Madison Morrison's Web / Literary Correspondence / Peter: On Cosmology and Cosmography

On Cosmology and Cosmography

(1) December 31, 2008

Dear Peter,

It is exciting to learn that you are soon to take up the cosmological / cosmographical element in the Sentence. It will be your own brilliant take on this, including original observations of yours that we await, but I thought that I would, if dully, record my own understanding of the subject, so that you might push off against it. I have always distinguished, rightly or wrongly, the two principal terms according to their etymologies; I take it that the first of them derives from logein, to speak, the second, from graphein, to write. My own speculations regarding the significance of this distinction are very amateurish: that cosmology is fundamentally oral, cosmography, written.

For example, it is relatively easy to learn by heart (orally) my own cosmological sentence; I recommend that one does: Sleep O Light U Need A Revolution Each Second Every Magic Realization Engendering Her Exists Regarding All Possibly Happening Renewed Or Divine In This Excelling Life. The cosmological frame is more readily memorable: SOL, LUNA, ARES, HERMES, HERA, APHRODITE, EL. The days of the week are a myth of measure that includes the two luminaries and the five fixed “stars,” plus a pantheon of divinities who, though they have Greek, Roman and Middle eastern names, are universal, by dint of my having embodied in them gods of other religions.

This is especially evident in the fourteenth book, Her, which joins HERMES with HERA. The first three letters of HERMES represent Athena, the first three of HERA (HER again), Hera. The “H” that joins them is also Shakti (just as the E, R and A correspond to Hindu as well as to Greek divinities). Athena is of course a late Wisdom goddess. Presiding also over Indic and Chinese texts (Realization and Engendering), she embodies Saraswathi and Kuan Yin as well. (In Pattaya, at a foot massage parlor, I often gaze for an hour at Saraswathi and her peacock, also one of Hera’s attributes; perhaps this explains why William Jones was so intent in seeking Indo-European correspondences.)

The Sentence, then, is fundamentally cosmological, if only by virtue of its scheme. Moreover, it is also fundamentally cosmographical by virtue of its scope. (I am determined that my epic will describe more of the cosmos than has ever been described in an epic.) Homer’s Iliad is fully cosmological, but his Odyssey is cosmographical in only a limited way. Vergil slightly expands Homer’s cosmographical limits, but only with Dante and Ariosto do we begin to approach any real gist of “the universe.” At the center of most such epics is a cosmological core: The Shield of Achilles, The Shield of Aeneas, the Shield of Rinaldo (all which I have imitated).

Her is a good point to start in illustrating the multi-cultural aspect of cosmology in the Sentence, for it is modeled not on a western image but rather on the architectural structure of Angkor Wat, which itself embodies indigenous, Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies. (See Eleanor Mannikka’s essential study and Vittorio Roveda’s useful second book, Sacred Angkor.)

Angkor was the greatest medieval culture (greater than the Sung neo-Confucian or the twelfth century Christian). It was less elegant than the Burmese at Pagan but stronger and more fully articulated than the Champa in Vietnam. Angkor Wat is still intact; we know its author and builder, Jayavarman VII. It rewards study, especially in situ, as I have undertaken it.

Just some notes that I thought might prove to be of interest.

As always,

(2) January 1, 2009

Dear Peter,

In the email “Cosmology (1)” I emphasized my relationship to traditional cosmologies. I was not comprehensive, for I did not elaborate the Asian cosmologies that have been included in the Sentence. My principal omission, however, was the view of contemporary cosmologists (for me the most important). I am a very amateur student of physics and cannot follow higher mathematics, so I depend principally upon what I read in Scientific American and other popular accounts. It appears to me, at least, that “the expanding universe hypothesis” has taken hold and given us a “multiple universe” consensus. According to this view (with support perhaps from empirical evidence) the Big Bang was not an event ex nihilo but rather a shift of energy levels between different parts of the cosmos or among competing universes. I find this view very sympathetic, for it tends to undo the western notion of linear time. (In the Sentence, which reads forwards and backwards simultaneously, time is linear but reversible, so that past and future collapse upon (or may be regarded as implicit in) any present moment. This rescues us from certain weaknesses in both the unidirectional and the cyclical theories of time. There was, in other words, no “beginning” before which the universe did not exist; nor are we tending toward some precipice over which we will fall off into another nothingness. Instead the cosmos is eternal, continuous and multitudinous, but unlikely ever to be apprehended by our own limited conceptions. Again, just a few notes.

