Compass of the notes

Last week, on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated (in the west; eastern churches keep it a little later because of the Julian Calendar, on  what is January 19 in the Gregorian Calendar, as is their time-honored custom). It was once the grandest festival in the Christian calendar, now eclipsed by Christmas and Easter, and I suspect few people know much about it. My second term at university was named Epiphany (the first term being Michaelmas and the third one Easter) and I remember fellow students wondering why this was. A remnant of its previous importance may be seen in the wide range of Epiphany traditions kept across the world, from marzipan and puff-pastried galettes des rois in France (I shared the one below last week from Stohrer in Paris, which has had almost three centuries to perfect its recipe) to music and sweets in Brazil. I think the decline of Epiphany is a very sad one since it is endowed with an extraordinarily rich symbolism, one that at once universal and personal. There is something quite strange in the story, a heady blend of the mystical and the practical.

ImageThe strangeness of the story lies in the characters associated with it: the Magi. Traditionally, these are the three wise men, though the New Testament does not specify their number, somewhat curiously in a text in which numbers play a prominent role. There are, however, three gifts which they bring leading folk to assume, not unreasonably, that there were three people involved. The passage of time has allowed an elaborate legend to be created around these men, giving them kingdoms, names, and narratives. In a real way, this detracts from a central element in the biblical passages about them. Since they are anonymous in name and number, they represent us, the reader, in a tangible manner. More of that in a little bit. What is astonishing about these individuals who make the journey to worship a baby is that they are not Jewish and they are therefore outside of the chosen race, bereft of God’s favor. They clearly belong to the Zoroastrian religion and they find out about the birth of Christ through astrology, a practice consistently condemned by both Judaism and Christianity. At the same time, they are scientists, astronomers to be precise, and it is the unusual stellar event which guides them to their destination. So, they are mixture of the certain (science) and the speculative (astrology), being exposed to the literal birth of a new religion but belonging to a pagan one already centuries old. They take a leap in the dark to reach the unexpected epiphany of witnessing the startling circumstance of a baby child being sheltered in a stable. We should remember this is not the immaculate hay and benign animals of Manger scenes but rather a dirt- and noise-filled basic and unadorned structure. You don’t have to be a believer to see the striking and devastatingly attractive symbolism of this scene. Sometimes in our lives, the most significant epiphanies are those which are the simplest and the least expected, and come to use by means of the least likely people and events. The problem is that we rather pine for fireworks and neon lights to illuminate our moments of self-realization. This is perhaps one of the core tragedies of the human condition.


The painting above is Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Adoration of the Magi (1660). The spectator is first struck by the rampant yellow hue of the royal robes of the elderly kneeling figure, a nod to the legend that the Magi were kings. However, the triumphant note of the golden, ermine-trimmed cope with its meta-joke of embroidered stars embellishing it is subverted by the back view of the king for monarchs are never portrayed from behind. They face forward and are seen their subjects but here we have the enormous clue that the order of things in the universe has been changed by this event; poverty has become the new wealthy, lowly has become lofty, royal has become submissive. The second disturbing note in the painting is the cross, hints of which are seen in the crossed spears and beams of the upper right-hand corner as well as featuring on the kneeling sovereign’s cope itself. The generous amount of ermine on the cope punctured by the copious black stoat tails also constitutes a subtle clue about a deeper, less obvious reading: the beauty and warmth of the fur has been obtained from the deaths of a myriad number of animals. The metaphor works on a double level for it both stands as a critique of the brutality of humanity and underscores the painful cost of beauty. Finally, there is a sense of urgency in the scene which is depicted in the crowding. Traditional nativity iconography has a sense of space. Here, animals and humans are squashed together, another indictment of the futility of our endeavors. While the open box at the bottom of the painting suggests that salvation is open to everyone, everywhere, irrespective of any consideration, the looming presence of crosses reminds us of the price that was to be paid. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of this scene which, at first glance, appears to be quite tranquil yet which, on closer inspection, turns out to be decidedly dark, paradoxically in the midst of the light which emanates from the child, and is also to be seen in the star seen in the sky, and, finally, implicitly and metaphorically in the quest for Truth.

