On Long Works

How do you decide on the proper length for any work?  It’s not the same question as deciding when a painting is finished or considering the ways in which it can be left unfinished.  The interesting thing about very long texts can sometimes be how they got to be that long.  Finnegans Wake isn’t literally the longest book in the world, but how could you outdo it for intricacy, crucial for working out how long it will take to get to the end of it.

Among its other effects, the Covid epidemic has driven me to seek out long books, because I want things that will last a long time.  This hasn’t been a conscious plan until now, but perhaps its length had something to do with my gravitating for example to Vladimir Nabokov’s longest work, his 1000-page Commentary on Pushkin’s blessedly short ‘novel in verse’ Eugene Onegin.  Illogically, I group with Nabokov Jozef Czapski’s Lectures on Proust, a brief work about an enormous one, that drew me because he gave these lectures in a Soviet prison camp and never wrote them out.  They only exist because his listeners thought it worthwhile to reconstruct them.  I am beginning to wonder if they won’t project me into a reading of Proust, on which illness has pushed me to embark at least once before.

Reading about the circumstances of the Proust lectures reminded me of another prison-camp product, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.  I didn’t know until recently that there are 1300 pages of them.  The collections I read in the 1980s were just a sample.  How could you know what this writer really amounts to based on such a small selection?  Isn’t the most remarkable thing about this great act of recall that he pursued it so persistently, until his piercing little shards formed a single work as long as this?

At the beginning I thought I would write about Shalamov standing on the threshold (looking out from page 50, say) and imagining the vast expanses beyond.  Now it is too late for that; I have rushed ahead to p. 300 and lost the freshness of the first glimpse.  I’ve done the same with a poetic work of monstrous extent which I have also just taken on, Melville’s Clarel, a 500-page verse epic set in the Holy Land, taken on because I can’t believe that a writer as interesting as Melville would have persisted long enough to produce a poem much longer than Paradise Lost which wasn’t compelling.

In Moby Dick Melville is often at his best when he cuts freest from the narrative and submerges himself in the ocean of language.  It’s too early to say if Clarel bears out these hopes.

In the meantime, a film.  A film that in its different versions ranges anywhere from 145 to 210 minutes, the longer versions being the director’s favourites, the shorter ones obeying the dictates of the studio.  The plot of the film is absurdly or magnificently simple.  It is an extended car-chase (briefly pursued in a biplane by one demented group) down/ up? the Coast Highway of California.  The protagonists have been multiplied mercilessly to make space for about a dozen famous comedians who are each upstaging the others, crossing and tangling paths, getting lost and breaking down, fighting with each other.  It is a simple gag—what a strange expression, as if we might choke on laughter—painfully extended.  I saw the shortest version and can’t imagine how it could reasonably be lengthened—are there whole new episodes and stars? If 13 is good, won’t 14 be better? Or does the longer form just lengthen the pain of an existing awkwardness?  The most interesting comic writers and actors must often be pushing toward the limits of comedy, philosophical not in the deeply reflective sense but a sense abstract and not truly particular, escaping the limits of individuality into types of human potential.

When I started blogging I was pleased when the subject carried me unexpectedly to greater lengths, 1000, even 2000 words, though it seemed dangerous to let them go far beyond that.  Now I dream of a short one and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World doesn’t seem the ideal stimulus for this.

Except if you concentrated on one of the most inventive elements in the whole film, the credits by Saul Bass, ‘Saul Bass’ who was really a couple to which Elaine Makatura, the female partner made a key contribution.  These credits, which seem to go on forever and actually last two or three minutes, pack in a wonderful series of transformations, a globe from inside of which a saw appears, cutting doors and windows, out of which crowds spill, or via which gangs enter, a globe which becomes an egg by a quick dramatic stretch, brooded on by a hen, breaks open, spawns a chick, is tied back together, cuts loose as a balloon, flies, deflates, spits out a pile of words that clatter like dominoes and carry the names of important functions in the film, make-up, sound, stills etc.

So I thought I wanted to analyse this shifting poem of images, not in colour but in two-tone, a kind of harsh minimal vocabulary like a cartoon, sometimes violent like a cartoon, always moving.  So I sat down to follow these credits carefully on the screen of a laptop, stopping the action looking for stills which would make good illustrations, and found that none of them would.  When you stopped the frames, the life went out of them.  On top of that, they were all in widescreen, a weird invention of the 1950s or 60s when cinema was locked in a death clasp with television and had to find visual effects TV couldn’t duplicate.  By now TV screens are all widescreens of a kind and have lost their own battles with later sorts of display.

Some of Saul Bass’s most radical shake-ups make letters and words into beings or at least give them a kind of mechanical life.  I wonder if the designers were consciously harking back to when writing was pictures.  They brought about a poetic condensation of the two or three hours of material expanded and diversified in the film into 2 or 3 minutes of action drawn by the hand of the designer and projected at a speed or speeds that challenged the eye to follow it.  By comparison, the film that came immediately after seemed delightfully, impossibly old fashioned.

Moral: The antidote to a long work is a short one (and vice versa).

Beardsley the modernist

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The big Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain was the first major exhibition that the virus kept me from visiting, and I got the idea that, using Linda Zatlin’s catalogue raisonné, I could stage a more comprehensive exhibition at home.  So I buried myself in her giant volumes and saw a lot I hadn’t seen before.  That was five months ago. Now the library has finally recalled Zatlin and sent me back to the topic from March.

Beardsley the Modernist, Beardsley the Pornographer, Beardsley the Puritan, Beardsley the Decadent, Beardsley the Teller-of-Stories or Beardsley the Burier of Secrets.

These strange appliances that continually recur, they must mean something else, because they are so exaggerated. Impossibly spindly candles burning away above the characters’ heads, consuming their own substance without end. They must be emblems of the temporary in spite of their inhuman stiffness and their appearance in phalanxes of three, impossibly near each other.   Beardsley learned that he had consumption, the nineteenth century name for tuberculosis, when he was seven.   He died eighteen years later in the South of France, a Catholic convert who sent desperate pleas home to burn his wicked work, which his friend and publisher disobeyed.   His room in France was a shrine to Mantegna above all, one of the most secular of classicists. His religious pictures are feeble. His favourite Gospel story, Salome’s unsatisfied passion for a saint she couldn’t corrupt (until death did it for her) was a favourite with Symbolists, who wrenched it away from the very idea of abstention. Beardsley’s drawings purporting to illustrate Oscar Wilde’s play, several of them completely re-thought to outwit censorship, had been calmed down perhaps, but were still lewd, if less directly.

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How can it be that this grisly, even necrophiliac subject pushes Beardsley towards a purely two-dimensional abstraction?   One of his most revealing remarks, quoted by Linda Zatlin (who produced the invaluable catalogue raisonné) from an interview in the Boston Evening Transcript (previously familiar to me only via one of T. S. Eliot’s jokey early poems), was that his works were just as good when you turned them upside down.   Early abstractionists have described being pushed further by seeing their own designs upside down. Beardsley was trying to de-toxify his work with this suggestion and making a claim to seriousness for Art’s sake. I took him up on it and spent an inordinate amount of time holding Zatlin’s volumes upside down. This works better with some than with others. Seeing growth hanging down instead of sprouting up can be invigorating. Some of the temporal dislocations in Strauss or Debussy feel like musical phrases turned upside down to echo a character’s alienation.

Beardsley is a radical and perceptive theorist of line who realises what he is doing when he prescribes that you should maintain the same thickness of line both in foreground and background, rather than getting thinner as you go further away. It sounds like a narrow point, but he is discarding illusions of space for the realities of the picture plane.

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Yet who has ever managed to look at Beardsley primarily as a formalist? Fifteen years before Beardsley, Gustave Moreau had been obsessed with the story of Salome in a whole series of paintings and watercolours of mesmerising richness, where a small company of onlookers provide sub-focii in the dense forest of detail, tile-covered walls, mosaic-encrusted vaults and flesh inlaid with jewels, from which Huysmans got the idea of planting gems in a live reptile’s shell, which would then grow around them, a description perhaps of the relation between characters and setting in Moreau’s frozen tableaux.

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At this point in his career Beardsley is stripping away detail from his narratives. In a mechanically reproduced form of the drawing much of the filigree has to be sacrificed to pure line and pure contrast, black and white and nothing in between, where both became stronger in this poverty or isolation.

Something became stronger but it wasn’t the bodies of man and woman. In this Beardsley composition Salome is a ghost, and Jokanaan a metaphysical phallus, a candle flame burning itself out and a liquid dripping into a lake where it remains on the surface like an oil slick or the design on a carpet. Mysteriously it inspires growth, an erect and a wilted version of the phallus which seems to be the story of Jokanaan telling itself over again.

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This confrontation of the levitating woman (orgasm? the illustration is called Climax – or is that just my name for it?) and the decapitated head – the essence of the man, or an utterly emasculated form?   This is a confrontation that goes on occurring–next time or the time before he is presented on a platter like a dish you could consume, but at the end of a hairy post, so another phallic terminus, and now there is nothing delicate about the effusion of liquid, it’s a dark mess spilling off the edge in more than one direction.

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I thought I had to begin the story at the end because that is where Beardsley began it, but there is a sense in which these episodes do not take place in ‘real’ or ordinary time but in a world of archetypes which all exist at once. So you have a couple looking at the moon who has the features of Oscar Wilde (their author?). Are they John and Salome? They both look utterly inexperienced, like frightened children who hesitate.   Male underdevelopment often takes the form in Beardsley of childish genitals which seem to signify somebody who isn’t ready to embark, a spiritual as much as a physical condition, and hard to connect with Beardsley himself, however much we try, who was well on his way to producing over a thousand separate works in a career that lasted six years, much of which must have been spent in devoted labour.

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As the moonscape is empty, this one is full, full of contending forces. Wilde is there again as a weird priest or impresario with the owl of wisdom functioning as a tribal headdress, ending in horns (a joke? Beardsley seems to treat him as fair game).   Herodias is bigger than the others who exist to serve her, including a foetus with what critics take for an unsatisfied erection pushing up through his clothes–if so, the most economical lewd reference ever.   Beardsley’s fascination with elderly foetuses must have a neo-Platonic explanation, the soul’s pre-birth and corruption occurring simultaneously.

