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The Constellation of the Essay.


IN THE MOUTH of a cave stands one of those men whom we call prehistoric. He lives, that is, before history begins recounting its narrative to itself through written records. His bones might speak to us, should we ever find them, but nothing else will, except for the marks he has made on stone and bone. Should some unforeseen miracle of science and technology bring our caveman back to life one day, cloned into movement and utterance, we might even hear the noises that once emerged from his larynx, but we wouldn’t understand them. He stares out now at the night sky, where he sees a shape, a form that comes into being if you join up the miscellaneous lights out there with your own eyes. And he remembers. He saw such a shape in that same corner of the sky the last time it was as cold as this, the last time it grew dark before he could find his prey, the last time leaves fell so wetly on his face. So it’s a shape that returns then; one of nature’s recurrent themes; a leitmotif. Not only in the sky but in his mind, where the shape is now fast transmuting to a horse. The scattered lights from millions of years before are forming, with the help of his neural synapses, a constellation.

This is a speculative moment, though a highly possible one. This might be the furthest we can go back in time through the development of our species to find the rudiments of representation. What is being represented, mentally, mnemonically, is one of the extremities of perception, not simply because our prehistoric man is here seeing the furthermost objects in his universe, signals sent from the far edges of our reality, both in space and time; nor because this represents an outer boundary where we might find the origins of the patterned world we once created and still create daily, where we endlessly orienteer ourselves in regard to the ceaseless flow of stimuli and perception that surrounds and engulfs us. This is also an extremity in another sense, because if this is one of the places where representation begins, then it is also where mere sensation and instinct are transcended; where we begin to construct inside ourselves those constellations of perception we call thought. This is where organized perception begins. Organized perception is dependent on memory. If a retainable perception is to separate itself from the sentient flux, it must form a memorable shape; it must recur, if only in consciousness. In this one manoeuvre we have seen our early ancestor give birth to organized perception, pattern-recognition and organisable memory. And in the process what he has just created is the first constellation. This might be the moment when both art and science are born.

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What does it mean to constellate? We fill the heavens with ploughs, goddesses and horses, and we know that the shapes are both there and not there at the same time. We join up the dots in our minds; we relate stars which are otherwise unrelated except by the weakest of the four forces controlling our cosmos: gravity. In populating the skies with creatures both real and mythic, and then, after the Neolithic revolution, with agricultural implements that can’t be too much use for ploughing through all that inter-stellar dust, we are engaging in what we will ultimately call science and what we will one day call art, since this is what they both ultimately do: constellate data into meaningful shapes and recurrent patterns, so that they may be considered, reflected on, and measured. Both science and art shape the world into patterns of representation, and feed off one another endlessly in the process.

Constellation and Representation.

AT THE HEART of our word constellation is stella, the Latin for star; con-stellating is bringing stars together into patterns. We constantly constellate ourselves inside the cosmos; we situate ourselves here where we seem to have found ourselves living for a time. We orienteer ourselves in regard to stars, planets, and whatever other type of constellations we discover and construct.

The constellation in its widest sense was one of the guiding concepts, the cynosure effectively, of the thought of Walter Benjamin. He believed that our earliest star-patternings were related to our extraordinary facility for mimicry. We mimic what we find on earth, the origin of both the dance and the Palaeolithic cave painting; and we also mimic what we find in the heavens. We turn the lights we see at night into creatures and implements. We populate the skies with creatures from the menagerie of our imagination. We map ourselves inside the universe through those constellations which, in Wordsworth’s phrase in ‘Tintern Abbey’ we ‘half-perceive and half-create’. Astrology begins with a mimesis. Benjamin came to believe that the ultimate store of non-sensuous similarity, the greatest mnemonic cave of mimetic devices, is language.

The nature of any representation changes as the constellation in which it is situated alters. So the constellation itself changes with every shift in intellectual life, though sometimes imperceptibly to those actually living through the transformation. Let us take a vivid example.

THE YEAR IS 1584. Let us place a dinosaur tooth in Prague, in the wunderkammer of Emperor Rudolf II of Bavaria. This wonder room or cabinet of curiosities is growing larger by the day. So here we have an unimaginably large tooth from an unknown creature of preternatural size. How to situate it in this particular European constellation? According to the Emperor’s lights, it might well be a freakish expression of nature, something created by the left hand of God. Let’s say this one had been worn as a fetish by a shaman encountered in Siberia; Rudolf has agents bringing him outlandish wonders from all over the earth. Perhaps he even asks the opinion of John Dee, newly arrived from England this very year.

