Saturday 25 October 2008


“Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them.” – Blaise Pascal

An absolute gem for Song Saturday today, the “Miserere” by Allegri. Allegri's masterpiece was written sometime before 1638 for the annual celebration of the matins during Holy Week (the Easter celebration). Twice during that week, on Wednesday and Friday, the service would start at 3 a.m. when 27 candles were extinguished one at a time until but one remained burning. According to reports, the pope would participate in these services. Allegri composed his setting of the Miserere for the very end of the first lesson of these Tenebrae services. At the final candle, the pope would kneel before the altar and pray while the Miserere was sung, culminating the service. It is a setting of Psalm 50 in Latin.

Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.
Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquiatatem meam.
Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et peccatto meo munda me.
Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci: ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.
Ecce enim in inquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.
Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifesti mihi.
Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Auditui meo dabis gaudium st laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.
Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
Ne projicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.
Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.
Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et implii ad te convertentur.
Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.

Have mercy upon me, O God: according to your great mercy.
Wash my sin completely from me: and cleanse me of my wickedness.
And according to the number of your mercies: wipe out my sin.
Since I know my iniquity: and my sin is always before me.
Against you only have I sinned and I have done wrong before you: that you may be
justified in your charge and be right in your judgment.
For behold I was conceived in wickedness: in sin my mother conceived me.
For behold, you loved the truth: and you made clear to me the hidden secrets of your wisdom.
You will purge me with hyssop and I will be clean: you will wash me and I will be whiter than snow.

Make me hear joy and gladness: and the bones you have cast down will rejoice.
Turn your face from my sins: and wipe out all my iniquities.
Make a clean heart in me, O God: and renew an upright spirit in me.
Do not send me from your face: and do not remove your holy spirit from me.
Give back to me the joy of your salvation: and strengthen your spirit in me.
I will teach the wicked your way: and the sinners will turn to you.
Free me from bloodshed O God, the God of my salvation: and my tongue will acclaim your justice.

Ruth Holton (Soprano).
Susan Hamilton (Soprano).
Jean Louis Comoretto (Countertenor).
Raoul le Chenadec (Countertenor).
Thierry Brehu (Tenor).
Jean François Chiama (Tenor).
Edmond Hurtrait (Tenor).
James Gowings (Baritone).
Bernard Fabre Garrus (Bass).

Director: Bernard Fabre Garrus.

It was not long before Allegri's Miserere was the only such work sung at these services. With its soaring soprano parts (sung for centuries by castrati) and compelling melodic style, the work enjoyed almost immediate popularity. So impressed was some subsequent pope that the work thereafter was protected and a prohibition was placed on its use outside the Sistine Chapel at the appointed time. Chapel regulations forbid its transcription; indeed, the prohibition called for excommunication for anyone who sought to copy the work.

Leopold Mozart, visiting Rome with his 12-year-old son heard the work. The young Mozart heard the piece and wrote it down form memory. Leopold told of Wolfgang's accomplishment in a letter to his wife dated April 14, 1770 (Rome):

"…You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter, if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands…"

Friday 24 October 2008


"All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt." - Charles M. Schulz

Chocolate cake is always good and home-made is even better. Trouble is many of the recipes are quite involved. This is fairly simple and you don’t even have to take the mixer out of the cupboard. No eggs are needed, either!

Lazy Chocolate Cake

1 cup sugar
1 ½ cups flour
3 tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla essence
1 tsp. vinegar
5 tbsp. molten unsalted butter
1 cup warm water

Syrup (optional):
Glassful of sugar
Glassful of water
Juice of a quarter lemon

2 cups icing sugar
sprinkle of vanillin sugar
1 tbsp cocoa
1/3 cup unsalted butter
Enough milk to moisten
½ cup molten chocolate

Preheat oven to 180˚C.
Grease 20 cm cake tin.
Mix in a wide bowl, by sifting together all of the dry ingredients (sugar through salt).
Make three holes in the dry ingredients.
Add the vanilla, vinegar and melted butter, separately, into each of the three holes.
Pour the water over top of the ingredients in the pan and stir well, until well mixed.
Pour into the tin and bake 30 – 35 minutes at 180˚ C in the oven with the tin on top of a biscuit sheet.

If desired, boil the sugar and water for 3-4 minutes and squeeze the juice in as you turn the heat off.
Drench the cold cake with hot syrup, allowing it to be absorbed.

Mix together the icing sugar, vanillin sugar and butter into a paste.
Add milk 1 tablespoon at a time to make a smooth icing.
Add the molten chocolate (reserving a spoonful), stirring well.
Put icing on the cake once it has cooled.
Use the reserved chocolate to drizzle on parallel straight lines, making the chevron patterns by dragging a skewer across the lines.

Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday 23 October 2008


“We need not destroy the past. It is gone.” - John Cage

Oblivion is the word of the day today.

oblivion |əˈblivēən| noun
1 The state of being unaware or unconscious of what is happening: They drank themselves into oblivion.
• The state of being forgotten, esp. by the public: His name will fade into oblivion.
figurative Extinction: Only our armed forces stood between us and oblivion.
2 historical Law Amnesty or pardon.
ORIGIN late Middle English : via Old French from Latin oblivio(n-), from oblivisci ‘forget.’

A news item today reports that neurobiologist researchers at the Brain and Behaviour Discovery Institute at the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine claim to have selectively erased memories from mice in the laboratory.

Our memory works in four stages: Acquisition, consolidation, storage and retrieval. Earlier research identified that different chemicals help nerve cells in our brain deal with these four processes. Communication between brain cells, connections between neurons and the way that different chemicals interact with receptor molecules on the surface of brain cells determine what we learn, how we store it and how easily retrievable it is.

The research team at the Medical College of Georgia is headed by Joe Tsien, who together with his team found a way to quickly manipulate the activity of a memory molecule, a protein called αCaMKII. This plays a key role in brain cell communication. The researchers found that as they changed the levels of this protein in the brain, they could manipulate the level of recall of a stimulation, of a memory.

They applied electric shocks to mice and this stimulated a memory in them, which associated the electric shock with a certain place in their cages. The mice then avoided that place. By manipulating the levels of αCaMKII in the mice’s brain, the memory was erased and the mice no longer avoided the cage part where they had received the electric shock. Other experiments confirmed the selective loss of memory.

The logic of this research is that eventually its results could be applied to humans. Goodbye to phobias and painful memories, no more anguish over broken relationships, post-traumatic stress syndrome no longer a problem. In fact it could be a wonderful dream come true! Think of it, eternal bliss… Whatever hurts us and causes us pain erased away. Happiness on tap. Bliss pills, joy injections! Shades of the Aldous Huxley book “Brave New World” and its mind-numbing “soma”. A sad reflection of the 2004 Michael Gondry film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.

What are we turning into, we humans? On the one hand we dread Alzheimer’s disease and the devastation it causes by robbing us of memory, and on the other hand we look to find these magic drugs that promise us oblivion and a “safe” erasure of our “bad” memories. We wish to live an existence that is free of all pain, a life packed in cotton wool, where our every experience is a cushioned, pleasant one. We want nothing but pleasure, joy, happiness, bliss, contentment, ecstasy, perfection. We cannot stand a challenge, buckle under stress and strain, succumb to depression over trifles, become demented because of experiences that caused us distress. Our tolerance levels are decreasing and we are more likely to fly off the handle over irritating matters than something of truly mind-shattering proportions.

Here is the perfect solution! Dr Tsien’s wonderful “happy pills”. We ask someone to think of an unpleasant memory, we administer the drug and whiz, bang, kazam, blowie! We “cure” them. The “patients” become a wonderful vegetable, as happy as a pumpkin basking in the sunshine of a safely guarded garden. The mind police has patrolled brains, eliminated the “bad guys” of the memory store and has established a wonderful new existence for the “patient”. Think of it, there would be no more “bad jobs” – you go and do what you have to do, take your “happy pills” as soon as you finish working and zap! Memory erased! Think of how cheerfully you would go back to work in the morning!

You could become a very efficient killer. But then, zap! All memory erased! You could be abducted, degraded, made to do whatever your captors wanted. They then inject you with a little “happy drug”, memories erased! No problem! You could be grieving for a loved one, you could be suffering and hurting and crying and living a miserable life – “happy pills” to the rescue. You take the pill and forget that person ever existed! Problem solved – or is it?

My memories define who I am. Both good and bad. The pain of experience moulds the shape of my conscience. The anguish that painful memories cause me is only there because beneath the anguish lies the pleasure of the experience that pre-existed or co-existed with the pain. Life is a mixture of pain and pleasure. Good memories balance the bad. Good memories are no longer “good” if we have nothing to compare to them It is not the lot of a human to be perpetually happy. Happiness non-stop is the ultimate of boredoms. As Wendell Berry says: “The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

Wednesday 22 October 2008


“It's not that some people have willpower and some don't. It's that some people are ready to change and others are not.” - Heraclitus

I was in Sydney for the day for work today and spent nearly the whole of the day indoors. This proved to be a good thing as the weather was wild and unseasonable. Wind, rain and cool temperatures with leaden gray skies that was more like the midst of a Sydney winter, rather than a mid-Spring day.

