I live in an old house of stone – granite and schist – on the north coast of the Armorican peninsula. The house consists of three buildings. It’s in the building that was once, on the ground floor, a stable, on the top, a granary, that I set up ten years ago what I like to think of as my « Atlantic atelier », my « geopoetic studio ». It’s there I pursue my meditations, there I work out my methods.
I felt the need to situate a place, and to indicate what it means to live deeply in a place, before speaking of anything like work, art-work included
In an essay entitled « The Ecology of acts », Abraham Moles speaks of the need for a new anthropology of space. Proposing a few elements of this, he distinguishes:
a) a zone of security
b) a zone of distraction
c) a zone of meditation
and asks what might be the optimal relationship between the three.
I don’t think that the propositions of Moles go very far, but the general notion, with its main lines, of an anthropology of space is worth retaining.
To sum up, we can live in a haven (that can become a prison) of habits, a floating world (where one can lose one’s self), and a dwelling in the cosmic flux, let’s say « a house of tides ».
Heinz von Foerster, in his « Notes for an epistemology of living objects », speaks of « a full context ». According to him, the environment is seen as the residence of objects that are stationary, mobile, or changing, and the question is posed: is a primary experience, outside the conventional system of representation, outside humdrum habit, outside psychic fixations, is such a primary experience possible?
Hearing me speak, in a lecture, of a place of life apart, marked by distance, solitude and silence, a journalist asked me if I was a misanthrope. I hastened of course to reassure her: no, I wasn’t « a hater of humanity » – while making it clear that a critical anthropology lies at the base of my philosophy of life and my conception of art. We didn’t pursue the topic then. But I’d like to do that here, giving some additional expansion to the question: could it be that geopoetics is not a humanism, even that it is downright inhuman?
Everyone will remember Brueghel’s last painting, entitled, precisely, The Misanthrope. We see there an old man, and, at his side, enclosed in a sphere surmounted by a cross, a misshapen dwarf who is out to pinch his purse. I don’t want to expatiate at length on the symbolism of the painting, which seems obvious enough. What you see is formless smallness of mind occupying the whole world, determined to reduce the power and influence of anything that transgresses, transcends that smallness. To this first image, I’ll add that of another Brueghel painting, The Tower of Babel, which represents the conceptual and logistical confusion in which the human world is perpetually involved. And then there’s The Fall of Icarus. While labourers, shepherds and sailors get on with their work on land and sea, Icarus, the crazy Faustian, with his insensate, incommensurate ambitions, drops in the water with a little ploof. But beyond those moral and symbolic paintings, it’s the landscapes of Brueghel I take to most. For example, that « Winter Day », dark, with its brown-red earth, its trees, its mountains. Elsewhere, it will be a totally serene sky with a lone crow on the wing, or the blue-yellow-brown chaos of a tempest. In a general way, I like to think of all the work that went on there in the Studio of the Four Winds at Antwerp, which I associate with the High North Studio of Hokusaï in Edo.
There you have men (human beings) who live a life of great density, a life in accordance with the symphony of the elements, who unite in their « being », vigour and vision, depth and humour, truculence and transcendentalism, and who have no time to waste (let’s say little time, for they can be kind) on the « all-too-human ».
To come now to our contemporary context. Who doesn’t feel a deep need for some space outside the stifling « all-too-human » context where all the humanitarians foregather in mutual, convivial, self-satisfied sympathy? In his biographical text, Cool Memories, Jean Baudrillard, philosopher, has this: « The only thing that has ever moved me deeply is the humanity of things, but he was never able to bring that inhumanity into my own life. » Such confessions are rare. Even rarer are works that offer an exit from the « all-too-human », that augment human being by integrating the human to the non-human.
The other day, in a place that brings together in my mind memories of Rousseau, Buffon and Bachelard (Dijon, of course), a philosopher friend said, in the course of a platonic banquet, that I was an iconoclast. The statement interested me. So that these last few days I’ve been asking myself in what sense, to what extent am I an iconoclast, and extending the question to this: is geopoetics iconoclastic?
On first sight, in my case, this seems hard to substantiate. Witness the number of images (icons) present in my workshop. The walls are covered with them, the floor is littered with them. I’ll provide here only a few categories, and a few examples within those categories.
