Mantegna 466

At the very end of his life, Andrea Mantegna inscribed the answer to the question on the tree in this delicate cameo-painting of Delilah snipping away at Samson’s hair — as if the fountain next to the tree weren’t clarification enough.

If it’s hard to read the words on the tree, you can click on the tree itself to read them more easily — and if that’s still not enough you can click yet again on the bigger picture. Then it’s a piece of cake — that is, the riddle’s a piece of cake, not the beautiful, dignified, introspective young woman trimming the hair of her grizzled, old, pumped-up and psyched-out lover, the act that reduces all men to the divine fools they are destined to be. Because the Divine Fool is the true message of the Samson story, it seems to me, that is if you read the details of the story very carefully — or, alternatively, if you carefully and exhaustively read your own life, or even read me if you know where to look — which is why I am writing what follows, to find out.

I’m going to leave some space on that now, for reflection.


My reflections on Mantegna’s dictum, foemina diabolo tribus assibus est mala peior, are developed day by day in the Comments below, and if you are interested in such things I hope you will be able to read them with as much hope for an answer as I posted them. On the other hand, if you’re impatient you can skip ahead to a specific discussion of HOW BAD IS THE DEVIL IN THE END.  But fasten your seat belts as you scroll down, because jumping ahead is going to make for a very fast ride!

And those of you who start at the beginning, be warned as well: the discussion that follows thrives on hair-pins and other sticky corners, and very often paints itself into untenable places as well — I do hope you’ll be charitable and forgive me for all the dead-ends. I’m an Old Father William, and all I can tell you is that this is how it goes. Indeed, that’s part of the riddle of knowing where you are in the space you inhabit, and it doesn’t much matter whether it’s on earth, in space, buried in your own person or in some other idea or dimension, or perhaps even suited up in a New Age space-vehicle transitting infinity to arrive where you actually are, like in Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Wrapped up in your own cocoon like Eve, in other words, even if you’re a man and not yet ready to be that beautiful, powerful, and fey. Or a snake with your own tail in your mouth like Satan in the Garden of Eden — indeed, you may even be impatient enough to want to go straight to the discussion for men and women who are no longer inhabitants of the Garden of Eden but would like to know what really happened back then.


Or if, like most of my friends, you’re more interested in my own demise as a soi-disant angel and poet yet again you can begin at that end:


Or if you’re really impatient and just want to know what happens at the various ends:


And finally, if you don’t want to begin at any end but just keep on fooling around like Old Father William:


Christopher Woodman,
Chiang Mai, March 3rd, 2016




The forge is a hot and noisy place—but it has it’s quiet moments too, and even that blast of red hot flame pumped up by the bellows can quiet down and brew a nice pot of tea.

DSCN3871 - Inle Lake Forge

The events leading up to Galileo’s house arrest were full of such hot air too as the modern world was in the forge, so to speak, and the hammer blows were hard.

But now we can stop and use another sort of hammer, like delicate compost that flakes in your hands like spring snow to lift up your plants and make them flower. Think about that — let those hammer blows flower like that kettle on the fire.

There was a huge amount of hot air generated in the Vatican in the decade leading up to Galileo’s censure in 1615. But it’s very important to remember how complex the riddle was. Galileo understood very well the Curia’s position, as the records show, and tried his best to explain why placing the sun at the center of a Copernican “solar system” could be reconciled with a theocentric, Ptolemaic interpretation of the same phenomena. And I think almost certainly the Church leaders understood both sides of the argument as well, though its pastoral obligations led the Curia to assert that it was a simple either/or issue which had to be decided on the basis of Authority, not Science. For that was the primary function of the Church, and still is — to serve the struggling Faithful by defending their Faith with Theology.

The paradoxes of life are unthinkable to the majority of people who are, like me, better at imagining perfection than at observing facts. On the other hand, gifted souls have always understood that as human beings we have intellectual as well as sense-based faculties, and I feel sure that primitive people had a much deeper understanding of the human condition than we give them credit for. I mean, do you think the naked little Good-fella didn’t understand and use the power of the intellect to thrive with so little for 30,000 years in the harsh Australian desert, or the Bushman in the equally harsh Kalahari? Or the Inuit in the ice? Or the Navajo? Do you think they weren’t intelligent or inspired enough to understand who they were and how to look after themselves for such a long time and in such a positive way?

