Monday, April 28, 2014

The Ode to Joy Game, Completed

It's done, folks.  I started this game by placing pieces of music in the middle and bottom spots on the Hipbone board, so let's go with another song for the top spot.  In the tenth and final circle I place John Lennon's 1970 song "God."

(I've got to thank Michelle, who suggested adding Lennon to the board in the very first post of this game!)

If you've never heard this particular song before, go have a listen before reading the rest.  Lennon wrote it just after the breakup of the Beatles, and he was trying to convey (among other things) that an era has really and truly ended.  Sadness runs through it, for sure...

God is a concept
By which we measure our pain
I'll say it again
God is a concept
By which we measure our pain

...but there's also some clarity of thought that one may not have associated with Lennon at this crazy time of rapid change.  He takes a left turn into listing some of the "idols" that he's discovered he can no longer believe in.

I don't believe in magic
I don't believe in I Ching
I don't believe in Bible
I don't believe in Tarot
I don't believe in Mantra
I don't believe in Gita
I don't believe in Yoga
I don't believe in Kings

Then it gets more personal.  I remember the first time I heard this next part, decades ago, on the radio while driving by myself.  I almost had to pull over.

I don't believe in Elvis
I don't believe in Zimmerman
I don't believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
That's reality

I suppose this was controversial when it was released -- possibly of the same flavor as his earlier "We're more famous than Jesus" statement.  However, I say he's just following 1 John 4:8 here.  If you take "God is love" to its logical conclusion, then one's communion with the divine must be filtered through the direct experience of love.  John was thinking specifically about romantic love, which for him in 1970 was all new and sparkly, trumping and coloring just about everything else.  But I think that there are other kinds of love that can serve in this rapturous capacity -- fans of "boom de yada" have got to know what I'm talking about.

Okay, I won't belabor it with more words.  Links, can't forget the links...

The connection to Beethoven's Ode to Joy is clear, right?  Would you be surprised if the personified goddess "Freude" in Schiller's lyrics was really called Aphrodite?

The connection to psychoactive ergot fungus.  Well, I don't have a list of the substances that inspired Mr. Lucy in the Sky in his late 60s songwriting, but those albums ended up being mystical initiations for millions.

The connection to the Queen of the Night?  If you're thinking of Mozart's villainess, I don't know if I have a good link -- other than how Yoko was characterized by angry fans, maybe!  However, the Queen's amorous joys were conveyed by Aleister Crowley's own version: Nuit, the goddess of Infinite Space.  On a fateful day in 1904, he heard her tell him that "Love is the Law" of a new era of mankind that was just dawning.

Even though there's no direct link to Aerosmith's "Dream On" (in the bottom spot), there's symmetry here, in that Lennon ends the song with words as wistful as Steven Tyler's...

I was the Walrus
But now I'm John
And so dear friends
You'll just have to carry on
The dream is over

I don't think he meant that to be a downer, since he was filled with hope at getting to be "just John" for a while.  Of course, I wish he got to have more time for that next phase of his life than he ended up getting.  But all the evidence points to those next 10 years as being filled with lots and lots of joy.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Zamyatin's We

Wow -- I think it's been half a year since I've been able to participate in the Armchair Squid's wonderful gathering of online book lovers.  A few weeks ago I happened upon Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1921 short novel "We."  I thought I knew the landscape of bleak 20th century dystopias pretty well... Orwell, Huxley, Rand... later Bradbury, Vonnegut, Burgess, and a host of movie-makers.  I didn't know about Zamyatin, who was the granddaddy of them all.  (Turns out that Orwell and the rest knew about him, though!)  The manuscript of "We" was smuggled out of the young Soviet Union and translated into English many years before it would ever see publication in its native language.

Readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 -- and fans of Logan's Run and Brazil -- won't be surprised by the broad-brush outlines of the plot.  Mathematician D-503 (no names here) is living in the perfect collectivist world, and is happily working towards humanity's greatest achievement: a huge rocket called the Integral that will bring mankind's well-ordered lifestyle to the stars.  Archaic concepts like freedom and individuality were bred out of humanity thousands of years ago.  But what happens when he meets I-330, an alluring woman who has some frustratingly outdated ideas about life?  And why does he start seeing the word "MEPHI" scrawled in graffiti on the walls of his perfect city?

