Monday, June 25, 2007

The Golden Orchard

Combinatorial Wheel of Ramón Llull, 13th century

Liam has an interesting post right now on Ramón Llull, the 13th-century Spanish mystic, poet and philosopher. While reading about Llull's Ars, his system of mystic contemplation, and looking at the fascinating images of his combinatorial wheels, I was instantly struck by similarities to other systems developed by Jewish and Islamic mystics on the Iberian Peninsula around the same time period. I started digging around for information and, suddenly, Liam's post had revived my own interest in the history of mysticism in medieval Spain, which I began investigating about 10 years ago while living in Madrid.

Without overstating the case, I would argue that the world has rarely seen a more spiritually charged atmosphere than the one on the Iberian Peninsula in the 13th century. The most important work in Jewish mysticism, the Sefer Ha-Zohar [Book of Splendor], also known as the Zohar, was composed by Moses de Leon in Castile around 1280. Abraham Abulafia, creator of "ecstatic kabbalah," and one of the key figures in Jewish mysticism [Gershom Scholem dedicates an entire chapter to him in his landmark study Major Trends in Jewish Msyticsm], was born in Zaragoza in 1240. Abulafia had his first visions and started studying the kabbalah around 1270 in Barcelona, which was one of the major centers of kabbalah, along with Girona, just to the north. Other important kabbalists were scattered throughout Catalunya and Castile. Meanwhile, in Al-Andalus, the Moorish kingdom in the south of the peninsula, Ibn Arabi was born (Murcia, 1165) and spent the first part of his life. Arabi is one of the principle figures in the history of Islamic mysticism, and his magnum opus Futuhat is considered by some to be the major text of Sufism. Other important Sufis also thrived in Al-Andalus during that time, as Ibn Arabi discusses in his Sufis of Andalusia. Thus, some of the most important mystics in the history of Christianity, Judaism and Islam were composing some of the most important mystical texts of all time during a one-hundred year period in an area roughly the size of California.

Title page of the Zohar, Mantua edition, 1558.

(Just for good measure, this was also the time when the Knights Templar were active in Spain, and when St. Francis was walking across the country on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. Both the Templars and Francis had their own interesting interactions with Jews and Muslims of the time.)

But how did this Golden Age of Mysticism blossom in Spain? What brought about the Golden Orchard?

Christians probably arrived in Spain not long after the time of Christ, but there doesn't seem to have developed a tradition of mystical writing until after the conquest of the Moors. Saint Isidore did write a treatise on the allegorical meaning of numbers (Allegorise scripturae sacrae et liber numerorum), but he seems to have been an exception. Perhaps the dearth of Christian mysticism before the conquest was due to what Miguel Asín Palacios, an important scholar of Moorish Spain, called the "philosophical poverty of the Visigoths in the midst of their material plenty. Their culture, basically Biblical, had as its sources the works of some of the Holy Fathers, and did not include metaphysics." [The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and His Followers. (E.J. Brill, 1978). A translation of the original Spanish work published in Madrid in 1914.] Early Moorish writers also commented on the apparent lack of science and philosophy in the peninsula before the conquest in 711. This is an interesting observation, as medieval mysticism was so interrelated with science, philosophy and poetry.

There are legends of Jews arriving in Spain during Biblical times (Tarshish is thought by some to have been in southern Spain), and some Jews probably came after Rome defeated Carthage in the Second Punic War, around 250 BC, but a large-scale immigration of the Jewish community to the peninsula didn't begin until after Titus' destruction of Judea in 135 AD, what we know as the Diaspora. Again, though, there seems to have been no real flowering of mysticism before the arrival of the Moors, probably for the same reasons that Christian mysticism didn't develop - the intellectual culture of the Visigoths. In addition, the Jews were often persecuted by the Visigoths and were probably just trying to survive. This persecution reached such a pitch that the Jews welcomed the Moors upon their arrival in 711.

The seeds of what I call the Golden Orchard, this time-space realm of tremendous mystical activity within the Iberian Peninsula, seem to have been planted in the 800s, with the arrival of Sufi mystics in Al-Andalus from the eastern parts of the Islamic empire. As the Moors consolidated their power on the peninsula and began to thrive economically, the fields of science, philosophy and especially poetry began to flourish throughout the kingdom.

