The Sacred and the Profane

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“Just as a modern man’s habitation has lost its cosmological values, so too his body is without religious or spiritual significance. In a summary formula we might say that for the nonreligious men of the modern age, the cosmos has become opaque, inert, mute; it transmits no message, it holds no cipher. The feeling of the sanctity of nature survives today in Europe chiefly among rural populations, for it is among them that a Christianity lived as cosmic liturgy still exists.”

Mircea Eliade – The Sacred and the Profane (The Nature of Religion) – written in 1956

PS: Could science (or rather, scientism and other isms) supply the new non-theistic religious experience? Certain ideological positions seem to enjoy “sanctity” status, while others are taboo. There is even talk of “brand religion” in marketing, with brand communities built around a consciousness of kind, traditions and rituals (for shared memories, experiences and behaviors), and a sense of solidarity and moral responsibility among members! Can man make sense of his journey and his life without transcendence, and without a higher authority or a fixed frame of reference (the Absolute)? What do you think?

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Quotes of the Day

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“When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny. (…) There is danger there – a very real danger to humanity. Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?”

Arthur Conan Doyle – The  Adventure of the Creeping Man

“- Your life is not your own, he said. Keep your hands off it.

– What use is it to anyone?

– How can you tell? The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.”

Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger

Third week of spring

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Luminous torrents of calmness.

The sun, shining, muffles the sounds of everything but the birds.

Our inner discord is rendered quiet.

Brightness explodes in every hidden corner.

Graves and hills bake in the heat, grow bellies of grass,

pubescent voluptuousness.

Sweet violets spill their inebriating fragrance.

Amidst it all, elongated shadows of men move along the sidewalk

like insecure writing,

trying to make sense.

Arrival: The Gift of Language (A Film Review)

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Is time really linear and sequential like our writing? Or could it be, for a more advanced awareness, circular: a spherical sum of simultaneities? When past and future become perceptible and intertwined, is the present any more tangible than the emotion of a flashback or the knowledge of a glimpse forward? Is a vision, a revelation, any less “real” than what we call immediate “objective” reality?

If we were able to see into the future, would we still choose to live it? Can something or someone, once it has existed, ever slip into non-existence? And if time as we imagine it really does not exist, then are possession and ownership really possible or consequential? Can anything (especially time, loved ones) really be gone and lost forever? Or is everything and everyone just a gift.

Is conflict (especially armed conflict) anything else than the ludicrous, petty and futile attempt of an inferior understanding to “protect” an illusory here-and-now? What is the meaning of “weapon”?

Under the guise of a sci-fi action movie/thriller à la Independence Day, Arrival is the poetic unravelling of all these philosophical questions. Enigmatic and dreamy – and played beautifully in all its eeriness by Amy Adams – it ditches the fetishization of science for the more ethereal challenges of language – this system of arbitrary sounds and signs that we take for granted and which reflects, shapes, and limits the way we understand the world.

The film provides an almost mystical fusion of spirituality (albeit more understated) and science (linguistics, mathematical modelling) to challenge many common-sense notions and reawaken us to that foundational sentence: “In the beginning, there was the Word.”

The heroine, Louise Banks, a reputed linguist, is required by the U.S. government to help the armed forces communicate with an alien life form that has materialized on Earth, in 12 different locations across the globe. She must figure out their communication system and translate from human to alien and back, in order to understand the visitors’ intentions. The process is complex.  It becomes apparent that language – an element so overlooked by many of us on a daily basis – is in fact the ferment, the connector and the foundation making it all possible – from science to inter-species communication.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not mentioned for nothing. It states that the structure of the language we speak greatly influences how we think and behave, how we relate to the world and what sense we make of it. Mastery of a language goes beyond vocabulary and syntax. To internalize another language is to receive the gift of that culture’s schemata and scripts, of their way of perceiving, ordering and making sense of the world. It is always a window into a new, richer understanding of what might be out there.

The film raises some interesting questions from semiotics, about signs and how we attribute signification, about how we decipher speaker meaning to get to real understanding (does the human term “weapon” mean the same to the superior conscience and technology of the aliens – an instrument of death and destruction – or does it mean “tool”?).

