It’s to a kind of great transcontinental and intellectual drift I want to invite the reader-searcher, involving culture and geopoetics. In the course of it, we shall, I hope, set foot ashore on some interesting islands. With the idea, not of discovering or creating a « New World », but of sketching the contours of a new world-text, perhaps a new world-context.
1. The Cultural Crisis
Let’s start off from a certain historical consciousness, the general sense of a crisis in culture that everyone feels in various degrees, according to different tonalities.
I’ll refer first to two letters on The Crisis of the Mind written by Paul Valéry, and which appeared first in English, in 1919, before appearing in their original French five years later:
« We civilisations know now that we are mortal… We have heard of worlds disappearing lock, stock and barrel, of empires sinking to the bottom with all their men and all their works, all their gods and all their laws, their academies, their pure and applied sciences, their grammars, their dictionaries, their classics, their romantics, their symbolists, their critics, and the critics of their critics… But these shipwrecks, after all, weren’t our affair. Elam, Nineveh, Babylon were fine old names, and the total ruin of these works meant no more to us than the fact of their existence. But France, England, Russia… they too could be fine old names… We see now that the abyss of history is big enough for everybody. »
The signs of the crisis envisaged by Valéry (he liked to describe himself, humorously, as « the last Atlantean ») are everywhere. One of the most obvious signs being the attempt to camouflage it, whether this camouflage take the form of a loud, spectacular, pseudo-cultural discourse, or that of a plethora of « events » and « creations » each one more trivial and superficial than the other.
2. The Fall of an Empire
Since we began talking about a new world-context, evoking in passing the notion of « New World », let’s consider first America, in particular the USA. For a deep perception, an in-depth analysis, I propose that we look, not to politologues or sociologists, but to poets.
I’m thinking of Robinson Jeffers, based on the coast of California, on America’s edge, perpetually expressing his disgust of a US « thickening into empire » and who ends up turning his back on those States, gazing out on to the Pacific Ocean.
I’m thinking of Allen Ginsberg, witness to the ruin of this empire, and howling his despair in The Fall of America, poems of these States 1965-1971:
The last almost coherent words of Ginsberg concerned his forlorn dream of a world « without cars », « with trees everywhere », where everybody would listen to « epics in archaic languages » and « stories of islands ».
Close to Ginsberg, in the psycho-pathological area, there is Robert Lowell, declaring in an essay of 1953: « Only the fissured atoms that blasted Hiroshima and Nagasaki can construct our new Atlantics. » All the old unities being polluted and corrupt, it’s only by plunging into fragmentation, atomisation, that one may, perhaps, see a new « continent » sketching itself out.
I’m thinking of Hart Crane, the poet who, after Whitman, carried on furthest, not the socio-economic « American dream » but a certain mytho-poetic drive. After raising, in a rhapsodic delirium with platonic ecstasies, a hymn of praise to the Brooklyn Bridge (a marvel of modern technology, but especially, in Cranes eyes, symbol of a link between the old and the new), after evoking the voyages and vision of Columbus, Amerindian culture, hoboes riding the rails from State to State, conscious of « the vast body of America », Crane’s modern American epic, The Bridge, ends in a South Street bar where a sailor, an old whaleman familiar with the Arctic, Panama and Yucatan, and who has known « the gleaming frontiers of the mind », listens to a song from a jukebox, Atlantis Rose, while mumbling to himself that « the star floats burning in a gulf of tears ». The poem continues, with an elaborate paean to an ideal Atlantis, but who can believe it? Crane doesn’t. In his last book, situated, not on the American continent, but in the Caribbean (Key West: an Island Sheaf), he has this: « Leave us, you idols of Futurity – alone ». And if the great drinker of Bacardi he has become ever even mentions the United States, it’s to say he's lost all faith in any future entity. All that remains is « water, and a little wind ».
We’ve arrived at the end of a civilisation, at a littoral limit where the key words are isolation, islands, and, vaguely, Atlantis. The eighth and final section of Hart Crane’s Bridge is entitled just so: Atlantis, and it bears as epigraph, this, from Plato: « Music is the knowledge of that which relates to love in harmony and system. »
Before going on with our insular peregrination, it seems appropriate and opportune to pick up again on that illustrious platonist myth, maybe the greatest myth of the West.
