Unreal Nature

November 30, 2016

So That This Road Does Not Remain a Land of Babel

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… we must establish an affection for these places, spaces and faces, in order for them to become recognizable, familiar, and inhabitable …

This is from the essay ‘How to Look at It. From the Road … ‘ 1986 found in The Complete Essays 1973-1991 by Luigi Ghirri (2016):

… our road moves at two different speeds: the movement of traffic and the continuous changing of the landscape. And yet, in order to photograph it, we need to discover the simple value of slowness, which does not simply mean stopping or going slow, but paying close attention while moving along this 260 kilometer stretch of the Via Emilia.

In order to grasp and to reveal differences and specificities, we need to wait patiently for the sun to go down, or for it to filter through the trees at dawn, accentuating the landscape of the Po River at Piacenza. And a few kilometers further on, you need to wait patiently for the watchman to accompany you to see the ‘Ecce Homo’ paintings by Antonello da Messina in the 18th century atrium of Alberoni College; here, taking great care, we might pick out, behind a crocodile with an open mouth, a sacred image — almost a scene from Fellini, a special synthesis of the two souls, profane and religious, of the land we are looking at.

[line break added] Likewise you need to stand at a very specific point in space to observe and photograph the façades of the Romanesque cathedrals you come across along the road, or to look at the skyline for a prolonged moment to pick out the spectacular double vault of St. Anthony the Abbot in Parma, or the weather vanes on top of the steeples.

If we are to describe the ceaseless, daily movement of the road, we cannot simply capture a repetitive sequence of factory walls, warehouses, supermarkets, bars and schools; but rather, we need to go into the buildings, or wait for the children or workers to come out, or wait for the light to strike the façades in a certain way so we may take their portrait.

[line break added] We need to wait for the sun to go down and the dusk light to pierce through the gloom, so that the churches, with their soft and delicate hues, might take on a special character; then, making our way along the road at night, we might come across sleepy atmospheres and vanishing landscapes, but also a number of ‘colors’ — artificial light illuminating things, faces, and spaces, like the dancehalls of Villacella, not far from Reggio Emilia on a feast day.

Or else, we need to seek out that atmosphere just before a rainfall, or right after it, when the fir trees in the aquatic gardens of Faenza explode in all their shades of green. In fact, we need to forget all about those ‘passing landscapes’ so that this road does not remain a Land of Babel — the zero degree of history and geography, or the locus where all possible histories and geographies merge — and so, we must establish an affection for these places, spaces and faces, in order for them to become recognizable, familiar, and inhabitable; or perhaps so that we may simply look upon them with new eyes.

My most recent previous post from Ghirri’s book is here.




November 29, 2016

You Must Look for It Yourself

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… content absorbs experience from everywhere — both as agglomeration of distinct memories and as elucidation of the common, germinal elements and movements of the remembered physical world.

This is from the ‘Klee — I’ (that’s a one, not an I ) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

… Even the most diffuse compositions in the Renaissance tradition lead the eye to a single, usually central, point of focus, a point at which all formal and spatial relations are concentrated. If any points in a Klee are outstanding, they are not points of arrival but points of departure. Their predominance is therefore ephemeral. In the long run, all points are of equal importance. Indeed, they are of no individual importance because they are only stages, fixed by an arbitrary choice, in the journey which is the reality.

Tonal music always reverts to a home tonic; thus also, a painting in the tradition of Renaissance returns to its point of arrival. Every note of the atonal scale is equally important; likewise each point in a Klee, whose point of departure corresponds to the first note of a tone-row. In a late Klee, every point of arrival at once becomes a point of departure. The journey is unending.

Paul Klee, The Rumors, 1939

Many of Klee’s later paintings, like most of the earlier ones, have ‘literary’ titles. But the title is never a frame to the content, only its point of departure. As there are points of departure to the composition, from which the journey through the form begins, the title denotes a point of departure in your previous experience from which a journey through memory begins. As the physical point of departure is near the edge of the composition, the title’s meaning is near the edge of the total significance of the picture.

