[NetBehaviour] monsters and metamorphoses

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Wed Jul 21 19:47:24 CEST 2021

Hi all,

In my haphazard quest since the summer of 2019 to discern if there is any visual or thematic (verbal) meaning to the bridge and garment in Leonardo's most famous portrait, Esperienza, I was inevitably led to look at literature or as they say "Leonardo's Books." Among these were Dante bien sur, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Lucretius' On The Nature of Things, many science books, and more.

I was new to Dante as of this year, but the Leonardo school which sees subtly chiaroscuro ties between the two made sense to me.  There are also plenty of just plain chiaro ties.  Dante's Books included Ovid, so the overlaps were there archivally as well.

Words like fantasia, intelletto, scienza, esperienza, forza, and the like being new to me, and only grudgingly permitted by my cell-phone, there has been much sifting required.

Also analogy, or matching of hypothesized relationships, appeared.  Dante's assignment of chapters or cantos to celestial entities like planets reminded me of Six Memos, the latter likely referencing the former so no mystery there, but also other planet references sometimes murky and sometimes less so.

Perhaps inclined by reading Elizabethan English when young to notice uses of the word "Fortune," or by an image I stumbled across of the Tree of Estates by the Master of the Banderoles which also contains a wheel of fortune, I noticed Fortune as it appears in Leonardo as a more secular personage and in Dante a more celestial.  The Commedia says that the planets, i.e. conditions, affect our lived experience but so do choice and chance.

This or something else reminded me of Tolstoy's interesting ideas about history which he expounds in Epilogue Parts 1 and 2 of his large story about Napoleon.  Hence War and Peace was on my mind last week and by chance a copy was to be found in a rustic outhouse, with a door handle of deer antler, where I am visiting this week.

The epilogue mentions how no single individual or event caused the Napoleonic wars, but rather a big mix of many things did including random chance.  The sum total of all the causes is, according to the Epilogue, unknowable in a perhaps Godelian sense.

Tolstoy wrote, "A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions, no name, not even a Frenchman, by the strangest freaks of chance, as it seems, rises above the seething parties of France, and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position."  However, "chance" means "nothing actually existing, and so cannot be defined" Tolstoy wrote; it merely denotes "a certain stage in the comprehension of phenomena." This lent a tiny pulse of gravitational orbit, as of nebulous gas condensing, to the happenstance that both my mostly unread copy of Metamorphoses, which I brought on vacation, and War and Peace, which was here already, are divided into fifteen books each.

Part One of the Epilogue says "Once admit that human life can be guided by reason, and all possibility of life is annihilated." This is kind of just a rejoinder to the French Revolution but also a use of selective emphasis to say that reason alone cannot guide organic processes because the organic is more than just logic.  We can all feel this in one way or another sometimes, the risk inherent in reduction.  Put another way, when it comes to the question of the purpose of bees, "All that is within the reach of the human is the observation of the analogy of the life of the bee with other manifestations of life.  And the same is true with the final aims of historical persons and of nations." Might this be true of intelligence as it is for bees and nations?  Is history the history of imagination, intelligent imaging, encompassing but not reducible to reason?  In any case, the language is remarkably Ovidian, and even Dante (in his Commedia which is sometimes called a political poem disguised as theology) described the clarity of esperienza that poetry makes possible, sometimes even to the extent of ideal states, as new leaves on a tree.

Regarding the planets, in reply to Dante's question about predestination, Vergil tells him to ask Beatrice about free will.  Is there ever any free will, even within limits? Arguably yes, within limits.  Tolstoy compares the coordination of many wills to birds flying in a group; he alludes elsewhere to calculus and approximation much as Calvino does.   He also wrote, "every human action is always alike conceived by us as a certain combination of free will and necessity" or necessita.  He says much about how these quantities interact in time, as if on sides of an electrochemically permeable membrane or within a complex latticework of same.  Perhaps most noticeably germane is this: "if the subject of history is to be the study of movements of people and of humanity, and not episodes from the lives of individual people, it too is bound to lay aside the idea of cause, and to seek the laws common to all the equal and inseparably interconnected, infinitesimal elements of free will."

To what extent might we draw (desegno) these laws as Experience and Experiment in an ongoing system of Metamorphoses, modulated by meditative time, like birdsong in a forest or the partly unpredictable circulation of words in books and of books across geologic time?

"Although the surface of the ocean of history seemed motionless, the movement of humanity was as uninterrupted as the flow of time."

