What’s in a spell?

This semester I embarked on the very first subject of a law degree, a study which, if completed at the current pace of one subject per semester, will take me 12 long years to complete.

As a lover of debate, dialogue, the parsing of meaning, the construction of ideas from mere ink marks on paper, much of law, even the introductory subject I have completed thus far, is fascinating.

For example, the legal definition of a “person” in Australian law is “a body politic or corporate as well as an individual.” [Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth)]. So, to be a “person” in legal terms is to be more than a human individual, but also to be a business, or a nation, at least in terms of rights and responsibilities.

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The magic is that a business is created, or born, when a person or group of people register a business name, acquire an ABN, perhaps create a constitution outlining shares and duties and VOILA,  a person is summoned from thin air, from ink marks on paper.

It follows, ergo, that since words create things, and contracts and constitutions, rightly parsed and formally agreed upon, create something with legal force, an entity, a person, out of the air from nothing…. then laws are like spells.

Furthermore, after studying a few semesters of Biblical Hebrew, it came clear that the commonly used magical term “Abbrakadabra” had Semitic roots. “E’barah, ki’dibborah” literally reads “let it be [created] by the word.” The Hebrew verb barah is used in Genesis 1 to describe God’s creation of the heavens and the earth from nothing, from mere words or commands.

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What unfolds though is an interesting correlation between ancient literature and modern physics. The Hebrew account of creation, in comparison to many creation myths of the Ancient Near East [ANE] saw all matter arising from the divine word or “logos”. Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian creation accounts of that time, told of the stars, planets, oceans and mountains being formed from the corpses of slain divinities.

Contemporary physics identifies energy underlying all matter, and asserts that our thoughts themselves create energy. It seems the ancient Hebrews understood the world is the articulation of a spectacular divine thought and word.

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Another unique feature of the Hebrew creation story is the nobility granted to humanity. Rather than a servile race, condemned to suffer from the whims of their makers, Hebrews saw humans, gifted with God’s image, capable of further shaping and forming the material world.

Indeed, it is by “words” that humans create laws, contracts, constitutions and so forth, which form societies, nations, businesses, relationships and more.

Percy Shelley in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” [1821] writes “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What he points out is that by the “word,” poets move ideas into energy. In doing so they bring into being, a force and energy, much like a law or a spell does. 

It is their poems, songs, elegies and ballads, which have the force to move humans, to move societies, and to change them and form them anew. 

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It was and is the job of poets, much like lawyers and good governors, to bring life to societies, to nations, to businesses, to individuals and more.

 

The Danger of a Single Story

This TED talk from 2009 has been viewed over 11 million times and is ranked among the top 20 most viewed TED talks of all time.

It is a powerful reminder that the underrepresentation of cultural differences may be dangerous.

Dangerous? Indeed so.

In this talk, Adiche explains that as a young child, she had often read American and British stories, where the characters were primarily Caucasian.

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature.”

 

Listening, empathy and truly understanding the “other” as a nuanced person with perspectives, memories, dreams, loves and fears, is the heart and soul of true relationships.

When we listen to the stories of those who are unlike us, we can enter into true relationship with them.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian born author who is an alumnus of Yale, Princeton and Harvard.

You can see the original TED talk here.

Ozymandias …. by Zen Pencils

On May 26, 2015 Bear Skin posted a blog about Percy Shelley’s classic poem from 1818,  “Ozymandias.” The poem captures beautifully the Romantic notion of transience and decay of what was once proud and beautiful.

Having recently liked the sublime page Zen Pencils, an illustrative blog of all things inspirational, I came across this version of an illustrated Ozymandias.

It’s too good not to share. Enjoy!

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Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman [1949] written by Arthur Miller can also be paraphrased as “Death of the American Dream.” The celebrated play is considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.

The play examines the life of Willy Loman, a businessman who is losing his grip on reality. Willy’s dissolution lies in his belief that a “personally attractive” man in business deserves material success.

This fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability are highlighted by his childishly dislike of the success of others won by hard work. Willy cannot accept the disparity between dream and reality and this leads to  his rapid psychological decline.

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His sons Biff and Happy are yet to make anything of their lives while Willy’s neighbours and older brother are successful. The family dynamic between Happy and Biff with their father Willy is one of disappointment and delusions. The son lie to their father about their plans for success while Willy reconstructs reality through flashback reminiscences of better days.

Willy is rude and unkind to his wife and neighbour, those most kind and caring to him. We learn that Biff’s lack of desire to pursue the American dream of business success, was birthed by learning his father was deceitful and philandering. Biff prefers to be an ordinary man with an ordinary life working on the land with his hands.

Willy refuses to accept the reality of what his sons tell him, preferring to slip into imagined flashbacks of what really happened in his past.

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Set in post war America, Death of Salesman was written into the twin sentiments of modernist melancholy and post-war optimism. While the United States experienced economic boom and rising middle class prosperity, socially and spiritually her people were struggling with existential crises.

The narrative shares timeless truths in relation to individual and national identity, capitalism, ideals of success and notions of integrity, morality and hard work.

 

 

 

 

Nevermore

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—            Only this and nothing more.”

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First published in January 1845, The Raven is one of the most famous and recognisable poems ever written.

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It certainly made writer Edgar Allen Poe widely popular within his own life time.