3. The Archetypal Atlantis
Every civilisation needs an atopia. It can be situated in time and in space – or in both. The central Chinese bureaucracy needs its taoist island where the long-life mushrooms grow. In the West, the atopia tends to become a utopia, which is to say a mytho-political model. It’s certainly the case with Plato, notably in the Timaeus and the Critias (subtitled Atlantikôs) that follow on from The Republic.
Timeaus, a pythagorean philosopher, has been called upon to do a talk before his friends on the theme of cosmology. But, as a preamble, he tells a story. This story goes back to Solon, one of the Seven Sages, who had told it to Dropis, Timaeus’s great grandfather who, in turn, relayed it to Critias, his grandfather, a statesman belonging to the oligarchy of the Thirty. In the course of a journey he’d made to Egypt, Solon had been in conversation with a priest of the city of Saïs, in the delta of the Nile. This priest had told him that the Greeks were children, « juvenile of soul », « lacking memory », having « no knowledge whitened by time ». Were they even aware that the founding divinity of Saïs, Neith, was the same as that of Athens, Athena? Did they realise that Athens was in fact older than Egypt, since the population of their region had its source in the trickle of sperm Hephaistos let drop on Ge, the earth? Did they know that history proceeded in cycles, and that every cycle ended with a cataclysm that left but few traces?
Nine thousand years before, for example, a great sea-power, « a vast and marvellous empire », situated on an island of huge dimension (« bigger than Asia and Libya combined ») had existed west of the Columns of Hercules, an island via which other islands could be reached, as well as another continent. In order to further increase its governance, which already extended into Egypt and Tyrrhenia, this proud power had launched an attack on Athens. Athens had resisted, with success, but what brought about the downfall of Atlantis, that rich and fertile island, was not the army of Greece, but a great earthquake and a deluge that had caused the whole island, taking the athenian army with it, to disappear in the depths of the sea: « Hence it is that, even to this day, the sea in that area is closed to ships and unexplorable, so clogged up is it with the mud left by the island as it sank… »
It’s possible to see in this fable no more than a little political lesson. Plato did not like the city of Athens in which he lived. It resembled too much the decadent Atlantis he imagined. The Pirea in particular, with its trade and noise, seemed to him a place of perdition, and the beginning of the end. It was essential for him to preserve the image of a good and beautiful community, to uphold the paradigm of the City he envisaged. That was the aim of The Republic.
But why should Plato have recourse to a myth, he who, in The Republic, says quite clearly: « We are not poets, we are founders of a State. Our task is to create models, not compose myths. » He was the first to make a precise distinction between muthos and logos. So, what was going on in Plato’s mind? Was mythic thought taking its revenge? Was Plato going through a period of mental fatigue, intellectual despair, hence that regression to old and wellworn, but infantile, forms? Plato despaired of Athens, despaired of The Republic, despaired of his political programme. Recall that evocation of the sinister plain of Lethe at the end of The Republic. And in the Timaeus, we read that, victim of an erosion due to deforestation, Attic territory had been reduced to « the skeleton of a sick man ». It’s when all roads are blocked, when all seems lost, that the mind turns to dream and nostalgia and the notion of an elsewhere. Atlantis, at one and the same time model (like archaic Greece) and anti-model (like Plato’s contemporary Athens) was above all that Elsewhere.
But there was maybe something else again in Plato’s mind. Something to do with poetics and geography.
It’s in this direction I want to go now.
4. From Myth to Movement
It is said in the Timaeus that if, on his return from Egypt, with all the knowledge gathered at Saïs, Solon had achieved his aim of writing a poem, he would have become « a poet greater than Hesiod and Homer ». Could it be that the conception of a different poetics was beginning to emerge and take shape in Plato’s mind? A poetics disengaged from myth, closer to knowledge, without being painstakingly philosophical or ponderously pedagogical, a poetics taking place in a space greater than the established political space, the constructed city-space.