[line break added] As the composition has no single point of focus, the content is never a single object or emotion or idea. Composition is distributed equably anywhere, content absorbs experience from everywhere — both as agglomeration of distinct memories and as elucidation of the common, germinal elements and movements of the remembered physical world.

In journeying through a Klee you cultivate it. It grows because it is an organism, not a constructed form. Klee’s method of composition is diametrically opposed to that of the Renaissance, and therefore Picasso. For a Renaissance painting is a constructed form, it is architectural, that is: it is three-dimensional; it has a foundation of symmetry, affirmed or negated; it has a specific focal point, a point of arrival. Klee’s affinities are with Mexican picture-writing, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sumerian cuneiform signs, Chinese ideograms, and German Gothic illumination.

The order of an architecturally composed picture is apparent from the start. The evident order of a Klee is only in the parts, as with a landscape, a forest, a hedge, a crowd of people. To find an overall order, you must look for it yourself by taking hints from the given sensation. It is useless to wait for the order to affect you. You must commune with the picture and its order will become manifest — not in space but in space-time.

… An organism has a future as well as a past. Likewise, a picture by Klee goes on becoming not only while he cultivated it but while you cultivate it. … To look at a Klee over a period of time is not to acquire a deeper understanding of the finished thing but to observe and assist in its growth.

… A Renaissance picture has a beginning and an end. In a late Klee, the end is the beginning.

Paul Klee, Error on Green, 1939




November 28, 2016

Divide and Separate

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… How does de Chirico use modernist strategies against the very conditions of modernity: its “herd perspective,” its “foreground politics,” its nearest things?

Continuing through Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris by Ara H. Merjian (2014):

… At every turn, Nietzsche’s mature writings exalt a “will for economy,” a “pathos of distance” — in (literally) sharp opposition to modernity’s garrulous, dialectical proximity, its submission to “foreground meanings,” foreground approximations.” As a mode of consciousness and a metaphor for language itself, perspective is bound up in Nietzsche’s later philosophy with a refusal to equalize vision, to divide it into anything but the expression of a single will, even as it equivocates.

Nietzsche refuses to abolish the illusion of “outer supports” (language, religion, morality) simply because we know them to be deceptive. Rather than shatter the optical logic of Christian morality or overweening positivism, Nietzsche expropriates their basic mechanisms. “You have to learn that all estimations have a perspective, to learn the displacement, distortion, apparent teleology of horizons, and whatever else is part of perspective.”

… To put this in visual terms, any view of the world, no matter how distant, is always already a “closed system,” bounded by the invisible prison-house of consciousness. That confinement only occasionally makes itself felt in a literal or material sense, as when philosophical concepts call attention to their own linguistic sonority (or, as we shall see, when the unruffled transparency of perspectival recession hardens into an almost parodic self-consciousness).

[line break added] As the Florentine avant-gardist Giovanni Papini noted already in 1906, Nietzsche’s philosophy formed “an echo in reverse, but an echo nonetheless.” That echo — like the notion of recurrence at the heart os his entire, mature thought — lay in the eternal reverberations of language and time alike, a stubbornness epitomized in the trope of perspective.

[ … ]

Does Perspectivism entail that Perspectivism itself is but a perspective, so that the truth of this doctrine entails that it is false? Would this be what [Nietzsche] spoke of in The Birth of Tragedy as logic turning round on itself and biting its own tail? Or is this only a seeming paradox, soluble somehow or other? I do not believe Nietzsche ever worked it out, although I am convinced he was aware of it. [Arthur Danto]

If, in The Birth of Tragedy there is any doubt as to Nietzsche’s “perspectival” self-awareness, by the time of Ecce Homo‘s reflexive pinnacles — a philosophical meditation on his own philosophy, a compression and objectification of several books in a further book — self-consciousness has become the very substance of Nietzsche’s writing.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Anxious Journey, 1913

… “Men, gifted with great sensitivity, able to feel unknown things,” de Chirico writes in his Paris manuscripts, “renounce, know what they should renounce, and above all divide and separate, and not confuse the sensations particular to each of us, which we know someone else could never have.” Metaphysical painting in Paris emulates the selective initiation to which the artist felt privy while reading Nietzsche.

