Friday, November 02, 2007

I Am As You Will Be: The Skeleton in Art

From the Press Release:

Cheim & Read is pleased to announce I Am As You Will Be, a group exhibition of more than thirty works which incorporate the skeleton as subject.

The works in this exhibition are inherently connected to a long history of the skeleton’s artistic representation, and are emblematic of human nature’s ongoing and understandably invested interest in mortality. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Tricot summarizes the history of this representation, as well as the skeleton’s appearance in science, literature and philosophy. Hidden but intrinsic to all living beings, the revealed skeleton has long been a harbinger of imminent death, directing the destinies of souls. It has appeared in its iconic, nightmarish uniform of black cape and scythe, has danced naked in a medieval jumble of bones (the “danse macabre”), and has waited patiently, skull-only, on the side table of a vanitas painting, with a vase of wilting flowers and a half-empty hour glass. Repeated, abstracted, and stylized through out history, the skeleton indicates the inevitable passing of time and ultimately mocks the fruitless hope for immortality.

Via the always enlightening gmtPlus 9 (-15)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mr H. Closes the Covers of Giornale Nuovo

Brought to my attention by the always alert and stimulating Jahsonic, Giornale Nuovo, one of the best things on the net, has come to an end.

I began this Giornale five years ago today, and feel like today is as good a day as any to end it. This last year my enthusiasm for weblogging has subsided, and I prefer to make a clean end to it now, rather than allow it to suffer a slower demise by neglect. Comments will be disabled at the end of the month, but I intend to keep everything on-line for at least a couple more years.

There is a stunning wealth of erudition and imagery on the site. If you have yet to experience the Giornale Nuovo, I urge to to set aside a few hours for amazement.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Thirsty dogs lapping at a water bowl: Antarctica vs. Iraq: Interview with a Contractor

[ source ]

[ source ]

An absolutely beautiful interview with a contractor in Antarctica and Iraq. One of the best things I've read in a while:

From Antarctica vs. Iraq: Interview with a Contractor:

Strange events blossomed without scripts in a landscape of decay, dirty machines, and whiskey-soaked mustaches. Men were piled into old military tents on the side of the mountains far from the heart of the town. It was the only place I had been where at night you lulled yourself to sleep pretending that the noise of a half dozen men whacking off was actually a group of thirsty dogs lapping at a water bowl. As cum-soaked socks hit the floor with gentle thuds, the heavy breathing was followed by the click of zippos and I would grab my blanket for comfort in the darkness. We had stepped back in time to a place that you would never bring your mom or your sister—a primate working class culture in the harshest of environments. Like a small town out of the Twilight Zone, or one of those old "Weird Tales" comic books, anything seemed possible.

[...] All the little things that originally made McMurdo strange and matchless were either eliminated, copied, collected, or reprinted over and over. Abnormal became normal and everyone thought they were so crazy. And it is those practiced "I’m so crazy" looks that still haunt me when I think about MacTown.

Second reason: Raytheon. Raytheon came in and started a slow evolutionary process that took the town and put it in a Petri dish as an experiment. With microscopes, management was forced to sit around in white coats looking for the viruses and discolorations. These coats would have collars with chains that extend to the mother ship where reports were expected at least five times a day. Someone in Denver who drove home in a Lexus with an "I Brake for Penguins" bumper sticker would control the puppetshow on the ice. This Someone in Denver would stop at BlockBuster Video on the way home and rent the latest Robin Williams movie. This Someone in Denver liked Home Depot and decided that McMurdo too could be run like a corporate giant. A new level of idiocy had reached the ice and it became not unusual to find yourself watching a video on "How to Walk Correctly", or being forced to sign a contract disallowing the use of the word "vagina".

[...] I began to hold semi-decent conversations with the several mannequin heads in my room. I had shaved my eyebrows off. I was drinking liquid morphine with someone named Big Hand George. A pair of panties belonging to my friend’s girlfriend lay under my bed as a reminder to my rusted morals.

[...] I have swam in Saddam’s swimming pools and hung out in his palaces, I have shook hands with Bush, lifted body-filled caskets onto trucks with a forklift, built boxes for the KIA (killed in action), have been in over 80 rocket and mortars attacks, have lived in a tent with over thirty insane truck drivers, watched helicopters blow up insurgents. I have shot big guns, have rode in big tanks, have flown in a big chopper as it attacked ground forces, have been rocked by car bombs, have been involved in underground booze operations, have mingled with the Iraqi and Afghan People, have been to cat houses and bars in the red zones, have sang "Blue Suede Shoes" in the middle of Kabul in front of a bunch of locals, have said goodbye to somebody and ten minutes later they were dead, have worked with soldiers from all over the world, have lived with a porn-crazed Iraqi who is part of the new forming government, have seen Saddam go in and out of court, have watched bullets pound the wall directly above my head as I smoked a cigarette, have watched them pull bloated bodies from the Tigris, have ran from camel spiders and snakes, have done road trips across Afghanistan in a pickup drinking Heinekens purchased from Afghan soldiers, and have been introduced to local warlords.
Thanks, Seth

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Death is the Future: Quae caret ora cruore nostro?

War porn. Footage of training exercises with the paradoxically named Minigun. The predictable Carmina Burana [ thanks elberry ] and heavy metal. And similar to porn, the repeated loops of the "money shots". Extensions of time, slow motion ecstasy, the desire to approach zero, the still point. And the fury of axiomatic intangibility that lurks in the heart of all calculus. What cannot be possessed must be destroyed. With rage. With vengeance. One imagines Achilles in his helicopter, in his Wrath, in his Rage.

Then Hector said, as the life ebbed out of him, "I pray you by your life and knees, and by your parents, let not dogs devour me at the ships of the Achaeans, but accept the rich treasure of gold and bronze which my father and mother will offer you, and send my body home, that the Trojans and their wives may give me my dues of fire when I am dead."

Achilles glared at him and answered, "Dog, talk not to me neither of knees nor parents; would that I could be as sure of being able to cut your flesh into pieces and eat it raw, for the ill have done me, as I am that nothing shall save you from the dogs- it shall not be, though they bring ten or twenty-fold ransom and weigh it out for me on the spot, with promise of yet more hereafter. Though Priam son of Dardanus should bid them offer me your weight in gold, even so your mother shall never lay you out and make lament over the son she bore, but dogs and vultures shall eat you utterly up."

Hector with his dying breath then said, "I know you what you are, and was sure that I should not move you, for your heart is hard as iron; look to it that I bring not heaven's anger upon you on the day when Paris and Phoebus Apollo, valiant though you be, shall slay you at the Scaean gates."

When he had thus said the shrouds of death enfolded him, whereon his soul went out of him and flew down to the house of Hades, lamenting its sad fate that it should en' youth and strength no longer. But Achilles said, speaking to the dead body, "Die; for my part I will accept my fate whensoever Jove and the other gods see fit to send it."

- Iliad, Book XXII, Butler trans.

