Friday, February 25, 2011

Hoping for Ma'at


A story can start from the oddest things: a magic lamp, a conversation overheard, a shadow moving on a wall."
- Ahdat Soueif, The Map of Love
Back to the British Museum last night for a public "conversation" with a pair of contemporary novelists, the Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif (The Map of Love) and the Sudanese-British Jamal Mahjoub (Travelling with Djinns). Their books explore travel and identity and liminal spaces, and are said to contain echoes of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, described by the Director of the British Museum, in his introduction, as "the oldest surviving travel literature".

Ahdaf Soueif had some interesting comments about how, after the collapse of the Old Kingdom, the idea of Ma'at (truth, justice, fairness) was revived and "re-articulated" in Egypt. This produced a passionate statement of the need for social justice in an early Middle Kingdom text known as the Eloquent Peasant, which has come down to us intact because it was copied and re-copied over many centuries. Ma'at was personified as a goddess wearing the feather against which the heart of the deceased is weighed in athe Hall of Truth; if the heart, burdened by guilt and darkness, drags down its side of the scale, the soul is consigned to a hybrid monster known as the Devourer.

Out of the wreckage of an ancient Egyptain regime came the luminous description of the Negative Confession, in which the deceased person, in the presence of 42 assessor gods, must swear that he has not committed a long list of crimes or infractions, not only of the order of "I have not killed" but extending to "I have not caused tears" and "I have not obstructed water when it should flow". While it's clear from the surviving texts that plenty of Egyptians approaching the afterlife hoped to get around some of these provisions by loopholes, deals and magical spells, a vision of a last judgment "based on behavior, not belief" (as Ahdaf noted) has a modern and very progressive ring.

Naturally much of the discussion last night focused on the current state of affairs in Egypt and the less-publicized coming partition of Sudan. The novelists, correctly, did not purport to be social prophets. Ahdaf Soueif, who has been journaling her days and nights with the protesters in Tahrir Square, said of the Mubarak regime, "They've been messing with the soul of the country" and held out the hope of a coming order - informed by openness, diversity and the characteritic Egyptian sense of humor - where Ma'at will reign.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Freud among the breathing idols


The exhibition on the Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum is the most exciting Egyptian exhibit I've seen. A portal image just inside the doors is worth the price of entry: a statuette of the ka-soul of Senoru, master of horse, clasping his ba-soul, depicted as a human-headed bird, to his heart.

The exhibition was crowded (Egypt is the perennial favorite of museum-goers) but there was good flow control. Kids were able to push their programs into slots and receive an Egyptian spell in return - for example, for changing into a bird, a snake or a crocodile.

Figures from 3,000 or 5,000 years ago, sculpted to hold an aspect of the soul, or a spirit that would "answer" for it (shabti) in the afterlife, or to guard a tomb, seemed strangely alive. I was reminded that the Greeks, who were fascinated by Egyptian statue magic, described such figures as "breathing idols".

It was strange to go from this to the Freud Museum, in the modest brick house at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead where he lived for the last year of his life. It is filled with literally thousands of statuettes of gods and other supernaturals, mostly Egyptian, that Freud collected in Vienna. Some fifty are stationed like a battalion of soldiers on his desk. He placed others, like palace guard, between himself and patrients. He claimed to know all of them intimately and would choose different ones to stroke or consult - with his focused gaze - during sessions with patients.

I had known that Freud was a collector of antiquities, but the vastness of this collection is stunning. He compared his practice of psychoanalysis to archeology, in the sense of digging things up from buried levels of consciousness, and it seems that archeology was his favorite area of reading.

Freud, the doubter of the soul and its survival of physical death, who denied that life has any ultimate meaning, surrounded himself with images of ancient gods and spirits. He was surely aware that the Egyptian figures he collected were ritually ensouled, and thus believed to hold a part of the spirit of the dead, or something of the power of a god or psychic guardian.

In the British Museum exhibit was a beautifully carved torso of a dead woman, used as a kind of interworld telephone. A letter addressed to the funerary bust by a survivor began:

How are you?
Is the West [region of the departed] being good to you?
Look, I am one you loved.

May I see you fighting for me in a dream?

Did Freud's "breathing images" come alive in his dreams? My bet is that they did - and also that it is rather unlikely that he left records of those encounters, which would have run so contrary to his rather narrow doctrine of what goes on in dreams.

