Art 113-C Midterm Examination
ACCOUNT OF THE MIDTERM EXAMINATION PERFORMED BY THE CLASS ART 113-C
OCCIDENTAL ART AND MYTHOLOGY AT CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, SACRAMENTO
ON THE OCCASION OF THE VERNAL EQUINOX MARCH 20, 1986
Kurt von Meier, Ph.D Professor of Art
"There is no crossing without motive." G. Spencer Brown, Laws of Form
In 1973 G. Spencer Brown had arranged to arrive on the West Coast by air from England, and at the invitation of John Lilly and Alan Watts to travel down to Esalen, south of Big Sur on the day of the Vernal Equinox, there to address a conference of worthies on the subject of Laws of Form. It was apparently intended as a dramatic event, conceived as Chinese boxes: a crossing (between continents) on the day of the crossing (of the equator by the sun), for the purpose of a calling (or a crossing--in the sense of transmitting a teaching) about calling and crossing (the two fundamental laws in Laws of Form).
Brown wanted to return to England immediately fallowing his initial brilliant appearance, and leave the wrangling to Karl Pribram, Heinz von Foerster, Ram Dass and the rest, but was prevailed upon to stay until he had delivered sufficient quantity as well as quality for his fare and fees, the niceties of esthetic timing notwithstanding. Naturally this prevented him from embodying most elegantly the profound principles of crossing and recrossing expressed by his calculus.
Since that occasion, although I have long been aware that the Vernal Equinox was a time carefully marked by the most conscious portion of humanity from the early Neolithic to the present, I have noted the "crossing," and who was doing what at that time, with particular attentiveness. As it transpired in 1986, I had scheduled a midterm test for the class I was teaching in Art and Mythology at California State University, Sacramento.
A working booklist was distributed to members of the class as they entered the lecture room in which they were now to sit for the examination. On it were critical commentaries and cross-references to subjects such as early writing, the appearance of the alphabet in classical Greece, the first appearance of printing in Western Europe, and other trans- or meta-cultural topics, including colors, stars, numbers, anatomy, musical notes and the Tarot. The distribution of this printed (blue mimeo on blue paper, as it turned out) list constituted the ZERO phase of the test, establishing receptivity on the part of the students, giving them something first, the better to prepare them for giving me feedback in the form of exam answers. Many students were in their seats early, reading over the booklist when the time came for the exam to begin. I said, OK, the next three people who come in the door (late), we'll hand out the--what was it?--four-page list as though it were the exam, waiting to see when or if they discovered it to be a joke..."Nah! Don't start writing, it's not really the midterm test, it's the book list!"
When in January of 1960 the National Poetry Society of America celebrated its Golden Jubilee, though he was an Englishman, it awarded to Robert Graves the Prince Alexander Droutzkoy Memorial Award, a gold medal for services to poetry. The poet tells the amusing and ironic story in "Poetic Gold," a delightful talk itself given to the Oxford University Philological Society, and published in Robert Graves, On Poetry: Collected Talks and Essays (Doubleday, 1969). Commencing his acceptance remarks, Graves says that he held up a goldsmith's touchstone--a small diamond-shaped cube of black jasper, "because poets should avoid dead metaphors,...and began discoursing on gold, the royal metal, the only one found in a pure state, a metaphor for truth and integrity and, because royal and real are the same word, for reality. ...The testing or assaying of doubtful gold has given numerous words to the English language--'touchstone,' 'acid test,' and even the word test itself. The original noun 'test' meant the cupel in which refiners parted gold from other metals; hence the phrase put it to the test.'"
All students had been asked to bring with them bluebooks and pens, and also their colors: Marvy Markers or felt-tip pens they had been using to color some cards of the Tarot by way of class assignments. They were directed to write their names on the covers of the bluebooks and so forth. Question number one was not the "first" question, of course, which was the ZERO "question" (i.e., whether or not they were prepared to be receptive to the grand esthetic, artistic, creative possibilities of the event/occasion offered by the test).
