April showers and religious relics

the catataxic relicI am just back from a trip to Zimbabwe, exchanging the bold blue African sky for London’s grey misery. This April has been the wettest in the UK since records began with 152 different parts of the country currently on flood alert. Ironically, there is still a hosepipe ban in force, because the six preceding months saw an extreme drought. The Environment Agency says that groundwater levels will only be properly replenished by large and consistent amounts of steady rain for two months. Welcome to our British Spring!

This is not a new story. In fact, it is a very old one that goes right back to the birth of English literature. Eng.Lit. starts, as every skuleboy kno, with Geofrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And that starts with the General Prologue. And the general Prologue starts like this:


Whan that April, with his shoures soote,
            The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…
…So priketh hem Nature in hir corages
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Which can be roughly translated into modern English as “ When April’s sweet showers pierce the drought of March, Nature stirs people up and makes them long to go on pilgrimages”. Strangely enough, I spent this Sunday on a pilgrimage of sorts: a country stroll with my brother near the Pilgrim’s Way in Kent. Our topic of discussion was the macguffin at the heart of his latest Robin Hood book and also the spiritual magnet for all pilgrims: we were talking about religious relics.

A relic is a holy object, often a part of the body of a saint that has been preserved in order to be venerated. The word comes from the Latin reliquiae meaning “something left behind” (as in relinquish).  Relics became big business in Christendom in the 7th century. After 747 AD, all new churches had to have a relic before they could be consecrated. This was the period when most of Northern Europe was being converted to Christianity so demand for relics was huge and, as a result, the prices for the rarest ones was astronomical. In 1237, Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople sold the Crown of Thorns to King Louis IX of France for 13,134 gold pieces (maybe $ 3.6 bn in today’s money). Such high prices meant that the trade in relics was very lucrative, and it proved to be a goldmine for fakers and forgers. In the 11th century there were at least three “heads of John The Baptist”  in circulation. Calvin famously remarked that there were enough pieces of the “True Cross” in medieval churches to build a substantial ship.

With so many fakes around, how could you prove the authenticity of your relic? The best solution for establishing provenance, although seemingly at odds with Christ’s teachings, was to steal one from somewhere else. Many of Europe’s most famous pilgrimage sites proudly displayed their stolen relics. The justification went like this: if the saint allowed his relic to be stolen without punishing the thieves and it continued to produce miracles then clearly he was happy with the relic in its new home. Many of these relics can still be seen today in the churches around Rome. This eccentric list of ecclesiastic treasures includes the Virgin Mary’s belt (Prato Cathedral), Christ’s holy foreskin in Calcata (went missing in 1983),  the “doubting finger” of St Thomas (Santa Croce), 25 sets of medieval papal innards (Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio), the Head of St John the Apostle (San Silvestro) and the Holy Umbilical Chord (San Gionanni in Laterno).

The more unusual and unique your relic, the more pilgrims you could attract. In this pre-scientific era, there were no rational explanations for events in the physical realm.  Disease, the motion of the planets and fertility were all phenomena that occurred at the whim of an omnipotent God. It was a world in which mythical beasts were real and the fundamental building blocks of the material world were not chemical elements but spiritual humours. The physical world was a confusing, dangerous and irrational place governed by supernatural forces beyond human ken. The relic was a bridge that crossed this divide: a portal linking the corporal and spiritual worlds. In other words, it was a catataxic gateway. A relic possessed virtus, a mystic potency emanating from that sacred object that had the power to change things. By touching the object, wishes could come true, miracles could happen, good fortune could be granted and health restored. No wonder pilgrims travelled such distances for a chance to touch one. It was the very essence of the divine.

Relics are not just confined to the Christian world. The most important Islamic relics are known as the Sacred Trusts: six hundred items kept in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. These include the hand of John the Baptist, the sword of Ali, the hair of Muhammad, the staff of Moses, the turban of Joseph, the sword of David and the pot of Abraham. These objects are so sacred that they can only be seen during Ramadan and the Qur’an must be continuously recited over them for all eternity.

Even atheist societies have their relics. Communist dictators are often preserved upon death: Lenin, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung and Georgi Dimitrov (Bulgaria) were all embalmed when they died and put on public display in purpose built mausolea. Zhisui Li’s (Mao’s doctor) describes in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao the problems of embalming Mao’s corpse in macabre detail. The body was injected with 22 litres of formaldehyde and became enormously bloated – like the Michelin Man. After two full days of desperate massaging, the corpse became more recognisable but his clothes still had to be slit up the back in order to fit. I saw his body in the 1980s in its helium filled crystal casket in the Memorial Hall of Tiananmen Square. The corpse was a curious orange colour (think Essex girl fake tan) and, according to rumour, it has now been replaced with a far more lifelike waxwork dummy.

