A Fortnightly Review
Cubism and Futurism: Spiritual Machines and the Cinematic Effect
by R. Bruce Elder
Wilfrid Laurier UP 2018 | 667 pages | £65.99 $53.75
By PETER O’BRIEN.
ON 1 JANUARY 1825, a paper by Peter Mark Roget, “Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel when seen through vertical apertures,”1 was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Dealing with how we see and retain things moving before our eyes, the paper hoped to “furnish new modes of measuring the duration of the impression of light on the retina.”
Roget’s work on how pictures (and the attendant light they seem to cast) persists on the human retina is widely acknowledged as an essential early development in the history of film, and may have influenced the creation of the thaumatrope (an optical toy that enabled children to see both sides of disk simultaneously: commercially registered at Stationers’ Hall on 2 April 1825); the phenakisticope (the first widespread animation device, on a flat piece of paper, used to create a fluid illusion of motion: first used by a French company in an application for an import license on 29 May 1833); and the zoetrope (a cylinder with vertical cuts, through which one could see a band of sequenced images).2
The idea of “retinal persistence” was not new, even in 1825, but it has persisted since Roget’s early work. Here, for example, is John Tyndall, in his “slight article to the readers of the Fortnightly Review” published in March 1879, entitled “From Portsmouth to Oran to See the Eclipse”:3
On passing away from the heated air, the flat dim disc would immediately shrink to a luminous point. The effect was one of retinal persistence. The retinal image of the planet was set quivering in all azimuths by the streams of heated air, describing in quick succession minute lines of light, which summed themselves by persistence to a disc of sensible area.
(Perhaps what has not persisted so well is our attention span for long-form written work. Tyndall’s “slight article” is 22 pages long, or about 10,000 words.)
I reference this retinal work by Roget because most of us recollect him primarily for his collection of words, which in its first printed edition of 1852 was called Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. But Roget was, from his earliest explorations as a physician and natural theologian, more interested in moving pictures, or at least in the intellectual, perceptible fun we can have when individual pictures flutter and seem move in front of our eyes.
The three books under review here all have something to display about the interface and interaction of words and images (both stationary and moving). R. Bruce Elder’s monumental new book, Cubism and Futurism: Spiritual Machines and the Cinematic Effect (which follows on his previous books, including Dada, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect from 2013) is a densely packed and vibrational collection of insights into the “art of energy, light, and movement” of two central artistic movements of the early twentieth century. Elder specifically wants us to appreciate how artists and thinkers overcame “the limitations of anthropocentric forms of thought … to achieve a transcendental (biocosmic) view in keeping with electromagnetic field theories.” At other points in this book, he uses the word “electrological” to describe this passing of the aesthetic torch.
Through its heavily footnoted text (some of the footnotes are so long and content-rich that they read like mini essays) Elder’s book presents itself like a fractalling intellectual thesaurus, a collection of insights marked by, as he says, “infinite plasticity.” In one seven-line paragraph, for example, we may be greeted by art historians John Richardson and Meyer Schapiro, Albert Einstein, Albert Gleizes’ and Jean Metzinger’s book on Cubism, Du cubism, art historian Sam Hunter, and the painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy.
Writing on the work of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell on electromagnetism (which Elder calls “the most momentous since Gutenberg”), and then Heinrich Hertz’s experiments proving the existence of electromagnetic waves, and then Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophical work describing the shapes of postmodern metaphysics, and then Einstein describing this epochal shift from “material particles” to “continuous fields” (Einstein called this change in the conception of reality “the most profound and most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton”), Elder says:
So it is hardly surprising that some artists thought favourably of the paradigm-shattering ideas that were appearing in the work of the founders of the electrological world view. (Furthermore, siding with rebel novelty against hidebound interests of conventional thinkers ensconced in the academies is a stance that vanguard artists have always found attractive.) In this connection, recall Boccioni’s statement that the “measuring of what formerly appeared to be empty space” served as a declaration of the Futurists’ complicity with rebel science. And the connection between Boccioni’s conception of space and lines of force and those of Faraday and Maxwell can be drawn even tighter. And since it can be done, it must be done, for what is at stake is the nature of space (a topic about which the Futurists made more than a few ringing declarations).
I imagine that Elder, in talking here about drawing these connections even tighter (and “since it can be done, it must be done”), refers to himself as much as he does to Boccioni and his Futurist friends. The challenge for the reader, of course, is to absorb and connect these multitudinous particles and continuous fields of energy, insight, and interplay.