The exam was not distributed in written form like the booklist; rather it was given orally, as in the ancient & Tibetan traditions. And it is certainly worth noting that in one of the recent directives of the Art Department concerning the examination of students at a somewhat higher level, for the MA degree, all candidates will be required not only to submit a written thesis, but also to defend their work orally.
The colored card of the Ace of Wands was taped to the screen of the TV on its roller-stand which was wheeled to a prominent position so that it might be seen easily by all. The class was reminded that the Aces all come "by the grace of God--or Buddha, or the Great Spirit, however called," to those who are prepared to receive, having somehow relaxed the artifice of defense that our egos erect through physical rigidities intellectual mindsets, emotional biases and spiritual beliefs.
The class was asked to write about one of the cards in the suit of wands--that being the way that all people must travel, the suit symbolizing the experience of living life and suffering (bearing) its burdens, conventionally understood as "problems." Which card out of the suit was one that they felt a special affinity for, or seemed to understand better than others? Where were they in the progress through that suit? Which card provided the clearest crystal mirror by which they might look inside the realm of their own memories, or which they might feel most directly related to the immediacy of their experience? Not just "Pick a card ANY card;" it had to be one of the wands.
While students were writing in the bluebooks, much as though it were an ordinary university midterm examination process, I prepared the large work table in the front of the room, covering it with a plain blue tablecloth, in the center of which I placed a 12-inch square piece of blue and black cotton applique work done by the Hmong (or Meo) people from the Golden Triangle area where Thailand, Burma and Laos come together. In a small gold-plated bowl, I lit a pure beeswax candle. In a copper ashtray I lit a stick of juniper incense. With the image of the Ace of wands "framed" in that spot on which members of our culture are most accustomed to focus (the center of the CRT monitor) the Wand surrounded by a wreath of flames--also before their eyes was a flaming wand which then gave off patently real wisps of natural, beautifully scented smoke, of a kind thought by the oldest native inhabitants of THIS continent to be efficacious in attempts to purify and sanctify the immediate environs (thus symbolically removing the "negative" consequences of karma). In other words, the most direct and correct "answer" to question number one lay in perceiving the immediate, obvious connection or relationship between the image of the Ace of Wands as represented by the Tarot card, and the reality of the burning single stick of incense before the eyes of the whole class, and being taken by them into their very bodies with each breath. Juniper because that is the wood that old David Monongye was chopping --while then in his nineties, outside his house on the Third Mesa in what the Gringo government calls northern Arizona, but what we know better is the land of the Hopi nation, the People of Peace--when a piece of juniper wood flew up a hit him in the eye, causing his blindness: a crucial event in the life of a man whose spiritual evolution had caused him to be elevated to the position of Chief of the Eagle clan (since it is impossible to have a blind leader of eagles, pace the parable painted by Peter Breughel, "The Blind Leading the Blind," hanging in Vienna). It was not just a single solid stick of smouldering juniper wood for incense, although you might think that would have done as well, but it was a commercial stick made from reconstituted juniper wood, and thus one which articulated even more so the element of human consciousness that caused it to be reformed into its wand-like shape expressly for purposes of purification.
When the incense went out, after about 10 minutes, time was called. As the class finished writing their answers to question number one, I prepared the table for number two by laying out the 14 cards that comprise the suit of Pentacles. The path is indicated by the cards from the 10 through the deuce, which were arranged along the front edge of the table, while the four Tarot court cards were displayed further back, the King and Queen to the left, and the Knight and Page to the right of the applique centerpiece. Then the class was invited to come around the table to see the cards. I took down the Ace of Wands and put up in its place on the TV screen the Ace of Pentacles. The crowd of 23 students began to mill about the table, I directed them to flow in a counterclockwise circle--a widdershins rotation as the faithful circle the Holy Ka'ba in Mecca, and the direction of the rotation of the Mevlana dervishes who dance in the tradition of Rumi. But there was an earnestness to study the cards displayed, and the group clustered around the front of the table, with the most rigid positions being those in the center from which point of advantage the range of cards could be most profitably scrutinized. I suggested that in fairness we should circle around, so that all might have an equal opportunity to see and observe, and in further ways encouraged movement, so that eventually while walking in a clockwise direction myself, much as the Buddhists circle the stupas at Swayambu near Kathmandu in Nepal, or in the Deerpark where Gautama the Buddha preached his first sermon and thereby set in motion the Wheel of Dharma--or Truth--at Sarnath near Banares, that same oldest city, perhaps the oldest in the world, then called Kashi, now called Varanasi on the banks of the most holy waters of the river Ganges.
