Archive for the ‘findings’ Category
My love for the horrible has drawn me into some relatively ridiculous and odd situations, not least of which being the yellow acrylic nails I’m sporting at the moment. When the ambiguous “-ible” ending is swapped for “‘-or,” though, it leads to a fascination with the grisly and the anxiety-provoking. I developed an unspoken, hitherto unprecedented type of friendship with a kid in middle school over our mutual love for Stephen King novels; I’ve seen all the Amityville movies on the SciFi channel; I read ghost stories day in and day out. One of the things that I’ve realized is maybe most interesting to me about horror writing is that it not only serves to creep out the reader, but also to give him, if he’s astute, a sense of what’s actually eating the author – what keeps the author up at night, letting his mind range from the horror of the vast and unknowable to the minutiae of his room: a ticking clock, a creaking floorboard, a movement in the curtains, a doorknob’s barely perceptible turn to the left.
This morning on the way to work, I was reading Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings on the train and stumbled across his entry on the Kraken. It includes this excerpt from Tennyson’s Juvenalia, which were written by poet as an adolescent and never published:
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
Where he hath lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Now if you’re a fan of horror, this poem points to one thing and one thing only: CTHULHU. A year ago D. and I got into reading the much-lauded king of 20th century horror writing, H.P. Lovecraft, of whose work there are numerous compilations (not to mention almost unlimited fan fiction). The Call of Cthulhu is one of Lovecraft’s best-known works. It’s not the longest, nor in my opinion the most frightening, by a long shot – but it gets to the heart of, and puts a face (if you can call its “pulpy, tentacled head” – one of H.P.’s favorite images – a face) to Lovecraft’s deep hatred of the unknown, the unthinkably large, the ancient, and especially, those Ones who inhabit dark expanses beyond our understanding, i.e., the sea and the reaches of space. If you have read much Lovecraft you know that a great deal of his approach to illustrating the terrible is not to illustrate it much at all; to allow doubt to fester in fertile opacity. His description of Cthulhu’s body (the above-described head surmounting “a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings”) isn’t the most bone-chilling of images, but from how frequently Lovecraft assigns these characteristics to his monsters – the tentacled head in particular – we can tell that at least he’s seriously bothered by them as the physical identity of a creature he associates with the deepest, most unnerving kind of challenge to the bounds of human time, logic, and developed space. For me, it’s these realms that Lovecraft has the most success in describing, and which have left the largest impression on me as suggestions that the most basic laws governing the systems of our planet and galaxy are rooted in a logic that is so far from human as to be obscene, and so obscene as to be sinister in intent. The alien landscapes and their inhabitants, which provide the hair-raising substance of stories like Dagon and The Whisperer in Darkness are perhaps Lovecraft’s most successful feat (what is eerier than the line “And it has come to pass that the Lord of the Woods, being…seven and nine, down the onyx steps…tributes to Him in the Gulf, Azathoth, He of Whom Thou has taught us marvels…on the wings of night out beyond space, out beyond th…to That whereof Yuggoth is the youngest child, rolling alone in black aether at the rim….”?)
Sometimes it’s easy when reading Lovecraft – and especially when reading a Lovecraft compilation, which puts all of his paranoia in one place and invites a few rolled eyes at the man’s burning need to convey how terrible bumps in the night were for him, with what seems at times no sense of obligation to illuminate much for the readers at all – to develop a kind of irritation at his pretty unclear terror about things that we just aren’t generally spooked by. Things like the planet Pluto, pink gelatin, translucent orbs, and air conditioning. But his overall focus, like that of most writers, is on the relationship of the large to the small, the yawning to the minute, the imperceptible to the mindblowing. The shock of something brushing you in the night or of a wasteland so vast its limits are unseeable; the terrible similarity between a nagging fear and the presence of a black hole. One of Lovecraft’s greatest fears it seems, and the thing that lies at the center of much great horror, is the tiny signifier that reveals something inconceivably huge.
