The Ultimate Continuum

The much celebrated 2014 film Birdman, gives an insightful review of human (in)significance in one key scene between Sam [Emma Stone] and Riggan [Michael Keaton].

Riggan, an ageing actor and artist who is suffering an identity crisis, is counselled by his daughter as to how her recent stint in rehab helped her come to peace with her own anxieties. She methodically draws small dashes onto squares of toilet paper, 150 dashes per square, until she fills and entire roll.

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Then she unfurls the paper roll and points out that one meagre square of tissue represents the entire span of human existence. One dash alone equals a million years and the roll entire, the 6 billion odd years of space and time. In so doing, her own and Riggan’s agonies over life significance are put into perspective.

The illustration questions any worries about life achievements, fame, or success. Indeed, there seems little difference between doing ‘something’ and doing ‘nothing’ with ones life, little difference between becoming a trillionaire even, and becoming a subsistence farmer.

Any sense of achievement then is simply won in comparison to our peers, those whose admiration we might crave or whose love or fear we might seek. Ultimately, however, we remain a small fleck within an infinite sea of darkness, a darkness within which giant stars burn for millions of years and even they remain dwarfed by galaxies, in turn dwarfed by the magnitude of space and time.

Is such an epiphany calming? or more anxiety inducing? Why in fact should we make any effort? and for what ultimately, is any effort of value?

What indeed then, is the difference between committing mass murder verses committing ones life to charity and community service? If ultimately, we are atoms afloat in an infinite sea of nothing, then nothing indeed is of meaning, is it not?!

The story explores the primal questions that existentialist philosophers have asked for millennia. It brings us back to the ground of being which is in our feelings, our hearts, our emotions and our soul. The difference between committing one’s life to harm verses help, lies in the significance of the human experience, in our feelings, our heart and soul. We draw our being from love, not from our achievements, our wealth, our power, fame or grandeur.

We don’t draw our significance from our stature amidst infinite space and time, for it renders us ridiculously finite; we draw our significance from the face of love, which is the face of God.

The question still stands, to what do we commit our little life to then, the hours we have, the time in our hands? The biblical story of the ‘talents’ [Matt 25:14-30] expounds on this very point. If you have one talent, double it; if you have five talents, make them ten. Whatever you have, work with it, double it, increase it.

And more than anything, do all you do, with love.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Srinivasa Ramanujan [1887-1920] was a Tamil Indian mathematician, who in relative isolation and without almost any formal training, made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions.


In 1913, he wrote a series of letters to scholars at Cambridge University and caught the attention of British mathematician G. H. Hardy, who realized that Ramanujan had rediscovered previously known theorems in addition to producing new ones.

The Man Who Knew Infinity” is a 2015  British film made about his life. It was based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Robert Kanigal and focuses on the tension Ramanujan faced being accepted by the academic elite due to his foreign birth and lack of training.


This academic reserve was only compounded by Ramanujan’s devout religious fervor and confessions that he felt the revelations of mathematical proofs that came to his intuition, were from God.

He famously stated: 

An equation for me has no meaning unless it represents a thought of God.

Hardy, an avowed atheist, opposed Ramanujan’s intuitive methods throughout their relationship, demanding of him proofs to establish the validity of this theories. A dyed-in-the-wool modernist, Hardy could not but maintain a dry tolerance for Ramanujan’s strange, eastern, mystical ways.


However, across the course of the film Hardy changes his views and in the closing scenes Hardy, played by Jeremy Irons, admits before his peers at the Mathematical Society:

We are merely explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection.

His conclusion: maybe, somewhere beyond his world of scientific proofs, there is something that explains the existence of the beautiful patterns of the mathematical world. Maybe there is something or someone that can only be discerned by intuition, not by proofs, but by reveling in the marvelous fingerprints of mathematical equations which exist in all their elegance, to be discovered by subtle minds like Ramanujan’s.


Maybe, just maybe, as a civilization we grow in our scientific knowledge, we are not growing out of a belief in God, but only moving deeper in our wonder and awe of the world, deeper towards a knowledge of God.



Ancient Stories and Enactment

A previous post, One Thousand and One Nights, looked at how the classic Middle Eastern tale had much in common with the Biblical account of Esther and the origin of the Feast of Purim. In both accounts, the protagonist, the Queen, artfully delays the king and his judgement across several nights. In doing so, she not only spares her own life but the lives of many others.

These ancient tales reveal something of the way narrative and embodied narrative, almost pantomime a significant part of oral cultures. Lessons are enacted rather than spoken directly as in literate or more linear cultures.

