Le Dauphin Acéphale

Number 13

Today is Friday 13th and this is the 13th post on the Shoreline. An appropriate time to consider this recent event on Saltdean beach:

Decapitated dolphin found on Saltdean beach

Saltdean resident Gilles Guichard made the grisly discovery on Tuesday afternoon. He said: “It was quite shocking. The head had completely gone and it was lying on a rock.”

The rest of the article talks up the possibility that the unfortunate dolphin may have been attacked by a shark, then talks it down again:

Steve Strange, the Sussex representative for the Seawatch Foundation, said: “There are cases of whales and dolphins that have died elsewhere floating around and then been hit by a boat. We do get sharks in the area but normally in the summer. They are likely to have moved somewhere they are more likely to find food.”

(Surely not that Steve Strange?)

(It is, frankly, unlikely to have been a shark attack, though if more local finds suggest otherwise, rest assured the Shoreline will be on the case: watching the waters, sensing the chthonic eddies, and generally smelling the breath of the beast.)

The news report is, of course, entirely silent regarding the esoteric ripples and resonances of this event, leaving it to the Shoreline to- how can I put it- read the entrails. So grab yourself a bit of driftwood, and let’s have a hack at the carcass.

In Greek mythology, dolphins were associated with Apollo, whose sanctuary was at Delphi: the name itself is probably a dolphin reference. Apollo rode to Deplhi on a dolphin (or swam there in the guise of one, depending on the version), before confronting and slaying the serpent Python, a monstrous snake-dragon which had prevented access to the sanctuary and which no mortal could defeat. Having killed Python with a single arrow, Apollo claimed the sanctuary.

The Ancient Greeks believed Deplhi was the Omphalos, the Navel (here synonymous with Centre) of the World. This sacred site is most famous for the Delphic Oracle:

The Delphic Oracle, known as the “Pythia”. This priestess would be seated on a tripod (Apollo’s symbol of prophecy) in a state of trance, the position of the tripod was situated above a fissure in the floor of the temple, from which arose strange hallucinating vapors. She would also be chewing laurel leaves, while in this trance she only mumbled her answer, which a high priest would translate into Apollo’s prophecy. Before this took place the supplicants (male only), which were known as Theopropes, had to be purified in a ritual washing ceremony which took place in the Castalian Spring. The Pythia also had to purify herself in the same manner before she performed her duties. The consultation would begin with a ritual sacrifice of an animal, but if the offering was not in a favorable condition and if cold water sprinkled onto the animal made it tremble the supplicant and the animal were turned away. From here the petitioners would enter the sanctum of the temple. Here the question, which had been previously written, was handed to the priest, who in turn asked the Pythia for Apollo’s answer. From her sometimes garbled muttering, the priest would translate into hexameter verse. The Pythia never gave a straight answer, Heraclitus the philosopher (circa 500 BCE) said. The oracle neither conceals nor reveals the truth, but only hints at it.

Rather like this blog then.

Could a decapitated dolphin represent vengeance for Python? A brutal eruption of serpent energy here on the Shoreline? Recently we considered the great World Serpent Ouroboros, its manifestations in this locality and its symbolism of recurrence and renewal. Is this the dark side of that current?

For the Greeks, dolphins were themselves associated with notions of renewal. They were conveyors of souls: the Cretans and Etruscans depicted dolphins as carriers of the dead, bringing the newly deceased to the Isles of the Blessed. Thus they were creatures with the power to cross the liminal threshold between worlds, and in this role were symbols of regeneration.

Ah, regeneration. The Eternal Wheel turns once again, and the phoenix rises in glory from the flames. Life triumphs over stasis, and all is well. Isn’t it wonderful? Well, yes it is. But in the face of this there can be no retreat into warm fuzzy feelgood mysticism: pain, fear,  suffering, death, decay and putrefaction are all very real parts of the cycle- just as much as birth, love, art, music and the pursuit of knowledge. If we try to explain away the pain of the World as ‘just another part of the the cycle’ we diminish, gloss over, or even entirely deny it.

