unfamiliar flags


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“I’d like to die as someone else, among unfamiliar flags”
– Fernando Pessoa

“It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6 or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”
-Charles Sumner, (January 6, 1811 – March 11, 1874), leader of the antislavery forces in Massachusetts.

“Egoism, self-seeking, self-conceit, pride, the will to power, hatred of others, violence, all become virtues when transferred from personality to the nation as a whole…National self-conceit and pride is a lie, just as much as it is by the way ludicrous and stupid…[nationalism precipitates] men into a fictitious and illusory life.”


Flags come and go. Their meanings change; they turn from objects of veneration to derision with the change of the wind. I have in my garage a large ceremonial flag of the pre-1994 South Africa. Today it is taboo to fly it as it is too closely associated with a period of fascist rule in which the majority was oppressed and marginalised in their own land. So why do I keep it? I don’t really know. Perhaps its a grim reminder of the cruel ambiguities of nationalism, the flag a sort of repository of falsehoods and contradictions. The abject.

There was a time when this same flag represented different things, when it was waved not by beer-swilling right wing hooligans but by sincere, committed patriots. Men women and children were stirred by the oranje blanje blou; people fought – and died – under the flag that is now anathema.

But whatever its pretensions to unity, it was always flown above a deeply divided society. My disquiet at (note: not dislike of) the new South African flag is somehow related to it’s having been designed with haste as an interim measure by the esteemed vexillological expert and South African state herald Frederick Brownell (who, incidentally, also designed the flag of Namibia). Is it crass and caustic to ask why a black vexillological expert was not commissioned? Or is this simply white deference on my part?

see http://ideas.ted.com/7-fantastic-flags-that-break-every-design-rule/

I confess I don’t much care for the design of the coat of arms of South Africa. It was designed by Iaan Bekker, a director of a local advertising agency. I can’t dismiss the accusation of being a bad sport in this matter: at the time the design was commissioned I was with a design studio that “had a go” at the brief. Our designs were no better than the one that won the day (and I think mine was worse by far). But my issue is not with the merit or demerit of the design (it has been criticised for insufficient heraldic gravitas). It seems to me that if heraldry is about symbolism then there was a missed opportunity here: a symbolic black voice in the creation of symbols to reflect a post-apartheid nation. The coat of arms – overly didactic with it’s contrived symbols dislocated from our history – seems to me to express an Africa viewed through a white man’s lens. (elephant tusks, an arc of beer label-like ears of wheat, a protea formed by touristy African craft pattern, a spear and knobkierie of the kind one might pick up at an airport souvenir shop, some rock paintings (are those figures – discreetly hiding their genitalia – perhaps arm-wrestling or fist-greeting?) and a /Xam motto as a perfunctory nod to the decimated original inhabitants of this land – create in my view the impression of a constructed, forced coat of arms trying too hard to be taken seriously. 

But emblems need not be inherently good or bad design in order to resonate: it is the significance with which we imbue them that lends them gravitas. Long after my comments are lost in the blog-fog, the coat of arms will endure whether loved or despised.

And after all: heraldry is littered with strangeness: mythical creatures, strange mottos, arcane symbols designed by heralds and ‘hacks’. Thus I must offer a reposte to my own criticism: an emblem needs no justification and can command respect in spite of itself.

I think that in both cases the designers meant well. It was designed during the time of the rainbow: all colours were now equal, so why not white designers?

I may stand accused of curmudgeonly fault-finding and nit-picking; but it seems throughout Africa the white man has monopolised – and continues to monopolise (or cannibalise) – african symbols and nomenclature (the misuse and abuse of the word ubuntu is a case in point) – inevitably imposing his own weltenschaung. It’s in his blood to do so, to impose his idea even while he proceeds convinced of his own altruism. A friend of mine referred to this as an illegitimate appropriation.

(see: Jean Paul Sartre: Black Orpheus https://disquietsite.wordpress.com/page/9/)

Flags within flags
The old South African flag contained within it the flags of the two Boer republics – die vierkleur of the Transvaal and the flag of the Orange Free State – and the Union Jack representing the two British colonies of the Cape and Natal. There is a conspicuous absence of symbolism pertaining to the indigenous peoples of South Africa – what for most of the country’s history comprised the disenfranchised, dispossessed and excluded majority.