That Plato had a poetic background is certain. Atlantic resembles both « the island of the daughter of Atlas, at the limits of the world » that Hesiod speaks of, and the isle of Phoecia in Homer. He was aware too of « the things of Asia » – the capital city of Atlantis resembles the Babylon of Herodotus, maybe too the Phoenician towns of Tyre and Sidon. I’d like to think too that he was not ignorant of what we might call the other Mediterranean: that of the Peoples of the Sea (those the Egyptians called Akaiwasha, Danuna, Shardana…), that of Phoenician expansion, to which we can add the shores of the Sahara, the Italian, Iberian and Gaulic coasts, the temples of Malta, the observation towers and fortresses (nuraghi) of Sardinia and the Balearic Isles, the megaliths of Southern Spain, a Mediterranean older than the Mycenean and the Egyptian.
I’m inventing here a Plato as proto-geopoetician.
To remain closer to the Timaeus and the Critias, some have seen in the submersion of Atlantis a reference to the brutal disappearance, in the 15th century B.C., due to a volcanic eruption followed by a tidal wave, of the civilisation of Minoan Crete. And the geographical « hearsay » extends not only to the Western limit of the Mediterranean, but out into the Atlantic. Hearing the description of the seascape left by the drowning of Atlantis who doesn’t think of the Sargasso Sea region? Who knows what rumours of distant voyages were carried over the waves and circulated in the harbours of the Inland Sea? So much fosters the hypothesis that Mediterranean seamen (Bronze Age Cretans, Phoenicians, Mycenians) had wind of goings on in the Outer Sea, the Sea of Darkness, and specifically in its northwestern section. Theopompos of Chios speaks of a « hyperborean crossing » somewhere towards the British Isles. The disappearance of Atlantis could be connected to the subsidence of land in the region of the Dogger Bank. When Plutarch speaks of a « cult of Cronos », when Hecate of Abdera evokes a gread « temple of Apollo » on the isles of the Hyperboreans, one is bound to think of Stonehenge. Plutarch may well have benefited from information brought to him by Celto-Britishers, and it’s possible that, well before him, rumours of distant voyages from the isles of the West, either by the Northern Route (Orkneys, Shetlands, Feroes, Iceland, Greenland) or by the Southern Route (the Azores, the Canaries) reached the Mediterranean. No one knows exactly how far the navigator-monk Brandan got when the first portulans began to appear « the isle of Saint Brandan » floated about in an immense space between the Azores and the southern coast of America. In his De imagine Mundi (1130), Honorarius of Autun evokes the Lost Island: « Somewhere in the ocean lies an island named Perdita. In charm and fertility, it surpasses all other lands, but it is unknown to man. From time to time, one can come across it by chance. But if you look for it, you will never find it. That is why it bears the name of the Lost Island. It is said that St. Brandan landed there. »
That’s how Brazil was born, and Antillia – and eventually the whole of atopian America.
My aim in this extravagant essay is not only to trace out tracks of geography, it’s to project the idea of islands of thought, a mental archipelago. In his Adventures of Ideas, Alfred North Whitehead evokes the discovery of certain coastlines: that of the Black Sea, that of the Western Mediterranean, the Atlantic, Egypt, India, China, insisting on the importance of this coastal navigation for the awakening of the mind and the development of thought. While speaking of islands, without ever losing movement and emotion, it’s above all this platonico-atlantic, poetico-intellectual aura I want to keep in view.
That’s why instead of rushing away to look for Atlantis under the waves of the North Atlantic or under the sands of the Sahara, I turn to The New Atlantis of Francis Bacon, written in the year of the Word and the Rest, 1623.
