Monthly Archives: May 2016

1581 Bunting clover leaf map

by Richard Nilsen

A compass has four cardinal directions. North, south, east and west. That would be fine, if the earth really were flat, like a map. But, as you walk in the world, you know there are at least two other cardinal directions: Up and down. Now that we have flown to the moon, up is a serious consideration, and with submersibles finding strange creatures at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, down cannot be ignored. North, south east and west, up and down — or forward, behind, to the right, to the left and the sky above and the mud below. This is the orientation that we daily find for ourselves. 


We tend to take our own cultural norms as definitive, so it can feel like quibbling if I claim these two new directions, except they are not new. Several cultures — among them Native American cultures — count six directions as the norm. But even that is not the final word: At least one Native culture counts seven directions, and the seventh may be the most important direction: Up, down, right, left, in front, behind and — center. That is, the point where you are standing. It may be too obvious for yourself, as you are occupying that spot, but all directions are abstractions. The least abstract is the last: Center, that is, inwards. The tiny dot that is the essence of your awareness. Innigkeit. You can travel in that direction at least as far as you can travel to the distant stars. It is a very deep pool. 

If you look at a world map from the Middle Ages, you will find the most important spot is not north or south, but Jerusalem: the center of the world. It is the axis mundi, the point around which everything else revolves. The still point at the center. 

This idea of an omphalos: a focus of the world occurs in many cultures. Among the Norse, there is Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree, which is the axis of the world. Among Puebloan peoples, there is the Sipapu, the hole in the ground from which the world emerges. In our scientific understanding, there is a gravitational axis that runs from the north to the south pole around which the planet spins like a top. 

All of these, however, are external. They are places that you learn about, either from books or at your mother’s knee. But when you stand in the Great Plains and look around  you, or when you are in the middle of the ocean and stare at the horizon, you know the moving dot that is yourself is always the center of the world. You look up at the night sky and see yourself at the center of the universe. You don’t learn this, you observe it. It is the truth of the world from infancy to death. The real axis of the world runs from my pate to my feet. The world revolves around me. I don’t mean that in an egotistical sense: The world revolves around each one of us; we are each the center of the world. There are seven billion centers. All that spinning — it makes Ptolemy’s model seem simplicity itself. 

There is this ratio: One to seven billion. And at each end of the equation is a different understanding of life. A different telescope to look through; a different microscope. 

You can look at the world statistically and understand that you are one of seven billion and recognize the insignificance of your squabbling, sniffling existence, or you can stretch your brain out inside the expanse of yourself and recognize not your insignificance, but the multiplicity of significances: Seven billion people each with an infinite cosmos inside, each as large and expansive as your own: Each of those centers is the gravitational pull of the universe around them. This is the real embodiment of the phrase: “a circle whose center is everywhere and its circumference, nowhere.”  

You stand before someone, talking. If he raises his right hand and you raise yours, you point in different directions. It is the same for those centers, those inwardnesses.


We all have to live in two worlds, the one where we are one anonymous dot in a field of seven billion dots, and the other, where we are the center of the universe. In the first, we hardly count to anyone but our families. In the second, we build a towering mythological world, with ourself as the hero. We are the protagonist of the novel we are writing in muscle and bone, and at the same time, one book in a library of seven billion volumes.

libraryThose other volumes can be guessed at, but it is only our own book we can read in depth. This is the wellspring of personality, of our psyches, of our sensibility, of our selfness.

Working Title/Artist: Section from the "Book of the Dead" of NanyDepartment: Egyptian ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 03Working Date: 1040-945 B.C. Digital Photo File Name: DT11633.tif Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 3/4/15

Working Title/Artist: Section from the “Book of the Dead” of NanyDepartment: Egyptian ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 03Working Date: 1040-945 B.C.
Digital Photo File Name: DT11633.tif
Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 3/4/15

When we are in love, that love outweighs everything else in the world, and I mean that quite literally: You can bring out the scales, like the Egyptian god Anubis, and weigh your love (as you feel it) in one side, and the world (as you value it) on the other and if the hormones have done their job, the scales tilt toward love.

I don’t mean to make this sound soapy: If you weigh your depression or your anger when it is roused, or your disgust at its height, such things will also outweigh the world. As Shelley wrote, “All things exist as they are perceived, at least in relation to the percipient.” He has both equations in this sentence: The world as it is perceived, and also the world external to the perceiver; it isn’t mere solipsism, but an awareness of the two selves — the one, and the one-in-seven-billion.