The poem I give you today was written just recently as the full moon filled the sky with its glowing orb.

Madwoman Moon

The moon struts across the sky
Like a madwoman tonight.
She holds aloft her bright light
Looking down with a glassy eye.

The moon watches me, still,
But her tapping long fingers
Drum a tattoo, and it lingers,
Echoing, my empty room to fill.

She glares at me and spits
The stars, like orange pips;
Her furrowed sweaty brow drips
And in the garden as she sits,

She mutters senseless words.
Cackling, now and then –
Scaring even brave men,
Silencing crying night birds.

The moon is on the rampage
Like Mad Meg, she rants;
Angry, she sighs and pants,
Unable to assuage her rage.

I hate the moon tonight,
Her silvery, bright light,
Her mad ways, her loud
Screeching, her crowd
Of dark, night creatures.
Her shining, dead features,
And her madwoman hair
Entangling me in her lair,
As once again I succumb
To her magic. Struck dumb,
I follow, and like a fool
Again drown in her dark pool.

Monday 20 October 2008


“In all nations an exceptional man exists that compensates the deficiencies of the remainder. In those moments, when humanity is found collectively in a state of decadence, there always remain those exceptional beings as point of reference.” - Augusto Roa Bastos

The more I look at the news every day, the more disheartened I get. We seem to be living in decadent times and each news item is evidence enough of this. I am reminded of the days preceding the fall of the Roman Empire. The Romans became the most civilised and most powerful people of the ancient world but the more territory they accrued, the greater their wealth, the more their power, then the greater their decadence became and they ended up easy prey of the barbarian hordes that overran their heartland and defeated them ignominiously in the late 5th century AD.

The Roman Empire became “decadent” because immorality and excesses corrupted law-makers. Its emperors became weak through their dependence on army legions whose allegiance was questionable and whose soldierly talents grew degenerate. The Roman aristocrats of the capital were so busy at their orgies (often with their siblings), throwing dissenters to the lions, poisoning their spouses, parents, and children, and eating exotic foods (in between visits to the vomitorium so they could eat more), that they didn't notice all the Vandals, Goths, Gauls and other “barbarians” gathering on their frontiers.

The ruthless, warlike, proud and pagan Germans rode in, trampled under their horses' hooves the few poor debauched legionnaires who remained, still foolishly fighting on foot, sacked Rome, destroyed civilisation, overthrew the last emperor in 476 AD, and ushered in the Dark Ages, from which Europe only emerged with the Renaissance, a thousand years later. Christianity eventually built a new civilisation on the ruins of the old, but only through the mediation of the Classical ideals of the Renaissance.

We are living at an age where our civilisation is once again threatened by a new Dark Age. The world domination of the world by the USA seems to be on the verge of collapse and no amount of largesse will rescue the dying behemoth of its economy. Our selfish, pleasure-centred existence with its emphasis on the here and now is inviting a degeneracy that is reminiscent of the dying days of Rome. We seem as a civilisation to have lost our sense of values, the significance of our self-respect, the importance of shame in a public context, our feeling of social justice, the value of religious observance. We have lost touch with what family really means, we have sold love to the highest bidder, we have betrayed the meaning of true friendship, we have reduced our personal relationships to the most superficial level.

We live on the surface of a soap bubble, recklessly prodding it constantly to test its fragile surface. All the while, the soap bubble is growing larger and drifting towards oblivion. Our politicians have become traitors, our countries have degenerated into people markets, money reigns supreme and human dignity is insulted non-stop. Can such a civilisation survive?

A survey of the last few days news items has left me stunned:
• The world economic crisis, with no improvement in sight

• The looming US presidential election that has become a running joke

• A New Zealand toddler put in a tumble dryer, spun on a clothesline and kicked in the head as part of ongoing abuse before she died

• The final year students of one of the most prestigious and exclusive of Melbourne high schools going on a destructive rampage

• A UK man convicted of killing his lover and eating his flesh

• A US man convicted of murdering three people, including a couple who were tied to an anchor and thrown from their yacht off the California coast

21 prisoners died in a jail riot in Mexico near the U.S. border on Monday, some in a fire after a gun battle between rival gangs

Nazi flag flown in a suburban house in Adelaide

• Families with children becoming homeless as they face mounting economic pressures

• Alarming news of rising disease tolls, new epidemics and threats of plagues to come

• Continuing gloomy news on climate change

Inane reports of inane celebrities doing inane things, over and over again, ignoring the world on the brink of the apocalypse…

O tempora, o mores!

