Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Council of heresy (2)

Council of Heresy - essay on sources

(Council of Heresy is a book on modern poetry published by shearsman books in March 2009. It is part of a set on British poetry 1960-97 titled 'Affluence, Welfare and Fine Words'. This posting is a collection of peri and para material which expands on the book but may not make good sense unless you have the book.)

Part of the book is about depolarisation. This is more a wish than a piece of history. It isn't a technical account because the data would have to be collected. Even that is flawed, because people are inhibited from telling the truth about their own prejudices and resentments. There is no formally effective way of doing this, so what I have written is based on my understanding, a mixture of speculation and intuition.

There was an exchange in Chicago Review quite recently (2005) about the Simic/Paterson anthology, which claimed to be the only definitive collection of modern British poetry and was demonstrably just a tiny share of the spectrum. This would indicate that polarisation is as strong now as it was in the 1970s. There is a whole slew of cultural managers saying that what they do is infinitely wide-spectrum, but there is a large share of dishonesty in this and the residual truth is very hard to establish.

(notes on The Pearl)
I am fascinated by this poem (3rd century, Syriac, author unknown) which represents the overlap between Raine and Mottram, or is at least close to that overlap.

One of the things about this work was getting beyond a feel for what Latin and Greek writers or people were like to a quite different culture, something that wasn't around for me as a child, the one in Syria and in cities like Edessa, Harran, and Antioch. Getting at a geographically limited area was a way of breaking through the cognitive problems and reaching the scene psychologically - feeling you're there. Now if I see the word 'Syria' I can attach it to a way of writing, a way of arguing.
I translated this poem (using an English translation by A A Bevan) in about 1992, which is why I recognised Eric's use of it. I thought at the time that it was a Gnostic poem, caught in a Christian saint's life by mistake. Drijvers is clear that it is a Christian poem, but other writers associate it with Mani, with Gnosticism, with the 'Encratite Gnostic' Bardaisan, and with 'Manichaean Gnosticism' (Corbin). This is the complex which made me feel I had an abyss yawning in front of me. I am quite unable to sort this out and so I have just left Drijvers' version in the book. (texts of the poem are listed under ‘Bardesan’ as author in the British Library catalogue.) In Edessa, all these groups were close to each other and even overlapped. This is fascinating. It offers a parallel to modern British poetry. Heresy as creativity and vice versa. Drijvers somewhere quotes a Christian hymn (from the 'Odes of Solomon') which includes marcionite (Gnostic) imagery but deliberately distorts and twists it so as to mock it. This just sounds so twentieth century!

I make a tantalising remark about a link between 'The Pearl' and the Grail cycle. This isn't in the book because I couldn't be bothered to go and read the references. I think it's a very unlikely theory anyway. The glimpse I had of it was via Ivar Ringbom, a Finnish art historian who wrote an amazing book (Graltempel und Paradies) about the Iranian sources of the Grail and quotes one von Suhtschek on this subject. Suhtschek was an Austrian (Graz) Iranologist and I have just scavenged this quote on the Net from his works: "The poetic writings which I have evoked above are all of Iranian origin. Neither Christianity nor Antiquity constitute the roots of this universal culture, of this 'joyful science'. It ripened under the sun of Persia, in the favour of a culture falsely described as 'romantic' and which one could more accurately call 'magic'. It reached us by the intermediary of French crusaders.” So all that stuff about Arthur being British and fighting the Saxons was just a smokescreen. For S, in 1931, the Parzival of Wolfram is based on 'The Pearl', which he calls 'a Manichaean legend', and Grail comes from ‘gohar‘, a word for ‘pearl’. The place names in Parzival are all in Afghanistan but the story was transmitted from Palestine. Far out!

Mead was preoccupied with 'The Pearl' and I am suggesting that when he named his magazine and society 'The Quest' it was specifically this quest poem he was thinking of.

(I glean that Gustav Oppert suggested the dependence of Parzival on Iranian Manichaean sources already in 1864. So it may be true.)

