A continuing meditation on writing, perception, power and change
Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee
And she’s gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she
“Oh, tell to me, Tam Lin,” she said, “why came you here to dwell?”
“The Queen of Faeries caught me when from my horse I fell
And at the end of seven years she pays a tithe to Hell
I so fair and full of flesh and feared it be myself
But tonight is Hallowe’en and the faerie folk ride
Those that would their true love win at Miles Cross they must bide
First let past the horses black and then let past the brown
Quickly run to the white steed and pull the rider down
For I’ll ride on the white steed, the nearest to the town
For I was an earthly knight, they give me that renown
Oh, they will turn me in your arms to a newt or a snake
But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father
And they will turn me in your arms into a lion bold
But hold me tight and fear not and you will love your child
And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight
But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight”…
“I received a questionnaire the other day – democracy prides itself on its questionnaires , just as it is endlessly confirmed and misled by its public opinion polls – and the first question was ‘Why do you continue to write?’ Writers do not like this question, which they hear as ‘Why do you continue to breathe?’ but sometimes one can almost answer it by pointing to the work of another writer. There! One says, triumphantly, That’s what it’s all about – to make one see – to lead us back to reality again.” Wrote Baldwin in 1970, in his forward to Louise Meriwether’s novel Daddy Was a Numbers Runner.
Thomas Chippendale, a kind of centaur: half craftsman, half designer-businessman cracks the code and the market falls open. On the title page of his catalogue, The Director (circa 1760), he describes his wares, illustrated by 160 copperplate engravings, as “a large collection of the most elegant and useful designe of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern taste,” the whole “calculated to improve and refine the present Taste, and suited to the Fancy and Circumstances of Persons in all Degrees of Life.”
Many folk are caught up in a quest for an ideal order and are frightened and enraged by its elusive nature. But does it matter if the order is ideal or flawed when what we have before us is reality itself?
Is what appears as magic simply a manifestation of a deeper connection with natural forces?
The mountain is empty,
A pinecone falls.
– Wei Yingwu
One knows the healing properties of the holy relics of the saints, yet in Europe during the late middle ages the purified fat of an executed criminal was used as a painkiller, a belt of his or her skin assuaged hysteria and stilled trembling in the hands and feet. Moss scraped from the skulls of unburied criminals provided a remedy for nosebleeds. In England, midwives took babies born on a day of execution to the scaffold and touched the forehead of the infant to the dead criminal’s fingertips, in order to furnish the former with a blessed life.
“The resemblance to truth was truer than truth itself.” So said Charles Garnier of his L’histoire de l’habitation: forty-four individual “dwellings,” including a Turkish bathhouse, Cambodian temple, Sudanese encampment and Chinese pagoda, constructed in the Trocadéro Gardens for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and peopled with welcoming indigenous subjects in “authentic” costumes.
“Societies,” says Baldwin, “are never able to examine, to overhaul themselves: this effort must be made by the yeast which every society cunningly and unfailingly secretes. This ferment, this disturbance, is the responsibility, and the necessity, of writers.”
It could be a serious matter to confuse a botanist with a batonist.
“In tracing the genealogies of modern cartographic techniques for the homogenization of the world as a view, [italics mine] we are brought face to face with a curious vision of modernity indeed, one whose quest for a disembodied, celestial vantage point, and faith in the logic of the vector, speak so clearly to a sense of loss and mourning for the transfiguring power of the sacred.”
— David L. Martin, Curious Visions of Modernity
Clarity and brevity: “Indeed from the middle of the nineteenth century the [English public] schools increased in influence and prestige. The report of the Public School Commission, published in 1864, is evidence of the complete acceptance of the public school system as the best possible means of education for those who were to be the leaders of the country in peace and war.… Difficulties, and in particular the vexed question of the rights of the poor to benefit from the expressed wishes of the founders of the great schools, were hardly debated, but in a most business-like manner brushed aside. It had become generally recognized that in point of fact the schools had long ceased to cater for the poor and that the work they did for the rich and the middle classes was valuable. Therefore there was to be no attempt to reassert forgotten claims at the expense of an existing efficiency.” Wrote Rex Warner in English Public Schools. (London: Collins, 1946.)
A map of the breath – the gentle breeze that flows within the body inciting every fibre to harmonious action.
While the World Trade Center stood, its form was of a treetrunk cloven by a lightning bolt.
When it crumbled, the West lost a panopticon center, a mapping-post from which the world might be viewed and visually subjugated by the gaze of one who had a view to trade.
And, in some odd way, the last surviving Jerusalem as the worldnavel.
Of course the entirety of the globe was not literally visible from the observation platform of Tower One. But the curvature of the earth at the horizon line implied all that was needed to evoke the Weltlanschaft.
