Ways of Looking at Rocks
“The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of the first of forms.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles.”
The circle is that which demarcates and excludes; it is also a figure of enclosure and one of contact. In this sense, the circle resounds, for Emerson, as what he calls “first of forms,” as elemental as it is mystical. The moment in which Emerson writes “Circles” in 1841 intersects with several scientific discoveries/developments (Darwinism, photography and atomic theory) that in turn also influence his own experimentation with language. The discovery of the atom tells us that our boundaries are porous (between each other and nature) and in constant flux. Insides become outsides. Where, then, is the threshold between subject and object?
In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” also written in 1841, two characters, a sailor and the nameless narrator, stand upon the top of a cliff looking down at the sea. Set in Norway, the sailor in Poe’s story is a survivor, someone who gets caught in a maelstrom, a giant whirlpool formed in the sea, and lives to tell its tale. The narrator, full of fear and trembling at the height of the mountain, encounters what seems to be an old man almost hanging off the top of the cliff. He explains:
“Nothing could have tempted me to within half a dozen yards of its edge. In truth so deeply was I excited by the perilous position of my companion, that I fell at full length upon the ground, clung to the shrubs around me, and dared not even glance upward at the sky—while I struggled in vain to divest myself of the idea that the very foundations of the mountain where in danger from the fury of the winds. It was long before I could reason myself into sufficient courage to sit up and look out into the distance.”
The narrator’s vertigo and terror are put in stark contrast with the sailor’s adventure into the ocean’s depth. Shortly after making this acquaintance, the old man sailor launches into a retelling of his near death experience when his ship became caught within the circumference of the maelstrom. As his ship circles and descends, he manages to not get swept away into the sea and instead holds onto a barrel, another circle, while observing the enormous funnel suck his ship, and his friends, down into its depths. Having given himself up for dead, he rids himself of all fear and takes pleasure in studying the whirl of the ocean, of even taking a moment to make scientific observations. He explains, “I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious—-for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocity of their several descents toward the foam below.” In many respects, Poe’s story is also a story of circles. What the sailor sees is not before him, but within him, and this story traces another type of circle or maelstrom, that of storytelling, and more particularly, self-narration. After surviving, the sailor says, “A boat picked me up—exhausted from fatigue—and now that the danger was removed) speechless from the memory of its horror…My hair which had been raven-black the day before was as white as you see it now.” The sailor, having been encountered lurking on the edge of the mountain in view of his near death experience, seems to be clinging still to his former experience, reenacting it even through his telling of its/his story. Like time travel, his black hair flashed into white marks the circle’s presence on his figure.
Etymologically, the word rock stems from the Old English word, stonerock. The Oxford English Dictionary defines stonerock as “A pointed or projecting rock, a peak, a crag; a detached mass of rock, a boulder or large stone.” The second entry in the OED describes rock as “chiefly alluding to qualities of hardness, durability, or immobility.” A rock is thus something to stand on and to see from; it is also something to look at and something so structuring/structural, its immensity is almost impossible to really see. The largest rock, of course, is also our largest circle: the earth.
In her poetic work on the color blue titled Bluets, Maggie Nelson, a contemporary American poet and art critic, quotes Emerson as saying, “From the mountain, you see the mountain.” In other words, one’s position on the mountain, the ground from which one stands, not only informs or limits what one is able to see, but is what one sees.
Nelson’s work investigates the color blue, pursues it, desires it even, testing its materiality while she moves deeper into her own emotional blueness. She has the blues. As she writes, “If a color could deliver hope, does it follow that it can also bring despair?” In this book, she engages in mourning the loss of a love relationship, the death of a friend, and travels through what she locates as its color: blue. But this also doubles as a love story about this color. She writes this book of poetry in the style of philosophical propositions moving from 1 to 240 gesturing back to Emerson and to Ludwig Wittgenstein.
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
162. According to Dionysius, the Divine Darkness appears dark only because it is so dazzlingly bright—a parado I have attempted to understand by looking directly at the sun and noticing the dark spot that flowers at its center. But as compelling as this paradox, or this experiment, may be, I am not as interested in it as I am in the facet that in Christian iconography, this “dazzling darkness” appears with startling regality as blue.
