Book of the World Courant CLIX





Nine Worthies,

or Valiant Ones.

Oh they loved their triads, those late medieval, dawn-of-the-renaissance minds did:

Whether as Les Neuf Preux, i Nove Prodi, Neun Gute Helden, this grouping of exemplary individuals represented the qualities of the ideal chivalric warrior, comprising the “three best pagans”: Hector, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, “three better Jews:” Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus, and “three best Christians”: King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon (crusader and first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem).

For symmetry’s sake, a grouping of nine female Preuses developed, and though its ranks varied, at various times it included the Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, Tomyris, the Scythian ruler often credited with the defeat and beheading of Cyrus the Great, and Semiramis, restorer of the walls of Babylon and purported inventor of the chastity belt, who also, according to at least one Roman source, had a penchant for eunuchifying male youths.

The penchant for coats of arms as a primary coding and signification system also furnished each of the Worthies with a distinct heraldic device, thereby retroactively ennobling them and roping them into the present in much the same way as typology made use of Old Testament figures as Christians avant la lettre. This moment was perhaps the last one in the West – until now, as our taxonomies break down, or at any rate spring leaks – that history, myth and legend formed an unbroken weave, a tapestry that integrated into the same plane of reality a diversity of forms and beings that utterly crashes the “rational,” empirically ordered mind.

In addition to conferring on late-medieval authority structures the timeless legitimacy of sword-based power, a concept like the Nine Worthies was useful in furthering the development of the absolutist order that would come to full flower with Louis XIV. It enabled, for example, contemporary associations between François I (crowned in 1515) and figures from all three categories. Praised as un glorieux et triumphant second César, and un second David, Raphael portrayed him as Charlemagne in a fresco in the Vatican.

The squeaky wheel gets replaced


For about five minutes ca. 1525, the rough geographic area of what became New York City was known as Nouvelle Angoulême. Verrazzano named it that to honor his patron, François I, the former Comte d’Angoulême.


In asserting that “the Chinese [do] not depend on representational values or geometricized composition for their [visual] unity,” Rowley invokes Tsung-ch’ien, an eighteenth century writer who described the artists’ working in harmony with the “eternal flux of nature,” as a k’ai-ho, an “open-join” or “chaos-union” process.

“From the revolution of the world to our own breathing there is nothing that is not k’ai-ho. If one can understand this, then we can discuss how to bring the painting to a conclusion. If you analyse a large k’ai-ho, within it there is more k’ai-ho. Even down to one tree and one rock, there is nothing that does not have both expanding and winding up. Where things grow and expand that is k’ai, where things are gathered up, that is ho. When you expand (k’ai) you should think of gathering up (ko) and then there will be structure; when you gather up (ho) you should think of expanding (k’ai) and then you will have inexpressible effortlessness and an air of inexhaustible spirit. In using the brush and in laying out the composition, there is not one moment when you can depart from k’ai ho.” [Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting, p. 48]

Jullien, in his strangely parallel text written sixty years later, asks: What then is the difficulty that classical painting in Europe comes up against and even where should its failure be situated? I believe it could be expressed in one word – to represent the spiritual leads nowhere. The faces and attitudes in it express most strongly the states of the soul and affective tensions – such as the faces and postures at the foot of the cross (Giovanni Bellini at the Brera) – but the spiritual itself is not represented.

How has it normally been done? By recourse to artifice. To depict that other level (of the spiritual or the Invisible) the Virgin is separated by clouds (in all those Coronations of the Virgin), haloes surround the heads of saints, or luminous rays symbolize the divinity of Christ…. What heartache and repeated vexation for painters, I imagine, to have to do it like this! Or to have to attach plumage to the so-graceful bodies of angels. [Jullien, This Strange Idea of the Beautiful, p. 213]

Rather than the brutally-described separation into planes, and consequent need to impose unity upon over-differentiated entities – through techniques such as perspective and mimesis – the Chinese artist, according to Rowley, took another approach. In the words of a Song writer, “Looking at the things made by heaven and earth, one may find that one spirit causes all the transformations, and this moving power influences in a mysterious way all objects and gives them their fitness” [i.e. lends them integrity, or constitutes them as extants]. How, Rowley asks, will the artist attempt to paint this all pervading oneness? In the face of the infinite variety of nature, he will try to select [?] mountain stratifications, branch rhythms, cloud contours, and swirling cascades which have related rhythms. This is the unity, nor of order but of consonance. [p. 53]

A few pages on he writes: The east and west have approached the arrangement of parts from opposite poles; we have aimed at tying forms together [q.v. fasces] and they have emphasized the intervals between them. Because of the more naturalistic orientation of our culture, the relationship of forms was largely controlled by the continuity of appearance. Since the world is made up of solid forms held to a ground plane by gravity and intermingled in spatial depth [except for those traces of form such as the enthroned Virgin], we have prized the thrust and counterthrust of plastic forms both laterally and in depth, and have used all the devices of overlapping, foreshortening and active poses and gestures to fuse the forms together.

How magnificently this kind of organization has been realized in Rubens and the Baroque painters! But in how few of these western figure designs are we vividly aware of the intervals between the forms? In a Chinese design we feel at first sight that the figures seem unconnected… [p. 57]




Abridged – too far!


