Eupalinos (1st Part)
Returning to this blog after a long hiatus, I'm providing scattered notes and reflections which I'll try to bring into focus later, in subsequent posts. Even the most casual reader will know that my posts can be grab bags of sorts, gathering in various materials that lie close to hand – on the shelves of my library, or gleanings from current reading in various publications. That said, I've been working on this blog post for quite a while, raking in ideas and associations that would invent, expose, or ideally, clarif the underlying theme of this post. That process remains incomplete, but given the long hiatus, I'm eager to put something up, if only as placeholder (hence the "1st Part" of my title here).
I'd first begun this post on reading a review of the collected essays of Hans Blumenberg, a name I've known for many years (he's written among other things on the Copernican Revolution, a subject of long and abiding interest for me). Toward the end of the piece, the reviewer quoted briefly from one of the essays in the book which immediately piqued my interest. Here's that quote:
Rejecting eternal truths and definitive certainties, Blumenberg was fascinated by those precious interruptions and "disturbances" of the lifeworld that "resist being converted back into authenticity and "logicality", those stumbling blocks that help "dismantle the obvious" and prompt us to think anew. Nachträglichkeit, "pensiveness", was a crucial term for him, conveying the meandering of "real" everyday thinking in its circuitousness, pauses and delays. For Blumenberg, man was first and foremost a "creature who hesitates", and he made repeated reference to Paul Valéry's dialogue Eupalinos, in which an imagined young Socrates encounters an "ambiguous object" on the seashore that eludes identification and classification. Confounded, Socrates throws it back into the sea, only to regret his action moments later. By exposing to view the liminal spaces between the lifeworld and theoretical enquiry, pensiveness "let the indeterminacy stand" and offered the aesthetic potential of returning a completely determined realty to its state of pure possibility". For Blumenberg, only by "break[ing] open the immunization of consciousness ... by means of paradox, contradiction, and the absurd" could something be shown to be truly possible.
I've reproduced more of this quote than absolutely necessary, but context is always helpful, and who knows? I may want to refer later to what may at first seem extraneous. But for the moment, I'll isolate a few ideas from this mix and focus on them briefly. The first is those "precious interruptions and 'disturbances' of the lifeworld", so important to Blumenberg; without which, by the way, there would likely be no art, no poetry, no science. In fact artists, poets, and scientists make a regular practice of "meandering" in order to engage with the motivating forces of "paradox, contradiction, and the absurd". And this experience of "disturbances" is testified it seems everywhere these days. In a recent issue of the Brooklyn Rail, for example, artist Ahmed Alsoudani credits his inspiration -- and ongoing motivation – to his reading of contemporary poets: "Their work puts me in an uncomfortable, unstable situation. I'm sometimes pushed to the edge and, in order not to fall, I go to my canvas to do something with it." (February 2022, interview with Ann C. Collins)
Okay. Back to Blumenberg. So far I've left out what for me is the salient part of the Blumenberg quote: the reference to Paul Valéry's imaginary "Socratic" dialog, "Eupalinos". This connection may be unclear at first, but I'll get to that, "by a commodius vicus of recirculation", as James Joyce would have it. Meanwhile, here's something on Eupalinos, with more to come later:
Eupalinos was a Greek engineer who in the 6th century BCE designed a tunnel, or viaduct, to supply water to the principle town of Samos, an island in the Aegean Sea (birthplace of Pythagoras, by the way; Blumenberg touches on the twinned themes of music and architecture, and makes reference to Pythagoras only briefly, in a footnote). Long considered a notable or even remarkable feat of ancient engineering, the aqueduct functioned reliably for centuries, until finally abandoned during the Byzantine era, in the 7th century CE. As Blumenberg suggests, Valéry's dialog was a profound consideration of the Platonic theory of forms, of permanence, and of beauty. But here I confess that this has little to do with my immediate interest in Valéry's imaginary dialog. Instead, my interest is likely more superficial – arising from Blumenberg's reference to Valéry's "objet ambigu" (Blumenberg's essay is titled "Socrates and the objet ambigu").
In his imaginary dialog Valéry has Socrates describe an incident involving a mysterious object he found while walking along the beach. He picks it up, hefts it, puzzles over it, then recommits it to the sea. Valéry's Socrates recalls that,
I found one of those things cast up by the sea; a white thing of the most pure whiteness; polished and hard and smooth and light. It shone in the sun on the licked sand, that is somber and spark-bestrewn. I took it up; I blew upon it; I rubbed it against my cloak, and its singular shape suspended all my other thoughts. Who made thee? I pondered. Thou resemblest nothing, and yet thou art not shapeless. Art thou a sport of nature, O nameless thing, that art come to me by the will of the gods, in the midst of the refuse that the sea this night has flung from her?