Sunday 19 October 2008


“I believe in the absolute preciousness of the here and now. Here is where we are and now is where we live.” - Philip Pullman

We watched Chris Weitz’s 2007 film “The Golden Compass” at the weekend. You may remember this caused quite a great deal of controversy when it first came out as it was thought to be quite irreverent and blasphemous, based on books with “anti-religious themes”. The books are written by Philip Pullman, a self-professed atheist and member of a number of humanist societies. “His Dark Materials” children’s book trilogy comprises “Northern Lights” (1995 = The Golden Compass), “The Subtle Knife” (1997) and “The Amber Spyglass” (2000). Pullman is a typical Oxford scholar and his children’s books correspond with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books in that they are concerned with children plagued by difficult adult moral dilemmas, the struggle between good and evil, parallel universes, anthropomorphic animals and the quest for the meaning of existence. It is rather surprising that the controversy arose as in Pullman’s books there is no attack on religion as such, but perhaps there may be a strong criticism of dogmaticism, organised religious bureaucracy and religious intolerance.

In any case, the film shows no evidence of any atheistic doctrine and it may be enjoyed as pure and simple escapist fluff. In fact, the subtlety of the books is lost and the heavy-handed way in which the film starts with an explanation (thus stripping the plot of any mystery or wonder) does not presage well. Significant cuts in the plot are further hampered by poor character development and one feels that the whole thing is rushed with a lot of good material left on the cutting room floor. It is clear that the film is trying to ride on the crest of the success of the “Lord of the Rings”, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, the “Harry Potter” films, and “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. However, despite the excellent special effects and overall exceptional technical quality of the film, it does not rate as highly.

The plot in a nutshell is as follows: Lyra, a young orphan girl, lives among scholars at Oxford's Jordan College, in a parallel Universe to our own, in which every human is joined to a physical manifestation of an animal (called a daemon), which is the human’s soul. One day Lyra eavesdrops a secret conversation in which an extraordinary dust is mentioned and which is rumoured to possess profound properties that could unite whole universes. But there are those who fear the dust and would stop at nothing to destroy it. Central to the plot is the Magisterium, a totalitarian government that seeks to control the population’s thoughts as well as its actions. Children are also being kidnapped left, right and centre, and Lyra's best friend, Roger, is among them. Lyra is taken from Oxford by the sinister Mrs Coulter and is thrown into the midst of a desperate struggle of good and against evil. Lyra is forced to seek aid from witches, Gyptians, and formidable armoured bears, to help her save her friends from these evil experiments. She also has the aid of a magic golden compass, which is an alethiometer (truth meter) capable of answering any question put to it, provided one can understand its cryptic symbol answers, which are always true.

On thing about the movie that stands out are the good casting and equally good performances. Nicole Kidman is the delicious villainess Mrs Coulter, while Dakota Blue Richards does a good job as Lyra Bellacqua. Eva Green is a fetching witch and Daniel Craig a suitably aloof Lord Asriel. The music is understated and suitable, the sets exceptional and the special effects wonderful. Overall, a good film if you have not read the books, but if you have read the books it is a disappointing effort.

As far as the political or religious implications of the film are concerned, it is a satire of totaliarinism (which should keep the conservatives happy), but I could find no evidence of atheism (unless one considers the favourable view of witches portrayed, as irreligious). Perhaps I may let Pullman justify his religious convictions for himself:

“The religious impulse – which includes the sense of awe and mystery we feel when we look at the universe, the urge to find a meaning and a purpose in our lives, our sense of moral kinship with other human beings – is part of being human, and I value it. I'd be a damn fool not to. But organised religion is quite another thing. The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people's lives in the name of some invisible god (and they're all invisible, because they don't exist) – and done terrible damage. In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow-creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it. That is the religion I hate, and I'm happy to be known as its enemy.” Philip Pullman


“If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.” – Marcel Proust

The last couple of Sundays I have been choosing surrealistic paintings, and today I am continuing the trend with a painting by Max Ernst (1891-1976). He was a German painter-poet who was a member of the Dada movement and a founder of surrealism. A self-taught artist, he formed a Dada group in Cologne, Germany, with other avant-garde artists. He pioneered a method called frottage, in which a sheet of paper is placed on the surface of an object and then penciled over until the texture of the surface is transferred. In 1925, he showed his work at the first surrealist painting exhibition in Paris.

This painting from 1944 is called “The Eye of Silence” and is characteristic of Ernst’s style. Vibrant colour, irrelevant, painstaking detail, writhing forms, organic evolving rocks and hidden enigmatic figures that contribute to the dream-like state depicted in the painting.