Just now (late April 2008) while working on ‘The Pearl’ I was overcome by feelings of exhaustion, of dizziness of being swallowed up and losing my footing. This was followed by reading this Mottram poem, 'Peace Projects 4', which quotes whole stretches of ‘The Pearl’. It was hard work and though I think I got what he was saying the process was not pleasurable at all. I don't know why I put so much effort into this. It's actually negative energy, not pleasure. You develop an opinion that Eric's poetry was bad, it floats around you in the social realm because Eric was such a main man for me and so many people, and then you're in breach of something because you ask, was all his poetry like this? is all his poetry available? could I decipher this stuff if I studied it more closely? And so you get sucked in to tracking it down and poring over it. But actually when there was some kind of session of the London scene there would have been eight people in the room who could write better than Eric, and I don't think there is some rebel faction that thinks he was a star poet.

I haven't read all his books and it's always possible that if I did I would find one I thought was good. They are very hard to buy second hand, which is normal for things that only sold about 10 copies.

With these birds on an Asian hill we are back with 'Aristeas' and Prynne’s quoting of a mediaeval Islamic text Kalila-wa-Dimna. 'he watched the crows fighting the/ owls with the curling tongues/ of flame proper to the Altaic/ hillside'. I suppose everything leads back to Prynne. I was so happy when I found the text that Prynne was quoting from. This is so close to Avicenna. The text has a painting of the owls and the ravens fighting.

(mundus imaginalis)
This is the highest sphere of the material world and is simultaneously the most susceptible to influences from the non-material spheres, which it translates into visual form. So if Avicenna says that the person seeking enlightenment (the orientalist, or ‘man of the east’) must be like a bat, this animal metaphor is a perfect example of how the mundus imaginalis works. Similarly in one of the stories the episode of the birds caught in nets, where the nets are the senses and the bird is the soul. The vividness of the imagery is crucial. However, it is there only to carry out a deeper intent: the bat is not a literal bat and the orientalist is not supposed to start flying around at dusk and eating insects.

If you read about beasts in Revelations, you would not search for the fossils of their bones.

It is a desperate error to translate the phrase as 'my imaginary world'. I get the feeling that, if you read 'The visionary recital' carefully, you will understand Raine; that all the concepts vital to her are well explained in that book. So it will sound familiar if I say that the Neoplatonist view of art holds that the creaturely forms of art (the sensible forms) represent invisible forms (the suprasensible) and that anything in art which gets in the way of the realisation of the invisible energies blocks the pattern and wrecks the experience. This after all is what Raine is saying, all the time.

The phrase is used by Corbin and is frequent in the pages of Temenos.

ta’wil (literally ‘return’) is another word which has come into circulation from Corbin. It is the deeper way of reading the meaning of a symbol, specifically in the use of allegorical and initiatory, even Gnostic, Islamic texts. The way it has been taken over by English poets is as carte blanche for any kind of misreading and of ‘defamiliarising’ texts, things the avant garde is in love with. I am not sure there is any warrant in Islamic literature for this. The ‘return’ is to the true meaning of the text, usually a koranic one, avoiding a literal meaning which throws out the allegorical richness of the original utterance. The issue of how heresies arise is quite a different one.

If we read Corbin, it seems as if his favourite Islamic writers are using Christian texts like ‘The Pearl’, Hermetic ones, Zoroastrian ones, Gnostic and Manichaean ones. This does involve a ‘misreading’ but one of a special and benevolent kind. This misreading leads in the direction of orthodoxy and is not very similar to avant garde practice. Arbitrary reading of sacred texts seems like a very unlikely way to proceed and would only be applicable if you did not think they were sacred. This would rule out its use by obviously very devout men like Avicenna or Sohravardi.

As I said, the book on Avicenna is on the Internet, and you can read what Corbin says about ta’wil there at pp. 27-32.

Part of the intention with working on Mottram's poem (in the Internet pages, only briefly in the book) was to see if obscurity would yield to source analysis. The book has an attack on obscurity at its base. But the attack is not developed at length. This is because obscurity tends to evaporate as we look at it.

There is a story which displays this for me. At a certain point (around 1985?) I listened to an Ornette. Coleman album called 'Of Human Feelings' and just couldn't make head or tail of it, although I did find it very exciting. It stood for a level of difficulty, of impatience with repeating and making explicit, which left me out. But later I listened to the album, and also heard that Coleman band playing on stage, and the problem wasn't there any more. I could hear the tunes all the time even though they weren't explicitly stated but a sort of norm which the variations pointed towards. So the whole thing left the category of 'obscure'.