5. From Movement to Method
« We sailed from Peru, where we had continued by the space of one whole year, for China and Japan, by the South Sea, taking with us victuals for twelve months, and had good winds from the east, though soft and weak, five months’ space and more. But then the wind came about, and settled in the west for many days, so as we could make little or no way, and were sometimes in purpose to turn back. But then again there arose strong and great winds from the south, with a point east; which carried us up, for all that we could do, toward the north: by which time our victuals failed us, though we had made good spare of them. So that finding ourselves, in the midst of the greatest wilderness of waters in the world, without victual, we gave ourselves for lost men […] And it came to pass that the next day about evening we saw within a kenning before us, toward the north, as it were thick clouds, which did put us in some hope of land, knowing how that part of the South Sea was utterly unknown, and might have islands or continents that hitherto were not come to light. »
The New Atlantis, left unfinished at his death (non perfectum in the Latin, « the rest was left unperfected » in the English) can be considered as the testament, one of those texts he got together during the last five perfervid years (1621-1626) of his life, of the man, that his legatee (William Rawley) described as « the glory of his age and nation, the adorner and ornament of learning »: Francis Bacon. In a letter of 1592 to Lord Burleigh, Bacon declared that if he had never had great civic ambitions (though he had occupied some weighty offices), he had always had in mind great contemplative objectives and had taken the whole of human knowledge as his province. Disgusted, while still young, with abstract scholastic discussion, as, later, by blind experimentation, he was out for a new system of education and a new field of research.
It had to begin with natural history. Even if you covered the globe with academies, colleges, schools, scientific bodies of all kinds, even if you had everybody doing philosophy, he said, without such a natural history such as he proposed, human reason would not advance by a single inch. This natural history of his he entitled Sylva sylvarum (the forest of forests). Accompanied by The Advancement of Learning (De augmentis Scientarum) and The Novum Organum (a methodology), it would lay the foundation of what he called « the great renewal » (Instauration magna).
For Bacon, men’s minds in general were obstructed by habits of thought and language which prevented them not only from knowing « the secret movement of things » but from seeing anything at all clearly. As for specialized research, whether philosophical or scientific, it took place in too narrow an enclosure. To use an image (Bacon does not despise such, saying that the Greeks never really understood what more ancient peoples had included in their myths), what was necessary was to move outside the closed world of the Mediterranean, out beyond the Pillars of Hercules that classical Greece had fixed as a limit not to be crossed over. The crossing over Bacon proposed had to be more than just an adventure. It had to be an exploration carried out with method, but without an excess of methodology, for an over-rigid methodology can be every bit a hindrance to thought as unbridled imagination: if the one constricts, the other encumbers. The idea is to go out beyond the theatre of imagination, out beyond the over-systematized laboratory, following, in dispersed order, broken lines, leaving room to chance. Diderot, who admired Bacon (he dedicated the Encyclopedia to him) expresses that in a way that Bacon would, I think, at least partly, have approved: « Reason tends to remain within itself, while instinct spreads outwards – instinct keeps an eye on all and sundry, listens, touches, tastes… » Where Diderot and Bacon concur lies therein: that neither is strictly cartesian. Bacon doesn’t believe in any purity of mind, nor does he hold to the absolute value of mathematics, nor does he aim at mastery over nature (the project of modernity, based on the separation of subject from object). What is out for is « a marriage between the human mind and the nature of things ». With this project, Bacon moves outside both the Ancient World (Plato-Aristotle) and the New World (Descartes).
The Opus (the work) he envisaged: organisation of research, new institutions founded on new conceptions, was meant to change life from top to bottom. He had hopes of putting his ideas into operation during the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland, later during that of Elizabeth I, but was always disappointed: at most, under Elizabeth, he was able to create a botanical garden, a zoon, a museum and a library.
Hence, I would say, the recourse to the Atlantis myth, so as to keep the whole vision alive in its entirety: the setting up, in an appropriate place, of an institution devoted to the interpretation of nature and the production of great and beautiful works for the benefit of all mankind.
Bacon is different from Compostello, Thomas More and so many others in that he doesn’t project a political utopia, he invents what I call an atopic space for a programme, an opus that he was never able to situate, except fragmentarily, in the politico-cultural context he knew. He’s different in this also that he is concerned not only with social organisation, or the advancement of science, what occupies his mind is the happiness of living on earth. For Bacon, in the end, everything must be translated into living terms. In the list of desirable aims he draws up at the end of The New Atlantis, one finds: « make minds joyous ».
Like all great minds, Bacon knew that his work would never be perfectum. He had provided a basis for a programme that would be open and ongoing, to be continued by minds equivalent to, or at least approximating to, his own.