[line break added] How might painting convert that privilege into an image? How does de Chirico use modernist strategies against the very conditions of modernity: its “herd perspective,” its “foreground politics,” its nearest things? After 1912, Metaphysical space proves most restricted, as we shall see, through an openness only illusory and optical.

My most recent previous post from Merjian’s book is here.




November 27, 2016

History Happens In the Midst of Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:00 am

… what does the artist know that seems so difficult to know?

This is from the essay ‘Anarchéologie: Object Worlds & Other Things, Circa Now’ by Bill Brown found in The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art by Dieter Roelstraete (2013):

… Archaeology per se it the carrier place within the field of knowledge production of the relationship between people and objects. It is the epistemological scene within which, however tentatively and spectrally, objects summon the past, including a human past, into the present. Insofar as art shares this animation (or reanimation) of the person-thing nexus, it does so with its own anarchéological pulsion, a drive that seeks to unearth, to retrieve, and to display (to stage, to dramatize) without re-covering: without covering things back up with the story named culture.

… Art’s anarchéological function both evokes and revokes the disciplinary practice of archaeology itself. Anarchéologie names an archaeology without end: the perpetual act of re-excavating and re-sorting and re-contextualizing.

… the object form of history, irrupting into the now, brings with it a different kind of consciousness (a bodily consciousness) of how life goes on despite history and of how history — rupture — happens in the midst of life.

… When … in 1910, the Futurists lashed out against the “affected archaeologists with their chronic necrophilia,” or when one of the founders of Dada, Tristan Tzara, proclaimed (in 1918) that Dada stands for “the abolition of archaeology,” these artists were demonizing an archaeology obsessed with the Classical world, fixated on the past as the site for establishing artistic criteria and obstructing any full-bore engagement with the now and the new. They didn’t fathom (as the surrealists would) how the object forms of history could be recast through the waking dream-work of the present.

… Appreciating how art and archaeology converge as the carrier place of the relationship between people and objects entails the recognition that this relationship is, not least, the relationship between human history (the history of the world) and nonhuman history (the history of the earth). Why is the artist digging and digging? What if the archaeological imaginary, or the anarchéologie within it, both responds to historical rupture and anticipates the rupture to come?

[line break added] Shovel in hand, what does the artist know that seems so difficult to know? Simply that, in the midst of the repatriation debates over one artifact or another, the ground (that is, the earth) is always in the midst of filing its own claim, which is to have all the objects back. Call it a claim on behalf of nothing that is almost everything at once.

My previous post from this book is here.




November 26, 2016

A Simple Emotional Hunger

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… Disguise after disguise has been lifted away from the landscape …

This is from Richard Wilbur’s essay ‘Poetry and the Landscape’ found in The New Landscape in Art and Science by Gyorgy Kepes (1956; 1967):

… “They’re millows,” he [Wilbur’s three-year-old son] told me. “Look at all the millows.” No hesitation; no bravado; with a serene Adamite confidence he had found a name for something nameless, and brought it under our verbal control. Millows they were.

I, of course, was aware that there must be a right name for those plants, and was not wholly easy until I had got it from a Harvard botanist. The right generic name was Lycopodium (the vulgar term was club-moss).

… I was left with two versions of one plant on my hands. On the one hand there was the millow, a plant named on a certain day in April in the Lincoln woods, and involved, for me with my feeling for my son, and with all the thoughts and sensations I was having on that day. On the other hand there was a plant of the genus Lycopodium, a pteridophyte distinguishable from the mosses through its possession of well-developed stems and leaves and true roots; a plant of a certain description and presumptive history, which bore no necessary relation to any place, day, person, thought, or feeling.

