Monthly Archives: September 2011

Idealizing the real, realizing the ideal

Just some notes from recent reading.

From James Joyce’s Stephen Hero:

The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and ‘re-embody’ it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for it in its new office, he was the supreme artist.

From Ernest de Selincourt’s introduction to Spenser: Poetical Works:

The idealist, starting from the actual world of which he has experience, distils from it what seems to be its essence, and creates another world of spiritual and moral conceptions which becomes as real for him as that from which he created it. This other world is not peopled with dead abstractions. The prosaic analyst may ‘murder to dissect’: the artist does not merely extract and isolate, he recreates. To him ideas depend for their reality upon the vividness with which they kindle his imagination. His mind has, as it were, a centre in two worlds, and it may work with equal freedom upon material drawn from either. That imaginative vision, which gives to the world of fact a higher reality by expressing the soul that informs it, gives to the world of ideas a sensuous incarnation which utters its voice in song.

In the allegory of the Faerie Queene these two worlds meet and fuse. But the fusion is not complete, and the children of each world bear upon their forms traces of their origin. Hence, two types of allegory may often be distinguished. At times the poet starts from the idea, and the process of incarnation follows. Human qualities are then abstracted into the rarefied atmosphere of thought and presented to his imagination for conscious artistic handling. The result is somewhat formal personification, cast in the traditional mould of mediaeval allegory, and executed in the manner of a pageant or a Morality. At its worst it is mechanical in structure and somewhat arbitrary in its symbolism; but it is seldom unrelieved by vivid detail that gives it an independent life, and at its best it turns an abstract conception with triumphant success into concrete living form. The Masque of Cupid (III. 12) embraces the quaintly emblematic figures of Dissemblance twisting her two clewes of silk, and Suspect peeping through his lattis, and along with them the haunting picture of Fear, ‘all armed from top to toe,’ yet taking fright even at the clash and the glitter of his own coat of mail. Of this kind is much of the incidental allegory in the Faerie Queene, and Spenser has used to the full the opportunities it offers to his rich power over colour and form, and his genius for imaginative description. But when his mind is turned rather upon the warm realities of life itself, the process is different. Human qualities, justice, temperance, and the rest, are still realized in their essence, but they are seen to be present in living human beings. Hence he does not present an abstract conception by a human symbol, but accepts under his idealizing vision a human being as the symbol of his conception. Britomart is not the abstract conception of Chastity, but a real woman who expresses in her personality and her conduct, along with many other powers and some human weakness, the essential quality of chastity. Una may be Truth, but she is far more. She is a woman with sufficient individuality to be ‘pre-eminently dear’ to that poet who of all others delighted to find his happiness ‘in this world, which is the world of all of us.’ And such in the main is the structural allegory of the Faerie Queene. The characters, indeed, are seldom presented with the subtle and complex detail of a realist. Spenser’s whole artistic method is that of idealization, and of emphasis on the essential. But for all that he bases it on life. Sometimes, indeed, it is impossible to determine whether the ideal conception or the character which expresses it was his initial inspiration, whether in Sir Calidore he thought first of Courtesy or of Sir Philip Sidney, whether he drew Timias from Ralegh or found himself in his delineation of reckless honour falling back unconsciously upon his knowledge of his daring and impetuous friend. Allegory of this kind can easily be distinguished from the more obvious personification, however vivid; it has all the character of myth, which, apart from its symbolism, has complete artistic life.

Thus Spenser idealizes real persons, and he breathes life into abstractions. He sees Hope not merely as a symbolic figure leaning upon an anchor, but as a living woman, whose face bears signs of the anguish hidden at her heart. He sees Lord Grey not simply as a sagacious and just-minded man, but as the faery knight of Justice. By his side he sets Talus, the iron man, that most powerful embodiment of Justice in the abstract. In Sir Artegal and his remorseless squire the different types of allegory are seen at once in their boldest contrast and in perfect harmony. . . . The real meets the ideal in faery land, and its kinship is acknowledged.

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Suits as elemental qualities rather than elements

Most interpretations of the suit cards (“Minor Arcana,” if you must) in the tarot deck are based on mapping each suit to one of the four classical elements. Typically Clubs (Wands) represent Fire, Swords are Air, Cups are Water, and Coins (Pentacles) are Earth. Sometimes Clubs and Swords are switched. This is pretty standard, but I’ve always found it symbolically unsatisfying. This post explains an alternative system I developed some years ago.