In The Advancement, we have this: « This writing seemeth to me not much better than that noise or sound which musicians make while they are tuning their instruments; which is nothing pleasant to hear, but yet is a cause why the music is sweeter afterwards: so have I been content to tune the instruments of the Muses, that they may play that have better hands. »
6. A Poetic Vision
Here I want to propose an interlude, a poetic interlude. Not because I think poetry can play only the rôle of intermezzo in any serious discussion (on the contrary, I consider it essential), or because poetry is of necessity « ludic » (its « great game » shows up all other games as infantile), but simply because in this essay I’m keen to vary the tones of my discourse.
The poem I want to adduce is Atlantis by the English poet W. H. Auden, written in the early 1940’s, around the time (1939) when Auden left England to settle in America.
The frontispiece of the original edition of Bacon’s Novum Organum showed a ship passing between the Pillars of Hercules at the western limit of the Mediterranean, making for the outer sea, the open ocean. It is the Ship of Learning, its motto: Multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia (« Many will cross and knowledge will be increased »).
When the modern poet turns up for the passage three centuries later, the only ship available is a Ship of Fools. This ship first appeared in Plato (The Republic, chap. VI) as an allegory for democracy: a ship without a pilot, whose captain is deaf and short-sighted, and on which all the sailors want to steer the boat, especially those who know nothing about navigation. Later (end of the 15th century), it was picked up by Sebastian Brant of Strasburg in his Das Narrenshyff ad Narragoniam which depicts the follies of humanity, the lack of Vernunft (good reason), in hundreds of rhyming couplets. Before it descended into the realms of rock groups and science fiction, in 1939 it was still around as a literary symbol:
In short, in this day and age, to evoke Atlantis, to speak of anything like poetic vision, is to pass for a fool.
If you do decide to embark, whatever the circumstances, you’ll have to be ready for harsh weather and a tough trip. You may be driven here or there to seek for shelter. Say in Greece. But all you’ll find there now are scholars and sophists who’ll tell you there’s no such thing as Atlantis. So on you’ll go, maybe to Thrace where, in order to relieve the tension of the search, you can indulge in a session of bonge and barbaric delirium. Before pressing on, say, to Carthage, where a whore in a bordello will tell you in dulcet tones: « come on, honey, I’m the only Atlantis you’ll ever know »:
The last stage is the toughest. You’ve beached in the vicinity of Atlantis. But you’re all alone, and the country is desolate: a cold desert of tundra, stone and silence. You climb to the top of a crest and actually see Atlantis but, like Moses, know you’ll never reach that promised land. Just say to yourself that even to get a glimpse is maybe enough after all to fulfil a life:
Since our aim is not anything like « salvation », we can leave Auden there (he was later to convert to Roman Catholicism), and continue our Atlantean exploration.
7. Via Königsberg and Genoa
Concerning the Atlantist voyage, Bacon had always insisted on the need for prudence and precision, order and organisation. « For », as he said in a text on « the midwifery of time », « the island of truth is surrounded by a powerful ocean in which many minds will be shipwrecked in the tempests of illusion. »
A century and a half later, in Chapter III of his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (« Critique of Pure Reason »), Kant, the lone man of Königsberg, teaching philosophy and geography at the university, doing his daily walks as regular as clockwork, writing his books, echoes Bacon almost to the word: « By this time we have laid out a map of pure reasoning, closely examining each and every part, taking its measure, setting everything in its place. […] It is the land of Truth (truth: a most seductive word). But it is an island, surrounded by a vast and tempestuous ocean, an empire of illusion, where, amid dense fogs, great blocks of ice liable to melt away at any moment, can give the impression of new lands. The mind of a navigator dreaming of discoveries, unable to resist the lure of adventure, can easily be filled with vain hopes that will lead him nowhere. Before actually setting foot on this land to explore it in all its extent, so as to make sure there really is a possibility of discovery, it will be useful to take another look at the country we’re thinking of leaving, asking ourselves if, perhaps, we could not content ourselves with it. »
For Nietzsche, all alone in Genoa, home ties severed, professional position abandoned, Kant was all too prudent. In Nietzsche, we witness more urgency and, if not more hope, more of a desperate move forward. In his notebooks of the years 1885-86, we find this: « We don’t know in what direction we’ll be pushed, once we’ve left our former homeland. But it’s that very earth that gave us the strength that now drives us towards lands without limits. The force within us makes it impossible for us to stay on old and decomposed soil. Rather die than become a poison-filled invalid. We know there is another world. »
So, on we go.