I have none of those gifts myself — my eyes are blind to what I feel sure they saw, and some still see, indeed my intellectual powers are dwarfed by comparison with theirs. That’s why I turn to them, for a deeper understanding of my own isolation and poverty. And of course I turn to anyone whose words I can read too, or whose paintings I can look at, or costumes, or drama, or dreams even — for a glimpse that would make me, like Wordsworth, less forlorn. And of course I turn to great misunderstood scientists too to understand my own misunderstanding, and wasn’t Galileo Galilei the greatest and the most gratuitously misunderstood of them all?

When at last the Church rehabilitated Galileo over 300 years later, Pope John Paul II called it “a tragic mutual incomprehension,” which indeed it was — the pie has two halves but at the time everybody ended up with just half, and that’s all most of us are left with too, needless to say. On the other hand, I feel sure there have always been human beings who were able to reconcile the mind-boggling contradictions of the whole pie of life, like the fact that, despite all appearances and ‘proofs’ to the contrary, the soul exists in many places at once, in the theocentric mind for a start, then in the heliocentric body, and then everywhere, and of course, most certainly and most mysteriously of all, nowhere. Even more importantly, such human beings have always understood that such realms were 1.) not separate and b.) non-existent in the sense that we experience the soul nowhere but in our own largely wishful, self-centered thinking. And I feel our understanding of all that is dwindling, that our modern minds are ever more conditioned by the demands of our well-serviced, well-exercised and well-medicated bodies. Indeed, we’ve got to the point now where we can only think like our bodies work, i.e. with minds fastened like railway bogies to our underbodies, strictly in one mode and strictly zapping down hi-speed rails. And as a poet I would say that the alternative to that way of thinking isn’t old-fashioned Mysticism or Theosophy either, what is more New Age fantasies about Purity, Spiritual Energy and Past Lives, etc. — which are all self-serving and equally materialistic. As a poet I’d say that wherever the soul is has got to be nowhere like that, indeed I’d say it’s got to be much closer to that no place where God lies stone dead.

Which is precisely how the language I’m looking for does it, and why such words are more important today than they have been ever before. It’s all we’ve got left yet we’ve only just started using the word in our times as a tool like a hex, jinx or spell.

One other inkling. In my experience, what might be called wise people have never been much interested in the idea of an individual soul what is more eternal life or personal salvation. It would be so selfish for one thing, to be alone with oneself like that for so long. And who would deserve it for another? Even a saint would surely have doubts about that, indeed, above all a saint.

By definition, Wisdom is associated with coming to terms with the paradox of birth as a brief prelude to death on the one hand, and life as the sole immortality on the other. Wisdom knows there is nothing in religious dogma but approximations and carrots, that in reality everything’s just nothing, and that nevertheless that nothing’s love. Yes, love, an embarrassing little Hallmark platitude of a word like that, yet still it creeps in if you’re Wise. On the other hand, to say it better or more truthfully requires that hardest of all things to be, a fool.

Like Emily Dickinson on the subject, and who could ever say it better than this?


…………….The Soul selects her own Society–
…………….Then–shuts the Door–
…………….To her divine Majority–
…………….Present no more–

…………….Unmoved–she notes the Chariots–pausing–
…………….At her low Gate–
…………….Unmoved–an Emperor be kneeling
…………….Upon her mat–

…………….I’ve known her–from an ample nation–
…………….Choose One–
…………….Then–close the Valves of her attention–
…………….Like Stone–
……………………………………………………..Emily Dickinson (1862)


And does she mean Samuel Bowles? Does she mean sex?

Yes, I think so. That too. Because I think she knew herself both as a woman and as this painting by the Latvian painter, Normunds Braslins, in gold leaf and egg tempera:
Normunds Braslins - Girl Large ………………………………….Normunds Braslins, Riga, Latvia (1962- )

So that’s it, everybody. Of course this thread was from the start exploratory and still isn’t sure what it’s trying to say, though it might have this morning, Monday, March 17th, 2014.

That’s because much to my amazement I found myself yesterday face to face with a prostrate figure on top of a mountain, and if any Sunday moment wants to capture the whereabouts of the soul I think it’s going to have to be shaped, contoured and colored something like that.

…………………………..I’ve known her–from an ample nation–
…………………………..Choose One–
…………………………..Then–close the Valves of her attention–
…………………………..Like Stone–

I’ll try to get to that again when I can, but it’s not easy.

Christopher Woodman