In Whitley Strieber’s tarot book The Path, he interprets the suits in a way which bypasses the traditional elemental mappings and instead focuses on the suit symbols themselves, drawing on the Gurdjieffian idea of triads. “In the Tarot, the two great opposing forces are symbolized by Swords and Clubs. . . . Masculine violence penetrates, feminine violence crushes. But when the two are in harmony with each other, there is a vast leap into another energetic level entirely. The suit called Money in old Tarots reveals the nature of this energy.” Money, as the power of “codifying wealth into a system of universally recognized symbols,” is “considered to have magical properties” and “actually represents the mind and the energy of seeing, which will be symbolized by the card of the Sun.” As for the remaining suit, Cups, it “contains the three other suits, which, in balance, make a fourth and much greater whole.”

Strieber makes no reference to the classical elements, though his reference to the Sun would seem to link Coins more to Fire than to the traditional Earth. However, in identifying Swords  and Clubs as the two opposing active forces, “penetrating” and “crushing,” respectively, he reminded me of Aristotle’s analysis of the elements in Book II of On Generation and Corruption. In Aristotle’s theory, underlying the four elements are four even more fundamental qualities: hot, cold, dry, and moist.

Hot and cold, and dry and moist, are terms, of which the first pair implies power to act and the second pair susceptibility. ‘Hot’ is that which ‘associates’ things of the same kind (for ‘dissociating’, which people attribute to Fire as its function, is ‘associating’ things of the same class, since its effect is to eliminate what is foreign), while ‘cold’ is that which brings together, i.e. ‘associates’, homogeneous and heterogeneous things alike. And moist is that which, being readily adaptable in shape, is not determinable by any limit of its own: while ‘dry’ is that which is readily determinable by its own limit, but not readily adaptable in shape.

. . .

The elementary qualities are four, and any four terms can be combined in six couples. Contraries, however, refuse to be coupled: for it is impossible for the same thing to be hot and cold, or moist and dry. Hence it is evident that the ‘couplings’ of the elementary qualities will be four: hot with dry and moist with hot, and again cold with dry and cold with moist. And these four couples have attached themselves to the apparently ‘simple’ bodies (Fire, Air, Water, and Earth) in a manner consonant with theory. For Fire is hot and dry, whereas Air is hot and moist (Air being a sort of aqueous vapour); and Water is cold and moist, while Earth is cold and dry.

. . .

The ‘simple’ bodies, since they are four, fall into two pairs which belong to the two regions, each to each: for Fire and Air are forms of the body moving towards the ‘limit’, while Earth and Water are forms of the body which moves towards the ‘centre’. Fire and Earth, moreover, are extremes and purest: Water and Air, on the contrary are intermediates and more like blends.

Hot and Cold are the active qualities according to Aristotle, and they map readily to Strieber’s Swords and Clubs, respectively. The cutting blade of the Sword represents the separating, centrifugal power of Heat; and the crushing Club (think of crushing not as breaking into pieces, but as mashing skin, flesh, and bone together into a single mass) corresponds to the centripetal, bringing-together force of Cold.

The mapping of the remaining two qualities and suits is less straightforward. One could argue for mapping Cups to Dry, since a cup contains other things and imposes its shape on them. Coins, especially if interpreted, following Strieber, as abstract “Money” rather than physical coins, could them be considered Moist, since money has no proper form of its own. However, this seems inconsistent with the identification of Money with the fiery Sun, and to use Cups as a symbol of Dry seems so counterintuitive as to be perverse.

The other option, which I prefer, is to see Cups as Moist and Coins as Dry. Here the suit of Cups does not represent the cup itself so much as the contents of the cup (in line with the traditional identification of Cups with Water), and as such stands for fluidity and the Aristotelian quality of Moist. Strieber’s Cup represents the surrounding environment in which the Sword-Club conflict takes place, and is thus readily identifiable with the Air and Water (the two Moist elements) in which living things live and move. Coins, as the universal and unchanging unit of value, can then represent Dry. The Coins in tarot are generally pictured as gold, and gold (like the diamond, the French-suit counterpart to Coins) is famously unchangeable and incorruptible — that is, “Dry” in the Aristotelian sense. The two Dry elements are Earth and Fire, allowing this system to accommodate both the traditional identification of Coins with Earth and Strieber’s link between Money and the Sun.

