Thursday, 21 May 2015


... an Elgin marble from a waking dream

Would it not be a marvel
to find your calling—your niche—
to be suffering
(emptily, on empty)
draped over
a marvellous throne
where everyone feels
envy, breathlessly

Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty) by Louis Sussmann-Hellborn, 1878, via Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Diary fragments from Lady Emily’s lethargic life of yearning (i)

To live a life of truths saturated with ugliness and barren of beauty would be an unjustifiable lie.


An anonymous billet-doux arrived this morning. Were I not so intimately familiar with the author’s command of composing erotica-in-disguise, I would have assumed this Prince had fallen in lust with his object of affection after hearing my Goncourt comment. But such is not the case, given I am infinitely acquainted with his style:

Yes, the edge of that precipice offers the most pleasing panorama—a valley teeming with verdure, watered by a stream where the hart quenches his thirst with impunity, happily lapping with a tongue glistening in the warm sun of the temptress. Such places are quoted to us by voices that cry in the night, citing the authority of dreams on its riparian seat, of pillowed ivory, the cheek may rest. 
Impunity, impunity only the bank punished with the hart’s burden as it takes its fill. A stream so beneficent one may lift it towards one’s lips rather than bend towards it. A stream whose source one may also devour. A stream whose waters teach lips eloquence. A stream that engenders others by virtue of the thirst it transfigures, whose moan is answerable to the plash of its puddles plied.

As I sat with the Prince many a blue moon ago, ruminating over the ridiculousness of life, I mused upon his poetic prowess in erotica, “You, dear sir, would make a handsome living writing these words.” To which he mischievously replied with a sparkle in his eye, “My tongue is best employed, when hearts rather than coins are cloyed.”

Antoon van Welie (Dutch, 1866–1956), Douleur, pastel, 1895

Goncourt tugged on a string in the womb of my heart tonight, and I say, “I have always derived inexplicable pleasure from singing to a virtuous nobleman, leading him in my hand to the edge of sin and leaving him there to live between the temptation and the fear of that sin.”


This afternoon, as languid and as annoyed as any other, Baron Gustave spoke to me about a petty—though entertaining—spectacle amongst the court eunuchs, whose comical adventures of trivialities delighted and somewhat intrigued me. On this person’s extraordinary literary competencies, Baron Gustave concluded, “He would have been an effective priest if he knew how to read anything but music.”

John William Waterhouse

If death has a way of revealing the essence of things, as the poet Stéphane Mallarmé wrote of Edgar Allan Poe, then some of the essence that has been revealed these days is self-righteousness, bigotry, and above all, hypocrisy. The easy way out, the easy way out—always the easy way out. There is no intrinsic value to anything in this world—nor any intrinsic reality. The double-standard (of humanity) and pretentiousness are overwhelming. And then follows the avalanche of apathy.
Why are we such sheep that only blindly follow?


Have no fear of happiness—it exists as an illusion only. (This is not to say that happiness does not exist—it exists, like everything else in this apparent world, but as an illusion only.)


Thence began the odyssey of a little fool as he decided to write poems for the rest of his life in that faraway city named after a woman.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

They crave ecstasy, distilled and stilled with Orpheus’ music.

I see a lily on thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
       Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
       And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
       ‘I love thee true’.

(from “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad,” by John Keats)

❤ Workshop of Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1444/45-1510). Venus, ca. late 1480s. Tempera on canvas, 158 x 68,5cm (62 3/16 x 26 15/16 in.). Photo Credit: Staatliche Museen Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Photo © Jörg P. Anders

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

as if hope and heart could meet, as if they might dance themselves out of the dark

The paper blushes, beads of sweat from that aftermath of love.


La poésie a inventé le monde, le monde, elle l'a oublié.
(Poetry invented the world; the world it then forgot.)

leg image via Mikio Watanabe
The Meaning of Simplicity (translated by Rae Dalven), via Poetry Foundation
艾未未,白瓷花。(via @aiww Instagram)
Ai Weiwei, “Blossom” (via @for_site & @george_fikry Instagram)
image via @nicamille Instagram

Monday, 13 April 2015

Between the mirage hue of Tiepolo Pink linings hides the tempting phantom of Proust’s invisible Venice

Jean François de Troy (French 1679 – 1752), The Abduction of Europa (detail of Europa's hand and cape), 1716, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“It was the very evening on which Albertine had put on for the first time the indoor gown in gold and blue by Fortuny which, by reminding me of Venice, made me feel all the more strongly what I was sacrificing for her, who showed no corresponding gratitude towards me. If I had never seen Venice, I had dreamed of it incessantly since those Easter holidays which, when still a boy, I had been going to spend there, and earlier still, since the Titian prints and Giotto photographs which Swann had given me long ago at Combray. The Fortuny gown which Albertine was wearing that evening seemed to me the tempting phantom of that invisible Venice. It was overrun by Arab ornamentation, like Venice, like the Venetian palaces hidden like sultan’s wives behind a screen of perforated stone, like the bindings in the Ambrosian Library, like the columns from which the oriental birds that symbolised alternately life and death were repeated in the shimmering fabric, of an intense blue which, as my eyes drew nearer, turned into a malleable gold by those same mutations which, before an advancing gondola, change into gleaming metal the azure of the Grand Canal. And the sleeves were lined with a cherry pink which is so peculiarly Venetian that it is called Tiepolo pink.”

~Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu // In Search of Lost Time, Volume 5: The Captive, The Fugitive, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright, p. 531.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, 1696 – 1770), details of An Allegory with Venus and Time, about 1754-8, oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London. 

*“Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: a thematic essay”on The Metropolitan Museum of Art's website
*“Proust & Fortuny”on A Hymn to Intellectual Beauty: Creative Minds and Fashion blog

Saturday, 11 April 2015

this living hand

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm'd—see here it is—
I hold it towards you. 

~John Keats (1795-1821), This Living Hand, 1819?

Friday, 6 February 2015

The music of memento mori:薔薇,無常。

花開花落:The reverie of mono no aware...

Breathing out their swansong. “A flower is perfect, when it is almost old.” An old favourite photograph I took of a rose bouquet I brought home. After having balleted through their beautiful efflorescence, these softly rouged petals dreamed their eventual, eternal slumber scattered upon my piano.

Poetry in the melodies of Eudaimonia’s sigh of bliss.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?


My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.


O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:


Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.


Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.


I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.


Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.


Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

~John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

 紫胸佛法僧 Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus), image via.
紫胸佛法僧 Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus), via.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Saïat Nova’s Love Song

I sigh not, while thou art my soul! Fair one, thou art to me
A golden cup, with water filled of immortality.
I sit me down, that over me may fall thy shadow, sweet;
Thou art a gold-embroidered tent to shield me from the heat.
First hear my fault, and, if thou wilt, then slay this erring man;
Thou hast all power; to me thou art the Sultan and the Khan.

Thy waist is like a cypress-tree, sugar thy tongue, in sooth;
Thy lip is candy, and thy skin like Frankish satin smooth.
Thy teeth are pearls and diamonds, the gates of dulcet tones;
Thine eyes are gold-enamelled cups adorned with precious stones;
Thou art a rare and priceless gem, most wonderful to see;
A ruby rich of Mt. Bedakhsh, my love, thou art to me.

How can I bear this misery, unless my heart were stone?
My tears are blood because of thee, my reason is o’erthrown.
A young vine in the garden fresh thou art to me, my fair,
Enshrined in greenness, and set round with roses everywhere.
I, like the love-lorn nightingale, would hover over thee.
A landscape of delight and love, my queen, thou art to me!

Lo, I am drunken with thy love! I wake, but my heart sleeps.
The world is sated with the world; my heart its hunger keeps.
What shall I praise thee by, when naught is left on earth, save thee?
Thou art a deer, a Pegasus sprung from the fiery sea!

Speak but one word, to say thou art Saïat Nova’s* love,
And then what matters aught to me, in earth or heaven above?
Thy rays have filled the world; thou art a shield that fronts the sun.
Thou dost exhale the perfume sweet of clove and cinnamon,
Of violet, rose, and marjoram; to me, with love grown pale,
Thou art a red flower of the field, a lily of the vale!

*An Armenian minstrel often weaves his name into the last stanza of his song, in order that he may be known as its composer. The same peculiarity appears in the next poem.

~“Love Song” by Sayat-Nova, translated into English by Alice Stone Blackwell

Sergei Parajanov's muse, Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli, in his 1968 film The Colour of Pomegranates.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

“All I ever asked of life was that it should pass me by without my even noticing it.”

—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet 

 “Sometimes I sensed that the books I read in rapid succession had set up some sort of murmur among themselves, transforming my head into an orchestra pit where different musical instruments sounded out, and I would realize that I could endure this life because of these musicales going on in my head.”

—Orhan Pamuk, The New Life

fleuriste en Asie (via)

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

light and evanescent but 
held together 
by bolts of 

—Virginia Woolf

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Dying Swan ~序

Slowly the fruit ripens— 
baskets and baskets from a single tree 
so some rots every year 
and for a few weeks there’s too much: 
before and after, nothing.

~from “Abundance,” a poem by Louise Glück

“In the body certain poetic polarities are revealed: delicacy and inner strength, devotion and defiance, eroticism and asceticism, ecstasy and reverie. The oneiric and the objective are mutually in the mystery of the skin, as a border between intimacy and being into the open/outsideness (intemperie)—evoking in the viewer a feeling of hypnotisation and lucidity at the same time.”

Luis Eduardo Martínez

Thursday, 17 July 2014


birds fluttering feathers beasts secretly cringing
as if musk spreading in the mists astray, fading
then never a sound in Death/ nor breath/ not even heart
Death seals and stagnates the pale wax of light
in her mouth
as if a tooth-filing ceremony as if anaemia as if bleeding

Rebecca Horn, “The Feathered Prison Fan” (from Der Eintänzer), 1978

It is oblique, magical and ironic, and has none of the in-your-face tone of complaint (men are colonizing thugs, women are victims, and a display of wounds is all you need to make a piece of art) that renders the work of so many of her transatlantic sisters so monotonous.” 
— Robert Hughes, “Art: Mechanics Illustrated.” Time Magazine, 13 Sept 1993; Web. 17 Nov 2009.