‘Anger’ is the first word of Western literature. ‘Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles’ is the opening prayer of Homer’s Iliad, but in the original Greek, the word mhˆnin, ‘wrath’ or ‘anger’, comes first, in the place of emphasis. The anger of Achilles is the central theme of our civilisation’s first and most powerful epic.

- Excuses for Madness, M.F. Burnyeat

War is conducted by the blind justice of necessity - nemesis. Master becomes slave and slave becomes master; it is only a question of time, a time deprived of the future. "For those whose spirits have bent under the yoke of war, the relation between death and future is different than for other men. For other men death appears as a limit set to the future; for them, however, death is the future (...) Regularly, every morning, the soul castrates itself of aspiration, for thought cannot journey through time without meeting death on the way." (A...) Thus, thought is immobilized in the present. War turns people into living corpses (still living, living in the "still"). The unbearable, never-ending, and always-beginning pain presents them with the only possible vision of deliverance. It appears: an extreme and tragic aspect, the aspect of destruction. Any other solution, more moderate, more reasonable in character, would expose the mind to suffering so naked, so violent that it could not be borne, even as memory. Terror, grief, exhaustion, slaughter, annihilation of comrades - is it credible that these things should not continually tear at the soul, if the intoxication of the force had not intervened to drown them? The idea that an unlimited effort should bring it only a limited profit or no profit at all is terribly painful (...) If the existence of the enemy has made a soul destroy in itself the nature put there, then the only remedy the soul can imagine is the destruction of the enemy. At the same time the death of dearly loved comrades arouses a spirit of somber emulation, a rivalry in death. (A...)

The passion of injured time is the desire for extermination and suicide. Here, moderation is foolishness. A realm beyond force does not exist.
- Simone Weil – Love and Language by Piotr Graczyk [ pdf ]

Roof of the Rex, ground zero, men who looked like they'd been suckled by wolves, they could die right there and their jaws would work for another half-hour. This is where they asked you, 'Are you a Dove or a Hawk?' and 'Would you rather fight them here or in Pasadena?' Maybe we could beat them in Pasadena, I'd think, but I wouldn't say it, especially not here where they knew that I knew that they really weren't fighting anybody anywhere anyway, it made them pretty touchy. That night I listened while a colonel explained the war in terms of protein. We were a nation of high-protein, meat-eating hunters, while the other guy just ate rice and a few grungy fish heads. We were going to club him to death with our meat; what could you say except, 'Colonel, you're insane'? It was like turning up in the middle of some black looneytune where the Duck had all the lines. I only jumped in once, spontaneous as shock, during Tet when I heard a doctor bragging that he'd refused to allow wounded Vietnamese into his ward. 'But Jesus Christ,' I said, 'didn't you take the Hippocratic Oath?' but he was ready for me. 'Yeah,' he said, 'I took it in America.' Doomsday celebs, technomaniac projectionists; chemicals, gases, lasers, sonic-electric ballbreakers that were still on the boards; and for back-up, deep in all their hearts, there were always the Nukes, they loved to remind you that we had some, 'right here in-country.' Once I met a colonel who had a plan to shorten the war by dropping piranha into the paddies of the North. He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death.

Michael Herr, Dispatches [ via ]

It is well that war is so terrible;
else we would grow too fond of it.

--Robert E. Lee, U.S. general.
Said to another general during the battle of Fredericksburg (1862).

I've seen horrors... horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that... but you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God... the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us.

- Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, Apocalypse Now

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Thinking the Unthinkable - Heidegger BBC Documentary

Excellent documentary on Heidegger. Biographical examination that skirts over The Work and focuses on the conundrum of his Nazi political affiliations. Sublime Zapruder-esque footage of Heidegger at the Acropolis in 1962. Heidegger's nephew watering his grave. Discussion of his suicide attempt after the war. Relations with Hannah Arendt. Commentary by George Steiner, Richard Rorty, Gadamer, et. al..

Via Best Free Documentaries

Previously mentioned here in the entry Being and Time: Heidegger and Todnauberg

Buddhabrot: Do Not Filter Out the Non-Escaping Trajectories

From Wikipedia: Buddhabrot:

The Buddhabrot is a special rendering of the Mandelbrot set which, when traditionally oriented, resembles to some extent certain depictions of the Buddha.

The Buddhabrot rendering technique was discovered and later described in a 1993 Usenet post to sci.fractals by Melinda Green.

Previous researchers had come very close to finding the precise Buddhabrot technique. In 1988 Linas Vepstas relayed images of the Buddhabrot to Cliff Pickover for inclusion in Pickover's forthcoming book Computers, Pattern, Chaos, and Beauty. This led directly to the discovery of Pickover stalks. These researchers did not filter out non-escaping trajectories required to produce the ghostly forms typically reminiscent of Hindu art. Green first named it Ganesh, since an Indian co-worker "instantly recognized it as the god 'Ganesha' which is the one with the head of an elephant." The name Buddhabrot was coined later by Lori Gardi.

Animated 4D rotation and zooming on the Buddhabrot

See also:
The Buddhabrot Technique - Melinda Green
Fractal Buddha - Lori Gardi

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Skull on Mars: Incredibly Very Much Like

From Mars Humanoid Skull?:

The above 4-way split screen image says a lot about this evidence. Of what portion we can see of it, this object looks incredibly very much like an anatomically correct humanoid skull or perhaps a humanoid statue head sticking out of the ground staring sightlessly upward from its dark empty eye sockets and its general position suggests an unseen body laying on its back under the ground. Note the anatomically general size and shape, the forehead, the empty socket dark eye holes, the bone bridge between the eye holes, the nose projection, and the beginnings of one side of the mouth. Information just not to be ignored.

The only gloss I have is to drag out the ironical Nietzsche quote:

I'm afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.

cf. UBUWEB: Francis E. Dec

Worldwide, as a Frankenstein slave, usually at night, you go to nearby hospital or camouflaged miniature hospital van trucks, you strip naked, lay on the operating table, which slides into the sealed Computer God robot operating cabinet. Intravenous tubes are connected. The slimy vicious Jew doctor simply pushes the starting button, based upon your Computer God brain on the moon which records progress of your systematic butchery. Your butchery is continued exactly, systematically. The Computer God operating cabinet has many robot arms with electrical and laser beam knife robot arms with fly eye TV cameras watching your whole body. Every part of you is monitored, even from your Frankenstein controls. Synthetic blood, synthetic instant-sealing flesh and skin, even synthetic electrical heartbeat to keep you alive are some of the unbelievable Computer God instant plastic surgery secrets. You are the highest, most intelligent electrical machine in the Universe.

Thanks to J. Gorvetzian, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

Friday, October 05, 2007

FringeWare Redux: From a Fringe Into the Lion's Den

There is no reason to fear them;
it is what lurks there that you need to fear.

