Eupalinos (2nd Part)
Given the 'found object' motif intercalated within Paul Valery's imaginal Socratic dialog, I've been alert for any related materials coming to hand, in keeping with my more or less unsystematic approach to this or any other subject (and to these blog posts more generally). Somehow the relevant material keeps surfacing, thankfully, much as the stone figure surfaced through the waves (or emerged out of the sand) at Barnegat Light that many years ago. Before proceeding I want to mention that a striking feature of the beach on that part of the coast are the remains of a trawler, the "Sea King", that foundered offshore in a storm several decades ago (within living memory), and with subsequent beach building activity of the surf, has been almost entirely buried many yards inland from the current shoreline, its main mast a solitary figure, jabbing up from the dunes.
Of course, the serendipitous discovery of what lies beneath the planetary surface can be of immense significance to the self-understanding of humans. I'm thinking here of the discovery, in the middle of the last century, of the cave at Lascaux. I especially like Clayton Eshleman's description of this find, which positions that discovery in the imaginal realm:
Wicks made of quarter-inch juniper branches were used in many of the 130 hand lamps found in Lascaux.
Over the cave, a tall juniper had fallen, lifting up with its roots a large mass of earth and creating a pit, soon entangled with brambles. On September 8, 1940, Marcel Ravidat (a young garage hand from nearby Montignac) was drawn to the pit by his barking dog, caught in the undergrowth. While cutting the dog out, he discovered a dead donkey and under it, a vertical shaft. On September 12, with his friend Jacques Marsal, Ravidat returned. Working with his knife, head first, he dug down some twenty feet, at which point he tumbled into the cave.
Juniper as the wick of the cave!
This conjunction of juniper wick and juniper tree, forming a conduit between what lies beneath and what lies above, is profoundly significant. Eshleman was an influential poet and publisher, whose early exposure to Lascaux formed a bedrock of his life's work, exploring the depths of the human imagination. (Eshelman's book is Juniper Fuse, Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld). And of course, there are countless examples of similar finds, many ultimately consigned to the realm of the professional archaeologist. My stone figure is likely unavailable to that realm, at least to my knowledge (although someone else may have picked it up and turned it in); it's unclear, however, whether my discovery at the Jersey shore would fall within the scope of any putative archaeological interest.
I note this because it's not clear in all cases what value provenance may contribute. Gustaf Sobin (a poet who occasionally published in Eshleman's landmark literary journal, Sulfur), may have had a similar experience, pondering an inscrutable object from the Paleolithic. Sobin expounds:
Might we even begin constituting, indeed, a collection, an entire library of questions? A whole, inexhaustible archive devoted exclusively to wonder, to query, to the unlimited breadth of human speculation? For the curtain that has fallen between the known and the unknown, between the magnitude of our questions and the paucity of our answers, affects not only archaeology but every other field of human endeavor as well. As a result, we've grown estranged from origins, deprived of even the vaguest glimpse of those first, founding landscapes. Today, nothing can be acknowledged that hasn't first been processed, electronically channeled, compiled. (from his essay, "The skull with the seashell ear", in Luminous Debris, Reflections on Vestige in Provence)
I've wanted to avoid any disjuncture between Sobin's eloquent avowal, and my own retelling of the stone figure episode, moving hopefully toward a universe in which ostensibly ancient objects inhabit their ontological origins, existing alongside though not necessarily within the range of human understanding.