Under particular conditions, if one looked discerningly enough, and at the right focal length, it was also possible to glimpse, a tiny splash. Some sea creature surfaced and resounding, or just the trace of the wing’d son’s fall?
For our Time is a very shadow that passeth away.
Sayeth the Book of Wisdom, II, v.
Turns out that the most efficacious magical thinkers are: magicians.
I have not observed absolute advantages. They all seem relative and contingent.
Some cultures perish as a result of a critical failure of the imagination.
Is imagination a precursor to courage?
Noli timere. Heaney, to his wife, at the last.
Words are not experience or life; they are beautiful play, an attempt to show the inner and outer worlds in as tricky and real a way as possible. They start from experience and with dream, reflection, imagination lead you to a sentence, an image, a story. The cockroach’s leap and the mouse’s nibbling a pear to its core… and there it is – having been said – it is now the sudden exterior. Once revealed, once written, there is no division – inner and outer in the very same place. And you didn’t have to drag your bags up and down stairs.
Wrote Gioia Timpanelli in “Beginnings, Eros and Work,” Chronogram: Arts, Culture, Spirit, November, 2007.
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Between the region of fancy and the province of authenticated history lies that borderland of tradition, full of difficulties which can neither be passed without notice nor ever perhaps finally explained. Wrote Robert Gould in his Antiquities of Freemasonry.
If you don’t know who you are, how can you recognize anyone else?
Every defeat is an argument for reconstitution. And the writer, like Shahrzade, must reconstitute herself 1001 times.
You have your charming orders, now marche.
Children of Metis, children of Metis all.
The abusive discourse must be de-authorized at the level of the individual. This is an internal process that situates a key level of struggle within the self. It is not the creation of “individuality” as we have come to know it. Yet is an essential precondition for genuine social change.
In De Certeau’s formulation (in The Practice of Everyday Life), competence is exchanged for authority to produce the Expert, so as to promulgate “a discourse which is no longer a function of knowledge, but rather a function of the socio-economic order.”
But the work of artists acts, time and again, to subvert the authority of the Expert, and with it, his inevitable “abuse of knowledge.” The artwork furnishes proof positive that competence and authority cannot be neatly separated, much less exchanged for one another. Art, at its most basic level challenges the drive of the social machine to grind on with its function of producing and enforcing a system of abstract and ultimately capricious values.
What the artist asserts, via her or his work, is a resounding “yes, but…” In practicing the authority of competence, she or he demonstrates precisely the natural and dynamic balance that the socio-economic order eternally seeks to destabilize.
There is lately a way found out for making Clocks that go exact and keep equaller time then [sic] any now made without this Regulator (examined and approved before his Highness the Lord Protector, and such Doctors whose knowledge and learning is without exception) and are not subject to alter by change of weather as others are, and may be made to go a week, or a month, or a year, with once winding up, as well as thouse that are wound up every day, and keep time as well; and is very excellent for all House Clocks that go either with Springs or Waights: and also Steeple Clocks that are most subject to differ by change of weather. Made by Ahaseurus Fromanteel who made the first there were in ENGLAND. You may have them at his House on the Bank-side in Mosses-Alley, SOUTHWARK, and at the Sign of the Maremaid in Lothbury, near Bartholomew-Lane end, London.
So was the innovation of the pendulum, recently invented by the Dutch horologist Christiaan Huygens, described in an advert in The Commonwealth Mercury, November 25th, 1658.
The tick’s alright, it’s the tock that’s sic.
Once located in the naves of numerous European churches, their position corresponding to the “feet of Christ,” pavement labyrinths, or as they were commonly called, Chemins de Jérusalem presently number only a score. It has been speculated that this pagan form was adapted into a symbolic pilgrimage route for those seeking salvation, but unable for whatever reason to make the actual trek to the Holy Land.
The Enlightenment didn’t take kindly to labyrinths, however, and by the middle of the 19th century they had mostly been dug up and replaced with uniform paving. As early as 1654, the Canon of Notre-Dame de Chartres, proclaimed the labyrinth there (which fortunately survived) “a foolish amusement, whereby those with little to do waste time twisting and turning.”
I have followed that labyrinth and can say with certainty that if one paces it out faithfully, one will gain the center, having several times come close enough to think “this is it!” but then seeing that one is not there yet, must carry on twisting and turning, until, suddenly, one arrives. Yet there are no tricks to it, nor blind alleys, beyond one’s desire to hasten the journey. And I can also say that if one breathes slowly and deeply as one navigates the labyrinth’s curves and switchbacks, that the movement has an effect on the body remarkably similar to that of performing a series of Qi Gongs.
In The Practice of Every Life, Michel de Certeau notes an industrial-era practice among French workers known as la perruque – literally, “the wig.”
“La perruque is the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer. It differs from pilfering in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job…
“The worker who indulges in la perruque actually diverts time (not goods…) from the factory for work that is free, creative, and precisely not directed toward profit.