As always,

(3) January 2, 2009

Dear Peter,

Here is something on the question of cosmology quite different from what I had offered in my first two emails. I have been reading (and feeding into Possibly passages taken from) Randall Collins’ extraordinary Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 1998). It is a book that everyone should have a copy of, (1) because it is so enjoyable, and (2) because it is so comprehensive. Collins summarizes nearly everything that has ever been considered to be “philosophy.” Here he is talking about the American philosopher C. S. Peirce, his topic, “evolutionary cosmology”:

In the 1880s Peirce developed his combination of higher mathematics and Idealism into an evolutionary cosmology. Because he identified the working of logic in the mind with reality itself, Peirce anthropomorphized the universe. Borrowing a concept from the new experimental psychology, he argued that the unconscious habits from one sign to another, which constituted inference, exist throughout reality. Nature is an endless string of signs, each pointing beyond itself: “Even plants make their living . . . by uttering signs.”* There is nothing beyond signs: “Reals are signs. To try to peel off signs and get down to the real thing is like trying to peel an onion and get down to [the] onion itself.” Peirce called his position “synechism,” the doctrine that the external referent of any true proposition is a real continuum in the mathematical sense, “something whose possibilities of determination no multitude of individuals can exhaust.” The same holds in epistemology and in ontology: “Our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy. Now the doctrine of continuity is that all things swim in continua.” The technical basis comes from Cantor’s work on higher orders of infinite sets, which Peirce followed up during his years in the Hopkins mathematics department. Pushing mathematics onto the terrain of philosophy, Peirce posited a collection beyond all trans-finite sets, an ultimate ground of reality in which there is nothing discrete and everything is welded into a continuum. There are no isolated sense impressions nor any logical particulars; only universals are real.

This sort of view (though doubtless seen as dated) is to me very suggestive. I see the Sentence itself as in cosmological flux. Just as my in situ record moves from perception to perception, so the ideas in the text are introduced as variables. I do not see how one could have a fixed cosmology now, given science and philosophy. So the Sentence is dynamic, evolving, self-correcting (if I am so capable). At some point of course it will become fixed and will then begin to appear antiquated. There is nothing much that one can do about this. Milton solved the problem by expressing belief in both Copernicus and in Galileo, thereby creating a deliberate tension. One might say that my deliberate tension is between the fixed or mythical scheme of individual titles, gods (and what they stand for) and a wholly different, scientific belief in what is cosmologically true as math/physics. The intermediate ground, I suppose, consists of the cosmographical details provided by in the ongoing text itself.

As always,

* This recalls a witticism that I came across some time ago in The Village Voice. After Kenneth Koch had published Wishes, Lies and Dreams, about teaching children how to write poetry, Rose, Where’d You Get That Red?, an anthology of great poems for children, and I Never Told Anyone, about teaching (with Kate Farrell, a student of mine) people in nursing homes how to write poetry, the reviewer suggested that Koch’s next book should be about teaching plants how to write poetry.

(4) January 2, 2009 (second email of the day)

Dear Peter,

As an amateur in philosophy I am finding Randall Collins refreshing, a refresher course in philosophy and full of refreshingly new ideas. Doubtless you will have already reached the following conclusions independently, but I wanted you to know that I agree with them:

A long-standing tradition holds theist religion inimical to intellectual advance. The historical consciousness of liberal Anglophone philosophy takes its signposts from a series of disputes along this divide, from Abelard’s condemnation for heresy, down through the triumphantly secularized schools of the 1930s and thereafter. This conception makes for poor sociology of ideas, reducing a multi-dimensional process of structured oppositions into a single-line evolution, and all too glibly identifying that line with rationality and with empirical science. The onset of rapid-discovery science in Europe provided a jolt leading to a renewed round of philosophical creativity, but this was essentially a separation of networks and a shift in the organizational base, leading to internal realignment in the philosophical attention space; contrary to the ideologies of contemporary philosophers, it was not the substitution of scientific method for core philosophical tools and puzzles. The revolution of rapid-discovery science happened to coincide with the period of European secularization of the stalemate of religious conflicts; and still later the wresting of control of the university base from theologians into the hands of research scholars – philosophers, scientists, and humanists alike – generated a united front ideology of the forces of “reason” against those of theological traditionalism. These were alliances of convenience, ephemeral over the long run, and their ideologies held no insight into the deeper oppositional pattern that drives philosophical creativity. The disputes recurring in the West along the lines of faith versus reason were by no means a battlefront of progressive and traditionalistic forces, whatever their conscious self-identifications. The abstraction-reflexivity sequence is driven by conflict and by the discovery of deep troubles. Rationalism by itself is often glib and in its own way traditionalistic, for instance, in the attachment of medieval Averroists to their aging texts, or in the backward-looking stance of the Renaissance Humanists. It was the reemergence of the cultural capital of high scholasticism in the era of Descartes and Leibniz that got philosophy moving again. It is the dispute between faith and reason that is crucial for philosophical and especially epistemological advance, not the victory of one side or the other. . . . Contrary to the ideologies of both its proponents and opponents, conservatism cannot help being dynamic. Conservatism is a recurrent mediating moment in the epistemology-metaphysics sequence, whenever conditions allow competition among intellectual factions. A community of curators of the canonical texts always produces a faction of rationalists, pursuing the normal scholastic tendency toward systematic classification and conceptual consistency. Conservatism is not primordial. The emergence of a conservative consciousness, explicitly aware of the particularity of tradition, is a response to the prior existence of rationalists. This split is part of the normal dynamics of the intellectual life.

Sorry to quote at such length (from pp. 830-831). By the way, so far as I can tell “only universals are real” is Collins’ “interpretation” of Peirce. I have spent my life having to tell colleagues that because I am interested in traditional texts does not mean that I am a “traditional conservative.”

As always,

(5) January 3, 2009

Dear Peter,

What, then, of my own cosmological, theological or philosophical position in Sentence of the Gods? I raise this question, not because I find it particularly useful, but because other people often ask me what I believe, what I think. I am not quite sure that the artist, the imaginative writer, has beliefs or ideas in the sense that others do. Henry James, in The Art of the Novel, says, “All that we may ask of the novelist is that he be interesting.” So being interesting in expressing religious belief and its elements: cosmology, theology, philosophy, is more important to me than expressing my beliefs and ideas. I find the gods very human, if not primarily psychological.

Sentence of the Gods is the sentence that they speak, and in a sense I simply record it. Which is not to say that I regard myself as “inspired,” merely that I am interested in what they have to say. I take seven of them up by turns, which may explain why the various books of the Sentence can sometimes seem contradictory. As for the personal question again: I used to say that I was Hindu in religion, Chinese in philosophy and European in artistic tradition. This no longer seems to me true, that I have rather purged myself of such attachments, though since one’s language is European, like most of one’s reading, one is still European in artistic tradition.

Even, however, with the question of imitation I have changed, which is not to say that I failed to imitate the Iliad and the Odyssey in Second, or Dante in Divine, or that I am not imitating Cervantes as I write Possibly, and so on. Part of this relaxation with regard to the imitation of models comes from having given up teaching. When one is no longer promoting books, as the teacher must, by pedagogical convention, one is free to distance oneself from them. Moreover, it is hard to imagine Tolstoi saying that he regarded El Quijote as greater than Vaina i Mir. As one goes along, it makes little sense to regard one’s work as anything but the greatest.

This is a practical question for the artist rather than a question of modesty. By analogy, one cannot imagine Wallace Stevens deferring to Milton or Dante in questions, say, about the nature of God. And so my own cosmology, theology and philosophy, amount to what the work itself embodies, not the views of others but inherently. I am neither a Hebraic monotheist, nor a Christian Trinitarian, nor a Greek polytheist, nor an Egyptian henotheist. But neither am I Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist, Vedantic or Upanishadic. What I am I am by virtue of the accumulation of the cross-currents that make up Sentence of the Gods and which, I hope, are overgone by it.

Does this make sense? Next, if you have the patience, I probably should take up briefly the question of the cosmographical element.