The symbolism of the Death card in the Tarot is often discussed in terms of regeneration- something is ending, but something new will arise in its place. Search online for discussion of Major Arcanum number 13, and you’ll see much reassuring talk of ‘new beginnings’, ‘fresh starts’, and the like. Well, OK. But let’s not forget the Death.  And a decapitated dolphin is one hell of a memento mori.

Georges Bataille, with his base materialism, would doubtless have agreed with these sentiments, and there is a link here with Bataille’s Acephale (Headless), which was both a cultural journal and a secret society. There were five issues of Acephale, the journal, between 1936 and 1939. It was mostly written by Bataille himself, but also included contributions from the likes of Andre Masson and Roger Caillois. It was largely concerned with the ideas of Nietzsche, and with claiming Nietzsche back from the Fascists, who were by now rampant across Europe. And, by extension, it attempted to imbue the Left with a radical re-imagining of the powerful mythic forces so successfully appropriated and channelled by the far Right in this period. Bataille recognised that the Left’s po-faced secularism was lacking something in terms of magnetic appeal. A reproduction of Acephale 2 can be seen here (ignore the ads and download buttons though).

Acephale, the secret society, included the same people, more or less, and had the same agenda of radicalising the sacred… probably. No-one seems to know exactly what they got up to: phrases like ‘secret rites’ and ‘occult rituals’ come up in the brief accounts that are available,  but I can find no detail beyond that. Legend has it that all the members of the group were intrigued by the notion of ritual sacrifice by beheading, and all agreed to be the victim in such a rite. But none would agree to be the executioner.

Whatever the truth, it seems clear that, for Bataille, a complete rejection of religion and mysticism could readily co-exist with an intense interest in these things for what they could reveal about the base material of the human condition. Contradiction? Well, the Shoreline is familiar with such contradictions, and offers the following advice: when you find yourself having to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable worldviews, zoom out, until you find a vantage point that gives a view that can encompass both, and hopefully many more besides.

Three Roses

It gladdens my scarab to see from my site stats that I’ve had a number of visitors land here through a Google Image search for single rose. Having just tried this search myself, it’s apparent that anyone arriving at the Shoreline via this route must have waded through many pages of results before alighting on this post of mine and its accompanying lead image. It appears that these visitors are looking for an image a little less ordinary than those which make up the vast majority of the results on Google. This is understandable, as those are mostly sugary, and indeed cheesy- a particularly emetic flavour combination.

So, as a public service, I present here three images of single roses, for all who wish to feast their eyes and imagination on something a little more nourishing than the Interflora catalogue. Those searching for rose images to send to a love interest should find that these will strike the appropriate chord in the bosom of the recipient.

We begin with the Flemish engraver and printer Johann Theodor de Bry, or possibly a follower of his. An alchemical emblem from the early 17th century. The Latin translates as The rose gives honey to the bees, the bees being seekers after truth who come to drink the nectar of the Divine, symbolised by the rose.

Our second image is equally remarkable and striking, and will surely stir the heart of all who regard it:

Rose Brain by Turkish photographer Nazif Topcuoglu, found via Foxes In Breeches (some NSFW content at that link, and I predict that, as a result of my saying that, it will now become the most-clicked link on this blog to date). The photographer specialises in lavish reconstructions of bygone eras, and this is apparently a recreation of a Roman dish. I cannot vouch for its historical accuracy, but I note that this Roman Cookery page does have a tasty-sounding recipe for rosehip and calf’s brain custard.

Finally, we have something from that scoundrel Dali:

This seems to be variously titled Rosa Meditiva or simply The Rose, and is from 1958, long after his split with Breton and Surrealism, at a time when he was proclaiming himself more inspired by science and its discoveries than by the autopsychedelic paranoiac-critical method of his younger days. Heisenberg, he said, had replaced Freud as his creative ‘father’.  The image showcases his extraordinary draftsmanship, with the rose echoing the lotus of Eastern iconography. The two tiny figures under it introduce nuances of meaning: are they lovers? Perhaps they are creating the rose, and basking in its radiance. Yet there is human frailty here too: the pair seem so terribly vulnerable, utterly dwarfed- perhaps even imperilled- by the magnitude of Love.

