Sunday, 27 February 2011

Collapsed Time in Collected Space

Scene in the Antique Dealer's collection, taken from Honoré De Balzac's philosophical novel "The Wild Ass's Skin", where he outlines the uncanny and alluring effect of a multitude of collected objects -not yet divested of historical allusion or meaning, nor icily institutionalised- contained in a small, compressed private space, and set upon by an eager imagination.

Extract From "The Wild Ass's Skin"

At first site the showrooms offered him a chaotic medley of human and divine works. Crocodiles, apes and stuffed boas grinned at stainless glass windows, seemed to be about to snap at carved busts, to be running after lacquer-ware or to be clambering up chandeliers. A Sevres vase on which Madame Jaquetot had painted Napoleon was standing next to a sphinx dedicated to Sesostris. The beginnings of creation and the events of yesterday were paired off with grotesque good humour. A roasting-jack was posed on a monstrance, a Republican sabre on a medieval arquebus. Madame du Barry, painted in pastel by Latour, with a star on her head, nude and enveloped in cloud, seemed to be concupiscently contemplating an Indian chibouk and trying to divine some purpose in the spirals of smoke which were drifting towards her.

Instruments of death, poniards, quaint pistols, weapons with secret springs were hobnobbing with instruments of life: porcelain soup-tureens, Dresden china plate, translucent porcelain cups from china, antique slat-cellars, comfit-dishes from feudal times. An ivory ship was sailing under full canvas on the back of an immovable tortoise. A pneumatic machine was poking out the eye of the Emperor Augustus, who remained majestic and unmoved. Several portraits of French aldermen and Dutch burgomasters, insensible now as during their lifetime, rose above this chaos of antiques and cast a cold and disapproving glance at them.

All the countries on earth seemed to have brought here some remnants of their sciences and a sample of their arts. It was a sort of philosophical midden in which nothing was lacking, neither the Red Indian's calumet nor the green and gold slipper of the seraglio, nor the yatogan of the Moor, nor the brazen image of the Tartar. There was even the soldier's tobacco pouch, the ciborium of the priest and the plumes from a throne. Furthermore, these monstrous tableaux were subjected to a thousand accidents of lighting by the whimsical effects of a multitude of reflected gleams due to the confusion of tints and the abrupt contrasts of light and shade. The ear fancied it heard stifled cries, the mind imagined that it caught the thread of unfinished dramas, and the eye that it perceived half-smothered glimmers. Lastly, persistent dust had cast its thin coating over all these objects, whose multiple angles and numerous sinuosities produced the most picturesque of impressions.

To begin with the, the stranger compared these three showrooms, crammed with the relics of civilizations and religions, deities, royalties, masterpieces of art, the products of debauchery, reason and unreason, to a mirror of many facets, each one representing a whole world. After registering this hazy impression, he tried to make a choice of specimens he enjoyed; but, in the process of gazing, pondering, dreaming, he was overcome by a fever which was perhaps due to the hunger which was gnawing at his vitals. His senses ended by being numbed at the sight of so many national and individual existences, their authenticity guaranteed by the human pledges which had survived them.

The longing that had caused him to visit the shop was satisfied: he left real life behind him, ascended by degrees to an ideal world, and reached the enchanted palaces of ecstasy where the universe appeared to him in transitory gleams and tongues of fire; just as, long ago, the future of mankind had filed past in flaming visions before the gaze of Saint John of Patmos.