It is the millow with which we are more familiar; it is the Lycopodium which we are more disposed to believe. So that however personally we may take the landscape, however much sympathy and meaning we may discover in it, there is always a suspicion that our words are not anchored in the objects at all — that the word tree does not harpoon and capture the tree, but merely flies feintingly towards it and, like a boomerang, returns to hand.

… we are a long way from Isis; from the shield of Achilles, with its organic view of man-and-nature; from the myth of Chiron’s mentorship; from the landscape conceived as a book in which to read divine truths — “sermons in stone”; from the vaguer and more diluted analogical thought of the German romantics, of Shelley, Poe, Baudelaire, Emerson, Thoreau … . Disguise after disguise has been lifted away from the landscape; its latest disguise, but surely not its last, is a naked irrelevance.

… In various ways, all of the arts have now “received” the industrial revolution. It would now seem one important need of our culture to repair its relations with the natural world — to feel our surroundings as an ensemble and to take them personally. (I assume that any sensitive person feels this as a simple emotional hunger, and I don’t propose to argue with anyone who does not.)

… If I write of the landscape as it ribbons past the train window, fusing it with my thoughts and feelings and interpreting it through my human senses, it does not trouble me that my words do not essentialize it. What I write, as my words energetically unravel and shape themselves, is a part of the truth of things, and a gesture toward the sources of form and energy.

My most recent previous post from Kepes’s book is here.




November 25, 2016

Made Explicit

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:28 am

… we live in number and also between the implicit and explicit conditions of number.

This is from In Defence of Quantity: Living by Numbers by Steven Connor (2016):

… numerical relations are not just exactly equivalent, but also orderable and therefore manipulable, because ordering otherwise equivalent units puts them into a navigable space.Numbers are atoms with names.

… Digital encoding is as powerful as it is because it is the extension, or, as we might say, the inward intensification, of a principle of organization that is everywhere at work already in all organized language, if not always to the same degree. And this form of organization is numeric, sharing with number the twin principles of divisibility and orderability, which is to say compressibility. Divisibility tends towards and depends on the principle of equivalence, which makes individual units maximally interchangeable with one another. Orderability makes variability possible, because what can be ordered can be reordered, and to reorder is always easier than to order the unordered …

… There might be another way for living creatures to have evolved the vast range of form and function that makes up the design space of evolution, but there seem good reasons why the permutation of just four elements in DNA coding is both necessary and sufficient for this.

… Perhaps we might sum up the process of making the latent manifest with the word intelligence — which signifies both the capacity to understand and the process of communicating that understanding. Intelligence, as a kind of making known, will always involve telling, in two senses: the counting out involved in Fairfax’s talecraft, and the articulation of that counting. … The implicit can never be made explicit except through greater precision, and that precision must almost always involve the move from quality to quantity.

[ … ]

… Undoubtedly, we live in number and also between the implicit and explicit conditions of number. If they are to be good for anything, the humanities must shape up to what I have called quantality — the quality of quantity or the feel for figures — the agitated, affective, philosophical and political imaginary number.

But taking account of the feeling for number must not bypass the most intense feeling of all provoked by number, namely that of horror.

To be continued.

My most recent previous post from Connor’s book is here.




November 24, 2016

Aspects of Life I Might Feel More Comfortable Ignoring

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… And everything continues on as though the public were not actually interested in the truth, but in its rhetorical alibis, not in the message, but in that part of entropy that muddles.

This is from Babette Mangolte’s piece in the section ‘Filmmakers on Bresson‘ found in Robert Bresson edited by James Quandt (1998):

… I see works which are as current as if made yesterday. They have a directness which transcends fashion, and they have a great efficacy of means. The emotion is contained, insidious, digging inside you, and like a cancer, it grows. It takes you a while to realize that Bresson made you think, by weaving for your eyes and ears a fabric of effects. But our thinking is done after viewing the film.

[line break added] Bresson shows you the immanence of fleeting fragments. He takes the distinction and separation of image and sound out of film. He literally merges the two. We hear what we see and we see what we hear. He doesn’t illustrate but manufactures a machine for your use. He makes you think that you can use it for yourself.

