Unreal Nature

July 27, 2009

The Cracked Ceiling of the Word House

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:46 am

People never tire of recalling that Leonardo da Vinci advised painters who lacked inspiration when faced with nature, to contemplate with a reflective eye the crack in an old wall! For there is a map of the universe in the lines that time draws on these old walls. And each of us has seen a few lines on the ceiling that appeared to chart a new continent. A poet knows all this. But in order to describe in his own way a universe of this kind, created by chance on the confines of sketch and dream, he goes to live in it. He finds a corner where he can abide in this cracked-ceiling world.

Thus we see a poet take the hollow road of a piece of molding in order to reach his hut in the corner of a cornice. In his Poèmes à l’autre moi (Poems to my other self) Pierre Albert-Birot “espouses,” as they say, “the curve that warms.” Soon its mild warmth calls upon us to curl up under the covers.

To begin with, Albert-Birot slips into the molding:

. . . Je suis tout droit les moulures
qui suivent tout droit le plafond

(I follow the line of the moldings
which follow that of the ceiling.)

But if we “listen” to the design of things, we encounter an angle, a trap detains the dreamer:

Mais il y a des angles d’où l’on ne peut plus sortir

(But there are angles from which one cannot escape.)

… It is easy for a rhetorician to criticize a text like this. Indeed, the critical mind has every reason to reject such images, such idle musings.

First of all, because they are not “reasonable,” because we do not live in “corners of the ceiling” while lolling in a comfortable bed, because a spider’s web is not, as the poet says, drapery — and, to be more personal, because an exaggerated image is bound to seem ridiculous to a philosopher who seeks to concentrate being in its center, and finds in a center of being a sort of unity of time, place and action.

Yes, but even when the criticisms of reason, the scorn of philosophy and poetic traditions unite to turn us from the poet’s labyrinthine dreams, it remains nonetheless true that the poet has made a trap for dreamers out of his poem. As for me, I let myself be caught. I followed the molding.

[ … ]

The intellectual philosopher who wants to hold words to their precise meaning, and uses them as the countless little tools of clear thinking, is bound to be surprised by the poet’s daring. And yet a syncretism of sensitivity keeps words from crystallizing into perfect solids. Unexpected adjectives collect about the focal meaning of the noun. A new environment allows the word to enter not only into one’s thoughts, but also into one’s daydreams. Language dreams.

The critical mind can do nothing about this. For it is a poetic fact that a dreamer can write of a curve that it is warm. But does anyone think that Bergson did not exceed meaning when he attributed grace to curves and, no doubt, inflexibility to straight lines?

… No doubt it is very rash on the part of a writer to accumulate, in the final pages of a chapter, disconnected ideas, images that only live in a single detail, and convictions, however sincere, which only last for an instant. But what else can be done by a phenomenologist who wants to brave teeming imagination, and for whom, frequently, a single word is the germ of a dream? When we read the works of a great word dreamer like Michel Leiris (particularly in his Biffures), we find ourselves experiencing in words, on the inside of words, secret movements of our own. Like friendship, words sometimes swell, at the dreamer’s will, in the loop of a syllable. While in other words, everything is calm, tight. Even as sober a man as Joseph Joubert recognizes the intimate repose of words when he speaks of certain ideas rather curiously as “huts.” Words — I often imagine this — are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common-sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in “foreign commerce,” on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house, is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words. To mount and descend in the words themselves — this is a poet’s life.

All of the above is from from the chapter Corners in the book The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (1958).

I really like his phrase, “a syncretism of sensitivity keeps words from crystallizing into perfect solids.” Hopefully it will enrage Dr. C (who has, himself, shown a preference for “ladies of elastic virtue“).




  1. “The intellectual philosopher who wants to hold words to their precise meaning, and uses them as the countless little tools of clear thinking, is bound to be surprised by the poet’s daring. And yet a syncretism of sensitivity keeps words from crystallizing into perfect solids.”

    Syncretism: Reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief, as in philosophy or religion, especially when success is partial or the result is heterogeneous.

    Firstly, I haven’t a clue what he is saying unless he is assuming that people who want words used in science to be as exact as possible apply that same view to poetry, which they don’t. Otherwise, he is not using words in any way exactly.

