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Index: Clues & Labyrinths


Alan Wall: Tyndale ‘was on the side of the humble interpreters of the Bible’s teaching, against those who thought themselves supreme authorities. Hence his famous statement: ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.’ This was addressed to a theological opponent, one said to be learned, whose position in society was somewhat grander than following a plough. We all have the right to midrash; to that questioning of the original scripture, as long as it is driven by a fierce will to get to the truth. Pushed on by the ploughman’s shoulder.’

Essayism and Modernity.

Alan Wall: ‘As for essayism, this word is used largely negatively in the nineteenth century, where it originates. It seems to signify something to do with the cant of current opinion, particularly the urbane prattle of the periodical press. It is to be deprecated. Musil’s retrieval of this abusive word is intended as a redemptive manoeuvre, though essayism was not always regarded with favour by his contemporaries.’

William Blake.

Alan Wall: Blake’s Newton as he portrays him is luminous, but he is entirely intent on measurement, and his vision has been constricted to a downward gaze. Like Nebuchadnezzar he is being pulled down by the gravitational pull of dead materiality, where Blake’s more glorious figures always move upwards and outwards. They are presented to us as the source of their own energy – God is only ever alive through his vital being inside the living creatures of imagination – and it is the light of themselves that illuminates their vivid landscapes. Their bodies are luminous with their spirits; indistinguishable from them. They radiate energy continuously. Their flesh is the irradiated form of their souls.

Therianthropes and vents.

Alan Wall: in some of the earliest representations of ourselves that exist, we have presented ourselves as therianthropes — part human, part animal. We are engaging in that mimetic activity we have subsequently named art, and we are also engaging, as therianthropes, in the impersonation of other creatures or beings. This we can call mimicry, but it is also the activity at the root of ventriloquism, a sacred activity in our earlier history, and since ventriloquism is ultimately the craft of displaced voicings, we have also entered the realm of allegory, which displaces identity, genus and species, giving one type of being the voicing of another, or even personifying an abstract entity.


Alan Wall: ‘So much is represented as fragmented, not because something completed has been broken up, or an achievable whole not completed, but because this mosaic of discrete pieces actually constitutes the perceptual world of modernity. The camera was designed to capture this kaleidoscopic panorama visually; the essay attempts to capture it linguistically and philosophically. The essay is the formal expression of a world of fragments. Fragments can be connected, of course. They do not have to take the form of fossils, being re-assembled into a form they initially exhibited; they can be chips of stone in a mosaic, each effectively complete in itself. Or they can take the form of the facets which, once assembled, compose the figure of Ambroise Vollard in his portrait by Picasso.’

The virtue of patricide.

Alan Wall: ‘It is hard to imagine a Russian iconographer saying that in art one must kill the father. There the tradition, and its continuity, is of the essence. It is only when form is under dynamic interrogation, when art is turning itself inside out, when the new is in radical conflict with the old, that spiritual parricide appears to be in order. Modernism negotiates a crisis of form. The old realism had become, according to Brancusi, ‘a confusion of familiarities’, and the word familiarity is linked morphologically to the word family. So if you want to attack that effectively you will need to go for the head, which is to say the paterfamilias. So shall we modify Picasso’s statement and say, in modern – and certainly modernist – art one must kill the father, because the father still commands that kingdom which represents our ‘confusion of familiarities’? His is the old formality that must be broken up by those excluded from the Salon, the Young Turks of innovation and dissent stirring out there on the street.’

Pattern recognition and the periodic table.

Alan Wall: ‘What mythology shows us is that we have always provided ourselves with patterns; as a species we have a genius for mapping ourselves on to the cosmos. And what religion and politics show us is that when observed reality contradicts scripture, tradition or ideology, we are usually as ready to re-arrange our observations as we are to question the credal patterns of our sanctioned taxonomies.’

Extremities of perception in an age of lenses.

Alan Wall: Truly we live in an age of lenses. Photography has now been with us for nearly two hundred years, and cinema for well over a century. We do not have separate compartments in our minds into which we can insert photographic images, as opposed to those we first encountered with the lenses of our own eyes. So, many of us are unable to sift and separate what only ever entered our mind through photography or film. I never saw Elvis Presley in the flesh, and yet the image of him in my mind is more vividly present than the physiognomies of people I went to school with. I am unable to recall the features of my first girlfriend, and yet the Kennedy assassination sometimes plays and replays in my mind, not that I was in Dallas on that day, or any other. Muhammed Ali is in my mind; I can still see the sweat glistening on his torso, though I doubt I have ever come within two hundred miles of his actual person.

Demotic ritual.

Alan Wall: ‘The sky-blue surface of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon shatters, the background becomes indistinguishable from the foreground, whatever depth there is can be found only on the surface itself, and what reveals itself through that surface are two women with tribalized heads. They need not acknowledge time; they might have re-surfaced through time, but modernity certainly did not facilitate their appearance. They had been there all along.’

Science and disenchantment.

Alan Wall: We live, it seems, between the shaman’s pole and Galileo’s plank; between our continuing wish to be enchanted and our eagerness to disenchant the world through science (to know it as it really is, not as we would wish it to be). The question is put to us daily: which is it to be? But is it possible that the choice is a false one, like being asked to choose your left mental hemisphere or your right? Are we being told we must choose one side of the paper or the other? Maybe the pole and the plank represent complementary aspects of the human condition. Could they both be the expression of fundamental needs?

The self-subversion of the book.

Alan Wall: ‘The self-subverting book says this: you are surrounded by the products of dullness and meretricious self-applause, but here is a book which has mocked itself before you could even read it, and understands entirely the terms that will be provided for its own destruction.’

Newton’s prisms.

Alan Wall: “The ‘truth’ of any fact is its demonstrability within a system of representations. No fact is ever singular, or discrete; it is relational. ‘There are no things,’ said the painter Georges Braque, ‘only relations between things.’ Nothing is inherently true or false. It appears in a field of relations out of which truth or falsehood is generated. To stand outside any representational world and describe it is to designate it either as myth, ideology or bad science.”

The Janus Face of Metaphor.

Alan Wall: Rid language of metaphor and it falls apart. In fact, it is impossible to speak without metaphor. Even if we trained ourselves to avoid figures of speech altogether, catachresis inhabits the lexicon: our etymologies constitute a riot of metaphoric transfer.

Clues and labyrinths.

Alan Wall: The labyrinth is the site of a crime instituted by desire. It was Pasiphae who loved the bull. Minos in his grief had the labyrinth built by Daedalus to hide from the light of day the fearsome creature who had come out of the king’s wife’s loins. So the labyrinth is a monument to love, built at one remove; the superego is erasing the traces the libido has left. We push the things of light into the darkness.

Ruin, the collector, and ‘sad mortality’.

Alan Wall: The collection exists in order to hold ruin at bay, so there is an acute poignancy to the ruin of any collection. Particle meets anti-particle; annihilation ensues. Alfred Russel Wallace spent years putting together his collection of animals and plants from the Amazon. The brig on to which they were loaded for return to England caught fire, and almost everything was destroyed.