I have my own particular epiphany related to Bethlehem. On my first visit to Israel in 1996, I decided to visit Bethlehem from Jerusalem, where I was staying. I had the route planned but for some reason the alarm did not sound or I did not hear it. I was woken instead by the building shaking violently and the sound of an explosion. I will never forget the very unsettling and eerie silence which followed for a short time though seemed elongated, broken by screams, shouts, and sirens. A suicide bomber was on the bus I would have taken and had exploded his bomb a few yards after the stop I would have got on. Almost everyone on board was killed. This radically, brutally, and definitively changed my perspective on a lot of things, not least my attitude the final examinations of my undergraduate degree which took place a few weeks later. All because of a bus not taken. I did get to see Bethlehem on my second visit to Israel, assisting at Christmas midnight Mass there in 1998.


Unlike the Magi, we can rely on more accurate, though less romantic, devices to guide us on our paths. The humble and iconic compass has suffered a terrible prostitution of late, along with clocks, for most people simply use their cell phones to tell the time or to chart their journeys. It is eminently practical, of course, but I wonder whether it doesn’t drain the awe-inspiring notions of time and magnetism of their mystery. A life void of mystery leads us to seek out compensation and it is then that we risk distorting our moral compass.

A collection of essays which I edited in 2010 entitled Collaboration and Interdisciplinarity in the Republic of Letters was originally intended to be called Through All the Compass of the Notes. The press didn’t like it and thought, quite reasonably, that people would imagine it to be a work of musicology. The quotation is from John Dryden’s A Song for St Cecilia’s Day (1687) and the section it’s from is as follows:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,

This universal frame began:

From harmony to harmony

Through all the compass of the notes it ran,

The diaspon closing full in Man.

The poem was set to music by Handel as the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (1729) and is one of my favorite pieces of music. An admirable though somewhat aggressive performance of the work in its entirety is available here, by Arts Florissants. The chorus quoted above is particularly pleasing as it involves all of the instruments of the orchestra with the vocalists rising up the scale at the mention of “compass of the notes” (from 08’26 onwards). The poem is really not concerned much with St Cecilia, the patroness of music, but rather muses on the Pythagorean theory of harmonia mundi which became popular once again in the seventeenth century following the publication of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices mundi (1619). In a nutshell, the theory speculated that music was central to the universe and that cosmic harmony was dependent on this. The planets, in particular, had their own distinctive harmonies, the music of the sphere. Gustav Holst would create his own version of their respective tunes in The Planets (Opus 36) in the twentieth century, a work much haunted by the devastation brought by World War I. Of course, we know that sound doesn’t travel through space but nonetheless the theory isn’t altogether dead since sonification is bring used to understand and visualize, in a sense, patterns in the cosmos using analogue techniques. There is an interesting talk, here, by Honor Harger, giving examples of sound waves of celestial objects such as stars and pulsars. We might not use the night sky much to help us in our travels these days, but the universe still remains something which inspires and fascinates us. Very few astronomers are atheists.


Today’s cufflinks are designed by the Norwegian jewellers Frank and Regine Juhls and date from the mid-1960s. I’ve already blogged about another pair I have, here, and like that pair, this one is part of their Tundra series. The pair is crafted in sterling silver and the brutalist lines suggest a compass, or perhaps a ship’s wheel. My mother believed that a better night’s sleep would be had if your body is aligned in a north-south axis and I’ve consistently found this to be the case. Choosing directions in every part of our lives, then, seems to have consequences, for better or for worse.

Gentle brutality

Tundra is a short, sharp word with the final A giving it the hint of the exotic in English (words that are generally of Latin or Italian origins such as barista or pasta). This term, however, comes to the language from the Lappish word tundar meaning elevated wasteland. The tundra areas are spread across the northern reaches of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Russia, all of Iceland, and parts of Greenland. These regions have a consistently cold climate and a short growing season, and the plants that have adapted to survive there are low-lying and not tall at all.