I once worked at a place called FringeWare in Austin, Texas. What I said then in an article by Brad King:

FringeWare has created a place where anything goes, where they, as the weirdest freaks of all, make it safe for alternative ideas to come together; a place to get information from the closest source possible. "[FringeWare provides] the notion of the temporary autonomous zone (TAZ) -- an arena that tries not to put too much of a spin on information," says Deese's assistant Scot Casey, who has been involved with FringeWare since back in the Europa days. "This is what [author and philosopher] Hakim Bey talks about. Immediacy. Get right up there close to it and check it out. Don't just trust what you hear about something."

The following was sent to me via a neighborhood list in response to several muggings. Of course, I immediately noted - and was amused by - the use of the word "fringe." Out of context, and reapplied to what FringeWare was once working towards, it fits all too well. [ Read attacked, mugged or raped in intellectual terms - for the most part. ] It's kind of funny how beautifully Hakim Bey it comes off as in re-context.

Fringe Areas: Where it's most likely to happen

Fringe areas are places "in between." And it is here that criminals usually operate. This is where you are most likely to be attacked, mugged or raped.

It isn't until you begin to consciously look for them that you begin to see how many you pass through each day. A fringe area is not inherently dangerous, which is why we don't normally notice them. There is no reason to fear them; it is what lurks there that you need to fear.

Fringe areas are usually places that you pass through on you way to and from the crowd. In the middle of the crowd, there are too many people for the criminal to operate safely. Too far from it, there is nobody for him to attack. At the fringes, there are enough people going through that the criminal can find victims, but not enough to effectively hinder him.

The main thing to remember is any fringe area is transitional. It is a place that we pass through on our way to something else from something (e.g. from a crowd to your car). This is a large part of why we don't notice them; We are focused on getting somewhere else or on something other than what we are doing. It is that focus on "elsewhere" that the criminal exploits to successfully develop what he needs to attack you.

The best example of a fringe area is a mall parking lot. There are too many people in the middle of the mall for the criminal to be successful. And by the time you are in your car and driving away, you are beyond his reach. A parking lot, however, meets the criteria he needs. There are enough people to find a victim, you are out of reach of immediate help, he can still get to you *and* he can easily escape after he has mugged you.

You don't need to be paranoid about entering a fringe area, but you have to look around when entering one. Things that are "out of place" in fringe areas carry far greater weight than they would in other circumstances. Developing the habit of scanning a fringe area is a critical component of creating your Pyramid of Personal Safety.

As we often say, "You don't want to walk into the lion's den, so the trick is to recognize when an area has turned from a fringe into the lion's den"

Monday, October 01, 2007

I drink honey from my skull.

From Sadhus: The Great Renouncers:

Shaivite sadhu drinks from his human skull bowl. A picture of Shiva can be seen behind him. Although the practice of taking all of one's food and drink from a human skull is rare nowadays, certain sadhus, particularly the Aghori sub-sect, still hold to it as a daily reminder of human mortality and as a challenge to transcend the duality of life and death. The Aghori subsect was founded by Brahma Giri, a disciple of Gorakhnath and are strict followers of Shiva. These ascetics remain naked and often wear a rosary made of bones around their neck and carry a human skull in the left hand and a bell in the right hand. Their sectarian tilaka, forehead mark denotes unity of the Hindu triad. Generally, they are recruited from the lower castes.

Rajasthani Baba by Eli Shams.

In Aghori philosophy the cremation ghat is very important. Many Aghoris come to the place and pray to God. So they come here, do their own rituals, and I do my duty of making fires. There's no difference, no dispute. Aghoris never take the meat off bodies in front of people. They steal the flesh when the family of the deceased is distracted, sitting on the steps, taking tea. The whole body doesn't always burn and turn to ash, some flesh remains and it floats in the river, so they take this and eat it. Some Aghoris want to take the skull to use for different kinds of rituals and to drink out of. There's never a dispute. I don't give them the skull, but I don't try to stop them taking it because they are doing prayers and having magical powers, I cannot oppose them.

Sometimes I've seen them taking the body parts in the nighttime, but the families don't see. Taking the flesh is part of getting magical powers. So people seeing them taking flesh don't oppose them because they know they're doing their practice, and for fear of being cursed. The Aghori is Hindu and the family is Hindu, so morally, the family supports the practice.

Lesley Branagan: Are the Aghoris ever drunk or crazy when they do come and try and take the flesh?

Jagdish Chowdury (translated): Yes, it's true; they eat flesh and drink pee also, like they are crazy. They do many activities. We watch them and think they are dirty, but they don't think they are.

[...] Lesley Branagan: Tell me about these skulls, Because you're sitting on the bench with skulls mounted on a stick on either side of you. Where did the skulls come from?


Lalli Baba (translated): This skull is from a lady, this one is a man. Somebody collected them from corpses in the river, and brought them to me, and I paid money for them. The skull has power. When people come and disturb me, I throw the skull at them. I don't want to be disturbed, but if people have problems, I want to fix them and do good things.

Lesley Branagan: Are some people scared of you, because yesterday I saw many people down the bottom staring at you, while you sit up here with your skulls on either side. Are they scared of you?

Lalli Baba (translated): When I put the dust on people's foreheads, their mind is becoming shanti, shanti, peaceful.

Lesley Branagan: So do you see yourself as an Aghori? Are you an Aghori?

Lalli Baba (translated): I don't want to be defined as an Aghori or not. I don't eat human flesh, I don't drink alcohol because it affects the mind. I take tea, nothing more. I drink honey from my skull. I am vegetarian. My way of living out the Aghori philosophy is different from other Aghoris.

Lalli Baba: I am also a little bit kapalik. You have fever, I take mantra, and your fever is coming in my body...

[ source ]

"Ghora is darkness, the darkness of ignorance. Aghora means light, the absence of darkness. Under the Tree of Knowledge is an Aghori, a follower of the path of Aghora. He has gone beyond ignorance thanks to the Flame of Knowledge which billows from the funeral pyre. The funeral pyre is the ultimate reality, a continual reminder that everyone has to die. Knowledge of the ultimate reality of Death has taken the Aghori beyond the Eight Snares of Existence: lust, anger, greed, delusion, envy, shame, disgust and fear which bind all beings. The Aghori plays with a human skull, astonished by the uselessness of limited existence, knowing the whole world to be within him though he is not in the world. His spiritual practices have awakened within him the power of Kundalini, which takes the form of the goddess dancing on the funeral pyre: Smashan Tara. He is bewildered to think that all is within him, not external to him; that he sees it not with the physical eyes but with the sense of perception. The Flame of Knowledge is that which preserves life, the Eternal Flame, the Supreme Ego, the Motherhood of God which creates the whole Maya of the universe and thanks only to Whose grace the Aghori has become immortal."

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Eschatology: The Ruins After Dark

Incinerated civilian victims of the Allied fire bombing of Hamburg,
which killed as many as 70,000 Germans. [ source ]

No one knew where the homeless stayed,
although lights among the ruins after dark
showed where they had moved in.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Make Your Own Skull

The idea of making my own skull delights me to no end. I'm going to make a bunch of these skulls and hang them around my doorway. Skulls around my doorway. Sounds good. Old blues resonance. From the always inspirational Skull-A-Day:

Cut & Folded Custom Paper Toy. The jaw moves via a tab that sticks out the back.

