The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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MAY 2009 Issue
Art In Conversation

Robert Lawlor with Christopher Bamford and Dorothea Rockburne

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

After an absence of many years, Robert Lawlor, who began as a sculptor, and whose book Sacred Geometry has had a great influence in reawakening us to the importance of geometrical principles, symmetries, and proportions—not only for art and architecture but also for science and consciousness studies—was recently back in New York for a few days. Dorothea Rockburne, the painter, who had come to know Robert through his work in geometry and had worked with it herself intensely, arranged a reception for him to meet a few old artist friends and others. One of these was Publisher Phong Bui. Dorothea and Phong thought Rail readers would be interested to hear what Robert had been up to. Because I have known Robert for many years, I was asked to come along and help facilitate the conversation. So, one Sunday, Phong picked us up in Manhattan and drove Dorothea, Robert, and I out to the Rail Headquarters to talk.

—Christopher Bamford

Chris Bamford: Robert, you’ve been away from America for many years, so we welcome you back. You began here, in New York, as an artist. Your life journey then took you out of that world into another, the world of ideas and spiritual exploration. You went to India. You fell in love with it, exploring it inwardly and outwardly. Finally, after many adventures, you found your way to Pondicherry, to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where, by a stroke of destiny, you discovered the work of Hermetic Egyptologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz. These works revealed to you the profound geometric and metaphysical knowledge—the temple wisdom—of Ancient Egypt. You returned to the U.S. where you and your (then) wife Deborah worked tirelessly to transmit that wisdom. You both even learned French from scratch, and translated many of Schwaller’s books, including his massive masterpiece, The Temple of Man. That done, you went to Australia. You explored the indigenous world and cosmology of the aborigines. You wrote Voices of the First Day. My first question is: how do you tie all these elements together?

Robert Lawlor: I was thinking about that this morning after we talked. It made me recall sitting in the south Indian desert in a grass hut as part of an international community that was one of the major active fulfillments of 1960s social idealism. It was called Auroville and the plan was to build an international city where people could divorce themselves from their national identity and become part of a group that was totally planetary-minded. It was led by two spiritual figures: Sri Aurobindo, who had passed away in 1950, and his counterpart, known as “the Mother.” It was a highly idealistic place. By that time I had been in India about six years, and someone said to me one day, “if you stay in India very much longer, India will either absorb you or destroy you” and I didn’t feel I was ready for either one of those options. I had by that time come to know someone who had been friends with Schwaller de Lubicz, and through this contact I became aware of his work. There were only fifty copies of his major work in the world at that time, but one copy was in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Library and I was able to get it out. At the same time I was getting to know a French disciple of Sri Aurobindo and she happened to have another of the only 49 remaining copies. She loaned me that copy and there I was sitting in this avant-garde futuristic community almost compelled to translate this book. Simply to enable me to read it, Deborah and I found ourselves often cycling seven miles a day to take French lessons so we could sit there that night by candlelight trying to translate this work. This enormous cross-fertilization of traditions (such as those of Egypt and India) gave some new shape and meaning to our lives. I realized: No, I cannot live by ideals alone, I have to involve myself in ideas.

Dorothea Rockburne: That’s quite a statement.

Lawlor: Yes, it was a big realization. Until then I hadn’t realized that I was by nature a highly idealistic person, someone who threw all his energy into an enclosure of mind that might be called an idealistic tunnel. But here I was, reading Schwaller’s work—it made me aware of the difference between ideas and ideals. Both of those words, by the way, are derivative from a goddess—Dia, a female deity.

Bamford: Ideals usually come from ideas, but all-too-often those trying to bring the ideals into practice have forgotten the ideas.

Lawlor: And that becomes a big problem in the world, because then you get the evolution of ideologies, which govern religious or socio-political groups. That’s one of the reasons why it’s really important to keep the two—ideals and ideas—in contact so you know what the underlying ideas really are.

Dorothea Rockburne,
Dorothea Rockburne, "Pascal, State of Grace" (1986-87). Oil and gold leaf on gessoed linen, 72 x 60 inches. © Dorothea Rockburne. Image courtesy of the artist and Greenburg Van Doren Gallery.

Bamford: Then there is the question of doing, acting. Previously, in New York, you had been making sculpture, which is about making. Then you pursued ideals, which led you to discover ideas. When you did so, was there still a need to connect ideas to work, to making?