I had to pause quite a few times to marvel that "We" was written in the late 19-teens, long before so many of these sci-fi tropes were set in stone.  Zamyatin's protagonist is writing a day-by-day account of his life to be stored aboard the Integral and be read by the surely primitive beings on other worlds.  The alienness of his society is conveyed by the fact that most adjectives (and other descriptions of what D-503 sees around him) don't contain cultural references, but instead refer to Kandinskian abstractions like pure colors, geometrical shapes, and mathematical concepts.  In stark contrast to all this rationality is the ever-present diary format, which is meant to be raw and unedited.  Often there are sentences that just trail off with no resolution, allowing the imagination to....

Many cautionary future tales suffer from the weakness of being too heavy-handed -- so much so that you can't quite picture how anyone let it happen, or how anyone manages to carry on living day after day.  But Zamyatin conveys some of its appeal.  The people aren't the hypnotized drones you might expect.  Most of them live engaged, stress-free lives in a world in which they are living out their purpose.  I've got to say that I was a bit hypnotized by the ordered bliss at times!  Of course, every few pages the protagonist would contrast his perfect world with the ancient, barbaric chaos of liberty, and the reader is immediately reminded of what's coming.  Maybe I'm just a sucker for mathematically ordered music:
"Crystal chromatic degrees converging and diverging in infinite sequences and the summarizing chords of Taylor and Maclaurin formulae with a gait like Pythagorean pant-legs, so whole-toned and quadrilateral-heavy; the melancholy melodies of diminishing oscillations; pauses producing bright rhythms according to Frauenhofer lines, the spectral analysis of planets... What magnificence!  What unwavering predictability!  And how pitiful that whimsical music of the Ancients, delimited by nothing except wild fantasy..."
It kind of reminds me of Hermann Hesse's futuristic realm of Castalia in The Glass Bead Game -- i.e., inhabitants living a sparkling inner mental life, while being surrounded by social conditions that we'd find stifling and unacceptable.

Although there are some parts of the novel that drag on a bit, there are some truly original insights and ideas.  I won't spoil the ending, but I can say that, in a way, it's more intriguing than the endings of all the dystopian books and movies I mentioned above.  I'm glad I found this novel, and I highly recommend it as an alternative if you're considering dipping back into Orwell or Huxley yet again.

"We" have assumed control.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Ode to Joy Game: Move 9

It's been long enough since my last post in this series that I should probably give a quick recap.  This is an extended Glass Bead Game in which an initially blank set of interconnected spaces is gradually "filled in," each with an idea that can be expressed graphically...

...but also can be talked about in words (here's discussion on moves 1-3; here's move 4, then move 5, then 6 and 7, then the 8th one).  The fun of this exercise is in making sure that the spaces connected by lines correspond to ideas that can be "linked" to one another, too.  This particular game is being played using Charles Cameron's Hipbone board, which has 10 spaces in a pattern the occultishly-minded among you may recognize.  As you can see, we're getting close to the end now.

My 9th, penultimate move is to place Ergot Fungus into the most upper-right space.

I hear you all saying "Ergot what now?"  Bear with me.

Ergot is a fungus that grows mainly on rye, barley, and wheat plants.  Thus, it's been a problem for farmers ever since Neolithic people started settling down in agricultural communities.  (My image for it above is really just an icon for wheat... it's hard to find a picture of ergot itself that doesn't make you want to go take a shower.)

But here's the thing: if you ingest some grain products that were infested with ergot, you can experience a huge range of symptoms.  In large doses, it's disgustingly poisonous.  In medium doses, there's nausea, seizures, and manic delirium.  In smaller doses, it acts as a psychedelic hallucinogen.  Ergot poisoning was called "St. Anthony's Fire" in the Middle Ages, and it's been blamed for the "bewitched" behavior that set off the Salem witch trials.

It's also rumored that some kind of ergot drug was given to the initiates of the ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries. 

I could go on for several posts about the Greek mystery cults... I just think they were the coolest thing ever.  (I once got an article published about one of them in a "real" book, but that's a story for another time.)  In Eleusis, people were initiated into secret rites over a continuous period of almost 2000 years.  They kept their secrets so well that we still don't know a lot of what went on there.  We do have some snippets:  There was a mystery play involving Hades' abduction of Persephone, and the goddess Demeter's long search for her daughter.  The initiates fasted, listened to songs and speeches, and finally were shown sacred objects that conveyed the deepest mystical truths.  We know what one of them was:  "an ear of corn, in silence reaped."

