The Crystal World

I‘m not often inclined to visit art installations, but Seizure by Roger Hiorns struck me as quite unusual. We’re often taken with aspects of the chnaging seasons because of how they rewrite the world and change our vision of it; the land encased in snow, tree leaves becoming inflamed with burgundy and gold, the same trees bereft of those leaves and left skeletal. Something similar but rather more unnatural, is at work with Seizure; a derelict block of low-rise flats was filled with a heated solution of Copper Sulphate, drained, and then allowed to cool. The outcome of this process was to leave the walls, floor and ceiling encrusted with these crystals; a form of aleatoric art. On the outside, the houses are boarded up, paint peeling off their walls. Hiorns is interested in brutalist architecture, failed visions of a utopian future that carry ‘the stain of life.’ Entering inside, the crystals have covered almost everything, with mounds, troughs and puddles of copper sulphate solution forming a miniature terrain across the floor. In the darkness, the crystals covering the walls glitter. It all leaves me reminded of Ballard’s The Crystal World.

Walking back, I notice Rodney Gordon’s Faraday Memorial. I must have walked past this spot several times now without ever noticing it, which is odd as it is quite striking; a stainless steel exterior without windows that is identical on all four sides, only interrupted by a single door. The object houses a substation for the London Underground and is accordingly functional but does not obviously correlate to any established architectural norm. It must have looked quite futuristic when constructed in the sixties; but now its fate would seem to have become nondescript. Further to the south, I visit West Norwood cemetery on a frosty and cold day. It seems noteworthy for two particular reasons: firstly, its Greek orthodox section (mosaics are an especial feature here) and secondly, its terracotta tombs designed by Harold Peto for Doulton and Tate, with Venetian glass and elaborate corbels. Many of the tombs are rather ornate to the point of being rather kitsch in their demonstration of Victorian sentimentality. Nonetheless, much of the cemetery seems in rather poor repair; several of the tombs are broken, leaving the vaults beneath exposed. Equally, much of the place seems overgrown and wild; at one point I’m confronted by a fox who seems largely unconcerned by my presence. The entire remembrance garden is enclosed in scaffolding. Like Highgate, the Cemetery is on a hill from where the skyscrapers of the city can be seen glinting in the distance. Back in the city, the Guildhall has a small exhibition of GF Watt paintings from the closure of the Watts gallery for restoration. While much of Pre-Raphaelite art was meticulous in its presentation of detail, Watts tends to predate impressionist or even abstract modern art. Much of this stems from an idiosyncratic interpretation of Darwinism; like Pater, Watts was interested in flux and chaos and opposed religion to it as an idea of the transcendent rather than a dogma. As such, much of his work is allegorical but stemming from what is effectively a private mythology. Looking at some of the other paintings, I’m struck by the resemblance borne by one of Poynter’s paintings of ancient Egypt to the Klenze paintings of Athens I saw in Munich.

I haven’t visited Tate Modern’s galleries since the collection was rehung according to artistic genre rather than theme, so I decided it would be worth completing the day by doing so. The first section is dedicated to abstract and expressionist art; I find myself especially impressed by the contrast between the likes of Rothko (a wonderful golden painting), Pollock and even Monet on the one hand, and a section dedicated to Viennese Actionism on the other, as with Hermann Nitsch’s Poured Painting or Arnulf Rainer’s Wine Crucifix where red paint like blood runs down the canvas. Lee Krasner’s Gothic Landscape rather more resembles the Viennese paintings than the American ones. There was also an interesting contrast between Giacometti’s statues with their Egyptian and African influences and David Smith’s sculptures, welded farm art made from disused farm machinery. I’m also interested in the expressionist Brucke group and am somewhat surprised at having missed any of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s paintings during my visits to Germany. The final room of interest contains Matissse’s The Snail, Picasso’s Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle and Hepworth’s Orpheus. The next collection of interest is surrealism. I can’t deny that surrealism is by far and away the most interesting to me, presumably due to its close linkages with psychoanalysis and literature (although much of it is also concerned with painting as an equivalent to automatic writing, as with Miro or Calder’s mobiles). The first room contains De Chirico’s Uncertainty of the Poet before paintings by Magritte, Dali, Ernst, Tanguy and Tanning, but there are some unfamiliar works like Landscape from a Dream by Nash, Ibdes in Aragon by Masson, A Naturalist’s Study by Roy, Variation on the Form of an Anchor by Hillier, Black Virtue by Matta or Fini’s Little Hermit Sphinx. I pause for a while to watch Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and proceed upstairs to the next collection.