    It has been observed that most good poems have a “zinger.” (Elliot’s “whimper” and “bang.”) Frequently they involve novel images conjured by incompatible words. (How the world would end with a “bang” is a resonable image; with a “whimper” is a little bit harder to imagine.) I have no problem with that in poetry. Its what makes it go around.

    As for crystalization, I claim some expertise. One of my only positive achievements in life was crytallizing tetra-N-butyl ammonium octocyanomolybdenum(V) and running the X-Ray crystal structure. Indeed, one cannot do so without having achieved a near perfect solid. And this depends on molecules being identical. Words are never identical. I don’t understand his point.

    Comment by Dr. C. — July 31, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  2. I don’t think he meant scientists (he said “intellectual philosopher”) but I will assert that what he says would apply to scientists as well. I will claim that poets are excruciatingly aware of all possible meanings of every word they use. They therefore choose them because of their many, many colored meanings. Whereas scientists (and intellectual philosophers, too often) choose words in spite of their many colors and amorphous boundaries.

    (Good poems don’t have a “zinger”(bad poems often do.) A good poem is a whole. It doesn’t have special effects tacked on at the end.)

    Your last paragraph … understands Bachelard. (Is your tongue in your cheek?) And even Google doesn’t know what tetra-N-butyl ammonium actocyanomolybdenum (V) is. Hopefully, they will index this blog response and we wiil then have at least one Google return for it.

    Comment by unrealnature — July 31, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

  3. Dr C … I can without trouble imagine many scenarios in which a world ends with a whimper.

    At the simplest long term geophysical level, how about the gradual heat death through entropy, with the world eventually dropping into the cooling wreckage of its star?

    In a shorter time frame and a biocentric sense, how about radiation rendering all creatures progressively barren, so that one species after another ages and disappears over a period of years?

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 1, 2009 @ 8:34 am

  4. No, I still feel a poem must end with a bang. Of course the rest of the poem has to be a “whole”. Why, the most nauseating poem in the world (the Poem that shall not be Named), only achieves its nauseating notoriety with the last line. Show me a poem that achieves its effect in the first stanza only to dwindle off into effete babbling and I’ll buy your point.

    BTW, it is octocyanomolybdate and Google changed it to actocyano-…

    acto” is “a short, realistic play, usually in Spanish, that dramatizes the social and economic problems of Chicanos.” I don’t think it designates a number like octo- does eight.

    Molybdenum is like a rare earth and can take eight ligands. Whether this contributes to its usefulness in xanthine oxidase, or whether it is because molybdenum can exist as oxidation state IV or V I don’t think we know. But why would evolution pick molybdenum for an enzyme? Its like substituting selenium for sulfur (both stink). So, eat your molybdenum containing vegtables. But, that might cause gout. Always a down side.

    Comment by Dr. C. — August 1, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  5. OK, Felix. You got me. I guess the idea that someday we will all be neutrons is hard to get my little brain around. Just imagine what the last judgement will be like with everyone a little tiny bit of quarks.

    “Neutron walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The waiter serves him. Neutron says “How much?” Waiter says “No charge.”)

    Comment by Dr. C. — August 1, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  6. And No back at you, [she said firmly].

    In the game of zingering, a zinger ending may not be preceded by or adjacent to any other zingers. In fact, the street must be entirely clear of zingers in order for something that can be called a zinger to be able to be so called. In the referenced Poem that shall not be Named (which I’m not sure I could name but no matter) IF we agree that it is a good poem, must therefore (because it is good) have line after line after line of potential zingers, all of which are BY RULE de-zingerized by being adjacent to other de-zingerized zingers.

    Comment by unrealnature — August 1, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

  7. Julie: you have been playing too much Mornington Crescent again!

    Doc: your cradle catholicism is showing agin!


    Comment by Felix Grant — August 2, 2009 @ 3:31 am

  8. And furthermore, the rule says that you have to take whatever Felix says in Comments and connect it [Mornington Crescent] to Ray Girvan in order to win.