8. Along the Fire Belt
At one time, I read a lot of D. H. Lawrence. He was by far the most interesting figure for me on the English scene. It is no longer the case. But I retain four texts of this fiery and far-flung Englander: Twilight in Italy, Etruscan Places, Mornings in Mexico – and Fantasia of the Unconscious. If I come back to these texts, it’s because what they have behind them is not a family history, or a personal history (the themes of his novels, as of most novels), but a cosmology. That is the most secret, and the most crying lack in our world. It’s the fact that he knows it, in his brain and in his guts, that makes Lawrence significant. « Men live and see according to some gradually developing and gradually withering vision », he says in the Fantasia. « This vision exists also as a dynamic idea of metaphysics – exists first as such. Then it is unfolded into life and art. Our vision, our metaphysic, is wearing woefully thin, and the art is wearing absolutely threadbare. »
If Lawrence is English, he is an extravagant Englishman (a rare bird indeed), and he is much more than contemporary: « I like the wide world of centuries and vast ages – mammoth worlds beyond our day. » Concerning the movement of history, he does not believe in evolution, but in « the strangeness and rainbow-change of ever-renewed creative civilisations » which arise, and fall, within the « floods and fire and convulsions and ice-arrest » of the cosmos.
It’s with this kind of perspective in mind that he imagines, intuits rather, a great civilisation, deeply cultured, that once existed all over the world. This vision begins with a sweeping cosmographic, paleo-geographical panorama.
Envision then an Earth when all the waters are gathered up in a vast body on the higher areas of the globe, leaving what we now know as sea-beds relatively dry: « The Azores rose up mountainous from the plain of Atlantis where the Atlantic now washes, and the Easter Isles and the Marquesas rose lofty from the marvellous great continent of the Pacific. » Across this open space, « men wandered back and forth from Atlantis to the Polynesian Continent as men now sail from Europe to America. » In this large open space, one culture prevailed, based on a science of life, « a great science and cosmology different in constitution and nature from our science », so that people, be they in Asia, Polynesia, America, Atlantis or Europ, were « in one complete correspondence all over the earth ».
The image can remain, the Atlantean vision, but the reality disappear – because the movements of the cosmos are more colossal than human civilisation and culture.
Lawrence reels off more of his vision.
At one time or another in the Atlantean world, the glaciers melted and a huge deluge was released. « The refugees from the drowned continents fled to the high places of America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific Isles. » Some, continues Lawrence, « degenerated into cave-men », others « wandered savage in Africa », and some, like the South Sea Islanders, retained at least the outward signs of « beauty and lifer-perfection », or like Druids, Etruscans, Chaldeans, Amerindians or Chinese, « refused to forget », maintaining as best they could the old teaching, in half-forgotten forms: ritual, gesture, symbol, myth, cosmic graph, Egypt and Greece being perhaps the last complete upholders of the old wisdom before it crumbled into « magic and charlatany ».
So much for the progress of events and the times of degradation.
Lawrence remains convinced that there is « a great field of science » which is as yet quite closed to us: « I refer to the science which proceeds in terms of life and is established on data of experience and of sure intuition. Call it subjective science if you will. The objective science of modern knowledge is perfect as far as it goes. But to regard it as exhausting the whole scope of human possibility in knowledge seems to me just puerile. »
There is the credo.
But there is also a programme. This programme consists in trying to gather in as many elements as possible of the « whole culture » posited.
In pursuing this programme, Lawrence makes, as we have seen, no claim to scientific validity. But he is not content either to rely solely on imagination. He delves into scientific documents and collections, he refers to Freudian psychoanalysis, to the historian of cultures Leo Frobenius, to the anthropologist and mythologist James Frazer, to Plato, the Pre-socratics (Thales, Heraclitus, Empedocles…), yoga and John of the Apocalypse. Taking pains at every turn to declare that he is no more than an enthusiastic autodidact and « an amateur of amateurs ».