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Another biblical tale that illustrates this exact point in the narrative of Joseph. Genesis 42 recounts the journey of Joseph’s brothers to Egypt during a crippling famine. They travel to the court of Pharoah to beg for grain and are presented before Joseph their brother, a man they do not recognise. Joseph, seeing them bow before him is reminded of the dream he had as a young boy. A few chapters earlier, ch 37 tells:

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.


This jealousy had led the ten brothers to conspire to kill Joseph. Rather than shed blood however, the sell the boy to slavers who take him to Egypt. There is becomes a servant to the Prime Minister of Egypt and eventually to Pharoah himself.

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When confronted with his brothers however, Joseph does not reveal himself immediately. Instead he decides to toy with them. After quizzing them about their father and other living brothers, he tells them they are liars – and puts them in jail!!

21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” 23 They did not realizethat Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

Joseph understands that only a journey of personal discovery will help them feel what he felt, and bring them to not only a place of repentance for the wrong they did him, but of full understanding of the nature of the dream he had all those years ago.

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He sends them back to their father, retaining one brother Simeon in jail, and demanding they bring the youngest Benjamin with them. On the journey home they discover the silver with which they had paid for their grain had been hidden in their sacks, making them feel more dread of the consequences of facing the Egyptian Vizier again.

Once home they plead with their father to release Benjamin to go with them. Jacob an old man, one broken hearted by the loss of Joseph will not release the youngest, further making the brothers suffer. They know their aged father will perish if Benjamin comes to harm. Reuben even pledges the lives of his own sons if anything happens to Benjamin; however Jacob refuses.  Until they have no more food…..

Upon returning to Jospeh, the brothers fear the wrath of this Egytpian noble because of the silver that had been returned into their sacks. Againt the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph and this time he can barely handle his emotions at the sight of his brother Benjamin.

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Joseph, according to custom, eats separately from the foreigners but he has them seated in birth order at the table leaving them to look at each other in astonishment.  He also has Benjamin presented with a portion five times larger than the others.

The following day, the brothers set off with the grain they have purchased, however Joseph has a silver cup hidden in the sack of grain on Benjamin’s donkey.

As morning dawned, the men were sent on their way with their donkeys.They had not gone far from the city when Joseph said to his steward, “Go after those men at once, and when you catch up with them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid good with evil? Isn’t this the cup my master drinks from and also uses for divination? This is a wicked thing you have done.’”

When he caught up with them, he repeated these words to them. But they said to him, “Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servantsto do anything like that! We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.”

10 “Very well, then,” he said, “let it be as you say. Whoever is found to have itwill become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame.”

11 Each of them quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. 12 Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 At this, they tore their clothes. Then they all loaded their donkeys and returned to the city.

Joseph feigns fury at the theft and claims Benjamin as his slave. This is too much for the brothers and prompts a lengthy speech by Judah to intercede for his brother on behalf of their aged and frail father. Judah presents himself in the place of Benjamin, declaring that their father who had alreay lost a beloved son, would not survive if they return to tell him that Benjamin was also lost.


At this point Joseph knows that the Brothers have fully repented. They have been broken by the wrong they did him through the pain it brought their father. Several times they have bowed down to him, fullfilling the dream he had as a boy.

The tale shows an interesting feature of Ancient Near Eastern cutlure in which narrative and behaviour draw close together. Joseph acts out his message. He engages in a pantomime with his brothers, feigning fury, indignation, accusing them of being spies, thieves and liars. He imprisons them and sets them up as thieves, but he also honours them with feasts, silver and goods. Utterly confusing them, he confounds their pride and brings them to a place of contrite repentance for the evil they did against him.

Rather than wow them outright with his splendour and royal standing, he makes them take a journey in his shoes. He makes them face an ageing and grieving father and the pain they brought upon him by asking for Benjamin’s life as well. In all of this he does not seek to make them suffer, but to prepare them for the amazing revelation that it was not they that sent him to Egypt but God.

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He was destined to save them. He had been raised up at the right time to be “father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt”. With five years of famine remaining, Joseph could provide land for this family, now numbering over 70 people, and their flocks in Egypt.

Moreover, the strict mores of Egyptian life, meant the Israelites would not intermarry with the Egyptians, a segregated culture who would not even eat with foreigners. Here in safety, the Israelite people could truly grow to become a nation.

Welcome to “Byzantium”

We’re pleased to share another guest blog by the ever popular Damien Shalley. He introduces himself here:

Damien Shalley sometimes confuses armadillos with peccadilloes, usually when he’s had too much Tempranillo.  He wishes that Kanye West would just come out of his shell a little.  If he was a rapper, he’d call himself “Daddy Cruel”. He would like to thank whoever invented yoga pants.  He would not like to thank whoever invented Pimento Loaf.   He knows who the real Slim Shady is, but he’ll never tell.