Sport of nature? Nameless thing shaped by the tossing and turning of the waves? Or the will of the gods? Something offered on purpose, but what purpose might that be?
I stood still for some little time, examining it on all sides. I questioned it without stopping at an answer…I could not determine whether this singular object were the work of life, or of art, or rather of time – and so a freak of nature…Then suddenly I flung it back into the sea.
Intrigued by this object the nature of which I could not get to know, and which was equally claimed and rejected by all the categories, I sought to escape from the perplexing image of my find.
There's more, but that's enough for now. But I'll note that Blumenberg's essay is subtitled, "Paul Valéry's Discussion of the Ontology of the Aesthetic Object and its Tradition". This explains quite a bit, but in closing this first part of my post, I'll briefly tell my own experience with encountering an unfamiliar object, as was the case wth the imaginal Socrates. I've looked through my notebooks from that time, but there's no specific mention of this experience. So let me first tell it more or less plainly:
Whenever I visit the ocean I go out early to walk along the beach, watch the shorebirds feeding at the surf's moving edge, look for sand crabs, note whatever flotsam has been tossed up by the waves, relish the varying light. There are few people on the beach at those hours, which inspires a certain mood, of introspection and of quietude, joining in contrapuntal harmony with the rising and falling waves. Walking, looking out over the sea, gazing across the sand, catching the myriad shapes there, the temporary tracks of shorebirds, the gliden tracings of the sand crabs, the waves leaving a temporary shading of the sand. Any stray object lying there, fully exposed or partly buried, will affect the regular flow of the tide.
So then, walking along one morning in August 2008, at Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island, off the New Jersey Coast, I discovered an unfamiliar object lying face up, half buried in the sand. I picked it up, and right away was impressed — and a little haunted — by its strangeness, alongside its seeming familiarity. As I held it in my hands and looked down at the stone figure, I could only speculate. I wondered whether it was an ancient fishing weight, carved as a human figurine. The features were worn, as though it might have been used quite a lot — had spent time in the water for years, or centuries. So did I speculate, as my imagination took hold. Might the stone figure have been a ritual object, invested with a magical potency? Had it been deposited on the beach overnight? Or had it been buried there long ago, surfacing just that morning?
I walked back and forth along the beach, hefting the object, considering whether to keep it or put it down. I was troubled, unsettled. I walked north along the beach, distractedly hefting the object, weighing my options as I approached a stone jetty where I would turn west and walk alongside the jetty and into the adjacent neighborhood lying faintly past the dunes. Instead I walked out onto the jetty, and suddenly flipped the object back into the surf, watched as it spun lengthwise on its axis, pounding into the water with a deeply resonant splash, then sinking below the waves. At that moment it seemed to be a sensible creature, projecting agency of some kind. I'd been deeply ambivalent about keeping it, and equally ambivalent about returning it to the sea. As it hit the water I wondered whether I'd somehow betrayed it! At the same time, especially in the context of its possessing agency, imagined or otherwise, I felt a strong aversion to "collecting" the stone figure, or "possessing" it myself.
Nevertheless this anthropomorphic figure had projected an aura passing strange. I walked on, back toward the house where I was staying that weekend, thinking to write my impressions down. I didn't! The only note I could find in any way relating to my experience that day made no mention of the object but did reflect briefly on the experience of beachcombing, as I knew it at that time. I make no specific mention in that entry of the stone figure — perhaps I'd discovered it the following day? — but reading those notes it seemed that the frame had been established, the real world defamiliarized, so to speak, setting me up for that strange discovery! As I noted in that notebook entry:
I understood — walking along the tide every morning here last month [that] I saw a radically different world on each successive day: I was out there more or less at the same hour each morning but that world was strange and new — or only vaguely familiar. It was as if time itself had shifted, it was that radical a transformation: the space itself was utterly the same.
Looking through other notebooks from that time period, I found the following note I'd written down in March 2004, on reading something by Octavio Paz from his Monkey Grammarian. Paz writes, "I did not know that each of those stones was a prodigious cluster of symbols."
Shifting gears I'll note here that, later in the same notebook, on 24 July 2004 I jotted the following note:
Paz writes about whistling figures. Or am I misremembering? He says that those figures are from an age prior to the development of the great Mesoamerican religions. Do I have that right? Whistle, Smile. Whistle and smile…
In another notebook, p. 76, dated 23 January 2006, I made a drawing that I labeled "Whistler"!
That's all for this part. 2nd Part coming soon.