In another of Tennyson’s Juvenalia, he writes of the house, and the body, as empty, soulless shell:
The Deserted House
Life and Thought have gone away
Side by side,
Leaving door and windows wide:
Careless tenants they!
All within is dark as night:
In the windows is no light:
And no murmur at the door,
So frequent on its hinge before.
Close the door, the shutters close,
Or thro’ the windows we shall see
The nakedness and vacancy
Of the dark deserted house.
Come away: no more of mirth
Is here or merry-making sound.
The house was builded of the earth,
And shall fall again to ground.
Come away: for Life and Thought
Here no longer dwell;
But in a city glorious –
A great and distant city – have bought
A mansion incorruptible.
Would they could have stayed with us.
These two poems in Tennyson’s Juvenalia terrify perhaps primarily because they’re such massively frightening, and frighteningly effective, works about something both huge and ancient (a monster and death), written by a human adolescent. And what is more unnerving than a written work that betrays a vast, inexplicable darkness within its writer?
_____________________________________________________________ I have seen the dark universe yawning Where the black planets roll without aim, Where they roll in their horror unheeded, Without knowledge or lustre or name.
Today I was worrying that my fur hat was getting wet in the rain when it occurred to me that it had previously been a fox that probably got wet all the time. Given a choice between the states of “wet” and “hat,” I realized, it probably would have chosen “wet.”
Tonight at dinner we were telling jokes and it came to me that lately I’ve been encountering the sort of faulty logic that follows the same lines as “this fur will be spoilt in the rain since it’s now a hat” and think that my favorite part about it is that second between the thought and the squint that your face makes when you notice that all the pieces aren’t tied together in order or at all. The following are some sequences of things and combinations of words that play on our reflexes to link things that rhyme, on our tendency to isolate one part of a sentence to focus on, and other places in language where logics of mirror image, of reversal, of progression, and of deduction fail.
1) Solve the following:
My friend’s mother told her that for graduation she could have a trip to Laos, where she would be able to harvest red ant eggs to eat and milk her own silk worms. So what is harvested when a silk worm is milked? What do cows drink?
2) Rank for creepiness:
us drinking cow’s milk :: cow drinking breast milk? breast milk ice cream? cow eating beef? cow eating spam? us eating spam? taking a buttermilk bath? canines :: molars?
3) Jokes and possible answers and followup jokes:
what’s black and white and re(a)d all over? a zebra reading a newspaper. what colors is a frog reading a newspaper? black and white and green? how do you confuse a frog? put him in a round bowl and tell him to take a nap in the corner. how do you confuse a frog? tell him to do anything. how do you confuse anything? put it in a bowl.
4) A joke from Sofia Annis
Two penguins are standing on an ice flo looking at each other from some number of yards apart. One says to the other: “You look so much like you’re wearing a tuxedo.” The other replies, “Who’s to say….that I’m not”
Active Child – Wilderness
We can begin to look at the word “wilderness” in several languages as lenses for insight into its meaning. In French, the word for wilderness is simply désert, which can mean both desert as we understand it – a dry, sandy, often vast expanse of inhospitable land – and more basically an uninhabited, uncivilized place in nature. At the root of this word is the Latin deserere – to forsake or abandon, from which we take the word “deserter.” With these definitions, we can read in the French conception of the word for wilderness a sense of damnation and sin perhaps attributable to the handling of the concept in Biblical texts (in English translations of which “desert” and “wilderness” are often used interchangeably). Yi-Fu Tuan writes: “In the Bible the term ‘wilderness’ brings to mind… a place of desolation, the unsown land frequented by demons; it is condemned by God.” He cites Jeremiah 25:38: “Their lands became a wilderness… because of [Yahweh’s] wrath,” and several instances in which God’s people are sent to the wilderness as punishment or must meet challenges to their faith in an environment where shaky footing holds both topographical and spiritual significance. However, as Tuan points out, inherent to the idea of the Biblical wilderness is the concept of a productive discipline: as discipulae, or followers, of God, humans must overcome challenges which ultimately “[enable] the contemplative Christian to see the Divine more clearly, unencumbered by the world” (Tuan, 110), lending to wilderness a purifying power so valued in ascetic Christian tradition. Here the idea of wilderness, through the lens of its French and Latin roots, suggests one of several interesting aporias: in naming wilderness as désert, we identify it as a forsaken place, when in fact, as followers of God, we are called in these moments of greatest darkness to accept His presence in our lives. Thus the word désert encompasses an important Biblical theme of man’s constant struggle against the doubt that presents a constant challenge to faith.