William Butler Yeats, in his peculiar book, A Vision, describes human personalities as “tinctures” of two basic world-awarenesses. He calls them the “primary” and “antithetical.” They can be understood as I have described it. The world seen from inside your skull, and the world seen from the outside. The antithetical person tends towards the arts; the primary towards service work, such as nursing or the law. 

Pern in a gyre

My wife, Carole, who was an art teacher for over 30 years, says that you have two different types of children’s art. In one, if a boy draws a baseball game, he draws the four bases and the outfield, and puts figures at all the positions. In the other, he draws himself big, holding a bat in his hands with a giant smile on his face. These two are technically called “visual” and “haptic.” But they are the same as Yeats’ primary and antithetical.

No one can (or should) live in either of these conditions entirely. We all have some mix of the two. Just how aware are you of your insignificance in a world so densely populated that if you instantly disappeared, the planet could not weigh the difference? Take away a grain of sand from the beach and see. But also, how aware are you of your heart beating in your chest, your brain buzzing behind your eyes, your breath soaking in oxygen and spouting out carbon dioxide? You are in a machine, looking out, and everything you do is permitted or constricted by that machine of meat you wear as a temporary garment in the world.

Can you balance those two things equably? The one is your function in the world, the other is your personality, the you that makes the you-ness.  The you-niverse. 

As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”


Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.





by Frank Wilczek

We usually think of the human brain as a single organ, but it is a complex assembly of modules that process different kinds of information in quite different ways. Somehow, we construct a rich world of objects out of the two-­dimensional images projected onto our retinas through two tiny irises effortlessly, and in real time. Human abilities here still far outstrip even the most powerful computers. Analytical processing of more abstract symbolic information, such as mathematical formulas or logical schemas (like family relationships, recipes or computer programs), occurs elsewhere. Visualization is the art of getting those two systems to speak a common language, so they can pool their strengths.  Family trees are a humble but eloquent example.

Historically, innovations in visualization have powered scientific advances. Take the memorable story of August Kekulé, the 19th-century German scientist and creative dreamer who was one of the great visionaries of theoretical chemistry.

In the 1850s, Kekulé developed the familiar chain-like representation of molecules using letters—indicating the constituent atoms—joined by lines representing “chemical bonds.” In 1865, he proposed the ring structure of benzene. That involved taking his abstract representation of molecules seriously, as a model of their geometry—a crucial step toward modern organic chemistry. By suggesting the possibility of new compounds and reactions, Kekulé’s visionary molecular hoops led almost immediately to important practical applications.

At a meeting of the German Chemical Society to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that discovery, Kekulé reminisced about the two crucial breakthroughs in his career. He associated both with unusual states of consciousness. The chaining of atoms, he said, occurred to him as he fell into a daydream while riding a horse-drawn London omnibus: “Lo, the atoms were gamboling before my eyes! I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair…I saw how the larger combinations formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them but only at the ends of the chain.’’

As for the benzene ring, Kekulé recalled nodding off by a fire to find atoms again “gamboling before my eyes. This time, the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold confirmation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together, all twining and twisting in snake like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.”

Kekulé’s snake-dream has become an iconic story of science, psychology and the sources of creativity. Carl Jung connected its power to the archetype of Ouroboros, the self-eating snake, which figures in metaphorical representations of rebirth and eternal return across several cultures.

Several other huge scientific breakthroughs were also breakthroughs in visualization. Descartes’s invention of analytic geometry, which translates between equations and geometric shapes, is a brilliant example. Through it, algebra bends, loops and generally comes to life while, conversely, shapes get boiled down to symbols that our minds can easily juggle.

Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity became more popular and far easier to use after Hermann Minkowski’s 1908 address “Space and Time,” in which Minkowski showed that the theory is best pictured by regarding time as a new, fourth dimension. In modern physics, Richard Feynman’s versatile visualizations of elementary processes—Feynman diagrams—are an essential mind-tool. They map the mathematics of space-time processes in quantum theory to simple, flexible wiring patterns. (They’ve changed my life more than once.) None of these breakthrough visualizations, unfortunately for Jung, involves snakes.

