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Kazimir Malevich, MSS note, page 29: “Everything is pure, like the flat black-and-white surface of the square; therefore go and install excellent storerooms for life – make marks, offer refuge, rest, and a place to sleep, and we, gently as a shadow, let us go into the infinite, the free, the incomprehensible, leaving reason to those who want to understand it and sort out the fossilized traces.
Leave them their tongue so that they may bark at you, but we, we have no need of a tongue; we need a way, a way as pure as shadow.”
Ash-dark flakes of snow falling against a neon-white sky.
A few days ago I learned the smell of snow – not the smell of a snowy landscape, that is, but the quality of the air before snowfall. The key to the smell, I think, is how dry the air is. When I was a kid and going camping with my dad, I thought that quartz rocks in the hot sun were the driest things in the world: putting your hands on them seemed to suck the moisture from your skin. The smell of snow takes place in air with that feeling of rustling, mineral and inorganic dryness; each note in the air (salt from the sea, a little smoke everywhere because the smell of smoke carries so well in that air) is by itself, and displayed in this solitude as though in a block of solid Lucite. Things with dense and mingled scents seem very subdued, unable to move in this air, as soil underfoot and the mud of a riverbank seem not just cold but odorless on the day that smells like snow.
It was intensely clear, as well, as though the air had been removed and some new and more precise medium, like the liquid used for detecting theoretical particles, put in its place, and things seen were intensely vivid. That’s not the case anymore: the temperature rose, so rain instead of snow. The air is soft and full of smells again: the sea, the grass, the birches, diesel smoke, the granite and the cobbles.
He was a mixing board with no inputs, feeding back onto himself only the tiny fluctuations of charge and capacitance. A single stray thought bounced against the blank present of his mind, a balloon slithering back and forth across the kitchen ceiling in the breeze from the windows.
“Each portion of matter may be conceived as a garden full of plants, and like a pond full of fish. But each branch of the plant, each member of the animal, each drop of its humors is again such a garden or such a pond.” Paragraph 67 of Leibniz’s Monadology
The Akasaka Space Capsule Disco was built in stainless steel, gleaming and mirror-finished, with chandeliers made of television tubes, each one turned to a different channel – and music, arrays of lights, reflections on reflections. Supersaturation of signals, the overload: Kurokawa, the architect, called it “a capsule for those who want to release what is pent up inside them.” Kurokawa was obsessed with capsules as an architectural form appropriate to networked life, environments as engineered as the Apollo module for travel into different kinds of experience. Home capsules were places for shelter from information as from solar winds and cosmic rays: pared down, gently empty, a triage environment for damaged subjectivity. Kurokawa made capsules that felt like the conning tower of a submarine; he made a capsule that meticulously recreated a Kobori Enshu tea room inside a factory-assembled frame; he made a capsule lined with fur like Barbarella’s spaceship. And the Disco, this high-pressure chamber for media overload. On the side, Kurokawa ran a company with some friends – Film Art, est. 1968 – which existed solely to import Godard movies into Japan. He wanted all his buildings to have dynamite pre-installed, wired to a clock with 30 years to go: everything is going to change, even the buildings are temporary.
“On the evening before that most important day of my life, in Würzburg, I went for a walk. When the sun went down, it seemed as though my happiness were sinking with it. I was horrified to think that I might be forced to part with everything, everything of importance to me. I was walking back to the city, lost in my own thoughts, through an arched gateway. Why, I asked myself, does this arch not collapse, since after all it has no support? It remains standing, I answered, because all the stones want to fall down at the same time – and from this thought I derived an indescribable heartening consolation, which stayed with me right up to the decisive moment: I too would not collapse, even if all my support were removed.” Heinrich von Kleist, letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge, November 16, 1800
Following a convalescence in 1768 the young Goethe had experimented with alchemy. He read Paracelsus and the Aurea Catena Homeri; the latter included instructions, which he endeavored to follow, for the creation of the Liquor Silicum, “a kind of transparent glass which melted on exposure to the air.” From this one could distill a substance called the Virgin Earth which, so the story went, was a kind of microcosmic world which would create other substances from itself, a morphological point of origin. In 1790, in a fascinatingly bizarre episode, his chance find of a sheep’s skull in the Jewish cemetery in Venice inspired the idea that the vertebra was a kind of processual skull—that the spine, in fact, was a linked series of vestigial prior skulls, of which the current one was the morphological derivative and culmination. (It was a strangely persistent idea; Melville takes it up in 1851, in Moby-Dick: “If you attentively regard almost any quadruped’s spine, you will be struck with the resemblance of its vertebrae to a strung necklace of dwarfed skulls, all bearing rudimental resemblance to the skull proper. It is a German conceit, that the vertebrae are absolutely undeveloped skulls.”)
George Eliot’s remark in a review of Robert Mackay’s Progress of the Intellect: “like extracts from his common-place book, which must be, as Southey said of his own, an urn under the arm of a river-god, rather than like a digested result of study, intended to inform the general reader.” Southey’s specific phrase is in vol. IV, and a point of pride: his work has not exhausted either his own intellectual resources or the contents of his commonplace book. The former is like “a living spring,” and the latter like the urn under the River God’s arm, gushing water as he walks. The living river spills forth from it, full of fish and leaves and saltating stones.
Wittgenstein, pacing the verge of a river near Cambridge with a student, whom he is teaching exacting logic and the fine arts of kitebuilding and motorcycle repair, says: “You must say the new and yet, as clearly, the old.”
And while, years before, 1915, Wittgenstein stood on the prow of an Austrian boat going upriver, having volunteered to spot snipers and ambushes, waiting to die, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the sculptor, still almost a child, is in the trenches at Neuville-Saint-Vaast, having watched the stained glass windows fall out of a burning cathedral. He had volunteered – both men had – and was eager, filled with adolescent national chauvinism, to explore the war as a field of forces and intensities. The Greeks, with their Apollonian sense of a body, did not interest him as sculptors; he preferred Minoan and Assyrian, the power of the volumes cut from the air. “It will not look like you,” he said to Ezra Pound of the bust he was making, “It will be the expression of certain emotions I get from your character.” In the trench, he took an abandoned German rifle and whittled the butt into a primal figure capable of expressing, he wrote, “a gentler order of feeling.” Some weeks later he was shot in the forehead during the second battle of Artois and killed instantly. He was 23.
At any one moment 1,800 thunderstorms are in progress around the globe – some 40,000 a day. Day and night across the planet every second about a hundred lightning bolts hit the ground.
Montauk daisies, talc-fine sand, and the dazzle of bright light of a very special kind – cool, not hot; planar rather than diffuse; palpable and not liquid. It descended from the trees to the grass like a bolt of fabric being unrolled, or a theater’s curtain drop.
Apparently Mikhail Bakhtin smoked the manuscript of his book on the Bildungsroman, unaware the publisher’s copy was lost in a bombing. There was a paper shortage in Moscow during World War II and he used the pages of his work for rolling papers, starting with the conclusion. All we have is part of the introduction on Goethe.
The Unspeakable Spawning of the Proto-Shoggoths
Single Duplex Party Line
Just beyond the Chilean Andes, in the rain shadow: these vast cold lakes, bright with wind and spray, are surrounded by mountains that start alpine thick-forested and then, degree by degree, become desolate as Mars as they turn into the high volcanic desert. Islands and mountains off into the blue distance fainter and fainter over the water. Jagged mountains perpetually white with dense caps of clouds. Stands of coihue and Patagonian cypress and myrtle; above them, high lonesome meadows in the saddle of the mountains, and above those bare slopes of rock and volcanic scree, with the moon floating pale and faint like a fingerprint on glass.
On the far side of Nahuel Huapi, the ecosystem changes again into a wide-horizon shrub country turning into desert that you’d expect to see in West Texas. A path along the cliffs of the Quetrihué peninsula, looking for a grove of centuries-old arrayán trees. Winding through dense stands of winter’s bark and Antarctic beech, ancient and enormous alerce trees, clearings with bright foxglove and bamboo and clouds of tiny yellow flowers. Sometimes the sky clouds over and gently drizzles, bringing out the smell of the soil and the trees. Then it clears again, and sunlight fills the path and the birds resume singing. Hummingbirds and flying beetles with bright red backs. The arrayán trees are fragrant and their bark is between cinnabar and persimmon. The air around them is filled with wonderful orange light. The point of the peninsula comes all at once: deep embowered trail with scattered patches of bright light on the leaves, then this glowing orange grove burning at the end of the land like the wick of a candle, then a quick descent to stones washed with cold mountain water.
Those beings that have no profile, that no gaze can comprehend, because they are so colossal that the gaze itself is part of them.
“While they study, the students are awake, and perhaps their being kept awake is the best thing about their studies. The hunger artist fasts, the doorkeeper is silent, and the students are awake. This is the veiled way in which the great rules of asceticism operate in Kafka.
"Perhaps these studies amounted to nothing. But they are very close to that nothing which alone makes it possible for a something to be useful – that is, they are very close to the Tao. This is what Kafka was after with his desire ‘to hammer a table together with painstaking craftsmanship and, at the same time, to do nothing – not in such a way that someone could say "Hammering is nothing to him,” but “To him, hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing,” which would have made the hammering even bolder, more determined, more real, and, if you like, more insane.’ This is the resolute, fanatical mien which students have when they study; it is the strangest mien imaginable.“ Walter Benjamin
Doors open into courtyards, courtyards into further doors. Traces of a floral Jugendstil everywhere ("curves full of yearning,” Benjamin called the lines of that style, the extended filaments of a nervous society), and spectacular graffiti, sudden art. Dusty ivy. Trees – willows flashing gray, black poplars, silver birches. Coots and grebes and beautiful hooded crows around the Tiergarten, and Dürer hares leaping through the grass at night.
“Mr. Wiston has lately advanced the theory that the comets are to be conceived of as so many hells, appointed in the course of their trajectories, or orbits, alternately to carry the damned into the confines of the sun, there to be scorched by his flames, and then to return to starve in the cold, dreary, dark regions beyond the orb of Saturn.”
“J.S.F.” quoted in Demonologia, or, Natural Knowledge Revealed, 1827
A word game from the Biedermeier period: take five words – say, “pretzel feather pause lament clowning” – and link them up meaningfully without changing their word order. The shorter the sentence, the fewer the intervening clauses, the better the solution.
Amy Frush, Bessie Mangler, Lady Augusta Minch, Mildred Theory, Fleda Vetch, Weeks Wimbush, the Thrupp Apartments, Rosanna Gaw, and Gwendolyn Ambient, from “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884), aunt of Dolcino. His notebooks were full of unused names: Alan Wrencher, the town of Mockbeggar, Wentworth Hench, Tagus Shout, the butler Twentyman, Vizard, Lucy Curd, Haughty Crimper, Kate Shimple, the town of Voyd …
The Spartans ate meat, fish, sheep, goat’s milk, wine watered down to prevent intoxication, and “black broth”: boiled pig legs, blood, salt, and vinegar. The typical Greek soldier carried several pounds of grain, sour wine, onions, and a block of goat cheese. A Roman legionnaire brought a chunk of hard cheese, a string of sausage, fermented fish sauce, hardtack, a bit of lardo for cooking. Mongols (who rode for days by switching out mounts from a string that rode behind them, and slept on the frozen ground without blankets) made powdered milk that could be shaken into foam in a saddlebag and homemade jerky cured under the saddle – and, in emergencies, a shot of blood drunk from a vein in a horse’s neck. A traditional prewar meal for Muromachi samurai was chestnuts, kelp, and abalone.
Up past Pyramid Lake, as the late afternoon came on, to Gerlach, and from there you could see the vast alkali flats beginning to spread out below the mountains and the wall of haze to the northwest, smoke blown from the wildfires. We drove into it, watching the light change: the sky became lavender and grey-orange, the sun a disc, and, as the day got later, light that fell on the playa was a burnished copper, the shadows violet. Turned in at 12 Mile onto the playa, inching along following lines of cones out into the emptiness. Any object set by itself on the playa instantly entered a space of eternity, of psychic zero, as though it had been left there for hundreds of years. With its tire tracks converging on the horizon under this copper-violet light, the playa resembled nothing so much as the surface of an alien planet, a desaturated Mars.
Waiting to pick up K for the drive to Bozeman, we sat on a terminal couch, looking out at a horizon hazing into purple abyss at the limits of vision, talking: tensegrity architectures, beekeeping, hypercolor, Futurist cooking, monasteries and spiritual vocation, and difficult times.
The entrance to Jung’s tower: VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT / “Summoned or not, the god will be there.” From the Delphic Oracle’s answer about the war plans of the Lacedaemonians against Athens: the god will be on the spot, but in what form and to what purpose?
After the bombings of the Blitz, Londoners noticed bizarre flowers growing from the craters, flowers which had never been seen before. As it happened, the impact of a bomb’s explosion might once in a while leave a seed intact but shatter and shuffle the seed’s chromosomes, creating mutations. (They were sterile.)
Resistance and She is Proud to Announce Her Entrance to the Florida Nightlife, both by Constance Cornrow, memoirs about her youth of punk music, petty crime, and unplanned pregnancy in the Everglades
Aphorisms, by David Lynch (“If you find one piece of torn blue paper, keep looking until you find two pieces”)
Your Entire Life is Somewhere Else – Destroyed, a manuscript left by a Japanese schoolteacher and serial killer, which demonstrates that everything beautiful and interesting and meaningful in your life is horribly wrecked and perverted and ruined somewhere else
The Lo-Fi Century, by Sofia Coppola, about the next hundred years of aesthetics, with a millennial pink cover, sold from a vending machine
All My Splendor, about a heroin smuggler laundering money in the art world in the 1980s
Deaf Turtle’s Deaf Room, a closely observed, chilling psychological account of a woman briefly observing her own life as if it were not her own, total depersonalization
Three Communities of Negotiation: Ages, Cities, Guilds, a book that I knew in the dream contained the key to a new kind of society, a new way of living together. A cover the color of terracotta roofing tiles, with one edition having a photograph of endless dunes and the other the open sea
“In the mountains near Toyama there was a bowl-lending lake where the service was even quicker. One stood on the shore and stated the number of bowls required, and immediately there would float to the surface of the water, and presently be washed ashore at one’s feet, bowls of superior red lacquer exactly to the number ordered. In Yamanashi prefecture there was another such pool where the guardian required the order in writing. One wrote him a letter stating the number of bowls needed, and the next day they would be found neatly ranged on the edge of the pool.”
From René Fülöp-Miller’s history of the Bolshevik revolution, on Lenin: “His friends tell us that he knew, to a degree found in perhaps few other men, the secret of complete relaxation, of the ‘breathing space,’ and could procure for himself hours of absolute peace and gaiety, even in the midst of the most stirring events and the most strenuous work. This may explain his playing for hours with children and kittens as his family and friends describe.”
He was running a high fever. His chest felt taut, hollow, and hot. The flicker frequency of the fluorescent lights was resonating with something deep inside his skull, some buried bit of wet gristle humming like the raster scan of an aging television set. Falling asleep under the flu’s effect made him expect to awake with an indentation permanently stamped in the bed from his golem-heavy limbs. He went into sleep like an astronaut blacking out, the many-Gs of launch pressing him down into the dark.
The contrast between the bland modernism-without-teeth of EU design style (all those big sheets of glass opening onto empty conference rooms with the whiteboards and the little tripod of the conference call telephone) and the wonderful sinister undercurrent of dark languid strangeness left by Art Nouveau, the mood that produced Khnopf and Rops and Spilliaert: a tangle of eroticism, fatigue, and death, a post-coital quality, a resigned desire for a certain kind of oblivion, haunted, turning in circles, with a slowed kind of time (the temporality of Bruges-la-morte).
A man condemned to death begged Alexander the Great to pardon him, vowing, given a year’s reprieve, that he would teach Alexander’s favorite horse to sing. When his friends derided him for a fool who merely postponed the inevitable, he replied: “A year is a long time. The king may die; I may die; there may be an invasion or a coup or an amnesty. Or, who knows, maybe the horse will learn to sing.”
They didn’t know what to call jazz when they brought it to Russia. Parnakh came back from Paris in 1922 with the instruments and some scores in his luggage and the memory of the feel of the music in his head; he introduced it to St. Petersburg as the Russian neologism “orchestra-rumpus.” His circle of avant-garde friends and enemies fell hard for it, as they did for Dada, aviation, sheets of pure color, the tango, helices and stupas, and abstract pictures of satellites hung in the corners of rooms like the ikons of saints. They knew that the only way to be truly modern was to be ancient at the same time, to go back to fantasies of origin so they could get a feel for living and working at the bright dawn of the noon to come. To be at the beginning of something. They lived Wittgenstein’s challenge: “You must say the new and yet, as clearly, the old” – both at once. And they were not alone – as H.D. saw through Sappho’s eyes and wrote as if creating her own fragmentary manuscripts to be recovered centuries hence.
The Russian contingent were into Dionysian antiquity and ferro-concrete. Before they called themselves “cubo-futurists” they called themselves Hylaeia, after the ancient Greek name of the Kherson province where Burliuk went on vacation. (David Burliuk: a “wonderful wild steppe horse” in human form, poet and painter and co-author of the Russian Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.) Their rivals called them “barefoot,” a slam: that they weren’t refined metropolitans but rural rubes. But they were often barefoot – followers of Isadora Duncan, self-declared modern primitives, taking off the toe shoes to dance on thawed ground and floorboards the spirit of a ballbearing factory or a lightbulb. Khlebnikov’s name for this group was the budetliane, будетляне, most accurately translated as the will-be-ists.
The budetliane loved the tango, and made it a dance about a life broken and sharp, a place where the new biomechanical body met melancholy, memory and obsessive love, with elegance and coarseness together – playing out in an open landscape, the dream of the Argentine pampa and the Russian steppe. A way of feeling and living that was old as tragedy and new as the morning paper. Malevich, painter of satellites, dreamer of life in space, said that artists had to stop making figurative paintings of nature and turn to abstraction so that one day they could paint nature again. We could start over, he promised. “I have released all the birds from the eternal cage and flung open the gates to the animals in the zoological garden,” he wrote in 1916. “Hurry! For tomorrow you will not recognize us.”
The pool hall where the low black ceiling was speckled with blue dots like a night sky, from people accidentally brushing the tips of their cues against it.
Trying to remember a specific idea or moment after drinking too much coffee is like trying to find a specific moment in a song on a cassette tape, or a scene on videotape – fast forward and overshoot, rewind and overshoot, trying to narrow in; you have a glimpse of it, enough to realize your mind has already whirred past and you need to retrace your steps. When you think of something your mind catches on it like the handle of an umbrella snagged by a doorknob: focus zips right out from under your arm.
“He had a short grey Donegal-tweed jacket with three inch vents custom made by John Stephen on the north side of Carnaby Street where you had the fittings in the shop window before an audience of keen dressers out on the street who gave thumbs up and thumbs down.”
When Raymond Carver died, this list was found in the breast pocket of his shirt:
In 1932, Marcel Duchamp coauthored one of the strangest books in chess: l'Opposition et Cases Conjuguées sont réconciliées, Opposition and Sister Squares are reconciled, with Vitaly Halberstadt, a noted problemist and player of blindfold chess. The book concerns endgames in which only kings and pawns remain, particularly the exceedingly unlikely endgame known as the Lasker-Reichhelm position. Duchamp and Halberstadt demonstrated (with the aid of beautiful fold-in transparencies) that the best black can hope for is a draw, with elegant delays before the inevitable loss – a waiting game. “Even the chess champions don’t read the book,” Duchamp said in conversation with Pierre Cabanne, “since the problem it poses really only comes up once in a lifetime. They’re end game problems of possible games so rare as to be nearly Utopian.”