As a teenager, I was forced to stand to attention with my schoolmates, dressed in our ridiculous army-brown cadet uniforms, and salute the “old” South African flag as it was hoisted above the school quadrangle. Once a week we would sing Die Stem. These mildly coercive nationalistic rituals always left me cold and somehow unsettled. This was 1976: Soweto was burning while in my whites-only school in the culturally sterile whites-only suburb, our insidious little schoolmaster enthusiastically employed a cane to enforce his brand of conformist, supremacist “patriotism”.

The flag (like the myth of the Great Trek promulgated ad nauseum in now thankfully revised school curricula) was as alien to me as the harsh sun, knife-sharp shadows and dry, burnt landscapes of our highveld winters. Who’s flag was it anyway? What did it represent? Could I ever come to identify with its insistent narratives?

The Nationalist government of the time had already embarked upon an elaborate heraldic folly: the creation of a veritable forest of flags and emblems for their bureaucratic, illegitimate, faux-ethnolgical fantasy lands- the bantustans. Whatever the intended (or pretended) symbolism of the oranje blanje blou, it fluttered in the thin cold air of racial exclusion and the expulsion of millions of black south Africans to these dusty rural backwaters. But for a child it simply exacerbated my nostalgia for a rural England which represented a kind of lost Eden for me. I was a young outsider, a reluctant interloper in the strange conflicted land to which my parents had brought me. A 13 year old boy newly arrived from Britain, I found myself at odds with circumstance, cast in roles I’d never imagined, accused of historical crimes committed by colonial adventurers I’d never heard of. At the time of the Boer War it was my people who had incarcerated Afrikaner women and children in concentration camps, burnt their farms, killed their cattle – and whatever the horrific facts of that bloody conflict I was somehow guilty by association. So early – I had discovered a theme which was to become a lietmotif for a white, English speaking South African of British descent: Guilt. Mea culpa. That there is no absolution, no penance possible for those born or living under the wrong flag. Where God might forgive a man, man himself is not so magnanimous.

Why does flag rhyme with rag?

The online etymology dictionary states, “flag – 1540s, “flap about loosely,” probably a later variant of Middle English flakken, flacken “to flap, flutter” (late 14c.), which probably is from Old Norse flaka.” As for the similarity to “rag” – there appears to be no etymological connection other than an incidental phonetic one: “rag scrap of cloth, early 14c., probably from Old Norse rögg “shaggy tuft,” earlier raggw-, or possibly from Old Danish rag, or a back-formation from ragged, It also may represent an unrecorded Old English cognate of Old Norse rögg. In any case, from Proto-Germanic *rawwa-, from PIE root *reue- “to smash, knock down, tear up, uproot”

But I would like to deliberately conflate these meanings: flags flap about loosely though history, these scraps of cloth, to which we attach such importance. Perhaps in the “proto-germanic” sense these scraps of cloth “smash, knock down, tear up, uproot” meanings as they are raised and lowered, folded away, eaten by moths or burnt. Flags demand – then betray – our allegiance as our noble intentions deteriorate into wind-blown rags.

“It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6 or 7
to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance,
along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”
– Charles Sumner

“A moth-eaten rag on a worm-eaten pole,
It does not look likely to stir a man’s Soul,
‘Tis the deeds that were done ‘neath the moth-eaten rag,
When the pole was a staff, and the rag was a flag.”
– Sir Edward Hamley

“Rally round the flag, boys—
Give it to the breeze!
That’s the banner that we bore
On the land and seas.
Brave hearts are under it,
Let the traitors brag,
Gallant lads, fire away!
And fight for the flag.
Their flag is but a rag—
Ours is the true one;
Up with the Stars and Stripes!
with the new one!
Let our colors fly, boys—
Guard them day and night;
For victory is liberty,
And God will bless the right.”
– James Thomas Fields

I have seen not a few flags come and go, their significance shifting like unpredictable winds. There are the more notable ones, like the flag of the former Soviet Union, but I wonder what disillusionment (If any) attended the demise of the flags of the bantustans: Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Gazankulu, Venda, Lebowa, KwaNdebele, KwaZulu.