A multitude of sorrowing faces, gracious or terrifying, dimly or clearly described, remote or near at hand, rose up before him in masses, in myriads, in generations. Egypt in its mysterious rigidity emerged from the sands, represented by a mummy swathed in black bandages; then came the Pharaohs burying entire peoples in order to build a tomb for themselves; then Moses and the Hebrews and the wilderness: the whole of the ancient world, in all its solemnity, drifted before his eyes. But here, cool and graceful, a marble statue posed on a wreathed column, radiantly white, spoke to him of the voluptuous myths of Greece and Ionia. Oh, who would not have smiled, as he did, to see upon a red background, in the fine clay of an Etruscan vase, the brown girl dancing before the god Priapus and joyously saluting him? Facing her was a Latin queen lovingly fondling her chimaera! The capricious pleasures of imperial Rome were there in every aspect: the bath, the couch, the dressing-table ritual of some indolent, pensive Julia awaiting her Tibullus. Armed with the power of Arabian talismans, the head of Cicero evoked memories of republican Rome and unwound for him the scroll of Livy's histories. The young man gazed on the Senatus pupulusque romanus: the consul, the lectors, the purple-edged togas, the fights in the Forum, the plebs aroused to wrath. All this filed past him like the insubstantial figures of a dream.

Then Christian Rome became the dominant theme in these presentations. One painting showed the heavens opened and in it he saw the Virgin Mary bathed in a cloud of gold in the midst of angels, eclipsing the sun in glory, lending an ear to the lamentations of the sufferer on whom this regenerate Eve smiled gently. As he fingered a mosaic made of different lavas from Vesuvius and Etna, in imagination he emerged into sun-drenched Italy: he was an onlooker at the Borgias' feasts, he rode through the Abruzzi, sighed after Italian mistresses, worshipping their pale cheeks and dark, elongated eyes.

Espying a medieval dagger with a hilt as cunningly wrought as a piece of lace, with rust patches on it like bloodstains, he thought with a shudder of mighty trysts interrupted by the cold blade of a husband's sword. India and its religions lived again in an idol dressed in gold and silk with conical cap and lozenge-shaped ear-flaps folded upwards and adorned with bells. Near this grotesque figure a rush mat, as pretty as the Indian dancer who had once rolled herself in it, still exhaled the perfume of sandalwood. The mind was startled into perceptiveness by a monster from China with a twisted gaze, contorted mouth and writhing limbs: the creation of an inventive people weary of unvarying beauty and drawing ineffable pleasure from the luxuriant diversity of ugliness.

A salt-cellar from Benvenuto Cellini's workshop brought him back to the bosom of the Renaissance at a period when art and licence flourished together, when sovereign princes found diversion in torture and prelates at Church Councils rested from their labours in the arms of courtesans after decreeing chastity for mere priests. He saw the conquests of Alexander carved on a cameo, the massacres of Pizarro etched on a match-lock arquebus, the wars of religion -frenzied, seething, pitiless- engraved on the base of a helmet. Then the charming pageantry of chivalry sprang up from a Milanese suit of armour, brightly furnished, superbly damascened, beneath whose visor the eyes of a paladin still gleamed.

For him this ocean of furnishings, inventions, fashions, works of art and relics made up an endless poem. Forms, colours, concepts of thought came to life again; but nothing complete presented itself to his mind. The poet in him had to finish these sketches by the great painter who had composed the vast palette on to which the innumerable accidents of human life had been thrown in such disdainful profusion.

Monday, 7 February 2011


^Mr Creosote, Monty Python's "The Meaning Of Life"

“How are your steaks, tonight?”

“Our steaks, sir, are if I may say so quite simply superb. Only the choicest cuts of beef, carefully selected and even more carefully aged, cooked to perfection as perfection is defined by your instructions, served with your choice of potato and vegetable and richly delicious dessert.”

“Sounds scrumptious.”


“I’ll have nine.”

“Pardon me?”

“Bring me nine steaks, please.”

“you want nine steak dinners?”


“And who, sir, may I ask is going to eat them?”

“You see anybody else sitting here? I’m going to eat them.”

“And how on earth are you going to do that, sir?”

“Well, gee, let’s see, I think I’ll use my right hand to cut, tonight. I’ll put pieces into my mouth, I’ll masticate, acidic elements in my saliva will begin breaking down the muscle fibre. I’ll swallow. Et Cetera. Bring ‘em on!”
“Sir, nine steaks would make anyone sick.”