On his own, Duchamp went yet further: asked by Julien Levy to create the announcement for a 1943 group show (with Tanguy and Cornell), he included a cryptic endgame problem known as “White to Play and Win” – after the standard puzzle notation which challenges the reader, given the pieces and configuration, to start with white and find a winning strategy. He even provides a clue, with a painstakingly inked Cupid and his drawn bow (visible on the board if the paper is properly folded and held up to the light) pointing with its arrow in a way that suggests a pawn advance for white. Yet starting with that move will not result in a win; indeed, on further analysis you realize that any move by white will end, at best, in a draw. It is a problem without a solution – an exercise in the unwinnable.
Tendrils of ivy on the telephone poles lie so thick they provide the illusion that the poles are about to spread their leaves and become trees again.
I asked the bartender about the interesting way he holds his pen, with his hand crooked around it as though he’s sheltering a lit match on a windy day. He tells me that he wondered that himself, until college, when he learned that he’s a rarity: the right side of his brain is wired to the right side of his body, the left to his left, opposite normal. Meaning he has a right left hand, and the only way he can really write with it is to hook his hand around. Then he tells me that one of his friends is a real rarity: his body’s a mirror image, with his heart on the wrong side of his chest. His girlfriend loves to dance with him, turning around the floor, because she can feel their hearts beating one against the other.
Sprays of cold, bitterly lucid water, tiny thriving worlds around the flow with salamanders, slick mosses running with threads of water whose continuous rush and pattern makes them look like nothing so much as icicles – those striations – and millipedes patiently eating moss with their blind mandibled heads. The churning of Karman vortex streets, in the constant rush of the falling water. Woven and unwoven. Ichijirushi.
The spreading silent pool, further up, shallow and exquisitely clear, over the huge sheet of red sandstone: the deep diving pool, with water a wonderful dark milky blue at the bottom and cold as death.
Gregory Voronoi was a 19th-century Ukrainian mathematician who studied what we now call computational geometry. Voronoi studied what happens when you throw points at a plane and then break the plane into regions where each region is the area that is closest to its point. This creates a natural polygonal division of the plane. You see this pattern very clearly in the polygonal patterns of light, known technically as caustics: the flower of light that blooms every time you set a glass of water down on a sunlit table, the veins of light running through a rain-streaked window, the loose skeins of rippling light on the bottom of a pool. (A rainbow is actually a kind of caustic.)
Cerro Arco is the smallest link in the chain of the Aconcagua Mountains, lifting up into the sky. It is a high altitude desert. The air is stunningly clear, and so dry your sweat seems to evaporate as it comes. The bed of the river is baked as hard as porcelain. Steadily ascending, and taking a break to huddle in the shade of a rocky outcrop or a creosote bush for a swig of water. Either you were sweltering up a glaring slope of nothing but rocky spills and talus before you, or you would take a turn and it was laid out: vast plains stretching away to the edge of the world, the limit of vision, and ranks of anvil-shaped clouds casting city-sized shadows on the valley floor. Goat’s horn cacti, enormous locusts, creosote and sagebrush, wild grasses, insect chatter, occasional birdsong, and a lazy condor turning in the thermals. Cooling breezes down from the mountains. Wonderful stillness, completely absorbing. You brush the edge of eternity in that silence. And suddenly come upon a bush with small dark leaves and waxy white flowers that is completely swarming with butterflies.
Cacti that look like sea urchins, cacti that look like hands, cacti that look like tidepool anemones. Rustling wind in the grass, distant owl-like hooting, sitting on a massive slab of sea-foam green limestone. The occasional cry of a chimango. A sense of being “before and after history,” as Gertrude Stein said of moonlight in a valley.
On the way back, picking up stones to shy at the pack of wild dogs barking and following me, stones so hot they burned my palms. Crouching in the shadow of an unfinished cinderblock wall and watching two dogs eat the corpse of a fox or a small coyote.
Among the Guaycurus in Paraguay, when a death takes place, the chief changes the name of every member of the tribe: “from that moment everybody remembered his new name just as if he had borne it all his life.” If the name of the dead Guaycuru happens to be the same as the name for a tree or an animal, the name of the latter is changed.
“In the seven years which the missionary Dobrizhoffer spent among the Abipone people of Paraguay, the native word for jaguar was changed thrice, and the words for crocodile, thorn, and the slaughter of cattle underwent similar, though less varied, vicissitudes.”
(By contrast, the Masai in East Africa change the dead man’s name immediately after his death.)
Talking with M who’s been studying chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, for twenty years. She said that, after a certain point of accomplishment, the ceremony could in theory be performed with a cup of coffee in an empty room – what mattered was the purity of the gesture and the sense of harmony, respect and tranquility, wa, rei, jaku. It’s not really the objects that matter but the expression and experience of a polychronic moment, one which folds in ancient and immediate.
“First, master the endgame, then the middle and finally the opening. Thus you’ll be able from the beginning to see through to the end. Choose among all the masters the master whose way of playing appeals to you the most. Then replay all of his games.” (Cage chose Duchamp.)
In the Llanganates, camping on the boggy ground, when the velvet fog made the night a deep matte black. Lightning bugs began to flicker and swarm over the paramo grass. I stayed out after we’d all gone to sleep, in the dark, watching them flicker, the clouds began to clear, the hidden stars shining gradually through, first Venus only and then many – clearer and clearer, vast systems of stars, tangles, clouds of stars. Out to the soft depth of the Milky Way. And on the clouds of the eastern horizon I could see reflected flashes of lightning, huge, flickering clouds in negative, the glow of lightning over the Amazon.
A cloud is not an entity as such. A cloud is a cooler region of space that’s made visible for us, in time, as moisture condenses out of the air passing through it. And “us,” “me,” personal experience, is a coherent region with flows of energy passing through, condensing and evaporating as they go, for only a brief time: the condensation manifests as metabolism, life, actions.
To prove themselves, an apprentice Swiss watchmaker is not required to make a watch, but to make the all the tools they will need to make a watch.
“Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e. the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.” Wittgenstein
The thread that runs through these aphorisms and propositions is on the need for what Gertrude Stein had already called, in her “Composition as Explanation” (1926), beginning again and again. Truth is not something that can be uncovered; it can only be rediscovered, day after day. The value of breaking through the dead rubble each morning and in viewing each object from as many angles as possible is that one keeps one’s mind open, that conclusions are always tentative, and that the process of discovery is always more important than any particular end result.
(Cezanne’s painting process: “like walking in a thick fog near the edge of a cliff.”)
The parameters of expression for television are “Hue, Saturation, Brightness, Contrast.” Imagining a painting with a roll of masking tape and cans of spray paint, should you want to “cool the painting off, or warm it up, or juice it up, or tone it down.” (Hollis Frampton) Music has volume, treble, bass, EQ etc. What about text, or environment? Making more sliders and knobs for everything: the assumption of affordance for things that never had affordance before.
“There are talents whose nature is so fertile, whose inner climate is so tropical, that they can create a whole series of important works merely by living through the most ordinary occurrences with the greatest possible intensity. They can be likened to those treeless islands in the south seas upon which some fruit pits are left behind by ships' passengers, and which not many years later are covered with dense forests.” Georg Brandes (on Kierkegaard)
“When you cry in Noh, you put your hand in front of your face, but this is not to show that you are crying, it is to dry the tears. The action is completely neutral and consists of drying tears, nothing more. It doesn’t matter how you do it, some actors lower their eyes, others look up. The simple action of drying tears has been chosen as a paradigm for the act of crying. All other unnecessary gestures have been eliminated.” Hideo Kanze, 1971
“The slowness of the gesture makes all interpretations possible: for example, the woman wants to cry and so moves her hands up to her eyes, but this action can also be the image of her grief, which she brings closer so she can see it better. She seems to draw up the water of her tears, the weight of the pain, then comes the withdrawal from the cup of bitterness which she has drunk, the abdication from life.” Paul Claudel, in his jounal, Feb 1923
When Fred Astaire ordered a bespoke suit from Anderson and Shepherd in Savile Row, the carpet was rolled back and Astaire danced on the parquet floor to check that the fit of his coat never came away from his shirt collar. Astaire was famous for practicing his steps over and over until he didn’t have to think about them. He and his choreographers never wrote anything down, so they worked off of muscle memory. His test was, while dancing, to read a book. If he could read the book and retain what he read, then he knew he had learned the dance.
Astaire was asked by a young performer how to polish his act. He said to get the act as perfect as you can, then cut two minutes.
“In the second century, the Sophist Athenaeus spoke of a famous actor of his time named Memphis, whom they called ‘the dancing philosopher’ because he taught Pythagorean philosophy by gestures alone.”
The lab notebooks of Marie Curie, stored in lead boxes. Anselm Kiefer’s The High Priestess, with leaves of lead, to be handled with gloves. Shadows from the Walls of Death, made with samples of poisonous industrial wallpaper, saturated with arsenic and cyanide.
A recurrent symbol in Walter Benjamin’s work was the childhood mystery of the balled-up socks in the wardrobe: each pair, so folded, had the appearance of “a little pocket,” and within the pocket, for the child Walter, was das Mitgebrachte, “what it comes with,” the gift. But, in extracting the gift, the pocket disappeared, the container becoming the contained. (He could see in Proust, whom he translated into German, a writer who sensed the gift within the pocket of his memory, and repeatedly tried to extract it, pulling his past inside-out to find neither gift nor pocket but “the third thing,” literature.) He wrote about Kafka: “[The interpretation of ‘Vor dem Gesetz’] is done by the priest in The Trial, and at such a significant moment that it looks as if the novel were nothing but the unfolding of the parable. The word ‘unfolding’ has a double meaning. A bud unfolds into a blossom, but the boat which one teaches children to make by folding paper unfolds into a flat sheet of paper. This second kind of ‘unfolding’ is really appropriate to parable; the reader takes pleasure in smoothing it out so that he has the meaning on the palm of his hand. Kafka’s parables, however, unfold in the first sense, the way a bud turns into a blossom.”
“The playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what is denoted by the bite.” Gregory Bateson
It feels like liquefaction in an earthquake: the constant shocks make the ground flow and the very rigidity of built structures, that which holds them up – that they’re structures – becomes their vulnerability. The structures turn against themselves, self-interfere, and collapse.
“The tigers and lions, the polished bootees, dazzling parties, the impeccable suits, the hundreds he was a fair match for, the relationship full of sacrifice, the whistlings, signals, and shaggy hair, are figures of fantasy.
The person who hatched them now glances at the dial and thinks it is time to get up from his desk and go for a little walk.” (Walser, “The Robber”)
A form of divination that used the casual utterances of others. The message-seeker pressed a coin into the hands of a certain statue of Hermes, whispered a query into the idol’s ear, blocked his own ears for some length of time and went out into the city: the answer would be in the first human words heard on unblocking them. (Sometimes it’s a matter of time: the kledon may seem trivial or irrelevant at first, with the secret sense declaring itself much later, in changed circumstances.) It’s a project based on utterances “that mean more than the speaker realizes,” where the god works subtly through the effusions and quotidian exchanges of everyday life – things that “say more than they say” (in Ricoeur’s odd phrase). A kledon utterance is at once yours and not really yours, or more than yours. Kledon is the world being hidden in the world.
Glenn Gould, the anti-romantic, thought about recording and playback as part of the full life of a musical performance: “Dial-twiddling is an interpretative act.” He wanted to distribute a kit of variant takes from which the purchaser could construct their own preferred performance. A beautiful idea, far ahead of its time.
There’s a record produced by the band Die Tödliche Doris that you can’t buy, even though it appears in their discography (Die unsichtbare LP): it exists when you play their fourth and sixth records, which are exactly the same length, simultaneously. One album is antsy, more commercial, kind of New Wave; the other is spare, austere, more “experimental”: the fifth album exists solely in the track-for-track correspondence between them as they play together, like a stereoscopic image which only exists in 3-D as reconciled in your visual cortex.
Dominicans, appropriately, created the first Biblical concordance. The Jesuit Fr. Roberto Busa reached out to IBM in 1949 to create a digitized, searchable concordance of Aquinas, the Index Thomisticus. (His dissertation in 1946 involved studying Aquinas’s references to “in,” as in the presence of God being in the world, or Jesus present in substance in the Eucharist.) The process of working with language on punched cards is detailed in Fr. Busa’s Varia Specimina.
Digitus Dei est hic! he wrote of IBM and magnetic tape: the finger of God is here!
If you are insulted, be angry awhile, watch the anger, and take no action. It’s not “don’t become angry”; it’s become angry as deliberately as you would set a chess piece on the board, or leap from a high cliff into the water.
The perceptual trick that separates geography from the sky. The primordial seas with their millennial rain and steam – ginko trees evolved to be fertilized by the rushing waters of the Eocene, carrying pollen from trees upstream to those down. The starry sky and the biosphere are each a problem of representation. The moon rolls through the bay without touching it.
“A man of my acquaintance was at his most well-organized at the unhappiest period in his life. He forgot nothing. He registered his current activities down to the last detail, and if he had an appointment – and he never forgot them – he was punctuality itself. His life’s way seemed to have been smoothly paved, and there was not even the smallest crack for time to run out of control. And so matters rested for a while. Then circumstances brought about a change in his life. It began with his getting rid of his watch. He practiced arriving late, and if the person he was going to meet had already left, he sat down to wait. If he had to do something with an object close at hand, he managed to mislay it, and if he was supposed to clear something up somewhere, the confusion elsewhere increased. When he sat down at his desk, it looked as if someone had been living in it. But it was he himself who was building his nest in the ruins. Whatever he did, he made a little house for himself out of it, as children do when they play. Similarly, just as children keep coming across things they have hidden away and then forgotten – in their pockets, in the sand, in a drawer – so it was with his mind, with his entire life. Friends visited him when he least expected them but needed them most, and the gifts he sent, which were not sumptuous, arrived as punctually as if he had the paths of heaven in his hands. Around this time, he liked to recall the tale of the shepherd who one Sunday was given permission to enter the mountain with his treasures, but who also received the mysterious instruction, ‘Do not forget the best.’ At this period of his life, he felt quite well. He settled few things and thought of nothing as settled.” (Walter Benjamin, in the “Ibiza Sequence,” Frankfurter Zeitung, June 1932.)
(recipe courtesy of John Cage)
Break mushroom caps into small bits, slice stems. Place in earthenware jar with 1.5 oz. salt for each quart of mushrooms. Stand in a cool place 3 days, stirring/mashing several times a day. Put over a low fire in enamel pan till juices flow freely (about ½ hour). Mash. Simmer for 20 more minutes. For each halfpint of mash, add 1 oz ginger root, grated/chopped, a blade of mace, a bay leaf, crumbled, a pinch of cayenne, 1 oz of black pepper and of allspice. Boil down to half the quantity. For each remaining halfpint, add tsp. best brandy. Bottle, cork, seal. Must be kept at least one year. 20 qts mushrooms = 4–5 qts dogsup.
On the mountain over Trento, in the Dolomiti – limestone, and dolomite a pale, pale watered-silk pink. Hot alpine light, cool shadows under beech trees, red firs, and Norway spruce. “The Sun,” as Turner said, “is God.” (And John Muir and William Blake saw angels seated on the branches of trees, among the leaves.) Sparrows springing into space and tumbling downslope through the air like drops of rain. In many places the path, never built-up, is held in place solely by the intertwined roots of the trees. Eating fruit picked on the road, deep indigo figs and a bunch of windfall wine grapes.
There are fossils in the limestone cut for the walls of Trento, the shells of creatures from vast Mesozoic seas that rose, silent and teeming, and beat the stones into bibula harena, imbibing sand, and fell back, leaving deserts, and rose again. Lagoons bright with algae two hundred million years ago. Da Vinci speculated as to the age of the Earth from the fossil shells in the stone of the high mountains of Piacenza.
“Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful?”
“That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.”
“In the Christian version of Hippocratic theory, God had created man in the original Garden with all the foods and medicines he needed to keep him eternally in perfect health. But when Adam and Eve were expelled, these medicines and diseases were scattered throughout the world. Physicians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries hoped that with the discovery of America and Asia and Africa, all of these scattered medicines might be recollected in one place, the healing plants of the Old World reconciled with those of the New. So the garden would not just be a guide to philosophical contemplation, or to religious ecstasy, but in fact might be the basis for a new foundation for medicine.” (Richard Drayton, “The Origins of the European Botanical Garden”)
Mnemosyne was Aby Warburg’s enormous collection of images, an atlas of his fascinations built around the “iconology of the intervals,” a mysterious phrase. Pictures arranged on black material to recreate spatial configurations and orders of experience. Panel 25, for instance, devoted to the di Duccio reliefs at Temple Malatestiano: “One suddenly realizes that the panel constitutes in reality a visit to the temple and is developed like an interior monologue; it is the chronicle of thoughts and associations that went through the historian’s mind as he worked.” Warburg called Mnemosyne “a ghost story for adults” (eine Gespenstergeschichte für ganz Erwachsene).
From a doctor’s account of Warburg’s melancholic depression, 1920: “He practices a cult with the moths and butterflies that fly into his room at night. He speaks to them for hours. He calls them his little soul animals [seelentierchen] and tells them about his suffering … ” From Warburg’s correspondence: “The most beautiful butterfly I have ever pinned down suddenly bursts through the glass and dances mockingly upwards into the blue air … Now I should catch it again, but I am not equipped for this kind of locomotion. Or to be exact, I should like to, but my intellectual training does not permit me to do so … Such soaring movements are not for me.”
The flutter of air in Renaissance paintings that establishes “nowness,” that establishes a different kind of time in the Quattrocento – he always wanted to live in that immediate, fluttering moment.
If you look at Greek temples, down to the architecture, they were built not to house a congregation of people in simultaneous worship but to house a specific god. They are closer in spirit to shrines, where you enter, do a thing, and leave. There’s a fundamental tension that runs all the way down Christianity, there from the very beginning: ekklesia, the assembly – a word akin to both polis and Hellas, both the local identity of a community and a fragment of a universal church constituted of the people so assembled – and church itself, from kuriake, a Greek word for “belonging to the Lord,” emphasizing the authority of God and his representatives rather than the assembly of worshippers. Ekklesia/kuriake continues to be the struggle over the Christian faith for thousands of years. (Christianity was at once very Hebraic, and very Greek – its adherents created little versions of the classical Greek polis as far away as the Himalayas.)
Henri Bergson’s theory of a life force, the élan vital, is not a force of “life” itself, an abstract impulse for survival, but rather a theory of disruption that produces change, challenge, evolution, and complexity. “A universal force that drives living things continually out of phase with themselves,” forcing the discovery of “new configurations and new engagements with a necessarily moving reality.” Not the fuse that drives the flower but the force that makes one flower into many kinds of flowers. As a theory, it isn’t necessary – the environment, circumstances, other species, niches and genetic drift, and the work of surviving is constant disruption enough, forcing out new complexities – but as a practice, an attitude, and an aesthetic there is something interesting there.
Fernet-and-Cokes, big bottles of Quilmes and Isenbeck, sinus-clearing glasses of house red, as people with guitars get up and sing tango and milonga and zamba. Everyone claps rhythm, intricate polyrhythms. People sing along sometimes, mouth the words, trade verses. The guitarist perches on an empty barstool next to yours and pours out his moonlit heart. The feeling was so clear, total, potent: regret for the years gone by, warming hands at the memories of love lost, thinking of where you wish you were, celebrating just this moment. And throughout each set people are ordering beer, going out to smoke or right past the singers to the bathroom, carrying on low-level conversations. It clicked: this is a room full of people who love this music, and part of loving it is that it’s everyday, it happens right in and alongside life now. Just like heartbreak and happiness and homesickness, coexisting with collecting glass bottles to return for the deposit.