The English “wilderness” is equally saturated with meaning. The word’s roots are in the Old English wildeornes, or literally, the place where wild deer reside. This definition appears less qualitative than the French, as it seems on the surface to be an observation-based description of the fauna present in this type of environment. But it is in “wild” rather than in “deer” that we can discern man’s clearest fingerprints. “Wild” is a word that can exist only in contrast to “tame” – as Tuan puts it, “an environmental value requires its antithesis for definition” – and thus we can mark as simultaneous its birth as a concept and our domestication of our environs. Tuan provides a thoughtful analysis applicable to the ways in which wilderness developed in the mind of the Romantics, “at the back of [whose] appreciation for nature is the privilege and wealth of the city.” He makes it clear that wilderness functions as a romantic ideal only in contrast with the refined world, and that it is “romantic in the sense that it is far removed from any real understanding of nature”. Mirroring the antithesis central to defining “wilderness” is the paradox of our projected meaning upon it. We find wilderness fascinating because of its untouched, savage quality, its self-reliance and utter lack of concern for human affairs; yet wilderness as a concept can exist only in relation to human civilization. Thus, it is clear that as an intellectual construct, “wilderness” is a key to understanding the spaces we demarcate to satisfy certain human needs for momentary loss of control. One might say that it is the fulfillment of man’s desire to feel robbed of power within the controlled environment of his own capacity to dictate the boundaries of his strength.
The word “wilderness” is a testament to the reflexive, self-dependent quality of language; a reminder that human discourse is a fragile structure of carefully assembled significance. We can locate the aporia intrinsic to the word “wild” in the contrast between the romantic freedom at the center of its meaning to us to us and the reality of its dependence upon juxtaposition with another human construct – civilization – to exist. This contradiction highlights the ways in which language is symptomatic of the classification systems that we create to define our world, and in turn to the delicacy of these synthetic partitions. It would not be outrageous to posit that classifications make us comfortable by maintaining a set distance between us and our world, and that in the same way the word “wilderness” maintains its romance due to the distance it keeps between itself and civilization, its established antithesis. These distances contribute a great deal to the functionality of language as a science and an art. Manmade systems of classifications are woven as meticulously as a spider’s web, each thread stretching towards the intersection with another that locates its essence. It is in these spaces – in distances between the moments of fastening that give us meaning – that language allows us mental expanses in which to create romance. In illuminating the way that we have constructed language to fulfill our needs both to classify and to indulge in mystery, “wilderness” points to a deep-seated human desire to protect the romance of enigma, whether it be spiritual or environmental, in a world we continue to demystify with codification.
Joanna Newsom – Good Intentions Paving Company
In an article on This Recording nominating fifty songs as the best so far of 2010, Danish Aziz and Britney Heredia described recent music, in going through the fundamental creative process of taking elements from older work and combining them to produce something new, as developing by heterosis, a term used in genetics to mean selective breeding that produces a genetically superior offspring. Their assessment of the direction in which music is heading seems to revolve around the idea that surges in the amount of music being produced have not only necessarily expanded the variety of music available to us, but also that new music works very deliberately to break down boundaries of genre, to the point that “we say more now by what we don’t listen to than what we do.” All of this is based in optimism, indicated by the very definition of the word “heterosis”, which implies the superiority of the most recent generation to all of the preceding.