The wholeness which is a combination of ‘I and you’ is part of a transcendent unity whose nature can only be grasped in symbols like the rose

– Jung

In the driest white stretch of pain’s infinite desert, I lost my sanity and found this rose.


The Ball Keeps Rolling On

How we roll

In yesterday’s post, which might be worth reading before tackling this one, we pondered the transmutation of base matter. Within Surrealism, this topic was at the heart of a fierce long-running argument between Andre Breton and Georges Bataille, as elucidated by Elsa Adamowicz in 2002 in the pages of Aurifex, a University of London journal. Her article, which has the pleasingly alliterative title Exquisite Excrement: the Bataille-Breton Polemic, merits reading in full, but I’ll attempt to summarise it as follows:

Breton took the view that Surrealist painting had the capacity- the obligation– to transport the viewer to some realm of the marvellous. Surrealism could, and would, unlock the magic suppressed by everyday life. Writing in the late 1920s about Dali’s paintings, Breton praised their hallucinatory and poetic power, and likened the psychic landscape of Dali’s art to a fantastical ‘treasure island’. “Dali… reigns on these distant lands”, where something in the inner world of the viewer is transmuted, and new possibilities are born.

For Bataille, this was a retreat into mysticism. He, in contrast, insisted on base materialism– in this view, matter is base, and that’s that. There is no possibility of it being any other way. This difference in perspective had profound implications, according to Bataille, who raged that Breton’s idealised dreamworlds were undermining Surrealism’s revolutionary potential, dissipating it in fantasies: “..absurd ‘treasure lands’, that’s fine for religion, for little castrated men, little poets, mystical little yapping dogs. But you can’t overturn anything with a big soft club, with a library-parcel of dreams.” Only militant base materialism could lead to real revolutionary action, and for Bataille this militancy took the form of a focus on “rotting matter, mutilation, bestiality and abjection, and on actions of violent dismemberment, masturbation, ejaculation or castration. Bataille’s claimed reaction is bestial rather than poetic: ‘In front of [Dali’s] paintings, all I want to do is let out a pig’s scream’.

Dali himself seems to have found a way to agree with Breton regarding art’s transformative possibilities, but to join gleefully with Bataille in emphasising the darkest and most deviant aspects of his work as the key to that potential. He ends up mocking Breton and his circle as “.. toilet paper revolutionaries, steeped in petty bourgeois prejudice… They were terrified by shit and the anus. Yet what is more human and more in need of transcendence!” (this mention of ‘transcendence’ shows clearly that Dali did not subscribe to Bataille’s ‘base materialism’- Bataille would have scorned the very notion of ‘transcendence’).

Read the whole thing: many of the quotes from the protagonists relate directly to the themes of yesterday’s post. Breton even discusses the appearance of scarabs, rolling their balls of dung, in Dali’s work. In the meantime, here’s Dali’s painting Le Jeu Lugubre, or The Lugubrious Game, which is mentioned repeatedly in the article:

I should also mention here that I share a birthday with Georges Bataille, who was born 72 years to the day before me. However, I fear he was in error with his base materialism. Our experiences arise from matter (the physical flesh of our nervous systems), but are not reducible to it.  This alone should give proponents of base materialism pause for thought.

Strange Weather on Distant Shores

If any of the Shoreline’s small but discerning readership are in the vicinity of Reading, Pennsylvania over the next few weeks, they’ll doubtless want to check out Surrealism in 2012: Toward the World of the Fifth Sun, an exciting-looking event that runs from Jan 6th to Feb 19th at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts. Read more about it here and here.

Meanwhile the major, heavy-on-the-big-names exhibition Surrealism in Paris continues until Jan 29th at Fondation Beyeler, Basel. I’m still trying to work out a way I might get to this. The exhibition website is well worth a look- I particularly liked this 1935 Man Ray portrait of Max Ernst:

I don’t think I’ve previously seen Ernst looking quite so birdlike- quite so much like Loplop, in other words.