Unreal Nature

June 16, 2012

Inexhaustible Warranty

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:30 am

… The network of surprising markers constitutes a secret and inexhaustible warranty, a sort of intellectual gold supporting all fiduciary transactions of the intellect and imagination.

… The return of the simulacrum lets us glimpse the tattered shreds of a concealed order we can barely reach, and never with certainty. Dazzled or enlightened, we try to understand and, at times, to expand the rules of the game we never asked to take part in, and that we are not allowed to renounce.

This is from the transcript of the lecture ‘The Natural Fantastic’ by Roger Caillois (1971):

… As opposed to fairy tales or to the Marvellous, which involves a world of enchantment, of constant metamorphoses and miracles where everything is always possible, I think the Fantastic presumes a well-ordered universe ruled by the immediate laws of physics, astronomy and chemistry. This world is one in which like causes produce like effects, and which consequently excludes the slightest chance of miracles. The fantastic appears as the disruption of a natural order that is deemed impossible to disturb. This natural order, not to say nature itself in the strong sense of the word, can be defined only as a form of regularity so fundamental that it  is beyond the reach of any manipulation. By definition, it is so stong that human skill can modify it only by obeying it. It follows from this point of view that the fantastic can never be ‘natural,’ for it is presented, on the contrary, as the inadmissible breach wrought in nature by some mysterious power that is specifically viewed as supernatural. It has to be imaginary, that is, a deliberate invention of the mind, which recognizes it as such. Therefore, the fantastic cannot exist, properly speaking: it cannot be a part of nature, of the attested universe.

Yet common parlance allows that a landscape may seem fantastic, as frequently occurs where some erosion has carved out simulacra of towers, palaces or gigantic animals. Likewise, a tree or a flower may be termed fantastic (or the details of a flower, such as the passion-flower, in which a certain naïve piety has long discerned the nails, hammer and lance of Christ’s Crucifixion) and all anthropomorphic root such as the mandrake. And, so too, an insect (or one of its features, such as the skull pattern on the corselet of the Acherontia atropos), a fish, a bird, or a Saurian may all be termed fantastic, even though they are products of nature, if their appearance is so surprising, baffling or disquieting that it does not seem they could easily be what they are.


passion flower [image from Wikipedia]


Death’s Head moth [image from Wikipedia

Under these conditions it is surely useful to try to define how animate or inanimate nature can give the impression of escaping its own norms, and even of mocking them outright.

… Of course, to name them ‘fantastic’ is a misuse of language, but a significant one. In any event, being subject myself — perhaps unwittingly — to the diffuse pressure exerted by language, I was induced to launch the idea (surprising, to say the least, especially to me) of the natural fantastic. I first used the term in connection with an insect from north-east Brazil, the lantern fly, and a North American mammal, the star-nosed mole or Condylura. These two animals’ appearance made me resort to a category whose specious nature I could easily perceive. Quite obviously, these creatures were not fantastic because they were a part of nature. Just as obviously, they seemed fantastic, and even gave quite an exceptional sense of the fantastic: the tree-dwelling homopteron, on account of its frontal protuberance, which is almost as big as its body and deceptively suggests a crocodile’s muzzle; and the subterranean vertebrate, on account of its snout, which sports a crown of twenty-two short tentacles of live pink flesh, all mobile, sensitive, and retractable, flaccid or tensed at will, and very vaguely like an intricate starfish or some horrible corolla.


star-nosed mole [image fromWikipedia] 

In both cases, observers can hardly believe their own eyes and think themselves in the presence of nightmarish creatures that contradict reality more than they emerge from it.

… Letters, left adrift, terms without a lexicon, these boundary markers, whose aberrant arrangement does not correspond to any register or cadastral survey on the order of humanity, nonetheless figure among the indications that move it most, and me most obscurely. In the end, more or less alone, they guarantee me wagers and resources for the images of tenacious poetry. The network of surprising markers constitutes a secret and inexhaustible warranty, a sort of intellectual gold supporting all fiduciary transactions of the intellect and imagination.

In exchange for this repository (in so far as it accepts its reality) humanity is dispossessed of the ancient pre-eminence it briefly claimed as its own — an instant that is immemorial for it but very swift for geological time. Henceforth, man knows that he is neither alone nor a monarch. In the infinite game of Snakes and Ladders without a well, jail or fruitful stops, humankind is not a player — nor even the dice — but an almost passive counter that is moved from square to square in its turn, together with other reiterated emblems. Sometimes we are stopped by an image that disturbs us, an image reminding us of another or else holding out the promise of different ones. The return of the simulacrum lets us glimpse the tattered shreds of a concealed order we can barely reach, and never with certainty. Dazzled or enlightened, we try to understand and, at times, to expand the rules of the game we never asked to take part in, and that we are not allowed to renounce.

Here is my contribution to this menagerie of the fantastic (noticed yesterday while searching for collaging candidates in my bird collection; it made me laugh … [the eyes are white because of a third-eyelid blink]):

-Julie

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