I wrote this essay for publication in Nicholas Johnson‘s catalogue for his upcoming show, Inns of Molten Blue. It was such a pleasure to collaborate with a visual artist, especially one whose interests and influences correlate so intensely with mine. I am very excited about seeing the catalogue in print; his work is strange and beautiful and it will be a wonderful document in its own right. The title of this piece is from Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and it pops up later on too, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to namedrop him in the text.
Once upon a time, we would have spent much of our leisure , or what leisure we had, lying beneath a tree, or perhaps sitting with our back imprinted into the base of its trunk, our legs extending out along its roots, looking. Looking or dozing or gazing, in the psychic twilight edgelands of waking, in the thinning of the veil between worlds, for other sorts of things could be seen if you looked long enough.
Other worlds lay beyond this place, but perhaps they were only ever ways of seeing, otherworlds of being in the same place when the mode of its cognition had shifted for a time. All things can become strange given time. Beyond their surface, and the words we use to denote it, all things are very strange indeed.
The Victorian philologist and comparative theologian Max Müller famously described mythology as a ‘disease of language.’ What he meant by this was that language, as it developed into an ever more sophisticated and specific way of naming things, made them less strange, less big, less alive. It made things into things. In the very early language of the Vedas, words made broad fluid brush strokes of meaning, so that the shifting and metaphorical nature of what it is to view the world outside was not excised.
The disease of language was really a disease of things. The problem was that the strangeness and aliveness of things resisted words. They came to life another way, by animating the words themselves into a new and cartoonish pantheon of beings. The words became gods, Eos and Chaos; the netherworlds of non-ordinary experience became Faerie, and then fairies. Animism – the belief that all things possess, or are possessed by, a spirit – arose out of a cognitive bias.
The gods, Müller wrote, were ‘nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume a divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors.’
Something was afoot. Something in the human mind resisted the dryness of things. It bored through their surface and the names by which they were denoted.
Some things were more resistant to thingness than others. Müller created a taxonomy of tangible, semi-tangible and intangible objects in which the insistent vigour of life sounded louder up the hierarchy.
‘Some objects, such as stones, bones, shells, flowers, berries, branches of wood, can be touched, as it were, all round. We have them before us in their completeness. They cannot evade our grasp. There is nothing in them unknown or unknowable, at least so far as those are concerned who had to deal with them in early days.’
Semi-tangible objects carried a mysticism correlating to their scale: ‘even a tree,’ Müller wrote, ‘at least one of the old giants in a primeval forest, has something overwhelming and overawing. Its deepest roots are beyond our reach, its head towers high above us. We may stand beneath it, touch it, look up to it, but our senses cannot take it in in one glance.’ For ancient people, ‘something went beyond the limits of their sensuous knowledge, something unknown and strange, yet undeniably real; – and this unknown and unknowable, yet undeniable something, became to the more thoughtful among them a constant source of wonderment. They could lay hold of it on one side by their sense, but on the other it escaped from them – “it fell from them, it vanished.”’
The intangible objects – those that could be identified by sight but not touched, like the sky, the sun, the dawn – were those most prone to godliness. Awe correlated to scale. To stand before a mountain was to stand ‘in the real presence of the infinite’, and the infinite was either God, or the noumenon, or both.
The indefinite was the gateway to the infinite: where something evaded meaning, or evaded being pinned down in language or at first sight, provoking further consideration, the magic of being could be found. Enchantment was an indefinite exercise, playing in the margins of perception.
Müller had a lifelong admiration for Kant, which led him to translate an English edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. He maintained, however, that there was one adjustment lacking in Kant’s metaphysics. Between the phenomenal perception of the individual and the noumenal realm of things-in-themselves, which defied human experience, there could be an intermediate mode of apprehension, aistheton.
Aistheton was the human faculty to acknowledge that there was more going on beyond the surface of perception; that beyond the horizon of our detailed vision of a thing lay its indefinite nature, and beyond that the infinite. Müller’s error was to ascribe the ability to glimpse the infinite to a particular scale: the demigods of tree and river, the celestial bodies of sun and moon.