The Jewish community, no longer persecuted as they were under the Visigoths, experienced an intellectual and cultural revival as well. A key factor was their learning of Arabic. The Moors placed great value on poetry and philosophy, and a great number of high-quality works were published, including most Greek classics which were translated into Arabic as part of an official program after the conquest. According to Jane Gerber in The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (Free Press 1994), "[F]or the first time, Jews were exposed fully to the conceptual world of classical antiquity. . . . In this way, Arabization introduced them to an entire philosophical literature, originally written in Greek and Syriac, and to a new theological language capable of expressing new concepts. . . . Muslims and Jews both began to contemplate religious questions in a new way, thanks to the Arabic translations of Greek thought."

In addition to this Greek influence by way of translation, the Jews were also influenced by the Arabic language itself. As they wrote more and more in Arabic, it was only natural to incorporate terminology and phrasing from the Arabic culture around them. Religious terms and concepts from Sufism began to find their way into Jewish mystical works. Diana Lobel discusses this religious cross-fertilization in A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya Ibn Paquda's Duties of the Heart (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). "Muslim Spain of the tenth through twelfth century, known as the 'Golden Age' of Hispano-Jewish poetry and letters, is a time of great convergence and cutltural creativity. Jewish courtiers such as Samuel Hanagrid are writing wine poetry; erotic Arabic poetry finds its way into the synagogue liturgy, even on the holiest days. Jewish philosophers are reading and writing philosophy in Arabic; Jews are studying with Sufi masters, integrating aesthetic practices and mystical thought into their own spiritual creativity."

Unfortunately, this "Golden Age" in Al-Andalus came to a close with the conquest of the kingdom in 1147 by the religiously intolerant Almohads, who once again began persecuting the Jews. This led to a Jewish migration to the northern Christian kingdoms. The tremendous sprouting of philosophical and mystical thought that began in the south not only survived the transition but began to blossom even more as kabbalistic centers sprang up in Barcelona, Girona and across Castile. Meanwhile, in Al-Andalus, Sufis such as Ibn Arabi continued to explore and write about their mystical paths.

Ramón Llull

These two threads, the Sufi and Kabbalistic, come together in the work of the Christian mystic Ramón Llull. Hebrew and Arabic both have numeric values for each letter of the alphabet, and Kabbalah and Sufism both have very developed mathematical-mystical systems. Gematria is the Jewish version. Abraham Abulafia, who I mentioned earlier, was the principle exponent of Gematria, and his system seems to have influenced Llull, particularly in the combinatorial wheels. Abulafia was active in the Kabbalistic circles of Gerona and Barcelona, where his system made its first appearance in 1270, not long before Llull's work. Moshe Idel, in his article "Ramon Lull and Ecstatic Kabbalah: A Preliminary Observation" (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51. (1988), pp. 170-174.), says that "Lull was in contact with important Jewish figures living in Barcelona, as the incipit of a lost work of his demonstrates." Llull scholars Pring-Mill and Hillgarth encouraged Idel to "pursue the line" on the "probability of the historical relationship between [Lull's theory of ars combinatoria] and the ecstatic Kabbalah," particularly the work of Abulafia.

Llull was also influenced by the work of Ibn Arabi. As Liam points out in his Llull post, the Ars was "a vast systemization of the world that had as an aim the demonstration of the relationship of all of reality to a certain number of God’s attributes or “dignities:” goodness, greatness, power, wisdom, etc. Llull's dignities are very similar to the Sufi concept of Hadras, or the one hundred names of Allah. I mentioned earlier Miguel Asín Palacios and his book The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and His Followers (Brill 1978). Appendix VI is entitled “The Theory of the Hadras of Ibn Arabi and of the Dignities of Raymond Lull and other Analogies of the Two Systems.” Palacios says: “The terminology of the divine Dignities (Dignitates) is one of the indisputable keys of the relationship of Lull to Sufism. . . . This became completely confirmed when later the theory of Ibn Arabi about the divine names was compared with the development by Lull in his book Els cent noms de Deus and in the rest of his works. . . . Thus a comparative study of these one hundred Hadras with the Dignities of Lull leads to the full conviction that they are intimately related. First of all, one must note that Lull in his Els cent noms de Deus confesses to have written it in imitation of those [works] of the Muslims that revolve about the identical theme. . . . And if by chance there still should be a shade of doubt, Lull himself dissipates it in his Disputatio Raymundi christiani et Hamar sarraceni by putting in the mouth of the latter an enumeration of the ‘dignitates,’ almost identical in number and names with his. . . . The evidence of this imitation of the Hadras by the Dignities of Lull is reinforced when it is considered not singly but as one more case of the many which the system of Lull offers when compared with that of Ibn Arabi.”

The principle of the universe is movement... If it stops moving, it will return to non-existence. Ibn 'Arabi.

