THINGS THAT GLOW IN THE DARK AND THE LIGHT
by GEORGE TTOOULI
(posted on the Gists and Piths blog)
There’s a curious lineage in poetry which focuses on the use of language both as a means of looking for the charge in objects and as a way to invest objects with energy. The names for this charge are various. Aristoteli described the ‘substance’ and ‘accidence’ of objects; we might infer that the greater an object’s substance (its non-material impact) the greater its energy. Hence transubstantiation: the shift of an object from the everyday into something with religious significance.
“But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling “inscape” is what I above all aim at in poetry” –Gerald Manley Hopkins, letter, 15 February 1879
Mostly, the quest to discover charge has been a religious search. Hopkins perhaps crystallised the phenomena best of all, referring to ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’ in ways that seem premonitive for concepts of intelligent design. Predecessors such as Wordsworth and fellow agnostic or atheistic Romantics struggled to find the correct vocabulary, having few terms beyond the religious set with which to approach inspiration, spirit, the parts of the world that gave sudden appeal to their imaginations and subconscious. Hymns to spirits, eternity and other, frankly, abstract approaches, are agnostic at best.
“The concept of inscape shares much with Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” Emerson’s “moments,” and Joyce’s “epiphanies,” showing it to be a characteristically Romantic and post-Romantic idea.” –Glenn Everett, Ph. D., ‘Hopkins on “Inscape” and “Instress”‘, The Victorian Web, 1988
In contrast, Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’, CS Lewis’s hunt for moments of ‘joy’, or any other number of descriptions of charged moments are overtly religious. The beauty of the natural world, or the power of language to inspire, move, or realign the bones (accidence) of both the object and the perceiver, has largely been taken as an excuse to get down on one’s knees and give thanks.
“The Proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one ‘slide’ or specimen with another”–Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading 1934
At some point, though, the secular door creaks open. Perhaps it is with Ezra Pound: his militant approach to charge as being meaning stacked on meaning seems to imply that an object’s substance can be wholly interpreted through analysis. Pound’s approach seems to be that the poet, in constructing a line of poetry, will stack only the meanings intended, without room for accidents (pardon the pun). Every division of the poem with the critic’s scalpel reveals a new meaning, until no layers are left and the poem can be discarded, lifeless, with no trace of God between the scraps.
Pound’s description of penning ‘In a Station of the Metro’ is one struggling to find the correct vocabulary – words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘lovely’ recur in his description. Eventually he settles on “a language in colour” – actually a description of synaesthesia, though he rubbishes it as a kindergarten nonsense. It shows the first glimmer of an acceptable secular vocabulary in which to couch an understanding of the energy language is capable of.
“I am not speaking of the common and natural capacity of perceiving objects in all their detail, but of the power of the metaphor to only retain their essence, and to bring them to such a state of purity that their metaphysical significance appears like a revelation.” –Odysseas Elytis, Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1979
More recently still, Elytis’ description of ‘revelation’ – the heightened knowledge that comes from experiencing charge – seems to tail off into religious experience once more. However, there is a more established doubt in this: the comparison is a simile. More importantly, the emphasis here is on a hierarchy of experience within the real: the common against the uncommon; a modernist concern, but one that does not necessarily demand a leap to the divine.
Or perhaps it is part of a counter reformation, an attempt to cling on to the past. Scientists struggling to hold onto their Christian beliefs in the face of basic contradictions between Biblical information and Darwinian theory, hold that the marvels of scientific discovery are indicators of a greater power, rather than a disproof of divinity. The turning to charge, energy, meaning, instead of literalness, is a succour.
“A numinous object is one in which matter, form and situation combine to ‘haunt’ or otherwise fascinate the imagination.” –Peter Blegvad, ‘On Numinosity’, The Amateur, date unspecified
But more recently, I encountered the wonders of ‘numinometer’ – a measuring device for exactly this thing Robert Graves said there is no yardstick for. An example of imaginary media, the numinometer can actually determine the quality of a metaphor (although primarily it is used for objects); it can measure charge. The veil lifts. I started to think that this is an attempt to nail the coffin shut on the whole ‘God is in the detail’ mentality.
As Deborah Rose describes on visiting the Amateur office, “The Holy Grail is a classic example of a ‘numinous object.’ But the Grail’s numinous charge is invested by collective faith, i.e. it’s ‘sacred.’ The folks at Amateur, the lady in the lab coat presumably among them, tend to concentrate more on secular objects. Alfred Hitchcock’s glass of milk, for instance, with the light he put in it to make it luminous. Did I tell you the folks at Amateur are weird?”
Far from weird, I would consider this the logical step. Having monitored the rise of the non-divine explanations of rainbows, people and planets through the twentieth century, the present-day analyst should take it for granted that further exploration and invention should provide alternatives to the long-dominant religious myths about the world. As in the God Detector song, from Blegvad’s ‘On Imaginary Media’ play (a ‘son et lumiere’ multimedia staging), in which a cartoon Levi (of leviathan fame) enters a brothel on a quest for the divine and discovers none, but ends up enjoying the service despite. (Some religious types would probably complain that a brothel isn’t the best place to look, but then again, Jesus scored pretty well with Mary Magdalene.)
A further leap is taken in Blegvad’s play: in one case, a machine invented to allow users to experience Virtual Death, in much the same way as Virtual Reality works, seems to provide users with a chance to actually commune with God. One journalist who trials the device, is quoted in a visually presented newspaper article, as reaching the light at the end of the tunnel and finding incredible beauty. The visual scrolls down the article and I read, “I met Christ and God…” and so on, but the voice-over unnervingly demands that the rest of her speech be skipped. The presentation is one of tabloid-mania, unreliability; the journalist’s character created as slightly odious, both for her initial scepticism of the imaginary device and for her ensuing religious awakening through it.
The aesthetics do not shy away from the divine, they explore ways to deny it’s presence. It is an assertion: if we have the new vocabulary, the secular expressions, scientific or otherwise, then it should be used; bring in the new, in other words. There is a celebration of the substance made substantial, despite the caveat of it all being imaginary, invented, not yet real. The art of Amateur is one of invocation and also celebration of the secular; a celebration of life as we know it, not as we layer it.
The sequence then:
– The identification of charge/substance vs. accidence
– The attribution of charge/instress to the spiritual
– The attribution of charge/numinosity to the secular
And the logical progression from this? Undoubtedly: the use of numinosity to disprove divinity. In a hundred years or so, we will probably see artists questing for the one lump of coal in the diamond pile.
The excessive drive to charge everything, to make the everyday special, from a cup of coffee to a pile of raw meat, from nothing more than a splash of random colour to the most mundane civic building, to every scrap of language, shred of scribbles, be it painted by animals, written by monkeys, or spoken by dogs; the madness of the internet in giving everything voice, recording everything ever written; in saying that everything should be archived and given value, that all is equal: this will necessitate backlash and, in order to preserve the hierarchy of emotional reaction that has kept us so securely divided through millennia, artists will begin to celebrate the banal, the awful. This will be the only proof left that there was ever any quality to begin with.