Dee examines it closely but he can assign it to no actual creature he knows, and so speculates that it might well be the incisor of a dragon, or even part of the dentition of a mutant elephant, perhaps one encountered on the moon by an astral traveller. There are points of comparison here. The wunderkammer already contained the remnants of a dragon, and a bone (six-foot long) from a narwhal. No point having a cabinet of curiosities unless you have curiosities to put inside it. Back home in England one of the sources of local discontent around his home in Mortlake is that Dee, who is reputed to have developed special techniques for locating treasure, might provoke the wrath of the dragons traditionally thought to protect the trove. Part of his laboratory will be despoiled before his return.

But there is no constellation in which our tyrannosaurus tooth can be meaningfully situated. That intellectual constellation is yet to be constructed.

Now we travel forward by three centuries. The same object is placed inside a different constellation. In the first place we now have the word dinosaur, only coined in 1841 by Richard Owen, the first Director of the Natural History Museum, and coined by him originally in Latin – dinosaurus, meaning terrible lizard. The constellation has now changed so much that the object to be contemplated is effectively a different object. In the wake of Lyell, we have a conception of the world as a place of enormous antiquity, one in which whole species have become extinct. Both Leopold II and Dee would probably have assumed that any part of a creature obtained today probably belonged to a creature still living today, however obscure its habitat might be, like the dragon or the unicorn. But now we have another new coinage which indicates a change in our constellations: fossil. It once meant anything dug up; its modern meaning arrives in 1665, when it comes to signify the remains, often extremely ancient, of an animal or plant. The nineteenth century has been piecing together these vast creatures that last walked the earth sixty-five million years ago, before one of the great extinctions consigned them to evolution’s cellar.

The constellation in which an object appears changes the nature of that object; it becomes differently faceted, under changing lights and a changing optic, like a Cubist painting. Let us reverse the process. Go back to Emperor Rudolf’s court with a film and some projection equipment. Show them Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Screen it on the wall of the emperor’s darkened wunderkammer. Say they are all about to witness a wonder, a phantasmagoria as elaborate as any ever assigned to that travelling magus Faustus. But what would they make of those B52s flying through the clouds with hydrogen bombs in their metal intestines? They would surely have to seem to these people of the pre-aeronautic era like vast and malign birds, armoured pterodactyls with lethal eggs inside their bellies. These creatures would be as real to Rudolf and Dee, precisely as real, as those dragons who were said to live deep inside caves, protecting buried treasure from rapacious men. And this is despite the fact that Leonardo has already sat in his garden watching sycamore leaves spinning to the earth, and dreamed of helicopters.

We have been thinking primarily about how new concepts alter the constellation, or shift the paradigm by challenging its capacity to absorb new data. But sometimes the alteration can come about by registering something old, rather than adding something conceptually new. So Aby Warburg came to understand that the primeval forcefulness encoded in the symbolism of western art, which in one formulation he called the afterlife of the antique, was never soluble in contemporary rationality. Such primal power can never be dissolved in the pellucid solution of reason. It must be negotiated, constantly. It persists and can express its longevity, not merely in the symbolism of astrological devices, but more lethally in certain types of modern state. Nazi Germany would soon be proving his point. The preternatural powers embodied in the emblematic constituents of the constellations must never be underestimated.

The Constellation and the Essay.

Walter Benjamin privileged contemplation over taxonomy. What he called the mystical gaze permitted subject and object to become one; then unanticipated correspondences began to occur. Benjamin was fascinated by the ecstatic trance which in antiquity connected us to the powers of the cosmos, but which has been marginalised by modernity into mere aberrant behaviour, addiction or derangement. The Great War returned to this ancient trancelike communion, and mechanized its unforeseen potencies into continent-wide slaughter.

The constellations we inhabit, whether in the wunderkammer of the collector, or on the pages of the essay, represent the latest configuration of our reality.

