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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 12” by Lao Tzu

Chinese5

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours cloy the palate.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Rare goods tempt men to do wrong.

Therefore, the Sage takes care of the belly, not the eye.
He prefers what is within to what is without.

This is one of those times that I am grateful for the internet. When I read this passage, the general theme was obvious enough—do not focus all your energy on material gains, but instead, seek within for spiritual treasures. But I knew I was missing something critical and that something must be associated with the number five, which is echoed in the first three lines. From my western perspective, I could not think of any significance that the number five would have in the context of this passage. So I resorted to Google.

I learned that in Chinese thought, the number five is significant because the Chinese believe there are five elements: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, and Metal. From my western perspective, I have always considered there to be four elements: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire. Now the meaning of the first few lines made sense. It is the distraction of the elements to our physical senses that draws our focus away from the internal and towards the external.

This is an example of how ideas and symbols can be interpreted differently based upon the cultural context. Whenever we attempt to uncover the meaning of something, we should always consider the context in which it was created.

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“Sonnet 19: Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws” by William Shakespeare

Portrait of a Young Man: Piero di Cosimo

Portrait of a Young Man: Piero di Cosimo

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

This is another romantic fair youth sonnet in which Shakespeare expresses his longing to immortalize the young man’s beauty through poetry. But I noticed something interesting about this sonnet which I feel gives some insight into the fair youth and why Shakespeare found him so attractive. The key is in the first four lines:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;

Here we have four metaphors, two symbolizing masculine strength and beauty, and two representing feminine. In lines 1 and 3, the lion and the tiger symbolize the masculine, images of strength, manly grace, and power. In lines 2 and 4, we have the earth and the phoenix, feminine symbols of beauty associated with creation and rebirth. The fact that Shakespeare vacillates between the masculine and feminine implies that the young man to whom the sonnet is composed possesses a balance of masculine and feminine qualities, allowing him to transcend the concept of gender-based beauty. And because the youth’s physical traits encompass both masculine and feminine beauty, he becomes, in Shakespeare’s eyes, the paragon of what human beauty should be.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 6” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

The Spirit of the Fountain dies not.
It is called the Mysterious Feminine.
The Doorway of the Mysterious Feminine
Is called the Root of Heaven-and-Earth.

Lingering like gossamer, it has only a hint of existence;
And yet when you draw upon it, it is inexhaustible.

I love this chapter. It is so compact, yet so rich in meaning.

Here, Lao Tzu describes the Divine Feminine as the “Spirit of the Fountain.” Essentially, he is acknowledging the Divine Feminine as the source of all being. And the pathway to discovering the Divine Feminine is through unification of the physical and the spiritual aspects of the self, symbolized by the “Root of Heaven-and-Earth.”

The last two lines offer an impression of what it is like to perceive and connect with the Feminine. It is subtle, fluid, loving, and gentle. One gets the impression of being surrounded by diaphanous warmth and comfort that is at once ineffable and universal.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 5” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

Heaven-and-Earth is not sentimental;
It treats all things as straw-dogs.
The Sage is not sentimental;
He treats all his people as straw-dogs.

Between Heaven and Earth,
There seems to be a Bellows:
It is empty, and yet it is inexhaustible;
The more it works, the more comes out of it.
No amount of words can fathom it:
Better look for it within you.

This is a beautiful chapter that conveys so much wisdom in so few words.

I want to begin by pointing out something at the very beginning of the verse: “Heaven-and-Earth” is hyphenated, implying that it is a single entity and not something dualistic. We can interpret this as a symbol for ourselves, a combination of the spiritual and the physical combined into one being. The concept is also incorporated into the yin and yang symbol, where the two seeming opposites are actually part of the whole.

In the second stanza, we are introduced to the “Bellows” which exists between Heaven and Earth, meaning it exists within ourselves and serves as the boundary/connector between the physical and the spiritual. The Bellows is the source of breath, which is Qi (or Chi) and it the life energy that flows through us and is associated with breathing. The practice of Tai Chi improves breathing and helps practitioners connect with their life energy. The more that you practice conscious breathing, the more connected to your life energy you become, as is expressed in the line, “The more it works, the more comes out of it.”

This life energy is ineffable: “No amount of words can fathom it.” Because it exists in a space between the physical and the spiritual beings, essentially connecting the two, it cannot be expressed in words. It is beyond our comprehension.

Finally, we are entreated to search for this source within ourselves. This is the path of the Tao and the way to become a sage: to search for this source of life energy within each of us, connect with that energy, and allow it to flow freely through us.

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“To the Muses” by William Blake

NineMuses

Whether on Ida’s shady brow,
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceas’d;

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air,
Where the melodious winds have birth;

Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea
Wand’ring in many a coral grove,
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry!