Paleness, the primary colour of blood,
Aesthetics of one disobedient scale under the Dragon’s throat
The lotus on the tip of his tongue eclipses as if
the moonbeam on his right cheek.
Voices unfold in the dance between Time and the Serpent,
interweaving the movements of musical trills, winding, meandering, murmuring.
And existence, an ode to unquiet rippling, to violent waters,
perishing allures of an androgyne.
Scarlet blood, resembling the curve of an embryo and of heat
I mistake those spring flowers and autumn moon
for the decadently beautiful unison mirrored in ancient India
And angels are thus destined to decline,
falling under the water surface.

Rebecca Horn, Dreaming Stones, 2006 (via)



一如滌淨生的 死亡的確知




Rebecca Horn, Lenny Silver's Dream, 1990. Sheet music, brass, electric motor. *via Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal


Nick Knight, Roses (via)


Runaway Horses (Realistically Synaesthetic Purity)   

Dreams, a priori, then reality.
And purity
Resembles a flower, resembles blood, resembles poetry,
Resembles life, a priori, disappearing before decay.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Water Nymphs’ Preludes

You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

~from “Preludes,” by T. S. Eliot

“When she got out of the water, what a change was seen in her!”
(I am in love with this water nymph-esque beauty.)

*From Folk-Tales of Bengal, by the Rev. Lal Behari Day, with 32 illustrations in colour by Warwick Goble, Macmillan & Co., Ltd, 1912, London.

“She rushed out of the palace... and came to the upper world.”
*From Folk-Tales of Bengal, by the Rev. Lal Behari Day, with 32 illustrations in colour by Warwick Goble, Macmillan & Co., Ltd, 1912, London.

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings.
— T.S.Eliot, The Wasteland.

“Coming up to the surface they climbed into the boat.”
*From Folk-Tales of Bengal, by the Rev. Lal Behari Day, with 32 illustrations in colour by Warwick Goble, Macmillan & Co., Ltd, 1912, London.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

A Frightening Angel

I was in high school when I read Rilke for the first time, in an underground “indie” bookstore (a real treasure trove for books) near the National University of Taiwan—an area full of “book caves” and “sequestered nooks for books”—catering for university students and academics alike. It was his Duino Elegies translated into Chinese by a famous poet, and my love affair with Rilke thus began. The verses were heartrendingly powerful in such a way that I was instantly blown away.

My senior high school years were a time I do not care much to remember: the first thing I would do after school everyday, was to go straight into a bookstore—only then would I feel able to breathe. But it was also during that time when I started writing poetry intensely, and my passion for poetry bloomed like wild roses as if they knew there were no tomorrow.

English translation by Stephen Mitchell (my personal favourite translator of Rilke’s works), from the First Elegy of Duino Elegies
Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992.
ʻA Guardian of the Kingdom’ from a Persian version of Qazwini’s ʻAjāʼib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharāʼib al-mawjūdāt,’ “The marvels of creation and the oddities of existence,” commonly known as “The cosmography of Qazwini,”
circa 1500-1550 CE. (image via)

A poem is to be developed from these musings and words which arrived this early evening, and something has been on the back of my mind for quite some time—to work on “Dialogue Poetry”—quite a special genre both in a literary and visual/aesthetic sense.

So, for now, to be continued...

The fifty poems that were published by Albert Giraud (born Emile Albert Kayenbergh) as Pierrot lunaire: Rondels bergamasques in 1884 quickly attracted composers to set them to music, especially after they were translated, somewhat freely, into German (1892) by the poet and dramatist Otto Erich Hartleben. (Hartleben later went on to write his own Pierrot poems—"The Harp" and five rondels titled Pierrot, Married Man.) The best known of these settings is the atonal song-cycle derived from twenty-one of the poems (in Hartleben's translation) by Arnold Schoenberg in 1912: Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds Pierrot lunaire (Thrice-Seven Poems from Albert Giraud's Pierrot lunaire—Schoenberg was numerologically superstitious). But the poems have dense histories as songs and sets of songs both before and after Schoenberg's landmark Opus 21. The bullet-point that follows lists early twentieth-century musical settings chronologically and notes how many poems were set by each composer (all, except Prohaska's, are in the Hartleben translations) and for which instruments.

Pfohl, Ferdinand: 5 poems ("Moon-rondels, fantastic scenes from 'Pierrot Lunaire'") for voice and piano (1891); Marschalk, Max: 5 poems for voice and piano (1901); Vrieslander, Otto: 50 poems for voice and piano (46 in 1905, 4 more in 1911); Graener, Paul: 3 poems for voice and piano (c. 1908); Marx, Joseph: 4 poems for voice and piano (1909; 1 of 4, "Valse de Chopin", reset for voice, piano, and string quartet in 1917); Schoenberg, Arnold: 21 poems for speaking voice, piano, flute (also piccolo), clarinet (also bass clarinet), violin (also viola), and violoncello (1912); Kowalski, Max: 12 poems for voice and piano (1913); Prohaska, Carl: 6 poems for voice and piano (1920); Lothar, Mark: 1 poem for voice and piano (1921).

*extract of information on Pierrot Lunaire via Wikipedia

Saturday, 24 May 2014

To the Muses

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

Whether in Heavn 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
Wandring 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!