So being 'obscure' is a quality which is not physically present in the data string of any artwork. It has to be constructed by an observer. The observer's ability may change over time and so the 'obscurity quality' may disappear over time. It is not firm enough to enshrine in a book. It is specially dubious to connect thousands or hundreds of works and generalise about the level of obscurity or clarity in them. You would pile up the data and then some bit would shift and the pile would collapse.
I don't really buy the idea that every obscure work of poetry could become lucid and pleasurable with repeated study. But if I classified 100 books as 'obscure' I suspect that over time two or three of them might resolve into music, like 'Of Human Feelings'.

I have attacked obscurity twice in short bursts (in Council and in the last chapter of Origins of the Underground) and perhaps no more is needed. It ties to the rest of the argument about politics because it offers the perfect let-out for reactionary cultural managers: there is no point publishing obscure poetry because however much people read it they will not understand it anyway. The conservatives have this topos that everything which is not as brainless as Larkin is too obscure to be read. Perhaps they even believe this. More, they lack something quite easy, a knowledge of which non-conservative texts are desperately obscure and which are easy to read. This is something to be provided by a tier of prose, something we need and which the scene is too screwed up to fund. The whole argument about whether to publish innovative poetry is a waste of breath if someone can close it all down by saying ’it’s all obscure’. So, logically, I have to arm my attack on conservatism with an outlying attack on obscurity in poetry. This is how something marginal comes to be worth spending energy on.

I don’t want to attack obscure writers one by one because as individuals they are obviously fanatical and swollen up and pushed by a furious sense of entitlement and justification and I don‘t want their rage poured out on me. I am willing to make them feel shame for being bad writers. I think people should expend a lot of energy on making their work clear and carefully emphasized and properly signposted.

This after all is one of the differences between Mottram and good poets.
Working on Mottram’s poems was purposeful but it wasn’t enjoyable. The reading process is not always enjoyable. Retarding comprehension is not always a good tactic to use.

(deep politics)
If you have 50 poets in an anthology, they are always part of a field of 150 poets who could have been included. Everything in cultural management rotates around classifications into A B and C artists. When I say this I mean that group A get the gig, group B nearly get the gig and are not quite interesting enough, and group C are too original and unusual to get the gig. This is constitutive, because everything political is about scarce resources and the basic act of the managers is to decide who gets access to assets. This description is speculative because the decisions are never recorded, even if they are the product of hundreds of conversations. These assets can be book publication, presence in magazines or anthologies, readings, reviews. All are parallel because they are in short supply and so there will always be a C group who don’t get selected. Maybe we should add groups D and E for categories of poets who are not even considered, who are sub-literary or unliterary. The decisions about who gets into group A are constitutive for the managers, take up vast amounts of their time. They can be related to imaginary dossiers - stores of knowledge (in whatever format). There was a belief in the era of identity politics that you could impound this dossier and rewrite it to insert your beliefs about yourself. There has been a change of the tide so that most people now accept that other people can form valid views about them.

Edward Lucie-Smith’s anthology of 1971 gives fair coverage of all factions. The scene deteriorated after that, as politics became so radicalised. It is not impossible to have a wide view of things and to have a cultural job. It only became impossible because the group of people with power or patronage acquired the view that they didn’t want such people to carry out functions. My expectation is that this can now change because the prospect of political revolution has vanished and the basis for fighting with each other has vanished along with it. I would like to take part in such a new social dispensation but I am not going to write books saying that the management of the scene over the last 30 years has been intelligent, innovative, or unbiased.

Being in group C is a wonderful stimulus to thinking about the system. The conclusions formed by people who have spent long periods in group C (in various contexts) are the best basis for a knowledge of the system. Of course it is wrong to define the system in terms of rejection and to ignore the process of accepting, legitimating, promoting.

Arguments with the publisher about discussing the politics of poetry. He wants everything removed that might seem like a criticism of anyone.