He did speak of how his art collection illuminated his understanding of symbols and colored his theories about neuroses. No surprise to find a picture of Oedipus with the sphinx on his wall. I see that a fellow-Australian, Janine Burke, has written a study of Freud's collection titled The Gods of Freud published, so far as I can ascertain, only in Australia. Naturally (since bibliophilia is an incurable condition for some of us) I have now ordered it from Oz.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Night Journeys in Bath with a Celtic Gatekeeper

Bath Spa, Somerset

After more than twenty hours of travel by plane and coach, and dinner with conference staff, I was ready for bed when I got to my room in Pratt's hotel on South Parade in Bath. The room was charming, as is the Georgian city, but the night was very far from still. Raucous, sometimes feral, bands of drunken youths ranged the streets, howling and squalling, even in front of the seemingly dormant police station a block away on Manvers street. The packs were often fifteen or twenty strong.-
    The noise did not abate until 4 AM. Some of the drunks were no doubt students who had not learned to hold their grog (or to kick it) since Bath is essentially a city of universities and retirees; others looked very lumpen, unlikely material for any academy. I wondered if there were some holes in the otherwise elegant city's sewers and drains through which unpleasant creatures of the Netherworld spewed forth after dark.
    Despite the racket, I drifted off for a time, then surfaced in that liminal hypnopompic state that is a promising place for visions. At last Bath seemed to be blessedly quiet. In my second body, I drifted to the window and looked out.
      My window looked down on Duke Street. I was fascinated to observe, in this depth of night, that a semi-circle of figures were gathered on the pavement, looking up at my window. They were dressed in the garments of many different periods. There was a woman with flaming red tresses I knew to be a priestess from the time when a fierce ancient Celtic goddess, Sulis, was worshipped in association with the famous therman waters of Bath, long before anyone thought of bathing in them in the way that became fashionable for Romans and Georgians in their contrasting modes. There were Romans in togas, and in the armor of a centurion. There was a Regency dandy in tailcoat, high collar and exorbitant stock and top hat. There were figures from the time of the Great War, and of World War II, and from quite recent times. And I knew that I was in the presence of the dead.
    Drawn by curiosity, I had drifted through the window and down among them. I realized it might not be a good idea to have unfiltered contact with these local spirits., especially since some of them might have contributed to the disorder of the human rat-packs that had bothered me earlier.
     I felt the need for a guardian. He was there before I reached for him, standing at my left shoulder, a tall, strapping figure with a great mane of hair. He held a long-handled hammer, something like a croquet mallet, balanced against his left shoulder. I knew his name, because many years ago, in a time when I needed to re-set and maintain psychic boundaries, I had dreamed repeatedly of carrying a similar weapon as I parolled the borders of my property. The recurring dream symbol has prompted me to do some research, and I came up with images and inscriptions relating a Celtic god named Sucellos in Gaul. In Gaulish, "Su-cellos" means the "Good Striker". He seemed like the very image of the right gatekeeper in this environment, especially since he also has an association with beer and is sometimes depicted carrying what may be a beer pot.
    I now felt confident that I could safely engage with some of the ghostly figures on Duke Street. The red haired priestess took me into a time long before the Roman baths, when the waters bubbled and steamed, unconfined, in a swampy landscape. I did not enter those waters; this, it seemed was not how they were used.
    This was the proscenium to some more dramatic episodes, in the hours before dawn, when I journeyed deeper into what lies beneath the stone and asphalt of Bath Spa. All I will say for now is that on such explorations, it is always a good idea to take along a friend with a big stick

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Two ways of re-making the future

I am teaching two ways of re-making the future. One involves working with what looks like a ball of string. The second way involves scooping, molding and sculpting a heap of soft material, like dough or squishy clay.

I have announced that a prize will be given for the best student in each category. The bigger prize will go to the one who sculpts from the formless mass of pliable "dough".

The students are eager to try this assignment. As they take turns to separate strings from the ball, I notice that the strings look a bit like long strips of celluloid, as were used to record and project films. A vigorous, stocky man throws himself into molding and sculpting the heap of soft matter. He's building an amazing structure and he's the clear favorite to win the prize I have announced.

Feelings: Actively curious and intrigued.

Reality: I teach people to play with the idea that we can switch from one probable event track, running into the future, to another. This can be visualized as selecting one string of events from a ball of possibilities. I also like the idea that we can "rewind" a certain sequence - in life as in dreams - back to a certain point of decision, and then go forward with a different scenario.

I also love the image of sculpting a life project out of a soft mass of unformed material. The prize is no doubt bigger here because there is more creating to be done. I think of how, in the imaginal realm, we can build cities and palaces of subtle and ideoplastic substance. It could be contended that it is from creation on this plane that physical structures and situations are manifested.