Cranes, golden plovers, red-throated divers, parrot crossbills, willow tits, yellowhammers, eagle owls, and the bright wings of ospreys; cottongrass, cloudberries, cranberries, sundews and enormous ferns, spruce and birch and anoxic peat mires with pools of still, crimson water; pegmatites, smoky quartz, dolostone, fossil archipelagos, and the perfect vortices left by each oar-stroke across the silent lake.
Vladimir Toporov was a scholar of sacrifice and de Saussure’s anagram theories, and a builder of ornithopters, palindromes, and theories of palindromes. The palindrome – a “revolutional” phonetic/alphabetic structure – emphasizes the visual and spatial ways that symbols mean things. Palindromos, running back again: it breaks the irreversibility of speech and time, sequentiality and causality. (The Baroque name for a palindrome was versus diabolicus.) Enantiomorphic symmetry fascinated Toporov: a mirror symmetry in which no part can be superimposed on the other.
(Arepo the sower works with the wheel.)
Feral cats, poetry cut in stones. The kami in certain trees, rocks, spaces. Before the Buddha a stone trough of debris; all the statues covered with the fine damp dust of caves. On the altar a single silver coin. Behind the Buddha the endless darkness. And right outside the cave someone has left a pair of shoes, neatly next to one another as though just stepped out of, but curling with damp and full of fallen leaves.
We’ve been in a typhoon from the Philippines the last few days – black rain in sheets, high wind. But the weather broke this morning, stunningly clear. You could see Mt. Fuji from the roof of our apartment building, like a broad streak of white test paint on the flat blue sky. Today is windy and bright; at night there is an amazing hunter’s moon, orpiment and royal yellow, low in the sky. Big, heavy, it reminded me of Gurdjieff’s parable that the moon was a living being, evolving into a planet – and that the energy for its growth, taken from the sun and other stars, is collected in a huge accumulator formed by organic life on Earth. That everything living on Earth is food for the moon.
Eoliths, “dawn stones.” Believed to be chipped flint human artifacts of extremely early tool use, which are actually (by general consensus) “geofacts,” produced by entirely natural processes like glaciation. They are natural objects that look deliberate – accidents that appear purposeful.
Vladimir Shklovsky could play the violin, wrestle, and write as a kind of manual work – he who once almost ruined an editorial firm in Berlin by teaching everyone in the typing pool to write novels. “Art is always free from life, and its color has never reflected the color of the flag over the city’s fortress.”
The sun is setting: for Benjamin, the place where imagination comes into its own as an experience is “at dawn and at dusk,” both cosmically and in an individual life, in Paradise and childhood, and in the “reduced, extinguished, or muted” – but not deathly, grieving, mournful – state of the abandoned theater, the twilight. The blurriness of imagination is the “radiance that surrounds the objects in Paradise.” (Here he footnotes the painter Philipp Otto Runge, a Romantic whose paintings, such as Der Morgen, deploy highly theatrical lighting effects, particularly a love of 25,000 kilowatts of hot yellow sunrise. Before his death, Runge produced Die Farbenkugel, an extraordinary document developed after consultations with Goethe in which all the colors are displayed on a sphere in axes of saturation, brightness, and hue; everything fades into everything else, a primeval world of color.) So the beginning; at the end, it is “the gray Elysium,” a suspended world of “pure appearance,” which comes with twilight, dusk, and clouds and mist: “De-formation occurs also in the acoustic realm (so that, for example, the night can reduce noises to a single great humming), or the tactile (as when the clouds dissolve in the blue or the rain).”
A passage in one of Schumann’s piano sonatas is marked “As fast as possible,” and is followed a few bars later by another admonition, “Faster,” and then, “Faster still.”
The position of finitism is from Wittgenstein: the problem of setting a rule for applying a rule. A recursive problem. “Finitism emphasizes the ongoing flexibility of the application of rules and the potential for redefining categories and measurements.” The thing that decides the thing keeps changing, even if you’ve got to pretend it’s permanent, and your established system. Finitism reveals a secret pragmatism, where you do what works but you pretend it comes from axioms.
“All the legends and songs that originated in this city are filled with longing for a prophesied day when the city would be destroyed by five successive blows of a gigantic fist. This is why the city has a fist on its coat of arms.” (Kafka)
(a recipe from George Maciunas)
5 grams fresh compressed yeast into 60.0 water,
pour the mixture into strong bottle approx 400 cm in volume, add
40 grams sugar
70 grams milk sugar (lactose powder)
Fill the bottle up to the neck with milk that has been boiled and allowed to cool down again. Cork the bottle, bind the cork and shake well. Then leave the bottle in a warm place for six hours, and a further 48 hours in the cellar. Shake well before drinking.
“Find a way to produce everything
And get it to them.
Make it work.
29 April 1963 The Bronx” (Jackson Mac Low)
(recipe courtesy of John Cage)
Juice of 1 lime
2 Tsps homemade mushroom dogsup
Black pepper, ground
¾ cup heavy cream
Serve with salad (peppergrass, watercress, chopped horseradish leaves, catbrier, bitter cress).
Frederick the Great made coffee with champagne instead of water, and flavored it by stirring in powdered mustard.
Prior to humans, more or less the only naturally occurring glass on earth was “fulgurites,” the result of lighting strikes on sand – and ancient fulgurites help us with a picture of the desert climates of previous eras because they trapped air bubbles when they cooled. (There’s a piece of fulgurite “desert glass” in the scarab worn by Tutankhamen.) Most of the glass that humans make isn’t like fulgurite glass – except for Trinitite glass, the glass formed at the site of the Trinity nuclear bomb test in 1945 at White Sands.
“Then afterwards summertime waved goodbye
To the railroad crossing. That night hatless
Thunder took a hundred blinding snapshots
In order to have something to remember.
A branch of lilac darkened. Then thunder
Snatched a sheaf of lightning from the fields
And in a single moment blazed a monument
Of light upon the dazzled county courthouse.
And when the gutters of the courthouse overflowed
With waves of some perverse delight
And the cloudburst descended like streaks
Of charcoal across the face of a drawing,
Collapsing consciousness began to blink:
Illumination! Illumination! Even
For those corners of the mind
That now seem full of light as noon.”
The Belle Epoque fumiste attitude, which combined outrageous subject matter with deadpan, resolutely withdrawn, laconic style. It’s a mocking, cryptic, too-cool sensibility, baffling to outsiders: dank memes, but for the 1880s. Alfred Jarry’s “The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” is very fumiste; likewise Erik Satie’s performance directions in his piano scores (“like a nightingale with a toothache”; “wonder about yourself”) and the classified ads he took out in the papers advertising package tours to mysterious countries, and the availability for rent of haunted, imaginary buildings like the Great Black Sun Inn, to which no one ever replied. Charles Cros, in this line, specialized in grating nonsense poetry, like “The Salt Herring,” which he would read aloud in a forceful, focused monotone to restive audiences.
The cliffs here are outcrops of some of the oldest rock on Earth, the edge of the Laurentian Plateau and the Precambrian core of North America, falling straight off into the gorgeous deep blue cold of the North Atlantic. Where the water is shallow it’s glittering and cloudy like an opal, veined with thick beds of kelp, clattering on beaches of granite and shale. And then the sun comes and everything is so evenly and clearly illuminated that it seems unreal – the way an amateur painter can’t get the blur around shadows right, the faintness and mistiness. Shadows lie under the eaves of houses and at the roots of trees as though set down there by airbrush. Brightly painted houses (lemon yellow, rose pink) are built cliffside; walking by, sometimes you can see through an open window and through the house: the defining feature of every room is the clean, bright line of the sea’s horizon, the two blues meeting.
In Percé on a rock on the cliff above the cove, watching the beautiful islands aflutter with sea birds, and the rolling waves far below as night came on and all the stars came out – the Milky Way so close it was like the trailing ladder of a fire escape, that bottommost rung ready for you grab it and come on up.
Staying on the farm in Gaspé, deep in the forest in the house built of birch, spruce, maple, and fir, with six cats and countless hens, chicks in incubators, rabbits in hutches, Highland cattle and Berkshire pigs. All watched over by two enormous dogs who bayed at night in response to the yips of coyotes, keeping them – and the lynxes and moose – away. Talking dog French with the dogs and singing Bowie to the hawks in Forillion forest. Watching bears and seals, and following porcupines through woods ghostly with skeins of blowing fog. Baking bread, burning lumber cuttings, fetching pails of seawater to boil the lobsters in, eating in clouds of greenwood smoke to keep the mosquitos off. Tremendous hammering rains and then the sun comes out and the boughs of every tree are filled with sparks and cloudy radiance.
“Procopius tells a story of the last Vandal king, Gelimer, besieged by Justinian’s troops in the Atlas mountains. He was offered an honorable surrender, but asked instead for a loaf of bread, which he had not eaten for months; a sponge to treat a swollen eye; and a lyre, because he was a skilled player and wanted to perform an ode he had composed on his misfortune.”
“If you kick a system the very least you would expect is for them to kick you back.”
In the crisis after Fukushima, Yoshihide Otomo gave a talk (he’s from there), envisioning a musical instrument called Genpatsu-kun No. 1, “Lil' Reactor Boy,” “and it won’t have a switch to shut it down. It just keeps leaking noise and can’t be stopped. When you turn it on with a bang, this sound just keeps coming out from it for about twenty thousand years. Bang, buzz! Or it explodes when you cut the power supply. … the most powerful noise machine ever.” A song of technological crisis, like “a feedback machine that’s squealing continuously, without a switch to stop it.”
Dramaturgy in India includes hand movements “which denote famous rulers, the lords of the earth, the seven oceans, well-known rivers, the upper and lower worlds, various trees, animals, birds and fishes.” Chinese classical theater recognizes over fifty varieties of sleeve movement.
Mackintosh touches all over the city: biomorphic iron squiggles in fencework and walls, long skinny rectangles of Art Nouveau stained glass assembled around a floral arc. The Mackintosh font, as sweetly awkward and top-heavy as a willow or one of the tall, rail-thin, phlegmatic men around here, who drape themselves over the wrought-iron fences and look into the narrow greensward with long, drooping faces while talking on their mobiles.
Every red sandstone building alive with statues: Poseidon. Italia. Minerva. Walter Scott, Robert Burns. James Watt, looking taciturn with his paper and compass, clearly a little annoyed that he’s at street level while some novelist is on a ten-meter plinth. Did steam count for nothing? Allegorical visions of prosperity, mercantile commerce, stonemasons and random angels and carytids hanging out on buildings together like friends-of-friends at a party.
The river Clyde. The bridges and the bedframes have the same wrought-iron, riveted architecture. White radiators, coal scuttles, obelisks.
On a late afternoon, the sky leaden, I stood on an outcrop of grey granite and could feel the coming rain brushing against me like a cat. Something in the air, some change of pressure as though a room had gently shifted from cube to rectangle. The rain came and beat the lake’s surface silver and we huddled in our tent. Trees around us breathed in the evening with their black, patient lungs and the air went from gray to a pale celadon green.
From Johannes Brondsted’s “The Vikings”: “Another runic inscription, cut on the underside of a slab covering a grave of about a century before the Viking Age at Eggjun in Sogn (Norway), declares that neither stone nor runes have ever been exposed to the sun’s light and that the runes were not carved with an iron knife. In other words: both stone and runes are dedicated in secret to the dead man and to none other. This, the longest of all the early inscriptions, commands further that the stone must never be brought out into the light of day.”
The gravitational assist, whereby a spacecraft uses the relative movement and gravity of a planet or other astronomical object to get a leg up on its own journey by increasing or decreasing speed – without taking anything away from the planet or object. As a metaphor for how “you find something in a person that helps move you ahead in whatever it is you’re trying to achieve” – that borrowed momentum you can get from a single conversation.
“Imagine you are in a vast, virgin forest. In a clearing, there is an isolated house, far from anywhere. You are given the opportunity to live there in complete freedom. There is just one condition: you are asked to maintain a certain substance at the boiling point in a cauldron, which is firmly set over a fire. You don’t know anything about this substance. One of your duties is to get wood from the forest to feed the fire. The boiling must not stop at any price. No one is checking on you. You don’t even know whether someone will come to relieve you. Nothing is certain. However, you have to hold out. The result you obtain will depend on your perseverance, on your rigor, on the honesty with which you undertake this task, which no one verifies except yourself. Besides, no one has the least interest in either encouraging or discouraging you.
"Well, would you be able to accomplish such a task for an indefinite time? And without trying to find out what is boiling in the cauldron, however intrigued you might be by the question? What is more, the lid of the cauldron, even though it is easily lifted, must not be moved.”
Names for finger touches on the guqin, the Chinese seven-string zither:
A crane dancing in a deserted garden
The Shang-Yan bird hopping about
A swimming fish moving its tail
White butterflies exploring flowers
Echo in an empty vale
A cold cicada bemoans the coming of autumn
Cold ravens pecking at the snow
The spirits: well-dressed, heirs to secret lineages, talking in tongues, watching silent films. They leave cryptic graffiti where people have died. They can walk through walls, and steal dragons and Buddhas from museums (royal 5-clawed dragons, 7-clawed, 12th century), recover swords and magic implements, bring in terma, books locked away, spirit books written while unconscious, in Hebrew, Latin, French.
Contemporary tyrannies are the opposite of the giant Antaeus. As long as his feet touched the earth (Gaia, his mother) he was unbeatable. Hercules finally defeats Antaeus by lifting him off the ground. Current tyrants live in globalized networks of logistics, in international space, sovereign wealth funds, platforms. Globally, they are omnipotent, but when their feet touch the earth they become weaker. They have no knowledge of locality, common sense, everydayness, the ground. And this becomes a reservoir of techniques for fighting them.
Gertrude Stein’s play “An Exercise in Analysis” is a master class in useful ambiguities: dozens of “acts,” each a sentence long, without context, which unfold out into possible stories – atomic components of an eventual narrative. The entirety of the twenty-second Act II of the play goes:
“Here is plenty of space.”
Guy Davenport asks: “Is the speaker arranging the furniture or arriving in California?” Is she opening a cabinet, or looking through a telescope at a cosmic void?
September was rusting into October. Starlings in the eaves, fiberglass, orange sunlight. The sound of a passing bus. She had impeccable taste in silence. An ashtray on the kitchen table filled with cigarette butts, each filter stained with a different shade of lipstick. She lived in her own time zone, out of synch with anywhere on Earth. Night grew in the room from the ground up like a forest.
“Looking through a book of drawings by Holbein I realize several moments of truth. A nose (a line) so nose-like. So line-like. And then I think to myself ‘so what?’ It’s not going to solve any of my problems. And then I realize that at the very moment of appreciation I have no problems. Then I decide that this is a pretty profound thought. And that I ought to write it down. This is what I have just done. But it doesn’t sound so profound any more. That’s art for you.” – Joe Brainard, “Art” in The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard
“Used to smoke at least three packs a day. Everything that happened was a signal to light a cigarette. Finally I divided myself into two people: one who knew we’d stopped; the other who didn’t. Everytime the one who didn’t know picked up a cigarette to light it, the other one laughed until he put it down.”
W. Ross Ashby, 1952 (on the cybernetics of learning machines): “[An organism’s gene-pattern] does not specify in detail how a kitten shall catch a mouse, but provides a learning mechanism and a tendency to play, so that it is the mouse which teaches the kitten the finer points of how to catch mice.”
You can lose 25 times the heat in cold water that you would in cold air. Your body’s first priority is keeping your heart going, so you often don’t feel as cold as you are. Instead you start making bad decisions and inexplicable choices which compound each other: the tightening loops of panicky decision making as your mind begins to fail. It is a crisis whose signs are best and first observed from outside yourself – notice not how you feel, but what you are doing.
Gusto Gräser, “Ich liebe das Herbe”: his early home formed by two slabs of rock with a few boards on the ground to lie on and a trough into which to throw fruit stones. An inventor of the vagabond way of life, credited with inventing the wanderer’s headband and poncho, with a cut-out tunic and rope sandals. People encountering him remade themselves as Naturmenschen - Aposteln - Propheten. In 1902, Gräser is begging food in Ascona and sleeping in roadside chapels, saints' niches, and a cave. His brother Karl whose slogan was Ohne Zwang, No Compulsion, built a house without metal (no mines or miners, foundries, armament factories), just wood, trying to follow the natural curves and branches, living with Jenny Hofmann who wore date stones instead of buttons on her clothes. In 1907 Gräser gave dance-lectures which periodized history into the Uru, before we made fire and became slaves to technology; the Zwing, most of history, schools, armies, compulsion; the future, when we’ll dance again. (Vagabondage is an English word adopted from the German, where it can have far less playful and roguish connotations – of Gräser out in midwinter nights, in middle age, with little hope of returning to a settled life.)
Shiro, white in Japanese, has an etymology connected with itoshiroshi, and ichijirushi – the latter being “a clear and objective condition which manifests itself in the purity of light, the lucidity embodied in a drop of water, or the force of a crashing waterfall.” Shiroshi is the state of our consciousness when we concentrate on those things – when our senses seem to vibrate. That state of lucid clarity is what I prize most of all inner experience.
“At the Easter of the horses, at the wedding of the cows.”
“When it’s snowing red snowflakes.”
Paul Celan. Black milk, Schwarze Milch: How to find words for “that which happened,” as Celan called the Shoah. As an image of the unspeakable, “black milk” stands with medieval descriptions of the source of the plague in the melting of black snow on far-off mountaintops. Celan translated Dickinson, an exquisite dance across lines of meaning:
I reason, we could die –
The best Vitality
Cannot excel decay,
But, what of that?
Ich denk: Sieh zu, man stirbt,
der Saft, der in dir wirkt,
auch ihm gilt dies: Verdirb –
I think: Look here, we die,
the sap that works in thee,
it too knows this: Decay –
“Leo Steinberg once told me that, during World War II, the treasures of the National Gallery in London had been moved to a secret warehouse in the countryside but that, responding to complaints on the part of a frustrated public, the powers that be decided to dig out and bring back to London one painting at a time. Each work remained on view, in splendid solitude, for a full month.”
Anyone who has done naked-eye astronomy knows the trick of averted or indirect vision: to see dim objects, don’t look straight on – look near them, glancing and looking away. To see what the future means, what it meant in the past, and how that meaning has changed, avert your gaze from it directly and look instead at how the meaning of what is past, what is “historical,” has changed and is changing.
For 4 cups hot cooked brown rice, sauté 2 tablespoons of cashews or more in 4 tablespoons of oil (sesame) and 1 cup sesame seeds. Continue until seeds are golden. Add 1 teaspoon sea salt. Mix with rice.
Walter Benjamin wrote: “You can read Kafka’s animal stories for quite a while without realizing they are not about human beings at all. When you finally come upon the name of the creature – monkey, dog, mole – you look up in fright and realize that you are already far away from the continent of man.” These lines came from a published article. In his diaries of May-June 1931, he wrote an almost identical sentence on Kafka, with a different ending: “you look up in fright and realize how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings. As far away from it as a future society will be.”
Khlebnikov grew up around Kalmyk Buddhist astrologers. He believed life was the the unfolding of repeated cycles and rhythms (births and deaths, stellar orbits, historical events, radioactive half-lives) calculable in numerical patterns – and that insight into these patterns would enable him to perturb current events and thereby prevent future wars. Here’s a formula for determining the cycles of love in a single human life from birth to death:
X = K + (2^13 + 13^2) + (1053 + 48 + 365)(n - 1)
– a private, retooled Kalachakra theology, nested and meshing cyclical destinies. He could be one of the будетляне by going to the start of the cycle, where it would one day return, seeking primeval, pre-human, pre-language orders and patterns. In 1904 he requested: “Let them read on my gravestone: He wrestled with the notion of species and freed himself of its hold. He saw no distinction between human and animal species.” This while proposing mobile cities of glass shipping containers hung on vast steel frameworks.