I said "I'm going to help you get going and push you along a bit...to the extent, of urging you on around with a light touch at a certain place near the small of your back." They began to shuffle and some students became anxious about not having time to view the cards while others began to embody the spirit of the dance in the form of that deep instinctual ritual dance of the tribe in which there is a place for everyone, all the visiting relatives, every member, high or low. In the more friendly or self-secure tribes, this could also include the travelling stranger. In antiquity the term barbarian only meant someone who did not follow the same customs around the hearth, or around the well as those of one's own people. The xenos, or outsider, nevertheless was recognized as a human being and hence extended the rights of hospitality--that is what defined civilized behavior for the Greeks, and what is presented in a slightly garbled teaching story in the myth of Odysseus in the cave of the Kyklops in Book Nine of the Odyssey. Even if the wandering foreigner were not invited to join the dance, however, the essential conventions of ancient hospitality required provision of food and shelter. Under no circumstances--and it was here that Polyphemus, the Kyklops, was found wanting and had to be taught a stern lesson by Odysseus--were civilized humans to eat one another. [For some masterful ungarbling of the story, see "Odysseus and Polyphemus," the first chapter in Denys Page, The Homeric Odyssey, Oxford, 1955.] Then I moved the four court cards to face the back of the table, thinking thereby to increase the rate of reluctant circulation. I joined the flow attempting to urge it forth in good cheer and enthusiasm amid jocular charges of outright stubbornness but increasing jollity. "At least once around before going back to your seats," was the invocation, "round like the Pentacle Ace."
Two days before I had picked up my spare copy of the Bollingen series (Tres Equis!) XXX, which happens to be Volume 2 of the Papers From the Eranos Yearbooks, edited by Joseph Campbell selected and translated from the Eranos-Jahrbucher edited by Olga Froebe-Kapteyn, and called The Mysteries. My attention had been drawn, fleetingly on that particular occasion, to two entries in the Table of Contents, listed on pages vii and viii, namely:
FRITZ MEIER The Mystery of the Ka'ba: Symbol and Reality in Islamic Mysticism (1944)
MAX PULVER Jesus' Round Dance and Crucifixion According to the Acts of St. John (1942)
I instructed them to return to their seats so as to be better able to listen to a recitation: the other part of the question with which they were being asked to associate the cards of the suit of Pentacles. I then introduced and recited the curse from the tradition of the Welsh bards, invoking all the power of a language such that it could be truly said that the pen--at least among those people for some time--was indeed mightier than the sword. (As David Byrne sings, "Same as it ever was"--Shem and Shaun before the ladies of St. Bride's, Brigit's, or shan't it be called as well St. Trinion's?) Now why, they could ask themselves, might I be reading for them a curse? Certainly it was not for me to be cursing them, but rather that they hear such words and know thereby of the way in which the language, a language, any language might be employed. And why such a curse as that uttered by a traveller on a path who has received misdirection? Just as well I could have recited the curse quoted by George Gurdjieff from the chapter on "Ekim Bey" in Meetings With Remarkable Men (Dutton, 1969), "the following saying that is known throughout Persia:
"Let God kill him who himself does not know and yet presumes to show others the way to the doors of His Kingdom." But the invective from Robert Graves comes from a linguistic tradition much closer to the immediate roots of our English language than any in what is now Iran.