We have to set large-scale questions like:
why is modern poetry less successful than modern visual art
why is that 90% of poetry sold is by dead poets
why is there a thirty-year delay in accepting modernist innovations into the mainstream
why is so much of the poetry which enters public media (not for specialist audience) so bland and dumbed down - should we expect the opposite?
is poetry unpopular because of the dumbed-down rubbish that every schoolchild is forced to experience or because of the avant-garde wonders which only a few hundred people see and which you can't find in shops or libraries?

It is hard to answer such questions, and I am offering only a collection of evidence. Everything in the poetry world is set up so that decisions are not recorded and reasons are not interrogated and records are not kept. Poetry is an area too small to have to give an account of itself to the government, too unpopular to be interrogated by the media. To make the managers accountable would be a first step towards self-consciousness. It is hard as things stand for historical awareness to emerge, even though the changes over time might be fascinating if we could discover them. Almost nothing of any of the decisions made by cultural managers is on record - the role of excluding interesting poetry is only one task among many. Their typical behaviour is to define their classification of people into A B C etc. as a simple recognition of reality and predestined. It is the task of cultural criticism to force it into the realm of decision - and of risk. If people disagree radically about the classification, an individual act of classification becomes puzzling, complex, debatable, unnatural. It becomes far more interesting. It also becomes reversible - the judgement of managers can be wrong.

One way of naturalising arbitrary and risky decisions is to exclude the people who challenge them from the universe of discourse. It seems possible that the initial act of setting values and forming cultural programmes leads with sickening inevitability to the less sympathetic acts of silencing, denial, exclusion from debate, and that attacks on the legitimacy of other groups absorb more energy than choosing poets.

This is a labour-intensive exercise and it can never be carried out for the whole scene over the forty years of my project’s span. It can only work for a few square metres, painfully dug out over years. Once it has been dug, anyone can say it is atypical and was not worth digging. They will then refuse to point to any other area that has been dug up and shows other results. Most of the poets I like have had very marginal careers. It would not be easy for me to work this out over thirty years and then conclude that the scene was very very well managed.

The narrative on Mottram and Raine (in Heresy) is there because you can find out what they did, dredge up the figures of these cultural managers into daylight, like the stone circle at Callanish emerging from under 20 feet of peat. Other managers are less visible and do not allow a narrative to be formed and recorded. The task of making any particular moment of the control system visible is laborious and repays only patience, stubbornness, and retentiveness. Take the outcome of revealing, when looking at an anthology, who wasn't selected. To reach that point you have to study the anthology and also to master the landscape in general, something which immobilises you while you pile up knowledge and relationships. You can guess why certain poets were rejected. But then the reasons are never on show and have to be guessed. This is a moment of, not truth, but suspecting. Anthologies are at least tangible and can't be spirited away afterwards. A long survey like this one (i.e. the project which includes Heresy and several other volumes) at least supplies the names of hundreds of people who weren't in (say) The Democratic Voice. This returns a major event from the status of inevitability to that of Decision and so begins to make it accountable. Of course the results are ten years behind the moment of today, the moment when they are published. It just takes that long to study data systematically and to get the results published. There are 20 or 30 figures we could consider as having shaped the scene, if only for the worse. It's obvious that Mottram and Raine were in the grip of a vision which made them insensitive to whole ranges of work outside it. It is less obvious that cultural chiefs with less profile are equally in the grip of visions and equally, if not more, rigid about rejecting everything else.

The point raised (so briefly) in my book is about the pressure of the managerial stratum on its own members when they don't conform. I suggest that the role of alliances is paramount in maintaining a role of this kind. Individuals who lose the support of their peers lose their jobs. What we seem to detect is that individuals who favour modern-style poetry lose all their peer support and vanish from their roles of influence. The unrecorded factor is the anxiety of poetry managers about being turned into outcasts by the panels and committees and associates who secure their position; and this is the most significant factor for understanding the whole scene over the last fifty years. It is when we see managerial careers interrupted that we glimpse the pattern-maintaining forces which eliminate divergence and artistic progress.

