For some two centuries, a new harmony, never heard before, resonated in Europe. Then, as the political struggle became harsher and wider, polyphony gave way to symphonic music, another European form of music, well suited to the tragic and violent age that started with the great carnage of the 30-years war and expanded all the way to the disasters of the two world wars of the 20th century. Then, English came to the rescue, becoming the new universal language. With English, music could become again linked to the human voice and to words that could be understood. A modern genre such as the rap is, after all, a return to the Gregorian approach to music as an embellishment of human language.

Today, polyphonic music is still alive and well as a religious form of music in Eastern Europe, but it is a relic of a bygone time in Western Europe and in all the regions that recognize themselves under the wide label of "The West." English has taken the place of Latin as a universal language and there is no need and no interest anymore in the delicate harmony of the old polyphonic music. Yet, we can still appreciate the technical mastery of the composers of that time, one of them was Pierluigi da Palestrina, who composed Sicut Cervus, from Psalm 45 of the Bible.

Actually, the Sicut Cervus is not just a beautiful harmony, it is something more. Its theme is a thirsty deer looking for water. It says, Sicut Cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus.” Which you can translate as: “As the deer long for the springs of water, so my soul longs for you, oh God.” And that, I think, can express the burning desire of the West, the angst for something that Westerners themselves don't understand, but have been seeking for centuries with such a reckless enthusiasm that they set half of the world on fire. And, whatever it was that they were seeking, it seems clear that they didn't find it.

Today, the parable of the Western world domination seems to be mostly concluded, even though it still flares here and there. But there remains to us something distilled from so much ardor, the music of a couple of centuries of a remote age when our ancestors had managed to create something eerie and beautiful that we can still admire, today: polyphonic music. I noted in a previous post how all human cultures of this world have treasures that they cherish and revere -- these treasures are not the property of anyone but gifts for everyone. So, maybe the treasure of Western polyphonic can be seen as a gift to all humankind.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Eyes, The Eyes! The Return of Inanna, the Warrior Goddess

Alita: the eyes of a beast of prey. 

The new film by James Cameron, "Alita, Battle Angel," is clunky, at best. Some creative scenery, some fascinating visual details but, the rest, well, it makes little sense. A classic failure of science fiction movies: cartoonish characters, a plot that doesn't go anywhere, clumsy motivations, silly bad guys, all that.

But Alita, well, she keeps the whole movie together. She is not cartoonish, she is perfect in her role. We recognize her. We know who she is from the scene in which she takes a battle posture facing the giant mechanical crab. It is her, she can only be her. Five thousand years after that the Sumerian Priestess Inanna told her story, she is back: Inanna, the warrior goddess fighting the giant dragon called Ebih.

Lady of blazing dominion
Clad in dread
Riding on fire-red power

Holding a pure lance
Terror folds in her robes

Flood storm-hurricane adorned
She olts out in battle
Plants a standing shield on the ground

Great Lady Inanna
Battle planner
Foe smasher

(translation by Betty De Shong Meador)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

How to Kill Science

The clip by seven7lives above is beautiful, eerie, and moving -- truly a gem, obviously inspired by Fritz Lang's masterpiece "Metropolis". Watch it, it is worth it! Then take a look at my interpretation, below. 

The clip starts with a woman facing the firing squad. 

She is Science. She has been humiliated, tied, and blindfolded -- the worst offense that you can do to an entity whose purpose is to see as far as possible. 

Then, we see the girl in the red dress. She is Wisdom. She is the daughter of Science.

And here are the scientists: humiliated, enslaved, mistreated.

They are forced to repeat useless and obsolete work in order to obtain the mythical grants that will allow them to repeat useless and obsolete work. But one of them has seen the light. He will search for truth.

He rebels against the tanks of scientific publishers.

And he is punished for his deed by the masked referees: this is a typical double-blind review

Clearly, the anonymous reviewers are against science, to the point that they line up in a firing squad to shoot Science dead

And Science dies in the arms of Wisdom whom she had begotten.

But, if they can kill Science, they can't kill Wisdom. She takes the red banner of truth from her mother and she bravely faces the masked reviewers.

 And Truth flies free, released to the air by Wisdom.

But who is the evil-looking man in the high tower? The one who seems to be masterminding the whole tragedy?

He is the one who causes scientists to suffer, to lose their creative energies in repeating the same useless research over and over, to be at the whim of their evil masters: the funding committees, the publishers, the referees, the powers that be. He is


Note: if you are not a publishing scientist, you may have trouble understanding the meaning of my interpretation, even though I am sure you can enjoy the powerful symbolism of the clip. But, in case you are curious about the ways of modern science, let me just tell you that this post was inspired by a recent scandal in Italy about how scientists are perverting the various indices that are supposed to "grade" their performance (the h-index is one of them). You can read about this on Nature, and on Science. Basically, not only these indices can be perverted, but they tend to stifle innovation, forcing scientists to plan their careers on endlessly repeating the same useless things. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

I answer to no one but Poseidon

by Donna Shultz

I am a hurricane. They have named me Dorian. It comes from the Greek word doron, meaning gift. I am no gift. My sites are set on the Florida Peninsula. Perhaps beyond.