Among the people of Kandingei on the Middle Sepik River in New Guinea, “the most important man in every group keeps a knotted cord – some six to eight meters long and three centimeters thick – which is said to represent the primal migration in which the founder of the clan, following in the path of the crocodile, journeyed from place to place. Each large knot in the cord, into which is wove a large piece of betel-nut shell, represents a primal place, while the smaller knots preceding it stand for the secret names of the totem dwelling in that place. In important ceremonies, the owner of the cord lets it run through his fingers, rather as though he were handling a rosary, 'singing’ each place and its associated totems. Thus the movement of slipping the cord through the fingers corresponds to the movement of the clan founder as he journeyed from one settlement to the next.”
“His face radiated the same kind of grave charm when he told with intense delight how he had once held a swallow in his hands, peered into its eyes, and felt as though he had looked into heaven.” Wasianski on Kant in Seinen Letzten Lebensjahren
The hurricane stalled just off the coast. The catfish gazing at the pink feather on the surface of the pond. The vision of Heaven painted on the head of a nail.
At T’s secret bar. Shelves made of plywood to hold the bottles, a plywood bar, beach chairs, Christmas lights stapled to the ceiling – and no jukebox, just a record player and this crate of records bought in stacks from thrift stores, put on what you like – with paintings by the bartender and his friends up on the walls – and toasting, with some unknown cocktail, the possibility of building a new and more interesting future. In the pocket park near the station, a chessboard of grass and gravel that slept like a neglected cat between a copy shop and a store with a permanent, dusty display of children’s raincoats. We stopped by the bartender’s illegal sub-sublet after, a single room with a loft bed and stacks of noise CDs. His kitchen was a cardboard box, a water hose, and an electrical outlet. Dinner at 3AM where the walls sweated and the cigarette smoke pooled white around the lights like milk.
Walking narrow streets under a heavy sky going black to grey as the sun began to rise, streetlights dying here and there, the city shedding its leaves of orange light. The gleaming frames of parked bicycles beading with mist. Perfectly balanced on the surface of the world, as narrow and delicate and fragile a togetherness as the contact between the tip of a spinning top and the table. Koenji was so quiet then that you could hear the mist settling on the grass, a sound like glue drying, flaky and crystalline.
When Krishna’s mother looked into his mouth she saw in his throat the night sky filled with stars, the cosmos, “the far corners of the sky, and the wind, and lightning, and the orb of the Earth … she saw her own village and herself.”
Creating ku magic (from the Tsao shih chu-ping yüan-hou tsung-lun): “You take a pot and put inside it a variety of venomous creatures, snakes, toads, lizards, centipedes. You then let them devour each other until only one is left. The survivor is the ku. ‘It can change its appearance and bewitch people’, the work continues, ‘and when put into food and drink it causes disease and disaster.’” Effects of the ku in food: “Sometimes they simply die in terrible pain spitting blood. Sometimes the fish and meat they have just eaten come alive again in the stomach, and they not only die but their spirit becomes a slave in the house of the sorcerer.” The monk who recites a spell of protection before eating sees two foot-long black centipedes crawling away from his meal!
Picking blackberries under the willows, which blow silver-gray-green in the wind, down by the Rhine, to the hum of bees and the sound of distant sheep.
Like the whale shark, which can turn its stomach inside out like a glove to expel accidentally swallowed boards or tires – so sometimes you need noise and madness to take the folds of consciousness and tug it out into just this, plain and ecstatic reality. And when you gather consciousness up again the awful things you’ve taken in over the previous days, weeks, months, have been cast out.
Robert Godet worked as a Resistance liaison and a pilot and maintained a network of underground connections. A 4th or 5th dan in Judo, a close friend of Yves Klein (the first version of the Anthropometries was worked out at his apartment on the Ile St-Louis, and there’s a special “IKB Godet”), and a follower of Gurdjieff. (He was an art collector and publisher, too: credited with publishing Dali’s 1951 nuclear-themed Mystical Manifesto.) Elsewhere, he was credited as a “writer” and “photographer” who had a close relationship with the royal family of Sikkim, and extensive flight experience in the Himalayas. (He had driven across central Asia in a 2CV, an inspiration for Klein’s friend Arman to try to drive to Iran.) He called his two-seater plane “La Peniche.”
He was also (reportedly) a gun-runner and smuggler during the Resistance years and kept in the business in peacetime – including running weapons to Tibetan guerrilla fighters after the Chinese occupation. He died under murky circumstances either in a plane crash in Sikkim in 1960, or in an accident on an airfield in Benares in 1960 while loading an aircraft with weapons bound for Tibet.
Lampada annuale (1966): a light bulb in a box is illuminated at a random time once a year for eleven seconds. A reminder of the innumerable random events that are very rare but pass unnoticed. (A low-key enlightenment.)
There were nights when Thomas de Quincey did not live in London but in a strange netherworld of endless arcades, alleyways which curled into themselves, plazas which took centuries to cross. Deeply addicted to opium, he could wander for hours after ingesting a dose. “And sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye upon the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and head-lands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares … I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted, whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.”
His books are filed according to what Aby Warburg called the “law of the good neighbor” – that, in looking for one book, you may find the one you were really looking for next to it.
Yves Klein once planned to ride from France to Japan on horseback, with two friends.
“You cannot learn Greek only with a dictionary,” H.D. warned – you also learn it through “your hands and your feet and especially your lungs,” she said: “Taste snow in the air, and distinguish the different qualities and intensities of the wind as it rises from the deep gorge before this temple.” You know it through rain on granite and marble, and sea foam blown up into fir trees – and yet she was ecstatically and severely modern, then and now, seeking in rocks and Greek translation paths out of “the dead world” into which she had been born.
Physicist, metallurgist, nuclear engineer, “technological fixer” and techno-determinist: Alvin Weinberg. He’s got a street named after him at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Weinberg wanted to create a series of “learning reactors,” built to fail so that each would provide data for the design of the next. He envisioned each obsolete learning reactor being sealed off, and the new one built beside it; eventually, a line of these steadily improving reactors would stretch across the desert (registered as a National Monument), like the Burgess Shale of the atomic age. The record of evolution (the local maxima, the daughter species), the bearers of the enormous length of time wound into radioactive decay, an iterative progress, a line of tombs.
Wittgenstein: Our life is endless, in the same sense that our visual field is without end. Unser Leben ist ebenso endlos, wie unser Gesichtsfeld grenzenlos ist. (Tractatus 6.4311)
You do not see the edge of your ability to see; consciousness cannot find its halting places. It’s like the light in the refrigerator that seems to be always on (but in fact very rarely is) – except perhaps in small brushings-against, like a myoclonic twitch at the border of sleep, or the immediate aftermath of a concussion.
A collection of images folded into a binding that opens like an accordion – like the ever-lengthening list of Don Giovanni’s affairs in Mozart’s opera, which Leporello, Don Giovanni’s manservant, dramatically unfolds across the whole length of the stage during his aria (“Madamina, il catalogo è questo”) at the end of Act II. (Many leporello books were abécédaires for French children, or catalogs of costumes, scenes, or celebrities.)
Gregory Bateson liked to pose the question: what is the color of a chameleon in a mirrored box? Will it settle on one color after some changes, or cycle endlessly through colors as its environment changes, or stay at its starting point? It was his way of asking you to think about the whole system, to ponder how it is understood together as loops, the lizard-glass logic – and to gauge how you think systems work. Will it reach equilibrium, endless oscillation, stasis?
The whitely luminous and glossy air: a city suspended between mountains, the desert, and the sea in a lens of still air like an image reflected in a bead of water.
She is standing at a cabinet. Her name is Ludmilla, she is a maid, and should be dusting, but she is absorbed by what is before her: shelves of gleaming “ruby glass,” in the form of cups, carafes, and decanters. Her gaze is contemplative and otherworldly. She rarely blinks. Her eyes do not focus. She touches the ruby glass, but without the gestures that would suggest feeling what she touches, and brushes her fanned fingers, like flippers or props, over and against what is before her. It is eerie to watch, as though she were sedated, or numbed by an intense shock. She begins telling a story about the glass: it is a city, “the streets are full of snow,” there are no people, and the church has animals in it, “a deer, a hare, a hen.” Ludmilla, is a character in Werner Herzog’s film Heart of Glass. The actress who played her, Sonja Skiba, was placed under hypnosis for her screen time in the film, as were most of the other actors.
Hias, the narrator, and the only actor unhypnotized during the production, looks from a remote promontory at high altitude over the world and its weather and sees the end. “Time will crumble away, then the earth. … Not a soul is left, not one house. Only ruins.” Through his eyes we see peculiar shots which are oddly stilled, frozen, of an Earth transfigured and depopulated. “At night, someone looks at the woods and sees no light. In the twilight he notices a juniper bush. He runs toward it to see if it is a man, for there are hardly any left. Cocks crow in the forest, but the people are dead.” He puts his hand on Ludmilla’s shoulder, causing her to drop the glass she was polishing, and warns of her future: that a mania will spread, that she herself will die by the hand of the master of the house. Ludmilla: who knows but cannot apprehend that the end is coming, seeing a city silent under the snow, emptied of people.
George Maciunas, founder of Fluxus, renovated the live-work Fluxhouse cooperative buildings to sell at cost for a kibbutz of weirdos and prophets. Strange radical as he was, he abided carefully by fire and safety building codes but ignored zoning and sale-offer requirements, putting him in legal jeopardy. His solution was to wear elaborate disguises, including a gorilla mask; to go out only at night; to have friends send postcards from all over the world in his name to the Attorney General’s office, to trick them into thinking he was out of the country; and to build elaborate defensive machines including a deterrent front door mounted with four vertical blades from an industrial paper cutter.
Stanley Kubrick, 1987: “And to make rubble, you’d have to go find some real rubble and copy it. It’s the only way. If you’re going to make a tree, for instance, you have to copy a real tree. No one can ‘make up’ a tree, because every tree has an inherent logic in the way it branches. And I’ve discovered that no one can make up a rock. I found that out in Paths of Glory. We had to copy rocks, but every rock also has an inherent logic you’re not aware of until you see a fake rock. Every detail looks right, but something’s wrong.”
In Malagasy the future is behind us, the past ahead of us – because we can see the past, and know what happened there (to some extent), but the future is blank to us. We can’t see it, we face away, it lies behind.
Cioran’s observation of the centuries-old grave that noted that the dead man was a “MAN OF PROPERTY”: never own anything you can’t own casually – a reflection of the only thing about the future that we know for sure.
The maze-dance of Ascanias on horseback while walling Alba Longa – a dance of complexity which Virgil compared to the Cretan labyrinth – an entanglement around his city which his enemies could never undo. Malekula, in the Melanesian archipelago, where a dead man cannot enter the afterworld until his ghost successfully performs the “ritual of the labyrinth” – the ghost must restore half of a symmetrical figure erased by Temes Savsap, the female guardian spirit of the land of the dead. A labyrinth is a seemingly discontinous pattern that must be transformed into one continuous line. In this way it is a symbol of the course of life and memory. You cannot lift the writing instrument, you cannot repeat yourself; these are the rules. As pilgrimage (analogue to the Christian journey to the Holy City, impossible to the chaos of the Crusades), in France, the Chemin de Jerusalem or Chemin de Ciel: at the center is Jerusalem, the sky, heaven. Unicursal: no false turnings, no dead ends, one path; multicursal: full of false ways. A riddle is the labyrinth of the world in miniature.
“Methods of occupations
(A term for transforming space to suit ones needs)
Following the river Raisin down from the north through Washtenaw on its way to Lake Erie. Pulling garlic mustard, an invasive species with a high cyanide content, high enough that animals don’t eat it and it kills off the fungal populations that support many of the native plants. Through rotting Gothic stands of red ash, dead from a borer, and live cottonwoods and burr oaks and beautiful swamp willows. A wild turkey and her chicks, families of deer, and gleaming auto-paint dragonflies like Finish Fetish school miniatures. A bush called “service berry” because its flowers (it flowers before it puts out leaves) meant that the spring had come in enough that the frozen corpses of the settlers who had died over the long winter could now be buried. A few mulberry trees, brought in as part of a colonial project to produce silkworms. Fields of goldenrod, timothy grass (a Eurasian import, because horses like it) and orchard grass (with its one offshooting stem like a thumb, so “dactylis”) and red-top grass and bursts of yarrow – its young frondy form underfoot, with the clover, crushed between the fingers for a tangy medicinal smell. It mingles with the smell of spicebush, whose leaves have a citronella scent and keep off bugs. A backwater pond bright vivid green with duckweed. Butterflies. Feathers from wild turkeys, buzzards, and one gleaming hawk feather. Learning from cats how to befriend, and from hawks how to pay attention.
Hollis Frampton in conversation with Adele Friedman: “Just because it is possible to invent a narrative excuse for the way something presents itself doesn’t, I think, mean that it is narrative. … At one time I didn’t have very much difficulty in suddenly detecting in the kind of double-bell-curve rate-of-change structure in Tony Conrad’s The Flicker a thickening and thinning density of event, which is very much like the abstract curve of, let’s say, of a short story by Chekov, in which, for instance, one has a crisis where two people or a family are separated. All right, that’s the main bell-curve, typical Chekov situation. And then years later there’s a secondary peak of density of event in which they are reunited, after which the curve slopes back out to zero. So that I was seeing even there a kind of very rarified trace of a narrative structure … about as much narrative, say, as there is hydrogen between galaxies.”
Tom Johnson’s “Hour for Piano”: Music in the persistence and recurrence of single cells, like automata, some coming into being, some mutating, some going away. The impossibility of really paying attention over the full duration – the rhythm of the piece is the coming and going of your own ability to really attend to it.
“A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate”
(“I still have no way to survive but to keep writing one line, one more line, one more line …”)
Colors were deeply embedded in the change in the seasons in courtly Hei'an culture: moegi-iro, “the bright green of the budding plants,” and asagi-iro, “the greenish-blue of the leaves of the leek.” Colors that enter into us most deeply because of their fragility and transience. Rikyu Grey, Rikyu nezumi: appears in the Choando Book of Tea, referring to a cloth of charcoal gray cotton as a form of wabi. Along with brown and indigo blue, it became part of the exploration of “iki,” the “richness in sobriety,” a subtlety and strictness (perhaps overlapping a little with akebono shibori, the wonderful faint bluish purple pattern used as kimono fabric, a color like the essence of morning glories, and kabeshijira, which appears pure white at first but in shifting light has a subtle pattern).
The practice of tree-eating was connected to self-mummification, sokushimbutsu, in a particular sect based on Mt. Yudono, wherein the ascetic vows to the tree-eating austerity for a number of thousands of days, with the quantities gradually reduced, and the goal to die from starvation, upright in his lotus posture, on the last day of his avowed fast. (Then they bury him for three years, and exhume him to see if he has dried into a mummy’s body.) “These brown and desiccated figures, gruesomely arrayed in the brilliant robes appropriate to a Buddhist abbot, cap on head, rosary in hand, are seated in their temple in the position customarily reserved for the Buddha image.”
Mood swings are a peristaltic pulse, moving some horrible tangled bolus of emotion up, and eventually out through the body in a crisis, like a cat coughing up a hairball.
We were on the island where the world’s lost shipping washed ashore, thousands of left-foot sneakers. It’s a huge party destination in the summer, but in the fall it’s very quiet, with those unimaginable northern nights, their primal darkness. I remember the little white shed illuminated by the floodlight in that night, so bright with the circle of radiance falling rapidly away into the kind of pagan night that falls when Fenrir finally devours the sun. During the day, huge white clouds move slowly across the sky, sometimes trailing thick curtains of gray rain across the floor of the world, rain that lashes the roof of the barn like chains.
Into this room, one night, came the photographer. A burly Dutchman, with the body of a shot put medalist, wearing fatigue cargo pants, boots, carrying an enormous duffel bag and a hard-sided container. He was intense, almost fierce, in his concentration and self-presentation. He took pictures of the phenomena of weather and light; he took out the laptop, and began clicking through them. He had spent a summer living in isolation in a lifeguard’s shack on the northern coast of the island, making a sundial from a ball in the sand, taking pictures of every sunset, trying to catch the green flash, and documenting all the phases of the moon and the way it fell towards the horizon over the year. He specialized in auroras, their folds and draperies with the stars visible through them, brushing across the sky, a green like the neon fog that filled the hotel room in Vertigo. He’d lived in Alaska for months, waiting for an aurora that never came, until he ran out of money and had to leave; the children in the town where he stayed called him, he translated, “the man on whom the aurora turns its back.” He took pictures of the Brocken specter, the converging lines in the fog to the horizon, the humming colors of the glory around that distant point. He wanted to travel to Antarctica to photograph the icebows in the air (the source, he said, drawing on a piece of printer paper in blue ballpoint, of the cross Constantine saw in the sun). He made soundtracks out of the electromagnetic interference from the solar wind heard on a shortwave radio.
And he had pictures of moonbows, an event of impossible delicacy, a bow barely sketched by the moon’s light behind him, in the mist over grass that in his print came out crisp and black. Almost colorless, this white rainbow, a hovering thing in the night mist of this field, its long grasses black as ink.
“This music does not create a song for our ears. It is a ‘state,’ such as moonlight poured over the fields.” Leonard Huinzinga, 1937, on the sound of Balinese gamelan.
By the time the fire is going in its small circle of stones, night has come on: I watch the wood lick with bright flames, letting out decades of accumulated sunlight in one searing flourish. Overhead, the stars recede to the limits of visibility, a mosaic of light from different times: Aldebaran light from 65 years ago, Deneb light more than two thousand years old, everything intersecting in what Emily Dickinson called “still just now.”
Talking with C. by the fire: he tells me about skiing down frozen rivers at night in the White Mountains, the ribbon of snow gleaming in the moonlight for miles. About skiing in the early morning and seeing the snow shudder where, all at once, up come partridges, beating the ice crystals off their wings. During the day, when the snow is softer, the partridges fly up and then plummet straight down, like gannets plunge-diving to get fish, burrowing in for warmth, nestled in fluffed-out feathers and silent snow.
George Nelson was never satisfied with beds as pieces of furniture, and worked on a project with Eero Saarinen to reinvent them. They came up with a cubicle, a room-within-a-room, with lightweight mattresses (like pads on the walls of freight elevators) which could be hung on the walls with loops, and air-and-temperature conditioning to eliminate the need for blankets. “As is frequently the case when something is ‘eliminated,’ the device making this possible was more complicated than the bed.” There’s wisdom to live by in that.
For every 1 lb. morels,
1/3 c. sweet butter
½ c champagne
½ c heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Morels and butter in baking dish, at 350–375 F, 20 mins. Add champagne, cook another 15 mins. Season, cover with cream, return to oven until the cream is bubbling. Serves four.
Full-black pages, solid inked, sometimes with an insignia or coat of arms, for elegies and memorial verse and funeral sermons. Could also take the form of rectangles or squares of ink “mourning blocks.” Most famous these days for the black page in Tristram Shandy about Yorick’s death. Some books of elegiac poetry have every verso as a mourning page.
Places where the Laramide orogeny feels like it just happened, where glaciers and tectonic forces are active participants in the day. Rivers in the afternoon as white and foamy as meringue, and deep blue lakes, tempting in the hot afternoon sunlight, that would kill you if you dived in because they’re so cold. (I lay on a rock and reached my hand down, past the thermocline, and my fingers burned and then went numb and stiff as if I’d had a shot of novocaine.) Foxes, bears, moose, snakes, groundhogs; ponderosas and lightning, and millions of delicate alpine tundra wildflowers at high altitude. Times when the only sounds were hail on stone, wind and the creaking of the ice.
One night in a mountain hut, it fell to Bohr and Heisenberg to clear away after supper, and the elder scientist remarked to the younger that “our language is like dishwashing: we have only dirty water and dirty dishrags, and yet we manage to get everything clean.”