Today, at the frontiers of quantum theory, we routinely work in spaces and space-times of high dimension. Modern “big data” collections, depending on many variables, also define structure in high-dimensional spaces. They aren’t what our brain’s visual processors evolved to cope with. Yet in coping with vast and unfamiliar complexity, more than ever, we need to tap vision’s power—and to expand the intersection of art and science.


Dr. Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book is “A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design.”

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal


William Blake see an angel in the trees

William Blake see an angel in the trees

by Richard Nilsen

When little Billy Blake was four years old, he saw God peering in through his window. Scared the bejeezus out of him; he must have thought it a beanstalk giant out to eat up an Englishman. “Fee-fie-fo-fum.”But later, he got used to such things: When he was eight, he saw “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” So, you knew he wasn’t going to grow up to be a CPA.

William Blake was born in 1757, at the height of the “Age of Reason,” and spent his life in the cusp of that great transition to the Age of Romanticism. He wrote his earliest poetry at the age of 12, and it is filled with all the tropes of the time, the poetic words, of spring, with its “dewy locks,” and “bright pavilions.” Alexander Pope had only been dead for 20 years. Consider how strong a sway T.S. Eliot has had on versifiers even 50 years after his death. 

Albion: "Energy is Eternal Delight"

Albion: “Energy is Eternal Delight”

But that isn’t how he continued, and that is not why Blake continues to fascinate readers now 189 years after his death — or his assumption into the sublime, take your choice. Blake filled out a mythological cosmos that, in a Swedenborg or a Joseph Smith, would be the foundation of a new religious cult. But Blake never meant it that way: He filled his poetry with his own private Olympus of gods and goddesses, but for him, this mythology was a metaphor for the psychology of the human mind. His gods and goddesses, spirits and emanations stood in for the complex impulses of human will, desire, imagination and envy, to say nothing about anger and fear and repression. Blake’s mythic subtlety gives each thought and emotion a name, and shows for us in his books the familial relations of them all. 

For this reason, many who came after have found in Blake a precursor of Sigmund Freud and his psycho-analytics. And Blake’s critique of the Industrial Revolution and its shadow capitalism — the “Dark Satanic Mills” — have been to others a hint of Karl Marx. 

It should not be forgotten, however, that despite Blake’s genius and profound insight, he was a major loon. Today, he would be one of those people who write long letters to the editor typed in singlespace decrying the Trilateral Commission, with random nouns capitalized. It’s just that as a loon, he was a genius. Neighbors complained that he and his wife walked around in their garden stark naked. Blake proposed free love, although he seems to have been happy enough with a wife that was willing to head to the garden with him unencumbered by raiment. All through life, he had visions, some of which he wrote down in verse. 

Through his years, he also expanded his vision, so by the end, in the unfinished “Vala, or the Four Zoas,” his world is so baroque, so infested with spirits and godlings, that not even Northrup Frye can keep them straight. Perhaps Blake couldn’t, either.

In the beginning — a meaningful phrase, if ever there were one — in the beginning, Blake’s poetry outlined the course of life from youthful innocence to woeful experience. In his “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” which he published himself with his own illustrations, first, the joys of childhood are extolled and then, the encroachment of the world and its disappointments, violences, heartbreaks and unreasonable demands.

by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

In the “Innocence,” he writes, “Little Lamb, who made thee?/ Dost thou know who made thee?” The answer comes: “We are called by his name./ Little Lamb, God bless thee!” 

But in “Experience, this becomes, “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night,/ What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Or: “Ah, Sun-flower, weary of time,” or, “The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,” or “in every face I meet,/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

But Blake also posits a third state, having passed through innocence and experience, which is something we might call “higher innocence,” in which the person experiences what Joseph Campbell once called “joyful participation in the sorrows of life.”

Or, to quote Richard Nixon, “only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” (Yes, I joined William Blake and Richard Nixon, just for the hell of it.)

The path to this higher innocence comes, Blake says, through imagination. Now, he means something particular by the word. Blake makes a boogie-man out of science and calls it “Single vision and Newton’s sleep.” For Blake, the goal is fourfold vision.

Single vision is simple cause and effect: Seeing the world as it is, measured and counted. Blake says that “nothing can come from nothing,” and all scientists can do is move the game pieces around the board in new ways, but they cannot invent anything new. For that, you need to see metaphorically, which is his two-fold vision. This is using the poetic imagination to see the underlying correspondences, and to see beyond what things are to what they mean.