I sometimes try to imagine whether anyone – perhaps the once-proud officials and their families who benefitted from the Pretoria regime – felt some kind of patriotic sentiment observing one of these obscure flags fluttering atop a flagpole, drum rolling, bugle blaring. Some 20 million people lived under these sham, corrupt administrations with their 157 government departments and in excess of a thousand salaried members of parliament. No one speaks well now of this embarrassing episode of our heraldic history.

I find these anachronistic attempts at heraldic gravitas at once pathetic and fascinating. The plethora of now-defunct flags, stamps, coins, coats of arms are a phantasmagorical tale of heraldic futility.

So much for vexillological symbolism. My true joy however is in the aesthetic of flags and heraldic motifs. If one dares to penetrate beneath and beyond the semiotic to the design itself – now there’s a visual adventure! It’s difficult: in some confounding way the abstraction of meaning blocks our access to the intrinsic aesthetic. Think, for example, of the flag of the United States of America: it is so laden with connotations – simultaneously loved and hated by millions. Or consider a ceremonial flag bearing the Nazi swastika: one dare not set aside the symbolic evil to appreciate the design itself, the graphic design of the symbol. It would be impossible without seeming obscene to admit to an appreciation of the way the coloured threads have faded, the appliqué hakenkreuz has frayed. The symbol has made aesthetics problematic.

The word Texas, for me, conjures up images of macho men in stetsons, George Bush and an asian-run cafe of the same name here in suburban Johannesburg where the domestic workers hop on and off minibus taxis. “I’ll pick you up at Texas“, I tell Irene. Yet none of this has anything to do with the exquisite flag at the top of this blog post which could be a flag from a dreamland, or made by children in a fantasy game a hundred years ago. I derive a real pleasure from the little irregular star – it’s angles not the customary 108 degrees of the classic pentagram but friendlier, obtuse angles. What poetry in the colour and texture! I love the dirty cerulean blue reminiscent of old denim; the faded venetian red, the parchment-coloured band.

A joy to behold.


“It became clear even before the 1994 elections that a new national coat of arms was needed for South Africa, since the old arms were based on those of its constituent colonies (provinces). This writer, in a proposal to the Commission on National Symbols (part of the Congress for a Democratic South Africa which drafted the interim Constitution) proposed that time first be given to the new provinces to adopt their own arms, and that new national arms be considered afterwards. Other correspondents appear to have made similar representations. This time frame was in fact followed, but the arms, when adopted, were unrelated to the arms of any provinces, either the current nine or the previous four.

Design process:
Proposals for a new coat of arms were put forward by the Heraldry Council, but were rejected for reasons the Government declined to specify. During 1999 the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology requested ideas for a new coat of arms from the public. A brief was written based on ideas received and input from the Cabinet. Design South Africa, a body representing design agencies across the country, was approached to brief 10 of the top designers. Three designers were chosen to present their concepts to the Cabinet. The work of Iaan Bekker, who has previously designed numerous corporate identities for public and private sector organisations, was eventually chosen.



“page by page I slowly and lucidly read everything I’ve written, and I find it’s all worthless and should have been left unwritten. The things we achieve, whether empires or sentences, have (because they’ve been achieved) the worst aspect of real things:the fact they’re perishable.”


the enthusiasts of paradise

“Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: The criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.”
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

liberty and equality

“Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings throughout many centuries; but total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs, total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted.”
Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas

kumi obata

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I stumbled upon the work of the Japanese artist Kumi Obata and instantly fell in love with her lyrical images.


Joy! Magic! Lyricism! Immediacy! Intuition! Tenderness! Wistful! Dreamy! Melancholy! Happiness! Ineffable!

I feel the same joy when I look at the whorls of an unfolding flower, or a dry, parchment-like seed pod with it’s exquisite design. Fading, unseen. It is what it is. Quiet beauty of the unseen. Perhaps only I have seen it, or I share it with the compound eyes of an insect, a scurrying lizard. A private joy.