Lawlor: Well, in India what I had found very appealing was making village architecture—how they just cut palm leaves and bamboo shoots with mud foundations to make buildings. I thought it was so beautiful and so remarkable that every man had to make his own home. There was a whole platform of indigenous values under that. So I started making buildings with palm leaves and bamboo. I would start living in one, and then more people would come from another part of the world, and I would build another one. I had to learn how to stabilize the earth, and stabilize the leaves because there were termites. The minute you got a building up you heard munching. The houses would cave in so that people were always re-building their buildings. I worked out a way of using bitumen to make earth adobe permanent. As far as I know it works, because I saw a photograph of a wall I had made. It was still intact twenty years after I built it. The whole thing was totally an experiment, I bought drums of bitumen, I had many village men working with me and they were all covered in black tar. To make the leaves permanent I worked out a way of dipping the leaves. I was really hungry for color, so I dipped leaves in paints of various colors—thinning them with kerosene and using local pigments. Some people thought it was really gross! But in the end, I covered the land with a number of these buildings. I learned how to soak the bamboo to make curved structures.

Bamford: That’s interesting because the Schwaller de Lubicz book you discovered was not only about Egypt and geometry, but also about architecture, and, in a sense, building these little dwellings has to do with space and architecture and structure.

Lawlor: But, unfortunately, I didn’t know about proportion.

Bamford: Proportion is inherent in the creation of space.

Rockburne: Robert, last night you spoke of how you came to write the book Sacred Geometry from an experience you had at the Pondicherry library. You mentioned André Vandenbroeck, who introduced you to Schwaller.

Lawlor: André came to know Schwaller toward the end of Schwaller’s life. Later he went to Pondicherry where I met him. He started teaching me sacred geometry. André wanted to write a book [Philosophical Geometry (Inner Traditions, 1987)] on that subject. I stayed in India for four years then left and came back to the States in 1972. I met up with André again and continued to study geometry with him. It really intrigued me. It was very basic stuff. So I left the ideals to begin chasing ideas.

Bamford: Interestingly enough André too had been a painter.

Lawlor: So had Schwaller.

Bamford: Schwaller had studied with Matisse, so this link between art and number and geometry is very tight. Schwaller was also an alchemist, which is the royal art—as much of an art as a science or spiritual path. This all harks back to ancient times when art, science, and religion were one—a single gesture.

Lawlor: The other person I discovered during that period in India was the distinguished Indologist, Alan Daniélou who was a linguist, like André, and an artist. He painted, he danced, he was a musician, and at one time he was completely involved in the Parisian art world. When he got to translating Indian work, ancient Indian ideas, he also got involved in numbers.

Bamford: In this unity—of science, art, and religion—number and geometry were fundamental. They were the initiatory technology, if you would. But many people still don’t understand what number and geometry are in this initiatory sense. So I have to ask: what in this sense is sacred geometry?

Lawlor: It is an examination of the inherent laws of time and space that are embedded in the symmetry of geometric forms. I should add that as the principles of time and space are embedded in the symmetry of form—so are the principles that underlie consciousness. That is a definition that I have synthesized from the work in general. That was one of the things that Danielou pointed out in his translations of the Puranas: Indian thought is dominated by a sacred trinity—the trinity of consciousness, space, and time—and these three are bonded so that you can never really consider one separately. That idea really stuck with me: that is, in the triangulation of number we observe a genesis. One (as Unity) becomes Two (as Duality), Three (as the principle of Trinity), Four (as Manifest Reality). The triangulation of number holds the passageway of the mysteries that are embedded in form, and which move our level of awareness, our consciousness of time and space.

Bamford: So time and space really have to do with the ontological principles present in consciousness and creation, because consciousness and creation are one.

Lawlor: They are the essentials of being.

Rockburne: But back to the subject of making, what interests me about your book, Robert, as compared to other books on sacred geometry, is that pragmatically it can be used as a possible inherent structure in painting. Since sacred geometry is no longer taught in art schools, I recommend that every artist read your easy and lucid, but profound, book. Using the golden mean, if properly understood, can present an open sesame to successful work. Other books I’ve read on the subject seem only to relate to nature and natural progressions. They don’t explain its use in painting. For me that represented a huge difference. Then, too, the specific quotes you gave, such as that of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), stating that there should be no decoration, only proportion spoke to me in the language of mathematics, a language I was seeking. Some time later I came across a book titled The Plan of St. Gall, which, as I looked into the evolution of medieval monasteries, led me to realize that many of them, especially those designed by St. Bernard, were designed as a series of acoustically resonating rooms, based on sacred geometry. When the monks sang at one end of the Abbey their voices resonated from room to room throughout the whole Abbey. I was so fascinated and moved by their discoveries that I made a work called The Plan of St. Gall based on that study.