Beuys’s work was all about quieting things, a different kind of silence than Cage or Duchamp. He puts the reel-to-reel tape into the stack of felt insulators, puts felt over the piano, over the speaker holes drilled in the case of the TV. The Plight Element, 1985, was about insulating the gallery from the sound of construction next door. Lots of felt was used, the effect being muffled quiet, warmth, and a sense of tremendous contained energy. (His parable of the hare: a creature with “no home but a vast mythology and a hole in the ground.”) His Samurai-Schwert, 1983. The mythical blade – always a symbol of the bond between the smith and the cthonic forces of nature – is broken. The roots are split. Beuys has wrapped the steel knife blade up in felt, a way of caring for it and protecting it, in the material that is warmth, for him, and warmth is the root of plasticity and evolution. “Wenn Du Dich schneidest,” he advised, “verbinde nicht den Finger sondern das Messer.” [If You Cut Your Finger, Bandage the Knife. Heal the Knife that Cuts the Wound.]
“The boat was sailing southwards. There was still some light to the west. But what happened now to the birds – or to me? – was inspired by the power of this dominating, lonely place, which, out of melancholy, I chose in the middle of the quarter deck. All at once there were two tribes of gulls, one to the east, the other to the west, left and right, so utterly different that the name ‘gulls’ was no longer appropriate to them. Set against the extinguished sky, the birds the left retained something of their brightness, flashing with every upward and downward turn, agreeing with or avoiding one another and appearing constantly to weave before me an unbroken, unpredictable sequence of signs, a whole, unspeakably changeable, fleeting – yet legible – network of pinions. But I kept slipping away, each time to find my attention drawn towards the other flock. Here I beheld nothing, nothing spoke to me. I had scarcely begun to watch those in the east, when they, a few sharp, deep black pinions flying towards a final glow of light, vanished in the distance and returned, in a way that I would no longer have been able to describe. I was so transfixed by this that I, too, black from suffering, returned to myself from the distance, in a silent flock of wings. The puzzle to the left remained unresolved, and my fate hung on every nod, on the right it had been resolved long ago, and was one sole soundless beckoning. This counterplay continued for a very long time, until I myself was no more than the threshold across which the unnameable messengers exchanged black and white in the air.” (Walter Benjamin, “Nordische See” in the August 1930 Frankfurter Zeitung)
The Emperor Rudolph asked his resident astronomer Kepler one night as they stared at the orb in the sky if the Moon were not a mirror in which the lands of the Earth were reflected; he pointed out Italy. No, said Kepler, the Moon is a rugged wild land of its own. It is a place lying to the north of all known civilization, “north of North.” It appears in the sky only because air and other exquisite forces have lifted it.
From Walter Benjamin’s diary, May 13th 1931, written while he was in Sanary: “In the evening, a brief conversation with Speyer sitting next to a fire in the hearth. As I watched the flame licking around the logs just as we were talking about the novel, the two topics of conversation merged in my mind. I suddenly imagined that the way the logs were piled represented the true model of composition in the novel. The plot must be just as loosely arranged, and should be designed for consumability in just the same way. In other words, it must be completely opposed to architectonic – and, even more, monumental – construction. … The actual adversary of this novelistic technique – which produces books that can warm the reader as much as an open fire – is the great constructor Flaubert, whose works have the same impact on the reader as a splendid Delft stove in which there is no fire.”
I can distinguish between being physically tired and mentally tired; this is mental tiredness. My attention zips around in random directions, a mosquito in a small room. It seems intuitively correct that a tired mind, an exhausted attention, would shrink to immediate surroundings, the present moment, the body – but instead it expands, diffuses in all directions like a gas, an undirected ricochet of Brownian motion, and with a similar entropic always-changing-but-all-the-same content. A tediously even distribution of small thoughts and scenarios.
Do you think of time as pushing or pulling?
Erik Satie’s performance notation for his piano pieces:
“Like a nightingale with a toothache”
“On yellowed velvet”
“Laugh without anyone knowing”
“Totally forgetting about the present”
Last night I dreamt that someone gave me a beautiful piece of origami, which I began to unfold. The more I unfolded, the more it expanded, on and on, soon draping off the table and across the floor, every pleat revealing more pleats. At first it was magical, then it became ominous, then somehow deeply horrifying. I knew I could keep unfolding forever.
The paper was covered with glyphs, lines, diagrams and shapes I couldn’t read or understand. I realized that this was somehow the document of everything that would happen after my death, for the billions of years I’d be dead. Just I began to discern a larger shape in all the symbols and diagrams I could see, I woke up with a start.
The fundamental drive, Nietzsche writes: not power in the mere sense of dominance as such, but survival, energy, proliferation, persistence, strength – health, in a grand sense, the vitality of life itself. What Nietzsche makes clear is that in a healthy ecosystem and a healthy society, the will to power finds equilibrium in agon, in a struggle whose parties are seeking to surpass the other: “the strife of opposites.” A healthy society needs to stimulate this “tournament of forces” by enabling forms of extraordinary competition, from the palaestra and the gymnasium to the theater and the agora, from the politics of the city to the practice of war. This is reflected in ostracism, expulsion from the city by vote. Nietzsche uses ostracism as a way to introduce the idea that dominance, any monopoly on genius or power, will throw off the equilibrium and lead to catastrophe. You want to find mechanisms to break monopolies on genius or power, to maintain the diversity of competitors and practices of excellence. This builds a kind of coherent and balanced strength (in a much richer sense than we might use the word). The agon is necessary, vital, and endless.
“You sit at the board and suddenly your heart leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.” Stanley Kubrick, on growing up as a chess hustler in New York
A ship is a concentrated form of the technical knowledge and skills of a society. A ship is a catalog of a society’s tools and machines.
“When a captive lion steps out of his cage, he comes into a wider world than the lion who has known only the wilds. While he was in captivity, there were only two worlds for him – the world of the cage, and the world outside the cage. Now he is free. He roars. He attacks people. He eats them. Yet he is not satisfied, for there is no third world that is neither the world of the cage nor the world outside the cage.” (Mishima Yukio, Thirst for Love)
A good myth, or “embroidered anecdote,” from a lecture by Hollis Frampton. He was recounting a meeting between the video artist Nam June Paik and the filmmaker Stan Brakhage. (“I can imagine Paik showing us video in a handful of dust, and Brakhage striking cinema from flint and steel.”) Brakhage was the kind of guy who painted and scratched film stock directly, and made movies by sandwiching leaves and moth’s wings between strips of tape and running them through the projector. Paik built synthesizers for manipulating the texture of video. “Paik was showing Brakhage his newest synthesizer, putting it through its paces. I can imagine Brakhage as he watched Paik elicit from the contraption, at the turn of the wrist, visions from his inner eye that he had labored for twenty years to put on film, feeling tempted by this new and luminous apple. ‘Now,’ said Brakhage to Paik, ‘can it make a tree?’ I can imagine Paik’s ready smile, which seems to come out of innocence, a little slyness, and the pleasure of feeling both ways at once. ‘Too young,’ Paik replied. ‘Still too young.’”
“The pupil of a great sword-maker claimed to have outdone his master. To prove how sharp his sword-blades were he immersed a sword in a stream. The dead leaves carried down by the current were neatly sliced in two as they went across the blade’s edge. The master plunged into the stream a sword that he had fashioned. The leaves flowed on, slipping right past the blade.” (from Italo Calvino’s Japanese notebook)
Flaubert said he wrote L'education sentimentale to evoke the color of a windowsill’s peeling paint. He was writing backwards thirty years and I’m imagining that yellow, mustard dulled and deepened by a faint mildew grey and the wash-out of the autumnal afternoon sunlight.
Combine some butter (or oil) in your pan, 1 part olive oil to 2 parts butter. Add enough to shine the whole pan bottom. Turn your stove on high.
Wait until the butter stops foaming and the pan is really hot.
Cut off the hard bits and stems (optional) of your mushrooms and add to pan.
Turn down the heat to medium.
Don’t crowd the pan or they will steam unevenly.
Let them be until they start to squeak.
When they start to brown, stir and shake.
When they seem brown and crispy and still moist, serve with salt and pepper.
“I had to live from day to day and I went on like that until my meeting, through Nanda [Fernanda Pivano], with Hemingway and later with Ginsberg and the American literature of solitude, confirmed – and this time really did explain almost without words, through poetry, music and friendship – that life could be lived as a continuous story, like a river, not as a story aimed at perfection and progress. They bore out the permanent fragility of the history we live in, of the things people do, and of the things that may possibly be thought. It was a time of total ideological passion, as in the enlightenment of a thought or situation. I understood you could get to the bottom of something without hoping this would become a stone monument, because everything brings fragility with it. An attitude of this kind makes you live with modesty and doubt, but also with great concentration and intensity.” Ettore Sottsass (on his long illness)
Paul Virilio went into the protest with a homemade flag: a carefully cut rectangle of clear plastic, a transparent banner with no content. He believed, more or less exclusively, in the immediate experience of the human body and the friction of the world – the heat of the brake, the ache in the muscles, the looming weight of the blank wall. He was obsessed with the mute stubbornness of the long-abandoned bunkers of Fortress Europa, massive blunt shapes tilting and shifting in the dunes of the beaches. (He wrote the concrete monoliths an extraordinary love letter in 1976’s Bunker Archaeology, the record of a decade on-and-off spent looking out at the line of the blank horizon under the low ceiling of many feet of reinforced concrete overhead, in buildings sinking under their own weight where you couldn’t tell where the floor ended and the wall began.) He wanted buildings that made us feel more alive and aware of natural forces, gravity, and the planet. With Claude Parent, Virilio worked on an architectural principle they called the “oblique function”: everything sloping and inclined, with no flat surfaces. Instead of furniture and comfort conducive to disembodied concentration, we would have dark, windowless chambers made of steep inclines; we wouldn’t just inhabit, they wrote, but “traverse” our shelter. Always off-balance, squatting, leaning, huddling, constantly resisting inertia or momentum, we would live as “perpetual dancers,” as if on the cliff faces, screes and caves of a high-altitude mountainside.
Humans and certain kinds of wild dogs, wolves, and hyenas are persistence hunters. Not very fast but good at not stopping, sweat-cooled and relatively hairless with nets of veins in our scalps, running prey to exhaustion in the sun. (Of course it’s much more complex and debated than that.) (The only large species that thrive on every continent but Antarctica, the way humans do, are roseate terns, barn owls, and ospreys.) Picture the movement of life: picture the beating of flagella, twitching and gliding, in Archean seas; the propulsion of jellyfish, the gorgeous sweep of the shark’s caudal fin; salamanders and crocodiles and caimans; aurochs, dogs, big cats, loping coyotes, chimpanzees, us. The three sets of footprints fossilized at Laetoli in wet volcanic ash, toes spread, walking upright and heading south three and a half million years ago. Artemisia, rushes, birch and spruce, Arctic willow, growing on the Bering Land Bridge.
The mirrors were made of glass, about an inch across, mounted on a handle of tin and lead. They were sold at holy sites to pilgrims: you would hold the mirror so that the relic of the saint was reflected in it, and the mirror would capture the divine radiation. You could take it back with you and show it to family and friends – the mirror which had held the image of the relic. A camera with no film. (Gutenberg made some pilgrim mirrors.)
Erik Satie took out classified ads for nonexistent real estate. These are a few of them:
“Strange, grandiose feudal Castle XIIth C, abandoned, built in 1113, in one night, by the Devil’s son for his pretty mistress. Deep in great ancient distant woods; rivers, ponds, lovely meadows.”
“Fake ruins belonging to a sorcerer.”
“The Great Black Sun Inn.”
“Comfortable Old House of ill repute. Terrifying appearance. Beware of the Garden. Crude old furniture.”
“Plutonia: Fabulous land. Unknown seas.”
The head of an alert coyote, made of ancient beaches and island arc hillsides. Vortexes, calves, sand verbena, sunbows. Seals, gulls and ravens, plovers, godwits. Kestrels, hawks, ospreys. Bishop pine forests, the jumping mouse, the meadow voles, the Pacific loon.
One night the whole Glass Ensemble cooked; another night was the Mabou Mines company cooking and the great dancer Barbara Dilley on salad; Robert Rauschenberg made epic Texas chilis. The opening night featured sopa de ajo, gumbo, chicken stew, and homemade bratwurst; a single menu from a single night a year later included borscht, ceviche, rabbit stew with prunes, and a fig and anchovy salad. (A slice of Syrian coffee cake for 45 cents, miso soup for 65 cents, duck gumbo for two dollars.) Bakers came down from the Mad Brook Farm commune in Vermont to make the bread. On Sunday nights, the artists could try anything: there were hard-boiled eggs, hollowed out into cups and filled with seawater swimming with live brine shrimp; luminous green pesto on red pasta and deep red marinara on green pasta; experiments with edible flowers and plans for meals to be served by crane and eaten with screwdrivers and chisels as a sculpture. Gordon cooked an all-bones dinner – oxtail soup, marrow bones, stuffed bones, frog legs, pot roast bones; after you’d eaten, Richard Peck would carefully scrub the bones clean, and Hisachika Takahashi would drill and string them so you could wear your leftovers home as jewelry. Carol, Tina, Suzy, and Rachel danced in the rainy street.
Proust’s use of the pseudo-iterative (as Genette calls it) where he starts from the “always” (“we always did this”) (toujours, or his famous longtemps) and then describes the event in such incredible detail that you realize it’s specific, it could only be this way once, and when he says always he’s making a distinction between the form of (say) the afternoon, or falling asleep, and the individual details – a variation on a theme, inside which we live. The typology, and the texture of the individual instance. The moment when you’re thrown into a new situation and suddenly that typology is broken (this is what Beckett writes about in his book on Proust) and decisions are immediate, moment by moment, without the protection of habit, and then you “exfoliate” the protective cover a new set of habits, to be protected from existence as such.
“In the heyday of one of the many subcultures of New York’s Washington Square Park, it was said that one of the speed chess players there could often beat a Grand Master at this version of the game, because the one-second tempo of this brute outline of the game precluded subtlety, fractal thought, etc., and allowed only the broadest patterns of play to develop. Quick kills, forestalling strategic encounters. ‘Putz chess’, as aficionados would sniff, but effective.” (A lesson: things can be simpler if they move really fast.)
A story told by someone who, in Walter Benjamin’s estimation, could still truly tell a story, one of the survivors of the age passing into the archaic past: the near-legendary juggler, internationally famous in his time, Enrico Rastelli (1896-1931). The story is related by Benjamin in a piece for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He claims to have heard it from the master himself, in his dressing room.
The story concerns a “great juggler” who travels to Constantinople to perform before the ruler of the Turks. This juggler has a trick: he works with a large ball, in which a “boy dwarf” secretes himself inside, and, using “compression springs,” enables the juggler to interact with the ball as though it were a living thing. To keep this trick a secret, the juggler and the dwarf travel separately until the moment of performance.
The day of his exhibition comes; the juggler delivers a magnificent performance, with the ball dancing around him, responding to his flute, darting from shoulder to shoulder. At last, the juggler “stretched out his little finger … and the ball … settled on his fingertip with a single bound.” The Turkish sultan is charmed; the juggler leaves the palace with honors. As he does so, a messenger catches up him, with an undelivered message from the morning. It is from the dwarf, warning that he is ill and will not be able to perform that day.
Benjamin, in an observation about practice and unconscious action, writes: “This is why Rastelli’s stretched-out little finger attracts the ball, which hops onto it like a bird. The decades' worth of practice that came to before does not mean that either his body or the ball is ‘in his power,’ but it enables the two to reach an understanding behind his back. To weary the master to the point of exhaustion through diligence and hard work, so that at long last his body and each of his limbs can act in accordance with their own rationality: this is what is called ‘practice.’ It is successful because the will abdicates its power once and for all inside the body, abdicates in favor of the organs – the hand, for instance. This is why you can look for something for days, until you finally forget it; then, one day, when you are looking for something else, you suddenly find the first object. Your hand has, so to speak, taken the matter in hand and has joined forces with the object.”
“Something of our poor, brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness which can never be found again, but also something of active present-day life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet real and unquenchable.” Kafka, on the song, in Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse (his final story)
Philip K. Dick lived near Disneyland during his Gnostic period, and he used the theme park as a metaphor for the mimicry of the “second reality.” With its hydraulic Presidential statues, automatic birds, and actuated pirates, it was an ideal way to describe, as Dick believed, that what we have around us is “only apparently real,” a managed apparatus run by malign forces. One day, he wrote, a real bird would sing in Disneyland, and the first, primary reality would be revealed.
“The fact is that empires can also be reckoned on the color of ceramics.” Ettore Sottsass writes about the “Ch'ai” ceramics during the Five Dynasties period, “the pale blue empires of China,” a light blue “‘as blue as the sky after rain when you see it through gaps in the clouds,’” which survived in the midst of the centuries while “the generals, the colonels, the sergeants, the massacrers, the strong men” passed away in the dust and silence of the deserts.
“If God can become man, he can also become element, stone, plant, animal. Perhaps there is a continual Redemption in nature.”
“Every line is the axis of a world.”
“Paradise was the ideal of earthly life, and the question of its whereabouts is not important. It has been scattered all over the world, and has become unrecognizable. Its scattered traits must be collected, its skeleton filled in.” (Novalis)
“Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so. He is in the perpetual predicament that the continuity of things is the whole matter, for him, of comedy and tragedy; that this continuity is never, by the space of an instant or an inch, broken, and that, to do anything at all, he has at once intensely to consult and intensely to ignore it.” This being the introduction that Henry James wrote to the New York edition of Roderick Hudson.
Eleanor Marx, “Recollections of Mohr,” describes how her father Karl Marx “was a unique, an unrivaled story-teller.” Her favorite of his stories was “Hans Rockle,” which went on for months and months:
“Hans Rockle himself was a Hoffmann-like magician, who kept a toy-shop, and who was always ‘hard up.’ His shop was full of the most wonderful things – of wooden men and women, giants and dwarfs, kings and queens, workmen and masters, animals and birds, as numerous as Noah got into the Ark, tables and chairs, carriage, boxes of all sorts and sizes. And though he was a magician, Hans could never meet his obligations either to the devil or the butcher, and was therefore – much against the grain – constantly obliged to sell his toys to the devil. These then went through wonderful adventures – always ending in a return to Rockle’s shop.”
Roomtone is the sound of a space in the absence of any intentional sound. It’s what you record for use when you remix the sound for a movie. Roomtone means that everybody stands still for a minute, a full minute, or two, for the ambience: distant traffic. A stray breeze, and the shape that silence takes in a particular room, diffusing like a gas or collecting on the surfaces. If a plane flies by, you have to start over, because any noticeable marker will be repeated endlessly in postproduction, becoming obtrusive, maddening. The silence is a landscape that seems infinite because there’s no reference points. When you stop to listen for it, roomtone saturates a space in the same way light does. The production assistants stare at their watches, and the sound engineers slouch behind their equipment watching for spikes in the waveforms that will stand out to the ear like a single tree on the horizon.
(Morning in the life of the gaia scienzista.)
Two boiled eggs
A glass of good Bordeaux
In a hotel room overlooking a rooftop parking garage (empty tonight but for two cars isolated in the arc lighting), and across from the dead aquarium of a vacant office building. Very Ballard: the psychopathology of the angle where the walls meet. Everything here has been bulk ordered and perfect copies of this room exist in their thousands all over the world, every detail identical except the languages on the room’s signage. It’s refreshingly depersonalizing, like a long swim in the sea at night. The halogens in the bathroom glitter on the glass shelves and metal fixtures and the mirrors in which one is slightly surprised to see oneself reflected at all.
No view of Ryoan-Ji encompasses all the stones at once – at least one of the fifteen is always hidden no matter where you stand.