When I see his films, I feel empowered with feeling. It is as if what I have seen is now part of my own past life, has been integrated into my own experience. It stops being a movie.

This next is from Jacques Rivette:

… It seems that no other filmmaker has ever pursued — so ardently — such direct communication with the viewer (that is, a relation of equality, not one of submission as Hitchcock). Next to Bresson, in this aspect, even Buñuel and Rossellini seem rhetorical.

Here than are the most “public” films, the most commercial films that could exist: it is clear what we are dealing with. And everything continues on as though the public were not actually interested in the truth, but in its rhetorical alibis, not in the message, but in that part of entropy that muddles.

The following is from Martin Scorsese:

It’s a strange experience to watch a Bresson film at this particular moment in history, because a great deal of today’s popular cinema is so big, loud, kinetic and, in many cases, grotesque. In other words, the antithesis of Bresson’s cinema. I saw A Man Escaped again recently, and it’s such a completely pure experience, with absolutely nothing extraneous — it functions like a delicate and perfectly calibrated hand-made machine.

… Once Elvis Costello said that whenever he’s writing a song he asks himself: is it as tough as Hank Williams? Meaning: is it as ruthlessly pared down, as direct, as unflinching in its gaze at aspects of life I might feel more comfortable ignoring? Young filmmakers might ask themselves: is it as tough as Bresson?

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




November 23, 2016

The Feeling of Separation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… with his work we enter into an affectionate rapport, almost like the early states of falling in love.

This is from the essay ‘King Midas in a Blind Alley’ 1982 found in The Complete Essays 1973-1991 by Luigi Ghirri (2016):

… she cursed him with the following words: ‘May everything you touch turn to gold!’ Midas makes his escape, but soon realizes that he cannot touch or love another. One day, having fallen in love with a woman, and feeling desperate because he cannot draw her close, he abandons himself to these thoughts: ‘My life is made up only of instants, and these instants represent something only because I live in hope that someday they will unite. But that day never comes. I only see beauty in things and in men; indeed, my life has been granted sight alone, and so I only look on, and never take part. My life is like a golden statue: it is separated from everything else, and has neither a past nor a future …’

On one level, this is symbolic of the creative process of man in general, but it’s even more compelling if we consider the magical power of the camera as the modern King Midas, used to see (i.e. record) and transform the entire visible world. Photography has become an opaque layer, thick with images which are superimposed on reality itself — the debris of our age, which if examined by an archaeologist of the future, would be difficult to interpret. Just as King Midas was unable to draw close to reality because his touch transformed the world around him, our reality has already been transformed.

The chance of finding intervals of clarity and transparency, or of rediscovering a center, seems to be more remote than ever. Targets move at increasing speed. Those who attempt to reclaim an image ‘of man’ or ‘on man’ fall into cliché, and look increasingly like romantics or amateurs in search of a personal alibi.

Next is from ‘Still-Life: Topography-Iconography’ 1982:

… Photography is not mere duplication, nor is the camera simply an optical device that brings the physical world to a halt; photography is a language in which the difference between reproduction and interpretation, however subtle, exists and gives rise to an infinite number of imaginary worlds. Even the objects that seem to be entirely described by our own seeing, once represented may turn out to be like the blank pages of a book yet to be written.

I could have called this work ‘In Search of the Lost Original,’ or named it after a journey in which history and geography blend into one, in which collective and personal notions are mixed together, in which deliberately trivial photographs are to be found alongside others we brood upon — a journey into the immutable accompanied by a longing for the miraculous.

This next is from a 1984 review of the work of another photographer (Franco Vimercati):

… Description is not the ability to describe from the outside, but rather it is that moment of descriptive capacity to be found within the image itself. Here, we no longer have worlds to be interpreted, no more strategies, but the subtle fascination of the image itself. The capacity of the image to reveal the invisible to us — not exposing the unknown or the unseen, but rather discovering an aspect in things and objects that is lost in the depths of our own perception.