Lawlor: It must have been my previous interest in painting. When I discovered geometry, I discovered that all painting in almost every culture, right up until the 17th Century, was involved in a geometric grid that is called a “canevas”—a previous structuring of the space in proportional units before any painting began. All Renaissance painters did this, and that was a real revelation. I had been through the whole education of arts in America and no one ever even said the word “proportion,” nor gave any indication that there was a systematic method underlying the entire history of art. And then in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it was forcibly removed from the arts. Teaching proportion in art academies in France was prohibited at that time, so there was a strange, almost conspiratorial, attack on people who had that kind of knowledge in the visual field. I don’t know who, or what their motivations were, but it’s very interesting.

Bamford: If we go back only to the Middle Ages, to medieval music, for instance, everything was proportion. Proportion was the expression of living relationships and at the same time the harmony of these relationships.

Lawlor: Living in the sense that it connected everything that is a part of man to the creation of nature and to the metaphysical. Life was defined by the connection between those levels. Once we became a material culture of industrialization we lost that knowledge.

Bamford: That, and the reality that a living proportion becomes invisible when it’s alive—it is the spiritual. When you increasingly identify it with the fixed form, the proportion itself ceases to bring life into it. Art becomes dead when it uses proportion mechanically. Proportion is a living thing: a spiritual thing.

Rockburne: The proportion of the golden mean is embedded within the proportion of our bodies, so in some sense we bring that realization to everything we do. The golden mean, when used visually, sets up a resonance which the resonance in our bodies responds to as beauty. Once I became aware of this proportion in everyday life, my life changed.

Lawlor: And I think no matter how it might be potentially obliterated, it always returns. It’s an aspect of our being. That invisibility always makes me think of one of Schwaller’s ideas: we are always dealing with points, lines, and planes. None of those three graphic and conceptual processes exist. They don’t exist in the three-dimensional world where everything is three-dimensional, volumetric. The first three dimensions were consciousness, time, and space: past, present, future. You always have these trinities that are the prerequisites in the embodiment of consciousness.

Bamford: All this has to do with proportion. Some artists recognize this instinctively. But not many, like Dorothea, use these ideas consciously.

Rockburne: Well, I learned the golden mean as a child at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montreal, which was three hundred years behind the time [laughter]. But after leaving Montreal I didn’t specifically use it for a long time. Then I began to veer back to it. It beckoned. I could feel it. In 1973 I began a group of work titled The Golden Section Paintings. I found I could easily incorporate the golden mean with the principles of topology I had been working with in my previous set theory work. To do this, I cut large sheets of linen, gessoed the linen on one side to give it body, and then drew with a blue plumb line on the gessoed linen a square from which the golden section rectangle was then derived and marked. Next the linen was cut, folded, and glued. There were no stretchers. The work was adhered to the wall with Velcro. I became deeply involved with this topology/geometry. Then when I saw Robert’s book, because it has Leonardo’s painting of Luca Pacioli on the cover, I thought, “Ooh. Just what I need.” It’s a book that I reread every two years or so and I give it to the artists who work in my studio. Robert’s book is universal in its concept and use of the golden mean—it contains the Egyptian use of the golden mean, the Greek, the Medieval, as well as examples from nature and India. It presented a deeper understanding for me in a way that I hadn’t fully grasped when I was a kid in school. When I went to Greece for the first time in 1972, because of my early training, I experienced the Acropolis in terms of proportion. Later that summer, while lying on the beach, I visualized the Golden Section Paintings. My paintings from then on were based on the golden section. I had made it my own. Your book then verified my intuition and confirmed for me the resonant quality of the numbers found in nature.

Lawlor: You were very fortunate to have that in your art education. In New York, the art schools are totally silent on the subject. Do you think it was the French connection?

Rockburne: Yes, Ecole des Beaux-Arts was based on a very old program of art training brought from Paris, probably from the 17th century, when the French were setting up culture in Montreal.

Lawlor: It’s interesting how France is still saturated in that moment when it was unquestionably the cultural center of the western world. You find some things there you just don’t find anywhere else.