A key feature of both Mottram and Raine is that they were largely without allies, or at least that their allies were eccentric and had an eccentric relation to power. An unresearched area is, therefore, the way in which individuals lock into groups, as the institutional structure is factually based on committees, and on reporting upwards, and on ‘reputation’, rather than on individuals with decisive personal power. In practice, Mottram found that even though he had the support of the Poetry Society committee, this support crumbled because the Arts Council was a principal funder and it turned out that they could dictate what happened. The big shock for him was how many different individuals he had to please in order to retain his job. Another factor is that Mottram certainly had allies in the USA, as Raine had allies in the occultist world, but the influence they could exert was specialised and in competition with other claims to the territory. The right object of study is networks and we can understand the life of ideas by studying the networks which are their habitats. This means that studying the writings of two principals does not give us the true story - it records the ideas but not the life of those ideas and how resistance limited their ability to flood the territory.

Indirect evidence, including silence, suggests large-scale and long-term activity to exclude modern-style poetry and to disconnect and get rid of editors who favour modern-style poetry. We don't find documents recording where cultural managers have had meetings deciding to do this. It is a speculative result. But as we accumulate more indirect evidence the hidden activity become less and less secret. Where something doesn't add up, it is intelligent to look for unrecorded events.

A significant dossier in the life scheme of almost all the poets we are discussing is their beliefs about why they weren't included, at a certain moment in their careers, in an anthology, or in any of twelve anthologies. The attitudes of the editors founding these decisions are of great importance although of course they are essentially secret - there is no published documentation on this process. Making the invisible decisions visible is a possible result of thorough study of the documents that are available.

The role of the imagination is crucial - Mottram and Raine drew heavily on their imagination in forming ideals which guided their practical activity. I suggest that culture does not exist outside the realm of imagination and that all cultural managers’ decisions rely on the imagination of the decision-makers - including the images they share with their allies or influences. If someone has no career it’s because cultural managers have a dream in which they do not exist.

The map we see, the managed map, may have been shaped by simple imperatives like clearing up the photograph. Eliminating dissent, putting proteges in the best light. A neater picture. One bold pattern emerges as everything else is eliminated and pruned. The picture becomes clearer and clearer as you eliminate more and more people from it. This clarity is what cultural agents provide. Finally you reach a picture in which there is only one person and only one strand to their consciousness. What do you expect the people who have been digitally edited out to do?

We might consider the poetry landscape then as the realisation of an ideal. We would only have to ask whose ideal and what it means for them. But in reality the landscape realises the meanest and most suppressed elements of the imaginative dreams of the powerful. Their power does not realise anything beautiful or harmonious.

Human creations tend to realise the unconscious & unavowed wishes as well as the fine ones. The landscape can be seen not just as an ideal but as living tissue, something grown out of the most powerful or greedy individuals and reflecting the horrors of their genetic endowment. The poetry world is a sort of Petri dish, a zone of growth where the invisible is made visible.

I want to build a mirror that shows the invisible. Which relates to suppression and disinformation as a mirror does to light sources. History is mostly about the implicit and if we don’t understand changes in the implicit institutions we understand nothing. What hides behind swathes of grey can be made to show up in bursts of infra-red.

(Cwrt y cadno)
'There is no cwrt y cadno at present'. The phrase means 'fox's hall' and may have been assigned, as a name, to natural features that looked like halls. The image may be like 'Vauxhall' in south London, a name from Kentish dialect. However, in this sentence it refers to a specific man and a specific place.

According to D Geraint Lewis' useful book Lewisiana ("casgliad personol o wybodaeth. bron yn anghenrheidiol, ar adegau'n anghredadwy") says 'John Harris, Cwrtycadno. A Cunning Man, who died in 1839, who people were flocking to for counsel if a human or an animal was lost, if someone was suffering from epilepsy, or if someone's blood was drying up. He attained qualifications as a surgeon in London and Paris. He possessed the gift of foreseeing death, including his own death. He died therefore staying in bed so as to avoid this unusual form of death - but death was ordained.' Wirt Sykes was referring to him 60 years after his death. The phrase I have translated as Cunning Man is ‘dyn hysbys’, where hysbys is the root of the modern word for ‘advertisement’. A knowing man. The same phrase occurs in one of the Straeon Glasynys, only this time it's a cunning woman, gwraig hysbys.

