Thursday, March 3, 2011

A show of hands

I've always noticed that when you start looking into something, like triangles, you start seeing them everywhere.  Coming upon us unexpectedly, the recurrence of images in which we've taken an interest can be delightful, startling, even alarming.  Crediting these sudden appearances with special significance, however, is more than a paranoid delusion; for some it's a sign of conspiracy, for others mystical synchronicity.  It certainly has a poetic aspect to it.  For many it's simply an excuse to say "It's like, weird" and go on to mimic The Twilight Zone theme music.

Or write blog posts.

Following my bout with hand fetishism (see The hand is the whole), I happened to read C.J Samson's Dissolution, a historical crime novel set against the backdrop of the dissolution of the monasteries in the time of Cromwell.

It follows the adventures of a hunchback named Shardlake, sent to investigate the murder of a commissioner in a fictitious Benedictine monastery.  Along with the murder, the monastery church has been desecrated, which includes the sacrifice of a black cock upon the altar and the theft of a sacred relic:  the hand of the repentant thief crucified at Jesus' side.  This hand was nailed to a piece of wood and set in an emerald-studded casket.

Roman Catholic tradition calls the thief Saint Dismas.  His repentance is described in only one gospel, Luke (23:39-43), and he isn't named until the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which came together some time in the 4th century.  His name comes from a Greek word which can mean "sunset" or "death".  His feast day, March 25th, is also that of the Annunciation, when Gabriel announced to Mary she would miraculously conceive a child.  Thus he is linked both with Jesus's death (sunset) and inklings of his birth (sunrise?)  The sun set and rises does the son.

The sun just just keeps popping up as a symbol of rebirth and and an emblem of "illumination". 

Also, you may recall from our previous post that a "Hand of Glory", the hand of a hanged man, was a tool used by thieves to unlock doors and cause paralysis.  As for relics, the hand of St. John Kemble is still kept in a reliquary at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in Heresford.  Also, today (3/3), I stumbled across a blog entry in which a guy describes making a steampunk-flavored lamp using a severed animal paw; he links his macabre contraption to the Hand of Glory and calls it...the Torch of Saint Dismas! 

I've also just remembered that last night I watched Simon of the Desert (Luis Buñuel, 1965) and there's a scene where a thief holds up his stumps--hacked off for his crimes--and our eponymous hero Simon prays from atop his pillar and the thief's hands miraculously reappear....

Simeon (390-459 CE) was an actual saint who lived 37 years atop a pillar in Syria.  Imagine my surprise when I saw this 6th century depiction of the saint, currently to be found in the Louvre.  See Jesus was in shape for our rather extensive discussion on the snake/pillar motif.  It all ties together somehow.  Paranoia or perceptual matrix?

So, I really just wanted to bring up these coincidences/synchronicities.  A pair of novels in which the action begins with a severed hand:  one discovered in The Lost Symbol and one lost in Dissolution.  Handy bookends for a post inspired by the local tale of an actual severed hand (A gruesome discovery) and followed by yet more thief-related hand motifs in quick succession.

I'm sure there's a discourse on perception and meaning to be wrung out of this, but not today.


  1. From The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

    "However, as much as we all seem to be able to relate to it, there is no actual scientific basis to it other than just another cognitive bias: selective attention. While we tend to ignore information that we cannot relate to, we are eager to connect any newly incoming data to the existing semantic network of personal knowledge that is our brain. As a result, there is no actual research on the topic and the wikipedia regarding this lemma entry gets repeatedly deleted."

    Or from Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

    "According to social scientist Brian Townsend, this 'phenomenon' is a result of our limited perception of our surroundings. Take the concept of Schadenfreude, which is a German word for "taking joy in the misfortune of others". This concept is discussed periodically in mainstream media and other sources. If one does not know what it is, and has no intention of learning what it is, one may hear the term and easily forget about it, as it does not 'fit' into the person's conceptions of reality. They may even rationalize that they heard a different word. However, once the person understands what the concept means, they will then notice it when the concept comes up in day-to-day life, whereas before, the person made few or no memories concerning the concept, as it was outside the realm of their understanding."


    Not at all well-read in psychiological literature, I wonder what has been written about the idea of synchronicity, but without necessarily involving a collective unconscious. This could be more metaphor than metaphysical. What about the collective conscious? Memetics?

    This would seem to underlie a lot of LoS posts which have a bit squeamishly referred to an agnostic synchromysticism.

    To be developed....

  2. At lunch today, a friend was describing a new bar to me. Then he opened the newspaper, and to his surprise, there was a picture of the bar! So I forwarded these Baader-Meinhof links to him, and he replied that he found this "nugget" from the second link particularly relevant:

    “Technically, a B-M occurs in a 24 hour space, although there can be some leeway on this requirement.”

    Well, BS speculation aside, both B-M links suggest the source of the phenomenon is our attention faculties. Once we start paying attention to something, we're startled to find it all about us.

    You also mention Jung's theory and memetics. I don't know what semiotics brings to the conversation.

    One more theory on the phenomenon is Littlewood's Law, which seems to be a corollary of the Law of Truly Large Numbers.

    (Did I use the word "corollary" correctly?)

  3. Great comment, Gid. Yes, I think "corollary" is ok here. :)

    Both these articles do suggest it's a result of out attention facilities, but never actually put a name to it. I read another article which says it's a form of the recency effect: "a cognitive bias that results from disproportionate salience of recent stimuli or observations. People tend to recall items that were at the end of a list rather than items that were in the middle of a list."

    I'm not sure if that captures it exactly. That link to Littlewood's Law is very useful. It's something I'd formulated myself but never knew there was a name for it. For example your guy who was talking about a bar and then sees it in the newspaper as he turns the page. Whoa, freaky right? Startling, but is it really that odd? For everytime it happens, there are an incalculable amount of times it doesn't. So, I'm fondly remembering a friend I haven't spoken to in months and out of the blue he calls. Recall all the times you thought about an old friend and they didn't call.

    Still, this phenomenon is not without its poetic aspects and its worth expounding upon. LoS posts are filled with this kind of stuff. That's what sets us apart from the "synchromystics" I think. We recognize this as a form of cognitive bias and not something beamed at us from out lizard overlords....

    Anyway, tooling around the "see also" pages, I think confirmation bias may be the term I was looking for....which doesn't make this stuff merely confirms my bias that "reality" is to a large extent a function of perception....


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