What strikes the eye first are stones (will it be accepted that stones can fulfil an iconological function?) There are stones everywhere, on the floor, on shelves. With some it was simply their form that attracted me. Others have crystalline incrustations, or are covered with marine concretions, or contain fossils. Some, according to size and colour, are posed on piles of manuscript, more or less in accordance. Some juxtapositions give me particular pleasure: a lump of grey stone with a white eye incrusted in it standing beside a copy of Charles Doughty’s The Dawn in Britain. At the beginning, I didn’t note the exact provenance of the stones, it was enough for me to know they came from diverse regions of the earth. But after some time, I began to note specific locations: Causse Méjean, Aubeterre, Anse Macabou, La Caravelle, Tobago Keys, Skagen, Hokkaido…
When a Japanese friend, a painter and calligrapher, came to visit the studio, I asked him to inscribe, in ideograms, on three large stones I’d selected and set aside, three koan (phrases for meditation) among my favourites: « Walking alone under a red sky », « At every step, a pure wind rising », « That’s it, exactly! » My first idea was to have those inscribed stones mounted, on blocks of oak. But finally I decided to set them outside, exposed to sun and rain. I contemplate them almost daily. They’ve become weathered. One of them, the grey stone with the ideograms in red, is slowly being covered with a fine green moss.
Beside the stones are bones: the skulls of birds, the shoulder bone of a caribou. Photographs of similar objects found in paleolithic sites: horse heads, stag antlers sculpted and engraved. And, further on in this line, shamanic drawings where the human is reduced to a skeleton (radical ontological reduction).
On the walls are pinned a great quantity of images (drawings, prints, photographs), in particular of birds, as though the abovementioned reduction was the prelude to a powerful flying. Here’s a gannet, there a heron, further on a snowy owl, a storm petrel – and a new species of albatross recently discovered on the isle of Amsterdam, in the Indian Ocean, half-way between Australia and South Africa, by two researchers from the Institute of the Sciences of Evolution of the University of Montpellier: diomedea amsterdamensis (an oceanic Spinoza).
Then there are the maps: a chart of the ecological zones at the end of the last glaciation, another of the steppe zone in Eurasia, others again of the Atlantic edge of the Scottish ice-sheet. Next to them, the world according to Strabo, and according to Herodotus, and according to Dionysius Periegetes. Other maps show the periplum of Pytheas, the great Indo-european migrations, the Cimmerian lands of eighth century BC, the expansion of the Scythians, pre-columbian movements in the Atlantic and Pacific, the navigation of Lapérouse, the harbours of the Antilles and the Gulf of Mexico…
In brief, a proliferation of images.
This collection fulfils a diffuse and multiple function. It would no doubt be inappropriate to speak of art. But maybe of proto-art, and proto-geopoetics. This or that image may provide me with a basis for meditation. The preponderant presence of stones and bones spreads a sensation that might be called paleolithic. And back of all the apparent variety, there is, to my mind, an undefined coherence. Within this protoplasmic world, I can experience great mental excitement. But as every consequential poet or artist knows, the thing is to turn excitation into exactitude, otherwise you just rock and roll.
I haven’t forgotten the question of iconoclasm, and I’ll come back to it.
But before that, I want to make a detour towards the place where the great iconophilic-iconoclastic controversy (for or against the image) started.
I’m referring, of course, to Byzantium.
The studious frequenter of the academies in Rome and in Florence is bound, sooner or later, to feel a certain lassitude at the excessive presence of the human: all those statues, all those portraits… It’s with a sensation of relief that one discovers, at Ravenna, inside a little redbrick edifice, a mosaic of light in which is enthroned the Pantocrator, his eyes filled with eternity.
There, already, is Byzantium.
Situated between Europe and Asia, in a sparsely populated region, more primitive than occidental Roman, with its back to the Mediterranean, facing the Black Sea and the hinterland of the North-East, Byzantium, with its intense intellectual and artistic activity, was out to be a model for the world. Who, after the slightest initiation into studia byzantina, can fail to be attracted by figures such as the monk Methodos, the traveller Cosmos Indicopleustes, Photius, the owner of an extraordinary library, a writer such as Marinos Phalieros, or a woman like Sophia Paleologos, who married (what a waste!) Ivan the Moscovite. An intellectual and artistic city, I said. I’m thinking of all those codices, written in silver on purple vellum, that were produced in the scriptoria, of all those artefacts in mosaic and gold. The accent was on the transcendental, beyond humanity.