THE TRAVELER'S CURSE AFTER MISDIRECTION
(from the Welsh)
May they wander stage by stage
Of the same vain pilgrimage,
Stumbling on, age after age,
Night and day, mile after mile,
At each and every step, a stile;
At each and every stile, withal,
May they catch their feet and fall;
At each and every fall they take,
May a bone within them break;
And may the bones that break within
Not be, for variation's sake,
Now rib, now thigh, now arm, now shin,
But always, without fail, THE NECK.
The answer to the problem posed by "question" number TWO has to do with the embodiment of the Tarot suit of Pentacles in the sense that the Ace signifies clearing the mind from obstructions, the diamond-like state of no-mind, or satori, and its accompanying ecstatic state of consciousness (fan'a) that attracts the energy of Barakath. And further, that one of the most effective traditional ways in which to approach this state of ecstasy is through the dance: specifically the circle or round dance, whether of Jesus, Rumi, or in the Arica Zhikr, which closely resembles that of the Helveti dervishes.
Or, as Marcel Duchamp said in New York at Eastertide, 1916, of the "hidden noise"--that mysterious object placed inside the assisted ready-made by Arensberg before Duchamp finished the piece--"It could be a diamond or a coin."
Grading the bluebooks, since there is at least one certainly correct answer, all the other thoughts, theories, beliefs or ideas noted are to be judged by its standard. It is easy to see which students begin to catch on to relationships between "the container and the contained," [The Book of the Book]. All the rest is garbage, whether sweet or sour, an index of the extent to which minds have been obfuscated by the darkening cloud layers of so-called education.
The better to fulfill their support function for the front line of higher education, the direct and fiduciary process that obtains between the student and the instructor in the classroom, in the building of the Department of Public Safety, the women working at the traffic desk reluctantly agreed to issue, if only for this occasion, a Special Permit for parking in the courtyard adjacent to the art gallery. From there it was a close haul to the lecture hall. While hard-working students were delivering their minds on Pentacles and Directions in succinct essays, I collected the cards and set the table for the next part of the exam.
The image presented was the 10 of Cups: a vision of the table spread with delights. And so I set out a block of puriri wood carried from New Zealand (a gift from the wood sculptor, Jim Allen, now Director of the Sydney School of Art in Australia), on which was a bit of paté and cheese, purchased the day before from the Oakville Grocery when I stopped by to pick up mail from the box next door. The paté was a beautifully textured pork with sherry and peppercorns, and the cheese was a torte of blue marble-veined Stilton sandwiched between layers of bright orange double Gloucester. In a large wooden bowl were two fancy pretzels of fougasse from the Acme Bakery in Berkeley. There were two blue and white striped cotton towels, and a sharp little serrated knife set out, and two dozen clear plastic glasses. At almost the last possible chance to screw up I kicked over the bottle of wine, a magnum of Bordeaux, which was accused by one of the students of having to do with the Rothschilds. It bounced off the lino and showed some bubbles, but the bottle didn't break. Without further marginally neurotic ado, the cork was pulled with the aid of an Ah-so.
The plastic glasses were filled for all students but one who declined, but was given a glass to raise (symbolic of the void, as is the vase in traditional Buddhist iconography). With the Ace of Cups taped to the TV, and surrounded by its flames and with the roses of Springtime blossoming in its corners, we raised our glasses to the Ace of Cups, the Path of the Heart, to Springtime and to Love.
"I wouldn't serve you something I wouldn't drink myself."
We had a pleasantly social, lighthearted time, with talk of this and that, of the food, of quantity and quality. Someone, commenting on the rosemary baked into the fougasse, asked if the herb symbolized Truth or Love, but not necessarily True Love. The story was told of a student in the art credential program who had proposed a lecture/presentation featuring a drawing lesson with a nude model. The idea was scotched by the professor, who was at that moment pouring out a glass of cheap wine that had been incorporated into another lecture/presentation. (Alcohol si, but sex no?) "We in the Education Department are not as loose as you people in the Art Department." "So why," the student had asked internally, "am I filling up my second glassful, when I know it will just give me a headache?"