The next collection is Futurism, Cubism and Vorticism, beginning with Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. Unsurprisingly, much of this collection is taken up with Picasso, Severini, Balla, Lewis and Braque, but there are some surprising inclusions from Vanessa Bell, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson’s A Star Shell and Fernand Leger. Much of this section is given up to more generally post-impressionist art; Mondrian’s Sun, Church in Zeeland; Zoutelande Church Facade, Picasso’s early Girl in a Chemise, Munch’s The Sick Child, Matisse’s Trivaux Pond as well as works by Cezanne and Bonnard. There’s also a section on realist art; Meredith Frampton, Chagall and Derain. The final part is dedicated, rather oddly, to Soviet propaganda. Characterised by hero-worship and militarism it’s not overly pleasant. The final collection is given up to abstract art and minimalism; Mondrian, Gabo, Brancusi, Helion, Malevich, and Kandinsky.

Travelling north, I go for a walk in the National Memorial Arboretum. I notice a nearby cottage with sheep and goats grazing in front of it as I walk alongside the river. There’s a section I haven’t seen before featuring replicas of various historical memorials; cairns, menhirs, roman gravestones, medieval memento mori, baroque cherubs, victorian angels and modern designs. The following day is taken up with a visit to Croxden Abbey, a ruin dissolved in the reformation. The building survives quite well; elaborate capitals remain on arches and tiles can still be seen on the floor. The line of the building is quite visible for the most part, such as the multiple side chapels on the main church building. I then make a return visit to Pugin’s church at Cheadle, with its angels and seraphim on the altars, its encaustic floor tiles, and polychromatic tiles lining the walls. The day after that is mostly taken up with a visit to Ashby castle. The nearby church has an elaborate Elizabethan alabaster tomb from its founding family; part of it is still painted. The ruins themselves retain traces of the original ostentation, especially above the fireplaces. I recall the civil war tunnels from a childhood visit but am also impressed with the remains of the chapel, a set of iron gates barricading off the empty arches. Further down south, I visit Minster Lovell, another ruined mansion near Oxford, with a rather macabre ‘Musgrave Ritual’ story attached to it. The walls seem generally rather better preserved than those at Ashby, having been destroyed by entropy rather than by gunpowder; gargoyles and decorated arches survive. It’s another rather dark day and the Windrush has flooded much of the ground.

Reading The Arabian Nights, it’s easy to see why romantic writers were so taken with it; most obvious is the sense of irrational exoticism that appealed to the likes of Walpole and Beckford but also the sense of threat from forces beyond human comprehension that pervades the tales and the gothic novel alike. In a more philosophical context, romanticism fitful relationship with the transcendent dovetails neatly with the fatalism of the tales, whereby everything happens by the will of the divine. The tales are framed with a device of Scheherazade using her narration as a means of influence but frequently contain stories where the hero’s fate has little to do with self determination and where the malfeasant are often rewarded as much as the virtuous. The tales have been made Muslim, but not with complete success, and not to the extent of excluding all the jinn, ghouls and other popular superstitions that canonical Islam disdains. They are localised in the great cities of the Arab golden age, fascinated by commodities and coined money, fabrics, scents, confectionery, guilds and crafts, but uncomfortable in the countryside and terrified of the open sea. The prudery and solemnity of Arab merchant life, the stately procession from shop to mosque to bath and back again, is subject to violent disruption by a flash of black eyes from behind a lattice or the sudden appearance of a demon. Reading Herodotus’s Histories, I was struck that whereas much of Greek historical writing tends to centre around the Hellenic world and a Persian other (with open admiration for Sparta in the case of writers like Xenophon), Herodotus is as much an anthropologist as a historian and is as interested in foreign cultures as he is in events. If anything, Persia receives more attention that Greece even if events are told from a Hellenic perspective (as with the Persian debate over whether to accept democracy or autocracy).