(The calligraphy is a property of Marsam Gallery Rabat - Editions Marsam, 15 avenue des Nations Unies, Rabat, Maroc)

It's not that Llull's work was not his own. As Palacios goes on to say, "Lull did not wish to be a Muslim but a sincere and very fervent Christian. For that reason the number and designation of hadras and Dignities cannot coincide. Lull chose those that do not conflict with the Christian and Catholic concept of God." Nor did Llull want to be a Jew. He simply incorporated aspects of other systems into his work, as the Jewish mystics had done in Al-Andalus. Going back even further, one can point to the influence of Christian monasticism and Gnosticism on the Sufis before they even arrived in Spain. Abraham Abulafia incoporated breathing exercises from Yoga into his own mystical technique. So the influences come and go like pollen carried by the honeybee from one field to another.

There are different kinds of trees in the Golden Orchard. But they all sway and are moved by the same wind, all watered by the same rain, and, in the end, they all reach up their branches to the same magnificent sun.

UPDATE: Liam has pointed out that today, June 26, is the Feast Day of Ramón Llull. (Some give the date as June 30.) He has, therefore, declared this Ramón Llull Week. Glad to participate. While I appreciate this sudden Llull-mania, however, I fear what will happen when the excitement passes. We will then be faced with the dreaded Llull lull.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Recent Screenings

I've been trying to catch up on some of last year's movies that I missed. No grand reviews here - just a quick run-through. Overall, looking back at 2006, I think it was one of the better years for film that we've had in a long time.

Children of Men (2006) - Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine.

This may have been my favorite film from 2006, edging out The Illusionist. Though it was nominated for three Oscars (Editing, Cinematography and Adapted Screenplay), I'm still puzzled that Children of Men didn't receive more recognition. It's just excellent filmmaking down the line: great directing, acting, cinematography, editing, and choice of material. Alfonso Cuarón is one of the best directors around for creating "atmosphere" in a film, and, more importantly, wedding it to the story. He doesn't rely on it too much, which makes the result all the more powerful. Children of Men is a fascinating and haunting science fiction set in England a few decades from now. Women, as it turns out, are no longer able to conceive. Human beings are literally dying out. Meanwhile terrorism abounds. Illegal immigrants are herded into pens. It's an apocalyptic setting that terrifies because it doesn't seem too far removed from our present-day reality. Cuarón maintains an effective balance throughout the film, however, never overstating the connections to our own situation. In tone and feel, it reminds me of those brooding, more literary sci-fi films from the late 60s / early 70s, such as Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, and especially Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, back before George Lucas turned the genre into a multi-billion-dollar special effects industry. The ever-watchable Clive Owen does well as a cynical former political activist who winds up getting involved in trying to help a mysteriously pregnant woman reach safe haven, navigating between terrorist groups and a prying government. Michael Caine excels as a kooky, old hippie. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Babel (2006) - Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi.

This was an excruciating film to watch at times. It seems that González Iñárritu wants you to share in the emotional or physical pain his characters are going through. He also creates suspense so thick in some scenes [oh G-d, Cate, please move away from the window], that you want to flinch. By the time we finished watching Babel, I was exhausted. But it was also something of an exhilarating experience. The film felt new and powerful in ways that most Hollywood movies don't.

The next morning, however, after a good sleep, I started wondering about a number of plot holes. Why would she have done that? Why didn't they just do such and such? If you analyze the narrative very closely, it starts to unravel here and there with startling frequency. The emotional power I had felt the night before started to feel a little manipulative. If a writer and director don't care enough to catch glaring problems with the storyline, how much do they really care about the story itself? And, thus, the people in the story? But was Babel any less manipulative then Scorsese's The Departed? At least Babel felt like it was trying to do something innovative.

The narrative involves four different stories, three of which are directly connected: 1) A Moroccan man sells a rifle to a neighbor, which leads to disaster, because any fool knows that you can't introduce a gun into a film and not have it go off; 2) An American couple has recently lost a child and now their marriage is struggling, so, of course, like most Americans in the same situation, they head off into the middle of the Moroccan desert; 3) Upset over losing their child, the couple naturally decides to leave their two surviving children behind in California with a Mexican housekeeper. The housekeeper can't find anyone to take care of the kids so she can attend her son's wedding across the border, because Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, despite being such beautiful people, evidently have no friends or family anywhere in the Western United States. When the well-intentioned, but not necessarily judicious, housekeeper gets her crazy, gun-toting nephew to take her and the two blonde-headed offspring of Pitt-Blanchett into Mexico, trouble ensues (Imagine that!); 4) A young, deaf Japanese girl really, really wants to get laid. This is, evidently, emotionally powerful. And, believe it or not, connected to the other parts of the story. Really.