Elder spends a significant number of pages of this book on the film Ballet Mécanique, conceived and co-directed by Fernand Léger in collaboration with filmmaker Dudley Murphy, musically scored by George Antheil, and with input from Man Ray and Ezra Pound. I encourage readers and viewers to catch its 19 minutes of frenetic, staccato, lyrical evocation of machines and humans.
And if viewers and readers need more on the film, Elder provides a 136-page analysis of it on the publisher’s website4. To call Elder’s analysis detailed is to belittle the word “detailed.” Elder references every shot in the film (all 719) and has counted off every single frame in each shot! Surely no future study of this seminal film can ever be complete without some reference to and appreciation of Elder’s concentrated work.
In his discussion of the film, Elder quotes Apollinaire’s Les mammelles de Tirésias and how that truthful painters
…évitent avec soin la répresentation de scènes naturelles observées par l’étude,” because “la vraisemblance n’a plus aucune importance, car tout est sacrifié par l’artiste aux vérités, aux nécessités d’une nature supérieure qu’il suppose sans la découvrir” (carefully avoid the representation of natural scenes observed and reconstituted by study, because verisimilitude is of no importance, for all is sacrificed by the arts for truths, for the necessity of a higher nature that he undertakes to discover).
For Ballet Mécanique (and I would say for the very beginnings of our visual culture, dating from the 73,000-year-old thatched red lines discovered last year on a stone flake from Blombos Cave, 200 miles from Capetown), there are always other truths than the ones we may quickly grasp and effortlessly first appreciate. La vraisemblance can be explored, played with, turned into something else, de- and re-constructed, but it is always being reformulated, recast, and redefined by the swirling synapses and stuttering quantum particles that define us.
The great, accreting strength of this book is that through an invocation of Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and others central to Cubism and Futurism, Elder examines and compares what happens at both ends of the telescope: the grand and the gradient, the massive and the miniscule. There is a ceaseless spout of reflection and refraction, of cogitation and consummation throughout this book, and if the reader is sometimes lost within all the intellectual tributaries on display, well it’s up to the reader to catch up with Elder, rather than Elder having to prune back his text to accommodate the reader.
In his “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” Marinetti wrote: “Words freed from punctuation will irradiate one another, magnetic waves intersecting one another according to the ceaseless dynamism of thought.”5 In response to this new-found freedom inherent in words, Elder writes: “Of course, this is tantamount to a declaration that the future art will embody an electromagnetic conception of the universe.” Not all readers will immediately agree with the full implications of Elder’s brash and stimulating response to Marinetti, but they do have to acknowledge the bravery and reach of such statements.
Within his extended chapter on Ballet Mécanique, Elder quickly touches on James Joyce, with a representative, encompassing statement: “James Joyce likely understood the importance of Cubism better than anyone since, and Ulysses and Finnegans Wake can be taken as Cubism’s crowning achievement.” Although Joyce is referenced briefly in other spots, this laudatory observation is not further explored within these 667 pages. We will have to wait for another philosophico-electro-mechanical-acustical tome from Elder to explore that weighty statement.
IN HIS NEW book Ulysses, Film and Visual Culture, Philip Sicker writes that Joyce’s Dublin Homeric literary monument is heavily influenced by visual culture and a range of eye-attracting technologies, including dioramas, stereoscopes, mutoscopes, and of course silent films. Ulysses, says Sicker, is Joyce’s “ultimate act of capturing and preserving the eye’s encounter with reality” by way of the “gazes of Stephen [Dedalus] and [Leopold] Bloom and through a multitude of refractory narrative lenses.”
Joyce, we should remember, had eye troubles throughout his adult life, and the surgeries he had included iridectomies, sphincterotomy, capsulectomy, and a removal of cataracts. There is a minor scholarly industry speculating on what caused Joyce’s eye troubles, with sarcoidosis, syphilis, tuberculosis, and a possession of the HLA-B27 marker all part of the mix.
It’s also insightful to recall that Joyce made efforts to establish the Cinematograph Volta in Dublin in 1909, and was familiar with various filmic experiments and innovations. Sicker reminds us that Sergei Eisenstein, director of Battleship Potemkin, who met with Joyce in 1919, called Ulysses the most significant event in the history of cinema.