~“To the Muses,” by William Blake

Women rest at the Parthenon whose damaged structure is under repair, December 1930. Photograph by Maynard Owen Williams, National Geographic.

Friday, 23 May 2014

藍曬情人:Cyanotype of a Lover

I can’t really remember the days. The light of the sun blurred and annihilated all color. But the nights, I remember them. The blue was more distant than the sky, beyond all depths, covering the bounds of the world. The sky, for me, was the stretch of pure brilliance crossing the blue, that cold coalescence beyond all color. Sometimes, it was in Vinh Long, when my mother was sad she’d order the gig and we’d drive out into the country to see the night as it was in the dry season. I had that good fortune―those nights, that mother. The light fell from the sky in cataracts of pure transparency, in torrents of silence and immobility. The air was blue, you could hold it in your hand. Blue. The sky was the continual throbbing of the brilliance of the light. The night lit up everything, all the country on either bank of the river as far as the eye could reach. Every night was different, each one had a name as long as it lasted. Their sound was that of the dogs, the country dogs baying at mystery. They answered one another from village to village, until the time and space of the night were utterly consumed.

― Marguerite Duras, L’Amant (translated by Barbara Bray)

Les Noces de Pierrette (The Marriage of Pierrette), by Pablo Picasso, 1905.

Painted in 1905, ‘Les Noces de Pierrette’ is considered as a Blue Period masterpiece―it is by no means Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting, although it does have a notorious history. The painting depicts a group of well-to-do families socialising at a wedding, however the figures are rendered with blank, emotionless faces and hollow eye-sockets. It was created during a critical period in Picasso’s life (his friend and fellow artist Carlos Casagemas had just committed suicide, and the famous painter was facing destitution). Deeply depressed, Picasso spent several months in isolation, developing the piece from sketches―using deep hues of blue to create an oppressively gloomy mood. When he finally emerged from his study, Picasso was said to be bitter and violent―aggressively refusing to let any family or friends see his work. After some weeks, his mistress Fernande Olivier was able to sneak into his study and finally observe the painting. What she saw was so traumatic that the couple separated shortly afterwards. Reportedly, a hysterical Olivier spent the remainder of her life in the care of her mother and sister.

Picasso then spent a further six months trying to salvage his canvas―painting over certain ‘offending’ elements, and removing one figure entirely. In a 1949 interview, the artist briefly mentioned the painting, commenting that “I don’t talk about it.  It’s not mine”.

The painting currently resides in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, where historians are using technology to view Les Noces’ lower layers.

It has been my face. It’s got older still, of course, but less, comparatively, than it would otherwise have done. It’s scored with deep, dry wrinkles, the skin is cracked. But my face hasn’t collapsed, as some with fine features have done. It’s kept the same contours, but its substance has been laid waste. I have a face laid waste.

I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.

“Very early in my life it was too late.

― Marguerite Duras, The Lover (translated by Barbara Bray)

Saturday, 10 May 2014

A little piece of philosophy I wrote for my love a decade ago...

*Chiliogon in Descartes’ and Leibniz’s Theories of Knowledge: What is a Chiliogon?

In the fourth Meditation, Descartes uses the example of a chiliogon (a polygon with a thousand equal sides) as a thought-experiment to prove that we have at least two approaches to knowledge: imagination and conception. The chiliogon example illustrates this important distinction by showing that while we are able to conceive (or to think of) a chiliogon, we are not able to truly imagine (or to visualise) one. Our mental representation of a chiliogon would either be closer to a 20 to 30-sided polygon, or a circle. However this does not mean we do not possess the concept of a chiliogon.

... I remark, in the first place, the difference that subsists between imagination and pure intellection [or conception]. For example, when I imagine a triangle I not only conceive (intelligo) that it is a figure comprehended by three lines, but at the same time also I look upon (intueor) these three lines as present by the power and internal application of my mind (acie mentis), and this is what I call imagining. But if I desire to think of a chiliogon, I indeed rightly conceive that it is a figure composed of a thousand sides, as easily as I conceive that a triangle is a figure composed of only three sides; but I cannot imagine the thousand sides of a chiliogon as I do the three sides of a triangle, nor, so to speak, view them as present [with the eyes of my mind]. (Descartes: Meditation VI)

In arguing that all things which “we clearly and distinctly perceive are true” (Meditations 83), Descartes attempts to understand how one can be led to make a false assertion. According to Descartes, one does not perceive everything around him distinctly, and yet one continues to make judgements based on his perceptions, regardless of whether they are clear or not. Although any assertion based upon a clear and distinct perception must be true, falsity can occur when one makes a judgement based on confused perceptions.

And although, in accordance with the habit I have of always imagining something when I think of corporeal things, it may happen that, in conceiving a chiliogon, I confusedly represent some figure to myself, yet it is quite evident that this is not a chiliogon, since it in no way differs from that which I would represent to myself, if I were to think of a myriogon, or any other figure of many sides; nor would this representation be of any use in discovering and unfolding the properties that constitute the difference between a chiliogon and other polygons. (Ibid.)