How have you left the ancient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forc’d, the notes are few!

In this poem, Blake contemplates the state of the poetic arts in England during his time. He expresses the belief that the art was lacking, that the poetic genius manifest in the past was lost during his time.

In the opening line, he mentions “Ida’s shady brow.” This is an allusion to Homer. Mount Ida was near Troy and supposedly from there the gods watched the Trojan War. Blake appears to be setting up a contrast between the inspiration that fostered Homer’s work and the perceived lack of poetic inspiration that plagued England in the late 18th century.

Blake evokes the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire (fire being symbolized by the sun). He mentions the elements before he mentions the nine muses. It gives the poem the feel of a mystical rite or incantation, where Blake is drawing energy from the elements in order to summon the muses.

I cannot help but wonder if Blake is also criticizing himself here. Since this poem was composed early in his life, he may have been struggling to find his own personal muse and feeling frustrated that he was not getting the inspiration of a Homer or a Shakespeare. If this was indeed the case, then I would say his incantation worked. The muses certainly inspired him throughout his life.

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 3 – The Earth

PrometheusUnbound

The character of the Earth is introduced early in the first act. Shelley presents Earth as a symbol of the Goddess, the divine mother of all.

I am the Earth,
Thy mother; she within whose stony veins,
To the last fibre of the loftiest tree
Whose thin leaves trembled in the frozen air,
Joy ran, as blood within a living frame,
When thou didst from her bosom, like a cloud
Of glory, arise, a spirit of keen joy!

(Act 1: Lines 153 – 159)

This is nothing new and did not really cause much interest for me, but the passage that follows the establishing of the Earth as the Goddess is nothing short of divinely inspired. It is somewhat long, but warrants being included in its entirety here.

They shall be told. Ere Babylon was dust,
The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
For know there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest; but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them and they part no more;
Dreams and the light imaginings of men,
And all that faith creates or love desires,
Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes.
There thou art, and dost hang, a writhing shade,
‘Mid whirlwind-peopled mountains; all the gods
Are there, and all the powers of nameless worlds,
Vast, sceptred phantoms; heroes, men, and beasts;
And Demogorgon, a tremendous gloom;
And he, the supreme Tyrant, on his throne
Of burning gold. Son, one of these shall utter
The curse which all remember. Call at will
Thine own ghost, or the ghost of Jupiter,
Hades or Typhon, or what mightier Gods
From all-prolific Evil, since thy ruin
Have sprung, and trampled on my prostrate sons.
Ask, and they must reply: so the revenge
Of the Supreme may sweep through vacant shades,
As rainy wind through the abandoned gate
Of a fallen palace.

(Act 1: Lines 191 – 218)

Here the Goddess expresses the dual nature of the divine. The dual image that Zoroaster saw symbolizes the duality of humans: body and spirit, good and evil, divine and earthly, conscious and subconscious. The two realms of existence are referenced, the state of being in which we inhabit during life, and the realm of shadows, to which we transcend after we die, a realm populated by forms and archetypes.

This passage is so rich, I feel that my commentary does not do it justice. I encourage you to just read it again, and think about the duality in the divine, in nature, and in ourselves.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book II – A Hero’s Son Awakens

Source: artic.edu

Source: artic.edu

In this book, Telemachus attends the assembly, representing his father. He entreats the suitors to abandon his family’s estate, but they mock him. Afterwards, he enlists the aid of Athena to assist him in securing a ship to sail to Pylos and Sparta. When all is prepared, he sneaks away in the night and only the old nurse Eurykleia is made aware of his departure.

There are two passages in this section that stood out for me. The first one takes place during Telemachus’ response to Antinoos during the assembly.

But if your hearts are capable of shame,
leave my great hall, and take your dinner elsewhere,
consume your own stores. Turn and turn about,
use one another’s houses. If you choose
to slaughter one man’s livestock and pay nothing,
this is rapine; and by the eternal gods
I beg Zeus you shall get what you deserve:
a slaughter here, and nothing paid for it!

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 23)

What I found interesting about this passage is that the act of being ungracious and abusing a host is seen as a horrific act worthy of death. One gets the impression that the suitors are raping the household, that there is violent violation in their actions. And I personally see an environmental message here. We as a species are but guests and visitors on this earth. As such, we should be respectful of what the earth has to offer. To use and consume all that the earth has to offer without regard is equivalent to what the suitors are doing in Odysseus’ home.

The next section I want to explore takes place when Mentor is addressing the assembly.