The principle mental structure is triple: Pantocrator, Paradise, Earth. But this Earth, situated low in the hierarchy, is nonetheless marvellously present. Witness that River Jordan in blue mosaic, or those brilliantly paved maps of land and sea. We see a love of complexity, and abstraction is pushed to the limit. Those who push it furthest are the iconoclasts, the image-breakers. They have such a high conception of the Abstract that they find it inadmissible to represent it with images of saints, with any kind of human, anthropomorphic iconology, be it that of the Christ himself. In my view, those eighth-century iconoclasts only accentuate a general tendency of Byzantine culture. In that culture, the site, the emplacement of Revelation was an empty throne.
The aim of the Byzantine iconoclasts was to attain to a perfect transcendence, beyond any intermediary intervention, any all-too-human iconology. We might say that the aim of the iconoclastic geopoetician is to attain to a perfect immanence.
But that’s only a primary formulation.
Let’s continue our meditation, from question to question, step by step, from space to space.
In a society, a state of culture such as ours, engaged in a superproduction of images (analysable as an infantile reaction of the imagination to the « domination » of the rational intellect), while having, according to Gilbert Durand, no real sense of « the poetic power of the symbol », there has been a movement aiming at a return of the symbolizing imagination, even a rehabilitation of the sacred. For such minds, the downslide began with Aristotle (conceptual thought), went from there to the iconoclasts (« iconoclasm had serious repercussions on the artistic image, whether sculpted or painted » – Durand), and became an avalanche with Descartes and Spinoza. During this process, according to this current of thought, the imago-symbolical faculty has been degraded, down from the decorative allegories of the Renaissance to the technicolour confusion of the contemporary image-industry. One can understand the « reaction » of those minds to this contemporary context, even partially accept some of their analyses, while being totally impervious to their propositions. Personally, with regard to all that is sacred symbolism, all that is « spiritualist », my scepticism is himalayan.
It’s not only because for years I paced the streets of the Athens of the North in the company of Hume, because I’ve conversed with Montaigne in his library, because I met the ghost of Pyrrhon in the Pyrenees and strolled with Sextus Empiricus in the Luxemburg gardens of Paris, it’s because, in art, there’s always been something else that attracted me. That « something else » is present in the Bibemus quarry of Cézanne, or in Van Gogh’s cherry tree. It’s this « something » that is present, in a diffuse but radical kind of way, in my geopoetic studio. It carries much more than a plethora of more or less trivial images, and it is far from leading to anything like a sacred symbol.
As I see it, the only valid intellectual itinerary today goes from a preoccupation with the sacred to emptiness, from absolute world to open world, via a passage through a floating world.
Just another formula, it may be said. But to remake acquaintance with the earth, from place to place, trying out various formulations, that, already, is to be on the path of a re-beginning.
Let’s try now to push our investigations of prima geopoetica still farther. Taking this time, as point of departure, the degraded state of things in which we live and « have our being ».
For some time now, in fact since the eighteenth century, there’s been an attempt in thought to reduce metaphysics to morals. Hume, Kant, Voltaire… The morals in question have become more and more social. Everywhere, in all the media, social doctrine, social document, social debate, social chitchat. It all sounds more and more hollow. And while it goes on, in a significant fraction of the population, there’s a descent into autism, aphasia, infantility, with frequent bursts of blind violence. In such conditions, one can understand attempts to go back to « roots »: teach morality, preach religion, discuss metaphysics.
I’m willing to concede that, at least for a start, it may be useful to go back into metaphysics.
In the very first paragraph of this essay, this « letter » (I want to keep it as familiar as possible), I used the terms « meditation » and « method ». The more or less hidden reference there was to René Descartes, loathed by the symbolists of the sacred and the representatives of the Absolute, because he reduced the symbol to the sign and was out to rid his mind of cumbersome, obfuscating imagination. With his « methodological doubt », my half-innate, half-acquired scepticism feels in good company. Certainly, the same doesn’t go for my sensation of the world. If, in the Principles, Descartes approaches the question of world-formation, he hastens to provide an ad hoc explanation. But I like his desire for clarity. And I project a Descartes closer to the multiplicity of things who, like the sage in Milton’s Paradise Refound, would be content to gather pebbles on the shore. In a somewhat similar way, when I read Spinoza, I see him in his workshop at Rhynnsburg, polishing his lenses – always that desire to see things in place, along with the desire for clarity. I go back to the peripatetic Aristotle, to his nous poïetikos, which I interpret as the fundamental dynamics of the human mind.