These snippets have been speculated upon for centuries.  One reasonable idea is that Persephone's annual travels -- going down to Hades for part of the year, returning to the upper world in spring -- symbolizes the annual cycle of agriculture. (John Barleycorn, anyone?)  It was certainly a big deal for mankind to harness this particular aspect of the natural world, and seeing the spring come around again can certainly engender a feeling of awe.  You know what tomorrow is.

The suggestion that initiates had their mystical experience served up with some psychoactive ergot kind of suggests the Eleusinian hierophants were the original Merry Pranksters.  Those going in search of a direct experience of the divine have often made use of dangerous substances... and dangerous practices.  Putting the substances aside, it's always seemed to me that the rituals of mysticism and magic are, to an extent, a deliberate means of driving oneself crazy.  Mysticism: through the depriving of the brain of its usual worldly inputs.  Magic: through the overloading of the brain with too many inputs.

Anyway, there's a lot more I could talk about, but I'll leave it there.  I haven't had any of these direct experiences, but it is kind of comforting to know they're "out there" firming up a wider world than our usual everyday consciousness sees.  Here's a fascinating scholarly blog that discusses all this stuff in more depth.

Lastly, here are the links to the other connected ideas on the game board:  To the Olympic Spirit below, there's the fact that both the mystery cults and the original ancient Games were both religious festivals that tell us a lot about the Hellenic pagan world.  To the Queen of the Night to the left, we know that this character from Mozart's Magic Flute was the chief priestess of a kind of pagan cult of sorts, and the hero Tamino is put through some psychedelic initiations of his own.  To Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the central spot... well, let me just copy and paste a bit of the etymology of the word ecstasy:
ecstasy (n.) 
late 14c., "in a frenzy or stupor, fearful, excited," from Old French estaise "ecstasy, rapture," from Late Latin extasis, from Greek ekstasis "entrancement, astonishment; any displacement," in New Testament "a trance," from existanai "displace, put out of place," also "drive out of one's mind"
I'm out of my mind with excitement for the final move in the game.  I'm not sure I'll get to it prior to Friday's planned post as a part of Squid's Cephalopod Coffeehouse, but we'll see.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Slouching towards Spring

Sigh... there are still piles of snow here and there, refusing to leave.  It kind of mimics my own internal sluggishness regarding the blog these days.  The rest of life occupies roughly 25 hours a day, leaving little negative space for this here enclave of ludology.

Nevertheless, I'd like to make time for a miscellaneous update, if only to peek my own head up above the waves, like a periscope, to get my bearings.
  • Last week, my family and I finished watching the single season of Space: Above and Beyond, a phenomenally well-written 1995-1996 sci-fi TV series that should have gone on longer.  We've now just started in with the Eccleston season of Doctor Who.
  • I'm so not a computer game person, but for a couple weeks I've been mildly addicted to 2048, an popular browser-based abstract puzzle game.  I haven't yet beat it (current high score: 20,980), but I'm balmed to know that there's SCIENCE behind why it's so addictive.
  • I've had my final two moves in the "Ode To Joy Game" (see the most recent post) planned for at least a month -- with game-board images already "in the can" -- but I haven't been able to get the text of the posts written yet.  Hopefully soon.
  • Although I had an awesome time doing the April A-Z challenge in 2012 and 2013, I didn't manage to think of a good enough theme this year, so I'm taking a break.
  • Okay, was anyone else as upset as I was about last week's series finale of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother?  I don't think I've mentioned here that this was one of the only weekly sitcoms that I watched pretty regularly.  Its ending was well-written, kind of shocking, and will surely continue to be divisive amongst fans.  I'll link to a (spoiler-filled) article or two that reflect some of my own feelings about it, and just leave it at... poor Tracy McConnell!
  • It's been a while since I've done any work on my Homebrew '82 role-playing game rules variant, or on the associated "Avalon Lost" campaign setting (scroll down to posts 13-18 here).  However, a few days ago I did get, all in a flash, a mindwarping idea for the final adventure in the Avalon Lost universe.  I might write it up for the blog, as long as I remember (if I ever start DMing in the future) not to tell my players that this blog exists.  :-)
  • Later this week comes April 8, 9, and 10, three special holidays in Aleister Crowley's new religious tradition of Thelema.  It's the 110th anniversary of the writing of the Book of the Law.  In recent years I've fallen out with my own tradition of reading the three chapters on their associated days, but I'm planning to make time for it this year.
That's all for now, friends.  More soon.