This papercraft skull is downloadable as a DIY pattern PDF HERE. Make & decorate your own! Just print onto or glue to card stock, then cut, fold, and tape or glue via the directions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More Heidegger: Death Mountain in the Black Forest

Patrick Lakey, Heidegger: Hut, Todtnauberg,
Black Forest, Germany, I, 2005.

Excerpts from Leland de la Durantaye's charming account of a pilgrimage - with attendant Heideggarian biography - to Todnauberg. From Cabinet Magazine:

I stood on a steeply sloping hillside deep in the Black Forest, panting, bathed in sweat and covered in mud. A group of llamas had stopped grazing nearby to watch me. After disorientation and fatigue, flying, driving, walking, and running, after springing over an electrified fence and sliding down a wooded slope, after losing my phone, my wife, and my bearings, I had at last found Martin Heidegger’s hut.

... Too intelligent not to make a virtue of necessity, Heidegger cultivated a quaint and bucolic image, wearing to his lectures a traditional outfit that his more metropolitan students dubbed “the ontological suit.”

... And so he retreated to the Black Forest, and on long walks along its wooded paths, in glades and clearings, skiing down its slopes, and in long hours poring over books in his hut, he patiently crafted a special language for his unusual task. One thing was immediately apparent: it wasn’t pretty. German played a role in this. For him, “the forgetting of being,” as he called it, began early: with the translation of Greek texts into Latin. Things did not get any better with the translations from Latin into the burgeoning Romance languages. But German, in its rugged seclusion, had been spared and, what is more, possessed what he saw as an elective affinity with Western philosophy’s native language, Greek. (Once asked about English’s status as a philosophical language he curtly responded that it had ceased being one in 1066.)

... A few hundred yards away was a sign with a photo of the aging Heidegger, looking frankly smug, and a short text with the incipit: “Wer gross denkt, muss gross irren”: “He who will think greatly, must err greatly.”

... Celan continued his hauntingly beautiful explorations of the German language, leading Adorno to retract his declaration that writing poetry after Auschwitz was not possible. In July of 1966, Celan, since grown famous, gave a reading in Freiburg. He had long been an admirer of Heidegger’s writings on poetry, just as Heidegger had long been an admirer of his poetry. Celan accepted Heidegger’s invitation and was driven from Freiburg into the heights of the Black Forest for a meeting at the hut. Celan took a drink from the wooden well outside with the star above it, wrote a few lines in the guestbook, and the two men went for a walk. Heidegger marveled at Celan’s knowledge of the natural world—flowers, plants, trees, animals—and it was the healing powers of this natural world with which Celan began a poem he wrote a week later about his visit. “Todtnauberg,” begins, “Arnica and eyebright,” the first a flower to treat bruises, the other for pained eyes. But the flora of the poem changes as the poet thinks of the book he signed. “Whose name did it record/ before mine — ?” he asks.

... Much disturbed by the experience, Celan returned to this well and its star in the poem he wrote a week later, evoking, as well, “a thinker’s/ word/ to come,/ in the heart”—or, in other words, what so many awaited from Heidegger. That word Celan hoped would come—a word of acknowledgement and apology for his role in the Nazi party—never did and, ever more depressed by so much he recalled from his past and saw in his present, Celan drowned himself in the Seine in 1970.

See also:
Patrick Lakey: German Photographs (1724—2005)
Translation at the Mountain of Death

On Heidegger: This passage being less stercorine

Highly amusing exegesis of a "passage" from Heidegger's On the Way to Language over at the Varieties of Unreligious Experience. The following is Heidegger:

I: What is the Japanese word for “language”?

J: (after further hesitation) It is “Koto ba.”

I: And what does that say?

J: ba means leaves, including and especially the leaves of a blossom-petals [sic]. Think of cherry-blossoms or plum blossoms.

I: And what does Koto say?

J: This is the question most difficult to answer. But it is easier now to attempt an answer because we have ventured to explain Iki: the pure delight of the beckoning stillness. The breath of stillness that makes this beckoning delight come into its own is the reign under which that delight is made to come. But Koto always also names that which in the event gives delight, itself, that which uniquely in each unrepeatable moment comes to radiance in the fullness of its grace.

I: Koto, then, would be the appropriating occurrence of the lightening message of grace [das Ereignis der lichtenden Botschaft der Anmut].

J: Beautifully said!

Following is excerpted exegesis from Varieties of Unreligious Experience:

My bullshit-detectors were, at this point, raging out of control. (I concede the possibility—certainly not the likelihood—of this passage being less stercorine in the original German.)

... Perhaps Heidegger would praise Tezuka's remarks, in his own words, as 'playful thinking that is more compelling than the rigor of science'.

... Heidegger's project, in this book, and this dialogue, is to come to terms with (or at least address) the alterity of Japanese thinking, and consequently of its language.

... But Heidegger's real project is to make strange even Western thinking and language.

... Heidegger here defines iki as 'the pure delight of the beckoning stillness'. Wikipedia articulates the word's meanings with the adjectives 'simple, improvised, straight, restrained, temporary, romantic, ephemeral, original, refined, inconspicuous'. One can only conclude that there are few minds less iki than that of Martin Heidegger.


Grace note: I am reminded of joke that my father used to tell me when I was young (and never understood until years later).

Did you hear about the cannibal who passed his friend in the jungle?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Orson Whales: Moby Dick + Orson Welles + Led Zeppelin

Orson Whales from Alex Itin on Vimeo.

This is more or less a birthday gift to myself. I’ve been drawing it on every page of Moby Dick (using two books to get both sides of each page) for months. The soundtrack is built from searching “moby dick” on You Tube (I was looking for Orson’s Preacher from the the John Huston film), I couldn’t find the preacher, but you find tons of Led Zep and drummers doing Bonzo and a little Orson reading from the Novel for a failed Italian T.V. film…… makes for a nice Melville in the end.

Very much want head return.

UBUWEB: Outsiders: Assorted Street Posters

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9/11 and the Cult of Death: The Rejection of the Sequitur

The Falling Man - Photograph by Richard Drew

Excerpts from 9/11 and The Cult of Death by Martin Amis:

[ pull quotes mine - marking decontextualized quotation ]

...seems to be slowly dawning...

And what do all the UK jihadis have in common, these brain surgeons and jailbirds, these keen cricketers and footballers, these sex offenders, community workers, former boozers and drug addicts, primary-school teachers, sneak thieves, and fast-food restaurateurs, with their six-litre plastic tubs of hairdressing bleach and nail-polish remover, their crystalline triacetone triperoxide and chapati flour, and their “dockyard confetti” (bolts and nuts and nails)? And the answer to that question seems to be slowly dawning. What they have in common is this: they are all abnormally interested in violent death. organised passion for carnage...