Benjamin was one of the greatest essay writers of the twentieth century, and there is a relationship between his concept of the constellation and his genius for the essay. One of the central concepts in Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project is the figure of the collector. In this conception the collector seizes objects from out of their utile continuum, and places them solely in relation to one another and the collector’s gaze; in other words, the objects are placed in a constellation, a constellation now dedicated to the dynamic interaction of their own significance. The constellations we inhabit, whether in the wunderkammer of the collector, or on the pages of the essay, represent the latest configuration of our reality.

Benjamin was constantly aware of the effect of technology on our constellations. For example, I might note that in the transition from the word besetzung in Freud’s original German to the word cathexis in the final English version, a huge change has taken place. James Strachey wished to make the common terms throughout the English Collected Works sound as impressive as possible, so Latin and Greek were employed: ego, superego, id, cathexis. But the original besetzung, with its sense of filling up a space, also carried some implications over from thermodynamics – the image of energy, in the form of steam for example, filling up whatever space it finds available. This was a meaning entirely lost in cathexis, since the Greeks had no science of thermodynamics. Benjamin noted how in the arcades an artificially vaulted heaven contained its own artificial stars. As soon as street lighting began to be commonly used outside, the arcades started to fade. They were no longer so eerily present, glowing away to themselves in the evening.

The Arcades Project is in effect a vast series of interconnected essays. Each inhabits a slightly different constellation. Vladimir Nabokov, in criticising Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, referred to that novel’s ‘super-essayism’. It is true that there are whole sections of this book which can be separated off so they stand alone: disquisitions on medieval music, for example, or polyphony, and this for Nabokov constituted a drift away from the true purpose of the novel, which should never deviate so discursively from its narrative commitments. But why not? Moby-Dick can be accused of exactly the same freedom in following certain themes in self-contained sections, or essays. In his novel The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil has his alter ego, Ulrich, proclaim the superiority of the essay to other forms of writing or perception. In Chapter 62, Ulrich announces that his stance towards reality is essayistic, a form of thinking he connects up with ‘hypothetical living’. Ulrich seems here to be aligning himself with that anti-systematic bias we find in both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche: you can construct holistic philosophic systems, but no one can authentically live inside them, not even their creators. We are all condemned to live essayistically, however axiomatic our credal subscriptions.

An essay reveals its constellations in its structure; it also admits their provisionality. In any case, the constellations are never in precisely the same place the next time we look at them. What goes around comes around, but never in precisely the same way.

The Fragment and the Essay.

We have changed our mind about the fragment. Once it was thought to be part of a whole which, for one unfortunate reason or another, never managed to complete itself, or completed itself, and then was broken apart by time, military vastation or the perils of transit. Now we believe that the fragment often takes fragmentary form because that was the only meaningful form available to it, particularly in modernity. Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Kahn’ is not the tragically interrupted long poem the poet pretended it was, perhaps even to himself; it is the poem it is, having found exactly the form it needed to express its vatic rhapsodic ecstasies – which could not have continued long in any direction. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes is a more complex case, perhaps. Here Eliot was experimenting with a new dramatic form, one which fed upon the demotic rhythms and conventions of street talk in the jazz age. He could find no way to continue with this, and after the ascesis represented by the writing of The Hollow Men and Ash-Wednesday, he abandons this whole mode, and opts instead for the full dress theatre of Murder in the Cathedral and the plays that follow. The Waste Land is a poem of fragmentary voices, overheard in the fast-moving streets of the city; Four Quartets is a discursus in a philosopher’s study; no cockney voices break in, no snatches of song from the music hall. The urgency has gone, along with the demotic edginess of the language. Sweeney Agonistes is jagged, urgent and sinister. The plays that follow are, in comparison, completed, rounded out; they fulfil the expectations of a well-established dramaturgy. They have abandoned the fragment, and lost an enormous amount of linguistic energy in the process. The Waste Land inhabits the same mental world as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; Four Quartets and Murder in the Cathedral inhabit an earlier one, where the writerly conventions were not being put so severely under interrogation. Between October 1926 and January 1927 the only two fragments of Sweeney Agonistes that were ever to appear were printed in The Criterion. It is intriguing that at this point Eliot thought this was some kind of beginning, not the end it in fact turned out to be; but then perhaps Coleridge spent years planning to complete ‘Kubla Khan’. There was one other possibility: the sequence called Coriolan, but only two sections of this were ever written, then Eliot abandoned it, to join Sweeney Agonistes in the section of his Collected Poems called ‘Unifinished Works’.