I chose a song for this post that I not only like a lot, but which I think is a pretty prime example of what the writers for This Recording meant by musical heterosis. Joanna Newsom is a harpist, pianist, and singer-songwriter whose work is described in Wire Magazine as having a certain sort of creative opulence, a freedom recalling that of literature of the post-romantic era, stemming from a liberty she allows herself in composing songs “from the ground up, with the knowledge that they were going to be long.” She continues, “The pacing of the ideas, the rate at which the ideas develop and unfold, it was all going to be different, because the songs were going to be long, from the first line I wrote.” Newsom also makes use of polyrhythm, common to sub-Saharan African music, certain classical music, and jazz, in her compositions.
I’ve put together a little playlist of music I think shows the way in which this particular song is a hybrid, if not a heterosis, of other types of music. Her lyrical vocal range and relaxed piano chords echo Joni Mitchell, while the nasal quaver of her voice is somewhere between Neil Young, Donovan’s chilling shiver and forward drive in the hit “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, and classic American bluegrass and country groups like the Carter Family. The rhythm has the same energetic complexity and propulsion, augmented by the almost percussive quality of her vibrato, as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Judy Blue Eyes” or Love’s “Alone Again Or”. Other influences to listen for are Joan Baez and Dolly Parton.
The word “heterosis” has me thinking about the ways in which we define music today, and specifically about modern music journalism. It seems like quite a bold statement to claim that today’s music is actually a finer product than its parents, or at the very least a remarkably sanguine one. This suggestion is the only spot in This Recording’s article where any qualitative judgment is made: the authors are careful to make only simple observations – in noting that genres seem to be melding, for example – and their partiality to modern music is only revealed in the strict scientific definition of the word “heterosis”. This begs one to inquire: what about modern music is superior? I would divide this question into two parts, based on two things I think are suggested in the This Recording piece. First, is the melding of genres necessarily a positive thing, and asked another way, what is as a matter of course desirable about the breakdown of definitions that we ourselves put in place?
It is without question through the crossing of genre boundaries that we have chanced upon new ones (though not until aleatoric music was the process of “composition” as willing as genetics to happen upon creation). There are any number of obvious musical examples to support this point. In fact, what is invention at all if not the linking of several disconnected, but preexisting, elements to produce something new? (From the Latin invenire – to discover, we see that to invent is in fact to find; to simply happen upon and work with something already occurring in the world.) This process of course requires vision – an ability to see something in front of one in an unfamiliar context, and to imagine its potential to work differently for a desired effect. Any invention, composition, piece of writing, or work of art can arguably be broken down into smaller components that, in coming together, became newly useful or meaningful. As an additional point that really ought to be expanded upon, it seems clear as well that if creation is defined by this crossing of boundaries, it is defined in a word by transgression, and is on that level appealing to us for the reasons that transgression always is: it is a juxtaposition, a highlighting by contrast, a violation, a defiling of the sacred in the name of origination. A transgression is thrilling because it is fruitful destruction.
So, in asking ourselves why a melding of genres would necessarily be appealing – i.e., why someone might be inspired to praise (however subtly) today’s music for pulling this off so well – we could argue that, as the breakdown of boundaries proves inherent to the necessary union of elements that defines the creative process, such transgressions are attractive because they are the essence of creativity. It seems curious, therefore, that this process, though certainly commendable, would be grounds for a qualitative comparison between new and old music. To describe new music as remarkable solely on the basis of its ability to cross boundaries of genre is at least to misunderstand, if not to skew, the nature of art and its makers.
I would argue that this is the danger of the short, almost flippant articles that one often finds online today. To cite This Recording once again, this time in an insightful review of the century’s most important magazines, “Before it turned into a generic music magazine, the idea that you could write something, print something in a magazine you wrote with all the run-on sentences and ridiculous unprovable generalizations and slang words and anything else you wanted to, was not a brand new concept when Crawdaddy! perfected it, but it might as well have been.” In a world where opinion is no longer framed within the borders of a column, it seems more rare to find pieces of writing that take true responsibility for the statements they make. It is an effort to remind oneself to dissect pieces of journalism in which the weight of opinion within one single word is more massive than the contemplative bulk of the entire article.