But there nevertheless exists the urge to collect – to collect objects or, as Sobin has it, questions. I suppose I've tended to opt for the latter – and now, questions are all that's left of the stone figure. But what about collecting? I seem to recall reading somewhere that collecting is a distinctive part of ego development, forming a usable component of self-identity (perhaps especially for middle class individuals?). But collecting may simply offer access to the past, to that which otherwise would be lost or forgotten. I'm thinking here of scavenging, a purposeful but otherwise unstructured discovery process. Which same appears to motivate the people who scour the shoreline of the Thames, a tidal river, as described in Mudlark, In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames by Lara Maiklem; who distinguishes between serendipitous, unassisted scavenging and outright digging assisted by metal detectors:
Our knowledge of the city and the lives of its inhabitants over millennia has undoubtedly been increased by the objects society members have dug up over the years, but I think the time has come to ban digging completely. There is no need to keep disturbing an already fragile and fast-eroding foreshore for more and better objects. They are better left where they are for the future, rather than putting them at the mercy of an indiscriminate spade or fork… They [diggers] hack through centuries in an afternoon, and in their rush to beat the incoming tide, they smash delicate objects and miss the small and non-metallic pieces that don't register on the sweep of their metal detectors…and the objects they overlook are left to the mercy of the tides. I have made some of my best finds where the diggers have been at work and I hate to think how much more the river has claimed.
Maiklem is inadvertently exposing the synergy between diggers and scavengers, the latter following along in the diggers' wake to gather items they may have missed, or disregarded. Contra Sobin, this author's interwoven discussion of the historical value and narrative potential of found objects proceeds from research rather than from an absorbed and undistracted contemplation of her found materials. And there is an irony embedded in this passage, the author suggesting that found objects should be left as they lie. Needless to say, this attitude may have informed my thinking as I tossed the stone figure back into the sea that day.
In a tribute to fellow poet Anthony Thwaite, Peter Scupham recalls visiting the cottage where his longtime friend lived with his wife Ann:
…moving into the long low living room lit with a chequered light from the riverside windows, is to move into a room which is a metaphor for lives lived as travellers in space and time. A Roman bust shares its gaze with the staring eyes and flowing beards of Bellarmines, those stoneware drinking jugs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries…Books, of course, are everywhere, shelved and nid-nodding to each other, heaped in piles; drawers open to reveal fragments of pottery…This is a world of suggestions, shadows of lost knowledge…We came from a collecting generation of schoolboys: mine were seashells, military badges, wildflowers… Ever since, as a boy, Anthony was given a silver denarius, he had been a looker and finder, alert for the secret signs which lie buried all around us. ("Chimes at Midnight", PN Review 260)
Scupham begins his piece with a quote from Brian Aldiss, an underappreciated writer, in my view:
Mr Gudgeon, the elderly bookshop assistant in Brian Aldiss's first novel, The Brightfount Diaries, is given to sardonic aphorisms: 'A miscellaneous collection of objects is man's only defence against time,' is one I particularly like.
There is a passage in Pierre Michon's Winter Mythologies, in the section titled "Simon", which turns on the idea of returning a found object to the earth, while searching for another of potentially appropriate significance. In Michon's sketch, the Abbot Dalmatius has tasked Brother Simon, a monk in an ancient monastery in process of revival, to "establish the legitimacy of the monastery in the mother tongue"…
Simon ponders. He has the earth dug up beneath the choir of the old chapel, which has long since been ruined. Three skeletons, each holding a sword, are discovered, which he immediately has covered up again. Another is found, overlaid by the shreds of what was once a dalmatic and a stole. Simon ruminates at length over this one, and then after three days regretfully has it buried for a second time. A slighter skeleton is found whose dark black plaited hair has been well preserved and has gleams of life in it. It looks like a woman. "Yes," says Simon. He carefully cleans the hair and, one by one, the bones. He places them in a small wooden chest. He kisses the chest. He asks the carpenter brother to depict Our Lord on the Cross on one side of it and on the other a female saint.
Simon next asks Brother Palladius to establish the identity of the imaginal saint, who as he explains, appeared to him "in the form of plaited hair beneath the earth, and that she will appear to Brother Palladius in the form of a name in a monastery archive." Palladius ventures forth, returning three years later having established that the remains are those of Saint Enimia ca. 1610…
Brother Simon writes the Vita sancta Enimia...