“In the very place where the machine he [sic] must serve reigns supreme, he cunningly takes pleasure in finding a way to create a gratuitous product whose sole purpose is to signify his own capabilities through his work and to confirm his solidarity with other workers… thus defeat[ing] the competition the factory tries to instill among them…”
In gypsy tales, the hero never lies, but he is skillful in the art of knowing how to make the orders of the master, or the “authorities” mean something different from what they thought they were telling him.
What better cover for tyranny than a republic?
Circumstances might allow me to get your labor on the cheap. But if I want to reliably get your labor on the cheap, it will be easier if I first get you to despise yourself, devalue yourself, construct yourself as a unit of devaluation relative to me.
Over time that will set up a set of expectations that condition the behavior and conversation between us and which materially affects our contracts, implied or explicit. You will be waging an uphill battle against me and yourself.
Any system of oppression or exploitation, even pre and non-market market systems, are based on the creation and enforcement of an asymmetrical value structure. Social institutions develop to manage this. It is primary.
But value, of course, is contingent and conditional. How much will someone pay for a glass of water when they haven’t drunk for several days? There are certain “market inelasticities.”
If I have just drunk my fill, or can pretend I have, or convince you I don’t care, it’ll be harder to extort me for the price of a drink. Hence the capacity of value to travel along a scale from zero to priceless: value being, essentially, a slide whistle.
Any such system needs to be maintained. Certain people have grown accustomed to setting values, and enforcing them. And most people have learned, one way or another, to function within those rules. This is not only to get along by going along, but because it gives us a place within the spectrum, something we cannot do without and remain social. Even if we’re in a bad place, at least we exist within a human matrix.
Which means that beyond the cops, the banks, the army, the experts, the great task of conserving a system of values falls to us. It depends absolutely the complicity and compliance of countless individuals.
Trade or raid?
Tribe will tell.
The timeless obligation to give. What do we make of it once upon a now?
For de Certeau, la perruque resuscitates this obligation within the realm of the institution and signifies a return of “the ethical, of pleasure and of invention.”
“Realizing no profit (profit is work done for the factory), and often at a loss, they [the workers] take something from the order of knowledge in order to inscribe ‘artistic achievements’ on it and to carve on it the graffiti of their debts of honor. To deal with everyday tactics in this way would be to practice an ‘ordinary’ art, to find oneself in the common situation, and to make a kind of perruque of writing itself.”
The City of London aka “The Square Mile.” Something unto itself. Like the Vatican, yet not – and other.
It is said that the Lord Mayor’s Show is the last survival of once-innumerable guild processions in which giants, Morris dancers and men in armor took part.
Certain of the Companies adopted signature forms of display, such as the ship model the Fishmongers – first constructed to welcome the return of Edward I (aka “Longshanks” and “Hammer of the Scots”) from his campaign against the Caledonians in the late 13th century.
The Goldsmiths, in celebration of Richard II’s coronation, erected a turreted castle from which wine flowed for refreshment of the crowd. Internal mechanisms blew leaves of gold upon the King, and an angel descended via a crank and pulley to present him with a crown.
In the 1600’s, post-Tempest, the Grocers’s Company was represented by a moving island of spice trees.
Gradually elaborated over several centuries, the Mercers presented the Maiden’s Chariot. Its central figure was, according to an anonymous chronicler, “a beautiful young gentlewoman of good parentage, religious education, and unblemished character. Her dress was of white satin with a fringe of gold; on her disheveled [?] hair was placed a coronet of gold richly set with emeralds, diamonds and sapphires, and from her shoulders hung a robe of crimson velvet. In one hand she held a scepter, in the other, a shield with the Mercers’ arms.
“Surrounding the Virgin in her Roman Chariot of embossed silver adorned with angels and cherubim, sat Vigilance, Wisdom, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Charity, with the Nine Muses, while Fame blew her trumpet on a golden canopy above. Eight pages of honor in cloth of silver walked on foot, and Triumph served as Charioteer.”
Nine horses, three abreast, drew the chariot, ridden by allegorical figures and attended by grooms and Roman lictors, while before the procession went an advance guard of “green men” tossing fireworks. In such state traveled the Maiden and her retinue to the Lord Mayor’s feast!
The dung beetle’s utopia.
Flotsam and sinksam.
“The [16th century] European gentleman who wore this ‘compass’ cloak, so-named because of its circular shape, would have cut a dramatic figure. The opulent velvet, rich red silk-satin lining, and metallic bouclé trim would have dazzled with each sweep of his hand.” [And even more so had he not been so conditional.]
—Metropolitan Museum of Art, Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800.