Love – Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale
If you know anything about me you won’t be surprised to learn that one of my favorite books of all time is The Phantom Tollbooth. I love puns and wordplay, dogs, odd modes of transportation concealed within large boxes in one’s living room, doing things you might get in trouble for during the period after school before your parents get home, etc. One scene that has always stood out in my memory is the one in the word market where Milo and Tock paw through piles of words, long and short, rare and common, blustery and modest. Because the words are represented as actual objects with weight and value, the scene highlighted for me the sensuality of language: the heavy and light words, the ones that sparkle with the regality of rare usage, the tireless blue-collar “ifs”, “ands”, and “buts” (laboring long hours and worked overtime behind semicolons, bearing the weight of a too-heavy second clause and probably not even paid time-and-a-half)…. This feeling that words have real body to them has never left me and today I notice it in the way that I am almost physically moved by the dually clean and sumptuous effect of a word that exposes the true meaning of a thing; a word that mercilessly and motheringly cuts to the center of an idea or a feeling and envelops its fluttering heart in swaths of muscular accuracy.
My father described this as the “inevitable ache of precision.” I notice an ambiguity in this statement: is the ache the result of the search for accuracy and the painful desire for truth, or of the feeling one gets when one has shed a light on something that for a long time lay peacefully in darkness; the sense of guilt in destroying something beautiful? It seems to me that at the heart of this ambiguity lies something deeply curious and elegant about mankind: the contradiction of our constant search for the perfect and our abhorrence of the final – one and the same, even linguistically speaking.
In the book I am reading right now, Arthur O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, I just ran across a section in the chapter “Genesis of the Idea” about two historical modes of human thinking. The first of these stresses the impossibility of finding anything true or real in man’s natural life and thus fits into a category Lovejoy titles “otherworldiness”. The other of these modes, which he calls “this-worldliness”, stems from a declaration of the value of worldly life (of the “sufficient worth of the general conditions of existence”) inherent to an “antipathy to satisfaction and finality” common to the Romantic period and identifying “the chief value of existence with process and struggle in time.” Our aversion to conclusion, to the departure of things we love and cling to, is as deeply seated as our longing for truth and perfection, as our search for something purer and distant from ourselves. I think this paradox is stunning because of the way that it reveals the pulling of our souls in two different directions. Nothing is more touching than the way in which humans have tried to at once nest in this world we inhabit, to find beauty in it, to love it for its pains and its losses and its moments of fulfillment, while at the same time feeling our eyes constantly pulled to a distant horizon; to something our hearts press hard against our cage of ribs to be closer to but at the same time fear because of the oneness of perfection and death. In literature we witness authors looking out along this course and following it as far as they dare: in Moby Dick, Ahab pursues his goal of punishing the White Whale, of bringing justice and thus drawing a complete and perfect circle, ending necessarily in death, but Melville spares us from the weight of excruciating perfection by allowing the whale to escape, thus leaving the scales unbalanced and us with a sense of the “sufficient worth of the general conditions of existence” that we are subject to as a race. In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the Ramsay children’s unsatisfied desire to go to the lighthouse represents the mercy of the imperfect: of a life not yet complete, of a hopeful dissatisfaction and the gift of a time-bound vigorousness present only in mortal souls and bodies. Their longing for something out of their reach attests to the Romantic sensibility of “the chief value of existence with process and struggle in time” and in this way the lighthouse acts not as the sacred and unattainable goal but instead as the mercy that gives worth to human experience.