Here, of course, the "question" or the problem as set was indistinguishable from the answer or solution. Or, as again Marcel Duchamp is known to have said when pressed about his masterpiece The Great Glass, "There's no solution because there's no problem."
The Ace of Swords replaced that of Cups on display. The class was directed to write in their bluebooks at least one coherent sentence in ordinary, discursive American English prose about anything whatsoever, so long as it was TRUE, since they had been enjoined to look up TRUTH in the American Heritage Dictionary's "Appendix" of Indo-European roots. The truth delineated, could be either real or imaginary--a true act, thought or feeling--fundamentally a spiritual question. Whatever was written had to resonate with the authenticity of pure gold, and whatever was written after that had to be at least as true as what had been written before. A dream or a mathematical equation, such as [no-n, to modulus a when n and a are natural integers and a is prime] can be thought of as like unto truth eternal. [See James Keys, Only Two Can Play This Game (Julian Press, 1972, p. 34].
As a basic convention necessary for teaching or for any other communication, telling the truth is usually quite a different matter from the usual chit-chat. When someone really tells the truth even ordinary people notice the difference--something happens in terms of the galvanic skin response, perhaps adrenaline levels, or even pineal gland functions in the synthesis of sertonin and melatonin.
To respond to question number five, students were directed to draw and color from memory the Tarot card of THE ESSENCE, in some traditional decks referred to as "The Fool." For this purpose they were provided with 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheets of white 20 lb. bond paper, loose leaf, to be inserted in their bluebooks. I suggested that it might be possible to tell the artist of each just by looking at their representation of the card. Drawings speak for themselves in ways quite different than essays, however succinct.
In the esoteric practice of embodying the Tarot, the ESSENCE card appears three times. It is the first card (unnumbered, or numbered "zero" in some decks, or in others "XXII"), and while always imagined to be present throughout the exercise, appears thirdly at the end. But the second appearance of the ESSENCE card is upon the completion of the Minor Arcana--that station achieved by the class prior to the examination. Some say that at the second appearance the card may be imagined or visualized as the Harlequin of the Commedia del Arte, or as the Sufi in the muraqq, or traditional patchwork cloak of the dervish. [See Idries Shah, The Sufis, p. 324-6]. Hujwiri, (d.1063) buried at Lahore near the Bhati Gate, wrote The Revelation of the Veiled, the first book in Persian on Sufism which contains, in the chapter on the patched robe, all that (at that time, according to Shah, writing in 1971) could be revealed about the use and meaning of the secret language used by Sufis to carry on their special training. The many levels of meaning are characterized by the several words that derive from the Arabic triliteral root RAH, QOF, 'AID. The same three root letters yield words for divine fool, the patched cloak, the black-and-white chessboard pattern, to walk quickly, to hit the target with an arrow; also as in making epigrams (a favorite activity of Marcel Duchamp), to patch a cloak or to fix a well, to be heedless, to be addicted to wine, and the word raga', or "Seventh Heaven, an allusion to the divine quality of Sufism. And in his book, People of the Secret (The Octagon Press, London, 1983, p. 198), Ernest Scott writes "Harlechim' may have been a corruption of Aghlagin, a Sufic group known as The Silent Ones who ware patchwork clothes."
While the students were drawing, I rinsed out the plastic glasses, and opened up a bottle of Pedro Jimenez Viejissimo from the Lustau family of Jerez de la Frontera: some Spanish raisin to complement the French grape. I wouldn't serve lunch at such a social event on such a momentous day as that of the Vernal Equinox without providing just a taste of dessert. There was a ring of poppyseed cake, a veritable Semi di Papavero, fresh from Fornaio. The parting lesson was an invitation to reflect on the issue of forced or unannounced testing for "drugs," since there was enough natural chemical in the poppy seeds to show up in one's system as a confounded indication of opium, morphine or heroin, given the accuracy of the state-of-the-art tests being proposed by the state.
The class exited into a bright sunlight and the last hour of winter.