The following is from ‘The World Caressed by Walker Evans‘ 1985:

… The feeling of separation, of extraneousness, that we feel when looking at the vast majority of photographs is due to a sense of disorientation; those are images that do not pertain to us, images that are not necessary to us. With Evans there is none of this at all — with his work we enter into an affectionate rapport, almost like the early states of falling in love. The places, spaces and faces are immediately recognizable, familiar, habitable.

No violence, no shock, visual or emotional, no mawkishness; what we have with Evans is a state of tenderness for the world, a sense of unity and harmony. Every part of the landscape, from the roofs of the houses to signs on walls, seems to await recognition via his loving eye.

My most recent previous post from Ghirri’s book is here.




November 22, 2016

The Pulse Continues

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… We keep on moving till it stops and the movement goes on alone.

This is from the essay ‘In, around and about The Black Mountain Review: Robert Creeley and Company’ by Kevin Power, in Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art edited by Vincent Katz (2013:

Duncan is already recognizing that incoherence is part of any event and that it has its own coherence because it is of the man who makes it. Both Duncan and Creeley want a writing that can lead on following the sounds. Both men also share the sense that you can begin anywhere and that almost anything can enter the compositional field if it does so with enough intensity, literally earns its place. It is worth stressing that Duncan sees the word as autonomous and apocalyptic and the image as a natural emergence from the poetic organism, “something actually seen in the process of the poem, not something pretended or made up.”

[ … ]

… there is a surprisingly critical review of Howl by Rumaker that Creeley feels is one of the most balanced pieces of writing to have been written on this emblematic text:

The poem does not contain itself.

A listing of horrors described with inaccurate adjectives sheared would have produced greater shock — the cumulative adjectives exhaust whatever fine tension of feeling the poet may have had in the concept — but it is reduced to hysteria and the force of the poem loses by waywardness, thrashing about. The right words (found, culled) and not overloaded with adjectives for fear the point will be missed if too spare. It’s spareness that’s needed here, to let the poem emerge from its adjectival obfuscation.

The poem builds to hysteria. The last section is chaos, the logical conclusion to the build-up. The poem scatters itself, finally, on its own pitiful frenzy. A way has not been found.

[ … ]

… What was it that Creeley found at Black Mountain that so attracted him? Creeley convincingly suggests that the answer may well be a group of “highly volatile and articulate people in rather extraordinary circumstances of isolation,” people who matched and echoed his own personal extremity. Rumaker addresses the man and his work, the significant evidences of his writing:

[line break added] “His is a scrupulous and highly exact examination of conscious processes. His own clearances, then as now, are in areas of excruciating wakefulness. If his demons are ‘conscious’ ones, they are, paradoxically, no less real and terrifying than those lurking in the dark under-roots of the unconscious. Yet much of his writing has the quality of dreams, in definitions of consciousness so newly realized that they have an other-worldly aura, so foreign are they, seen from the prospect of his unique and stripped-down acute angle of vision …”

[ … ]

… And to conclude, should I have to look for a phrase that holds so much of the intent, the desire, the energy, perhaps I’d select that remark of Duncan’s, “conception cannot be abstracted from doing.” It serves as the quintessence of an American aesthetic, allowing the poet to catch the energy pulsing in a single word, the painter in a single brushstroke. Black Mountain, like a poem or a painting, came to an end when it had nothing else to say, or when the energy ran out, or when there was no more money.

[line break added] But then again, at another level, it clearly didn’t end. The pulse continues until we stop. This is the place wherever we are: “All that would matter to me, finally, as a writer, is that the scale and the place of our common living be recognized, that the mundane in that simple emphasis be acknowledged.” We keep on moving till it stops and the movement goes on alone. Here is a man and here are his words, and in paying attention to the latter the former takes shape.

My most recent previous post from Katz’s book is here.




November 21, 2016

Dreamed with Open Eyes and in the Full Light of Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… We are dealing not with the boundless escapism of fantasy, then, but a voluntary imprisonment “in this madhouse of the sane by circumstances and the obligation of ordinary speech.”