If you would like to contribute a guest blog to Bear Skin, please don’t hesitate to email me at


Welcome to “Byzantium”

by Damien Shalley

(for ‘Josie’)


Byzantium was an ancient city founded by the Greeks, the origins of which are shrouded in legend.  A wealthy city at the nexus of Asian-European trade, it was conquered by the Romans (who called it Constantinople), and conquered again by the Ottoman Turks, who made it the capital of their empire.  Today it is called Istanbul and vestiges of its’ ancient power and forgotten glories remain.  It is a city that has existed throughout modernity; a city that has seen prosperity, a city that has seen blood and violence, a city that has seen the vicissitudes of existence.

Perhaps that is why Irish director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”, “Interview with the Vampire”, “Ondine”) chose Byzantium as the name of his 2012 vampire film, starring the beguiling Gemma Arterton and talented Irish newcomer Saoirse Ronan.  Jordan examines the time-worn, desolate existence of a mother and daughter vampire duo living part of their hope-free eternity at the Byzantium guesthouse in a desolate English seaside town.  The central theme of this film is emptiness – the infinite emptiness resulting from perpetual exclusion from salvation.  Jordan shows us convincingly – and in gloriously lush style – that the true fate of a vampire is isolation from everything that is good.  This isn’t the famous Ms. Meyer’s “Twighlight”. (Thankfully).


Jordan’s film has been described as a meditation on family, life, love and death.  It is all of those things and more, wrapped up in stylish visuals and a well-known concept with appeal to audiences.  Gemma Arterton plays Clara, a mysterious, hardworking lady of the evening (literally).  She is on the lamb, running from mysterious men whose role in the proceedings becomes clearer as the film progresses.  Clara is provided with information by one of her clients about a run-down old seaside guesthouse called the “Byzantium” which she decides might be a safe (and productive) home base.  Saoirse Ronan plays Eleanor, Clara’s daughter, a particularly “unsweet” 16 year old with a somewhat philosophical bent, who enrols in a local school after moving to her new coastal home,  and who mortifies her teachers with a writing assignment detailing her centuries of existence and her need to prey on unsuspecting souls to survive.  Together, the two women work in tandem to defeat (or temporarily deny) the goal of their pursuers.  As the film progresses, we are witness to flashbacks which flesh out the story and offer insight into the two women and their current predicament at the “guesthouse at the end of the world”.

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There is a mournful aspect to these women – their relationship features many familiar mother-daughter dynamics, and Clara genuinely loves Eleanor – but ultimately they are both doomed.  Eleanor has a thoughtful disposition and dispatches her victims with a sense of melancholy.  She also feels a certain disdain for her mother’s more “scattershot” approach to predation.   The more experienced Clara has weathered centuries of interactions with humanity and is much less conscientious about her victims.  The two women are inseparable though, due to their family bond and their condition.  Love knows no boundaries, even for the undead.

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The screenplay for “Byzantium” was written by Moira Buffini, adapting her successful play “A Vampire Story” for movie audiences.  Her work examines the lonely routine of the vampire and the very un-“Twilight” concept that there is nothing glamorous about vampirism.  Director Jordan takes this concept further by examining what being a vampire actually means.  Jordan’s vampires are soulless entities relegated to a tiresome earthly existence of perpetual feeding on the gullible.  They are creatures who can experience no true satisfaction despite living through the ages and knowing all that this world contains.  They are ultimately condemned to an eternity excluded from God, and what’s worse, they know this all too well.  Their efforts on this mortal coil will all amount to nothing, and at the end of time salvation will elude them.  In the meantime, they must go through the motions in order to live through another night.  They will experience both good and bad in all its forms, build existences only to see them crumble, enjoy wealth and power then watch it disappear and be constantly reminded of the perpetual “veil of tears” that summarises earthly existence.  Just like the ancient city Byzantium.


Some critics have suggested that his film is not particularly insightful and is ultimately nothing more than a reworking of a story we’ve seen many times before, presented in a visually beautiful way.  “Byzantium” also pitches to commercial audiences by offering a quotient of exploitable elements; blood, beauty and seductive glamour.  (Well, this is still a vampire movie after all). Jordan’s concept of an empty eternity for the soulless nightstalkers he showcases has been described as somewhat superficial.  More cynical observers have suggested that the beauty of the cast and the elegant photography might prevent some viewers from acknowledging that aspects of the film are somewhat “half-baked”. It has been noted on more than one occasion by critics that there is a certain lack of substance to the women’s back story and that their tale really doesn’t justify two hours of screen time.  The flashbacks to their past are probably the least interesting parts of the film, although they do offer some understanding as to why the women find themselves in their modern day predicament.  Has Jordan presented a compelling narrative? Decide for yourself.