“Hear me, Ithakans! Hear what I have to say.
Let no man holding scepter as a king
be thoughtful, mild, kindly, or virtuous;
let him be cruel, and practice evil ways;
it is so clear that no one here remembers
how like a gentle father Odysseus ruled you.
I find it less revolting that the suitors
carry their malice into violent acts;
at least they stake their lives
when they go pillaging the house of Odysseus—
their lives upon it, he will not come again.
What sickens me is to see the whole community
sitting still, and never a voice or a hand raised
against them—a mere handful compared with you.”

(ibid: pp 25 – 26)

This may have been my favorite passage in this book. Mentor condemns, not the suitors, but those citizens who stand by in complacency and do nothing while these atrocities occur. I was reminded of the holocaust. The citizens of Ithaca who refuse to condemn the actions of the suitors are no different than the people who stood by and silently watched as millions of Jews were massacred. Who is worse—the Nazi soldier who is carrying out his orders, or the person who stands by silently and refuses to do anything? It is a challenging question and one that is worth contemplating. Would you stand by if you saw someone being abused, or would you speak out? It is something we should all ask ourselves.

If you are reading along, I would love to hear your thoughts on these or other passages in this book. Please feel free to comment below. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my thoughts. Cheers!

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“The Human Abstract” by William Blake

HumanAbstract

 Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain

This is definitely one of the more mystical poems in the Songs of Experience. In Blake’s illustration for this poem, we see Urizen, the supreme god in Blake’s mythological pantheon, struggling to free himself from the bonds that hold him to the earth. I see this as symbolic for the personal struggle that we all face, trying to free ourselves from worldly trappings so we can elevate our consciousness and actualize the divine spirit within us all.

In the first two stanzas, Blake asserts that nothing can exist without its opposite. There can be no good without evil. There must always be a balance in order for things to exist in this universe.

In the third stanza, we see Urizen shedding tears which become the seeds from which grows the Tree of Mystery. Urizen, being the creator of all existence, understands that everything must have its opposite and mourns the lot of humanity, which will eternally grapple with fear, cruelty, and hatred. From Urizen’s tears the roots of the Tree of Mystery grow. The Tree of Mystery is Blake’s equivalent to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree bears fruits which are both good and evil, and as we see in the fifth stanza, the fruits of evil are certainly the most tempting.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, Blake mentions three creatures: catterpillar, fly, and raven. These are symbols for the church and its priests, who feed on the leaves of the Tree of Mystery, who nest and hide within its branches, but have no understanding of the roots, or the hidden aspects. Blake is asserting that following church dogma will ultimately prevent you from discovering the secret to the divinity within you and the mystery of all creation.

I personally find the final stanza in the poem to be the most fascinating. Just like the biblical Tree of Knowledge, Blake’s Tree of Mystery is also hidden. “The Gods of the earth and sea” which he mentions I interpret to be humans, who have dominion over the earth. We have a tendency to seek outside ourselves for the truth, believing that the answers to the ultimate mystery must exist somewhere else. But this is not the case. The Tree of Mystery grows and is hidden within the human subconscious. It is the one place where too many of us fail to look, and hence the search for truth is often in vain.

This poem is a great introduction to Blake’s more complex metaphysical poetry. I encourage you to read it a few times and contemplate it. I’ll definitely be covering Blake’s deeper metaphysical poems once I complete all of the Songs of Experience.

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“Lady, Weeping at the Crossroads” by W. H. Auden

WHAuden

I read this poem today on a fellow blogger’s site. Rather than post the poem here, I will direct you to her site, which is fantastic.

Symbol Reader: Auden Poem

The crossroads is a very powerful symbol. In voudou, it represents the point where the worldly and the spiritual realms meet. I believe that the Christian crucifix is a visual form of the crossroads. Finally, I interpret the crossroads as the place in the psyche where the conscious and the subconscious intersect.

The woman in the poem is suffering the loss of a loved one. She is at the crossroads, hoping to encounter his spirit. The birds in the second stanza are the messengers that can move between realms. The bribe could be either to bring her lover a message or to silence them from letting Heaven know that someone has crossed the threshold between realms.

Being at the crossroads also implies that one must make a choice. The woman must make a choice: does she take the road that continues into the future of her human existence, or does she take the road that ascends to Heaven, where she will reunite with her love?

In the end, she decides to take her life and join with her love.

Put your hand behind the wainscot,
You have done your part;
Find the penknife there and plunge it
Into your false heart.

I feel that there is also another meaning to this ending. Metaphorically speaking, the woman may be symbolically opening her false heart to the divine being. If the crossroads are where Heaven and Earth intersect, then she may be opening her heart to the divine presence, allowing the divine essence to fill her. I personally like this interpretation, but as with all great poems, you can interpret them in many ways.