Continuing through Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris by Ara H. Merjian (2014):

… Beginning with Human, All Too Human, his [Nietzsche’s] prose assumes a clipped, aphoristic mode, bounded by empty spaces. As he argues in this writing itself, silence bears as much meaning as the utterances it buffers. What is excluded from the page rivals in importance the contents of its epigrammatic slabs.

… Unlike other examples from the last (or perhaps any) century, Metaphysical painting aims not to depict any philosopher, or the act of philosophizing, so much as to enact them. To have the image serves as a medium, in every sense. More than any coded constellation of objects, it is the composition’s absences and silences that bear out, I argue, a late Nietzschean apprenticeship — a visual idiom in which the painter’s point of view merges (or presumes to merge) with that of the philosopher.

Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti dismissed them … as “verbal illustrations.” Instead of fleeing from such literary epithets, this book tackles them head on. Literature can presume and perform an almost offhand intersubjectivity — a clairvoyant sounding of linguistic consciousness from the inside out — to which painting is ostensibly denied access. Yet it is precisely that oracular intersubjectivity to which the Metaphysical image aspires.

… An inventory of iconographies — at the expense of their spatial interplay and division — misses crucial dimensions. Rather than simply depict heraldic symbols, how do the paintings evince the prophetic potential of drained surfaces, framed voids, equivocal perspectives?

Still Life: Turin Spring, 1914

… while Nietzsche privileges the non-sense of dreams over the arthritic binary of truth and lie, he never isolates irrationality from waking states. The Gay Science, for example, exalts “these men of former times [who] knew how to dream and did not find it necessary to go to sleep first”; insists upon “the power of the dream [to] overcome us … with our eyes open.” Beyond Good and Evil champions the transformation of perception “even in broad daylight and in the most cheerful moments of our wide-awake spirit.” In short, the optical procedures of Nietzsche’s poetics are rarely unconscious. Their aim and agency is “wakefulness itself.”

“We flee” de Chirico notes, well before his ill-fated rendezvous with the Surrealists, “from seeking a source of inspiration in the dream.” Equally unremarked in scholarship (and unavailable in English), [de Chirico’s] essay “Metaphysical Art and Occult Science” spurns the notion of:

a mundus alter, one much stranger than that which surrounds us and which falls under our everyday senses; we are inclined to believe that it exists only in unreachable spaces, or at the very least, quite far from where we find ourselves, and that to transport ourselves there we must undergo a complete metamorphosis of our physical being … But art, which is a beautiful dream dreamed with open eyes and in the full light of day, in the wake of inexorable reality, recommends to us more than ever the framing and the total consolidation of the universe.

… Vital to these strategies is a “wide-awake day-wisdom” applied to line and light, to framing and displacement, to a lucid confusion set within visible limits. Anything but otherworldly, architecture doubles for the strictures of consciousness and of language in general: conditions to which we are all submitted eternally, but from which only a few find lyrical release.

[line break added] We are dealing not with the boundless escapism of fantasy, then, but a voluntary imprisonment “in this madhouse of the sane by circumstances and the obligation of ordinary speech.” De Chirico’s painting needs sanity for surprise, physics for metaphysics, the ordinary for its opposite. Like Nietzsche’s “concealed man,” his imagery needs speech for silence. It finds it in architecture.

… A use of philosophy to read these painted buildings, streets, and squares — to help reckon their abidingly strange sensations — is a methodological bias. Yet it is no more tendentious than the “Nietzschean method” by which the spaces were wrought to begin with. Studying that method’s distillation of earnestness and irony, arrogance and uncertainty, does not mean swallowing it whole.

[line break added] It means, instead, weighing the peremptory ambition of word against the mute actuality of image. In the end, de Chirico’s painting tells us as much about the metaphorical structure of Nietzsche’s mature philosophy — and its paradoxical consequences for modernism — as those writings help us come to terms with Metaphysical architecture.

My most recent previous post from Merjian’s book is here.




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