    Comment by unrealnature — August 2, 2009 @ 9:16 am

  9. Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band????

    Mercy! Mercy! I’ll tell you anything. I give. Unkle. How does he retaliate? I know, heh, heh: “Bold as Love

    Comment by Dr. C. — August 2, 2009 @ 10:57 am

  10. Julie: the Bonzo Dog Doodah move was very clever (especially as you can’t possibly know of the convoluted family relationship which links me to the BDDB by distaff marriage) BUT I nullify it with a transit to Sloane Square via Cheyne Walk.

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 2, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  11. Doc: I counter yours by adding a simultaneous divert through the kitchen to Jamaica Plain.

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 2, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  12. Jeez, Felix. He already said “uncle.”

    Okay, here we go: Sloane Square > named for Hans Sloane > who purchased the natural history collections of a number of people, including that of one rev. Adam Buddle > for whom Linnaeus name the genus Buddleja (pronounced Bud-lee) > which = Budleigh. And did you know that Budleigh is “also famous for the radioactive nodules containing vanadium and uranium in red marl at Littleham Cove”?

    Cheyne is a female R&B singer who was still a teenager when her song “Call Me Mr. Telephone (Answering Service)” hit number one on the U.S. Hot Dance Club Play chart in 1985 >> Madonna wrote “Into the Groove” for Cheyne, but then decided to keep it for herself >> and, um, well, you’ll have to look at this YouTube video to see how Madonna is connected to Ray.

    Comment by unrealnature — August 2, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  13. Rajaton? I guess it is the Doo Wop of the age; tang tang tang tang, tang tang tang tang……

    Comment by Dr. C. — August 2, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

  14. Charlie handled in his dime at the Kendell Square Station (I always thought it was Kindle Square, but then, Amazon.com was a river in South America) and he changed for Jamaica Plain….

    Jamaica Plain, home of the Hallowell House:

    “The life of Admiral Benjamin Hallowell, the eldest child of the founder of the house and one of the seven Boston boys who distinguished themselves afterward in the British navy, is most interesting. He was a very dear friend of the great Nelson and fought with him in many campaigns, notably on the Nile. During these engagements he commanded a very smart ship, the Swiftsure, and it is said that his gallantry and the very fine fighting qualities of his ship were very important factors in Nelson’s achievements in Egypt. He presented the famous Admiral with the coffin that afterwards enveloped his remains.

    It was rather a gruesome present for one man to make to another, but it is related that Nelson received it with good grace and much gallantry and propped it up in his cabin, where it remained for many days. The coffin was made from a mainmast of the ship Orient. Hallowell had the piece of wood picked up and made into the coffin that went to Nelson, and thus the hero of the Nile and Trafalgar had a very historical piece of wood in his bier.”

    I assume this is what you were referring to

    Comment by Dr. C. — August 2, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

  15. Julie: Yes, he said Uncle, but then he sneakily retaliated afterwards.

    DrC: It wasn’t that to which I was referring, but it’s so much more interesting than what I had in mind – so you win :-)

    Julie again: the Buddle and Madonna links were most entertaining (I skipped the YouTube link; Ray’s partiality to Madonna has been known to me since an incident with an unfortunate wasp many moons ago…)

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 3, 2009 @ 3:33 am

  16. “… sneakily …” Damn right. Typical cuttlefish.

    He wins? He wins? As in he doesn’t lose? I sense a cuttlefish conspiracy.

    I could have taken the scenic route by going from Adam Buddle to Archebald Buttle. That puts you deep in Rayland.

    Comment by unrealnature — August 3, 2009 @ 6:16 am

  17. Ahem …. I meant he wins over my gambit. Not in any absolute (or cuttlefish, nor even Buddlefish) sense.

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 3, 2009 @ 6:49 am

  18. PS: is Archebald Buttle any relation to Alexander Beetle?

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 3, 2009 @ 6:50 am

  19. It was a beetle that turned Tuttle into Buttle. No first name given. (And I have my doubts about Alexander; beetles have a very poor sense of hearing. I suppose you could claim he was the spouse of the missing Mrs. Beetle.)

    Comment by unrealnature — August 3, 2009 @ 9:04 am

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