Obata takes me into intetior spaces of innocent happiness. Childlike immediacy. Love. Gentleness. The field where God laughs, sings and dances with the angels.



On a website called “doodlesanonymous” there is a fitting tribute to her work:

“Kumi Obata‘s art appeals to me the way a beautifully crafted sketch does. Her etchings are a perfect balancing act between drawn doodle looseness and sophisticated, refined art. Rich in texture, line, and pattern, her work is no doubt influenced by the quiet beauty and tradition of her home country, Japan. The first day I happened onto her site, I felt like I was transported into someone else’s dream and floated around from one beautiful scene to the next, not wanting to leave. A year and a half later, I still feel the same.”



the illusion of time

Picture the bow of a small sailboat cutting through water. The sea is time: it is everywhere simultaneously, not a linear set of co-ordinates. I may chart a course, but the lines I draw do not exist except in the abstract. There are no lines upon the sea. The boat momentarily pierces the water which promptly closes behind; the waves, spray and wake, like the traces of existence, quickly return to the sea – they are the sea.

All we have is this present moment, this disintegrating present. The future does not exist, it is not a place, even though we may imagine people and anticipate events in the future (which, in fact, is but another present, a present which for me, in this Now, is not yet in this present). The imagining itself is the complex, creative play of synapses, electrical exchanges and neurons in the brain and, if you will, the soul of the individual anticipating an abstract “future”. Neither does the past  exist – not as we “see” it through the lens of memory, history and imagination. We have memories of a present that is no more; we have books, films, carvings, paintings, artefacts and fossils – all of which evidence “a past” which, in fact, was a present that is no more. And our stories – whether individual narratives or the larger metanarratives of society – are themselves heuristic constructs, a fictitious weaving together of the details of multiple “presents” which are no more. This is not to say that the past is fiction, but that the act of weaving – the telling – is contingent rather than empirical. Different histories may be written, and are written. (Revisionist historians continually call into question the sacrosanct “histories” of peoples and nations. (“The Great Trek” is de-mythologized into a trek in a post’94 South Africa. Terrorists are transformed into freedom fighters…)

Philosophers and theoretical physicists have wrestled – and continue to wrestle – with the enigma of time: that there are two contradictory contemporary positions, namely that time does not exist (c.f. Albert Einstein) and that time does exist (c.f. John Polkinghorne), indicates how the enigma remains unresolved. My favourite writer on the subject is the Russian existentialist religious philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev. My thoughts about time are very much formed around his own (although I am nowhere close to grasping his ideas in their entirety). Again I return to the bow of the sailboat analogy where we have only the “cutting“. We have only this Now, this existential moment which immediately fragments into the past which is only real as a remembered present, and in its “ossification”. By ossification I am trying to express something Berdyaev articulates far better than I. Think of Stone Henge: The megalithic structure remains as a tangible testament to a-present-that-is-no-more in which the stone circle was imagined and designed by living human beings. The great stones were quarried and dragged to Salisbury Plain where they were erected in another present-that-is-no-more. For thousands of years people gathered there to perform rituals, each person in their individual and shared present-that-is-no-more. It is as profound as it is obvious: no one has ever lived in the past. Each of us – those of us who are alive in this moment, medieval man, the ancient Romans and back through “the mists of time”(which of course is a trope, for there is no ‘place obscured by mist’) have only ever known a Now with its accretions of memory preserved in myth, history, and the myriad forms of ‘ossification’.

It then follows that, for example, the existential event of a roman soldier dying on a battlefield in 100 AD is no “further” in the “past” that the death of a person in say 1943. We have an overwhelming sense of the distant past: there is the rust on the sword dug up by the archaeologist and the dating of the soldier’s bones evidence their age – but the living, breathing, sweating soldier – like you and I – knew no past as a past. His was a Now, a present-that-is-no-more. Ontologically speaking there is no difference between his Now, my Now, and your Now. Like his, our Now will also ‘pass’ and we will be looked at – whether in photos, home videos, diaries or in the memory of others – as “inhabiting” a past which will be “tomorrow’s yesterday”.