Zatlin always plumps for Beardsley’s seriousness but goes on finding little erections all over the place, as if there could never be too many. Kenneth Clark surprises us with almost moralistic disapproval of Beardsley’s fascination with corruption. I can’t help seeing Beardsley as a kind of troll, offending Victorian sensibilities so plentifully that many references will escape. The effeminate creature who sports a vine-fig leaf formerly possessed a typically shrinking cock with feeble pubic hair. He got curtailed, while the delicate penis-candlesticks got waved through.

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The Toilette which follows is one of the outrageous ones and was replaced by the most abstract and severe, without the bystanders or the upsetting jokes. Here exquisite appliances lend themselves to suggestive acts. The long tall extension of the stringed instrument, the strange dripping forms under the left-hand boy’s seat, the glances exchanged or not exchanged by the two nude boys, one with pubic hair and a hand that doesn’t look innocent – there’s all that ‘activity’, and then the amazing emptiness of Salome’s clothes which are no more than two extra-thin lines making a bounded place in which nothing is allowed to take place. These disparities are rich with irony and an almost philosophical appreciation of the void. The distancing around Salome and the coiffeur, who mixes hints of bats (his mask) and spiders (his hands), creates a whole other world.

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Arthur and the Questing Beast is a step back into a different and earlier world still working itself free from William Morris and Burne-Jones’s medievalism and an earlier Victorian love affair with the Middle Ages. Beardsley’s drawing shows an encounter between a knight and a dragon, as you’d never guess, or not quickly, and not a heroic but an entangled one, which you settle into disentangling, which has set a hundred traps for comprehension.

Beardsley has equalled Moreau in density and also—without colour!—his own form of richness and of confusion, making things out of lines and vice versa. Turning things into other things obscenely, giving new meanings to the word, metamorphosis as anarchy and detail as madness—all of Beardsley’s themes tumbled together—gawky erections that disappear out of sight, snakes, spiders, satyrs from a different world of myth entirely, clothes as intricacy and prison, acting like tourniquets on the flesh. The overpowering sensation is the fickleness of matter, solid one moment and a beguiling scribble the next. Stringy birds deconstructing themselves into individual feathers, snakes made of curlicues slithering through viscous liquids, and really monstrous forms whose eyes are fringed with rows of tiny breasts like Diana of Ephesus, or tiny growths like leprosy or testicles, whose tufts of hair are like lines gone completely crazy, a trap for perception rushing everywhere or nowhere. Arthur looks sideways at the graphic riot as if it is all a hallucination he has had, not a comforting thought because it means he is trapped in the web.

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There was a way out via a simpler printing process that allowed you, if you gave up subtle differentiations of tone and texture and settled for black and white in their full crudity or purity, the chance to reach bigger audiences much more cheaply. Beardsley found his way there via his biggest project, a commission to illustrate Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with an incredible plethora of 350+ separate designs which became a laboratory for simplifying without giving up mystery and power, an effort which offered him a vast field for subversions, antagonising William Morris who accused him of plagiarism, seemingly unaware of how radically Beardsley overturned Arts and Crafts ideals. Beardsley’s knights set off a disruption like a flurry of shrapnel—leaves, shields and oversized thorny stems all slicing, chopping and piercing their way through the mellow world of the past.

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For the publisher of Malory he designed an icon based on a pun. Dent, the publisher’s name, became the dandelion’s tooth and in Beardsley’s hands the prong of a phallic explosion observed by an unlikely serpent.

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Further unlikelihood in pagan youths, pure immaturity instructed by satyrs who only belong in Malory as general disruptors of Christian principles.

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There’s a whole category, calligraphic grotesques., which Beardsley produced on demand for Dent in years overlapping with the work on Malory, mostly small designs which are some of the purest expressions of his kind of iconoclasm, images where every feature is senselessly perverted into something else–eye for mouth, eyebrow for moustache, lips for eyes, breasts for horns, leaves for hair, face for chest and curlicues throughout to undermine the last illusion of representing anything sincerely or consistently.

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Reptilian foetus-forms keep it from seeming real play. Innocent designs are few and far between, and even they upset things by turning the lower half of a cheery face to opposed 3’s lying on their sides.

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Finally, we hit on a scrap of harmless peacock fluff, but it too conceals a plump Wilde-decadent.

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The later Beardsley went through the most astonishing series of style-shifts. Each new commission seemed to provoke another twist of the late style: The Rape of the Lock prompted a fantasia on the Rococo, with a sub-species consisting of welters made entirely of dots, a new orthodoxy for rendering lace or reality at its most intricate, in tapestry, upholstery and foppish dress. Next come the Lysistrata illustrations where the erect penis finally has its day, in which all mystery has departed and the idea of flesh is flattened.

The last project Beardsley worked on was an edition of Ben Jonson’s bitter, disillusioned play Volpone, or the Fox about a miser’s corrosive progress. Beardsley took this as a chance to send up the pompous version of Baroque, piles of fruit as imposing as cannon balls, satyrs as thick as oak stumps. The single fresh note in this heavy world comes in a hypnotic design for the cover, which he drew first in black and white but always meant for transfer into its opposite, turning light to dark and vice versa.   The black and white version (which I only heard about when I had long known the gold on blue result) is much crazier, jumping with demented motion, a jitter missing from the printed cover.

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The cover, a brilliant disintegration of Baroque continuity, translates pomp into a storm of fragments, but feels as if, if you worked at it, you might be able to cajole all the confusion and repetition to fall back into its proper places. But why would you want to do that? Isn’t the lumbering old Baroque better as an explosion than as the symmetrical reassurance of the old order? Brilliantly, the new cacophony consists entirely of recognisable elements of old conventions, which Zatlin suggests Beardsley meant as the phantasmagoric flashing of the fox’s tail.

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And if you let yourself sink into it, you find there are even more frantic jitterbugging couples here, like the pair standing on V O L P.  It’s a fertile field for hallucination, full of birds, mammals (including sharp-nosed foxes) and who knows what else, filling all the left-over dark forms.

To get these effects you need to read the blue as solid forms, and the gold as background or surrounding void, as I forgot to say clearly enough.

Indian temples: wandering in a wilderness of moss, and the way out

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I am looking for a way to describe the last two months of activity which have sometimes felt like being lost in a maze, or like falling down a hole into another world to which there is no end, and no obvious structure, that has you wandering in a wilderness of moss, a wide expanse of the tiny, where an obsession with detail makes you lose sight of the larger themes from which you originally set off. The series of objects, in this case Indian temples, keeps unfurling and leading you on, unsure whether it’s a boon or a curse that the series has no end or obvious shape.

The model lurking here seems to be that of  finding forms concealed in the ground itself, discovering buildings in the living rock like the figures Michelangelo senses waiting to get out of the stone block, buildings which combine the qualities of sculpture and architecture, which you release from captivity rather than invent or devise according to the rules of a human craft.

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Bruegel’s Tower of Babel is not generally considered a mythological painting, but it taps into primitive ideas about the connectedness of different life forms, in particular of human societies and mountains, combining god-like scale and a multitude of petty human devices like cranes and hoists.   It depicts a faltering technology and a huge and concentrated effort that will set human civilisation back a stage or two via burgeoning misunderstandings. But the fact remains that someone has imagined a symbiosis, though in ruined form, between geology and building, the one growing into and out of the other, like a weird actualisation in the 16th century of the creation myth in which the largest distinct natural form, a mountain, gives birth to the full later complexity of species and cultures, like a comprehensive explanation of what we are all doing here.

Tremors in consciousness provoked by that much later composition together with the Cambodian creation stories can help us understand what Indian architects might have been driving at in searching out solid masses of rock near the surface, signalled sometimes by the caves already tunnelled through them by slippage or erosion, in which with minimal removal they could discover buildings.

It was never a high proportion of Indian religious buildings which were made or half-found In this way, but they had an imaginative force out of all proportion to their numbers. Whenever you come across them, they take you back to the mythical origins of architecture, spaces found not made, and then brought up to the surface and into the light. That is the direction we imagine such spaces heading in, but for us the excavated temples usually speak strongly of a darkness we have mostly left behind, which it seems part of the task of the temple, whether rock-cut or not, to drag us part-way back into.

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The first time in India our only rock-cut temple was only partly discovered in the hill. Most of it was added onto the cave-bit, so the whole effect was like the tower of Babel, built bits merged with more primitive elements to make a patchwork whole, all of which resembled bricolage, a hybrid tumbled together like a rock fall, not entirely stable.

The temple lay at the foot of the hill as if partly hidden by scree which had slid downward as the hill eroded. The entry porch and the mound rising behind it didn’t look as if they were all in the right order, but scrambled, as in a half-collapsed structure.

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Crawling round the interior was a powerful experience. I’m not sure you could follow the ambulatory passage the whole way round. At a certain point your way was entirely cut off after you had crouched or crept through the lowest bits. Certainly you were bothered by the bees. They had set up their hive in the furthest reaches and came and went continually, their buzzing amplified by the vault.

The plan in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture gives such a bland idea of this dangerously impeded interior and doesn’t attempt to show architecture turning abruptly into crags along the temple’s right flank or at its west end.

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But the whole force and value of the Maladevi temple at Gyaraspur, which makes it a great beacon among all the buildings I have seen, is this uneasy truce between the violence of geology and the ingenuities of architecture.

If I had it to do all over again, I would go on to Gwalior (as we did) and make a stop at the little Caturbhuja shrine in the Fort (as we didn’t) to gauge how the raw power of rock makes itself felt in a rock-cut building the size of a plaything.

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Next I would stop at Dhamnar (a substitute for the grandest of all rock-cut temples at Ellora), an instance of the fascinating type that finds an entire world below ground level, ground level which still exists on every side at Dhamnar, where eight temple buildings form a tight cluster, a main shrine and seven complete children of the parent, which each possesses all the parts of a temple on a reduced scale.   Or I would have done this in 2001, but I am not sure I would now, because this complex has apparently been renovated by drastic cleaning and the addition of a protective coating that contains a lot of brick dust, which gives it an orange colour, most un-stone-like, like the healthy glow favoured by failing Presidents.

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Even in the old days the buildings at Dhamnar were rough and raw in a wholly different way from Gyraspur. Sculptural detail had the smudged look of attempts in very hard stones like granite, but here it was the stone’s softness that had made it easy for time to erase all sharpness, until you felt the day looming near when it would all disappear.   Hence the well-meaning renovator, who didn’t want to hear that he had replaced a beautiful ruin with a lifeless model born yesterday. Did he know how the building was made?   Turning it to brick was such a cruel travesty.