The text talks about a burst of uncontrollably diverse religious creativity after 1644. This is not very exact. Haller (The Rise of Puritanism, 1938) at p.326 explains how the censorship system collapsed after the fall of Strafford and Laud, i.e. already in 1639. Under Cromwell’s efficient personal rule censorship was effective, to lose its efficiency after his death. Some kind of orthodox censorship was established after 1660 and there was a return to religious tolerance after 1688. The details are a bit blurred which is why they aren't in the main text. Haller describes a collector, George Thomason, who acquired a thousand books and pamphlets up to the end of 1641, i.e. in the first year after the failure of censorship, and twenty thousand over the following two decades. These thoroughly prefigure the twenty thousand poetry books of the Poetry Revival. This analogy is so obvious as to have the substance of a cliff - we can all see it and none can deny it. Thomason’s whole collection fetched up in the British Library (in 1762). Not all the interesting and fugitive books of revived poetry wound up in the same library, but there are a good few thousand there all the same. (Thomason began his collection in November 1640, according to GK Fortescue, and closed it in December 1661.)

The logic of Raine’s position is that this outpouring of religious argument is a Bad Thing. She attacks 'post-Protestant' culture as if it was the worst thing ever, but all the people who started sects or conventicles were spiritually driven and their flourishing was an era of great spiritual creativity. The trouble with Raine attacking heresy is that she is a heretic - not even a Christian. How can a cult member like her attack the landscape of cults?

All the debate is about poems becoming heretics but I have the impression that it's really about the wish to prevent readers from deviating. From what? from sedulous respect for the figure of the poet, probably. Poets want everyone to revere a big central structure so that they can write a poem which everyone will revere. They feel a gulf at the heart of the poem. The gulf is where the congregation is supposed to stand. It's waiting for them to arrive, to be silent, and to face the priest who speaks.

I suppose Raine wants to be read by someone who has never known more than one idea, whose soul is so un-split that their response to a great work of art is total and simple.

You lift censorship and an unbearable variety of ideas about politics and religion pours out. Does that mean that, when there was only one person writing books in the country, everyone had the same ideas?

The Balkan cultural landscape is prefigured in the 1640s. This is a fact and it's not going to go away. The original does not give us any answers about the re-run since 1960. I do not know if the proliferation can be linked with England (as an individualist society), with Protestantism, or with the time ('modernity'). I am doubtful if studying the 1640s is going to give us a new key to modern poetry. Reading lots of modern poetry is the key. No one really has an oversight of the poetry published over the last 40 years.

One aspect of the explosion of the 1640s and 1650s is that people with low education wanted to get into print and to be famous preachers. People habitually talk about frustration as if that were the primary fact when it's the wish that is the primary fact. Some of the university clergy in the 1640s were very orthodox and happy with the power structure but then a lot of the radicals were Oxford or Cambridge graduates and from well-off families. In the 1960s education helped hundreds of poets to become fabulously diverse because it taught them to think for themselves. This was the module which reproduced itself.

We explain the 1970s by saying it echoes the religious radicalism of the 1640s. This leaves the 1640s unexplained. What did they echo? They can't be A in our causal sequence but only C or D. A remains unexplained. If it is in "social structure" it may have reproduced itself right down to the 1970s along with the English language, agriculture, bread, brick-making, place-names, anything else. This still means we don't know what A is.

This is a bit late, but I have just found the passages from where MacSweeney got his idea about the purity of Northern vocabulary and the bad qualities of French words. John Wilkinson has already drawn attention to this, but this is a new footnote. The source is actually Keats about Chatterton:

‘The purest English I think - or what ought to be the purest - is Chatterton's. The Language had existed long enough to be entirely uncorrupted of Chaucer's Gallicisms [...] Chatterton's language is entirely northern. I prefer the native music of it to Milton's cut by feet. '

(Letter to his brother and sister in law)

'I always associate Chatterton with autumn. He is the purest writer in the English Language. He has no French idiom, or particles like Chaucer - 'tis genuine English idiom in English words.'

(letter to Reynolds)
It is probable that Barry read "northern' to mean 'north English', but as Chatterton came from Bristol, a southern town, Keats evidently meant 'Germanic' as opposed to the Romance words from Latin, French, or Italian, and was alluding to the southern centre of Romance as opposed to Germanic and Saxon.