Rockburne: I first came across Schwaller in your book Sacred Geometry. I was interested because I was drawn to Ancient Egypt from a very early age. I’ve been studying it ever since. As I began to investigate Schwaller, I became really intrigued. I’d been to Egypt in 1980, and when I saw the pyramids I immediately thought, “phi.” In art school I had been taught that the phi knowledge of proportion had developed in Greek culture. I wonder why art historians make that mistake. When yours and Deborah’s translation of Schwaller’s Temple of Man (Inner Traditions, 1997) became available I bought it and began studying it. The first read-through took two years. I’ve never stopped studying them. They are marvelous books.

Dorothea Rockburne,
Dorothea Rockburne, "Golden Section Painting: Triangle, Rectangle, Square" (1974). Gesso and blue pencil on sized, glued, and folded linen, 54 ⅛ x 84 inches. © Dorothea Rockburne. Image courtesy of the artist and Greenburg Van Doren Gallery.

Lawlor: For eight years, when Deborah and I came back from France after spending a year or more working with Lucie Lamie on our translation of Schwaller’s Temple of Man, we came to the States on a mission to find a publisher for Schwaller’s work. I didn’t have any intention of writing a book on it, it was only because of Lindisfarne and Bill Thompson. He talked me into giving lectures on sacred geometry.

Rockburne: Where?

Lawlor: It was in a church.

Bamford: It was on 20th Street and 6th Avenue. It later became the infamous Limelight Club. At the time, in the 1970s, it was the teaching center of the Lindisfarne Association. Not many people realize that, historically speaking, the Thames & Hudson book Sacred Geometry, which has had such a great and continuing impact, was born as an intense series of lectures you gave at Lindisfarne.

Lawlor: When I was teaching, it was mainly architects that came, and I thought, “This will never dent the subjective Abstract Expressionist School because this is antithetical to it.” You’re the first painter I know, Dorothea, who has used it to this degree and with such success.

Rockburne: There were a couple of architects on our trip to Greece this summer and that is all they do, so maybe things are looking up.

Lawlor: Yes, some architects caught on but I thought the painting world would never make that turn, so when you started writing to me I thought, “Painter. New York abstract painter!”

Bamford: Still, if one focuses only on architecture or painting, one isn’t facing the mystery of what we’re talking about—which is a manifestation or articulation of what, for the sacred geometer and the sages of the temple, as well as the sages of India, indeed of all traditional cultures, is the mystery of the principles of cosmic creation. These proportions are the angelic hierarchies. They are the living numbers of the Pythagoreans.

Rockburne: Yes they are and for those same reasons I once made a group of watercolors painted on vellum and based on angeology which utilize the Golden Section. The vellum was painted on both sides, and then cut, folded, and glued. Since vellum is translucent, if I wanted purple, I’d paint one side with red and the reverse side in blue. That concept of layering color also comes from Ecole des Beaux-Arts training.

Lawlor: These are pre-manifest organizational principles.

Bamford: Which result in our created world. A world of flowers, stones, light, consciousness, body, flowing water. Whatever is living has these ratios or logoi and proportions or analogoi.

Rockburne: There are some astronomers that now think that the heavens’ relationship to the position of the planets is organized according to the golden mean.

Bamford: Not just the planets: the whole spiritual structure of the universe is organized that way. For Schwaller, the phi, or the Golden Section, was the Logos itself. In a way, one can’t speak of this mystery. It’s unspeakable. It is not technology; it is not a method. It is something living, meditative, intuitive. Doing it—drawing its geometry—taking it in that way, you can begin to create in a new way.

Lawlor: It’s a philosophy of the metaphysical pre-manifest condition and requirements. Did you find any of the work of Matila Ghyka?

Rockburne: It’s interesting that you mention him because slightly before leaving Montreal I purchased The Geometry of Art and Life by him. I took it with me to Black Mountain College in 1950. It was the only English book I could find on that subject for a long time.

Lawlor: Geometry of Art, yes, that has been translated. However, The Golden Number by Ghyka has unfortunately not been translated. I remember wanting to find a way to get that done. Do you remember when we met Matila Ghyka’s son, Rodney? He tried to help us. In our time, we’ve had the opportunity to help awareness of geometry move to some degree, but it’s still rather limited.

Bamford: What you are saying is that your geometric work as well as that of Keith Critchlow and others is really built on the work of people like Schwaller and Ghyka in the previous generation. They began the whole process of reviving this geometric wisdom, which thus began to flow back into culture in the 20s and 30s, so that by the 60s and 70s a whole new generation could begin to explore anew these ideas of metaphysical creation through form and volume and proportion.

Lawlor: It’s like some collective memory that fades under certain circumstances, and then recovers. As Dorothea said, because we are it—this is what we are at the basis of our structure and our being.