The equivalence line always anticipates the usual counter-argument, which it considers to be an orientalist smear: that the Islamists are fanatics and nihilists who, in their mad quest for world domination, have created a cult of death. With each passing day, however, the counter-argument is sounding like an increasingly sober description of reality. With the 20th century so fresh in our mind, you might think that human beings would be quick to identify an organised passion for carnage. But we aren’t quick to do that – of course we aren’t; we are impeded by a combination of naivete, decency, and a kind of recurrent incredulity. The death cult always benefits, initially at least, from its capacity to astonish and stupefy.

...the illimitable world of insanity and death...

Thanatism derives its real energy, its fever and its magic, from something far more radical. And here we approach a pathology that may in the end be unassimilable to the nonbelieving mind. I mean the rejection of reason – the rejection of the sequitur, of cause and effect, of two plus two. Strikingly, in their written works and their table talk, Hitler and Stalin (and Lenin) seldom let the abstract noun reason go by without assigning a scornful adjective to it: worthless reason, craven reason, cowardly reason. When those sanguinary yokels, the Taleban, chant their slogan, “Throw reason to the dogs”, they are making the same kind of Faustian gamble: crush reason, kill reason, and anything and everything seems possible – the restored Caliphate, for instance, presiding over a planetary empire cleansed of all infidels. To transcend reason is of course to transcend the confines of moral law; it is to enter the illimitable world of insanity and death.

...our numerous Walter Mittys of mass murder...

Sayyid Qutb, like someone relaying a commonplace or even a tautology, often said that it is in the nature of Islam to dominate. Where, though, are its tools and its instruments? The only thing Islamism can dominate, for now, is the evening news. But that is not nothing, in a world of pandemic suggestibility, munition glut, and our numerous Walter Mittys of mass murder. September 11 entrained a moral crash, planet-wide; it also loosened the ground between reality and reverie. So when we speak of it, let’s call it by its proper name; let’s not suggest that our experience of that event, that development, has been frictionlessly absorbed and filed away. It has not. September 11 continues, it goes on, with all its mystery, its instability, and its terrible dynamism.

...loosened the ground between reality and reverie...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Information Policy for the Library of Babel: One or More of Its Secret Tongues Does Not Hide a Terrible Significance

In another world where no one dies, a blind man is smiling.

A fascinating and delightful Borgesian construct upon a classic essay of Borges, The Library of Babel. Following the abstract is a short excerpt concerning censorship. But I urge you to download the complete "policy".

Information Policy for the Library of Babel

James Grimmelmann, New York Law School


The image of Borges's Library of Babel, which contains all possible books, is haunting and suggestive. This essay asks what we would do if we were advising a Federal Library Commission on how to deal with the Library's vast holdings and overwhelming disorganization. This thought exercise provides a set of sensible principles for information policy in an age of extreme informational abundance.

Censorship is usually irrelevant.

Some of the books in the Library are dangerous in themselves: “There is no combination of characters one can make—dhcmrlchtdj, for example—that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance.” Others are dangerous because they divert us from the books we seek: “thousands and thousands of false catalogs . . . the proof of the falsity of the true catalog . . . some perfidious version of his own [Vindication].” In the face of these dangers, some “Purifiers” have turned to censorship:

They would invade the hexagons, show credentials that were not always false, leaf disgustedly through a volume, and condemn entire walls of books. It is to their hygienic, ascetic rage that we lay the senseless loss of millions of volumes.

In the abstract, since every book is meaningful to some possible reader, it might seem that purging a volume is an unpardonable crime. But the same considerations that make individual authorship moot also tend to make individual censorship moot. (Destroying a book is just the mirror image of creating one.) The Library endures far above our poor power to add—or detract. As Borges reminds us, in the vastness of the Library, “any deletion by human hands must be infinitesimal” and for any book “there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles—books that differ by no more than a single letter, or a comma.” Censors who rip a book from our hands have harmed us, to be sure, as have those who burn down so much of the Library as to make appreciably harder the task of finding shelves with books to read. But on the long view, any one person is so insignificantly small when compared with the treasurehouse that is the Library of Babel that a few depredations here and there do not much affect either the availability of any given information or the average librarian’s search through the galleries. (Indeed, if Borges’s final suspicion is correct, and the Library is “unlimited but periodic,” it contains an infinite number of copies of each book, and censorship is infinitesimally irrelevant even within the Library’s holdings of that precise title.)

[ Via BoingBoing ]

Update: Just found this via the entertainingly erudite Language Hat. Be sure to scroll down through the "vast compendium of beautiful library pictures".

Abbey Library St. Gallen, Switzerland

Librophiliac Love Letter: A Compendium of Beautiful Libraries

Everyone has some kind of place that makes them feel transported to a magical realm. For some people it's castles with their noble history and crumbling towers. For others it's abandoned factories, ivy choked, a sense of foreboding around every corner. For us here at Curious Expeditions, there has always been something about libraries. Row after row, shelf after shelf, there is nothing more magical than a beautiful old library.

We had a chance to see just such a library on our recent visit to Prague. Tucked away on the top of a hill in Prague is the Strahov Monestary, the second oldest monastery in Prague. Inside, divided into two major halls, is a breathtaking library. The amazing Theological Hall contains 18,000 religious texts, and the grand Philosophical Hall has over 42,000 ancient philosophical texts. Both are stunningly gorgeous. Strahov also contains a beautiful cabinet of curiosities, including bits of a Dodo bird, a large 18th century electrostatic device, numerous wonderfully old ocean specimens, and for unclear reasons many glass cases full of waxen fruit. Our delight was manifest.

Shocked into a library induced euphoria, Curious Expeditions has attempted to gather together the world's most beautiful libraries for you starting with our own pictures of Strahov. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.


Four Babels from the always stimulating Giornale Nuovo
Processes and Causality by John F. Sowa
The Garden of Forking Paths from The Modern Word
The Borgesian Cyclopaedia

Carceri by Piranesi
[ source ]

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Bones of Georges Perec Ejaculate 78,744 Times in Chapter 44 of Moby Dick

Moby Dick Chapter 44 or 6,618 times
Justin Quinn

From Moon River:

Chapter 44 or 78,774 times E is Justin Quinn's remarkable continuation of his transcription of Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick into the letter E. The body of work, a combination of graphite drawings on hemp and dry point intaglio prints repeatedly explore chapter 44 of the novel, called "the chart". In this chapter, Captain Ahab's monomaniac quest for the white whale is demonstrated nightly by his compulsive drawing and redrawing of nautical charts. By repeating a spiraling, swirling labyrinthian structure, Quinn places himself in the role of Ahab who continually redraws his charts which travel nowhere and only to go into themselves.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Boris Kobe's Tarot Cards from Allach Concentration Camp

Boris Kobe, Tarot, 1945

From The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota:

Boris Kobe (1905 - 1981) – Slovenian architect and painter was a political prisoner at the concentration camp of Allach, a sub-camp of Dachau. Reproductions of the cards were provided courtesy of the Slovenian delegation to the Stockholm International Conference in the year 2000 to all educators.