(6) January 14, 2009

Dear Peter,

Recommending Roveda’s Sacred Angkor to you has caused me to dip again into Chapter 6 (“Interpretation of the Reliefs”), at the point where Roveda takes up “The lotus’ symbolism in the Creation.” “Narayana,” he says, “is the central figure of the [Indic] creation” myth and of course an avatar of Vishnu, the second god in the Trimurthi, or Hindu “triple manifestation” (of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). To go on a bit: Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu, the god of the West, which some think explains why the temple is facing westward (most Angkorean temples are oriented eastward). During my Fulbright year in Madras (present-day Chennai), where I did the research for my “epic of India,” Happening — I also traveled much farther afield — I lived on Satyanarayana Avenue (satya, sk. = truth).

“The identity of the form of this absolute being,” Roveda continues, changes according to the various Puranas. . . . In the Vaishnava context of Angkor Wat, the identification is with the Vishnu of the Bhagavata Purana. Vishnu-Narayana sleeps on the ‘single wave’ of the Primordial Ocean, the wave representing the chaos of primordial matter. (See Frank W. Stevenson’s Chaos and Cosmos.) “He lies on the snake Shesha that, by the fact of floating upon the surface of the Primordial Ocean, is still a symbol of the inform. When Vishnu awakens and concentrates himself to create, a lotus emerges from his navel and Brahma appears, with his four faces installed in the heart of the lotus.” (As another aside: it might be of interest to note that Paprom, four-faced Brahma, appears on the cover of Or.)

“The surging lotus represents a separation from the level of chaos; the cosmos finds a central point and the support on which to develop. Vishnu’s navel represents the female organ that is impregnated through the mediation of the lotus; and the lotus inserted into the navel plays the part of the male element that gives form to the inform. The lotus is the seed inside chaos from which the Universe develops.” This is related to the motif of “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk” (the subject of one of two great panels on the eastern side of the third enclosure in Angkor Wat), which connects cosmology and kingship for the Khmers. “The King” — Roveda again — “by equating himself with Vishnu, created large basins, barays, moats and canals, as if they were the Sea of Milk, thus transforming the uncultivated land.”

If you will take a look at the cover of Particular and Universal, you will see that in my photograph, Lisa, Jacob’s elder daughter, is churning the Ocean of Milk, as two friends from Chennai listen to her father, who sits beneath a Thai representation of Rama and Sita, above whom is suspended the moon, one of Vishnu’s attributes. On the table are six glasses of water including one for the photographer. “Vishnu’s mountain temple, Angkor Wat, was the mythic Mount Mandara, used as the axial pivot for the churning. Accordingly, it was regarded as the axis of inexhaustible prosperity. ‘With the procreation and the joy of the Universe in mind,’ the king churned his moats and basins, and from them sprang the irrigated rice fields and, ultimately (though not without laborious effort), the ambrosial rice.”

“A further symbolic aspect of the lotus is its circular form.” Notice the circle on the back of the photographer’s chair, echoed in the “o”’s of his name and the cylindrical glasses. “The circle evokes the chakra, the Wheel of Time or Dharma. In this case Vishnu’s navel could be the hub of the wheel or the axis on which the wheel turns. Vishnu, as a supreme yogin, is the master of time as well as master of the dharma.” A Tanjore bronze Shiva Nataraja (Shiva the final god of the Trimurthi) on my web page illustrates Exists, the book about landscapes and cities of Oklahoma. As for water, you will have noticed that Happening, which I am editing in preparation for posting on my web site, has on its cover the Ganges at Varanasi, from which (see back cover) the pilgrims ascend and into which (see front cover) they descend again.

Just a few more notes on cosmology, this time principally Indic.

As always,

(7) February 18, 2009

Note: This is the last in a series of emails about cosmology. Many concern Angkor Wat, the cosmological model for Her, the “cosmological center” of Sentence of the Gods and, reading backwards, the first book in HERMES. (Reading forwards Second is its first book, and the second in the diptych, Every Second, which is the “cultural cornerstone” of the Sentence. It too, along with other books in Sentence of the Gods, includes cosmological elements.)