“Look at me. Look at this stomach. Do you think I’ll get sick? No way. Come here –no, really come around and look at this stomach. Let me lift up my shirt… here. See how much I can grab with my hand? I can’t even sit close to the table. Have you ever seen anything so hugely disgusting in your whole life?”

I’ve seen bigger stomachs.”

“You’re just being polite, you just want a tip. You’ll get your tip, after you’ve brought me nine steak dinners, with perfection being defined as medium-rare, which is to say pink yet firm. And don’t forget the rolls.”

“Sir, this is simply beyond my range of experience. I’ve never served any one individual nine simultaneous orders on my own authority. I could get in horrible trouble. What if, for example, you have an embolism, God forbid? You could rupture organs.”

“Didn’t I say look at me? Cant you tell what I am? Listen to me very carefully. I am an obese, grotesque, prodigal, greedy, gourmandizing, gluttonous pig. Is this not clear? I am more hog than human. There is room, physical room, for you in my stomach. Do you hear? You see before you a swine. An eating fiend of unlimited capacity. Bring me meat.”

“Have you not eaten in a very long time? Is that it?”

“Look, you’re beginning to bother me. I could bludgeon you with my belly. I am also, allow me to tell you, more than a little well-to-do. Do you see that building over there, the one with the lit windows, in the shadow? I own that Building. I could buy this restauarant and have you terminated. I could and perhaps will buy this entire block, including that symbolically tiny Weight watchers establishment across the street. See it? With the door and the windows so positioned as to form a grinning, leering, hollow-cheeked face? It is within my financial power to buy that place, and to fill it with steaks, fill it with red steak, all of which I would and will eat. The door would under this scenario be jammed with a gnawed bone; not a single little smug psalm-singing baggy-skinned apostate from the cause of adiposity would be able to enter. They would pound on the door, pound. But the bone would hold. They’d lack the bulk to burst through. Their mouths and eyes would be wide as they pressed against the glass. I would demolish, physically crush the huge scale at the end of the brightly lit nave at the back of the place under a weight of food. The springs would jut out. Jut. What a delicious series of thoughts. May I see a wine list?”

“Weight Watchers?”

“Garcon, what you have before you is a dangerous thing, I warn you. Human beings act in their own interest. Huge, crazed swine do not. My wife informed me a certain time-interval ago that if I did not lose weight, she would leave me. I have not lost weight, as a matter of fact, I have gained weight, and thus she is leaving. Q.E.D. And A-1, don’t forget the A-1.”

“But sir, surely with more time…”

“There is no more time. Time does not exist. I ate it. It’s in here, see? See the jiggle? That’s time, jiggling. Run, run away, fetch me my platter of fat, my nine cattle, or I’ll envelop you in a chin and fling you at the wall!”
“Shall I fetch the maître d’, sir? To confer?”

“By all means fetch him. But warn him against getting too close. He will be encompassed instantly, before he has time to squeak. Tonight I will eat. Hugely, and alone. For I am now hugely alone. I will eat, and juice might very well spurt into the air around me, and if anyone comes too near, I will snarl and jab at them with my fork –like this, see?”

“Sir, really!”

“Run away for your very life. Fetch something to placate me. Im going to grow and grow, and fill the absence that surrounds me with the horror of my own gelatinous presence. Yin and Yang. Ever growing, waiter, Run!”
“Right away, sir!”

“Some breadsticks might have been nice, too, do you hear? What kind of place is this, anyway?”