Nobodaddy measuring and limiting the world

Nobodaddy measuring and limiting the world He lays it out:

He lays it out:

“I. Man cannot naturally Perceive but through his natural or bodily organs.

“II. Man by his reasoning power can only compare & judge of what he has already perceiv’d.

“III. From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth.

“IV. None could have other than natural or organic thoughts if he had none but organic perceptions.

“V. Man’s desires are limited by his perceptions, none can desire what he has not perceiv’d.

“VI. The desires & perceptions of man, untaught by any thing but organs of sense, must be limited to objects of sense.

“Conclusion: If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.”

Blake — just to make things confusing — equates poetic imagination with Jesus in the Christian religion. Jesus descends to Earth to provide this imagination. “Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.”

Three-fold vision ups the ante. Where two-fold vision is volitional, three-fold is when you no longer are conscious of the prophetic, the poetic, but it takes hold of its own.

Blake's diagram from "Vala, or The Four Zoas"

Blake’s diagram from “Vala, or The Four Zoas”

Four-fold vision is, in essence, nirvana — the ability to grasp the cosmos as a single, dancing, joyful whole. The Dante Rose, subsuming all innocence, experience, myth, and will. 

All that said, it is a gross simplification of the mythical apparatus constructed by Blake in his prophetic books, “Milton,” “Jerusalem,” “Europe: A Prophecy,” “Visions of the Daughters of Albion,” and others, finally, “Vala, or the Four Zoas,” which I dare anyone to dive into.

In all, Blake sees the human soul as divided, and he names the constituent parts. They are the emanations he makes the protagonists of his poems. Albion is the Ur-Man (or woman), and his psyche is split into fragments: Urthona, Tharmas, Urizen and Luvah. Each has its emanations and avatars. As Blake’s poetry got more mature, he found more and more fragments. In the beginning he starts with Jehovah and Satan (they morph later into Urizen and Los). 

Although Blake considered himself a believing Christian, he had a very peculiar take on the essential dyad of his faith. Jehovah was “Nobodaddy,” the one who says “Thou shalt not.” He is the limiter of human desire and ambition. He is a grouchy old man with a beard. Satan is not evil, but the source of energy. In poem after poem, Jehovah (or Urizen) is derided for his limited understanding. Blake’s Jehovah is the impulse to line things up and march them in step, wearing uniforms and chanting the same slogans.

“One command, one joy, one desire,

“One curse, one weight, one measure,

“One King, one God, one Law.”

Blake's drawing of Isaac Newton delimiting the universe

Blake’s drawing of Isaac Newton delimiting the universeOn the other hand, for Satan, “Energy is eternal delight.” Satan says, in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “One law for the Lion & the Ox is Oppression.”

On the other hand, for Satan, “Energy is eternal delight.” Satan says, in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “One law for the Lion & the Ox is Oppression.” 

(One hears always under the shivered surface of Blake’s writing, the ancient conflicted voices of the gnostics). 

For us, today, the “Proverbs of Hell” are more appealing than the strictures of the Ten Commandments, but that is just the time-space we are born to. A hundred years ago, people would have been more horrified by such suggestions as:

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

“The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”

“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”

It should be said that Blake didn’t choose sides here: He clearly says that we need both. “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” But you cannot help but feel he has stacked the deck in Satan’s favor. Jehovah-Urizen is such an unpleasant fellow, such a drudge. And Satan-Los is burning with an inner glow.

He famously said that the real hero of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is not Adam, but Satan. “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” This became the gospel during the 19th century, when Romanticism held sway, and the parallel between Milton’s Satan and Shelley’s Prometheus became all too clear. The bad guy was Jupiter/Jehovah. 

Blake's window

Blake’s window

There has been a lot of nonsense written about Romanticism — at least English Romanticism. But what is the bottom line for it? It is found in Blake most clearly.

In the 18th century, the Age of Reason, Alexander Pope wrote: “Nature to all things fix’d the Limits fit,/ And wisely curb’d proud Man’s pretending Wit.”

Blake countered this with: “You never know what is enough till you know what is too much.”  Damn limits, Blake says. The Romantic despises limits. “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy.” 

Blake's wife, Catherine

Blake’s wife, Catherine


Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.


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