A relic is a potent symbol of catataxis; of crossover and confusion between two levels. On the first (physical) level, the idea of worshiping an ancient finger bone is either ridiculous or grotesque. To view a relic as simply a physical object is to make a mistake in categorisation. On the second (spiritual) level, venerating a relic makes perfect sense. The bone is a physical manifestation of something far greater which has the demonstrable ability to produce miracles (for believers). It is the fusion of the two levels in a single object that gives the relic its totemic power. That is catataxis.

Rage on, Ken Russell

Ken Russell Rage on I was saddened to hear of Ken Russell’s death last week. He was a particular hero of mine. I saw my first Ken Russell film at boarding school. It was introduced by a wimpy teacher, wringing his hands and describing the intense, moralistic debate the school board had just had about whether it was appropriate to screen this movie. After 10 minutes of this gentle, concerned bleating, he finally left the stage. The projector cranked up and a hall full of schoolboys got their first exposure to a work by The Master: it was The Devils.

Wow ! What a movie. Like a fusion between The Exorcist and The Crucible. Based on The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley it is set in Cardinal Richelieu’s France and tells the true story of the nuns in Loudun Convent being ‘possessed’ by devils. Starring Oliver Reid and Vanessa Redgrave, the film is visually stunning and delivers a knockout blow around themes of hypocrisy, religion, kinky sex, torture, authority and the abuse of power. Nothing here that public school boys don’t already know about, so the concerns of the teachers were clearly groundless.

The film caused a huge furore on its release in 1971. It had to be heavily cut even to get an X rating. It was banned by 17 local authorities in the UK and in many countries, and could only get released in the USA after further substantial cuts. Astonishingly, it is still unavailable on DVD and rumours of the release of a Directors Cut version have been repeatedly postponed.

It’s a wonderful movie. The combination of its gorgeous visuals and its powerful message had a big impact on me as a teenager. I felt that my eyes had been opened and I had witnessed “The Truth” for the first time. More importantly, it was a non-verbal truth. I was not really able to properly articulate my thoughts about it later because I had absorbed it at a level beneath the verbal.

All good movies are like that. When people try to describe them to you they normally tail off with a rather weak “….well, you really ought to see it yourself”. Stories are a verbal medium but movies are a visual one; you have to experience them.

The Italian proverb traduttore, traditore meaning “translator, traitor” meaning the act of translation is an act of distortion or betrayal. In a similar vein, to tell someone the story of a movie verbally is a gross distortion. It is a catataxic error. Sound and visuals are the language of emotions that belong on level one. Prose and the spoken word belong on level two language: precise, grammatical and rule bound. Rock journalists sometimes explain the conundrum like this: Writing about music is as impossible as explaining architecture through the medium of expressive dance.

Cinematic filmmakers like Ken Russell, Nic Roeg and Terrence Malick are the masters of a form of inarticulate veracity in which words are lies and images are the truth. Appropriately, the best example of inarticulate veracity is in a scene from a movie: Taxi Driver. It’s the speech by The Wizard (Peter Boyle) where he attempts to explain the meaning of life to De Niro and fails utterly, tailing off with “I’m a cabbie. What do I know?” . But in his very inarticulateness, he is in fact expressing a great truth. See the clip below. There is no better exposition of one of my favourite catataxic maxims: The truth is that which can not be put in words

See a transcript here

Catataxic Rice

One of the best catataxic aphorisms is this “You are not stuck in Traffic. You are Traffic”. It invites you to step above your instinctive personal view of things and see the broader context, and your place in that context. It encourages you to “see the wood for the trees”, to get some perspective on the matter.

Here is an interesting parallel in Japan. As always, Japan absorbs interesting ideas from outside and, by putting their own spin on them, transmutes them into something sublime. Remember the crop circles on the farms in the West of England? A trigger for much mystic speculation, they were eventually shown to be a destructive but whimsical prank carried out by drunken yokels with some ropes and planks. Geometric patterns carved into the breast of Demeter, the goddess of grain. The agricultural equivalent of a cheap tattoo, or, in an urban setting, tagging a wall with spray paint.