One of the greatest tributes to the fragment ever written is Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, not merely because it remained uncompleted at the time of his death; one might easily argue that such a work was uncompletable in any case. The quotations that make up the bulk of this mighty book are torn from their contexts, the way objects assembled in the collector’s gaze have been torn from their miscellaneous locations, so as to form their own constellation, and find their genuine significance in relation to one another. Benjamin seems constantly astounded by their vividness. It was one of Adorno’s complaints against Benjamin that he tended to present his material in an unmediated manner. It had not, that is to say, been translated through the terms of the necessary discourse. Such a facility for unmediated and vivid apprehension might also be called ‘essayistic’; it does not necessarily philosophize itself, and tends not to systematize itself at all.

The age of modernity is the age of perceptual fragmentation. We have speeded up the world to the point where there is no time to connect up all the fragments of information hurtling towards us. It was for this reason that Benjamin started to use two different concepts to register the impressions of experience in the modern age. Erlebnis was the lived experience, no sooner encountered than largely dispensed with; Erfahrung was that deeper level of experience that could not be disposed of so easily; it had perceptual longevity. These two categories bear some relationship to contingency and causality. And they are evidently also related to Baudelaire’s insistence, in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, that modern art needed to be made up of two hemispheres, the one relating to artistic tradition and classical beauty, and the other to the speedy disposability of the present. The whole of his poem ‘The Swan’ is an exploration of this theme, examining how Paris demolishes and rebuilds itself. A city can be rebuilt faster than the human heart, he says. The demolished forms survive as allegory. Benjamin, Baudelaire’s greatest student, believed allegory was the continuance of certain meanings and forms beyond the death of the original form. As he put it in a letter to Horkheimer: ‘Allegory is in the world of ideas what ruins are in the world of things.’ Classical antiquity had lived on into the Christian Renaissance in the form of allegory; a resurrection of the old forms in a new context. And the old Paris of ruinous tenements and tiny streets lived on, after Haussmann’s urban redevelopment and the building of the boulevards, in the allegorical forms of Baudelaire’s poems.

We tend to see representational fragmentation as the falling apart of an existing order. This is most famously expressed by Donne

‘T’is all in pieces, all coherence gone…

The visual equivalent of this are those broken implements lying on the ground in Dürer’s engraving Melencolia. For Donne the agent of demolition here was the new philosophy, which would soon enough express its own coherence. This is also the feeling of The Dunciad, where fragmentation rules the ruinous psyches of the metropolis:

Round him much Embryo, much Abortion lay,
Much future Ode, and abdicated Play…

That which is designed, teleologically, to be whole, is in fact in pieces, either through violence or interruption. That is one sense of fragmentation, but there is another one, more in tune with the modern temperament . Here we discover anew the components, and structure, of our perceptions. Picasso’s great Cubist portrait of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard is not the trace of an existing image being broken up; it is the articulation of a new way of seeing, which constructs the image on the canvas in a parallel manoeuvre to the way the mind constructs the image from the data supplied by the eyes. There is no abdication here, and no abortion either. Here the fragmentation of the surface represents a breakthrough, not a breakdown. It might remind us that when the man of the Upper Palaeolithic stared up at the sky and saw the constellations, then went down into the deep darkness of the cave and painted horses and aurochs on the wall, both constellations only existed at all because they had been configured inside his head.

The Essay as a Form of Modern Perception

WHAT WE ARE edging towards – essayistically, it goes without saying – is the notion that the essay might be the most authentic form for registering and recording the fabric of our experience in modernity. The characteristics that make it so can be listed: provisionality, improvisation, speed, and an acknowledgment, even in the form of the essay itself, of fragmentariness not as an absence in a desiderated whole, but as an inherent aspect of the nature of modern life itself. Montaigne’s invention of the essay is an announcement of modernity; it arrives at pretty much the same moment. Shakespeare read Montaigne in Florio’s translation, and Hamlet becomes his own essayist, though we usually refer to his excursions in the genre as soliloquies. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle acknowledged that our precise knowledge of the position of a particle is in inverse proportion to the precision of our knowledge of its velocity, and vice versa, not because our present apparatus is inadequate, but because that either/or is inherent in the nature of the phenomenon being observed. And we might find a parallel in the omnipresence of the fragment in the findings and makings of modernity. 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.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books. and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.

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