Beware the Gumby apocalypse!


Bodhisattvas? We don’t need no stinking bodhisattvas!


The dominant talker at a table of three à Le G. is a deeply gayed-out hipster in a Pirates hat: “My aunt… she looks like Miss Piggy, gone chic, kind of…”

While from your lap, the Times informs you that: “it started with a mystifying missed opportunity on race. It ended with a piercing attack on gender.” This the opening salvo of their article on the first Clinton-Trump debatacle. On the second page, referring to a play about the Underground Railroad, the lede: “A biting lesson on race.”

All piercing, all biting, all mystifying. And a lesson, yes, but in wot?

Leaving one to wonder what attack on gender could possibly mean…


I sing of arms and The Man


It Aeneidnecessarily so…


Utterances about “body shaming,” are they not another way of dodging, by externalizing and displacing the question of the nature of one’s dialogue and relationship with one’s own body? And of sidestepping a deep, pervasive “shame” we feel for being corporeal – for the inescapable truth that earth will eventually claim and reintegrate us into an undifferentiated mass?

Does not the “beautiful” body – one which reflects some version of the culturally specific “classical” and therefore immortal (by virtue of representing the purely spiritual) body – does not this body become an alibi for our fear of death and therefore a tool for our reactive reprehension of the imperfect (because mortal) body?

Given the nature of our discourse, weighted as it is toward the zero-sum, does not “shaming” another – through calling out the imperfection of her or his, but mostly her body – temporarily relieve any incipient or actively felt “shame” attaching to our own all-too-mortal embodiment? By symbolically attacking the image of a body not our own – yet in the key respect of mortality, terrifyingly like our own – are we not circumventing, however fleetingly, any encounter with the reality of our own bodies? Are we not widening the internal disconnection from ourselves?

If so, what a shame.


If the beautiful possesses such credit, writes Jullien, it is because it serves as the ultimate stage of the happy life; it is the final messianism left to us, and the great reconciliatory urge can still be projected onto it, phantasmally but in the open, and no longer having to be rationally disguised. With it, Plotinus furnished a theoretical version (the most presentable) of paradise. In this ‘pure’ beautiful, the beautiful of the ‘World Beyond’ where everything is ‘transparent’, nothing is still shadowy or screened and ‘every being is lucid to every other, in breadth and depth’ (Enneads: V, 8, 4)…

…In the (heroic) theoretical construction of the West… the Beautiful, being substituted for God, is obviously this ‘great Object’, and this is why mystical ideas are so conveniently transferred to it.

Such effectively is one of these powerful assimilations which ‘Europe’ has created – the beauty of God, which is almost absent from the Biblical text, in any case, is never stated as such in the New Testament, became (via Platonism) a major theme of Christianity as it was being formed. What unstoppable ideological pressure was therefore secretly involved, in the convergence between Greek exigencies and the theo-kalic* tradition, to the point that Augustine called God, in Confessions (1962: III, 6, 10) the ‘beauty of all things beautiful’. [?] To convert the God of Terror or Love into the beautiful God has had at least two consequences. First, it has made God the Creator the unique source of all beauty: henceforth the beauties of the world will have their assigned origin in divine intelligence; they are the work of God Himself and are worthy of him.

Secondly, for the transcendence of beauty to be improved upon it would logically participate in the sur-eminence of the one God. Thus, instead of the transcendence of the spiritual remaining vague, evasive, emanating ‘without end’ but ‘without destination’, as in Chinese painting-thought, it is now effectively ascribed to God – via beauty – as to its only possible ‘object’. But equally, instead of it being simply an attribute of the divine, as in Plato and even in Plotinus (and, as such, subordinated to the Good) beauty, now being identified with God himself and consequently given as the absolute term of the desire of God, has already won for the beautiful its autonomy. [Jullien, pp. 121-124]

* Kalos means “beautiful,” but also encompasses meanings that include noble, good and praiseworthy.


In a Chinese design, as I have already quoted Rowley above, we feel at first sight that the figures seem unconnected. Various devices were invented to give a maximum awareness of the intervals; isolation of the figures has been a standard practice, and, when overlapping did appear, it was restricted to the minor figures so that the important figure or figures might be left alone. Isolation meant that the forms must be related mentally rather than visually. [italics mine]

Normally no ground plane established a physical connection between plastic forms held down securely by gravity, but rather incorporeal forms frequently seemed to be floating across a background of void. The implied ground plane of neutral silk or paper was so shallow that the figures in any group practically existed in a lateral plane. How definite and measurable this lateral placement made the intervals between the figures! It is easy to estimate lateral distance but difficult to judge depth distance, especially when the depth has not been established by the science of perspective.

Furthermore, lateral placement in all direction was made possible by the Chinese convention of a highly tilted background, so that the eye can move freely up and down as well as right and left among the figures of the group. We now recognize that this effect of planes and the isolation of the figures stemmed from early ideational thinking – these characteristics becoming completely transformed by the Sung thinkers so that they might become vehicles for expressing the Tao. How can the universal spirit be revealed in the arrangement of parts? [Rowley, pp. 57-58]