(From various web sources)

“change really is an illusion, because there’s nothing that’s changing; it’s all just there — past, present, future …

life is like a movie, and space-time is like the DVD…  there’s nothing about the DVD itself that is changing in any way, even though there’s all this drama unfolding in the movie. We have the illusion, at any given moment, that the past already happened and the future doesn’t yet exist, and that things are changing. But all I’m ever aware of is my brain state right now. The only reason I feel like I have a past is that my brain contains memories… The essence of relativity is that there is no absolute time, no absolute space. Everything is relative.”

“Julian Barbour’s solution to the problem of time in physics and cosmology is as simply stated as it is radical: there is no such thing as time.

“If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers,” says Barbour. “People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.”

“Barbour speaks with a disarming English charm that belies an iron resolve and confidence in his science. His extreme perspective comes from years of looking into the heart of both classical and quantum physics. Isaac Newton thought of time as a river flowing at the same rate everywhere. Einstein changed this picture by unifying space and time into a single 4-D entity. But even Einstein failed to challenge the concept of time as a measure of change. In Barbour’s view, the question must be turned on its head. It is change that provides the illusion of time. Channeling the ghost of Parmenides, Barbour sees each individual moment as a whole, complete and existing in its own right. He calls these moments “Nows.”

“As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows,” says Barbour, “and the question is, what are they?” For Barbour each Now is an arrangement of everything in the universe. “We have the strong impression that things have definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once. There are simply the Nows, nothing more, nothing less.”

“Barbour’s Nows can be imagined as pages of a novel ripped from the book’s spine and tossed randomly onto the floor. Each page is a separate entity existing without time, existing outside of time. Arranging the pages in some special order and moving through them in a step-by-step fashion makes a story unfold. Still, no matter how we arrange the sheets, each page is complete and independent. As Barbour says, “The cat that jumps is not the same cat that lands.” The physics of reality for Barbour is the physics of these Nows taken together as a whole. There is no past moment that flows into a future moment. Instead all the different possible configurations of the universe, every possible location of every atom throughout all of creation, exist simultaneously. Barbour’s Nows all exist at once in a vast Platonic realm that stands completely and absolutely without time.

“What really intrigues me,” says Barbour, “is that the totality of all possible Nows has a very special structure. You can think of it as a landscape or country. Each point in this country is a Now and I call the country Platonia, because it is timeless and created by perfect mathematical
rules.” The question of “before” the Big Bang never arises for Barbour because his cosmology has no time. All that exists is a landscape of configurations, the landscape of Nows. “Platonia is the true arena of the universe,” he says, “and its structure has a deep influence on whatever physics, classical or quantum, is played out in it.” For Barbour, the Big Bang is not an explosion in the distant past. It’s just a special place in Platonia, his terrain of independent Nows.   

“Our illusion of the past arises because each Now in Platonia contains objects that appear as “records” in Barbour’s language. “The only evidence you have of last week is your memory. But memory comes from a stable structure of neurons in your brain now. The only evidence we have of the Earth’s past is rocks and fossils. But these are just stable structures in the form of an arrangement of minerals we examine in the present. The point is, all we have are these records and you only have them in this Now.” Barbour’s theory explains the existence of these records through relationships between the Nows in Platonia. Some Nows are linked to others in Platonia’s landscape even though they all exist simultaneously. Those links give the appearance of records lining up in sequence from past to future. In spite of that appearance, the actual flow of time from one Now to another is nowhere to be found.

“Think of the integers,” he explains. “Every integer exists simultaneously. But some of the integers are linked in structures, like the set of all primes or the numbers you get from the Fibonacci series.” The number 3 does not occur in the past of the number 5, just as the Now of the cat jumping off the table does not occur in the past of the Now wherein the cat lands on the floor.

Past and future, beginning and end have simply disappeared in Barbour’s physics. And make no mistake about it, Barbour is doing physics. “I know the idea is shocking,” he says, “but we can use it to make predictions and describe the world.” With his collaborators, Barbour has published a series of papers demonstrating how relativity and quantum mechanics naturally emerge from the physics of Platonia.