In seeking to do anything perfectly, or more accurately, or more deeply – in trying to find “some final, fixed, immutable, intrinsic, perfectly satisfying good” – we are inflicting upon ourselves a pain that as members of mankind is unavoidable: the pain of seeking to close the divide between the human and the divine, between the imperfect and the perfect, in a way that would in itself destroy the essential value at the heart of our humanity: process and struggle in that most mortal of things, time.
As the bee danced, it gave off the faintest scent of marzipan that mingled with the pinky-orange perfume of the hibiscus.
“Sweet…sweet,” whispered the hibiscus.
She drew her petals tightly round her, and drooped towards the sinking moon.
“Fly away now, for the honey,” she said to the bee. “Fly, so I can see you flying against the last of the yellow moon.”
“I wish I could have been a gentleman for you,” said the bee, and it flew off, towards the golden passing windows of the District Line, and the last of the yellow moon.
When I was a child my mother read to me almost constantly, and later she told me that her method was to lay my books out flat alongside each other in rows, covers beckoning with their rich oilpaint illustrations and embossed lettering, so that I could choose with more to entice me than the thin stripes of small-fonted vertical spines on a shelf. Many of these books make up the strongest memories of my childhood, and I’m interested in considering in what ways the rhythm of the language, the sometimes almost hypnotizingly measured development of the story, the aesthetics, and the fantasy of children’s books have influenced me in my thinking, my writing, and my appreciation of the world as an older person.
As a tot I loved the Frog and Toad books for no other reason than that Frog and Toad were, as it seemed to me, somewhat isolated best friends in a foresty world that I liked the looks of. Of these books I would say that their primary influence on me stems, interestingly, from the graphics: the greys and greens and browns of the watercolor illustrations seemed so cozy to me and reminded me of what my parents referred to as “lake light”, or the way that on overcast days the light sometimes looks green as though one were looking up at the sky from beneath the surface of a lake. The colors of the books pleased me and atmospheric, cloudy weather – my favorite sort to this day – still evokes the happiness I felt in reading them.
A favorite was always Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, which I had on video cassette narrated by Jack Nicholson and which gave me the bizarre ability to imitate Nicholson’s nasal, ever-so-slightly-menacing voice perfectly as a six-year-old (watch all three parts of The Elephant’s Child here, here and here) and a knack for peppering my everyday conversations with vaguely out-of-place phrases (“the bi-colored python rocksnake”, “insatiable curiosity”, “the banks of the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo River”, and so on). I think these stories left an indelible mark on my way of speaking, for better or worse: they are swept along by a whimsical, pulsing rhythm, strings of adjectives that become comical in their accumulation, a pleasing cadence of repeated words and phrases, and overall a style that, even as commits itself earnestly to vividly illuminating a story, laughs at itself and in so doing mirrors the playful relationship of fantasy and reality that lies at the heart of a series of fanciful explanations for real life that is Just So Stories. They allow a child to imagine a more fantastical world behind the facts they are taught in school, and train him in the suspension of disbelief that can make life so much more interesting and funny for its duality and juxtapositions.