It's out of this basic field (to which I’ll have added, at least laterally, Scot Erigena and Ibn Arabi, the first for his lumina, the second for his epiphanic itineraries) that emerged the notion of geopoetics.
To come back on metaphysics, if one pushes it to its limits, what one finds is emptiness and phenomena. And this finding (founding and grounding) can go much further than phenomenology. In pursuing phenomenological method, Merleau-Ponty arrives at what he calls « the prose of the world ». But with Merleau-Ponty, as with the very founder of phenomenology, Husserl, you don’t feel « the prose of the world », you don’t hear it sounding.
Speaking of sounding, I’m thinking of the sounds, the noises I hear around this studio: the noise of the wind, bird cries, the whisper of leaves… I’m thinking of something else. Sometimes, after a long work-session, I sit on the steps leading up to the atelier to drink tea, liking the sound my earthenware teapot makes on the granite. Which reminds me of Gauguin saying what he wanted to render in painting was something like the sound of his clogs on granite rock.
It’s a music such as this I like to hear in works of art. It’s the basic sound of geopoetics. It can be developed in all kinds of ways. But it has to be there.
All in all, it’s imagination that is supposed to characterize humanity and be the hallmark of art, then I can indeed be called an iconoclast.
I loathe the subjective enclosure of the imaginary, its narcotic narcissism. It’s only one side of the same coin, the other being objectivist positivism. Those elements in which I have no interest are prevalent not only in what is conventionally called « poetry » and « art » as practised by facile minds, they are to be found in the most acute, powerful, poetic intelligences. In Bachelard, for example. The poeticity he presents is, to sat the least, commodious: most of the time he’s content to line up images the way others tell beads. Even a first-rate poet such as Saint-John Perse can indulge in it. Take this text (written for Braque), powerful in its intent and movement, but where the psychic, metaphorical inflation is so painfully obvious: « Of all those most consanguineous to us, the bird, at the limits of daylight, accomplishes a singular destiny. A migrator, haunted by solar energy, it travels by night, days being too short for its activity. In grey moon weather the colour of gaulish mistletoe ghostly it fulfils the prophecy of the nights. » And if I can be attracted to the churinga of Australian tradition, I know it’s impossible for me now (as for the Australian aborigenes themselves, except in terms of cultural tourism and spectacular art) to think in terms of a sacred genealogy and see in it the body of an ancestor.
In short, I prefer archives to archetypes, documents to doctrines, and to « initiations » (neo-pagan, neo-shamanist, etc.), I prefer investigations – like those of Herodotus, whom Quintilian describes as dulcis, candidus et fusus (pleasant, lucid and wide-ranging).
The mention of Quintilian (first century AD author of Oratoria) brings us to the question of language, expression.
The idea of a « natural language » has haunted many minds over the centuries. I’m thinking in the first instance of Jacob Boehme. Boehme thought and wrote in a Christian context, so it’s the Word of God he hears and sees in things. But it’s possible to extrapolate from that context. For Boehme, the verb fiat (« let it be done ») is still at work and this verb « gathers and forms ». There was, and is, fundamentally, no difference between the word and the thing. If the « adamic » language, the language of the « first man » has been, lost, it can be found again. For that, its enough to study language in depth and read « the signature » of things. This will be the work of pansophs (philosophers of totality), such as one finds not only with Boehme himself, but with, for example, Khunrath of Basel, in his De Signatura Rerum. One thinks also of the kabbalists, and one can trace things further back still to Plato of Alexandria in his Opificium mundi, and Eusebius of Caesarea in his Praeparatio evangelica. I won ‘t follow Boehme’s attempts, among other aberrations of pansophia, to convince us that the word Wasser corresponds perfectly to the liquid element that others call aqua. But the notion of a liber naturalis, a language that would be the formative element of world harmony retains my attention.
If the human mind contains a great dose of naturist naivety, it also carries, and this is much more restrictive and deleterious, a quasi-pathological anti-naturism. It’s the latter that has predominated in our culture for centuries. It’s it that has created our habitual thought as well as a great part of our theory. There have been reactions to it, but too often primary and simplistic. The question remains: might it be possible to break reflex-thought with its habits, models, frameworks and find a language that would at one and the same time be fresher and more complete? This is what Jean Grenier, in his Réflexions sur quelques écrivains (« Reflection on Some Writers »), seems to be suggesting, albeit in an excessively metaphorical way, when he says that of we could break our habits, « a sky would open in which we could fly ». Certainly, to break habit is no easy matter, it implies, continues Grenier, « a violent disengagement, a forceful detachment. »
It is difficult, well-nigh impossible for some, to do this on the moral, cultural, intellectual, literary plane. But it seems to me that fundamental science can be of great help here.