There is a time and a place for every particular thing. The totality of all particular things, every time and place, also has a time and a place: that of the sacred. The sacred is a particular object or event which has the property of being that of the whole. The separate moment for what is not separate. The opportunity to sacrifice something particular to the whole. Life includes surplus, and surplus is the origin of culture and of mind – an excess which is to be offered, and destroyed, to establish relation to the unknown, enigmatic and powerful – that which gives and destroys. Closely connected with metamorphosis. Killing, eating, and guilt: containing the order of the world, the mysteries of life and death, the power of myth. Myth is always many stories at once, a tree, not a clean narrative line. You must keep them all together.
The salto mortale death-leap was William James’s affectionately mocking term for the gap philosophy tends to assume between word and thing, mind and body, thought and act, as though it were obvious that some gulf existed between our within and without – when it’s really no trapeze swing to watch a movie, feel claustrophobic, get the flu, or act coy, but the merest flash of space seen between the scissoring legs of a traveler. It’s the thin integument where consciousness rubs against cognition. For James, consciousness felt like a different kind of death-leap, the bird leaping forward into the empty air: “Like a bird’s life, it seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings. The rhythm of language expresses this, where every thought is expressed in a sentence, and every sentence closed by a period. The resting-places are usually occupied by sensorial imaginations of some sort, whose peculiarity is that they can be held in the mind for an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing; the places of flight are filled with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, that for the most part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative rest.” Resting places, fluttering wings, sustained thermals; orienting to the dark spots in our understanding the way a warbler turns to the patch of shadow magnetic north casts on its visual cortex.
The flash of thinking, remembering, walking in the texture of a city or the rivers and forests: one kind of leap, into a splash of sunlight, “the color of magenta, the odor of attar, the sound of a railway whistle, the taste of quinine, the quality of emotion on contemplating a fine mathematical demonstration, the quality of feeling of love, etc” (writes Charles Peirce, a close friend of James', trying to describe “Firstness,” experience before acting, thinking symbolically, or talking). The moment of leaving the branch, before the wings spread: this substrate of feeling, a search space of flights and perchings.
Autumn in the Bay Area is the other three seasons laid over each other like film transparencies. P is, by choice, an isolated object: calm, self-sufficient, and independent. She owns very little; her entire wardrobe fits in a suitcase; her virtually empty apartment in San Francisco is decorated with pictures of other empty rooms. She brings to mind the disused airstrip under its open sky, the island on the edge of a great expanse of empty blue. You’ll never get to the end, she said, of telling the whole truth.
Ponderosas, lodgepole pines, sugar pines, incense cedars, manzanita and bitter cherry and rabbitbush. Steller’s jays and dark-eyed juncos and mountain chickadees and kestrels. In the morning it snowed, and then misted as the temperature edged above freezing, and a hard wind blew out of the west. Every tree was frosted glittering white on only its west-facing side: each green needle gloved in white ice. In the afternoon, the sky was wide-open clear and the sun hot on your skin, and in the stony forest there was a sound like a rushing stream, like the clicking, chiming rustle of a room full of typewriters, like a gamelan orchestra: millions of sheaths of ice melting and sliding off and falling and bringing others down with them. Under the boughs of the trees the air was filled with a curtain of glittering, clattering hail; in the open it was gin-clear, hot, and dry.
In the Anza-Borrego desert the unusual rains brought out blooms: desert willow, indigo bush (like an optical trick, ghost-white behind a cloud of searing violet blossoms), brittlebush, monkey flower, lupine – and with them enormous caterpillars. The dust of the arroyos was covered criss-cross with tracks that look like the tires of road bikes left by the hustling hornworms, so many in some places that you have to take every step carefully to keep from crushing a few. It’s hard to imagine the clouds of massive, striped-wing sphinx moths they’ll be later this year. They nestle on stems, long as your middle finger and fat as carrots, gleaming and colorful in the sun like freshly waxed cars. The arroyos and wash canyons, the badlands and walls of sand and ancient mud feel for a few hours like the ocean floor they once were: tall swaying red-tipped ocotillo, carpets of color, bright invertebrates, stony ridges and canyons, deep blue overhead.
“All the effort of the future will be to invent, in reaction to what is going on now, silence, slowness, and solitude.” Chess is the ideal activity, and the Eden, for the “school of silence.” (Duchamp, in Jean-Marie Drot’s film, Marcel Duchamp: A Game of Chess)
Fluxus was perhaps the most ephemeral, portable, and resourceful art movement, ready to be packed in a suitcase or mailed with a single stamp, making do with whatever could be found where its practitioners turned up: used clothes, community center pianos, junk-shop discards. The heart of Fluxus practice was the score, brief instructions for a piece to be performed. Most scores created by Fluxus artists could be written on an index card, and most of them demanded interpretation and adaptation. Many of them were musical – in one way or another:
Bengt af Klintberg, “Calls, Canto 4” (Dec. 1965): “A party of about 100 persons walk out into a forest at sunrise, climb up to the treetops and call and sing a hello-chorus.”
Mieko Shiomi, “Wind Music No.2” (1966): “Several performers operate fans toward suspended musical instruments such as bell, gongs, gourds, etc., making them swing and sound.”
George Brecht, “Drip Music” (1959): “For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel.”
“The power-giving qualities of seclusion in darkness have been interestingly explained by Origuchi Shinobu. Sacred power is often manifested in Japan, he writes, inside a sealed vessel. In the darkness of this vessel it gestates and grows, until eventually it bursts its covering and emerges into the world.”
Enclosed by the movement of the band: the first was like the black heart of Isle of the Dead, the narrow spaces closing in as you came through and then the leaning surfaces over you. A tomb space, though not enclosed. The bottom of a well, though not deep. How little it took to create a death space. A diagonal line joining two vast sheets of steel, and in that line was the fall into death. And the next space opens into life. A straight line joining two sheets, a delicate play of spaces that open out and up. It was the monumental leap into space of every dancer, every falcon springing from a branch.
The space should have been filled with starlight always. The steel was so cold to the touch.
The seventh dynasty of Egypt is a probable historical fiction, or a metaphor. It is described by a Byzantine historian (Syncellus, 800CE), based on lost documents (of Eusebius and Africanus), which were in turn based on more lost documents (of an Egyptian priest named Manetho, 300BCE). These which described a period of chaos after the fall of the sixth dynasty: 70 kings in 70 days, or 5 kings in 75 days.
This is a perfect way of talking about my mind, and the minds of most people: the illusion or mistake of singular continuity – a dynasty – applied a constant, chaotic turnover of rulers nominally in charge. 70 kings in 70 days. I have lived much of my life in the seventh dynasty.
“Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags, boxes, were scattered on the floor in every place. … The tables, and, especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air-pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers, were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter.” Hogg on Shelley’s Oxford room
The otter dives into the sea, rapid and surefooted as a hunting cat, off the stone steps that run down under the waves. Doors, sky blue and dark green, that open at level with the water: the lodberries, for fishermen and smugglers (and for otters). Lodberry doors are like the doorframes and stairs left up at demolition sites that open onto empty air and night skies – a front step into the waves and foam. Stones roll, wet and black: dark serpentine, Silurian sandstone.
Turn tiller to the North, to lonely points with the peaked walls open the sky of abandoned crofter’s cottages looking out on a crowded sea: slopes green with grass, inky with heather and peat, near enough to see the strata in the cliffs as each wave falls away. Each point opening to another island, and then the line of the horizon. Men in the landscape, with their parked cars, cutting shingles of peat from the soil with spades. The lapping sea, the sound of the sheep, and the light-catching fiber optic shimmer of the flaxen hair of Shetland ponies.
Looping, weaving, braiding: recursion in textiles, music, stories. The tip of the Shetland fiddler’s violin bow, like the crochet hook, pulls a loop inside another loop: impossibly precise fast music grows like lace around the room, as kids link their arms and whirl in front of the stage where the tables have been pushed back. The thick hand of wool braided into a sweater. People with accordions, fiddles, mandolins, guitars, bouzoukis, bass and double bass, make a weaving machine in a rush of jigs and reels, polkas and hornpipes.
Birds white on the water. The low clouds pass over hills to the final cliffs, shrouding the decommissioned radome and its outbuildings on the promontory – relics of Cold War aerial surveillance, like the square of empty houses off the main road to the south that once housed RAF Saxa Vord. Their blinds left open, the picture windows washed with rain for silent years, under airspace filled with returning migratory birds. The gorgeous, burning glow of a milky Arctic sunlight as white as glacier milk. The chirping of a wind turbine spinning in the constant rush of cold air on a farm on the island farthest north. The taste of bere, a Neolithic grain still grown here (though mostly now in Orkney), baked in a round, made into ale: thin, bitter, dry and crumbling, a cold taste. The clouds are fast and very low, it seems, as though drawing close to the place where the sea meets the sky, and everything spills over the edge of the Earth.
Otto Gross – rogue psychoanalyst, ex-botanist, proponent of free love, anarchist, addicted to variety of drugs, part of the proto-New Age circle at Ascona, friend of D.H. Lawrence, Kafka, Werfel, and part of that cult of the Gebärde, the splendid gesture of art and living that would somehow dispel all the barbarism and convention that stood against them. (At once an astonishing and vital historical figure and by all accounts a man you couldn’t trust to take care of a cat for a few days.) In 1899, in his youth, Gross sailed as a ship’s doctor with the Kosmos down the coast of South America. In later life, he often referred to the experience of standing at Punta Arenas, on the southernmost tip of Chile, and looking to Tierra del Fuego in the south, a land not yet under the dominion of any state. (“Tierra del Fuego,” because Magellan could see the fires of the Yaghan from the sea.) A country for the dream of anarchism, perhaps a country of the future. On the beach at the cold sea, the ship’s doctor looking to the open country.
(“Thus in December in the streets of Berlin could be seen a starving and ragged man, running through the snow flurries, who howled aloud in front of him, and then huddled himself together, to get his fingers and chest warm. People stopped to stand and laugh at him.” So Gross’s last days, in 1919, described by his friend Franz Jung.)
“Consider the difference between the ‘suspended needle (xuanzhen)’ and ‘hanging-dewdrop (chuilu)’ brush strokes, and then consider the marvels of rolling thunder and toppling rocks, the postures of wild geese in flight and beasts in fright, the attitudes of phoenixes dancing and snakes startled, the power of sheer cliffs and crumbling peaks, the shapes of facing danger and holding on to rotten wood, which are sometimes heavy like threatening clouds and sometimes light like cicada wings; consider that when the brush moves, water flows from a spring, and when the brush stops, a mountain stands firm; consider what is very, very light, as if the new moon were rising at the sky’s edge, and what is very, very clear like the multitude of stars arrayed in the Milky Way – these are the same as the subtle mysteries of nature: they cannot be forced.” (Sun Guoting, calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty, 648-703 CE)
Shutaku, “polished by hand,” something which becomes better the more it is used or touched. A polished luster, improved with age or taking on its own personality. Use is a relation that strengthens over time, where it’s not just that the object ages but we age with it, and it comes to shelter some part of the meaning of life as it is lived.
The space of exchange in ancient Greece was marked by the boundary stone, the herm, to identify liminal territory as sacred. “… [S]uch inland exchange [as opposed to the normal transit of goods in and between households] as occurred among early Greek communities frequently took the form of a mutually sanctioned theft – a ‘silent trade’ – between persons who never saw each other but merely left and retrieved their goods at a sacred boundary stone.”
It’s 1977, and Hollis Frampton is in a hotel in Texas, writing notes for a lecture he’s going to deliver on Edward Weston, and he’s struggling to come up with a term to describe this new thing, these new media shapes at the analog-digital barrier, and he sketches out a slashed assembly of “photo/film/video/computer” – and another slash, for “laser technology” – and then two slashes, and a line break. Because there’s always something next. (And Frampton wasn’t even yet thinking of computers the way we think of computers now, in their visual possibilities; he was writing beautiful geometric patterns in FORTRAN.) It’s part of Hollis’s project to imagine what he calls “a privileged future,” the next step in his chronological list, and how what follows each slash changes what came before it, makes it new, gives it a patina, texture, aura, properties it never had before.
The childhood sleep exercise I was taught is the conscious, impartial, impersonal review of the day’s events as a rehearsal for death (in which our “life passes before our eyes”), and as a learning process for clarity in attention while awake. No attachments, no comments, neither didactic nor censorious, not a matter for thought or feeling. Just self-remembering. The steps:
Begin by simply counting forwards and backwards.
Picture yourself as you got up that morning. Try to follow the sequence, pictorially observed, moment to moment. Rose, bathed, dressed, ate – all while counting continuously, which lets the pictures, the memory, come more easily. Thus you retrain your memory, and teach focus throughout the day.
Sudden lacy fall of snow that came and went at a glance this morning, like winter coming out before its cue and darting back into the wings.
Socrates claimed to know nothing, claimed no intellectual powers or virtues, but did remind his accusers of occasions on which he had shown his courage. Aristotle placed courage foremost on the list of virtues, the one that makes the others possible. (Think of Socrates learning a new tune on the flute on the night of his execution.)
The foremost courage that Alfonso Lingis admires is to stay with a dying person, when there is no longer anything to do and they can no longer be helped, and extend a hand to this person who is dying and go through the moment with them that waits for you, too, in your future.
There is the side to Brecht of theory and theater, already co-opted, and then there is the side that covertly loved to look at trees. In a time when people are “objects of use,” trees can still maintain “something autonomous and therefore comforting,” like the writer who hides behind the language of quotation, keeping some of the words secret, alive, not yet tools. His poem “Difficult Times”:
Standing at my desk
Through the window I see the elder tree in the garden
And recognize something red in it, something black
And all at once recall the elder
Of my childhood in Augsburg.
For several minutes I debate
Quite seriously whether to go to the table
And pick up my spectacles, in order to see
Those black berries again on their tiny red stalks.
“Communication with a world twenty thousand years ahead of us might ruin the human race as effectually as if we had fallen into the sun. It would be too wide a cross. The people in my supposed world know this and if, for any reason, they want to kill a civilization, stuff it and put it into a museum, they tell it something that is too much ahead of its other ideas, something that is faster than thought, thus setting an avalanche of new ideas in upon it and utterly destroying everything.” From a notebook of Samuel Butler’s.
Kepler, in his Somnium, described a Moon of storms and seas, swift and sudden alternations of hot and cold. His moon is spongy, filled with “hollows and continuous caves.” Life is shelled, long-legged, and serpentlike; the labyrinthine sublunar surface teems with aquatic creatures, rheostatic, subject totally to the flow of waters and their own somatic wetness – the pull of Earth bringing them up in the cold evening, the release of terrestrial weight lowering them into the interior during the hot lunar day.
Extended instrumental techniques in music – an exercise in exploring timbre and extending color. Like painting. Timbre, tone color, texture – what makes the same note sound different on different instruments: the vertical color of sound, because timbre is defined by the (often barely audible) harmonics that are stacked vertically on the note itself. Spectral techniques are a reply to Pythagoras and a discovery of Hindu and Byzantine music. Pythagoras, in discovering the natural mathematics in harmonic structures (the ratios of the three overtones of the harmonic series, the octave, fifth and fourth), set a notion of music as a reflection of a divine mathematical order which was adopted from Plato to Isaac Newton. Spectralism and microtonality are allied in rejecting the system of equal temperament, used to set the octave into 12 equal semitones, the white and black keys of a conventionally tuned piano. Scelsi: “Sound is round, but when we hear it, it seems to have only two dimensions: pitch and duration. The third dimension, depth, is there, but somehow … it escapes us. The upper and lower (less audible) harmonics sometimes give us the impression of a vaster, more complex sound beyond duration and pitch, but it is difficult for us to perceive its complexity …” That is Giacinto Scelsi, the spectralist composer, who cured himself of depression while institutionalized by playing single notes on the piano and letting them fade, letting the fullness of the timbre emerge.
The fragrant and abrupt wetlands in the arid plateau: the northern shores of Great Salt Lake, out of Corrine and into the Promontory, searching for the Spiral Jetty. Owls were out hunting, and cottontails darted across the road. The waxing moon was bright enough to read by and gave the countryside the strange quality of day-for-night. Spent most of the night awake with the Jetty, watching the stars and Venus and the pale streak of the edge of the Milky Way almost washed out by the moonlight.
The environment for the Jetty feels deeply alien, impossibly remote: the pickleweed and iodine bush are an eerie, luminous pale green, the basalt is riddled with scoria that are filled with hard crusts of salt, and the sky as the sun comes up has gradients that feel like they belong on a different planet, topaz pink and a hard chrome yellow. The far shores and Gunnison Island seem to float, mirage-like, on a clean band of perfectly even near-neon blue.
Sitting at the center of the Jetty feels like being inside a very special kind of machine made of salt, black vesicular basalt, water, the sound of crickets, mud, the procession of the equinoxes and the sun rising over the Promontory. A machine in the sense J.G. Ballard meant when he said to imagine the Spiral Jetty as a kind of clock. Not like Stonehenge or a sundial, but like a diving bell or a capsule for entering into deep time. That line from Ballard’s “Terminal Beach,” about finding places that are fossils of future time. A launchpad, or a departure point not for space but for duration. (Ballard also said of the Jetty that it’s like a cargo cult’s runway – but for attracting what kind of vessel?) It feels significant that the only way out of the thing the Jetty is, is to rewind it, retracing your steps clockwise from the center of the mechanism.
Nietzsche to Lou Salomé, summer of 1882, on publishing The Gay Science: “What torments of every kind, what solitudes and surfeit of life! And against all of that, as it were against death and life, I brewed this medicine of mine, these thoughts of mine with their little stripes of unclouded sky overhead.”
Jonas Mekas had a beautiful description of a Velvet Underground show during their Exploding Plastic Inevitable phase, with all the strobe lights. All those strobes turn dancing into film, for the dancer. You are cut into single frames; you’re in the grain of the film, in that overwhelming space.
At the density of a neutron star all human biomass together would be the size of a sugar cube. I want to imagine a sugar cube civilization, all vitality and intelligence massed very close, like an Italo Calvino meets Katamari Damacy story.
Suiko, the word for this kind of need for fixity and perfection that interferes with getting work done, from the Chinese poet Kato who could not decide if, in a line, a monk should push (sui) or knock on (ko) a door. Suiko is an aesthetic that arises from a sense of irreversibility, putting your mark on the paper and wanting it to be perfect, to be “right.”
Not sunrise or sunset, but sunsight and sunclipse: becoming visible, becoming hidden. Watch the Pole Star and feel the Earth in motion.
“For an individual message, the information increases as the probability that the event will occur diminishes; the more unlikely the event, the more information it conveys. Appropriately, this quantity is usually called the ‘surprisal.’”
Poe’s time: the monotonous tick-tock of the universe, the unstoppable tread of death, coming closer second by second: walls closing in, the swing of a pendulum, the sealing up of a wall brick by brick, footsteps evenly mounting a stair, the thud of the heart under the floorboards.
Ernst Jünger, Der Waldgang: “A direct thread leads from these descriptions to Edgar Allan Poe. The extraordinary element in this mind is its thrift. We hear the leitmotif even before the curtain lifts, and with the first bars we realize that the scene will become sinister. The concise mathematical figures are at once also figures of destiny; that is the source of their tremendous fascination. In the maelstrom we have the funnel, the irresistible suck of emptiness, of the void. The pit provides a picture of the cauldron, of the relentlessly tightening encirclement, which constricts space and drives us onto the rats. And the pendulum is a symbol of dead, measurable time. At its end is Chronos’s sharpened sickle, which swings back and forth and threatens the enchained captive, but which can also free him if he knows how to make use of it for himself.”
Nizam Hikmet, “Tale of Tales”:
“We stand above the water – sun, cat, plane tree, me
and our destiny.
The water is cool,
The plane tree tall,
The sun is shining,
The cat is dozing,
I write verses.
Thank God, we live!”