Slovenia’s major contribution at the International Conference was an installation of concentration camp tarot cards of Kobe – which in a unique way, created a special monument to historical memory.

The contextual framework and point of departure of the art project is a deck of tarot cards made in the Allach concentration camp in Germany by Kobe, a Slovene architect and painter. As a whole, this work of art represents a visual summary of life in a concentration camp, the main vehicle of which consists of Kobe's tragic and humiliating sequences spiced with acrid humor. At the same time, this tiny exhibit is a miniature chronicle of the twilight of humanity brought about by Nazism, which regarded a human being, and therefore the artist himself, as a mere number.

The installation has the character of an integral work of art or an ambience that, apart from the visual and spatial elements, is enriched by music. The artistic metamorphosis of the traditional danse macabre theme is the focus of the projection, which emphasizes the phenomenon of violence as the greatest evil of 20th century European history.

Allach, a sub-camp of Dachau, was ten miles from the main camp and was liberated on April 22, 1945 by American forces, 42nd Rainbow Division

After the war, Kobe did no more work as far as is known about his camp experiences. He was, however, a major Slovenian architect. One of his major projects was the restoration of the Ljubljana Castle. Plečnik was the major architect but Boris Kobe was also involved in creating elaborate plans for the castle. His contribution to its renovation is not insignificant, though it is not as well known as Plečnik's.

via Metafilter

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dust is the signature of lost time.

Still from Citizen Kane - Orson Welles, 1941

The City
Lori Nix - Musem of Art, 2005

Via the enigmatic Museum of Dust:

Dust is what connects the dreams of yesteryear with the touch of nowadays. It is the aftermath of the collapse of illusions, a powdery cloud that rises abruptly and then begins falling on things, gently covering their bright, polished surfaces. Dust is like a soft carpet of snow that gradually coats the city, quieting its noise until we feel like we are inside a snow globe, the urban exterior transmuted into a magical interior where all time is suspended and space contained. Dust makes the outside inside by calling attention to the surface of things, a surface formerly deemed untouchable or simply ignored as a conduit to what was considered real: that essence which supposedly lies inside people and things, waiting to be discovered. Dust turns things inside out by exposing their bodies as more than mere shells or carriers, for only after dust settles on an object do we begin to long for its lost splendor, realizing how much of this forgotten object's beauty lay in the more external, concrete aspect of its existence, rather than in its hidden, attributed meaning.

Architecture of Dust
Incognita Nom de Plume

Dust brings a little of the world into the enclosed quarters of objects. Belonging to the outside, the exterior, the street, dust constantly creeps into the sacred arena of private spaces as a reminder that there are no impermeable boundaries between life and death. It is a transparent veil that seduces with the promise of what lies behind it, which is never as good as the titillating offer. Dust makes palpable the elusive passing of time, the infinite pulverized particles that constitute its volatile matter catching their prey in a surprise embrace whose clingy hands, like an invisible net, leave no other mark than a delicate sheen of faint glitter. As it sticks to our fingertips, dust propels a vague state of retrospection, carrying us on its supple wings. A messenger of death, dust is the signature of lost time.

Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz
Traveler 173 at Night, Snowglobe - 9x6x6

Kraken - AMNH
©2007 - Denis Finnin -

From Celeste's World:

The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury Of The Kitsch Experience - Rather than engaging the tired stances that see kitsch as either bad taste or a bad copy of «true art», this book presents it as a cultural sensibility of loss, tracing its origins as a massive phenomenon to the nineteenth century. Presenting kitsch as the ambivalent «cristallization» of the lost experience of pre-industrial life, TAK explores this sensibility through the objects and narratives that it produced, in particular those related to the popular underwater imagery of the time: aquariums, paperweights, the myth of Atlantis and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Feejee mermaid - AMNH
The original "Feejee mermaid," made famous by P. T. Barnum, is believed to have been destroyed in a fire-but some people think this one may be it. More than 100 years old, it was rediscovered in 1973. Some scholars connect it to Barnum but its exact origins are unknown.© 2007 Harvard University, Peabody Museum

From Wikipedia: Kitsch:

The more romantic a work of art, or a landscape, the quicker its repetitions are perceived as kitsch or ‘slush.’

- Arthur Koestler

Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

Kitsch is the expression of passion at all levels, and not the servant of truth. It keeps relative to religion and truth...Truth, kitsch leaves for (modern) art. In kitsch skill is the important criteria...Kitsch serves life and seeks the individual.

- Odd Nerdrum, Kitsch - The Difficult Choice

Memory Theatre
Pablo Helguera, 2004

From Vorträge:

What differentiates Camillo from today's cybernauts and sheds light on the possibly untapped potential of the digital theater of memory is the fact that his data construction always appears as theater. The sites and images of his model are not meant to fascinate in an unmediated way, but should rather be reflected on as staged objects. They are imagines agentes, active, actuating images, not because their specific function is the "painting of an entire scene," but rather because the imagination is stimulated through their agency. Camillo expressly emphasizes the matter that concerns him: "to find, in these seven comprehensive and diverse units, an order that keeps the mind keen and shakes up the memory." In contrast, the technical activation of images by means of computer animation does not lead to reflection but is instead perceived passively, in a reflex-like manner; instead of shaking up the memory, it conditions it. Camillo's theater presents itself as an enclosed space, and, precisely for that reason, incites one to transcend it. On the other hand, the forms of 3D visualization, which give the illusion of endless space, prevent the data-traveler from realizing that the trajectory of his transit is fixed and thus undermine the desire for transcendence.

A Sanctuary for Memories of Play
James Skvarch - 1999

This fundamental difference in reception despite a superficial similarity of presentation was brought about as a consequence of an earlier technological transformation, which makes itself manifest on hand of the change in panorama technology at the beginning of the 19th century. As Jonathan Crary emphasizes, a decisive turnabout in the techniques of observation takes place at this time: In the older panoramas (such as the famous London one of 1791), the visitor walked about inside; in the diorama of 1823, the observer stood at a fixed point, and the panoramic image revolved around him. Thus, the activity of the recipient was literally brought to a standstill – that is to say, transferred over to the apparatus. An analogous phenomenon can, in my assessment, be traced in the difference between the memory theaters of the Renaissance and the animated virtual reality scenarios of today's computer interfaces. In Camillo's theater, the visitor similarly went inside and actively moved within the collection of memories, while the computer navigator, armed with his mouse, is condemned to immobility before the screen. In contrast to Crary, however, I see this difference as being purely metaphorical. It is not necessary to set the body in motion in order to mobilize the mind (that the Peripatetics philosophized ambulando is commonly known to be a rumor). It is not necessary to do away with sitting still in front of the screen in order to achieve mental mobility in Camillo's sense – and besides, the bodily movements of the user come into play again in the newer "cave" installations. What is decisive is the orientation of inner movement. With computer animation, it is directed unambiguously at the consumption of an object; in Camillo however, the self-reflexive contemplation of the object by a subject also involves a rebound movement back to the subject. This reflexivity is made evident in Camillo's inversion of the theater structure, which places the objects of memory in the tiers, where they simultaneously return the gaze of the observer while he stands on the stage and constitutes the center of intellectual activity. This inversion of the classical Vitruvian theater means that Camillo had already effected a reversal of the very transformation that Crary pinpoints as only having first taken place with the diorama. Thus, Camillo stands at a critical distance not only to the traditional memory architectures of the ancients, but also to the systems of memory theater developed immediately after his – from Zwinger's Theatrum vitae humanae (1565) and Quicchebergs Inscriptiones vel tituli theatri amplissimi (1565) through Pierre Boaistuau's Theatrum Mundi (1581), Lomazzo's L'Idea del Tempio della Pittura (1590),Bodin's Universae Naturae Theatrum (1597) and Alsted's Theatrum Scholasticum (1610), to the Theatrum orbi in Robert Fludd's Ars memoriae (1697).

