Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Report, A Rumour, Not To Be Believed

'"In winter," Grandfather Trout said, "summer is a myth. A report, a rumour. Not to be believed in. Get it?"'

"The difference between the Ancient concept of the nature of the world and the New concept is, in the Ancient concept the world has a framework of Time, and in the New concept, the world has a framework of Space.
 To look at the Ancient concept through the spectacles of the New concept is to see absurdity: seas that never were, worlds claimed to have fallen to pieces and been created newly, a congeries of unlocatable Trees, Islands, Mountains and Maelstroms. But the ancients were not fools with a poor sense of direction; it was only not Orbis Terrae that they were looking at. When they spoke of the four corners of the earth, they meant of course no four physical places; they meant four repeated situations of the world, equidistant in time from one another: they meant the solstices and the equinoxes. When they spoke of the seven spheres, they did not mean (until Ptolemy foolishly tried to take their portrait) seven spheres in space; they meant those circles described in time by the motions of the stars: Time, that roomy seven-storey mountain where Dante's sinners wait for Eternity. When Plato tells of a river girdling the earth, which is somewhere (so the  New concept would have it) up in the air and somewhere also in the middle of the earth, he means by that river the same river Heraclitus could never step in twice. Just as a lamp waved in darkness creates a figure of light in the air, which remains for as long as the lamp repeats its motion exactly, so the universe retains its shape by repetition: the universe is Time's body. And how will we perceive this body, and how operate on it? Not by the means we perceive extension, relation, colour, form - the qualities of Space. Not by measurement and exploration. No: but by the means we perceive duration and repetition and change: by Memory."

from 'Little, Big', John Crowley


Sunday, 11 December 2011

In the First Place

Stotinki's diaries from his mid-thirties reveal the intense atmosphere of his Wolvercote airship design and construction business. Often working for three days and nights without pause, Stotinki and his team would launch prototype craft at dawn from the open expanses of Port Meadow. When succesful, Stotinki would often land in the centre of Oxford and go to the Botanic Garden...

'I walked the length of the systematic order beds, where the plants are arranged, by family, in long, narrow beds. To walk along the paths of this garden is to undertake more than a mere physical journey. It is to walk along the path of evolutionary history, from the earliest flowering plants to the most recent. The historical developments, the complex relationships between species are manifested in the physical world, and we can walk around as though inside an idea- as though, in order to acquaint ourselves with the history of our own family, we were to stroll among the shades of our own ancestors, flesh and blood before us,  each standing on one branch of a giant family tree  '
           Journal vii, G.Stotinki

Some commentators believe that Stotinki's interest in, and subsequent use of the ancient technique of the 'Memory Palace' stem from his strolls in this garden. He writes of conversations with the gardeners who describe how, bringing a certain plant to mind, they could find information about which botanical family it belonged to, or it's geographical origins, medicinal uses etc., simply by remembering its location within the ordered planting systems of the garden.

    '" Architecture, in fact," she said, "is frozen memory. A great man said that."
     "Many great thinkers of the past believed that the mind is a house, where memories are stored; and that the easiest way to remember things is to imagine an architecture, and then cast symbols of what you wish to remember on the various places defined by the architect....
     "It sounds terribly complicated, I know. And I suppose it's really not any better than a notebook."
     "Then why all that guff? I don't get it."
     "Because," she said carefully, sensing that despite his outward truculence he understood her, "it can happen - if you practice this art - that the symbols you put next to one another will modify themselves without your choosing it, and that when next you call them forth, they may say something new and revelatory to you, something you didn't know you knew. Out of the proper arrangement of what you do know, what you don't know may arise spontaneously. That's the advantage of a system. Memory is fluid and vague. Systems are precise and articulated. Reason apprehends them better."
                                                                                 'Little, Big', John Crowley

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Over Supper we Discuss the Yeti

'Over supper we discuss the yeti...Tukten says quietly, "I have heard the yeti," and cries out suddenly, "Kak-kak-kak KAI-ee!"-a wild laughing yelp, quite unlike anything I have ever heard, which echoes eerily off the walls of the cold canyon.
 Stirring the embers, Tukten is silent for a while. Dawa stares at him, more startled than myself. According to Tukten, the yeti is an animal, but "more man-creature than monkey-creature". He has never seen one, but intends to turn quickly when he does and pretend he hasn't; the yeti never attacks men, but to see one is bad luck. Yetis were once common in the Khumbu region, but in the time of his grandfather, the people set out poisoned barley to keep yetis from raiding their crops, and killed them off - there were dead yetis everywhere, said Tukten's grandfather.
 Looking up, he gazes at me peacefully over the flame.Then he says something very strange: "I think the yeti is a Buddhist." When I ask him if he means a holy man, a hermit with strange powers, a naljorpa, he just shrugs, refusing with uncustomary stubbornness to explain further.'

Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

It would be easy to assume that technology has given us a view of the world so comprehensive as to include the yeti, the sasquatch, the trinity alps giant salamander (described by one witness as being the size of an alligator), the dorset ouser - all conveniently labelled on Google Earth. Large mammal species are still discovered with surprising regularity.
The world is still imbued with mystery.

In 1959 European and American explorers stole parts of a relic purported to be the hand of a yeti from the Pangboche monastery in Nepal. Bizarrely, it was the actor James Stewart who smuggled the remains to London in his luggage. Here they were analysed and described not as human but as 'near human'. 

Of course. It was a yeti hand.