Bamford: But too few people have taken it up in that light. As you mentioned the ideas become commodified, the media chew them up and digest them, by which time, naturally, very few people understand their metaphysical basis.

Rockburne: One thing about that is a misconception about rules. Most artists who work in my studio see mathematics, of any kind, as a set of rules, and they don’t want to be tied down by rules. Actually, these rules present freedom. The golden mean is a source of freedom through an internal investigation of the form itself, which is all of nature including us.

Bamford: That’s true. And freedom can take you anywhere. You have no idea where it will lead: where you will be led.

Lawlor: Well, in my first years of working with these ideas, I focused on sacred geometry and its relation to Space. Through my reading, however, I began to see how geometry was implicit in Time, and I began pursuing that through an important Hindu term. The term is “Yuga” which occurs in both Sanskrit and Dravidian writings. The definition of Yuga is almost parallel to what we have been talking about: a geometry that is active in both Space and Time. A Yuga is a specific duration embedded in the constant movement of Time. The Yugas hold the principles that govern the development and destiny of the human race. Yuga is one of the most significant and powerful words in the philosophy of India. It is so important because, unless one knows the governing principles of the time period in which one lives, one cannot explain or understand anything about the forces that drive our collective and individual lives. To use a metaphor, we become like a tree whose leaves cannot distinguish springtime from autumn. In other words, we misjudge the natural progression of genesis which is determined by successive durations of time (childhood, youth, maturity, old age, for example). In this way we collectively step outside of the progressive stages of life—and in a sense become part of the living dead. In India and Indian philosophy the living dead are seen as being responsible for the taking of a living world and forming and manipulating it into a world of lifeless substances and structures—process that has been referred to as “technological materialism.” This is the philosophy that holds that it is the energy of the living dead that inhabits our world. It is responsible for the formative values of our era. This amnesia regarding the operative forces inherent in Time acts like a possession over human thinking in the final Yuga. The Yuga in which we are living brings a vast circle of time to completion. All these concepts reappear in my study of the Australian Aboriginal culture. I found very similar concepts flourishing there. For example, if there is a lack of knowledge and involvement of the living with the postmortem process of their tribal members, the spirits of the dead—the aspect Egyptians called the Ka—remain and accumulate in the earth’s atmosphere. In Aboriginal thought, it is the major responsibility of the living to assist the dead in their postmortem journey. A failure to do that will cause the finality of human life on earth. Thus the notion of Yugas also underlies Greek cosmology—the idea expressed by Plato and Pythagoras as “the Ages of Man.” This idea, expressed in the Pythagorean Tetraktys comes from the backdrop of the Indian concept of the Yugas. This tetragrammation of number—arranging number into a sequence of 1,2,3,4 is a parallel philosophy in Greece and India.

0   0   0   0            -Golden Age

   0   0   0              -Silver Age

     0   0                -Bronze Age

       0                   -Iron Age

The structure of the Yuga system occurs in tetragrammation. You have a Golden Age which has a duration of four Yugas, a Silver Age with a duration of three, a following Bronze Age of two Yugas. The final Yuga is the Iron Age, which everyone agrees we live in. Finding this crossover between Time and Space and Number is at the basis of Hindu religion or philosophy, and it is also the basics of Greek philosophy. Only the Greeks have mathematized it, whereas with the Indian Yuga system, the numbers were kept secret. There are some Indian historians of prehistory that say that in the invasion of the Aryan culture, the Aryans took over and kept the Yuga knowledge secret because knowledge of this type, the proportional understanding of Time, makes the activity that we call “prophecy” mathematical, calculable, and therefore dangerous. For by the time empire-building came about, prophecy was a key element in political power. One of the first pursuits of every early king was to get a prophet, and we know that the Old and New Testaments are basically prophetic texts. Throughout history these texts have been utilized or involved in formations of hierarchical power.

Gradually, all of these things began to feel tied together, and this led me to work for about the last seven years on pursuing this one word, Yuga—what its implications are and what the interpretations of its actual durations are.