In fact this system is for the most part compatible with more traditional interpretations of the suits. Cups as Moist retain their association with Water, and Swords as Hot can be identified with either Air or Fire. The only radical departure from tradition is the identification of Clubs (which, like Swords, have traditionally been mapped to one of the Hot elements) with Cold.


Aristotle’s elements have a natural hierarchy. Earth (purely centripetal) is the lowest (heaviest, closest to the center), then Water (relatively centripetal), Air (relatively centrifugal), and Fire (purely centripetal). The Hot elements are the highest, the Moist are in the middle, and the Cold are the lowest. There is also supposed to be Fire at the center of the Earth, so Dry should probably be considered even lower than Cold.

The suits also have a natural hierarchy, since they most likely derive ultimately from Chinese money-suited cards. Coins (single coins) are the lowest, then Clubs (strings of 100 coins), then Cups (tens of thousands), and finally Swords (hundreds of thousands). This order is still mostly preserved in French-suited cards, where Spades (Swords) are generally considered the highest (as in the expression “in spades”) with Hearts (Cups) in second place. In Bridge, Clubs are lower than Diamonds (Coins), but many other card games preserve the original ranking.

The hierarchy of the elemental qualities matches the original order of the suits. From lowest to highest: Dry/Coins, Cold/Clubs, Moist/Cups, Hot/Swords.

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When the existence of the message is the message

From Ronald Wintrobe’s The Political Economy of Dictatorship, pp. 66-67:

An even more subtle point is that the party’s totalitarian ideology and propaganda may have succeeded in building its reputation, irrespective of whether the party line is believed or not, in the same way that, according to Klein and Leffler (1981), advertising promotes the reputation of and brand loyalty to a capitalist firm. In their model it is not the content of advertising but its volume (the accumulated stock) that provides information. Because better products are advertised more — or, more precisely, because producers have a greater incentive to accumulate a larger stock of advertising capital for higher quality products — advertising can signal quality: The buyer who knows nothing about two products except that one has been advertised more than the other can still correctly infer that it is indeed of higher quality. However, that repetitive quality is surely characteristic of totalitarian ideology and propaganda. That is, it is not the content of a message but the number of times it is repeated (the magnitude of the party’s investment in its promises) that contributes to reputation and promotes loyalty.

Of course, words are cheap — hence the typical resort to exaggeration, hyperbole, and repetition, in part, as a way of compensating for this truth. Why would Pravda devote two-thirds of its space for nine months to the publication of greetings to Stalin on the occasion of his seventieth birthday? As in the case of advertising, one cannot discover the meaning of ideology by looking solely at its content (“Happy Birthday, Stalin!”). One important aspect of the communication is not its content, but the frequency with which the message is repeated.

This reminds me of Václav Havel’s comments (quoted here) about a greengrocer who puts a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign in his window. According to Havel, the real message of the sign is “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” — or, more bluntly, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.”

Sometimes the real message isn’t the message itself but rather the fact that the message exists and is being communicated by such-and-such a person (group, newspaper, etc.) in such-and-such a manner.

This kind of thing isn’t limited to totalitarian ideology. As Wintrobe mentions, advertising is another obvious example — celebrity endorsements in particular. The real message of an ad is not, “A famous football player likes it, so it must be good”; it’s, “This company is so successful that they can pay famous football players to endorse their products.”

The same goes for most forms of protest and political demonstration. Someone once told me about some protesters he saw wearing “All Homos in HELL!” T-shirts at a gay pride parade and wondered what on earth they thought they were going to accomplish. Obviously, if someone thinks homosexuality is okay, those T-shirts aren’t going to convince him otherwise. But the real message here isn’t the content of the slogan being displayed; it’s the fact that the slogan is being displayed. Exactly the same thing is true of the gay pride parade itself; no one who doesn’t already agree with them is going to be convinced by their slogans, either. The real message both groups want to send is simply, “There are a lot more of us than you think, and we’re organized.”

Name-dropping is another example. The content of anecdotes about celebrities is mostly irrelevant; the important message is, “I know famous people! I call them by their first names!”

Even most ordinary small talk probably falls into this category. The point is not to convey or elicit any particular information about the weather or my day at work or whatever, but to send the message, “We’re friends. We share things with each other.”

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