Collage and the Secret Adventures of Order
Like a pure sound or melodic system of pure sounds in the midst of noises, so a crystal, a flower, a sea shell stand out from the common disorder of perceptible things. For us they are privileged objects . . . more mysterious upon reflection than all thos
The series of events that occasioned this meditation on collage began with a discussion I had with a close friend—about Foucault and his archaeological way of looking at things, of recognizing and applying patterns of thought. Samuel and I were in the midst of a vegan breakfast at Peace Food, a restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where we met once a week or so, usually on Sunday morning.
“Before Foucault,” Samuel pointed out, “historians of ideas only paid attention to the new thinkers who got things right. But Foucault took it upon himself to go back and read all the stuff that the new thinkers had made obsolete and search out the general pattern that all the ‘incorrect thinkers’ had been using. He wanted to show how the field of thought was changed and continued to develop, and how it even inflected new developments.”
The following day I came across an article in American Atheist that read, in part, “I believe that we can . . . examine patterns of knowledge, experience, and learning in order to arrive at a better understanding of the low likelihood that any god exists—particularly the god of the Judeo-christian-islamic tradition.”
1 The argument itself, one with which I was familiar, was beside the point; it was the reiteration of a theme from my breakfast talk that got my attention.
When next I reached for a magazine—later that day—it happened to be the American Scholar, where I was drawn to a brief account of “How the Seashell Got its Stripes” and was struck by the following sentence: “Scientists
2 have long suspected that the stripes, zigzags, and spirals on mollusk shells have a neurological origin, but the exact cause of the colorations has remained elusive.” I considered the color patterns on seashells—and the well-known “Golden Ratio,” which translates the shape of the chambered nautilus shell into an equation—as emblematic of the patterns of knowledge propounded by Foucault, explained by Samuel, and applied by the American Atheist author. While it wasn’t immediately apparent on the surface, some underlying principle (both in the case of the mollusk and in that of the history of human thought) had asserted itself.
The fact that I subscribe to the American Scholar and American Atheist and that other authors are frequently my correspondents or tablemates is probably exemplary on a very small scale of what Heraclitus meant when he equated character with fate. (A more modern version is “Sow a thought and it becomes an action; sow an action and it becomes a habit; sow a habit and it becomes a character; sow a character and it becomes a fate.” This is sometimes attributed to William James but just as often seems to be considered an anonymous contribution to thought.) In other words, our predilections create a sort of gravitational field that pulls into our orbits the very things with which we tend to be preoccupied, or, possibly, because of those preoccupations, we happen to notice them when they turn up more or less at random.
Part of the nebulous field of who I am, for example, and what I’ve surrounded myself with includes the fact that, at about the time Samuel and I had that conversation about Foucault, I had just begun rereading Borges’s Other Inquisitions, and on the train home from the bar where I work—a day or two after our conversation—i finished an essay called “Valéry as Symbol,” which concludes with Borges’s eloquent summing up of Paul Valéry as “A man who, in a century that adores the chaotic idols of blood, earth, and passion, always preferred the lucid pleasure of thought and the secret adventures of order.”
An essay by Valéry ( not Borges) of which I’d heard (in an essay by William Gass) but never had read (“Man and the Sea Shell”) came to mind, and again, the organic architecture of the nautilus shell presented itself as a paragon of naturally occurring order.
Just about this time, an e-mail from John, another writer friend, mentioned a description of a ruined wall in Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke is an author whose allure neither of us can resist, and John considered this passage a stunning example of lyrical prose. I pulled out my battered 1964 Norton paperback edition, and although I couldn’t find the description John had mentioned, I came across this:
The existence of the horrible in every particle of air! You breathe it in with what is transparent; but inside you it precipitates, hardens, takes on pointed geometrical forms between your organs; for whatever of torment and horror has happened in places of execution, in torture chambers, mad houses, operatingtheatres, under the vaults of bridges in late autumn: all this has a tough imperishability, all this subsists in its own right and, jealous of all that is, clings to its own frightful reality. People would like to be allowed to forget much of this; sleep gently files over such grooves in their brains, but dreams drive sleep away and trace the designs again.
Rilke’s mention of geometry, grooves, and designs wasn’t far from the seashell discussion and the secret adventures of order.
All of this crystallized for me on a Sunday night exactly a week after the incentive moment at Peace Food. I peeked into the living room to see what my friend and flat-mate Steve was watching, and it turned out be Hunting the
Hidden Dimension, a PBS documentary about fractals. Needless to say the chambered nautilus was featured as a prime example of a fractal formation in nature. The documentary argued that what often appears to the human mind as pure chaos actually rises out of an underworld of complex equations.
After the show ended I went to my bookshelf where, for at least a decade, Julio Cortázar’s Save Twilight has been a fixture; the documentary on fractals and the recent intimations of structures imperceptibly striating the everyday reminded me of Cortázar’s description of the organizing principle at work in his wonderful little book:
It would grieve me if despite all the liberties I allow myself, this [book] took on the air of a collection. I never wanted butterflies pinned to a board; I’m looking for a poetic ecology, to observe myself and at times recognize myself in different worlds, in things that only the poems haven’t forgotten and have saved for me like faithful old photographs. To accept no other order than that of affinities, no other chronology than that of the heart, no other schedule than that of unplanned encounters, the true ones.
Cortázar was enamored of the intuition and improvisation that, as the Beats famously insisted, is the essence of jazz solos; his resulting book was not a collection so much as a collage of poems, prose-poems, and observations. Order was still present, but it was the subtle and ambiguous order “of affinities.”
Not satisfied with the evening’s program vis-à-vis the emergent motif of random symmetries, I thought it was time I actually read Valéry’s contemplations on the seashell. Unfortunately, Westsider Books on Broadway, which was nearby, loaded with literary rarities, and still open, didn’t carry the Valéry collection.
It took me a few days to track down “Man and the Sea Shell,” which appears in the unhelpfully titled An Anthology. Well worth my wait, the essay is a voyeur’s delight: I was content to simply watch Valéry extrapolate from a particular aspect of the seashell to something analogous in human psychology or in that precipitate of human psychology, art. Occasionally, his soundings turned up parallels, like buried train tracks, to the musings of other poets. When he says, for example, that “perhaps what we call perfection in art . . . is only a sense of desiring or finding in a human work the sureness of execution, the inner necessity, the indissoluble bond between form and material that are revealed to us by the humblest of shells,” there is an echo of Rilke’s assertion that “A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.” That, Rilke explains in the first of his letters to a young poet, is the only way it can be judged. Valéry’s statement hints, too, at Emily Dickinson’s warning that “Nothing survives without fine execution.” Finally, in this single sentence, Valéry reminds us of the intimate relationship between form and medium—rather than between form and function, which is no less important but tends to get most of the attention.
The paragraph in Valéry’s essay that most interested me, however, was the following:
The pattern of the colored furrows or bands that curve round the shell, and of the bands that intersect them, reminds us of “geodesic lines” and suggest the existence of some sort of “field of force” which we are unable to discern, but whose action would give the growth of the shell the irresistible torsion and rhythmic progress we observe in the finished product.
I was struck by the way his layered meditation connected, through the medium of the seashell, the concepts of field and pattern. I doodled notes to myself in the margins, underlined words, bracketed off passages and sentences, and asterisked ideas I wanted to come back to (generally the more I deface a book, the more interesting I find it). Finally, I shelved An Anthology next to Valéry’s The Art of Poetry, recorded everything in a letter to Samuel, and put aside my brief inquiry—for a while.
With the exception of the mini-quest for Valéry’s book, the symbol of the shell and its attendant theme of order accosted me— as though, out of a crowd of passersby, I looked most likely to sign a petition—which prompted me to reexamine Jung’s concept of synchronicity. Jung defines it as the chance occurrence of one or more external events that appear connected to the psychological state of the observer. The events, Jung emphasizes, are not causally related (otherwise, the implication would be that a state of mind is able to bring about empirical events). To illustrate, Jung gives the example of a woman who, while in therapy with him in Switzerland, relates a dream in which she is given a golden scarab, and just then a tapping at a window behind Jung turns out to be a misguided scarabaeid beetle—cousin to those found in Egypt. Jung points out that he had never before observed this type of behavior among this species of beetle and was at a loss to explain it. (As it turns out, the day after I wrote this, a friend who came to help me set up for a party decided to light some tea lamps around my apartment. She put one on a bookshelf, but I didn’t like the idea of a flame so close to books. When I moved it, I saw a blue scarab behind it—painted plaster probably—that had come from Egypt years ago, brought back as a gift that I had left there and forgotten about.)
I don’t think synchronicity is the best explanation for the series of incidents I’ve outlined, although it is certainly relevant. Take the documentary on fractals as an example. Steve and I have been friends for three decades, and one of the reasons we’re friends is because we share an interest in science, history, and religion. I therefore habitually peek in to see what he’s watching, especially because I had no TV of my own; only the timing was truly coincidental.
In broader terms, the magazines to which I subscribe (one minor measure of my predilections), the fact that I’m friends with other writers (an indication of my overall identity), my own obsession with order and camouflaged patterns (not unlike Jung’s), my admiration for authors such as Rilke and Gass (Gass’s essays led me to both Valéry’s essays and Rilke’s only novel), and more generally my character—including life experiences—along with any number of other variables, had a hand in the series of connected concepts and the recurring
symbol of the seashell. It seemed to me that it was more than chance and timing alone that brought these things together, that it went beyond synchronicity.
A fine example of the dual forces of attraction and chance at work is the following: while writing this essay (months after recording the original incidents), I found my way to Walter Benjamin, whose work I had seen referenced numerous times over the years but which I had never read. I finally bought The Arcades Project, an unclassifiable book of singular brilliance, and, when I opened to a random page, this paragraph was the first to entertain my eye:
Extinct nature: the shell shop in the arcades. In “The Pilot’s Trials,” Strindberg tells of “an arcade with brightly lit shops. There was every possible kind of shop, but not a soul to be seen, either behind or before the counters. After a while he stopped in front of a big window in which there was a whole display of shells. As the door was open, he went in. From floor to ceiling there were shells of every kind, collected from all the seas of the world.”
Rather than synchronicity, I incline toward the Situationist International (SI) concept of dérive— literally, drift. Guy Debord, in his essay “Theory of the Dérive” (from Situationist International Anthology, the Bureau of Public Secrets), describes it as
. . . a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances. [. . .] In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. The concept of chance is less determinant than one might think: from the dérive point of view, cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortex which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
Put another way, someone, alone or in a group, takes a walk through a city or town without a destination in mind. Notice that although there is no predetermined terminus, Debord downplays the significance of chance. (It should also be noted that Debord, whose ideas were the primary inspiration for SI, was heavily influenced by Benjamin—as was SI itself.)
Just as someone walking the city at night might be attracted to a dark industrial district of brick warehouses or a cross-section of streets lit by a cluster of bars, once patterns, seashells, collage, and questions of disguised order began pinging around in my head, I followed the signs, whether wood, neon, or furrowed into dirt, and looked for more. This practice might best be characterized as interior dérive: instead of allowing the landmarks, streets, and layout of the city to draw us on, we follow a constellation of ideas, associations, or relevant images. We follow these connections until . . . well, like going for a walk in the city, until we’re too tuckered out or we stop somewhere for a drink or a chat or a bowl of soup. Chance is still a factor, primarily in terms of timing: we only know we have a theme if signs of it surface in various ways over a relatively brief period.
A collage ( from the French: coller, to glue) is an artistic composition of fragments ( as of printed matter) pasted on a picture surface.— The Merriam-webster Dictionary
The concept of collage and Cortázar’s ordering by affinities got me digging through one of my old journals, where I found an entry about a walk I took in the East Village in the late ’80s—a dérive, since no destination is mentioned, though I wasn’t yet aware of the term:
Brick walls covered in layers of graffiti. As one saying loses efficacy, a new one goes up in a different color. Fliers and posters lie over other fliers and posters; whitish paper scars have been left where old handbills have been torn away. A smiley face with a bullet hole in its head and a splattering of inked blood had been the wave a while back (there are rows of this image). But there is always the drive to carve another incantation in a set of different runes: a colorful poster of Tibetan gods in a sexual embrace, cheek to cheek, curving lines of energy emanating from the point of union. Someone with a brush painted underneath: Dionysus, god of orgies and excess, now sits at home most evenings with his feet on the coffee table and the TV on. Also: posterized ghosts from another continent, from a time before I’d been born—shaven-headed, hollow-faced and malnourished, the blueprints of their bones show painfully through. Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Lodz. A recent row of fliers: a face in liquid darkness, African, just eyes and an oval of face rimmed by something dark and viscous, the rest submerged. The Wostop Gallery. Yet another series of handbills advertising a performance artist who is straitjacketed and howling, his crew-cut head thrown back, the too-wide mouth a black hole that drags you in. COMMIT YOURSELF!
The wall and sidewalk I described in the East Village present a collage with many contributors and, simultaneously, with one contributor—the East Village—just as rope is composed of many individual strands. (Oddly enough, after more than a dozen revisions of this essay, after finally achieving what I considered a final draft, I came across this curiously related passage in Benjamin’s The Arcades Project: “Streets are the dwelling place of the collective. . . . For this collective, glossy enameled shop signs are a wall decoration as good as . . . an oil painting in the drawing room of a bourgeois; walls with their Post No Bills are its writing desk . . .”) Art and art shows dominated the posted material, and the commandeered side of a building was the backdrop. On the Upper West Side, billboards and bus shelters—paid spaces—are more commonly used for advertising. While fliers often go up on unclaimed space, they are as a rule of a different sort (usually services offered by entrepreneurial tutors or babysitters). With its meticulously maintained bars and restaurants that emphasize diversion and distraction (no one wants to remember the Holocaust while out on a Friday night), the Upper West Side rarely displays much desire for political statement. Sex, godly or not, is generally tied to professionally produced ads. Television shows and movies rather than art shows get most of the spaces vying for pedestrian attention. Collage is largely—though not entirely—absent,
the order being of a more deliberate degree.
If we decide to document an “interior dérive,” to preserve it, a collage of sorts does emerge—though it is the cluster (primarily) of texts and concepts delineated above rather than a collection of images. Collage entails growth, accretion, chance, asymmetry, intuition, and of course the unconscious. The assemblage hints at an undercurrent, a subterranean tendency—as iron filings reveal the contours and intangible ribs of a magnetic field.
Collage also implies character, that of a person or a place. In its apparent randomness, collage reveals. “Out of such pure disorder,” Cortázar writes in Save Twilight, “order emerges.” (It’s no coincidence that Cortázar dabbled in collage as an art form.) Memory, too, is a kind of collage, eroding and weathering even as it goes about the business of fattening its files. Maybe the joy we get from the works of Klee and Miro is that we see in the most collage-like of their paintings an oblique reflection of the archives of consciousness.
If I’m mesmerized by those walls in the East Village, layered with posters, photocopies, and graffiti, it’s probably because I see some connection between cityscape and mindscape. A palimpsest of images and texts reminiscent of a tell whose richly layered deposits intimate the incarnations of a city over centuries. And so, as though by following some mathematically generated, repeating curve, we return to where we started—the archaeological, although the meaning has shifted somewhat from its Foucaultian sense.
3 You, I, and the rest of us are in some sense fields attracting individual fates and creating different species of collage that are in part products of chance but also accrete according to predilections, affinities, and what is already part of who we are—what the collage of identity is currently composed of. Had I not read specific works of Rilke, Gass, and Borges—for example—i likely would not have noticed the above connections. Of course it’s much more than a matter of what we’ve read; it’s what we’ve experienced and what we can still rescue from the drift of memory. An analogy cast in terms of David Bohm’s interpretation of quantum physics would be that the present moment is dependent on the architecture of the previous moment, itself the summation of the innumerable moments that preceded it.
Chance is counterweight or complement to our own influence, to the imposition of our individual wills. Chance is a weathervane that tells us which way the cosmos is blowing, that indicates a zeitgeist independent of human endeavors and yet somehow intimately connected to them. This assumes a sort of unus mundus as the alchemists called it—a single underlying reality that connects observer and event—a Bohmian dimension, an Aboriginal dreamtime that surfaces in myths, novels, poems, paintings, sections of cities, collections, dreams.
The collage then, despite its haphazard look, its helter-skelter style, can be a crude mapping out of a hidden order. It is a valid structure for a novel, a poem, a collection of writings, a painting, a film (montage is, obviously enough, close
kin, the former occurring in space, the latter in time). It wouldn’t surprise me to one day learn, from some future Nobel Prize winner, that a human being is a field that includes certain fixed patterns, that we do indeed inhabit a cosmos exhibiting a strange sort of undetectable non-euclidian architecture, and that we are most drawn to where the two—micro and macro—overlap.
Even if the cosmos isn’t intricately blueprinted, however, any number of imperceptible currents surely flow through it. Time permitting, it seems to me there are few better ways to go about the day than by exploring whatever it is that attracts us, tracking down the various colored stones that seem part of an enigmatic mosaic, tracing out trajectories that unexpectedly intersect. This may require considerable effort, and often, with no practical value in sight, the project may be abandoned—even by an artist. But it’s possible that nothing in the end is more practical because nothing is more revealing of who each of us is and where each of us stands in relation to . . . just about everything else.
In medieval Europe ensuring the salvation of the immortal soul superseded all other concerns, at least among honest folk. While attaining a heavenly resting place remains between the individual and his or her religion, we in the twentyfirst century have a chance, through collage, to get a snapshot of the soul as expressed in its fascinations—a Dorian portrait of sorts, that, rather than age, will become clearer, more detailed, and take on a more varied palette with time. 1 “A New Argument Against the Existence of God, The Argument from Patterns,” Jim Corbett, American Atheist, September/october, 2010, p. 8. 2 The American Scholar, Elyse Graham, Autumn 2010, p. 16. 3 The hardback copy of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, which sat on my bookshelf for years before I gave up on ever reading it, had a cross-sectional photo of a chambered nautilus displayed prominently on its dust jacket.