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by Peter Lamborn Wilson

“…Islam does not “ban the image.” On the contrary, it symbolizes itself by an image, the crescent and star. Arabesque and crystal are images. But Islam exercises extreme care that the image not colonize the imagination. Indiscriminate imagism opens the floodgates of the trivial and leaves the mind passive to an onslaught of persuasion and unconsciousness. Image becomes a substitute for lived experience; absorption of imagery takes the place of the living creative imagination. Images are parasites that kill the host. (Advertising offers perhaps the most perfect example.)

Vegetative and crystalline forms are not mere “decorative motifs,” but rather the very subject matter of Islamic art and architecture—the images of a culture that eschews and distrusts imagery. This misunderstanding about decoration leads to a great deal of superfluous writing by Western art historians who judge everything by Western values and categories, thus forcing all flowers toward the sun of realism, even those that bloom in the moon of dreams.

Islamic miniaturists, for instance, do not use perspective. Western art historians have actually accused them of failing to evolve toward scientific perspective, due to the “religious ban” on imagery. But lack of perspective in miniatures represents not failure but refusal. By extending the image in time rather than in space the miniaturist refuses to lure the viewer’s unconscious into the idolatry of mistaking representations for things. The miniature is liberated from the tyranny of a perspective that consequently never appears.

In reality the miniature serves a minor decorative function as an embellishment of the book. The central art form in Islam is writing, with the ancillary arts that serve it, especially calligraphy. Writing itself is sacred, and Moslems (like Jews) preserve every scrap of it, not just Koran and Torah, because the Arabic and Hebrew letters themselves are revealed and cabbalistic. Although the Koran was transmitted orally (the Prophet was “unlettered”), it symbolized creation itself as the work of a primordial Pen and Tablet: the writing of being on the paper of becoming: another yang/yin combination.

The mysticism of writing was carried to an extreme in the twelfth century by the sect of the Hurufis (also known as the Abecedarians or Letterists). They traced letters in the shapes of human faces, noble animals, and plants and trees: the alphabet of Revelation revealed in the alphabet of Nature. Hurufi doctrines were condemned as heretical but survived amongst the Sufi orders (especially the Turkish Bektashis), who created a beautiful new art form of calligrams —heraldic devices made entirely of letters.

Western art tends to separate the arabesque from the crystal, the Baroque from the Neoclassical, and even to value one over the other—whereas Islamic art tends toward a coincidencia oppositorum, a mystical reconciliation or harmony. In this it resembles Romanticism. But “Oriental Romanticism” (to coin a phrase) never had to deal with an Enlightenment or react against any “cruel instrumentality of Reason.” Oriental Romanticism is one of the sources of Western Romanticism but lacks its agonistic aspect, its subjection to history. In Islamic art the rose and the star have never been rendered unintelligible to each other because they are seen as signs of each other.

The Koran describes Nature as “God’s Waymarks . . . signs on the horizon for those of discernment.” Nature is a revelation that requires hermeneutic exegesis to uncover its meaning, much like the Koran itself—with one important difference. Alphabetic writing functions as a complete semiotic system in which signs do not change their meaning, while the alphabet of Nature is an incomplete or indefinite system that requires for its “reading” either revelation or esoteric transmission of meanings.

Some forms of writing seem to share elements of both alphabetism and naturalism (for want of better terms). They stand somewhat outside the semiotic in that they use written signs but meanings are assigned by esoteric transmission. In this category belong the Neolithic signs such as the incised rocks of megalithic Ireland and Brittany. The esoteric keys to these writings are lost and they cannot be deciphered. The wampum of the Iroquois was not only money but also writing, and in this case the elders responsible for decipherment have preserved the keys in collective memory. The enigmatic Effigy Mounds of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio, are written on the pages of the landscape, interpreting Nature while becoming part of it. Keys may be preserved amongst certain Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) elders, but they’re not talking to anthropologists and archaeologists. If the keys to European heraldry were lost, its blazons would appear just as enigmatic and tantalizing.

Here meaning seems to hover behind a thin veil in these lost sign systems, in somewhat the same way that meaning seems to lurk behind the scrim of Nature itself. This blind immanence of significance resembles the sensations associated with certain phantastica or hallucinogenic drugs. In fact one theory of the marked stones at the megalithic sites of Newgrange and Gavrinis attributes them to entoptic hallucinations of the carvers, to a kind of Soma Function that is rooted in the body. Entoptic patterns include both arabesque and crystal forms and can be induced by pressing one’s closed eyelids. They seem to be common to all cultures, and are patterns which can be enhanced by psychotropic agents.

In the West the doctrine of signatures (or occult correspondences) goes underground with the failure of hermeticism versus “modern science,” in the paradigm wars of the sixteenth century. It persists in occult circles and resurfaces as aesthetic theory in the Romantic era. Baudelaire and Rimbaud speak of correspondences but few take them seriously. Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (real name Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) and Jakob Böhme are all but forgotten; the world sees itself through Cartesian eyes as a brain surrounded by dead automata.

Without synesthesia (the perception of sound as color, for example, or of form as meaning) the imagination could never arrive at a system of correspondences or even at a concept of symbolization. The alphabet itself is deeply implicated in such magical doubling (or splitting) of consciousness. Our Greco-Roman letters are all derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics, and writing itself is a form of magic as “action at a distance.”

Thus even colors can be read for meaning, as in the elaborate series of correspondences in the writings of Charles Fourier, or in Rimbaud’s “Sonnet of the Vowels.” The attempt of Goethe and certain proponents of Naturphilosophie to preserve color as substance rather than accident represents a last-ditch defense of hermeticism against Cartesianism and its disenchantment of the landscape, its denial of the soul of the earth. When Goethe called out on his deathbed for “More light!” was he asking for more Enlightenment or for more luminousness?…”

Poet, writer, essayist and translator, Peter Lamborn Wilson’s work has been translated into dozens of languages, widely disseminated on the internet, and in the alternative press. He spent a decade living and traveling throughout India, Afghanistan, and Iran, and has written extensively on Islamic history, culture, and society. He is an editor at Autonomedia, and has been a radio personality in the New York region through his Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade on WBAI-FM. His books include The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes, Ploughing the Clouds: The Search for Irish Soma, Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City & the World, Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam, Escape from the Nineteenth Century and Other Essay, and Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Dropout Culture.

Excerpt from essay by P.L.Wilson © http://www.philiptaaffe.info/Critical_Commentary/PLW.php

JOC provides access to these materials for educational and research purposes and makes no warranty with regard to their use for other purposes.The written permission of the copyright owners and/or holders of other rights (such as publicity and/or privacy rights) is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemption.

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Written by calligrapher

April 15, 2007 at 9:22 am

Posted in Editorials

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