Lawrence was well aware that his approach might, would be, erratic and confused. He was probably less aware (because I suspect he never reread his writing), but his constant reader is, that he can be jabberingly repetitive. But he has what so many scientists and scholars, however meritorious, don’t have and never will: a rare amount and brand of intellectual energy. As well as something else, rarer still: that mix of eros, logos and cosmos that makes for the greatest, and the finest, thought and writing.
And what, finally, was he out for? « I believe », he says in the Fantasia, « I am only trying to stammer out the first terms of a forgotten knowledge. » Even if he did think himself in terms of a recovery or a renaissance, might we not, leaving image, myth and fable, lost worlds, behind, think rather in more general terms?
Evolve something out of a renewed sense of chaos-cosmos, and start out again from basics?
9. Casa Atlantica
After this long drift, I’m back in my atelier atlantique, surrounded by maps and documents, by books and manuscripts.
The arrangement, the classification of the books has a logic to it, but perhaps a strange one.
Beside Lawrence, for example (at least according to the present taxonomy), I have, not other « British poets », but Antonin Artaud. It’s not only, though fundamentally so, that he is of the same fiery temperament and the same erratic mentality as Lawrence, it’s also because he too makes specific reference to Atlantis. That’s in the book he wrote on his trip to Mexico and his visit to the Tarahumara Indians: « In the depths of the Tarahumara sierra I saw the site of the capital of Atlantis such as Plato describes it in the Critias… » As I’ve already suggested in the case of Lawrence, let’s leave aside the psycho-culture delirium. What’s important is that, there on the Tarahumara sierra, Artaud was aware of something, both in the outer landscape and in his inner mindscape, both in the mentality of the people he met and in his own dreams, that was « a challenge to this age ». He felt he was in touch with a people who had « an extremely high idea of the philosophical movement of nature », « an actively geometric conception of the world » and who lived in a territory « literally haunted by signs ».
Among those from whom he had gathered some signs and learnt something, Lawrence listed Leo Frobenius. He must have read, in Germany, and in German, books by Frobenius such as Auf dem Wege nach Atlantis (On the way to Atlantis) of 1911, Volksmärchen der Kabyl (Kabyl folk tales) of 1921, or Atlantische Götterlehre (Atlantic theogony) of 1922. These books are on the shelves of my library here, beside Lawrence and Artaud, with Rimbaud (out to be « a son of the sun » in Abyssinia) and Lautréamont, born in Uruguay, at Montevideo, died in Paris, Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, whose principal book, Les Chants de Maldoror I interpret as the poem of a mind, eccentric and paranoiac, « sick for dawn » (en mal d’aurore).
But, while not forgetting it all, let’s pursue our intention to turn away from psychic mythologizing and delirious projection to the possibilities of a new science and a new poetics.
Close to the figures and documents I’ve just mentioned, but in another category, I have Novalis who, in his The Disciples of Saïs (those Solon met up with in Egypt as recounted in Plato’s Timaeus) evokes those « multiple paths » along which one can see appearing all kinds of strange figures: « On shells, in clouds, outside and inside mountains, plants and people » and who speaks of a Natursinn, a nature-sense, which combines the study of nature with its enjoyment. Next to Novalis, I have Gaston Bachelard who, in his Le Nouvel Esprit scientifique (The new scientific mind), speaks not only of a « conceptual enlargement » but of « cosmic well-being ».
We’re looking for links between science, philosophy and poetry within the framework (the geometry) of a new culture.
A lot of this gathered for me early on in my student readings of Nietzsche, the first atopian of modernity, or proto-atopian, whose complete works stand on these Atlantic shelves a little further on. One of the most misunderstood of Nietzsche’s concepts is the Übermensch, often translated, with inept connotations, as « superman », but in fact rather « overman », in the sense of someone who has moved out of an all-too human humanity, into an amplified existence.
The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa makes this clear in a poem, quoting which I’ll begin to conclude this essay-drift:
To really conclude, it only remains for me now to go down to the shore, there to walk among flotsam and jetsam, traces and movements, within a totally unedited topology. It’s all out there, but « out there » keeps changing all the time.