Leibniz also uses the example of a chiliogon in his metaphysics and epistemology, to illustrate the fourth division of knowledge, which shall be discussed later on. In his 1684 essay Meditations on Knowledge, Truth and Ideas, he sets out four divisions of knowledge. The first division is that all knowledge is either obscure or clear. Knowledge is obscure if it fails to provide its holder with enough information to identify the object of that knowledge, while clear knowledge is the opposite. [Knowledge is clear, therefore, when it makes it possible for me to recognise the thing represented. (p. 449)] His second division further sets clear knowledge into confused and distinct forms. Clear and distinct knowledge is that of which one is able to detail the features sufficiently to separate it from all others. According to Leibniz, we have such knowledge for “all concepts of which we have a nominal definition [nominalism asserts that abstract concepts, general terms, or universals have no independent existence but exist only as names], which is nothing but the enumeration of sufficient marks” (ibid). These sufficient marks refer to every detailed feature required to identify the substance or concept. The third division he claims is a sub-division of clear and distinct knowledge: it can either be adequate or inadequate. Clear and distinct knowledge can only be called adequate “when every ingredient that enters into a distinct concept is itself known distinctly, or when analysis is carried through to the end” (p. 250). Here Leibniz uses the example of gold to illustrate his argument: one may know the properties of gold well enough to separate it from other bodies and therefore possesses clear and distinct knowledge of gold. However, without carrying out an analysis to such an extent that every predicate of gold is understood distinctly, that clear and distinct knowledge of gold is still inadequate.

The fourth division is another sub-division within clear and distinct knowledge (independent of whether the knowledge is adequate or inadequate), which is the distinction between intuitive and symbolic knowledge. This division is employed when it comes to a complex concept. Here Leibniz uses the Cartesian example of a chiliogon to illustrate his fourth division of knowledge. While Descartes uses a chiliogon to explain the distinction between our two approaches to knowledge – imagination and conception (i.e. what we can imagine and what we can understand/conceive), Leibniz is not concerned with the ability to actually form a mental image (visualisation as imagination). For Leibniz, knowledge is intuitive when it is possible to perceive, clearly and distinctly, all of the parts within this complex concept. While knowledge is symbolic when one possesses clear and distinct knowledge of the entire concept, but fails to hold the same for all the individual parts of the complex whole. Leibniz's chiliogon aims to show how one can have knowledge which is clear and distinct in respect to the whole; yet also have knowledge of this object (a chiliogon) which is said to be symbolic, for it is impossible to think simultaneously of all the concepts involved in this extremely complex geometrical shape (p.450).

This is where Leibniz identifies the truth of an idea with the logical possibility of its existence, and falsity with an idea that contains a contradiction (p. 452). He attacks Descartes’ Cartesian position of establishing truth or falsity of a predication upon the distinctness and clarity of a perception. Leibniz claims that his precise definition and usage of clarity and distinctness are necessary in making useful the Cartesian axiom of “whatever I perceive clearly and distinctly in some thing is true, or may be predicated of it.” Leibniz also insists that an idea is not to be confused with an item of consciousness (a concept). An idea is the foundation of a concept (or an item of consciousness); in other words, concepts are produced by or founded on ideas.

藤原行成 Fujiwara no Yukinari

Fujiwara no Yukinari (藤原 行成, 972 – January 3, 1027) was a Japanese calligrapher (shodoka) during the Heian period. He was memorialized for his prowess in his chosen art by being remembered as one of the outstanding Three Brush Traces (Sanseki 三跡), along with Ono no Michikaze and Fujiwara no Sukemasa.

Yukinari was the son of a courtier by the name of Fujiwara no Yoshitaka. After the early death of his father, he was raised by his grandfather, Prince Kanenori. Yukinari had a fairly successful career as a court official, where he served as a Major Counselor. Yukinari further improved the Japanese style calligraphy (wayoshodo 和様書道), and showed great respect to its founder, Ono no Michikaze (894-966). He even mentioned in his diary, Gonki, that he had a dream wherein he met Michikaze and learnt calligraphy from him.

Yukinari was known as the master of kana. His style was mild and easily emulated, his lines were dainty and exquisite, resulting in highly elegant characters. Fujiwara Yukinari is regarded as the founder of the Sesonji lineage of calligraphy, which later became the leading tradition of wayo (和様) calligraphy. His extant works were most written in Mana (Chinese characters used as units of meaning) in Gyosho or Sosho.

One of his most well-known works is the handscroll of 白居易 Bai Juyi's eight poems from volume 65 of his Poetic Anthology. He wrote this masterpiece in 1018 when he was forty-seven years old. The scroll was made by joining together nine pieces of specially prepared paper known as ryoshi, then dyed in light brown, claret, and other shades. This handscroll was treasured by Emperor Fushimi (reigned from 1288 to 1298), and the colophon over the seams on the back of the paper attests to this. Currently, the scroll is stored in the Tokyo National Museum.

*Text via Wikipedia entry on Fujiwara no Yukinari.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Beauty, Pleasure, and Shelley's Poetry of Mimosa (a poem I adore)

It has been nine years since I finished my graduate studies in philosophy, and yet these areas still enthrall me as much as day one: (freely beautiful) objects versus (us the) subjects, aesthetic disinterestedness and perception —or consciousness— (how it is distinct from our ordinary consciousness), the metaphysical aspects of beauty etc.... And, here, how can I not love these words? “To a poet nothing can be useless. Whatever is beautiful and whatever is dreadful must be familiar to his imagination; he must be conversant with all that is awfully vast or elegantly little.”