Extract from “The Broom Of The System”, David Foster Wallace, Abacus (7 Aug 1997)

Friday, 4 February 2011


^Order 12 Latin Bi-Square as used by Georges Perec

In 1947 Raymond Queneau wrote 99 short descriptions of the same pair of unremarkable events: a man was seen on the ‘S’ bus having a run-in with another man, and was then seen again later that day at the Gare St-Lazare. Each description was written in a different style, following its own set of specific literary rules, with the effect that the scene is transformed completely in each instance, as if imagined or remembered through the lens of a hundred diverse minds. In 1969 Georges Perec began a project in which he chose twelve places in Paris where he had either lived or had attached certain memories to. He then proceeded to write descriptions of two of these places each month, one written at the place as an objective description, the other written from memory. He slipped these into sealed letters together with photos of the locations, taken by a friend. Each year he repeated the task, taking care to follow an algorithm based on a Latin bi-square, so that each place was described during a different month to the previous year, ensuring that the same pair of places was never described in the same month. This was continued for twelve years, until each place had been described twelve times as both an objective list of elements and as a collection of thoughts and memories.

Both writers belonged to Oulipo, a group for whom the constraints and formal logic of poetry and mathematics were “encouragements for inspiration, so to speak, or else, in a way, aids to creativity”*. Around these frameworks the tangle of events, narrative and language could grow in wild profusion while the core would remain as an elegant plan. The productive play against rules was nothing new, what was unusual was how these writers consciously played with the rules themselves, creatively reformulating the structure of their medium each time they began a new project. Their techniques ranged in complexity from the simple structure of Queneau’s exercises in style, effectively a ten by ten grid with an equivalent numerical array, so that one can mirror any grid location to any other with total correspondence (except the one empty square, precisely positioned to destabilize its total internal symmetry), to the twelve sided Latin bi-square that ordered Perec’s archiving of fact and experience, in the form of time, embodied by the Gregorian calendar.

At every node, in each of these structures, the writers unified numerical differentiation and equivalence with the complex and psychological effects of memory and form. While the grid of identical units in Queneau’s array are all interchangeable, their transformation through the filter of perception and style rendered them entirely unique and totally asymmetrical. Perec’s square — divided according to units of time and space — is transfigured by his recollections and the atemporal nature of memory, which weaves a network of new correspondences across the boundaries laid out by his framework. It is precisely the power of the related patterns created by this intermingling and overlaying of objective mathematical clarity and subjective effect, each time generated anew, with novel and surprising consequences in every Oulipian tract, that offers up a richer definition of symmetry. Rather than being described only in terms of abstract geometric and numerical reflectivity, this form of correspondence dynamically binds the structure to the effect uniting co-ordinated language with its phenomenal, subjective counterpart in the world of memory and experience.
* "Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays, 1928-70" by Raymond Queneau, translated by Jordan Stump. University of Illinois Press (October 15, 2007)
NB. Post originally published in The Bi-Blog

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Graceful, 19C Samson Reproduction of an 18C original by the London Porcelain Factory of Bow

The expert at the auction house told me how you are supposed to be holding something that must have broken off a long time ago — a cauldron or a flame — but it simply cannot have been that your maker had wanted you to stay that way. If you had indeed once been holding something, then whoever made you must have placed it in your hands as a trial, a challenge for some future owner to come forward and avail you of your burden. Your arms are far too elegant and relaxed, your posture far too languid and flowing, your limpid expression and rosy flesh far too untroubled to have ever been meant for any sort of exertion. The likes of you are intended for nothing but a soft and diaphanous easiness, a perfect absence of conflict, like the sleeping face of a baby, or the slow caresses of enamored lovers. And if whatever it was you were holding was meant to tell a story, or convey a moral, then it must have weighed you down even more than the few grams of its clay, darkening the crimson of your cape with arduous meanings. Whoever it was, before you came into my possession, that had the grace to free you of your flame or pot, and whatever moral imperatives it came laden with, emptied you of content and set you floating slightly off from the ground, weightless, dancing ever so slightly. The way you are now must be what your maker had intended: a little embodiment of that mindless perfection of ease which we all secretly yearn for, that elegance which comes from the triumph of the body over its troubled interior, that quality we refer to as divinely bestowed since it releases you from the burden of the intellect, and which positively affirms the subject on which it has been bestowed as being that celestial thing, Graceful.
This text led to the Graceful-Gif trilogy. Episode one, two, and three, over on HandBin

NB. Post originally published in The Bi-Blog