Perhaps because he has had such a vast influence on literature and other arts (including painting and film), Joyce has been victim more than most of criticism and commentary that can be uninspired, repetitious, or just tedious. (“We murder to dissect,” says Wordsworth in “The Tables Turned.”) Sicker’s book, by contrast, brings Ulysses alive by examining its particularities and specificities. He yokes together relevant scholarship of others with his own precise focus on individual words and expressions. Sicker stokes Joyce’s book, puffs at and swirls the rising smoke, fans its linguistic and ingenious flames, and then makes insightful reflections from the cast light on the surrounding walls. Here is Sicker on the hallucinatory “Circe” chapter and the influence of the illusionist turned filmmaker Georges Méliès, who made 500 films between 1896 and 1913:
Joyce’s phantasmagoric effects in “Circe” often mimic those of theatrical magic shows, as when Bloom pulls multicolored scarves “from his mouth” (15.1605). However, the episode’s perpetual apparitions, identity transformations, and eerie animation of ordinary objects originate in what the poet Vachel Lindsey, in his groundbreaking study of trick cinema, termed the “Hallowe’en witch-power” of the camera: its ability not only to generate “personality in furniture,” but to make “memories appear in the midst of [a] room” and present “thoughts in motion made visible” … Joyce’s anthropomorphizing of material objects in Nighttown – Bella’s boots, yew trees, buttons, lemon soap – become a visualized expression of his characters’ psychic motion, their thoughts, memories and desires. Standing before “Circe’s … altar,” the sexually terrified Stephen watches as Kitty’s Lilith-like boa “uncoils” and becomes a “curl[ing] caterpillar” at the end of Lynch’s brass poker wand, while Lynch’s cap speaks to him, in the mocking voice of its wearer, of all his “errors, boasts, mistakes.”
Further connecting the two, Sicker writes that, like Joyce, Méliès “understood the inherent experimental kinship between dreaming and film-viewing, and in making dream experience the explicit form and subject of many of his films, Méliès created a structure and technique that closely resembles Bloom’s subliminal fantasies in Nighttown.” As Bloom circulates Dublin, in Nighttown and elsewhere, Sicker writes that he is intent on gratifying his “ocular hunger” and that “his eyes sometimes function as a synecdoche of the man himself.”
In the seven chapters of his book Sicker focuses on particular chapters of the novel. In “Painting Motion: ‘Wandering Rocks’ as Futurist Narrative,” for example, Sicker joins with Marinetti’s founding manifesto of Futurism, steeped as it is in “feverish insomnia,” “aggressive action,” and “the beauty of speed.” Sicker gives us sections on “Mechanism,” “Simultaneity,” “Perspective,” and “Motion.” He tells us that Joyce described the visual configuration of “Wandering Rocks” as a “labyrinth” that draws the reader into the heart of a “shifting maze.” And, “Just as the river’s swirling currents bring together the detritus of Dublin, so readers, enclosed within Joyce’s moving narrative, must combine the fragments that flow around us.” Sicker ends his chapter by expanding his focus, and connecting the aesthetic dust-storm surrounding Joyce with the words Joyce was crafting at the time: “in postulating an art founded upon dynamic representation and reception, the Futurists provided a theoretical foundation and visual model for the chapter Joyce would place at the structural center of his own great novelistic vortex.”
Sicker has an intimate familiarity with both Joyce’s text and the film and visual culture that surrounded Joyce and other antennaed artists of the time. His book demonstrates that there is still much fertile and enriching ground to be tilled and planted in our examination of one of the central books of Western literature.
IN SAMUEL BECKETT and the Visual Arts, Conor Carville makes a large statement after referencing a wide assortment of books, catalogues, and articles on Beckett and the visual arts. “The scattered nature of this attention demonstrates the need for a single monograph,” Carville writes.” This book will provide that.”
Across seven roughly chronological chapters, he traces the influence of the visual arts on many of Beckett’s seminal texts, from Dream of Fair to Middling Women to Ohio Impromptu, with stops along the way on the novels Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, and the iconic plays, including of course, Endgame and Waiting for Godot.
Although Carville makes significance reference to Beckett’s rough contemporaries Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and Bram van Velde (1895-1981), he spends a considerable amount of time and energy yoking Beckett backwards, toward Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), and Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). There’s nothing particularly troubling about invoking a range of historical influences on Beckett’s work, but Carville seems uncomfortable talking about anything but the influences of realism and naturalism on Beckett’s work. Here are a few of many examples of Carville’s commitment, all from his final chapter:
Figuration, naturalism, realism, whatever one wants to term it, is thus a vitally important component in Beckett’s challenge to modernist aesthetics.”
“For Beckett … there is a deep fascination with realism in painting, and in particular Dutch genre scenes.”
“The Unnameable’s [sic] appeal to realism is not allowed to remain unambiguous.”
“Beckett’s most seemingly abstract texts are entangled with the forms and procedures of realism.”