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My next stop (on my would-be journey) is safe from such destructive interference because it was left so incomplete that the effect is like camouflage. In this group of magical buildings it is perhaps the most magical of all.

It is like a sketch for a large temple complex more begun than completed, blocked-in lightly across the whole site, so it is all there and full size, but barely detectable. Perhaps uniquely in the whole history of architecture, this temple group at Masrur in the Himalayan foothills preserves the natural inspiration of the building and even the full value of its magical materials before they are spoiled by being squared up and smoothed, yet conveys the entire architectural concept in a shapely and complete form as well.

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It is both a building and a vivid landscape, a mountain range bristling with crags and a symmetrical city of towers, an ideal vision like a Chinese landscape representing heaven, and a whole world of natural rock always entirely itself and (almost) nothing else, the most natural as well as the most perfect temple.

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Some readers may think they’ve already seen something like this in their local zoo, artificial crags constructed for mountain goats to climb on in captivity. But the distance between constructed and actual crags is unbridgeable. Not that hybrids can’t contribute something to the discussion, like the miniature rock-cut pavilions at Mamallipuram lined up in a row as the outcroppings seem to have allowed, with the quaintest indication that these were carved from the top down and (in at least two of them) left deliberately incomplete so you couldn’t miss the point. Bhima ratha and Valayankuttai ratha turn back into wild rock for a last few moments before they reach the ground, which makes them at one and the same time, levitating architecture and a natural growth rooted in the earth, a botanical/geological marvel giving birth to a strange child, the phantasm of civilisation.

Instead of purely human constructions these are Eternal Forms like those which emerge on the walls of caves as a teeming population, buildings something like creatures with their own internal principles of life.

In a sense it’s wonderful there is no end to the territory and no single logic according to which it is laid out. At the other end of the field of possibilities from temples camouflaged as mountains are seemingly overplanned complexes leaving nothing to chance, which look in plan more like wiring diagrams than rich plastic compositions binding together their widely dispersed elements. Among examples of this type, both monotonous and scattered when seen first in plan, the so-called Harihara temple 1 at Osian in Rajastan stands out, ‘so-called’ because the interesting dedication to Harihara the bifurcated deity, who suits the site which can’t consolidate or make up its mind, this name has been retracted for something blander.

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The bases of Indian temples are one of their most distinctive features, elements more central to the building’s way of being than any equivalent in Western buildings, elements which often attract careful diagrams in the Encyclopaedia. Bases come with many stages and bristle with Sanskrit terms in the Encyclopaedia entries.

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The platform-bases of both Harihara 1 & 2  pile up seven distinct stages, like multi-storey structures in miniature. all of which is distinguishing the building from its setting in the world and asserting its essential complexity. The platform-base at Harihara 1, which is like an elephantine enlargement of the bases of its component shrines, has the unity and coherence of a whole symmetrical cosmos made of clearly marked layers and dotted with architectural miniatures, niches which contain their own versions of walls, roofs, thresholds, openings and inhabitants. The resident spirits of the Harihara temples are the figure sculptures which appear three to a side on the walls of the platform, and then at least five to a side on walls of each of the five shrines planted in the peculiar symmetrical system on the roof of the platform.

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The Encyclopaedia  includes neat little charts of the sculptures placed on the four cardinal aspects of the building, charts which take for granted that these layouts carry crucial meanings. So I found myself becoming obsessed with pinning down who was looking out from where, as I reconstructed a visitor’s journey around this multitudinous complex.

To begin with, this exercise required being sure of the compass points. Hindu temples normally face east, contrary to the usual orientation of Christian churches. Anyone who deals with the plans of western religious buildings gets used to finding the east end at the top and the west entrance at the bottom, north to the left, south to the right. With Hindu buildings these norms are reversed. Except that a few important Eastern buildings, Angkor Wat, for instance, Kailasa at Ellora, and Harihara 1 and 2 at Osian, face west.

This anomaly has caused confusion in the Indian Encyclopaedia, where the charts of sculptures on the Harihara shrines show the sequences of deities on all four sides of the platform and the five shrines reversed from their actual order.

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I started out not knowing what some of these deities should look like and only began to notice that they weren’t in the right places when the elephant’s trunk appeared on Kubera not Ganesa, and the boar’s snout on Buddha not Varaha. At this stage it felt exactly like solving a puzzle, and no one would believe the satisfaction I got from putting Buddha in the right place. But Buddha on a Hindu temple? Was it tolerance or co-opting?

How pleasing to learn that the very same order is repeated on Harihara 2, not the attitudes and emotional tonalities or relations between other creatures in the scenes, but the basic sequence of deities was the same, so the content must be at some level deeply valid, and therefore it was probably a structure worth pondering. It took a long time to dawn on me that Harihara 2 also has the same floor plan as Harihara 1, but with a large intruder plunked down in the middle of it, an overscaled colonnade made of diverse column-forms which allows the roofing-in of the open space between the shrines.  I felt let down by Michael Meister, my favourite among the different Encyclopaedia authors, above all for his responsiveness to natural settings and his appreciation of all kinds of architectural novelty. Why didn’t he announce the startling alteration in Harihara 2 more emphatically?

Why didn’t he make plain how radical it was to stick this heavy awning on an essentially outdoor space? And why weren’t there any photos showing how the new elements collided with or related to the existing shrines, which they treated as buildings within a much larger building, where they were now lost or marooned or holding court in a sort of surreal parody? Which was it? Were contradictions exaggerated or suppressed, enjoyed or disguised out of existence? One of the really explosive moments in Hindu architecture had been slipped past us unawares, a missed opportunity which made me wonder if my hero hadn’t been paying attention. But there was proof that he admired these buildings tremendously, so he had certainly noticed.

One of the pleasures of Harihara 1 is the assembly of five (four surviving) exquisite separate works into a new whole. Harihara 2 gives up those pleasures to make a more imposing singularity, or is it a more ungainly diversity? You would need to go there to decide which. In any case architect no. 2 wasn’t content to repeat. I still miss the photos capturing the bold new spatial effects where the canopy meets the shrines.

Your analogy or model for the process, that it is like solving or putting together a jigsaw puzzle of separate pieces, is faulty and much too confined for what is taking place, because a jigsaw has one answer and follows a narrowing process to a goal that is almost meaninglessly clear and definite. This other process is a loosening and tightening as you go, sometimes a limited task like identifying all the figures which swarm on the outsides of buildings, then finding that the sculptures on two related buildings follow the same sequence and can help solve each other, because different ones are recognisable in each, and others are obscure, and some are missing entirely, or not in their proper places but lying some distance away, like the semi-human creature planted temporarily in a blank space on the back wall of Harihari 1 at Osian (Harihara, who isn’t the single deity linking all three of these buildings–Harihara temples 1, 2 and 3–after all).

Chasing the Hindu stories round the outsides of these buildings can seem a childish activity. In truth we are now reduced to chasing them mainly through photographic archives of disconnected views, shattered but in some odd way a more continuously sensuous activity than many visits to actual buildings can consistently be. The photographer is making choices, continually selecting. And leaving out the wider context can result in more intense experience.

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I find myself thinking of a remarkable French series that concentrates on obscure Romanesque buildings in obscure or at least very particular corners of (mostly) rural France. In some sense it is literally true that I have never been closer to the textures of carved limestone than when transfixed by the black and white photos in these modest-sized books.

‘Black and white’ isn’t good enough. These were images printed in heliogravure and bled off the edges of the page, leaving no room for captions or other distracting words diluting the confrontation with all the tones between light and darkness, glare and shadow in all their heights and depths, in a total concentration on the grain of the stone, the scuffs and breakages that describe its life over time, the contest between tools and the rock’s varying resistance, between the slow taming of mineral surface by wind and water, and the bursting forth of rude ideas about animal energy, and emotion crossing or breaking out on human features, all this filtered through a photographer’s eye, who’d been brought up on early modernism which had played havoc with religious belief.

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For the Zodiaque series of Puritanical (in the best sense) treatments of Romanesque buildings were the brain child in the first place of a single Jesuit monk, trained as an artist and a priest, who combined these two strands in strong forms to produce (with committed collaborators) one of the most compelling visions of a phase in the story of art, especially vivid and alert to forces beyond a narrowly rational view of human culture and especially of animal life, a spirit it would be apt and inspiring to bring to bear on Indian architecture and sculpture of an equivalent period to the French Romanesque.

Perhaps our best hope of such an encounter lies in the photographic archive of around 120,000 images of Hindu temples assembled by the American Institute of Indian Studies, mostly in the late 1960s and early 70s. I haven’t tried to pin down images to particular photographers but have picked out a few that come closest to those in the Zodiaque series, especially the volumes in which Dom Angelico Surcamp took a sizable part.

To try and distinguish different photographers’ contributions in the Indian pictures is a project beyond me at the moment. So far I’ve barely thought of these Indian photos as works in themselves, but used them to understand the buildings.

But the Hindu stories—there I am still at an early stage. I come across ‘Natesa’, and after 4 or 5 occurrences I realise it’s a name for Siva, meaning ‘Dancer’, which is attached to him when he’s quelling demons by dancing on their heads.

I keep seeing Nrsimha, a god in the form of a man-lion, with a much smaller creature– human with an animal head?– the images too ruined and me too inexpert to make out these figures clearly. Lion-man seems to be tearing the little person open and letting his innards spill out. The lion-man must be an aspect of one of the main gods, given the prime positions he is awarded. I am putting off looking him up.

I get a kick out of Siva dancing on the heads of demons. I am fascinated but appalled at Nrsimha sitting there calmly eviscerating a child-victim. A few days ago I watched a film which E soon realised she didn’t want to see called Map to the Stars that was loaded with the exhilarating crudity of Greek myth. Children were doing awful things, setting fires in which they accidentally burned up themselves as well, strangling smaller children across their knees (cf Nrsimha) in Portacabins. Therapists acted out their clients’ fantasies, crouching over them like predators. These events took place mainly in Hollywood, and star maps showed you where the huge egos of film had their castles. Stardom was obscene and mysterious, yet had some connection to the heavens. All the grisly violence wasn’t just senseless. Hindu gods can also seem quite un-benign, but you need to know about them, and feel as you learn that you’re in touch with something that matters.

I am late realising that E and I are embarked on similar quests. She is working her way through a limited number (a quarantine, as it happens), 40 holy men (including only a token scattering of holy women) from all over the world, a number to which there is an end, which she can break down into a compassable number of distinct tasks and can even take a week off to do more pressing work, an inventory of an existing population, the furniture and ornaments of the house, or something which has a fixed terminus, like a gigantic shopping list, a survey in its way of all creation, but one which has a submission date by which it will be done, whereas mine keeps expanding from the dimensions of a single blog post to that of a book, or a couple of them, as if in cataloguing certain contents you went on discovering further series of rooms in a ramifying structure which kept on growing like Topsy, like a god who developed new limbs to accommodate new functions or new tasks, which were or became new identities, so the total number of gods might range anywhere from three to three hundred million.

[Excursus on Kanchipuran and Pattadakal] Here was meant to come a brief treatment of the Kailasa temple at Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, a fascinating instance of a building as a mountain that I was put onto by a witty drawing of my friend Adam Hardy’s, which clarifies the organisation of this super-intricate, angular ‘mountain’, built of an impossible number of sub-units each complete in itself with a final result like an enormous, many-faceted lump of quartz. The drawing brings out the cartoon-like quality in the battery of horrific and comical lions who follow the twists of walls intensely indented, like an abstract rendering of rocky crags.

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I intended to follow Kanchipuram with a treatment of the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, so the imaginary journey would begin and end with buildings I had actually visited, and Pattadakal would allow a final summation of the plenitude of Indian architecture, the whole human and natural worlds collected and summarised on the outer surfaces of a single building.

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This plan came a-cropper through a discovery that seemed at first a miraculous validation.  Somehow I came across a description of Ellora, the biggest and best of all rock cut temples, which derived it from the very buildings at Kanchipuram and Pattadakal I had chosen for purposes of my own. The account was even embellished with a sick king and his fasting queen, like inhabitants of a fairy tale, and I was off on a lengthy burrowing in the complexities of Ellora, plentiful sculptures, decorative innovations (the Rococo many centuries before its time), undreamt-of forms.  Would I never be done?  Every ending sprouted a further beginning.  Except that this time the link between Ellora and the other temples was a fantasy, and the story of the building finished before its initial courses were laid, saving the queen from wasting away, was an opportunistic appropriation of an architectural paradox.

The number of interesting old temples in India kept growing and was the most numerous population anywhere in the world, which would only be manageable if I were 20 or 30 or 40 years younger and could fit in 5 or 10 or 20 annual trips to keep up with the expanding and deepening field. The Shell Guide to English Parish Churches might be the template – surprising it took me so long to notice the parallel, or Pevsner’s twenty-four years covering England which began at least ten years before it surfaced in a form visible to anyone else. In some sense this was the ideal ancestor, which kept popping up or beckoning, seeming to stand for any sustained human effort, a plan so ambitious it encompassed an entire place, a large island that resembled a continent, a task so huge it was probably not do-able. I set forth on my truncated version of such a task, consuming two years, not twenty-five, which still became a trap I was dying to get free of, as now I regretted being still a prisoner of Indian temples after almost two months.

The beginning of this obsession was lost in the mists of one of the intensest and at the same time blankest periods, when I could hardly leave the house or escape an isolation that would perhaps never end, except that here ‘never’ meant only a short span, a year or two until you inadvertently caught the disease you wouldn’t survive. Life had become both a nothing and a gigantic cosmic allegory, like the ones medieval folk went around thinking they had always been engaged in.

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So that was a kind of template and its content was a series of temples, dictated by an unfathomably complex series of examples in a couple of books organised according to a series of local rulers who were locked into an extremely foreign geography or a history of exotic styles and the shifting stimulus of a big collection of images which all sat in four over-lapping volumes you kept picking up in no fixed sequence. Four was just enough to feel unencompassable like India, though it covered only two arbitrary blobs of territory over a not easily identifiable set of years Far Away and Long Ago. (The title of a book which bewitched me when I was just beginning to read on my own.)

Imaginary Journeys

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There’s a famous Borges story about a map that’s exactly the same size as the territory it covers, which sounds perfect but results in all kinds of problems which he methodically describes, of users tripping over it trying to match it up with the countryside lying somewhere underneath, even punching holes in it to pin down the comparison between actuality and concept.

Anyway, I take this impossible situation as a metaphor for my current predicament, in which the topics I want to pursue are falling over each other and becoming so hopelessly tangled that I am losing track of both of them (at the moment) or all of them (in the longer term).  I have a terrible feeling that in trying to keep them all alive I’m going to lose the lot.

The most recent chapter in this struggle to hold onto things which are undergoing headlong expansion has me standing helpless on the sidelines as a five-day visit to Cambodia morphs into an encounter with hundreds of Indian temples spread over large tracts of the sub-continent, which could swallow up several lifetimes. The story begins with another attempt to go somewhere in the midst of the so-called pandemic which is currently engulfing the whole world and subtracting most of what went before.

Twenty years ago I spent five days at Angkor in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. They have expanded in memory ever since, until I can hardly believe my notebooks from that time that tell me how long I spent in each temple complex and how much time I took out for meals or quick swims.   Can it possibly be true that it all fit into five days, including flights to and from Bangkok?

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Over the years since, I have often wished I could fit in a return, a dream I never gave up until now. Yet now seems the time to take this trip, now that I have all the time in the world. It will not be as easy as re-visiting the old exhibition of Chinese paintings in Cleveland, but it will explode into a greater variety of forms.   I will start with images, projecting my slides wall-size and getting lost in carved detail lit by late evening sun.   I will track down all the subjects represented there that I didn’t bother with at the time, like the row of deities with horses’ heads sitting cross-legged on a pediment at Ta Prohm, the famous wild temple, where they sit right next to a parasitical kapok tree which has rooted itself in an open gallery it now towers over and to which it provides structural assistance, unless it is quietly taking the walls to pieces.

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Not so easy to find out who these horse-men are.   I’m not getting far beyond the old guidebooks. I am also amazed at how few pictures there are to look at. In those pre-digital days I came back with ten rolls of film from three weeks in India, four hundred images that seemed a lot at the time.

But from Cambodia, seven shots from Banteay Samre, five from Banteay Kdei, ditto for Bakong, and these were among my favourites.   Even so, I see fresh details in the heavily indented platforms at Banteay Samre which the best plans I have leave out. I need better ones and don’t know where to look.

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I have had the famous guide by Maurice Glaize on my computer for years, finally begin looking at it now, and discover that it’s better than the guides I used, at least for detail about archaeologists’ reconstructions of the sites.   He found Bakong a chaotic jumble and rebuilt it into the most satisfyingly rational temple of all.   I even wonder if it hasn’t become a peculiarly French dream of order.   After all, Glaize has misgivings about my favourite temple, Bayon, like two buildings inhabiting the same space, a circular plan imposed on a rectangular, which results in one strange, unenterable space after another, mysteries that intrigue me, which Glaize has to hypnotise himself to see the irrational beauty of.

The Lidar surveys of the last decade and a half at Angkor have multiplied the number of ancient features many times. The whole territory stretching sixty kilometres from end to end is freshly crowded with ancient roads, canals, village ponds, embankments, neighbourhood temples and house groups that constitute the largest pre-industrial settlement in the world, all revealed beneath the surface by something like radar. I have long looked forward to tracing whatever of this is visible on the ground, but I still haven’t got a better plan of the discoveries than the A4 image I found online ten years ago. The whole expansion remains discontinuous from aesthetic appreciation of the sites.   One real enhancement for me in the meantime has been the addition by Helen Jessup, an art historian, of the free-standing sculptures found in or near the temples over the years, including a great Harihara from Ashram Maha Rosei (now in Paris) and a large sleeping bronze Vishnu found near a well at West Mebon, a site still reachable only by boat (now locked up for its own safety).

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My recent ‘trip’ to Angkor has laboured under these various burdens. I imagine that I need digital images of the sites to study the remains properly, images I could pore over at home the way I did in the aftermath of my actual travels, including a memorable visit to Rome with students, after which I discovered Richardson’s New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome which multiplied archaeological sites in the city many times, including whole new sorts of survival like ancient gardens, and which extended that trip for several weeks after most of those who had been there thought it was finished.

Weirdly enough–the great perplexity of the moment–my current trip to Cambodia was extended and confused by the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, which I first met in a remainder bookshop, since closed, like many others.

In those days, just before our first trip to India, this encyclopaedia suggested lots of new places to visit, very convenient to our starting point in Goa. But was Goa the chicken or the egg? Did the book dictate the landing place, or did Goa make sense of the book as a purchase that might have a real point for the travellers?

Whichever came first in the first place, in the second (the imaginary revisit to Angkor) the role of the Indian Encylopaedia has been more tortuous. I had a craving for more detailed and systematic treatment of Khmer remains, more like what you got in that two-volume set I bought on March 7, 1998 which covered South India, Upper Dravidadesa, Early Phase, which sounded specific enough, threateningly so.   I had no idea where Dravidadesa was, which didn’t sound like a place, but more like a demon.   I still don’t have a clear one, except that I know there is also a ‘Lower’ and that between them they account for all of the southern half of India. It is one of the most baffling but oddly enticing features of these volumes that you are thrown into a sea of Sanskrit terms and expected to do your own swimming.  What good is a glossary at the back of the book (which he hasn’t even found yet) to the happy reader who falls into the swamp below?

Located to the south and east of the Saciyamata hill, this west-facing Vaisnava complex stands on a broad jagati consisting of khura-kumbha, kalasa, kapotapali ornamented with candrasalas and ardhapadmas, antarapatta animated by kirttimukhas emitting effulgent foliage, a second japotali ornamented with hamsas and candrasalas, and an upper vasantapattika with acanthus-pattern showing distinct buds.  Sub-shrines survive on the northeast, southwest and southeast corners, each set above a broad plain bhitta-slab and a simple manca consisting of kumbha, kalasa and patta with acanthus.

I am still learning about my love of obscurity, where it comes from, what purposes it serves, how far it extends. It continues to puzzle me that there should be such allure in difficulty, and in feeling that you don’t understand very much about a certain human production that must have been created to communicate, perhaps not straightforwardly, perhaps not without persistent dark spots that may never go away, perhaps believing that complete clarity isn’t interesting and can’t be true.

Anyway, in the present instance it took me a long time to notice that I liked the uncertainty created by this unnecessarily complete fog of unfamiliar terms. I looked up a few Sanskrit words, and got a partial sense of what we were talking about. I drew the line at looking up more than a few. Then I forgot the meanings of the ones I had got, which weren’t always clear anyway.   Sometimes the glossary gave you only another Sanskrit word, presumably a more common one that the one you were trying to unravel. But the longer I did it, the better I liked the Sanskrit. There was a kind of intelligibility or recognisability about some of these words, a deep resemblance between this language and ones I vaguely knew.

The Encyclopaedia was split into Text and Plates. I decided it worked better to look at the images for a temple or a few temples first, and then at the text. That gave you parts, like doorways or roof structures, that you wanted to see discussed, and you could focus on those.

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At Angkor I had particularly liked temples that looked like or were mountains, because they were so ruined they seemed to be reverting to a more primitive state, or because they incorporated actual living rock, like Bayon above all, so that there really was a symbiosis between natural and architectural form, which fit right in with Khmer myths that imagined all creation emerging in an eruption from a particular mountain at the centre of the world.   I hadn’t yet made the connection between two of the Indian temples I liked best and the idea of buildings as mountains or other large natural features.

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Somehow, without understanding what I was doing, I was letting my interest shift from Cambodia to India, from my inadequate sources for Angkor to the better ones I knew for India. I didn’t remember specifically at that point that Cambodian religions and architectural forms had come from India in the first place, so there was something natural and right about following the trail backward to India, like tracing the Ganges to its source in the Himalayas.

My interest in Cambodia had started in India.  Cambodia was only an offshoot, an interlude in a lecture about Indian architecture.  And that is why I ended up spending only five days in Cambodia. It represented a digression within something larger. And that also explains why I was bound at some point to retreat back to India. When it happened, the retreat irritated me no end, and I raged. ‘Why am I giving up the very trip I wanted to take most of all?’   As you will see, it was only one of a series of defeats, ceding one subject after another to my knack for forgetting what I had come for, losing sight of the initial goal and replacing it with a substitute.

 

The Year of Magical Thinking

 

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I think there is a book called The Year of Magical Thinking. That title catches something about the present moment. Without realising it and incapable of facing it, I am being driven crazy by two things, one old and one new, which I conflate or confuse, ‘magically’.   Neither of them will ever go away.   In one case this is the best guess of the best-informed people. In the other it’s the demonised, despairing fear of those who can’t imagine a way out.

Trump and the virus are the two components of the looming apocalypse, two diseases that have so far induced mainly paralysis in those whom we would like to count on in fending them off. I wish I could write usefully about what it’s like to live with all (or most) of your usual routes blocked. The sudden prohibition of physical movement is easier to manage than the limits on thinking imposed by nascent authoritarian governments in Britain and America. But at least we probably understand better than we used to the plights of the German and Russian populations of the 1930s.

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My own answer is a kind of surrender, or, more palatably, an escape inward. Normally I would turn to art. Now this must be carried on at at least one remove (I don’t think I have seen ‘at at’ in a sentence before).   So I have shut myself off in the hut we built a couple of years ago at the bottom of the garden to take the overflow of books from the house. We had long needed to get rid of these books that I couldn’t make up my mind to do without. The opportunity was finally provided by a gigantic ceonothus which, like all its tribe, threw out branches with the thickness of trunks, that it couldn’t support and allowed to sag to the ground.   So it took up more and more space, a whole sub-region of its own. Its displays of bloom became more astonishing as it ate up more of the garden; then, after a last outpouring, it died.

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That cleared the way for the hut, a wooden building of exotic cedar, not ceonothus-wood, but nonetheless a reincarnation of that awkward and insidious plant.   Esther imagined the hut as a windowless cupboard without enough room to sit comfortably among the stacks. She didn’t see the need for yet another study. Colin, who helped us plan it, came up with the useful principle that to make sense of the expense, the building should be as big as the space allowed, not inconspicuous.   On the drawings he called it ‘garden library’, which probably eased its passage. So here we are, three years later, and the hut has assumed a new role as another world, the only foreign destination I’m allowed since I got the letter from the hospital advising me not to leave the house for any reason.

The garden is small, sixty feet long, not counting the jungle of camellias E has made of the yard beside the extension. The hut eats into the sixty feet, but this distance has expanded since the virus and now takes longer to traverse, looking at clouds through the branches or a plant never noticed before or a bloom that wasn’t there yesterday.

The hut is ‘another place’. I guess you could do this with different rooms too. In my first flat in my first job I had a study that I seldom went into. When I wrote my dissertation in a huge rush, I did it at the kitchen table staring at a blank wall. I thought I needed something like a prison cell and never considered working at the beautiful old desk my parents had given me at thirteen to make me take study more seriously.

For its first year the hut had been an embarrassment. Now that I had this beautiful work space, I wasn’t writing anything worthwhile.   I had struggled with a book project for two years, amassing more and more material which remained stubbornly in the form of a featureless pile. Esther pushed the idea of writing smaller pieces, but I was stuck on the grandeur of big designs, a book which synthesised a great deal and emerged as one thing.

Dreadful to say, my subject was Scale, scale in buildings, in plants, in books, in everything under the sun from microscopic to galactic. I could get the size of nothing right – the first chapter wandered on for sixty-five pages and incorporated models of the solar system, Bruegel’s paintings of the Tower of Babel and Lutyens’ Liverpool Cathedral, bigger than St Peter’s but stuck at the stage of a giant model.

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It took me a year to accept that Esther had found the solution – a building the size of a hut rather than a cathedral, a blog rather than a book.  I think she had been leading by example with her own blog (at esthermenell.com) for a whole year before I recognised the writing on the wall and began to copy her.

So the virus should have crowned the new mode with an extra validation. The world had shrunk and miniatures were more the thing than ever. But no, from believing in the blog with a foolish faith, I had slumped back into complete disbelief. How could such tiny things matter in a global cataclysm that was sweeping all before it?   I had been defeated by questions of Scale yet again.

Writing: an exhibition at the British Library

 

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Writing is so familiar that it takes a real effort of imagination to remember that it needed to be discovered or invented. The Writing exhibition at the British Library put us back in the time when writing lay in wait for us, before we had stumbled upon it. The early stages remain obscure, images on cave-walls that we find expressive, a handprint surrounded by dots, at Pech Merle in France, for which the book of the exhibition supplies a literal translation, ‘I was here, with my animals.’

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That might be regarded as proto-writing. What does the earliest true writing look like, then? Little pictures scratched on the shoulder-blade of an ox and standing for what the cracks and fissures in the burnt bone are trying to say?—this is a widely shared idea of the beginnings of writing in China, written characters springing out of the same natural forces that reveal themselves in animal remains. So writing keeps a flavour of the divine and never loses, however abstract it becomes, its strong link with the visible world.

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In Mesopotamia writing appears more mundanely in fixing boundaries and accounting for possessions. There’s a persistent effort (a wish?) to trace these beginnings to Egypt. In 1905 this little sphinx was found, on which a British archaeologist thought he saw the first inklings of an alphabetic order, an ox-head facing left who was an early striving toward the letter A. His theory was refuted, only to rise again, with new evidence, in the 1990s.

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The contest between syllabic and alphabetic systems reappears periodically in the exhibition, one of the most striking outcomes being the Chinese typewriter of the mid 20c, which instead of 40 keys has 4000+ characters lying on a flat bed, which must be picked up individually, pushed against the paper and then put back. Twenty characters a minute is the maximum speed achievable in this language, which can’t easily be atomised.

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Apparently, switching alphabets is easy.  Stick-on Hebrew, Thai and Tamil keyboards appeared in the exhibition. Above is an Arabic keyboard, which I cannot evaluate for completeness or attractiveness. It seems to double-up along different axes from the cap/ lower case mode of Roman keyboards.

The evolution of the letter A was traced through five stages, and we cheered them on as they got closer to the truth. We also delighted to learn that the last known inscription in cuneiform occurred in 75 AD and the last hieroglyphic text in 394.

The Vai language of Liberia and other parts of West Africa waited until the 1830s to find a written form, which was revealed to its discoverer Momolu Dwalu Bukele in a dream. This is syllabic not alphabetic; the text below tells part of a family history.

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It is easier to believe that writing is intrinsically magical when everything about it is as foreign as it is here, but even Latin in cursive form, explained by the need to produce texts quickly, becomes mysterious again, all the more because it is clearly not fine writing striving for an artistic effect.   This comes from the record of a sale of property in Rimini in 572.  

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Latin turns up again in coded form recording conventional material in 9th century shorthand, which again achieves prosaic savings of time and space. A slave of Cicero’s is credited with the invention of this system of abbreviations originally devised for preserving his master’s speeches. One wonders if the strange variety in the length of the strokes isn’t a form of play or mystification, throwing decoders off the track.

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One of the most tantalysing exhibits was a Burmese album of tattoo designs in an intricate folding form.   The images, all in white on black, were often obscured or interfered with by inscriptions in gridded lozenges, one letter or character per compartment, which made the text eat up large areas of the image.   A horse-like animal’s head and chest were completely consumed by twenty-four characters in an 8 x 3 grid. Presumably the words that seem defacements to us were charms for which the whole project existed, and which only took effect when they were written on the body of the tattooee by a miracle-worker, equivalent to or more special than a priest.

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It is apparently a respectable theory and not just a Wordsworthian fantasy that the idea of the alphabet first appeared in the mind of a child. It is now a commonplace that the very young are most adept with the new forms of communication, which carry their oft-mooted threat to old forms of writing (by hand, for instance) or of dissemination (by printed books, above all).   These changes inspired the present exhibition, which reminds us of a long and precious history but isn’t blind to such thrilling new forms of expression as eL Seed’s (a version of a medieval hero’s name, el Cid) calligraphy on an urban scale, an inscription urging us to cleanse our sight that stretches over fifty buildings in a despised district of Cairo populated by garbage collectors.   The casual scribbles of teenage graffitists lie somewhere behind this enormous work, finally brought to pass in 2016, writing which transfigures the ruinous fabric of the city.

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Another teenage ‘writer’ (the technical term in New York for a graffiti artist) was among the group of Syrian boy-graffitists whose arrest and torture for covering walls with slogans sparked off the Syrian revolution. Against this new outdoor form of writing we can put the old indoor, solitary form represented by an old white novelist, another breaker of moulds in his time.

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Writing: making your mark at the British Library until 27 August 2019

 

A collector and his collection

 

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An interest in what used to be called primitive art is often dabbling in things it can’t admit to, like aggression and violence, living vicariously in a wilder and fiercer world than the safe one most of us inhabit, at least for now.

My latest encounter with real wildness came entirely through a couple of books, which catalogue 598 choice objects from a private collection of Oceanic art, two volumes so unwieldy that, like old people increasingly housebound, they haven’t moved for months from the room in which I finally parked them, which nowadays I don’t have much occasion to visit except to scan these records of John Friede’s amazing collection. The day I brought them here is stamped inside their front covers, November 28th of last year, the day of my second visit to the big exhibition of Pacific island art at the Royal Academy.

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They are a spin-off of this exhibition, or a substitute for it which would last long after it ended, both bigger and smaller than it was, more compact and more unmanageable, since no one had given this material a shape or picked out its themes, which remained for me to discover, if they were there at all.

The fact that certain things are owned by a certain person is interesting to him or her but not to anyone else, unless the collector happens to be John Ruskin or some other figure you are already interested in for a good solid reason outside his collection. Collecting seems the very opposite of public spirited, and yet collections themselves are almost always interesting, if you can get them away from their owners, which you often can if he/she wants the collection to survive him/her, because it has come to represent him and is a kind of self-portrait.

John Friede was obsessed with the art of New Guinea, but had never been there. He knew all the European collections and their keepers, but he wasn’t tempted by the South Seas themselves, or at least put off his visit (which he didn’t soon repeat) until late in his career.

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At first I wasn’t interested in the collector, only in his magical collection, or rather the beguiling presentation of it in well-lit photographs that lent all the pieces fantastic immediacy. Many of the objects are small, yet there are fragments of facades, roof posts and large slit-gongs mixed in. But in these books everything is the same size and they all fill the large pages in much the same way.

The Friede collection makes a strong impression because it’s ruled by strong imaginations, John Friede’s and those of the cultures he gravitated to when he knew them only by their artefacts. Early in collecting he decided to focus on one Pacific island, the largest, New Guinea, a small part of the whole Oceanic territory, but still vast. The island is the size of Spain and Italy combined and home to 1000 different languages.

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Despite such unencompassable variety, certain over-arching themes appear in these objects. Dancers follow a powerful cultural prompting to take on the character of birds, and mask after mask portrays a human face taken over by a beak, as if pursuing an urge to become all beak, and thus all bird, as if set on leaving human form and consciousness behind altogether.

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In a whole class of figures the beak turns into something else, a flute which the bird-man’s hands then play, or an elephant’s trunk which merges imperceptibly with a snake-like extension from the abdomen rising to meet it. Such grotesque distortions are seen by Friede as crucial goads in jolting the sleeping Western imagination awake.

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Human beings are constantly found subsumed in other forms, camouflaged as elements of communal food dishes which themselves resemble canoes, where each separate human face assumes dish-like form.

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There’s a powerful formal preference for concentric arrangements with the face at the centre. Sometimes it feels like the disappearance of all individuality, subsumed in irresistible general forms. Sometimes the human form is peeled like an onion to see if there’s a permanent core inside.

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It can feel like regression to earlier reptilian stages (above), or it can seem a painful evisceration as the outer layers are cut away looking for more or different life inside (below), like a medical experiment testing the limits of the organism.

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This piece is one of the suspension hooks so common in the artefacts of the East Sepik cultures. Perhaps it has its origins as a practical device, a way of hanging food out of the reach of marauding animals, but it plays a powerful spiritual role as well, in the group’s relations with higher powers, for whom offerings are left hanging from such hooks. Much of the local figure sculpture is associated with the hooks, so ubiquitous that they present themselves almost as body parts, fulfilling a function so essential they look as if they’ve been internalised or only need a suitable occasion to erupt from the body, as seems to happen with the prong-man and woman that produce hook-like projections, not actually usable for hanging things, on other parts of the body. In this culture we can understand the usefulness of a hook-deity who bristles with them, like a crocodile’s sharp bumps on the spine, more active and energetic than smooth flesh.

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prong-woman standing on her hooks

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prong-woman from behind

Ceaseless ingenuity is applied to turning one thing into another—a three-dimensional pig can mirror a two-dimensional crocodile, and a man and a bear can face off against one another, sharing the same set of legs. A smaller creature stuck to or exuded by the body of a larger one is one of the clearest signs that such a transformation is taking place.  The pig below isn’t easily recognisable but is clearly some kind of creature.

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pig mirroring crocodile

The growth emerging from prong-man’s chest is a bony structure at the top and nurses a bird-embryo lower down, an altogether weirder mutation.  There’s a whole system of mythic creatures buried here, how comparable to the familiar Greek set we will never be able to say because it never appeared in print while it was alive.  Perhaps this obscure system is all the more alluring because permanently lost and indecipherable, because the chance to write it down came too late, after corruption by strong foreign ideas.

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Prong-man’s chest-growth

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Helmet-bird-shield-man can be all these things simultaneously, all the more successfully  because so much detail has been washed away by the weather.

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One of the most enigmatic recurring forms in the collection is masks or covering for the whole head made of basketry, which is nearer to a living, breathing material than wood or clay, yet seems more far-fetched, less life-like when woven into these body-forms. The results are not solid bodies, and probably have much shorter life expectancy than the more common wooden masks, and though they obviously required hours to make, are perishable like grass. In this fragility lies some of their appeal—how do you make them take on or keep their shape? Inevitably there’s something impromptu or lopsided about all basket-beings. They seem more like domestic appliances than art, and unsuitable for ceremony or ritual.

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Some of the most appealing objects in the collection are shown blurring their identities under the conditions in which they are photographed, like the ‘mask’ (not obviously wearable) whose features, smeared sideways by shadows, make it look as if his two mouths are crossing each other and will merge.  It’s a strangely effective graph for slurred speech, and the bemused expression or baffled grin on this face is partly down to the senile decay of its substance over time.

21 5445-286 blur ruin mask.jpgSomething similar operates with the so called ‘fragmentary mask’ below, like an animal’s skull abandoned in a field, that’s now brought indoors where every tremor of its surface becomes full of meaning.

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Among the most evocative and mysterious images are the close-ups of bone daggers usually made from the femurs of cassowaries (large flightless birds) and intended purely for display during initiation ceremonies, not serious equipment for killing your enemies. Maybe the upper ends of these bones, ruined by carving which turns them into works of human art, have partly sought and partly stumbled into the appearance of decay, that now makes them such suitable mementoes of death in forgotten battles. First below is a weeping face losing clear definition, while the next one is another bird-man that is particularly hard to believe in as a serious weapon.

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The two big books were published in 2005 when John Friede gave a significant part of his collection to a museum in San Francisco, who I imagine helped make them such lavish productions. An even more ambitious series of publications is announced in his essay in the initial volume.

Trying to find out more about this charming man who has named his collection Jolika after the first syllables of his children’s names, I stumble onto reports of long-standing lawsuits brought by his brothers disputing the inheritance that has funded all the purchases. John Friede isn’t the hard-headed businessman I projected, after all. The money was his mother’s, herself a collector and John her favourite, so some members of the family contend. The magnificent books are defensive weapons in this struggle and argue that the collection is a great cultural good to be preserved at all cost. They have convinced me.

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Artaud’s notes from the asylum

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the intelligible never existed                                                                                                                                             
 one does not understand anything or learn anything

 Antonin Artaud, a French writer whose parents were Greeks from Smyrna, is best known for his theories about a Theatre of Cruelty, which would be an assault on its audience, occurring ideally in a rough barn of a space, in which the audience would occupy the centre and the actors the edge, whose words would have the visceral force of mucus or blood. Artaud has a vision of the actor projecting a vein of air into theatrical space which makes it sound like a spout or eruption. Language, theatre, thought as commonly known do not go far enough; when art is authentic it springs from pain and inflicts pain, not arbitrarily but in pursuit of the real.

Most people’s first encounter with Artaud probably comes in an early silent film, Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc of 1928, where he makes a striking appearance as a monk with an intense stare, whose silence suggests something more alarming than a technical shortcoming of the new medium of film. He had already been introduced to opium by a doctor who used it to deal with his patient’s longstanding mental instability, a combination of forces that led to his confinement in a series of asylums, after disastrous trips to Mexico and Ireland in pursuit of cosmic visions that would give meaning to his addiction.

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Under the tolerant regime of an asylum found for him by friends in Rodez, Artaud was given shock treatments which got him writing again after a long silence. Over the next four years until his death in 1948 he filled over 400 school exercise books with a torrent of poetry, curses, spells, boasts, complaints and addresses wrapped round or erupting in mysterious drawings in heavy black pencil on almost every page.

Through an initiative of the Cabinet Gallery in Vauxhall, a selection of around 80 of these notebooks (now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris) were brought to London and beautifully and confusingly laid out in the main space at the gallery.

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Visitors were supplied with an elegant plan of this trapezoidal space showing seven large glass cases ranged irregularly in the middle of the room and 13 smaller ones lining the edges. The large cases (all but one of them) contained 6 notebooks each, the smaller ones three, each open on a pair of pages. The cases were numbered, but only on the handout. The notebooks are already numbered in chronological sequence, though Artaud didn’t always write in just one notebook at a time. These numbers were also found on the handout, but nowhere near the notebooks.

During most of the run, there was a parallel exhibition on the floor below of works inspired by Artaud, and for this another handout was supplied, with another clear plan of the space, but for some reason this plan was inverted, and its top corresponded to the bottom of the other plan, a puzzle it took me a while to work out, as it did to link the translations mounted on the walls to the notebooks far away in the centre of the room.

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The link between madness and poetry was noticed by the Greeks, by Shakespeare and by the Romantics in the 19th century. Lear’s ravings on the heath are widely regarded as among the most profound utterances in all of literature, exposing the limits of ordinary logic and consecutive reasoning. But they are only an approximation, Shakespeare’s brilliant representation of what the speech of genuine madness might sound like. Artaud’s outpourings promise to be the real thing, their very voluminousness a warrant of their unstoppable, uncontrollable authenticity, compelled out of their transcriber like the endless stream of word-like sounds coming from a fundamentalist Christian speaking in tongues.

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It can’t be quite as simple as that. There’s something wonderfully unpredictable about where Artaud’s words will take him next, but they are usually words not gibberish, though it is true they often leave out accents, apostrophes and the like, and give signs of being put down in a frenzy of excitement. You soon come to feel that you need to see the original form of the page with all its illegibility, its crowding and bumping into a drawing, or sloping up to avoid it, the changes in size, the lines at right angles to others, but almost always it still looks like text, not random scattered marks. And there are nonsense syllables, generally spaced more generously, suggesting a conscious striving for effect, so you wouldn’t say the words break down into nonsense, but that they divert or erupt into it. You would like to hear how Artaud might read those parts—would he scream them, or roar them? He was famous for the bloodcurdling screams that punctuated his last public performances. Probably the nonsense syllables didn’t or weren’t meant to punctuate, but rather to disrupt and destroy sense for that moment at least.

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For Artaud the idea of speech as bodily isn’t just a metaphor. He goes on talking about needing to re-construct his own body himself, without help, or imagines that certain unnamed beings are stealing his organs or his food or gaining entry to him because the effect of heroin has worn off and left him open to being penetrated. The idea that bodies are not as separate or bounded as most people think is perhaps easier for the regular drug user to imagine, when he has just been introducing substances into his body which have noticeably violent effects, effects it does not feel that he is willing or controlling.

My encounter with Artaud has lasted much longer than I intended, but hasn’t been a descent into a dark night of the soul, but more like trying to solve a tantalising jigsaw puzzle, or chasing without ever actually laying hands on it, an unencompassable work of art, unfinished and unfinishable.

Part of the appeal of this work is how hard it is to get hold of, physically as well as imaginatively.  Matching the text and the images is the essential pursuit with Artaud, as it is with Blake, but so far it is only do-able up to a point. Only the notebooks from Artaud’s last year have been transcribed in the order of the books themselves, and published in a beautiful Gallimard edition in 2 volumes of 2342 pages, which omit anything that has already appeared elsewhere–including drafts of letters, the van Gogh text and much else, listed in an elaborate appendix to vol 2. Most disappointing of all, these volumes leave out the drawings, except for poor postage-stamp reproductions of a few pages from each notebook tacked on the end of each text (which is to say, in 173 separate locations). Even that much is welcome, but gives only a dim idea of the entanglement of text and drawings throughout the work.

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The parallel with Blake seems obvious and essential, a parallel including the attempt to erect a private, homemade cosmology, more sustained and worked out in Blake, more fluid and intermittent in Artaud. Both of them end up sounding like the Bible or an archaic Gilgamesh-style epic when describing the hostilities that fill their entire mental space from time to time, much more obviously derived from passing subjective pressures in Artaud. Seeing the two of them together one can imagine filling in the missing stages between private obsession and old mythic material distorted into more personalised forms. Artaud externalises visceral agonies to combat them in what feels like an emergency. Blake has had the mental space or freedom to work his alarms up into characters with names and personal histories different from his. Nothing in Artaud ever strays far from parts of the self, and in his greatest leaps he seems to be personifying his own organs or internal sensations. Strangest and most modern of all, he reads or re-forms himself as various machines, not always whole machines but parts, as if staking out a kind of freedom in such alienated transformations.

This vision of the self as disarticulated parts or fragments bears a strange resemblance to the reader’s experience of Artaud’s enormous production, which can only reach us in bits, loaded with rebarbative apparatus. It seems that it is a book (though not really a book) which will always subsist as 406 sub-books, a disarticulation it will never shake off, which is in fact its proudest boast, that it has miraculously kept all its parts, but can never be detached from them and become a single entity. Someone could make a facsimile of all 406, not bound as one, but numbered and kept in a box. Next to it would sit the big volumes of a complete transcription, for no one would get far with Artaud’s intermittently legible words without that.

What a horrific vision. One does not want them accessible so cumbersomely. Better that the little notebooks should be scattered strategically across a big white space and that their sequence should be as hard to fathom as it was in Vauxhall.  One can only dream of working through those thousands of scribbled pages, glimpsed behind plexiglas. Artaud is one of the great exemplars of the beauty and freshness of the non sequitur, of the fertility of the fragment, and in Vauxhall, even with repeated sightings, one understood or rather glimpsed something, but nothing like the whole of it.

Plans of the two spaces in Vauxhall: Artaud notebooks, Works inspired by Artaud

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Previous images: Notebook 171, nb 351, Vauxhall display overview, nb 299, nb 393 single page w nonsense words, nb 313, nb 296

I was helped with some difficult pages of French by Irénée Scalbert.

Orchids at Kew

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Every year in the early spring they mount a display of orchids in a greenhouse at Kew. This year it was Colombia’s turn, and around 6000 blooms of 150 South American species were crowded together in three different artificial climates under a single cascading structure resembling a landscape-form in steel and glass. The exhibition drew large numbers in search of beauty, oddity and natural diversity, who had to wait their turn at busy times of day, like bees clustering round a popular shrub.

What or who are orchids for?

In one sense they’re the commonest plant and at the same time among the rarest. They’ve spread everywhere and diversified into the largest number of distinct species (around 26,000) of any botanical tribe.

Yet they’re impossibly anomalous among plants, with some of the strangest life cycles of all, including parasitism and deceit, bizarre structures of great complexity seemingly designed simply to plant lumps of pollen on the head or tail of males of a chosen insect species. Many orchid species are not rooted in earth, but attach themselves to jungle trees and dangle their roots in air, ‘roots’ which do root-jobs of absorbing nutrients but violate the main meanings of the word, a kind of botanical outrage.

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Worst or most wonderful of all is what orchids do to their pollinators. Here exaggeration and deceit go together. Nectar or food or sexual gratification which doesn’t actually exist seems to require more grandiose sacs or pouches or replicas of the female insect in order to seduce the victim or dupe (what should we call him?). Even now moral disapproval creeps into descriptions of orchid ‘contrivances’, promising rewards but giving none. Charles Darwin, one of the most acute of early students of orchid pollination, couldn’t believe that orchids really had no nectar for their visitors, or that this was a system that would work.

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A suspicion lingers that orchids have fooled their human enthusiasts as well, luring them with complex forms that violate established norms of size and proportion and instil suggestions of resemblance to all sorts of non-botanical forms, so that, like the wasps, the orchid’s human fans are mistaking the blooms unconsciously for something else.

Popular names of orchids go on expressing the ancient folk-view that there are deep sympathies between the lives of human beings and those of plants. Modern names like ‘fried-egg orchid’ often stick out by their starkly comic intention; in Shakespeare even the most grotesque flower names, like ‘dead man’s beard’, feel like something more than a joke.

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‘Slipper’ orchids are not diminished by the name, which conjures up spaces of myth, into which victims fall in search of food and will only get out by doing the plant’s bidding, collaborating in the orchid’s plans for its own continuance. It feels absurd to talk as if we believed in the orchid’s agency, but it becomes more and more feasible to assume the intelligence of plants (see Colin Fudge on trees), insects (especially ants, bees and termites, including many pollinators) or birds (astonishing recent research on birds’ brains). And the stories people have told about plants couldn’t be more preposterous than the dramas acted out in the innermost chambers of certain orchid blooms.

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But to see, or even to imagine, these Piranesian spaces you probably need to blow up a photograph of an orchid interior to approximate the bee’s-eye view and then you tell yourself that you are approaching the true essential meaning of the orchid. At Kew I picked up The Book of Orchids, a life-size guide to 600 species from around the world illustrated with one photo of each, or sometimes with two copies of the same photo, one large and one small. I assumed that the small one was life-size and the big was a blow-up which let you see richness and complexity invisible to normal human sight. This is often but not always what the relation between the two photos is. Sometimes the little one shows the whole bloom for the first time, because this orchid is too big to fit onto the page-size chosen for this book.

Six hundred orchids has a magical sound, but the speed of the survey inevitably produces vertigo, and taking in so many almost requires isolating the blooms from their surroundings, and even from the stems and the leaves of their own plants. So you have cut-outs of the most compelling feature, a single flower, the orchid as logo, more or less. Some orchids, like the slippers, do occur singly in the wild or at least widely spaced on the stem, but these are likely to be the heavier blooms, which would drag the plant down in clusters.

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To understand orchid structure you probably need to isolate single blooms in this way, maybe even render them artfully through drawings. To see many actual examples on a single occasion you need to create something like a museum-situation, which if you’re lucky, as for example at Kew, will also feel like a habitat, a constructed jungle. Some orchids will sit in pots on the ground, but others will appear to have attached themselves to trees and spread their roots in air, far out of reach.

There’s a limit though, and some of the most precious, like most of the slippers, will appear behind glass to protect them from the attentions of the orchid-lovers. And if proof were needed, moving from cool and dry to hot and wet climates simply by opening and closing a door reminds you that you are crossing distances that would consume whole days outside the botanical museum.

So you continue your trip through this spectacle of the world’s diversity which is more like a visit to the National Gallery than an hour in an actual jungle. And the deepest involvement requires further manipulation of the images collected on the ‘journey’, carried out afterward at home, where you are continually noticing features that there was no way you could see on the spot, because you couldn’t isolate each bloom like a painting or take the time to walk round it like a sculpture. In certain respects the fullest plant museum exists only on a screen, best of all that of a small laptop, not a large television which cannot focus the subject or your attention nearly so tellingly.

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Surface patterns are among the most startling and mesmerising features of these blooms, endlessly attractive in a literal sense—the eye is helplessly drawn to them. Under magnification they become something different and then we can imagine the disorienting effect on the insect trying to keep its balance in the maelstrom of a centrifugal pattern which disperses itself more violently as you move in nearer. Petals and sepals that all look much the same to the human eye are strongly differentiated when magnified and depict radically different kinds of fragmentation, one alarming, the other reassuring. Seen close up, the overall effect is much more directional and thus coercive.

DSC06719 kew copy 2.jpgIn this species blooms often present themselves ‘upside down’ or cockeyed, meaning that to experience their symmetry or to recognise the typical orchid structure of three petals overlaid (in reverse) on three sepals, making a six-pointed figure, you need to reorient yourself bodily, and this leads us to imagine insects making aesthetic choices as they land on orchids.

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Other, blotchier patterns look to human eyes like stippling, a technique not a purely random occurrence, blobs trying to come together rather than simply spreading themselves, a focusing effect to which it would be hard to pay no attention at all. Is such visual complexity of no consequence to the insect, and the watercolour-like variations in intensity as you move from the centre to the edge of each blob? Human beings see faces everywhere, especially in whole classes of plant blooms. Is it fanciful to imagine insects having similar susceptibilities to certain combinations of dots, lines and concentrated forms? Not that we could easily guess what they remind the insect of, just that this sort of unconscious memory might be taking place.

Darwin was fascinated by insects’ responses to colour, a subject which goes on provoking research and remains almost as much of a mystery as ever, as is also the human response to colour in plants, though studied more thoroughly and for much longer.

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Human beings are also prone to see writing where there is none, in vegetable scribbling on leaves or tree bark. Some of the strangest surface pattern on orchids has evidently suggested lines of letters in a genus labeled ‘grammatophyllum’, which seems made to be puzzled over, trying to read something into the sequence of marks. Ruskin was always imagining that the world put a certain natural feature in front of him to say something meant specifically for him, perhaps a late, narcissistic rendition of the old belief that the Creator meant for us to find lessons in stones and instruction in storms. Watered down enough, something like this must be taking place in many people’s conversations with orchids, in spite of idealists like Kant who used flowers to preach purposiveness without a purpose.

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There is such diversity in orchids that we couldn’t possibly do justice to it here or anywhere else. There are the forms that for some personal reason disgust us, because they remind us of varicose veins or toothless mouths. There are orchids which don’t look like flowers at all, like the wonderful freaks called spider orchids, not because they actually look like spiders, but because they have long, ungainly features, and more than a few of them. Visually similar are around six species, two of whose sepals go on extending themselves from the main bloom until they hit a hard surface, thus producing streamers several feet long. I have captured only a junior version of this.

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There are furly copper-coloured species that perform the unnerving feat of turning themselves inside out, none of whose elements you can convince to stop shuddering, an insect-sized version of Baroque movement. And there is another orchid so magically translucent it is hard to believe it is alive and not something created just to show off certain properties of light, a task of too-refined focus to be entrusted to a creature. This species also exhibits one of the most high-handed divergences of sepals and petals, which now form two independent whorls, petals fused into one and sepals floating free, with nothing in common between them except that they are joined at the hip.

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Anglo-Saxon at the British Library

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How to explain the extreme fascination of an exhibition which consists primarily of pages of writing, often illegible, in languages—Latin, Old English—no longer familiar. You don’t read the pages, but admire them, as feats of learning or curiosity, or industry, or survival.

It is an exhibition which replaces the idea of the Anglo-Saxons as mindless warriors, drunk in a mead-hall, with the idea of a rich intellectual and political culture connected in manifold ways to a wider European world and to places even further afield. Two scholars from Asia minor and north Africa were instrumental in breathing life into the monastery school of St Augustine at Canterbury. The image of the prophet Ezra above was left behind in Italy in the 8th century by an expiring English traveler on his way to donate the gigantic Northumbrian Bible in which it forms an illustration to the shrine of St Peter in Rome. Until modern times it languished under misidentification as Italian not Anglo-Saxon. Now it makes its first trip back to its place of origin, and the scholar surrounded by a proud display of his books can again stand for the sophistication of English culture in the 8th century.

The exhibition relishes the webs of connectedness to a wider than British world, webs partly lost and recovered by recent research, like the story of the complicated travels in France of the 8th c copy of Bede which spent a long interval in the cathedral at Le Mans before it made it back to England in the 18th century.

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Earlier Anglo-Saxon exhibitions at the British Museum (in 1984 and 1991) concentrated on art; this one casts its net wider to include many humbler sorts of literate culture like letters, wills, charters and notes on the management of a farm, arriving in the end at an overwhelming sense of how much has survived from these centuries of supposed darkness. It makes all the difference that the evidence is so tangible and all there in front of you. The earliest letter to survive from the Christian West, from Bishop Wealdhere, is there, and the label involves you, with a wonderfully clear diagram, in the process of folding it four times so that it can be sent on its way to the Archbishop. Likewise the binding of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest surviving binding of a European book still attached to its original contents, is dissected and explained in CT scans and diagrams that show how the delightful three dimensional relief of the cover is built up, using rope and cotton wadding. After all, it is this book’s book-ness, not its contents, which makes it one of the Library’s most important recent acquisitions. And so the symbolism of the apparently routine decoration of its cover seems important to penetrate, a tiny chalice whose presence might easily be missed, from which all the tendrils and bulging grapes of the sacrament grow.

DSC04051 copy.jpg Recentness might also seem to count for too much in some of the most venerable exhibits, like the Binham Hoard or the Harford Farm Brooch, both named for the spots in Norfolk where they were dug up. In the series of recent finds we see the soil of England continually yielding up signs of the Anglo Saxons, and making us feel that they are in some sense still there.

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The Cuthbert Gospel was buried with St Cuthbert in the 7c, rediscovered when he was exhumed in the 11th century, but only entered wider public consciousness in 2012 when purchased by the British Library. So in its way it is newly re-exhumed, because newly connected to the present. Likewise the Harford Farm Brooch, not so unlike other brooches found elsewhere, is unlike them in touching us more closely, because no one before now could have known it. The catalogue tells me things about it that I didn’t notice in front of it, that it was clumsily repaired, with what had seemed a pretty good imitation of interlace in gold wire until it was pointed out that it doesn’t quite fit. Nor could I detect that the repairer (or botcher) had the temerity to sign the back of the brooch. I particularly liked the crushing or crinkling of the Binham bracteates and only learned from the catalogue that these were not the ravages of time, but deliberate defacements by the burier.

Both the brooch and the bracteates seem special as works of art, the brooch for the second subliminal cross at 45 degrees to the main one, which sets the design spinning; the bracteate for the faint and distorted embossing which is not, as I thought, the crucified Christ slipping downward from the grasp of God who supports him, but a skinny figure who fights a creature with a big beak.

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Among the most moving survivors of the centuries are manuscripts which suffered in the fire in Sir Robert Cotton’s library in 1731, including the only known text of Beowulf, the magical Old English epic which combines pagan monster tales from a dim Germanic past with an overlay of Christian introspection. The most wonderful survivor, visually, of that fire is a fragment of a rampant lion, avatar of St Mark from a Northumbrian Gospel* of c 700. To appreciate how precious this remnant is, you really need to start with the intact eagle representing St John from the same manuscript, displayed next to the lion in the exhibition, but luckily separated from Cotton’s fragment before the 18c.

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These animals are sometimes shown as diminutive mascots of their Evangelists, as in the Lindisfarne Gospel’s four portraits, or in the little ox perched insecurely on St Luke’s halo in St Chad’s Gospel from Lichfield, one of the most delicate and whimsical in the exhibition. The animals by themselves represent a more primitive and forbidding style of author-portrait, at their most savage over the doors of French Romanesque churches like the abbey at Moissac. The eagle in the manuscript is threatened (or protected, the common view), hemmed in and temporarily tamed by crosses coming at him from every direction, a vibrant image of a stand-off that combines the love of hypnotically repetitive pattern with the clarity of carefully deployed emptiness.

We can only guess how the lion was bounded. It looks as if the arm of a cross may survive to the left of him, so he may be set against an abstract but symbolic pattern of lines like the Echternach lion in a case nearby. The catalogue, one of the best in recent memory, interprets both images brilliantly. Bernard Meehan, the writer of this entry, detects a distorted cross in the maze-like set of lines from which the Echternach lion tries to jump free, and in the Cotton lion’s coat he recognises a pattern like flames, a fire that still smoulders in the fragment, scarlet emerging from deep brown.

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Through a wonderful initiative of the British Library, these manuscripts have become much more visible, digitised at high resolution on the Library’s website, so that now you can examine every page of them, not just the ones the books happen to be left open on for the exhibition. This includes all five carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospel (a detail from one of them above), five incipits, four full-page Evangelist portraits and all the pages in between. It is wonderful to see how transparent the colour is in all the tangled beasts on these pages and how feasible it has become to trace your way among the tangles as if the books were your own.

3 DSC04043 copy.jpgThe best or the worst tangle in the exhibition occurs on the famous gold belt- buckle from Sutton Hoo, appropriately because a buckle makes knots in a belt unnecessary, so the buckle is free to illustrate knots of insoluble complexity. The catalogue likens the Anglo Saxon taste for linear intricacy to the love of riddles, and praises the goldsmith for his clever devices for sorting out the puzzle. The buckle apparently depicts 13 bird-headed, snake-bodied beasts at three different scales, four of which are used up in the hook and clasp, leaving 9 for the main plate, where the writhing bodies are distinguished by different types of beading (only two of these, not nine, as far as I can see). I am left wondering whether this buckle is a riddle with or without a solution. I see the animals’ bodies and once in a while their paws, but not their heads, which have become so minimal they’re more like paper clips than animal parts, so that identifying them gives no pleasure. Perhaps this is the final test of a taste for puzzles: you need to like the ones which can’t be solved.

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In 1984 the Aedwen brooch, now named for its owner rather than its find-place, was scorned as an example of degenerate interlace, a tangle which couldn’t tie up its ends. Now its late, loose character seems its main appeal. It no longer ‘degenerates toward virtual abstraction’ but frees itself from restriction and produces a novel, shredded rendition of interlace, drawing further attention to itself for including a curse on anyone who steals it.

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Finally, there’s an example of falling out of love with the interwoven style of the eighth century where so many of the best works in the exhibition are at home,  played out within the pages of a single manuscript. It’s an Irish ‘pocket’ gospel, one of those convenient little books meant for one person. It now contains two versions of the author-portrait of St Luke, the first (8th c) hieratic and staring straight ahead but in mellow colours–wine, ochre and pale green, the second (10th c) more turbulent, whose saint is seen busily writing while sitting on the roof of a small building, overshadowed by his ox-avatar looming up from a novel cloud-substitute, a tangle of draperies like a thunderstorm. The artist is carried away by his enthusiasm for the rampant linen foliage that threatens to squeeze out the saint. It’s like a miniature reprise of the lush manuscripts of the school of Winchester like the Benedictional of Aethelwold, which formerly charmed by their exuberance but now seem to promise only a plague of acanthus filling every empty space.

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You don’t need to share my preference for the earlier phases to appreciate the depth and connectedness of the thinking embodied in this exhibition. It sets off from the Spong Man, a little clay figure or miniature Thinker with his head in his hands, now separated from the funeral urn he formed the lid of. It ends five centuries later with survivors which are even more unlikely, notes on farm management in the Isle of Ely that needed to be dismembered in order to be saved, by being concealed as stiffening in the bindings of later books. The miracle of the exhibition is to weave the odds and ends that survive into a compelling narrative, where famous treasures like the Fuller Brooch and the Alfred Jewel come to fuller life by casting light on each other. They were already beautiful; now they are alive.

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*The Otho-Corpus Gospel, code for the two owners: Otho from Cotton’s classifications for his books by classical busts, mainly Roman emperors, who sat atop his bookshelves, Corpus from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (via Archbishop Matthew Parker, a great 16c collector)

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library, Euston Road, London NW1 until 19 February 2019