Unreal Nature

January 10, 2018

This Haunt of Brooding Dust

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… it is already becoming self-evident to camera man that only camera words have any meaning.

This is from the essay ‘The Harp and the Camera’ by Owen Barfield (1977) found in Reading Into Photography: Selected Essays, 1959-1980 edited by Thomas F. Barrow, Shelley Armitage and William E. Tydeman (1982):

The harp has long been employed as the symbol of music in general, and of heavenly music in particular; just as music itself has been employed as the symbol of heaven on earth. As the English poet Walter de la Mare put it:

When music sounds, all that I was I am
Ere to this haunt of brooding dust I came —

… There is one kind of harp which most of us never have seen. I have never seen one myself. And that is the aeolian harp or, as I shall call it for short, the wind-harp, since Aeolus was the Greek god of the winds. … It is simply a series of strings in a box, which you fix up somewhere where the wind will blow through the strings and the strings will sound. A good place is an open window; and that might perhaps remind us that the earliest windows were … not for letting in the light and keeping out the air, but for letting in both of them together. In fact the word “window” is a corruption of “wind-eye.”


[image from Wikipedia]

… The Italian word camera means a room or chamber; and the camera is of course, a hollow box or little dark room. Unlike the camera the harp has no inside, it does not first of all receive into itself stimuli from without and then respond to them. The wind-harp becomes what it is by itself becoming an “inside” for the environing air, by becoming a modulated voice for it to speak with.

[line break added] If the eyes are shut and there is no other guide, it is very difficult to tell where any particular sound comes from, presumably because the air and its contents are all around us. Well, light and its contents are also all around us. But our eyes are so made that they leave us in no doubt where those contents are place, and how they are disposed.

… If we must think in metaphor (and we must), why not try beginning again on the assumption that primitive man was not a camera obscura but an aeolian harp? Surely it is only by this route that we can hope to understand the origin of myths and of thinking at all.

… Did that enthusiasm of the Romantics for the wind-harp signify that they had come to see the history of Western mind as a kind of war between the harp and the camera — that they foresaw the camera civilization that was coming upon us? If so, they were true prophets, because it certainly has come. The camera up to date has won that war. We live in a camera civilization. Our entertainment is camera entertainment. Our holidays are camera holidays.

[line break added] We make them so by paying more attention to the camera we brought with us than to the waterfall we are pointing it at. Our science is almost entirely a camera science. One thinks of the photographs of electrons on screens and in cloud-chambers and so forth. Our philosophers — it is no longer possible even to argue with most of them, because you cannot argue about an axiom, and it is already becoming self-evident to camera man that only camera words have any meaning.

[line break added] Even our poetry has become, for the most part, camera poetry. So much of it consists of those pointedly paradoxical surface contrasts between words and between random thoughts and feelings, arranged in the complicated perspective of the poet’s own often rather meager personality. Where, one asks, has the music gone? Where has the wind gone that sweeps the music into being, the hagion pneuma, the ruach elohim? It really does feel as though the camera had won hands down and smashed the harp to pieces.

… If then the story of the harp and the camera is to continue instead of ending with a whimper, it will have to be by way of a true marriage between the one and the other. Is it fanciful, I wonder, to think of a sort of mini-harp stretched across the window of the eye — an Apollo’s harp if you will — as perhaps not a bad image for the joy of looking with imagination?

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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