González Iñárritu may turn out to be one of this generation's great directors. Whatever the problems of Babel, it was a powerful film at times, and it felt like he was stretching what cinema can do, exploring more than most current Hollywood filmmakers. But, hey, Alejandro, pay more attention to your script next time, eh? RECOMMENDED.

The Departed
(2006) - Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin.

Out of the five nominees for Best Picture last year, The Departed seemed to generate the least exciting word-of-mouth, so I was a bit surprised when it won the Oscar. (Though still being surprised by the Academy at this point in my life only shows my lack of intelligence.) I don't care for Scorsese much to begin with, so I never rushed out to see this, and I wasn't expecting much when I finally did. Lo and behold, I found it quite entertaining. At least until the last section, which goes on too long and seems to lose focus, the film sputtering to an odd close.

Jack Nicholson, who portrays a Boston mob boss named Costello, actually "acts" again rather than just hamming his way through a role, and he delivers one of his best performances in years. Matt Damon (yawn) plays Colin, who as a boy was taken under Costello's wing and now, as a grown man, has joined the police force and uses his position to tip off his boss/father figure at important moments. Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor I've never really clicked with, does an excellent job as Billy, who grew up in the same tough environment as Colin and has also wound up as a cop. Only he takes his lower-class angst and uses it to infiltrate Costello's mob. It's an elegant construction for a film, as Colin tries to figure out who the mole is in Costello's gang, while Billy tries to discover who the mole is within the police force. The tension builds up accordingly, helped along the way by a solid script that explores father-son relationships, internal boundaries of good and evil, and class differences, while serving up a good dose of action and suspense. Mark Wahlberg, who can go from dead-on delightful (I Heart Huckabees) to stiff and awkward (Planet of the Apes), offers one his better efforts and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin (my, hasn't he been busy lately) round out an excellent cast.

Scorsese can't seem to help himself with the overblown violence. Plot keywords on IMDB include: Bleeding To Death, Gash In The Face, Severed Hand, Shot In The Chest, Shot In The Head, Shot In The Face, Shot In The Forehead, Shot In The Knee, Shot To Death . . . and, well, you get the picture.

And though I enjoyed the film, I don't think The Departed deserved an Oscar for Best Picture. (But how few of them do.) It doesn't feel particularly important or new in any way, and, in fact, was a remake of a Hong Kong trilogy known in the U.S. as Internal Affairs. Babel and Children of Men were much more innovative films, and The Queen was better made. RECOMMENDED, unless you're un-American and don't like seeing people get SHOT IN THE FACE.

The Queen (2006) - Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen and James Cromwell.

This may have been the most finely executed film of 2006. Well-written, well-directed, and wonderfully acted, not just by Helen Mirren but also by Michael Sheen, who does a better job as Tony Blair than Tony Blair. Despite all the accolades and great word-of-mouth, I initially ignored The Queen, because I just didn’t think I’d be interested in a film about . . . well . . . the Queen. The lives of modern-day monarchs usually lead me to either yawn or say something nasty. But I was wrong. The film has a great pace, a good sense of humor, and well-timed suspense that makes it feel almost like a political thriller. The action centers around Diana’s fatal car accident in 1997, and how the Royals deal, or don’t deal, with what happened. Meanwhile, Labour’s new Boy Wonder, only a few months after becoming Prime Minister, tries to navigate between seeming indifference on the part of the monarchy and tremendous mourning on the part of the British people. Blair senses a real crisis as public anger at the Royal Family mounts to the point where some begin to question their very reason for being. What’s the role of a monarchy in a supposedly democratic society in the 21st century? It’s an excellent question, and Frears explores it to a degree, though not as much as he could have. I thought he chickened out in the end. We’re left feeling like Her Majesty’s a pretty nice gal, though she doesn’t have a lot to say. To quote the Beatles on the same topic, circa 40 years ago. Ah, the Brits and their Queen It’s a relationship I don’t understand. Luckily, one doesn’t have to. It’s just a very good film.RECOMMENDED.

The Good Shepherd (2006) - Directed by Robert De Niro. Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin (again!), Michael Gambon, Robert De Niro, Timothy Hutton, etc.

I like a good spy story, and this tale of the origins of the CIA and what a life of espionage can do to a person was pretty good. Some people may find the movie slow, but I really appreciated De Niro taking the time to develop his characters and the plot. It's a stellar cast, though the two main leads, Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, were probably the least interesting of the whole bunch, particularly Jolie, who seems miscast or uninterested. Eric Roth, who wrote the screenplay, seems to have done his homework on the CIA, as I recognized from my own reading several actual episodes from the history of the agency, and the overall atmosphere seems close to reality. The ending's a little disappointing, but I enjoyed the well-executed and thoughtful ride to get there. RECOMMENDED.