It turns out that Alain Daniélou. who lived in India and learned both the Sanskrit and Dravidian languages, was approached by a wandering sadhu from South India who was renowned among the disciples of yoga in the Shivite tradition. Because of his linguistic ability, the sadhu selected Alan Daniélou to tell him which texts he considered to contain the true durations of the Yugas. Toward the end of his life he wrote a book that Deborah Lawlor translated. [While the Gods Play (Inner Traditions, 1985.)] Daniélou only reveals a little bit toward the end of this book, but throughout the book he notes that the real essence of Indian philosophy is that we are on the threshold of a huge transformation in time—we are nearing the end of a final Yuga in a cycle of ten Yugas, which is called a Maha Kalpa—approximately 60,000 years. We are in the last 6,000-year segment of it. I thought this was worthy of more than a few pages, or a quick note, and that was my starting point. I took the Yuga date that he translated from the Dravidian, and spread it out on the other great calendar of time—the one that Stonehenge was built on, as well as the monuments in Peru which follow the same cycle: the “precession of the equinox.” At first one asks “How are these related?” One finds that they do not have the same key numbers designating crucial durations of Time. However, I made diagrams on transparent film and placed them one on top of the other.  I found that they interrelate harmonically and geometrically. You really can see these great solar/lunar cycles are part of one system of time.

Rockburne: This would seem to be quite a dramatic change of topic and mood away from the working aspects of sacred geometry. You describe a form of philosophy/mathematics and astrology/astronomy I know little about.

Lawlor: Any specific questions about it?

Rockburne: While I have the utmost respect for your scholarship and investigative research, I find myself asking, how can there possibly be an accurate prediction covering 60,000 years and into the future? Right now, in our culture, people speak with foreboding about 2012. The reference is to the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world.

Lawlor: 2012 is a precessional date; it belongs to the precession of the equinox. Most people give these cosmic transitions at least a four-year interval, so between 2008 and 2012 the rising position of the sun on the equinox is moving from having spent 2160 years with a backdrop of Pisces, to 2012, when it will be fully established in Aquarius. So the date 2010 is the midpoint between the crossing over of astrological ages. The Hopis interpreted it as “the end of the world,” but they meant an astrological world, not the physical world. The Yuga timing that controls the actual physical collapse and redevelopment of the world, and the beginning of this Yuga is clearly written in Dravidian texts.

Rockburne: And when is that?

Dorothea Rockburne,
Dorothea Rockburne, "The Plan of St. Gall" (1988-89). Gold leaf, folded waterleaf paper, and watercolor on museum board, 60 x 50 inches. © Dorothea Rockburne. Image courtesy of the artist and Greenburg Van Doren Gallery.

Lawlor: It’s said that this Yuga began in 3102 BC. Now, the Yuga has a certain structure, so that it has a preliminary time of 504 years called the “dawn.” Then the Yuga proper begins in 3102, and then there are ten 504-year periods. Then there is a “dusk” before it ends. That dusk period actually began in 1938, when they found the formula for the nuclear bomb and when World War II started.

Rockburne: Might those dates be a coincidence?

Lawlor: That was part of my research—to look at these dates and try to find what historical events could have been motivated by the embedded principles of the Yuga. So from 1938 we have a exactly a 504 year period, which at 2010 is reduced to four hundred.

Rockburne: So at the end of a Yuga, does another set of Yugas begin?

Lawlor: Not immediately. According to the Puranic texts, there is a whole kalpa when Vishnu sleeps. The texts deal with the triad of energies that are inherent in Hindu thought, those represented by Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Vishnu represents the force of continuation and cohesion and perpetuation. The god Shiva is the god of transformation and therefore destruction. The Indian texts say ultimately everything rises out of disintegration, as compost gardeners know to be true. That’s the phase we’re approaching. We are in the dusk of the final Yuga, which will mean a disintegration, followed by a period of rest in the cosmic creation for 60,000 years. Because of what we have done to the earth, it will probably take that long for this system to recover!

Bamford: Nevertheless, don’t you think that our human task today should be seeking to transform what we’ve got, what we’ve received, to make something, to prepare—even to create—a sort of vessel for the next, the new Golden Age? Isn’t that one of the tasks of art?

Rockburne: I respond to your positive hands-on approach. Art might contribute towards this transformation. I like to think that art making creates a vibratory energy which affects all other forms of energy.

Lawlor: I think we can only prepare for the Golden Age in our thoughts. And I think it’s very important that we do, because this kalpa marks a severe transition for the species. As a matter of fact, a new form of our species will come next. We are at the end of an embryonic phase. See, in Hindu thought, a kalpa is a total of fourteen of these 60,000-year periods, and they claim that we are in the vital seventh. So we actually have to, in our thoughts, become the reproductive seed—we have to envision and objectify ourselves as a species so that in our own minds we can imagine some of the modifications that could make this wonder of a species into a species that is more successful in terms of maintaining the entire livingness of the earth.