Indeed, all that is awfully vast and elegantly little. I think I will write a poem on that.


Now, where the question is whether something is beautiful, we do not want to know, whether we, or anyone else, are, or even could be, concerned in the real existence of the thing, but rather what estimate we form of it on mere contemplation (intuition of reflection). … All one wants to know is whether the mere representation of the object is to my liking, no matter how indifferent I may be to the real existence of the object of this representation. It is quite plain that in order to say that the object is beautiful, and to show that I have taste, everything turns on the meaning which I can give to this representation, and not on any factor which makes me dependent on the real existence of the object.

~Immanuel Kant: Critique of Judgement, Book I, §2, 42-43.

… it is Kant’s identification of pleasure in the beautiful as pleasure in free beauty that leads him to claim that pleasure in the beautiful of itself does not generate an interest. For pleasure in free beauty is pleasure that is independent of any concepts under which the object is experienced, but an interest is pleasure in the instantiation of a concept, pleasure that the concept is instantiated in the object of one’s judgement.[...]

… the vital point concerning beauty is that the possession of the capacity to make pure judgements of taste and familiarity with its exercise does not imply as a matter of necessity the existence of an interest in experiencing freely beautiful objects … the capacity to experience pleasure of a certain kind does not necessarily go hand in hand with an interest in experiencing such pleasures… and pleasure in the beautiful is no exception to this general truth, being compatible with a negative interest in its object, i.e. displeasure at its existence. … a pure judgement of taste does not, of itself, generate an interest. 

~Malcolm Budd, ‘Delight in the Natural World: Kant on the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature. Part II: Natural Beauty and Morality’ in British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 1998.


... the early writers are in possession of nature, and their followers of art; that the first excel in strength and invention, and the latter in elegance and refinement. (...) To a poet nothing can be useless. Whatever is beautiful and whatever is dreadful must be familiar to his imagination; he must be conversant with all that is awfully vast or elegantly little. (...) His character requires that he estimate the happiness and misery of every condition, observe the power of all the passions in all their combinations, and trace the changes of the human mind, (...) and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same. (...) that his style may be worthy of his thoughts, must by incessant practice familiarise to himself every delicacy of speech and grace of harmony.

~Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince Of Abyssinia, Chapter X: “A Dissertation Upon Poetry

A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream. /.../ 
I am a dreamer of words, of written words. I think I am reading; a word stops me. I leave the page. The syllables of the word begin to move around. Stressed accents begin to invert. The word abandons its meaning like an overload which is too heavy and prevents dreaming. Then words take on other meanings as if they had the right to be young. And the words wander away, looking in the nooks and crannies of vocabulary for new company, bad company.

~Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de la rêverie (The Poetics of Reverie), 1960.

A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language. /.../ Literary imagination is an aesthetic object offered by a writer to a lover of books.

~Ibid, “A Retrospective Glance at the Lifework of a Master of Books” in Fragments of a Poetics of Fire, 1988.

Shelley, fair copy of A Defence of Poetry, 1821.

The Sensitive Plant, by Percy Bysshe Shelley


A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew,
And the young winds fed it with silver dew,
And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light.
And closed them beneath the kisses of Night.

And the Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

But none ever trembled and panted with bliss
In the garden, the field, or the wilderness,
Like a doe in the noontide with love’s sweet want,
As the companionless Sensitive Plant.

The snowdrop, and then the violet,
Arose from the ground with warm rain wet,
And their breath was mixed with fresh odour, sent
From the turf, like the voice and the instrument.

Then the pied wind-flowers and the tulip tall,
And narcissi, the fairest among them all,
Who gaze on their eyes in the stream’s recess,
Till they die of their own dear loveliness;

And the Naiad-like lily of the vale,
Whom youth makes so fair and passion so pale
That the light of its tremulous bells is seen
Through their pavilions of tender green;

And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue,
Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense;

And the rose like a nymph to the bath addressed,
Which unveiled the depth of her glowing breast,
Till, fold after fold, to the fainting air
The soul of her beauty and love lay bare:

And the wand-like lily, which lifted up,
As a Maenad, its moonlight-coloured cup,
Till the fiery star, which is its eye,
Gazed through clear dew on the tender sky;

And the jessamine faint, and the sweet tuberose,
The sweetest flower for scent that blows;
And all rare blossoms from every clime
Grew in that garden in perfect prime.

And on the stream whose inconstant bosom
Was pranked, under boughs of embowering blossom,
With golden and green light, slanting through
Their heaven of many a tangled hue,

Broad water-lilies lay tremulously,
And starry river-buds glimmered by,
And around them the soft stream did glide and dance
With a motion of sweet sound and radiance.

And the sinuous paths of lawn and of moss,
Which led through the garden along and across,
Some open at once to the sun and the breeze,
Some lost among bowers of blossoming trees,

Were all paved with daisies and delicate bells
As fair as the fabulous asphodels,
And flow’rets which, drooping as day drooped too,
Fell into pavilions, white, purple, and blue,
To roof the glow-worm from the evening dew.