The Good German (2006) - Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire.

This is what you call a "Failed Experiment." It has so much going for it: a star cast, good acting, tremendous cinematography, an interesting story, moody atmosphere, intelligence, humor, etc. But it's just not a very good film. Everything feels stiff and out of rhythm. It's hard to connect with the characters. We always seem to be on the outside, looking in. Basically, Soderbergh couldn't convert his IDEAS into an actual MOVIE.

But they were good ideas. Unlike the 95% of critics who savaged The Good German (and some of them really, really hated it), I think the film has a lot to offer. I've found myself talking and thinking about it much more than other more successful films. First of all, nobody's ever come closer to capturing 1940s cinema - except, of course, 1940s directors. Soderbergh pays homage to noirish classics such as Casablanca, The Third Man, and A Foreign Affair, combining amazingly accurate 40's style black and white photography (actually color film with the color drained out) with real footage of post-war Berlin. But he's not just content with homage; he also subverts various myths about World War II and turns filmmaking conventions of the time on their head. (A couple of ignorant critics assumed he was making fun of 40s films, but this is so obviously a work of love by someone incredibly knowledgeable about cinema of that era.) Clooney, for example, is no tough Humphrey Bogart, but is always getting his ass kicked by the bad guys. At any given moment, everything can look and feel like we're deep in an old black and white movie, then, suddenly, there's a brutal sex scene or language that would never have come out of the mouth of Bogart or Bacall. He uses our nostalgia for and expectations of old movies to slap us across the face with a sandal. We're jolted, at times, into thinking in new ways about history and cultural memory.

Tobey Maguire delivers a particularly inspired turn as your All-American GI who loves Mom's homemade pies but who turns out to be, uh, not quite what he seems. Another interesting and daring aspect of The Good German, and one that wasn't mentioned in any of the many reviews I read, is its take on the Holocaust narrative. What would a Jew do in order to survive in Nazi Germany? What would a Nazi-hunting Jewish D.A. from New York do to track down some of the bad guys in post-war Berlin? What would the U.S. Government do to acquire Nazi technology and expertise? These kinds of questions, and others like them, are at the heart of the film. The Good German may be shot in black and white, but it's moral universe is as far from black and white as possible.

In the end, as I said, the film just doesn't work. Or, it works in the mind, but not necessarily on the screen. But, hey, it's got secret Nazi rocket bases built into mountains, espionage, murder, blackmail, and the exotic and bizarre milieu of Berlin in 1945. And I give Soderbergh kudos for experimenting. NOT REALLY RECOMMENDED, per se, but film buffs might want to take a look.

Casino Royale (2006) - Directed by Martin Campbell. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench.

I'm a Sean Connery Bond man. But I'd join others in saying that this is probably one of the best Bond efforts since those glory days of the series. Didn't like the overblown opening chase sequence, but I know others loved it. Daniel Craig makes a good Bond - tougher, definitely, than the last few playboys, and yet also more human. What may have surprised me most was that the writing - for a Bond film - was much better than it has been in a long time. It allowed Craig to really do some acting. I look forward to the next installment - which hasn't been the case for a long, long time. RECOMMENDED.

Inside Man (2006) - Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe.
A solid bank-heist thriller with enough Spike Lee touches here and there to remind you that he’s at the helm of this otherwise typical Hollywood affair. It’s a good cast, though Clive Owen seems a bit of a throwaway. Foster has some pretty delicious lines as a fixer for the elites of New York City. If you’re in the mood for a fairly intelligent heist film, this is pretty good stuff. RECOMMENDED.

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) -
Directed by Chuck E. Cheese. Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Bill Nighy.

A veritable roller-coaster ride. But who in the hell wants to be stuck on a damn roller-coaster for two and half hours!?!? The kids are upchucking chili dogs and cotton candy; grown men are in hysterics; teenage girls are fainting or going into epileptic fits; you’re dizzy, hot, and nauseated; your head hurts and your arms are bruised from being slammed around endlessly; and the damn noise and excessive motion JUST WON’T STOP!!! For the life of me, I can’t figure out the appeal of this series. It’s brutally violent, not just in the action on screen but even down to its baseball-bat-to-the-side-of-the-head editing. But its Disney and it’s all in good fun and parents let their children watch this crap and buy all the tie-ins at McDonalds and then wonder why kids are stupid, fat and gunning each other down at school. By G-d, it’s the bloody

But very, very profitable, so expect it to NEVER END.