A beautiful sad senryu he wrote:
Hide and seek
Count to three
At the beginning of the 9th century, all the Buddhists were killed or driven out of Tibet by the king Lang Darma. They hid books and sacred objects under rocks and in caves and in wild places to prevent their destruction and to be revealed at the right time. They called them terma, meaning “treasure,” and those whose job it is to find them tertons, “treasure discoverers.” (A terma can manifest as a tree, a rock, a certain nature of place.) In fact, an entire class of Nyingma monks are trained to seek terma: sometimes the terma is hidden by dakinis in impossible places, but recognizable by certain signs – underwater, in solid rock, or in living wood. Sometimes the books of terma are written in “cloud” script or “tadpole” script, the languages of spirits and dorje thunderbolts.
He hadn’t seen a traffic light in person until he was eighteen years old. He was raised on a party island off the coast of Europe. In the summer fifty thousand people passed through the island; in the winter the native population of four thousand kept themselves occupied among the shuttered resorts, the beach umbrellas closed and stacked like hibernating insects, snow gusting across the lagoon and the high timber on the ridge. In the winters he built – first bombs (milk powder and paraffin), then machines, then houses. He understood these things, anode and cathode, torque, pressure, joists and jambs. At fifteen, after an advanced metal shop class, he spent three weeks lathing a diesel engine out of a block of raw steel. It ran well, when he finished (he built a primitive tractor around it) but it wasn’t very efficient. He failed in school, so they tested him. There are eleven kinds of dyslexia; he had seven. In his lifetime he would never be able to read more than a few lines at a time. But for him spatial relations were clear as colors, and he could look at a table and see every side at once.
That isobornyl acetate feeling – a piny, dry, quartzy sunlit feeling. So powerful and clear that it makes its own shadow in the mind, evoking its opposite: swimming in cool, deep oakmoss green velvet water.
“Even now, every year in the Government of Nizhni-Novgorod, an extraordinary festival takes place at which all the mystical sects assemble to dispute about God. This festival is bound up with a peculiar legend, which Rimski-Korsakov worked up into an opera: A prince is supposed to have built the town of Kitezh in the fifteenth century; when the Tartars invaded the country the town was engulfed in a lake, so says the legend. On the 23rd of June every year the sunken town becomes visible to the sectarians who have arrived at a true knowledge of God; they alone can see the town and hear its bells ringing. Every year the dispute between individuals sects is decided in this way.” (René Fülöp-Miller, Geist und Gesicht des Bolschewismus, 1926)
Walter Benjamin once saw in a dream “the best books, with stormy things inside of them and a changing and cryptic text in effervescent and transient colors.”
For all the upheaval they were to cause, the earliest Christians tended not to dramatically alter their existing societies – “The reason was that Paul and his followers assumed that the world was going to come to an end soon and so there was not much point in trying to improve it by radical action.” It seems to have been precisely as the hopes of the imminent return began to fade that the focus shifted to building structures that could last for generations in a world of non-believers: with an agreed canon of scripture (“canon” from the Greek for “straight rod” or “ruler”), a creed, a set of ministers who could carry authority. They became, to a striking degree, people of a new information technology, the codex: “Before the Christians made it so universal, the codex form had been used for scribbling jottings in low-status notebooks. It is possible that material which became one of the first Gospels was scribbled in this form and that this accident gave the codex a special status in liturgy, when the words of the Lord were solemnly recited. Another possible explanation lies in the Christian insistence that the new good news of Jesus Christ was foretold in the ancient writings of the prophets, an argument which was embedded in the Gospel texts themselves and which we have noted, for instance, as a central plank of Christian apologetics in the writings of Justin Martyr. This impulse might result in a constant need to flick between one text and another, Gospel and prophecy, and that is much easier to do in little books laid side by side than in scrolls.”
Pacing the streets with metal taps in the soles of his shoes to keep time as he muttered through lines of verse, he looked for what he called “the hum.” The hum was where the “rhythmical outline of the world of the factories and machines” met the rumble of the sea, someone slamming the door at the same time every morning, and the rotation of the earth.
Tu prends le dernier bateau
Celui qui n'aborde nulle part au monde.
“You take the last boat
The one that reaches no land in the world.”
“The function of style is to give a feeling of the country behind the hill.” (Raymond Chandler)
Guy Debord: “Arthur Cravan is a prototype of these people seen passing through the most radioactive zones of the cultural disaster, people who left behind them no form of commodities or memories.” Operating under several different names, he wandered the planet like a fugitive, boxing for money, giving dangerous live readings of his poetry, and raising funds by selling tickets to his own suicide. He was fighting a war against fighting the war, deserting from 17 countries in succession on a dubious Russian passport. He was Oscar Wilde’s nephew. There is good reason to believe that he attempted to pass off several forged Wilde manuscripts while working under the names of both “André Gide” and “Dorian Hope,” who was then Gide’s secretary. “I have twenty countries in my memory and I drag the colors of a hundred cities in my soul.” He was last seen preparing to sail alone from the coast of Mexico to Buenos Aires to meet his wife, the great poet Mina Loy, in November of 1918. His case remains open. (A number of authors have put forward the argument that he went to ground in Peru and wrote a series of proto-anarchist novels, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Death-Ship under the pen name of B. Traven.)
“‘Now,’ said my friend, ‘what we regard as exaltation of the landscape may be really such, as respects only the moral or human point of view. Each alteration of the natural scenery may possibly effect a blemish in the picture, if we can suppose this picture viewed at large – in mass – from some point distant from the earth’s surface, although not beyond the limits of its atmosphere. It is easily understood that what might improve a closely scrutinized detail, may at the same time injure a general or more distinctly observed effect. There may be a class of beings, human once, but now invisible to humanity, to whom, from afar, our disorder may seem order – our unpicturesqueness picturesque; in a word, the earth-angels, for whose scrutiny more especially than our own, and for whose death-refined appreciation of the beautiful, may have been set in array by God the wide landscape-gardens of the hemispheres.’” Poe, from “The Domain of Arnheim”
One of the most important things he thinks every editor should do when choosing an out point for a shot, whatever their approach, is what Walter Murch calls a ‘flinch’. He rolls the shot and then hits the editing button when it feels instinctively right to turn away from that shot. (He edits standing up.) When he does this he logs the frame, or marks the negative with a grease pencil, where he stopped the clip. He repeats the process and if he catches the same frame again he knows that was the right cut point. If he is out even by a couple of frames, he knows that it wasn’t quite right and he needs to look at that edit decision again. “It’s almost an involuntary flinch, an equivalent of the blink of the eye. That flinch point is where the shot will end.”
the floor is a theorem
the obelisk is an enigma
the fountain is a voice
the stair is a whirlpool
the roof navigates in the sky, its keel up
the vault is a flight
the balcony is a sailboat
the window is a transparency (it is sight, life)
the room is a world
gio ponti, “in praise of architecture”
John Hull lost his sight in midlife, and described how falling rain, tapping and sounding on everything outside, “throws a colored blanket over previously invisible things. Instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain … presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once.”
“Why does the glance into an unknown window always find a family at a meal, or else a solitary man, seated at a table under a hanging lamp, occupied with some obscure niggling thing? Such a glance is the germ cell of Kafka’s work.” Walter Benjamin
Kafka: the sense of another world and life just next to this one, as close as your clothes on your skin but inaccessible except in flashes, moments, in the distance or in a glance through a partly open door. By the time we figure out how to get there we have ceased to be the person who wanted to in the first place.
The wrestlers were acting when they wrestled, of course, allowing themselves to be pinned to the mat when the story and the management demanded. But once a year, the wrestlers gathered in secret in Hamburg. “They fight with the doors closed and the windows veiled. Their fight is long, hard, ugly.” No one took a dive. Then they knew, and they kept it to themselves: the Hamburg Score.
Frank Stainbridge (1776-1860): Architect and geographer by training. Fell under the influence of von Humboldt (1769-1859), made several expeditions to the Amazon Basin, collecting botanical specimens. Built a greenhouse in Norfolk to hold them all. Greenhouse was destroyed three months after completion by the great storm of 1836. Stainbridge gathered a team of craftsmen who constructed an exact copy of the first greenhouse, including artificial duplicates of over 2,000 specimens. Decimus Burton on visiting: “I have stepped across thousands of miles and entered the Amazon jungle itself.” Burnt down, July 1841, by a religious fanatic convinced it represented an affront to the creative talents of the Almighty. Stainbridge retreated to a farm in Derbyshire to pass the rest of his life in obscurity. As for the second greenhouse, many visitors reportedly wondered whether the surrounding landscape were not also an exhibit, an exquisite man-made simulacrum. Reportedly, there were some artificial plants placed among the real in the first greenhouse (real enough to fool birds and insects) – and a number of living plants were recovered from the wreckage and planted in the second, among all the fakes. Stainbridge died in a feverish state, declaring that he was no more or less natural than one of the exhibits in his greenhouses, and insisting in his madness that he had manufactured himself by hand.
“I see myself in Wertheim department store in front of a flat little box with wooden figures, such as a little sheep, just like the animals that made up Noah’s ark. But this little sheep is much flatter and made of a rough, unpainted wood. The toy lured me to it. As the salesgirl shows it to me, it transpires that it is constructed like a magic tile, as found in many magic boxes: with little panels around which are wound colorful ribbons. These panels are loose and shift, all turning blue or red, according to how the ribbons are pulled. This flat magic toy pleases me all the more after I see how it works. I ask the salesgirl the price and am astonished that it costs more than seven marks. Then I make a difficult decision not to buy. As I turn to go, my gaze falls on something unexpected. The construction has transformed itself. The flat panels stand stiffly upright, as a sloping plane; at one end is a gate. It is filled with a mirror. In this mirror I am able to see what is taking place on the sloping plane that is a street: two children are walking on the left hand side. Otherwise it is empty. All this is under glass. But the houses and the children on the street are brightly coloured. Now I can no longer resist; I pay the price and put it about my person. In the evening I intend to show it to friends. But there is unrest in Berlin. The mob is threatening to storm the café where we have met; in feverish consultation we survey all the other cafés, but none appear to offer protection. So we make an expedition into the desert. There it is night; tents are erected; lions are close by. I have not forgotten my dainty, which I want to show everyone. But the opportunity does not arise. Africa is gripping everyone too much. And I wake up before I can reveal the secret which I have subsequently come to understand: the three phases into which the toy falls. The first panel; that colourful street with the two children. The second: a web of fine little cogs, pistons and cylinders, rollers and transmissions, all of wood, whirling together in one level, without person or noise. And finally the third panel; the vision of a new order in Soviet Russia.” (Walter Benjamin, “Der Wissende” (GS, IV:1, p 422-3), as translated by Esther Leslie)
Berlin, Weimar Berlin, bitterly cold, city of morphine, postwar austerity, debt, worthless money, hustlers of every kind keeping barely afloat, a city ruled by the goddess Anita Berber, whose hair, dyed the color of blood on snow, was the torch’s flame that led the city into every night alive with Expressionist convulsions. Berber soaked white roses in a silver bowl of chloroform and ether, and ate the petals; Berber dyed her pubic hair the color of champagne and appeared in Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films (Mabuse, who operates by radio and by hypnotism, who tries to crash the currency as part of a detailed plan to plunge the government into chaos, and to then take total control). Dada, born in Switzerland as the lights went out and sparks floated down through the dark, took root in Berlin and the nihilism of packed cabarets with piebald curtains of yellow velvet across the stage. Berlin Dada was a laboratory of disgrace, to build up an immunity against shame, a kind of vaccination of humiliation, to produce a total indifference to social demands – a practice that Huelsenbeck, who brought Berlin Dada back across the Swiss border hidden in the crown of his hat and on the sole of his shoe, described as “the American side of Buddhism, it raves because it knows how to be silent, it acts because it is in a state of rest.” It needs no empty phrases, no diplomatic chatter; it is not afraid of silence. The destructive character needs no more posterity than a Dada artwork, chalked on a blackboard and then wiped clean after the performance.
The man holding the dress shoe, heel down, said to me: “if you’re ever going to kill a roach, do it very very swiftly because their lives are so short that their sense of time is totally different from ours, and if you hit one and don’t kill it immediately, the length of time they suffer is agonizing for them.”
Arne Naess. He went to Vienna to become a concert pianist but was soon sitting at the table with Quine and Carnap and others in the Vienna Circle. In their long discussion of a philosophy based on common sense, they never thought to start asking people to create a baseline. Naess wrote up a questionnaire and passed it out on the street. There was only one question: “How do you decide what is true?” If there really was such a thing as a common sense notion of truth, everyone would presumably give a similar answer. However, the respondents all gave a range of answers, similar to the various positions held by philosophers throughout history.
Naess describes himself as “optimistic – but for the 22nd century, not for this one.” His cabin above the timber line in Norway is called Tvergastein, “Crossing the Stones.” One core element of his “deep ecology” is to understand that dependence, against which modernity ceaselessly struggles, is actually a form of interrelation, a royal road to interrelation with other things, the world, and the universe.
A concept from Buddhist philosophy: a virtue has its polar opposite – compassion and hatred, for instance. Hatred is the far enemy of the virtue of compassion. There are also vices that can pretend to be virtues, so much like them that they can be mistaken for one another – used the way the body will use a bioavailable industrial contaminant, or a turtle will swallow a plastic bag that looks like a jellyfish and choke to death. The way pity can pass as compassion, or indifference as tolerance, or addiction as love, or submission and exhaustion as acceptance: the near enemy.
In ancient Athens, there was a religious sect called the theoretikoi, who went to the old forests and groves to conduct their meditative rites. Aristotle uses the term theoria when discussing the psyche; this is the root of theory. The rough translation, then, is “contemplation,” but it can also mean “sending ambassadors to an oracle.”
“Philo mentions a religious sect named the θεωρητικοι, (theoretikoi, ‘thinkers’) who were given to contemplation, and who were wont to retire into the solitudes of woods and groves.”
Walt Whitman saved royalty money for many years to pay $4,000 (more than twice what his house and property in Camden had cost) to a firm of Philadelphian monumental masons to build him a tomb, a “plain massive stone temple” of unpolished Quincy granite in the Harleigh Cemetery. “The rudest most undress’d structure … since Egypt, perhaps since the cave dwellers,” he said of it. He based the design on the Blake etching “Death’s Door.” Ancient, modern, this new man’s bones in his archaic tomb – going back to the first structures as Adolf Loos identified them, barrows of piled stone in the depths of forests. The Pharaoh of New Jersey, the Hudson for his Nile.
From a conversation with X: “I want to study the river, but I’m worried I’m going to end up studying a moat because they’re kind of the same thing, if my focus is too narrow.”
Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse was written by the Polish Count Jan Nepomucen Potocki over the course of almost twenty years. It was self-published in parts, in portions printed without titles or endings, so the story could continue to expand in any direction indefinitely. Potocki could publish this potentially endless book, full of erotic digressions (threesomes are a theme), gothic horrors, and admiration and open curiosity about Islam, Judaism, and illuminist freethinking, because he actually owned the press – he had installed a print shop in his castle, and the first free reading room in Warsaw, after an argument with the Polish government about press freedoms in 1789.
An aristocratic polyglot who spoke eight languages (including “the secret patois of the Circassian nobleman”), Potocki met the Enlightenment Freemasons of revolutionary Paris, adored Turkey (wearing Turkish garb for much of his later life), fought against Barbary corsairs at sea with the Knights of Malta, and traveled as far as Mongolia in the service of the Tsar. Everywhere he went, he collected stories – above all, he seems to have adored listening. He listened to Rosicrucians, to Cossacks, to the great Polish rabbis, to ghost stories, to the hashish smokers of Cairo, to Romany visitors, to Scythian Tartars (whose traditions he accurately connects all the way back to the central Asian nomads described by Herodotus – Potocki’s 1802 Histoire primitive des peuples de la Russie is the moment when European scholarship first starts to understand Siberian shamanism). In Morocco, he inquired after the original manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights; in Bavaria, he met the original Illuminati. His fierce interest in most everything that crossed his path was combined with physical vitality and daring: fascinated by hot-air ballooning, he hired tailors and bought hall-filling quantities of “rainbow colored Chinese silk” to build, with the aid of Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a grand balloon in which Potocki, plus his Turkish valet Osman and his dog Lulu, soared over Warsaw – the first Polish balloonist to survive the attempt.
Part of the pleasure of reading Manuscript Found in Saragossa is the sense of endlessness, of excess narrative opening out every way at once, with each life full of partway open doors, forks in the road, curtained windows, behind and beyond which lie still more stories. Potocki himself, in later life, became increasingly isolated and melancholy; his marriage and his era fell apart. (According to some accounts, he grew convinced that he was turning into a werewolf.) Always possessed of odd habits, he would spend breakfast idly filing away at the knob on the lid of silver sugar-bowl. Filing it down, a few minutes at a time, day after day, until one December morning it was just the right size to fit in the barrel of his pistol, and he shot himself with it.
“From these random slips, it would seem, that Pierre is quite conscious of much that is so anomalously hard and bitter in his lot, of much that is so black and terrific in his soul. Yet that knowing his fatal condition does not one whit enable him to change or better his condition. Conclusive proof that he has no power over his condition. For in tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril;—nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown.” (Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities)
A Quaker term for “the set of thoughts on everyone’s mind that may not have been articulated in advance, or spoken by any one person.”
“Any listener necessarily assumes a particular stance, informed by intention. Our module’s more sophisticated than that which was listening. The shape of their listening suggested what they were listening for.” William Gibson, The Peripheral
In Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned: “The wife of the [imprisoned] poet Sergei Spasski was accused in 1937 of having wanted to blow up a monument to her uncle, though no such monument even existed.”
A new dance invented by Brian Eno in the 1970s, called the Static: dance violently for 30 seconds and then freeze perfectly still for two minutes.
Franz Jung, a truly modern person, almost endlessly resourceful. 1920, stowed away on the Senator Schröder, persuading the sailors to mutiny and take the ship to Murmansk as a gift to the Soviets. In 1921 he ran a match factory in Russia. In 1928 he had a play produced in Berlin by Piscator. In the 1930s, he was a conspirator against Hitler. He was condemned to death in Budapest, escaped the cell, was recaptured and sent to a concentration camp.
“The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.” (A line from the notebooks Kafka kept while staying with his sister after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.)
We are living on another planet — like old theories of the surface of Venus, a planet of ultrajungles. On this world, the canopy is hundreds of meters deep, or rather there are layers and layers of canopies and subcanopies and parasitic semi-canopies going down to the inky-green darkness at ground level. Throughout this jungle, but growing steadily more intense farther down, rapid chains of predation and parasitism, complex food webs, reign; humans really can’t live at ground level in that green-black shade of eyes and pheromonal reflexes, clouds of flowers more dangerous than sharks, oozes and flashing lights, unknown dangers.
Instead we live in cities; the cities are black and glittering and compact, self-contained, and walk on legs higher than the canopy. Up in the sunlight, the bellies of the cities brushing the surface of a green skin of faceted leaves rising and falling in all directions (mountains are visible in the distance, slopes sheer out of the jungle). The legs are slender and black. The cities resemble distorted spiders, their bodies minute relative to long and impossibly skinny legs. The legs find their way through endless copses of dark trees, grasses filled with shivering vines, far below. The cities glitter and slowly make their way across the planetary jungle to some unknown destination.
“The witches of the mountains of Thessaly used to preserve beautiful living eyes for seven months in silver urns; then they would use them as adornments which, for seven years, would weep pearls.” Grimoire de Wickstead
When Buddha convinced the five monks, his first disciples, that he was the Awakened, he immediately compared himself to “a stag that lives in the forest and runs over its slopes. In complete security he advances, rises, or lies down; in complete security he rests. He cannot be reached by those who prepare traps.” The first image of liberation that occurs to Buddha is that of the victim who has eluded the sacrifice, the prey that has eluded the hunter.