(uncoded sound) Rumbelow. I thought 'rumbelow' was a nonsense word, as in 'Hal an tow, jolly rumbelow' but a book on place-names has left me better instructed. There is a place called Rumbelow, and the oldest form is aet thrium leawum, at three grave-mounds, which mounds exist at the present day. The -um is a dative plural marker. The name would have been misconstrued as at the rumbelows. The 'b' is an intrusion regular in this position, so that words like rumble crumble mumble come from older forms which had no b. An originally meaningful phrase has been dissolved into pure sound - washed in the babble bath.

I have also read that the 'hal an tow' bit is just 'heel and toe'.

I have been probing the available Neoplatonic literature to test whether my translation of 'helix, helisso' and cognates as 'spiral' is really correct. I think I have to abandon the thorough correlation of helix with 'spiral' geometrically defined as a figure composed of circles whose radius progressively increases. This is not organic to the way the Greek word is used in the relevant texts. All the same the connection of the use by authors like John Michell of 'spirals of energy' to Neoplatonic concepts (and texts) is secure - the geometry is not exact in either case. 'Twisting' is a better English equivalent of the 'helix' cluster. Phrases like 'helikes steropes' (the jags of lightning) give a warning that the Greek word is not restricted to forms we would call spirals. As for the exact meaning in the Chaldaean Oracles, this is a matter of conjecture. However, the link of the helix words in the Oracles to earthly objects that whirl around is fairly secure. It is difficult to think of an object that would rotate in a spiral. The magical objects linked to the oracles are like wheels (cf. roulette wheels) and spinning-tops, which obviously have a circular motion with an invariant radius. There are problems working out exactly what the whirling objects (variously, strophalos, iynx, turbo, rhombus, strophalinx, etc.) were, although I find the disagreements interesting. This is unlikely to be clarified by the archaeological recovery of some of the original objects, and furthermore I harbour doubts that the objects would be recognised even if they were by any chance dug up in Syria or Iraq.

German authors are keen on translating iynx as Zauberkreisel, i.e. 'magical spinning-top'. We have to add that they made a noise, just as some children's tops had whistles added which were blown by the toy rotating.

Lautwein’s blog says that there is at least one depiction of an iynx on a vase painting, and also that they were often made of bronze, could have a jagged rim, and had three spokes. They could even be triangular. Iynx is a bird, the wryneck; I suppose the wheel could seem to have a neck because its rim was discontinuous, it had a deep dip, as far as the hub.

There is an obvious symbolic relationship between the cosmos filled with various and meaningless sounds and the whirling top covered with writing, which generates a non-finite set of meaningless words as it whirls around. In fact the spinning toys give us a sensuous and immediate equivalent of the Neo-Platonist version of the cosmos, which is permeated with whirling things. The things described as whirling (helisso) are clearly visualised as resembling the motion of the wheels, tops, etc.

I think the word-complex helisso has a wider meaning which is something like ‘wrap in’ or ‘cloak in’, as for example pursoeliktos (‘wrapped in fire’) from a poem in Marinus’ Life of Proclus. This still involves twists - it is swirls of cloak rather than whirls of energy.

There is an ancient description of the iynx as driven by a leather strap, which some writers see as fastened to the rotating element, but which I suspect is just a whip, since the classic way of accelerating a top as it slows down is to strike it with a whip. The details are a matter of guesswork. (The internet tells me that Europeans’ preferred material for a top-whip was eelskin. The English phrase was ‘drive a top‘.)
I find that a ‘teetotum’ is a kind of top spun with the fingers, which has characters on four sides of it. It is used to give a result, depending on where it falls, which is used in games of chance - just like a die. This however is very close to the use of strophaloi etc. in divination.

The strophalos as noisemaker is identical in design to the bullroarer, a term used by anthropologists writing in English for a pierced wooden board which makes a roar when you hold it at arm’s length and whirl it. Sometimes it has a jagged edge. The pitch may be controlled by shortening or lengthening the string. This is known in a very wide range of cultures. Its primitive nature is striking when juxtaposed with the philosophical sophistication of the Platonists. Scholars like Haddon and Lorimer Fison recognised the instrument from the toy familiar to them in childhood, in Britain or Ireland, which already had the name 'bullroarer’ (or ‘boomer’).

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