And from this undefiled Paradise
The flowers (as an infant’s awakening eyes
Smile on its mother, whose singing sweet
Can first lull, and at last must awaken it),

When Heaven’s blithe winds had unfolded them,
As mine-lamps enkindle a hidden gem,
Shone smiling to Heaven, and every one
Shared joy in the light of the gentle sun;

For each one was interpenetrated
With the light and the odour its neighbour shed,
Like young lovers whom youth and love make dear
Wrapped and filled by their mutual atmosphere.

But the Sensitive Plant which could give small fruit
Of the love which it felt from the leaf to the root,
Received more than all, it loved more than ever,
Where none wanted but it, could belong to the giver,—

For the Sensitive Plant has no bright flower;
Radiance and odour are not its dower;
It loves, even like Love, its deep heart is full,
It desires what it has not, the Beautiful!

The light winds which from unsustaining wings
Shed the music of many murmurings;
The beams which dart from many a star
Of the flowers whose hues they bear afar;

The plumed insects swift and free,
Like golden boats on a sunny sea,
Laden with light and odour, which pass
Over the gleam of the living grass;

The unseen clouds of the dew, which lie
Like fire in the flowers till the sun rides high,
Then wander like spirits among the spheres,
Each cloud faint with the fragrance it bears;

The quivering vapours of dim noontide,
Which like a sea o’er the warm earth glide,
In which every sound, and odour, and beam,
Move, as reeds in a single stream;

Each and all like ministering angels were
For the Sensitive Plant sweet joy to bear,
Whilst the lagging hours of the day went by
Like windless clouds o’er a tender sky.

And when evening descended from Heaven above,
And the Earth was all rest, and the air was all love,
And delight, though less bright, was far more deep,
And the day’s veil fell from the world of sleep,

And the beasts, and the birds, and the insects were drowned
In an ocean of dreams without a sound;
Whose waves never mark, though they ever impress
The light sand which paves it, consciousness;

(Only overhead the sweet nightingale
Ever sang more sweet as the day might fail,
And snatches of its Elysian chant
Were mixed with the dreams of the Sensitive Plant);--

The Sensitive Plant was the earliest
Upgathered into the bosom of rest;
A sweet child weary of its delight,
The feeblest and yet the favourite,
Cradled within the embrace of Night.


There was a Power in this sweet place,
An Eve in this Eden; a ruling Grace
Which to the flowers, did they waken or dream,
Was as God is to the starry scheme.

A Lady, the wonder of her kind,
Whose form was upborne by a lovely mind
Which, dilating, had moulded her mien and motion
Like a sea-flower unfolded beneath the ocean,

Tended the garden from morn to even:
And the meteors of that sublunar Heaven,
Like the lamps of the air when Night walks forth,
Laughed round her footsteps up from the Earth!

She had no companion of mortal race,
But her tremulous breath and her flushing face
Told, whilst the morn kissed the sleep from her eyes,
That her dreams were less slumber than Paradise:

As if some bright Spirit for her sweet sake
Had deserted Heaven while the stars were awake,
As if yet around her he lingering were,
Though the veil of daylight concealed him from her.

Her step seemed to pity the grass it pressed;
You might hear by the heaving of her breast,
That the coming and going of the wind
Brought pleasure there and left passion behind.

And wherever her aery footstep trod,
Her trailing hair from the grassy sod
Erased its light vestige, with shadowy sweep,
Like a sunny storm o’er the dark green deep.

I doubt not the flowers of that garden sweet
Rejoiced in the sound of her gentle feet;
I doubt not they felt the spirit that came
From her glowing fingers through all their frame.

She sprinkled bright water from the stream
On those that were faint with the sunny beam;
And out of the cups of the heavy flowers
She emptied the rain of the thunder-showers.

She lifted their heads with her tender hands,
And sustained them with rods and osier-bands;
If the flowers had been her own infants, she
Could never have nursed them more tenderly.

And all killing insects and gnawing worms,
And things of obscene and unlovely forms,
She bore, in a basket of Indian woof,
Into the rough woods far aloof,--

In a basket, of grasses and wild-flowers full,
The freshest her gentle hands could pull
For the poor banished insects, whose intent,
Although they did ill, was innocent.

But the bee and the beamlike ephemeris
Whose path is the lightning's, and soft moths that kiss
The sweet lips of the flowers, and harm not, did she
Make her attendant angels be.

And many an antenatal tomb,
Where butterflies dream of the life to come,
She left clinging round the smooth and dark
Edge of the odorous cedar bark.

This fairest creature from earliest Spring
Thus moved through the garden ministering
Mi the sweet season of Summertide,
And ere the first leaf looked brown—she died!


Three days the flowers of the garden fair,
Like stars when the moon is awakened, were,
Or the waves of Baiae, ere luminous
She floats up through the smoke of Vesuvius.