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    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
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It is noted for its musicality and stylized language. The rhythmic meter is called trochaic octameter – eight beats per line, each beat having one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable.
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The poem is said to be inspired by a talking raven in Dickens’Barnaby Rudge.  It tells of a bird’s midnight visit to a distraught lover, pining for his love Lenore, and illustrates the man’s slow fall into madness.
Characteristically Gothic and supernatural atmosphere, Poe makes use of a number of folk, mythological, religious, and classical references.
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 Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
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The main theme of the poem is one of undying devotion and the agonising conflict between the desire to both forget his love and the desire to remember.
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The narrator hearing the bird utter one word “Nevermore” assumes it is the raven’s “only stock and store”, and, yet, he continues to ask it questions, knowing what the answer will be.
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   “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

 

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He was also known to give recitals of “The Raven“. A guest at one soiree famously noted…

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He would turn down the lamps till the room was almost dark, then standing in the center of the apartment he would recite … in the most melodious of voices … So marvelous was his power as a reader that the auditors would be afraid to draw breath lest the enchanted spell be broken.

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Poe wrote of the poem which immortalised him,

the death… of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.

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Indeed, The Raven in Gothic tone and mood, certainly captures a lover’s midnight reflections and agonies powerfully and emotively.

The Poet Who Painted With His Words

Guillaume Apollinaire [1880-1918], part of the Modernist set of artists, writers and thinkers who gathered in Paris around the turn of the century, was a unique poet who combined text and images into a new form of poetry, the Calligramme.

Champion of the avant-garde, writer and art-critic Apollinaire explained and defended Cubism and other experimental art forms to a suspicious public.  At a time of rapid change and a growing gulf between classical forms of traditional art and the emerging popular art forms of cinema and the phonograph, Apollinaire sought to bridge the divide and express Modernism with his poetry.

Through the Calligramme, Apollinaire created a “written portrait”, a “poem picture”. He sought to express the unfolding Modernism and unchain his readers from the conventions of poetry – to read and see something new.

You can see more about Guillaume Apollinaire via this brilliant video from TED-ED.

Momo

Michael Ende is best known for his novel “The Never Ending Story” [1979] however, the German author was a prolific writer of fantasy and children’s fiction, selling more than 35 million copies of his works in his lifetime and having them adapted into  films, plays, operas and audio-books .

His fantasy novel Momo [1973], also known as The Grey Gentleman explores themes of modernism and materialism and the power of a young girl to simply give people a most valuable asset, her attention and time.

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Set on the outskirts of an unknown Mediterranean city, perhaps in Italy, the story centres around a neighbourhood of simple folk and an orphan, Momo.

Living in the ruins of an amphitheatre, Momo does not know how to read or write, nor does she know her own age. She however has a unique gift for truly listening to people. Momo is considered to be somewhat of an advisor to all the people of the neighbourhood for helping them solve their petty problems by simply listening.

Momo does not say much but her gentle ability to listen to people helps them untangle their problems themselves. Momo’s closest friends are Beppo, the street sweeper and Guido, a tour guide.

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Into the tranquil world of this community come the Men in Grey, bald men with greyish skin and grey suits who represent the Time Savings Bank. These men indoctrinate the people of this town to the value of ‘saving time’ which requires depositing time in accounts in order to gain interest on it.

Gradually, activities perceived to be time wasting such as socialising, art creation, imaginative playing or even sleeping begin to be replaced by hectic work and stress.

Momo remains immune to the powers of the Men in Grey. As her friends no longer come to her for counsel, she perceives the irony that the more time people save, the less time they have.

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Momo is assisted by curious creature called Cassiopeia, a tortoise who communicates with words illuminated on her shell and who has the gift of future-sightedness.  Cassiopeia introduces her to the Administrator of Time,  Professor Secundus Minutus Hora, who grants her one “hour lily”, freezing time for one hour, long enough for Momo to infiltrate the lair of the Men in Grey.

Momo discovers the the Men in Grey are not real humans but are in fact parasites living off the time deposited in their bank by people. The cigars they smoke are made from dried “hour lilies” deposited in the bank for saving and without these cigars, the Men in Grey perish.

It is Momo’s challenge to deprive the Men in Grey of their cigars while simultaneously releasing the trapped “hour lilies” kept in the bank for safe keeping, and return them to the people who have lost them.

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Written at the end of modernsim and at the cusp of post-modernism and the flowering of neo-spiritualism, Ende like the Romantics before him, lamented the gradual erasure of the mystical, spiritual or esoteric from human life in favour of utilitarianism, materialism and economic rationalism.

To Michael Ende, children such as Momo are unique symbols of resistance to adult preoccupations such as materialism, work, stress and time saving.

His story is an essay to the magic of friendship, the importance of time, the power of stories, the significance of compassion and the value of the small but pleasant things that make life more worth living.

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Our unlikely hero is Momo, whose invincibility lies in the fact that her childish imagination can see through the Men in Grey, and her love for her friends leads her to courageously challenge the establishment which would rob them of their most precious asset -time.

 

What Books Do for the Human Spirit

A theme of Bear Skin is the transformative power of art, narrative, story, poetry and words.

A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. ~ Rebecca Solnit.

It seems that all throughout history, writers, thinkers, poets and philosophers have marveled at the power and magic of books and stories.

But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page! Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of mankind. ~ Galileo Galilei.

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For many poor or location bound readers, books form a doorway, a portal to the greatest minds and events of history. For the wealthy and more mobile, books remain challenges to priorities, values and heart orientation.

Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle…I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us…A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us ~ Franz Kafka.

For science fiction writers, books form curious transportation through time and space.

Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. ~  Carl Sagan.

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For political activists and educators, books are a tool for the liberation and empowerment of the human spirit.

Reading is a way to change our destiny ~  James Baldwin.

For thinkers of all kinds, books create access to great pleasure, even ecstasy.

Reading, is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy. ~ E.B. White 

 

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Through books, humans find freedom, agency and friendships with great thinkers. What better and more cost effective hobby is there in the world?

Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game, which are subject only to his own curiosity….. And no other hobby can promise this — to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or take a quick dip in the Mesozoic. ~Wisława Szymborska.