One of the stories that I remember perhaps most vividly is The Marzipan Pig. I think I can mark in this story the first time I felt alerted to the poignancy of solitude – I might venture to say that my own desire for solitude woke up when I heard this story over the years of my childhood, like a new baby turning its head sharply when it hears its father’s voice for the first time and recognizes it as the enunciation of murmurs it heard from within its warm darkness months before. The pig in the story, a festive candy gift to a child, somehow falls behind the couch and lies there alone for what feels like an eternity, awake in the darkness, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock and wishing someone would find it. As time passes it imagines the family’s frantic concern that it has gone missing; that upon its rescue there will be great rejoicing and celebration, but is alarmed when it realizes its toe, and then its haunch and sugary pink belly, are being nibbled at by a hungry mouse. Soon it is eaten up and the mouse emerges from behind the couch to nap in the grandfather clock. As the story goes on, taking place in one night and part of the next day, the sweetness of the Marzipan Pig passes from one body to the next in a somehow charming cycle of life and death – from the mouse to an owl to a bee to a nightblooming hibiscus and on. The nocturnal atmosphere of the story fascinated me, as did the vignette-like quality of the different creatures’ experiences and the fleeting intimacy of their interactions and unfulfilled longings (the grandfather clock who has fallen in love with the mouse who naps inside it, the owl whose bellyful of marzipan and mouse causes his heart to beat fast for the meter light of a taxicab and dance for joy, the bee and the hibiscus who court each other in the darkness, mourning the inevitable death of the hibiscus that will come with the sunlight and end their romance). The language of the story is elegant and slow, with the repetitions and lilting phrasing that lull a child into listening peacefully and hearing, between the words themselves, the life of the narrative behind them. The quiet intimacies and thoughtful privacy of the characters stuck with me because on some level I suppose I realized how much they echoed the experiences of an only child, who looks for connections all around him and, more accustomed to silence than other children, hears more deeply and in this way stumbles often upon the deeper and darker nature of his world. The Marzipan Pig deals with silence, solitude, longing, and fleeting happiness – all very adult subjects, if one considers them – in the same way that The Velveteen Rabbit, Abel’s Island, and Stuart Little do, and in a way that draws more relevance and meaning from them as one grows older.
Annie and the Wild Animals and The Girl in the Golden Bower had a dreamlike quality that made an impression on me, and brought about a sort of chilly unease that I liked and still like to this day. The two stories both involve girls who for one reason or another are left alone in houses in hostile situations, abandoned by adults and left to defend themselves against nature. In both stories, animals creep into their houses one by one and the domestic setting of the house becomes more and more overrun by the natural world. It occurred to me how dreamlike these stories are: children often dream of being left to fend for themselves, and the animals seem like clear symbols for frightening or otherwise foreign invasions of our safety. As animals appear steadily in groups of two or three per day, encroaching little by little, they mark the passage of time like seasons or daily cycles of light and dark – in other words, with the same measured symmetry that is so inherently present in nature and to which children look to guide them in their growth and development. The animals in these stories represent the awe-inspiring largeness and forward motion of nature, and I recall feeling equal parts terror and wonder at this mingling of natural and human worlds, in the same way that one is often fascinated by overgrown houses fused to the earth by vines and trees growing up through their foundations.
Phosphorescent – Wolves
The last book I’ll talk about is one of the most special to me, called The Boy & the Cloth of Dreams, which tells the story of a child whose beautiful blanket, woven for him by his grandmother to ward off nightmares, rips, leaving him vulnerable to all the terrors that seep into his sleeping mind through the hole. The story begins with a visit to his grandmother’s house, and the description of the meal they eat together and the blissful evening he spends before bedtime never left me: I was struck by their evocative aestheticism and to this day value things so much for their sensuality I think in part due to this book. The supper is described as salty, sweet, hot, cold; the evening striped with dusty sunlit columns and dark pools of shadow; the house scented with old wood and later, during the nightmares, filled with a vast darkness turning even the most familiar shapes into foreign, warped, looming mysteries. The cloth itself is a fantastic aesthetic object in itself: it illustrates the idea that the world of fantasy and reality, of the tangible and the abstract, could be connected in a physical way, giving mass to our imaginings (much like a passage of mirrors that allows for mingling of the spiritual and physical worlds). Later when, upon the instruction of his grandmother, the boy pulls threads from the moon and sun to mend the hole in his cloth, the fantasy of the story graciously melts away the reality of the situation – the distance, the actual makeup of sun and moon – like an elegant circus ringmaster bowing and pulling aside a curtain, and leaves children with only the most wonderful of aesthetics to feast their minds upon: the manifestation of the sun’s heat and the moon’s cold, reminiscent of the supper from hours before, into gold and silver strands tugged from their tapering rays in a way that could not seem more natural or perfect.