Dear Peter,

The Introduction to Vittorio Roveda’s first book about Angkor, Khmer Mythology: Secrets of Angkor (one of the half dozen that I have recommend to the first-time visitor, before he or she arrives in Siem Reap), contains a few brief paragraphs that seem to me essential to the subject of Angkor Wat’s “cosmology”: Scholars such as René Dumont, Pierre Grison and Philippe Paris have proposed theories that besides clarifying the essential laws of architecture should also lead to an understanding of the astronomical and cosmological symbolism of the temples. More recently, Eleanor Mannikka has published the results of her 20 years of research on Angkor Wat, focusing on its measurements. Their studies have looked at the following subjects, which may have formed the basis of Khmer Architecture:

a) accurate geographic measurements of the distances existing between the temples, which may establish a meaningful network pattern among the sites (cp. the work of Egyptologists who have correlated temple sites with the body of Osiris) b) a detailed study of the alignments within the architectural elements of a temple in relation to the trajectory of the sun, and the importance of the ritual alignment along the cardinal points, leading to an astronomical and cosmic symbolism c) accurate measurements of the geometric patterns and their organization within the plan of the temple, which may reflect different symbolic mandala (the mandala of Angkor Wat at its center distinguishes the Sentence from western epics) d) an assessment of the numbers which seem to have been used in multiples of a basic unit of measurement, known from Indian (and natively Khmer) numerology, arranged in patterns throughout the temple and reflecting a cosmic symbolism.

Part of our problem in approaching this subject has to do with the unavailability of resources: the theories of Dumont, Grison and Paris, for example, are all out of print. If you should happen to see one of the following titles in an institutional library in New York, please have a copy made and bring it with you to Jomtien:

Dumont, R. “Trois examples d’architecture khmère,” Dossier d’Histoire et archeologie, No. 125, 1988 Grison, P. Angkor au centre du monde, Dervy-Livres, Paris, 1980 Paris, P., “L’importance rituelle du Nord-Est et ses applications en Indochine,” Bulletin de l’Ecole françaises d’Extrême Orient, XLII, 1941

Another source for the organization of the temples may have been (Roveda points out) the basic books of Indian architectural theory (shastra), such as the Manasura and the Mayamata. Though I am in Asia and you in New York, it may be easier for you to find a copy of these, or a book about them, than for me to.

Angkor Wat and nearby Bayon were conceived not only as temples but as “cities,” the largest of which is Angkor Thom, immediately to the north of Angkor and Bayon. In Bayon, on a stele, an inscription compares the city of Angkor Thom to Sudharma, the assembly-hall of the gods at the summit of the mythical Mount Meru. Unlike the Greeks, who by and large separate their cosmogony (as in Hesiod’s Theogony) from their heroic epics (as in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), or the Indians, who separate theirs into the Puranas and the Ithihasa, the Khmers included representations of epic battles in their cosmological temples, principally as sculptural reliefs. Among these epic battles (which include those of Mahabharata and Ramayana) are the battles between the devas (gods) and the asuras (devilish monsters). These latter aimed at destroying the city of the gods. (Such attacks by devils were seen by the Khmers as analogous to the attacks by enemies on their holy cities.)

We should certainly visit Angkor Wat, then Bayon, then the large complex of Angkor Thom. On another day we can venture forth to Bantey Srei and on yet another visit the site known as Ruolos, which includes Lolei, Preah Ko and Bakhong. On a fourth day we could visit half a dozen more temples in the Siem Reap area. In Cambodia, within 20 square kilometers are more temples than in the whole of Egypt. The vastness of the architectural record in the former Khmer empire is staggering, for Angkorean civilization once extended across Thailand to Myanmar, and down peninsular Thailand to Malaysia; to the east it included southern Laos. To the southeast it included much of southern Vietnam. Like the Egyptians and the Indian Pallavas, the Khmers may also have had ocean-going vessels that enabled them to deposit the remnants of their civilization that have been found in South America. There are no written records except inscriptions carved in stone. Interestingly, there is no secular work of art that survives.

The more that one learns about this civilization, the less one feels that one knows. At an earlier point I felt that I had a grasp of perhaps 40-60 per cent of what there was. Now I feel as though I understand about 5-10 per cent. We are two centuries into Egyptological study. We are about 60 years into the serious study of Angkor. The cosmological center of Sentence of the Gods, though it will include reference to Hesiod and Homer, will not be Greek. Though Her will include sonnets about Oklahoma City, its cosmography will be only partly American. Instead of Judaic or Egyptian, Chinese or Indian, its cosmology will be predominantly Angkorean. Incidentally, I have written drafts of all but three of the 69 sonnets in verse, that will comprise the book. One final trip to Siem Reap should suffice to bring the cultural strands into relationship with one another. Completing the text of Her should make it easier to write the remaining half dozen books of the Sentence.

All best,