If we cannot find the same strange intimation of life beyond the frames of our understanding when looking at a leaf or berry, so that behind the veins and hue and particular geometries of a leaf was something unknowable and alive in its unknowability, perhaps we are not looking closely enough. Perhaps we have forgotten what it is to gaze without imposing prior judgements, until our frenzied application of things begins to melt away into something more indefinite, and we can start to look, and to actually see, again.
The infinite is always there, all around us, immanent in all the things we could see if only we were able to stop naming them as things. It is the infinite domain of the beyond-us, and it does not need to be brought to life as an unreal god, or gods, and it does not need to be named as the infinite.
John Duns Scotus, medieval theologian and Subtle Doctor, described the infinite as ‘a measure of intrinsic excellence that is not finite.’ To ascribe perfection to a finite object was mistaken, for the perfection of the divine was found instead in infinity, which is an intrinsic part of being. The infinite did not exist as some separate ghost-entity beyond material things, but within them.
Concealed in the tangle of the forest beyond the church were moments of infinite perfection to be replicated by the hands of men inside, who adorned them with foliate heads of oak and berried hawthorn and other imagined perfections: fleur-de-lys and waterleaf, and the fruits of otherworldly lilies.
Manuscripts grew tendrils, animated by whole vine-life ecologies of real and imagined plants, beasts, birds. The unruly irrepressible indefinite of life kept creeping into human words, growing beyond its borders into human texts, announcing its own landscape in the human mind.
When we look at small things, something arises in their liveliness. It, whatever it is, for like the small things it is resistant to being fixed down, moves within them, making them indefinite. You can hold the small thing but you cannot suppress the uncontainable truth of its aliveness when it lives, unless you kill it, and to kill it is to enact a violent discomfort about its life. Its aliveness buzzes with intention. Even small things that were once alive – Müller’s shell or berry – is a document, an arche-fossil, of its former self.
If we find the indefinite and unpredictable magic of intention in things, it breaks our sense of thingness and usually results in an accusation of anthropomorphism. To impose consciousness onto other things, like plants or insects or water, is to impose our human frame of being onto something quite unlike ourselves.
It is an odd accusation, underpinned by its own fallacious anthropomorphism, in which consciousness or will or mind or whatever we imperfectly name it must be the same sort of consciousness or will or mind that we possess. There is a lurking tautological maxim in which mind cannot be non-human because mind is human that sits, unexplored, in the darkness of modern assumptions about things.
Things that are not like us do not have a mind. Things that are like us have a mind. God is like us, a named enminded man in the ether, because he has a mind and we have a mind, but things that are not like us are not like God. They are merely arrangements of dust.
Perhaps it is more comfortable not to lie beneath the tree. Perhaps it is more comfortable not to rest in the bizarre and mindbending alienness of plants and fungi and bees, because there is simply too much strangeness in there.
Edwin Abbott Abbott’s novel Flatland is sometimes considered the first piece of science fiction for its multidimensional thought experiments, but it is primarily an allegory: a tale of geometry, of axioms and how to break them, and of the mimetic illusions of the mind.
It tells the story of the Square, a contented member of the regular bourgeoisie in a two-dimensional world ruled by hierophant Circles. One night the Sphere arrives from a third dimension. At first, the Square does not understand what the Sphere is, appearing as it does first as a dot and then as a growing entity whose curvature indicates circularity but of no fixed size. He is discomforted by the apparition. In time, the Sphere communes with him and he with the Sphere, and the Sphere takes him to see Spaceland.
Upon the Square’s return, the frames of his understanding exploded by the possibility of multiple dimensions and driven by a desire to share the knowledge he accrued in his strange experience, he is imprisoned as a madman or a heretic, for they are close cousins.
Whether it is a geometric heresy against the parallel axiom or a theological heresy against certainty, to speculate an otherworld is to engage in a heresy against the world we think we know. In that act of speculation, of imaginative invention, we access new worlds beyond the mind’s old frames. The most terrifying heresy is the possibility that they might be true.
To learn from a tree was to learn from another dimension, and other dimensions were strange and fearsome places whose magic operated on its own principles, and the worlds within them were infinite and unknowable. Sometimes, there were heretics who lived on the far edge of town and took their wisdom from the trees, and they would consume parts of the tree and take it into themselves, so that the tree would become them and they the tree.