We cannot communicate (verbally!) that which we cannot conceptualize. That which we have no word, no sign for. That which our brain has no notion for. Language is constitutive. It not only describes and reflects, it creates realities. But to understand fully, we need more than signs and words: we need meta-communication, para-verbal and non-verbal communication. A presence, an availability, a putting-ourselves-out-there, emotions, trust. Successful communication is taking a chance and moving closer to one another. To create that common reality. To enter each other’s understanding and “read” each other without the mediation of filters.

The alien “ships” are indescribable with our scientific knowledge and lexical fund; they are conundrums. They are present, but they do not literally “land”, since they float inexplicably at some distance above the Earth’s surface. They defy gravity, yet there is gravity inside. They emit no radiation and no waste. The creatures’ writing is circular, it would be like us writing with both hands from both directions at the same time and calculating the exact space we need to meet in the middle. This is a powerful metaphor of past, future and present meeting and intermingling in a multi-dimensional continuum, of left and right hemisphere (not only of the brain, but of the planet) collaborating, etc.

The antithesis between the strict authorization procedure by the military of basic word lists Louise wants to “teach” the heptapods and the incontinent, shallow, incessant speculation of news channels (leading to insecurity and outbursts of violence across the globe) are a poignant reminder of the grave responsibility borne by those who deal with and in words.  “If all you give them is a hammer (…) everything will become a nail.” What we consider to be hard facts is often nothing more than an interpretation – namely, our interpretation of our perceptions. Getting to a more timeless truth requires not only interdisciplinarity, but also the simultaneous and collaborative inputs of all points of view within the same discipline, a multi-dimensional piecing together of complex threads, of different angles of looking at the problem.

It is only appropriate that the film allows a variety of different readings, too. As Romanian philosopher and essayist Andrei Plesu once wrote, the largest, most intriguing questions of life – such as what is time, what is the meaning and purpose of our existence, etc. – cannot be answered “geometrically”, because no answer would ever be exhaustive; they require parables, little stories where all facets of the truth can be brought to light without excluding others.

From a European and Christian perspective, the parallelism between the 12 alien ships (and their 12 pieces of the message) and the 12 Apostles is always at hand. As Louise begins to grasp the heptapods’ language and her awareness expands with this new understanding, as she is given visions, dreams and memories that cannot be clearly ordered on the time axis, as she finds herself solving a major conflict and preserving peace without the conscious awareness of what she had said, we are reminded of Pentecost, the glossolalia and the Holy Spirit alighting on the Apostles (as messengers, too, of a new gospel) and the Biblical verse: “… do not worry how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” Louise does not “learn” the language, she acquires it, she receives it like a gift. It begins to flow from within her, it begins to work within her almost below the level of consciousness.

Arrival also touches on the issue of prescience vs. predestination. When Louise receives the gift of seeing into the future – as heptapods do – she is confronted with all the coming pain, yet she never for one moment is devoid of choice. Ian’s question “Want to make a baby?” drives home that point. She could still say no. She obviously still has free will, and she can make her own choice, but the beauty and fascination of life and love, and her newfound sense of the overlapping and bidirectional nature of time make it an almost inescapable choice.

A mysterious, cathartic movie for all those searching for a richer meaning beyond the here and now, Arrival also brings back some of the lost glamour and appreciation for the complexities of being a (good and responsible) translator.

40 de ani

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iată-mă sosită la ora aceea,

suma tuturor întârzierilor: ora ajungerii din urmă.

am gonit, am ratat, împrăştiindu-mă în mii de stele. unele au ars, altele orbitează încă.

altele, de încordare ţâşnind, rătăcesc cine ştie unde, în alte ere, pe planete reci, moarte, în afara sistemului solar, plantând acolo viaţa.