Barbour’s perfect timeless arrangement of Nows into the landscape of Platonia is the most radical of all solutions to the conundrum of Before. But his audacity reveals an alternative route from this strange moment in science’s history. In an era in which the search for quantum gravity has multiplied dimensions and the discovery of dark energy has sent cosmologists back to their blackboards, all the fundamentals seem up for grabs. Barbour is willing to step back even further and offer “no time” as a more basic answer to the question “What is time?”

This is an excerpt from Adam Frank’s book About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang_, newly available in paperback. It’s from a chapter titled “The End of Beginnings and the End of Time,” discussing radical alternatives to the Big Bang._

John Polkinghorne, a quantum physicist and Anglican priest, believes that the flow and direction of time are real and relentless. It is a “mistaken argument,” he said, to use relativity to assert that time is an illusion, “because no observer has knowledge of a distant event, or the simultaneity of different events, until they are unambiguously in that observer’s past. And, therefore, that argument focuses on the way observers organize their description of the past and cannot establish the reality of the awaiting future.” 

Polkinghorne rejects the notion of the static block universe of space and time together. “We live in a world of unfolding and becoming,” he said.

Andreas Albrecht, a theoretical cosmologist; Huw Price, professor of philosophy at Cambridge Universpp

See more at: http://www.space.com/29859-the-illusion-of-time.html#sthash.c9S9kOG1.dpuf


What is going on?

The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (Introduction) by Alain Badiou


“What is going on? Of what are we the half-fascinated, half-devastated witnesses? The continuation, at all costs, of a weary world? A salutary crisis of the world, racked by its victorious expansion? The end of that world? The advent of a different world? What is happening to us in the early years of the century – something that would appear not to have any clear name in any accepted language?

Let us consult our masters: discreet bankers; media stars; hesitant representatives of major commissions; spokesmen of the ‘international community’; busy presidents; new philosophers; factory and estate owners; stock market men and boards of directors; chattering opposition politicos; urban and provincial notables; economists of growth; sociologists of citizenship; experts on all sorts of crises; prophets of the ‘clash of civilizations’; heads of the police, justice and ‘penitentiary’ systems; profit assessors; productivity calculators; the prim editorialists of serious newspapers; human resources directors; people who in their own view are of some account; people one would not do well to take for nobodies. What have they got to say about it, all these rulers, all these opinion formers, all these leaders, all these thimble-rigging tyrants?

Continue reading “What is going on?”

the dream of pilate’s wife


Matthew 27: v19, “Now as [Pilate] was seated in the chair of judgement, his wife sent him a message, ‘Have nothing to do with that man; I have been upset all day by a dream I had about him’”


PILATE’S WIFE by Carol Ann Duffy

Firstly, his hands — a woman’s. Softer than mine,
with pearly nails, like shells from Galilee.
Indolent hands. Camp hands that clapped for grapes.
Their pale, mothy touch made me flinch. Pontius.

I longed for Rome, home, someone else. When the Nazarene
entered Jerusalem, my maid and I crept out,
bored stiff, disguised, and joined the frenzied crowd.
I tripped, clutched the bridle of an ass, looked up

and there he was. His face? Ugly. Talented.
He looked at me. I mean he looked at me. My God.
His eyes were eyes to die for. Then he was gone,
his rough men shouldering a pathway to the gates.

The night before his trial, I dreamt of him.
His brown hands touched me. Then it hurt.
Then blood. I saw that each tough palm was skewered
by a nail. I woke up, sweating, sexual, terrified.

Leave him alone. I sent a warning note, then quickly dressed.
When I arrived, the Nazarene was crowned with thorns.
The crowd was baying for Barabbas. Pilate saw me,
looked away, then carefully turned up his sleeves
and slowly washed his useless, perfumed hands.
They seized the prophet then and dragged him out,
up to the Place of Skulls. My maid knows all the rest.
Was he God? Of course not. Pilate believed he was.