I wasn’t born into this as powerful as I am now, I had to earn it. I had to work my way up to it. I was born a meager nothing of a wave off the coast of my conception in Africa. I fought through the Sahara’s dust, nursed on warm water, was spun and churned by wind and clouds, grew to the strength of tropical storm. I painstakingly climbed my way up the ranks of the Cats to the top.

Look at me. I keep my inner core tight, well protected and well defined. I flex it as a well-honed muscle, as an elite athlete flexes muscle. I keep it surrounded with strong and organized outer walls, I shed my old walls as a snake sheds its old skin.

I stay my course, my intensions clear, sharp, and single minded. Eye on the prize. I know my intentions. Time will reveal them. I wobble north and then south. I speed up and slow down. I am unpredictable. I will claim what I will.

I slow to a crawl, inch by inch mile by mile, slower, slower, I take my time, building my strength, savoring my strength, I reach tendrils down, down, into the power house of the beautiful deadly sea. I take nourishment from the warm waters of the gulf stream giving me ample fuel, feeding, feeding for my never-ending quench for power. {I have said I am unpredictable}.

The depths of the ocean, is not the only place I feed my soul. I gain strength from the stink of fear, emanating off people, people who scatter like roaches, scurrying about mindlessly grabbing, hoarding, fighting over, their precious supplies, supplies they believe will keep them safe from me. A fool’s errand.

They can never be safe from me.

I play cat and mouse with the people “watching” me, I watch them back just as intently, I point my tendrils to the south, then bait and switch turning north, catching the masses unawares.

I herald my approach over land with thunderous claps, and bolts of lightning.

I bring torrential rain with the winds drilling it horizontal.

I howl with glee in my destruction, and delight in its devastation.

I unabashedly flaunt my power. I relentlessly pound on everything below me. Exhilarated, I engage with the sea, and together we wreak havoc. This…Is…My…Time.

I see fear in the eyes of people as I glare down at them.

I dare those below me to look into my eye, to see the darkness I harbor within my soul.

I will not despair even as my wrath weakens, my strength weakens, and the voice of my winds still as a snuffed-out candle. My legacy lives on. I stand amongst the deadliest of my kind.

We answer to no one but Poseidon.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Medusa and Alita: some themes always return

It is remarkable how old themes reappear in modern movies. And, here, we have again the head of Medusa, that I had seen in Jarmusch's "The dead don't die". Here, we see her in the recent "Alita," Here is the face of an unnamed female cyborg killed by Alita in one of the first battle scene of the movie. Not a great movie, actually a very bad one, were it not for Alita herself -- truly outlandish. But look at how the head of the dead cyborg looks like ancient representation of Medusa!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Kill the Witch, Kill the Spy: Mata Hari and the Hollywood Universe

This is an interview with Maria Butina, alleged Russian spy, released after she spent 15 months in jail in the US. Her case is remarkably similar to that of Mata Hari, shot for espionage in 1917 in France, some one hundred years before. Fortunately, though, Maria Butina was not shot.

Sometimes, it is amazing how history repeats itself. It seems that whatever we do is always a repetition of an old story, that we live in a sort of Hollywood universe, where there exist a limited number of TV tropes, repeated over and over, always the same, just with a few changed details.

Think of Mata Hari: the evil spy. Yes, the one who caused the death of "perhaps 50,000 of our children" during the Great War, as one of her accusers said. How did she accomplish such a remarkable feat? Well, it seems that somehow she was able to understand the French war plans by gathering intelligence while staying in a hotel in the back of the front line. And that the Germans were killing French soldiers because they were told how to do that by an aging Dutch dancer who had styled herself as a Hindi priestess.

Madness? Sure, but she was not shot not because of something she had done, but because of what she was. A foreigner who had made the mistake of accepting the offer of the French secret services to embark on an improbable plan of spying on the Germans. Possibly, it was because she really thought she could help France. But, of course, it could never have worked and it never did. Rather, it put Mata Hari in a very dangerous position. A foreigner, a beautiful woman, and, avowedly, a prostitute, and she meddles with things larger than her. And when it is a question of finding a scapegoat, that kind of women make the perfect target.

Fast forward of a hundred years, and we have the case of Maria Butina. A good looking woman, although not a prostitute. Nevertheless, she went through an ordeal similar to that of Mata Hari, the target of accusations so improbable that you wonder how in the world anyone could even remotely take them seriously. Would you believe that the Russian secret services would gain anything by "planting" a spy in the US in the form of a student of international relations? What could they learn from him or her that could be even remotely important for the current confrontation?

Rather, Ms. Butina found herself in the wrong place, just as Mata Hari had: a foreigner who could be demonized at will. Ms. Butina had made her big mistake with enrolling in the US National Rifle Association (NRA). She believed that the right to bear arms was a good thing that should be adopted in Russia. She didn't realize the danger she was putting herself into. The NRA is notoriously among Trumps' supporters and by hitting Butina they were hitting the NRA and, indirectly, President Trump himself. Like Mata Hari, Butina was meddling with things much larger than herself.

So, we had another variation of the theme of the evil, foreigner female spy. Fortunately for Ms. Butina, she was not shot like Mata Hari, if times had been more difficult, it might have happened. And we keep living in a Hollywood universe where things that you believe are true become true. It is the infinite power of propaganda to create its own reality.