Wild Nothing – The Witching Hour
The children’s stories that meant the most to me, I’ve found, are those that brought my attention to things I still find haunting to this day: solitude, the painful loveliness of fleeting intimacy, the awful steadiness of time passing, the sensuality of light and dark and tastes and smells and temperatures, the eerie connections between the physical and metaphysical, and the imagination and its manifestation in our lives.
“I do not know where it comes from but many people carry this legendary concept that somebody on a high wire should not and cannot look down, because then they will instantly lose balance. …As I discovered the wire and as I practiced it, I discovered that it is beautiful to look down. …by looking down, you savor the taste of the void. It gives you terror, but it also gives you strength. It gives you the knowledge that you are mastering the void you imposed on yourself by walking in thin air. Thus, plunging your eyes into the abyss, looking down, is the wire walker’s affirmation.” -Philippe Petit
Erik Satie – Gnossienne n°1
The other day I came across an article about the release of the upcoming biopic Man On Wire, documenting Philippe Petit’s incredible 1974 walk across the wire he had “illegally rigged between the Twin Towers. With only a balancing pole and no form of security he spent forty-five minutes dancing gracefully across the immense void, 1,350 feet above the earth. (Acne Paper)” I remembered then that I’d sleepily encountered a lengthy interview with the same man in Acne Paper‘s issue on elegance, and I went back to read it. “I became a theatrical wire-walker, somebody looking for elegance,” Petit says in the interview. “There is nothing more simple and elegant than a beautiful walk on a high wire.” The whole issue covers elegance in different forms, from Alber Elbaz‘s new romanticism for Lanvin to sculpture by Terence Koh. It got me to thinking about how to define elegance, discretely: while Paper picked out a good number of things I would call elegant for one reason or another, I still came away from it wondering how to tie all of them together to pinpoint what lies at the heart of elegance itself.
To help answer my question I first took my usual approach and looked up the word, finding that “elegance” originated in the late 15th century, was used to describe a person “dressing tastefully,” and has its roots in the Latin elegans, elegant-, related to eligere – choose, select (also related: “elect”). I thought this was curious because of the frequency with which we pair the word “elegance” with “innate,” to imply that it cannot be learned, but is instead so attractive for its air of deep-rooted naturalness. Next I consulted one of the most elegant people I know, my piano teacher Christophe Buren. He answered in his usual sincere way, standing very straight in the foyer of his house with his head slightly forward, eyes concentrated and with fingers pressed together at the tips that left each other only to make illustrative arcs in the air from time to time, at the level of his waist. He said that he thought elegance could not be learned, and took care to distinguish a qualitative difference between politeness and truly elegant graciousness. He concluded that it was something one knew and understood with all of one’s being; that the true meaning of elegance lay in harmony and in a unity between interior and exterior. Elegance as lack of veneer.
It seems that when one senses that one is looking at something truly elegant, it is because one is seeing a consonance between the inner and the outer – a melodiousness of being indicating that what lies within and without have tuned themselves perfectly to each other. Elegance in any form is a tunefulness of intention and realization, of impulse and action, that embodies a certain courageous honesty of the soul that cannot be learned or practiced. There is elegance of gesture, of writing, of speech, of curve and of line; of design, of hospitality, of ambition and of intent, and of execution. There is elegance in childhood and in the best of old age. In language, elegance can be a certain precision – a streamlined style in which no words are wasted and each one chosen rich with meaning and satisfying for its accuracy. With this definition, understanding elegance suddenly reminded me of gazing into the Mediterranean Sea on a calm day: even at depths of fifty feet or more, you can see straight down to the stones at the bottom, which seem to lie only a few yards below. The soul of an elegant thing is almost alarmingly close to the surface, but not two-dimensional for its honesty: one senses its great depth and, as one often does around such things, feels almost blinded by its candor.
There is elegance in anything that can view itself clearly and move deliberately towards this horizon; our pleasure in viewing it comes from being in the presence of a realized desire; of the mastery of the void between the inner and the outer.
“All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood.” -RMR