Thanks again to Symbol Reader for sharing this today. I hope you enjoy the poem as much as I did.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 17

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

This episode corresponds to Odysseus’ return home to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey. According to SparkNotes, it is “narrated in the third person through a set of 309 questions and their detailed and methodical answers, in the style of a catechism or Socratic dialogue.” Since I’m not a Catholic, I can’t really say that it was like a catechism, but I will say that for me, the style resembled the method of scientific inquiry, where one seeks to get to the truth or prove a theory by posing a series of questions. It is strange reading, since much of what takes place in the episode is discussion between Bloom and Stephen, and then later Bloom telling Molly about his day, yet there is noticeably no dialog whatsoever in this episode.

In Joyce’s novel, Bloom also returns home, but it is not a triumphant return such as with Odysseus. He realizes he does not have his key and is locked out. After Stephen leaves, Bloom bumps his head on furniture that has been moved, adding to the sense that although he is home, it does not feel like home. He then gets into bed with Molly who is asleep at that point and notices signs that Blazes Boylan had been there and had sex with Molly in their bed. I can’t help but feel sad for Bloom.

As with all the episodes in this book, this one is also packed with lots of symbolism, so I am just going to focus on a few passages that were key for me on this reading.

Bloom is depicted as feeling dejected. He had hopes of doing significant things with his life, but he feels as if he never did.

Why would a recurrent frustration the more depress him?

Because at the critical turningpoint of human existence he desired to amend many social conditions, the product of inequality and avarice and international animosity.

(p. 696)

As Stephen is leaving, both he and Bloom step outside and together they look up at the stars. Bloom has an epiphany as he realizes his connection to the universe. He envisions universes within himself, universes within each atom that composes everything in existence. It seems as if he grasps the connection between the scientific and the mystical, as symbolized by astrology. It is a fairly long passage, but it warrants including here.

With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?

Mediations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Major) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Acturus: of the procession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

Were there obverse meditations of involution increasingly less vast?

Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in the cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained in cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible components bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

(pp. 698 – 699)

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

Bloom’s epiphany continues as he realizes that god is ineffable. It is impossible for any human to understand and know the divine source, we can only use symbols as a way to allow us a glimpse of the true essence of the divine.

His (Bloom’s) logical conclusion, having weighed the matter and allowing for possible error?

That it was not a heaventree, not a heavengrot, not a heavenbeast, not a heavenman. That it was a Utopia, there being no known method from the known to the unknown: an infinity, renderable equally finite by the suppositious probable apposition of one or more bodies equally of the same and of different magnitudes: a mobility of illusory forms immobilised in air: a past which possibly had ceased to exist as a present before its future spectators had entered actual present existence.

(p. 701)

Bloom then gazes at the moon. As he does so, he recognizes the lunar orb as a symbol for the goddess.

What special affinities appeared to him to exist between the moon and woman?

Her antiquity in preceding and surviving successive tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising, and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.

(p. 702)

After getting into bed with Molly and noticing the signs of Boylan having been there, Bloom seems to resign himself and kisses Molly’s buttocks, which wakens her. It is revealed that they have not been intimate for 10 years, which would explain Molly’s affairs. After Bloom finishes telling her about his day, they lay in silence. Above them, the light from the lamp casts concentric circles on the ceiling, representing the eternal cycles of life-death-rebirth, and also the cycles of myths as represented in stories.

What moved visibly above the listener’s and the narrator’s invisible thoughts?

The upcast reflection of a lamp and shade, an inconstant series of concentric circles of varying gradations of light and shadow.

(p. 736)

Molly is then depicted as the Earth Goddess from which all life is born and to which all life returns. Bloom becomes the archetype of the weary traveler, at the end of his journey, returning to the womb of the divine female source from which he was created, thus ready to begin the cycle once again.

In what posture?

Listener: reclined, semilaterally, left, left hand under head, right leg extended in a straight line and resting on left leg, flexed, in the attitude of Gea-Tullus, fulfilled, recumbent, big with seed. Narrator: reclined laterally, left, with right and left legs flexed, the indexfinger and thumb of the right hand resting on the bridge of the nose, in the attitude depicted on a snapshot photograph made by Percy Apjohn, the childman weary, the manchild in the womb.

Womb? Weary?

He rests. He has travelled.

(p. 737)

The episode ends with an unanswered question.

Where?

BlackDot

(p. 737)

The question is left unanswered because the tale is eternal. Bloom has returned to his point of origin and the cycle must begin again, and the myth, like all existence, must continue in the never-ending circle.

This is, in fact, the end of the tale for Leopold Bloom. The final episode is Molly’s famous internal soliloquy, which I will cover in my next post.


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13

Episode 14

Episode 15

Episode 16

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