For the ṛṣi, “in the beginning all was wrapped in death, in hunger, because hunger is death.” For Buddha, according to his speech in Benares, all that must be avoided is “thirst.” Hunger belongs to the metaphysics of sacrifice; it is the hub around which it revolves. Thirst belongs to the metaphysics of the forest, which has escaped sacrifice but discovers that this is not enough to escape desire.
“Two birds, friends joined together, clutch the same tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit; the other looks on without eating. Where the birds sing unblinkingly about their share of immortality among the wise, there the mighty herdsman of the whole world, the wise one, entered me, the fool.” Rg Veda
Why Koolhaas and OMA use faxes to send architectural renderings: because the fax is so low-resolution, you have to figure out the clear, decisive gesture out of which everything else unfolds. Like the razor-cut chunks of blue foam and posterboard, deliberately a little crude, “thinking in its raw form,” from which the most refined shapes and volumes will come. (Finding the single sentence to explain what a book is about has a similar low-res power.)
“I’m not afraid to die, because Monteverdi composed thirteen operas in his lifetime, and only three of those have ever been found – so maybe the other ten is where I’m going.” George Maciunas
“Noiselessly I opened the window and sat down on the foot of my bed. I hardly dared to move in case they should hear me from below. Outside, things too seemed frozen, rapt in a mute intentness not to disturb the moonlight which, duplicating each of them and throwing it back by the extension in front of it of a shadow denser and more concrete than its substance, had made the whole landscape at once thinner and larger, like a map which, after being folded up, is spread out upon the ground. What had to move – a leaf of the chestnut-tree, for instance – moved. But its minute quivering, total, self-contained, finished down to its minutest gradation and its last delicate tremor, did not impinge upon the rest of the scene, did not merge with it, remained circumscribed. Exposed upon this surface of silence which absorbed nothing of them, the most distant sounds, those which must have come from gardens at the far end of the town, could be distinguished with such exact ‘finish’ that the impression they gave of coming from a distance seemed due only to their ‘pianissimo’ execution, like those movements on muted strings so well performed by the orchestra of the Conservatoire that, even though one does not miss a single note, one thinks none the less that they are being played somewhere outside, a long way from the concert hall, so that all the old subscribers – my grandmother’s sisters too, when Swann had given them his seats – used to strain their ears as if they had caught the distant approach of an army on the march, which had not yet rounded the corner of the Rue de Trévise.” Proust
Tiantong’s first phrase of winter:
Old plum tree, bent and gnarled,
all at once opens one blossom, two blossoms,
not proud of purity,
not proud of fragrance;
falling, becoming spring,
blowing over grasses and trees,
balding the head of a patched-robe monk.
Whirling, changing into wind, wild rain,
falling, snow, all over the earth.
The old plum tree is boundless.
A hard cold rubs the nostrils.
Two people playing chess starting from checkmate and working backwards, move by move, reconstructing the game to arrive at the starting state of play. To be the winner, you have to play so that you were the person who’d made the first move.
Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa designed for immortality: living spaces so unexpected, stimulating, destabilizing, and uncomfortable that they could break lifetimes of habit and force continuous openness to experience – a theory they called “reversible destiny.” They could extend the human lifespan by this architecture, they believed, both by the overwhelming immediacy of constant disorientation, and in having to adapt and move in an environment that resists you. Each moment would be longer, and there would be more of them. “Death is old-fashioned.” They built in Japan and the US (though their greatest project in the States was derailed by the man with whom they invested all the income from their practice – Bernie Madoff), and designed cities, parks, and labyrinths for the future, each filled with “laboratories for everyday life.” Reversible Destiny houses and apartments feature poles to cling to while ascending or descending the bumpy, pebbled, sloping floors around the kitchen pit – a terrain of gullies, humps, and ditches, sometimes broken up by maze-like arrangements of barriers. The study is a golden egg with no flat surfaces, which functions as an echo chamber. (The acoustics make the whole building hum and croak.) Switches are at ankle height, and electrical outlets mounted on the ceiling, along with rows of hooks from which to hang guywires, hammocks, festoons, swings, and any clothing you might need. Every surface and object is painted one of thirty-odd bright, contrasting shades.
Gins was always simultaneously joyfully playful and absolutely serious. Arakawa, her partner of decades in work and life, died of ALS in 2010; as she struggled with grief and her own cancer in 2013, her work took on a new poignancy: the plans, diagrams, and renderings of a machine with which she had hoped to keep herself and her husband alive forever.
“If the human species lasted long enough in its present state, a time would necessarily come in which even the lives of individuals would return in the same circumstances, down to the smallest details. I myself would return, to live once again in the city called Hannover, on the banks of the Leine river, once again busy studying the history of Brunswick and writing the same letters to the same friends.” Leibniz
The sudden juxtaposition of city and country: the way you’ll feel like you’re in an urban environment, then glance to your right, down an alley (which is more like a gravel road) and see ragged trees, an open space, a rusting car body in the tall grass. It’s like a montage of two very different scales of city, spliced haphazardly together.
Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi were lifelong friends, a friendship based in equal measure on frenetic conversation and visible light. This was in the period before Fuller became the permanently jet-lagged human media platform of his later career: before he wore three watches (one for the time zone he was in; one for the time zone Anne Hewlett Fuller, his wife, was currently in; one for the time zone he was headed to next), spoke to every conceivable audience for hours on hours at 120 words a minute, and had a one-word international telegram address, like the New York Times or Le Monde: BUCKY.
At the time of this story, he was a classic Village character, a two-time Harvard expellee with a manifesto and no immediate prospects, a coffeehouse habitué whose manic exposition of “4D Time Lock” and the “air-ocean world” would carry him on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge without his noticing. Fuller then operated out of Romany Marie’s at 20 Christopher Street, a restaurant/bar/bohemian fleapit/anarchist redoubt. He furnished, redecorated and repainted the restaurant, taking a free meal every day or two in lieu of payment, and ran a kind of cosmic engineering seminar most nights at a corner table. He and Noguchi hit it off immediately, speaking in a strange, shared discourse of forms, volumes and spatial relationships. Their particular mutual obsession was the idea of totally reflective objects in a completely reflective environment – abstracted forms with no shadows, saturated in light. When Noguchi needed a studio, he found an old laundry room on the top floor of a building at Madison and 29th, a room with windows on all sides. He and Fuller painted the interior completely silver; said Noguchi “one was almost blinded by the lack of shadows.” He worked on his sculptures in chrome-plated bronze there, forms without shadows.
The Dogon concept of toy: there is an ideal shape for a house or a village of which the extant house or village is an approximation. A human, they say, is a forager trying to find God’s complete plan of the universe. For this reason, they gather 266 items in a grid which represents the cosmos.
Balzac believed in amulets, wore a ring with mysterious symbols and would consult a fortune teller before making a significant decision (“like a Parisian seamstress,” Zweig writes); he wore a monkish robe to write all night, under the influence of the estimated fifty thousand cups of strong black coffee that he brewed and drank over the course of his working life. An enormous number of words, night after night, with the goal of producing a document, “the history of the human heart traced thread by thread.”
Alchemy was ludus puerorum, the inversions and simplicity of child’s play. Salomon Trismosin, Splendor Solis (1582): “Wherefore the Art is compared to the play of children, who, when they play, turn undermost that which before was uppermost.” “If you understand it, it is mere child’s play” (The Golden Tract, 1678). Linked allegorically with “women’s work”: washing, cooking, gestating, tending the fire. Ars nostra est ludus puerorum cum labor mulierum was inscribed on the study wall of the house in Prague that John Dee rented in 1584, which belonged to Rudolph II’s alchemical advisor, Tadeus Hajek. (Prague, where fraudulent alchemists were hanged from a gilded gallows.) They said they spoke transitus fluvii, the language of crossing the river.
Etienne Decoux, 1931, trained by Copeau and Suzanne Bing on a bare stage without furniture or costumes, lit from overhead, inspired by Noh and ancient Greek drama, proposed a thirty year training program for actors: the first twenty years would be soundless, then five years of cries, and five years of invented words. To speak a language that came from the center of one’s being, from “the most truthful body.”
Cornelius Cardew – prior to his third act as a Maoist folksinger – explored the possibilities of what a prose score could be. His masterpiece The Great Learning is built on instructions like “Sing any note you can hear” (as Eno summarized it) – which, in execution, means a crowd of strangers, without formal training, will move from discordance to converge on a set of lush, blurry harmonies around the resonant frequency of the room in which they sing.
Cardew’s endlessly complex Treatise is 193 pages of beautiful graphic scores that look like geometric and optical diagrams, maps of rivers, process flowcharts and architectural renderings: a shockingly beautiful document, with no explanation as to how it should be interpreted, leaving it up to each performer to find their way through. He was a cofounder of the Scratch Orchestra, an ensemble that experimented with scores that included scribbles, designs for bell-ringing machines, and brief prose instructions:
“Chimes in an airstream”
“A great noise – a very expensive noise”
“Tune a brook by moving the stones in it”
“The kettle sings well for pieces of iron are so arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in which one may hear echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest or of the soughing of pines on some far away hill.” (Kakuzo Okakura, The Book Of Tea)
Between Gropius and Le Corbusier is the difference between a circle drawn by a compass and a circle drawn by hand.
“My love is eternal and my train leaves in fifteen minutes.” Mina Loy
“In my left pocket I carry a remarkably accurate self-portrait: a watch in burnished steel. It speaks, marks time and understands none of it.” Aragon
Grilled cheese: while grilling cheese on toast, add dry grated horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and a pinch of sweet basil.
“Skin but do not stone a peach. Brush lightly with a weak mixture of melted brown sugar and brandy. Heat more brandy in a soupspoon. Ignite, and pour over the peach. Eat immediately. / A particular favorite of Bucky’s.”
M ran her secret life off an SD card she could easily conceal and destroy. Her phone glowed through the fabric of her shirt pocket like a bioluminescent jellyfish. She talked about the monastics who live in the back of an autonomous electric truck that’s always in motion, except when it stops to recharge, following a random-walk algorithm. She talked about a lifetime’s worth of sentences, autocompleting before your eyes.
Rocks shaped (grooved, pitted, polished) by the wind and sand or ice. The shape of the wind’s ceaseless movement, expressed in stone. The millennial consistency of a flow that constantly changes.
Shortly before he was burned at the stake, Giordano Bruno wrote a book in which he explained that there are an infinite number of universes, each possessing a similar world with some minute difference – a hand raised in one, lowered in another. The perception of motion is an act of a mind swiftly choosing a course among an infinite number of eternally still possibilities.
Louis Kahn: “I have volumes of [English history] but I never read anything but the first volume. Even at that, I only read the first three or four chapters. My purpose is to read Volume Zero, which has not yet been written.”
Blake, as a child, “walked to the horizon and touched the sky with his finger – held conversations with Julius Caesar and trees filled with angels.” Towards the end of his life, spent much of his time in his room, in conversation with the Archangel Gabriel. Blake’s wife, Catherine Boucher, said, “I have so little of Mr. Blake’s company nowadays; he is always in Paradise.”
“Thousands and thousands of variations on the theme of walking will never yield a rule for swimming: come, enter the water, and when you know how to swim, you will understand how the mechanism of swimming is connected to that of walking. Swimming is an extension of walking, but walking would never have pushed you on to swimming.” Henri Bergson
Werner Herzog understood walking for its own sake to be one of the primeval forms of prayer (to which we can add the contemplation of fire and flowing water), which he shared with Bruce Chatwin (Herzog walked from Munich to Paris in the winter in hopes of keeping Lotte Eisner alive by this act of intercession). Coleridge took 20 miles a day over mountainous and boggy terrain as his average. Hölderlin walked from the Rhineland to Bordeaux and back via Paris. Stendhal walked to Moscow and back in 1812; Rousseau built his final writings (notes on the blank reverse of playing cards as he was outside) on the reveries that come when walking a long distance alone. And Nietzsche, of course, working in the aphorism, in notes and jottings across mountains, lakesides, cities.
In 1929, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson decided to end their magazine The Little Review. Every issue was like the two of them drilling through solid rock for daylight, with diamond bits from Amy Lowell, Hart Crane, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Emma Goldman, Gertrude Stein, Joyce, and more; they once published an issue with twelve blank pages because there wasn’t anything in the world exciting and fearless enough for them at that moment.
They closed the magazine’s run with these four questions to their contributors:
“What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (In case you are not satisfied.)
Why wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?
What do you look forward to?
What do you fear most from the future?”
Leibniz came to Amsterdam and spent three days with Spinoza, after corresponding with him for some time, but sadly no papers from that visit survive aside from a single page with a proof of the existence of God.
One should not ask the alien “Do you come in peace?” but rather “What am I to you?”
The flavor of Wikipedia’s text, like water distilled by reverse osmosis that is so pure you mostly taste your own mouth: so oddly affectless that you feel more acutely your own emotional response.
What makes atoms different is the number of electrons – and therefore the number of protons, etc. A bunch of electrons sort themselves around the nucleus into groups of orbits called “shells.” These shells lie at fixed intervals from each other; these are energy levels. The numbers of electrons per shell are fixed (you can remember this as Pauli’s exclusion principle): each shell contains 2n^2 electrons, where n is the shell number. So the second shell contains 2(2)^2 or eight electrons. The shells are K (2), L (8), M (18), N (32, etc), O, P, and Q. They consist of subshells (s, p, d, f), for sorting the electrons into orbits within the bigger orbits.
Why are they lettered in this unintuitive way? The letters were chosen because of “X-ray notation,” when we weren’t sure if there weren’t much higher-energy states we hadn’t observed. So we left room just in case, and now that caution persists as an artifact.
Panplay, also known as panchess, pangame, or “Neocriollo Chess,” which Solar started working on in the 1930s, was a version of chess that could double as the universe. It was a game that was also a dictionary, a musical engine, a school of painting, a historical and biographical record, and an astrological ephemeris. In different versions, it was played on 12x12, 13x12, or 13x13 boards, with most of the traditional pieces plus new ones, called bi-rooks and bi-bishops – and Solar made all the pieces himself, painting them with signs and figures and designing them so they could be stacked, increasing the combinatorial possibilities. Each piece corresponds to a consonant (“except for the pawns that equal numbers”) and all the positions on the board are combinations of vowels, so play produces chains of new words: “This means that the foundation of this game is a dictionary of a philosophical, a priori language, written with basic signs that correspond to sounds – a kind of triple-leveled shorthand of lines, forms and gestures described elsewhere – that forms all kinds of abstract drawings and musical combinations, implicit in the differing positions as the game advances.” Because of course the pieces, squares and moves also correspond to musical sounds and rhythms, and to systems of shapes and colors – and to a duodecimal counting system for engaging in a strange, playful calculations. “As each major piece also represents a planet where the board gives its positions in the sky” – with each square corresponding to diurnal and nocturnal movements – “one can follow anniversaries over the years, that is, the influence or character, leaping across the board, as part of the march through historical time or through anything imaginary.”
Millions of new words and combinations, enough to fill countless shelves with as-yet-unwritten books; new paintings and drawings to fill every museum; centuries of new music, the history of the past and the future and every human drama, waiting to be combinatorially unlocked in play. (No wonder he and Borges got along so well: they both lived in the libraries-to-come, in all the stories that could be written.) I like to think of him at his kitchen table by the window, smoking a cigarette and laying out the board that is also his life, all our lives, and the cosmos.
To try to recover that particular, initial moment, when a movement began around a person and his logia – gospels of sayings. Neither Mark nor John show any interest in his birth; it’s a later textual addition, an attempt to reconcile and combine different documents. In his thirties, the man joined with Yohannon, “the Dipper” (whom we generally translate as John, the “Baptist”). For three years, he traveled around, speaking in the marketplace to ordinary people. He preached a coherent and charismatic ethic of behavior. We don’t know if he spoke Aramaic only, or also some koine Greek, but within a generation many of his most ardent followers were Greek-speaking. We know he lived in a place that was split between multiple languages: he would become Yeshua, Latinized to Jesus, a Jewish name, plus “Christ,” Christos, a Greek designation – the Anointed One. He told stories and parables and sayings and elaborated a religious project and a way of life through these remarks. He was apprehended by the local Roman authorities, tried, and crucified. He was a traveler, on the road a lot: his sandals are mentioned by Yohannon. He was an ironist; he seems to have known both the Rabbinical tradition of argument, Tanakh, and narrative, and the Greek tradition of aphoristic phrases and ironies relative to his audience: the father loves his prodigal son more than his obedient son. The Samaritan (or as we might say now, Palestinian) is good when the others do nothing. And so on. (You can imagine his logia in a collection with Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Diogenes, Nietzsche.)
Accidents of language explain so much in this history: in Aramaic, that strange, profound phrase – “the Son of Man” – can be better understood as an expression, as a way of saying “someone like me,” almost to “people like us.” The translated version of “epiousios,” for “daily” as in “daily bread” conceals a far more profound statement about future nourishment in the time to come – in the Kingdom. (“Passion” comes from the Latin pateor, to suffer.) Much of what he told were narratives of the coming of the Kingdom, soon – yet always in the context (for or against) of Jewish practice at the time – when the Kyrios, the Lord, would again reign.
Then the shattering fact of his death. Within a generation people were already shifting how the story was interpreted (in some cases simply making things up wholesale) to reach an accommodation with the Romans, and to put the blame on the Jews for failing to defend him adequately. Because they still had to live with the Romans – Paul of Tarsus was a Roman citizen, writing letters in koine and ending his life in Rome. “Christianity” is the Latin development of a Greek word that summarizes a Jewish life story: each successive transformation incorporating and turning against the previous one. (One of the earliest definitely Christian artifacts we’ve found is two scraps of paper with John’s Gospel, dateable by its handwriting to early in the second century CE – part of the process of trying to capture and define in writing this event, now out of living memory.) Were you there? Did you hear him? He wrote only one thing down – a scribble in the dust, erased with a foot – and everything else was his disciples recording his remarks well after the fact, from memory, after his death. And part of what they seem to have done, to make sense of what had happened, was to identify the imminence of the Kingdom, and his return: that he still loved them, and that he would wait for them in the future. A grieving project.
A kind of cold I’ve not seen before, where the sky is clear but the air is full of little, glittering flakes, like mica or some kind of concussion dazzlement: the cold pulls ice crystals out the air, like René Thom’s “exfoliation,” rubbing the surface to force the expression of the latent forces and shapes.
Philip K. Dick speculated about a creature called ZEBRA. An animal hides by mimicry, by resembling part of its environment, like a stick insect. ZEBRA hides itself by looking like the whole environment.
Those moments that can, as Tarkovsky said of certain long takes, “give back more time than they take.”
The communist Shakers of Mt. Lebanon, who held all property in common, would celebrate holidays by giving spiritual objects: Trumpets of Joy, Chains of Gold, Anchors of Safety, Gems of the Morning, Balls of Love. The Ephrata mystics of Pennsylvania considered their poems and hymns, which were based on the imagery of the most poetic Hebrew scriptures, to be offerings, “zionitic incense.” Yoko Ono and her brother, during periods of hunger in wartime Japan, “exchanged menus in the air.”
“Beauty is something that burns the hand when you touch it.”
Yukio Mishima, Forbidden Colors
(“Possessing by letting go of things was a secret of ownership unknown to youth.”)
“The stories told by Orochon hunters, on returning every evening to the encampment, rarely conclude with the death of the prey, but rather elaborate on everything of interest witnessed or encountered along the trail. Stories, for the Orochon, should not end for the same reason that life should not. They are rather carried on for as long as the saddle, the embodiment of the unison of a man and his riding deer, continues to thread a path through the forest. And since saddles are inherited, each generation takes up and carries on the stories of its predecessors.”
“Old Khanty storytellers would keep going in the evenings until everyone else was asleep, so that no one would ever know how their stories really finished.”