In Japan, they have turned this “graffiti” into art. By planting different strains of kodaimai rice with yellow or purple leaves in precisely the right places among the traditional green leaved tsugaru variety, their paddy field becomes canvas. A picture that gradually becomes visible as it grows; not imposed destructively from the outside but nurtured and organically emergent from the seed.

The trend started in the village of Inakadate in Aomori Prefecture in Northern Japan but has since spread to other regions. The patterns are carefully worked out on computers before planting in May, and by September the “rice art” has fully developed and is ready for harvesting. Of course, you can only see it from a distance and after some time has passed. That is the catataxic part. When you are knee deep in the muddy water planting tiny grains its hard to perceive the big picture. That belongs on a different level.

See this you tube clip to watch the picture growing before your eyes ….


Close up
Medium shot
The big picture



Husserl’s missing bits

Take a look at this advert for Fentimans Ginger Beer. Fentimans is a botanical brewery based in the North of England which produces a range of unusual drinks based on vegetable roots like burdock, dandelion and ginger. Their advertising is unusual too. When you first see the ad on the left, you think some one has made a mistake. Your eye is drawn to it. Then you realise that it is a deliberate cropping which is quite cunning. Although they only show a quarter of the bottle our minds fill in the rest. So they are effectively getting a full page ad for the price of a quarter of a page. Even better,  they are making us interact imaginatively with their brand in the act of completing the picture. And they are even able to make a joke out of it. So that is a triple plus in my book.

This  “missing part” trick seems to be becoming more popular. A lot of corporate logos these days seem to be a portion of a letter. Look at the three below. The first is the logo for Global Radio, the owner of several radio stations such as Heart, Capital and Classic FM. It’s a ‘g’ with the bottom part cropped off. Then look at the blue logo next to it for Bestway, a London based cash and carry chain. It’s the same trick but with the cropping at the top. The red logo at the end is for Adecco, an employment agency. They have taken the final ‘o’ of their name and only shown a quarter of it. It is so heavily cropped that it is almost an abstract figure. On the other hand,  if you were to reconstruct the whole word in your imagination you would get a sign 24 times bigger sticking way out into the street. Now that’s bang for your buck!


These logos echo the thinking of Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938), the founder of a philosophical movement known as Phenomenology. In the long running debate amongst philosophers about whether the real world actually exists or is just a figment of our imagination, Husserl had an interesting conclusion: it’s both. I can  crudely paraphrase this deep thinker with the following example. If you are standing in the street looking at a house you can only see the front of it, but you believe that the back of it exists even if you can’t see it. In other words, you think  it is a real house rather than, say, a flat piece of scenery from a film set. So the reality of the house arises partly from our direct experience and partly from our inference. As with the Fentimans advert, the world is half real and half filled in by our imagination. It is a fusion between two different levels, the tangible and the intangible. That is catataxis.

Gaddafi and the Rub al Khali

Rub al KhaliIn 1973 the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi withdraws to the desert to contemplate. He returns with a draft of his “Green Book”;  a mystical tract that describes his political philosophy which can be summed up as being a “Third Way”. In the 1990s, many western politicians become Third Way advocates including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. This opens up an intriguing possibility: did they steal the idea from Gaddafi? Tony Blair certainly helped to rehabilitate the Gaddafi regime with the ending of sanctions, and the two leaders were quite close.

In fact, Blair did not steal the Third Way concept from Gaddafi, because it was not Gaddafi’s idea in the first place. Hegel was there first and way before Hegel there was Buddha preaching about the middle path. His best known parable concerns a stringed instrument. If you tighten the strings too much it will break. But if they are too loose it will not make a sound. They have to be just the right tightness, and then they will produce beautiful harmonies.

That may sound a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears with the porridge that is just right. But Third Way politics is more than just a lukewarm blend of two extremes. It is sometimes describes as the “radical center“. It’s not just the balancing point at some fulcrum which is just a mechanical compromise but something extra. Less a lowest common denominator and more a highest common factor.  It implies progress; a beneficial outcome to two conflicting views.

Hegel’s dialectic is the purest theoretical statement of the third way. He posits three stages of development – theses, antitheses and then synthesis. A proposal or thesis is put forward. This prompts a reaction  which contradicts the proposal; an antithesis. Eventually, the tension between the two is resolved in a synthesis which brings us to a higher level.  The process then can begin again because this synthesis can be put forward as a new thesis.  And so, in an endless upwards cycle around the dialectic, we progress.