And on the fourth, the Sensitive Plant
Felt the sound of the funeral chant,
And the steps of the bearers, heavy and slow,
And the sobs of the mourners, deep and low;

The weary sound and the heavy breath,
And the silent motions of passing death,
And the smell, cold, oppressive, and dank,
Sent through the pores of the coffin-plank;

The dark grass, and the flowers among the grass,
Were bright with tears as the crowd did pass;
From their sighs the wind caught a mournful tone,
And sate in the pines, and gave groan for groan.

The garden, once fair, became cold and foul,
Like the corpse of her who had been its soul,
Which at first was lovely as if in sleep,
Then slowly changed, till it grew a heap
To make men tremble who never weep.

Swift Summer into the Autumn flowed,
And frost in the mist of the morning rode,
Though the noonday sun looked clear and bright,
Mocking the spoil of the secret night.

The rose-leaves, like flakes of crimson snow,
Paved the turf and the moss below.
The lilies were drooping, and white, and wan,
Like the head and the skin of a dying man.

And Indian plants, of scent and hue
The sweetest that ever were fed on dew,
Leaf by leaf, day after day,
Were massed into the common clay.

And the leaves, brown, yellow, and gray, and red,
And white with the whiteness of what is dead,
Like troops of ghosts on the dry wind passed;
Their whistling noise made the birds aghast.

And the gusty winds waked the winged seeds,
Out of their birthplace of ugly weeds,
Till they clung round many a sweet flower’s stem,
Which rotted into the earth with them.

The water-blooms under the rivulet
Fell from the stalks on which they were set;
And the eddies drove them here and there,
As the winds did those of the upper air.

Then the rain came down, and the broken stalks
Were bent and tangled across the walks;
And the leafless network of parasite bowers
Massed into ruin; and all sweet flowers.

Between the time of the wind and the snow
All loathliest weeds began to grow,
Whose coarse leaves were splashed with many a speck,
Like the water-snake’s belly and the toad’s back.

And thistles, and nettles, and darnels rank,
And the dock, and henbane, and hemlock dank,
Stretched out its long and hollow shank,
And stifled the air till the dead wind stank.

And plants, at whose names the verse feels loath,
Filled the place with a monstrous undergrowth,
Prickly, and pulpous, and blistering, and blue,
Livid, and starred with a lurid dew.

And agarics, and fungi, with mildew and mould
Started like mist from the wet ground cold;
Pale, fleshy, as if the decaying dead
With a spirit of growth had been animated!

Spawn, weeds, and filth, a leprous scum,
Made the running rivulet thick and dumb,
And at its outlet flags huge as stakes
Dammed it up with roots knotted like water-snakes.

And hour by hour, when the air was still,
The vapours arose which have strength to kill;
At morn they were seen, at noon they were felt,
At night they were darkness no star could melt.

And unctuous meteors from spray to spray
Crept and flitted in broad noonday
Unseen; every branch on which they alit
By a venomous blight was burned and bit.

The Sensitive Plant, like one forbid,
Wept, and the tears within each lid
Of its folded leaves, which together grew,
Were changed to a blight of frozen glue.

For the leaves soon fell, and the branches soon
By the heavy axe of the blast were hewn;
The sap shrank to the root through every pore
As blood to a heart that will beat no more.

For Winter came: the wind was his whip:
One choppy finger was on his lip:
He had torn the cataracts from the hills
And they clanked at his girdle like manacles;

His breath was a chain which without a sound
The earth, and the air, and the water bound;
He came, fiercely driven, in his chariot-throne
By the tenfold blasts of the Arctic zone.

Then the weeds which were forms of living death
Fled from the frost to the earth beneath.
Their decay and sudden flight from frost
Was but like the vanishing of a ghost!

And under the roots of the Sensitive Plant
The moles and the dormice died for want:
The birds dropped stiff from the frozen air
And were caught in the branches naked and bare.

First there came down a thawing rain
And its dull drops froze on the boughs again;
Then there steamed up a freezing dew
Which to the drops of the thaw-rain grew;

And a northern whirlwind, wandering about
Like a wolf that had smelt a dead child out,
Shook the boughs thus laden, and heavy, and stiff,
And snapped them off with his rigid griff.

When Winter had gone and Spring came back
The Sensitive Plant was a leafless wreck;
But the mandrakes, and toadstools, and docks, and darnels,
Rose like the dead from their ruined charnels.


Whether the Sensitive Plant, or that
Which within its boughs like a Spirit sat,
Ere its outward form had known decay,
Now felt this change, I cannot say.

Whether that Lady’s gentle mind,
No longer with the form combined
Which scattered love, as stars do light,
Found sadness, where it left delight,

I dare not guess; but in this life
Of error, ignorance, and strife,
Where nothing is, but all things seem,
And we the shadows of the dream,

It is a modest creed, and yet
Pleasant if one considers it,
To own that death itself must be,
Like all the rest, a mockery.

That garden sweet, that lady fair,
And all sweet shapes and odours there,
In truth have never passed away:
’Tis we, ’tis ours, are changed; not they.

For love, and beauty, and delight,
There is no death nor change: their might
Exceeds our organs, which endure

No light, being themselves obscure.

Mimosa acustistipula by Klei Sousa, Brazil (winner of 2012 Margaret Flockton Award for Excellence in Scientific Botanical Illustration). 
*via Margaret Flockton Award

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