Director Jordan has on more than one occasion been accused of dwelling on beauty in a somewhat lascivious manner, “overplaying his hand” as a director, as it were.  There might be some validity to this criticism.  Whether this is good or bad is up to the individual viewer.  He has also been accused of “popularising” serious subject matter – he turned Angela Carter’s screenplay for his early film effort “The Company of Wolves” (a re-examination of the original Charles Perrault “Little Red Riding Hood” tale) into a strangely dream-like B-grade horror movie packed with sensual imagery that confounds critics to this day.  Saoirse Ronan’s Eleanor character is sometimes presented in “Byzantium” as a red-hooded “innocent” with the innate potential to destroy any “wolves” who may pursue her, and this concept appears to be a “through line” in much of Jordan’s work.


The conundrum that Byzantium” presents is that whilst the glamour aspect of vampirism is downplayed (philosophically, at least), the film is so beautiful to look at that it is entirely possible audiences will miss this very point.  Jordan presents creatures that rely on the abuse of all that is good – honesty, integrity, attraction and love – creatures that will happily prey on the undeserving.  They exploit the weakest link in order to maintain a godless and ultimately hopeless earthly existence.  Jordan offers viewers vampires as soulless creatures – predatory animals – and  nasty ones at that.  His vampires are beautiful and seductive, though – the eternal trap for the unsuspecting.  These kittens have claws.

Jordan has taken an uncommon approach to this type of tale.  In modern pop culture, vampires are synonymous with elegance, glamour, stylish living and eternal life.  “Byzantium” takes a closer look at the vampire narrative and uncovers a bleakness and hopelessness that is, for the most part overlooked in modern cinema.  Warner Herzog’s silent film classic “Nosferatu” went quite a way towards revealing the “truth” behind the vampire concept – his vampire is a creature of pity, condemned to an opportunistic existence preying on strangers, a lonely creature ugly in both appearance and purpose, a creature whose eternal fate has already been sealed and who must now remorselessly destroy the innocent in order to survive until the next sunset.  Nobody would suggest that “Byzantium” is even remotely equal to Herzog’s classic, but there is a definite similarity of purpose between the two films.  Critic Max Nelson, (“Byzantium”, Film Comment, June 25, 2013) offered this perceptive comment about the movie.

“…in the film’s longest flashback: teenaged Clara escapes the brothel where she’s been forced to live and work, sails to the same island that her daughter will visit a couple hundred years later, and, after making herself immortal, bathes with wild, joyful abandon in a torrential downpour of blood. It’s an unsettling take on the Christian redemption narrative: a victim of the worst possible injustices is washed clean in blood and given eternal life—only, at least at this point, the eternal life in question looks a lot more like Hell than Heaven.”

This seems to summarise director Jordan’s intent in perfect economy of words.  For those who appreciate this perspective, Byzantium will be a worthwhile viewing experience.

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Neil Jordan Filmography


TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 09: Actress Gemma Arterton, director Neil Jordan and actress Saoirse Ronan of "Byzantium" pose at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2012 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)

BOND GIRL GEMMA IS SEXY MOVIE VAMP Actress Gemma Arterton ( Quantum of Solace ) gets her teeth into her new horror movie Byzantium. The 27-year-old actress stars as Clara, a vampire who has to protect herself and her daughter (played by Saoirse Ronan) from those seeking to plunge a stake through their hearts. Picture Mother and daughter: Gemma Arterton with Saoirse Ronan 74018 EDITORIAL USE ONLY

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The King and the Maiden

Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden,

Thus beings a story by Danish philsopher,  Soren Kierkegaard [Philosophical Fragments, 31-42].

The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden.

How could he declare his love for her?  In an odd sort of way, his very kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist – no one dared resist him. But would she love him?


She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind. Would she be happy at his side? How could he know?

If he ever rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving royal banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross over the gulf between them.

For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

beggar and the maiden

The king convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend. He clothed himself as a beggar and approached her cottage incognito, with a worn cloak fluttering loosely around him. It was no mere disguise but a new identity he took on. He renounced the throne to win her hand.

With this parable, Kierkegaard illustrates the truth that Paul expresses about Jesus Christ:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance like a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient – even to death on a cross.


Happy Easter everybody.

To love and be loved

The reason for our being is “to love and be loved”. This is a universal human experience; no matter creed or colour, humans love and are loved.

Stories, songs, poetry and art help us to understand each other and so to love. They help us to empathise and so to love. They help us to forgive and so to love. They help us hope and so cling onto love.

So why do we need God? Isn’t love enough?

Unless God shows up in the greatest of stories, to show us the greatest of loves, which teaches us the greatest of understanding, empathy, forgiveness and hope.

greatest story ever told