Hegel also offers up a worked example with his theory of the state. In this case,  the thesis is the family unit which Hegel called the “undifferentiated unity”. In other words,  a group of people who are the same (i.e. undifferentiated) and together (i.e. unity). The antithesis is “differentiated disunity” which is a group of competing individuals,  all out for whatever they can get. They are disunited and selfish. The synthesis of the two is the nation state which is a “differentiated unity”. In other words,  the state  pulls together a large and disparate group of people into a single unity. They are all different, but they are living harmoniously together. The state synthesizes a collective will from its diverse citizens.

Now look at Libya today. The people have risen up to try and topple Gaddafi.  It is an expression of the collective will. Sometime soon the situation will resolve itself and Libya will get the government that its people want. Meanwhile, the fighting in the desert continues, on sand that has soaked up so much blood before. This desert is made for war as the ghosts of Rommel’s Africa Corps and Scipio’s Roman Legions can attest.

There is another desert but this one has no war. In fact, nothing has ever happened there. No people, no civilization, just sand. This is the Rub’ al Khali in Saudi Arabia. The name means “the empty quarter”. The other three parts of Saudi Arabia have some very significant features.  On the west coast is Mecca, the holiest site in all Islam. In the centre, Riyadh the capital city. On East Coast you have the industrial conurbations at Jubail. But to the south there is nothing, just sand. It’s the Rub’ al Khali. The quadrant that has nothing in it at all. The  place you can ignore.

You will notice that Hegel’s dialectic also has an empty quadrant – a Rub’ al Khali. His dialectic theory is a riff around two concepts – unity and difference. Imagine drawing a quadrant diagram with unity/disunity on one axis and differentiated/undifferentiated on the other. His dialectic has three different combinations – but there us a fourth combination that he ignores which is “undifferentiated disunity”. In other words, same but not together.

This fourth quadrant is where catataxis lives: more of the same is different. Hegel’s synthesis is a top down view that says something like this: you may all be different but at a higher level you will be made one by the state. The state will harmonise you. But catataxis says “you are all the same but one level higher, collectively, you make something different” something that emerges bottom up – unplanned and unpredictable. Is that not the real story of all the recent uprisings in the Middle East? From the empty quadrant, the Rub’ al Khali, the place that Hegel and others felt safe to ignore comes the unexpected. It is the Khamsin. A wind from the empty desert that sweeps all before it. That is catataxis. Listen carefully  – can you hear it – there’s a storm coming in…

Hegels dialectic

Theory of everything explains nothing

Stephen Hawking’s new book “The Grand Design” has been all over  the press in the last week. His last book  “A Brief History of Time” published in 1988 ended with the door left open for God the Creator. This book slams that door shut. It concludes that God is not required to explain the creation of the universe. The laws of physics can do this perfectly well without the need for a divine creator. He writes “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist”. The book puts forward M-theory, a multifaceted collection of string theories, as the ultimate theory of everything.

There is an old joke that goes like this: A man walks into a bar. The bartender asks him what he wants. “Nothing,” he replies. “So why did you come in here?” “Because nothing is better than a cold beer.” This joke is the backdoor entrance to the long standing philosophical debate about whether nothing is in fact something or literally no thing at all.

We can rephrase the question mathematically like this: is zero a number? Hawking’s book says that you don’t need God to explain how to get from zero to one. That is a perfectly logical numerical sequence. But where do the numbers come from? Who created those?

“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the whole world.” That is the opening sentence of Robert Kaplan’s exquisite book “ The nothing that is” which is a far more illuminating read. It is a history of the concept of zero. The number zero is something that we all take for granted, but imagine how hard it is to do simple addition without it. The Romans had no zero; what is MCMLXXIII plus CLIV?

How do you create something out of nothing?  How do you take the first step on the catatactic ladder? Hawking says God is not required in the explanation. It is hard not to feel that he is being a bit of a kill joy.  Science aims to explain the magic, to illustrate the workings of the conjuring trick. Where is the fun in that?  Don’t you feel a twinge of regret when something is explained?

The rational response is that only the truth matters. I would say two things in reply. First the enigmatic line on Keats’s urn “Beauty is truth, truth beauty “. The second is this: sometimes the truth is that which can not be put in words. Wittgenstein’s last line of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus sums it up quite wellWhereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”