This fetish approach to his collecting and arranging is very clear in the development of Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall. Hauptman writes that Cornell disliked the ‘sexual hoopla’ around Bacall but was taken by the photograph of Bacall in publicity for To Have and Have Not. He decided to do a box, collecting and continuing to rearrange that box via associations until his death. ‘Cornell called these “paths ever opening up,” “extensions,” chains of associations made visual in the work’s box structure.’

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A clear reaction to a consciousness of 'time'

Anonymous, Ivory Carving, 1640

Via the always delightful Giornale Nuovo:

We see especially that transience is a part of life in the 17th-century Vanitas and Nature Morte paintings, which aim to remind us of life's inevitable passage with beautiful flowers, fruits and animals. The collection of fantasy objects from natural history museums belongs in this category, as do Jan Fabre's sculptures made of beetles. Images of death or working with dead people or animals (or their skeletons) are not only a clear reaction to a consciousness of 'time'; they also allow us to escape 'time'.

- From Artempo: Vanitas / Nature Morte

The virtual tour is highly suggested.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, Four Quartets

Thought with regard to what presences, presencing shows itself as letting-presence. But now we must try to think this letting-presence explicitly insofar as presencing is admitted. Letting shows its character in bringing into unconcealment. To let presence means: to unconceal, to bring to openness. In unconcealing prevails a giving, the giving that gives presencing, that is, Being, in letting-presence.

- Heidegger, Being and Time

Sunday, August 12, 2007

What then shall I liken the Sperm Whale to for fragrance, considering his magnitude?

So the usual running of the links to the SciTech Daily Review and a link to the article below. I should add that I am aware of the distinction between the sort of whale excrement referred to as the "brown stain" and ambergris. But one thing led to the other. And hovering just out of range is some Melvillian allegory that I am not quite willing to parse.

A large, disconcertingly pretty bubble
trailing behind the whale like an enormous jellyfish.

From The Worst Jobs in Science 2007:

“Brown stain ahoy!” is not the cry most mariners long to hear, but for Rosalind Rolland, a senior researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston, it’s a siren song. Rolland, along with a few lucky research assistants, combs Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy looking for endangered North Atlantic right whales. Actually, she’s not really looking for the whales—just their poo. “It surprised even me how much you can learn about a whale through its feces,” says Rolland, who recently published the most complete study of right whales ever conducted. “You can test for pregnancy, measure hormones and biotoxins, examine its genetics. You can even tell individuals apart.

Rolland pioneered whale-feces research in 1999. By 2003, she was frustrated by the small number of samples her poo patrol was collecting by blindly chasing whales on the open ocean. So she began taking along sniffer dogs that can detect whale droppings from as far as a mile away. When they bark, she points her research vessel in the direction of the brown gold, and as the boat approaches the feces—the excrement usually stays afloat for an hour after the deed is done and can be bright orange and oily depending on the type of plankton the whale feeds on—Rolland and her crew begin scooping up as much matter as they can using custom-designed nets. Samples are then placed in plastic jars and packed in ice (the largest chunks are just over a pound) to be shared with other researchers across North America. “We’ve literally been in fields of right-whale poop,” she marvels.

In the past few years, other whale researchers have adopted Rolland’s methods. Nick Gales of the Australia Antarctic Division now plies the Southern Ocean looking for endangered blue-whale dung, a pursuit that in 2003 led him to a scientific first. While tailing a minke whale, Gale’s team photographed what is believed to be the first bout of whale flatulence caught on film—a large, disconcertingly pretty bubble trailing behind the whale like an enormous jellyfish. “We stayed away from the bow after taking the picture,” Gales recalls. “It does stink.”

Dog to be world's first whale poop expert:

A dropout from drug-sniffing training (his gait was not acceptable), so far is able to identify heroin, marijuana and crack cocaine, as well as the droppings of such animals as grizzly bears, black bears, jaguars, wolverines, bobcats and cougars.

Floating Gold: The Romance of Ambergris by Robert Cushman Murphy:

Strolling along a beach near Nome on a Sunday afternoon, he had startled a wolf in the act of eating a large chunk of carrion at the water’s edge. The animal beat a retreat, with its belly sagging, and inspection of the material that it had left aroused enough suspicion in the mind of my caller to make him gather it up, say nothing, and lug it all the way to New York. He was so well prepared for what I told him that the verdict brought only a slight increment of satisfaction. I remarked that although some philologists held that the word ambergris came from the same root as ambrosia, the food of the gods on Mt. Olympus, there was no precedent that would justify its use as a diet for predatory carnivores! I advised the man what to do with his supply, neglecting to ask his name, and I have neither seen nor heard of him since.

“To think,” was his parting comment, “if I’d been ten minutes sooner that damned wolf wouldn’t have cost me a five-thousand-dollar meal!”

Wikipedia: Ambergris:

During the Black Death in Europe, the people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague. This was because the fragrance covered the smell of the air which was believed to be the cause of plague.

[ image source ]

You're not putting that thing in my car.

Fragrant whale excrement lands fortune:

An Australian couple could reap a fragrant fortune after what they thought was an odd-looking tree stump turned out to be a rare lump of ambergris, a whale excretion used in perfumes and known as "floating gold."

Loralee and Leon Wright were walking along a remote beach near Streaky Bay in western South Australia state on a fishing trip three weeks ago when they saw the strange object.

Intrigued, they took a closer look, and Leon Wright, thinking it could have been some kind of cyst from a large marine animal, suggested they take the 32-pound lump home.

"She said 'You're not putting that thing in my car'," the Australian Broadcasting Corp. quoted marine ecologist Ken Jury as saying on its Web site on Wednesday.

Curiosity eventually got the better of the Wrights. Unable to find an answer on the Internet, they went back and got it two weeks later and described it to Jury.

"It immediately struck me as being ambergris--it couldn't be anything else," Jury said.

"It's actually belched out by the animal, would you believe, and those few across the world that have witnessed that or heard it say it's quite remarkable...apparently the sound of it travels for miles across the water," he said.

Jury, who is acting for the family, said ambergris can fetch between $20 and $65 a gram, The Age newspaper reported on Wednesday. That would make the Wrights' find worth at least $295,000.