Sometimes, the whole town would be complicit in this flirtation with the vegetable otherworld. Sometimes, on May morning, the young girls would go out into the dawn and sip the dew of roses, so that the beauty of the rose might transfer itself onto them for the day of the flowering and the dance.
The flowering boughs of Beltane and northern Midsummers brought the dance from the plants into the human realm, and the insistent life-beat of the plants would drum its way into the human dance, forging new couplings and bringing forth new human lives.
The infinite is remarkably easy to find with a little patience. It has a habit of expressing itself in both expected and unexpected ways. Sometimes, it announces itself by way of the indefinite in resisting description. Sometimes, it reveals itself in strangeness. Sometimes, it reveals itself in patterns.
Patterns have an odd tendency to repeat themselves across scales. We can call them archetypes or tropes or memes, depending on the texture of our cognition. The patterns of Dreamtime paintings and cell biology and the post-war future kitsch of what it would look like to be in space are made of the same shapes. As you circle a city from the air, spiralling closer from space in the approach to landing, it looks by turn like a ragged lichen on the many-scarred dirty surface of its rock, and then cellular, subdivided and peppered with receptors and transmitters and active transport channels. Here are xylem and phloem; veins and arteries; modes of commuting and of commerce.
When we look closely at small things, at tangible objects of little consequence, we find new complexities in them. The same geometric and technological elegance can be found in the architecture of Brunel and organelles, in the double-helix of DNA, in dendriform management structures and in new leaves.
The surface of a fruiting lichen, all emissary launchpads and tentacular factory units, looks up close like some strange futuristic space colony because that is what it is. A hawthorn tree, new-grown for the coming of the new light at the vernal equinox at which point it plans to eat the sun and create weapons so that it may not in turn be eaten, is up to something wild and warlike on the frontiers of existence. If we saw these things in outer space, their weird intentions might make more sense to us. Outer space is what we call the realm of infinite possibility we have forgotten to see in the microcosms of our own world.
Today, though we speak little of the infinite, it sometimes feels as though Max Müller was right: that within us there resides some drive or will to glimpse that which goes beyond ourselves, to see the nature of things beyond their given names, to attune to worlds beyond those we inhabit. Sometimes they call out to us and sometimes we have to seek them.
If a single voice raises the clamour of being, perhaps we do not hear it when the clamour is harmonious. The dissonances provoke us to listen, listen harder for what it is that is happening; to provoke the search for the noise and for its voicing.
‘When we speak of colours or sounds,’ wrote Müller, ‘we seem for all practical purposes to move entirely within the finite. This is red, we say, this is green, this is violet. This is C, this is D, this is E. What can apparently be more finite, more definite? But let us look more closely.’
The dissonances of the inbetween, the both-and-neither, are the sound of difference, large or incremental, differences that endlessly proliferate until they collapse into chromatic sedition, into the indefinite all.
Sometimes there is sameness in difference, things contiguous with the other, repetitions of the same imprints across dimensions and scales. Those shapes, those patterns, tropes or memes or archetypes, forge their way into our aesthetic consciousness as they shape our cognition.
Our minds seek to stamp these cookie-cutter shapes upon the outside world, and sometimes the outside world calls back, teasing us with them, or what we thought they were: the variegated shadows of foliage, hills and rivers, snakes and faces, provoking ancestral emotions from times before and beyond ours.
Here and now and everywhere are quincunx matrices and dendriform fractals, parabolic canopies of growth and decline, configurations perfect and infinite and prone to eventual collapse, for nothing lasts fixed in time forever, but nor does it cease to exist except in form.
But let us look more closely. Let us look more closely until we find ourselves within the tree’s strangeness, so that the mode of its invention confounds us and it seems as though it exists in its own separate fold of spacetime in which our technologies and tools of measurement do not apply.
We cannot truly know it, for its unknowability extends too far into the otherworlds; we can only imagine what it would be like to know it, or to see it, out there on the threshold of our world, where imagined botanies are more real than the things we thought we knew.