The New York Times lead is CRISIS IN SYRIA. Beneath which, the headline: “A New U.S. Player, Put on the World Stage By Syria.” And the lead graph: “Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, will be on the spot as her performance at the General Assembly this week will help determine the country’s future in Syria.”
Hmmm. World Stage. Performance. Samantha Power. [!] The country’s future in Syria. [?!]
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
—You know who, Henry V, Act 1, Prologue
“Writers are obliged, at some point, to realize that they are involved in a language which they must change.” Wrote James Baldwin.
Natura facit saltus. Nature makes leaps. At times, somersaults.
What source authority?
At what point does illegibility shade into invisibility?
There are whole periods in which it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to utter an artistic truth.
“If you aren’t able to describe it, you will not be able to survive it.”
“Unrecognized producers, poets of their own affairs, trailblazers in the jungles of functionalist reality… they circulate, come and go, overflow and drift over an imposed terrain, like the snowy waves of the sea slipping in and among the rocks and defiles of an established order.
“Statistics tell us virtually nothing about the currents in this sea theoretically governed by the institutional frameworks that it in fact gradually erodes and displaces… what is counted is what is used, not the ways of using… the practices of consumption are the ghosts of the society that carries their name. Like the ‘spirits’ of former [sic] times, they constitute the multiform and occult postulate of productive activity.”
Says De Certeau.
Do ducks eat quacksants?
Is there a way of measuring non-thought?
The map is, ultimately, an attempted erasure of territory. It removes the “I” of terroir, and what remains is…
Does one direct by observing?
“I call,” says De Certeau, “a strategy the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country surrounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be managed. As in management, every “strategic” rationalization seeks first of all to distinguish its “own” place, that is, the place of its own power and will, from an “environment.” A Cartesian attitude, if you wish: it is an effort to delimit one’s own place in a world bewitched by the invisible powers of the Other.”
To the Nevsky Prospect!
The illusion of place.
One reason artists often have such a hard time of it is that they early on fall in love with that which social life is constituted to devalue.
They – we – uphold the discovery of the rare and beautiful thing, the thing possessing form, proportion, particularity, texture and ineffable qualities, when what the social machine runs on is the fuel of symbols best digested raw.
Thus a man wearing an ordinary tie is generally considered as solidly playing the game, whereas a man wearing a beautiful tie, well knotted and set against a shirt of similar elegance is regarded, unless he is a newscaster, as being suspect, unreliable and possibly – gasp! – polysexual. Or shading toward the (feline) animal.
Artists also use symbols as their base ingredients, but they do so by suggesting that the symbolic works best when it is used to awaken the senses to the living nature inherent in the world we experience. They add great deal of “how” to the “what,” of things and for this reason are regarded as curiosities, sacred monsters at best, but essentially superfluous and divorced from reality.
Certain powerful artists, whose arguments for the enchantment of the world become difficult to refute as a result of their overwhelming brilliance or celebrity must be domesticated at all cost – and this is accomplished by separating their “how” from any essential “what,” or via a thousand techniques of marginalization. In some cases artists are constructed as giants the better to hold their work at an astral remove. Their achievement of iconic status, personality cult, or the reduction of complex art to a defining characteristic of the author insures that we will never have to deal directly with the power of their work.
Many artists come pre-marginalized by the deeply-grooved inequities that distort social life as a whole. But realizing their position, almost all artists engage in some form of self-marginalization, partly to assert a bit of autonomy in a situation stacked against them and partly to keep their doors of perception open to the elements.
The price of this ticket seems to bearing with an ego which is hyper and hypotrophed in ways that very much resemble and perhaps constitute a form of madness – wherein one dissociates at certain levels in order to more authentically connect on others.
It is astonishing, given the disincentives, how many people persistently embrace such an existence. And they do so with a degree of discipline, stamina and devotion to a self-imposed duty that would be considered, by the standards of a more legitimized field of endeavor, such as banking, government or warfare, supremely virtuous and laudable.
It is said of Ren (yin) and Du (yang) – two of the body’s eight “extraordinary” meridians, channels, or vessels – that they are “but two branches with a single source. One travels along the front of the body and another travels along the back of the body. A person’s body has Ren and Du, just as heaven and earth have midday (zi) and midnight (wu), which may be perceived as divided and united. Divide them and it is apparent that their yin and yang aspects cannot be separated. Unite them and it is apparent that they are coalesced without differentiation. The singular is plural and the plural singular.
It is also said that if a person can open these two vessels than all of the hundreds of vessels can be open.
Treatise Affirming the Breath and Making the Soul Return: one of the source texts into which the contemporary masters, François Jullien, Isabelle Robinet and Tom Bisio, to name only three, extend their roots.
A verb dreams itself impaled upon a noun. It shudders. Can the spirit survive?
Pathognomy mon amour.
For the times they are a-dying.
Showtime at the Dionysus.
No shout in the street.