27 November, 2006

The Unknown Object: Part I

And there nigh is the Foss of Mennon that is all round; and it is one hundred cubits of largeness, and it is all full of gravel, shining bright, of the which men make fair verres and clear. . . And there is evermore great wind in that foss, that stirreth evermore the gravel, and maketh it trouble. And if any man do therein any manner metal, it turneth anon to glass. And the glass, that is made of that gravel, if it be done again into the gravel, it turneth anon into gravel as it was first. And therefore some men say, that it is a swallow of the gravelly sea.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1357-1371).
Anyone who has read Wolfgang Pehnt's textbook on Expressionist Architecture should understand that of all materials, glass is truly the most sublime. Long did I daydream upon that text of high aspect. It inspired me to purchase books by Bruno Taut and Paul Scheerbart, and to compose fragmentary epics. It is also the reason why, on a digression with D in rural Wales, bleak and brittle, I insisted that we visit the local glassworks at Rhayader. This was in the summer of 2002. At the time I was living in Bristol, which is renowned for its distinctive cobalt-blue glassware, and yet I'd never seen the inside of such a place, except the mecca of Murano, whose titivated confections have never said much to me. My father once brought me from some factory a small cylinder of perfect glass, flawlessly clear—a scytale, which with its drab perfection has captured my imagination more than a thousand particoloured glass reindeer or polyhedra. The sublimity of glass, I think, is a sublimity of the amorphous or polymorphous—of possibility. It is the sublimity of the sea of glass like unto crystal, and of that glass, verre, which we call poetry, vers. Such glass has a beauty of meaning. Too often is it wrought, as at Murano, into gaudy gewgaws and bibelots without function; thus is the beauty of meaning ruined for a prettiness of surfaces.


When we entered the establishment nobody was about. It was lunchtime, and this being the boondocks, security was hardly needed. We marched through the visitors' reception, into the works itself. What struck me first were all the strange tools. Strewn on the workspaces were objects of all shapes—puntils, shears, saws and blades, tagliols, jacks, blowpipes—not to mention the myriad machines and furnaces. I picked up a puntil, then still an unknown object, and examined it idly. D told me to put it back.

Soon the workers arrived back from lunch. They were very friendly, and all too keen to show us what they did. Unfortunately they had only started heating the main furnace, and it would be several days before they could demonstrate any actual glassblowing. Still, they readily offered up their tools for us to see. We talked about etymology as well: the gaffer explained to me that marver (the surface on which many operations are performed) has an Arabic derivation—in fact it is merely the French marbre, the surface originally being marble—and that the moil (OED sense 5, excess glass from a blown piece) derives from the Hebrew mohel, meaning the foreskin circumscribed from a nipper's todger in a bris. Of course, this is nonsense, and in any event the mohel is the chopper not the chopped, but there you have a striking spot of folk-etymology in the wild.


To an urbanised bourgeois like myself, all this is rather exotic. The objects that come into my world are fully made: they are, quite literally, fetishesfacticii. They are mostly complex and unintuitive. It is, I fear, one of the great blights of my social milieu that we have been shielded from the raw processes of man and nature, industry and agriculture. Civilised men of all ages have lamented the oppressive weight of civilisation, divisive and analytical—hence, I think, the perennial emotional appeal of Marxism—and I have no wish to participate naïvely in this tradition. Nonetheless I am fascinated at how one object might be mistaken for another, as a token of division among men.

My favourite image from the Odyssey, one of the few serious books I read as a child, has always been the prophecy of Teiresias, Book 11, lines 119-130 (repeated 23.270-275), here in Lang's translation:
But when thou hast slain the wooers in thy halls, whether by guile or openly with the sharp sword, then do thou go forth, taking a shapely oar, until thou comest to men that know naught of the sea and eat not of food mingled with salt, aye, and they know naught of ships with purple cheeks, or of shapely oars that are as wings unto ships. And I will tell thee a sign right manifest, which will not escape thee. When another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar and make goodly offerings to lord Poseidon.
Odysseus, the man of the sea, is to journey inland until he meets a man so ignorant of the sea that he confuses the hero's oar for a 'winnowing-fan'. The 3rd-century scholar Porphyry, who understood the Odyssey as an allegory for the progress of the soul from the material world toward unification with God, and who identified the sea with the Heraclitean flux of sensory objects, understood the prophecy, paradoxically, to concern Odysseus himself, who 'will not be freed from his labours until he has become completely free of the sea and wiped away his very experience of the sea and of matter, so that he thinks that an oar is a winnowing-fan in utter ignorance of the business of seafaring'. In other words, a man will not attain wisdom until he has utterly cast off all knowledge of the deceptive material world—what the Hindu would call maya.

What fascinated me was the symbolic substitution of one object for another, a beautiful trope. It is the pun, Joyce replacing crops with cropse to suggest the fertilisation of the dead; it is Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit, or swans reflecting as elephants. But more specifically, it meant a bringing of the sea into the land, as if shellbound wavespeech, the all-conquering march of the ocean. Odysseus is also requested by the ghost of his dead comrade Elpenor to give his body a proper burial, and to mark his grave with an oar of his ship. These are the oars that 'are as wings to ships'—a standard association, made by Vergil in reverse when he wrote of the remigium alarum, the 'oarage of the wings' of Daedalus. In this aspect, the oar appears not just as a marker, but as a communion of the sea with the land. Compare the sconce from which Thor was bade to drink by the magician Utgard-Loke:
When you drank from the horn, and thought that it diminished so little, then, by my troth, it was a great wonder, which I never could have deemed possible. One end of the horn stood in the sea, but that you did not see.
Thus appears the sea always, compressed into perfect images, chaotic and mischievous, always of two faces, amorphous, or polymorphous—the cleer Hyaline, the Glassie Sea / like unto crystal—an object endlessly unknown, but promising knowledge, yet.

Next time: on the 'winnowing-fan'.


Brett said...

Marvelous post.
I've always been troubled by the charge Odysseus receives to travel away from the sea after spending so much time on the journey home. Surely, his trip to a place where no one will know the tohu v'bohu of the sea will take a long time indeed. He will probably never return to his Penelope.
I look forward to your post on the fetishized winnow-fan.

Raminagrobis said...

Beautifully written, that.

All this talk of glass-making reminded me of Werner Herzog's wonderfully strange film Heart of Glass. Have you seen it?

As for the oar/winnowing fan, I remember John B. wrote a post on a different aspect of this, a few months back.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, both: food for thought, certainly.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Oh, and no I haven't seen it, alas. I've only seen Kaspar Hauser. From the Wikipedia description it sounds fantastic, though.