For those at Pangboche for whom the relic had a genuine importance, scientific analysis of its yetiness was maybe not so significant. Unfortunately, several years later the rest of the relic was stolen and its present whereabouts are as obscure as the creature which once  used it to shield its eyes from the glaring snow at the unknown summit of this earth.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Never Odd or Even- Crab Inscriptions

Asteroid 2005 YU55 has just passed within 202 000 miles of the centre of the earth which may explain those red tendrils all over the kitchen. It's an impressive lump of space rock but it carries a name that is hard to make an imaginative connection with. Asteroid 2817, however, discovered in 1982, was named after french writer, Georges Perec. I've just finished reading his extraordinary novel 'Life a user's manual' (La Vie mode d'emploi) which I found in a Summertown Oxfam. 

Perec set himself bizarrely complex constraints to his writing such as using a version of the 'Euler Square' to determine the contents of the chapters in 'Life'. His novel 'La Disparition', and the english translation, omit the letter E, the most common letter in french and english. Apparently there is a spanish translation which omits A instead as that is the most common letter in spanish. Reading about it reminded me of E Prime, the version of english which omits all forms of the verb 'to be'. Consider what E Prime translations of political and religious speeches would sound like...

Georges Perec also wrote a book in which E was the only vowel used and composed a 5556 letter palindrome. 

It was Ben Jonson who came up with the word palindrome. Before that, the ancient greeks called them 'Crabs' or 'Crab Inscriptions'. A famous latin palindrome, 'In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni' translates as 'We go wandering at night and are consumed by fire' and is understood as a reference either to moths or insomniac spontaneous human combustees- in either case it is gratifying in that it makes sense. 

After a conversation with a soapstone salesman in a market in Helsinki, Gospodin Stotinki was inspired to undertake a palindromic world tour and, while on a train from Laval to the island of Krk, he began work on a palindromic novel. As his creation unfurled from its central axis, he was disturbed to find that the inspired and spiritually uplifting prose with which the novel began was mirrored by an ever more violent and obscene conclusion and, in panic, he hurled the incomplete notebooks containing it into the sea and cut short his tour with a flight to Yreka, California. On entering the town's bakery he realised that he had yet to escape the crab's clutches.

This was the bread product that had drawn him into the Yreka Bakery, and coincidentally it appears when searching the internet for images of Georges Perec.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

New Work from Gospodin Stotinki

Admirers of the work of Gospodin Stotinki were sent into an international apoplexy this week by the news of the discovery of previously unseen works sealed in buried boxes in the garden of his central french residence. The quality of the work is generally abysmal and Stotinki experts already seem to agree that, unwilling to destroy work with which he was not happy, he chose instead to hide it in the ground for eternity. Among the material is the drawing entitled "The Magic Mirror Reveals to Tiddles that his Plans have been Disrupted by the Mexican".
This childish sketch seems to confirm Stotinki's complete lack of  artistic talent and will serve as ammunition for those who claim that Stotinki used his abilities to plagiarise work from eras ahead of his own (see Lloyd Jackson's "Temporal Adventure Without an Apparatus" pp.117-119).

The publication of the story "Cardboard Elvis", discovered alongside this drawing, would certainly confirm Stotinki's inability in the area of literature, despite the interesting date- 1927. The original manuscript was partially obscured by obscene oaths in half a dozen eastern european languages. Only one thing is certain: controversy will rage over Stotinki for some time to come. Fascinatingly, one of the only images of Stotinki in his 'Fern Headdress' period was found in the cache. On the reverse was written the obscure message, "Only humour can elude absolute evil."


Wednesday, 26 October 2011

More Gnomes

Hundertwasser had a surprising amount to say about 'Garden Dwarves'. Maybe not so surprising in the context of his gnomic vision of a world where human dwellings blended seamlessly into the organic landscape. Gardens traditionally contain art that evokes the presence of nature spirits- perhaps our subtle intuition of such presences goads us into making images of them...

"My theory is that the garden dwarf is a mind of god, the god of very ancient times which was destroyed - maybe even destroyed by our monotheism. He personifies the bad conscience of man towards nature. When people feel they wrong nature they place this garden dwarf as an excuse. He is small because grass and flowers are small, so he is smaller and can talk better to the snails and the rabbits and the animals who are generally small - as we can no longer do. He is always there, in the sun, in the rain."

Perhaps. Grass and flowers are not always small. The tallest tree in the world, named Hyperion by those who discovered it, is a redwood, Sequoia sempervirens. It is growing on the Californian coast and currently measures just over 115m. Douglas firs of 15m grow as epiphytes on its branches. What manner of garden dwarf would we need to construct to talk to this creature on our behalf?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Garden Dwarf

The absence of kitsch makes our lives unbearable.
We can't manage without romanticism.
The garden gnome symbolizes our right to dreams and our yearning for a fairer, better world.
The garden gnome is a bulwark against the soulless, nihilistic dictates of our times. Just as we hunt Dracula with garlic and crucifixes, so we use the garden gnome to drive out sterile, tyrannical dogma.
Aggressive rationalists and passive dreamers of a better, more beautiful existence part company at the garden gnome.
Long before the christian world picture, long before the gods of the ancient romans and egyptians, long before history was ever recorded, we were able to talk to the birds, the animals, the plants and the trees, indeed even to water, rocks and clouds, and communication brought harmony.
Thus it is written in fairy tales.
The garden gnome, together with the elves, pixies, gnomes, giants and the whole host of magical beings, is a last survivor from that distant past.
Man lives by virtue of his identity, by virtue of his memory of the roots of his being. We may now be very "intelligent", but we have forgotten the language of nature.
Hence the small gnome in the garden.
You talk to the grass and the birds for me,
I no longer know how.
And ask nature forgiveness for the evil we do her,
And help me against the cold, all-powerful enemy.
I no longer know how.

Hundertwasser        April 1990