In the « neo-geography » of François Dagognet, laid-out in his Epistémologie de l’espace concret (« The Epistemology of Concrete Space »), we have a new look on the sciences of the earth, the idea of a « text without author » (« author » in the ordinary sense of the word, not the geopoetic sense), marked by « an original violence. »
But in the context of this free-flowing meditation I’m engaged in, it’s on the research of a biophysician I want to insist, and on the idea of a poet (again, no « ordinary » poet).
In an essay entitled Conscience et désirs dans les systèmes auto-organisateurs (« Conscience and desires in auto-organizing systems »), Henri Atlan posits the end of Man as a « closed system » before going on, not only to draw consequences, but to advance into the openness left by this end of an illusion. From now on, existence can be conceived of as « an open process ». In other words, the entity Man, Human Being, was just a bad habit, or rather an accumulation of bad habits. But habits don’t make a (complete) man. This disappearance of humanism as a philosophy need not imply, as some would have it, some kind of alienating mechanism, nor, as others would have it, the need for recourse to some mysterious superhuman power. No need for anguish or panic. The new conception sees self-conscience as « a place of creation and innovation » and locates « an area where the radically new can enter, emerging, not from nothingness, but from chaos ». This « chaos » is no inchoate mass, bearing some aggressive threat; It also is self-organized, marked by what some biologists (I’m thinking of Varela and Maturana) call auto-poïesis. And one can go still further into this field, feelingly and intelligently. Because to discover organizing forces in matter itself, ascertain and apprehend a logic of self- organizing systems is to re-discover « in a new and clarified way » (that is, outside all pathetic fallacy, all sentimental poeticity), « a language that things can speak to us ». This « language of things » can be in correspondence with the language of man, the language of a man rid of poor habits, mental cinema and false poetry. How to establish the contact? Not by will-power, not by some imaginative projection, but by a personal disencumbering and by the discovery of a connexion between a liberated conscience and the « things » of the environment, the result being « a unified existence ».
It seems apparent that such conceptions can connect with certain developments in the field of poetics – and certainly do in the field of geopoetics. Speaking, for example, of Dante, Osip Mandlestam says he is « no producer of mere images, but a maker of instruments ». He comes back on this idea again and again: « Dante disintegrates image and turns meaning into movement »; « His work is impulsed by all kinds of things, but certainly not by imagination. » We are no longer situated in sentimentality and psychism, but in instrumentality and investigation. The poet no longer « expresses himself », he is the strategian of a theme, the protagonist of an open poetics, geopoetics.
In order to complete this essay, maybe I can quote some extracts from my own « open poetic work process » that illustrate its themes.
Here, for example, is a poem from Handbook for the Diamond Country, « The Walls of an Old Room », which indicates the exit from ingrained habit:
On the first wall
was a print of Hokusai
on the second
was an X-ray photo of my ribs
on the third
was a long quotation from Nietzsche
on the fourth
was nothing at all –
that’s the wall I went through
before I arrived here.
Here now (this is an extract from « Letter from Harris », in Mahamudra), showing the entry into a space other than the narcissico-imaginative:
sits for long hours
silent and motionless
till he enters
a state of impassivity
free of all thoughts
finally departing from the self
the domain of emptiness
in the glassy water
shatters its image
in the room of roaring waves.
Here (via an extract from « House of Tides » in Atlantica) is the open process itself:
Moving out then
into the landscape
in the white of the morning
walking and watching
tossing in the wind
a crow on a branch
reflecting the sky
in blue-grey ripples
white beach, wrack
the high gait and snootiness
a blue crab groping in a pool
the notes accumulate
towards a writing
that has more in view
than the art of making verse
out of blunt generalities
and personal complaining
and a sense of something
to be gathered in
the mind gropes
like a blue crab in a pool
tosses in the wind
reflects the sky in ripples
leaves signs in the sand
lies recklessly strewn
at the edge of the tide.
And here, to conclude, is a presentation of the situation, the place, the studio, the workshop, the atelier in which the geopoetic work goes on:
A place to work from
(to work it all out)
a place in which to
house a strangeness
this strange activity
from an accumulation of data
to the plural poem
beyond the generality.