232. Perhaps, in time, I will also stop missing you.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher of language and perception, was born in Vienna. He often wrote from a hut on a fjord in Norway, and he died in Cambridge in 1951. While Nelson works through the blues, Wittgenstein often circled back to the color white. In his Remarks on Colour, compiled after his death in 1951, he pursues the uncertainty he locates in the color white, playing and shifting the terms of his understanding of color along with his language. He begins this text: “A language game: Report whether a certain body is lighter or darker than another.” He continues: “In a picture in which a piece of paper gets its lightness from the blue sky, the sky is lighter than the white paper. And yet in another sense blue is the darker color and white the lighter color.” While he deals with other colors, he gets stuck on white and goes through a seemingly endless variety of claims, questions, and statements about how white works in relation to other colors and contexts. He asks: “Why is it that something can be transparent green but not transparent white?” And, “What then is the essential nature of cloudiness? For red or yellow transparent things are not cloudy; white is cloudy.”
The transparency problem plagues Wittgenstein in this text. Why do we have one rule for one color and another rule for others? What is the logic to our system of color? In order to see the rules of the game, Wittgenstein moves towards that which is the most questionable, the most contested. As a philosopher, he calls in the ghostly, the imaginative, and the otherworldly to complicate his philosophical investigations. Later in Remarks on Colour, Wittgenstein writes, “If a ghost appeared to me during the night, it could glow with a weak whitish light; but if it looked grey, then the light would have to appear as though it came from somewhere else.” How does he know what the color of a ghost is and on what grounds can he make this speculation? He then says, “We might say, the colour of the ghost is that which I must mix on the palette in order to paint it accurately.” The color in this second sentence is that of representation; there is first the experience of the ghost’s color and then its translation. Since the ghost only appears to Wittgenstein, we can only know it by the colors he paints it. What or who is Wittgenstein’s ghost? On some level it is the uncertain, the imaginative, doubt. But it is also white or whiteness, a color that carries with it a particular cultural history of oppression. Down and down the maelstrom of his obsession with whiteness he moves like Herman Melville’s Ahab after the white whale Moby Dick, trying to find the right language with which to characterize its seemingly slippery qualities. But he never arrives, just finds himself back on the mountain.
The circling of self that emerges from the quest and obscures the point of the journey, whether it is to get to the bottom of something emotional or to locate the golden fleece, is a shape well entrenched in our ways of reading and self-narrating. At the time of Phenomenon in Anafi in July 2015, Maggie Nelson’s next book titled, The Argonauts, was being released, the timing of which seems fortuitous. As the story of Jason and the Argonauts goes, lost in the darkness of a storm upon the Aegean Sea, Apollo, god of light, music and prophecy, emerges to reveal the presence of the small island before the heroes. Some versions of the story explain that Apollo gives light to the presence of this island by shooting an arrow into the sky; others say that he summons the island from the bottom of the Aegean Sea itself, or perhaps both. In either version, without light the island does not exist. There or not there, the darkness of the night could be that of the bottom of the sea both muddled in the inkiness of their blue. Saved by Apollo’s light, the Argonauts take shelter on this island erecting a temple to this god and giving this small, rocky island its name. Myth of salvation, this part of the Argonauts story reads also like a metaphor of coming to know, of understanding. The Old English understanden means to not only to grasp, but to stand among. The Argonauts as more than Jason emerge from the stormy sea to stand amongst each other upon Anafi’s rocky surface. Understanding thus gestures to something in common, to an experience of standing with. Nelson’s The Argonauts moves in this vein, more than singular, it is a text that reflects on the journey of standing among. A story about queer love and motherhood, her text pulls together a textual community, the “many gendered-mothers of my heart,” an assemblage that helps locate, unravel and continually rearticulate the self.
The rock, then, is perhaps a common ground, although the seemingly singular nature of the self gets in the way of this understanding. Anafi, as the sheltering rock for the Argonauts, testifies to this possibility even through its own submerged history as open-air prison for political exiles in the 1930s. I read Emerson’s statement from “Circles” that “we are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of the first forms” differently now. The mystical, non-locatable circle is not the only important subject of this declaration, the shared promise of it is.
A version of this text was presented for Phenomenon, at Anafi, Greece, July 2015. An aspect of this text was first published in Camera Austria’s issue 124 in late 2013.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Circles.” 1841. Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems. New York
Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Seattle: Wave Books, 2009.
Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Minnesota: Gray Wolf Press, 2015.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Descent into the Maelstrom.” 1841. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Remarks on Colour. Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1978.