Bamford: You are talking about the function of creative imagination. Surely those artists who are awake must always at some level be seeking to form such seeds. As Schwaller says, time is genesis, by which he means the whole cycle from seed to seed. Everything in creation in that sense is genesis. The Yugas are just one aspect of that genesis. Artists are another.

Lawlor: The Yugas are not just one aspect. A genesis is demarked into stages, such as dawn, a central portion and dusk, just like all time. In Indian thought, time has two definitions: it’s kala and kali. Kala is infinite time, time that is unmarked, time that is incomprehensively endlessly expansive. Kali is genesis, it generates life, it gives birth to life, and, as with life, it occurs in stages. We are children, we are young, we are adults, we are old. Those four stages of life are parallel to the four ages of man, and the four Ages of the Yuga system. In childhood, time seems so vast—to wait two days until Christmas is an eternity. That is how Time is expanded in consciousness, because you can’t remove Time and Space from consciousness. And so there’s kala and kali. Kali is the exact measure of time, in terms of Yugas.

Bamford: In certain traditions all this has to do with Life: great life. From that point of view, Yugas are complete cycles of Life, aeons, which means that Time, Space, and Movement—things, beings—are actually manifestations of Life, and that what we’re talking about is a kind of cosmobiology or even theobiology. For many ancient peoples, the plant, from seed to seed, was the model of this. My question is, do you think humanity has a special role in this. Do you think that, as bearers of consciousness, we carry the seed? And at the end moment—it doesn’t take much to see that things aren’t working out—don’t we have the ability to prepare in a new way now?

Lawlor: To participate in the re-imagining of our species with the honesty to see in ourselves where the failures of the organism in its relationship to consciousness are.

Bamford: That’s a powerful idea. Great artists have always re-imagined. Cézanne, for instance, re-imagined the possibilities of human nature, of perception. Great artists have always re-imagined human possibility. Perhaps it’s just more critical today how we do it.

Rockburne: I think it’s always been critical; it’s no more so today than at any time, although today much in Western art is about discovery and invention. Art thought and art making can create new and constant creative, vital, and regenerative energy.

Lawlor: Because it’s all within a Kali Yuga.

Bamford: Yes, but the Kali Yuga is already winding down. Some people like Rudolf Steiner say it’s already over. And even though there may yet be a pralaya or sleep, nevertheless this is our chance to create a new seed.

Lawlor: The dusk is our chance to re-dream.

Bamford: Because each plant creates out of the flowering, which is actually a death with a certain beauty to it. Out of the beauty of the flowering—which precedes its dying away—the plant creates a new seed for the next plant.

Rockburne: But when you say we dream, Robert, that’s related to the Aborigines.

Lawlor: That’s exactly right, they were aware of this dreaming responsibility that humanity always has. And through their dreaming they were able to maintain a continuous culture for 60,000 years, while we keep running into apocalypses.

Bamford: They embodied their dreams. They manifested their dreams in what we could call artwork—in images.

Rockburne: And ceremony, as did the Egyptians. I admire the Ancient Egyptian belief in the power of the objects they made. A belief that these funerary objects were made with such deliberation that they could become transformative in the afterlife. Perhaps this object making was a form of creative dreaming.

Lawlor: Aborigines lived the dream. They kept the whole of physical life within the dreaming.

Rockburne: Roger Green said they’re the oldest people on the earth. He said 150,000 years?

Lawlor: Yes. Recent findings have been dated to that length of time. But in terms of this seed idea, Lucie Lamy, Schwaller’s stepdaughter, found something very interesting which is that the male sperm is constructed in exactly the same way as a tetragrammation: there’s a central channel with the moving tail and surrounded by nine tubules that transmit the secretion that the seed decomposes in once it’s embedded in the egg. It’s exactly three triangles around the central tubular cylinder. The whole solar system is a tubular cylinder that has these nine bodies around a central moving force. So there are all those analogies. And the Yuga system is comparable metaphorically to the seed, or male sperm: Ten Yugas, nine of which surround a central core and manifest in four levels—the four Ages. The Egyptians also symbolized what you’re saying, what every artist is doing, what those changes can be in the human species. The major Egyptian figure is called the “Kamutef,” and the Kamutef means, “I am that which gives birth to itself,” because that’s what you’re suggesting is the eternal goal of artistic creation.

Rockburne: That’s so beautiful.