I would say that although Didi and Gogo and Lucky may rise up out of Waiting for Godot’s barren earth, realism is not the only quality that defines them. The Listener and the Reader in Ohio Impromptu may be seated on “armless white deal chairs” at a “plain white deal table” but we are told within a few moments of the play’s opening that “Relief … would flow from unfamiliarity. Unfamiliar room. Unfamiliar scene.” And perhaps Carville sees The Unnamable steeped in the realistic, but I do not. Here, for example, are its opening words: “Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that.” And here are a few more words from the novel, chosen randomly from my yellowing copy: “That the jar is really standing where they say, all right, I wouldn’t dream of denying it, after all it’s none of my business, though its presence at such a place, about the reality of which I do not propose to quibble either, does not strike me as very credible.” I think these random Beckett words do speak about aesthetic concerns other than realism.
One element of Carville’s book that I found particularly lacking — his chosen title is, after all, Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts — is that there is no reference to contemporary visual artists with whom Beckett collaborated. Beckett produced various artists books and collaborated with artists who provided visuals for his words (sometimes previously published, sometimes new). These artists include Louis le Brocquy, Edward Gorey, Dellas Henke, Jasper Johns, Charles Klabunde, and Robert Ryman.
Robert Ryman’s minimalist, monochromatic pages for Beckett’s text, Nohow On, are about as spare, conceptual, and anti-realist (if by that we mean figurative, recognizable) as can be. To me, Ryman’s barely visible images on ivory paper match very well with Beckett’s text: “Dead the whole brood no sooner hatched. Long before. In the egg. Long before. Over and done with answering.”
Edward Gorey’s images for Beckett’s text Beginning to End, are 32 curious, scratchy, dark drawings of skulls, clenched hands and what may be rocks or potatoes. Again, realism doesn’t seem the primary intent of the words or the pictures.
Carville could have even interviewed a couple of these artists on interactions they had with Beckett about the melding of his words with their visual art. I found one of them on LinkedIn.
I do, unfortunately, have other criticisms of Carville’s book. Someone should have done a final read to delete such extraneous phrases as “Having said this,” “On the one hand,” “on the other hand,” and “it is worth noting here that.” And at the very least it’s necessary to get the titles of Beckett’s works correct. His early essay, which lays out germane ideas on the sometimes rocky conversations that text and images have (as relates to James Joyce’s Work in Progress) is “Dante … Bruno . Vico .. Joyce” — with the dots standing in for centuries between birth dates. In Carville’s book the title is referenced and abbreviated in various ways, and not even the index gets it right. The mis-ordered names may not grate on the eyes of others, but they are not great for mine. And Beckett’s 1953 novel is The Unnamable, not The Unnameable. That is a nam(e)able offense.
ALL THREE OF these books take vision (the way we can manipulate it, and the way it can be manipulated by forces within or beyond us) as the gateway toward many other opportunities to apprehend the world, including through tactile, spare, and thought-saturated words.
Roget, I think, understood potential ways to interlace sight, words, and mind. Or, imagined another way, I like to speculate that his thesaurus grew out of his work on retinal persistence. Sights stay with us, in continuously shifting and redefining ways, through our photoreceptor cells and our fractured memory. Words also shift and morph, take on new definitions and meanings. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a range of words to describe what we may initially think of as a singular concept.
The Cubists and Futurists, and Joyce and Beckett changed the way we look at images and the way we string words together. The linearity can be disrupted, the sequencing can be scrambled. Lacunae. Knots. Repetitions. Noughts. Everything is possible, and perhaps to be desired. And new connections are made between the ways the mind works and how it makes sense (or non-sense) of what it catches and absorbs.
Remember, in your mind’s eye, the photographs you’ve seen of those running horses in the caves at Lascaux, or those rumbling rhinoceroses in the Chauvet caves. And imagine the stories, in words and gestures, that must have been recounted amid the flickering flames of those caves tens of thousands of years ago. Humans have been connecting words and pictures for some time. Or maybe it’s more chronologically accurate to say pictures and words.
Peter O’Brien has written or edited five books, including Introduction to Literature: British, American, Canadian (Harper & Row) and Cleopatra at the Breakfast Table: Why I Studied Latin With My Teenager and How I Discovered the Daughterland (Quattro). He attended University of Notre Dame (BA), McGill University (MA), and the Banff School of Fine Arts, and has published extensively on writing and art. Pages from Lots of Fun with Finnegans Wake have recently been published in World Literature Today, the James Joyce Quarterly, the Joyce Studies Annual, Ilanot Review as well as here in The Fortnightly Review. He lives in Toronto.
- See Roget’s “Explanation of an Optical Deception in the Appearance of the Spokes of a Wheel Seen through Vertical Apertures“.
- Details on the device, initially called a “Dædaleum”, were first published in The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, in 1834.
- Vol. 15 (o.s.); vol. 9 (n.s.), 330-351.
- Access the analysis here.
- Access it here.