îmi trag răsuflarea.

mă iubesc.

metalul topit al vagoanelor scăpate din gări pe care – sisific – le proiectasem,

al celor pe care le-am lăsat să plece,

s-a răcorit. e mai vâscos acum, picură-ncet: pic, pic.

săgeţile făcute din el nu mai dor,

iar eu nu mai ascut tăişuri.

 

iată-mă sosită la ora decantării.

printr-un miracol, nu m-am înecat. am înotat departe de turbioane, privesc sub mine în lichidul

pe care plutesc,

clar,

ca într-un cer.

tu, eu, ei şi planctonul invizibil al iubirii în fluid. toate celelalte lucruri s-au lăsat jos.

m-am dezbrăcat la timp de cele care trag greu.

nostalgia nu e decât un zmeu de hârtie, decupat pe forma sufletului,

umezit de ploaia care se adună uneori în mine ca pe podeaua unui pod neetanş, zugrăvit spălăcit,

de culoarea tihnei din copilărie.

vâjâitul lumii frânează….

sau mi-a slăbit auzul?

 

iată-mă sosită la ora aceea,

amurg sau levitaţie, când doar îmbrăţişezi, de la distanţă,

aburul încins al mistuitelor incendii, mărturie a dezlănţuirii de forţă care ai fost,

care

mai eşti, poate,

când ştii că te-ai numit Prometeu şi asta te face să zâmbeşti

(ei, hai, mai poţi, mai poţi încă, mai dai din când în când o vâlvătaie de test, dar fără să mai pârjoleşti pe nimeni);

când începi să cultivi prietenia amintirilor din care te compui,

şi le colecţionezi atent, înşiruit, ca scoicile pe aţă,

cu grijă să nu ciobeşti vreuna.

când ai înţelegere pentru lucrurile modeste suflate de vânt, căci şi nisipul a fost odată

munte.

când ţi-e tot mai adesea dor de atât numai: de pământ şi de cer şi de oamenii dragi, dar mai mult de bolta aia noaptea, când vâsleaţi pe lac şi povesteaţi despre astre.

 

iată-mă sosită la ora aceea

când duhul nu mai e neant: îşi bate aripile mai rar şi are locurile sale în care se opreşte,

înţelegând că, în lume, tocmai puţinul e cel mai puţin sufocant,

că doar puţinul lasă suficient loc împlinirii.

iar trupul? vas de lut fericit de clipocitul fiecărei căni de apă rece şi al

fiecărui glas de copil;

fericit că a fost cândva frământat de o mână,

pus la călit, aprins, stins,

că l-a zdrobit cineva de buza unei case, lângă o treaptă,

pe o brazdă tăcută;

fericit că poate să tacă la rându-i: “am fost”.

 

O carte

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lumina slabă a unui felinar picură coniac pe o mână de frunze lucioase

în rest, doar glasul răguşit şi distant al unui radiou străbate bezna

bezna asta groasă şi caldă ca o plăcintă apetisantă cu cremă,

sâmburele de dinăuntrul pralinei e rotund şi tare

mi se rostogoleşte în gură, în jurul limbii,

ca odinioară săruturile tale lacome.

cum se schimbă dragostea,

nimic mai eliberator

decât pierderea ei.

mă aşez acum

cu o carte pe

pe întuneric

şi o pipăi,

doar o pipăi

coperta ei

m-a atins

în locul

acela

acela

tainic

gata.

ga-

ta.

Revisiting the Stoics

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Well, you know what they say, some things never change. Anxious, dissatisfied, relationship not going well? So what else is new?

I’ve recently come across the following, from Epictetus:

“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.” (…)

“Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.” (…)

“Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent, and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own, and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you, you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.” (…)

– from Enchiridion I

And also, this:

“When I see anyone anxious, I say, what does this man want? Unless he wanted something or other not in his power, how could he still be anxious?  A musician, for instance, feels no anxiety while he is singing by himself; but when he appears upon a stage he does, even if his voice be ever so good, or he plays ever so well. For what he wishes is not only to sing well, but likewise to gain applause. But this is not in his own power.”

– from Discourses, On Anxiety.


Source: W. Ferraiolo, Stoic Counsel for Interpersonal Relations