Tundra in Greenland

For all of the harshness, barren climes, and wilderness associated with these parts of the world, both the term itself as well as what it denotes are not without their charm. There is something admirable, something we instinctively respect about natural things that survive the extremes of cold and geographical remoteness of these places. The tundra stands as a permanent reminder that there is something rather special about this world of ours and about nature, but also serves to underscore the fact that nature can be inherently savage and that we can find ourselves pitted against it.


A menacing nature is very much the focus of Arthur Rimbaud’s three-part poem, Ophélie, which he wrote when he was aged only 15 years old. He took his inspiration from Millais’s painting of Ophelia about to drown, a copy of which was in his school library. It is interesting that, during the nineteenth century, attention began to be given to the character of Ophelia rather than the eponymous prince in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, particularly among artists. What Rimbaud does with this figure is mesmerizing. He sees her in a timeless and eternal state of death, a sort of perpetual suspended animation, and portrays her as having been lured to die by nature itself, the fifth and sixth stanzas explaining why she allowed herself to drift into drowning while gathering flowers by the river:

O pâle Ophélia ! belle comme la neige !
Oui tu mourus, enfant, par un fleuve emporté !
C’est que les vents tombant des grand monts de Norwège
T’avaient parlé tout bas de l’âpre liberté ;

C’est qu’un souffle, tordant ta grande chevelure,
À ton esprit rêveur portait d’étranges bruits,
Que ton coeur écoutait le chant de la Nature
Dans les plaintes de l’arbre et les soupirs des nuits ;

O pale Ophelia! beautiful as snow!
Yes child, you died, carried off by a river!
– It was the winds descending from the great mountains of Norway
That spoke to you in low voices of better freedom.

It was a breath of wind, that, twisting your great hair,
Brought strange rumors to your dreaming mind;
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the tree and the sighs of the nights;

[original here; adept English translation here]

Nature, then, does not protect but rather smothers Ophelia and it is a calling of nature, a sinister, siren enticement, that beckoned her to leave this world; though not to destruction but rather to peace, of sorts. What Rimbaud depicts is Mother Nature as suffering from a kind of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, and the allusion to white and snow evokes the evil stepmother of Grimm’s Snow White. The third and final part of the poem is composed of one stanza, in which Rimbaud defiantly places himself on par with Shakespeare as someone who can carve being out of nothing, in fleshing out and creating life to a non-existent character and making them deeply authentic and alive to us.


Rimbaud was a poetic genius, writing a corpus of poems between the ages of 15 and 19 years old that radically altered the course of poetry. He was also a thoroughly contemptible and despicable human being, capable of acts of great unkindness and spite. The older, more established, and heterosexual poet Paul Verlaine, fell completely under this beautiful young man’s spell when the latter sent him some of his poems, including Ophélie, when he was aged 17, falling in love with the brilliance of the teenager. Verlaine immediately summoned him to Paris, promptly abandoned his wife and children, and thereafter led a nomadic and largely unhappy existence with the younger man until one day, while drunk on absinthe, he tried to shoot Rimbaud in the head and only succeeded in injuring his wrist. He was imprisoned for this act of violence -denounced by the neighbours who had had their fill of drunken bickering-, had a profound conversion to Catholicism while incarcerated, and on leaving his cell after two years, parted ways definitively with Rimbaud when the youth tried to make Verlaine blaspheme, unsuccessfully. Verlaine ensured that Rimbaud’s works were later published and always acknowledged his artistic and personal debt to Arthur. The raw, tempestuous, and above all, savage, beauty of Rimbaud’s body and soul inspired Verlaine and led him to religious belief, paradoxically, because it taught him more than anything ever could or would have done about the fragile and deep-rooted flaw that burdens human nature: in the words of Hamlet, our “too sullied flesh”.


Today’s cufflinks are designed by the Norwegian jewellers Frank and Regine Juhls in the mid-1960s. They were a married couple who worked, harmoniously, together. They are made out of sterling silver and are part of their Tundra series of jewellery, a very organic and gently brutalist range (the brooches in particular are outrageously beautiful). It is very interesting that the couple chose to craft a range of jewellery by this name during the socially turbulent decade of the 1960s, and I think they capture perfectly the sense that, despite everything, nature has a way of winning in the end.