Used in perfumes by ancient Egyptians and mythologized in literary classics like Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," ambergris is spewed out of the intestines of sperm whales.

Scientists theorize that it is produced to aid in the removal of hard, sharp objects like squid beaks that whales may eat.

The waxy, foul-smelling substance is lighter than water and can float for years, during which time it is cleansed by the sun and salt water and becomes hard, dark and waxy and develops a rich musky smell prized by perfumers around the world.

"The Egyptians used it," Jury said. "Certainly the Chinese did and they not only used it in perfumes, but they used to eat it and they used to give it as gifts."

[ image source ]

Fogo Von Slack, in his great work on Smells.

From Moby-Dick or the Whale by Herman Melville: Chapter 92: Ambergris:

Now this ambergris is a very curious substance, and so important as an article of commerce, that in 1791 a certain Nantucket-born Captain Coffin was examined at the bar of the English House of Commons on that subject. For at that time, and indeed until a comparatively late day, the precise origin of ambergris remained, like amber itself, a problem to the learned. Though the word ambergris is but the French compound for grey amber, yet the two substances are quite distinct. For amber, though at times found on the sea-coast, is also dug up in some far inland soils, whereas ambergris is never found except upon the sea. Besides, amber is a hard, transparent, brittle, odorless substance, used for mouth-pieces to pipes, for beads and ornaments; but ambergris is soft, waxy, and so highly fragrant and spicy, that it is largely used in perfumery, in pastiles, precious candles, hair-powders, and pomatum. The Turks use it in cooking, and also carry it to Mecca, for the same purpose that frankincense is carried to St. Peter's in Rome. Some wine merchants drop a few grains into claret, to flavor it.

Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is. By some, ambergris is supposed to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the dyspepsia in the whale. How to cure such a dyspepsia it were hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of Brandreth's pills, and then running out of harm's way, as laborers do in blasting rocks.

I have forgotten to say that there were found in this ambergris, certain hard, round, bony plates, which at first Stubb thought might be sailors' trowsers buttons; but it afterwards turned out that they were nothing more than pieces of small squid bones embalmed in that manner.

Now that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing? Bethink thee of that saying of St. Paul in Corinthians, about corruption and incorruption; how that we are sown in dishonour, but raised in glory. And likewise call to mind that saying of Paracelsus about what it is that maketh the best musk. Also forget not the strange fact that of all things of ill-savor, Cologne-water, in its rudimental manufacturing stages, is the worst.

I should like to conclude the chapter with the above appeal, but cannot, owing to my anxiety to repel a charge often made against whalemen, and which, in the estimation of some already biased minds, might be considered as indirectly substantiated by what has been said of the Frenchman's two whales. Elsewhere in this volume the slanderous aspersion has been disproved, that the vocation of whaling is throughout a slatternly, untidy business. But there is another thing to rebut. They hint that all whales always smell bad. Now how did this odious stigma originate?

I opine, that it is plainly traceable to the first arrival of the Greenland whaling ships in London, more than two centuries ago. Because those whalemen did not then, and do not now, try out their oil at sea as the Southern ships have always done; but cutting up the fresh blubber in small bits, thrust it through the bung holes of large casks, and carry it home in that manner; the shortness of the season in those Icy Seas, and the sudden and violent storms to which they are exposed, forbidding any other course. The consequence is, that upon breaking into the hold, and unloading one of these whale cemeteries, in the Greenland dock, a savor is given forth somewhat similar to that arising from excavating an old city grave-yard, for the foundations of a Lying-in-Hospital.

I partly surmise also, that this wicked charge against whalers may be likewise imputed to the existence on the coast of Greenland, in former times, of a Dutch village called Schmerenburgh or Smeerenberg, which latter name is the one used by the learned Fogo Von Slack, in his great work on Smells, a text-book on that subject. As its name imports (smeer, fat; berg, to put up), this village was founded in order to afford a place for the blubber of the Dutch whale fleet to be tried out, without being taken home to Holland for that purpose. It was a collection of furnaces, fat-kettles, and oil sheds; and when the works were in full operation certainly gave forth no very pleasant savor. But all this is quite different with a South Sea Sperm Whaler; which in a voyage of four years perhaps, after completely filling her hold with oil, does not, perhaps, consume fifty days in the business of boiling out; and in the state that it is casked, the oil is nearly scentless. The truth is, that living or dead, if but decently treated, whales as a species are by no means creatures of ill odor; nor can whalemen be recognised, as the people of the middle ages affected to detect a Jew in the company, by the nose. Nor indeed can the whale possibly be otherwise than fragrant, when, as a general thing, he enjoys such high health; taking abundance of exercise; always out of doors; though, it is true, seldom in the open air. I say, that the motion of a Sperm Whale's flukes above water dispenses a perfume, as when a musk-scented lady rustles her dress in a warm parlor. What then shall I liken the Sperm Whale to for fragrance, considering his magnitude? Must it not be to that famous elephant, with jewelled tusks, and redolent with myrrh, which was led out of an Indian town to do honour to Alexander the Great?

For perhaps the most complete online reference see: Ambergris: A Pathfinder and Annotated Bibliography by Randy D. Ralph, Ph.D.. Of particular fascination is the section on Objects of Art with the enigmatic Negress and the stunning Sargent piece:

The Negress.
A 16th century figurine carved from a single lump of ambergris by an anonymous Italian (possibly German) goldsmith and ornamented with jewels of gold, pearls,rubies and brilliants with flower forms of white enamel.

Fumée d'Ambre Gris
John Singer Sargent, 1880.

Update: In one of those uncanny Jungian synchronicities, I am currently watching the Futurama episode, Three Hundred Big Boys, concerning a whale and ambergris:

Whale Biologist: I don't want your watch. You're covered in precious ambergris.

Kif: Precious ambergris?

[The whale biologist sighs and presses a button on his belt. A holographic image of Roseanne appears.]

Holo-Roseanne: Ambergris. Noun. A grease-like product of the sperm whale's digestive tract that is used as a base in the finest perfumes. This has been Roseanne, your guide to the world of facts.

[The holo-encyclopedia shuts off.]

Whale Biologist: You heard Roseanne. Scrape off the priceless ambergris and I'll let you go!

Kif: Or better yet I'll simply shed my skin!

[He struggles as he takes it off.]

And later:

On the other side of the room Leela is now talking to Whitey and Kif is reunited with Amy.]

Kif: So you see the putrid waxy substance I was coated with was -

Amy: Not precious ambergris?

Kif: Yes! And I managed to sneak some out in a usual place! Ta-da! [He hands it to Amy.] Using that, I'll make you a perfume of lilac and jasmine and frankenberry!

Amy: Oh Kif, it's so romantic I can't even wait! I'm gonna wear it right now!

[She puts some on. Her tattoo splutters. Everyone else chokes at he stench.]

Mom: Who smells like freaking porpus hork?

Amy: I do! Kiss me Kif!