Reading Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden and Selected Stories is to proceed down a path that initially seems well travelled. The stories concern unfulfilled lives dwindling in the backwaters of the American mid west. In many respects, they resemble Hardy with their convergence of heredity and environment to crush their characters, especially in a story like Eric Hermannson’s Soul: "a face that bore the stamp of Nature’s eternal injustice… Cheat nature? Bah! One generation may do it, perhaps two, but the third.." The early stories accordingly make much of the Norwegian ancestry of many of the characters as much as the hardship of their existence eking a living out of the soil. Nonetheless, Cather is not much of either a pessimist or a moralist; her Emma Bovary in The Bohemian Girl or her Trenchard in On the Divide are able to find happiness while other characters in Eric Hermannson’s Soul blame the "evil spirit" of the local gospel sect for condemning people to misery rather than any sense of ineluctable metaphysics doing so.

In the stories that make up The Troll Garden itself, matters prove more complicated, with the mismatch between the individual and the environment manifesting itself in more complicated ways; While some characters like Merrick thrive away from the Midwest, others like Katharine are only tormented by the memories of other places they are returned to it. A story like The Garden Lodge offers a parable of profligacy and prudence as equivalent roads to suffering. Nonetheless, many of which are not fully explained; for a realist writer Cather often tends to leave matters unsaid, to leave a figure in the carpet. The Sculptor’s Funeral and A Death in the Desert furnish good examples, with the relationship between the sculptor and the lawyer left undefined, as is the nature of Roux’s disgrace or the absent figure of Adriance Hilgarde for whom his brother serves as a proxy in Katharine’s love (a modern sensibility would presume, not unreasonably, a homosexual interpretation in each of these cases, although the stories benefit from this lacuna). Other stories are more ineffable still; the epicentre of The Marriage of Phaedra is located in the speechless canvas of a painting while Paul’s Case and A Wagner Matinee both dwell on the ineffable longings created from exposure of music, ranging from desire for a road not taken to crime and death. In Eliot’s phrasing, Cather has withheld an objective correlative for these stories.

Reading Heidegger’s Being and Time, I find myself most troubled by his continual emphasis on the importance of authenticity. Much of the text can be described as a phenomenological argument with Kant, replacing Kant’s metaphysics with a materialist outlook derived from romantic thinking, stripping out the cartesian emphasis on the soul or the transcendential and replacing it with an emphasis on the throwness of being and the inseparability of being from the world. With that said, Heidegger’s terminology often seems more religiose than Kant’s, particularly so with the emphasis on the fallen nature of existence. Although Heidegger is clear that he is not equating inauthenticity with sinfulness, it seems difficult to avoid the equation, leaving the impression of secular theology rather than existentialism. Certainly, the use of the term differs greatly from equivalent concepts in other existentialist thinking, seeming to conflate Nietzsche’s ressentiment (a critique of slave morality) and what Sartre would term bad faith (a refusal to accept freedom or moral agency). Heidegger both characterises being as being governed by care of conscience, thereby guesturing towards a Sartrean notion of social commitment, and as being at risk of falling into being overwhelmed by the the mass of humanity, thereby echoing Nietzschean concepts (e.g. "in utilising public means of transport and in making use of public sources of information such as the newspaper, every other is like the next…the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded"). It’s characteristic of Heidegger to collapse distinctions between opposing tendencies and to treat them as parts of a broader dialectic. Nonetheless, it still leaves me wondering how theese theories could be put into practice; many of Heidegger’s philosophical themes—the overcoming of nihilism, the importance of rootedness, the need for decisive action—found vulgar echoes in Nazi thought. Faced with choices between the mass democracy of America and the collectivism of the Soviet Union, it seems little surprising that he found the Nazi emphasis on hero worship conducive to this thought. As he put it in his rectoral address: "the relentlessness of that spiritual mission that forces the destiny of the German people into the shape of its history… Does this essence have genuine strength to shape our existence?" The spiritual mission of the German people (again, note the reconstitution of religious terminology) under Nazism distinguished itself from the subjugation of Dasein under the domination of technology in communism or democracy, a process he termed ‘forgetfulness of being’ (Seinsvergessenheitct) in The Question Concerning Technology. One can, of course, read Heidegger’s text more sympathetically than the biographical emphasis would seem to warrant; his comments on technology have an obvious force regarding the industrial nature of the holocaust and his criticism of inauthenticity could conceivably be applied to Nazism amongst other mass movements. Nonetheless, he seems a markedly more difficult figure to rehabilitate than Nietzsche.

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass is one of the very few works of the modern era that could be labelled carnivalesque. In the Bakhtinian sense, the term denotes the anarchic and comic: fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled. Throughout the novel, Grass establishes dichotomies only to overturn them: Oskar is identified first with Satan and then with Jesus, with Rasputin and Goethe as the twin poles of his reading matter. The narrator frequently refers to himself in the third person, further establishing a split within himself. Polyphony abounds, with the alternate narrators giving slightly different accounts of events to Oskar. It also dwells on the body and the material, as does Grass in his scatological descriptions of the infant christ’s anatomy, in Oskar’s deformity, in Oskar’s refusal to believe in Jesus unless it can come alive and drum ("either he drums or is he is not a real jesus") or even in the horse’s head filled with eels. The same applies to The Dog Years where one student of Heidegger buries "a real mount made of human bones under medieval allegories." With that said, Grass uses magical realism as a means of producing concrete synbols: the deformed dwarf, the black dog, worms, scarecrows (themselves emblematic of the Heideggerian distinction of being and emptiness at the same time they satirise Heidegger’s endless metaphysical neologisms). Like Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik, The Tin Drum also a picaresque novel, episodic and peripatetic by nature. The comparison with Hasek is a rather apt one: that novel is perhaps the closest to the The Tin Drum in many respects, with the exception that the humour of the earlier novel is univocal in its targets. Oskar almost epitomises the object of Nazi eugenics: deformed, Polish and an artist. His anarchism can also easily be construed as a form of resistance to fascist ideology, as with his disruption of a Nazi rally and equal disgust with the socialists and communists. Vaclav Havel once observed that; "We are the seekers of truth who fear those who claim to have found it." Similarly, the dichotomies of the novel represent a rejection of ideas of the absolute notions of truth that typically form the bedrock of totalitarianism; where "there is politics there is violence." Oskar is presented as free to "harmonize chaos and intoxicate reason," where the dichotomy of hero and villain is itself rejected. Where Schweik constantly acts to undermine authority, Oskar is the willing servant of the Nazis for much of the novel and leaves a trail of blood and destruction in his wake (the author’s recently disclosed SS membership is rather obviously suggestive here). His drumming seems the perfect allegory of a world where all values had already been inverted and insanity reigned. It does raise the question as to whether carnival is an entirely effective mode of opposing totalitarianism; it may not be enough to overturn all values when the oppressors have already done that.

The addition of a modern soundtrack by Michael Nyman does little to efface the comparison, but I couldn’t help comparing Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera to Koyaanisqatsi; both eschew narrative in favour of disconnected images, both are concerned with the relation of man and technology, albeit the former glorifies it as the latter reviles it. In both cases, the absence of a controlling structure leaves the interpretation decidedly open ended. Reggio’s cinematography of gleaming skyscrapers is quite beautiful, Vertov’s vision of dehumanised man as a machine (with factory workers showed beaming in the midst of their drudgery) is rather horrifying. Inevitably, Vertov’s depiction of everydaylife dwells on certain aspects; the interest in speed and technology (cars, planes, motorbikes, trains and trams all feature) recalls while Marinetti while the interest in the athletic physique recalls Reifenstahl. The scenes in the beerhall introduce the only permissible element of decadence amongst the rather interminable wholesomeness of the images of work and play. The composite of scenes from Moscow, Kiev and Odessa forges the idea of a single Soviet identity. What’s most interesting about Vertov is the rather postmodern self-referentiality of the film – the framing of it within a cinema, the repeated shots of the lens or of the cameraman; this diary of a cameraman is a film about the making of a film.