Tunnel of Light by Eve Fouquet

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The golden king

I dreamed again of the golden king.

He is amazingly beautiful. He seems to be in his early twenties, yet he is ancient. A golden light emanates from his body. He is naked, except for the circlet of gold around his brow. At first he seems beardless, because the hairs of his face are very fine and silky and soft, like threads of light.

He is in the posture of sleep, but his eyes are wide open, fixed on something beyond ordinary sight.

His bed is a marble slab, perhaps the lid of a sarcophagus, but in no way cold or hard.

As always, I am awed by this golden king. I know he is the essence of the true king, the one who can repair the world.

Perhaps a woman will dream of him, and transfer this dream to the man she chooses to embody him....

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Night calls


The wind came over last night
and hugged me so hard
my cabin lifted off its foundations
and whirled me west, over moonlit waves,
to the Dream Kin who call me out of time
into the All-at-Once. Eucalyptus people
took off their clothes and danced with delight.

Nature is very personal here.
Wind and wave, moon and stars,
the feigned death of a monarch butterfly
lying still as a fallen leaf, waiting for the sun
to warm it back to drink milkweed,
and the owl who called me three times
and then, not content with my quality of attention,
thirty times more, around midnight
when the glow at my skylight was exactly the blue
of the launch chamber of an Egyptian star traveler.

So many night calls, that when I go for my mail
I remember a box I had long forgotten.
Not the letter drop at my door, or a metal drawer
at the post office, but an old-time box on a post
at the edge of the Street of Dreams.
How could I have forgotten this?
I open it, and find it stuffed with unread night mail
including letters and cards and legal documents
and business papers from a woman I loved and lost
who left the world of pain, shockingly, before me.
I know I will need to travel to her return address
from the place where fresh water joins the salt
when the moon lays a path across the waves.

- Big Sur, February 11, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The devil in red lipstick

I leave a workshop or conference group and walk along a country road with a woman who has been eager to have private time with me. She is perhaps in her mid-40s, with very dark or black hair. She has painted her lips an intense crimson. I don't find her particularly attractive, but she is working the attraction of power. She is expensively dressed (dark suit, or similar, with fancy accessories) and presents herself as a person with tremendous connections who could take my work to a whole new level in terms of money and recognition.

She asks me at one point, "Do you still have Cobra-Rattler in you, or do you just do good works for non-profits?" She's goading me to do business with her, propositioning me in a flagrant and sexual way (which may also be part of the agenda).

I tell her I'm going to make a phone call in her presence, so she'll be able to see what and who I value

I call a wonderful editor who is also a good friend, who understands and supports my work. I want to make the woman with the red, red lips understand the depth of my commitment to those who value my work for its own sake, and that I will simply not be distracted from The Work by the seductions of money or power.

Feelings: Satisfied I made the right choice, and did not get caught in this creature's coils.

Reality: Not sure of the location.

The editor friend I call in the dream is someone with whom I have a wonderful creative relationship.

I don't recognize the power-focused woman with the red lipstick. My first associations are with a couple of of "powerful" women who have approached me in recent months, offering ways to money and fame that I have rejected as distractions from my work. I can see that the "devil in red lipstick" could also be a shadow side of myself, since I do essentially spend nearly all my time "doing good works for non-profits" in the sense that money and power are simply not priorities. It's entirely possibe that the dream could also be a rehearsal for a future situation.

I have never heard of a "cobra-rattler". Sounds sexy, and a little sinister. The kundalini force used for a certain purpose?

I proceeded to call the editor friend and told her the dream.This produced a delightful conversation and reaffirmation of values. Dreams help us to navigate by our inner compass, and to avoid being blind-sided by otherwise unexpected events that could throw us-off course. In a workshop this weekend, immediately following my nocturnal encounter with Red Lips, a woman reported a dream in which she was given a compass that always points towards Truth. I was reminded of Lyra's "alethiometer" in The Golden Compass.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Violin Dreams

Bach’s Chaconne turns a key in the soul. It gives voice to inconsolable grief. It is achingly beautiful; it lays the heart open and frees the spirit, like a bird, to soar on shining wings.

Bach wrote the Chaconne when he returned from a trip with his princely employer to find that his beloved wife, Maria Barbara, had died in his absence and was already buried.

He made it the fifth movement of his Partita in D Minor. Less than fifteen minutes in length, the Chaconne is the grail of solo violinists, fiendishly challenging.

Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the famed Guarneri String Quartet, was asked to play the Chaconne at the funeral of a dear friend, Petra, who had died tragically young. He had played the Chaconne many times before, and recorded a wonderful rendition, but his grief over the loss of his friend drove him to study again how the music wanted to be played. He practiced and practiced, using a facsimile of Bach’s original music, listened to the recordings of other great violinists, consulted friends and mentors.

Then he dreamed he was up in the attic of his friend’s house, where he used to practice with the skylight open, to give space for the strokes of his bow. In his dream, Petra brings Bach up the stairs to meet him.

Bach was not wearing his flowing wig and was dressed in contemporary clothes, but his identity was immediately clear. What good fortune for me! Here was a golden opportunity to get at the Chaconne’s essence from the master himself.

Steinhardt opens the skylight to play for Bach, but the composer waves the violin away. Steinhardt tries to ask him about the connection between the music and the death of Bach’s wife, but instead of responding, Bach seizes his arms and begins to dance with him in the cramped attic space. Bach dances slowly, gracefully, guiding the violinists through the steps, while humming the rhythm of the Chaconne. He was teaching Steinhardt to dance the Chaconne.

The violinist carried that thrilling sense of movement into his subsequent performances, at his friend’s funeral, and later – in a personal tribute to the source of the music – at the grave of Maria Barbara Bach.

Arnold Steinhardt tells the story of dancing with Bach in his beautiful memoir, Violin Dreams, which celebrates his passionate lifelong love affair with the instrument that cries and sings. At every turning, his rich dream life supports and illuminates his calling. He opens the book with a dream that sends him on a quest to learn the history and prehistory of the violin. In another dream, a beautiful woman visitor reveals herself as the soul of a violin.

At a time when one of his fingers has weakened and he fears he will lose his ability to play at his best, Steinhardt dreams he is standing with a friend before two quaking aspen trees. As the leaves quiver in the wind, the violinists find they can read the leaves as musical notes. They play the music revealed by the trees, and it is of surpassing beauty. That dream lifted Steinhardt’s fear and depression, and gave him strength to move through surgery in the sure knowledge he would be “able to move on and make music”.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Breaking news on Egypt from a time traveler

We need guidance on where the crisis in Egypt is going, and what it will mean for our world.

Close to a hundred of us are gathered in the meeting room, trusting that the speaker will give us the guidance we need. He is African-American, of later middle age. Scholarly and quietly authoritative, he holds the lectern easily but with enormously sober demeanor. We follow every word, deeply engaged

He tells us: "What is coming will be worse than anything seen in Germany in 1868."

When he voices that prediction, some people, especially the older ones among us, burst out in various sounds of shock and dismay. They don't want to believe him. He shakes his head mournfully and forcefully, and says "Mark my words."

Breaking news from Egypt, on the dream screen. Of all the dreams relating to Egypt that I have heard over the past week, this report, from a gifted New York dreamer named Margaret, may be the most fascinating.

What can the dream speaker mean, when he predicts that what is coming in Egypt will be worse than anything seen in Germany in 1868?
On waking, this reference was mysterious to the dreamer, though she is no slouch at research and resolved to do some digging into 19th century history.

Bismarck was my first association. I dimly remembered writing an undergrad paper on how the Prussian statesman triggered a war in order to make an empire.
My memory of the details was foggy, but Auntie Google soon gave me what I had forgotten. In 1868, when relations between Prussia and the France of Napoleon III were tense because of a struggle for the Spanish succession, Bismarck used deception to start a war. He tampered with a letter from his own monarch, Wilhelm I, to make the text read like an insult to the French - goading Napoleon III to declare war. The Franco-Prussian War that ensued was a disaster for the French, leading to the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and the declaration, in the hall of mirrors of Versailles, of the German empire in 1871. This was the birth of the German Reich, and it eventually gave us the Great War and all that followed.

1868 in Germany also saw the publication of a viciously anti-semitic novel titled Barruel , which depicts Jewish leaders plotting world domination. Material from this was used by those who concocted one of the most evil forgeries known to history, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, used by the Tsar's secret police and later by the Nazis to justify the assault on the Jews.

I don't know whether these are the associations Margaret's dream speaker had in mind, when he spoke of Germany in 1868, since I was not in that dream gathering. But it's not hard to see some relevance, in an age when wars are triggered and justified by false information.

Margaret adds: "I felt, both in the dream, and afterward, that our speaker was a time traveler who himself had suffered, and knew suffering -- and survival." Who better to ask about history - of the future or the past - than a time traveler? And we are all time travelers in our dreams.

"Battle of the Pyramids"(1798-1799) by François Louis Joseph Watteau. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes