The Looking Glass Syndrome

Narcissus

‘Narcissus’ by Caravaggio,

In the beginning, says the Sami myth, the god who made all things took the beating heart of a two-year old reindeer and set it at the centre of the earth. The rhythm of this heart is the rhythm of the world, the pulse of life, the source of all being. When times are difficult, the people only have to press their ears to the ground and listen: if they hear the beat of the reindeer’s heart, all will be well, they will emerge from the hard times. If they do not, they are doomed. In ‘Land’ Seamus Heaney spoke of lying with his ear ‘ in this loop of silence…’ ‘…against the phantom ground.In’ Narcissus’ the poet Ovid claims that Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection: had  Ovid and Caravaggio anticipated the ‘selfie’?

There are two possible explanations why we may not hear the beating heart and be preoccupied by our own self-image: we are no longer able to sense the rhythm of the earth or because the heart has stopped beating.

During the second half of the 18th century, the idea of nature played an important role in human interests. The age of enlightenment adopted the idea of nature as an expression of righteousness, sincerity, logic and kindness. The notion of “natural cognition“ was not only related to the cognition of physical world and things that happened in it, but also the rights, religion, society, politics and art. Natural cognition was a search for the basic, fundamental truths in all areas of human existence. At the same  time an empty space emerged, in which spirituality strove to be inspired by a new inspirational force,the enlighteners found this force in nature. They were assured that, in spite of difference, there was a mutual basis of the world and religion which was to be found in ‘natural religion’ that was present in every man’s heart. The ideas which makes these 18th century views contemporary is that even now they are related to the vision that  progress should be connected to our moral emancipation.

What though, if we were to start ‘thinking the unthinkable’ to coin Herman Kahn, the American nuclear strategist, and to engage with our contemporary anxieties, combining fantasy with our fears about our ability to re-order the natural world? In JK Huysmans’ 1884 Symbolist novel’Against Nature’, the protagonist Des Essentes, argued that ‘nature had had her day, there is not one single of her inventions that human ingenuity cannot manufacture… she has exhausted the admiration of all true artists… and the time has come for artifice to take her place’.

ALICEAlice Through the Looking Glass illustration by Sir John Tenniel

Lewis Carroll’s disturbing transformations and inversions are very familiar, and so are viewed as whimsy. Yet, they are part of a literary and visual tradition that links Ovid’s Metamorphosis to Kafka: nothing we look at is quite what it seems:

‘All right’ said the Gnat. ‘Half way up that bush you’ll see a Rocking-horse-fly, if you look. It’s made entirely of wood and gets about by swinging itself from branch to branch. Look at the branch above your head, and you’ll find a Snap-dragon-fly. Its body is made of plum pudding, its wings of holly leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy. Crawling at your feet, you may observe a Bread -and -butter-fly. Its wings are thin slices of bread and butter, its body is a crust and its head a lump of sugar…’

As a latter-day Romantic, my creative and critical writing examines our mental ecology and how this is the most important ‘sense of place’ .By relinquishing, on the one hand, our nostalgic view of nature and on the other, a sense of doomsday urgency it argues that we must value Art as as means of imagining future environmental projects, taking imaginative leaps like Lewis Carroll. Rather than poetry being as Auden suggested about political poetry that it, ‘makes nothing happen’, my work argues for dissidence in the least political sense. Poetry and architecture are interlocking dissident realities that record our experience of the ‘natural world’, and in so doing they change the way we ‘read’, inviting us to think again about the way we respond to the landscape. Poetry and architecture are not forms of therapy.Likewise, overtly political poems are unhelpful.My work  attempts to open up the aesthetic loop or distance which allows humans to view ecological issues metaphorically. Poets and architects are by their nature, dissident, they owe their first allegiance to nature, it is to nature they belong, and pursue a  ‘wild etiquette’  to quote Gary Synder, seeing nature and dissidence as a way of living well with other creatures but also, of preserving our own connection. Ecology is a thing in itself: a trope, in the same way lines of poetry are  non- human, but contain aspects of being human. Poems contain the implants of plants and architecture as well as sentences. Flowers or architecture create a causality which correlates to other things.

As Narcissus discovered,  appearance can be  both disturbing and distracting.To make sense of appearance, science strips it away in order to understand what something is, only to discover that DNA likewise is a trope, a thought, a virus, a smear of paint on canvas, and as such is a replicator. Patterns do not point to anything other than themselves: lines in poems are patterns, just as buildings are, and in order to focus on things themselves, my writing tries to look beyond the surface appearance and examine our anxieties about our relationship with the natural world but not writing about specific issues, but by recording the sound of the cricket and grasshopper, before the bulldozer drowns their song. By remembering complexity and diversity, it is possible to resist the denaturing effects of the entertainment culture and  the global holiday trade.

Wordsworth tried to look through things; more in terms of examining the fitness locked into the‘ [t]he half-meant, half-perceived [m]otions of fronds out of idle depths that are Summer’.(From Clepsydra: John Ashberry).  Like the ‘fronds’, what my work tries to do is to move away from the displacement effect that aesthetics and nostalgia causes us to see nature as a panacea or something that distracts, towards the  interconnectedness of appearances.

Poetry is an ecological discipline: a scientia of dwelling.  It asks, what happens to us if we actually start listening?

To repair the noisy rift created by the enlightenment Wordsworth seemed to sense that all things connect, and his motivation for writing about Tintern without actually being in front of it was to combine it with other experiences of place, including urban places. A sense of the empty space is uncanny  in ‘Lines Composed on Westminster Bridge’; the sleeping city contains a superficial sense of place that brings with it the unknowable aspects of the sublime, but more than that, Wordsworth seemed to recognise that the urban had arrived in the countryside and in order to absorb and acknowledge it ecologically, intimately, when intimacy was, as it is now, in serious danger of being lost, the most important thing was, and is, to put our ears to the ground, and listen. 

 

How might we live?
by standing upright
like this faith factory hauled in from the eel dark water?
Shackled to the land by floodlights mended by swallows’ nests and mud?
Above our heads floating cinders swallows
obliging novices, these blue vessels press mud into the cage of bones to resist the sky
a breach between the arches of sleeping and listening
like the last thought in a dream

we heard too late the afternoon   snuffing out some old sense of belonging

awkward lost

not safe

and the river is anxious to be at the sea.

Tintern: Elizabeth Jardine Godwin

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