All best from the northern haze,


PS -- The following from the Epilogue may be relevant to theory and practice of intelligence:

"We should be brought in fact to these two fundamental elements, of which humanity's whole cosmic conception is made up -- the incomprehensible essence of life and the laws that give form to that essence.
Reason says: 1. Space with all the forms given it by its visibility -- matter -- is infinite, and not thinkable otherwise.
2. Time is infinite movement without one moment of rest, and it is not otherwise thinkable.
3. The connection of cause and effect has no beginning, and can have no end.

"Consciousness says: 1. I alone am, and all that exists is only I; consequently I include space.
2. I measure moving time by the unchanging moment of the present, in which alone I am conscious of myself living; consequently I am outside of time, and 3. I am outside of cause, since I feel myself the cause of every phenomenon of my life.
Reason gives expression to the laws of necessity.  Consciousness gives expression to the reality of free will.
Freedom unlimited by anything is the essence of life in human consciousness.  Necessity without content is human reason with its three forms of thought.
Free will is what is examined: Necessity is what examines.  Free will is content: Necessity is form."


"During this period of twenty years an immense number of fields are not tilled; houses are burned; trade changes its direction; millions of people grow poor and grow rich, and change their habitations....
"What does this all mean?  What did all this proceed from?  What induced these people to burn houses and murder their fellow-creatures?  What were the causes of these events?  What force compelled people to act in this fashion?  These are the involuntary and most legitimate questions that, in all good faith, humanity puts to itself when it stumbles on memorials and traditions of that past age of restlessness.
"To answer these questions the common-sense of humanity turns to the science of history, the object of which is the self-knowledge of nations and of humanity."

Or in the Epilogue's final words:

"In the first case, we had to surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space, and to admit a motion we could not perceive of by sense.  In the present case, it is as essential to surmount a consciousness of an unreal freedom and to recognize a dependence not perceived by our senses."


"No one has a capacity for virtue who sacrifices honor for gain. Fortune is powerless to help one who does not make an effort."

Ovid Book 15:

"All things are mix'd of these, which all contain,
And into these are all resolv'd again:
Earth rarifies to dew; expanded more,
The subtil dew in air begins to soar;
Spreads, as it flies, and weary of its name
Extenuates still, and changes into flame;
This having by degrees perfection win,
Restless they soon untwist the web they spun,
And fire begins to lose its radiant hue,
Mixed with gross air, and air descends to dew;
And dew condensing, does its form forego,
And sinks, a heavy lump of Earth below.
This are their figures never at a stand,
But chang'd by Nature's innovating hand;
All things are alter'd, nothing is destroy'd,
The shifted scene for some new show employ'd.

The Convivio I.xi:

"[This depreciation of Italian rests on (i.) mere thoughtless repetition; (ii.) the disingenuous excuses of those who, being unable to handle their language powerfully, say that it is the fault of the language; (iii.) the vanity of those who, being familiar with foreign literatures, exalt them above their own to increase their personal distinction; (iv.) the envious detraction of those who having no literary distinction themselves insidiously detract from that of others about them by slighting its instrument, and (v.) that poverty of spirit which makes a person think that nothing associated with their poor self can be anything but poor.]
To the perpetual infamy and suppression of the evil people of Italy who prize the vernacular of another and disprize their own, I declare that their impulse arises from five detestable causes."

And finale, the Convivio II Ode I:

"Voi che intendo il terzo ciel movete"
"He makes me gaze upon a lady,
And saith: 'Who would behold salvation,
Heedfully let him look upon this lady's eyes
If he fear not the anguish of sighings.
'Thou art not slain, only thou art dismayed
O soul of ours, who dost so lament thee,'
saith a little spirit of gentle love;
'For this fair lady, whom thou perceivest,
Hath so transformed thy life,
That thou art terrified, so cowardly hast thou become.
See how tender she is and humble,
Sage and courteous in her greatness,
And think henceforth to call her lady:
For, if thou deceive not thyself, thou shalt see
Adornment of such lofty miracles
Tornata [i.e., the turn]
Ode! I believe that they shall be but rare
Who shall rightly understand thy meaning,
So intricate and knotty is thy utterance of it:
Wherefore if perchance it come about
That thou take thy way into the presence of folk,
Who seem not rightly to perceive it;
Then I pray thee to a cake heart again,
And say to them, O my beloved lastling:
'Give heed at least how beautiful I am.'"


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