Lawlor: And how they draw the Kamutef is that they cut off the skullcap (the crown of the skull covering the cerebral cortex), because up here are the neurological changes which brought us into this materialistic, manipulative nature. They move the reproductive organ, an erect phallus, from the pelvic region up to the navel, from which it protrudes. Schwaller says this indicates that we are giving our reproductive power back to the maternal forces that gave birth to and nourished us, namely, the solar system. We could say the DNA, but DNA is only an imprint of a cosmic activity—a specific arrangement and movement of the planets and stars that provides an energy focalization that allows for the birth of an embodied creature capable of becoming consciously aware of the entire universe. That was the key to what Egypt thought was important to think about. Now that we’re entering this precession, 2008-2012, we’re stepping into the last interval, the finality of a 60,000 year period. At this time we have an opportunity to re-imagine what our species could be, rather than having our mind and bodies serve our phantasm of power and the accumulation of wealth.

Bamford: We haven’t really talked about the fact that you’re back in Brooklyn, after how many years? So many years ago, you were just finishing at Pratt, you had your first sculpture studio—

Lawlor: I remember walking across the Pratt campus, the day they had put up a loudspeaker to announce the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was that moment that I took a breath and thought, “I better start looking around for some answers that have some scope.” Because, I don’t know, it shook me deeply—I mean, what really happened in order for that death to have occurred? Doubt and despair were suddenly connected to the death of a political figure, whom the people respected. I then went to the men’s room underneath the library, and the police had gone down to pull out two black kids that had shot up there. One was bleeding seriously. And the whole thing, the Kennedy assassination and this coming out of the basement of an educational institute of higher learning—here was the inspiration to go looking for deeper questions.

Bamford: Find a different way to do art, you mean?

Lawlor: No, to find a different way of thinking. To think about what humanity is—because, for me, art was a way of pursuing meaning. This said, I had to really pick up my game because meaning is not going to be easy to find when the world is taking turns like this.

Rockburne: It’s interesting to me that you bring up the Kennedy assassination. Evil exists. One lives in the everyday world with the good, the bad, and the beautiful. The Yuga predicts the future, but exactly how in the everyday of things is creative dreaming done and how does art, that great force for change, occur? I’m hearing idealistic ways—I mean, I like mess and I see everything as a mess that you sort out—and the collective soul grows in the process.

Lawlor: The Yugas have a very accurate prediction about what the end of the Kali Yuga is going to be like. It is so accurate, even though it was copied down for the first time from somewhere else 6,000 years ago. You’ve read the quotation, Dorothea, you know the mess that humans will have to live in and through, and as an artist you’ve taken on that mess. You’ve dedicated yourself to recomposing it. And you’re using the principles that govern the Yugas.

Rockburne: I live in New York City, and where I live now was very rough when I moved there. I was constantly mugged, the furnace never worked, it was 45 degrees inside. All those kinds of things and some of the malfunction of the furnace weren’t accidental. The mugging wasn’t accidental nor was Kennedy’s assassination. Evil energy exists. How does one deal with evil and remain a creative positive force for life and art?

Lawlor: And how to remain creative, and where, when the balance between light and dark is shifting toward the dusk of an Age?

Bamford: But as human beings aren’t we always gaining new faculties? Sri Aurobindo, for instance, spoke of the descent of the “supramental.” Other people, too, in different ways, talk of new faculties so that even if it is the dying days of the Kali Yuga, opportunity is still given to us to imagine a different future.

Lawlor: It’s not only given, we have to take it—it is essential for us to do that. But what we imagine, we have to accept. What’s described with the Yuga system is that nothing really new will emerge except out of disintegration. But we must not let this disintegration become a source of fear—rather it must become a source of opportunity to participate in an enormous transformation. Seven kalpas, that’s 423,000 years. Even that the imagination who first transcribed this Yuga system was able to imagine a time of embodied consciousness that long. Our archeology starting to be able to be definite about 30,000, maybe 50,000 years of methods. To realize that human adventure is that long. We’re at a turning point to begin a whole major new ground of the final seven kalpas.

Bamford: It’s an amazing prospect.  


Dorothea Rockburne

Christopher Bamford

Christopher Bamford is Editor-in-Chief for Steiner Books and its imprints. A fellow of the Lindisfarne Association, he has written widely on Western spiritual and esoteric traditions. He is the author of The Voice of the Eagle: The Heart of Celtic Christianity and An Endless Trace: The Passionate Pursuit of Wisdom in the West. An essay by Mr. Bamford is included in the Harper San Francisco anthology Best Spiritual Writing 2000 by Philip Zaleski.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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